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Gold Love

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“So, you’re from New Jersey?” 

“Sure am. And you’ve got to be a Cali girl with a voice like that.” 

Christen laughed, pulling her socks over her shin guards as she looked across to the Jersey girl who was smiling widely. 

Christen loved her smile already.

“What’s wrong with my voice?”

“No, no, there’s nothing wrong with it!” The Jersey girl quickly said, a faint blush coming onto her cheeks. “It’s really pretty actually - uh...I mean...I really like - I really, your voice is...nice.” 

The smile remained on Christen’s face even as she looked away, back to where she was tying her laces. She told herself it was to save the blushing girl from tripping over her words in embarrassment more. If she were being honest, she found it endearing.  

She knew a similar blush was rising to her own cheeks. 

“Well, thank you. You have a nice voice too. Do I get to know your name?” Christen stood up, holding out her hand for the Jersey girl to take as she pulled her to her feet.

“Tobin. Tobin Heath.” The wide smile on Tobin’s face was back. “And you?”

Christen stared dumbly at Tobin, wondering how she even managed to take in her name when her mind was in a spiral over how soft the girl’s hand was. At this point she was sure she was in a full body blush. Her brain eventually managed to convince her hand to get moving and she let go of Tobin’s hand, smiling softly at the girl. “Christen. Christen -“

A loud whistle reverberating through the changing rooms cut Christen off before she could get her last name out, and the national u-17 camp’s coach called out to all the girls, coming into the room to discuss how the camp would play out. 

As soon as the coach began talking soccer, Christen’s brain switched completely to that focus.

At least, that’s what she tried to tell herself, even when she caught herself stealing glances at Tobin next to her, who sat relaxed in her seat, arms crossed over her chest. When she did manage to maintain focus on the coach’s whiteboard diagrams, she swore she could feel Tobin’s eyes on her as well.  

For one fleeting glance, the two caught each other’s eyes at the same time and looked away quickly, a blush appearing on Christen’s cheeks and Tobin’s alike. 

If this was just the first hour, Christen knew she’d be coming away from this camp with long lasting memories of more than just soccer. 

The two weeks flew by, and Christen was proved correct, having gotten to know all of the girls at camp well. There were a lot of big group bonding activities, people moving in and out, loud voices chattering.

Throughout the time, Christen and Tobin found themselves naturally gravitating to each other.

Christen was overwhelmed when the group got too chaotic. Tobin never liked being the centre of attention. They would easily find each other in the quiet spaces, shoulders brushing as they sat next to each other, sometimes one of them being brave enough to lean slightly into the other.

For Christen, spending time with Tobin was as easy as breathing.

They would pair off to run drills together, gliding in and out of each other on the field like they had been doing it their whole lives. 

They talked, a lot, mostly about soccer, but also about their dreams. Getting a soccer scholarship to college, making it to the national team, winning Olympic gold, winning a World Cup. 

That kind of talk got them giddy. They were still far off, sure. Only 15 years old. Most people didn’t break into the national team until they were at least 21, and even then, you had to be the best of the best.

But they could feel it, they had a good thing going. There was electricity on the field when they played. They both had a high work ethic. They’d do anything to achieve their dream. 

It wasn’t a matter of ego. If anything, they underestimated their talents. They were always the last ones on the field after practices and scrimmages. They worked together harder and longer than anyone else.

Tobin would watch as Christen took 200 shots every day, half on her left and half on her right. She would sometimes play keeper for the last ones, trying to make Christen’s focus crack and get a smile out of her.

Christen would stare determinedly at the balls and the net, trying not to let her eyes wander to Tobin juggling the ball for 10 minutes straight. She would focus on the way the ball glided into the goal. She definitely would not focus on the way the sun shined off Tobin’s honey coloured hair, and the way her calf muscles showed prominently when the ball bounced off her feet, and the way a slither of her olive skinned waist would show when she stretched her arms up into the air.

Definitely not.  

Tobin taught Christen how to nutmeg someone, Christen taught Tobin how to cut away from a defender and send the ball into the top right of the net.

With the dedication they sensed from each other, they knew it wasn’t a matter of if they’d make the national team, but when. 

“So, I’ll see you here next camp?” 

Christen smiled down at her cleats as she unlaced them, thinking about Tobin’s question. They were in the changing room at the end of the fortnight, camp over, parting ways until who knew when.

“Are you suddenly in charge of who gets to come back and who doesn’t?” 

“If only. But Chris, they’d have to be blind not to call you back. The u-17 World Cup is next year. You’re a shoo in with those shots of yours.” 

“You too.” Christen couldn’t stop the blush from taking over her face, trying not to think about the fact that Tobin just called her Chris. “They’d be stupid not to pick you.” 

“Exactly!” Tobin’s wide grin appeared, and then she got a serious look on her face. “I’ll really miss you, Christen.”

“Yeah, Tobs. I’m really going to miss you, too.” Christen tried not to blush at the way Tobin beamed at the nickname. 

“I can see it happening, Chris. You know, me and you making it all the way. The national team, World Cup gold. I really can.” Tobin got a thoughtful look on her face, then, and started playing with her fingers. “I want you to have this.”

Christen’s eyes widened as Tobin pulled a ring off her right middle finger she had been wearing all camp. It wasn’t worth anything outrageous - they were only 15 after all - but the way the simple gold band sat on Tobin’s outstretched palm made tears prick in Christen’s eyes. 

“Tobin, no, I can’t let you give me your ring.” Christen tried to protest, even though Tobin’s encouraging smile really made her want to accept it.

“Just until next camp, just take it until then. Something to remember me by.” 

As if Christen could forget Tobin. 

Christen found herself nodding, before seeming to remember something of her own. She pulled her own simple gold ring she had been wearing off her left middle finger and held it out to Tobin, letting the other girl see it. 

“Then you take mine. To remember me, as well.” 

Christen saw the blush hit Tobin’s cheeks that she could feel on her own. They exchanged rings, putting each other’s on the finger their own was just on. Christen tried not to shiver when her hand brushed against Tobin’s but it must not have worked, because Tobin gave her hand a squeeze.

Christen was sure it was meant to be a reassuring gesture, but when she felt Tobin’s hand in hers her heart rate spiked so high she thought she might pass out.

“So, like I said,” Tobin started, looking at Christen with an excited grin, “I’ll see you here next camp?” 

“I guess you will, then. Right here?” Christen teased, gesturing to where Tobin was sat cross legged on the changing room bench to Christen’s right, just as she had been all fortnight. 

“Right here, I mean it. I won’t go out onto the field until I see you walk into this changing room. I’ll wait for you right here.” 

If Christen could have frozen Tobin’s smile and have it in her mind forever, she would have. But a smile like that was so enigmatic she didn’t feel like she would have trouble remembering it.

Tobin’s smile was something you could think about anytime, anywhere, and you couldn’t help but smile at the thought. Christen knew the memory of Tobin’s smile would forever be able to bring her out of her own mind, motivate her when she had nothing left, make her heart skip a beat.

She wanted to promise Tobin she would meet her there as well, that Tobin would wait for a reason - she was going to show up. But she couldn’t. Her phone was ringing. 

“I’ll wait for you right here.” Tobin’s voice floated over and over in Christen’s mind. Christen tried to respond, but her damn phone kept blaring. She went to reach into her u-17 jacket pocket to fish it out before she remembered she didn’t have a phone at age 15. Why was there a phone rin-

BRRRNG BRRRNG

Christen jolted up, ripped from her dream, fumbling around for where her phone had fallen down the side of the tattered couch. She finally grabbed it, hitting the accept button with barely a flicker of a glance at who was calling – it would only really be one person.

Christen didn’t exactly have a phone book of friends trying to get in touch with her.

“Hey, Mal.”

“Chris, you’ll never believe what just happened.” 

“Tell me.” Christen tried to stop a yawn coming through, stretching out on the couch as she did so. 

“Shit, sorry, did I wake you up?”

“You did, but it’s ok, I needed to get up anyways. I have work starting soon.” Christen glanced at the time on her phone, seeing it was 8pm already. She absently fidgeted with the ring on her left finger, a habit she hadn’t grown out of in 12 years. 

“Another night shift? Christen, this is crazy, you’ve done too many in a row now.” 

Christen rolled her eyes at her younger sister’s attempt at a stern tone of voice. “Well someone’s gotta pay the rent for our 5 bedroom penthouse apartment.” The sarcasm dripped from Christen’s mouth as she looked around their apartment, paint chipped on the ceiling, a shower that constantly let out a single drip of water, one tiny bedroom that barely fit the bed they both shared. 

Mal snorted at that comment and Christen kept talking. “Plus, with you gone to the free babysitting service for two weeks I have so much time on my hands I’m basically desperate to go to work.” 

The way Christen’s entire body ached at her words proved their falsity, but she’d never let her younger sister know that. 

Truth was, without needing to be home looking after Mal, Christen immediately snapped up any chance for extra work. The only thing she spent more time thinking about after Mal was their ever empty bank account, constantly taunting her with its low figures and sending her to an early grave whenever it dipped below zero. 

“Ok first of all, I’m not at free babysitting, it’s the 2015 United States under-20’s soccer camp.” Mal put on a fake British accent as she spoke, making her words more grandiose in a self-mockery way. Christen laughed and put on the same accent, making impressed sounds with her nose turned up. “And second of all, you wouldn’t have to work so much if you would just let me get a job. I could help -”

“Mal, shut up.” Christen interrupted, keen to put this argument to bed before it could resurface again. “Tell me your news. It can’t be that exciting if you’d rather talk about getting a job than what you called about.” 

Successful in her diversion, Christen listened in triumph as Mal took an excited deep breath in. “I got invited to train with the full national team today.” 

That had Christen sitting right up on the couch. “What! Get out, are you serious? The full national team?”

“I know, right! I’m still in shock, I can’t believe it.” 

“What are they doing there? Do they have a camp on as well? Tell me everything.” 

Christen listened with rapt attention as Mal recounted her day, explaining how the full national team were at Carson for a camp before they were to head up to Canada for the World Cup.

“Baby, I’m so proud of you. That’s so, so cool.” Christen gushed into the phone, her heart bursting with pride. “You must be absolutely killing it out there.” 

“Thanks, Chris.” 

“Were they nice to you?” 

Mal laughed, making Christen laugh too. “Yes, Christen, they were all nice to me. I was so nervous. But then Lauren Holiday and Sydney Leroux talked to me before it started and were really nice. So was Tobin Heath, she talked to me at the end.”

Christen tried not to get a hitch in her breath when Mal mentioned Tobin, especially after she had just woken up from a dream about her, same as she’d been doing at least once a week for 12 years. She felt the ring tighten on her finger and she wrung it around, thinking about Tobin’s smile and feeling a calm wash over her. “Listen to you, dropping those names casually. I can see it now, Mallory Press, 17 years old, the youngest call up to the US women’s national team in over a decade.” 

“Oh my god, Christen, shut up, it was just one training.” 

Christen laughed through the phone, loving to embarrass Mal any chance she got. But, she truly did believe it. “Hey, the fact they asked you to train with them means something, Mal. Be humble, always. But you can be proud of yourself, too.” 

“I know, I know. Well I was definitely humbled at practice today, I totally shanked a shot at goal, right in front. It was pretty embarrassing. And the speed of play they play at - I’ve got to work on my touch more when I get back.” 

“Speaking of, are you still ok to get dropped to the diner when camp ends? I couldn’t get it off to pick you up.” 

“Yeah, I sorted it.” 

Christen nodded absently, tapping the phone onto speaker. She got up to walk around the tiny apartment, picking up various items she had dropped on her route to the couch so she could get ready for her second job. “How is everything else going?” 

“It’s good. Tiring but real fun. We’re all meshing well as a team now. And today was just crazy. I can’t believe it.” 

A proud smile grew on Christen’s face as she listened to Mal talk. All of her sacrifices, everything of her own she dropped for Mal, it was all paying off. Seeing her baby sister’s dreams coming true was enough for Christen, even if those same dreams were once her own. 

Not that Mal needed to know that.

“Make sure you thank all the people who helped make that happen, ok?” 

“I did, and I will thank Frenchie again when I see her later.”

“Ok, good.” Christen yanked off the shirt from her bartending job off, pulling the 24 Hour Diner shirt on after. She knew she really should have showered first, but even the thought was too exhausting. She groaned as the muscles in her body protested with the lift of her arms, and she shook them out, trying to limber up.

“You ok?” Mal’s voice came through the phone small and unsure, the way Christen knew she talked when she was worried about her. The last thing she wanted was for Mal to be distracted at camp because she was concerned about her.

“Of course!”

“You sure?” 

Christen couldn’t help but smile at her sister’s kind nature. “Baby, I promise I’m fine. My arms were just a bit stiff. It’s called getting old.

Mal laughed through the phone. “Ok, simmer down, you’re only 27.” 

“Exactly! Pretty soon you’ll be carting me off to a nursing home.” 

“Oh my god.” 

Christen grinned, imagining Mal rolling her eyes at her bad humour from there. “They’ll serve me mashed carrots for dinner every night at 4pm and send me off to bed.”

“I actually hate you.”

“I’ll be lucky if my hot shot little sister ever pays me a visit.” 

“I’m hanging up the phone now!” Mal said in between her laughter. 

“I love you!” 

“Love you back.” 

Christen waited on the phone to hear Mal hang up after that, but the beep tone never came. Just as she was about to say something, Mal spoke up. 

“I miss you, Chrissy.” 

Christen’s heart hurt hearing the softness in Mal’s voice. She took the phone off speaker, putting it back to her ear and pressing it into it as if that would bring her closer to Mal. 

Sometimes Mal got like this when she was away from Christen for soccer. For essentially Mal’s entire living memory, they’d only ever been together. Christen was Mal’s stability. She knew how anxiety inducing it was to be away from that – Mal offered that same comfort to her. “I miss you more, baby. I’ll see you soon though, ok?” 

“Yeah.” Mal said, taking a pause. “Just promise me you’re taking care of yourself.”

“Mal, I promise. I always do. And you promise me as well?”

“I promise.” 

“Ok, good. Please don’t worry about me, baby, just focus on camp and keep killing it out there. Knowing you’re doing that brings a smile to my face even at 3am when I’m serving coffee to some dude so high he can’t even tell which way is up.” 

Hearing Mal’s laugh relieved Christen, and Mal seemed to accept her answer, promising her she was giving it her all, just like every other camp she had been called to since she was 13 years old.

“Ok go on now back to the team, or you know, go hang out with Lauren Holiday and Sydney Leroux since they’re your new BFFs.” Christen teased, laughing when Mal groaned. She knew she purposefully left out Tobin’s name, but she wasn’t going to dwell on why. That required emotional capacity her brain just could not give at that moment. “Love you.” 

“Love you forever.” 

“What a sap. Who raised you?”

Mal groaned. “You’re actually so annoying. Why am I ever nice to you.”

“Bye, ya little loser.” Christen was grinning before she finished talking, never being able to resist winding Mal up, no matter how old she got. 

She hit end on the call, the grin still on her face but not lasting long. She had really started to think about what Mal had said.

Mal had talked to Tobin today. What did they discuss? Did Tobin still talk with her eyes shining through her smile? Did she still juggle the ball like it was attached to her leg?

Did she look at Mal and recognise someone from her past?

Would she even remember Christen?

“Fucking hell, get it together.” Christen scolded herself, shaking her head as if to shake out the ludicrous thought. Of course Tobin didn’t remember her. It had been 12 years. She didn’t show up to camp, and Tobin would have immediately forgotten about her.

Christen didn’t have time to try and kid herself that Tobin gave her even a fraction of the thought she gave to Tobin. It was Tobin Heath. World Cup champion and Olympic Gold winner. Christen was well aware how ridiculous it was to be dreaming of her on the regular, let alone wearing her ring after all these years.

So, she pulled on her worn down diner shoes and tried not to think about all the other worlds that could exist where she would be lacing up her cleats with Tobin by her side instead.

 

Chapter Text

Christen bounced up and down in place by the door, a bead of sweat dripping down her face. “Mal, hurry up, I need to pee.” 

An eye roll was the answer from her little sister, who stopped her search of the keys in her pocket to make sure Christen had seen it. “You’re the one who wanted to run the extra mile.” 

“Gotta stay fit and all that.”

“You just wanted to beat me in that final sprint.” 

Christen grinned. “Just open the door, loser.” She laughed when Mal finally unlocked the door to the apartment but then immediately tried to shut the door in her face, locking Christen out. She barged her way in, throwing the bundle of mail she was holding at Mal in order to get ahead of her to the bathroom first. 

When she came back into the room, Mal was still standing where she left her, scrolling through her phone. Christen picked up the mail that was now on the floor before poking Mal’s side as she walked to the couch. “Go have a shower, stinky.” 

Mal opened her mouth to retort, but her phone started ringing, cutting her off before she could start. She gave a faux innocent smile to Christen as she clicked accept on the phone, holding it up to her ear. “Hey, this is Mal.” 

Most of the letters Christen was sorting through was just junk she threw to one side, and she only ended up with one of any importance. 

She tore the envelope open with a trepidation of some sort - letters from their landlord had not historically brought favorable news, especially when the letter was addressed to “all occupants of the building.”

“Frenchie, hi!” Christen listened to Mal on the phone with one ear, evidently in a conversation with her u-20 coach. Mal had already got the call the week before that she would be part of the u-20 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament, so this must have been about something else.

She started scanning the letter from the landlord the same time that Mal’s voice raised in excitement. 

Rent raise.

“You want me to be captain?” 

Rent raise by 15%.

“Are you kidding, that sounds amazing!”

Rent raise in Los Angeles that she definitely couldn’t afford.

“Thank you so much!”

Oh fuck.

Agonisingly, Christen tore her eyes away from the letter to give her attention to Mal, who was giving her an ecstatic look as she bounced in place. Christen plastered a smile on her face. It wasn’t entirely fake - if Mal had been asked to captain the u-20 team that was huge and she was indescribably proud - it just wasn’t the best timing, with the blow of a rent raise and almost certain eviction panicking Christen’s insides. 

“Put it on speaker!” She whispered as she grabbed Mal’s outstretched hand, squeezing it.

“Frenchie, you’re on speaker, Christen is here, too.” Mal said into the phone, grinning at Christen excitedly. 

“Ah, my favourite Press. How are you, Christen?”

“Good, always good, Michelle.” Christen tried not to think about the letter that was half scrunched up in her fist. “And how are you?”

“Well I’ve just got to deliver some great news to that sister of yours, so I’m very happy. Congratulations again, Mal. I hope you know that we all have full faith in you.” 

“Thanks, Frenchie. That means so much.” 

“I’m sure you’re proud, Christen.” 

Christen wrapped her arm around Mal’s shoulders, pulling her into a hug and kissing the top of her head. “Couldn’t be prouder. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities you’ve given Mal, and all the support you’ve always had for her.”

“She’s a special kid. Talent pouring out of her. She deserves every success I know she’ll have.”

“Please, keep going.” Mal joked, wrapping her arm around Christen’s waist in the hug. 

“I’m serious, Mal. You know I don’t joke about this stuff lightly – the national team, they’ve got their eye on you. You did great when you trained with them, they haven’t forgotten you. I wouldn't be surprised if you hear from them soon. In fact, I saw some of the players the other day and Mal, if you made a lasting impression on Tobin Heath you must be doing something right.”

At Michelle’s words, Mal looked up at Christen with a smile so excited she looked like she might pass out. Which coincidentally was exactly how Christen felt – as if she wasn’t already overwhelmed enough, of course there was Tobin.

What did it mean that Mal had made a lasting impression on her? Christen knew Mal was an unprecedented talent at her age, but something else gnawed at her.

Was it possible when Tobin saw Mal play that something sparked a memory of Christen?

“That is so cool. I can’t believe that.”

Mal’s words ripped Christen out of her daydream – a ridiculous one at that, she thought. Tobin was probably talking to Michelle about her team and Mal was an obvious conversation topic to bring up. Nothing more, nothing less.

“So qualifiers are mid-November in Honduras, as you know, just over a month away.” Michelle continued. “Christen, if you can make it out we’d love to see you in the stands. And we have a 2 week camp in Florida immediately preceding that. So we’ll be seeing you in just under a month, Mal.”

“Sounds great. I’m so excited.” 

“Us too. I assume you’ll have school work sorted?”

Mal looked up in question at Christen, who nodded. “Mal’s teachers have always been accommodating, I’ll talk to them and make sure she’s loaded up with homework.” Christen laughed as Mal groaned. 

“That’s what we like to hear. Well, I guess that’s everything. Looking forward to seeing you soon, Mal. Bye, Christen.”

As soon as the line cut dead, Christen pushed all other thoughts aside, focusing entirely on her sister. She lifted Mal up into a hug, spinning her around. 

“Captain? Mal!” 

Mal laughed in giddiness, holding on to Christen tightly when she was set on the ground. “I can’t believe it.”

“Well I can. Mal, this is so cool. I’m so proud of you.” Christen held Mal’s cheeks in her hands as she spoke, beaming down at her sister.

She was so overwhelmed with emotions – Mal’s news being the best and the letter in her hands being the worst. And then there was Tobin at the back of her mind. All these years later, it was always Tobin. She didn’t know what to do with herself.

“Chris, are you crying?”

“What, a girl can’t be proud of her sister?” She wiped the stray tear from her eye, laughing in a way she knew would put Mal at ease. “Now, you definitely need to shower so we can go and celebrate this.” 

“Tacos for dinner at the beach?” 

“Of course.” Christen replied, and before she knew it, Mal had thrown herself into her arms. 

“Thank you.”

“It’s just tacos at the beach, Mal.” 

No,” Mal groaned, “You know what I mean. Thank you for everything. I know I would have none of this, none of this love, these opportunities, this support without you.” 

The weight of the letter in Christen’s hand suddenly felt 10 times heavier. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what supporting Mal would look like when they soon wouldn’t be able to afford to live in their apartment.

But, she wasn’t about to ruin the mood with that news, and in fact, she had no intention of telling Mal at all. With such an important tournament coming up, or really just in general, Christen didn’t ever want to burden her younger sister with these worries. 

She could handle it herself. She always had and she always would.

“Jeez, US soccer should call you with good news more often.” Christen said, diverting the conversation with humor. She held Mal in the hug, kissing the top of her head. “You know I’d do anything for you. You’re my whole world.” 

“Mine too.” 

Christen sighed dramatically, holding Mal closer. “Can you always stay this little? I don’t know how I’m going to live when you grow up and don’t need me anymore.” 

“I’m 17!” 

“Exactly! A baby!” She laughed and practically felt Mal roll her eyes at her. 

“I love you even when you’re always so annoying.” Mal murmured where her face was buried in Christen’s chest in the hug, holding her tight. “Love you forever.”

“I love you too, baby. I’m so, so proud of you.” Christen pulled Mal back, tapping her in the direction of the shower. “Now go, shower, you smell.” 

“Speak for yourself, sweaty.” Mal flicked her finger at Christen’s forehead, laughing when Christen flipped her off. 

It wasn’t until Christen saw the bathroom door close and heard the shower turn on that she let out the breath she felt she’d been holding since she opened the letter. She looked down at the letter in her hand, clenched so tightly in her fist she actually had to concentrate on prying each finger off before she could read it again. 

The words were no different than the first time she read them, or the second or the third. The landlord had raised the rent of their whole building, starting in the new year. That was three months away. Christen knew in her heart of hearts there was just no way they would be able to afford it. 

They were already struggling as it was.

How anyone could charge the amount they were paying for the falling apart apartment they lived in was really beyond Christen. But this was where Mal went to school. It was the closest area in Los Angeles to where their parents raised them that they could afford to live in. Christen couldn’t bear to move away from one of the only memories of them.

She knew she could be paying cheaper rent in a worse neighbourhood. But it was a choice she made - it had bettered Mal’s life. It had connected her to good soccer clubs, a high school with a soaring soccer team. She knew the sacrifice had been worth it. 

However, life, as Christen had learnt, was not always so understanding. The thought that no matter how hard she tried, how many hours she worked at her two jobs, how she had thrown away her college applications before trying because she knew she couldn’t study and raise Mal at the same time - the thought that she did all of that only for some asshole landlord to send them a robotic piece of paper telling them how much money they now owed him or they would have to leave their home? 

Christen picked up a weathered pillow off the couch and sobbed into it, frustrated and exhausted tears spilling out silently. She could feel herself spiralling into a panic that she couldn’t get into right now. She had to pull it together.

When she heard the shower stop she did her best to shake it off. She furiously wiped at her eyes and shoved the letter under the couch seat, forcing herself to channel all her attention on to Mal, trying to convince herself that she could forget about the letter, just for tonight. 

-----

Christen soon found out that she could not, in fact, just forget about the letter. She had managed throughout her and Mal’s excursion to the beach, and their singing on the way home, and their impromptu dance party around the couch after that. 

But as she lay in bed, awake as ever, Mal sleeping soundly beside her with her hand curled around her wrist, she couldn’t stop her thoughts from spinning. 

Her brain was in overdrive, considering every possibility, every best and worst case scenario. She tried to think what she could do to remedy the situation. Although she knew it was really an impossibility, she just had to have the chance to check the finances. Just in case. 

Two hours later her eyes were blaring from staring at the laptop screen. The spreadsheet she’d created hurt to look at. Every option she’d turned to was a dead end, unless she was magically able to get a higher paying job that had flexible shift hours so she could take care of Mal. 

She absently twirled the ring around her finger over and over, trying to be comforted by the familiarity of the way it pressed against her skin. 

Eventually she collapsed back onto the couch in exhaustion, her body finally ready to call it quits for the night. She felt like she’d barely shut her eyes before her brain switched on again, although this time it felt different. 

For a start, she saw her parents standing in front of her. They were smiling at her, strong and supportive in their presence. Just as she remembered them. Just how she tried to be for Mal. 

She wanted to call out, reach out for them. But it was like she was stuck in place. Tears welled in her eyes and as her vision blurred, her parents left. Their place was filled by what appeared to be an unremarkable man in a suit. But this man delivered news to Christen she would never be able to erase from her memory. 

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this here, of all places,” The man gestured to where he was sitting in a high school administrative office opposite a shell shocked Christen, tears running down her face. How had her life been flipped upside down in such a short amount of time?

“Your parents, they had no other family. I’m here for child services because your parents made no instructions as to what should happen to you and Mallory upon their death.”

Christen remembers wondering why they should have. Why would her parents have wanted to make plans for their children upon their death? They were never meant to die. They never should have. And that person should have never driven drunk and never crossed the centre line.

The cries of a younger Mal flood into her mind. Christen’s distress grows. She wants to see her parents again. She doesn’t want to have to see their useless social worker. She doesn’t want to be reminded of the foster homes they were thrown in and out of, the times they were separated, what she had to do to get back to Mal. 

I’ll wait for you right here.

And she especially doesn’t want to see the girl in her mind she hasn’t stopped thinking about for 12 years. It hurt too much. To think about the game she loved most in the world. The game that brought her Tobin. The game she had to give up.

I’ll wait for you.” 

The Tobin she sees is a mixture of the 15 year old she knew and the woman she had become, the one Christen watched play whenever her heart would let her bear it. 

Of all the sacrifices she’s made in her life, Christen often thinks not being able to spend more time with Tobin is the one that hurts the most. 

“I’ll wait for you. I’ll wait for you, Chris. Chris. Christen! Chri-” 

Christen’s eyes shoot open as her body hauls itself out her mind’s plaguing dream and into the present. It takes her a while but she realises Mal is in front of her. Her sister is kneeling beside where she lay on the couch with an alarmed look in her eyes, calling her name over and over and only stopping when she saw Christen’s eyes lock onto hers. 

“Hey, what are you doing up?” Christen tries to sound casual, even though she has no idea of the time and can hear the hoarseness of her own throat. She’s sure she didn’t succeed –she can feel the tears in her eyes and the bewildered look on her face one usually wore when being ripped from –

“Christen, you were having a nightmare.” Mal’s reply told her what she already knew. “You were screaming.”

That, she didn’t know. 

She took a deep breath in, hearing how it shuddered through her lungs, feeling how scratchy her throat was. She had to hold it together. Mal was there in the middle of the night, scared and worried. She was gripping her hand so tightly Christen wondered how she hadn’t felt it before. 

“What happened?” 

“It was just a dream, Mal. I can barely remember it.” Christen lied, murmuring comfortingly, squeezing Mal’s hand. “I’m sorry for waking you.” 

Christen didn’t think Mal really believed her, but she could see how the 17 year old was struggling to hold it together for her. Unfortunately for Mal, Christen was the sister who had 12 years of being the strong one, not her. She knew that even though she was the one who had woken up from a nightmare, Mal was the one needing comfort. 

She brushed her thumb along Mal’s cheek softly, curling a piece of hair behind her ear. It was only seconds before the stream of tears Christen knew was coming had started. 

“Hey, hey, c’mere.” Christen pulled Mal up onto the couch with her, her little sister curling into her side and burying her head into her neck. “It’s ok, baby, it’s ok.” 

It being the middle of the night and having been startled from her sleep before she was ready caused Mal to cry longer than she maybe would have, or should have. It took a good few minutes of Christen’s soft murmurs and reassurances and tight hugs for her to calm down. 

Her tiny whimpers as she tried to regain her breathing just about broke Christen’s heart in two. However old Mal got, this part of her sister would never change. 

The Mal on the soccer field was in control, sure of herself, absolutely fearless. 

The Mal in Christen’s arms was everything the opposite. 

Christen couldn’t even begin to imagine just how many times she had held a scared Mal as she cried over the last 12 years. Focusing on being strong for Mal was the only reason Christen wasn’t right there in tears with her. 

“I’m sorry.” Mal whispered, her voice clogged with leftover tears. “I just got scared. You weren’t in the bed and then I heard screaming and you wouldn’t wake up and-” 

“Baby, shhh, I know, I know.” Christen cut Mal off before she could work herself up again. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there but I’m right here now, ok? I’m not going anywhere. I’m right here and I’m fine.” 

“Chris, you were screaming. You’ve never screamed before.”

Christen squeezed her eyes shut tightly, knowing that wasn’t entirely true. While Christen was plagued frequently by intense dreams, often bordering into nightmares, she usually woke herself up from them. She’d see Mal safe asleep next to her and that would be enough to send her back into a slumber. 

It was rare the screaming came, but when it did, it was always when she and Mal were apart. This was just the first time it had happened where Mal was around to hear it.

Not that Mal needed to know that, either.

“I guess it was some nightmare, huh.” Christen said, avoiding the topic altogether. “It must have been really scary for you to wake up to that.” 

She felt Mal nod in agreement against her neck, holding her tighter. “It must have been scarier for you.” The younger girl said. 

“Well you’re here with me now, and that’s all I need.” Christen kissed Mal’s head a few times, hearing her respond.

“Me too.” 

They lay for a while together, but Christen made them get up when she heard Mal’s breathing start to even out. She knew from experience the two of them would have back aches all day if they slept on the couch for the rest of the night. 

“Go and drink some water, you must have lost half the Pacific Ocean with all those tears.” Christen had a soft grin on her face as she tapped Mal to the kitchen. 

As soon as Mal had walked away, she scrambled to shut the laptop lid, picking up the landlord’s letter and various scraps of paper she had written on. She shoved them back under the couch, out of sight of where Mal could accidentally come across them. 

In a fucked up way she almost hoped Mal was so concerned with her screams and had only looked at her, not at the letters lying on the table. 

“I’m sorry I kind of killed the great vibe we had going from last night.” Christen said later, watching as Mal lay on the bed next to her, giving her a small smile. 

“It’s ok. I’m still happy. Are you still happy?” 

“Of course. I can’t wait to watch you shine in qualifiers.”

“I wish it was in LA so you could come watch.”

“Me too. But you know I’ll watch all the games online. And if I’m at work I’ll stream them onto the tvs. I’ll make sure everyone knows that little rocket firing around on the field is my baby sister.” 

Christen!” Mal groaned, shoving her arm. “You’re so embarrassing.” 

Christen just laughed, watching Mal watch her by the faint glow of the street light through the curtain.

“I worry about you.” 

Christen rolled onto her back, staring up at the ceiling. “I know. But you don’t have to. That’s my job.” 

“That’s so stupid, Christen.” Mal grumbled. She clasped Christen’s left hand in her own, playing with the ring on her finger, something she’d always done since she was a kid. “You can’t stop me from worrying. I’m your sister. That’s my job, too.” 

“I know, baby. I’m sorry I’m so stubborn. I’ll always need you there for me.” Christen squeezed her hand.

“It’s your fault for raising me into such a caring person.” Mal joked, gaining a laugh from Christen. She yawned, leaning into Christen’s side as she closed her eyes. “You’re not invincible, Chris, you’re just human. And that’s ok. Everyone needs someone to look out for them.” 

Christen just closed her eyes, wondering in what world she could pretend Mal’s words, true as they were, could ever actually apply to her. 

She spoke before her brain caught up.

“Hey, Mal?”

“Hm?”

She really had to stop kidding herself. “It’s pretty cool what Michelle said about the national team today, right?”

Mal still had her eyes closed, but Christen could feel her smile from where her head lay on her shoulder. “Yeah.”

“Especially about…about Tobin Heath.”

The way she almost choked around Tobin’s name reminded her how little she had ever spoken it aloud, and how Tobin only really lived in her head.

“Yeah. She’s so cool.”

Tread gently, Christen. Tread gently. “Do you remember when you called me after your training with them, all those months back? And how you said Tobin talked to you after it?”

Mal nodded.

She couldn’t help herself. She had to ask. “What did she say, do you remember?”

“She just asked me like where I was from, how did I find the training and all that. Oh and she said I had some great skills in the box, because I had done the cut back around some defenders and scored in the top right – remember how you and I used to practice that all the time when I was younger?”

Christen could only nod, her throat closing in from tightness.

“She said it was a pretty sweet move, and the sign of a good player. I was going to tell her that I learnt it with my sister, but we got called back over by Jill.”

Christen’s heart was racing. Did she dare to wish that Tobin had remembered where she’d seen that move before? She could remember it like it was yesterday –

“Chris, you gotta teach me how you do that.” A 15 year old Tobin said, hands behind her head as she panted. Christen had just beat her one on one again, cutting around her in the box and on the final one, sending the ball to the top right hand corner.

Christen blushed, looking at the ground (and definitely not at the tiny slither of Tobin’s abs she could see when her shirt lifted up). “You want to learn now? It’s late.” The rest of the u-17 camp had already filtered back into the changing rooms. They were the last two out there, as always.

“We don’t have to, I mean, we can do it another day. I know you still want to get your shots in.” Tobin said earnestly, sending a warm smile her way.

The kindness in Tobin’s eyes sent a surge of confidence through Christen. “Why another day? Are you scared you won’t be able to learn the famous Christen cut back?”

Tobin laughed, shaking her head fondly. “Is that the official term for it?”

“Only for those who master it.”

“Well then, bring it on. Show me this move that has been cutting up defenders at camp all week.”  

Christen explained how she carried out the move to Tobin, showing her where her feet were placed, how she weighted her body when she cut it back, and how defenders would always dive in. She stood in as the defender and watched as Tobin followed her instructions –

- (and if she had to hold Tobin’s arms and shoulders to move her into the proper position it was all purely for technical soccer reasons, of course).

She saw Tobin’s raised eyebrow and grin when she attacked, gaining confidence with every cut back she almost got right. They only stopped when Tobin had finally bested Christen with the trick, hugging in celebration.

“You’re amazing, you know that?”  

Christen just shook her head, her shoulders burning from where Tobin’s arm was still around them. She felt the smile on her face would be there forever. “So are you.”  

They spent the next thirty minutes on the field together, Tobin practicing the cut back with a metal dummy as a defender and Christen firing shot after shot into the net, feeling like she could do this with Tobin forever.

“So really, Tobin Heath was complimenting your move that you came up with in the park those days we would kick the ball around. That’s pretty cool.”

Mal’s words brought her back to reality, and made her heart beat faster again. Another thing for Christen to worry over. The more Mal was progressing through the US soccer ranks the worse Christen felt about keeping the truth from her. All Christen had said to Mal was that she had played casual club soccer for a few years until their parents had died. Mal thought all of the little tricks Christen knew came from watching Mal’s trainings throughout the years or them just messing around at the park.

If there was any indication of how much Mal idolized Christen, it was that she thought Christen got easily good at soccer just from some regular tekker sessions.

(Christen’s heart wanted to burst at how much Mal loved her).

“Chris, are you ok? I can feel your heart racing.”

Christen squeezed Mal’s hand gently where it had come to rest over her heart. “I’m fine, baby. Just excited for you. My little superstar.”

Mal’s breaths evened out soon after that, and her head got heavy on Christen’s shoulder. Christen found herself drifting off soon after, knowing her dreams would be kind to her for the rest of the night with the hopeful feeling sitting in her chest.

There was still a chance that a piece of her, even the tiniest smallest memory in Tobin’s mind, remained.  Maybe that’s all she would ever get. But maybe that was enough.

She smiled in her sleep when she saw a familiar face grinning at her, her Jersey girl she still clung to all these years later.

At least in her dreams she had someone looking out for her.

 

Chapter Text

“This is crazy.” 

“Crazy.”

“This is so crazy.” 

“So crazy.” 

“I’m about to walk into a full national team camp.” 

“You are.” 

“This is so fucking crazy.” 

“Fucking crazy.”

Both Mal and Christen spoke in a voice of disbelief but for two wildly different reasons. Mal was a 17 year old who had been called into the January camp of the full national team and she was still in dumbfounded shock over it.

Christen was a 27 year old who, as of one month ago with notice to the landlord, had effectively made her and Mal homeless from today. She had to make a decision, and they just couldn’t afford to stay there with the rent raise.

Not that Mal needed to know that.

She could only blame Mal not noticing this on the fact that she had been positively bouncing off the walls the last two weeks since learning of her call up to the full national team camp. 

Her stellar performance as captain of the u-20’s in World Cup qualifiers, plus winning the golden ball and golden boot had gotten the coaches’ attention. The call was something Mal had always dreamed might happen, but she could have never imagined it at age 17. 

To be fair, Christen had been smart about the apartment. US Soccer was paying for them to live in a hotel for basically the next month and a half during camp and the following games. It would be a life of luxury compared to what they were used to living in.

They had only the most minimal of belongings to begin with - most of the clatter around the apartment was the soccer gear Mal had to pack up with her and bring to camp. 

Plus, they’d never had the money to spend on unnecessary items. Christen knew every penny she made had to go to Mal, whether it be for school or the many expenses that came attached to playing soccer at the highest youth level in the country.

Then there was the rest of their clothes, which were currently in two suitcases in the back of Christen’s car where she and Mal sat.

It made sense to bring all of them, Christen had said. 

The biggest thing left to get rid of was the car, which was exactly Christen’s destination after dropping Mal off. They were currently in the parking lot of the Carson training centre, staring at the massive complex.

“This is absolutely crazy, right?” Mal said again, fully turning in her seat to face Christen. 

Christen forced herself to snap out of her own daze, turning as well to look at Mal. She beamed at her, seeing the excited anticipation swirl in Mal’s eyes. “This is what it’s all about, kid. Your dream is right through those doors. All you’ve gotta do is show them why you deserve to be there.” 

“I might throw up.” 

“You won’t.” 

“I might be totally awful.”

“You won’t.

“I might mess up, right in front of the coaches.” 

“And if you do, you just get back up and try again. No one is perfect, Mal. But they’ve seen something in you. They believe in you. And now it’s your chance to show them why. I know you can do it. Just be yourself and have fun, that’s when you’re at your best.”

Mal flung her arms around Christen over the console, burying her head into her neck. “Thanks, Chrissy.” 

After a few more reassurances, and an offer to walk her in that she knew would be vehemently rejected by Mal, Christen watched her trek towards the doors of the training centre. 

The closer she got to it, the tinier she appeared, dwarfed by the complex’s giant size. Christen felt tears prick her eyes when Mal reached the doors, turning around to her to wave before going inside. 

“Alright, Press.” Christen said out loud to herself, taking a deep breath in and out as she started the old car up. “Let’s do this.” 

The look on the concierge’s face when she pulled the car into the front of the hotel 10 minutes later was almost comical. She knew from the way it clattered to a stop that it was the most out of place vehicle in a 5 mile radius from this part of town. 

She had to still give credit to the man for trying to open the door for her, even though the only way it could be done was by giving it a hard elbow from the inside as she popped the handle. 

“You would like this...car taken through the valet service, ma’am?”

“Oh, no. This disaster belongs in the scrap yard, literally.” Christen laughed, thinking of her next destination. “Thank you, though. I’m just here to drop some bags off to my hotel room.” 

The hesitant smile on the concierge’s face left Christen unable to shake the feeling of being a little out of place here. Truth be told, she did feel out of her element for more reasons than one.

Mal had been off travelling the country and world, staying in more hotels than she could remember since she started with the youth national teams age 13. Of course, being youth teams, US soccer had chaperone policies in place for the girls. No guardians were ever needed, so Christen had never had to come along.

However here with the full national team, no such policy existed. No chaperones would be provided. Mal, still being a child under the law, was only able to attend camp if a guardian was at the hotel with her. 

An easy enough request to make of most families. But Christen and Mal weren’t most families. 

Christen remembered seeing the way Mal’s face dropped when she learned of the news of the underage rule. Her sister had tried to recover her expression quickly, not wanting to make Christen feel guilty. Mal presumed there was no way she would be able to take the time off work to come and stay with her for almost 2 months. 

And she was right. Christen couldn’t take the time off. There was no way either of her jobs would let her do that. 

But fuck, this wasn’t just any camp. This was the national team. Mal’s dream was so close she could taste it. There was no way Christen was going to let it slip by her now, not after everything they’d both done to get Mal there. 

Seeing her sister’s face light up when she said that wouldn’t be a problem warmed her heart just enough to cover the immediate anxiety that came with making such a rash decision.

She had to quit her jobs, there was no way around that. Despite spending more time at those jobs than at her own home sometimes, she wasn’t sad to see the back end of them or the people there. Her managers were lousy at the best of times and there was only so much customer service one person could take in their lifetime.

Then they were leaving the apartment - the only good thing about being homeless was not having rent to pay. If she sold her car to the scrapyard that would be a few extra dollars in their bank account. 

Maybe, just maybe, it would be enough to keep them afloat for the week after camp ended when Christen could get another job and find a new place to live. 

On top of all of that, it was almost too overwhelming to think about how she would almost definitely run into Tobin at this camp, unless all the powers of the universe were intervening. 

Christen was torn between needing to avoid Tobin at all costs and calling herself stupid for even thinking that Tobin might remember her. Any hope she had kidded herself into in the past had totally vanished with all the stress she had been under recently.

Just because she kept Tobin’s ring on her finger all these years, it didn’t mean Tobin had as well. She’s sure she was no more than a faded memory in Tobin’s past.

In fact, Christen was sure Tobin would have thrown her ring in the trash when she didn’t show up at the next camp. When they’d promised each other they would be there. 

If only Christen could have gotten the chance to explain to Tobin why she wasn’t there. That she wanted to come, wanted to play soccer and wanted to be with Tobin more than anything.

Instead, Christen remembers how she was 15 and curled up on a small bed in their second foster home in two months, a tiny and frightened 5 year old Mal gripping her tightly in her sleep, wondering how it all had gone so wrong. 

She shook herself out of her thoughts, realising she was standing dumbly in the hotel lobby. It had been 12 years since she had attended a camp and judging by how fancy this hotel was, things had definitely changed. 

She’d never actually been to a camp with Mal so she didn’t have a clue how it all worked these days. She approached the front desk, relieved to find she only had to give her name over before she was being handed a key card, taking her and Mal’s bags up. 

She allowed herself one minutes rest where she unceremoniously flung herself onto the plush bed, groaning in delight at how it felt below her exhausted body. Telling herself she could nap all she wanted later, she forced herself back outside, yanking the door of her car open and driving off. 

----------

“Get a grip, Press.” Christen mumbled to herself 20 minutes later as she sat in the parked car at the scrap yard. 

Why now had she decided to become all sentimental?

She hated her piece of junk car. 

Hated having no central locking - hated even more when Mal would stand at the passenger’s side flipping the door handle up and down incessantly until she unlocked it. 

Hated the crappy radio that only played music from an old country station.

Hated the stain on the roof shaped like peanut butter toast when Mal was dancing in the car too much and it flung out of her hands. 

Hated the little pencil equations on the dashboard Mal drew when Christen would help with her math homework as she drove her two hours to ODP practices every Saturday. 

Hated the mud and grass that had built up over the years even on the odd occasion Mal decided to be careful about where she tossed her cleats. 

But mostly she hated how this car had annoyed her since she got it at 18, and now she was sad to see it go. 

How many hours had she and Mal had spent in here. How many conversations had this car overheard between them. How many times had she cried in this car, head falling to the steering wheel in sobs, not trusting them around Mal in the house to be quiet enough to not wake her. 

But she was Christen Press. When the going got tough, she got tougher. She left the car in the scrap yard with a last loving pat and some extra cash in her pocket, starting the trek back to their apartment complex one last time to sort things out before making her way back to the hotel. 

----------

A period of time later that could have been two hours or 12 hours, Christen was woken from her sleep by small rustles in the dark room. 

She opened her eyes slowly, trying to make her brain work enough to figure out what time it might be. Her body was heavy with sleep. She had only just remembered she was in a hotel room and not their apartment. 

“Mal?” 

The rustling stopped. “Fuck, sorry Chris, I was trying to be quiet.”

Christen fumbled around beside her, trying to find the beside lamp. She squinted in the light when she flicked it on. “It’s ok. ‘time is it?”

“6pm.” 

“What?” 

“Yeah it’s 6. Have you been asleep all day?” 

“I guess.” Christen said, sitting up in bed and looking at her phone. She had four missed texts, all from Mal. 

 

Mallory Press 4:08pm

where you at? we just finished practice and heading back to the hotel

 

Mallory Press 4:15pm

are you asleep

 

Mallory Press 5:40pm

text me when you wake up, Snow White, I need my clothes 

oh and I’m rooming with lindsey, I think you met her once when you picked me up from a u-20 camp

 

“Sorry, just saw your texts now.” Christen rubbed some sleep out of her eyes, finally coming back around to herself. “So, how was it? Tell me everything!” 

Mal dropped the bag she was holding, immediately coming over to the huge bed Christen was laying in, practically jumping on top of her in excitement. 

“So I take it went well?” Christen said, seeing the excited glee on her sister’s face.

“Chris, it was amazing. Like a total dream come true.” 

----------

“You can come, you know.” Mal said, pulling a shirt over her head after she had gotten out of the shower. 

Christen was still in the bed, one hand propped up behind her to sit her up. “Nah, come on, you don’t want your boring sister there to cramp your style.” 

“Oh shut up, you aren’t boring. And you don’t cramp my style.” 

“Well maybe I just want to fall back asleep in this glorious bed.” Christen flopped dramatically back onto the pillows, stretching her arms out. 

When Mal didn’t respond, she lifted her head up to look at her. Mal was giving her a look Christen knew well, one that showed she was concerned about her. 

“Mal, enough with that look. I’m fine, there’s nothing to worry about. I really do want to sleep. And I want you to be able to bond with the team on your own.” Well, that was true. Christen didn’t have to mention the main reason she didn’t want to go was to prolong the inevitable run in with Tobin.

The run in that was hopefully far, far in the future.

“Ok, fine.” Mal said, eventually accepting Christen’s answers. “But can you braid my hair?”

“When did your hands stop working?”

Christen,” Mal groaned in exasperation, hitting her older sister’s leg when she saw her grin at the ceiling. “Please, can you?”

“Fine, sit on the ground.”

----------

The incessant tapping of Mal’s pencil on her math textbook made Christen put her book down, throwing a pillow at her sister. “Enough with the tapping.”

“Sorry.” Mal mumbled, barely looking away from where she was frowning at her textbook.

Christen propped herself up on her elbows where she was lying on her stomach on the hotel bed. “Are you stuck on a problem?”

“Calculus blows.”

“I know you hate it, but you have to keep it up. Do you want me to help you work it out?”

“They asked about you, you know. Again.” Mal looked up at Christen this time, swivelling around in her seat at the desk to face her.

Christen raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you just trying to procrastinate now?”

“Maybe. But they did ask about you.”

“They, being?” Christen asked, but she already knew the answer. It was the fourth day of camp and Christen knew her luck was truly about to run out any minute with how many close calls she’d had up to that point.

Right from Mal’s first practice, where she told Christen she’d done another cut back in the box and scored in the top right corner only to be complemented ‘by the one and only Tobin Heath’ she knew.

The next day, Christen found herself bolting around the corner of a corridor to avoid running into Tobin and a few other players she remembered, even if she was sure her eyes met Tobin’s.

Then there was yesterday, when Mal had said that Kelley and Alex had asked about her sister, inviting her to yet another team dinner that night.

Christen had once again declined the offer, but after three days of essentially nothing but sleeping and helping Mal with her homework, Christen’s excuses were looking pretty suspicious to Mal.

Christen could sense the suspicion only grew when she tried to ask Mal what she had told them about her, and what their responses had been.

It wasn’t that Christen was worried Mal might reveal to Tobin who she was – their past had made Mal into someone who wasn’t quick to tell much to anyone about her personal life. Christen knew she was the same. As protective as Christen was of Mal, Mal was the same for her. She never told people more about Christen than they needed to hear.

(Mal spending the formative years of her childhood in fear that she and Christen might be separated really fucked her up).

Besides, Mal didn’t even know Christen ever played soccer at national youth camps before, or that she was once good friends with a handful of players on the team. But if there was the chance that Tobin remembered her at all, and if Mal had even told them her name was Christen, maybe she might have pieced it together.

She couldn’t even think about how heartbroken Mal would be when she found out about her past. She’d always said to herself she was just protecting Mal by not telling her. Deep down she knew how hurt Mal would be that she kept this from her.

On top of all of that, the thought of having to see Tobin after all these years was completely overwhelming, to say the least. Christen rolled the ring around her finger worriedly as she got lost in her thoughts.

“Chris?”

“Yeah?” Mal’s question brought Christen back to reality. “Sorry, what did you say?”

“I said it was Alex and Kelley. They seem pretty interested in you hanging out with everyone some point soon. And they’re your age too, I’m pretty sure.”

Christen just nodded, still playing with the ring.

“I think Tobin also said she wanted to meet you, but she was being real weird when Alex and Kelley were talking to me. She kept telling them to shut up but then she’d want them to ask more questions about you…I don’t know, she was just being strange.” Mal laughed at the memory.

Christen tried not to look like she was going to faint.

“We have a rest day tomorrow. Maybe you could meet some of them then.” Mal said, tapping Christen’s forehead with her pencil.

“Maybe. That is if I decide to let you out of this room at all after this poor attempt at your so called homework.” Christen shook off her feelings, getting off the bed to look at Mal’s book. “So, show me how you’re working it out at the moment and I’ll try and see where you’re getting stuck.”

----------

The next day Christen found herself staring in the bathroom mirror as she threw her curls into a ponytail. Her reflection bore into her in a way she didn’t like, so she averted her own gaze away, figuring her hair was fine. 

She took a deep breath as she walked back towards the hotel bed, mulling over what Mal had come in to tell her a few minutes before. 

A few of the girls were getting lunch, Tobin, Kelley, Alex, Ashlyn and Mal included. Mal had told her they pretty much demanded Christen came, feeling bad that she was spending all this time by herself while they were at camp.

Mal had pointed out to her that all her homework was up to date and there was nothing else Christen had to worry about so please would she come so Mal didn’t have to tell them no again.

Christen had just nodded her head dumbly, knowing it was finally time to face the music.

As she stared into nothingness, a shiny object on the bed caught her eye. It was Mal’s phone – she must have left it here when she was in just before. Knowing they weren’t leaving for lunch for another hour, she put it in her pocket, leaving the room to go and give it back to her.

The minute she stepped out into the hallway she knew it was a terrible mistake. From around the corner, her ears pricked at hearing a laugh that had been embedded into her mind from 12 years ago.

She could picture Tobin’s smile and body shake as the laughter continued, and she stood frozen in place, not being able to think.

Did she want to see Tobin? Did she not?

How would she take it if Tobin didn’t recognise her? Would she pretend to not know who she was, either?

The footsteps attached to the laughter were getting closer. When they were almost at the corner Christen suddenly remembered how her own legs worked.

She tried her best to turn and book it the other way down the hall before she was spotted but she knew it was a fruitless effort.

“Hey,” Tobin’s voice called out, the laughter ceasing.

Christen stopped in place, staring forwards. She didn’t dare turn around. Her hands clammed up, her grip on Mal’s phone faltering.

The footsteps got closer. So close, that Christen could hear the exact moment Tobin stopped a few feet away from her.

“Hey.” Tobin tried again.

Fuck.

Slowly, slowly, Christen swivelled in place. She took her time lifting her gaze from the floor, all the while trying to convince herself she didn’t notice (and love) how prominent Tobin’s calf muscles were.

