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Gold Love

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It was supposed to have been one of the most exciting times of her young life.

One of the most stressful times, too.

But still.

She’d wanted to experience it. She’d always dreamt of it.

The maroon red and white shirts. The S on the back. The yelling of her teammates. The highs and lows and national championships.

She was meant to get there.

Should have already said yes to an offer.

And yet –

“Students, this is a once in a life time experience that you simply cannot afford to be flippant about. College is the stepping stone to a successful life.”

The paper didn’t stand a chance as Christen crushed it up in her fist, sitting at the back corner of the class. She gripped it harder as she felt her throat constrict with tears that wanted to fall out, her eyes stinging.

It wasn’t that long ago she was considered one of the best forwards in the country for her age. She knew colleges had been interested in her. All she’d had to do was keep playing the way she was, for her club, for the youth national teams.

Now, she knew she was but a speck of dust in their memories after falling off the radar the way she did so suddenly. Knew there were hundreds of girls desperate to take her place. Knew she’d be forgotten.  

Knew she already was.

She’d say it was so unfair, that it shouldn’t be this way. But the 17 year old had come to expect that from life.

“I would highly recommend anyone who is serious about their future to stay after school and attend the admissions lecture. If you want your application to stand above the rest, you’ll be there.”

The paper was decimated in her curled up fist, the teacher’s words drowning out to the blood pulsing through her ears, her breathing getting short as she tried to get a grip.

She couldn’t have stayed even if she wanted to. As soon as the bell rang ending the day she high tailed it out of the high school grounds as always, half running half walking to make it to the elementary school to pick Mal up in time.

“Chrissy!” 

This was her future.

“Hi, baby love.”

Mal running into her arms and throwing herself on her, gripping tight and never wanting to let go.

“I missed you.”

Her heart ached at the sweetness. They’d only been apart for a few hours. How could she be mad with this future?

“I missed you too, baby. How was your day?”

She had Mal; that was enough. More than she needed.

(It would have to be).  

“We played soccer at recess and I scored a goal! And Miss Davis said I did a good job reading my book. And Sunita stuck a pencil up her nose and it was funny. Did you have a good day?”

She’d never get to see Mal in a little Stanford uniform cheering her on, wrapped up in the stadium with their parents as they came to watch her games.

She’d never see her parents bursting with pride for her, going to college when they never could, using the blessing of the life they’d given her to make it worthwhile.

She’d never know the feeling of having a roommate, feeling what it was like to be part of a team, have friends become family, live and breathe one goal for four years and be changed for the better.

Never know what it was like to be wanted by a place, let alone Stanford.

Or what it would feel like to play against Tobin. She’d been unable to restrain herself, looking up the results of the freshman college games during lunch at school all year.

She was meant to be there.

Teasing Tobin when Stanford beat UNC, because they just had to. Making Tobin wear her Stanford shirt in victory. Showing her around the campus. Living out all the dreams they’d both imagined as they lay on the grass at the u-17 camp. Sending letters across the country to each other. Thinking of their futures. What they could do together.

It was all she’d wanted.

But yet –

“I had a good day, baby, it’s so kind of you to ask. And it’s is even better now that you’re with me again.”

Mal let out delighted giggles as she tickled her sides, pulling her onto her back as they started the trek home, Christen already sagged under the weight of having to get a job and raise Mal and figure out how to foster her and not break into tears every second of the day.  

This was enough.

More than she needed.

It would have to be.

Tobin needed to change her alarm tone.

A hand fumbled around in the dark trying to locate the shrill ring, a successful tap later shutting it off, plunging the room into silence again.

Christen sighed in relief, dropping Tobin’s phone back onto the bed and allowing herself to settle back into the sheets, even if only for a moment. She rubbed at her forehead as if to erase the dream from her mind, not willing in the slightest to linger on the sadness that her memory associated with college.

Unfortunately, with a growing tension in the air that meant the matter was going to come to a head any day now, Christen’s dreams had been recently plagued with maroons and whites, sororities and team bonding trips, trophies and championships.

Sometimes it felt like the intensity of the pain in the memories threatened to suffocate her. She’d almost forgotten how much it had hurt.

Fortunately, the person lying half on top of her, groaning in a way that indicated she was once again unhappy about greeting the morning sun, was the fastest remedy for her pain.

“Hi, pretty girl.”

Half a sleepy whine replied, not an actual word, but somehow the tone was still specific and special to Christen.

“I’m going to turn the light on, okay?” Christen wanted to roll her eyes but instead felt a dumb soft smile creeping onto her face at the way Tobin completely buried her face back into her chest, whining again.

A child.

Christen held her for a minute, massaging her head in a way that was probably lulling her back into sleep rather than encouraging her to get up. She felt Tobin’s breaths through the thin shirt she wore and the way Tobin’s hands gently pressed against her forearm they rested against – the only indication Tobin was somewhat awake in there.

Entangling their hands, Christen felt their rings knock together. Still to this day it sent butterflies through her, a warmth rushing in her chest that this was how things worked out with them. That this promise, that she had clung to with all she had left sometimes, came true. That they found their way back to each other, right here.

Like it was meant to be.

“Your smile is adorable.” Tobin’s sleepy mumble came as the woman still had her eyes closed, still half buried in Christen’s chest.

“How do you know I’m smiling?”

Tobin’s knowing, smitten grin didn’t need to be seen. “You always smile like that when you play with our rings.”

Overwhelming in the best way wasn’t nearly enough to describe how Christen felt when Tobin said things like that. Like her whole body would burst with how much love she felt and gave out in return, like she could cry because she still couldn’t wrap her head around someone like Tobin being hers.

She felt Tobin’s love surrounding her in everything she did. She didn’t think it was possible to love her more, or to be surprised with declarations like that. And then, when she least expected it, Tobin bowled her over like she’d never known love before she heard that, before she felt that.

Her feelings for Tobin were only growing stronger. It made her giddy to think about forever.

“I love you so much.”

“I love you more, Chris.”

Christen really could have lay there all day, but she knew someone had to get the ball rolling. With Tobin’s temperament towards the morning, it was unlikely to be her. She managed to extract herself from Tobin’s hold with slight difficulty, only able to restrain the smallest of eye rolls from how her heart clenched at the adorable sleepiness.

“10 minutes, okay beautiful? Then you really have to get up.” She whispered against Tobin’s cheek as she kissed it softly, letting out a breathy chuckle when she heard Tobin’s “I’m up,” – the pillow-muffled voice entirely unconvincing. 

Down the hall and to the left she entered another bedroom, turning on the light as she went. Mal was curled in the same position she’d gone to sleep in the night before, Christen’s heart contracting at the sight of her.

She’d been handling everything so well since the article had come out. She could hardly be blamed for keeping her phone practically buried in her drawer, not wanting or willing to look at it. Christen had been terrified at what something like the article would do to Mal, and there was no doubt it hurt her more than anything had in a long time.

But coming to Portland and – as much as Christen didn’t want to admit it – training with Tobin at Providence Park, had been Mal’s saving grace. Mal had come so far, and she was so strong. If – when she went off to college, Christen was going to miss her so much.

She climbed onto the bed, laying down to face her baby sister with a few kisses to her temple as she murmured into the quiet morning air. “Time to wake up, Mal.”

It took a couple more tries before Mal moved slightly, and she waited for the little scrunch of her face before an eye cracked open. “Hi, baby love.”

Mal gave her a tiny yawn in response, eyes open just enough to smile.

“Hi. Time to get up, okay?” Christen almost laughed at the predictable way the smile disappeared off Mal’s face, an unintelligible sound leaving her lips as she burrowed into Christen’s embrace.

A child.

“I love you.”

Christen was sure there was a “love you forever, Chrissy” somewhere in the mumble of Mal’s response, not moving an inch. It seemed like she would have to play to her strengths to get anyone in this house moving this morning.

“Go and get in the shower before Tobin and I get in there and use up all the hot water.”

“Chris!” Mal was standing up within seconds, muttering under her breath all the way to the shower leaving Christen with her suggestive tones and a triumphant grin on her face.

It was like déjà vu 10 minutes later when Christen returned to the main bedroom, seeing her girlfriend in the exact same position she left her. “I’ve got two cups of coffee and I’m about to be naked in the shower, and you’ll be having neither if you don’t get up right now.”

The grin on her face only grew when Tobin jumped out of bed like she’d been shocked, scrambling to catch up to her before the offer closed.

-

“Mally do you play here with Miss Tobin as well?”

“Not yet, Zion.”

Not yet because you still have to attend four years of college, Mallory Press, Christen thought as she overheard the conversation in front of her. She chose to ignore the obvious inference that “not yet” meant something very sooner than four years, because she’d gotten pretty good at ignoring everything else about college, recently.

The bus pulled into the Providence Park carpark, and all the Roseway kids on it shrieked in delight, pointing out the massive poster of Tobin on the side with cries of the stadium’s sheer enormity being one of the most exciting things they’d seen in a long time.

It was Tobin and Mal’s idea, of course, to bring the kids to Providence Park for the morning. It was the first Saturday of December, and Tobin, Christen had come to find, was a massive Christmas person. It was endearing and adorable seeing the woman get so excited about the holiday. With the kind of heart she had especially, she’d wanted to share it with others.

Tobin had floated the idea to her, Mal and Mabel a while ago in passing, but with everyone here together in Portland before Christen had to go back to LA, it was the perfect opportunity to do it. The kids would get a tour of the place, having the chance to play a little game of soccer at the end and of course, get some ever important Thorns merchandise so they could rep “the best club team in the women’s game” (another quote from Mal that Christen was ignoring).

Christen was easily the least enthusiastic of the bunch to be here. It wasn’t that she didn’t love the stadium or the team, and it wasn’t that she didn’t burst with happiness seeing how excited the kids were.

It was just that being here was throwing all her hard work of ignorance down the drain. It was impossible to see Mal in this place and not come to the conclusion that she was meant to be here, that she was entirely in her element.

It was impossible for Christen to see all that and still wholeheartedly believe that Mal would thrive the most at UCLA, and there was no better place for her right now.

She only grumbled more when Mabel took one look at her face and laughed out loud.

“Oh, child.”

“Don’t say it, Mabel.”

Mabel’s arm wrapped around her shoulders as they walked into the stadium’s main entrance, staying at the back of the group and making sure no kids got lost on the way.

“I know it won’t be easy, but try and put all of that at the back of your mind while we’re here, my honey.” Mabel said, squeezing Christen’s arm reassuringly. The older woman had been a stabilizing source for Christen since they’d been in Portland with the topic of college being ready to burst. “It’ll only fester, and you’ll miss out on the joy that these kids have.”

Christen knew Mabel was right. She willed herself to not see Providence Park as this looming presence that was sucking her baby sister away from college, but instead as the incredible stadium it was, one that was making all of the kids bounce off the walls in excitement and was giving them the best start to the Christmas season ever.

She nodded at Mabel, squeezing her hand and feeling an involuntary smile come onto her face at the mischief growing in Mabel’s eyes. She knew whatever was going to come out of the woman’s mouth would probably make her roll her eyes, but as much as she was stressing about Mal and college, the lightheartedness that Mabel approached the situation with was helping her deal with it more than she could ever say.

“Do you think if I ask the front desk for a Mallory Press jersey they’ll already be stocking them?”

“You might be the worst, Mabel, you know that?”

-

It had been a magical morning. It was easy to see this was shaping up to be the best Christmas a lot of these kids had ever had, and it was still the first week of December.

There was a jubilance in the air that felt more permanent with the kids than what they’d had before. Like they were really truly having fun, being carefree, not waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Mabel had done so good for so long with these kids, but she’d been stretched thin with the sheer number of them. Now that she had Christen, Mal, and Tobin to help her whenever they could, the kids were thriving more than they ever had, coming out of their shells and slowly letting go of the weight that had been placed on their too young shoulders from all the hardship they’d suffered.

They each had their own little personalities, their quirks and actions never failing to make all of the adults fall in love with them.

The infectious laughter and soft nature of the kids was surely the best thing for Christen at that moment. When Isabel, a quiet 10 year old who was one of the shyest kids they had, had edged closer and closer to Christen after they’d all stopped for a mid-morning snack, Christen felt her heart impossibly burst.

She knew the expression on Isabel’s face. It was the one she never wanted Mal to wear, because she never ever wanted her baby sister to feel like she couldn’t seek comfort in her, never wanted her to feel too nervous to ask for love. Never wanted her to be someone she was unsure around.

Christen made a comedically loud sigh, holding her arms out in a stretch. “I could really go for a big hug right now.” She spoke in a tone that got a silent laugh from Mal sitting beside her, having grown up with all of Christen’s tricks. “I wonder if there’s someone out there who would want t – ”

She was cut off with a slight grunt and a chuckle when Isabel practically launched herself into her arms, wrapping around her tight and feeling Christen squeeze her back.

“Isabel! Thank goodness you came to help me out.” Christen laughed with the young girl who giggled at her actions, knowing Christen was being somewhat silly but not going to complain because she got the hug out of it she wanted.

“And gosh, how lucky for me that it was you! Your hugs are the best thing.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Christen saw Mal get a soft smile on her face. She didn’t have to imagine all the memories flooding through Mal’s mind at that moment, she was remembering them too. How their relationship had been growing up, how Christen always made Mal feel loved and worth something.

Mal slipped her hand into hers from where she sat bedside her, squeezing it gently.

“They are?”

Christen nodded emphatically, rubbing soothing circles on the top of Isabel’s back as the girl rested her head against her shoulder. “For sure. And I would know, I’ve had a lot of great hugs in my life.”

A squeeze to Mal’s hand.

“Maybe I should become a professional hugger.”

A giggle from Isabel, the little voice telling her she was funny but silly.

“So I’ve been told.”

An attempt at a wink at Mal, followed by another squeeze.

“Miss Christen?”

“Yeah, honey?”

Isabel looked up at her with big eyes that reminded her so much of Mal she had to squeeze her hand tighter.

“I never really liked living in Portland.”

“You didn’t?”

Isabel shook her head, sitting up on Christen’s lap to face her. “No. Everything here was sad. But Ma helped me at Roseway. And now, now I love living here. Because you and Mally and Miss Tobin are all here.” Mal squeezed her hand. “You all live here like us, and Mally and Miss Tobin play soccer here like we played today! And it was so fun. And I’m going to tell all my friends about my best day ever.”

Christen had started off listening to Isabel with an easy smile, but by the end of it, she had to force it to stay. She felt her hand grow slack in Mal’s, and she hated that she knew Mal knew why.

All the Roseway kids thought Mal played on the Thorns since she’d been training so much with Tobin at the park. They all thought Christen and Mal had moved to Portland since they’d been here so much.

It shocked Christen every time how upset she got hearing about something she knew in her heart was right.

Them being in Portland felt right.

Why was she fighting it?

She felt Mal squeeze her hand when Isabel talked, the first time thinking Christen would respond. She didn’t, but the squeeze reminded her of why she was pushing back. Mal couldn’t be in Portland, because she was going to college. She couldn’t be in Portland, because she had a job in LA.