When her eyes finally locked on to Tobin’s, it was like the world stopped. She took in the shocked look on Tobin’s face, before watching the wide smile she had only been seeing in her dreams break out.

“So it is you.” Tobin’s smile was in place, though the overwhelming look of disbelief still remained.

Christen was too dumbstruck to speak. She had been so terrified of this moment for so long. She never thought she’d have to face her.

But seeing Tobin’s eyes and her smile and hearing her voice again stirred a kind of excitement inside her she hadn’t let herself feel in an age. She didn’t know what to do with herself.

And wait – had Tobin just said that? That sounded an awful lot like something you’d say to someone you remembered. But surely she couldn’t have –

“Christen? It…it is you, right?” Tobin sounded a bit unsure now.

Christen wanted to say something, but she physically felt like she’d forgotten how to speak. She watched as Tobin wrung her hands together nervously, waiting for her to answer.

She almost got distracted – she could remember like it was yesterday how soft Tobin’s hand felt in hers when they were 15 years old. But when her eye caught the light reflecting off something on Tobin’s finger, she felt like she might pass out.

Right there, right where she saw Tobin slide it on to her finger 12 years ago, was Christen’s ring.

“You know I waited for you. I waited for you until that loud u-17 coach threatened to make me run laps for the whole camp. I was so sure you were going to walk into the changing room, Christen. Where did you go?”

Christen’s mouth was dry. She could barely accept that Tobin had remembered her – how could she find the words to tell her what happened?

(Most days she wasn’t even sure she herself had processed what happened).

When she finally found the courage to look up at Tobin, she didn’t meet her eyes – Tobin was staring intently at her hands. She hadn’t even realised she was wringing them together nervously either.

Judging by the overwhelmed look on Tobin’s face, she had just seen her own ring still on Christen’s middle finger.

Now she knew too.

After all those years.

A smile started to blossom on Tobin’s face.

Come on Christen, just say something.

“Tobin, I…”

 

Chapter Text

“Tobin, I…”

If Tobin’s smile got any bigger it would burst right off her face. When Christen said her name, she seemed to laugh in giddiness from it.

“Holy shit. Holy shit. I can’t believe it’s you, Christen. I really…holy shit.

Christen watched Tobin verbally process their meeting and thought it about accurately summed up her feelings on the situation too.

Holy. Shit.

As dumbfounded as Christen was, Tobin was still standing there in front of her with her big smile and excited eyes. She physically couldn’t keep a small smile from creeping onto her own face, feeling a blush follow it when Tobin’s smile got wider still.

“Tobin, I…” She tried again, trying to force her brain to connect with her mouth and do something. “You…you remember me?”

The look of disbelief was back on Tobin’s face, her mouth falling open a bit in shock. “Remember you? Chris, I couldn’t forget you if I tried.” She said fearlessly, looking directly at Christen. “Not once in 12 years. Not once.”

Oh.

That was it. Christen was going to pass out in this hotel hallway. She couldn’t possibly hear one more overwhelming thing come out of Tobin’s mouth, it was too much.

She had to be dreaming, that was the only explanation. It wouldn’t be the first dream she had had that felt this real, and soon enough she’d wake up and see Mal sleeping next to her and she’d forget about this ridiculous scenario.

Forget about a world where Tobin remembered her, where Tobin called her Chris and said she hadn’t forgotten her in 12 years. Where Tobin was standing in front of her, looking more beautiful than Christen could have ever imagined her to be, playing with Christen’s ring on her finger in a familiar way like she’d been doing it for years.

Except – except that Tobin was standing in front of her doing all of those things.

She was standing in front of her as she nervously brushed a hand through her hair, a slightly hesitant look growing on her face.

And now Christen was really starting to doubt whether this was a dream.

“Please say something.” Tobin’s soft voice seemed to cut through the cloud in Christen’s head, urging her to respond.

“You’re still wearing my ring.”

Tobin’s smile was back in full force. “To remember you by.” The earnest look on her face made Christen feel like she had teleported back 12 years ago to exactly what Tobin looked like when she first handed over her ring. “And you’re still wearing mine.”

Christen nodded, touching it protectively. “To remember you by.”

Tobin looked so giddy she might laugh. “You don’t know how happy it makes me to hear you say that.”

Christen had never resonated with something so much in her life. She couldn’t ever possibly count the amount of times in the last 12 years she had turned to her ring and remembered the person behind it and the inspiration it gave her. Times when she was lost, terrified, exhausted. When she had almost nothing left to give Mal, let alone herself.

She had never forgotten.

“I think I have a fair idea.” She said, laughing along with Tobin in happiness, shock, disbelief, relief, comfort, whatever she was feeling at that point.

It definitely wasn’t a dream.

(It was good. It was so good).

Christen isn’t really sure what happened in the next few minutes. She’s not even sure if either of them spoke. They were so absorbed in being in each other’s presence again.

She can’t stop looking at Tobin – her bright eyes, her smile, her ring on her finger.

She had never dared to hope that Tobin would remember her even as a faded memory. Maybe as a good friend in the past, if she was lucky. But this?

This kind of good thing didn’t happen to Christen. She could have never in all her wildest dreams imagined this.

“Can I give you a hug?”

Tobin’s question takes Christen back straight away. She so clearly remembers the first time Tobin asked her that 12 years ago. It was the night of their first training.

“We should really be asleep.” Christen whispered to Tobin as they sat side by side on the floor of the outdoor balcony of her hotel room. There was a slight breeze in the night air – mild for East coast standards, really – but it didn’t go unnoticed by her how Tobin pressed closer into her side when she shivered slightly.

“Yeah. Maybe.” Tobin whispered back, her eyes looking out at the night sky lights.

Christen looked out at the lights as well, but her eyes soon drifted back to looking at Tobin. They weren’t even one day in to the u-17 camp but she was in deep.

She’d tried to be cool about how much she wanted to be around Tobin, but she’s not sure how successful she had been. Since they had first talked that morning they’d spent almost the entire day together.  

They were in pairs for the drills. They stayed late and practiced more. They sat next to each other at dinner. They were the last ones to leave. And they were the only two that seemed to be unable to go into their separate rooms and sleep, despite how exhausting the first day had been.

Christen had heard that in camps players usually had a roommate. She was disappointed to find that on this camp they had their own rooms.

(Maybe she was just disappointed she didn’t have the chance to be paired with Tobin).

Christen was one for routine. She liked to sleep 8 hours a day and she liked to have all of her clothes sorted and she liked to know when things were happening and how she would be doing them.

Yet, her clothes sat in her room behind her, half unpacked, half strewn on her bed. She hadn’t had the chance to check the schedule for the next day. She knew it was way past midnight.

And she didn’t care at all.

She didn’t care because of the girl sitting next to her, pressed into her side, her baby hairs having come loose from her ponytail to sway gently in the breeze.

They had wanted to hang out some more, and Christen, who barely ever went looking to break rules, had told Tobin to sneak back to her room after curfew was done. They’d been sitting on the balcony, staring at the view and murmuring to each other quietly for quite some time now.

“What are you thinking about?” Her mouth had opened before her brain had time to stop it and she felt her cheeks go red. That wasn’t something you asked someone you’d known for one day.  

Yet, Christen felt like she’d known Tobin her whole life.

A smile formed on Tobin’s face as she turned her gaze away from the lights and onto Christen.

Her brown eyes looked honest and warm when the moon’s light hit them. Her hair looked so shiny, the corners of her mouth threatening to pull up into a soft smile – yes and breathe Christen, breathe, that’s how you keep living and don’t pass out because of how beautiful the girl beside you is.

“Why are we whispering?”

Tobin’s reply caught her off guard and she giggled, and then Tobin dissolved into a proper laugh. When Tobin laughed it was like music in Christen’s ears. She could listen to it forever.

But she was also aware they were awake way later than they were supposed to be, and loud laughing would wake people up.  

“Tobin!” She whisper shouted, barely managing to keep her own laughter under control. “Tobin, you have to be quiet!”

For a second Tobin looked like she might have pulled herself together, until she took one look at Christen’s struggling face and burst out laughing again.

Against her better judgment, Christen pulled herself up onto her knees to get better leverage to clamp her hand over Tobin’s mouth, muffling the sound of her laughter.

Within seconds Tobin’s laughter cut out. It was quickly apparent, though, that this had less to do with Christen’s hand being on her mouth and more to do with where Christen’s body had ended up.  

Christen was leaning on her knees, having turned in to face Tobin to keep her quiet. The whole front of her body was pressed into Tobin’s side now, and her face had ended up a lot closer to Tobin’s than she intended it to (although she wasn’t going to complain about that).

Their gaze locked on to each other and Christen swore she’d never seen eyes so warm. She could see little flecks of darker brown in them. She could almost see the reflection of the moon. She felt like she could see everything of Tobin if she looked at them for long enough.  

It wasn’t until she felt a tiny puff of breath from Tobin’s nose hit her hand that she realised what position she was currently in. She quickly slipped her hand away, not focusing at all on how soft Tobin’s lips had felt against her palm, and what it might feel like one day to kis-  

- definitely not.

“Come on, I’m cold.” Christen said instead, telling a complete lie because she was sure her cheeks would never stop burning from the blush. She stood up, immediately missing the warmth that Tobin’s body provided.

Tobin stared up at her as she stood, a smile playing on her face. “Such a California girl.” She took Christen’s outstretched hand and pulled herself up.

Christen was moving too fast and missed the way a blush painted Tobin’s entire face as she stepped back into the room, trying to clear her head.

They both seemed to slowly edge towards the door, neither one willing to be the one to open it and send Tobin down the hall back to her own room. When they couldn’t really stand behind the closed door much longer, Christen reluctantly grabbed the handle.

“Wait.” Tobin said gently, halting her movements. Christen looked up at her, feeling comforted by her soft gaze. “I…I loved spending time with you today, Christen.”

Tobin couldn’t be real. She just couldn’t.

The blush on Christen’s face came back in full force. She squeaked out a reply. “Me too. I mean – I loved spending time with you, not me.” Oh god. Why. Why?

Tobin let out another laugh – quieter this time – a grin coming onto her face.

“Shut up. You know what I mean.” Christen said when she saw it, laughing as Tobin held her hands up in innocence. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow.” Tobin nodded. “Whenever we have to wake up. I’m not really good at waking up.”

Christen let out a fond eye roll before she could stop herself, but her heart fluttered in excitement when she saw Tobin blush in response to it. “I’ll bang on your door until you wake up.”

Tobin’s cheesy grin was back. “What would I do without you?”

(Part of Christen hoped she’d never have to find out).

Then the door was open and Tobin had taken a step out. It looked like she might continue before she abruptly turned around, words tumbling out of her mouth.

“Can I give you a hug?”

Christen should have been given an award for how cool she played it when Tobin asked her that. If her heart rate had anything to do with it she would have literally jumped in happiness.

Instead, she offered a small smile and a nod, holding her arms out for Tobin to walk into and wrapping them around her waist when she did.

She wasn’t a dramatic person.

She wasn’t a dramatic person, but it might have been the greatest feeling of her life to date.

She remembers the memory so clearly it’s like she can feel Tobin’s arms around her already. Not trusting her brain to try and formulate an answer with intelligible words in it, Christen just nods. She feels like she’s watching in slow motion as Tobin moves closer to her, wrapping her arms around her neck.

The warmth that envelopes Christen when Tobin’s body gently presses against her is so strong it makes tears spring to her eyes. Before she can stop herself she wraps her arms around Tobin’s waist tighter, pulling into her more fully until all she can feel is Tobin.

Tobin. Tobin.

She still smells the same. She still has the same strong arms that make Christen’s body burn when they touch but also anchor her to the moment.

She still feels the same comfort, the same protection from being enveloped in her arms.

She can almost pretend nothing has changed.

Christen tries not to imagine what Tobin will think of her when she finds out who she is now. She’s not the same. Not the same person Tobin knew. Not the girl with the dreams and the drive to fulfil them.

But then Tobin is murmuring in her ear, her voice hitting soft against her skin and Christen’s thoughts melt away, hard thoughts she can deal with another time. “I’ve waited 12 years to give you this hug.”

Christen laughs but she wants to cry. She laughs and squeezes her eyes together so tight she might actually cry.

She hugs Tobin closer, if that was possible, and hopes she knows how much she has thought about this hug as well. Hopes she knows she could easily let herself stay in this hug forever. Where the rest of the world faded away, where –

“Chris?”

Christen pulls away from Tobin so quickly she almost startles herself. She sees Mal standing a few feet away from her and with one look at her face Christen just knows she won’t be able to get out of this one.

Fuck.

In the last 12 years other than herself, Mal has seen Christen hug a grand total of zero people that close. Christen knows from even the way she was standing close to Tobin that Mal would know they were somewhat familiar with each other.

Out of the corner of her eye Christen can see a flash of confusion cross Tobin’s eyes from the abrupt change in circumstances. She internally panics, trying to decide whether to be more worried about what Mal or Tobin thinks.

She didn’t mean to pull away from the hug so fast. She just got lost in the world in Tobin’s arms. Where it was just the two of them.

Seeing Mal snapped Christen back to reality.

She shouldn’t let herself get lost in Tobin’s arms. She shouldn’t let herself think that way when she knew nothing about Tobin’s life.

And she should really know better to hope that Tobin would feel the same way when she hugged her – that the world stopped for her too. This had been enough for Christen. It had already been so good. She shouldn’t hope for more. She had Mal, and Mal –

Mal was still standing in front of her, still wearing a look that was cutting straight through her. Mal was still standing in front of her, looking between her and Tobin as if she was trying to figure out what she had walked in on. And Mal was still standing in front of her, not knowing at all the history that existed between her and Tobin. Between her and soccer.

Christen’s past was colliding so fast into this one moment and she couldn’t process what to do. She couldn’t think how to explain this to Mal – she was still having a hard time believing everything that happened with Tobin was real.

But then Tobin’s eyes were locking onto Mal, and the confusion from before was falling away, being replaced by excitement.

“Mal!” She beamed at her and back at Christen, then shook her head in a kind of disbelief.

“Hey, Tobin.” Mal replied, and for all the questioning looks she was throwing their way she still blushed, not quite used to someone like Tobin Heath being her teammate and being excited to see her.

Christen realised there was nothing she could do to prevent what would happen next. She could see it unfolding in front of her eyes before it happened.

She didn’t even try to stop it.

“This is so crazy.” Tobin was still shaking her head, looking between them. “Of all the ways we would see each other again, who would have thought it would be like this.”

Christen internally grimaced, shooting a look to Mal the same time she did to her.

“What do you mean?” Mal’s question was for Tobin, but she was still looking straight at Christen.

Christen didn’t want to hold her gaze, feeling the guilt eat her up inside. But she couldn’t look away.

“Well it’s crazy, right? I first meet Christen at a national youth camp, then I’m meeting her younger sister at a national team camp. It’s like – ”

“You met Christen where?”

This time Christen does look away, no longer able to hold Mal’s gaze. She saw a trickle of bewilderment creep into Mal’s eyes and she couldn’t stand to see it directed at her.

This wasn’t how she wanted it to be. And she definitely didn’t want Tobin to be in the middle of it all. It wasn’t her fault she didn’t know. But she just kept talking.

And Christen didn’t stop her.

“At a camp 12 years ago. Christen was one of the best strikers in the country for her age, probably for the whole u-17 level.”

“What? No she wasn’t.” Christen could tell Mal’s voice was being directed at her with an urgency in it, as if pleading with Christen to tell her it was all a joke, that she didn’t do that because of course Mal would have known about it if she did.

“She was, Mal. You should have seen her. You know that cut back move you do in the box, the one that kills defenders every time? She’s the one who mastered it. Taught it to me, too. When I saw you do it at training with us all those months back, it was like I was watching a 15 year old Christen pl…”

Tobin finally seemed to become aware of the tension in the corridor, the distanced look that Mal was giving Christen and the way Christen was staring determinedly at the floor. She trailed off, her words hanging in the air.

Mal barrelled on, not really caring at that point about what Tobin was saying beyond what she was hearing about a younger Christen. “She didn’t do that. She only played club soccer for a few years. She never went to a youth camp. Right, Christen? Tell her.”

As soon as Christen looked up at Mal she knew it was a mistake.

Her eyes involuntarily watered with tears at the sight of her younger sister looking at her like that. Mal’s words were suggesting otherwise, but Christen knew that Mal knew Tobin was telling the truth. That somehow, this whole other side of Christen had once existed that she never knew about.

That her older sister, her best friend, her hero had purposefully kept this from her.

“Mal, I…” Christen tried, but the more she spoke the more the tears in her eyes threatened to spill over.

Mal shook her head, not wanting to believe it. A tear rolled down her cheek. “You wouldn’t keep this from me. You would have told me.”

“I wanted to tell you.”

“We tell each other everything.”

“I wanted to tell you, I swear. But – ”

“But what?”

Christen’s insides crumble at Mal’s expression. Betrayal shone through Mal’s eyes, even though there was still a glimmer of desperation that this somehow wasn’t true.

It was a look she didn't see often on Mal, and one almost never directed at her.

“Baby, I’m so sorry.” She tries to take a step towards Mal, but when she does Mal takes a step back away from her. It makes Christen falter so much she stops in her tracks.

Her whole life Mal had only ever been turning towards her. Running to her when she picked her up from school. Curling into her when she was crying. Jumping on her in excitement. Looking up at her when she didn’t know what to do next. Hugging her tight when she woke from a nightmare.

She always knew how much Mal relied on her. She was acutely aware of it.

But in that moment she realised just how much she relied on Mal. She had always had her there. Mal was the one thing in Christen’s life she knew was forever.

Without that, she could already feel herself start to fall apart – the more steps backwards Mal took the more Christen’s stability shattered.

She watches Mal hold her gaze of disbelief, eyes watery with tears. Before she can do anything else, Mal turns away, taking off down the hallway and out of sight.

Christen’s hands shake as she wrings them together, still staring at the spot where Mal was before her, not knowing what to do next. She almost forgets Tobin is there with her until the other woman speaks, her voice piercing the quiet corridor.

“Christen, I’m so sorry. I…I didn’t know Mal didn’t know. I just figured…I mean, I just thought she would know.”

Tobin’s words float through the air, registering distantly in Christen’s brain. Of course she would have thought Mal would know. What kind of sister wouldn’t share that? What kind of sister would keep that information to herself, even though she knew how hurt Mal would be?

A noise comes out of her mouth that is a mixture of a bitter laugh and a sob, her tears making their best effort yet to spill over her eyes.

But she can’t cry now. She can’t lose it in front of Tobin, she can’t.

She’s such a mess. Surely Tobin can already see that. She’ll see how fucked up Christen has gotten since they last were together. She’ll see the Christen she knew – the Christen she’s been remembering all these years, is just a figment of her memory.

She’s sure Tobin will want to keep her distance from her after this, but she still has to try and maintain some sort of dignity in front of her.

She forces herself to take a deep breath, keeping her tears at bay as she squeezes her hands together tightly to ground herself.  

“It’s fine, Tobin, don’t worry. You didn’t know.” She tries her best to put a reassuring smile on.

It’s blatantly clear from the look on Tobin’s face that she didn’t succeed.

“I’m so sorry.” Tobin says again, looking like she wants to move closer to Christen and do something to remedy the situation but not knowing what. She carries on, almost as if talking to herself, speaking her thoughts out loud. “I just assumed…”

Christen looks on, feeling nauseous inside. It’s like she can see the gears in Tobin’s mind clicking into place. She isn’t sure how much Tobin knows or has figured out about her and Mal and their past. But it’s clear she’s replaying what she just saw.

Soon she’ll remember that Christen never answered her when she asked her why she didn’t show up to that next camp. She’ll remember she said she waited for her and Christen didn’t say what happened.

Christen knows she was lucky the first time that Tobin got distracted with the fact that they were together again. This time, though, she’ll surely want answers.

The thought of how emotionally draining it would be to explain her story to Tobin makes Christen want to disappear. She can’t even begin to process how she would do that.

(If she was in a clearer state of mind she’d realise Tobin was looking at her in concern, not judgment. That Tobin wasn’t expecting anything from her – no answers, no explanations, not a bit. That Tobin just wanted to be there for her, just to help her, just to do anything that would comfort her).

Instead, Christen takes a step away from Tobin and shakes her head. “I’m sorry, Tobin. I have to go. I have to find Mal.”

She takes another step back and Tobin takes one forward. “I’ll come with you, I’ll help you.” She must have a hesitant look on her face because Tobin carries on, more unsure now. “If…if that’s what you want.”

It’s too much to deal with.

Tobin is standing there, looking apologetic and helpless, earnest in her offer and caring in her eyes.

Christen is standing there, feeling like her feet had been pulled out from under her. She had experienced what felt like the extremes of happiness and sadness all in the space of a few minutes.

She is confused about everything except one thing – she has to find her baby sister.

“I’m sorry, Tobin. I…Mal, she’s my whole world. I have to go.” Christen turns away before she finishes speaking. She can’t bear to wait and see the disappointment she’s sure would be in Tobin’s eyes at her rejection.

If Tobin didn’t want anything to do with her before, she definitely wouldn’t now.

(If Christen had stayed to see Tobin’s reaction she would have seen no disappointment or rejection. She would have seen concerned eyes, a soft smile. The support she desperately needed to let herself have).

Instead, she books it down the lift and out of the hotel lobby, looking down both sides of the street.

If she were Mal, where would she go.

Think, Christen, think.

She thought the walk would calm her. But it only gave her time to ponder on her feelings.

(Feelings never seemed to go well for Christen).

She scolds herself as she walks down the sidewalk, bitterness in her head.

This is why you don’t self-indulge, Christen. This is why you don’t let your feelings rule you.

You should have stayed away from where Tobin would be. You should have just said hello and moved on.

You haven’t seen Tobin in 12 years and the first thing she witnesses is you being a terrible sister and you completely walking out on her.

Your baby sister is somewhere in LA by herself with no phone because it’s still in your pocket.

You stop putting Mal first once and everything goes wrong.

“Never again.” Christen says to herself, stressfully continuing her walk until she sees a familiar person laying beneath one of many huge trees dotted in a park the next road over.

She relaxes upon seeing Mal and simultaneously feels her chest tighten as she thinks about the conversation they’ll now have to have.

Nothing like having to explain to your sister about a whole chunk of your life you had pretty successfully blocked from your mind up to this point.

For something that happened 12 years ago, Christen really should have prepared for this moment better.

 

Chapter Text

Mal didn’t move when Christen slowly walked towards her. She didn’t move when Christen lay down beside her on the grass, leaving some space in between them instead of pressing into her side like she usually would. She didn’t move when Christen slipped her hand into hers.

But when Christen squeezed her hand gently and murmured out a soft “I love you so much, Mallory,” she sobbed, chest wracking with them as tears streamed out of her eyes and down the side of her face.

Christen didn’t wrap her arms around Mal like she usually would when she was upset. She knew that she had to let Mal come to her. Her hand in hers was enough for now, and whenever Mal was ready, she’d be there.

For what felt like the millionth time in her life, she was so thankful Mal was her baby sister. Mal was one of the most gentle, easy going and loving people she had ever known. They had been through so much, but for Mal to be so young through it all and come out the other side without losing her spirit was a testament to her.

(It was a testament to Christen’s efforts in raising her as well – not that Christen would ever give herself the credit she deserved for that).

Christen could count on one hand the amount of times Mal had ever been truly angry. For that, she was thankful. She knew foster care could jade kids. She knew being subjected to horrible foster parent after horrible foster parent could trickle down to kids, give them unhealthy coping mechanisms and anger issues.

Why talk things out when you could yell and scream? Why give someone a hug and say sorry when you could throw something at them? Why praise them when you could tear them down because your own life was shit?

Christen did everything she could to undo the damage she could see their foster parents inflicting on them. If their foster parents were menaces around the house she would keep Mal out of there. If their foster parents were the type to lock the doors so they couldn’t leave she and Mal would build blanket forts and hide from the world.

She would talk to Mal, constantly.

She would praise her achievements, tell her how much she admired her determination when she accomplished something she set her mind to. She would tell her what she loved about her.

If Mal had been yelled at by a foster parent they would talk about it. It was so important to her that Mal never went to be angry. She would make sure Mal knew nothing they said was true.

When it felt like nothing Christen was saying would make Mal smile, she would ask Mal what she found beautiful in the world. When Mal talked about the things she loved she just lit up.

Mal loved the flowers by her school, and the grass when she played soccer, and the shapes they would find in the clouds together. She loved the feeling of scoring goals and she loved her shiny blue pen.

“And you, Chrissy. You’re my most beautiful thing in the world.”

(Christen loves Mal so fucking much).

She wasn’t always successful in her efforts to cheer Mal up. Sometimes life was so confusing and jarring for a young kid it was all Mal could do not to cry and be angry and question everything.

She looked at Christen like she held the answers to the universe. She looked at Christen like she put the stars in the sky. When things went wrong, Christen would fix them.

Most of the time, Christen would do everything in her power to make that be true. But when she couldn’t, or worse, when Mal was angry because of her? Christen never quite felt more at a loss than then.

“Chrissy, no! I want to stay with you!” An 8 year old Mal sobbed in Christen’s arms as they stood on the sidewalk outside the foster home.

Christen’s grip on Mal tightened and she held her head to her chest protectively. “Shhh, baby, shhh. We have to be quiet.” She whispered, kissing the side of Mal’s head.

It was late – much later than Christen wanted Mal to be awake. She had just finished an evening shift at the diner and Mal had been with her there since she arrived from school. Her baby sister had eaten dinner there, fallen asleep in a booth and stayed asleep in Christen’s arms as they took the bus back. Just like every night.

Now, standing outside the old foster home, Mal was wide awake and she was not having it. Just like every night.

"Don’t make me go back there.” Mal’s words were interrupted by her sobs as her tears wet Christen’s uniform.

Those words made Christen’s stomach drop. They were new. She immediately tilted Mal’s head up so she could look at her, panic in her eyes. “What did they do? Did they say something to you? Did they touch you?”

Mal seemed surprised at the intensity in Christen’s question she almost forgot she was still crying. She shook her head in the negative, her little hands curling around the baby hairs on the back of Christen’s neck as Christen sighed in relief, hugging Mal close to her again.  

“I don’t even see them. I just want to stay with you.”

“I know, baby. I want to be with you, too.”

Christen’s eyes wandered over Mal’s shoulder to stare at the slightly run down foster home. It was their fifth one in three years, and Christen’s last. As soon as she had turned 18 and the foster parents stopped receiving a cheque for letting her live there, she was told to move on.

She had prepared herself for that. She already knew these were the foster parents who were only in it for the money.

From the first hour they were in that foster home she could tell that as long as they stayed out of the foster parents’ way, they wouldn’t care what Christen and Mal did. Christen had sworn black and blue that if they didn’t want to bother with them, they wouldn’t be a bother. They didn’t have to do anything for them and Christen and Mal would cause no fuss.

They were like ships in the night, sometimes going days without seeing the parents. They didn’t help Christen or Mal with anything, they never spoke to them. It was like they weren’t even there.

(It wasn’t saying much about the foster care system that this was their best foster house yet).  

Christen had preferred it that way. The less interaction Mal had with any of these foster parents, the better. She wasn’t going to risk her safety again, not after what happened before.

She kissed Mal’s forehead gently when the memory flooded back to her, right over the scar in the middle of it.  

They managed to be in that fifth foster home for essentially the entirety of Christen being 17. She knew what would happen on her next birthday. So, she spent every spare minute she had either working at the diner, playing soccer in the park with Mal, and researching all she could about what she would need to have set up for herself so she could foster Mal when she turned 18.

With the tiny amount that her parent’s had left them finally being accessible to her on her 18th birthday added to her savings, she had managed to move into her own small apartment just a few blocks away.

Bureaucracy and a shit social worker were two of the many reasons why Mal wasn’t there with her yet. It had been two months since Christen had had to move out on her own, leaving Mal by herself in this house. Two months of being separated from the only person in the world she cared about.

It was agonizing for both of them, and it ended in tears for Mal (and Christen, in private, later) almost every night when Christen would try and convince her to go inside by herself.

Mal might technically have not been able to live with Christen yet. But for all intents and purposes, she did. Early every morning Christen would walk to the foster house and pick Mal up, taking her back to her apartment and feeding her breakfast, giving her lunch and dropping her off at school.

She would then go to the diner and work a double shift. Mal would come to the diner after school, sitting in her usual booth and doing her homework. Christen would check it on her break, sometimes slipping Mal a cookie if she’d done an especially good job of it.

If Mal was especially restless, Christen would try and negotiate with her manager to get an extended break (to varying degrees of success), running across the street to the park with a soccer ball and Mal, letting the kid run her energy out.

They would eat dinner together – the good thing about working in a diner was free staff meals. Mal had charmed the chefs with her adorable grin and she always got a meal as well.

  By the time the diner would get quiet for the night, Mal would have fallen asleep, curled up in the booth. Christen would clock out at 10pm, carrying out a still sleeping Mal and holding her on her lap as she continued to sleep on the bus home.

It was when they got off the bus, that the real challenge started.

Christen had really made it harder on herself. A few weeks in to this arrangement Mal had started fighting off sleep, refusing to nap in the diner or on the bus home. She would cling to Christen, not letting go no matter what her older sister said.

The first night Christen relented and took Mal back to her apartment with her for the night, Mal had been crying non-stop for an hour. She couldn’t make Mal go into the foster house alone even if she wanted to.

Which she didn’t, of course, she wanted the comfort of Mal sleeping beside her as well.

Having Mal staying at her apartment without the approval of the foster parents was all kinds of breaking the law. But it was hard to care about that when an overjoyed smile lit up Mal’s face at the news, and the two of them walked hand in hand past the foster home and over a few blocks to Christen’s house.

But after the first time, it got harder and harder to say no when Mal asked every night to stay at her house instead. The first night she had stayed with Christen, Christen was half expecting the cops to show up at her door for taking Mal. She deep down knew it was unlikely – Mal could count on one hand the amount of times she saw the foster parents each week. They never had a clue.  

Still, she couldn’t keep risking it. She couldn’t jeopardize her attempts to legally foster Mal. She was so close to having all the paper work finalised. If they ever found out about this, it would be game over for her. She’d never get to have Mal with her, and if that happened she’d never be able to live with herself.  

If only 8 year old Mal could comprehend that.

“Why won’t you let me stay with you.” Mal cried against her chest, in a koala like grip in Christen’s arms. “Why don’t you want me with you?”

Christen’s heart broke. “No, Mal, no. Of course I want you to stay with me. I would give anything to have you with me.” She said, gently crouching down and setting Mal in front of her so she could look at her in the eyes. “Don’t ever think I don’t want you. You are my whole world, Mal. The most important person to me. Nothing matters to me more than you, ok? Nothing.”  

Mal just stared at her, tears streaming down her face.

“Baby, I can’t take you with me. I can’t risk it. I know I’ve taken you with me before a few times but we can’t do it every time. It’s too dangerous. I’m not allowed to.”  

“But…but you’re my sister.”

Christen smiled softly, eyes watering. “I know. I wish that was enough. It will be soon, but not right now, ok? I promise we’ll be together every night soon.”

“You said that last week.” Mal said angrily, either at Christen or at the world or at both. She was overtired, scared, and couldn’t understand why her sister just wouldn’t let her be with her.  

“I know, Mal. I hear you. I’m not lying to you, I promise. I’ll do whatever I can to get you back with me.”

Mal squeezed her eyes shut in anger and buried her head in Christen’s chest, letting out what sounded like a frustrated growl.

Christen tried not to panic. This was normal, kids had tantrums when they were tired.

In fact, she felt like she could almost give Mal a free pass for a tantrum or two – most other kids would have been completely off the rails if the only person in their life they trusted or loved couldn’t live in the same house as them anymore.  

It was almost 11pm. Mal needed to go to bed and Christen definitely needed to go to bed. But Christen couldn’t let Mal go without seeing a smile. She couldn’t let Mal go without talking about it, without making sure Mal knew she was wanted.

She wouldn’t let the anger fester in Mal and turn her into anything but her sweet, soft natured self.

She sat down on the kerb, gently put Mal in her lap and told her as much. She told her how she was trying every day to get her to her house. She thought about Mal every single hour. She missed her so much when she went to school and there was nothing that made her happier than when she saw her walk into the diner every day.

“Happier than if you won the lotto?”

Christen beamed, her heart beat relaxing now that Mal’s tears had stopped and she was engaging in conversation again. “Way happier. No amount of money could make me happier than you.”

“Happier than when you see a cute puppy?”

“Oh for sure. You’re cuter than the cutest puppy out there.” Mal’s giggle was music to Christen’s ears.

“Happier than when you get to eat French fries?”

Christen grinned, pretending to think about the question for a few seconds.  

“Chrissy!” Mal laughed, putting her little hands on Christen’s cheeks. “You don’t love French fries more than you love me!”

“Oh really? But have you tasted French fries? They’re so good.”

Mal was laughing more, a grin on her face. “No!” She drew out in a knowing tone. “You’re being silly. I know you love me the most.”

Christen wrapped her arms around Mal tighter, crushing her gently into her chest where she sat on her lap. “That’s right my baby love. There’s no one and nothing that makes me happier than you. There’s no one and nothing I love more than you.”  

“Me too.”

“You’re my most beautiful thing, Mal.”

“You’re my most beautiful thing too.”

Christen stayed on the sidewalk until she saw Mal go around the house, into the back door. She stayed there until she saw the light flick on in the second story bedroom. She waved to Mal when her little sister poked her head under the curtain, checking to see she was still there.

She laughed when she saw Mal under the curtain again five minutes later, changed into her pyjamas with a huge grin on her face showing her clean teeth. Christen would give her two proud thumbs up and they’d spend the next few minutes blowing kisses at each other until Christen pointed to the bed behind Mal.  

Mal would send her one last kiss, touching two fingers to her mouth and holding them up to the window before turning the light out and getting into bed. Christen wouldn’t move from the sidewalk for another few minutes, making sure Mal had fallen asleep before starting her trek home.

She’d have to spend a few hours when she got home reading forms, trying to familiarise herself with what she needed to prove to foster Mal. She’d probably fall asleep with paper all over her face, only to wake up a few short hours later and go and pick Mal back up.

But knowing she had healed some of the hurt in Mal’s heart, that Mal wouldn’t sleep with a frown on her face, unsure and scared and angry? It was worth everything to her. Everything.

The trees they were laying under were swaying rhythmically in the wind. The leaves on the ends of the branches crossed over each other so the blue sky was only visible through them in a kaleidoscope pattern. Under the trees they were covered from the outside world, almost like a bigger version of the blanket forts they used to curl under all those years ago.

Christen still had Mal’s hand in hers, her sister’s steady pulse thrumming calmly under her palm. A few minutes ago she had seen Mal shift infinitesimally closer to her on the grass out of the corner of her eye.

Despite the serious and emotional conversation they were about to have, Christen had to try to keep the smile off her face at that. It was such a classic move of Mal, to try and put distance between them when she was annoyed only to scoot back closer and closer thinking she was being sly about it.

She hoped that part of Mal would never change.

“I’m sorry for running off.” Mal said quietly, her voice barely carrying in the gentle wind. Christen squeezed her hand to let her know she was listening. “I’m mad at you. I’m really mad at you. But I’m sorry for running off. I know it makes you worry.”

Christen could have cried in relief at Mal’s words. In fact, she knew she wasn’t far from crying at all. It was a monumentally better reaction than what she was expecting.

“Thank you for saying that.” Christen tried to match Mal’s tone of voice. “And you have every right to be mad at me.”

At those words another sob ripped from Mal’s chest. She spoke with a teary voice. “I still love you. But I’m really mad at you.”

Tears immediately flooded into Christen’s eyes, blurring the trees in her gaze above. She let out a sound that was halfway between a laugh and a sob, not being able to handle how utterly adorable and heartbroken Mal was.

“I know you love me, Mal. Nothing will ever change that. You can be mad at me and still love me. It’s ok to be mad.”

“I hate being mad at you. I was so angry before but now I’ve had time to think and I’m just hurt, Christen. Why would you not tell me this?”

Christen squeezed Mal’s hand again, taking a breath and trying to clear her vision and her mind before answering.

Where did she even begin with a question like that?

“I never wanted to keep it from you and I’m so, so sorry that you got hurt by finding out like this. I should have told you years ago.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Christen let out a low breath of air, trying to find the right words. “Before Mom and Dad died, soccer was quickly becoming my whole life. I played at high school, and at club – you know Slammers FC?”

“You played club at Slammers?”

“Yeah. We were pretty good, too. We won the U-14 national championship in 2003. That tournament was the last time Mom and Dad saw me play. You were there too.”

“I was?”

“Yeah. But you had only just turned 5.”

Mal was quiet for a bit, mulling over that information. She scooted closer to Christen. Christen held her breath, wondering what she was going to say next. “When did the youth team call you up?”

That day was easy to remember for Christen. She couldn’t stop smiling, and the proud look on her parents’ face was everything to her. “The U-14 tournament was a Youth Soccer ODP tournament. I won the golden boot and I guess they were impressed. So US Soccer called me up to the next u-17 camp.”

“Is that where you met Tobin?”

If Mal meant that’s where she met Tobin and her whole life axis shifted forever, then yes. “Yeah, it is.”

“You should have told me.”

“I know.”

“You should have told me about the youth camp when I first got called to one. You should have told me you knew Tobin when I got called to this camp.”

“I know.”

“You’re the only thing in my life I’ve ever been sure about, Chris. You and soccer. That’s it. I can’t cope when I feel like I don’t know something about you. Something huge about you.”

Christen just nodded, still staring up at the sky, squeezing Mal’s hand.

“I know. I feel the same about you. I know it’s not fair that I ask you to tell me everything and I don’t do the same with you.”

She heard Mal huff, knowing where this was going. “I’m not a little kid, Chris. I’m 17. You don’t have to protect me from everything anymore. I can help you, you know? I want to help.” Mal squeezed her hand softly to make her point. “I worry about you and it’s not fair that you shut me out.”

Tears were streaming out of the corners of Christen’s eyes, sliding off her cheeks and down onto the grass below. “I know.” She croaked out, trying to hold it together. “I know you’re not a little kid anymore. But you’re still so young, Mal. I want you to have a proper childhood. I want you to be free from worries and focus on your life and achieve your dreams.”

“But what about your dreams? What about your childhood? You didn’t get one. You had to look after me.” Mal gasped quietly, as if coming to a realisation. “Tell me you didn’t give up soccer for me.”

At this point there was only half a foot of space in between them, Mal having shifted back closer to Christen. Christen could sense Mal was starting to arrive at the real heart of the problem, and it wasn’t going to be pretty when she did.

“I didn’t choose to give up soccer. From the minute we got put into that first foster home I knew that was the end of the road for my playing. You know how it goes, the older you get and the higher the level you play at, the more you have to travel and the more you have to pay.”

“But…” Mal started but trailed off, knowing Christen was right.

“I didn’t have a car, I had no money, we were living in a house where the doors were locked 24/7. I barely touched a soccer ball that first month we were there, and then it’s not like the second foster house we got moved to was any better. Can you imagine Drunk John giving a shit that I wanted to play for the US Women’s National Team one day?”

Mal let out a bitter scoff and laugh at the tiny memories she had of their second foster house. She finally closed the gap between them, neither sister turning to look at each other yet, but laying shoulder to shoulder, hands intertwined between them.

“It was your dream to play for the National Team?” Mal whispered out, trying to comprehend it. “Your dream got taken away from you?”

That was Christen’s breaking point.

A flood of memories, dreams, ambitions, sweat and tears came back to Christen, hitting her like a freight train.

It was her dream.

She remembers so clearly seeing it slip from her grasp with each day they spent in foster care. Each practice she missed until she knew she would have been kicked off the team. Each camp that passed that she knew she’d never get called back to.

It was her dream. It was all she had ever wanted to do.

When she met Tobin, she’d never wanted to achieve a dream more.

And it got taken away from her.

With Mal being at this camp she’d tried not to think about it. How it could be her in the team as well. How if their parents were still alive, Christen and Mal could have both soared in soccer, both playing on the National Team together.

The memories she had repressed for so long were making themselves known now, and they hurt like hell.

She tried to open her mouth to say yes but when she did a cry came out instead. If the tears were falling out of her eyes before, they were completely streaming out now. They clouded her vision over, her chest heaved in sobs, her throat tight with pain.

She was vaguely aware of Mal letting go of her hand, instead slipping her arm under her shoulders and nudging her towards her. Christen let herself curl into Mal’s side, feeling the warmth of Mal’s arm around her holding her close.

There was nothing she could hear past her own tears, but the constant sound of Mal’s murmurs were comforting her nonetheless. It felt like what she did for Mal when she was upset.

(It was).

Christen didn’t know how long she stayed in that state, and for the first time she really didn’t care. If Mal wanted her to lean on her more, this was the Christen she would get to deal with.

By the sounds of Mal’s soft words, she was up to the task. “It’s ok, Christen. I’m here for you. Just let it out. I’m right here.”

A soft smile came onto Christen’s face when she had calmed down enough to actually register what Mal was saying. She felt Mal place a little kiss on the top of her head and it warmed her heart so much she had a really hard time remembering why she had resisted being weak in front of Mal for so long.

For the first time since she lay down she looked up at Mal, meeting her sister’s brown eyes. They were filled with tears as well, slowly falling down her cheeks. She must have still looked completely upset, because Mal spoke again.

“You’re ok, Chris. I love you so much.”

“I love you too.” The watery reply was all she could manage before she leant her head back down on Mal’s shoulder.

"You're my most beautiful thing."

Christen couldn't possibly love Mal more than she did then. She pressed into her closer, closing her eyes in rare comfort at how nice it felt to have Mal's arm wrapped around her protectively. "You're mine too. Always."

The two were silent for a while, feeling each other breath in and out calmly, listening to the trees swaying in the wind. With each minute that passed Christen felt the weight that had been pressed into her chest for years slowly start to lift off.

“I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to lose soccer. If someone took soccer away from me right now I…I don’t even know how I’d cope.” Mal whispered later, a frown evident in her voice.

“I had you, Mal. That’s how I coped.”

Mal pulled Christen closer to her on hearing that. “It’s not fair to you. It’s not fair that you had to give it up and I got the chance.”

Christen struggled with how to phrase her answer. “Sometimes…sometimes you have to play the hand you’re dealt with. You know I always tell you that we’re not victims of our circumstances. You can fight through adversity. But then there are times where all the odds are against you. For me, it wasn’t possible. It wasn’t the right time. But I knew I could do it for you. I knew it was possible for you.”

When Mal replied her voice wobbled. She was slowly coming to grips with how unfair it all seemed. “I can’t believe…no – no, you deserved to keep playing. You deserved to have a chance. It’s not fair on you. How did you get through that? How could you watch me play…”

She could tell the guilt had hit Mal, hearing the tears in her voice. She didn’t want it to fester and give Mal the wrong idea, so pushed herself up, pulling Mal up with her. She sat across from Mal, their legs crossed and knees touching and took her hands, holding them tight.

Mal’s shoulders were drooping, tears dripping from her eyes as she looked deep in thought.

“Hey, look at me, Mal.” Christen instructed, seeing Mal raise her head to meet her eyes. “Listen to me. I love you so much. No matter what my dreams are, you are my biggest one. I would give up soccer a hundred times over to see you living this dream that you are right now.”

“How can you not hate me when you watch me play? When you see me get excited about camps and games and everything else?”

“Baby, I would never hate you. I couldn’t. I love you and I’ll never stop loving you.” Christen held Mal’s hands tight. “Me missing out on soccer doesn’t take away your achievements.”

“If I had known you used to play soccer and had to stop I would have…I would have…I don’t know, but I would have just done less about it. Brought it up less. I never meant to make you feel sad.”

The tears falling down from Mal’s face break Christen’s heart. This was why she never told her. She knew her sister’s kind heart would take it all on herself. “Baby, no. Come here.” She gently tugged at Mal’s hands and her sister crawled onto her lap, letting her head rest in the crook of Christen’s neck.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

“No, no, shhh,” Christen wrapped Mal completely in her arms, rocking her slowly. “It’s not your fault.”

“If – if I was the older sister you would have gotten to play in the team instead of me!”

Christen kissed Mal’s head, holding her closer. She almost wanted to laugh in disbelief at how sweet Mal was. “Oh, baby, I know, I know. If you were the older sister I know you would have done everything in your power to give your little sister a better life. I know how big your heart is. But it is not your fault that this is the way things turned out, ok? Not at all.”

Mal had stopped sobbing, but her tears didn’t let up. “I shouldn’t be at this camp.”

“What?” Christen looked at Mal like she’d grown three heads. “What are you talking about?”

“It shouldn’t be me. I’m only here because I was just a kid who got to have the best childhood because you gave up your dream for me. It should be you here. You deserve the chance, not me.”

It was exactly what Christen had worried about when she thought of Mal finding out. Mal would be so upset with herself over it even though she did nothing wrong. “I love your heart, Mal. You’re too kind for the world. I know if we could pick how our lives would have gone we would have maybe both ended up playing on the National Team together. That would have been pretty cool, huh?”

Mal nodded into her neck, curling her fist into her shirt and clinging to every last word she said.

“I know it’s not fair and I know it’s so easy to get angry about, but that’s not how life worked out. And instead of getting angry and yelling at the world, we have to look at it a different way. Before, all those years ago, playing soccer was the thing that brought me the most joy. Do you know what it is now?”

“What?”

“Eating French fries.”

Mal burst out laughing, not expecting that joke. Hearing her laugh made Christen smile, relieved tears filling her eyes because her little sister was starting to cheer up.

“You’re not funny.”

“No? So that’s not you laughing?”

“What is it really?”

Christen tilted Mal’s head up, looking at her in the eyes. “It’s watching you play, Mal. It’s seeing that smile on your face when you take off down the field, when you score a goal, when you help your team win. My love for soccer is still so strong. I just exists in a different form now.”

“I play for you. Every game.”

“I know, baby. It makes me so happy.” She kissed Mal’s head softly. “Does what I said kind of make sense to you?”

“Yeah.”

“And you know I wanted to tell you. I just didn’t want you to feel guilty about it. That I’d somehow missed out because of you.”

“Yeah.” Mal repeated, before sitting back a bit in Christen’s lap, facing her properly. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Anything.”

Mal let out a breath before she spoke, giving Christen a serious look. “Do you think I’m more important than you? That my life is somehow more important than yours, or that my dreams are more important than yours?”

Christen thought about the question, maybe for too long, because Mal’s eyes widened. She rushed to say something before Mal worked herself up again. “Where did that question come from?”

“You just…you always do everything for me. You never do anything for you. I know I’ve just been a kid and I’ll never really be able to comprehend how much you’ve done for me, but I still want you to be happy. I worry about you because I don’t think you take care of yourself.” Mal finished softly at the end, almost as if she didn’t want to say it but was forcing herself to.

The internal grimace in Christen was strong. Maybe she hadn’t been as sly as she thought she’d been with Mal over the years. “Hey, I hear you. Thank you for telling me what you’re thinking.” Christen never wanted Mal to feel like she couldn’t tell her something. “Can you maybe tell me what you mean when you say I don’t take care of myself?”

“You just work so much and you never let yourself rest. You’re always driving me to all my soccer stuff and you really suck at sleeping.” That made Christen let out a tiny smile. Mal never had trouble falling asleep but when Christen tossed and turned too much Mal would basically grip her like a koala, holding her in place so she stopped disturbing her sleep.

Mal carried on. “And at training the other day Dawn was talking to us about the importance of self-care and doing things just for ourselves to heal us. But you don’t do that.”

Christen just nodded, feeling the tears come to her eyes again. Mal was so much more observant than she’d ever given her credit for. She clearly worried about this more than she let on.

“But you’re always telling me to go and do fun things. You’re always saying to take care of myself and recover well and all of that. I know you put me first. And I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if you hadn’t. But I hate to think that you believe you’re not worth just as much love and attention.”

A tear fell down Christen’s cheek and Mal hurried to wipe it away. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

Christen didn’t make a habit of crying in front of Mal, so twice in one day (so far) was pretty jarring for her, to say the least.

“It’s ok, Mal. Crying is good, isn’t that what I always say to you or something?” Christen said with a soft grin. She shuddered a deep breath in and out, feeling heavy with the emotional weight of the conversation.

A conflicted look appeared on Mal’s face. “You’re the best person I know and I’ll never be able to repay you for everything you’ve done for me. I’m not saying this to try and make you feel bad, you deserve to never feel bad ever again. I just want you to know how much I care about you and how much I love you and how much you deserve in life.”

At this point Christen’s eyes felt like a tap. She looked at Mal with so much love and devotion she could barely think clearly. She tried to speak but every time she felt like her throat had tied itself together. She took Mal’s hands and a few breaths.

“What did I do right with you, hey?” She squeezed Mal’s hands lovingly, laughing when a little proud smile formed on Mal’s face. “You know you’re the most important thing in the world to me. I knew from the first night we were in foster care that I would do everything I could for you. Put your needs before mine. Let you have the life I knew I wasn’t going to get.”

She saw Mal’s mouth try to open in protest so she kept talking, squeezing her hands again.

“It’s not that I think you’re more important than I am. It’s just that for me, your happiness is more important than my own is. And I know that’s not how it should be. I know I should try to put myself first. But I’ve been living like this for 12 years, Mal. I can’t just change overnight.”

“I know. But isn’t now a good time to start trying? You’re off work for this month, I’m playing soccer in one place, we’re together, and you’ve got people here you used to know! You can…you know, have some friends.”

“You’re not my friend?” Christen challenged playfully.

“I’m your sister. That’s like a default friend. It doesn’t count.”

“Wow, good to know.”

Mal laughed, shaking her head at Christen’s silly antics. She launched herself into a hug with her, basically bowling Christen over until they were both laying side by side on the grass again, Mal’s head on her chest.

“Who did you know from the team, before?”

“Hmmm,” Christen stalled a bit on the answer, trying to figure out where Mal was going with this but also genuinely trying to remember who was at the u-17 camp besides the only person she really cared about. “I kind of knew Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, Alyssa Naeher…and Tobin Heath.”

“And Tobin Heath.

Right. So that’s where Mal was going with it.

“Yes, Mal. And Tobin Heath.”

“The very same Tobin Heath you were pretty chummy with earlier today.”

Christen rolled her eyes, flicking Mal’s head. “Chummy? Are you 90 years old?”

“I’m just saying, that wasn’t a hug you give out on the regular. Or ever.”

“Well, 12 years is a long time. I’d…missed her.”

Even though she couldn’t see Mal’s face, she could absolutely feel her grin. “Missed her, missed her, bet you wanna kiss he-”

“Alright ya little shit, cut that out.” Christen laughed as she tickled Mal, successfully stopping her from finishing the end of that sentence. She tickled her until Mal was wriggling away, squealing and laughing, finally calling mercy.

Christen got to her feet, holding out her hand for Mal to take once she stopped laughing and could actually stand up. “I think we’ve spent enough time here, huh? What do you say we go back to the hotel and take a nap. I’m exhausted.”

Mal nodded. “I’m pooped.”

“Well I’m knackered.”

Mal tried to roll her eyes and be annoyed at Christen, but the grin took over her face and she was laughing instead. She let herself get pulled up by Christen and they began walking back to the hotel. “I’m bone-tired.”

“I’m dog-tired.”

Christen!” Mal groaned, poking at her side. “You’re not funny.”

“That grin on your face would disagree.”

The two continued their banter all the way back to the hotel, first making a stop at Mal’s room. She dashed in to get her charger and a hoodie while Christen waited at the door. Before long, she could hear voices rising from the room across the hall where the door sat ajar.

“Tobin I swear, if you don’t stop pacing in this room and just go down there and see her I’m going to throw you out and lock the door behind you.”

“Kelley, this isn’t even your room!”

“No, I second Kelley. Get your ass out there.”

Alex, come on!”

The voices shuffled closer to the door and Tobin sighed in frustration and then they were starting again and Christen was still standing there staring and –

“She doesn’t want to talk to me, not after what I sai-”

Their eyes met across the hall and even though so many monumental things had already happened for Christen that day, she still felt her breath be taken away.

Tobin had stopped mid-sentence, one hand on the door, one hand holding a paper bag. Her cheeks flushed red when she realised Christen had probably heard what she’d been saying and her mouth opened as if to stammer out an explanation before someone barrelled past her, standing between them.

“Christen Press! So pleased to make your reacquaintance,” Kelley spun out, topping it off with a dramatic curtsey. “Kelley O’Hara. As if you’d forgotten.”

Christen laughed at the wink Kelley sent her way, remembering her u-17 camp antics very clearly. “You’re pretty hard to forget, Kelley. It’s good to see you again.”

“Yes!” Kelley exclaimed, pulling Christen into a quick hug. “I gotta say though, you’re my second favorite Press after meeting your sister. That kid is the real deal.”

“Nah, you’re right. She’s way cooler than me.” Christen grinned at Kelley, before looking back at Tobin – Tobin, who was still just looking absolutely lost to the world, eyes in Christen’s direction.