There was a second squeeze on her hand, one that felt like a just-in-case, like Mal thought Christen had just missed it, and not that she now didn’t want to squeeze Mal’s hand back because Isabel was talking about Portland.

The third squeeze tugged at Christen’s heart. No matter how resolute she was in her opinion that they did not belong in Portland right now, she knew Mal was asking something of her. To show her she wasn’t in her head about all of this. That she wasn’t so against the idea of Portland that she would shut down on her like this.

She knew Mal was desperately hoping to feel her squeeze her hand.

She couldn’t look at her face when she didn’t.

-

Ever since they’d landed from Florida, Christen felt like she could have given Neo a run for his money with the amount of times she’d dodged the topic of college. She was living in (mostly) blissful ignorance, happily moving around the elephant in the room that was growing larger and larger every day. Ignoring the can of worms rattling in the walls, ready to burst.

There’d been the general comments from Mal about how much she loved Portland. About how great it was training with Tobin. The comments from Tobin, even, about how perfect everything felt having them there.

The plans Mal had been vaguely suggesting for them all even though the only way they’d be able to do them would be if she wasn’t going to college.

The looks Christen could feel her way, when Mal thought she was being subtle but she wasn’t.

It had all slipped by her, because she’d jumped out of its path.

She’d strong-armed her way through a lot before, and she was determined to do it again.

Her force of will had always felt like it could hold off the universe.

(She was about to find out the universe could fight back).

“Chris?”

Uh oh.

She knew that tone.

That was Mal’s, “Chris, can we get take out (even though I know we have food in the fridge)” voice. Her, “Chris, I may or may not have broken a glass in the kitchen because I miss-hit a juggle” voice. Her, “Chris, I know you’re not going to like what I’m saying but please hear me out” voice.

“Yes?”

Mal was standing in front of where she sat on the couch, one hand reached across her front to hold her other arm. Everything about her posture screamed nervousness, let alone the expression on her face.

Christen was reminded of that morning, how she’d thought about Isabel and that look. There it was on Mal. The one she said she never let her wear.

So why wasn’t she doing something to comfort her?

(The ignorance was quickly becoming decidedly unblissful).

“Is there…is there any way I won’t have to be at UCLA next Friday?”

Christen wasn’t just fighting to play dumb for Mal. She was fighting it within herself, as well.

“Well, considering it’s a meeting with the head coach and academic advisors, I’m going to say no.”

Mal nodded slowly, like she had both expected that answer and not. She opened her mouth only to close it again, the process repeating a few times.

Any other day, for anything else, Christen would have had Mal next to her, would have her in her arms. Would be reassuring her and making her feel like she could speak. The words “you can talk to me,” or “it’s okay, baby” were right there, but it was like her tongue had swelled to the size of a balloon.

She couldn’t get them out even if she wanted to.

And the fact that she didn’t want to, that she couldn’t bring herself to suggest to Mal that she was willing to listen to what she had to say?

She felt like the worst sister in the world.

Even the most oblivious person could have figured out they both knew what needed to be discussed. Christen was more than willing to put it off again. But, it seemed Mal was not.

“I – “ Mal barley got that word out before her voice cracked, tears seemingly arriving out of nowhere and overwhelming her, dripping down her cheeks.

Christen didn’t not get up. But she hesitated before she did. And she could have pretended she thought Mal didn’t notice it, but she knew that would be a lie.

That was how Tobin found them, moments later, standing across from each other with tension so thick you’d have to wade through it. Tobin looked between them, clearly trying to assess the situation before speaking slowly and carefully to Mal, hoping she was right.

“You told her?”

(She was not right).

Christen sent Tobin a look so sharp it had the other woman gulping, her eyes dancing between the sisters again as her brain scrambled. Maybe (definitely) it was Christen being ignorant again, but the news that Tobin knew about whatever had been going on was not welcomed. “Excuse me?”

“Chris, don’t.” Mal hiccupped. She wiped at her eyes, trying to control her breathing. “It wasn’t to do with her.”

If Christen was in a calmer state of mind she would have worried about how fast the irrationality was building up inside of her. “And what is “it”, exactly?”

“I know you know, Chris. I know you do.”

Before Christen could retort to Mal, Tobin stepped forward, placing a hand on Mal’s shoulder. “Let’s all sit down and talk about this, okay?”

Mal quickly took her offer up, sitting on one side of the table and watching as Tobin held out her hand for Christen. It was an olive branch, one Christen ignored, as she walked past Tobin’s hand to sit down opposite Mal, waiting for Tobin to sit at the head.

Christen saw the frown on Tobin’s face she was trying to hide. She saw the obvious upset on Mal’s. She should have wanted to fix that, wanted them to not be feeling this way. Instead, all she could think about were her dreams of late. The maroon shirts she never got to wear. How she would have given almost anything to have been there.

How it was too important in every way for Mal to pass up.

“Please don’t hate me for what I’m about to say,” Mal started, and even though Christen wasn’t in her calmest state, she couldn’t let that go. They had lived in enough toxic environments where that was thrown around so much kids would really believe it.

“I will never hate you. No matter what. Don’t ever think that.”

Somehow, that made more tears well up in Mal’s eyes. She nodded, taking a few breaths like she was searching for the courage to speak. Christen knew what she was about to say, but she was certainly not about to help her out. It was the last thing she wanted to hear –

“I think I want to go pro.”

– and yet, it still shocked her to the core.

What? How? Why? Who the– okay. Hear her out. Then you’ll see how she’s come up with this idea.

“Can you explain that?” It was a struggle to keep her voice even, her face giving absolutely nothing away. She could barely look at Mal, her sister wearing the expression she had seen on Isabel this morning and it hurt her to not want to comfort that.

Mal spoke slowly, unsure. Like she was tiptoeing around a sleeping lion, feeling like one wrong move could end in disaster. “Um…the first time it came into my mind as a possibility was the Thorns game we came to on my birthday.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Christen saw Tobin wince slightly at that. She remembered their conversation at the time, how she was so sure Mal would never throw away college. Wouldn’t go pro early.

What a fool.

“That was like, the first seed. And um, it just kind of…grew from there.” Mal said as she continued to explain more. Christen listened (if listening meant hearing but not accepting). “I’ve been talking to Tobin about it, and – ”

“– you didn’t tell me this.”

Christen’s sharp eyes and cutting tone were back, as was the deer-in-headlights look on Tobin’s face. The spike of irrationality grew inside. How had Tobin kept this from her?

“Chris, stop.” Mal tried again to save Tobin from the stare, bringing the attention back to herself. “I made her promise not to tell you until I did. It’s not her fault. I just wanted her opinion – “

“– which was?”

Tobin’s gulp was almost comically loud. “Chris, I know you’re hurt by this. But she needed help. The choice is hers, it always has been. I didn’t want to sway her either side – ”

“– sounds like you already have.”

There was more sadness than worry in Tobin’s eyes, now. Christen almost broke through the irrationality clouding her head to feel bad about it.

Almost.

“Chris, please, just listen.” Mal dragged her back once more. “She didn’t sway me. Everything she said she made sure I knew I had to think about it for me, not what someone else did. She just helped me work through the good and bad of both sides, since she’s done them both. I just wanted to ask her that.”

She knew it was unfair to Tobin to think this. But it was starting to feel a bit two against one. She knew she was being irrational. But this wasn’t Mal passing up a trip to the beach. This was college. College. There was no way.

“College was always something we agreed couldn’t be passed up. You were the one who was so adamant about that. You said to me the professional leagues will always be around, but college won’t.”

“I know. I know I said that.” Mal rushed to nod, feeling like some kind of conversation was starting to open up. “But that was before.”

“Before what?”

“I don’t know…before everything.”

Before everything? What did that even mean?

Suddenly, a glimmer of hope shot through Christen. An answer to why Mal had made this decision, an explanation for an otherwise baffling call.

“Mal, where did this come from? Is this because the article was released?”

All things considered, Mal had been handling it okay. But it hadn’t escaped Christen how clingy she’d been, even more so than usual. They’d all shared a bed more often than not, there had been a few recurrences of Mal’s nightmares.

Maybe Mal saw going to college as a leap away from the safety blanket that staying around those she knew provided her. Maybe the idea of having to face teenagers after having her past blasted onto the internet was terrifying for her.

Much like Tobin had tried to forget about the Olympics and the NWSL season by putting all her energy and attention onto Mal at the U20 world cup, maybe Mal was trying to forget about the article by focusing entirely on the idea of going pro. She was just projecting, and she just needed help to work through it.

That was it!

(Christen had to hope that was it).

It was the only reason she could think of. Mal wouldn’t pass up college otherwise, she just wouldn’t.

“Baby, it’s okay if you’re scared or worried about going to college after the article. We’ll help you settle in there, and the other girls, they’ll become such good friends for you.”

Mal adamantly shook her head. “It’s not that, Chris. It isn’t anything to do with the article, I was already thinking about it before. I swear, it’s not.” Christen had a hard time hearing the rest of her sentence from the disappointment sinking in her stomach. “I just…the more I think about it, the more going pro makes sense. It’s the right time.”

So that was how it was going to be. Her sister making an illogical decision.

Whatever hope had been pushing the irrationality down inside Christen before completely dissipated, the cloud in her brain rearing back with more vigor than ever. It almost would have startled her if she’d been in a clear mind.

She was locked in a gaze with Mal, unwilling to break it, like it would be a sign of defeat if she did. “Do you know what you’d be letting go if you skipped college? The risks involved?”

Mal answered like she’d rehearsed hearing this question in the mirror. “The professional leagues are right now as well, Chris. I’m already playing at a level higher than college with the National team. I have to keep my game up and the best way to do that is go pro. It makes sense.”

“It doesn’t. You need an education. Soccer isn’t forever.”

“But going pro will set me up with good experiences. It’ll give me connections, like Tob – ” Mal cut herself off before she could get Tobin’s name out, seeing Christen’s features get a little darker in what was a clear sign of betrayal towards her girlfriend. She still hadn’t looked back at Tobin since the start of the conversation, seeing her in her peripherals at the table but not wanting to engage.

Overwhelmed was an understatement as to how Christen was feeling. She could barely make sense of the competing emotions thundering through her – none of them positive, and all of them threatening to take over. She was almost impressed with her brain at how it seemed to focus entirely on how ridiculous Mal’s decision was, and how devastatingly heartbroken she still was about having missed out on college, all at the same time.

In her mind, there was only two potential ways to deal with this. One, was to comfort Mal, shelter her and reassure her and do all the things she usually did with her. But every way that scenario ended would suggest to Mal that Christen was okay with her decision. And there was not an inch of herself that was.

So, really, she had no choice.

It was something she hated doing with Mal, something she hadn’t had to do in a long time. But she hadn’t done all of this just for her baby sister to throw it away.

She was laying down the law.

“I won’t let you ruin your future. You’re not going pro. You’re going to college.”

The room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. Tobin shifted in her seat. Mal’s mouth fell open slightly. Christen held her ground.

It took a while for Mal to speak.

“You can’t tell me that. You said it was my decision.”

“Not if you’re not being smart about it.”

“Wha – ” Mal tried to start, but Christen wasn’t going to let her. She was in it, now, no backing down.

Her tone was strong, pointed, but she didn’t yell. Her and Mal, they never yelled, never raised their voices. Christen would never forget the constant yelling in the foster homes, how shouting was used to dominate, to scare them all. How the volume and sharpness of a voice could cut through the air like a sword, making her freeze, making her hair stand up on her skin, making her sick with worry for their safety.

She swore she would never raise her voice at Mal, no matter what. She was thankful that despite the irrationality, that never wavered.

(That didn’t mean it was a pleasant conversation, though).

“Do you hear yourself? You want to willingly throw away one of life’s best experiences?”

“I just – ”

“This is college. You’ll be getting a world class education.”

“I know, but – ”

“You can spend years in the professional leagues. But this is your only chance to play college soccer.”

“It’s not that – ”

“Do you know how much anyone, how much I would give to have been able to have that opportunity?”

There it was.

Mal’s mouth had halfway opened to try and get a retort in before it snapped shut. She stopped in her tracks, eyes widening. It was like Christen could see her mind replaying the words she’d just heard, processing them in real time to understand.

It took a few seconds, but Christen could tell when Mal realized, perhaps shockingly, for the first time in her life that Christen would have wanted to go to college but didn’t get the chance to.

There was a look on Mal’s face, one that made Christen instinctually want to hug her until it disappeared. A slow forming guilt, tears that had been present the whole conversation renewing in their silent streams.

But there was also some part of Christen, some deep down horrible part, that fed off that guilt. That wanted to be vindicated for all it had missed.

Mal looked across at Tobin, and Christen finally looked over at her girlfriend as well, her heart softening despite everything else going on that Tobin had clearly stayed true to her promise to Christen all those months ago and had never told Mal that Christen wanted to go to Stanford. Would have gotten there, too. Would have killed it there. Through all the conversations Tobin and Mal had been having, Tobin had never once revealed that.

Christen hated that she knew the grateful smile she gave to Tobin was too small. She hated even more the sad look in Tobin’s eyes she got back.

She hated everything about this.

“It’s going to sting but you can hold onto my shoulder and squeeze it, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Okay, ready? I’m going to – ”

“ – No, no, wait!”

Christen dissolved into laughter from where she knelt on the floor, her head coming to rest on Mal’s knee as the 14 year old was in fits of giggles. Mal was sitting on the worn down couch in their apartment, one leg folded under her, the other stretched out and sporting a nasty turf burn that needed a bandage change.

Mal had squirmed away from Christen and the disinfectant she was holding at the last second in a way that had made both of them laugh – if not for the cute action, then just for the fact they were back together after Mal had been away in Texas for two weeks at a U17 camp.

They were each other’s favorite person, always excited to be together. That was heightened, now, always the biggest sense of giddy, delirious delight in the air whenever they were reunited, Christen’s heart that had felt so lonely now full again.

They barely separated at the best of times, and to anyone else it probably wouldn’t be noticeable, but they didn’t let each other out of their touch. One of Mal’s little hands holding Christen’s shoulder, a finger locked into a stray curl from Christen’s ponytail. Christen’s hand resting on Mal’s ankle, her head laying against her knee. Pressed together as close as they could while still getting the job done.  

“Baby, it’s okay.” Christen smiled knowingly, lifting her head up to look at her sister. “It’s going to suck but then it’ll be over just like that, I promise.”

Steeling herself, Mal took a deep breath in and then nodded. She squeezed Christen’s shoulder lightly and gave her a small smile and it was almost dizzying at how overwhelmed with love Christen got for her all at once.

“Three, two,” Christen began to clean the graze before she said one out loud, though that was an old trick of hers so the element of surprise was probably lost with Mal, now. A hissing sound came out of the younger girl, her grip on Christen’s shoulder tightening as her eyes clenched shut.

“You’re doing so well, baby love.” Christen tried to work as quickly as possible while still taking care. “A little bit longer, then you’re all done.”

“Can I curse?” The words hissed through Mal’s gritted teeth almost threw Christen off track with how they made her want to laugh, her heart clenching in adoration again for how much she loved her, how fucking cute she was for even asking that.

“You can curse.”

“Okay great because holy crap!”

This time Christen did laugh, stopping her work to look up. “Holy crap? Didn’t know I was raising such a rebel.”

Mal, eyes still clenched shut, lifted up her middle finger with a grin on her face. “Fuck off, Christen.”

“That’s more like it.” Christen gave the graze one final wipe, next picking up some bandages that US Soccer had thankfully sent home with Mal, saving Christen some all too precious dollars. “All done with that, my brave girl.”

“Will the rest hurt?”

“Maybe a little. Tell me more about camp, okay? It’ll keep your mind off it.”

“Oh yeah, actually, there was something interesting that happened today.” Mal started, waiting for Christen’s nod and noise of confirmation that she was listening and had heard her. “There was a college recruiter. Recruiters, actually. From like 5 different schoo – ow!”

Christen’s eyes widened as Mal’s yelp of pain snapped her out of the spin her mind had been in when she’d heard about college, more specifically, about her 14 year old sister talk about college. She hurriedly released the added pressure she’d put on Mal’s leg when applying the bandage, rubbing at her other knee with an apology in her eyes. “Sorry! Sorry, sorry. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.” Mal nodded, flicking gently at Christen’s head with a little grin, forgiving. Christen, needing time to mentally recover, prompted her to keep going with the story. She tried to take in Mal explaining how the recruiters talked to them all, even her at 14. She tried to keep it together. “It’s kind of crazy, right, Chris?”

“What is?”

“I don’t know. The idea of college and all.”

Careful to not accidentally hurt Mal again because she couldn’t figure out how to deal with her emotions about this, Christen closed the bandage off, ever so gently patting Mal’s leg where she’d worked, silently telling her she was done. “Can you say what you mean by that?"

Good, that bought her some time to recover. She kept her gaze on the floor as she picked up the trash from the bandages, listening to Mal as she talked about how college seemed so daunting and far away but it really wasn’t.

Images of maroon and white filled her mind, videos she’d felt physically pained from after watching of NCAA finals that she wasn’t playing in, but she couldn’t help herself. She’d never have a yearning of missing something like she missed her parents, but sometimes she felt the space she knew was left in her body for college gaped so wide it could swallow her whole.

She’d wanted it so bad.

“Did you ever want to go to college?”

But the lie was so easy. She had been waiting to have to use it.

“No, not really. I wasn’t ready for it, and I could have never figured out what to have studied.” It was nonchalant, smooth. Moving to a distraction. “Plus, I couldn’t stand to be away from you.” Her fingers gently tickled Mal’s sides, making the younger girl laugh as she batted her hands away.

“You, though, you’ll thrive at college. You’re going to go and break all kinds of records with whichever team will be luckiest to snap you up. And you’ll learn so much, baby. It’ll be…it’ll be the best time of your life."  

Careful, Christen. Don’t crack now.

Luckily Mal didn’t notice, her face giving away what her thoughts were – deep in imagination from Christen’s words of scenes of playing with her team mates, making friends, enjoying one of life’s great experiences.

“I like UCLA.” Mal’s voice tried to sound non-committal, but Christen could see the underlying excitement. “There’s just something about it, you know? I’ve always imagined it, and it’s so close by.”

“Well thank god for that.” Christen said with a grin, confident she’d diverted the conversation away from herself. “You know you have a long time to decide, still. And you can go to any school you want. But it’s good to think about it, now. So you can be prepared when the time comes. Because this isn’t something to pass by, yeah?”

Mal nodded, snuggling in close when Christen sat up beside her on the couch. “Yeah. I’m definitely going to college. It’s going to be so great. And you can come and watch my games, if it’s close.”

“Oh, I’ll be there. Decked out head to toe in your school colors. Just try and stop me.”

Chris!” Mal’s embarrassed whine normalized the equilibrium inside Christen that had fallen off kilter throughout the conversation. She supposed she’d have to start practicing getting used to it, it’s not like Mal’s talent suggested this would be a conversation that would go away any time soon.

Recruiters were going to keep knocking, and college would be a big presence in their lives for years to come.

Just not for her.

As always.

“You were going to play college soccer?”

A pent up frustration still sat on Mal’s face from the way the conversation had played out. Indignant, almost, at being told by Christen what she could or couldn’t do for something that was supposed to be her choice.

But the shock of hearing Christen had wanted to go to college, and perhaps a tinge of embarrassment that she’d never thought that was a possibility, never considered how weird it was that Christen pushed college so much but disregarded it for herself, made those words that came out of Mal’s mouth hesitant.

Tears stung at Christen’s eyes. She willed them with everything she had inside to stay back. “I was too young to ever find out. But I wanted to go. To Stanford.” Christen said slowly and lowly, feeling how her throat tightened with every word spoken, feeling how close she felt to everything tipping over the edge.

Her next words were barely a whisper. “Wanted it with all my heart.”

There was a change in the conversation, then. As if a fork had appeared in the road, offering the chance that it could play out a different way. That they really could talk about it.

“I’m sorry, Chris.” Mal said, watery. “I didn’t know.”

A tentative step towards it.

“I know.” And another. “But I know what it feels like to miss out on college. I don’t want that for you.”

A pause at the new path. Mal breathed in and out, the look on her face suggesting she was choosing each word with the utmost delicateness. “Chris, it’s just…you didn’t have a choice. I do. And I’m trying to make the right one, but I can’t if…if you’re biased towards college.”

Just like that, the fork disappeared, the hope of a new path crumbled as Christen’s mind snapped off the idea that Mal knew what she was talking about. She didn’t.

Her voice spoke with a sense of finality. “I’m biased towards college because it’s the right decision.”

Mal countered back. “You don’t know that, though. Times have changed. What’s right for you isn’t always what’s right for me.”

A bitter laugh ran through Christen’s mind. She couldn’t have said whether it left her mouth, the sounds inside her head were overwhelming. “If you’re insinuating I don’t know what’s right for you when I’ve been raising you since you were five years old, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re 18, Mal. You’re too young to be deciding to throw away something like this.”

It was a low shot, Christen knew it. And it struck the nerve she had intended it to, maybe even deep down wanted it to. Mal’s face grew instantly frustrated, her hands clasped together as if to get rid of some of her feelings because she knew she wouldn’t yell.

“That’s such bullshit, Christen. You can’t tell me that. I’m not a child.” Unfortunately for the 18 year old, her attempt to control her anger resulted in her foot stomping ever so slightly under the bench, like her body was so pent up it had to release it somehow.

The irrational monster sitting in Christen’s head grinned triumphantly, like Mal had just disproved her own point. “You’re acting like one, Mallory.”

“You’re not even listening to me.” Furious hands wiped at eyes, Mal desperate to try and get a handle back on the conversation. “I’m trying to be the best person I can, grow into the potential you gave me. I don’t want to make this decision without you, and I’m trying to tell you what I’m feeling. You always said to tell you that. Can’t you see it from my perspective?”

Christen had once heard that in an argument, the moment to pause and take a breath was right before you were at your angriest. The breath was supposed to calm you, give your body a chance to reset, give your mind an out from the words sitting on your tongue, give you one last chance to not say them.

She didn’t pause.

“Mal, all your life I’ve been seeing it from your perspective. Everything I did was for you. I worked day in and out for you, so you could live your dreams, so you could get a full ride, so you could have a better future than me.” Christen was emphatic. “If you really wanted to live into the potential I’ve given you, I would have thought you’d be smart enough to know college was the only answer.”

Mal hadn’t been looking up when Christen was talking, but when she did, it was like she grew a foot taller. If Christen was emphatic, Mal was resounding. Christen had thought Mal’s tears only validated her point more, that it was proof she was too young and too overwhelmed by all of this to be making such a decision.

Mal was about to show her how much she disagreed. It was like watching a wild flower weathering a thunderstorm.

Strong. Determined. Standing up against the odds.

“It’s really hard to sit here and see that look on your face and know I’m disappointing you.” Mal stared at her, eyes swimming in heartbroken determination. “I’m so sorry, Christen. I’m sorry life happened the way it did. I’m sorry that you missed out on Stanford, I’m so fucking sorry.”

Mal’s voice scratched with tears, cracking on every other word. But still she held strong.

“It makes me sick to my stomach to think about everything you had to sacrifice for me. It’s on my mind every single day. And ever since that article, all I’ve been replaying in my head was how much I didn’t know, how much you protected me from. I know I won’t ever know the burden of all of that, and I know I’ll never know the pain you went through from doing it alone.”

It was something akin to hope reaching out, maybe the only thing surviving from the now-crumpled path that had arisen earlier. Christen didn’t know how to feel. Her mind was swarming with the dreams she had long left behind, unable to comprehend how someone could pass up something she would have given anything for.

She left the hope hanging, seeing Mal swallow thickly around her tears.

“Chris, the only thing that gets me past the guilt of all of that, that stops it from eating me alive, is that you said it wasn’t my fault. You promised me you didn’t hold it against me. You said you did what you did because it was your decision, and you wanted to give me this life.”

There was a begging, almost, behind Mal’s voice now. It was upset, angry, but it was pleading with an older sister who was giving her nothing. Christen was a cold stone in a way that was so unfamiliar it had set the room on edge, and everyone in it.

“You said it wasn’t my fault. But it doesn’t sound like you think that, now.” Brave, brown eyes met hardened green. For the first time in the conversation, the brown eyes won out. “So is that how it really is, Christen? That you blame me? That you think it’s my fault? Because you might as well tell me now.”

The voice that had confronted Christen was mad. Mal spoke with a frustrated righteousness, like she knew how unjust Christen was being, how unfair and petty and stubborn she was being. She was challenging her, because she knew what she was about to hear Christen say. She knew what she said would make Christen snap out of it.

Because of course it would. How could it not? Christen would never, ever let Mal think something untrue like that.

There wasn’t really a part of Mal that thought otherwise, either, despite her tone of voice.

And yet –

Silence.

Christen knew she should have said no. Should have said it straight away. Of course she didn’t think that it was Mal’s fault, of course she didn’t blame her. She couldn’t, ever.

She should have focused on calming her mind down. Should have thought back to her yoga lessons from the start of the year, should have centered herself. Should have stopped her racing thoughts and realized that every second that ticked by, Mal’s expression was falling away from being so sure that Christen would finally come around, to a growing anxiety and unease.

Mal’s face dropped just as fast as the pit in her stomach seemed to be growing, quickly looking like she could be sick at the thought that her older sister, her hero, really did hold something against her. Christen had never left a question hanging like this in the air, even if they disagreed. She would never let Mal think something like this.

But then again, they’d never had an argument like this.

The few feet separating them across the table felt like an ocean, both sisters having never been so far apart. Neither was used to being so out of sync, and it showed. The silence in the room was suffocating. It threatened to choke.

The intensity of Christen’s gaze suggested she was trying to bore a hole into the table with it. There was an almost impressive determinedness to not look up at Mal.

She really should have.

“Christen.”

It was the first time Tobin had spoken since the start of the conversation. And it was only one word. But the shocked tone it was spoken in, the chastise in its undertone – it said everything it needed to.

To say the guilt from the look on Mal’s face would eat Christen for weeks to come was an understatement. To say Christen felt worse than the worst of humans wasn’t an exaggeration.

It was an expression on Mal that Christen had never seen directed at her before. Like the floor had been completely pulled out from under Mal’s feet. Like Christen had wounded her in a way so shocking to her core she didn’t know what to do – frozen apart from the tears tracking down her cheeks.

The irrationality inside Christen tried to be giddy with its triumphant domination, but this time it didn’t last long. Quickly and overwhelmingly, the black hole of guilt swallowed her entirely, breaking whatever cold stronghold she’d been displaying since she sat down and crumpling her.

The expression Mal wore was like ice cold water to her face.

“Mal – ” The name cracked in her mouth as a sob took over, her tongue feeling fuzzy and her cheeks wet with tears. It didn’t even get half way out before Mal had ripped out of her seat, Christen’s vision rapidly blurring as she watched her leave the room, probably the apartment.

Her throat stung. Her hands were clammy. Her head pounded. Her chest felt so tight it was as if someone was standing on her lungs, her breath closing in around her.

The ache in her heart was visceral.

She curled in on herself as a form of protection, even though bringing her knees to her chest and hugging them tight made it harder to breathe.

She deserved to feel like this.

An awful sister.

“Chris, hey, hey, just breathe, just breathe.”

The last thing she deserved was Tobin’s loving voice, her soft hands on her back, gently, gently trying to pry her up and clear her airways. Tobin’s nature was too kind, her love too much.

Christen didn’t deserve any of it.

But she didn’t have the strength to pull away.

All of her senses were enveloped by Tobin’s presence as she felt her head be guided into Tobin’s chest, her body being lifted from the chair and carried to the couch. She was curled into Tobin’s warmth, barely able to string a single thought together.

It was all she could do but cry and try to cling to her breath as it escaped, feeling each inhale grow thinner and thinner until she could latch onto the words Tobin was saying, just managing to follow along.

In and out. In and out.

It was all too much. Everything was too much. The only thing tethering her to a shred of reality was Tobin’s arms around her, more than she deserved.

And more than Mal had right now.

The gasp ripped out of her, sitting up so suddenly it startled Tobin.

“M-Mal, I have – you have to, sh-she’s alone somewhere an-and – ”

Tobin’s hands cupped her cheeks softly, wiping away tears as she made comforting hushing sounds, her face still mostly a blur through Christen’s watery eyes.

“I saw her take the spare key to Lindsey’s apartment, she’ll be down there.”

Christen shook her head adamantly, knowing Lindsey’s apartment would be empty with the girl gone back to Colorado for the rest of the year, knowing Mal would be upset and all alone in there.

It felt like it took a herculean effort to take her next breath of air in, trying to calm her erratic heartbeat and wipe at her face. “Please go and be with her, Tobin. I-I can’t…you need to, please.”

The look on Tobin’s face suggested she both wanted to go and check on Mal and also didn’t want to leave Christen’s side when she was this distraught. Christen didn’t let her protest, repeating her plea over and over until Tobin acquiesced, moving to stand up.

“Tobin I – I’m so sorry, I – I didn’t mean it, I didn’t – everything – I just – ”

A hug engulfed her, another sob ripping out of her chest at Tobin’s soft words, attempting to comfort her. Trying to make her feel like she wasn’t terrible for what she’d done. She let herself be held for the shortest amount of time she could bear, before pleading with Tobin again to go to Mal.

As soon as she felt Tobin’s warmth leave her, everything seemed monumentally insurmountable. Selfishly, Christen wanted to call her back.

Instead, she let Tobin leave the softest of kisses on her forehead, felt her whisper she loved her as she followed the path Mal had taken before, shutting the door behind her and leaving Christen with her crushed chest.

So this is what it felt like to be an awful person.

She sank into the couch, laying on her back and letting everything overcome her.

The tears streamed out of the corner of her eye and right off the side of her face, trickling off her ears onto the pillows. Her breath hiccupped and faltered, getting caught in her throat. Her hands shook unless she clenched them together.