Christen couldn’t get a read on her. She felt so bad about leaving her in the lurch earlier, especially now that she’d sorted things out with Mal and felt that weight off her chest. Everything that happened (or rather, hadn’t happened) with Tobin was still playing on her mind – what did she think of Christen, was she mad at her for walking out?

“Honestly, you can’t shut up for the last hour and a half and now you’re lost for words? Hopeless.” Kelley grumbled, shaking her head in Tobin’s direction.

Christen blushed even though the comment wasn’t directed at her, knowing what they must have been discussing.

“Hey…everyone?” Mal had finally come back out of the room, closing the door behind her and looking at the scene in front. She raised an amused eyebrow in the direction of Christen who quickly glared at her as if to say don’t you dare mention anything.

“Little Mal Mal!” Kelley exclaimed, pulling her into a one sided hug. She seemed to notice Mal’s expression because she too got a conspiratorial look on her face. “So, what do you say since we missed having lunch with you both that we all have dinner tonight. Alex’s shout.”

“Dream on, O’Hara!” Alex yelled from inside the room.

“Dinner sounds great!” Mal answered for the both of them before Christen could get a word in.

“Tobin?” Kelley wore a shit eating grin as she stared at Tobin’s still blank face. “Tobito? Anyone home?”

In the blink of an eye Tobin seemed to finally snap out of her daze. “What?” She said, her eyes clearer but still on Christen.

Kelley was still heavily amused. “Dinner tonight?”

“Yeah, sure.” Tobin said absently, offering Christen a small smile.

“Chopped liver, I’m telling ya.” Kelley whispered to Mal, making the younger girl giggle. At that sound Christen looked over, rolling her eyes when she saw the look on Mal’s face.

“About ready to go?”

“Yup!” Mal wore an innocent grin.

They were about to both walk down the hallway when Tobin’s voice stopped her.

“Wait, wait.”

Christen turned around, all of a sudden worried about what might come out of Tobin’s mouth. She didn’t have to worry though, because all she was met with was confusion.

Tobin was standing there, holding out the paper bag towards her. Christen looked at it, and then her, and then Kelley, and then back to Tobin before taking a small step towards it.

“This is when we use words, Tobin.” Kelley stage whispered, snapping Tobin into action.

“Uh, right. Yeah words – no, I mean.” Tobin shook her head, as if it would clear out the mess that had formed in her brain. “It’s lunch. For you. For you both. Since you couldn’t make it earlier.”

“Oh!” The gesture wasn’t one Christen was familiar with, someone doing something for her. She wasn’t about to complain about the warmth she felt from it, though, or the fact that it was from Tobin, which meant she can’t have possibly been that mad at her about earlier if she brought her lunch and that meant –

“This is when we say thank you, Christen.” Mal stage whispered in exactly the same fashion as Kelley, walking to take the bag from Tobin with a grateful smile.

“No, yeah, uh thank you, thanks so much that’s really…you didn’t have to. That’s kind of you.” Christen stammered out, hot in the face.

Tobin just smiled, bringing her hands together and twisting them around nervously. Christen’s eyes went to her fingers and she still had trouble believing her ring was there after all this time. She subconsciously twisted the ring on her own finger around, feeling its familiarity.

A few more beats passed with everyone still standing in the hallway, Christen and Tobin seemingly unaware of how enamoured with each other they looked and Kelley and Mal trying their best not to lose it.

Eventually, Alex poked her head out of the door and looked at the scene. “It went so quiet out here I thought you’d all ditched me.” She smiled brightly at Christen. “It’s great to see you again. I gotta say it took me a while to remember, but Mal plays so much like you did. Once I heard your name it all came flooding back.”

Christen smiled back at her, surprising herself that she didn’t feel a stab of pain at the mention of her playing soccer when she no longer could. She guessed the talk she’d had with Mal had really started to heal some of the hurt she had been holding on to all this time.

She knew it wasn’t going to go away overnight. But she had made progress, progress on herself nonetheless. It was something.

Instead, she just felt a burst of pride for having a connection with Mal on the soccer field even though they weren’t playing at the same time. “It’s really nice to see you again too, Alex.”

A few more beats. Then –

“This is when we say goodbye, Tob-”

Tobin shoved Alex back into the room before she could finish her teasing, sending a laughing Kelley back with her. It was clear to Christen that they knew something about Tobin and her, but as to how much or in what context she couldn’t be sure.

“Sorry about them.” Tobin still had a blush plastered all over her face. “It was great to see you. And I’m sorry about earlier, you know. Sorry again.”

“It’s nothing, like I said. Please don’t worry about it.” Christen said, with Mal nodding behind her in agreement.

“So, dinner?”

Christen beamed. “Looking forward to it.”

“We all are.” Came Mal’s grinning voice, biting into one of the sandwiches Tobin had bought them as she pictured the entertaining night ahead.

 

Chapter Text

“Christen, come on!” Mal pulled at Christen’s legs from where she stood at the end of the bed. “You have to get up!”

“No.” Came Christen’s muffled reply, holding a pillow over her face as she tried to wriggle her legs out of Mal’s grasp.

Mal sighed, exasperated with her avoidance. “You. Have. To. Get. Up!” She punctuated each word by hitting Christen with a pillow.

“Dinner is still so far away!”

Mal groaned. “Yes, but I know you’re going to procrastinate till the last minute about it so we’re starting this train early.”

Oh god, why had Christen so easily agreed to getting dinner with Tobin tonight?

Well, Tobin and everyone else.

But really, if she was being honest, she only cared that Tobin would be there.

It had seemed like such a good idea a few hours ago. She’d just had a great talk with Mal, she was feeling proud of herself for how much she had shared with her (granted she still didn’t tell her about the apartment, car or her jobs but – baby steps) and she was so relieved to see that Tobin didn’t at least completely hate her for the way she’d acted earlier.

Dinner sounded great! What could go wrong?

As soon as she had woken up from her nap and Mal had started talking about their evening plans she thought of many, many ways it could go wrong.

Most of these involved just the basic concept of potentially just having to talk to Tobin. But Christen’s imagination was wild, and right now she was playing about 25 different outcomes to the dinner in her head, all of which were leading her to not wanting to get out of bed now to get ready for it.

“You can convince yourself all you want but there is literally no way you’re not coming to this dinner, so I don’t know why you’re trying to fight it.” Mal had her arms crossed and an eyebrow raised, trying to look every part like a big sister telling their petulant little sister how it was. When Christen lifted the pillow off her face to look at her it made her laugh.

“If your bottom lip pouts any lower it’ll start dragging on the floor.”

The pillow flew out of Mal’s hands and hit Christen in the head. “Shut up.”

Christen just laughed, throwing it off her. She laughed more at Mal trying not to laugh. Then she settled, needing to ask Mal a question. “Hey, how much does the team know about you and us and like…everything?”

Mal’s hard expression softened and she sat on the end of the bed. “I don’t know. I guess maybe Michelle told Jill that you’re my guardian and that Mom and Dad are dead. Michelle is the only one I know who definitely knows about Mom and Dad, and she doesn’t even know about foster care or any of that.”

Christen nodded thoughtfully. “And Michelle only knows because she said you had to get your parents’ permission to go overseas with the u-20s last year, right? And that’s when you told her that I’m your legal guardian?”

“Yeah.” Mal said, looking at Christen and getting a questioning look on her face. “Why do you ask?”

“I was just wondering. I just…I don’t feel that any of your teammates here are ones to pry, but I know they might naturally ask questions. I wanted to know what they knew so I didn’t say anything you didn’t want me to.”

“I never say anything to anyone about it, really.”

Christen nodded, knowing the feeling of being protective over Mal and their story as well. “Me too.”

A hesitant look crossed Mal’s face. “But maybe because like everyone on the team here are adults and they all seem really nice and supportive, then maybe if we wanted we could tell them. I mean, if you want. I don’t mind. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I mean – ”

“Baby, it’s ok, it’s ok.” Christen cut off Mal’s rambles, smiling softly. “Thank you for telling me how you’re feeling. Of course if you want to we can tell your team.”

“Nothing…nothing can happen if we tell people, right?”

At this, Christen sat up in the bed more, tugging on Mal’s hand. Her younger sister crawled onto the bed, cuddling into her side. “Nothing will happen to me or you, do you hear me? No one can take you away from me. I adopted you and there’s nothing that can come in between us ever again.”

Mal nodded, holding Christen’s hand. “And when I turn 18 then they’ll never be able to interfere with my life ever again.”

Christen’s heart hurt at Mal’s comment. She often forgot that although she was only in foster care and the hands of the state for three years, Mal had been there for longer. Christen had fostered her when she was 18 and a half and had finally been able to adopt her after a complicated process at age 23, but during those years there was clearly so much worry harboured in Mal that they might be split up.

Sometimes to this day not even Christen’s words could comfort Mal about it, even though she was legally adopted. Mal had always seen the age of 18 as the only thing that could reassure her she and Christen would be able to stay together forever.

Their social worker was to blame for a lot of that, Christen knew for sure. Even she was excited for Mal to turn 18 so she could finally be at peace knowing he could never show up again, smug with the power that he still held over Mal’s placement with Christen.

“Yeah. When you turn 18 they can’t touch you anymore. But they can’t now, either, ok? You’re not going anywhere without me, and neither am I without you.” Christen ran her hands through Mal’s hair. “Can you tell me what makes you hesitant to tell people on this team?”

“I’m always hesitant to tell people in case they tried to do something. But I don’t believe anyone here would do that. I guess I just don’t want them to pity party me, or treat me differently. Plus I’m already the youngest here by a lot. I don’t want them to think of me as someone who can’t hold her own.”

“Mal, for making it through everything that life has thrown at you, you’ve got to be one of the strongest people on this team. Not everyone could come out of the experiences we had and still be a bubbly, outgoing and talented kid.” Christen slid down the bed so she was lying next to Mal face to face. “I think people’s natural reactions are to have sympathy when they hear a foster care story. But if people pity you, you don’t have to let that define you.”

“I know. I don’t think they will. I’m just worried, you know. And like, I really get along with Lindsey and Rose and Sonnett here, like all the other girls too but them especially, and I just don’t want them to look at me differently.”

Christen smiled softly, understanding what she was saying. She was having the same trouble figuring out how she was going to tell Tobin their story without making the woman feel incredibly sorry for them. She didn’t want Tobin to look at her differently either.

She was worried the more she told Tobin, the more Tobin would realise how different she was to her 15 year old self, and the less she would be interested in getting to know her again. She sat up again, pulling Mal back into her side.

“You’re a great judge of character, Mal. If these girls are your friends and you want to tell them about your past I’m sure you’ll know whether they’ll be receptive to that. And if they’re not, then those aren’t the people you want in your life, anyway.”

“Yeah.” Mal tucked her head into Christen’s neck, cuddling into her.

“So why don’t we just play it by ear. If the topic comes up at dinner tonight and you don’t want to talk about it just let me know, ok? I won’t ever say anything you’re not ready for.”

Mal just nodded, playing with the ring on Christen’s finger as she listened to her talk. As Christen watched her, she realised there was another part of her past that she’d never really shared with Mal, either.

She stared down at the ring intently before speaking.

“In the interests of being honest with each other today, do you know where I got that ring from?”

A look crossed Mal’s face that indicated she’d never actually thought about that. “Weirdly, no. I just know you never take it off.”

Christen nodded. She tried to open her mouth to start to explain, but the story always made her smile and blush like a school girl. Today was no different. She knew as soon as she met Mal’s eyes her sister would be able to put two and two together, especially after the conversations they’d been having that day.

A gasp left Mal’s mouth when she saw Christen’s reaction and she gripped her hand, holding it tight. “No! This is Tobin’s?”

Christen could only nod, a laugh bursting out of her at the expression on Mal’s face, looking like her mind was blown.

“But…when did she give it to you?”

Once again before Christen could answer, Mal let out an outburst at her own question.

“No! At the u-17 camp? 12 years ago? Oh my god!

Mal’s reaction had Christen in full out laughter, loving how light-hearted this interaction was between the two of them compared to their earlier talk. She was starting to see that sharing her past with Mal was genuinely a good thing.

“And you’ve literally never taken it off. I’ve never seen you without it. Oh wow. Oh jeez.” Mal rambled, laying fully over Christen’s lap, holding her left hand in hers and examining the ring. “I can’t believe this.”

“Do you know what else?” Her sister’s eyes widened in such cute innocence Christen almost lost her train of thought. She loved Mal so fucking much.

“What, Chris?”

“Have you seen Tobin with a ring, as well? Except she wears it on her ri-”

“ – right hand, oh my GOD!” Mal cut her off again, completely overcome with excitement. “She’s wearing your ring? She’s been wearing your ring for 12 years?”

Mal’s giddiness rubbed off on Christen who was in a full beam smile, still herself coming to terms with the fact that Tobin really had been wearing her ring for 12 years. That she hadn’t forgotten her, and even that she so often thought of her.

“Yeah, I uh, I guess she has been.”

“This might be the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.” Mal exclaimed to the air, eyes still wide.

Christen shook her head fondly. “Mal, you got called up to a full national team camp at age 17.”

“No, this is better. This is…wow. Chris, this is like some real movie type stuff.” Mal said, still staring intently at the ring. “12 years. Wow.”

Fucking wow, alright.

“You know what this means, right? When someone wears your ring for 12 years?”

“No, my younger yet wiser sister, what does it mean?”

Mal stared at Christen with a smug look on her face, her eyes with a knowing glint in them. “It means it’s the real deal. This is it, Chris.”

Christen snorted, shaking her head at Mal. She didn’t believe that. Not really.

Did she?

Sure, she had kept Tobin’s ring on. She knew how it and the memory of Tobin, the girl who believed in her, who saw Christen’s strength and only wanted her to be her best, she knew how that had pulled her through some of her toughest times. She knew what the ring meant to her.

But what did it mean to Tobin? What did she think of when she stared at it? Was it just tradition for her to wear it? Or did she actually remember her time with Christen, did she think about the conversations they shared, the connection they formed?

“I’m not sure it really means that, Mal.”

At this Mal sat up, eyes wide with excitement. “Are you kidding? Would you just wear the ring of some random person who meant nothing to you for 12 years? This has to mean she – ”

“ – Mal, I don’t know anything about Tobin. Not really, anymore. I had a crush on her then, of course, but – ”

“ – Had?”

Christen blushed. Of course not had. That indicated something was gone, in the past. Tobin was still very much present for her. It was probably the longest crush in the world. “Well, I mean…look Mal, I don’t know. I’m sure she’s changed since we were 15, just like I have.”

Mal shook her head, not willing to hear it. “People’s souls don’t change, Chris. You’re still the same person, still in here.” She touched her heart, and Christen’s eyes immediately welled up.

She really needed to hear that.

“Thanks, baby.”

“Don’t give up on this. Not before you’ve given yourself the chance.” Mal’s smile was so gentle and encouraging Christen could almost pretend to have the strength to really follow her advice.

“I’ll try. For you.”

Mal took her hands, looking right at her. “No, Chris. Do it for you.”

The words hit Christen full in the chest, sinking in slowly.

It was what they had just talked about – Christen doing things for herself. Trying to let go of the need to put Mal first and starting to do things that were solely in her interest.

Well, Tobin was definitely in her interest. But the more Christen thought about it, the more a new feeling of worry came over her.

She’d never really had to think about how she would react to a situation. It never mattered what she thought or wanted, it only mattered to her how the decision would affect Mal. If it was good for Mal, she’d do it. She’d do anything.

Now, she knew Mal was right. To make the decision to not give up on this, it would be solely for her. It was her potential happiness at stake. (Or her potential sadness).

She surprised herself at how vulnerable her heart felt in that instance. With nothing else to hide behind, no pretence of protecting Mal, no pushing her own feelings aside, she felt more exposed than ever.

Almost like she was 15 again, heart beating out of her chest, inching her hand across the grass bit by bit until her pinky bumped Tobin’s as they lay on their backs, and she softly intertwined their fingers together.

“I like being here with you, Christen.”

Christen had never breathed out a sigh of relief quite like that at Tobin’s words. Tobin didn’t pull away, or say she was wrong to do that. In fact, she did the opposite, pulling Christen’s hand into hers fully, her soft palm resting perfectly in Christen’s.

She looked up at the sky above them, at the clouds softly moving past and the sun shining down on them. It was hard to imagine something more perfect than that moment.

“I really like it, too.”

Mal squeezed her hands she was still holding, giving her a smile. “Thanks for telling me, Chris. I can see it’s something you’ve kept close to yourself for a long time. But I’m glad you told me. I love knowing stuff like this.”

“Well, our talk made me want to try. And I am trying. I want to share everything with you, Mal. You’re my best friend, you know?”

“I know.” Mal’s grin was wide. “And you’re my best friend, too. My real best friend even, not just a default sister friend.”

Christen laughed and wrapped her arms around Mal who giggled and squirmed away when Christen pecked her cheek over and over with kisses, tickling her side gently.

“I love you.”

“Love you forever, Chrissy.”

Christen sighed happily into the hug, locking Mal in place. “Hmmm, this is nice. Why don’t we just stay here for the rest of the night.”

Mal laughed, trying to wriggle out of her grasp. “No! We are not going back to this. We really have to get out of bed now.”

“Now? Or in like 10 minutes.”

Now the one being tickled was Christen, as Mal managed to get free and poke at her sides. “No, we talked for so long! We really have to go now!”

Christen’s laugh reverberated around the room, freeing her chest from the worries of their earlier conversation. She grabbed Mal’s hands, stopping her attack and rolled her over the bed to the edge. “Just give me a few minutes, Mal. I’ll get up, I will.”

The look on Mal’s face suggested she didn’t believe her at all, but it was getting closer to the time they had to go, so the younger girl finally relented, trusting Christen at her word. “Fine. But I’m coming back here in 20 minutes and I swear if you’re not ready – ”

“If I’m not ready then may the heavens smite me for my tardiness.” Christen cut her off, grinning when she saw the playfully annoyed look on Mal’s face.

“Did I mention today that you’re the most annoying person ever? Because I feel like you just need a constant reminder.”

“Love you too, baby girl. See you in 20.”

“19 now!” Mal called over her shoulder as she walked out of the hotel room, letting the door close behind her.

A groan came out of Christen’s mouth and she let the pillow fall back over her face, muffling the sound. She talked to herself, voicing her thoughts out loud.

“Get a grip. You’re Christen Press! It’s just dinner. You just eat and talk like a normal person. Next to your crush of 12 years. Someone who probably wants to know what you’ve been doing in those 12 years. Yeah. Just normal person things.”

With a resolve she’s not sure where she found, she convinced herself to sit up, throwing her legs off the side of the bed.

Perspective, she thought to herself. She could be at work, hour 10 of a 12 hour shift serving rude customers who expected her to follow them around all night catering to their every whim.

----------

She was stressed from the minute she walked into the door of the restaurant.

Actually, she’d been stressed that whole evening. She was stressed trying to decide what to wear, she was stressed she’d never get rid of the blush on her face or the wobble in her knees when she saw Tobin in the lobby wearing a plain white t-shirt and crisp pants, she was stressed when they all walked to the car and she saw she might have to sit next to Tobin, so shoved Mal in the middle of the car between them for good measure.

Entering the restaurant, her stress only heightened. This place was what she and Mal would refer to as hipster expensive. It doesn’t look like it would have three dollar signs attached to its name, with the vibe of being laid back and rustic, but upon opening the menu it was definitely apparent it was.

Christen didn’t know what to be more stressed about, the price on the menu for one meal she would usually spend to feed her and Mal for the whole week, or the fact that Tobin was sitting opposite her, a small smile on her face as she glanced a look at Christen over the menu every now and again.

“Holy fuck!” Mal whispered under her breath next to Christen when she opened the menu, looking at the cost. Unfortunately for Christen, she had just taken a sip of water. Mal’s spur of the moment outburst made her laugh and she spluttered around the water in her mouth, barely managing to avoid spitting it out onto the table.

She coughed, keeping the water down as Mal dropped the menu, moving her hand to pat her back gently.

“Are you ok, Chris?”

Ok? Was she ok? She’d almost spat water all over Tobin in that outfit mere hours after meeting her again after 12 years and was she ok? “Yeah, I’m fine! No worries, just went down the wrong way.”

She hoped it was convincing, and raised her eyes to meet Tobin across the table. She was surprised to see her with a concerned look on her face and an arm stretched out, as if she had thought of the same thing as Mal when she almost choked.

“Stand down, Tobs, she’s fine.” Kelley wore an amused grin as she reached across to lower Tobin’s hand which seemed to snap the woman out of her daze.

“Glad you’re ok.” Tobin said with another small smile, picking her menu back up and looking at it.

Overall a fantastic start to your perfectly normal and fine dinner, Christen. Well done.

Mal kicked her under the table and she looked over, ready for Mal’s face to be in a teasing expression at what just happened. Instead, Mal’s face was hesitant and unsure, eyes moving down to the menu and back to Christen.

Christen shook her head subtly, taking Mal’s hand and squeezing it. “It’s ok, don’t worry.” She murmured under her breath, trying to sound reassuring.

She hated that even though she’d tried to protect Mal from the worries of money, it had still slipped down to her.

It’s not that Christen never allowed her and Mal to go out for dinners. They might have been living near the poverty line but she wasn’t going to deny her younger sister that pleasure.

It was just that when Christen and Mal went out for dinner they went to a food truck and ate tacos on the beach, or they scoured the local cheap eats and markets. Mal refused to call the diner where Christen worked ‘going out for food’ because they often ate from there more than they did at home, but Mal did love eating at the sports bar Christen bartended at because of the greasy nachos they served there.

Christen used to tell Mal with an eye roll that when she got older her body wouldn’t be able to handle eating food like that if she still wanted to be athletic. Mal just used to grin at her across the bar where she sat on a stool, shoving another chip into her mouth full of cheese and guac.

Right now Christen wished she could order those nachos, they wouldn’t dent her bank account as much as one starter here would.

She must have been gazing too intently for too long at the menu because when she looked up seeing Mal in conversation with Alex and Kelley, Tobin was looking at her with a gentle stare. She tried to give Tobin a reassuring smile but she was too busy feeling light headed that Tobin was so obviously caring and that she really had no business being somewhere this fancy and –

“Good evening, how are you all doing tonight?”

The waitress’ interruption couldn’t have come at a better time. They all exchanged pleasantries and it gave Christen time to breathe, regulate her heart rate, you know, all normal things people did when they were out at dinner.

After they ordered drinks (non-alcoholic of course, Tobin’s wide eyes that Dawn would kill them if she found out was enough to convince the others) with Christen just sticking with water, she found herself sitting back quietly, observing the conversations happening at the table.

It was clear from the way Kelley, Tobin and Alex interacted that they were good friends, and had been for quite some time. She thinks from the first camp they all met at onwards, they had probably stuck together, rising through the ranks of US soccer to become the household names they were today.

It could have been you.

She lets the thought dwell for a second and no more, pushing it away. To think like that wasn’t helpful to her moving on, and it definitely wasn’t fair to Mal.

Instead, she absorbs the way the three friends interact with her sister. They’ve clearly welcomed her with open arms and are protective of her. They’re often falling over each other to give her advice, to ask her about her experiences in the youth teams, to talk about her dreams with the USWNT. For all that, Christen is grateful.

She also absorbs the way they interact with herself. She surprises herself at how much fun she has. She laughs at their jokes, coming back with her own. She finds herself interested in their lives, listening to Kelley talk about the tree in her childhood home in Georgia, listening to Alex talk about her dog, listening to Tobin talk about surfing, imagining how good Tobin looked when she was surfing, wanting to –

She had to focus to stay attentive a lot when Tobin was talking.

They’d only been at the restaurant for fifteen minutes, not even having ordered their food yet, but Christen feels good with these people. She feels safe. They’re the kind of people that skip the small talk because in their minds they’ve already decided to be your friend and have you in their lives. They talk about the most random of topics and include you as if you had been there all the years with them.

None of the topics they traversed excluded anyone, and they never got caught up in their own memories so much that the conversation was at the expense of Christen or Mal.

Still, Christen couldn’t help but notice in the presence of others how her and Mal’s growing up permeated most facets of their lives. An easy example was a topic staring them right in the face – food.

They were looking at the menu and Alex made a face at oysters which made Mal laugh. That prompted Kelley to ask her what food she didn’t like to eat. Mal’s answer was the truth – “Oh I genuinely eat everything.”

The three women laughed, citing it was such a teenager thing to say. Christen tried to laugh with them but she knew Mal’s answer, light-hearted as it was said, was everything the opposite.

There wasn’t quite the words to describe the empty pain that came from hunger. Of all the things that had shaken Christen’s world upside down recently, this was one she hadn’t anticipated.

“Mal, shhh, please don’t cry, shhh.” Christen held a five year old Mal close to her chest, trying to quell her tiny sobs. She heard Mal’s stomach grumble again – she almost felt like she could feel it from where Mal was curled against her on the tiny bed.  

“Tell your brat to shut up!” Another foster kid spat across the dark room in Christen’s direction. Christen was pretty sure it was the girl who had taken their dinner that night, when the fridge and food cupboards were unlocked and the rationed food was dumped onto the table. “It’s too late for her shit.”  

Of course, this only made Mal cry more. Christen just ignored the other girl and kept her low murmurs to Mal up, trying to placate her and lull her into sleep. She subconsciously tightened her hand around her backpack that was tucked under the pillow they lay on.

She knew inside that backpack were a few meagre snacks she had managed to stow away in the three days they had been at this place, their first foster home.

She knew said snacks would be enough to quell Mal’s hunger for the night.  

But she also knew opening her bag to get them out, in a bedroom where two other foster kids slept – foster kids who had been in the system for years and knew how to play the game, knew how to get in the way of the dinner table so they could take all the food first, knew how to steal and snatch, knew how to survive – would be the definite end of Christen sneaking food away.

She couldn’t risk taking the food out and feeding Mal in case it got stolen later. But that was hard to swallow when the other option was letting her baby sister go to sleep hungry.

“I promise tomorrow I’ll have food for you to eat.” She whispered to Mal, willing to promise almost anything at that point to get her to stop crying so these other foster kids wouldn’t have a vendetta against them from that night on. “I promise, baby. I promise.”

How had it only been three days since her whole world had turned upside down? Where she had gone from a loving household with two parents to being orphaned with her younger sister? Where she lived in a house where her dreams were nurtured and her presence was celebrated, to now living in a house that put a padlock on the fridge and had foster parents who looked at you like you were about to commit a crime against them?  

Eventually Mal cried herself to sleep and Christen let out a sigh of relief, trying to ignore how painful her own empty stomach was.

She needed to be better, to be smarter and harder if she was going to survive in these homes. If this was how they were going to be, Christen wasn’t about to let Mal suffer because she couldn’t figure out how to protect her.  

So she learnt. She’d skip breakfast and save the dry cereal for when hunger really struck. When they got moved to other foster homes she’d memorise the patterns of the foster parents like a hawk – when were they around the kitchen, what could she take without it going noticed?  

She told Mal that being picky about food wasn’t an option for them. When they could eat, they were eating. Christen didn’t care that Mal thought peas were gross or that sometimes apples were mushy. If it was in front of her – she was eating it.

A few years later when Christen was finally able to foster Mal and was working with a regular income that she could ensure was going to soccer, rent and groceries, their stance on food never really changed.  

Nothing was wasted. Christen was meticulous in what she bought, with every ingredient being used. She taught Mal how to cook. She taught Mal how to use beans in 12 different recipes. When Mal’s soccer was taking off she spent hours researching the cheapest way to eat consistently healthy meals, even though Mal would insist there was nothing wrong with eating spaghetti every night.

Christen wasn’t exactly thrilled about having worked as a waitress and bartender for so many years, but the one of the big reasons she stayed in that industry was the guarantee of free staff meals.  

So yeah, Mal really did eat everything. But the story behind it, much like the rest of their lives, was so much more complicated than what seemed to just be a flippant joke from her younger sister.

“Alex, you’re so bougie for liking this place. We could have gone to that salad bar on the corner.”

Alex whacked Kelley’s arm with the menu she was holding, rolling her eyes. “Don’t act like you two don’t love it here, either. We always come here. And Tobin always scoffs the salmon.”

“Do not!”

Christen laughed with everyone else at Tobin’s reaction, finding herself smiling involuntarily at the red flush that had come onto Tobin’s cheeks.

“Well I love everything on this menu. And I want to try lots of things. We can share, if you guys are down for that?” Kelley asked, looking around.

Christen could see Mal was looking at her for guidance, so she just nodded, letting Kelley say what they’ve liked and not from previous times they’d been there.

“Oh and I was fully not joking when I said Alex was paying for this dinner. She lost a bet.” Kelley winked, earning another slap to the arm from Alex.

Tobin just shook her head, clearly used to Kelley and Alex’s chaotic behaviour by now. “You’ve said that twice now, and I don’t even want to know what happened. But cool, if it’s Al’s shout we’re definitely getting the salmon.”

Christen tried not to feel panicked by the talk about who was paying for what. On the one hand she didn’t feel comfortable with Alex paying for her and Mal, even if she knew she was a very well-off, sponsored, professional athlete. On the other hand, Christen knew it would be incredibly irresponsible to spend the kind of money it looked like they might be spending at this place when her bank balance was looking so bad, and wouldn’t be getting better any time soon.

Her thoughts so consumed her that she barely registered the waitress coming back over to take their order, happy to let Kelley take charge on that one. It wasn’t until a few minutes later when Mal nudged her in the side that she snapped back to the conversation, trying to catch up on what she’d missed.

“Things are looking shaky for the old Gunners this year, Tobs.” Alex’s smirk and tone of voice told Christen she was goading Tobin into getting a reaction out of her.

She laughed, seeing Tobin’s incensed face at the comment – it worked. Alex clearly knew how to rile Tobin up.

“Get out of here, they’re doing amazing.”

It had been years since Christen had watched the Premier League, but she knew that the Gunners were Arsenal, which was Tobin’s team. She’d be stretched to be able to name five facts about the Premier League at that point in time, but she did love to get in on a joke, and knew at least one important fact about Arsenal to do it.

“Who’s your team, Christen?” Kelley asked her across the table, a grin on her face, almost as if she could see her mind working through the joke as well.

She liked Kelley.

Trying to act nonchalant about her answer, she just shrugged. “Probably Tottenham Hotspur.”

The look on Tobin’s face was hilarious. She almost went white with how shocked she was at Christen’s answer, mouth dropping open, eyes in disbelief. “Chris…no…not Tottenham – anyone but Tottenham! You can’t support Arsenal’s rivals…not you!”

Kelley burst into laughter along with Alex and Mal, eyes watering every time she looked at Tobin’s downtrodden face. Christen tried to last as long as she could without breaking, but eventually the look on Tobin’s face was too much, and she burst out laughing as well.

“Oh Tobito, your face!” Kelley squeezed out between her laughter as Tobin tried to get an understanding of what was happening. “You’re too easy, man.”

Tobin’s confused face was somehow more entertaining to Christen than her shocked one.

She was so cute.

(Christen was so screwed).

Tobin’s head tilted to the side like a puppy in confusion and Christen almost died at the table. She felt her eyes go soft and a smile take over her face at Tobin’s reaction.

“I’m so confused. Chris, you have to tell me if you actually support Tottenham.” Tobin said, staring at Christen with an intensity that could only exist with a die-hard Arsenal fan. “I need to know because if you do I’m really going to have to take time to work through this.”

Her words only made Kelley, Alex and Mal laugh harder, Kelley slapping Alex’s arm simply unable to cope with how hilarious she found the situation.

Christen could have melted in a puddle for how wholesomely earnest Tobin was about the whole situation. She genuinely believed Tobin cared that much about Arsenal – she even remembered her mentioning it to her when they were 15. The smile on her face was so big it almost hurt.

She resisted the urge to reach across the table and take Tobin’s hand in comfort. She remembered how soft Tobin’s hands were all those years back. How she wished she could feel them in her own again. “Don’t worry, Tobin. It was just a joke. I don’t support Tottenham. I actually don’t really watch the Premier League at all.”

The relief on Tobin’s face was palpable. After she’d taken a few breaths in and the color returned to her face, she broke out a smile as well, softly laughing and shaking her head at Christen fondly.

“You totally did that on purpose.”

Christen blushed, wanting Tobin to smile like that at her forever. “Maybe.” She said coyly, resisting the urge to roll her eyes when she heard Mal beside her continue to laugh.

“Well, it’s never too late for you to become a Gunner. They’re playing this weekend. You could watch a game with me, if you wanted?” Tobin asked, then seemed to realise what she’d said, quickly adding on. “Becky will be watching too, she’s a massive supporter. Lindsey as well.”

Christen’s breath hitched. For a second there she almost thought Tobin might be asking her on a…no, definitely not. She was just suggesting they hang out. Just like friends would. With other friends.

Right?

“Yeah – yeah that would be really – really cool.”

Nice, Christen. Smooth.

She was about to berate herself some more for her response when a beam of a smile showed up on Tobin’s face and she couldn’t even remember what she’d been worried about in the first place.

“Can you even imagine?” Kelley had finally stopped laughing enough to speak out an intelligible sentence.

(Christen had almost forgotten it wasn’t just her and Tobin at the table).

“Tobin has heart eyes for Christen only to hear she’s a Spurs supporter? Tobin’s probably the only person in the world that would be a deal breaker for.” Kelley wiped her eyes in exaggeration, laughter still bubbling out of her in bursts. “You’re funny, Press. I like you.”

Christen’s brain short circuited when she heard Kelley’s words, specifically the “Tobin” “heart eyes” and “Christen” words. It seemed Tobin’s did too, as the blush was back in full force on her face as her eyes widened. There was movement under the table and then an “Ow, what the fuck, Tobin,” from Kelley.

Tobin looked over at Christen and had the face of someone who felt that they needed to respond to the comment. That panicked Christen – she both wanted and didn’t want to hear Tobin explain that.

Tobin was about to say something, probably that Kelley was talking a load of smack, when movement behind her caught Christen’s eye.

She knew disaster was looming before it had even happened. A tray of drinks rested precariously on each hand of a young and nervous looking waitress as she made her way through the tables, trying to dodge diners who took no care as to where they were waving their arms or backing their chairs out.

Christen didn’t have time to roll her eyes but if she did, she would have done. The concept of self-awareness seemed to leave the brain of every customer when they entered any establishment.

The waitress was trying her best but didn’t quite manage to avoid the last patron who jutted his chair out into her path, standing up and colliding with her. Christen was sure one of those trays of drinks was intended for the people at their table but it, along with the other tray and the waitress, were now on the floor right beside the end where she and Tobin sat.

“Oh, shit!” Tobin exclaimed at the scene that unfolded next to her, jumping back in fright.

Even though she could see it happening, it occurred in a matter of seconds and there was no way Christen could have done anything to prevent it. She was still startled by the sound, as were the rest of the patrons in the restaurant.

She squeezed Mal’s thigh softly in comfort when she saw her younger sister jump at the noise before quickly slipping off her seat, intending to help the poor waitress now on the ground.

Christen was on such a mission she didn’t realise Tobin had the same idea. They slid off their seats at the same time and instead of being crouched on the ground helping the waitress pick herself and the drinks up, they collided, the side of Tobin’s head banging onto Christen’s forehead.

“Oh, shit!” Tobin said again, grabbing onto Christen to steady her as she realised what had happened. “Chris, I’m so sorry, I didn’t even see you.”

Being more startled than in any actual pain, Christen just waved her off, laughing a bit at the scene of it all. “No, I’m sorry, I should have really checked first.”

“Are you ok?” Tobin asked as she placed a feather light touch on Christen’s forehead with the tips of her fingers.

Was she ok? When Tobin did that Christen couldn’t even be sure if she had ceased to exist. Tobin’s touch was so gentle and soft, so delicate and caring. She wanted to lean into it, she wanted to feel Tobin’s palm cup the side of her face, to feel her thumb stroke across her cheekbone, to feel her fingers trace her lips –

“Watch where you’re going!”

The angry voice jolted both Tobin and Christen away from their gaze on each other, both of them looking up to see where the outburst had come from.

The man who had backed his chair into the waitress was standing over her, face red from the flush of alcohol and wearing an indignant expression. He sneered before walking off, shaking his head as if he had done nothing wrong.

People like that boiled Christen’s blood. She’d had her fair share of rude customers, but there was a special kind of entitlement that seemed to exist in some people at more expensive restaurants.

“I’m totally fine.” She said quickly to Tobin who also had a troubled look on her face at the man’s words. She shook away the ache in her forehead, focusing on the task at hand. She moved carefully over the smashed glass on the floor towards the waitress who was now on her knees, staring helplessly at the scene in front of her. “Are you ok? Are you hurt?”

The young waitress’ gaze snapped up to her, tears in her eyes. At the sight of Christen and Tobin in front of her, plus the rest of their table looking on and probably half the restaurant still, she seemed to snap back into reality and spoke with a frantic voice.

“Oh my goodness, ma’am I am so sorry. Oh god, it’s everywhere. I am so sorry, and to you as well, ma’am.” She said first to Christen and then to Tobin when she saw her, trying to look at them both and speak and pick up all the glasses at the same time.

“It’s ok, there’s nothing to worry about.” Christen spoke in a soft voice, trying to get the waitress to take a breath and look at her. She could see Tobin just a bit behind her begin to pick up some of the glasses that were still intact and some bigger shards of glass as well.

“No, I’m so sorry. I should have been watching where I was going.” The waitress rambled on, voice shaky with tears threatening to spill over. She looked at some broken glass in front of her and made to pick it up with a shaky hand. “The man was right.”

Before she could reach it, Christen gently clasped her hand in hers, leaving room for the waitress to pull away if she wasn’t comfortable. When she didn’t, and in fact grasped Christen’s hands back tighter, Christen could tell how terrified the young waitress was of the mistake she’d just made.

She looked like she was only a few years older than Mal, so obviously Christen was protective. Mostly, though, Christen saw herself in the younger girl’s scared eyes. She saw her 17 year old self, working hour after hour in the diner, self-esteem low, sacrificing everything for Mal and letting anyone’s criticisms of her rest inside her until she maybe started to believe it herself.

It took her years to work through it. Mal’s constant love and support of her helped remind her of her worth. But in this moment she felt so strongly that she needed to speak to the waitress words she wished someone had told her when she was first starting out all those years ago.

“Hey, listen to me, ok? This wasn’t your fault. That man was not right. What he was, was incredibly rude. You were watching where you were going but he moved into your path and he knocked you down. There wasn’t anything you could do about that, ok? Unless you have some kind of super powered balance.” Christen smiled encouragingly when the waitress gave a small laugh at that, looking the slightest bit relieved. “Don’t blame yourself because people aren’t self-aware. And don’t listen to someone who doesn’t take responsibility for their own actions, and doesn’t even stop to see if another person is ok.”

The waitress looked like she wanted to believe what Christen was saying, but had obviously experienced otherwise, not only today but also at other times. Christen continued on.

“You don’t deserve to be treated like less of a person because you are providing a service to others. No one gets to take away your dignity and respect. You get to choose what value you offer to this place and the world, not someone else.”

When Christen stopped talking she realised that not only was the young waitress staring silently at her, hanging off every word she was saying, but also that Tobin had stopped her motions to listen, and Kelley, Alex and Mal were also looking on.

She figured it was pretty obvious at that point to Tobin, Kelley and Alex that she had, at least at one point, worked in the service industry and not necessarily by choice or with great enjoyment. But right now to her, the welfare of the young girl was more important.

“Thank you. Thank you so much.” The young waitress whispered, her words barely audible to Christen but the gratefulness in them shone through. “I really needed to hear that.”

“Maybe you can pass on the kind words to someone else another time.” Christen smiled, it getting bigger when the younger girl nodded vigorously. “Let’s get this cleaned up, hey?”

She gave one last reassuring squeeze to the waitress’ hands before pulling away and reaching down to start picking up the glasses. She could see next to her that Tobin had resumed putting the glasses back on the tray as well.

“No, no, please, you don’t have to.” The waitress tried to stop the two of them from helping her, but they waved her off. “Oh god. My boss is going to kill me. This is so much money wasted.”

Christen frowned unhappily at the girl’s remarks, wishing she could help. She knew how crazy some managers and bosses could be about wasted food and drinks, often docking worker’s pay if they caused a mistake. She hated it, but she hated even more that she couldn’t remedy this situation because of her own limited funds.

“Hey, um, don’t worry about the money, ok?” Tobin said in a gentle voice to the girl, speaking quietly as if not to startle her more. “If your boss wants to take it off your pay check, tell them I’ll sort it.”

If the young waitress wasn’t crying from Christen’s actions before, she was definitely crying at Tobin’s offer now. Christen knew she had a smitten smile on her face, watching how sweet Tobin was at interacting with the shaken girl, and how determined she was to help.

“No…I can’t, please I feel so bad already. I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You’re not asking me. I’m offering. In fact, I’m insisting, ok? I promise you it’s not a thing for me. So do you think you can promise me that if your boss says that to you that you’ll let me know? This wasn’t your fault and it’s not fair for you to lose out because of it.”

Tobin’s encouraging smile and comforting presence, along with Christen still in close proximity made the waitress accept, smiling in gratitude and profusely expressing her thanks to both of them.

“Chris, do you need help?”

Christen smiled at Mal’s offer, her heart bursting with pride every time Mal displayed empathy or kindness or any other good quality she’d been determined her whole life to instil in her.

She stayed crouched on the ground where she was but turned her head back to speak to Mal. “No, baby, but thank you for offering. There’s lots of broken glass on the floor and I don’t want you to cut yourself.”

“Ow. Shit.”

Tobin’s timing couldn’t have been more comical, and Christen had to brace her arms on her knees to keep from falling over at how much she and the rest of them laughed when Tobin nicked herself on the glass, right after Christen had warned Mal.

“Actually, can you get Tobin a band aid? I think there’s one in my bag.” Christen asked, watching as Mal searched through her bag with a grin on her face. She turned to Tobin, seeing the woman holding her finger with a pout on her face and it was just too much.

“Are you ok?”

Tobin nodded slowly, still looking at her finger with a pout on her face. Christen could have passed out at how cute it was.

“Let me see?”

Gently, Christen took Tobin’s hand in hers to look at the cut Tobin had sustained. She both wanted to roll her eyes and coo out loud at how pouty Tobin was being over the little cut that lined the side of her index finger. “Hmm…we might have to amputate it. Mal, while you’re looking will you had me the knife?”

Christen held out her hand behind her as Mal put the band aid in it. She opened it up, acutely aware of how much Tobin was laughing at her antics, and how soft and warm her hand in hers was.

She really didn’t know where she found the bravery to continue holding Tobin’s hand in hers as she unwrapped the band-aid, gently sticking it on her finger. Even when she was done and there was really no other reason for her to be holding Tobin’s hand anymore, she didn’t let go.

“Do you want to ask her to kiss it better, Tobs?”

Alex’s tease jolted both Christen and Tobin out of their daze and they blushed, dropping their hand hold and going back to the task before them.

“Try not to put your hand right over any more shards of glass, yeah?”

Tobin pretended to grumble at her comment, though the grin was plastered on her face. “I make no promises.”

“Thank you so much for your help, both of you.” The waitress said, crouching back down in front of them whilst holding a little dust pan and brush. Christen didn’t even notice her leave and come back, she was so engrossed with Tobin. “Please, I insist you let me clean the rest. You’ve both done so much already.”

Satisfied that they’d cleaned up most of the big mess and that the rest really wasn’t much for the waitress to do, Christen nodded, giving her another smile before standing up with Tobin and sitting back in her seat.

The young waitress picked up the rest of the glass in the dust pan and disposed of it, before promising to bring their drinks out again as soon as she could. Once she had left, Kelley and Alex turned to Christen.

“Genuine question, are you an angel? When you were speaking to that girl I got so comforted by your words I wanted to cry.” Kelley said, eyes wide with wonder.

“For real, Christen. That was so nice of you. Most people might have asked if she needed help and not really wanted to. But you cared so much about a stranger.” Alex added.

Christen blushed at the attention, not feeling like she’d done anything particularly magnificent. She just treated people the way she’d want someone to treat Mal or herself. “Tobin helped too, she was nice as well.”

Kelley dismissed her, waving her hand in Tobin’s direction. “Yeah, yeah Tobin was lovely. But we’re sick of her, we see her all the time.” She ignored Tobin’s playful ‘hey!’ and smack to her arm and kept talking. “It sounded like you were speaking from experience, maybe.”

Christen’s breath hitched when she answered. She said yes, and was surprised to see that all three of the people sitting opposite her just accepted her ‘yes’ and didn’t pry for more information. Didn’t ask what she meant by yes, didn’t judge her for working as a waitress, didn’t put any expectations on her whatsoever.

She realised they were letting her take the pace of whatever conversation she wanted to have at dinner that night. There had been no overly personal questions so far, and she had a feeling Tobin must have talked to the other two before coming. The conversation had been easy, fun and light. Now they were providing an opportunity for her to share, but placing no obligation on her to do so.

Christen was right. These were good people.

She looked down at Mal who looked back up at her, a small smile on her face. She knew she wasn’t going to tell their whole life story to them in that one dinner, and she knew there were many things she wanted to say to just Tobin, first, before sharing with others. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t share some parts of their lives.

“I uh…I’ve worked as a waitress for a while. Quite a while, actually. Also a bartender. So I guess I just know about how shitty people can be. And I didn’t want that girl to blame herself for something that wasn’t her fault.”

“You’re a true American hero for working in that field. God knows I would have murdered anyone who said anything rude to me on my first day.” Kelley said earnestly.

“Yeah, Kell, that’s why we put you on the football field where you can hack people’s ankles instead.” Tobin laughed.

“Oh god I bet you have so many horrible and hilarious customer stories.” Alex exclaimed, rolling her eyes at the thought.

Mal bounced in her seat beside Christen, excited to be able to share with the group. “Her stories honestly make my day. She always does the funniest impressions of them as well. Chris, tell them about when you shut down that group of drunk businessmen.”

Christen blushed, not used to all the attention. She felt a massive weight off her chest that no one had reacted badly when she’d shared the information with them, and in fact seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say. Plus, Tobin hadn’t stopped looking at her with soft eyes and an even softer smile, and how could she say no to a face like that?

She launched into her story, for the first time in a long time feeling okay about who she was, and what she had to offer.

She knew getting invited to this team’s camp was going to do all kinds of wonders for Mal’s life.

She never stopped to consider it might do the same for her.

She never thought that she might once again feel the joy and lightness that came with hanging out with friends, feeding off each other’s energy, laughing and joking and being free.

And she definitely never thought she’d get that feeling in her heart again. The one she hadn’t felt since she was 15. The one that made it flutter and her stutter anytime she looked at Tobin and felt her looking back, smiling at her like she could see her soul.

She saw Tobin’s wide smile move into a laugh at an anecdote in her story, eyes shining with brightness and decided that if putting herself first every now and again got her that, then maybe Mal had a point. Maybe it really was the right thing to do.

Only time would tell if she was brave enough to follow through with it.

 

Chapter Text

“Alex, you really didn’t have to do that. Thank you so much.” Christen said for what felt like the 50th time as they all walked out of the restaurant, starting a leisurely stroll back to the hotel.

Christen truly was grateful that Alex covered the bill for the table. But it wasn’t in her nature to easily accept things like that. Her whole life she’d been fighting to provide for Mal, or fighting to prove that she could provide for Mal.

Going to a restaurant where she most definitely could not provide for Mal didn’t hit any of her comfort zones, and the stubbornness in her wanted to come out, even though she knew it would be so financially irresponsible to challenge Alex on paying.

She didn’t feel pitied by Alex. Alex had paid for Kelley and Tobin as well, so she knew they weren’t singling her and Mal out. And at the rate that Alex and Kelley had been interacting with each other all night, Christen had no trouble believing they often engaged in all sorts of bets with all sorts of stakes.

But still, Christen wouldn’t make a habit of this. She didn’t like feeling as if she had to rely on others. She needed to sort her situation out, and fast.

Alex gave her a kind smile, waving her off. “Christen, I promise it’s not a thing. As much as I hate to admit it, I actually did lose a bet to Kelley. And I’m happy to pay for everyone, really. Next time it’s Kelley’s shout, though, I don’t care what bets are on.”

“Guess that’s the last time I’m eating at a restaurant with you then, Alex.” Kelley, hyper as ever, teased with each step she took.

“Yeah, thanks so much, Alex.” Mal said, laughing in delight as Alex wrapped an arm around her shoulder, pulling her into her side as they walked.

Christen smiled at the scene, knowing how much Mal would be loving any interaction with Alex, especially that kind. Being a striker, Alex was naturally one of Mal’s favorite players and she’d always looked up to her. Christen knew Mal was losing her mind at how lucky she was to be able to get to know her and the rest of the team so well.

“They’re a bit cute, huh?” Tobin fell into step with Christen, the two of them walking a few paces behind Alex and Mal. “It’s a shame about Kelley.” She joked, seeing Kelley run up to Alex and jump into her side, walking (or really bouncing) next to them.

“Is she always like that?” Christen said in a low voice, laughing as she looked on.

“Oh yeah. Energy levels through the roof. Still not convinced she’s entirely human, we’re waiting on test results. And just wait until you meet Sonnett.”

Christen looked up at Tobin to see a grin on her face, eyes sparkling with playfulness. They both burst out laughing, causing the other three in front of them to turn around.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing.” Tobin answered Kelley, waving her hand at them to turn around which Mal and Alex had already done, deep in conversation with each other. “Just talking about you.”

Kelley grinned and shrugged, turning back around as well but not before flipping Tobin off, arm stretched out behind her.

Tobin laughed quietly at that, shaking her head. Christen couldn’t help but smile when she stared at her, and she bumped her shoulder into hers gently. “Hey, I saw you leave that big tip for the waitress. That was really sweet of you.”

Tobin blushed, shrugging her shoulders as she slipped her hands into her pockets. “She was a sweet kid. She deserved that after a shaky start to the night.”

“Well, I know how much of a difference that would have made to her confidence. You were really good with her.”

“Me? If that was good then, Chris, what you did for her was out of this world. You were so kind with her. You knew exactly how to calm her down and you validated her feelings.” Tobin said, looking at Christen in earnest. “I mean, I’m not surprised. That’s exactly how I remember you.”

Christen almost stopped dead in her tracks. Tobin had just inadvertently addressed the point that had become a recent source of stress for her. “I’m how you remember me?”

“Of course you are.” A puzzled look came across Tobin’s face, and her head tilt was back. “What do you mean by that?”

This time it was Christen’s turn to shrug her shoulders, feeling her face get hot at having to explain herself. “12 years is a long time. And I’ve changed a lot – not all by choice, but more of necessity, I guess.” She knew she was being vague, and she knew if she was in Tobin’s position she would probably be itching to ask her to explain more.

Except Tobin was just walking beside her attentively, occasionally brushing into her shoulder, eyes on her in simple understanding that expected nothing more.

Christen took a deep breath in, willing herself to be brave. “I was so happy to see you with my ring. And to hear you hadn’t forgotten about me. I guess I was just worried the more you got to know me again, the more you’d see how much I had changed.”

After Christen spoke the two were silent for a while, walking slowly in the mild evening. Christen could see Tobin was pondering what she’d said, and she held her breath waiting in anticipation for a reply.

“Well, I mean, you have changed.”

Oh.

Those were the words Christen was dreading to hear, Tobin speaking her fears into a reality.

“You’re even more beautiful now than you were back then.”

Oh.

It was both the cheesiest and most amazing thing Christen’s ears had ever heard. She almost stumbled over her steps on the side walk, her face blushing red, a smile so wide it hurt her cheeks.

“Tobin. You…you can’t say things like that.”

“Things like what?” Tobin’s smile turned into a laugh, knowing exactly what she was doing.

Christen elbowed her lightly, shaking her head with a smile on her face. “That’s kind of you to say. You’re not so bad yourself.”

“Not so bad, huh? I’ll take it.” Tobin winked, sending Christen’s heart skyrocketing. She then cleared her throat, a more serious look on her face. “I, uh…I know I don’t know what’s gone down for you since we last saw each other. And I hope you know there’s no expectation on you to tell me. I’m here to listen if you do. But I want you to know that if you’re worried whatever happened might have changed you, or how I see you…Chris there’s just no chance that could ever happen. I’ve already seen that today. I remember your heart, and I remember you.”

Christen stared at the glum looking 15 year old where she sat at the dinner table, leg elevated onto another chair and knee wrapped with ice and bandages. The girl, Rachel, had gotten injured in training that day and was understandably pissed off at herself and the situation. It was the first week of the camp and there was still so much to learn, and still so much to prove to the coaches.  

It was hard to do that if you couldn’t play, let alone walk properly.

“Hey are you ready to – are you ok?”

Tobin had come to stand beside Christen after depositing both of their plates back into the kitchen. She saw Christen standing, seemingly staring into space, absently wringing her hands together.  

Christen looked up to her, giving her a smile before looking back at Rachel, an unhappy look on her face. “I feel really bad for her.”  

“Yeah.” Tobin agreed after following her gaze over and realising who she was looking at. “Getting injured sucks, especially from it being the way she landed after taking that shot.”

“Come with me a minute? I want to make sure she’s ok.” Christen watched Tobin give her a dumb soft smile when she said that and had to really focus on her task at hand to not get distracted by how cute Tobin looked.

They both walked over to where Rachel sat and Christen took a seat beside her, careful not to bump her elevated leg. Tobin stood behind Christen and they both smiled when Rachel looked up at them.

“Hey, guys.” Rachel said, sounding even glummer than she looked.

“Hey, Rachel. We just wanted to come over and see how you were doing.” Christen said gently, deciding to tread lightly on the topic. When Rachel just shrugged, she carried on. “I’m sorry you got injured. It must be a really hard situation for you so it’s totally understandable if you’re feeling…”

“Like pulling the middle finger at the world?”

Christen laughed at the way Tobin decided to finish the sentence for her, feeling relieved when an amused smile flashed past Rachel’s face for the first time that day. “Yeah, thanks, Tobin. If you’re feeling like that.”

“Thanks for saying that. No one has really talked to me about it yet, so it’s really nice of you.” Rachel said, and Tobin and Christen stayed with her as they listened to her talk about her feelings.

Christen was a great active listener, nodding and responding in all the right places, validating Rachel’s feelings and normalising her reactions to the situation. Tobin was also really trying, but by the look on her face she was having trouble not being mesmerised by Christen’s attentive and empathetic face, and her kind soul, and her warm presence.

“Tobin, can you get her other arm?” Christen said, forcing herself to not grin in amusement when she looked at Tobin’s face and saw the girl had been completely zoned out of what Rachel was saying. She was sure Tobin had been looking at her, instead, but would never say anything both in the fear of hurting Rachel’s feelings and completely humiliating herself if Tobin wasn’t actually staring at her.

“Yeah, yeah of course.” Tobin raced around to put Rachel’s other arm around her shoulders, both her and Christen on either side of Rachel as they helped her back to the elevator and to her room.

“Do you want a hug?” Christen asked Rachel softly as they stood outside her room.

Rachel looked so touched by the offer in her already over emotional state she could have cried. She nodded and Christen smiled, hugging her tight.

“If you need help getting to breakfast in the morning, we’ll be here for you, ok?”

Rachel nodded when she pulled away, hobbling into her room. Christen turned to Tobin, intending to go back to one of their rooms, and found Tobin staring at her with a smile.

“What?” Christen asked, suddenly self-conscious when Tobin didn’t answer. “Is there something on my face?”

Tobin laughed, her smile growing bigger, and she shook her head like Christen really had no idea of the power of her kindness and empathy.

Christen blushed under Tobin’s smile, playing it off and rolling her eyes at her as she nudged her down the hall in the direction of her hotel room. As soon as she opened her door she sprinted for the telephone, hearing it ringing.  

“Hello?” She answered in a rush, a smile wide on her face. “Is that my beautiful baby sister calling me?” Christen squeezed her eyes shut in happiness, laughing as she heard a 5 year old Mal on the other end of the phone start chatting to her a million miles a minute.

A couple of minutes into the conversation she realised she couldn’t see Tobin, and looked around the room to see her still standing by the door, a hesitant look on her face. She gestured for her to come over to where she was.

“I can go if you want to talk.” Tobin whispered, not wanting to intrude.

Christen shook her head, grabbing Tobin’s wrist and pulling her to sit down on the bed next to her. She laughed when Tobin crashed down beside her, knocking into her with a grin.

“Chrissy are you having fun at your soccer?”

Mal’s words made Christen laugh. She wasn’t even sure if her parents had told Mal that Christen was at a youth camp, she was probably too young to understand. She just knew Christen was somewhere playing soccer for “far too long because I miss you.”

“I am having fun at my soccer.”

“Did you know if I eat all my vegetables every day then soon I will get as tall as you and play good soccer just like you because Mommy said so.”  

This kid. Christen couldn’t deal with her. “Well Mom is a smart lady and she’s right. And I think you can be even better than me one day.”

“No you the best Chrissy! Did you make friends at your soccer?”

“I’ve made lots of friends.”

“Like how many friends? 100 million friends?”

Christen laughed again at Mal’s words, her heart aching at how much her silly antics made her miss her. “100 million, that’s a big number. Did you learn that at school?” She saw Tobin giving her the same dopey smile as before as she spoke, and shoved her arm.

“Uh huh. Did you know I can count to 100 million?”

“Oh really?”

“Really! One, two, miss a few, 99…100 million!”

“Oh you’re such a little trickster!” Christen pressed the phone harder into her ear. She wished Mal was with her now. How she loved that kid. “Baby, I miss you so much. Can you tell me all about your week? Have you been having fun?”

At this, Christen saw Tobin beside her fall on her back on the bed. An arm came over her face and she wore the biggest smile, as if she wasn’t able to contain her feelings at listening to Christen talk to her little sister on the phone.

“I’d never heard anything cuter in my life.” Tobin said as they walked down the street, Christen smiling at the memory. “Of course, I didn’t know then that Mal was your sister. You never mentioned her name. But that night, with how kind you showed yourself to be, and how giving and loving you were – Chris, change is natural. And for the most part, good. But years can pass and those kinds of qualities never leave you. They’re part of who you are.”

Christen felt a lump in her throat and she was sure if she tried to speak only tears would come out. Instead, she rested her head down onto Tobin’s shoulder briefly, never breaking stride, but trying to convey how much it meant to her – both that she remembered that, but also that it was clear her past had no bad effect on how she saw her now.

With a strength she never knew she possessed, she lifted her head off Tobin’s shoulder after a moment, trying not to think how perfectly it felt to let it lay there. It was just in time too, as they had arrived at an intersection, catching up to the other three as they waited for the green light to cross.

Mal looked over at Christen and gave her a smile, it growing wider when Christen winked at her. Whenever the two were out with others and not just themselves (which hardly ever happened before this camp) they were always checking in with each other, mostly non-verbally, only really being able to be reassured and have fun when they knew the other was ok.

Before Christen knew it, the wide smile on Mal’s face devolved into a playful grin, and her younger sister slid out from under Alex’s arm, running a few steps and launching herself onto Christen’s back.

“Mal!” Christen laughed, immediately hooking her arms under Mal’s legs to keep her sister steady on her back. “Warn a girl, jeez.”

Mal giggled in delight, wrapping her arms loosely around Christen’s neck and cuddling into her, pecking her cheek. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Tobin was too busy staring at the two sisters with a soft dopey gaze that she didn’t realise Kelley was sneaking up behind her. Kelley pounced on her back and she almost fell forward, holding her arm out for Alex to steady her.

“Kelley! What the fuck.” Tobin exclaimed, laughing with the rest of the group as she tried to adjust to the weight on her back. “It’s cute when Mal does it, not you.”

“You love me.”

“Do I, though?”

The green light showed on the side walk crossing and Christen took off with Mal still on her back, a smile forming as she listened to Kelley and Tobin continue to bicker. They had walked another block when Christen heard a change in Kelley’s voice.

She didn’t mean to listen in on their conversation, but they weren’t exactly being discrete – they were still in close proximity and Christen wasn’t even sure Kelley knew the meaning of the word ‘whisper.’

“So I haven’t heard you mention your person in a while. Since the start of camp, coincidentally.”

“My what?” Tobin’s reply was laced with confusion at Kelley’s statement, to which Christen shared the sentiment. Tobin’s ‘person’?

“You know, the woman who is special to you. The one you think about when you need ‘inspiration to play’ and all that romantic yadda you always bang on about when we ask you where you got your r-”

“Kelley, shut up!” Tobin said at the same time Christen’s entire being deflated a bit, her arms losing their strength and dropping down slightly so Mal could fall back into step with her on the side walk. She distantly heard Tobin call out her name but her thoughts had taken over her mind.

Tobin had a person? Tobin’s person was a woman? A woman who was special to her and inspired her playing?

Christen knew she should have expected something like this. She should have listened to her own warnings that she didn’t know anything about Tobin’s life. She didn’t know who Tobin had a past with, or even a present with.

She knew that 12 years ago, Tobin had a crush on her.

She’d been childish to believe Tobin’s feelings remained.

It was clear to Christen that from Kelley’s comments, Tobin had someone in her life that she often mentioned. That wasn’t Christen. It can’t have been.

She would just have to suck it up and come to terms with this being another thing that was out of her reach because of the way her life had panned out. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.

But Tobin had always seemed to be the exception for Christen. This hurt more. And as she walked along the sidewalk, deep in thought, she was struck with a pain she didn’t know she could feel.

That was the thing about opening yourself up to hope. With no barriers around, it was so much easier to crumble.

“…Chris? Christen?” Tobin’s voice slowly grew in volume until it punctured through the cloud of thought Christen had trapped her mind in the last few minutes. She looked up in surprise to see that Mal wasn’t still walking beside her, but was up ahead again with Kelley and Alex.

She turned to look at Tobin who wore a hesitant expression. Christen didn’t know how much of Tobin’s attempts at talking to her she had inadvertently blocked out, but by the look on Tobin’s face it seemed that Tobin had picked up she was unhappy about something.

“I, uh…I’m sorry about what Kelley said. You know, she’s always running her mouth about stuff like – ”

Christen rushed to stop Tobin speaking. She didn’t want Tobin to feel like she had to explain herself, because Tobin owed her absolutely nothing. Deep down though, she knew it would also hurt to hear about a person that special to Tobin when it wasn’t her. “No, no, Tobin you don’t have to apologise for that. You really don’t. Everyone gets inspiration from people special to them.”

Christen’s heart sank when she saw Tobin’s reaction to what she said. The woman was smiling, a blush spreading across her cheeks as she struggled to maintain eye contact with her.

Clearly whichever woman inspired Tobin to play was important to her if it reduced her to that at the mention of her.

She never thought she’d hurt so much from seeing Tobin smile.

“Oh, that’s good. It’s a relief to hear you say that, actually. I shut Kelley up because I didn’t want you to feel weird about hearing it second hand. I had wanted to talk to you about it, I just hadn’t got the chance.”

Despite every emotional encounter Christen had already had today, she had never wanted to disappear more than in this moment. It was obvious to her that Tobin knew she still had a crush on her and had wanted to tell her about someone else already in her life to make sure she was on the right page from the start.

She tried to speak with an even voice even though she could feel a lump forming in her throat. “Tobin, no. Please don’t feel like you owe me an explanation. It’s clear that whatever woman Kelley was referring to is really important to you and your soccer and I would never…you really don’t have to tell me anything.”

Christen’s eyes were already closed in anticipation of Tobin’s reply sinking her mood further so it took her a while to realise that Tobin was no longer walking next to her. She stopped, looking around until she saw her standing a few feet behind her, a look on her face that one could only describe as a mix of confusion and amusement.

“Tobin?”

Tobin seemed to be both present and also deep in thought recounting what Christen just said to her. She shook her head a few times, opening and closing her mouth before finally getting some words out. “What do you mean, ‘whatever woman Kelley was referring to’?”

The last thing Christen wanted to do right then was talk more about this woman. “The woman who is…special to you. The one who inspires you to play.”

Her words came out barely more than a whisper, and the pain in her chest didn’t ease at all when instead of replying, Tobin burst into laughter.

Tears involuntarily welled in Christen’s eyes. She willed them away, frustrated at her own emotional state. She was not a school girl. She was not about to fucking cry over this.

She must not have succeeded at keeping her expression away from being upset, though, because as soon as Tobin looked up and saw her, she cut her laughter off and ran over to her, though the grin never left her face.

“Christen.” Tobin said, amused eyes trying to get Christen’s to meet them. “Can you look at me?”

Reluctantly, Christen lifted her gaze, trying not to think about how close in proximity Tobin was standing to her, and how comforting her presence was, even when she had just been so let down by the news.

“Christen,” Tobin started again, her voice soft, “That woman is you.”

For the second time today Tobin’s words made Christen’s world stop spinning and then take off again in the complete opposite direction. She had to take a moment, just to make sure she’d heard her right.

She was Tobin’s person? She was the woman who was special to her? The one who Tobin thought of to give her inspiration to play? Just like how Tobin was the person she thought of when she needed something to pull her through?

It couldn’t be.

“But…but…” She was at a loss for words, and a tiny laugh escaped Tobin’s mouth, her expression still soft and amused.

“Chris, you’re the one Kelley was talking about. It couldn’t be anyone but you. You don’t know how much you’ve helped me over the years. Times when I was unsure of my abilities, or not knowing how I was going to achieve my next goal. I thought of you. I thought of the conversations we had, the dreams we told each other. I didn’t know what had happened to you when you didn’t show up to that next camp. But I promised myself that if you weren’t there to achieve our dreams, I would do it for us.”

She didn’t know she was crying until she tasted a salted tear that hit her lips. There was no way she could even begin to process half of what Tobin had just told her. She was still having trouble believing she was really the person Kelley and Tobin were talking about.

“But…you said you didn’t want me to feel weird about hearing it. That you wanted to tell me in person.”

Tobin laughed again, shaking her head with more of a blush this time. “I didn’t want you to feel weird because I was worried you might be uncomfortable hearing that even after all these years you were still really important to me and someone I drew inspiration from. I wanted to explain to you in person. I’m sorry if it’s weird for you, to know that’s the role you’ve played in my life. That I think of you so often. But I…you impacted me so much, Chris. You still do.”

“Oh, Tobin.” Christen couldn’t think much past those words. She could barely focus on breathing air in and out of her own lungs, let alone try and comprehend Tobin’s words. She realised she had completely misinterpreted the situation. She’d experienced the complete opposites of the emotion spectrum in mere minutes and it was making her head spin.

She must have looked as overwhelmed as she felt, because Tobin put her hands on her shoulders to steady her. “Hey, Chris, just breathe, yeah? Breathe with me.”

Christen followed Tobin’s movements as the took deep breaths in and out, not even sure how long they were standing there for. It took her a while, she thought, but eventually she was able to start to recount everything that had just happened.

(It was better than any dream she’d ever had. Way better).

“Are you ok? I’m so sorry to drop all of that on you.” Tobin said in earnest.

Christen shook her head, a look of disbelief still etched onto her face. “No, I’m so sorry. I assumed wrong and didn’t even bother to check. I just…I thought I was the only one of us who had thought of the other so much over the years. It’s hard for me to believe that you would remember me. Because…well, you’re you and I’m me.”

“Chris…” Tobin’s eyes dropped a bit in sadness, an unhappy look coming onto her face the more Christen spoke. “You are not just anyone. You have no idea the effect you had on me, that you have on me. I meant what I said earlier today. I couldn’t forget you if I tried.”

Tobin’s hands were still steady and warm on her shoulders, and Christen listened to her, feeling each word ground her to the point where they felt less and less like a fanciful fantasy of hers, and something that might actually be a reality.

“You don’t know what that means to me, to hear that.”

“It’s the truth, every word. I swear.”

Christen nodded, wholeheartedly believing Tobin. The shocked expression on her face was slowly morphing into a smile. “I never forgot you either.”

“If my hands weren’t on your shoulders right now I would think I was dreaming.” The grin was etched back onto Tobin’s face, her eyes bright with happiness.

Christen just laughed, nodding along as more tears fell out of her eyes. Tobin brought her hands up to her face, gently brushing them away with the pads of her thumbs.  

“So now, are you sure you’re ok? Apart from, you know, being totally overwhelmed in my presence, of course.”

Christen rolled her eyes at Tobin’s joking, shoving her arm lightly as she laughed. “I’m good. Are you ok?”

“Never better, Chris. Genuinely.”

Once again, Christen shared the sentiment.

She still had one lasting question from Kelley and Tobin’s conversation, though, that she couldn’t get her head around. “So I’m the person you and Kelley were referring to, but why didn’t Kelley just say my name? Why did she say you hadn’t mentioned this person since camp?”

At this, Tobin laughed out loud again, hand coming to the back of her own neck and rubbing it, like she was preparing herself for a long explanation. “Because of this.”

Christen watched Tobin hold up her hand where her ring sat on her finger. “The ring?”

“The ring. Come on, we better keep going so we don’t completely lose the others. I’ll tell you as we go.” Tobin gently nudged Christen into starting to walk again down the sidewalk. “So you know I’ve been wearing your ring since you gave it to me. Apart from soccer matches and one heart stopping moment when it almost fell down a kitchen sink 3 years ago, it hasn’t left my finger.

Christen nodded, unable to stop the blushing smile that came on her face at Tobin’s admission.

“Get that look off your face.” Tobin grinned, bumping Christen’s shoulder. “Have you taken my ring off your finger since I gave it to you, either?”

“No.” Christen happily admitted, smile wide and smitten when she looked at Tobin’s excited face at her answer.

“See, you’re just as much of a dork as I am, then.”

“Ok, dork.” She laughed, bumping back into Tobin’s shoulder as they kept walking. “So tell me, what does the ring have to do with this?”

“As you might have figured out, Kelley and Alex aren’t the most non-intrusive of people. It took them a few years, I’ll admit, to realise I was always wearing this ring. But when they asked me where I got it from, and I didn’t say definitively, that’s when it all started.”

“Where did you tell them you got it from?”

“I didn’t. I just said it was from someone special to me. Someone who – ”

“ – inspired you.” Christen finished for Tobin, seeing her smile and nod.

“Naturally, I think, they were convinced I had a secret girlfriend somewhere that I wasn’t telling them about. To this day they think that, actually. It’s almost admirable that they’ve never given up asking me about it all these years. They bring it up all the time.”

Christen laughed, imagining the torment Kelley and Alex would have put Tobin through all this time. She decided to ignore the comment Tobin made about having a girlfriend, though, knowing her heart would beat right through her chest if she let herself get lost in another of her dreams. “I’m impressed you held off for so long.”

Tobin shrugged. “You mean all of those things to me, Chris. You’re important to me and you inspire me. But I knew no one would understand how I could know that of you after one camp. So I kept you to myself. I didn’t need anyone else to validate it, and I didn’t want anyone to.”

At that point, Christen’s blush may as well have been tattooed onto her skin. “I feel the same. I actually only told Mal today, that the ring is yours.”

“Yeah? What did she say when you told her?”

That we were in love? Destined to be together forever? That we were the real deal?

“She was really shocked, I think. Probably just that I’d managed to hang on to something for 12 years without losing it.” Christen couldn’t have told a bigger lie – she was the most unlikely person to lose anything important to her. But she wasn’t about to tell Tobin what she and Mal had talked about. She was worried she’d already said too much tonight, that she’d maybe scared Tobin off with how much she was saying, revealing too much about her feelings.

But then Tobin was giving her that smile again, and that laugh, with those eyes. And fuck, Christen’s head and her heart just exploded and how could she possibly think about anything else when something so beautiful was right beside her?

“So tonight, in another of her attempts to ‘find the truth’, Kelley said to me she hasn’t heard anything about this person since camp started. But of course she hadn’t, because you were here. I didn’t need to talk about you in the abstract anymore. But just for the fun of keeping the secret alive, I didn’t tell them that you and the woman who gave me the ring were the same person.”

Christen cracked up laughing. She laughed because she found the story genuinely funny, but also because if she didn’t she’d think too hard about what it meant that if Kelley and Alex thought a girlfriend gave Tobin her ring, but it was actually her, and Tobin had so easily interchanged her hypothetical girlfriend for Christen being there when camp started and –

It was really all too much. And far easier to just ignore it.

Her and Tobin were friends. They had finally reconnected after 12 years. She had a crush, but she had waited so long. She wasn’t about to ruin what she’d only just got back.

“That’s pretty funny, I have to say.” She said once she’d quietened down. Tobin laughed back, shrugging her shoulders again.

“I’m sure I’ll get around to telling them one day…maybe.”

“I would love to see her face when you d – ”

“BOO!”

“Fuck!”

“AHHH!”

Howling laughter reverberated off the sidewalk as Kelley, Alex and Mal were hunched over in hysterics, laughing at the reactions of Christen and Tobin getting scared. Tobin had ended up on the ground, her being the closest to the bush the three were hiding behind, and Christen had her hand over her heart, trying to regain her breath whilst also in the midst of laughing herself.

“Tobin, are you ok?” Christen reached a hand down for Tobin to grab as she pulled her up, barely finding the strength as her laughter slowly over took her.

“You’re an asshole, O’Hara!” Tobin said to Kelley, though there was a grin on her face.

“It was Alex’s idea!” Kelley ratted out Alex who had been filming the entire thing. She shut the camera off with a shrug and a wink, barely getting out of the way before Tobin could hit her in the arm.

“Mal, you’re such a little shit. You know I hate jump scares.” Christen said, chuckling at her still doubled over little sister.

“I know, that’s why it’s so funny.” Mal definitely did not manage to get out of the way before Christen hit her arm, and the five of them continued on the short walk back to the hotel.

“Can I sleep in your room tonight?” Mal asked in a quiet voice to Christen as she lay her head against her arm, riding the elevator back up to their floor with the others.

Christen lifted her arm up so Mal could cuddle into her side more, wrapping it around her shoulders. “It might cost you 50 bucks for scaring me before.” She grinned when Mal looked up at her, rolling her eyes. “I’m kidding. Of course you can. I’ve missed your koala hugs at night.”

“I’m just going to get some stuff from my room and tell Lindsey.” Mal said as the doors opened, poking Kelley in the side and sprinting off in a giggle as the other woman chased her, followed by Alex looking on and laughing.

They were all so preoccupied with each other that they didn’t realise Tobin hadn’t gotten out of the elevator with them. Christen certainly did, though.

“Is it ok if I walk you back to your room?”

Christen nodded, a dumb smile on her face, even though her room was about 5 doors down from the elevator. They got out when the doors opened, moving so slowly down the hallway that it could barely be counted as a walk.

Christen watched Tobin out of the corner of her eye as the woman opened and closed her mouth several times, clearly wanting to say something but not knowing what words to use.   

“Are you – ”

“I wanted to – ”

“ – Sorry! No you go – ”

Both women laughed as they accidentally spoke over each other, fumbling in their words to let the other go first and blushing when they did so.

“You go, please.” Christen said, not wanting to let Tobin lose steam when she’d finally found her words.

Tobin took a deep breath in, looked Christen in the eyes, and then spoke. “I just wanted to say I meant what I said earlier. About being here if you wanted to talk. I would never want to presume to know anything about your story. But I know how much soccer meant to you, and I can’t imagine what must have happened for you to not still be playing.” She rubbed the back of her neck again, seemingly losing some of her sureness. “You don’t have to talk to me now – or ever – about it. I just want you to know I’m here to listen, if you did.”

Despite this being the most loaded thing anyone had said to her all day, it was the easiest thing for Christen to answer. Before she and Tobin spoke today she had been terrified of telling her about her past.

It still terrified her to talk about her past. But Tobin had shown her tonight that she was still the same kind soul she remembered. She had shown her that she listened to people and respected their choices. That she cared deeply about those in her life.

She knew her biggest challenge wasn’t the prospect of talking to Tobin about her past so much as it was just talking about her past full stop. She couldn’t think of anyone better or more understanding to cross that hurdle with than Tobin.

“Thank you for saying that. It’s so genuinely kind. I promise this isn’t me trying to get out of it, but after the day I’ve had there’s just no way I could even begin to start that story.”

Tobin smiled, nodding in understanding.

“Do you…do you think you could be patient with me on this one? When the time is right we can talk. I’ll answer any questions you have. Well, I’ll promise to try.” She said with a small smile, knowing she could promise at least that.

“Of course. Whatever is good with you. Tomorrow or next month or in like 10 years I don’t mind. I’m good at waiting.”

God, Tobin’s smile would end her one day.

“You’re too good, Tobs.” Christen whispered out, finally coming to a stop outside her hotel door and feeling sad at the prospect of leaving her after such an emotional reconnection and all she’d learnt. “I really missed you.”

“I missed you too.”

This time there was no need to ask if either of them wanted a hug, they both knew that they did. Their bodies pressed seamlessly into each other, arms wrapping around tight. Tobin rested her forehead briefly on Christen’s shoulder before pulling away and it was the softest thing Christen had seen in so long it made her head dizzy in all the good ways.

“Is your head ok?”

“My head?”

“From earlier, when I bumped it.” Tobin’s fingertips were back on her forehead, softly tracing around where she remembered knocking it, searching for a sign of a bruise. “I’m sorry about that.”

Christen had to resist the urge to melt under her touch. She reluctantly spoke, not wanting to because she knew when she did, Tobin’s hand would move away. “I’d forgotten all about it.”

Tobin looked satisfied, her hand slowly dropping back to her side. “That’s good. So I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“If you’re lucky.” Christen grinned, surprising herself with her own confidence.  

Tobin shook her head in fondness at Christen as she took a few steps backwards. “Night, Chris.”

“Goodnight, Tobin.” Christen murmured back, smile on her face and not leaving until she saw Tobin round the corner for the elevator.

She walked into her room, a dopey smile plastered on her face, only snapping out of it when Mal came in a few minutes later, laughing at her.

“I’m calling that the Tobin stare.”

Christen reached behind her intending to grab a pillow off the bed to throw at Mal but Mal was one step ahead of her, jumping onto the bed and then onto her back. She laughed and yelled out at the surprise, falling back onto the bed sideways so neither of them got squashed.

“Christen’s got a crush.” Mal sang out, laughing more when Christen elbowed her and tried to get away.

“I will kick you out of the bed tonight!”

“No you won’t!”

Christen looked at Mal where they lay on the bed with a grin, unable to contain her joy. “What a day, huh?”

Mal laughed at her, rolling her eyes. “This day felt like 1000 years. Thank god we took that nap before dinner.”

“Just one of my many great ideas.”

Mal looked like she was going to give a sassy retort to that before her phone lit up, a text message appearing. “Oh, Lindsey text me back.”

“What’d she say?”

“Here you can read it. She wasn’t in the room before so I just texted her.”

 

Little Mal-Mal 9:31pm

hey i’m staying in my sister’s room tonight btw!

where are you?

 

Linds 9:38pm

aw cute! that’s cool

i’m with sonnett in rose’s room

sonnett and rose are fizzing bc I’m the only one who has met christen and they want to as well hahaha

 

Christen snorted when she read the message, looking at Mal with an amused expression. “Why do they want to meet me so bad?”

“I think because Lindsey was winding them up the other day saying she’d met you and all that, even if it was last year, and now they’re hung up about it.” Mal grinned at the memory.

“Do you want them to meet me?”

“Of course! It feels weird talking about you to them without them having met you.”

At this, Christen took Mal’s phone in her hands, typing out a response to Lindsey.

 

Little Mal-Mal 9:42pm

Hey Lindsey it’s Christen, you guys can come by the room if you want! Would love to meet you all.

 

Linds 9:42pm

omg

 

Christen swears it was less than 10 seconds later that she and Mal could hear running footsteps screech to a halt outside the room followed by a knock on the door and a lot of laughter.

“Mal, you keep me young, you really do.” Christen said with a grin. She stood up from the bed and walked to the door to let in Mal’s friends who would end up staying for the next two hours, discussing with her everything from her thoughts on the best Disney Channel Original Movie to her favorite song to dance to whether Sonnett or Kelley was more likely to be another life form altogether.

They didn’t ask any probing questions, anything about their personal lives, and made no assumptions. They were just great, genuine people. Mal was clearly enamoured with them and their friendship, and Christen just hoped Mal would always be able to stay this carefree and happy.

When Christen finally lay down in bed later that night – Mal waiting impatiently for her to get in so she could promptly lay half on top of her and immediately fall asleep – she stopped to think about how huge of a day she had been through.

Mal now knew about her past with soccer, and about her ring. For the first time in her life she had let herself really lean on Mal for comfort, and it had shown her how good it was to sometimes ask for help.

She had met some of Mal’s closest friends on the team, getting to see how kind and hilarious they were and how they so obviously cared for Mal.

And Tobin. Tobin.

She had met her again, hugged her again. Talked and talked and talked to her. It was incredible how safe she felt with her, how familiar she was even after all this time.

She hadn’t opened up about her past, but it was clear Tobin had figured something had gone wrong. Yet she didn’t pry, she didn’t judge. She was just there, strong and steady. Her eyes kind and her smile wide.

Just like Christen remembered her.

Tonight, Christen wouldn’t have to dream about her. She wouldn’t have to imagine what it would be like to see her again, to laugh with her and feel her presence. That was what tomorrow was for.

Her eyes clenched shut in excitement, a smile taking over her face at the thought.

Things had been bad. There were still hard times to come, she was sure.

But for now?

It was good.

Mal made a small sound in her sleep, her head burrowing closer into where it lay on Christen. Christen wrapped an arm around her, feeling her close.

Mal was good.

“I love you, baby. Sweet dreams.”

She was good.

 

Chapter Text

Christen felt like she had smiled more in the last few days than the last few years combined.

She felt lighter; happier. She was learning how to enjoy things again.

Even though there was a dark cloud of impending doom consistently sitting at the back of her mind telling her she still didn’t have a house, a job or a car, she for the most part ignored it, convincing herself she could deal with it later.

Past Christen would have gone absolutely manic at present Christen’s handling of the situation. This wasn’t in her nature. She was a planner. After having lost control of so much of her life, Christen found comfort from being prepared.

Now that Tobin was back in her life, she increasingly found comfort from her instead. Just like when she was 15, being around Tobin made Christen less anxious about everything. She didn’t feel like she had to have a constant plan. She didn’t feel like she needed to worry about everything.

(She still worried about Mal, she would always worry about Mal).

But now she had people she was learning to rely on – both of them did. Mal had always made good friends in her youth teams, but the friends she was making here felt different –  closer, more permanent. Mal idolised all of them and they so obviously cared about her.

And Christen, for the first time since she was 15, was finding out again how good it was to have friends to surround yourself with, to support you and laugh with you and be interested in your life.

Neither of them had told any of the team about their past, but the fact that they were open to the idea of sharing it if the right time came up was a stark difference to how they had always been.

Christen wasn’t magically free of her stresses and worries after a few good days – she wasn’t that naïve. But she was trying her best to enjoy the peace while it was settled in her, because from her past experiences she knew it didn’t always last.

“No! Absolutely no Manchester United supporters allowed!” Lindsey bellowed from her spot on the bed as Sam Mewis and Sydney Leroux walked into Tobin and Alex’s room, a few minutes ahead of the Premier League game kick off.

Sydney just stuck out her tongue and flipped Lindsey off, choosing to jump onto the bed next to her and Becky, ready for 90 minutes of shit talking, probably.

Becky just raised her eyebrows, giving Sydney a stare. “Fine, but if I hear any unnecessary and slanderous Arsenal comments, I will not hesitate to push you off the bed.”

“I think United can speak for themselves.” Sam sat on the couch next to Sonnett and Rose.

“Yeah, well Arsenal is about to teach them how to shut up.” Tobin replied from where she sat on her bed, energy and confidence levels through the roof as she fizzed with anticipation for the game ahead.

Christen hadn’t stopped smiling since she got to the room. About half the team was packed into it, far more than could really comfortably fit, and definitely too many people for the amount of shit talking that was going on.

But she loved it, she couldn’t get enough of it. She loved seeing everyone’s competitive spirits coming out, getting to know their personalities, seeing their true forms when they got so overcome with joy and excitement.

This was just a whole lot of dumb fun, and it was something she hadn’t had with anyone but Mal in years.

“I love it when I have no stakes in a match.” Kelley flopped down on the end of Tobin’s bed, spreading out wide. “There’s so many people for me to wind up, but so little time to do it.”

Christen snorted at Kelley’s comment – at least she owned herself. She had gotten to know a lot of people on the team well over the last few days, but Kelley especially was someone who brought out a playful side in her. She was always bouncing off the walls and finding the fun in everything.

Mal couldn’t get enough of her – it was exactly the stage of life she was at. Kelley was showing Christen that there was no reason she had to be past that, either.

“Kelley, get off the bed!” Tobin groaned, trying to kick out her feet at Kelley’s laying form.

“Excuse me? You have so much room?”

“This bed is for Gunners only.”

Kelley was unimpressed with that answer, looking at the other two people that were sitting at the top of the bed with Tobin. “Christen isn’t a Gunner, and Mal’s reading a book!”

Mal lifted her head from the novel she was holding with a pout on her face. “It’s for my English report, I have to finish this chapter. Christen won’t let me just Google the ending.”

“What are you reading? 1984? I’ll tell you the ending, he wakes up and it was all a dream.”

A few people in the room that were listening to the conversation laughed, especially more at Mal’s reaction to Kelley saying that. The more the team had gotten to know about Mal and the amount of school work she had to keep up with as a high school senior, the more they loved to fondly tease her about it, even though they were all completely impressed she managed to keep up with it all.

Kelley! Stop it, it’s not funny.” Mal grumbled, pouting and going back to her book. “And shut up, Christen.”

Christen had to cover her mouth from laughing, but Mal could still feel it as she was leaning her head against Christen’s shoulder as she read. Next to Christen, Tobin was also sporting a grin before turning back to Kelley.

“Christen isn’t a Gunner yet, you mean. After this masterclass by Arsenal she will be.”

“You better hope so, you’ve talked them up all weekend so I’m expecting big things.” Christen said with her eyebrows raised, trying her best not to blush when she saw one appear on Tobin’s cheeks.

“Well, prepare to be disappointed, Christen.” Sydney mumbled, followed by the thud of a pillow hitting her and Becky saying “One more word, Leroux, I swear.”

Alex and Pinoe came back into the room with popcorn, Mal closed the last page in the book, and Christen spent the next 90+ minutes watching a room of people experience the full range of emotions as Arsenal pulled out a late 2-1 victory.

YES!” Tobin looked like the cat that ate the canary, eyes gleaming with excitement, smile boastful and cheering for Arsenal as the second half highlights came on. “See, I told you Chris, didn’t I? How good was that!”

Christen could hear Lindsey and Becky cheering from the bed over and Sam and Sydney groaning in defeat. She was pretty sure she saw Rose and Emily trying to make up a dance to the beat of Sam’s consistent complaining.

But she just couldn’t focus on anything past Tobin’s buzzing form. Her energy was contagious. Christen really didn’t have a stake in who won, but if she could see Tobin like this after every game she’d bet it all on Arsenal, for sure.

The goal highlights came on, and everyone in the room ooed and awed at Arsenal’s late game winning goal, a screamer of a shot from the top of the box.

“I want to score a goal like that one day.” Mal said from beside her, eyes far away in imagination of how it would happen.

“With the way you’ve been performing at training it won’t be long until you’re sending in shots like that for the national team.”

Mal’s entire face blushed a dark shade of red at Alex’s compliment, and it only got darker as more people spoke up over how well she was doing at camp so far.

“You just wait, once you play that first game NWSL teams will be fighting over each other to snap you up.”

That peaked Christen’s attention. She looked up at who said it, seeing it was Lindsey. Given Lindsey’s history it wasn’t necessarily surprising to hear her say that, but Christen was pretty sure Mal wasn’t taking the same path as her.

“Oh, Mal’s going to college.”

A silence fell over the room and Christen briefly wondered whether that statement came out a bit harder than she was intending it to. She knew going pro straight out of high school was an option for young talented players, which Mal was.

But Christen was of the belief that not only was it Mal’s plan to go to college, it was also something she was really excited about. Mal knew how important it was to get an education, and she loved the idea of having college friends and being in a close knit team.

She wouldn’t want to push Mal to do something she didn’t want to do. But a full ride scholarship was very hard to turn down, and a college degree would set Mal up for a good start to life. Plus, she always saw the excited gleam in her little sister’s eyes whenever she got excited at the thought of it. She knew Mal wanted to go, as well.

“I’ve partially committed to UCLA.”

At Mal’s statement the silence in the room broke, with most of the other players groaning while Sam and Sydney both hollered out cheers, fist pumping for their old alma mater.

“Yes! This news is so much better than having to watch United lose.” Sydney spoke with glee on her face.

“You’re going to be a Bruin, Mal! That’s so cool.” Sam said, almost jumping on her seat in excitement.

The next few minutes consisted of the rest of the women in the room getting into a heated debate about which college was better – it’s not like they didn’t have an annual soccer tournament to decide this or anything – and trying to convince Mal to change her mind to attend their respective colleges.

Mal just laughed along with them, knowing she was firm about UCLA. She told them all how excited she was, and she listened with rapt attention as Sam described the soccer facilities and the coaches there and how much fun she would have.

Christen got an unexpected pang in her chest from hearing all the players talk about their experiences. It was always a dream of hers to play college soccer. She noticed Tobin beside her was quiet, and had even shuffled a tiny bit closer to her on the bed.

She’d followed Tobin’s career on the periphery but it was enough to know that Tobin had thrived whilst at UNC, snapping up college trophies and national team caps.

She chanced glancing up at Tobin’s face to get a read on what she was feeling, and was surprised and touched to see Tobin giving her a soft smile and an understanding look. From Christen’s lack of engagement in the college chat, Tobin had probably figured out she never went. She had wanted to go though, so badly, and Tobin would have remembered that too.

“But Chris, with you there, Stanford would be like one of UNC’s biggest threats!” Tobin whined, flicking the ball up with her foot when Christen passed it to her. “I couldn’t play against you.”

The early evening sun was sitting low in the sky as they passed the ball back and forth to each other. Practice was over for the day, the girls having been released for free time but Christen and Tobin were still on the field, still kicking the ball around, still together (as always).

Christen had taken her 200 shots and Tobin had mastered another trick. They’d just started doing a little passing warm down when college was brought up. It was still a few years away, but both of them were performing so well in soccer they knew they’d be shoo ins for a full ride to basically any university of their choice. Tobin had said with excitement she hoped to be able to go to UNC. Christen had replied with her wish – Stanford.  

At Tobin’s whine of her college choice, Christen just shook her head fondly, trying not to get mesmerised by how Tobin’s foot moved with ease around the ball. She trapped it when Tobin kicked it back to her, flicking it up for a few juggles herself before passing it back.

“You’re being dramatic. Of course you could play against me, you could play against anyone. You’re too competitive not to be.”

Tobin grumbled, her legs lazily kicking out at the ball but still managing to do an around the world and flick over her head as it sailed back to Christen. “You’re different, though. I wouldn’t enjoy beating you.”  

“Oh, beating me? Is UNC winning in this hypothetical match up?”

Tobin wore a classic grin. “Duh! UNC always wins.”

Christen laughed, kicking the ball straight up into the air and seeing Tobin capture it under her foot as it hit the grass again. “You know what, I’m even more excited to go to Stanford now, just for the sole reason of kicking UNC’s butts.”

A scandalised gasp left Tobin’s mouth. “You take that back.”

“Make me.” Christen smirked as she trapped the ball after Tobin’s pass, taking off in a dribble with it and hearing Tobin chase after her.

The two girls laughed uncontrollably as they ran, Christen easily sprinting circles around Tobin. She was about to take off into a full field sprint when she felt her shirt being tugged on and her body start to fall. She winced in anticipation for the ground to hit, but instead her fall was cushioned by a soft body with strong arms wrapping around her.

Christen let herself enjoy the feeling of being held by Tobin before she wriggled away, rolling out of Tobin’s grasp and shoving her side with a grin. “That was totally a red card.”

“Get out of here, it was a yellow. A weak one at that.” Tobin wore a playful expression, her smile growing big on her face. “You’re too fast.”

It was a tiny compliment, but Christen still blushed anyways. She lay on her back on the grass, seeing Tobin do the same next to her. They looked up at the clouds above them, just like they’d done so many other times this camp.

“I’ll make sure to let the ref know to watch my jersey when we play UNC, then.”  

Tobin let out a burst of laughter, gently kicking her foot where it lay beside her. “We’ll have to pull out all our tricks to stop you, that’s for sure.”

A few moments of silence passed, each girl enjoying the soft sun and peaceful quiet that surrounded them. Christen looked over to Tobin only to see she was already looking at her, a small smile on her face.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Tobin blushed a bit, maybe at being caught. She shook her head before speaking. “What made you pick Stanford?”

Christen turned back to look at the sky, pondering the question. “I think even though soccer is a huge factor, Stanford is a really good school. Getting an education is important to my family and I. My parents didn’t really come from much.” She spoke softly, her heart hurting at how much she missed her family when she thought of them. “Stanford has a good soccer program, but I believe it can be great. It just think it would be so cool to be able to help build Stanford’s program up to where I know it could be.”

“That’s a good point, it would be really cool. I bet you’d break so many records there if you went.”

“Well, who knows.” She got a tingling of excitement at the thought, already picturing herself and her teammates tearing up the field in maroon jerseys. “If I’m being honest, though, I chose Stanford because it’s still in California, and so is my family. It’s about as far away as I could bear to be from them."  

When Christen looked back at Tobin, the small smile was still on her face but it was stronger, somehow. Like whatever Christen had said connected them more.

“That’s why I chose UNC, too. I mean, it has an undeniably amazing program, and the campus is beautiful. But I would miss my family too much if I went any further.”

Christen nodded in understanding, a smile on her face. “I really like how important your family is to you.”

“You too. So I guess we know now we’re destined to be college rivals, East Coast versus West Coast.”

“It would have been so cool if we got to play on the same team. But I think playing against each other will be even more fun. Those will be the games I’ll look forward to the most.”  

Tobin’s eyes got bright with excitement. “Me too! And when you play UNC you gotta stay with me for a bit so I can show you the campus.”

“You too! I could show you all around Stanford.” Christen said with the same brightness, both girls almost overcome with giddiness at how excited they got thinking about their futures. “I can’t wait. College sounds really hard but everyone always says it’s like the most fun, as well.”  

“It’ll be the most fun. I’m so ready to just get there.” Tobin said, squeezing Christen’s hand in excitement quickly before putting her hands behind her head, staring contentedly back up at the sky.

“I never got there.” Christen murmured the words so quietly only Tobin would be able to hear them, or Mal – if she wasn’t locked in an exciting UCLA conversation with Sam and Sydney.

The room was still buzzing with chatter from all the various people there in different conversations, so although Christen would have rather shared that news with Tobin somewhere more private, no one could hear or was listening anyways.

Tobin’s expression was almost unreadable, but Christen saw the corners of her mouth twitch downwards into a slight frown, and a despondent look pass through her eyes. “I never wanted to believe that, but after we’d played every college and you weren’t at any of them, I figured you didn’t.”

“You looked out for me at the games?”

“Every one.” Tobin’s voice was still a low murmur, their conversation not having caught the attention of anyone else yet. “I knew you weren’t at Stanford because otherwise Kelley would have said something.” Christen nodded at that, knowing Kelley went there and did amazingly. “But I hoped maybe you just went to another one.”

Christen didn’t know how to respond to that past shaking her head with a half-hearted shrug of her shoulders. “It’s not the time to tell you why, not here anyway. But if I could have gone, if I was in a position to be able to have gone, I would have. I would have been there in a heartbeat.”

She said the last sentence in an even lower murmur, not wanting Mal to hear that. She knows Mal knows she didn’t go to college because she was fostering her and working and then adopting her. But Mal didn’t know she had always intended to play at Stanford, and if she’d kept up with her soccer, absolutely could have as well.

“Mal doesn’t know about that, though. So don’t mention it to her, if it gets brought up or something…” Christen whispered, giving Tobin a small smile when she blushed and looked sheepish.

Christen knew Tobin still felt guilty about accidentally telling Mal she already knew Christen from youth soccer. She didn’t hold it against her – in fact, it was for the best that Mal found out. It was basically impossible for the two sisters to get closer at this point, but their conversation had definitely shifted their relationship. Slowly Christen was learning to rely on Mal more, and Mal was loving that.

Still, Christen wanted to be able to tell Mal these things in her own time. And she knew she had to tell Tobin that, because it wasn’t fair for Tobin to not know what Mal didn’t know and carry another load of guilt around with her for something that wasn’t her fault.

“Please don’t say sorry again, I promised you it was fine.” Christen cut in as she saw Tobin’s mouth open, no doubt about to apologise again. “I just wanted to give you a heads up.”

Tobin’s blush remained, but she nodded. “Thanks. And I know now isn’t a great time to talk about stuff, college or anything else. But any other time, I’m always here. If you wanted to.”

“Thanks, Tobin.” Christen squeezed her hand quickly, showing her an appreciative smile. She only then realised how close she and Tobin had drifted to each other on the bed, practically leaning right against each other.

She couldn’t find the will power to move away, and she didn’t feel Tobin do so either. Instead of freaking out about it, she let herself stay, feeling comforted by the warmth of Tobin and the peace her presence brought her.

“Yeah being a Bruin might be great until Virginia stamps on your souls in a revenge college cup match!” Sonnett’s excited and loud voice got Christen and Tobin’s attention and both women reluctantly diverted their gaze back to the main conversation happening in the room.

“We had a 900 minute shut out record until you ruined it!” Sam countered back making everyone laugh.

Christen looked over at Mal, seeing the excitement glimmering in her eyes as she listened to the conversation, laughing and completely enamoured with soccer stories. She’d moved from being pressed against Christen’s side at the head of the bed to sitting on her knees down by Christen’s legs, almost as if she would burst with eagerness at any point.

Christen nudged Mal with her leg, getting her sister’s attention. “That’ll be you, soon.”

Mal’s beam of electric anticipation was so captivating. Christen was comforted by the thought that even though losing her dream hurt like hell, getting to see Mal achieve hers was probably the only alternative she was okay with.

----------

“No that’s so gross! Sonnett, I swear if you dip that toast in your oatmeal I’m never speaking to you ag – oh and she’s done it.”

Christen laughed at Alex’s reaction as most of the rest of the table voiced their visible displeasure at Sonnett’s breakfast choice. Of course, the only two people in the room who were cackling in amusement were Kelley and Sonnett, with Mal looking on unable to stop laughing herself.

It was a Friday, the end of the second week of camp and spirits were high – after practice today they had a three day weekend, having Monday as a rest day as well.

Over that week Christen had basically been integrated into the team’s schedule whenever they were around the hotel. She ate every meal with them and she hung out with them in their free time. She was constantly the bad news bear for Mal, having to pull her away from having fun to do her school work, but Mal was a good student and to her credit, always stuck at it.

When the team was at the training centre, Christen had ventured down to the hotel gym, finding its facilities a lot more impressive than she anticipated. After one day there she realised it was an actual proper gym, with people attending that weren’t specifically staying at the hotel, as well.

Apart from running on the regular with Mal, and kicking the ball around the park, Christen hadn’t partaken in much other exercise since she stopped playing soccer. She ate healthy, by virtue of the diet Mal had to keep up, but she missed being in proper shape. After wandering around the gym for a while, she found herself in her first yoga lesson, and she had been obsessed ever since.

There were two instructors, and it only took her a few minutes to realise they were madly in love, later married. The two men operated in such synchronised tandem when they taught the class, setting a relaxed atmosphere and keeping the mood light with a few jokes here and there. One of them was always up the front, moving through the poses, whilst the other wandered through the class, fixing people’s positioning and sending out warm encouragements.

Christen adored them. They were there every day, and right from the first lesson where she had admitted she’d never set foot onto a yoga mat but wanted to learn, they couldn’t have been more accommodating. They ran through every basic instruction on it, teaching her not only about yoga, but also meditation, and how to clear her mind and centre herself.

If there was anyone who needed to do that, it was definitely Christen.

For someone who hadn’t stopped working since she was 17, the shock that came with suddenly having nothing to do during the day was massive. Christen knew it could easily overwhelm her if she didn’t try and keep herself busy. She went to the park every day, she always had a few hours with Mal and her school work, she hung out with the players, and now she had yoga and meditation.

Things seemed on the up, and she was trying to let herself enjoy them.

There was something she had been avoiding, however, and by the way Tobin was staring at her across the breakfast table she knew it was about to be brought up again.

“Do you want to come to the training centre later today? After practice finishes we could have a kick around, you know, like we used to.”

The way Tobin’s hopeful smile played on her lips made it incredibly hard for Christen to say no. She wanted to say yes, wanted to see Tobin’s smile take over her face and her eyes light up in excitement.

But she couldn’t.

She wasn’t ready for that. Wasn’t ready to be back in a proper soccer environment, wasn’t ready to play with Tobin, with Kelley and Alex and Alyssa and everyone else who had once been her teammates.

She was scared about bringing up memories of her past she knew would hurt to think about. She had gotten good at telling herself that she had moved past it. She wasn’t ready to test if that was actually true.

Plus, she knew she had lost so many of her skills. She didn’t want to show up and let down any expectations Tobin might have had.

Instead, she shook her head, the same as she’d answered to Tobin’s question every day this week so far. She offered an apologetic smile, hoping her eyes conveyed that she appreciated the offer but she just couldn’t.

“I’m sorry.” She murmured out, even though Tobin was sitting opposite her and couldn’t hear. She knew she’d be able to read her lips, though, and she did.

“It’s ok. Maybe another time.” Tobin’s response was the same as she’d given all week to Christen’s refusals, never any judgment or disappointment attached, happy to let Christen move at her own pace.

It made Christen frustrated at herself. She had been doing well in other regards, but she couldn’t seem to get past this. She supposed she shouldn’t be so harsh on herself, but she just wanted to see Tobin smile.

(She knew she’d do almost anything to see Tobin smile).

Before she could think more on it and maybe say something impulsive to Tobin she might regret, she heard her name being called from the direction she knew Mal and some of the other younger players were sitting at the table.

“Yeah?” She answered, swivelling around in her chair to look at them.

“Can you settle a debate for us? Some people here think water is wet.” Lindsey gave Sonnett and Mal an unamused glare as she spoke, both of them wearing wide grins.

“This question is Mal’s favorite way to annoy me.” Christen shook her head. “Why me?”

Rose just shrugged like it was common sense. “Like we’re going to ask any of these other idiots?” She gestured to in the direction of Kelley, Alex and Sydney, ducking when their verbal and physical affronted reactions came her way. “You just like…know everything.”

Christen snorted, not believing that at all. Over the last week or so since they all met, Christen had turned into a bit of an idol for all of the younger players, (as well as most of the older players, too). Everyone adored how kind she was, how incredible her and Mal’s bond was, and how effortlessly beautiful, funny, cool, intelligent (the list could go on and on, especially if you were talking to Tobin) she was.

Of course, Christen herself couldn’t see that. But the way the entire team had welcomed her into basically every activity they were allowed to, they could undoubtedly see all the value she had to offer them and the world in general.

“Well, that’s definitely not true, Rose. But thank you for saying that, anyway.”

“It’s true, you do!” Sonnett piped in. “Where did you go to college?”

The question took Christen out of her playful mood pretty fast, her heart sinking a bit at hearing it. She looked quickly around the room for an exit excuse and sighed in relief when one walked into the room in the shape of Dawn.

“I didn’t, actually.” She said in a voice that was meant to sound light and nonchalant as she somewhat hastily stood up from the table. She tried to muster an enthusiastic smile when Lindsey cheered in support, although their situations couldn’t have been more different. Lindsey chose not to go to college. Christen didn’t get that choice. “Mal, let’s go talk to Dawn about your school work you’ve got later today.”

“Are you ok?” Mal murmured to her as they made their way over to where Dawn was sitting, noticing Christen’s strange behaviour.

Christen’s instinct was to lie and say yes, but she promised herself and Mal she would try, so she settled on a half way compromise. “We can talk about it later, yeah?”

Mal squeezed her hand in agreement and they sat down with Dawn. Christen had already asked, but wanted to check again that it was okay for Mal to leave practice early today as she had to complete a few quizzes online that were due at the end of the week.

Christen really liked Dawn, and as they spoke she could tell how intelligent, smart and invested in the team she was. As they moved into just general conversation, Mal saw most of the team start to get up to go and get ready for training and she looked up at Christen, silently asking if it was ok she left the conversation.

“I’ll see you later. 3pm back at the room, okay?” Christen said as Mal nodded in agreement, hugging her and giving her a little peck on the cheek as she moved away. “Love you.”

“Love you, too. See you soon, Dawn.”

“Bye, Mal.” Dawn smiled, waving her off before turning back to Christen. “I can see you already know this, but that sister of yours is just phenomenal in every regard.”

Christen beamed. Hearing other people say positive things about Mal was her favorite thing to hear. “She is pretty great.”

“I’m astounded by her skill and athleticism at such a young age, but I’m equally completely impressed by her emotional intelligence and empathy. Seeing the way you interact with her I have no doubt as to where that came from.”

A blush appeared on Christen’s face at the compliment and she gave a bashful smile. “That’s kind of you to say. I just want her to be a good person and succeed at whatever she does. This team is helping her so much with that, as well. How is she fitting in at training?”

Dawn held her hands up like it was the easiest question she’d ever answered. “She’s holding her own, has chemistry with everyone. It’s like she’s been there for years…”

The smile was still on Christen’s face 20 minutes later as she thought about what Dawn said. She’d already heard great things from everyone else, and she knew Mal was loving being at the camp. But hearing it from one of the coaching staff, and hearing her answer her question for a few minutes straight, talking about how Mal was fitting in seamlessly to the group, it made Christen’s heart burst with pride.

 

Christen Press 9:02am

You make me so proud to be your sister.

Like, so, so proud.

Keep kicking ass out there.