It was like the pain of her past, the what-ifs of college, the betrayal she felt by Mal’s decision, the guilt of her reaction, the way life wasn’t meant to be like this and it was so unfair, so hard; it was all crashing down on her at once.

She felt simultaneously overwhelmed to the point of chaos and so low and slow it was like she could sink through the floor and disappear.

Time was moving at an immeasurable pace, but when a knock sounded at the door, Christen was aware enough to know Tobin couldn’t come back to her yet, she needed to stay with Mal, because that was not enough time to have calmed her down.

“Tobin please just stay w– Mabel?”

There Mabel stood, a stable yet empathetic look on her face. It was obvious that Tobin had called her and told her what happened, asked her to come over. But there was something else in her look as well, the knowing eyes.

Christen’s gaze hardened, an expression she would usually never dream of wearing in front of Mabel. It became obvious then that Mal had also been talking to Mabel over these few days, maybe longer. Much like Mal’s revelation today, Christen could have and should have prepared for this.

Instead, she chose to be hurt by it, and she let it show.

Mabel seemed unperturbed by Christen’s expression, the tiniest of amused smiles visible, like she was expecting it entirely. She held her hand out, Christen staring at it as she wiped the remaining tears off her face, trying to decide whether to take the offer.

The thought of Mabel’s soft hand comforting her own was too much for Christen’s stubborn nature to overpower. She knew it was the right decision when she laced their fingers together, feeling Mabel squeeze her hand softly, feeling like she was home.

“Okay, my honey bee. Let’s take a walk.”

-

“It happened a lot, but I remember this one time so clearly.” Christen sat shoulder to shoulder on a park bench with Mabel, watching the leaves flutter in the wind. They’d walked with no real direction around the city for the better part of an hour as Christen spilled her feelings to Mabel. She told her about the pain of hearing Mal’s decision, of missing out herself. She told her about a lot.

When she wasn’t so angry and heartbroken anymore she’d realize how freeing it was to open up about it all.

“Mal was 12, I was 22. Her club team was going on a travel tournament, and it was going to be so expensive. Even with subsidies from the club it was going to be weeks of working double shifts at both of my jobs. Club soccer at that level it’s…it’s wrong how expensive it all is. It makes it so inaccessible to so many families. I thought I gave myself a hernia from the shock of the amount.”

A little laugh left Mabel’s lips next to her, the woman patient and attentive as she listened to Christen. It was impossible to not feel safe around her. Her aura cloaked Christen like the blanket she’d been deprived of since her parents left. Like it lifted the weight crushing her. Like she could breathe again.

“The tournament was right around the time of the NCAA finals. Stanford were playing UNC.” Mabel nodded in understanding, having learnt the significance of this. “And I remember thinking to myself, I could be in my junior year at Stanford playing the most exciting soccer of my life with a team that was like family around me. But instead, I’m working doubles for the next however long to be able to send my baby sister on a tournament I would give anything to be able to play in.”

A gentle hum came from Mabel. “That must have been incredibly difficult to deal with.”

“Yeah.” Christen scoffed, kicking at the grass and thinking back to all the events that had transpired that day. “I’ve clearly dealt with it so well.”

Mabel’s humming continued, squeezing her hand. “Everyone’s at their own pace, honey.” It was something Mabel constantly reminded her of. Something she was still trying to come to terms with.

“Wonderfully and also frustratingly, I couldn’t even be mad about the travel tournament in the end.”

“No?”

“No. It was the tournament that US Soccer first noticed Mal at. She got called into an ID youth camp when she turned 13 a couple of months later.” Christen remembered the overwhelming feelings of that moment. Both blown away with pride and aching with longing. “And so it was justified, in my head again, you know? All for Mal, do everything for Mal. And it was working.”

A hand cupped under her chin, lifting her face gently until her eyes met Mabel’s brown ones, swimming in kindness and love and knowing. “But at the expense of your dreams.”

Like the flick of a switch, tears flooded Christen’s eyes, some dripping down her face until they hit Mabel’s hand. Christen felt her thumb brush gently across her cheek and she leaned closer, desperate for the comfort.

“I’m the older sister.” Her voice wobbled, watery, a resigned smile on her face. “That’s how it goes. Everything for Mal so she can have a better life than I did. And that means going to college.”

Mabel dropped a kiss to her forehead and then she was once more standing up with her hand held out, waiting for Christen to take it and follow her. Instead of aimless walking this time, Mabel lead them through streets like she had a destination in mind.

It was obvious where they’d ended up before Mabel had to tell her.

“This is your house.”

“It is.”

Christen looked up at the little house – light painted wood with a bay window at the front. Flowers in pot plants lining the outdoor stairs up to a small porch, two well-loved seats sitting by the door. The house had a weathered feel about it. Not like it had been purposefully run down, but like it had lived a good, long life. Been filled with a lot of love. Maybe even burst at the seams with it.

She stood with Mabel at the foot of the cobbled path, feeling a squeeze on her hand before they went anywhere.

“Are you okay with coming in?”

It was a soft question, the space to refuse if she wanted, if she had feelings the same as arriving at the Heath’s house in Florida, too overwhelmed to cope. The check-in made warmth spread through Christen’s chest.

And she nodded, of course she did. She wasn’t just okay with it, she wanted it. Wanted to be enveloped in Mabel’s comfort, in her environment. It did more than tether her to the ground. She could feel it healing her.

They walked up the cobbled path, Christen smiling absently at an ‘I love you’ sign sticking out of a pot plant near the front door. She tried to remember if that was something her parents had at their house. It felt like something they would have loved.

The warm scent of Mabel’s house was the first thing she noticed. If being around Mabel was comforting to Christen, stepping into her house was like her entire being was cloaked in a hug. She looked up at the light wooden walls as she took her shoes off, picture frames hanging all down the hall. She didn’t know who was in the photos but their grinning faces made her smile.

It was light, curtains open and the sun shining through, even if you couldn’t really feel it in the fall. Everywhere she looked there were happy splashes of warmth – a painting on the wall, a patterned rug, a blue couch, a refrigerator covered in drawings.

The green grass in the backyard sat around a huge tree, flowers lining the fence. A wind chime hanging just outside the kitchen window played a gentle tune. The cushions on the couch were mismatched and perfect.

Christen stood in the middle of the living room, hugging her arms around herself. She squeezed tight, as if to physically keep her emotions at bay. There wasn’t one single feeling to pinpoint, but it all felt so right. Like her knees could buckle with how safe and settled she was. Like she hadn’t felt in so long.

“I love it, Mabel. It’s beautiful.”

Mabel stepped forward to wipe a tear off Christen’s cheek she didn’t even know was there, letting her breathe. “Thank you, honey. Sit down, okay? I’m going to get you some water.”

She tried not to, but as soon as she felt the soft weathered cushions of the couch under her she sank back into them, finally letting out some of the tension of the day. Her head lay back, eyes closing as she breathed in deeply, exhaling and opening them again.

Upside down, mouth open in a wide grin, was a smile she had seen before. She turned her head to the side where it rested on the back of the couch, trying to get a better angle of the person in the photo she was looking at.

“He’s gorgeous, huh.”

Christen turned to look at Mabel, seeing a fond look in her eyes that was so powerful yet so far away it cut right to her heart. She had seen that look before; on herself in the mirror, when she talked to Mal about their parents. It was a look of complete adoration, the most intense kind of love, but one that lived entirely in memory. Memories that were both the most beautiful and painful things.

Deep down, Christen had always known Mabel had suffered loss. There was no other explanation for the way the woman looked at her like she saw right through her, like she knew her inside and out.

It was a way you carried yourself through the world with a hole in your heart. The way you tried to move on but never really could. It was a shared understanding.

She’d never put it into thought before now. But they had always been connected through that. Of course they had.

Mabel hadn’t talked about her past much, but Christen had always wondered. The woman spoke like she’d lived 100 different lives, and maybe she had. There was so much to discover about her, Christen knew, but she was often at a loss of where to ask to start.

As always, Mabel smiled softly like she knew exactly what Christen was thinking, one step ahead. She handed Christen the glass of water, sitting down next to her as Christen subconsciously moved in closer.

“He is. Will you tell me about him?”

Mabel’s eyes shone far in the distance again, taking the photo frame in her hands preciously. “Of course. I’ve been waiting to tell you this story, actually. I always knew I would when you finally had the conversation you had today with your sister. I want to tell you about college, but before I can do that, I need to tell you a story about my sons. My two boys.” A delicate finger reached out to stroke across the picture of the smiling child, the action so protective and reverent it made Christen’s heart catch in her throat at the familiarity.

Mal’s hands almost shook with the way she so carefully cradled the photo in her hands. The nine year old was nestled on Christen’s lap, staring so intently at the photo like the power of her longing gaze could bring the figures in it back to life.

Christen’s eyes clenched shut at the thought.

She didn’t bring out these photos much. She knew she should have, and she shouldn’t have made it a thing that Mal got hesitant about asking to see them. But they were their most prized possessions. Christen had been terrified every day she was in foster care that the little weathered plastic envelope where she kept the 10 photos she managed to take from their house, along with all of her and Mal’s precious papers and birthday letters would be lost or stolen.  

She always made sure to bury it at the bottom of every trash bag she got, not so lost that she couldn’t reach in and feel it there to reassure herself, but never so accessible she would pull it out every day to look at it.

It was too painful.

But she couldn’t say no to the way Mal so unsurely asked to see them. The way she couldn’t look at Christen’s face when she did so. Nine years old and already so acutely aware of the heartache of memories, of the emotional importance of some moments.

“Pretty like you, Chrissy.” Mal whispered as she touched their mother’s face in the photo feather light, tracing around her head.

She looked at their mother’s smile, tears stinging at her eyes, remembering all the loving words that had left those lips, the laughter, the way they’d kissed her head countless times over. She pressed a kiss to Mal’s temple, hugging her sister closer. “And you, baby. That smile is all yours.”

“We have skin like Daddy.” Mal put her arm next to Christen’s, looking at their father in the photo. It was something she said almost every time she looked at it.

“We do. Black and beautiful.” Christen’s heart swelled at the way Mal got proud eyes upon hearing that. It was something their parents always said to them both, and she never wanted to let Mal forget it.

She had to look away when Mal brought the cradled photo up to her face, whispering “I love you” and kissing it ever so lightly. She had to look away otherwise she would cry and she didn’t think she’d be able to stop.

That was something she would do after she’d put Mal to bed that night. For now, she willed her tears at bay, whispering it alongside her sister, her body wrung out in heartbreak.

“Jake was the light of my life. He was my miracle.” Mabel spoke with a smile, still staring down at the photo in her hands. “I was 35 when I had him. He wasn’t planned, but he also wasn’t unwelcome. At least, that was my opinion on the matter.” A little laugh, but not entirely joyous. “I’d been with his father for a few months, but as soon as he found out about the baby, he bolted. I never saw him again.”

Christen was already enraptured with Mabel’s story, entirely drawn into the woman’s devotion in her voice, the memories laced within. “That must have been a scary moment.”

“It was.” Mabel nodded in agreement, looking back down at the photo, Christen looking with her. The boy couldn’t have been older than 8, standing in front of a lake at a park with a cheesing grin on his face, one arm raised high in a wave. His skin, a shade darker than Christen and Mal’s – like Mabel’s – shone brilliantly in the sun, his hair styled into a proud growing afro. “But nothing mattered when he came along. Not how hard it was, not how lonely I felt. Because I had him. He grounded me. And I know even despite our different situations, that you can relate to that.”

Christen’s knees curled up and her head rested on its side on them, nodding and knowing. Even when she was most alone, feeling lost, she was held right where she was when she looked at Mal. When she felt her love. When she saw that little face look up at her like the world began and ended with her. Like she put the sun in the sky and drew all the stars.

Nothing was impossible with that.

“So there I was, this little baby in my arms. Lord knows there were days I barely left the house. Sometimes putting real clothes on was my achievement. But, time went on, and we grew together, Jake and I. It was us against the world, and we were obsessed with each other.”

A soft smile crossed Christen’s face at the thought, and the fondness on Mabel’s expression. “Did you have other family around to help?”

“My father was never in the picture. My mother, rest her soul, had passed five years before Jake was born. And my grandparents both passed when I was a still a kid.”

“Ours too.” Christen commented.

“My brother is around, somewhere. He checks in every now and again, lives more of a nomad life. But that’s a whole other story.” Mabel said with a wry grin, it growing at Christen’s expression. There was so much of this woman to know about, so much of her life Christen could sit for days to listen to. She was completely enamored by her.

“I’d moved to Portland from New Mexico, of all places, a couple of years before Jake was born. All for a man.” Mabel grinned, nudging Christen. “That didn’t work out. But life has a way of falling into place. And Portland is my home, now.”

Christen squeezed Mabel’s hand, feeling the older woman stroke the back of her palm comfortingly. “I’m glad you stayed here.”

“So am I, honey bee.”

There was a silence in the room then, both women seeming to understand where the conversation would go next. It was the way Mabel had spoken, the words she’d used. The past tense, hanging a dark cloud over the conversation. Christen almost didn’t want to ask Mabel to continue. She wanted to leave this idea of a little Jake in her mind, the one she could so easily imagine, laughing with his Mom and thriving under her love.

She watched Mabel stare at her son in the photo for a little longer before softly speaking.

“Something happened to Jake, didn’t it.”

A sad, resigned smile took up residence on Mabel’s face. The sound of a long exhale, like it never got easier to come to terms with it.

Yeah. Christen knew.

“He was always so full of life. The happiest, healthiest kid. He was obsessed with baseball, played little league every year. I could have never imagined something like it happening, but one day he complained about a headache. After a day in bed the next morning he was almost in tears because it hurt so bad. When he could barely manage to open his eyes later that night I knew something was wrong.”

Hands squeezed again in comfort.

“When the Doctor said medulloblastoma I didn’t know what to think. He explained it was cancer, in Jake’s brain, and I thought he had to be joking. When he said it was terminal it felt like my world ended.”

Christen’s heart sunk through the floor hearing Mabel tell the story, seeing the look on her face. The pain in her eyes that was so visceral still all these years later. Whatever she had imagined happening to Jake, this was so much worse.

“He had just turned 10. He was so excited to be in double digits, so excited to grow up. To keep playing baseball and go to high school, go to college. To be with his friends. For me to see him graduate. He had his whole life ahead of him.” The tone of voice was something Christen couldn’t quite articulate, but was something she so deeply felt. A sadness, a sense of injustice, yet a resigned sense of having to keep living, feeling the pain from the memories. Of trying to look back on the positives despite the gaping hole in your heart.

“The doctors said 4 months. My baby boy fought it to 6.” Mabel stroked across Jake’s cheek. “And just like that, I’d gone from having the most fulfilling, joyous, loving life with Jake to being alone in this city. Being a broken person in this city.”

Tears streamed down Christen’s face as she listened, not even bothering to wipe them away. She pulled Mabel’s hand she was holding closer, tucking it under her cheek where it lay against her knees, squeezing it over. Her heart ached, knowing the hurt of loss, but she still couldn’t imagine the pain of what Mabel went through.