 

In response Mal had texted her probably about 100 heart emojis, and she smiled at them all as she looked down at her phone, walking down the hallway until she bumped into something, or rather, someone.

“Oh no, sorry!”

“Shit! Sorry, sorry.”

Christen and Tobin spoke at the same time, hands having shot out in front of them to steady each other on instinct. They laughed at their reactions, both slow and reluctant to let go of each other and put a step of space in between them.

Christen, knowing (or hoping) that Tobin didn’t have a reason to be on this floor if not to come and see her was waiting for her to start speaking first. When she looked at her, though, Tobin appeared dumbstruck, her mouth having fallen half open.

“…Tobin? Are you ok?”

Her words seemed to snap Tobin somewhat out of her daze, the other woman clearing her throat and trying to shake some focus back to her mind. “Uh…uh yeah. Yeah – I – where are you going?”

“Where am I going?” Christen repeated out loud before looking down at herself and realising why Tobin was asking. She had been heading down to the hotel gym to get started on meditation before the first yoga class of the day and so she was dressed and ready for it. She was wearing black athletic leggings and a red Nike singlet she had stolen from Mal. “Oh, I’m going to yoga.”

“Yoga?”

“Yeah, I’ve been going most of this week. Down at the gym here.” Christen said slowly, only for the first time realising that Tobin was having trouble maintaining eye contact. Instead, her gaze would tend to drift down to where the yoga pants fit snug against Christen’s thighs and legs before she snapped herself out of it, coming back to Christen’s face.

Christen’s cheeks blushed their brightest red yet when she realised what had Tobin in a fluster, still with a healthy amount of disbelief that she could really create that kind of reaction in Tobin Heath, the world’s most beautiful woman.

“You look…wow. You’re going to yoga? Can I come?” Tobin’s playfulness had slowly crept back into her voice, now that she seemed to be mostly over the initial shock of seeing Christen’s body in tight clothing.

Christen just laughed, trying to play off Tobin’s request coolly. On the inside she felt anything but, her brain screaming in excitement, her entire body tingling. She was sure her cheeks were still glowing red. “Don’t you have training?”

“Eh, they can survive without me.”

“Shut up, they will not. You better go, I wouldn’t put it past Kelley to tell the bus driver to leave without you.”

Tobin laughed, shrugging like there was definite truth in what Christen said. “I want to hear all about yoga later on. I didn’t know you liked to do it!”

“It’s just something I started since I’ve been here. It fills out a lot of the day, and I’m really enjoying it.”

“That’s so great, Chris.”

Tobin’s genuineness made Christen blush more, she didn’t know why. She wished she could look at Tobin’s bright eyes and wide smile forever, but sometimes the feelings she got from them were too intense she had to look away. She had to try and give her heart a chance to settle itself every now and again.

“Hey, what are you doing here anyway?” Christen asked the question to divert the attention away from herself but was surprised to see Tobin turn into the bashful one, a blush coming onto her own cheeks.

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I’m sorry for pushing the soccer thing. And I know the kids were talking about college and I know I don’t know what happened really but I assume it isn’t easy for you to talk about that stuff and I – ”

“Tobin, Tobin, hey it’s okay.” Christen cut her off, placing a hand on her arm gently and trying not to let her brain short circuit when she did. “I’m fine, I promise. I’m sorry I’m not ready to play again with you. I really want to, but…just not now. Not yet.”

Tobin nodded in earnest, smiling in a way that put Christen’s erratic heart at ease. She looked like she was about to respond when her phone blew up in a series of texts.

Kelley’s name flashed across the screen of Tobin’s phone in such quick succession that Tobin’s eyes widened, looking back up at Christen in a way that made her burst out laughing.

“You gotta go.”

“Yeah, I really gotta go.”

“Come on, I’m going to the ground floor as well.” Christen said as they walked to the lift, catching it down together.

“See you later?”

It was a question, but Christen loved that the tone in Tobin’s voice was more presumptuous than genuinely asking. Their friendship had already delved into the part where they just expected to be hanging out with each other, plus whoever else, because that’s what made them happy.

“See you later.” Christen confirmed, also loving that the hug that followed was par the course for them now, as well. She would never get tired of feeling Tobin’s arms wrap around her. She called out to Tobin as she walked away. “Look after my sister.”

“Always, Chris.”

Her response made a calm settle in Christen, a sense of peace. There weren’t many people, basically none, she would genuinely trust with Mal. But when Tobin said it, she believed it. She could feel it. There was no greater comfort to Christen than that.

----------

Christen’s feelings on Tobin protecting Mal were validated that same day when both of them walked into Christen’s room at 3pm, Mal with a despondent look on her face and Tobin trailing her, looking concerned.

“Baby, what happened?” Christen asked softly as Mal walked straight into her arms, hugging her tightly and burying her face into Christen’s hoodie. “Are you hurt?”

Mal shook her head no, and Christen breathed a sigh of relief. She held Mal close to her and looked at Tobin with a questioning stare, seeing if she could help her out on this. Tobin gave her a hesitant look back, mouth half open as if she wanted to say something but with a hand held out gesturing at Mal, as if she didn’t want to speak for her.

Mal wasn’t crying, which Christen took as a good sign, but she was hugging her so tight Christen really didn’t know what to make of the situation. She wasn’t even sure why Tobin was there – Mal was always going to come back a little earlier to do her school work but she presumed Tobin was staying at training.

“Do you think you can tell me what happened? If you want to talk about it?” Christen didn’t hear a response from Mal. All Mal did was lift an arm out behind her and gesture to Tobin, giving her permission to explain the situation.

“Okay, let’s all sit down.” Christen gently removed Mal’s arms from around her which her younger sister just reattached as soon as they were all sitting at the head of the bed. “What happened, Tobin?”

Tobin’s eyes flickered between Mal and Christen as she started to talk. Her memory of the situation was strong, but there was still a slowness in her voice, almost as if she was trying to piece together the information as she said it out loud. “We were on a break at training, and everyone was mucking around. Mal was getting ready to leave and I was coming back with her, because our massage therapist is set up here and my ankle needs looking at.”

Christen nodded along with the story, her eyes flittering down to Tobin’s ankle when she said that. When she lifted her gaze again, Tobin’s eyes were soft at her checking her ankle out, a small smile on her face as she continued.

“Sonnett saw Mal’s phone get a couple of texts and she passed it over to her, but she saw who had sent them. They were from you, and she made a comment about the name Mal has your number saved as on her phone.”

A look of confusion flashed past Christen’s face as she tried to think about what that was.

“You know Sonnett, she’s always making jokes. She said something like ‘You have her saved as Christen Press, her full name? Is she your sister or business partner?’ and then she was saying something about how she has her sister saved as Idiot Two on her phone or something.” Tobin said with a frown. Christen knew she liked Sonnett, was protective of her, even, but it was clear Tobin wasn’t happy with what she had said.

At this point, Mal had come to rest her head on Christen’s shoulder, looking across at her and Tobin. Christen’s heart sank at the downcast look on Mal’s face and she wrapped her arm around Mal’s shoulders, making Mal cuddle into her more.

“How did you feel when she said that?”

Mal’s shoulders shrugged and she was quiet for a while before speaking. “I know Sonnett was just having a laugh. But it made me feel a bit uneasy. I think I said I have your name saved like that so if an emergency happened they’d know who to contact, like you have mine saved, but then I worried that someone would ask about…about…”

The words tapered off as Mal looked up at Christen with a questioning glance, eyes flickering to Tobin and back. Christen knew Mal was hesitant to bring up their parents because she hadn’t told Tobin yet, but she nodded her head, encouraging her to keep talking. She wouldn’t let her own feelings on what Tobin knew or didn’t know dictate Mal’s ability to talk about an unhappy situation.

“I was worried they’d ask something like ‘why don’t you have your parents as your emergency contact’ or something like that, and then I’d have to explain all of that and we were in the middle of training and everyone was around and I want to tell them, I do, I just didn’t want to do it there. And I was getting a bit stressed about it but then I think Tobin could see that because she distracted everyone by nutmegging Sonnett and telling her to mind her own business.”

Christen made sure Mal was finished speaking before she turned to look at Tobin, sending her a grateful smile. Tobin just blushed, shaking her head as if it was nothing.

But it wasn’t just nothing to Christen. She had looked after Mal, just like she said she would.

“Thank you.” Christen murmured to Tobin, gently knocking her knee into hers where their legs stretched out on the bed. She then turned back to Mal, wanting to address the situation. “Baby, I’m sorry that happened. It doesn’t sound like a fun situation and it’s understandable to feel the way you did. I know they’re your friends and you trust them but it can be hard knowing they don’t know something big about you, especially when they make flippant comments about it, right?”

Mal just nodded, her hand coming over to play with the ring on Christen’s finger as she listened to her speak.

“You don’t have to justify your decisions to anyone. I know it was just a joke. I’m sure if Sonnett knew what the situation was she would never have said that. She didn’t, and that’s not her fault. But I want you to know it’s okay to be sad about it, even if it was a joke or not. You don’t have to brush it off if it makes you feel that way.”

“It made me feel sad, but it also made me want to tell them. I really like them and I want them to know about it, so that kind of thing doesn’t happen again, and so we can be better friends, and I won’t have to worry about them not knowing.”

Christen kissed the top of Mal’s head, pulling her closer into her, if that was possible. “I know, baby. We can tell them whenever you’re ready, okay?”

Mal leaned her head up to whisper into Christen’s ear. “Are you ready to tell Tobin? Because I am.”

The feeling of assuredness that came over Christen when she considered Mal’s question was something she didn’t expect, but maybe should have.

She was ready for Tobin to know about their past.

Maybe not their whole past, not right now. But she was ready. She wanted Tobin to know.

Tobin cared about Mal, about her. She felt safe with her, and she felt safe about Mal being with her. Those weren’t feelings she’d really ever had before, but then again, she’d never met someone like Tobin before.

She smiled down at Mal as she nodded, before turning to Tobin. “I really appreciate you looking out for Mal. It means a lot, more than you know.”

“It was nothing, Chris, really.”

“No, Tobin, it really isn’t.” Christen took a breath, feeling Mal warm in her arms and willing herself to look into Tobin’s eyes as she spoke. “Our parents died in a car crash 12 years ago. About a month after we met at the u-17 camp, actually. We don’t have any other family, so we were put into foster care. There’s…a lot of things to tell you about our time there. But not today.”

Tobin nodded, her expression was the more sincere and kind thing Christen had seen in a long time. She saw sadness in her eyes, but she didn’t feel pity. She didn’t feel judgment. She just felt Tobin and her soul. She knew she could trust her.

“I fostered Mal as soon as I could, when I was near 18 and a half. And when I was 23 I adopted her. Since our parents died it has just been me and her. And it hasn’t always been easy for us. So to me, it isn’t just nothing that you look out for her. It’s everything. Knowing she’s safe is all I care about, and I trust you with that, Tobin. You’ve shown me I can. Wholeheartedly. So thank you.”

The end of Christen’s words made Tobin’s eyes glisten and she could tell from past experience that Tobin was doing her best to not cry before she spoke.

“Thank you for saying that, and for telling me. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been. To have the strength to make it through something like that shows how incredible you both are. It means everything to me that you trust me like that, too. I’m here for you both, I hope you know that.”

Christen nodded, unable to keep eye contact with Tobin anymore as she felt a lump in her throat and tears glistening in her own eyes. She felt Mal reach across her to take Tobin’s hand and watched as she squeezed it, smiling at the teammate she admired so much.

“You’re the first teammate I’ve ever told. Thank you for being there for us, and especially for Christen.”

Tobin gave Mal her trademark wide smile, squeezing her hand back. “Anything for you, Mal. Always.”

Christen knew she had so much more to tell Tobin, they had barely scratched the surface. But now Tobin knew, at least, and her reaction put Christen’s heart at ease. She was perfect, of course she was.

She had only just told her, but already the weight sitting on her chest felt lighter. Sharing the burden with another. She could see how devoted Tobin was to Mal, (and if she was being honest with herself, to her as well) and she knew that however long Mal was going to play on the national team, she would be okay with Tobin there.

They both would be.

----------

“I wanted to tell you, you know. When we were 15. I hadn’t stopped thinking about you since I got back from the camp and then it happened and even with everything else that was going on, you were always at the back of my mind. But 12 years ago you couldn’t just search up someone on facebook and message them. I didn’t even have your address. I guess we just assumed we’d see each other at the next camp and that was that.”

Tobin looked over at her as they walked slowly side by side on the sidewalk, coffees in hand. They had stayed in the room for a while longer, Christen wanting to make sure Mal really was okay before she made her get on the laptop to do her school work. Tobin suggested they go for a little walk so they didn’t distract her when she was doing her quiz.

Christen was glad for the fresh air, it gave her room to think. When her thoughts started flowing, the words followed, pouring out of her mouth. It was like once she had told Tobin about her parents, she found it hard to stop.

“I wish I had known.” Tobin said, before hurrying to explain herself. “Not just so I could have known, but to…I don’t know. To help. Or do something.”

“You wouldn’t have been able to do anything. When you’re up against the state like that…well let’s just say I’ve learnt the difficult way how bureaucratic and robotic the system can be.”

Christen didn’t have to look at Tobin to know she would be frowning at those words, trying to imagine how much Christen has been through with the process. She knew how empathetic Tobin was.

“I know it’s not of any help to say this, but I’m sorry for all the hurt you’ve gone through. It must have been so difficult.”

The words sat in the air as Christen took a sip of her drink, nodding slowly and contemplating her thoughts. When she thought about how to respond to it she felt the lump in her throat grow back. She didn’t have time to process how little, if ever, she’d actually talked to someone else about it. The fact that it was Tobin, as well, made it especially emotional for her.

“It was horrible. I got the worst news of my life and that same day I’m in a foster house with my terrified 5 year old sister trying to figure out how to explain this to her.” She felt the words pour out. “Our social worker started off pretty average and then only got worse. I had to put Mal first, because no one else was. It’s the reason I never went to college and it’s the reason I stopped playing soccer. It’s the reason I worked two jobs and the reason we live…well lived – ”

She cut herself off, she couldn’t tell Tobin that. She was rambling out her thoughts but even that was something she hadn’t fully processed and she wasn’t in any space to drop it on Tobin.

She focussed on breathing air into her lungs, in and out, feeling the world around her, centring herself like she’d been learning at meditation. Tobin was silent and steady next to her, every now and again bumping her shoulder gently, letting her know she was still there.

After a long period of silence where she tried and failed to figure out what to say next, Tobin spoke for her.

“Chris, you don’t have to tell me anything else right now if you don’t want to. I don’t want to assume, but I get the feeling there’s a whole lot going on up here that isn’t easy for you to talk about.” Tobin brushed the back of her knuckles against Christen’s temple and Christen had to focus on not letting her legs give out at the soft gesture. “I’m not expecting anything. I’m honored to hear anything you want to tell me. But do it at your own time and your own pace. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Promise?” Christen knew she must have looked a bit pathetic, close to breaking down and voice small like a child’s, but she needed this from Tobin. It was so hard for her to talk about her past but at the same time it was so easy for her to talk to Tobin. She felt the weight on her chest ease with every word she told her. She needed to know she would be there.

Tobin stopped their walk, her hand coming down to clasp onto Christen’s. Christen felt their rings bump together, and how soft Tobin’s hand was, and how beautiful Tobin looked that close, and she could have melted into Tobin’s eyes when she confirmed her promise.

“I promise, Chris. Always.”

They carried on their walk back to the hotel, neither woman willing to comment on the fact they continued to hold hands the entire way there. It wasn’t until they reached the courtyard and saw the team’s bus pull in at the same time that they separated, both shooting shy smiles to each other.

The bus had barely stopped moving before Sonnett was barrelling out of it, Rose and Lindsey closely on her tail, running over to where Christen and Tobin were standing.

“Christen, is Mal okay? I’m so sorry for what I said, I was just joking around and I didn’t realise I’d made her uncomfortable and then I looked at Tobin and saw she wasn’t laughing and then Mal just left and Kelley told me not to joke about that with Mal and I feel awful because she’s just so little and she looked so stressed out and I’m so sorry, Christen I promise I didn’t mean to – ”

“Hey, hey, slow down, Emily, slow down.” Christen used her first name, speaking in a comforting voice as she placed her hands on Sonnett’s shoulders, grounding her. “It’s okay, take a few breaths. You’re okay, I promise. I know you were joking, and so does Mal. She was a bit upset by it, but you didn’t know she would be, and it’s not fair to hold that against you.”

Sonnett let out a massive sigh of relief, having worked herself up so much her eyes were watering. She nodded as Christen spoke, hanging off every word she said. Christen could tell she was really upset at the thought of having caused Mal distress so she pulled her in for a hug, swaying back and forth with her.

“It’s okay, Sonnett. Don’t beat yourself up over a mistake.”

When they pulled away Sonnett looked up at Tobin apprehensively, presumably thinking Tobin was mad at her for what she said. Instead, Tobin pulled her in for a hug as well, murmuring to her that she wasn’t angry and she knew it was just a joke.

“Is Mal okay? Can we see her?” Lindsey asked from behind Sonnett, looking concerned as well.

Christen smiled at all of them, leading the way back to her room. She knew Mal would be willing to see them and talk about what happened – her little sister never did well when she was uneasy with the people she had to hang out with.

When they all came into the room, Sonnett, Lindsey and Rose all rushed over to Mal, Sonnett profusely apologizing again until Mal literally had to cover her mouth to get her to stop talking.

Christen’s heart burst with pride as she watched Mal explain why she reacted the way she did, giving them an even briefer explanation of what they had told Tobin earlier, but still enough for them to see why it wasn’t something to really joke about.

She shot Mal a proud smile as her sister made eye contact with her across the room after she had finished speaking. Christen felt the same comfort and warmth inside when Mal was pulled into a hug with her three friends, all of them holding her so lovingly and close that Mal shed a few tears at the catharsis of it all.

“She’s going to be alright.” Tobin murmured to her as she watched the scene. “She’s got you and now she has us. So do you.”

Christen knew it. She could feel it. The smile she had gotten so used to this week came back to her face, and it didn’t leave all weekend.

It didn’t leave when she and Tobin were pulled into the hug with the young women, laughing as Sonnett got back to her normal self and was cracking jokes in no time. It didn’t leave when she and Mal told Kelley, Alex and Pinoe about their parents the next day, seeing their supportive smiles and willingness to do anything to help them. It didn’t leave when she spent every spare minute she had with Tobin and the rest of the team that weekend, feeling their love radiate around them.

It definitely didn’t leave when on Monday, the last free day the team had until the game that Friday night, she and Tobin were walking back to the hotel after eating lunch together. It didn’t leave when they bumped into each other constantly, hands moving past each other almost touching, giggles erupting from their mouths.

It didn’t leave whenever she looked at Tobin, feeling her insides scramble and her heart go haywire. When Tobin called her Chris and gave her that soft dopey smile and brushed against her skin.

Maybe she should have expected what was coming next.

It had all been too good for too long, really.

But she had grown to love the smile on her face. She didn’t want it to leave.

She found she didn’t have a choice, though, because when her phone rang and she picked it up only to hear Kelley’s voice on the other line rambling with a concerned urgency, the smile dropped clean off her face.

“Christen, you gotta get back here now. This man tried to talk to Mal in the lobby and she completely freaked out. Rose told me she thinks Mal said he’s her social worker? You adopted Mal, why is her social worker here? And how did he even know you were staying in this hotel? Just hurry back, okay? Mal needs you.”

 

Chapter Text

Christen didn’t have to look in a mirror to know she’d gone as white as a ghost.

There was no good reason Mal’s social worker would be visiting, especially as the state had no rights left over her. He wasn’t Mal’s social worker anymore. That relationship with the state ended when Christen adopted her.

And it had definitely been a rocky end to the relationship. Christen winced every time she remembered how much she had to push to finally get Mal’s adoption processed.

He was constantly snowed under with work, just like all social workers. To him, Christen adopting Mal was his lowest priority. He knew how devoted Christen was to Mal, and that Mal would be safe in her foster care. He could basically forget about them, and deal with all the urgent care issues that he was facing.

Why would he spend time working on Mal being adopted when he had so much else to deal with? Filling in forms, house checks, references. They could all be delayed months, and what turned into years. Other kids were facing crisis. Christen knew his time was split between responsibilities and of course she wanted him to attend to kids who weren’t safe. But as soon as she had Mal in her care, he gave them absolutely no time.

She knew he couldn’t have cared less when she actually go to adopt Mal. Christen was certain he detested her. They had never got on, right from the moment he told her at school that her parents had died, saying ‘sorry’ once and then robotically moving into the foster care process. Christen was young and scared and in grief and would do anything for Mal. That didn’t fit with his ‘go where I say and don’t be a nuisance’ attitude.

Starting very early on in their relationship, he just saw Christen as an inconvenience –

“Don’t you ever contact anyone at the centre but me again, do you understand?” His angry eyes bore into Christen through the rear view mirror as he drove her and Mal through the night. “I am your social worker. Me. If you have a problem, you call me.”

A 15 year old Christen glared back at him from where she sat in the backseat, Mal in a booster seat next to her clutching her hand. “I tried to call you. So many times. You didn’t answer. So I found her number and called instead.”

“You keep trying me! How dare you call my superior. I was wrung out in front of everyone for having you in that house.”

Good, Christen thought. How could you put two kids into a house that locks the fridge and cupboard and rations food like it was wartime? How could you not even know it was happening? How could you abandon two kids in their first foster house like that, and then yell at them when they asked to be moved to a new home?

“Now I’m here with you two, 10pm on a Wednesday night, driving around this goddamn city to a new foster house which I hate to break it to you, Christen, is going to be no different to the one you just came from. You don’t get to be picky. You’re lucky to have a roof over your head at all."

Christen didn’t know she could feel such anger at someone. He had a fragile ego and had been shamed by his boss for being bad at his job. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She and Mal had to leave that home.

If it wasn’t for Mal’s quiet whimpers and her tiny hand squeezing hers, she really felt like she could have lost it.

She had been to the state centre where he worked. She had seen so many nice social workers. They had offered her and Mal more sympathy in one visit than he had the whole month. She was sure he was the only awful one out of the lot of them. Why couldn’t they have gotten someone else?  

“Try to last longer than a month, this time.” He muttered as he all but dropped them at the door of their second foster house, the place tattered and weary. As long as it got them away from him, Christen would take it.

- “Chris? Christen? What happened?” Tobin’s voice cut through the fog in Christen’s head, getting her to settle her eyes on her and try and process what Kelley had just told her.

Mal was there with that man. She wasn’t there to help her. She wasn’t there right now, but she would be.

“We have to go.”

It was the only explanation she gave Tobin before she took off running, thankful they were only a few short blocks from the hotel. She knew she should probably have given Tobin more context, but all she could think about was how Mal was there and she wasn’t, and she couldn’t bear it. She pushed herself faster, her legs springing off the sidewalk until the hotel came back into view.

She didn’t know what to expect but was glad to see there wasn’t a big scene in the middle of the lobby. The lobby was one with many different alcoves and seats, hallways jutting off in every direction and wide spaces of areas that were unoccupied. She instantly spotted Kelley and Rose standing off to the side of an empty part of the lobby and she ran over.

“Where’s Mal?” She panted out, her eyes searching around.

“She’s just over here.” Kelley pointed behind them where Christen could see Mal sitting with Lindsey, Sonnett and Alex. She was about to run over to her when Kelley spoke again. “And he’s over there.”

Christen whipped her head around to where Kelley was pointing, seeing their old social worker get up from his seat and move over to her. She was on such a one track mind for Mal when she ran inside she must have gone straight past him.

Don’t.” Christen growled out as he approached her, not even letting him open his mouth. She heard Mal whimper behind her at her voice – she must have realised she was here. She could hear her sobs and her eyes filled with rage at the social worker for showing up again and causing this distress. “Don’t you dare say anything and don’t you dare come any closer. Just wait there, Joseph.”

She didn’t even care to see Joseph’s reaction before she turned away from him, rushing the few steps over to Mal and sitting next to her when Lindsey made space.

Mal immediately latched on to her, burying her head into the crook of her neck and burrowing into her. Christen wrapped her arms around her, murmuring comforting words to her as she rocked her gently.

“What happened?” She asked Lindsey next to her, seeing Kelley, Tobin and Rose come over to be part of the conversation as well. She spared a split second glare at Joseph, making sure he knew she wasn’t to be messed with right now.

Lindsey looked at Christen before flicking her gaze to Sonnett and Rose, trying to figure out how to put it. “We were just coming back to the hotel after getting food and when we walked into the lobby Mal just like froze in front of me. He had stood up and come over, calling her name. I didn’t know who he was but I know you guys said random people aren’t really allowed to talk to us in the lobby, right?”

Lindsey looked over at Alex, Kelley and Tobin for confirmation, seeing the older players nod in answer.

“I wanted to tell him to go away but he’d said Mal’s name so I thought he must have known her. He started talking to her and I waited for her to say something back but when I moved around to stand by her side and saw her face, I knew something was really wrong. She just looked like a deer in headlights.”

Christen’s heart ached as Mal let out another sob, burrowing herself into her further.

“It’s okay, baby, I’m here now. I’m here.” Her murmurs were followed by a kiss to the side of Mal’s head, keeping her as close as possible.

“I said to him we weren’t allowed to talk to people here and he should probably leave. He said he wanted to talk to Mal and Christen, and that he was their social worker. When he said that Mal just like completely freaked out and burst into tears.” Lindsey had a frown on her face as she recounted the memory.

Sonnett nodding, sharing Lindsey’s expression. “When we all tried to take a step towards the elevators he did too. Mal was so upset and it was getting kind of scary, really. So Linds and I made sure Mal was behind us and Rose took off to go find some help.”

Tobin wrapped her arm around Sonnett’s shoulders as she spoke, knowing all of the younger players would have been a bit shaken by what happened. Kelley stood secure next to Rose.

“Rose brought us down and you should have seen Alex when she saw Mal so upset. She, Sonnett and Lindsey took Mal over here. That’s when I called you.”

Christen nodded, processing all the information. She felt so many emotions at what was happening and if she didn’t have to deal with the current crisis she probably would have cried with gratefulness at how all of them so fiercely protected Mal.

“Thank you so much, all of you. I’m sorry you had to be in this situation, especially you three.” Christen said to Lindsey, Rose and Sonnett specifically. “I know you don’t know what’s going on so it would have been scary.”

Her heart felt the slightest bit happier when she saw Kelley put her arm around a shaken looking Rose, and she felt Lindsey lean her head briefly on her shoulder. She let herself feel it for a short while before she focussed back on her task at hand, looking at all the players surrounding her. “I need to sort this out. You’ve already done so much, so please don’t feel like you need to stay.”

In immediate response she saw all six of the women vehemently shake their heads, Alex definitively telling her she was staying and the others agreeing. She felt tears well in her eyes, and she put her hand on the back of Mal’s head gently.

“Can you look up at me, baby?” Christen’s murmurs eventually resulted in Mal pulling her head up from her neck. Her face was red from crying with tears still falling out of her eyes. “I promise it’s going to be okay.”

“But he’s here an-and I’m still 17 and…wh-why is he-here.” Mal was so upset her words were barely intelligible, but Christen understood what she was saying.

Christen took Mal’s face in her hands, cupping her cheeks so she was looking right at her. “Mal, you cannot be taken away from me. I adopted you. He’s not your social worker anymore, he’s not mine, either. The state has no more rights over you.”

“But-but he always said – ”

“I know what he always said. But it’s not true. It was just cruel and awful. Mal, I promise we’re staying together.”

Mal said nothing in reply, just threw her arms around Christen again.

“Oh, my baby love.” Christen held her close, trying to calm her down. “It’s okay, I promise it’ll be okay.”

She let herself hold Mal for a few more minutes, not wanting to pull away when she was so upset. When Mal’s sobs had stopped, she pulled her back to look at her again. “Mal, I’m going to go and talk to him.”

“No!”

Christen had anticipated the push back from Mal, and shook her head. “Mal, I am. It’s the only way he’ll leave. And like I said, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“He’ll make you upset.”

“It’s okay, I can take care of it.” Christen kissed her forehead, pulling Mal fully out of her arms. “They’re going to stay with you, okay? You can stay with them here or you can all go back up to my room. Promise me no matter what you hear me say that you don’t come over when I’m speaking to him, okay? You might hear some things that make you worry, but I need you to trust me that it’s going to be ok. Can you do that?”

“I trust you.” Mal nodded, and more tears fell out of her eyes as Christen stood up, moving away from her. Christen watched as Alex put a comforting hand on Mal’s back and Mal crumbled into the older player’s arms, letting her be held by her as the others moved in close.

She then focussed on her task, taking a few determined strides to meet Joseph. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Tobin seamlessly fall into place next to her, standing steady at her side.

She didn’t ask her to do that, but she didn’t have to.

Tobin was there for her, through it all. She always had been, the ring sitting on Christen’s finger proving that. Now she was actually here, and the overwhelming feeling of comfort and support Christen got from that was unlike anything she’d ever experienced before. It gave her all the strength she needed to start the conversation with the man who had caused her and Mal more grief than necessary over the years.

“What are you doing here?” Her words were cold and sharp, wasting no time with formalities or polite chat. He’d caused her sister pain. He wasn’t getting anything more than that.

“Hello to you too, Christen.”

If looks could kill, the one she sent his way would have melted him on the spot. She repeated herself, her voice deadly low. “What are you doing here?”

The slightest hint of smug superiority crossed Joseph’s face, and Christen was only able to pick up on it because she knew him so well. That was the expression Joseph wore whenever Christen got argumentative with him before she adopted Mal.

When she was under 18, he would wear that expression anytime Christen argued with him over the houses they were placed in. When she was over 18, he would wear that expression anytime Christen hassled him about being able to foster Mal, and especially when Christen hounded him about adopting her.

He knew what he was doing to her. He had decided right from the start that Christen was a problem to him. For that, he was going to give her nothing and unfortunately, with his authority, Christen mostly had to sit down and accept it. Losing Mal because she couldn’t stop herself from fighting against the social worker wasn’t worth it.

As much as Christen knew now that she had adopted Mal and she couldn’t be taken off her, her whole being was unsettled when that look crossed his face. When he started speaking, her confidence fell away piece by piece.

“Funnily enough, I found myself at a sports bar in your neighborhood yesterday. Or perhaps I should say your old neighborhood, as I’ve since found out some interesting information.”

The look on Joseph’s face grew bolder as Christen paled at hearing that. She could only pray that he wasn’t talking about the sports bar she used to bartend at –

“I didn’t know that was your old work place. But I do now.”

Fuck.

Christen didn’t say anything in response, not wanting to speak for fear of giving away more information than he might have known. Although by the smugness of his voice, it sounded like he knew a lot. She willed herself to hold her glare at him, raising an eyebrow and waiting for what he said next.

“You see, it must have been a slow news day because a report on the national women’s soccer team was on the televisions in the bar.”

Next to her, Christen could see Tobin bristle in offence when she heard him say this. He was such a fucking asshole.

“And who would the report be on, but the star new 17 year old player Mallory Press, the youngest to be called to the team in over a decade. I barely had time to process that information, because I then heard your ex-colleagues discussing how they were pretty sure that was ‘Christen’s sister’ and ‘what even happened to her?’ and ‘I don’t know, she just like randomly quit a few weeks ago.’”

Christen folded her arms across her chest to hide how her fists were clenched. She could feel her finger nails indenting shapes into her palm and at the back of her head she wondered if Mal could hear what they were saying and how she was taking it.

“Of course, as you know, we social workers have an obligation and duty towards adoptive parents until their child turns 18. It was only out of genuine concern for you after hearing you had abruptly left your job that I went looking into the matter.”

Upon hearing this, Christen was pretty sure her eyes rolled into the back of her head. She knew there was a vague obligation for the state to help adoptive parents if they needed it but this was such an underutilised and low priority aspect of a social worker’s job there was no way he was genuinely following up on that. It was such bullshit, even for him.

Apart from doing the bare minimum for Christen and Mal (and even saying that was a stretch), Christen was certain Joseph had never had real concern for her before.

“That’s how I also found out you had left your other job, and your apartment. Of course, you are under no obligation to inform us of any major life changes, but people don’t usually abruptly leave their house and jobs without any kind of notice. At this point, I was not only concerned for your wellbeing, but also for Mallory’s.”

Christen could feel Tobin’s eyes on her, and she willed herself to not break and look her way. This wasn’t how she wanted Tobin to find out, this wasn’t how she wanted Mal to have found out, either.

It was pretty much her worst nightmare happening in front of her, and her voice fell in her throat, not knowing how to respond. She still managed to roll her eyes again at Joseph, however, especially after what he said next.

“Thankfully Mallory was still enrolled at her high school. I’ve dealt with an administrator at her school before, and they were more than happy to tell me the hotel Mallory was staying at, as a concerned social welfare officer of the state was wanting to check in on you both.”

Lay it on thick why don’t you, Joseph. He was so fucking self-righteous.

“Christen, I really don’t have time for this.”

A 20 year old Christen did her best to not growl in frustration into the phone, pacing back and forth in the kitchen as she spoke to Joseph on the phone. “I’m just asking for five minutes of your time. You’ve delayed sending me through the documents for months, now.”  

“Well I’m sorry, Christen, but five minutes of my time is quite precious. I’m a busy man, as I know you know.”

The phone could have snapped in half at how hard she was holding it when she heard him say that. She forced herself to take a deep breath, shutting her eyes and taking a second before replying.

“I appreciate that, but I also feel like I’m not being unreasonable in what I’m asking for. I’ve been ready for months to start the process to adopt Mal but you’re currently in the way of that.”

“In the way? Sweetheart, I’m the only way that’s going to happen. If you want anything done with urgency you’d think twice before you get sassy with me.”

Christen rolled her eyes, cringing as he condescendingly called her sweetheart. “I’m not even asking for urgency at this point, I just want something to happen, anything at all. I feel like you’re purposefully delaying it from happening.”  

“You know what your problem is, Christen? You’re always asking for too much. Always complaining. Always wanting more. Some kids are happy with anything that gets thrown their way, and you were always the pain in my ass. You have Mallory with you. Be grateful for that. Most kids lose their siblings in the system, so you’ve already got more than them.”

She really wanted to respond to his attack, but she knew it would be wiser to ignore it. She wouldn’t get baited in by him and say something he could use against her later. And she knew it wasn’t true. She never asked for too much. She’d only ever been protecting Mal. What she asked for was their safety, basic fucking rights.

Forcing down bile at the thought, she tried a different approach, seeing if he would respond better to a compliment (or the best she could bring herself to do). “I appreciate that, and I appreciate everything you’ve done to keep us together.” Not an ounce of that was true. He was doing the bare minimum in his job, and Christen knew the only reason she and Mal were still together was because she had fought through every obstacle in their path to make it that way. “I’m just worried about Mal. I know she’s scared of being separated from me, and adoption would finalize away any worry she holds.”  

It was immediately clear this approach wasn’t going to work. “Do you know where I’m going right now, Christen? I’m on my way to pick up a child that has been beaten black and blue by their parents. That is my priority. Are you beating Mallory black and blue?”

“No, of course not.”

“Is Mallory safe in your care?”

“Always.”

“Then I’m sorry, Christen, but you wanting to adopt Mallory is just not something I have any time for. You are fostering her, that’s what you wanted. Don’t ask for more than that when there are other kids with real problems out there.”  

Tears of frustration welled in Christen’s eyes. Despite her best efforts, the conversation with Joseph had just ended up in the same place as always. “Of course I understand you have high priority kids in danger that need help, but I’m just asking you to please spare me some time and send the forms through when you can, later. You said it would only take a minute, and I just wanted you to know that I’ve been waiting on them. Mal’s future deserves some stability.”

Then he just got cruel. “Mal’s future also deserves the best home possible, wouldn’t you say? Have you ever considered whether Mal would be better suited with a financially sound family who can fund her soccer dreams and college aspirations?”

At this, Christen’s stomach dropped. Was this suddenly Joseph’s way of letting her know he wasn’t going to recommend Christen to adopt Mal? That he had finally had enough of her nagging and was going to take Mal away from her altogether? “What does that mean?”

“It means, Christen, don’t rush my process. I’m a busy man. I say where Mal goes, not you. And if you think that you can boss your way into adopting her, that you can tell me how to do my job – well you should definitely think twice about that.”

“I didn’t – that’s not what I meant.” Christen was scrambling, not wanting the conversation to end on that note now he had thrown so much doubt into the mix. She knew she’d be sick with worry if she didn’t get a clear answer on it. “Joseph, are you saying you’re not going to recommend me? When did this happen? When did you change your mind? You can’t do this to Mal, you can’t do this to me, you can’t – ”

“Jesus, just chill out, sweetheart.”

To show restraint now, when a man she despised was talking laxly about whether she would be able to adopt her baby sister out of foster care, was the biggest testament to Christen’s character if there ever was one. She was sure her knuckles had turned white in the grip on the phone.

“No decisions have been made, Christen, don’t worry. You’ll get the forms when you get the forms. I have to go.”

“No – Joseph, wait – ”

“Goodbye.”

Before Christen could open her mouth to protest the phone dial rang in her ear, signalling the other end of the line had been cut off. She let her phone drop to the bench top, hanging her head in her hands as her emotions overcame her and she let the tears fall from her eyes.

She’d been fostering Mal for almost two years and was desperate to adopt her, as Mal was to be adopted by her. The relationship with Mal’s social worker was so rocky that Christen spent nights consistently panicking that he would one day move Mal on, just to spite her. Now it seemed those fears might have some truth to them.

He wouldn’t do that though, would he? Christen was the obvious choice to recommend Mal. The state preferred to keep families together, Mal would absolutely lose it if she got placed with anyone else. Christen wasn’t exactly rolling in money by any stretch of the imagination, but she was making enough to care for Mal, and that was all she needed to prove.  

Mal was also exceeding every expectation with soccer, performing out of her league in every single training and game. She had gotten her club’s attention and there were mumbles of youth national attention, as well. At 10 years old, Christen knew Mal would only continue to get better.

But getting better meant being able to travel. And foster kids didn’t just get to go wherever they pleased. Passports and permission from the state were just a few of the obstacles. Christen had to adopt Mal, she wouldn’t let that be a hindrance to any opportunities coming her way just because she couldn’t figure out how to deal with the social worker.

No matter how hard she tried, he always pulled rank on her. Any confidence she ever built up with him could be shattered instantly with the unspoken threat that he held a power over Mal until she turned 18. Even when Christen eventually adopted Mal, she could never shake that feeling away.

“And so, Christen, would you say that adequately answered your question as to why I am here?”

Christen wasn’t an angry person. She never wanted to cause harm to anyone. But seeing the taunting smile playing on Joseph’s lips as he stood in the lobby before her and Tobin, the smugness sitting in his eyes, his legs and shoulders in a wideset stance, towering over Christen and taking up as much space as he could – she had never wanted to take out someone more in her life.

Her worry, stress, anger, everything, it was all too overwhelming. She felt a white hot panic bubbling up inside and it took everything in her to push it aside and focus on replying.

“Well here we are, Joseph. We’re fine, and as you can see, the only person causing any problems around here is you.”  

Joseph just continued to smile, like he had expected that response. “I’m afraid my concern runs a little deeper than that, Christen. I’m aware you’re here now, but where are you living when the stay at the hotel ends?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Well, you may not think that, but I don’t think you’d want me to leave here with any worry that Mallory didn’t have a roof over her head, would you? And what’s more, Mallory’s high school seemed particularly concerned about the news that you had moved from that address without informing them. They have an obligation to have correct forms for their students, as I’m sure you’re aware, being a responsible guardian for Mallory, and all.”

The white hot panic Christen had managed to keep down until that point was increasingly creeping up on her. She felt her heart race, she could feel its beat in her ears, could feel how her breath shortened and her palms clammed up.

“So once again I ask you, Christen, where do you live?”

Where did they live? What was she supposed to say? Even if she could get into the headspace to tell a convincing lie, she knew he would just be able to find out anyway. He knew she had always struggled with money, and he must have known it was entirely plausible that they currently had no address because of it.

She had gotten too complacent, too vulnerable. There was a reason past Christen was so fixated on planning and preparation. She always had an answer to situations like these.

Instead, she had been spending the last two weeks enjoying herself, and now she and Mal were about to suffer for it. She could always hold her own. She hated being run over by Joseph and she always fought back. But now it was like she was frozen in place.

She was so ready to let these thoughts and the white hot panic consume her, to let Joseph win, when Tobin’s voice, strong and sure, spoke up.

“Oh, Christen didn’t tell you? Her and Mal are living at my house.”

Surprise flashed across Joseph’s face before an expression of disbelief replaced it. Christen did her best to not look totally bewildered at the news, feeling Joseph’s eyes on her and not wanting to give anything away.

“And you are?” Joseph finally turned his gaze to Tobin, not even bothering to hold out a hand when she said to him her name, saying she played on the national team. “You play club in California?”

“No, up in Portland.” Christen was amazed and how absolutely chill Tobin seemed. She watched her movements, easy and believable. But when she looked closer, she also saw a hardness in Tobin’s eyes, and how her stance had moved ever so slightly to be in front of Christen. When she crossed her arms over her chest it was clear the message she was sending Joseph – there was no messing with Christen without going through her first.

“But I have a house in Manhattan Beach that stays mostly unoccupied unless I’m there using it for surfing, which I’ve gotta say is less than I would like. I feel bad it’s so empty all the time so Christen and Mal are doing me a favor and living there.”

Christen couldn’t have felt more in shock if she tried, and she prayed it didn’t translate to her face because this was looking like the only thing that would get Joseph off her back. She wasn’t even sure if Tobin was telling the truth, that she had a house in Manhattan Beach. But she did remember at the first dinner they went to Tobin said she loved to surf, and she seemed to know her way around Los Angeles well for someone who didn’t live there.

How Tobin knew that Christen and Mal didn’t have a current address she’ll never know. But none of that mattered. Tobin was the only thing keeping her afloat right now, as she watched her tell Joseph the address of the place and talk about why it was suitable for Mal and Christen to live there. She had never been more thankful that Tobin was at her side.

“Well, you’ll obviously have to ensure the school is informed of the new address. That should have been done before you moved.” Joseph grumbled at Christen about the only thing he still could, clearly not expecting Tobin’s house to come into the mix. It was evident he was thrown off by it, thinking he had the upper hand over Christen and now having nothing to show for his visit.

“Of course, I’ll call them tomorrow.” Christen managed to get out without her voice wavering too much. She just wanted him gone, but it seemed like he would go in for one last shake at Christen.

“I’d like to talk to Mallory, before I leave.”

Christen’s fists were clenched so tight she was almost shaking. She knew he’d just said that to rile her up, but she couldn’t let it slide. She had experienced such a low in this encounter but with Tobin beside her and the news about her house she was emboldened on a high. She wanted Joseph to know where he stood, once and for all.

“You don’t get to say one fucking thing to her. You should have never talked to her without me here. Now you’re going to leave, and you better hope I never see you again. Mal is my baby sister. She is so loved and cared for and protected. She is thriving because she’s incredibly talented, but mostly because we’re together. All you’ve done our whole lives is try to ruin that. But you can’t anymore. She’s with me, she’ll always be with me, and you’ll never get to change that. Now get lost, Joseph. Otherwise I’ll happily get security to show you the door.”

She held her glare on him as he turned around and walked away, right out the hotel doors and down until he completely left her line of sight. She was staring so intensely that it wasn’t until Tobin gently took her hand that she realised it was over and she needed to snap out of it.

Tears welled in her eyes and her mouth opened and closed in shock at what Tobin had done for her. “Tobin…Tobin, I – ”

Tobin just shook her head, stopping her from whatever she was about to say. She wasn’t even sure herself, really. She wanted to explain, she wanted to ask questions, she wanted to thank her…everything, really. But it wasn’t the time, and Tobin knew that.

Instead, she turned around to where Mal and the others were still sitting. One look at Mal’s face and she knew she had heard everything. Everything about the house, the jobs, all of it. But that same look told her Mal didn’t care. She was only concerned about Joseph, and now that he was gone, she just wanted to be in Christen’s arms.

“Baby, come here.”

Mal was there in a flash, slamming into her and gripping her tight as the tears flooded out of her eyes again. Christen vaguely heard Alex saying to everyone they should go back up to the rooms. She let Tobin put a guiding hand on the small of her back, leading them to the elevator, back up to their room and inside where she sat down on the bed with Mal, holding her as close as she could.

“It’s over, Mal, he’s gone. It’s all okay now, I promise. You’re here with me, you’ll always be with me. I love you so much.”

Christen kept up her murmurs to Mal, feeling how deflated her sister was getting in her arms and knowing the exhaustion from the emotional afternoon was catching up to her. She saw the people in the room moving in and out, seeing Tobin talking to Alex and Kelley as the younger women fretted about Mal. Christen’s heart continued to be warmed by the love for their friend.

Rose came over with a bottle of water for Mal, tucking it into her hand. Sonnett followed with a blanket Christen didn’t recognise, until she said it was one from her own room as she laid it over Mal. Lindsey closed the curtains where the early evening sun was setting and then sat on the edge of the bed and held Mal’s hand, rubbing her thumb over the back of it soothingly as she gave her a soft smile.

Mal shared a tiny smile back at Lindsey, her longest friend from the youth national teams and now the full national team. She kept her hand in Lindsey’s as she closed her eyes, her head resting on Christen’s chest with Christen’s arms around her. It wasn’t until a few minutes later when Mal had fallen completely asleep that Christen spoke to them.

“You three are really amazing, you know that?” Christen smiled at Lindsey, Sonnett and Rose as they sat on the edge of the bed. “You’re the best friends Mal could have. Thank you for being there for her.”

“She would do the same for us.”

Rose nodded at Sonnett’s comment, looking on in concern. “Will she be okay?”

“She’ll be fine. Our past with our social worker wasn’t very easy, and despite my best efforts he created a lot of uncertainty and fear in Mal when I was trying to adopt her.” As Christen began explaining, she saw Tobin, Kelley and Alex come closer to listen as well. “He would every now and again make little comments that seemed to suggest that when it came to who he would recommend to adopt Mal, it might not be me.”

Christen had tried her best to keep herself busy in the kitchen as Joseph talked with Mal, but as soon as she heard a whimper and a sob escape Mal’s mouth, she just about flew into the room.

“Chrissy!” An 11 year old Mal ran into her arms, tears streaming down her face.

“What did you say to her?” Christen’s voice was sharp as she glared at Joseph.

Joseph held up his hands as if he was innocent, shrugging as if Mal was the one who had overreacted. “I’m just discussing the adoption with her. I was just trying to see what her real thoughts on the situation were.”  

Those words sparked suspicion in Christen. Mal’s ‘real’ thoughts? She knew she’d have no luck getting the truth from Joseph so she crouched down, cupping Mal’s cheeks with either hand. “Mal, baby, tell me what he said.”

Amid her tiny whimpers, Mal managed to get some words out. “He sa-said I might not get to stay wi-with you! Said there were other families better cos they have more money for soccer and other stuff bu-but I’ll stop playing soccer if I can stay with you! I just want you, nothing else!”

“Oh, baby, shhh, shhh. No one’s going to take you away from me. And you don’t have to stop playing soccer, I promise. You’re here with me, always. I won’t ever let you go.” Christen pulled Mal back into her arms and glared at Joseph from where she was crouched on the floor.

He still had the look of ignorance on his face, but the smugness sat in his eyes, unable to be wiped away. Christen wanted to get angry at him. She wanted to so badly. But she knew he would use any excuse to hold something against her, and she couldn’t. She had to use her words carefully.

“I don’t want you discussing this with Mal anymore. I think she’s made her opinion on who she wants to adopt her crystal clear. It’s completely inappropriate to be suggesting something like that to an 11 year old.”  

“Just trying to get the full picture.”

Christen found that incredibly hard to believe, but she had said all she could on the matter, for now. Instead, she politely told Joseph it was time for Mal to have dinner and maybe they should finish this another day, not moving from where she was with Mal until he’d walked out the door, closing it behind him.

“Is he gone?”

“Yeah, he’s gone.” Christen went to stand up but Mal stayed latched onto her neck, so she picked her up, feeling Mal wrap her legs around her waist. “Are you okay? That can’t have been nice to hear.”

Mal leant her head on Christen’s shoulder, feeling safe in her arms. “I’m okay. I’m okay as long as I’m with you.”

“Good. Me too.”

“I don’t like him. He’s an asshole.”

Christen snorted, unable to help herself. “Mal, we don’t call people that.” She kissed her head before whispering conspiratorially in her ear. “But you’re right, he’s a total asshole.”

“So I guess if you were wondering why the sight of him made Mal react like that, it’s because she associates him with us being moved from foster home to foster home, and then waiting years for him to recommend me to adopt her. It just reminds her of the most unstable part of her life, and even though she’s adopted now, those bad memories still stay with her. With both of us.”

Christen looked out at the room of women when she finished, seeing empathy in their eyes. Kelley came to sit beside her and Mal on the bed, gently moving so she didn’t wake Mal. “Not that either of you need a reason to be upset, but that is completely valid. He sounds like a horrible social worker and a worse person.”

Alex nodded. “I’m sorry you had to go through so much crap with him.”

“The thing is, I’ve met so many amazing social workers. Pretty much every single other social worker I’ve met has been so genuine and kind. And we got stuck with the worst one. I guess that’s just how life works.” Christen said, brushing a lock of hair out of Mal’s forehead as she spoke.  

“It shouldn’t be. You deserved so much more than that. Both of you did.” Tobin spoke with such sureness that Christen couldn’t help but look into her eyes and melt a little when she did. She had so much to talk about with Tobin, still. But for now, with Mal laying warm at her side and the emotions of the day finally hitting her, all she wanted to do was sleep.

----------

The next thing Christen knew she was being ripped awake, her eyes snapping open as her chest heaved up and down. It was some number of hours later, she wasn’t sure how many, and if she was honest she couldn’t remember falling asleep either.

She was hot, that’s all she knew, Mal still draped on top of her deep in sleep and a blanket thrown over both of them. Her dreams had been unpleasant, but she couldn’t remember anything discernible other than Mal’s cries.

She tried her best to regulate her breathing, get herself under control without waking Mal, but the more she tried to stay still the more trapped she felt. She was starting to panic and she knew if she stayed there and Mal woke to that sight she would only work her up as well.

Pacing the room didn’t help, and as much as it pained her to leave Mal alone in the bed, she had to step outside. She winced at the hallway lights when she opened the door and for the second time wondered exactly what time it was.

It was a lot. Everything was a lot. She tried to remember what breathing techniques she’d learnt that past week in meditation but in the thick of the moment all she could hear was her blood pumping and her heart beating and her breath getting shallower and shallower.

At some point she felt her back hit the wall behind her. Her legs felt like jelly and she almost thought they might give way. Just before she slid down the wall onto the floor, strong arms wrapped around her, holding her up. She knew it was Tobin as soon as she was close enough to catch her scent.

“Hey, hey.” Tobin’s voice murmured softly, strong arms holding her. “Chris, can you look at me?”

Christen did her best to follow Tobin’s instructions. She didn’t even realise she was crying until she saw Tobin’s form was blurry through her gaze.

“Good, that’s really good, Chris. Can you feel my hands on your shoulders? Do you think you can put your hands on my arms?”

She could feel Tobin’s hands on her shoulders. She could see them rising and falling with each heaving breath she was taking. She could raise her arms, she could do that. She brought them up to latch onto Tobin’s wrists, feeling secure in her grasp.

“Good, Chris. You’re doing so well. I want you to try and squeeze my arms when you feel me squeeze your shoulders, okay?”

Christen felt Tobin squeeze her shoulders, but the blood was pumping through her ears so loud it was all she could do not to get lost in the thought of it. She could hear Tobin speaking again, and she tried her best to listen.

“I know it’s hard, Chris. But I’m right here with you. Can you try again for me?”

This time when Tobin squeezed her shoulders, Christen was quick to respond and squeeze her arms back. She heard Tobin praise her, and then felt Tobin squeeze her shoulders twice more. She responded with two squeezes to her arms, and so on, until she had gotten up to ten.

It wasn’t until then that she realised her breaths had slowed down, her focus on counting Tobin’s squeezes taking the attention away from the panic in her brain. She looked up at Tobin, eyes a bit clearer, and saw her smile encouragingly.

“There you go. There you are. You’re okay, Chris. Deep breaths.”

Christen wasn’t sure how long they stood like that in the hallway, but Tobin didn’t pull away, not until she felt like her breathing was back to normal and she squeezed Tobin’s arms once more before they separated.

“Thank you. I’m sorry, I-I don’t really know what happened.”

Tobin’s smile was nothing but understanding. “You don’t have to be sorry, Chris. It’s normal, so many people have panic attacks. And after the day you’ve had, it’s completely understandable.”

Christen nodded, and tried not to let the tears well up in her eyes again. “I want to talk to you about today but…but Mal, Mal is in there and if she wakes up alone she’ll panic and – ”

“Okay, hey, it’s okay.” Tobin took Christen’s hands gently, making her stop talking. “I can text Lindsey and tell her to come stay with Mal, if that’s what you want? We can talk and Mal won’t be alone.”

Christen felt Tobin’s soft hands in hers and nodded, happy with that. Tobin let go of one of her hands to get her phone out of her pocket but kept the other holding Christen’s hand. Christen certainly wasn’t about to pull away, squeezing it softly and smiling when Tobin squeezed it back.

Before she knew it, Lindsey was there, soft in her hoodie and shorts. She hugged Tobin and placed a hand on Christen’s upper arm, squeezing it softly.

“Thanks, bud. Are you okay to stay with Mal?” Tobin asked gently.

“Of course.”

“She’ll cuddle you. She’s like a koala in there.”

Lindsey laughed softly, shaking her head. “That’s okay, I love cuddles. I’ll be there with her, Christen, she’ll be okay.”

Christen smiled gratefully as Lindsey slipped into the room, even more so that the young woman hadn’t asked any questions, she’d just been there for them. Each day she grew more and more fond of the women on this team.

She turned her gaze back to Tobin before noticing an envelope on the floor she hadn’t seen there previously. “What’s that?”

“Oh, that…” Tobin trailed off, a blush appearing on her cheeks. Christen felt her hand clam up from where she still held it, and she squeezed it gently. “I wrote it for you. I came down here to slip it under your door because I thought you’d still be asleep, and that’s when I saw you.”

Tobin had written a letter for her? Christen’s brain started firing a mile a minute before she forced it to stop, taking a breath and willing herself to just ask the question. “What does it say?”

If it was possible, Tobin got more shy, bringing up the hand that wasn’t holding Christen’s to the back of her neck and rubbing it. “Uh, it’s just like – just how, I mean…I meant what I said earlier. About you and Mal living at my house, if you want. I assumed you needed somewhere, and it really is always empty. I just…I know we haven’t gotten to talk about it, but I wanted you to know I was serious, that it’s yours to stay in, if you want that.”

A heap of emotions fell on Christen at once – feeling bashful at how sweet Tobin was being, feeling embarrassed that she knew she and Mal had no home, feeling stubborn about someone giving her a free handout, feeling like passing out because Tobin’s soft hand was still in hers. It took her a while to gather her thoughts.

“I can’t thank you enough for what you did today, when Joseph was here. If you weren’t there I really don’t know what I would have done. How did you know to say that?”

“I didn’t want to assume…but I heard you say before Kelley called you ‘lived’ somewhere, not that you ‘live’ somewhere. And you do this thing when you mess up where you mutter under your breath, it kind of looks like you’re saying ‘come on, Christen.’ It’s actually really cute.”

Both of them looked completely embarrassed at this statement, Christen because she didn’t even realise she did that and she must have looked like a fool so many times in front of Tobin, and Tobin because she called Christen cute.

“So you did that, and I thought maybe it wasn’t something you wanted me to know about.” Tobin powered on, seemingly determined to not dwell on what she’d just said. “And when Joseph started talking about you not living in your old apartment you looked like you might pass out, and I could tell you were freaking out, and I didn’t want to say something to make it worse but you just didn’t say anything and so I said that and I’m sorry if it was the wrong thing to say but I just wanted to help.”

Tobin’s brown eyes were so sincere and full of empathy Christen couldn’t help but throw her arms around her, pulling her into a hug.

“Oh.” Tobin said in content, leaning her head against Christen’s shoulder and letting out a peaceful sigh. “This is nice.”

It made Christen laugh, and she squeezed Tobin tight before pulling away, wanting to look at her as she spoke. “I really don’t know how you’re real. How you can be as perfect as I remember you. As I’ve always thought of you. You didn’t even know the full story and yet you did so much for me today, so much for Mal. I can’t thank you enough for that.”

“You’re just as perfect as I remember you, as well. Even more.”

Christen blushed at Tobin’s comment and lightly shoved her arm, telling her to be quiet because she had to get this out. “I need to look for somewhere for Mal and I to stay. I really appreciate what you said today, but we can’t impose on you like that. Plus Manhattan Beach is…very much out of my price range, and I have to find a job and there’s just so much I should have done days ago.”

She ended her statement looking at the floor, and after a few seconds of Tobin not responding, she chanced a look up. Tobin’s mouth was wide open, a baffled expression on her face. “Chris, I’m not going to make you pay me to live there. You and Mal can stay there for free. I thought that was obvious, I’m sorry.”

“No – Tobin, I can’t let you do that.”

“Of course you can. It’s just sitting there collecting dust right now, I haven’t stayed in it since November and neither has Kelley. It’s such a waste to not use it, Chris. You don’t have to pay me rent, you’d seriously be doing me a favor because I feel bad about how little anyone is there. Plus, Mal's first cap might be this Friday, and camp finishes on Saturday. That’s not enough time to find somewhere.”

Christen’s stubbornness was rising to the front. She knew Tobin was probably telling the truth, but she also knew how much Tobin wanted to help her, and she couldn’t tell if it actually would be an inconvenience on her to have them stay. She knew Tobin would never say so, even if it was. “Tobin, I really appreciate it, but I just can’t. I don’t expect anything from you, especially for free, and I just…it’s too much.”

Tobin just shook her head, taking Christen’s hands gently. “It’s not too much, Chris. It’s not even close to what you deserve. But for now it’s just right. It’s not too far from Mal’s school, it has enough bedrooms, it’s right by the beach – I know you love the beach. I have a car there you can use. You don’t have to pay me anything.”

A hesitant look must have still rested on Christen’s face, because Tobin carried on. “I promise this isn’t me giving you a hand out. I don’t pity you, Christen. I admire you so much. You’re the strongest person I know. Life has been cruel to you, you’ve fought so hard for so long, but you don’t have to anymore. This is me trying to help, much like someone should have helped you well before this. It’s okay to let people help you.”

Tobin squeezed her hands as she finished, and Christen squeezed them back, a tear falling out of her eye as she did so. She knew Tobin was right. She felt the conviction and genuineness in her voice. Tobin didn’t pity her, she saw her as her equal. She had the means to help her, and Christen knew it would be completely foolish and irresponsible for Mal’s sake to let her stubbornness get in the way of that.

“Okay.” She whispered out, her voice growing stronger as she saw Tobin beam after she heard that. “Okay, yeah. If you promise it’s no trouble for you. We would love to stay there.”

“It couldn’t be less trouble for me, I promise.”

Christen couldn’t help but smile at seeing Tobin so happy, her smile was infectious. She thought about what had just happened, and a laugh bubbled out of her, her entire body feeling light. She knew how much the thought of having no house, car or job had consumed her for the past weeks, but she didn’t realise how much it had weighed her down until the burden was lifted.

Tobin laughed with her, a wide smile on her face, still squeezing her hands. Christen pulled her back in for another hug, swaying back and forth with her, feeling her body press against hers. It was warm. She felt safe. She had Tobin back, and she never wanted to lose her again.

“Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll find a way to repay you, I swear.”

“No, Chris. None of that. I want to help, and I’m glad I can. You don’t owe me or anyone anything.”

She knew it would be a long time until she finally came to terms with that concept, but for now, with Tobin in her arms, she didn’t want to fight it. “Okay.”

After they eventually pulled away, Christen took a few steps over to the door and swiped it open, pulling Tobin by the hand. “Let’s see whether those rascals are asleep or not.”

The sight they walked into warmed both of their hearts. By the faint glow of a bathroom lamp they could see Lindsey and Mal curled up together, fast asleep. Mal, true to her form, had her arms wrapped around Lindsey, laying a head on her shoulder.

“How she’s comfortable when she sleeps like that, I’ll never know.” Christen whispered to Tobin, grinning softly just like her at the scene.

“They’re pretty adorable.” Tobin nodded, moving to the other side of the bed to snap a picture of both of them to show the others tomorrow. She gave Christen a little smile after she did it, her face glowing softly from the light.

“Will you sit a minute?” Christen asked, walking past Tobin to sit on the other bed as Tobin agreed, sitting on it beside her. She felt bold in asking the question and when Tobin sat down beside her, her insides scrambled a bit, even though she had no intention other than to talk.

“Hi.” Tobin whispered – mindful of the other two sleeping in the bed next to them – with a wide smile on her face.

“Hi.” Christen murmured back, unable to keep the smile off her face, either. “This feels familiar.”

“Except now we’re not breaking curfew by staying and talking in each other’s rooms at all hours of the night at an u-17 camp.” Tobin was wistful at the memories, her eyes lost in them. “Times seemed so much easier back then.”

Christen let out a deep sigh, letting that be her agreement. She and Tobin both had their legs stretched out on the bed, and she knocked her knee into Tobin’s gently before speaking. “What would you have done if we never met again?”

“I would have been miserable the rest of my sorry life.”

The laugh escaped Christen before she could stop it and she clapped a hand over her mouth, listening in silence to see if Mal or Lindsey woke up. When she was sure they were still asleep she swatted at Tobin’s arm, grinning at her. “Be serious.”

“Maybe that’s a bit melodramatic. I would have been miserable, for sure. But…I can’t explain it, Chris. I knew we would meet again, I just knew it. You don’t have a connection with someone like we had and have them disappear for good. Life doesn’t work like that, I don’t believe it.”

Christen waited for Tobin to look up from her hands before she replied. When their eyes met they shared a smile that showed they both understood, they were both on the same wave length. They found each other again, and they would stay that way now. Never apart, never again.

“I’d always hoped life would bring you back to me. After so many bad things I thought I would lose that hope. But I never lost you. You were here, and you were here.” She touched her ring and her heart, and she swore she saw tears glistening in Tobin’s eyes in the faint light.

“Me too, Chris.”

They sat together in comfortable silence for a while longer, pressed into each other’s sides, knees bumping every so often. When Christen yawned, Tobin made to crawl off the bed until she stopped – Christen had taken her hand gently as she spoke quietly into the room.

“Don’t leave.”

The whisper came out so soft Christen could barely believe she’d said it, but then Tobin halted her movements, grasping Christen’s hand back and speaking out a reply. “Okay, I’ll stay.”

Christen thought she’d be terrified for this moment. She thought she’d be so nervous she wouldn’t know what to do with herself. But as Tobin moved back to the head of the bed, she found it was easy as breathing. Just like it always was, and always would be with her.

Tobin never expected anything of her. She never pushed her before she was ready, never hung anything over her head. They slipped under the blankets and before Christen could even stop to think about what her body was doing she had rolled onto her side, leaning her head against Tobin’s shoulder and bringing her hand to rest by her face. She felt Tobin’s arm come around her, sitting gently at her back.

Of course it didn’t escape her how intimate their sleeping position was. They didn’t need to be touching. But it was natural, like they gravitated towards each other without even having to discuss it. She was blushing, she knew it. But she was also comfortable, secure.

She didn’t think she could feel more safe than then, until she felt Tobin brush a kiss so chaste against the top of her forehead she might have missed it if she wasn’t laying there so peacefully. She sighed in content, a happy sound escaping her lips and swore she felt Tobin’s heart beat move from a racing tempo to a more relaxed one when she did.

“Goodnight, Tobin.” The smile was evident in her voice, even as she tried to hide it by pressing her face more into Tobin’s shoulder. Feeling Tobin’s skin beneath the thin layer of her t-shirt against her lips didn’t exactly help the situation, though, and she felt Tobin let out a quiet laugh in response.

“Goodnight, Christen. Have sweet dreams.”

With Tobin lying beside her, arms holding her close, how could she have anything but?

 

Chapter Text

Christen had always been an early riser. Her Mom would tell her when the birds heard her feet quietly pattering around the house that’s when they knew to start their morning song. She’d woken early every day of this u-17 camp, always excited to get out of bed to start playing soccer, to see Tobin again.

But today, she didn’t want to wake up early. She didn’t want to be excited to get out of bed to see Tobin.

Because Tobin was in bed, with her.

She’s not really sure how it happened. They had been in her room, again. Talking late into the night, again. Laying back on the pillows side by side discussing everything from their favorite ice cream flavors to how happy they’d feel if they ever got the chance to stand on the first place podium, an Olympic gold medal or World Cup trophy in their hands.

Or both.

Christen had been talking with her hands. She had held them up to the ceiling from where she lay, moving them in time with her story, big gestures to emphasize her points and little ones to explain the intricacies. When she’d brought them back down to rest on the bed, her hand landed on top of Tobin’s.

Her embarrassed instinct had been to pull away. But she never got the chance. Tobin’s fingers had hesitantly laced between hers before she knew what was happening and they stayed like that until Christen found the courage to pull her hand closer, feeling their palms touch and their fingers lock together.

Tobin’s wrist was touching hers and she could feel her pulse racing. Or maybe it was hers. She wasn’t sure how they fell asleep like that when they were both on such a live wire, but they did. And now it was morning. And not only were their hands still linked together, but one of Tobin’s ankles had curled around hers, and Tobin’s head was laying slightly below hers, half resting on her shoulder, her nose almost pressing into her neck.

Christen had never wanted to get out of bed less in her life. She hoped it was still early. That they would be able to stay like this for a while longer. Hell, she didn’t even care if training got cancelled today. Being here with Tobin so soft and warm against her was worth it.

She knew Tobin was a deep sleeper, she’d knocked on her door every morning for ages until the other girl finally got out of bed. She was always so sleepy and confused when she did, and Christen didn’t think there would be anything cuter.

But that was before she’d seen Tobin’s expressions right as she woke up.

She’d tried her best to stay still, to not wake the slumbering 15 year old beside her. She was sure her heart beat was so thundering it would start vibrating in Tobin’s ears soon enough.

She lasted about 30 minutes before her leg began tingling and she had to move it. She’d turned slightly, and Tobin had gone with her, starting to wriggle around until her eyes cracked open the tiniest bit, and her head tilted to the side like a confused puppy.

Christen swore Tobin looked so cute she could have given Mal’s big doe eyes a run for their money.

"Sorry for waking you.” Christen murmured out into the morning air, not wanting any loudness to break the tranquillity they’d woken in.

Tobin didn’t give an intelligible response, or at least, the sound out of her mouth wasn’t a known English word. She more or less hummed, her eyes still barely open, as she laid her head back down onto Christen’s shoulder, sighing in content.  

They were in peaceful silence for a few seconds more, until consciousness must have finally ticked properly into Tobin’s brain and she lurched back a little from Christen’s shoulder. She looked up at her and around the room and at the clock on the bedside table before settling back onto Christen.

“Wha-?”

Quiet laughter bubbled out of Christen before she could stop it. Tobin’s sleepy-confused state was so adorable she couldn’t contain herself. A soft smile stayed on her face, growing stronger when Tobin smiled back at her.

“It’s morning. We must have fallen asleep here when we were talking last night.”

“Oh,” Tobin said, a small blush rising onto her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.”

Christen shook her head, the smile still on her face. The early morning sun shining onto Tobin’s face must have given her confidence she usually wouldn’t have had because she kept talking and Tobin’s blush only grew more.  “I’m not sorry you did. It was nice. Being here – with you.”  

Tobin nodded in response, seeming a little dumbstruck by Christen’s words. She looked down at their still intertwined hands and smiled, locking back onto Christen’s green eyes. “It’s always nice being with you.”  

It was always nice being with Tobin.

But waking up in Tobin’s arms? That was something more than nice. That was something Christen never even let herself dream about because the thought was too happy she would only be disappointed when it wouldn’t happen.

That was before this, though. Before she saw Tobin again, before she felt Tobin’s hand in hers again, felt her arms around her again. Before she met Tobin’s soul again, felt her understanding nature, her kindness, her protectiveness. Her humor, her smile, her beauty.

Now? Christen didn’t even want to limit what she would dream was possible with Tobin.

Waking up early in Tobin’s arms was Christen’s new favorite thing. It didn’t even feel like she’d moved at all during the night. She would happily lay there forever if she could, feeling the steady rise and fall of Tobin’s chest in her warm embrace. The sun was just shining through the curtains, the air was tranquil. It was so peaceful Christen almost felt like she might fall back asleep.

And then, from the behind her, two high pitched squeals broke out. They were quickly muffled, followed by excited whispers and giggles. Christen didn’t even have to turn around to know that Mal and Lindsey had woken up and seen her and Tobin.

Once again, her instinct was to pull away. She remembered how much she’d fallen apart yesterday, last night, how she’d asked Tobin to stay and she probably just felt like she had to. Tobin had already done so much for her and how does Christen repay her? By crying in her arms and falling asleep half on top of her.

Yet, some small part of her wanted to stay. Wanted to take the risk and see if Tobin still felt the same as she did when they were 15. That it was nice to sleep next to her, to wake up in her arms.

Was it crazy of her to think that?

The more she pondered it, the more she convinced herself that couldn’t be the case. She heard Mal and Lindsey start up again, and she knew adding that to the mix would probably only embarrass Tobin more, so she’d spare her from it and separate them now.

She went to move, but the second she tried to roll over, Tobin’s arms wrapped around her more and a sleepy grumble left her lips. Of course, this only spurred on the giggles from Mal and Lindsey more, and Christen swore she heard the sound of a phone camera go off.

She lifted one hand behind her and showed her middle finger to them, hearing them laugh more at that. When she brought it back, she could feel Tobin’s breathing had become a bit more irregular. She was certain to wake up at any moment.

“I said I’d get coffee with Sonnett so I gotta go. Are you feeling okay this morning?” Christen’s heart warmed when she heard Lindsey and Mal have a quiet conversation before Lindsey got out of bed, whisper shouting in a knowing voice across the room.

“Bye, you two.”

Christen turned and blew a kiss to her, a grin appearing on her face when she heard Tobin’s sleep filled voice speak up.

“Bye, you little shit.”

Lindsey left with a laugh and Christen turned back to Tobin, not wanting to miss her sleepy confusion before it wore off. Tobin’s eyes were still not fully open, but they were open enough to see her, and she gave her a soft smile, laying her head back down.

“You look like someone who has thought way too much for this time of morning.” Tobin murmured half into the pillow, twisting her head ever so slightly to look at Christen.

A blush rose on Christen’s cheeks. It was clear she wasn’t hiding her internal debate very well. “I just…I’m sorry for yesterday, and last night, and – ”

“Stop,” Tobin squeezed her hand, a reassuring look on her face. “You don’t have to apologise for anything. I want to be there for you. And this? It’s nice being with you. Still. Always.”

The look of surprised happiness that crossed Christen’s face at Tobin’s words brought a beaming smile out of both of them. So Tobin had remembered that night from the camp, where they woke up next to each other and they thought it wasn’t possible to get closer than before. But somehow, falling asleep and waking up in someone’s arms when you’re at your most vulnerable shifts a dynamic in you, and they could both feel that now, too.

“It’s nice being with you, too. Thank you.” It was all Christen could manage at that stage. She wanted to say a lot more, but she hoped Tobin knew in all the other ways how much she meant it. She let them have another few minutes of silence before she gave Tobin a soft grin and a squeeze of the hand, speaking out into the room. “Mal, I can hear your pout from here. Do you want to get in the bed?”

Within seconds her little sister had jumped out of her own bed, barely giving them any warning before getting into theirs, nestling herself under the covers between them without a care for what either of them thought.

“Ouch, shit, Mal.” Christen winced as a bony elbow hit her side. “You’re not as tiny as you used to be, you know?”

Mal just grinned and shrugged, snuggling in closer to both of them. Christen smiled softly as she watched Mal, and even more when she saw the smile Tobin gave her sister. She had both of them here with her, and she felt so lucky she almost couldn’t believe this wasn’t just another of her dreams.

She brought her hand up and brushed some of Mal’s hair off her forehead, trying to think about how to start the conversation she knew they needed to have. In the end, Mal spoke before she could.

“Are you okay, Chris?”

Christen looked down at Mal’s dark brown eyes and saw two sides of her. She saw the Mal that her baby sister had been, and always a little bit would be – the one who was looking up at Christen like she hung the stars in the sky, wanting her to say everything was okay and everything would be okay.

She also saw the Mal that her baby sister was becoming, the one Christen had promised to engage with – the one who could no longer be genuinely soothed by blind reassurances, the one who saw Christen experience sadness and knew they had to talk about it, the one who wanted to be there to support her.

Christen knew after everything she had kept away from Mal that she owed it to her to try and be truthful.

“I’m a bit shaken, if I’m being honest. Seeing Joseph was the last thing on my mind and it wasn’t the best of timing. But you’re here with me, and all of our friends were there for us, and I know I’ll be fine.” Christen felt good when Mal smiled at that, happy with Christen sharing her feelings and relieved that she wasn’t entirely downcast about it all. Maybe what Mal needed was both halves of herself – reassurances and the truth. “Are you okay?”

“I was really scared. I just kind of froze when I saw him. And then he said he wanted to talk to us and I know you adopted me but…it doesn’t make all that go away so easy.” As Mal spoke Christen kissed her on the head a few times, hating that Joseph made her feel that way. “But even though it was horrible, everyone was so nice. It’s good to know there’s people to support us, right?”

“It’s the best.” Christen answered Mal, but was smiling at Tobin as she said it. Mal followed her line of sight and turned a bit to face her.

“Are you okay, Tobin?”

A little laugh escaped Tobin – Mal was too dang cute. “I’m okay, Mal. I was worried about you both. It’s sad to see your friends hurting. But now I’m okay, and I hope you both will be as well, whenever you can process it.”

“Thank you for helping us.” Mal reached over and hugged Tobin, head resting happily on her shoulder. Tobin and Christen’s eyes met over her and they both scrunched up their faces in delight, wanting to coo at Mal and how stupid cute she was.

Christen always knew Mal adored Tobin, and that she felt safe with her. But Christen could also sense a change with Mal this morning, and could see that Mal had decided to wholeheartedly trust Tobin. She knew Mal waking up to see her asleep with Tobin was probably the decider – Mal knew Christen wasn’t that vulnerable with anyone. If Christen had decided Tobin was safe to fall asleep next to, then Mal knew Tobin could be trusted.

“Anything for you, Mal. I know you’d do the same for me.”

Mal laughed, shaking her head. “Don’t worry, Tobs. If I had a spare house in Manhattan Beach it would be all yours.” She then turned to face Christen, seemingly deciding she was happy resting against Tobin with the older player’s arm around her. She gave Christen a look, and Christen knew what was coming. “I’m not mad, I promise. But you have to explain what’s going on. You said to trust you, and I do. But what I heard yesterday…did you really quit your jobs? And get rid of the apartment? Please just tell me what’s going on.”

And so Christen did.

She told them about the rent raise, and why she couldn’t tell Mal when she found out. She told them about the national team’s guardians for minors rule, and why she had to quit both of her jobs to be here with Mal. That it wasn’t even a question for her, she wasn’t going to let this opportunity of Mal’s slip. She told them about moving out of the apartment, about getting rid of the car, and (though this was the hardest truth of all to tell) that she truly had no idea what they were going to do when camp ended if Tobin hadn’t stepped in yesterday.

“I’m so sorry, Mal. When I say it all out loud like that it sounds so fucked up.” Christen said, before Mal launched into her arms, hugging her tight.

Christen was surprised by this, she expected at least a little bit of anger from her. After all, they had recently just had a conversation about telling each other the truth, and Christen had still kept all of this from her, even then.

Once again, though, Mal blew Christen away with how emotionally aware she was, with how empathetic and understanding she was. She was so thankful she was her sister.

“That must have been so hard to do by yourself.” Mal murmured, and Christen felt a tear hit her neck. “I’m so sorry I didn’t realise. I’ve been self-absorbed. I feel so stupid.”

“Baby, no.” Christen cradled Mal’s head in one of her hands, using the other to rub soothing patterns on her back. “I didn’t tell you that to make you feel bad. None of this is your fault, okay? You couldn’t have known, I hid it from you. I didn’t want you to feel the burden of it and risk it affecting your performance at camp.”

Another tear dripped from Mal’s eyes and she nestled herself more into the crook of Christen’s neck. “You didn’t want me to be burdened but I don’t want you to be burdened. It’s not fair to you!”

Christen’s eyes watered, hurting at how upset Mal was at herself over this. She looked at Tobin to see her eyes glistening as well, and Tobin laid one of her hands over Christen’s – the one that rested on Mal’s back.

“Mal, you have such a kind heart. I can see how much you’re hurting from this and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want you to freak out or feel guilty coming into this camp. I don’t want to hide things from you. I take what we talked about really seriously – I promise I’m trying to be more open with you. I just wanted to wait until after the game on Friday.”

Mal nodded, trying to take deep breaths to control her breathing.

Christen kissed the side of Mal’s head and nudged her chin up so she could meet her sister’s dark brown eyes. “This is not your fault, okay? None of it. I don’t regret anything – seeing you live out your dreams here, seeing you thriving, seeing that smile on your face – that’s everything to me, Mal. Everything.”

“Seeing you happy is everything to me. You’re happier since we’ve been here. I can tell.”

Christen’s eyes flicked to meet Tobin’s involuntarily when Mal said that, a smile playing at the corner of her lips. “This can be a good fresh start for us, okay?” She said, looking back at Mal. “If you can be patient with me, I promise I’m going to try to share more with you.”

“I’d like that. But I can see why you didn’t tell me. I would have really worried.”

Christen laughed softly, nodding. “You would have. I only hid it from you to protect you.”

“I know. But it makes me sad to think no one can protect you. So maybe we can protect each other?”

Mal’s tears had stopped and Christen brushed the remaining ones off her cheeks, kissing her forehead. “That sounds like a good plan, baby. I love you so much.”

“Love you forever, Chrissy.” Mal nestled back into Christen, closing her eyes in safe content as Christen wrapped her arms around her, cocooning her from the outside world. “Tobin, are we really going to live at your house?”

Tobin wasn’t fast enough to wipe a tear that lingered on her cheek away as both Press sisters looked over at her, soft smiles on their faces at her emotional response to their conversation. She smiled, laughing a little. “Yeah, Mal. If that’s what you want.”

“You’re the best.” Mal replied, bringing and arm out and pulling Tobin into the hug with her and Christen.

“You really are.” Christen murmured when Tobin settled into the hug, her smile and happiness and gratitude pouring out of her into the woman who had completely turned her life upside down in all the best ways possible.

----------

“You know, you and Mal have such healthy communication. I wouldn’t be able to get half as good a conversation out of my siblings even if I paid them.”

Christen snorted as she poured some cereal into her bowl, moving down the breakfast line with Tobin beside her.

“I’m serious, Chris, just from watching the two of you speak before.”

“To be honest, I think I got off lightly with her, then.” Christen blew some of the hair tickling her forehead away, thinking back to the conversation. She was glad they talked about it, and even more that it hadn’t escalated into something worse like she’d imagined. “I kept picturing how she’d react and I always thought she’d be so pissed at me for hiding it from her. I guess Joseph showing up really threw her, and she was more emotional and willing to listen than she might otherwise have been.”

Tobin nodded, listening to her speak. “That might be true, but I think Mal could tell what a sacrifice you’d made for her. Your communication shows how amazing your relationship is and how much you trust each other.”

“I always wanted Mal to feel like she could tell me anything. Even if it was something she thought I didn’t want to hear.” Christen pressed the button on the coffee machine, already drooling at the smell of the caffeine pouring into the cup. “We just set up a rhythm of telling each other how we were feeling. If something was happening to Mal in a foster home and she was too scared to tell me, I would never have been able to forgive myself. So no matter what she said or when she said it, I always wanted her to know I was there to listen.”

Five year old Mal had been wearing a questioning expression for a good hour now. Christen was waiting to see if she would tell her what was on her mind, but as she was tucking her into bed that night and she still hadn’t said anything, she decided to ask herself.

“You look like a little girl with a question on her mind.” Christen said, pulling the blankets up to Mal’s chest and tapping her on the nose gently, making her giggle. “What’s up, my baby love?”

A hesitant look crossed Mal’s face, and her eyes flickered around the tiny bedroom, even though they were the only two in it. It was a good change from their first foster home, the one before this, where they were stuck in a room with two other slightly unhinged girls. But they definitely could have done without the one tiny bed or the drunk and foul foster parents, Lisa and John.

“Hey, it’s okay. Whatever it is, you can tell me.” Christen crouched beside the bed, wanting to be eye level with Mal as she spoke.

“I think it’s bad words.” Mal whispered, and Christen’s heart clenched at how adorable and hesitant Mal was being. She’d probably just heard something at school and wasn’t sure what it meant. Christen could brush it off, but she knew how important it was that Mal knew nothing was off limits to what she could tell her.

“Well, why don’t you tell me and I’ll let you know. I promise it’s okay for you to say it, even if you think they’re bad words. You won’t get into trouble, it’s only me. You can tell me anything, you know that, right?”  

Mal nodded, then pointed up to Christen’s face. Christen wore a confused expression, until Mal’s finger touched one of her hoop earrings she had put in just before.

“This is about my earrings?”

Another nod from Mal, before she finally explained. “Lisa found them in the bathroom. She called them…hooker earrings for a slot.”

“A slot? Or did she say slut?”

“Yeah. She said slut.”

“Oh.”

Mal’s eyes widened at Christen’s downtrodden reaction. “I’m sorry, Chrissy! I didn’t want to say the bad words but you said it was okay and – ”  

“No, no, shhh. Mal, it’s okay, I promise. You’re not in trouble. You did the right thing, telling me. I always want you to tell me, okay?” Christen rushed to reassure Mal, even though she was fighting off her own shock, and if she was honest, hurt and embarrassment.

Over the few weeks they had been there, she hadn’t known Lisa to be a kind person. But saying that someone wearing hoop earrings was a hooker and a slut – much less a 15 year old girl – seemed pretty low, even for her.

Christen felt angry she had said that, much less that Mal had to hear it. She could tell Mal didn’t understand the what the words meant, but she understood they weren’t kind towards Christen. She could only hope that Mal didn’t ask her to explain  –

“What does it mean?”

Fuck.

She really was a fool to hope. Parenting a five year old meant answering questions to literally anything that popped into their mind. The other day Mal genuinely asked her ‘do the sun and the moon say hello to each other when they pass in the sky’ and like where even was she supposed to start with that?  

“Um, well…” Was honesty the best policy with a five year old in these circumstances? Christen wanted to be able to tell Mal the truth whenever she could, but she wasn’t about to tell her something she’d go around repeating on the playground and then get in trouble for. She fought to find a middle ground. “Being a hooker is a job, but that’s not the proper name for it. It’s a mean word to call them. Their jobs are…adult jobs.” 

“Like a teacher? All my teachers are adults.”

Christen let out a single laugh, shaking her head. “You’re too smart for me, Mal. All of your teachers are adults, that’s right. But their jobs are different. The thing is, you’re too young to be hearing the word hooker, and so are your friends. So can you promise me you won’t go around talking about them? Because it’s definitely not something for little kids.”  

Mal seemed to contemplate this for a while, and Christen hoped she’d just accept it. Well, she got half of her wish, she supposed. “Okay. What about slut?”

“Slut is a mean word, it’s a bad word for sure. We don’t call people that.” Christen watched Mal nod along with her, a serious look on her tiny face that made Christen just want to squeeze her cheeks. “Sometimes people will say a woman is a slut if she has had a lot of girlfriends or boyfriends.”

“That seems silly.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Why do other people care how many girlfriends someone else had?” Mal shrugged, like she hadn’t just given more insight to slut shaming than almost the entire adult population.

“You know what? That’s a great question. I wish everyone was as smart as you. It doesn’t matter how many girlfriends or boyfriends someone has had, because it’s none of our business.”  

A frown then took over Mal’s face, and she looked at Christen with her big sad eyes that pierced her heart every time. “But wait…Lisa called you the mean names.”

“I know. That wasn’t very nice of her, was it.”

“Are you okay, Chrissy?” Mal sat up and leant over to give Christen a hug, one of her tiny hands resting on the back of Christen’s head just as Christen liked to cradle Mal’s head in her hand when she hugged her.

If there was ever a cure to someone saying something mean, Christen was sure one of these hugs was it. “Baby, that was so nice of you. Thank you.” She kissed Mal’s forehead when she pulled away, coaxing her into lying back on the pillow. “I’m fine, I promise. I know Lisa was just saying something mean, and I know it’s not true what she said. That’s the secret to making mean words hurt less.”

Christen didn’t bother to think about how far from the truth that word could be about her, even if she did think it was okay to use. She was only 15, so it’s not like she should have a repertoire of exes behind her. But it wasn’t like there was anyone who would want to date someone like her, anyway.

(She definitely didn’t want to think about how Tobin was doing in that area. A girl as pretty as her would have no trouble finding someone to date).

“I like your earrings.” Mal said with a finality, as if her statement had solved the situation.

Christen loved this kid so fucking much.  

“Thanks, Mal. I like them too. And do you know where I got them from?”

“Where?”

“Mommy gave them to me. On my 15th birthday.”

“She did?” Mal’s eyes went wide, excited at the thought. “They’re the best earrings ever!”

“I think so too.” Christen smiled, trying not to tear up at the memory. “And you know what else I think?”

“That I get to stay up late and eat ice cream?” Mal sported a grin, her eyes light with cheek. Christen laughed with her, poking her side and making the ticklish girl squirm away.

“Oh, she thinks she’s funny! She thinks she’s so funny!” Christen said in a silly voice, continuing to tickle Mal until her little sister relented.

“Okay, okay I’ll go to sleep, I will!”

They grinned at each other, before a loud crashing sound emitted from a room down the corridor of the house, followed by drunken, slurred shouting. It seemed the fosters had been drinking earlier than usual, tonight.

Mal’s startled eyes met Christen’s, and the older sister gave her a reassuring look, holding both of her hands. She repeated the words she always said to her anytime the foster parents’ drunken behavior affected them. “It’s okay, baby, I’m here. You’re safe with me.”

Mal just nodded, and both of them listened out again to see if an argument was going to begin down the hall or whether that was the extent of their fight for that evening. Thankfully that seemed to be it, for now, and Christen made sure Mal gave her a smile back so she knew her little sister was okay, even if she was still a bit scared.    

“C’mere, give me a hug.” Christen pulled Mal into her arms, holding her tight. “You’re my most beautiful thing, Mal. I love you so much.”

“You’re my most beautiful thing, Chrissy. I love you forever.”

Christen got Mal to lay back down on the pillow, readjusting the blankets around her and curling a piece of hair behind her ear. “Sleep tight, okay baby? Have some great dreams to tell me on the way to school tomorrow.”

“Can you sleep now, too?” Mal said through a yawn, her eyes looking droopier and droopier.

It was only 7:30pm, but honestly Christen was so tired she could have taken Mal up on the offer. She groaned, seeing her text books beside her, and she shook her head. “I have to finish a history report for school.”

“Can you read the book in bed?”

“The bed is really small, Mal.” Christen said, thinking of how little room was left over when they were both sleeping in it. She swore the beds in this foster house were smaller than a normal single. “There’s not enough room. Only enough for us to sleep, not for me to sit.”

“There is! I’m really small, see?” Mal curled herself up, turning on her side until she was basically laying in a ball. “Lots’a room for you.”

Christen just shook her head, a smile quirking at her lips. It was clear Mal was determined to fall asleep with Christen beside her, probably because of what had just happened, and who was Christen to deny those beautiful brown eyes? Plus, the bed was a more comfortable option than the hard floor as a desk to work on. She made a show of it, always willing to get an extra laugh out of Mal when she could.

“Fine, I guess you’ll do for a table.” She rested her huge history text book on top of Mal where the girl was curled up as she got into the bed next to her, sitting on top of the covers against the head. Mal giggled at the book on top of her, trying to stay still, but the book eventually slid off her.

Christen took the book, putting it in her lap as she manoeuvred Mal out of her position, letting the girl stretch her legs out on the bed properly. She leant down and kissed Mal on the forehead, moving down to her cheek and peppering it with little kisses as Mal laughed.

“Sleep time for real now, okay?” She murmured, pecking Mal’s cheek one last time before pulling away. “Sweet dreams, baby.”

Mal was asleep against her side before she’d even finished reading the first page.

“You’re incredible, Chris.”

Christen held the cup of coffee in both hands, taking a sip of it as she watched Tobin make her own. “I wish I could say I was always as truthful with Mal as she was with me. As we got older and the problems grew, I didn’t want to put those problems on her. But it’s hypocritical of me to ask her to be truthful with me and for me not to be truthful with her. I can see that.”

“Hey, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s all just a learning process, and you’re being self-aware and critical, which is more than most people can say about themselves. Including me. You’ve given Mal the best life possible, and you’ve moulded her into a young woman who feels so strongly and cares so much and loves so deeply and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Christen just stared at Tobin over her coffee, trying to wonder how she was real. “You have to stop talking otherwise you’re going to make me cry into my coffee. Thank you. Hearing you say that means so much.”

A little laugh escaped Tobin, her eyes sparkling and her smile wide. “Okay, let’s change topics, then. Maybe to how there’s an Arsenal midweek game that we all should definitely watch?”

“You’re still trying to make me a Gunner, huh?”

“All the best people are, Chris.”

Christen grinned and sent Tobin a wink, trying not to blush at how the other woman almost tripped over her own feet when she did so. She was going to give some smartass reply before Sonnett’s voice echoed across the room, making both of them blush a deep shade of red as the rest of the team cackled in laughter.

“Christen! Tobin! Y’all fell asleep together? Lindsey’s showing everyone a photo!”

---------

“Why do I feel like I’m being called to the principal’s office?” Mal whispered to Christen as the two of them walked through the hotel, venturing towards the room they were asked to meet Jill and another USWNT official in.

“Well, what did you do?” Christen grinned as Mal shoved her, rolling her eyes.

“Nothing!”

“Mal, don’t worry. I’m sure it’s just a formality, okay?” Christen squeezed her hand briefly before knocking on the door, both of them moving in to sit down.

“Thanks for coming, ladies. I have to say, having this discussion with someone under 18 is a first for me, so I appreciate you being here as well, Christen.”

Christen smiled at Jill, though her words did nothing to help her or Mal’s confusion as to why they were actually there. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for Mal. She’s loved being here so much.”

“So as you know, we have our first game of the year on Friday, just three days away.” Jill said, watching them both nod. “Mal has really impressed us at training, I’ve often forgotten she is just 17. If all goes to plan in the game on Friday, there’s a strong chance she’ll be subbing in for her first cap.”

A beam of pride spread across Christen’s face, and she saw Mal try to contain her excitement beside her, eventually slipping her hands under her thighs to stop herself wriggling.

“That would be so cool. Thank you so much for saying that, it means a lot.”

Christen nodded when Mal spoke, wondering what more they could be told. She thought it was nice of them to give Mal that heads up, albeit it being a little weird if that was all they had to say, but then Jill was speaking again.

“So, of course, you’re here to sign your contract, so you can officially be on the paid roster of the national team.”

There weren’t many moments in life where Christen was genuinely dumbstruck, but this was certainly one. Judging by the look on Mal’s face, it was for her, too.

Of course. The full national team was professional. They got paid. For someone who constantly worried about money, Christen really isn’t sure how that had slipped her mind.

“What?”

Jill laughed a bit at Mal’s dumbfounded statement, then looked over at Christen who was wearing the exact same expression. “Mal – you get paid for being on this team. Did both of you not realise that?”

Mal looked over at Christen then back at Jill then back up at Christen. A laugh broke out of her, along with a smile as she shook her head, barely able to believe it. “It genuinely never crossed my mind. Oh wow.”

Oh fucking wow, Christen thought later, when she read through Mal’s contract with her, seeing the figure that was sitting at the end of it. She knew if Mal was a man this figure would probably be doubled, if not more, but that was a conversation for another time.

This was right now, and this was more money than she had seen in a long time, more than she could have ever hoped to make in a year.

“What the fuck!” Mal whispered to her as they had been left to it, having until the next day to sign the contract.

“Holy shit? Mal, this is so much money.”

“How did we both forget about this?” Mal gaped at the figure again as she flicked through the contract.

“I guess I was just so consumed by the house and the jobs I never thought about it.”

Mal was giddy with excitement, grabbing Christen’s hand. “Chris, this is the best. You’ll never have to work night shift again, you’ll never have to work two jobs again. You could even never work again.”

“Whoa, slow down LeBron James, you’re not getting paid a million bucks a year. Of course I’m still going to find another job. And this money is yours, not mine.”

The look Mal gave her was a step above not impressed, and she crossed her arms, looking like a fed up older sister. “Christen, you’ve said a lot of stupid things in your life, but that might have been the stupidest.”

“Jeez, tell me how you really feel.”

“It’s not your money? Where was that mentality when I’ve leeched off you my whole life? You’ve never let me work a day, never let me help you out. And you always gave me everything. Your money was more mine than it was ever yours. You paid for everything. But now I’m getting paid, and I’m helping out. I don’t care what you say. And that’s that.”

Christen looked at Mal, her crossed arms and raised eyebrow, and she couldn’t help the smile that quirked at the corner of her lips. “That’s that, is it?”

Mal’s façade was cracking, much to the 17 year old’s dismay. She tried her best to keep a stoic face, but Christen knew how to make her laugh. “Christen! Stop it. I’m not joking around.”

“I know you’re not.”

“Then can you please take me seriously? I feel like you’re not and it hurts.” Mal’s face fell when she spoke the admission, no longer boasting the confidence of a few seconds before.

A guilty feeling churned Christen’s insides – she hadn’t realised this was something Mal cared about so much. She put the contract down on the table and swivelled in her chair to face Mal, taking both of her hands in hers. She squeezed them a couple of times, rubbing her thumbs over the back of Mal’s palms, but her sister’s gaze remained firmly on the floor.

“Baby, can you look at me?” Christen gently coaxed out, until Mal’s eyes met hers. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise this was something that mattered to you so much. I never meant to make you feel hurt.”

“I know.”

“Tell me what you’re feeling, okay?”

Mal was quiet for a bit, trying to gather her thoughts in her head. “I’ve always felt so bad at how much you had to work. I know if I didn’t play soccer to this high level you wouldn’t have had to work all that you did, because I wouldn’t have so many things you had to pay for. I play for you, Christen. I play because I love it but I play for you, every minute. I don’t take it lightly what you’ve done for me.”

“I know, baby.”

“I always wanted to get a job and help you out, but every time I asked you looked so stressed at the thought of it I never pushed it. I know you wanted me to focus on soccer, and so I did. I put everything into it. I wanted to make it worth it, for you.”

Christen’s heart clenched. She loved Mal so much, and she loved seeing how kind her heart was. But the things Mal was saying also worried her. “I love that you want to give back to me so much, Mal. But you need to be playing soccer for yourself, not for anyone else. I don’t want you to push yourself in something you don’t want to do because you feel like you owe me.”

“No, that’s not what I meant.” Mal shook her head, looking frustrated at her inability to express herself.

“Okay, hey, it’s okay. Just take your time. I’m here to listen to whatever you have to say, I promise.”

It was a couple of minutes of silence before Mal looked up at Christen, and that was a look Christen knew well. It was at least something she could fix immediately.

“Do you want a hug?”

Mal just nodded and crawled into Christen’s lap, burrowing into her closely as Christen’s arms wrapped around her.

It was clear to Christen that Mal was struggling with both sides of herself, just like this morning when they talked with Tobin in the bed. Mal wanted to be strong. She was slowly realising she was almost an adult, and that she could really start to be there for Christen. She wanted to help, but she wasn’t used to being in that position, and it was taking her a while to figure it out.

At the same time, Christen could see that Mal wasn’t ready to take on so much at once. She was still only 17. Christen had protected her childhood, protected her innocence. What Christen had to go through at 17 would never be Mal’s experience. Christen would die before she let it be. Mal wanted to fix everything, but it was taking her some time to figure out that nothing was that simple, nothing had a quick fix. That thought scared her, and that’s when she needed Christen. Just like now.

As Christen rocked her little sister back and forth, murmuring comforting words to her, she thought about how she selfishly didn’t want Mal to grow up, either. She wanted Mal to stay young and innocent. She hated the idea of Mal realising how much she had gone through all these years, and wanting to fix it. Mal was her sunshine. She didn’t want her burdened with their past.

Of all the things that had really messed her up since their parents had died, money had to be the top of Christen’s list. They were at the mercy of their foster parents, and then when Christen got her first job, at the mercy of the Californian state minimum wage. Christen structured all of their money first around basic survival needs, and then whatever Mal needed for soccer.

It had never been easy. Most of her sleepless nights could be attributed to their low bank account. Mal had always known they didn’t have a lot, and she was never a kid who asked for much, or anything really. But Christen had never let her in on how exhausting the situation was for her, and how they got by week to week by the skin of their noses sometimes, scraping through by the last cent.

She didn’t want Mal to know about the burden of money, and how much it consumed her. But she knew she couldn’t baby Mal forever. She wasn’t about to drop half of their worries on her – 17 was far too young and they both knew that. But she could let her in bit by bit.

Well, she could try.

“I love soccer more than anything else in this world. Apart from you.” Mal said later, her head resting at the base of Christen’s neck. “I want to play for as long as I can. I want to play on the national team. I wouldn’t still play if I didn’t. But you are the person I play for. You’re the one who inspires me, and when I’m on the field needing something to keep me going, I think about you.”

Christen just nodded, not wanting to interrupt Mal who she knew had more to say.

“Whether our parents died or not, you would have always inspired me. You’re the reason I started playing soccer in the first place, and you’re the reason I fell in love with it. You spent hours and hours and probably tens of thousands of dollars putting me through club, academies, overseas trips, high school. And now I’m here, and it all paid off. Now I’m here with money, that we need, and Chris, all I want is to help you after you helped me for so long.”

“Thank you for telling me how you’re feeling. I know it’s not always easy.” Christen kissed Mal’s temple, taking a second to think about what she wanted to say. “It’s hard for me to put aside the constant feeling that I have to protect you and that I have to be the person doing everything. I’m trying, but it’ll take a while. I’m sorry if you felt that I wasn’t taking you seriously.”

Mal took Christen’s face in her hands, cupping her cheeks just as Christen had done to her so many times over. “Chris, you matter, okay? Of course I would take this seriously, of course this matters to me. You matter to me, and I would never be flippant about something that could help you. I’ll always need you to protect me. And you need me too, whether you know that yet or not.”

Christen’s eyes closed, a soft smile coming on to her face. Money would always be her downfall. She wanted the stability of financial independence so much, but she knew it would take a long time to get there, and Mal wouldn’t be that patient. She willed herself to let it go for now, to accept that she had to try, for her sister, and she could reassess after camp.

She leant forward and pecked Mal’s nose, pulling her back into a hug. “I love you so, so, so much. I’m so proud of the person you are. And I’m so thankful you’re my sister.”

“I love you, too. Love you forever, Chrissy.”

----------

To Christen, reading Mal was like reading the back of her hand. While she realistically knew there were things about Mal she didn’t know, most of Mal’s mannerisms and looks were ingrained in her by now. It made dealing with problems a lot easier.

Mal’s biggest give away that something was wrong was if she had trouble falling asleep. Usually, the kid was out like a light as soon as her head hit the pillow. To this day Christen doesn’t know how Mal could have this trait after such a horrible few years when she was young. Christen was sure any kid would have developed bad sleeping habits from a time like that in foster care.

But all a young Mal needed to fall asleep was Christen nearby. And all an older Mal needed was peace of mind (and of course, she’d take having Christen nearby as much as she could, as well).

Christen wished she had the same ability as Mal. She wished she could just switch her brain off, let go of her worries for the hours she was asleep. But it often took her a while to get to sleep, even when she was so exhausted from work. She was a light sleeper as well, whereas unless it was quite a loud noise, Mal was usually dead to it until morning.

It was Wednesday night, two days away from the first game of 2016. Since being told by Jill yesterday that she would probably have her first cap on Friday, Mal had spent that entire time stewing on the information. Christen could tell she was undeniably excited, but as time drew closer, the nerves started to creep up on her.

This was new, for Christen, to see Mal get genuinely nervous. Mal had always just been so excited to get on any field she could, and when she was on there she was completely in the zone. But there was no denying the pressure that came with the national team. The buzz around Mal that had already started, and would only continue to grow. Mal had done well to block it out so far, but there was only so much a 17 year old could handle before it caught up with her.

When Mal rolled over for the twelfth time in five minutes, Christen decided to say something.

“Tell me what’s up, Mal.” Christen whispered into the dark room, feeling Mal instantly stop moving and turn her head in her direction.

“Can’t sleep. Sorry to keep you ‘wake.” Mal murmured back to her, nestling in close to her side. “I’m nervous about the game.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Everyone keeps saying I’ll be fine, but I’m getting pretty good at imagining up scenarios where I won’t be. I feel like I’m seizing up at trainings now as well.”

Christen wrapped her arm around Mal, pulling her in closer. “That sounds like a hard situation to be in. You don’t usually get nervous, what do you think is different now?”

“It’s the national team. It’s huge. You mess up here and that’s it, really. What if I get an opportunity right in front of goal and I miss it?”

“You try again.” Christen knew it was the right answer, but it wasn’t necessarily going to relieve Mal’s worries at that time. She knew what she should do, but she had to dig deep and find the courage to do it for her. “But how about this – me and you go to the training centre early tomorrow. Practice some shooting. I’ll see if I have any tricks left, and we can try and work away any doubts you have.”

Mal lifted her head up, and even though she couldn’t see her properly, Christen could feel her eyes on her. “You’ll come to the training centre with me? You haven’t been this whole time.”

“I know. But you’re worth it. It’ll be fun. Just you and me, before the others get there, okay?”

This time when Mal wriggled in the bed, it was because of excitement, not worry. She hugged Christen tightly, resting her head down at her side as she settled in for the night. “Okay, that sounds good.”

It did sound good.

But as Christen stood on the field at the training centre with Mal the next morning, balls laying at their feet as they faced the goal, she was starting to reconsider.

“Chris?”

She looked to her right to see Mal staring at her – she must have been in a daze longer than she thought.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” Was she? She wasn’t sure she’d ever really be ready for something like this. But maybe she just had to take the leap of faith. “Yeah I’m fine. You ready to do this?”

Mal grinned, and juggled the ball a few times at her feet. Christen could feel the excitement and energy flowing off her, and it was like she could see her confidence grow back before they’d even started. With one look at Mal it was clear that coming here with her was the right thing to do, even if she had to shake off some nerves.

“I’ve never been more ready. You might want to limber up, though. Don’t want you pulling a hammy in your old legs.”

A look of playful betrayal came past Christen’s face and Mal laughed at her, bending over to rest her hands on her knees. Mal’s laughter brought out a lightness in her. She could see why coming here with her was a good decision, before she tried to face it in another scenario.

Mal had no expectations of her, she just loved being with her. Christen could be her full complete self around her sister and she would be safe with her. There was no better person to gain back her confidence on the field with than Mal.

Mal was still laughing, and Christen saw her chance and took off in a sprint, kicking the ball at Mal’s feet away from her and heading towards the goal. She shot it in before Mal could catch her, a safe and low left corner shot, before turning back to Mal in excitement, laughing as Mal jumped on her.

“No fair! You can’t get a head start on me, I can never beat you at sprints.”

“No fair? I’m 12 years out of practice.”

“We always go to the park and play soccer.”

Christen laughed, looking fondly at Mal. “Mal, we were always just messing around in those. Yeah I taught you some tricks, but it’s not a real training. It’s not like I’m going up against the best 17 year old in American women’s soccer. I think I deserve to get a head start.”

Mal blushed, kicking the ball to Christen as she shook her head. “You’re just biased. I’m probably not the best.”

“Do you see any other 17 year olds here?” Christen passed it back to her, seeing her shake her head. “It’s not about being cocky, Mal. It’s about knowing your worth, knowing that you add value to whatever team you are part of. Do you believe you can achieve great things?”

“I want to.”

Christen flicked up the ball into her hands, going over to Mal. “Yes, but do you believe you can? That you can utilise the tools around you, the training, the mentality – that you can lean on those around you and work the hardest you’ve ever worked to achieve your goals?”

The resoluteness in Mal’s eyes told Christen the answer before she had to say it. “Yes.”

“Then you’re going to, Mal. You make that decision in your mind and I know you’ll do what it takes. It’s not going to come easy, nothing has. But you’ve busted past everything in your way before. You won’t let yourself stop now.” She put her hands on Mal’s shoulders, a proud smile on her face. “You’re going to go out on that field tomorrow and it’s not make or break. It’s just another step to you achieving your goals. You have everything you need to play great soccer. You just have to believe in yourself, like I believe in you.”

Mal threw her arms around Christen, hugging her the tightest she had in a long time. “You’re really the best, Chris. I’m so lucky to have you.” Christen just laughed, swaying side to side in the hug, and Mal carried on. “I’m serious, pretty much everyone on the team this camp has told me how great you are and how amazing it must be to have you as a sister. I feel so proud every time they said so.”

Christen got a bit bashful at the thought, once again feeling so grateful Mal had fit in with the team and how they had all welcomed her as well. They were so respectful, funny and kind with both of them and she couldn’t have asked for anything better.

“That’s really nice of them. And really nice of you, as well. I feel just as lucky to have you.”

“I’m so excited to have you in the stands tomorrow.” Mal was absolutely buzzing as she thought about it.