“Grief is a funny thing, isn’t it, my honey.” Brown eyes looked across at her, so warm and wise and human, the pain swimming in the moisture that sat there. “I barely remember anything from that next year. I’m still not sure what I did, who I saw. Whether I left the house. I wallowed in the grief, my whole life was halted by it. That’s something you didn’t get the luxury of.”

Christen shook her head immediately, pressing her cheek more into Mabel’s hand. Even if she didn’t process her grief because she had to look after Mal, she still had Mal. When Jake left, who did Mabel have?

She didn’t trust her voice enough to not crack, so she spoke in a soft whisper. “You’ve told me we can’t compare our situations to others. And losing your son, Mabel…no one is supposed to be able to be okay after that. To feel like that is to be human.”

A grateful smile came her way, Mabel nodding. “I’m glad you know that, honey. And it’s true. But it’s a constant progress to remind ourselves, isn’t it.” Her thumb stroked across Christen’s cheek gently. “The year after, the first things without Jake – his birthday, holidays, the anniversary of his death – it felt like the hardest thing I’d ever have to do to keep going. I didn’t know how I could go on like that. It felt like…”

“Like it could drown you.” Christen whispered, finishing the thought. Knowing. Knowing. Feeling such relief and sadness that they were bonded through this pain, through the grief they’d endured. That they didn’t have to explain, or apologize for it. They just knew.

The silence they sat in let them accept that. Christen took a moment to think about her parents. To think about Jake. She’s sure she would have loved him, sure he was the best kid. She thought more about Mabel’s story.

“Mabel, you said two boys, did you not?”

Brown eyes met green and something shifted in them, now. A little bit of hope filled Christen’s heart. “I did.” Mabel squeezed Christen’s hand once more before letting go of it, wiping the tears off her cheeks before doing the same to her own face. She reached across for another photo frame, sitting it beside Jake’s. The photo was of a boy of a similarly happy disposition, his skin a shade darker than Mabel’s, his eyes bright with life.

“At the time, I didn’t think there was ever anything that would bring me out of the place I had fallen into when Jake died. It took months, that turned into over a year, before I felt like something of a person again. I thought the best I could hope for was to just keep living. Enjoying life, thriving in it, that all seemed impossible without him.”

Their hands joined again, Christen breathing easier with each squeeze she felt.

“But, time is never to be underestimated as something that can heal. And slowly but surely, I came into my own again. It could never be normal, not like it was. But, it was almost as if Jake was still with me in his own way, wanting me to keep living.” Mabel spoke with a fond faraway look, staring down at both of the pictures. “It was the third anniversary of Jake’s death. He would have been 13. And it still hurt, so much. But not like it had once. I’d been to visit his grave, like always. But as I was leaving, something said to take the long way back. The path I didn’t usually walk. I knew it was Jake telling me to go.”

A small smile bloomed on Christen, leaning against her knees again. Her whole being felt uplifted, seeing the look on Mabel’s face, knowing that there was more to her story. That someone as wholly incredible as she was got to keep living, keep being happy. It was intangible inspiration for Christen of the strongest kind.

“When I saw him, I don’t know how or why, but I knew I had to go over. There was no reason a boy his age would be skirting the outsides of a park at that time of evening. No reason a boy his age would be dressed in only a t-shirt in the Portland winter. No reason a boy his age should look like a frightened lamb when an adult came close.”

Another knowing feeling stirred in Christen. The experience of being locked out of a foster home if the parents weren’t there, sometimes with just the clothes on your back. Feeling so jumpy and nervous whenever anyone approached.

“And when I reached him, when I saw his face, I was almost bowled over. I knew him. It was Tommy. One of Jake’s childhood friends.” Mabel’s smile was full, now, reaching back for another photo frame, turning it to show Christen. There were two boys smiling side by side, one obviously Jake, the other Tommy, surely not older than 7 years old. They were drowned in their little league baseball uniforms, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders with toothless, beaming smiles.

Christen’s heart felt so full she thought it might burst.

“They’d played little league together for a few seasons and they’d been in some of the same classes at school. I remembered him, so soft spoken and polite, the opposite of Jake’s loud and outrageous sense of humor.” Mabel shook her head with a laugh. “I think he remembered me, too. When I called out his name and his eyes looked up at me, so big and frightened, I knew I would do anything to take that fear away.”

“Was he in foster care?”

“He was. When you meet him, he can tell you his story.” Mabel said, Christen nodding with an understanding smile. She more than ever knew the importance of feeling like you had control over your story. “He was 13, then, living in a group home. Scarred by the system that he’d been in for three years but thankfully he’d kept himself. He was still that same sweet, loving boy.”

“Not many kids get that.”

“I know.” Mabel nodded. “He latched on to me so fast, and I to him. I knew in some ways having him around was easing the pain of Jake being gone. But it never felt like I was replacing Jake. It felt like this was meant to happen, that we were meant to find each other. We both needed each other, and the fact that he’d known Jake, that when he learnt Jake had died he’d felt that pain too, it made it easier to cope.”

Christen leaned into the older woman. “I’m so glad to hear that.”

“I got my fostering license and got him with me as soon as I could. I adopted him on his 15th birthday. He’s the greatest thing in my life. And there’s so much more to his story. But what a life he’s had.” Mabel looked to the side of her, Christen’s eyes following, growing into a question when she saw the photo she was looking at.

“Wait…this isn’t Tommy, is it?” Christen reached across to the photo frame, seeing an athletic and strong young man, standing holding a St. Louis Cardinals jersey.

“It is.”

“How old is he? What does he do?”

“He’s 26 and he plays minor league baseball. He’s on the verge of making it to the bigs.”

Christen’s eyes widened, her jaw dropping. That was the last thing she expected to hear. “What? For real?”

Mabel beamed, her eyes light. “For real.” She pointed across the room to another photo, Tommy standing with a baseball bat in a Vanderbilt uniform. Christen couldn’t hide her gasp of delight.

“Would you look at that. He went to college. A good college.”

“He did.” Mabel’s tone of voice was knowing, and they’d now reached where the conversation was supposed to lead this whole time. “Honey, you know that going to college does not define a successful person, right? You know someone’s value is not tied up in whether they were able to have the privilege of attending college?”

“I know. I swear I don’t think that.” Christen said emphatically, wanting Mabel to know she wasn’t elitist, or didn’t think college was make or break. “It’s just that Mal does have this opportunity, she’s so lucky to get it when other people would give anything for it, and she’s going to throw it away.”

Christen watched as Mabel took in what she was saying, how the woman’s eyebrow had quirked when she said Mal was throwing college away. A line creased on her forehead, her lips turning down. “You’re looking at me like you’re going to try to convince me that Mal is right about this decision. And she’s not, Mabel. You can’t change my mind.”

Mabel waved off Christen’s attempt at a stern look, nudging the younger woman down until her head rested in Mabel’s lap, and she was staring up at the wooden ceiling. “I’ll never tell you how to feel, child. That’s for you to decide. I’m just going to tell you a story about Tommy and college, and offer a perspective you might not have considered.” Mabel twirled a piece of Christen’s hair around her fingers. “And you can do with that what you will.”

Christen let the comfort of the hand in her hair settle her as she closed her eyes, listening to Mabel start to talk about Tommy, and when it became apparent his natural and learned abilities in baseball – even with a three year hiatus thanks to foster care – would land him a full ride scholarship. He’d had offers from all over, but more overwhelmingly, he’d had offers from the league, as well.

“There was a week or so where I’d never seen a person more conflicted.” Mabel whistled out, remembering back to that time. “Every day the boy came home from school and he’d look me dead in the eye telling me Ma, I know what I want to do. Come dinner time, he’d have already convinced himself out of it.”

Christen laughed once at the thought, mostly at the way Mabel told the story. “Did he ask your advice?”

“Only every other day.” Mabel smiled. “And I was honest with him. I said if it was up to me, I would go to college. But I also said to him how disappointed I would be if he made his decision because of what someone else thought, and not because of what was right for him.”

Eyes squeezed shut in slight frustration, the point bringing something back up for Christen. “But how can you trust that they know at that age what’s right for them? I mean, it’s insane to expect 18 year olds to make those decisions. They’re just kids, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

“That’s certainly a valid point of view to have.” Mabel started, Christen feeling like she was about to get a whole lot of truth dropped on her. “But it’s not about what’s the right answer. It’s about what feels right at the time. Honey, from the moment we come into this world we know what’s right for us. No one knows why, but we just know. We know what food we like, what we like to listen to, like to learn, we know who we like. And when something feels wrong, we know that too.”

Christen hated that Mabel was making a lot of sense.

“I know the decision to go to college or go pro is a lot larger scale than deciding whether you want cheerios or eggs for breakfast, but if it’s right, you can’t fight that inside. You can’t deny it. For Tommy, he felt like skipping college would be too soon. It would be something he would regret. He needed to, and wanted to learn more. He wanted the stability of college, and he wanted to hone his skill. It was right for him to do that.”

“Maybe I should call him up and get him to talk to Mal.” Christen grumbled, feeling Mabel chuckle lightly above her.

“If I can offer my opinion on the matter, and it is just my opinion, I think Mal’s situation is different to Tommy’s. She’s already playing at the highest level, and she knows she has that ability. She doesn’t have to wait to get to an equivalent of the bigs, she’s already there. Going to college, soccer wise, would be a step down, not up.”

Stubborn arms crossed. “Okay, well what about the fact that she’s going to be passing up a world class education?”

“College will always be there. She could go back anytime. Anyone could go to college at any time.”

Christen ignored the last part of what Mabel said, hearing the double meaning of it. Instead, she focused on the first part, and she actually harrumphed. “I bet she won’t.”

Mabel let the silence sit in the room and Christen had no choice but to reflect on that, and how they’d gotten a bit away from the point. She pinched the inside of her arm where they were crossed, feeling like she needed to get some of her frustration out. Mabel must have seen, because she took Christen’s hands in her own, squeezing them gently.

“Talk to me, sweetheart. I can see you’re upset.”

It seemed childish. Felt childish. But Mabel exuded such comfort it would have taken more than a superhuman effort to resist it. As soon as Christen’s brain even contemplated the idea that she wasn’t okay, the tears poured out of her eyes.

She turned on her side, pressing her face into Mabel’s thigh, her upper body shaking with each sob as the older woman’s hand rubbed calmly on her back, one hand still holding hers.

There were layers, years to Christen’s pain. So many things causing her upset, all in their own way connected to each other. She didn’t have the mental energy to even begin to try and sift through it all. But there was one thing her brain was refusing to let her forget.

“I was so awful to Mal.” Christen whispered through her tears. “I can’t believe I made her think it was her fault. The look on her face…”

“Shhh,” Mabel murmured, not wanting Christen to go down the blame path. She hushed her a while longer until she was calmer. “You’ve been hurting for a long time. I know what happened today was centered around Mal, but it’s also about you. And you, my honey, you can’t expect yourself to be all in on something like this when you haven’t let yourself heal. You’re trying to build Mal up on the fallen blocks of your dreams and that’s not fair on you. It won’t let you move on. And because of that, today it wasn’t fair on Mal, either. I think you both said some things that really hurt each other.”

Christen nodded, tasting the salt of her tears. 

“Your hurt is not an excuse for how you interacted with your sister. But it’s the reason. And it’s not going to get any better unless you allow yourself to heal. You’ve had to be so strong, child, but you don’t need to brush your feelings aside anymore. That’s something you should try your hardest not to do. Do you hear me?”

She did hear her. Deep down she knew it was true. But it was all a bit too much to engage with that right now.

It was a lot easier to press her face more into Mabel’s leg, to let the woman’s comfort wash over her and wrap around her like a protective cloak. To breathe in her comforting words like they were the air in her lungs, the soft tone being the only thing to guide her through the rest of the day.

The words coaxed her into eating whatever small bites of dinner she could stomach. Into drinking enough water to counteract the dehydration setting in from her tears. Into taking a call from Tobin when she stared at her ringing phone for so long it almost went to voicemail.

“Hi.”

“Hi, Chris. You’re with Mabel?”

“Yeah. Mal, is she – ”

“She’s okay. She’s sleeping, out for the night I think. I’m just sitting in bed with her now.”

“Oh. Tobin, I’m so sorry – ”

“I know, it’s okay. We can talk about it later.”

“Yeah. Tobs, is it okay if I…I might stay here tonight.”

“I think that’ll be good for you, Chris. We’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Mal’s going to have a nightmare tonight.”

“I know. It’s okay, I’ll be right here with her.”

“Will you call if she does?”

“Chris…you and her need some space. When Mal’s upset you push your own feelings aside. I don’t think that’s good right now.”

“But her nightmares…they’re so upsetting for her.”

“I know. But I’ve been here for a lot of them, now. She knows she’s safe with me. I promise I’ll look after her. Do you trust me to do that?"  

“I trust you with everything.”

“If I can’t calm her down, I swear I will call you. But she’ll be alright, Chris. So will you be. Just need some time, okay?”

“Yeah. I love you so much. You’re too good to me, Tobin.”

“Stop that. You deserve the world, and all the love in it. I love you more than anything, and so does Mal. And she knows you love her, too. She couldn’t ever forget it.”

 Into laying down in bed and attempting to shut her mind off and sleep.

“I don’t want you to get up early tomorrow, honey bee, okay? You’re so tired, you need to sleep as much as you can.”

She watched Mabel walk around the spare room and shut the curtains, coming back to stand by the bed she lay in. Christen looked up at her, the blankets pulled almost right under her chin. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt this small.

Both vulnerable and protected at the same time.

(Mabel told her that’s what listening to her feelings would do).

The older woman sat on the side of the bed, taking Christen’s hand when it reached out to be held. Christen felt the gentle strokes on the back of her palm lulling her exhausted body closer to the sleep it desperately needed in the dimly lit room. 

She squeezed Mabel’s hand, meeting the woman’s brown eyes. “Thank you for telling me about your boys. I’m sorry you went through so much hurt. But I’m so happy Jake lead you to Tommy. I’m thankful you have each other. And I can’t wait to meet him.”

Mabel leaned down, leaving the softest of kisses against her forehead as she whispered her gratitude back to the younger woman. She pulled away slightly, just enough for Christen to see her smiling eyes, and Christen couldn’t help the overwhelming urge to hug her close.

“I really miss my parents.” She whispered into Mabel’s shoulder, hearing the older woman’s comforting hum of knowing in response, her arms holding her closer.

“You are so loved, my honey.” Mabel murmured, Christen’s eyes squeezing shut because she was sure she couldn’t possibly cry any more today and yet. “I am in awe of you. I promise even though things are hard right now, it will be okay.”

“Thank you.” Christen hugged Mabel’s hand she held to her cheek, staring back up at her. She felt the vulnerability of the moment like it was pulling her wide open but she still couldn’t stop herself from asking. “Will you stay until I fall asleep?”

She closed her eyes to Mabel’s soft smile. “I’ll be here. Always.”

-

“…Say nighty night and kiss me. Just hold me tight and tell me you miss me.”

Christen stretched out her tired, growing body in her bed, opening her eyes to look at the glow in the dark stars that were splattered across her ceiling, still somehow holding up despite having been there for over ten years.