Christen felt the same. Their financial situation has never allowed Christen to travel to watch Mal play, unless the game was close by in LA which it almost never was. Since making it to the youth national teams she had watched every game of Mal’s on a stream, but only a handful in person. There was no way she was missing this one, though, and she knew she’d cry as soon as she saw Mal walk out onto the field wearing the American jersey.

“I should swear off talking for the rest of the day because I know I’m going to lose my voice from cheering too loud.” Christen grinned, watching Mal laugh at her. “You’ve already made me so proud and I can’t wait to watch you shine.”

As if the excitement literally overwhelmed Mal, she jumped back on Christen, laughing as she spun her around.

“Now are we here to play or what? Catch me if you can!” Christen let Mal slide off her as she took off again with the ball, laughing with Mal all the way.

Christen had never really considered that healing came in different forms. But as she tore down the field with a ball at her feet, her sister by her side and a smile planted on her face whether her shots went in the net or way beyond it, she swore she felt her soul get lighter.

Every time she heard Mal cheer for her when she buried a goal, and every time she watched in wonder at how skilled she was in return, her heart leapt. She’d missed feeling the burn in her lungs from sprinting with the ball, she’d missed feeling the sweet satisfaction when she crossed on target or when the ball connected perfectly with her foot.

Up until now she had unofficially closed the door on soccer in her mind. She knew that it was physically unrealistic for her to have any kind of professional career in soccer, and to her surprise it didn’t pain her to accept that as much now, but she’d never considered it would be something she could still do for herself. Every time her and Mal picked up a ball to kick around in the past, Christen was always doing it for her. She knew any kind of training Mal could get was going to help her career.

With how much it pained her to have her national team and college dreams taken away from her before she had the chance, she’d never let herself be open to the fact that soccer could still be fun for her. That it could be fun in the way her and Mal were messing about now, trying new shots, beating each other with skills, chasing each other all around the field.

Now, they were laying on their backs after an hour of running around, the morning sun shining as the clouds moved past in the sky.

“Okay, so you’ve definitely been holding out on me.” Mal said, turning to look at Christen. “You’ve got mad skills! And you can shoot! I always knew you were a sprinter but damn, you would have been lethal out there.”

Christen laughed, still looking up at the clouds. “Thanks, Mal. Just trying to keep up with you.”

“Chris, you’re seriously amazing. Soccer must have meant everything to you, to get as good as you are.”

“It did.” Christen turned to look at Mal, an at peace smile on her face. “But you mattered more. And you always will.”

Tears welled in Mal’s eyes and she looked back up at the sky, taking a breath. “Did you really take 200 shots every day?”

“Yeah. You actually went through a phase of telling me my legs would fall off because you had apparently learnt to count to 200 and you ‘knew it was really high.’ Dad told me once he was putting you to bed and you made him listen to you count to 200. He said after that he regretted ever sending you to kindergarten.”

Christen’s story had both of them laughing, it being a classic little Mal thing to do, and a usual hilarious response from their Dad.

“I wish I could remember that.” Mal said after their laughter had died down, a smile still on her face but a hint of sadness in her eyes. Her next statement came out in such a low whisper, Christen almost missed it altogether. “I sometimes get scared I can’t remember Mom and Dad at all.”

“Yeah?” Christen turned sideways, leaning her head against her elbow so she was looking at Mal when she listened to her. She knew that Mal knew she didn't love to talk about their parents. It was hard for her still. Mal rarely brought it up, knowing this. But sometimes, like right now, it was clearly weighing on her too much to keep it in. Christen knew as much as she didn't want to talk about their parents, she needed to put that aside for the sake of her sister.

“I mean, I can. We have some photos. And I love hearing your stories. But it’s not the same. I sometimes wonder if what I’m remembering is just me making it up in my head. Like did Mom really laugh that way, did Dad like to whistle in the morning, what did they say to me when they dropped me off at kindergarten every day? What if I can’t remember them at all?”

“This sounds like something you’ve been thinking about for a while.” Christen took Mal’s hand, linking their fingers together. “It’s not nice feeling like you’re forgetting stuff like that. I was lucky to have more time with them than you got to, but even I feel like I forget things about them every day. And I always think to myself, how could I forget what they said, what they sounded like? They were the most important people to us. How can someone that important start to fade away?”

Mal nodded, her big eyes once again looking at Christen like she held all the answers to the universe, like she’d picked the place of every star in the sky. “That’s what I feel, too.”

Christen took a deep breath, willing herself to keep going. “But even when I feel like that, I know I’ll never really forget them. Neither of us will. You can’t forget someone when they’re in here.” Christen took their joined hands and pressed them against Mal’s chest, right over her heart. “Mom and Dad are with you, forever. Mom’s with you in your sense of humor and your laugh. You laugh just like she did, full of joy with your head thrown back. Every time you laugh it makes the room brighter. You have the same energy she did.”

“I do?” The tears dripped out of Mal’s eyes faster than either of them expected them to, and Christen felt her own eyes well up. They had both sat up, pressed against each other’s sides, leaning on each other as always.

“You do. And Dad’s with you in your eyes and your kindness. Your smile is my favorite thing, but mostly because your eyes shine when you do, just like his did. Dad was the most gentle soul I knew, and your heart matches his. You are so caring and empathetic.”

Mal’s head came down to rest on Christen’s shoulder, the tears still falling out of her eyes.

“Mom and Dad would be so proud of the person you are, Mal. And I know they’re so proud of all you’ve achieved. They’re going to be watching you tomorrow, and I’ll be cheering loud enough for all three of us. So it’s okay to be sad that you think you’re forgetting them. But just know you’ll never fully lose them. They’re with you, always.”

“And you’re with me always too, right?” Mal’s question was so tear filled and shaky Christen barely made it out, but it touched her heart so much she pulled Mal into her arms, holding her sweet and gentle little sister close as they both cried.

“I’m with you no matter what, baby. Forever.”

Christen could have never imagined she could heal so much on a soccer field of all places. But as she sat there with Mal, holding her close, talking about soccer and their parents, two of her hardest to tackle subjects, she knew her heart was happier for it. That her and Mal were growing closer because of it.

“What do you reckon, let’s have one last run around before the rest of your crazy team gets here?” Christen asked Mal a bit later once all their emotions were out, both of them feeling lighter despite the heavy start to the morning.

Mal’s grin appeared on her face instantly and she took off from where she sat on the grass, running to the ball before Christen could catch her. They fired it across the field to each other, had a little juggling competition (which Mal absolutely killed Christen in), before Christen had the ball trapped at her feet as she stood behind the half way line, sending a smirk in Mal’s direction.

“Last goal wins?”

“Bring it on.”

Mal had barely finished talking before Christen started moving the ball around her feet, testing Mal’s defending skills as she tried to figure out which way to go. She saw the goal far behind Mal so she knew her target, and after a while of keeping the ball to herself and almost losing it to Mal, with one fake she was gone. She took off down the field with the ball dribbling in front of her, doing her best to keep in front of Mal who was giving chase.

After sprinting down the entire half and slotting the ball in the back of the net she let out a whoop in celebration, running in a circle with her arms outstretched either side of her, laughing as she saw the bright smile on Mal’s face too.

Before either of them could say anything they heard cheers from the side line, making them both turn around to see the team trickling out of the bus and to the field. Christen blushed at their support as they walked over to meet them, seeing a handful of players there but only being able to focus on Tobin’s bright smile and loud cheers.

“Is it a bird, is it a plane, no, it’s Christen Press!” Kelley hollered out as they reached the group, exaggerated arm movements and all as she recounted Christen’s goal celebrations.

“That was top class.” Becky smiled as she tied up her hair. Christen really liked Becky, she had a calm quietness that assured her whenever she was around. She was a magnificent soccer player, too, so she valued the compliment highly.

“Mal and I were just messing around.” Christen’s blush was still plastered on her face.

Julie laughed, shaking her head. “If that was you just messing around, you should kit up for the game tomorrow because wow, girl!”

“See, Chris? I told you!” Mal said, wearing a proud smile.

Thankfully for Christen’s reddening face the rest of the team had arrived at the field, everyone spreading out to get ready for the training ahead. Like it was natural, and like it was inevitable, Christen gravitated to where Tobin had sat on the grass, smiling shyly at her when she saw the look on Tobin’s face.

“Chris, that was incredible. I really felt like I was taken back 12 years, you play just how I remember you.” Tobin’s eyes were earnest, the excitement from seeing Christen at the field radiating off her. “I’m really happy to see you here.”

“Mal was nervous about tomorrow. I figured me bringing her here would help her.” Christen took a breath, being brave and honest. “I didn’t realise it would help me, too.”

“Yeah?” Tobin’s eyes were shining bright. “That’s so good to hear, Chris. I’m proud of you. I can’t imagine it was easy, but if it’s worth anything, you still looked like you were made for it out there.”

Tobin was proud of her, Mal was proud of her. Hell, Christen was proud of herself.

The coaches kindly invited her to stay and watch, even though the first game of the year was tomorrow and the team needed to focus on being together and cohesive. She considered leaving – she could have jogged back to the hotel, gotten a coffee and done some yoga. But she’d already accomplished so much this morning. She could stay, she could do that.

She sat on the ground as the team started warming up, loving seeing Mal’s face switch to one of focussed determination. She watched Tobin jogging, her calf muscles rippling each time her leg flexed off the ground. She gave the whole team cheers as they ran past, sending a wink to Mal and a shy smile to Tobin.

She expected to feel a pang of longing when she saw the team playing. She remembered the drills, remembered how it felt to have the ball rhythmically hit her foot, remembered how laser sharp her shooting was. She missed it, but she was surprised to find it didn’t pain her like it once would have.

For her, she now knew professional soccer wasn’t her future. And she was finally okay with that. She had feared being around soccer for so long because she was sure it would hurt her. But she’d never had time like this before. Never had time to work on herself, had never been free from work for so long with the space to just breathe, to let herself have fun, to enjoy things again.

Each day she’d been at this camp she felt like she’d learnt more about herself. She was becoming a whole person again, and she was doing it herself. This team was a big part of helping her with that, but the two in particular she kept an eye on the whole training were her main inspirations.  

She watched Tobin send in a cross to Mal who fired it into the back of the net and she smiled, laying down on the grass and feeling the sun shine on her.

This whole being at peace thing was nice.

For the first time in a long time, she felt the world would try and make it stay that way, too.

 

Chapter Text

“Doesn’t getting coffee kind of negate the whole purpose of ‘hard chill’? The mere sight of it makes my heart rate spike to 150.”

Tobin halted her movements, coffee cup half way to her mouth. She thought over the question like Christen maybe had a point before she playfully narrowed her eyes, taking a big gulp with a grin quirking on the corners of her lips. “Shut up, Christen.”

Christen’s laugh bubbled out of her as she thanked the barista for their coffees, holding an iced tea for Mal in her other hand. “Hey, I’m not knocking it. If hard chill means napping all day I’m fully in support.”

“See, that’s actually hard chill. Lindsey and the kids always want to try and hard chill with me but end up being too excited they’re in the same room as each other and just start dancing around. Harry usually ends up kicking them out.” Tobin rolled her eyes playfully.

It was the morning of the first game of 2016 for the USWNT. Christen’s heart warmed when she watched how excited Tobin had been to see Mal at breakfast, ready to introduce her to the concept of ‘hard chill.’ Tobin swore up and down it would help with Mal’s nerves, but they couldn’t start without coffee first, because Tobin just had to have coffee on game day.

Christen couldn’t keep the blush off her face as she watched Tobin. It was clear to see she was completely amped about the game that night, she was basically bouncing off the walls in excitement. She kept talking about the plays that Ireland liked to make, and how she thought the team would respond to them, and how excited she was to see Mal get on the field.

Excited Tobin was Christen’s new favorite Tobin.

(Although that basically changed every day). (Not that Christen was complaining).

Plus, Christen felt just as excited for the game. Alex and Julie had sat with her at breakfast and said Servando (plus all of Alex’s family as it was her 100th cap) and Zach were coming as well. Servando and Zach had basically begged them to ask Christen to sit with them after all the great things they’d heard about her. Christen had said she would love to sit with them as long as they didn’t mind if she cried when she saw Mal on the field. Julie had waved her off, saying Zach pretty much cries every time he sees her touch the ball anyways. 

She really couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that her baby sister could be making her national team debut this evening. Mal had been told if the US had a comfortable lead in the second half she would be coming in, and the chances of that were high given their successful history with Ireland.

All of Mal’s hard work was going to pay off, and all of Christen’s sacrifices that helped Mal get there were going to come into fruition. In a few short weeks Christen’s life had been upended in the best way and she couldn’t have been happier about it.

“Oh come on, where’s our drinks?” Sonnett loudly complained when Christen and Tobin walked back into the room, Mal poking her tongue out at the rest of her friends when Christen handed her the iced tea.

“Harry – what? When I left earlier it was only you, Alex and Mal here.” Tobin had an exasperated expression on her face as she looked around to see at least half of the team packed into her and Alex’s room.

“Don’t look at me, Alex left for brunch with her family and before the door closed behind her all of these idiots had filed in.” Allie said, dodging a pillow that Kelley threw at her.

“You can’t kick us out this time, Tobs. We’ve just started a Mario Kart tournament on the Switch.”

Tobin raised her eyebrows at Lindsey and Christen barely kept her laugh in. It was clear Tobin’s interest was piqued by the proposition of Mario Kart, even if she had wanted to properly hard chill. She made a show of her decision, acting like it was such a struggle to agree to play Mario Kart with them even though she basically dragged Christen to sit on the bed next to her, Mal and Allie, catching a controller that was thrown her way.

“Tobin, no! Absolutely not.” Christen’s voice was full of amusement and she went to save Tobin’s coffee before it spilt all over the bed. Tobin was holding the controller and decided to balance her coffee cup between her knees even though her legs had not stopped moving since she sat down. “You can’t have thought that was a good idea.”

Tobin just sheepishly grinned at her, her smile making Christen’s insides melt as she held both coffees in her hands. “Thanks, Chris.”

“Hmm, you’re lucky I like you.”

Both of their cheeks flushed red when Christen said that. No deeper meaning had to be attached, but really, they knew there was. Someone called Tobin’s name, wanting her attention turned back to the tv, but Tobin’s gaze didn’t move from Christen, her smile still on her face.

“Harry!” A pillow hit the back of Tobin’s head and that finally got her moving, Christen being glad she’d saved her coffee when she did. Once Tobin was back looking at the screen, Christen got a smirk on her face, leaning over to whisper in her ear.

“Don’t worry, Tobs. When you lose this game and I take over for you, you can stare at me all you want.”

The smirk on Christen’s face only grew bigger when Tobin choked on air in response, her hands fumbling around the controller to hurriedly pick a character before she could stare back up at Christen, her mouth half open in flustered shock.

Christen, enjoying her new found confidence, just winked at her, bringing her coffee up to her lips and taking a long sip from it.

(Tobin, self-proclaimed best Mario Kart player on the team, lost every single race that day).

((Christen had nothing to do with that, of course)).

----------

The smile couldn’t have left Christen’s face even if she tried.

“Face me again, I want to take a photo.”

Christen!” Mal’s embarrassed groan reverberated around her and Lindsey’s room as Christen held up her phone, wanting to take probably her 50th photo that afternoon. “It’s not even the actual kit, this is just the warm up stuff.”

Christen rolled her eyes at Mal, an eyebrow raised that was enough signal to her younger sister that she couldn’t argue her way out of this. Although, once Christen actually started taking photos, the excited smile that made its way onto Mal’s face gave away any pretend annoyance she might have been showing.

The kid was basically buzzing with anticipation of what was to come in a few hours, it all starting to feel really real now.

“Looking good Little Mal Mal!” Lindsey came back into the room, throwing some more things into her bag before zipping it closed. “Oh, let me take a photo of you two. I’m sure you’ll have lots more taken tonight but you can’t really ever have enough.”

A grateful smile came onto Christen’s face as she gave a pointed ‘I told you so’ look to Mal. The sisters wrapped an arm around each other for the photo, and then Mal jumped onto Christen’s back for another, before making them topple over onto the bed for the last, Lindsey in hysterics all the while.

“Are you almost ready to go? We’re meeting the others in the lobby.”

Mal nodded at Lindsey, getting up from the bed and taking hold of her bag determinedly. “I’m ready.”

Christen tried to hold it together as she went down with the two of them in the lift, watching Mal walk over to the small group of players convening in a secluded part of the lobby.

(She definitely failed, but she’d wiped the lone proud tear away before anyone saw so it totally didn’t count).

Her intention was to let Mal stand around and chat with the few players there as they waited for everyone else to trickle down for the bus, but within the minute of Mal being in the group she was looking around for Christen, holding out her hand to her when she saw her sitting a bit away.

Christen’s heart clenched and she walked over, taking Mal’s hand in hers and squeezing it in response to Mal’s excitement.

“This is crazy.”

The grin spread out onto Christen’s face, remembering those same words that Mal said to her as they sat in her car three weeks ago before she left for her first training. “Crazy.”

“This is so crazy.”

“So crazy.”

The excited smile could have burst right off Mal’s face. “I might play in my first national team cap tonight.”

“You might.”

Mal gripped both of Christen’s hands, shaking them as she excitedly whispered. “This is so fucking crazy.”

The sentiment was shared completely with Christen. “Fucking crazy.”

Mal loved soccer. Adored it. She was always amped for games. But over time she’d learnt to control her energy, harnessing it and using it to focus on her game. Christen hadn’t seen this kind of excitement from her in a long time, the kind of unbridled craze that used to captivate Mal before she played, the one that started right from when she was four.

“Dad are you getting this? What did she eat this morning?” Christen struggled to get the words out around her laughter as she stood on the side line next to her Mom. She looked over to where her Dad was standing a few yards away holding a camera – he was laughing so much the film would probably be entirely shaky.

From how hilarious the view in front of all of them was, Christen couldn’t blame him.

It was Mal’s first rec soccer game, she was four years old. The usual age to start was five, but Mal knew Christen played soccer, and if Christen was doing it, Mal had to, she just had to do it as well. She’d begged her parents to let her start early, saying she’d studied all of Christen’s games and had practiced with her too.

Christen had stood behind Mal as she asked her parents, trying to maintain a serious expression and not break out in a grin as Mal kept turning behind her to get her back up.

"Chrissy, tell them I’m ready.” Mal had stared up at Christen with big eyes, her face stuck between determination and pleading. “You said I’m a good scorer!”  

“You’re a great forward.” Christen nodded along with Mal, looking back up at her parents and sending them a wink. She’d been playing soccer, if you could call it that, with Mal ever since Mal could walk and kick a ball without falling over. Of course, she was as clumsy as any four year old trying to play soccer would be, and every time Mal kicked it towards the goal Christen missed saving it on purpose.

Still, she had to admit, there was something about Mal’s never ending strength of will and resoluteness that told Christen she would do well in soccer.

“So you’d take your sister’s skills to the bank, Chris?” Their Dad was sporting a similar grin, playing along for Mal’s sake.

Christen loved how easy going their parents were, how playful and fun they could be and how much they supported them. She wore a matching grin as she replied. “Oh for sure. She’s the real deal.”  

Well, then, Mallory Press. Looks like we need to go and buy you some real soccer cleats.”

Mal had ecstatically jumped into their Mom’s arms when she said that, wrapping her other arm around her Dad and waving at Christen to come into the hug.

“Thank you Mommy and Daddy!” Mal was so excited it literally looked like she was vibrating with energy.

“But you know, baby, soccer is hard work. You’ve got to show up for your team. And always try your best out there, even if you’re really tired.”

Mal nodded furiously, sitting back in her Mom’s arms to look at her Dad. “I will! I’ll be the best teammate ever! And I’ll work really hard, just like Chrissy! Because she’s the best!”

Christen gave Mal a proud smile, it only growing more when her Dad wrapped an arm around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “She is an amazing soccer player, isn’t she? We’re so proud of all your hard work, baby girl.” He then turned to Mal, tickling her side and laughing as she giggled. “And we’re already so proud of you, too.”

“Do you want to know the most important thing about soccer, Mal?"  

Mal nodded, her eyes wide in anticipation, her entire expression looking at Christen like she was going to tell her all the answers to the universe.

“You’ll play your best soccer when you’re having fun. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it matters that you enjoy yourself, and that you love what you’re doing. Because if you love it and you’re having fun, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.”

So there Christen was, standing on the side line next to her parents as they watched the four year old pocket rocket that was Mal fire around the field. Christen was genuinely not sure if the kid had eaten the entire sugar bag for breakfast – she’d never seen her with so much energy.

For Mal, that was saying something.

They played two 10 minute halves, with a little break in between them. Mal was the only four year old on her team – the others were five – but it was clear no one on the field understood the concept of positions. Some kids were standing on a singular patch, chatting to each other (much to the dismay of their parents), some were edging close to the ball but never actually touching it, others were like bees to a hive for the ball, and Mal?

Mal was everywhere.

She hadn’t stopped running the entire half. Whenever her team didn’t have the ball she was running to get it, happy to have it at her feet and pass to another teammate. If it got intercepted or taken off her, she sprinted off to get it back for her team.

So far no one had actually scored, the entire game being played basically on the half way line. Christen wondered whether Mal was so focussed on the ball she’d forgotten about the part in soccer where you had to score goals. So far she looked like she was having the time of her life running and kicking and passing.

Her parents were also having the time of their lives watching Mal go full blast. They couldn’t stop laughing, but they managed to pull it together enough to yell a few encouraging cheers at Mal every now and again.

“That sister of yours, she’s something else.” Her Mom spoke to Christen, a smitten smile on her face as she watched her energetic four year old. “What are we going to do with her, hey?”

Christen laughed, shaking her head. “She’ll tire herself out eventually.”

“Maybe she’ll sleep later during your game.” Her Dad had put the camera away for now, coming over to stand with them.

“Come on, now, Mal lives for Christen’s soccer games. She might as well become a qualified official with how much she runs up and down the sides of the field. If Christen is running, so is she.”  

They all laughed, knowing how excited Mal got for Christen.

“Do you get distracted when she does that?”  

“No. I mean, I can see her doing it,” Christen grinned at her Dad, “But it actually kind of makes me run faster. I love hearing her cheering me on. It makes me want to score.”  

Her Mom wrapped an arm around her, holding her close and kissing her temple. “You’re good to her, Chris. A great sister. She’s so lucky to have you. And we’re so proud of you.”

“Thanks, Mom. But we’re the lucky ones. To have you both.”

The whistle blew for half time and Mal sprinted over to Christen when she cheered for her, jumping into her arms.

“Baby, you’re doing so well! You didn’t stop running at all!

“Chrissy, did you see me when I kicked the ball and ran and I did lots of passes too!”

“I did, you were being such a good teammate and you’re working so hard.”

Mal beamed from where she was held in Christen’s arms as her Dad brushed some of her curls that had flown out of her ponytail away from her face. “Mommy and Daddy I heard you cheering for me!”  

“You’re doing so well, baby girl.” Her Mom wore a proud smile.

“That was so much fun.”

“Hey, the game isn’t over yet, Mal! It’s just half time.” Christen put her back down on the ground and crouched behind her. She turned her to where her coach was gathered in the middle, a container of orange slices in his hand. Mal had run off the field so fast the rest of her team was only just now joining the coach, and Christen nudged her in that direction. “Go over to your team and listen carefully to what your coach tells you, okay?”

“Chrissy they have orange slices! It’s a real half time just like yours!”  

Christen laughed, her face scrunching up at how adorable and excited Mal was. “I know, baby, now go on over there.”  

With that, Mal took off to join her team in the middle, and their Mom excitedly tapped their Dad’s arm. “Honey, get the camera back out. She’s going to do something hilarious, I can tell.”  

As usual, their Mom was right. As soon as Mal reached the group she was holding her hands up to high five her teammates, afterwards picking up a bottle of water and squirting half of it all over her face, wiping the excess away. Then she held an orange slice in one hand, the other hand on her hip as she nodded seriously when their coach spoke, looking every bit like the committed soccer player.

Their parents burst out laughing; Christen took the camera off her Dad with how much his hand was moving around. She laughed along with them – more at their reaction – they were basically leaning into each other, trying to hold it together but starting up again as soon as they looked at Mal.

(Christen loved how much beautiful energy her parents exuded into the world).

Her Dad met her puzzled expression and shook his head, the grin plastered on his face. “She’s doing you at half time.”

“What?”  

“What she’s doing – the high fives, the water, the hand on the hip, the nodding. It’s you all over, Chris. She’s watched your mannerisms so much at half time she’s copying everything you’re doing.”

Christen let out a short laugh, thought the questioning stare was back. She knew she always poured water on her face – the California heat was no friend to soccer players, but she’d never noticed the other little actions. “Do I really do all of that?”

“You do, baby. I’m not surprised you don’t realise. You’re so in the zone when you play. It’s very endearing.” Her Mom brushed her cheek with the back of her knuckles, and Christen gave her a soft smile as her Dad took the camera back.

When her coach finished his talk and Mal clapped her hands together intensely, yelling out “Let’s do this!” Christen laughed hard. “Oh my god, she is doing me.”

None of them could handle how cute Mal was being, all of her actions plus her absolutely drowning in her uniform, her petit form not even filling out the smallest youth size, made her the most adorable kid on the field.

“I’ll never get tired of how much she adores you. She wants to be just like you, you know.”

Christen nodded at her Mom, the proud feeling washing over her again. The other team had yet to break their huddle, so Christen called Mal over, crouching down to meet her.

“You ready for the second half?”  

“Yeah.” Mal’s eyebrows knitted together, her face in a determined expression.  

(It was the cutest thing she’d ever seen).

“You’re playing so well.” Christen’s heart warmed at the proud smile that erupted on Mal’s face at the praise. “What do you want to do this half?”

“I want to score a goal!”

“Yeah you do!” She was honestly half surprised to hear Mal say that – she hadn’t made any attempts to go to goal at all. “I know you’re being such a good teammate with all your passing, but it’s okay to take the ball yourself and try to score sometimes as well.”

“Really?” Mal’s reaction showed her that she had been playing selflessly, that she had wanted to share the ball around to the rest of her team instead of just taking it herself. Well, as much as a four year old could ‘play’ soccer, anyways.

“Really, really. And if you don’t score that’s okay as well. Just have fun, okay?”

Mal nodded, her determination face back on. She hugged Christen and her parents once more for luck before sprinting back out on the field.

She scored before the first minute was over, and twice more after that.

The smile that was on Mal’s face that day matched the one in front of Christen now, the 17 year old still practically vibrating in excitement at the thought of the big game ahead of her.

Mal’s excited eyes grew bigger as she looked past Christen to whoever was walking over, and Kelley spoke before Christen could see for herself.

“Am I having a stroke or is Tobin Heath for once in her life not the last one down?”

“Not only is she not the last one down, but she’s also on time!”

Christen turned around to find Tobin a few yards away, a playful smile on her face as she flipped Kelley, then Alex off.

“She’s clearly excited to see someone.” Kelley mumbled under her breath, only loud enough for Christen to hear.

The blush that usually would paint Christen’s face had already appeared, though, because she’d seen how good Tobin looked in her uniform, and how those socks sat half way on her calves, and how her biceps showed through her shirt and – yeah, Christen’s blush was definitely there.

“How’re you feeling, Mal?” Tobin greeted Mal first, but stood right next to Christen and squeezed her hand ever so slightly in hello, shooting her a small smile as she turned her attention to her little sister.

“Good. Nervous. But more excited. Really excited.”

Tobin grinned, wrapping her arm around Mal. “Keep that energy, that’s what you’re going to need out on that field.”

They stayed like that, Mal happily resting under Tobin’s arm, Christen and Tobin standing pressed into each other’s sides until an official from the team came down, informing them the bus was there and they should all make moves towards it.

Tobin let go of Mal, then, picking up her own bag and letting the kid gravitate towards Christen, just like she knew she’d want to. When they got outside, Tobin took Mal’s bag, putting it in the side of the bus for her as the sisters said their goodbyes.

“I can’t believe it’s really happening.”

Christen rested her hands on Mal’s shoulders, squeezing them excitedly. “I can. I always knew you’d make it. I remember your first game as a four year old.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. You were like a little fire cannon out there. You never stopped running, never stopped passing. In the second half I told you to try and get a goal and you scored three. I honestly think that game was the highlight of Mom and Dad’s year.” Christen’s smile was bright, her eyes shining. “We were all so proud of you, and we all still are.”

Tears welled in Mal’s eyes. “Chris, I…I’ll never be able to thank you enough. Everything you did for me, that you do for me – ”

“No, none of that. I know how grateful you are.” Christen stopped Mal before she could start properly, not wanting her to feel guilty going into the game. “It’s worth it, to me. Seeing that smile on your face, it’s always worth it. If you get on that field today, I want you to play your little heart out. Do everything you can. If you score, great. If you don’t, great. But promise me you’ll have fun. I know you can do anything when you do that.”

Mal pulled her into a hug, both sisters holding each other tight. “I promise. I love you, Chrissy.”

“I love you too, baby.” Christen kissed the side of Mal’s head as she pulled away, and then nudged her in the direction of the bus. “Go get ‘em.”

With one look back Mal sprung over to the steps of the bus, climbing up until Alex stopped her at the top. Christen could only half see them, but she could hear Alex’s voice.

“Now, Mal, it’s tradition that whenever we travel anywhere we have bus buddies. This is the person you sit next to and you get to help them, lean on them for support, prank them, annoy them, whatever you want. It’s part of what makes our team so close. And someone is very excited to have you as their buddy, because they thought they would be buddy-less since Cheney left.”

An excited gasp left Mal. “Tobin?”

The rest of the bus hollered and cheered as Mal made her way down to where Tobin sat, her smile wide and her arms stretched out when Mal crashed into her.

Christen breathed a sigh of relief. She knew Tobin would protect Mal, would help her if she got nervous and would be a steady support for her. She watched as Mal excitedly looked around to see Lindsey and Sonnett sitting in front of them, Kelley and Alex sitting beside them, and Rose and Sam sitting behind them.

The bus started up and no, Christen, you are not going to cry. But then Mal had moved over to the window, almost sitting on Tobin’s lap, and basically pressed her face against the glass to see Christen. She waved at Christen, and then sent her a kiss, touching two fingers to her mouth and holding them up to the window.

The same kiss she used to send Christen from the window of their last foster home when Christen was waiting to be able to foster Mal. The same kiss Mal would send her when she dropped her off for youth national camps. The same kiss their parents had taught them.

A watery laugh bubbled out of Christen as she repeated the gesture to Mal, a tear falling down her cheek. She looked at Tobin, and Tobin gave her a smile, her eyes shining bright and she just knew Tobin was telling her not to worry about Mal. She smiled back gratefully, hoping it would convey her feelings.

In front of them, Sonnett was tapping on the bus window, waving and pulling faces at Christen who laughed, rolling her eyes. She saw the bus was about to take off and so she got Sonnett’s attention, making it look like she was reaching in her jacket pocket for something to show her. Sonnett was half standing up from her seat to see what it was, when Christen pulled her empty hand out, her middle finger sticking up towards the bus as the entire team cackled with laughter, Sonnett included.

With one last wave from everyone they were gone, Christen watching the bus drive all the way down the road until it disappeared from sight. She sighed, thinking for a bit how quiet it would feel until Zach, Servando and Alex’s family would arrive to get her, before her phone vibrated, a text and video coming through.

 

Tobin Heath 3:05pm

Video attached

She’s in good hands <3

 

She opened the video as she walked back up to her room, laughing when she saw Mal and her team around her already singing badly and loudly to a song, dancing the best they could in the limited space given. She saw Mal face the camera and give a giant smile to the person behind it, clearly content and at peace for having Tobin there with her.

Yeah. She was in good hands.

----------

If Julie and Alex were anything to go by, Christen always knew Zach and Servando would be a good time. She expected to get along well with them, but she didn’t anticipate how much fun she would have.

As they approached the stadium in the vehicles used specifically for player’s families, she learnt the stories of how Julie and Zach, and Alex and Servando got together, and had plenty of stories to tell them about Mal. They were both sweet men, being respectful and engaging when talking with her. The rest of Alex’s family that also travelled with her were lovely as well, and she listened as Alex’s Mom gushed about how proud she was of her daughter getting her 100th cap.

100 caps was an incredible feat, and Christen felt privileged to see Alex, who she now considered a good friend, achieve it. She began to think about how she’d feel when Mal reached that milestone. She had every faith it would happen. 

The stadium got closer, and Christen hummed in excitement. She was of course, mostly excited to see Mal. But it had also been so long since she’d been to a live sports game, let alone soccer. She had missed it so much, the energy, the cheers, the support. She couldn’t wait to get in there, and judging by the excited looks on Zach and Servando’s faces, neither could they.

They were dropped at a side door, making their way through the stadium before being seated in a lounge of sorts to wait. It was still about 30 minutes before the team would warm up, so they weren’t missing anything.

Christen was immersed in conversation with Zach and Alex’s sister before someone tapped her shoulder, a team official holding something in her hands.

“Hi – Christen, right? I’m Molly.”

“Yeah, hi Molly!” Christen smiled warmly back at Molly – she’d never met her before but it was obvious she had something to do with the team.

“I have something for you, your sister asked if we could get this to you and as it’s potentially her first cap it’s really the least we could do. She wanted you to wear it, it’s the same as the one she’ll be wearing tonight.”

A small gasp left Christen’s mouth as she saw the white USWNT jersey that Molly was holding. On the front was the crest and the number 22, and on the back was the name PRESS, with 22 below it. Molly passed it to her and she held it in her hands, looking at it all over.

“Oh wow, thank you! That’s so kind of you!” She stared wide-eyed at the jersey before Molly gave her a quick goodbye, dashing off to get back with the team.

“Your first jersey, huh?” Zach said from his seat next to her. “Soon you’ll have a whole collection.”

She grinned back at him, feeling a wave of emotions hit her as she stood up. “Yeah. I’m going to go and put it on, I’ll be right back.”

Standing in the bathroom, she looked in the mirror as she held the jersey in her hands. She felt a lump in her throat and her eyes watered as she held it up, seeing their last name on the back of it.

She wasn’t emotional because she was thinking it could have been hers. Of course she knew it could have been. But this camp had started to heal her, and she was learning how to let go of her past, how to stop saying ‘what if’ and start seeing all the joy that was in front of her. How amazing it was that this happened at all. This jersey was Mal’s, but it was also Christen’s sacrifices.

It was their last name. It showed the struggle they both went through to get there. They defied the odds, broke down every barrier that had been put in front of them for the past 12 years. Christen gave Mal the opportunity, but Mal still had to put in the work to get there.

She pulled the shirt on over her head, a few tears falling out of her eyes when she looked in the mirror to see herself in it. If this was her reaction now, she couldn’t imagine how proud she’d feel when she saw Mal on the field. She laughed a little to herself, wiping at her eyes and taking a few deep breaths before she was calm enough to take a selfie, sending the photo of her in the jersey to Mal.

 

Christen Press 4:39pm

Image attached.

Yes I’ve already cried three times today and I’m so proud of you I’ll definitely cry more. Thank you for the jersey. I’m so excited to see you out there <3

 

Mallory Press 4:42pm

Image attached.

Tobin said I could ask them to make you one, I didn’t know we could do that! You look great in it, Chris. I love you! X

Christen laughed at the photo, actually putting her hand over her heart when she saw it. Mal had wrapped her arm around Tobin and as she’d taken the photo they’d both been mid laugh, their eyes bright and smiles wide. She smiled at it, staring for probably way too long, before shooting off a text to another person as she left the bathroom.

Christen Press 4:48pm

I just realised I never wished you good luck. Not that you need it

 

Tobin Heath 4:49pm

I guess you’ll just have to give me a post-game hug to make up for it

 

Christen Press 4:49pm

What if I only hug winners?

 

Tobin Heath 4:49pm

Lucky for you, that’s our speciality

 

Christen Press 4:50pm

Lucky me for sure.

I’m excited to watch you play tonight. Don’t get too distracted if you see me in the stands and forget how to nutmeg someone :P

 

Tobin Heath 4:51pm

Haha as if I could forget that. Although you distracting me, you seem to have quite a knack for that

 

Christen Press 4:51pm

Just one of my many talents

 

Tobin Heath 4:52pm

See you after the game, Chris. We’ll play hard for you

 

Christen Press 4:52pm

Give them hell, Tobs

 

----------

If Christen thought she was excited when she saw the team during their warm up it was nothing compared to what she felt when she saw them come out of the tunnel. The music started up, and her and Zach were on their feet in the stadium, craning their heads to see their people walk onto the field. Servando and Alex’s family were already pitch side, ready to join Alex for her 100th cap photo.

“Oh my god.” The words involuntarily left Christen’s mouth when she saw Mal walk out, kitted up in the white uniform. Her hair was in the braid Christen had done for her that morning, a purple Nike headband holding it back.

She looked so little, Christen thought, walking out surrounded by the other players. But at the same time, she looked so big. So strong. She knew how nervous Mal was, how much was riding on her shoulders. Maybe too much for someone so young. But there she was, walking onto the field anyways, lining up with her team and defying all the odds. Christen knew her sister. She always rose to the occasion. She could do it.

“There they are! Look at them.” Zach wore a proud smile, his eyes filled with adoration as he stared at the team, and of course, Julie. Christen couldn’t do anything but beam in response, he really was the nicest guy.

Christen’s eyes flitted between Mal and Tobin standing in the line-up, both looking like they were focussed and determined for the game ahead. Her heart beat stronger, her legs felt jittery. She was so ready to see this game in action.

Lindsey was standing next to Mal and she whispered something in her ear, making Mal’s eyes flick over to the area of the stadium Christen was in. Their eyes met, and an excited smile broke out onto Mal’s face. Ever so quickly she pressed two of her fingers to her mouth and showed them to Christen, before joining her hands behind her back again.

Christen wasn’t so restrained by on field decorum, and so blew many kisses back, watching her little sister smile more and more at each one. When the music in the stadium stopped, Christen sent her a wink and Mal nodded. Just like that, her game face had taken back over, and she was ready.

The anthems played, and after, Christen listened in awe as Alex’s achievements were read out for her 100th cap. She looked on fondly at Mal with stars in her eyes watching Alex, the forward being her idol for years and years. Even though they were playing on the same team now, Mal would always look up to her.

Christen couldn’t help but wear a smitten smile when she watched the starting XI get in position for the photo, seeing Tobin crouch down at the front (while every muscle in her body rippled at the same time). The teams shook hands, then they moved to their own halves, gathering in their respective huddles.

Christen loved this. Loved the roar of the crowd. Loved the atmosphere, it was like she could reach out and grab it. Loved the way the players jumped around in position waiting for the whistle. Loved the anticipation, like a performance was waiting to start that would blow them away.

And what a blow-out it was.

The first half ended with USA up by 4 and Ireland nowhere near reaching the score board. Carli had scored a hattrick, and most special of all was Alex scoring before the half ended, a fitting way to celebrate her 100th cap. The stadium had erupted after all the goals, especially Alex’s, and her and Zach had hugged Servando in celebration, seeing the smile beaming off his face.

Since Mal wasn’t playing she felt no guilt in training her eyes on Tobin basically the entire half, watching in awe at the way she moved, the way she took players on. She smiled at the familiar feeling of her play, still after all these years knowing where she’d go when she leaned a certain way, what pass she was thinking of, what run she could make.

Watching Tobin on the field was like a piece of art.

“This is so great. Isn’t this so much fun?”

Zach and Servando laughed fondly at her when she said that, clearly being able to see how amped she’d been the whole half. Every near goal Christen was almost on her feet, every great cross she was clapping, every slick move someone pulled off she was cheering.

“You’re gonna lose it if Mal comes on.” Servando commented, and Christen laughed in agreement. “Surely she will, we’re at a comfortable lead.”

“I hope so. I can’t wait to see her out there. I’ll just apologise now if I blow any ear drums with how loud I’ll be cheering.”

“Hey, we’ll be cheering right there with you.” Zach smiled. “God knows I’m the loudest in the stadium whenever Julie’s out there killing it.”

The players came back out, and the stadium rumble grew into a full out roar as the US took to the field. When play started back up, Christen was practically giddy with anticipation of when Mal would be getting on. She didn’t have to wait long.

It was coming into the 57th minute, and Servando tapped her arm excitedly. “Look, she’s getting up.”

Christen’s eyes darted to the side line where Mal was indeed standing up. She’d taken off her sweater and was shaking out her limbs, listening and nodding to what Jill had to say. Christen couldn’t help but think again just how small she looked, until another player joined her, practically bowling into her in her excitement.

Kelley. Christen sighed in relief as she watched the older woman put her hand on Mal’s back, giving her a few reassuring pats and guiding her forward. Christen could see Kelley talking to Mal, her movements exaggerated, and she knew she was giving her a pep talk, hyping her up. Once again, Christen’s heart warmed at how much this team looked out for her baby sister.

With one last high five to Mal, Kelley took to the field, Sonnett coming off for her. Sonnett wrapped Mal in a huge hug before moving her forward to stand next to the fourth official, and then the crowd was on their feet in ovation.

Alex was coming off, the triumph of her 100th cap with a goal to boot, going out in style. Mal was at the half way line waiting for her, hands held up for high fives as Alex gave her a hug, talking into her ear and giving her a supportive nudge onto the field.

Christen’s heart beat was erratic. She had so much energy and excitement for what was to come she could barely contain herself. She stood up, hands cupped around her mouth to yell out and cheer for her when she saw Zach and Servando either side of her stand up to do the same. They knew Mal couldn’t really hear them over the sound of the crowd, but still, Christen yelled louder, channelling all of her emotions and good luck to her baby sister, the little dot on the huge field in front of her.

“Come on, you piece of shit computer.” Christen tapped at the bulky laptop resting on her legs, trying to get the stream to work. She sat in the cramped back room of the diner on her break, checking her watch every now and again to make sure she’d gotten the time difference between there and Jamaica correct.

It was the 2013 u-17 CONCACAF championship, the team was playing for a spot at the next u-17 women’s world cup. Mal had been in the youth national team system for two years now, with this being her first major tournament. At 15, she was one of the youngest on the team, but had locked in a starting spot due to her uncanny ability to score.

Both Mal and Christen knew the significance of this tournament for Mal. If she performed well, they knew the u-20 team would be calling. The u-20 coaches already had their eye on Mal despite her young age. Christen hadn’t wanted her to feel the pressure and have it affect her performance at this tournament. But when Mal had been told about the u-20 team, her eyes had lit up with fiery excitement.

“I want to do it, Chris. I want to get there.”

“I know you can, Mal. Keep working hard. Give this tournament everything you have.”

Saying goodbye to Mal at the airport had been harder than Christen thought it would. It was the first time she had been overseas without her, and although Christen would never admit it to Mal, she always felt uneasy with her out of the state if she was at camps, let alone out of the country at tournaments.

She’d adopted her two years ago, but she still felt the weight of the years Joseph filled her with doubt.

Mal was good at staying in touch, though. Christen had saved up as much as she could that past year to buy her a phone so they’d always be in contact. Mal had been sending her updates, more persistently today with it being game day and her emotions being all over the place.

But she was excited, and Christen was too. This was Mal’s first big tournament. Playing for the u-17s was a big deal, and Christen had a feeling this would only be the first of many tournaments for her sister. Mal just shone out there.

“Come on!” Christen tapped the computer again, willing the buffering stream to connect properly. She only had an hour on her break, and she knew her manager would literally count the seconds even if she was infinitesimally late. Her leg started cramping, so she switched positions, and when she moved the laptop slightly to the right it kicked back into life, the stream playing on the screen.

“Are you fucking for real?” Christen cursed modern technology, feeling like a grandma towards it at age 25. But still, she didn’t dare move the laptop an inch lest she lose the connection. Luckily she hadn’t missed anything, seeing the girls line up for the national anthem and spotting Mal instantly.

A proud feeling washed over her, seeing the determined look plastered on Mal’s little face. She didn’t let herself think about the fact that Mal was wearing number 17, and how Tobin used to say that was the number she liked, and was indeed now wearing, on the full national team.

Nope. This wasn’t about Tobin. Tobin, who she hadn’t seen in 10 years. Who she missed with every fibre of her being. This was about Mal. Mal’s first big tournament. She beamed at the screen whenever it showed her sister’s face, hoping she would somehow know Christen was with her there in spirit.

They were playing Trinidad and Tobago; it should be an easy win for them. Mal was on fire right from the first whistle, and it was the most exciting feeling for Christen watching that she knew it wouldn’t be a case of ‘if’ Mal scored, but ‘when’ she did.

That moment came in the 32nd minute, when Mal was sent a through ball and she touched it around the keeper, slotting it safely into the back of the net.

“Yes, Mal!” Christen’s arms shot up in celebration, the movement almost knocking the laptop out of her lap. “Oh, shit.” She struggled to maintain its balance, the proud beaming smile almost too much for her to bear. Mal’s team piled on top of her in celebration, and she knew how happy she’d be with herself.

A delighted expression stayed on her face, her mouth moving into awe when Mal hit the post in the 38th minute, the shot bouncing off for her teammate to hit it into the back of the net.

The half ended, 3-0 to the US, Mal with one goal and one assist. Christen checked the clock again, hoping half time would hurry up so she could catch some of the second half. Unfortunately for her, her manager was literally that intense, and she swore it was down to the second when she knocked on the door, calling for her.

“Breaks over, Christen. You’re not getting paid to watch videos.”

Christen sighed deeply, hitting pause just as they were recapping the first half goals. She stood up and stretched, her tired muscles groaning in protest all the while. She was about to go into the second half of her double shift, her fourth one that week already. Mal was away so she was working all day, all night if she had to. This was a good chance to get a few extra dollars in the bank.  

She felt her shoulders slump just at the thought, but then she picked up her laptop, seeing the gleeful smiling face of her baby sister from where she had paused it.

That was the face she did everything for. That was the face she’d do anything for.

If she could keep giving Mal these moments, it was worth it.

Christen thought she was proud back then. But none of those feelings held a flame to what she was feeling when she saw Mal on the field with the national team.

She watched as Mal got involved with the play, making smart passes, running into space well. She didn’t even realise she was watching with her hands holding either side of her face until she saw Servando out of the corner of her eye holding his phone up on selfie mode to take a photo of her, Zach in the background pulling a stupid face.

“Oh, shut up.” She grinned at Servando, whacking his arm. “I’m too excited.”

Little did she know, she was about to get more excited. It was the 83rd minute, the score still 4-0. The US had some chances, but nothing had stuck.

Until now.

The ball was crossed into the box, both Mal and Tobin making runs there. It hit Tobin, and before she could get surrounded by defenders she dragged the ball to the end line, abruptly turning and kicking it back.

Christen watched as Tobin kicked it and fell while doing so, almost wanting to leave her eyes on her before she realised where the ball was heading. As soon as she saw Mal there she gasped, and she knew, she just knew it was going in the net.

Mal had timed her run perfectly – all she had to do when the ball flew at her head was redirect it into the goal. When she did, she ran straight to Tobin, arms held out wide. Tobin managed to get up just in time to catch her, wrapping her arms around her as she hugged her tightly.

Christen didn’t know she could yell as loud as she did when she saw the ball fly into the goal. Her arms shot up to the sky and she jumped up, tears springing to her eyes as she cheered and cheered and cheered.

Tobin swung Mal around in the hug before the rest of the team ran over to her, wrapping the two of them in a group hug with a few head pats thrown in. Mal was far away, but it was impossible for Christen to miss the beam on her face.

“GO MAL!” Christen yelled, seeing Zach and Servando on their feet beside her, also cheering out loud. She looked over to see Servando’s phone out again, grinning as he was videoing their reaction. “SHE DID IT!” She yelled into the camera, looking back out onto the field and laughing in pure delight.

“Mal, you little superstar!” Zach yelled out right after her, fist pumping in the air.

Was it possible for a heart to combust out of pride? Christen was sure no one had ever felt as proud of anyone as she did of Mal right then.

She watched Mal run back to the half way line, the smile still stuck on her face. And right there next to her was Tobin.

Tobin.

As if Mal scoring her first goal on her first cap wasn’t special enough, Tobin was the one who assisted her. Tobin was the one who wrapped her in her hug, celebrating with her all the way back to the half. Tobin had always been there for Christen, and she was showing she would be there for Mal.

Christen couldn’t ever remember being this happy. The smile stayed on her face right until the final whistle, when the whole crowd were on their feet again, cheering for the champions.

“Holy shit. Holy shit!” Christen exclaimed into the air, still trying to process the rush of emotions she had just experienced. She was standing there clapping, mouth open, eyes wide in exhilaration, an overjoyed expression on her face.

“Christen, I’m begging, can we please exchange numbers so you can let me know what games you’re going to be at, watching with you is so entertaining.” Servando grinned, laughing as Christen whacked his arm again.

“I second that, we should make a supporters group chat.” Zach was still on his feet as he clapped for the team.

“That would be great.” The warm feeling bubbled inside Christen again. She was already so happy because of the night Mal had, and now she was also realising just how much she had gotten along with Zach and Servando. She forgot how exciting it was to meet great people and make new friends, and she’d certainly done a lot of that over the past three weeks. “Oh look at them, they’re so happy.”

The team was gathered in the circle, shaking hands with Ireland and clapping each other on the back. They were sipping water, laughing and joking around, and they were all hugging Mal, no doubt congratulating her on a great first cap.

The three of them waited a bit before moving down to the front of the stands, getting as field level as they could before the barrier hit. Christen could have stood there all day, watching Mal interact with the team wearing that smile on her face. As soon as Mal turned around into her line of sight, she jumped in excitement, looking like she wanted to run over to her.

Before she could get anywhere, the woman Christen met before the game, Molly, tapped Mal on the shoulder, pointing to where some cameras were stationed to the side of the field as she talked to her. Mal gave Molly a hesitant stare, and Christen figured Mal had just been asked to do an interview. It’s not like Mal had never talked to reporters before, but she’d never done it in front of thousands of people, the stadium still half full.

Molly had started to look around, before Alex came over, putting her arm across Mal’s shoulders as she spoke, before taking Mal over to the cameras with her. It was no time before a voice flooded into the stadium speakers, as the man holding the microphone next to the cameras started to speak.

“Alex, Mallory, welcome. Thanks for stopping by.”

Alex smiled easily, greeting the man, as Mal followed suit, looking entirely relieved to have Alex there and be under her arm.

“What a game for both of you. Alex, it’s your 100th cap, how great was it for you to celebrate this game with a goal and a win?”

“Oh, it’s awesome. This whole team has worked so hard at camp the past three weeks and to have it all pay off tonight was great to see. Of course I’m happy with the result and a goal, I’m just glad I got to celebrate it with the team.”

The reporter nodded and smiled, before turning to look at Mal. “And Mallory, your first cap and your first goal. I think you might be the youngest player to score for this team in about 15 years. How was tonight for you?”

“It was like a dream come true. I’m so happy I got to play on the field with a such great people, it was really a full team win. And scoring a goal was pretty cool.”

“Pretty cool – I think most people would say that was the understatement of the year.” The reporter laughed along with Mal, Alex, and most of the crowd as well. “Alex, tell me about what it has been like to have Mallory on the team. Has she been keeping up with you all?”

“Keeping up? Have you seen her run? We’re the ones who have to keep up with her. She’s so fast and so skilful on the ball. You honestly forget she’s only 17 when you play with her, she’s such a smart player.” Alex’s arm tightened on Mal’s shoulder proudly, pulling her into her more. “She’s been an injection of life into our team, she’s just so much fun to have around. We love her.”

“And Mallory? How has the national team experience been?”

Mal laughed a bit, almost at loss for words. “I’ve had the time of my life. I’ve never been more excited to be playing soccer. I couldn’t have asked for a better team to play with, everyone has been so welcoming and so supportive.”

“I’m sure they’re just as excited to have you, too. And is anyone here in the crowd supporting you for your first cap?”

At this, a huge smile crossed Mal’s face and she turned back to glance at Christen. “Yeah, my sister is here with me.” As Mal’s words floated through the stadium speakers, the US players still milling about the field let out a cheer for Christen, making her laugh from where she stood in the stands. Christen watched with an adoring smile as Mal kept talking. “She’s the reason I started playing soccer and there’s literally no way I’d be on this team right now without her. And I really want to go and give her a hug.”

The reporter laughed, nodding his head in understanding. “That’s fair. We’ll let you both go, thanks so much for stopping by and congratulations again on the win!”

As soon as the microphone had cut off, Alex’s arm lifted off Mal’s shoulder and she took off, running straight to where Christen was leaning against the barrier and hugging her tight.

Neither of them said anything at first, both content to just stay connected in the hug, burying their heads into each other’s shoulder. When they pulled away they had glistening eyes and wide smiles.

“Baby, I’m so proud of you. So proud. You were incredible out there.” Christen held her hands on either side of Mal’s face, her thumbs stroking her cheeks.

Mal laughed, a little blubbery, as she nodded, squeezing her eyes in happiness. “It means everything that you’re here with me, Chris. I could feel you out there, I swear it.”