“While I’m alone and blue as can be, dream a little dream of me.”

A smile crossed her face at the voices she could hear coming from the kitchen, laughter sprinkled in the midst of the scraping of a bowl, the crackle of butter in a frying pan. The melodies of trumpets had her sitting up, like they were calling her out to join them.

“Stars fading, but I linger on dear.”

She stretched her arms up as she pulled herself out of her single bed, rubbing at her eyes and making her way down the hall to the opening of the kitchen. Leaning against the door entryway, she rested her head against the wall gently, a smitten smile on her face.

“Still craving your kiss.” Her mother sang gently to Mallory in her arms as they stood swaying in the middle of the kitchen, the four year old giggling in delight as she pressed kisses all over her cheeks. “I’m longing, to linger ‘till dawn, dear.”

“Just saying this.” Their father sang rather outrageously from where he was flipping pancakes at the stove, a little butt shake to seal the deal that got even more giggles from Mal, and a very 14-year-old groan from Christen.  

“Chrissy’s awake!” Mal whipped her head around to the door when she heard that, holding out her arms excitedly. Christen walked towards them, pulling her into a hug with their mother who continued to rock them all side to side gently in time with the song on the radio. “Hi, Chrissy.”

“Hi, baby.” Christen gave Mal a kiss, feeling her mother plant one on the side of her head.

“You feeling okay? This is the longest you’ve slept in for a while.”

Christen nodded at her mother, closing her eyes again at the gentle ministrations of her hand carding through her hair as they all still stood in the hug in the middle of the kitchen.  

“Mommy, Chrissy has to sleep a lot because she scored a hatch-ick in her game yesterday!” Mal exclaimed like it was so obvious why Christen was the last to rise. She had the proudest shining eyes when she talked about her soccer. Christen felt her heart clench.

Suddenly, another set of arms wrapped around Christen. “Oh, and wasn’t it the best hatch-ick we’ve ever seen!” Their father exclaimed, Christen laughing in his embrace and squeezing him tight when he kissed the back of her head. “Good morning, baby girl.”

They all stayed together a while longer, their mother’s humming to the song the most perfect and gentle way to be welcomed into the day. When their father went back to the stove to flip the last pancake onto the plate, Christen’s mouth watered, their mother ushering all of them to the kitchen table.

The trumpets of the song faded away only to be replaced by a slightly faster piano melody, Mal’s eyes lighting up.

“It’s Miss Areefa!”

Christen just sat at the table with a dumb smile on her face, hearing the music crooning through the space, watching as her Dad poured maple syrup onto Mal’s pancakes then immediately used the bottle as a pretend microphone, Mal laughing her head off and their mother’s eyes growing soft.

The love in the room felt so tangible and real it was like Christen could reach out and grab it. She wanted to hold it with her always; never forget how her heart grew till it could burst on mornings like these. How any day was the greatest day with her family, always something to celebrate. Always happiness to share.

She laughed around the pancake in her mouth as they ate, looking at Mal – who somehow already had syrup all over her face and hands – dancing in her seat with her arms stretched wide, undoubtedly copying what she’d seen their parents do before.

“My darling, believe me.”

“Believe me!” Their mother sang after Mal, the four year old’s eyes lighting up. Their father chuckled. Christen felt so lucky she could have cried.

“For me there is no oneeeee but youuuu!”

Maybe it was that she hadn’t slept in a single bed in a long time, or hadn’t got used to opening her eyes to a different room. Maybe it was waking up knowing her sister might be mad at her, or knowing she didn’t sleep properly because Mal might have been having nightmares. Maybe it was the comfort of being around Mabel, her ears picking up the sound of music flowing throughout the house and reminding her so overwhelmingly of her parents.

But when Christen woke the next morning, it was to something so familiar and longing it wasn’t even a full minute before she felt her eyes glisten. She sat on the edge of the bed, hugging the pillow she’d slept on close as she listened to the song that had floated down the hall, through the wedge in the door that had stayed open.

“…Oh, baby what you’ve done to me, done to me.”

She smiled at the slightest sound of Mabel’s voice singing along, eyes pricking with how visceral the memories with her parents felt. She was glad they were so strong inside her. That they hadn’t faded away to something she could barely remember.

But sometimes remembering something so clearly made it all the more harder for it to be gone.

“And I, I just wanna be, wanna be.”

She waited out the song in the room she sat in, hearing the powerful voice and looking at the patterns on the rug beneath her feet, the sun kissed wooden walls and the brass of the door knob with an intricate design carved in.

Her body felt heavy; unwilling, it seemed, to let go of the emotions of the day before. It was the kind of weight that could sink her under the covers all day, hide her from the world. Despite all that, her feet pushed up from the floor so she was standing, at least, her mind trying to persuade them to start walking.

She padded down the hall when the voice of Aretha Franklin faded out only to be replaced by a melody of strings, another song that featured heavily throughout her childhood house.

The sting in her eyes grew stronger. Even more so when she saw Mabel in the kitchen, standing over biscuits that smelt so freshly made they must have been pulled straight from the oven.

“Here she is.” Mabel smiled over at her when she noticed her standing there, beckoning her into the space. Gently, almost, like she knew the state she was in. “Good morning, honey.”

“I see trees of green.”

All Christen could manage was a hummed greeting, knowing if she tried to speak it would rip open the floodgates of tears.

(And she thought she’d cried herself out yesterday).

Mabel’s arms wrapped around her and Christen had to bury her face in her shoulder when she felt the older woman sway her gently to the music.

“Red roses, too.”

“Did you sleep okay?”

She nodded, hugging Mabel tighter.

“I see them bloom.”

“Are you hungry?”

Another nod.

“For me and you.”

Christen let Mabel guide her into a seat at the bench in the kitchen, feeling soft and pliable from the morning sun streaming through the windows, the sleep that was still resting heavy in her bones. It clouded her mind – peaceful in a way, but confusingly hard to wade through if her thoughts got a little too much.

A stray piece of hair was tucked behind her ear as Mabel put a couple of biscuits onto a plate, butter on the side, moving it in front of Christen so the scent wafted right to her nose.

It smelt delicious.

The heaviness in her mind was quickly overwhelming.

Her Dad would have loved to bake these.

Her Mom would have been alight with joy in the room.

Mabel pressed a kiss to the top of her head and saw the tears coming before they’d even fallen.

“Oh, my honey.”

Christen’s face buried into the soft fabric of the sweater Mabel wore, her head cradled against Mabel’s chest by her hand. Mabel stood as close as she could to the stool where Christen was sat, holding her against her with comforting hums, words, hands in her hair, gentle sways.

Sleep still clogged Christen’s mind so heavily it crashed with the emotions barging their way through like an angry ocean, pulling and tugging her against her will. She gripped the side of Mabel’s sweater in her fist, clinging on to it like it was the only thing tethering her to the moment.

“I’m here.”

Mabel cradled her and she hadn’t been held like that since her parents died. Hadn’t been loved like that, like someone’s daughter, since her parents died. Hadn’t allowed herself to feel like that since her parents died.

When her tears subsided, it was almost like she’d woken up again. Heavy, still. Worried about Mal, about Tobin. About the future. But also, lighter than before. Somewhere, a glimmer of hope.

“There you go. Hm?” Mabel smiled down at her as she wiped the tears from her face. Christen held the hands that cupped her cheeks, nodding with a grateful smile as she stared at Mabel’s kind eyes, seeing the sparkling in them.

She’d never said it to her before. But now felt better than the best of times to do it.

“I love you, Ma.”

A smile so full of complete joy bloomed on Mabel’s face as she took in the words. It was the same feeling Christen had in her heart. The light in Mabel’s eyes grew brighter, a knowing look of such utter fondness as she kissed Christen’s temple, cradling her head again in a hug and humming softly.

“I love you too, baby.”

Christen closed her eyes, trying to focus on the feeling of safety and content she got from being in Mabel’s hug rather than the turmoil she knew would resurface when she went back to the apartment.

Because that wasn’t right now. Right now, she was burrowed in Mabel’s embrace. The one thing she could cling to when everything else felt insurmountable. The feelings she thought were gone forever with her parents.

Mabel held her and it was like she felt a protective layer form over the grief in her heart. Progress was slow. Healing was hard. Yet, a glimmer of hope existed. The love was there. For her, and from her. If, if she could remember that in the toughest moments, she would be okay.

“I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

----------

Christen must have opened Tobin’s apartment door dozens of times by now and yet, she’d never noticed the little streaked etchings in the wood. Her forehead rest against it, one hand on top of the handle, still as a statue but for the rise and fall of her breaths.

She wondered how long it would take to count them all. It seemed like a much more desirable option than pushing through the door.

It was nearing the middle of the day. Mable had headed to Roseway and Christen back to the apartment, heavy legged and mind still swirling. She’d convinced herself of a plan halfway there that she had a feeling wouldn’t go down well. But it wasn’t like anything she’d done the day before had, either.

Her heart almost leapt out of her throat when the door handle pulled itself down seemingly on its own. A jolt ran through her spine, the apartment door opening to reveal big brown eyes.

Mal.

So much to say to her and no idea where to begin. So much to explain to her and so much Christen had to deal with. So much pain tying it all in a bow.

“I heard you get here but you never came in. I saw you.” Mal said, pointing haphazardly at the glass hole near the top of the door. “I waited, but then it was like…5 minutes.”

Christen was surprised she managed to wait that long. Everything about Mal’s posture screamed she was holding herself back from rushing into her arms. A shudder like feeling ran down her back, highlighting the discomfort of the moment.

This wasn’t how things were between them. They didn’t do this, step around each other carefully and quietly. Unsure.

Being around Mal was so natural to Christen that she almost thought of her little sister as an extension of herself. The two moved with such ease and comfort, always touching, always close. Never even thinking, every movement fluid.

Now, there was a gap, and one of them was going to have to bridge it. Christen, still standing by the door, could feel Mal’s reliance on her for that moment. Like always. The way her body both leaned towards her and pulled itself back. The way her eyes shone nervously. Everything Christen never wanted her to feel around her.

“Hi, Chris.” Tobin appeared behind Mal, one hand on the girl’s shoulder, a gentle smile on her face. Christen’s heart immediately beat easier. “You coming in?”

Tobin’s presence, like always, was a guiding force of reassurance in the room. She held her other hand out, Christen staring at it and seeing the ring on her finger, reflecting off the light. Her hand twitched, without thinking coming up to join their fingers together, feeling the squeeze in comfort.

Christen stepped forward, her other hand cupping under Mal’s chin with lips pressed gently against her forehead. “I love you so much.” She felt Mal practically melt under her in relief and familiarity, hearing the words back. She didn’t wrap her arms around her, not yet. That was an instant recipe for Mal’s tears and she just couldn’t…didn’t have the strength to open all that out right now.

There were two plates of half eaten lunch on the table, but she shook her head when Tobin asked her if she was hungry. She stood there, in the middle of the room, feeling everything and yet nothing identifiable. Tobin’s hand was tethering her to the ground and Mal was so close to her and she could feel her looking at her and yet how were they so far apart? How could she pass up college?

“Finish your food, Mal.” The youngest woman was in her seat in an instant at Christen’s words, clearly desperate to keep the peace and avoid another disagreement.

Christen hated it.

She felt so out of body.

Suddenly she just had to be anywhere but that room, mumbling out something about getting changed as her hand slipped from Tobin’s.  

She did get changed. But she also pulled her duffel out of the wardrobe, holding it limply in her hands, lost in thought. That was how Tobin found her a minute later, Christen meeting her eyes and immediately speaking. “I’m not running out on you.”

“I know.” Tobin said softly, standing a few feet from her. “I never thought you would be.”

Her heart ached at the kindness and compassion. At the never judging, always assuming the best of people character. Tobin was showing her every quality she did not impart on her yesterday when she was short with her about helping Mal. It was enough to make her sick with guilt at the best of times, but right now it was just one of many negative emotions flooding through her.

Tobin seemed to recognize that, too.

“What do you need from me, Chris? What can I do to help?”

She was too good for her. Too good for the world. The bag dropped onto the bed from Christen’s hands and she pulled Tobin into a hug, both of them burying their faces into each other’s shoulders. Minutes passed, neither moving and neither wanting to.

“I love you, Tobin. So much. And I’m sorry. I am so sorry.” Christen squeezed Tobin’s hip softly when she felt her start to say she didn’t need to be, just like she knew she would. “I am. You deserve this apology and so much more. I was awful to you yesterday and all you did was try to help. I hated seeing the look in your eyes and I never want to do that to you again.”

Soft lips pressed against her own, as if they breathed life into her lungs. She clung to Tobin’s hoodie, holding her lips against hers longer.

“Thank you for saying that. I’m sorry, too, for keeping it from you. I wanted to tell you, I swear. But Mal was so conflicted, and so worried. I couldn’t break her trust, you know?”

Christen’s head shook emphatically, the words hurriedly falling out of her mouth. “I know. It was so unfair of me to hold that against you. I’m so relieved Mal confides in you and that you were there for her because I’m clearly too fucked up to help her.” Deep lines crevassed Tobin’s forehead, then, the downturn of her lips showing her response. A dark, resigned laugh left Christen’s mouth. “I am fucked up. I am. You can’t see what you saw yesterday and disagree.”

“I absolutely disagree.” Tobin said intensely, sitting them both down on the bed and gripping Christen’s hands in her own. “You are not fucked up. You are just human, and you’ve gone through so much hurt. There is nothing unexpected about you having a hard time dealing with things. No one could go through what you did and not be affected. It pains me to hear you put yourself down, Chris. I can’t stand it.”

Their foreheads touched, then, Christen leaning into hers in an apology of sorts. There was silence, before she spoke. “I know. I’m sorry. I never want to hurt you but I feel like I always do.”

Tobin had a sad, soft smile on her face. She shook her head, holding Christen’s cheeks in her palms. The most gentle of kisses pressed against her lips. “My love, you bring me so much joy. Right now I’m hurting with you. I’m not hurt by you. Seeing you in agony about this is so much harder than I imagined it would be. I know I’ll never know what it feels like. But I know how passionate you were about it. I remember.” 

If Christen thought she was fit, she’d clearly never tried running whilst in the middle of a full-on belly laugh.

“It’s Press, she has it on the right.” Tobin ran beside her, a loud, outrageous commentator’s voice on as Christen dribbled through the cones, coming up to a metal dummy in the ground. “She’s absolutely gone and skinned the defender who’ll be crying home to her Mommy about that one.”

“Tobin!” Christen laughed some more, almost losing her footing on the dribble from the hilarity of the fake commentating.

“It’s extra time, Stanford needing one to clench the victory to get the chance to take on the undefeated, unstoppable, immovable University of North Carolina in the NCAA finals – hey!”

Christen wore a triumphant grin as she collected the ball from where it had bounced off of Tobin’s back after her kick, shutting the other 15 year old up about her supposedly superior future college.

“Press is mighty lucky she hasn’t found herself with a red card for that one.” Tobin’s cheeky voice was back, completely unperturbed by the knock as she caught back up with a speeding Christen, all eyes focussed on the goal. “The superstar forward is on track for goal, surely no one can stop her now, she shines like the Californian sun.”

(Now Christen had to try and breathe while laughing and also feeling like her entire body was going to combust with how much her heart fluttered at Tobin’s words).

“It’s Press, she’s cut it inside, eyes on goal and…GOLAZO!”

The 15 year old collapsed onto the ground in delirious exhaustion, unable to keep standing and breathing while being amused by Tobin’s actions, the other girl running around in circles imitating fans in the non-existent crowd, cheering her name, cheering for Stanford.

“Press has done it! Broken all the Stanford records! Sent her team to the NCAA finals!” Tobin hollered, running and sliding down on the grass next to her, seemingly never out of energy. “It’s a shame they’ll lose to UNC, but I’m sure they’ll just be happy to be there.”

“You wish!” Christen batted away Tobin’s teasing pokes, the other girl unrelenting until they were both in a tickle war, Tobin practically sitting on Christen’s stomach at the end of it to claim victory.

“Though I guess it’s a good thing they don’t decide the finals by tickle fights, because you’d lose that, too.”

Christen’s eyes shone with amused competitiveness. “You’re such an ass, Tobin Heath. I can’t wait to wipe that smirk off your face when we beat you.”

“So you keep saying. And, well.” Tobin plopped down on the ground next to where Christen lay, sitting close enough that their sides were fully touching. Christen hoped her fast breathing could be disguised from all her running before. “I’ll have an entire season to win before you get there."

The younger girl raised her eyebrows. “So you do think we’ll beat you.”

“I never said that.”

“Not in so many words. But it’s okay, I know how you really feel.” Christen, in her burst of confidence went for a wink, though she instead felt both eyes close in more of a blink. Her cheeks tinged red, even more when she saw the smile on Tobin’s face. “Shut up.”

Tobin’s hands flew up, innocent. “You should hope knowing how to wink isn’t on the acceptance requirements.”

“I actually can’t stand you.” Christen got up and pushed Tobin over playfully, turning away to jog back to the changing rooms to hide her growing grin and blush. She heard Tobin’s laughter all the way behind her.

“Whatever you want to tell yourself, Stanford!”

Christen had completely melted into Tobin’s embrace. She remembered it all, too. Actively, if the pain in her heart was anything to go by. It was deeper than she’d ever realized.

She kissed their joined hands, letting the silence sit before whispering something Tobin had probably already figured out. “I’m going back to LA.”

“Okay.” Tobin said, not giving anything away. Christen felt the thud of her own heartbeat. “You’re going for a break?” Silence sat in the room. “You’re going to work?”

“If I said yes, would you be mad?”

A hand slid through her hair, then, comfortingly threading through her locks, helping to release tension she didn’t know she’d built up so high. Tobin waited until Christen’s shoulders came down from around her ears, maintaining her ministrations. “I’ll be sad if you were going because you felt like you had to. I’ll miss you every second. I’ll be worried about not being there to help you. But I’ll never be mad at you for it.”

Shoulders relaxed entirely, Christen leaning into the warm touch. “I just…I don’t want you to brush your feelings aside if you don’t want me to go. If I’m hurting you. I know it’ll hurt Mal.” She sighed at the end of it, her fingers twitching again before Tobin joined her hand with them.

“Why is it that it’s okay for your feelings to be put out, but no one else’s?” Tobin’s question was rhetoric, which was good, because Christen had no answer for her. “You sacrifice your own happiness without question, but it’s not sustainable, my love. It becomes too much, like now.”

It felt like too much. Always too much.

“Mal, you know, she’s so young, still. She’s learning how to process and this is not something she can process overnight. This is the first major disagreement you two have had. She’s not used to it, everything feels off kilter, and I know your instincts are to push everything else aside until she’s okay.” A gentle hand cupped her chin, lifting their eyes to meet. Tobin’s words were important. “But Mal needs to learn this. She needs to be okay with making a decision and backing herself. She needs to see that sometimes you will disagree, because she needs to see you are your own person. As much as you are hers and she is yours, you are yourself, first.”

Christen nodded, swallowing around her dry throat. She clung to Tobin’s hands, letting her words sink in.

“I can see how hard this is for you. To communicate when you want to shut down. To have even come back this early, knowing what you had to face. I am here for you, and I support you no matter what. Whether you stay in LA, or whether you move up here. All I ask is that you don’t shut me out. Don’t leave me behind. And please don’t struggle on your own.”

Honey eyes glistened, Christen feeling like Tobin was showing her wide open heart from how much she so obviously cared about her and god it was overwhelming and indescribable to have that kind of love shown to her. To realize, though Tobin showed her time and time again, that she wasn’t on her own. She never would be.

“You’ll always be with me. I’m not losing you again.” Christen cupped Tobin’s cheek, tracing across her jaw. “Thank you, for showing me the compassion I don’t show myself. I love you, so much.”

Tobin pulled her into her chest, cradling her head in the soft way that Mabel had done that morning. “In time you’ll see all the beautiful things I see in you every second of the day. You’ll see how strong and fearless and determined you are. How resilient and breath taking and kind. I love you, more than anything. And I promise I always will.”

---

In Portland she’d been itching to get out. So sure anywhere but there would feel better.

Now in LA, she didn’t know what she’d been thinking.

Alone in the bed in the Manhattan Beach house, she rolled over for what felt like the hundredth time, reaching her arms out and not managing to touch either edge. It was so unnatural for her to be alone in this situation, so used to being wrapped up in one of Tobin or Mal, if not both.

The point of leaving Portland was to have the chance to be away from an environment that felt like it was swallowing her whole. Now, alone and in silence, her thoughts threatened to do the same.

Mal’s face when she saw the duffel bag Christen was holding was worse than she could have braced for. The expression, the way the tears immediately overcame her, it made Christen’s stomach drop.

“It’s not forever. I am coming back, I swear to you. You know I would never leave you.” Christen had crouched by her seat, gripping her hand, almost desperate to get that across. “Mallory, tell me you know that.”

She couldn’t stop seeing Mal’s eyes every time she closed hers.

Couldn’t stop picturing the way Tobin’s kind, sad eyes watched her leave, one hand on Mal’s shoulder.

Her pillow was damp with her tears.

Los Angeles was her home. Why did being here feel so wrong?

One thing sure to make everything worse was going back to the Diner, but she was apparently both a dumbass and a glutton for punishment because she dragged herself there the next day on barely any sleep, barely making it through her shift.

Don’t shut me out, don’t leave me behind.

She had to talk to Tobin.

But she couldn’t let her see her in this state. Couldn’t FaceTime here. Couldn’t even call.

 

Christen Press 7:41pm

I’m okay. Miss you and love you both more than I can say. Just finished dinner. Forgotten what it feels like to work all day and I’m about to crash now and sleep all night.

 

She fucking wished.

Arriving at work the next morning on no sleep, starting at the early hour of 5am, she knew it was going to be a bad day before her shift even started when she saw her manager’s alarmed expression at the bags under her eyes and her general sleepless demeanor.

She splashed water on her face in the bathroom, barely able to look at herself in the mirror, knowing it would only exacerbate the question already yelling in her head of what am I doing here?

She was miserable and she knew it. She was all day. And yet –

“Yes, so the eggs any style requires for you to pick a style, sir.” Christen wanted to scream. She’d been here for over half her shift already, yet it felt like it had been an eternity. She felt the spirit literally drain out of her each second it took for the customer to make his mind up.

Like falling into the history of it all, Christen took a deep breath as she walked back to the kitchen to hand the order over. The mantra she always had in her head played like the most familiar song, her reason for being here, the only thing that had pulled her through this shitty job all these years.

Keep going for Mal. Push through for Mal. This is for her future. Keep –

If she had been holding a plate, she would have dropped it. She was stunned still, stopping mid step. Gears in her brain working in overdrive. Because for the first time in her life, the first time at this place, that mantra wasn’t true anymore.

The realization was a revelation.

Being at the Diner right now wasn’t doing any favors to Mal or her future. It wasn’t helping her, it wasn’t helping Tobin, it wasn’t helping herself. In fact, she being here and not with Mal was the least helpful thing she could have done.

She’d come back to the Diner because she’d been scared of the future. It wasn’t enjoyable to be here. She’d never once liked it. But she’d always needed it. It was something tangible in her life, somewhere she’d always been able to turn up at and know that if everything else in her life was in chaos, her being here would help them out because it would earn money, it would feed them, it would help Mal’s soccer.

None of that desperate need existed anymore.

“Christen?”

Her manager’s voice hollowed around in her head, but Christen was still wide eyed in her own epiphany she didn’t even respond.

She had struggled day in and out in the Diner, but it had always been for Mal. It had always been to be close to her, to be flexible for her. Now, there was no good reason for Christen to still be here. There were restaurants and cafes all across the country she could work at, all across Portland.

All close to the ones she loved.

You’ve had to be so strong, child, but you don’t need to brush your feelings aside anymore.

Mabel’s voice resounded in her head. She suddenly felt so free from the pull of the Diner she could have cried. She actually thought she laughed out loud.

“Christen?”

This time her manager’s voice did come through to her. She looked at his unimpressed face, still holding the order sheet in her hand, and did an extremely quick calculation. She’d worked almost her whole shift for that day, the Diner was not busy, there were enough other workers on and honestly? Fuck this place.

“Yes?”

“Are you going to keep standing there with the blank look on your face or do you actually want to do some work?” Her manager asked, clearly still bitter at her for staying a week extra in Portland when Mabel had called. Or he was just bitter in general. Christen didn’t care.

She was done.

“I don’t, actually.” She said, handing the order over to the kitchen before turning back to her manager, seeing the look on his face. “I don’t think I actually want to be here ever again.”

“What?” He spluttered, watching Christen untie her apron.

“I’m sorry that this is spontaneous. But I figure I’ve worked enough overtime in my 10 years here that you owe me this solid, at least.” She put the apron down on the counter, feeling like she had the strength of everyone who loved her around her, despite none of them being physically there. If Mal and Tobin could see her now, she knew they’d be losing their minds. “I quit.”

“You quit?”

“Yes.” Christen said, as if out loud to him and herself, nodding with her decision. “I quit.”

Her manager’s mouth fell comically open. She didn’t stick around to wait to hear whatever solution he would try and come up with to make her stay. There was nothing that could keep her around here, anymore. Nothing that could guilt her into staying. Because she knew where she needed to be. It finally all made sense.

She just had to make one more stop before she went.

---

“This is harder, without Mal.”

Christen pulled her legs in closer where they were folded up, hugging them to her chest. She felt the grass beneath her, felt the sun against the back of the neck.

“A lot, actually.”

It was quiet. The bold adrenaline she had had a while ago when she walked out of the Diner for good had settled, barely clinging on in an environment where it had never existed. Where she had typically only felt one thing.

Grief.

“I guess I wouldn’t have come here without her, though. Wouldn’t even be talking to you.” She looked up, then, fingers reaching out to trace her parents’ names. “But I figured the whole saying stuff thing worked, last time. And I promised I’d try, for Mal. For myself. Try to be better.”

Her hand gently held the top of the headstone, thumb brushing over it. For all that she’d been through recently, for all that she’d let out in the last while, it all felt like it had come together for this moment. This time that she had needed, so badly, to come and talk to her parents. To be alone with them. To start to let out what had been building up in her for so long. To feel like their baby girl, again.

“I miss you both. More than anything in the world. Every single day.” Her vision clouded, then, watery. Not a sob, not yet. But the inevitable tears that came with being there.

“And I hope that you know that. I know you’re still with us. I feel you, I swear I do. I would have never made it this far without you.”

The LA sun shined down, warming her face as she looked up, trying to force the tears back into her eyes and give her some reprieve. It worked, for only a moment.

“I’m going to leave LA. I’ll be back, all the time. But for the first time in my life, I’m going to be mostly living somewhere that isn’t here. And, I don’t know how I feel about it.” She breathed out, collecting her thoughts. “I have so many terrible memories here. Pockets of the city I can’t bear to go to. The foster homes, that hospital, the parks. It makes me want to leave forever.”

The wind rustled, gently. Legs hugged tighter to her chest.

“But then I think about leaving LA. And I can’t help but feel like I’m leaving you behind.” A crack in her voice. “This is my home. This was our home. With our beaches, and our spots. The streets you taught me to ride a bike, the fields you practiced soccer with me. I can’t hate LA because of that. I love LA because of that.”

Her chin dug into her knees. She could feel her chest start to heavy. Could feel the sense of being overwhelmed start to fill her. Felt the pain, the loss, always the heartache of thinking of them. A sob fell from her mouth.

“I hope I make you proud.” Her hand left the gravestone, coming back to hug her legs as her other hand cradled her face, burying against it for protection. Tears fell from her eyes, her cries out loud filling the otherwise silent area, only the gentle sway of the grass beneath her for company.

But she felt them there. She did. It made her cry harder to think about it, knowing how they would be holding her. Knowing how they would be soothing her with their loving words. How they were proud of her, so proud. How they had seen what she had done. They would tell her there was no way they couldn’t be.

“I tried my best.” She told them, knowing they would nod. “I tried so hard, all the time.” Her mother used to hum gently when she was crying, her father liked to use reassuring words. Everything she did with Mal, all rolled into one.

“I did everything I could to protect Mal. I gave everything to her, I was anything she needed me to be. Always there for her. Just like you were for us. You were the most incredible parents, and I had you for so long. Mal didn’t. And I had to be there, for her.”

Christen lifted her head out of her hands, then, one finger reaching back out, resting against their names. She smiled, soft and sad, grief overflowing her. Her throat ached with the strain of her tears. But she knew her parents would hear, even with her whisper.

“It’s been so hard. And I’m so tired.” She traced her mother’s name, seeing her in her head, seeing the way she would hold her face in her hands, look into her eyes and know she was being heard.

“And I’m scared I didn’t do good enough.”

They would shake their heads, tell her that wasn’t possible. 

“I see how scared Mal gets about things, sometimes. I see how easily I could hurt her.” She thought about how her words, or lack of them, cut Mal up when they disagreed over college. “I’m trying to help her but I don’t always know how.”

You’re not supposed to have all the answers, baby girl, they would soothe.

“And when I think about Mal’s life ahead, I get paralyzed by the thought that she might not have even been through her hardest years yet.” Christen’s tears fell freely off her face, right into the grass below. “I feel like I’ve given so much, how could I possibly face what else could come? Help her through that? How could I give more of myself?”

Like her parents knew, they waited in the silence. Waited for her to come to the answer herself. Like they could see she had arrived there, knowing her path forward.

“I don’t think I can live like that, anymore. Being scared about the future, and feeling like I’m alone in figuring it out. Being safe, and putting myself in a miserable situation so I know we won’t go hungry. Feeling like Mal has to go to college because what if something happens? I need her to be okay. But I see how my fear could push her away. And I can’t do that to her. I can’t push anyone away, anymore. Because Mal and I, we have the most amazing people around us, now. People who would do anything for us. People who love us. People who I can trust, if I let them. If I accept their help.”

Proud. She knew her parents were. She felt it.

“And I think you want this for me, too. To go to Portland. Be able to be at Roseway. Be with Tobin and Mal and Mabel. And the kids. Because it’s something I love. Something I really want. And I think it’s okay, to want that. That I can live a life I can thrive in. That I can be proud of.”

The smile on her face felt stronger. She wiped at her eyes, feeling the wind rustle around her, like it was her parents themselves. Surrounding her, cloaking her. Loving her.

“I wish I could hug you again.” Her chin rest back on her knees. “I used to be so scared I was forgetting what it felt like. That I was forgetting so much about you. And then I met Mabel, and I remembered it all. Right when I needed to. When I needed her the most.” Her eyes grew soft at the thought of the woman, remembering what she’d said about believing Jake led her to Tommy. In that moment, there was nothing that could convince her it wasn’t her parents leading her to Mabel that day.

“Thank you for showing me to her.” She sat even closer to the gravestone. “She’s the most incredible woman. She reminds me so much of both of you. She understands me, and she’s patient and kind, but she’s so strong. She doesn’t mess around. Just like you, Mama.” Christen laughed a bit. “And she loves to cook and sing and laugh. She makes everything fun, just like you, Dad. I feel like a kid again with her. I feel like a daughter. She’s looking after me, after all of us. And I know that’s what you want. I wish you could have met her.” She smiled at a thought. Beamed, actually. “But maybe you’ve met Jake. And you can tell him that we’re looking after his Ma, too.”

She wiped her eyes, though it was fruitless to counter the tears at that point. She didn’t even mind. A weight so great, so freeing, had been lifted from her chest. She was bursting with sad happiness, allowing herself to feel every mixed emotion that came from talking with her parents. Talking about her feelings. Being okay with not being okay.

And then –

“And there’s Tobin, and I…I can’t explain how much I love her. I am so in love with her I feel like a fool. She makes my heart beat crazy every single time I see her. She makes the most mundane things feel fun. She’s the love of my life.” Christen’s tears hit her stupid smile, squeezing her eyes shut at the thought of her. “And the greatest part is, you already knew about her. And without meeting her, I could tell you loved her, too.”

It was Christen’s first time coming through the arrivals gate at an airport. The 15 year old, just touched down in LAX, fresh from her first two week u-17 camp, had never been so excited. Never had more energy. Never been more bursting at the seams to see her family, to tell them everything.

She had never been at the arrivals gate before, but she was sure no other time would top this one. When she rounded the corner she saw them instantly. It was impossible to miss.

Their father stood tall and strong, a five year old Mallory on his shoulders holding up a sign with CHRISSY on it, bright green and sparkling and making her heart swell up in happiness. Their mother stood beside them, holding one of Mal’s legs gently which was needed, because as soon as the kid spotted her older sister, she practically threw herself off their father’s shoulders to get down to her.  

“Baby!” Christen heard her mother say through her laughter, grabbing from Mal’s leg to her stomach, keeping her upright on their father’s shoulders until he could reach up to set her on the ground. She laughed at the scene, seeing her parents doing the same, all three of them knowing they really couldn’t have expected much else when it came to Mal seeing her hero.

As soon as their father had placed Mal’s feet firmly on the ground the kid was off like a rocket, Christen abandoning her cart with her bags on it in favour of kneeling on the floor, arms open wide.

“Chrissy!” Mal called just as she ploughed into her, almost knocking her over onto the ground.

“Oh my gosh,” Christen exclaimed, eyes squeezing shut in happiness at the feeling of being back with Mal, not realizing just how much she’d missed her, “I missed your hugs so much, Mal.”

“I missed you so much.” Mal squeezed her harder, pulling back to beam at Christen, giggling in delight at the flurry of kisses planted on her face.

Christen put her hands on either of Mal’s shoulders, squeezing them with an excited grin on her face. “Look at you, Mal! You grew up so much while I was gone. You’re such a big five year old, now!”

“I am, Chrissy!” Mal bounced in place, jumping onto her older sister when she stood up and snuggling into the embrace, content as ever. Christen beamed over at her parents who had almost gotten to her, reaching out the one arm not holding Mal and pulling them in.

Kisses pressed against the side of her head, arms wrapped around her tight. Words of love, of missing, of being proud all flowed through her. She’d just had the best two weeks of her life, but she didn’t think anything matched up to the feeling of being back with her family.

Only one thing could get close.

“Tell us all about it, baby girl.” Her mother said from the front seat of the car as she gave Christen a knowing look through the mirror, seeing the smile that hadn’t come off her face since she’d landed. She knew what being smitten looked like.

“Chrissy did you fly in the sky?”

“I did, Mal.” Christen took Mal’s hand as it reached out from the car seat beside her, squeezing it excitedly. “I flew really high and saw all the houses and the cars and they looked tiny. Like little cars for ants.”

Mal laughed at the thought, craning her neck to see out the window in an attempt to spot more planes.

“It was so amazing.” Christen gushed to her parents. “The soccer was so competitive but so fun. I feel like I learnt so much.”

“And was everyone nice?”

Christen nodded to her father. “They were so nice. The coaches, the staff, the hotel workers.”

“And the girls on the team?”

A blush painted Christen’s cheeks, having definitely picked up on her mother’s tone, now. She nodded, thinking of her person. Her smile, her eyes, her soft hair and her laugh. Her encouragement and wild, big dreams. Her kind heart. “They were awesome. Super talented and super nice.” She didn’t have to look back in the mirror to see her mother’s smile was still on her. “There was this girl, Tobin. She’s from New Jersey. We clicked like, so fast, and she’s like…the greatest person. You should see her play, her footwork is out of this world. We taught each other a lot. And we bonded so much, got so close. It was really hard to say goodbye. She’s like my best friend, now."  

The stupor talking about Tobin sent her in was yanked away when Christen felt a tug on her hand, Mal looking at her with an expression and a half.

“Chrissy, I’m your best friend!"  

Laughter broke out in the car, Christen leaning over in her seat and kissing Mal’s head, then her hand. “Oh, baby, I know you are. I’m sorry, I promise we’re still best friends. Tobin might be a best friend of mine but you, you’re like, the bestest. There’s no better friend for me than you, I promise.”

Mal beamed, it only falling slightly on their father’s gentle reminder of “Mallory, Christen is allowed to have other best friends.” She clearly disagreed, but Christen just found it heart clenching adorable. She knew when Tobin and Mal met – maybe if she got called to the next camp and they had a game? Maybe even at a u-17 world cup? Surely not at college, she couldn’t wait that long to introduce Tobin – that the two of them would get along like they’d known each other their whole lives. Tobin was just that kind of person.

“She sounds wonderful, baby girl.” Her father mused. “And a great name, too.”

Christen just blushed in agreement.

“She does.” Her mother continued to smile. “And it sounds like she has a good soul. That’s important, over and above anything else. Being a good person.”

“Be a good person!” Mal chimed in, waving Christen’s hand around that she was still holding. Christen smiled at her mother, nodding. Tobin had a good soul. She was the best person. And Christen was itching to get back to her, already.

Hoodie sleeves wiped at eyes, the material smelling so much like the apartment it swarmed Christen in a hug. “I’ve never told Tobin that. It would be so special for her, because she knows how incredible you were. You always saw the best in people, but you didn’t even need to meet Tobin to see she how good she was. She has the biggest heart. Without her this year, I can’t even imagine where we’d be. I never could have dreamed to be so lucky to meet her again. Let alone be loved by her.” Christen touched the ring on her finger. “But I’m sure you had a hand in that, too.”

The wind rustled again, Christen laughing loud with joy. There were more tears, but they were so thankful. So happy.

“I take you everywhere I go. Mal and I, we keep you right here.” She touched her heart. “I promise, even if we’re not living in LA, we have you. And we’ll be back. I know Mal loves it, and I’m getting better, I am. And we’ll bring Tobin and Mabel, so they can meet you, too. Officially.” She said with a little chuckle, shaking her head because of course her parents already knew them, inside and out.

Both her hands rested on the gravestone, then, as she closed her eyes, taking a deep breath in. I love you, she thought as loud as she could, seeing her parents smiling faces in her mind. We love you, baby girl. So, so much.

“Love you forever.” Christen whispered, thinking about her parents, thinking about Mal, thinking about what she needed, and wanted to do. What she was excited for, now. What she had so much clarity over.

“I’ll be back, sometime soon, I promise!” She said as she stood up, talking to her parents like an old friend, wearing an honest to god smile on her face – nothing but the polar opposite of the broken mess she usually was upon leaving the grave.

The wind rustled the leaves around her feet, brushing against her ankles in the direction of the exit, like it knew the path she needed to follow now, as well. Like it was just as excited for her.

She sat in the car, depleted from her tears. Exhausted from the emotional output. But somehow, never fuller than before. Never more at peace…apart from one last thing that would make everything perfect.

-

It was early evening when she arrived. Only two days since she’d left, but the change inside was tangible. Like she could hold her happiness. Her clarity.

Her fingers itched, reaching for her phone, especially after it lit up after her flight with a text she knew was from Mal.

 

Tobin Heath 5:08pm

love you forever chrissy  

 

It was worth waiting, just the short ride back to the apartment. The smile couldn’t be wiped from her face.

She dug out her key when she got there, lone bag on her shoulder, quietly as possible opening the door, barely noticing the wooden etches, now. She heard them, immediately upon entering, but couldn’t quite place what they were doing.

Couldn’t, until she heard Tobin holler.

“Final lap!”

Her absolute goofs.

Her hand had to come up to her mouth before they’d even come into view to stop her laughter giving her away, it working double time when she finally saw them. Mal and Tobin were standing in front of the television, Nintendo Switch controllers in their hands as they tried to best each other in the final lap of a Mario Kart race.

Leaning against the door entryway, she rested her head against the wall gently, a smitten smile on her face. A grin slowly took over as she watched the race come to a close, both of them neck and neck until Tobin’s experience edged Mal out at the end, finishing the race triumphant.

Mal groaned while Tobin let out a cheer, smug grin on her face as she jumped onto Mal’s back. Both of them – and Christen, quietly – burst out laughing as Mal stumbled in an effort to catch her.

The force of Mal’s movements turned Tobin around, her eye catching Christen by the entryway to the room before turning back in a triple, maybe quadruple take, exclaiming out loud in a mixture of shock and excitement, “What are you doing here?”

Mal turned around so fast she almost dropped Tobin off her back, her entire face swarming in overwhelmed joy at seeing Christen home many days earlier than intended. Christen’s heart felt like it couldn’t possibly grow any bigger, staring at her two favorite people, everything feeling right.

“Well, I was in LA,” Christen started, grinning when she saw Mal’s eyes instantly light up. It was the tone she used, the tone she knew Mal would recognize. The one that always brought good news, the one that would keep Mal bouncing up and down in place as a kid, begging Christen to stop purposefully dragging out the suspense and tell her whatever amazing thing she was going to.

“Chris…” Mal spoke with anticipated excitement, the beginnings of a hopeful beam just barely cracking through but not yet, not until she was sure.

“And I thought, I love it here. But there’s something missing, you know?”

Two near identical grins grew as the sisters looked at each other, Tobin’s expression just as hopeful as Mal’s.

“Chris…” Mal’s tone was ever more excited.

Christen’s index finger tapped the top of her nose, her body still leaning against the wall. “Maybe it was two people kicking me in their sleep every night, because even in their dreams they’re playing soccer.”

“I don’t kick in my sleep!” Two voices exclaimed simultaneously, Mal and Tobin looking the absolute picture of comedy with Tobin barely hanging onto Mal’s back, matching expressions of shock and joy still on their faces.

“And then I realized what I was missing.” Christen softened, always so soft, when she looked at them. When she felt in her every fibre of her being was so right. “It was my heart. I’d left it here, because that’s where you both are.”

Tobin’s expression just about melted. Mal’s eyes glistened. Christen’s throat tightened, tears already straining, but they weren’t sad like they had been. They wouldn’t weigh her down. They were freeing. Like a release. Like it had all finally clicked.

“I can’t survive without my heart. I can’t even be happy without it.” Christen said. “And I’m done with trying to. So, I quit the Diner. On the spot.”

Mal’s eyes couldn’t have possibly widened further. “You quit? Like, you quit, quit?”

“I quit, quit.” Christen beamed. “And I went to see Mom and Dad.”

Okay, she was wrong. Mal’s eyes could go wider. Her little sister almost dropped Tobin off her back from the way her body viscerally reacted to hearing that news, and Christen wasn’t surprised. Since they had died, Christen had never gone to their parents grave by herself. Mal had to basically drag her there at the best of times. So this, it was huge.

And everyone in the room could feel that.

“Mal, baby, I’m so sorry for what I said and did yesterday.” Christen needed to get all this out while she was still standing away from the both of them, needed to tell her this now even though she knew Mal knew that, even though she knew Mal knew she didn’t really think it. “You know I would never, never blame you. Nothing that happened was your fault. I was hurt about my own dreams, and I took it out on you, and I should never have done that. I swear I will do everything I can to never do it again.”

“It’s okay, Chrissy.” Mal was sincere and genuine. “I know. I’m sorry for what I said, too. And I’m sorry, so sorry, that you missed out.”

A breath of air flew into Christen’s lungs, and for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, the thought of Stanford didn’t stab at her heart. Didn’t make her eyes immediately well with tears, didn’t want to make her scream at the unfairness of the world.

It was the most welcomed feeling. It almost lifted her up in its spirit. It was healing.

“I know. But if I can’t win a college cup, the next best thing will be seeing you win a championship in your first professional season.”

A smile so wide near burst off Mal’s face when she heard that, the relief and joy and excitement flowing off her in waves, her knees almost buckling. “Really?”

“Really.” Christen smiled at her, before meeting Tobin’s eyes and seeing the softest, warmest look in them. Tobin’s face showed such pride, in her, in how far she’d come, in how she had handled it all. Christen knew she’d never gotten half as far without her. “There’s still so much we need to talk about, Mal. There’s offers I need to show you. And we have a lot to sort out. But I think we deserve a little break from it all, right now. A break together, right here.”

“You’re going to stay in Portland?” Tobin’s voice sounded out, hopeful, but treading carefully, making sure she understood what was happening.

“I need my heart.” Christen said simply, the smile still wide on her face. “And my heart is here.”

“We’re all going to stay together?” Mal asked, tears in her eyes.

“Together, baby love. Always.”

Laughter sprung into the room at the way Mal practically dumped Tobin off her back and onto the couch in a rush to get to Christen, Tobin jumping over it and meeting them all in the middle when they all pressed together into a hug, lips kissing the tops of heads, murmurs of love and comfort and closeness and Christen squeezed her eyes shut so hard she couldn’t believe she could be so lucky.

It was a mess of limbs, no way to tell where any of them began or ended. It was warm, the three of them wrapped around together. It was overflowing emotions and feelings, pouring out of Christen and right back in, tangible, filling the room. It was broken hearts healing together, stumbling along the way but coming back to what they knew they needed, coming back to love.

It was perfect, and it was home.

Christen was home.