“I love you so much.” Christen’s arms wrapped around Mal, feeling her sister’s head tuck into her neck. “Mom and Dad are so proud, too. I know it.”

A tear dripped from Mal’s eyes, a wide smile coming onto her face at the thought. “I could feel them, too. Love you forever, Chrissy. Thank you.”

So many of their team came over to where Zach, Servando, Christen and Mal were, that the crowd started to get a little wild. The team staff told the three of them to step down from the stands and onto the field, so they could all walk through the tunnel to end the night.

The players waved to the fans as they went, Kelley, Sonnett and Crystal doing some ridiculous dance as they waited for Alex to finish signing jerseys so she could come with. Christen was a bit in awe as she walked through the tunnel, imagining how much amped up energy the players must have when they stood here before the game.

The US changing room was coming up, and a few players had ducked into it before Mal tugged on Christen’s hand, stopping her walk.

“What’s up?”

“Chris, can we get tacos at the beach tonight? At our beach?”

A smile came onto Christen’s face, and for some reason Mal’s question made tears prick at her eyes. It wasn’t anything incredible, Christen had started it as a treat for Mal way back when, making it their tradition when one of them had achieved something worth celebrating (it was almost always Mal). The taco truck was good, but it was the one they went to mostly because it was really cheap and stationed at the beach close to their house.

It wasn’t a 5 star dinner. But it was theirs. And despite all the amazing things that Mal had encountered at this camp, it meant so much to Christen that she wanted to celebrate it like that.

Mal saw her eyes glistening, and she laughed. “It’s just tacos at the beach, Chris.”

Christen’s eyes rolled when Mal said that, remembering her words to Mal all those months ago. “Shut up, loser. Of course we can get tacos at the beach. Safe to say you’ve definitely earned it.”

“And we can invite the team? If they want to come?”

Christen had a soft smile on her face as she watched Mal’s teammates file into the changing room behind where they stood, most of the players reaching out to pat Mal on the shoulder or the head, still all this time after the game had finished wanting her to celebrate her great first cap.

“Of course. I couldn’t think of anything better.”

----------

Christen had a lot of great memories at this beach, but as she stood on the sand, looking around at the large group of players that had made their way out there with them, chatting loud and laughing louder, she thought this would be her best memory here yet.

“Hey.” A soft voice spoke next to her, and Christen didn’t have to turn to know it was Tobin. She looked over, giving her a soft smile as she bumped her shoulder gently.

“Hi.”

“This is a pretty nice beach you’ve got here.”

The sun was just setting, the California air was dancing between warm and hoodie weather, and the waves were crashing quietly into the shore. “Yeah. It’s been good to Mal and I over the years.”

“Thanks for sharing with us.” Tobin bumped her shoulder back, and Christen swore her soft smile was going to end her one day. It made her look so damn cute.

“Well thanks for paying, even though I told you not to.” Christen grinned as Tobin laughed, holding up her hands in innocence.

“Hey, that was not me. You’ll have to thank Ali and Ash for that.”

Christen rolled her eyes, elbowing Tobin in the side. “Yeah, well you distracted me before I could realise what they were doing.” She couldn’t help but laugh along with Tobin, remembering back to how Tobin had wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pointing something out to her across the bay that she just “had” to tell her about whilst the other players fixed everyone’s bill.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Sure,” Christen grinned, elbowing Tobin again just because. “Ali and Ash are so lovely. I wish I got to spend more time with them at camp.”

Tobin shrugged. “Well, there’s always the next roster.”

Christen was quiet for a bit as she tried to use the right words to convey what she was feeling. “I don’t want Mal to get too ahead of herself.”

“You don’t think she’ll make it to the next roster? It’s Olympic qualifying.” Tobin asked, her tone not judging, just questioning.

“No, it’s not that.” Christen shook her head, looking over at Mal who was sitting in the sand, listening with absolute enamour as Julie told her a story. “I have full faith in her, I think she can do anything. I just don’t want it to go to her head. She can’t take anything for granted.”

“Chris, there’s no way she could let anything go to her head. Not with how you’ve raised her, she’s not like that.”

A sigh left Christen’s mouth before she nodded and sat in the sand, Tobin sitting down next to her. “I know…” She trailed off, feeling her emotions all mixed up. She’d just experienced such happiness with Mal, but she still worried about her future. She’d wanted to share her worries, ease the burden, with someone else for so long, but she’d never been able to talk about Mal with anyone else before. She’d never trusted someone like Tobin before. It took a while to figure out how to make sense of the jumble in her brain.

Even when she felt she had, it was hard to fight the defences she’d put up for herself after all these years. She could feel how much she wanted to give into her panicking inside and shut off.

It must have been obvious to Tobin, because she squeezed her shoulder briefly, trying to offer some comfort. “Hey, we don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. But if you do, I’m here for you, Chris. For whatever you want to say.”

Christen nodded, letting Tobin’s words seep into her. She did believe it, she just had to take the lunge and trust her trust. “It just scares me a bit, I think. Letting her out into this world where the national team lives. The spotlight is big out there, and she’s still so young. I don’t want her to change. I don’t want her to get caught in their clutches.”

“Who do you mean by they?”

“I don’t know, everyone.” Christen sighed, moving her feet up and down in the sand and watching the grains fall as she did. “She’s had the attention of colleges since she was in the eighth grade. Those offers have always been there, but now they’re flying in. She’s already being reported on, one European club has emailed and I’m sure more will come after the game tonight. Since she’s been at camp the NWSL has also been interested – the Thorns among them.”

Tobin went wide eyed and her head shot up to look at Christen, excitement dancing on her face. “The Thorns emailed about Mal?”

No, no don’t get that look on your face, don’t get any ideas.” Christen said, being fully serious but also unable to resist cracking a smile of her own at Tobin’s glee. “Mal is going to college. She picked UCLA, and that’s that.”

“Okay, okay, Mal’s going to UCLA.” Tobin held her hands up in innocence again, although the excitement in her eyes was still there. “But wow, Mal at the Thorns. We’d be damn hard to beat with her there.”

“Well, you can wait four years and maybe she will be.”

“College soccer is awesome. She’ll have a great time there. I wish she was going to UNC, though.”

Christen snorted, shaking her head. “Yeah, and I wish she was going to Stanford. But she’s staying close, lucky for me, because I don’t know what I’d do with her so far away.”

“She’ll always need you, Chris. And as scary as it is, she’s got to take her first step into the big world sometime. It’s competitive, now, on the national team. She’s doing great but she’ll have to keep working hard to hold her spot. She’s got the attitude she needs. She’s humble, she’s a team first player, she never gives up. And I see you shining through her in all of those qualities, Chris.”

A tiny blush appeared on Christen’s cheeks, and she moved closer to Tobin, pressing fully into her side as they sat on the sand. “That’s kind of you to say.”

“It’s the truth. I know it’s not in your nature, but you don’t have to worry so much about Mal taking her first steps out here, okay? Not with us here for her. Mal will learn so much on her own, but we’ll guide her anytime we can, too. Look at the team – everyone here would do anything for her. She’ll be okay, Chris. You’ve made sure of that.”

Christen looked at Tobin with such softness, a small smile on her face but her eyes expressing everything she wanted to say. If Christen wasn’t pressing right into her side she’d have trouble believing Tobin was real. In fact, she sometimes still didn’t believe it.

Somehow, Tobin was even better than how she remembered her. How she’d dreamt of her all these years. She’d never once stopped being there for her this camp, and always in the right ways. It was like they never lost their synchrony, even after 12 years apart.

Maybe in another circumstance Christen would have gone into a full body panic before deciding to do this, but she was here at her beach after watching the most exhilarating soccer game, her heart happy and full, and Tobin’s face was so beautiful she couldn’t not. She leaned her head forward slightly, pressing her lips to the corner of Tobin’s mouth, before moving back with the same small smile, looking into Tobin’s eyes and resting her head down on her shoulder.

“I hope it was okay I did that.” She murmured out, trying not to crumble at how soft Tobin’s skin was, and how the corner of her lips felt on hers.

To her relief, Tobin moved her arm up around her shoulders, holding her where she rested against her. “It was more than okay.”

“Thank you for what you said. About looking out for Mal. It means so much to me.” She breathed in, feeling Tobin’s hoodie soft against her cheek and smelling her familiar perfume. “I know you’d rather talk to me about things other than Mal, so I’m sorry for that.”

“Hey, there’s no need to apologise. Of course you’d want to talk about Mal, you’re raising her on your own. It’s too much to take on and not share with someone else. I’m sorry you haven’t had someone there for you before. But I’m here now. And I want to talk about Mal with you, anytime. I love that kid.”

A soft smile took over Christen’s face. “You’re incredible. Thank you for being so patient and kind with me these past weeks. I’m probably not what you expected when you saw me again. Really, I’m a complete mess. And I know I’ve been having all the problems and you’ve been helping me, and I’ve barely asked you how you’re going or tried to see if there’s anything I could help you with. You’ve been so amazing, and – ”

“Chris.” Tobin’s voice cut over Christen’s, stopping her talking and looking into her eyes, her voice steady and strong. “Don’t say things like that. You’re not a mess. You’re the strongest person I know. You’re just going through a lot right now, that’s why I’m here for you. I have no doubt if I ever needed your help you’d be there for me too, and you wouldn’t like me saying those things about myself either. You’re so kind to others, don’t forget to show yourself the same kindness, too.”

That really struck a chord with Christen. She knew Tobin was right, if she ever heard Mal or her or anyone else talking about themselves that way, she would stop them in an instant. But she’d always been hard on herself, it was how she made sure she kept things together, so her and Mal could never be knocked down by anyone. Realistically she knew it was something she should unlearn. But that was easier said than done.

She nuzzled her cheek into the shoulder of Tobin’s hoodie a bit, curling into her side more as she squeezed her hand. “I’m so stupid lucky to know you, Tobin.”

Tobin’s lips gently press against the top of her head, and yeah – this time at the beach would definitely be her best memory yet.

They sat in silence for a little while, watching the waves softly roll in, hearing the chatter and laughter of the players around them. Christen could hear Kelley in the distance talking about surfing, and it made her think of what was coming for them tomorrow.

“So, how does our beach stack up to yours?”

Tobin laughed, trying not to jostle her too much from where she rested on her shoulder. “It’s nice, really peaceful. Manhattan Beach is beautiful, too, but it sees more action. More big waves. Perfect for surfing.”

“You must love it, there.”

“I do. Although I’m not there as often as I’d like, and so I get a bit rusty. How are your surfing skills?”

“Hah!” Christen laughed once, leaning up from Tobin’s shoulder and shaking her head. “Practically non-existent. I’m a shame to the State of California, but I couldn’t stand up on the board even if you paid me.”

Like a lightbulb switching on above Tobin’s head, her eyes went wild in excitement. “Chris! I can teach you how to surf! It would be so much fun.”

Before Christen could reply another voice entered the mix. “No, Christen. You want to learn from a real surfer, like me.” Kelley spoke with a grin on her face, her eyebrows waggling as if to goad Tobin into a challenge.

It worked.

“Oh please, O’Hara, I could kick your ass out there any day and you know it.”

Kelley laughed, clearly enjoying herself. “That’s some big talk. You know, we haven’t surfed together in months. I might have gotten better, you don’t know.”

“Well we’ll have to wait and see, I guess.” Tobin was grinning now too, enjoying the banter with her friend.

“The waves are supposed to be sick this weekend, just off the bay by the house.”

“Yeah?”

Christen could see that Tobin’s interest was piqued again and she was trying to hide it, just as she was that morning with Mario Kart.

“I’m not flying out until Monday morning. And I know you don’t have any plans until qualifiers. Let’s go surfing this weekend?”

Tobin scratched the back of her neck, her face in obvious dilemma mode. “Kelley, you know the house is Mal and Christen’s, for however long they need it.”

In response Kelley and Christen started talking at the same time, both of them speaking similarly about there being two bedrooms, so there would be enough room for all of them.

“Chris, I don’t want us to disrupt you and Mal there as you try to settle in. And Mal’s starting back at school on Monday.”

Christen shook her head, knowing Tobin would probably love nothing more than to do this and was just being polite. “You won’t disrupt anyone, it’s your house! Of course you should both stay. Mal will be so excited.”

A hesitant look still sat on Tobin’s face, and Kelley sat down next to them. “It’s just two days, Tobs. Stop being so damn chivalrous, we both know you want to say yes. If you don’t, I’ll just assume you’re too chicken to face me on the waves because you know I’ll crush you.”

“Okay, okay, shut up, Kelley.” Tobin grinned, before glancing at Christen. “Only if you’re sure it’s okay with you both.”

Christen sighed in exasperation, though the corners of her mouth quirked up at Tobin playfully. She called Mal over to ask the question. “How would you feel, and may I eat my shoe if your answer is anything but an emphatic yes, if Tobin and Kelley stayed at Tobin’s house this weekend with us?”

“Really?!” Mal’s eyes shone with excitement as she looked between all the adults, a wide smile on her face. Everyone laughed at her predictable reaction, Kelley letting out a cheer along with her as they immediately started discussing surfing, telling Mal she’d have her out on the waves in no time.

Before she could get too excited, Christen caught Mal’s attention with a serious expression. “I know you’re excited, but your education comes first, and you’ve still got to finish your school work that you missed from today, alright? No touching a surfboard before it’s done.”

Mal nodded furiously, willing to agree to anything if it meant she’d be able to spend the weekend learning to surf with them. When Christen nodded, satisfied with her answer, she let Mal get back to Kelley, their conversation picking right up from where it left off.

Beside her, she could hear Tobin laughing softly and she looked over with a questioning stare.

“I thought Mal would put up a fight. You always know what to say to her.”

Christen rolled her eyes, “You just wait. I’d put good money on her putting up a fight tomorrow when I bring it up again. She’ll try and squirm out of it because she knows she’s going back to school on Monday.”

“She’s so funny.” Tobin shook her head with a grin, “Her reaction to us staying at the house was pretty wholesome.”

“See? I told you.” Christen winked at Tobin, her eyes shining. “We love having you around.”

“Yeah?” Tobin’s voice got a little shy as she moved back closer to Christen, leaning into her side again. “It’ll be nice, being there with me?”

That smile of Tobin’s was close to making Christen’s heart melt entirely. It would probably be the end of her this weekend, but somehow, she didn’t mind at all. She couldn’t wait to spend more time with her.

Christen reached down to where Tobin’s hand lay between them, intertwining their fingers so that she felt both of their rings knock gently into each other. “It’s nice being anywhere with you, Tobs. Always.”

 

Chapter Text

“Mal, you must roll me to the car.” Kelley said dramatically, draping herself on top of the 17 year old. “I ate so much I can’t possibly move.”

Christen snorted at her antics, watching from across the table as Kelley and Mal playfully antagonized each other in the restaurant they were in. Tobin sat next to her, a grin on her face as she took a photo of them, shaking her head at Kelley.

“We’re supposed to be going surfing today, Kell. At this rate you’re going to get into the ocean and just sink straight to the bottom.”

Kelley looked over at Tobin from where her head rested against Mal’s arm, a playful expression on her face. “I can’t. I think I’m in a food coma. Must sleep.”

“Oh really? Now it sounds like you’re the one who’s too scared to get on the board because you know you’re going to lose.” A smirk sat on Tobin’s face before Kelley rolled her eyes, sitting back up.

“Incorrect. And you know me, the day after camp finishes I’m always eating my body weight in the food we were restricted from for three weeks.”

They were at a burger joint, as Christen found out was tradition for them post camp finishing, gleefully eating all the food that Dawn had sworn them off. It was a tradition Mal was only too eager to get involved with, as well. Christen swore the burger Kelley ate was bigger than her head, hence her desire to take an afternoon nap.

Everyone had parted ways a couple of hours ago, most people flying back to their respective homes until they heard news of the next roster. Pretty much everyone had said a ‘see you soon’ to Mal, as opposed to ‘goodbye’, so confident were they in her that it was almost inevitable she would make it onto the Olympic Qualifying roster.

Christen was relieved to see Mal handle it with such humility, hearing her tell the others she was just grateful to be a part of this camp, and whatever happened after that she’d take it day by day.

Before they’d checked out of the hotel, Tobin had gotten the car from her house which was currently parked outside the restaurant with their bags in it, waiting to be taken back. Christen was excited to see the house, especially after Tobin told her it had an ocean view from the roof, and was only two blocks away from the beach.

“Well we should go then, it’s already 2pm. Your lazy butt can nap and we’ll still have the early evening to chill at the beach.” Tobin said, standing up from the table with the rest of them before pointing at Kelley. “We’ve still got the full day tomorrow to go surfing.”

“You mean I’ve got the full day tomorrow to whoop your ass.”

(They bickered like an old married couple all the way home).

Now Christen knew Manhattan Beach was one of the most expensive places to live in the city. Having always lived in poorer neighborhoods, she had her own opinions about the type of people who lived there. But as Tobin pulled into the driveway, her mouth fell open, letting out a delighted gasp.

The house was gorgeous. It was somewhat narrow, two stories, with wood panels painted ocean blue and the window shutters painted white. It looked everything like a house that Christen had always dreamed about, and exactly like a house that should be by a beach. It was so quintessentially Tobin – understated, not pretentious, but still so beautiful.

“Tobin, this is amazing.” Christen spoke almost in a stunted whisper as the car parked in the garage, all of them moving into the house with their bags.

“Wait till you see the view. I reckon it’s one of the best in LA.” Kelley’s excited grin washed away any apparent tiredness the woman had before as she practically pushed them all up the stairs until they reached the roof.

If this wasn’t the best view in LA, Christen would have liked to see what could beat it. Sitting out in front of her, stretching for as far left and right she could see, was the beautiful ocean, the sun shining down on it, the water fading into the distance on the horizon. She could see where the waves crashed in down one end of the beach, and where they moved in and out more peacefully down the other.

It was the most breath taking thing she’d seen in a long time.

(Well, second to Tobin, that was).

“We get to live here?!” Mal exclaimed, before letting out a cheer to the universe as she practically jumped on Tobin in excitement. “Tobin!”

Tobin laughed at Mal’s reaction, hugging her back as she held a hand on her head. “Yeah, bud. It’s all yours for as long as you want it.”

“Can we eat dinner here? Can we sleep up here?”

“Mal,” Christen interrupted her excited ramblings, not wanting them to overstep in Tobin’s house. She knew Tobin was a pretty relaxed person, but everyone was particular about their house in their own way, and she didn’t want to step on her toes. “Cool the jets.”

“It’s okay,” Tobin shook her head, her easy smile blowing away most of Christen’s insecurities about the house, “It is awesome to eat up here. But as for sleeping, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want to become a hunting ground for insects in the night.” She tickled Mal’s side as she said it, watching the girl squirm away in laughter.

When they headed back downstairs, Tobin showed Christen and Mal to one of the rooms while her and Kelley took the other. Mal dropped her bag in the room before shooting back into the living area to chat with Kelley. Christen took some time to unpack some of her stuff before joining them out there.

“Let’s tell Chris and Tobin!”

“Tell me what?” Christen asked Mal as she took her hair out of her ponytail, gathering it together again to retie it.

An excited gleam shone in Mal’s eyes as she explained. “We can all go down to the beach where all the big swells are! Kelley said she can show me on the sand how to stand up on the surf board as well.”

“We could,” Christen started, pulling up the little baby hairs at the bottom of her head, “Or, you could do your homework like you told me you would instead.”

Mal’s face dropped so fast it was almost comical. Christen knew she had to hold her ground, even though she wanted to cave and let Mal go. Mal was always willing to forgo having fun in order to train or play soccer, but it was important to Christen that Mal knew the same had to be done with school work, too.

She held her gaze, still tying up her hair, and when Mal didn’t respond she raised an eyebrow at her.

Christen!” Mal whined, clearly unhappy at this turn of events. “I’m going back to school on Monday, can’t I just do it then?”

“No, Mal. Your teachers are expecting you to have finished it. You’re not turning up being behind on your work.”

“But – ” Mal tried again, before Christen quickly cut her off.

“Did I stutter?”  

A burst of laughter left Kelley’s mouth before she could stop herself, and she held her hands up in innocence when Mal turned to look at her. “Mal, you did tell Christen yesterday you’d do your school work. That’s more important than surfing, trust me. The waves will be there tomorrow.”

“We can still practice tonight if you power through your work quick enough.” Tobin’s voice entered the mix, having come out to join everyone as well.

“Really?” Mal looked between all three of them for confirmation, landing on Christen who everyone knew was actually calling the shots here.

“If you can give me two and a half hours, the rest of the evening is yours.”

Mal’s eyes went wide as she checked her phone. “But then it’ll be almost 5pm before I’m done!”

“I’m happy to make it three hours.”

“No, no, two and a half is good.” Mal quickly realised she was fighting a losing battle and ran off to get her text books, leaving the three older women in the living room with shit eating grins on their faces.

“What a meanie, Chris.” Tobin teased, dodging Christen’s swat to her arm.

“Yeah, Christen. All the poor girl wanted to do was learn to surf.”

“Clearly neither of you have had to negotiate with a begrudging teenager before.” Christen finally finished tying her hair, putting her hands on her hips in accomplishment.

Another laugh left Kelley’s mouth. “Would we call that a negotiation?”

“Sure. I’m the older sister, I get to make up the rules.”

Tobin groaned, though the smile was still on her face. “Oh no, you sound exactly like my sisters. I see that gleam in their eye and I just give up before I’ve started.”

Christen just grinned, sitting down on a bar stool to wait for Mal to come back out so she could be there to help her. “Mal won’t be this little forever. I’ve gotta have some fun while I can.”

----------

Two hours later they had made their way to the beach, Christen and Tobin sitting down in the sand as they watched in amusement as Kelley helped Mal practice how to stand up and stay steady on a board.

With the allure of surf lessons ahead, Mal had churned through her homework faster than ever before, barely stopping to distract herself as she fully caught up with her school program for her return on Monday.

Christen had been impressed – even with Kelley and Tobin milling about the house, Mal didn’t waver once. She’d leaned into Christen for a hug half way through, but otherwise diligently had her head in her textbook.

“Paddle, Mal! Paddle, paddle, paddle!” Kelley yelled out as Mal lay on the surfboard on the sand, flinging her hands out beside her practicing as if she was paddling in the ocean. “Nice, great job.”

“So how did you get into surfing in the first place?” Christen asked, tearing her amused gaze away from Mal and Kelley to look at Tobin.

Tobin raised a hand to scratch at the back of her neck, looking into the distance to think. “I had always wanted to surf, I figured since I used to skateboard everywhere at UNC, surfing would be kind of similar.”

“Was it?”

Well,” Tobin laughed, looking back at Christen. “If you ask Kelley, she’ll happily tell you I wiped out more times than I could count when we were learning. But once I got the hang of it, I loved it.”

“You and Kelley learnt together?”

“Yeah.” A smile sat on Tobin’s face at the memories. “After I left college and before I went to PSG I was kind of a nomad, and I used to just couch surf around my friend’s houses in between stuff for the national team.”

“Really?” Christen laughed, thinking of Tobin in that situation. “I could see you doing that, actually. Did you have like everything you own in one suitcase?”

“Essentially, yeah. And then one summer I came to LA with Kelley, we roomed together at a house not far from here. We’d have this daily routine – train, skate to the beach, surf all day, train some more. It was one of the best summers I’ve ever had.”

The smile on Tobin’s face proved it, and Christen felt happy just hearing about it. This was the Tobin she remembered so fondly in her heart, the one who was so chill and ready for anything, and when she did something she put her all into it. “That sounds like so much fun. Is that what made you get a place at Manhattan Beach?”

“Yeah, when I had a bit more money saved up. I bought it but it’s basically Kelley’s house, too. We’re here together whenever we can, and separate when we can’t. Alex has come a couple of times but she’s more of a ‘tan on the beach’ girl than a surfer.”

“I hate to admit it to you, but I think I’m the same.” Christen laughed at Tobin’s reaction, more so when Tobin once again pleaded with her to at least try it once. “I’ll think about it, tomorrow. If you’re lucky.”

“I can be pretty persuasive, you know.” Tobin’s low voice and raised eyebrows in her direction made Christen’s mouth go dry, a blush finding its way onto her cheeks as she thought about what that meant.

Luckily, and as always, Mal came to save the day. “Chris, look!”

Christen tore her gaze away from Tobin, looking at where Mal was waiting for her with an excited expression, laying on the board. “Okay, show me.”

Mal had her game face on, and when Kelley yelled “wave’s coming!” she paddled in the sand before pushing herself up, standing in the posture she had been shown with her arms held out.

Christen had no idea if that was actually how someone was supposed to surf, but it looked right, and Kelley and Tobin were both letting out cheers so she did the same, loving how excited Mal was.

“Good job, baby!”

“Mal, your form looks great! You’re going to be better on the waves than Kelley tomorrow, I can already tell.”

“Oh, shut up, Heath. When Mal turns into a professional surfer one day I’d just like us all to remember that I, Kelley O’Hara, was the one to teach her.”

Mal’s excited grin could have been seen from miles away. “Even if I wipe out heaps, I can’t wait for tomorrow. This is going to be so much fun.”

----------

Well, Mal definitely got her wish.

“Go, go, go, Mal!” Tobin yelled out the next day, seeing Mal almost stand up on the board before losing her balance and falling into the waves. “Oh no! That was so close! Next time you’ve got it, I can feel it.”

Mal emerged from the waves with the biggest grin on her face, laughing her head off as Kelley paddled over to her, helping her back onto her board. “I almost had it! This is so fun. Let’s go again!”

Christen watched from the beach where the waves splashed at her ankles as the three of them kicked off back out into the ocean. It was just approaching midday, and Mal had been in the ocean for about 20 minutes with Tobin and Kelley now that she was finally ready to give the real waves a go. She’d been practicing on the beach next to where Christen lay tanning that morning, while the other seasoned surfers had a long session with some hard hitting waves, knowing they’d be taking it easy later on when Mal was learning.

So far, Mal had paddled onto about seven different waves, riding them out but never quite managing to stand up. She was having the time of her life, though, and Christen laughed every time as she watched Mal fall off because she could see her little sister already laughing herself, finding the whole event entirely entertaining.

“Chris!” Tobin called to her from where she was sitting on her board in the ocean. “Film it, this is the one!”

Even though she’s pretty sure Tobin had said that about Mal’s other tries, she pulled her phone out anyways, hitting record just as the three of them took off on a wave. It was a little one, but it was enough, and Christen let out an excited gasp as she saw Mal slowly rise on her board, standing up with shaky legs, but standing up none the less.

“Yes, Mal!” Tobin hollered from where she rode the wave next to her, being careful to keep her surfboard out of her way. Kelley was yelling similar encouragements from where her board was positioned on Mal’s other side.

Christen cheered, zooming in a bit on the video to see Mal’s ecstatic reaction. Her little sister shot her hands up into the air, looking just as happy as if she’d scored a goal in a game.

“Chris! I did it!” Mal was still a good distance away from her in the water, but she waved out to Christen. Then, as if forgetting she was standing on a precariously balanced surfboard she jumped up in excitement, sending the board flying behind her as she tumbled into the ocean.

All three of them burst out laughing, and when Mal came up out of the water, she did the same. She raised her hands in celebration again, though, clambering back up onto her surfboard and kicking back out as Tobin and Kelley followed her.

Mal found the joy in everything, but Christen’s heart warmed at how much fun she was having here, and how much effort Tobin and Kelley were putting in with her to make it so. She loved seeing Mal’s determination to achieve something, and she loved even more that Mal hadn’t grown out of being excited to show her something new she’d learnt.

Christen was her idol. Whenever Mal accomplished anything, Christen was the first one she wanted to tell.

“Chrissy come see me!” Mal’s call travelled through the house, reaching Christen’s bedroom where the 13 year old sat doing her homework. She had been at soccer practice all day and really needed to get her work done, but Mal sounded like she was in the bathroom which was strange, so she went to investigate.

“Coming!”

Mal at three years old was a never ending source of entertainment for the entire Press household. She was gaining independence, and was going through a period of wanting to do everything herself, adamant she was ‘big enough’ now.

Christen would have thought it would drive her parents crazy, because Mal wanting to do everything her own way often meant they were almost late to everything. But her parents just took it in stride, praising Mal for working hard to do things herself. Christen learnt so much from them every day.  

Although, even though Mal was doing some whacky things, it didn’t stop Christen from almost bursting into laughter when she walked into the bathroom to see Mal standing on her little step stool looking in the mirror, her curly hair “tied up” in about five different directions in brightly colored hair ties.

Mal saw Christen standing in the door of the bathroom and her eyes lit up, a proud smile on her face. “Look, Chrissy! Did all myself!”

Well, she certainly had done something to her hair. Christen schooled her instinct to laugh, knowing Mal would be so heartbroken if she did. Plus, she was actually impressed with Mal’s ability to tie her hair up in any shape or form at age three, never mind the fact it was a complete mess.

“Baby, oh my goodness! Look at that!” Christen gushed, going over to stand beside Mal, feeling Mal’s proud eyes train her every move, smiling bigger the more she smiled at her. “This must have taken you a long time, and so much hard work! You did such a good job.”  

Mal jumped up excitedly, Christen rushing to place a hand behind her in case she fell off the stool. “Thanks, Chrissy!”

As Christen was closer, she got a better look at Mal’s hair, seeing the “unique” design up close. She wanted to see how tight Mal had managed to tie up each part of her hair – not very tight, she imagined, as that required motor skills beyond Mal’s years. But as she moved a hand up towards Mal’s hair, the three year old quickly stopped her.  

“No touch! Want Mommy and Daddy to see.”

“Okay, I’m sorry. You’re right, they would love to see how clever and determined you are.”

“My hair pretty like you, Chrissy.” Mal was still looking up at her with those proud eyes, and Christen thought she’d just about melt on the spot. She knelt down, wrapping her arms around Mal’s waist for a hug and being careful not to bump the hair on her head as she did so.

“Baby, that’s so nice of you to say, thank you. And you know what? Your hair is even prettier.”

“No way!”

“Yes way!” Christen tickled Mal’s side, making her giggle. “Hey I’d love it if you could show me how you did that, do you want to practice on my hair?”  

It probably wasn’t possible for Mal to get more excited or proud than she did in that moment, but she emphatically gave a yes in reply, instructing Christen to sit down on the stool as she stood on the ground next to her, starting to move her hands through her curls.  

Half an hour later, that’s how their Mom found them. With one look at her, Christen could tell she was having the same struggle as she did to not burst out laughing. She called their Dad to come in with the camera, and the two of them sat on the bathroom floor opposite where Mal worked on Christen’s hair, asking their youngest daughter all sorts of questions, showing how interested they were in what she was doing and how proud they were of her working so hard on it.

If there was anything Christen learnt about raising Mal from her short time with her parents it’s that they knew it was important to be proud of their daughters, but that they were proud of their efforts, not just the end result. After observing all of Mal’s youth soccer, Christen could see the kids that would get disheartened with their results because their parents only praised their successes, not the work that went into a win or a loss.

For Mal, Christen wanted her to know everything was a process, and no one was ever actually ‘finished.’ You could be proud of your achievements, and if you wanted to be better, you kept working hard for it. That’s when your true character showed. With all Mal had accomplished at such a young age, Christen knew she understood what it meant to work hard for something.

“Yeah, Mal! You got it!” Christen yelled out in response to Mal’s excitement as they paddled back out. “Keep at it!”

The three of them did, in fact, keep at it for a solid two hours, only coming back in for a break when Christen called out that they better stop or she was going to eat all their lunch without them.

“That was so fun!” Mal exclaimed as she fell down onto the beach towel, excited giddiness still all over her face. “But wow, I’m so tired.”

“Looks like it’s hard on your legs, especially with how much you’re balancing.” Christen said as Mal nodded in big agreement.

“You put in a lot of work out there, Mal. Surfing takes it out of you, for sure.” Tobin opened up the cooler to help Christen get all the food out as they set it up on the towels.

Christen tried not to smile at how natural things were with Tobin, even when doing the smallest of tasks together, moving around each other, never in the way but always happy to give a passing touch.

She liked being with Tobin. It was nice, with Tobin.

They ate, all of them taking a quick nap before Kelley and Tobin headed back out themselves, Mal opting to stay and rest a bit more with Christen.

“This has been like, such a great day.” Mal was laying with her head on Christen’s lap, eyes closed in content as Christen ran her hands through her damp hair.

“Yeah? It looks like you were having the best time out there.”

“I always wanted to learn to surf.”

“I know, baby.” Christen stroked her thumb across Mal’s forehead. “I’m sorry you couldn’t before this.”

Mal’s eyes opened, looking up at Christen. “No, Chris, that’s not what I meant. I knew I eventually would, one day. It’s not like I suffered because I never did.”

Christen nodded, smiling at her. “It’s lucky you have some pretty great friends to teach you how.”

“We both do.”

Looking out to the waves where Tobin and Kelley were paddling, Christen was hit with an overwhelming gratitude for the people that were now back in her life, especially the one who made her heart flutter every time she glanced her way. “Yeah, we do.”

---

Was this what it felt like to have your brain short circuit? Christen looked down at her hands, willing them to move, to do anything, but she was still trying to wrap her head around the simple question she’d been asked.

“Chris, can you help me out of this?”

She just had to pull down a zip on a wetsuit, what was so hard about that?

It’s not like when she pulled the zip down inch by inch, Tobin’s beautiful olive skin glistened in the sun, her back muscles rippled and the little freckles adorning her shoulders showed. It’s not like she could smell the beach on Tobin. It’s not like she could imagine tasting the salt on Tobin’s skin –

- except it was, and she was so fucked.

“Everything alright?”

Christen was paying just enough attention to realise that Tobin’s voice had a teasing tilt to it, as if she’d just known that asking Christen to help her would leave her like this. If Christen could see her face, she’d probably see a cheeky grin with a glint in her eyes.

But all Christen could see was the top half of Tobin’s back, her hands frozen on the zip as her brain tried to catch up with what was going on. She was so glad Kelley and Mal had gone to get ice cream otherwise she would have literally never heard the end of their teasing.

Words, Christen. Use words!

“Uh, yeah. Yeah you’re good – I mean I’m good. It’s good.” She finally snapped out of it long enough to pull the zip right down. Then came the next challenge, because Tobin started pulling the rest of her body out of the suit, first her arms and then her legs. When she stood back up, facing Christen in her bikini, Christen almost forgot how to breathe.

Tobin was a goddess, Christen was sure. There wasn’t a part of her body that wasn’t defined, right from her calves to her biceps, her abs showing through, the way her thighs moved.

Christen knew she was staring. She was pretty sure Tobin knew she was staring. But she couldn’t rip her eyes away. It wasn’t until she heard laughter, and saw Tobin’s body moving with it, that she realised Tobin was finding the whole ordeal highly entertaining.

“See something you like?” Tobin’s eyebrow was raised, her hands resting on her hips.

“Maybe.” Maybe?! Christen was lucky she was able to get that word out without it squeaking. Of course it was something she liked. It was everything she liked. She was impressed she hadn’t fainted on the spot.

“Glad to hear it.” Tobin laughed, shaking her head at Christen with a smile on her face as if she didn’t know what to do with her. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to get in the water?”

Looking like that, Tobin could convince Christen to do anything. She looked at Tobin, then out into the waves, seeing how the sun glistened off them and how enticing it looked. She really wasn’t interested in surfing, but being in the water, floating around in peace? That, she could get on board with.

Her hand reached down involuntarily to pull her shirt up but she stopped herself, thinking it could be time for a little payback. She looked back to Tobin, the tiniest of sly smiles on her face.

“Only if you help me with a little thing, first.”

Tobin nodded eagerly, excitement in her eyes.

Oh, this would be fun.

She picked up the bottle of sunscreen sitting at her feet and before Tobin could realise what she was going to ask her, Christen pulled her shirt off, standing in front of Tobin in her shorts and bikini top. “Can you get my back?” She asked innocently, holding the bottle out to her. “I can never reach.”

The look on Tobin’s face was one Christen never wanted to forget.

Her mouth had fallen open, almost cartoon like, her eyes widening as she stared dumbly at what was in front of her. Christen was sure if she let Tobin stay like that for a while some drool would fall out of her mouth. As amusing as she found that idea, it also made her insides scramble that Tobin Heath of all people was stopped in their tracks by her.

She moved the sunscreen bottle around in an exaggerated circle, laughing a bit when Tobin’s eyes finally snapped onto it and she seemed to partially come back to Earth.

“Yes!” Tobin’s eyes widened more at her outburst of enthusiasm, a blush spreading across her whole face as she quickly took the sunscreen bottle out of Christen’s hand, moving around to her back to avoid having to look at the amusement on Christen’s face.

She heard Tobin pour some onto her hand and waited for the cool liquid to hit her back but it never came. After a few seconds of silence, Christen turned behind her, ready for one last bout of teasing.

“Everything alright?”

If Tobin had the upper hand before, she was totally at the bottom now. Christen fought the urge to laugh, pulling her hair into a bun quickly to give Tobin more of her back to work with. As expected, this only made Tobin get more flustered.

“See something you like?”

At this, Tobin managed to get a hold of herself long enough to playfully roll her eyes at Christen and she nudged Christen’s shoulder to make her turn back around. Christen smirked out at the ocean, thinking she’d totally won that round –

- and then Tobin’s hands pressed gently onto her back, massaging the sunscreen into it and her shoulders and her upper arms, and oh no. If Christen thought Tobin would be the only one affected by her request, she had been so wrong.

“Maybe.”

Tobin’s coy reply paired with the way her deft fingers worked against her back had Christen resisting the urge to moan at how good it felt. If she’d done that, she would have never lived it down. She was sure Tobin was going for longer than she needed to, but she wasn’t about to complain at all.

The tiniest keening sound left her lips when Tobin pressed against a spot just below her shoulder blade, but she still heard it. She listened to Tobin laugh, the other woman turning the tables once more.

“Everything alright?”

Not willing to show her blushing face to Tobin, she stepped away from her, pulling the shorts that were sitting over her bikini bottoms off as she walked towards the water, calling back over her shoulder. “See you out there, Heath.”

---

It had been a long time since Christen had been in the ocean. Too long. She’d always loved it – as a kid she had countless happy memories with her parents there, especially when Mal was a baby. When she got older she had less time to swim, but whenever she could she loved to sit and watch the waves crash into the shore, marvelling at how vast and beautiful it was.

As she floated on her back in the water, being warmed by the sun shining down on her as the waves gently brushed over her skin, she felt such peace. It was hard to believe only a few weeks ago she was in one of the most stressful periods of her life. She heard Tobin sigh in content from where the woman lay next to her and her lips turned upwards.

“What are you smiling at?”

Christen opened her eyes, turning to look at Tobin when she asked that. “Were you staring at me?”

Tobin shrugged with an easy smile on her face, like she’d been caught but she didn’t much care about it. She lay on her stomach on her surf board, the side of her head resting on her folded arms. The water around them gently lapped at the board leaving Tobin’s skin shining. “I’m admiring the view.”

So as to hide her blush, Christen splashed the water lightly at Tobin, rolling her eyes. “Shut up.”

A melodic laugh came out of Tobin in response and she licked her lips to get rid of the drop of salt water that landed on her (while Christen internally passed out). “Do you want to come up here?”

“Where? You’re hogging the whole door, Rose.”

“You’ll just have to lay on me, then.”

At that, Christen sent a bigger splash in Tobin’s direction, grinning as the woman laughed and objected at the same time. Tobin then sat up, adjusting the hat on her head as she held out her hand to Christen. “C’mere. Best seat in the ocean.”

Christen’s smile never left her face as she took Tobin’s hand, marvelling at the woman’s strength to pull her seamlessly onto the board facing her, both of them sitting in the middle, one leg on each side of the board.

“Hi.” Tobin’s smile could have outshone the sun.

“Hi.”

“Not so bad, is it?” Tobin asked, paddling her hands as the surfboard moved in slow circles. She kicked her legs gently in the water as they went, softly apologizing to Christen when her foot touched her ankle but then deciding to leave it there, the mild rhythm of the water making them brush together every now and again.

“It’s beautiful. I can see why you like it when you’re sitting like this. It feels peaceful, in here.” Christen touched her chest, where her heart was, seeing the light in Tobin’s eyes get brighter as she nodded in agreement. “Is that what you feel when you’re out here?”

“The ocean is so powerful and so healing at the same time. It’s kind of like a sanctuary.” Tobin spoke with such reverence for the water it captivated Christen entirely. “And with surfing, the best thing is the culture of the people. I love it, it’s such a community. It’s just got this, like, chill way about it. When you’re in the water, it’s very inclusive.”

Christen had such a dumb smile on her face as she listened that Tobin repeated her earlier question. “What are you smiling at?”

This time, Christen was truthful. “You. I love hearing you talk about your passions. You come across as so chilled out to people, but I hear more when you speak. Everything you do is with intent and with a reason – soccer, surfing, the way you interact with people. You’re all in, and it’s so refreshing to see someone live their life like that.”

A shy smile came upon Tobin’s face, and she looked down at the board, scratching the back of her neck. “That’s really kind of you to say, Chris. Thank you.”

“Thank you for bringing me out here. It’s nice. Nice here, nice being with you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Christen smiled, brushing her ankle against Tobin’s in the water. She took a breath, finding in herself the bravery to talk to Tobin about something that had been milling around in her head since Kelley mentioned it after the game on Friday. She first thought it was ridiculous, but these two days at the house with Tobin had shown how easy and light it was being with her. How seamlessly they worked together, how she fit right in with her and Mal.

“So Kelley’s going back to the East Coast tomorrow morning.” Christen tried to keep her tone normal, not wanting the nervousness to shake her voice.

“Yeah.” Tobin nodded. “She’s got a flight in the morning.”

“And you? Where…where will you go?”

Tobin looked at her face when she said that, and Christen didn’t know how to look back. Did she want to remain neutral, try not to pressure Tobin into anything, or did she want to look eager, show Tobin how much she really wanted her to stay with them at the house, to not leave, to keep the easy routine they had going that had Christen smiling like she hadn’t in years.

“I’m not sure,” Tobin’s voice was slow, non-committed, all with the same easy smile on her face. “I’ll look for a flight tonight if I find someone who’s around. Otherwise I’ll just head back to Portland. Leave you and Mal alone for some peace and quiet.”

This was it.

“You don’t have to.” Christen said, maybe so low that Tobin didn’t at first hear her. She willed herself to speak with confidence. “You could stay. Stay here with us, at your house. If you wanted.”

Christen could barely look at her as she waited for a reply, suddenly too nervous that she’d overstepped and offered something that Tobin didn’t want. It took Tobin flicking some water at her stomach for her to look back up, and she was met with her bright eyes and wide smile.

“Really?”

The worry poured out of Christen and the excitement took over as she mirrored Tobin’s expression back. “Yeah. I mean, only if you wanted. There’s no pressure. But I know Kelley said you didn’t have plans before qualifiers. And we’re here and when I think about it, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be either. It’s so nice with you and it’s so easy, and – ”

“Chris.” Tobin stopped her ramble, taking her hand in hers. “I’d love to stay. There’s nothing I’d want more.” They both blushed and smiled, nodding at each other before Tobin spoke again. “And you promise it’s okay with Mal settling back into school? I don’t want to disrupt any routines you have or throw the balance off.”

Christen shook her head in ease. “It’s so okay. You’d only help me. Did you see how fast that kid did her homework yesterday just at the thought of practicing surfing? She’s going to love having you around.”

Tobin smiled, a laugh bubbling out of her, Christen soon joining in. It was that kind of giddy excited laugh that totally took over your body, the kind when they looked at each other, thinking about what they’d just agreed to, they just laughed more, overjoyed at the thought of their time together to come.

“So, what do you say, Christen Press,” Tobin asked a few minutes later, the wide smile still on her face. “You want to ride this board back to shore?”

A burst of laughter left Christen’s mouth, her head shaking back and forth. “Not unless you want to end up in the water, there’s no way I could stand up on this thing without falling over.”

“Still gotta get that whole balance thing down at yoga, huh?”

“Shut up,” Christen splashed at Tobin’s cheeky face. “I’ve only been going a few weeks. Plus, my hair just started drying in the sun. If I get it wet again these curls are going to have a mind of their own.”

“Get your hair wet again like how?” The grin on Tobin’s face only grew as she gripped the side of the surfboard, rocking it back and forth so much that it wobbled Christen where she sat and she yelped, grabbing onto Tobin’s arms to steady herself and not fall into the sea.

“You’re such an ass, Tobin Heath.” Christen said over Tobin’s laughter, stealing Tobin’s hat off her head and putting it on top of her own, playfully poking her tongue out at her.

Tobin steadied the board before taking Christen’s hands off her arms and holding them in her own. “I promise you won’t fall off. Do you trust me?”

It was a simple question, no deeper meaning attached, but again, there was always more with the two of them. Christen looked into Tobin’s kind eyes, smiling as she nodded.

“Okay, so here’s what we’ll do. You can stay sitting and I’ll ride us in.” Tobin helped Christen turn around so she was facing the front of the board, bringing her legs up so they weren’t dragging in the water. Tobin paddled them closer to shore a bit where the smaller waves were, similar to the ones Mal was catching before, and she got up slowly on her knees.

“That’s great, Chris. All you need to focus on is keeping really balanced and steady when you sit there, so there’s no sudden movements that might throw us off.”

“Sudden movements like what?” The grin in Christen’s voice was evident as she leaned one way and then the other rapidly, hearing Tobin startle behind her and grab onto her shoulders for balance. She cracked up laughing, feeling Tobin do the same.

“Now who’s the ass, Press?”

Christen turned around, winking at Tobin when she met her eyes. “Still you.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Amusement laced Tobin’s voice as she kept paddling them forward, and Christen felt the movement of the water get stronger below them. “Okay, you ready? There’s one coming up now.”

Christen smiled and nodded feeling exhilarated as she felt Tobin stand up behind her, moving the board forward. “Let’s do this!”

----------

“Mal, please do me this one favor and let me walk you in.”

“Kelley, no, are you kidding? Not even if you paid me. In fact, Chris, can you drop me one block away from school?”

Kelley’s offended gasp made Mal laugh before the woman set upon the 17 year old in a war of tickles, Mal’s giggles reverberating throughout the car. Tobin and Christen laughed along with them, the high energy mood having lived on from the night before.

The roster for Olympic Qualifiers was emailed to the players last night, and Tobin, Kelley and Mal had all made it. Cheers of elation rang throughout the house, mostly for Mal, as they’d all hoped for it, but to see her there on the team email was something else altogether.

She had impressed the coaches enough at the camp, and in the game, to put her on the next roster. Christen always knew Mal was a rare talent, and the most hard working person she knew, but when she thought of how actually amazing it was, she could barely believe it.

None of them had stopped smiling that night. Christen cried with joy about 5 times, Mal basically cried with excitement for the roster and when they told her Tobin was going to be staying with them until they had to leave for Qualifiers, and Kelley seriously considered cancelling her flight to stick around before thinking about all the ways her mother would murder her for it.

Mal was right, Christen thought, it had been the absolute best day yesterday. One she couldn’t have ever let herself hope to have before this. Before her life changed in all the best ways. Before she decided to think about her own happiness.

The excitement from last night had only carried on to the morning. Christen had watched in amusement as a half-awake Tobin ambled around Mal and Kelley’s movements, standing in the middle of the kitchen with her eyes half shut as the other two packed for their days ahead.

Christen had told Tobin to go back to bed while she took the other two. Tobin refused, instead saying as long as they got coffee on the way she would be fine, but Christen had to drive. Kelley had muttered to Christen that Tobin never woke up early for anyone, and Christen blushed, throwing a sweater of hers at Kelley’s face as she was packing.

It didn’t take long for Christen to work it out how to drive Tobin’s car – anything was easier to drive than her old hunk of junk. She stopped at some traffic lights, absently rubbing her forehead as it ached slightly, probably from her squinting in the morning sun. She looked at Mal through the rear view mirror.

“I’m not going to drop you a block away, Mal. You’re already almost late as it is.”

“I wasn’t the one who wanted to stop for coffee.”

“I’m not sure ‘want’ is the word so much as I need it to function.” Tobin said, poking her tongue out at Mal through the mirror when she did the same.

Kelley’s eyes widened as they pulled onto the school road, teenagers swarming everywhere. “It’s like Minion Central in here.”

That earned her a whack on the arm from Mal who had her hand on the door handle as if she was ready to tuck and roll out of the car before any of them could embarrass her.

“You better not be getting out of that car without saying goodbye, Press.”

Mal turned back to Kelley as she said that, a grin on her face, flicking her seatbelt off and flinging herself into Kelley’s arms when Christen parked beside the sidewalk. “Bye, Kell. I’m gonna miss you.”

“Gonna miss you too. But hey, I’ll see you in two weeks ya little superstar.” Kelley said as she and Mal pulled away, both of them beaming at each other.

“Bye Tobs. See you tonight.” Mal wrapped her arms around Tobin from the back seat, feeling Tobin hug her arms and stroke her thumb over her hand

“See ya, bud. Have a good day.”

Then Mal leaned right forward towards the driver’s seat, wrapping her arms around Christen and kissing her cheek, getting one in return. “Love you, Chris.”

“Love you, baby. Give it your all today, okay? We’ll pick you up at the field at 5pm.”

Mal made it a few yards from the car, starting to mingle in with some other students before Kelley called her name. Christen could see Mal sigh deeply, turning around with a knowing grin on her face like she expected this entirely from Kelley, who was holding a phone up from the backseat, recording her.

“Have a good first day at school, sweetie!” Kelley called out like a proud Mom, and to Mal’s credit she took the babying joke on the chin, holding two thumbs up as she gave a cheesing smile.

By the time they got Kelley to the airport, the woman had uploaded the video to her Instagram, which had already amassed tens of thousands of views.

 

@kelleyohara

Video

they grow up so fast. little mal-mal killing it at high school by day, national team by night. eat your broccoli, kiddo.

 

@lindseyhoran10

ugh the biggest FOMO      183 likes

 

@alexmorgan13

Surely they’ve got a place for you in pre-k too @kelleyohara      315 likes

 

@alikrieger

Our little baby Mal :’)      241 likes

 

@emilysonnett

average to poor camera work miss kelley, try harder next time      229 likes

 

----------

“Sometimes I wonder how much of my life I’ve spent emailing someone something about Mal.” Christen typed away at the keyboard, hitting enter and shutting the laptop. She rested her head in her hands briefly, again pressing her fingers into her forehead where the ache from that morning still hadn’t disappeared.

Tobin laughed from where she sat on the couch with a raised eyebrow, wanting Christen to explain more.

“Oh I was just telling Mal’s teachers about qualifiers and sorting out the school work she’ll be missing for that. And since the game, my inbox has been completely full of emails from journalists wanting to hear more from Mal. They’ve probably realised how little information there is on her out there and now they’ve come searching.”

“What information is out there?”

“Not a lot. I mean, there obviously is some stuff. But substantively, Mal’s never really talked much about her life. Just about soccer, and like typical teenage stuff.” Christen went to sit on the couch next to Tobin, stretching out to bask in the sun in their post lunch state. “These journalists are wanting to know about Mal’s home life, where she was raised, why she started playing soccer, members of our family and all that.”

“So Mal’s never spoken about that, to anyone?” Tobin asked, clearly treading gently, wanting to be respectful but also wanting Christen to be able to talk about it and not shut herself off like she knew she wanted to. “Everyone on our team knows about your past now because you’ve both told them, but even at the start I think Jill only knew because of Frenchie, right? So none of these reporters know anything?”

Christen nodded. “They don’t. Mal and I talked about it when she started getting a lot of traction, but because of our past, Mal’s very protective of me and our story, I guess. She didn’t want to say anything about it, because she knew it would be turned into a narrative. She’s just always focussed on the soccer, and that’s what’s important to her.”

“That’s awesome.” Tobin said with a smile. “That kid has the right idea, she’s a smart cookie.”

“She is.” Christen rubbed her forehead again, feeling a throb arise over the ache.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. I think all this thinking is giving me a headache.” She joked, seeing Tobin smile. “I was planning on getting a job again now that we were back in one place for a little while but now there’s qualifiers, and that new She Believes tournament is only like two weeks after that. Not that I’m being presumptuous that Mal will make the roster for it, but I can’t very well plan to get a job only to not be able to start if she is on it.”

“Wait, there’s a tournament after qualifiers?”

Christen gave Tobin an exasperated look, though a smile played on her face. “How are you even alive?”

“Hey, this schedule is way too confusing to keep up with. They just email me a plane ticket and tell me when to be there and I show up. I’m just cruising, Chris. Having great days like this, one at a time.” Tobin grinned.

If there was ever a cure to a headache, Tobin’s grin was it.

Unfortunately for Christen, though, not even all of Tobin’s smiles could fight off this particular headache and the ensuing congestion that came with it. Despite the amazing day her and Tobin had spent together, eating and going for walks and talking, by the time night hit, Christen was feeling particularly worse for wear.

They’d gone to pick Mal up from her high school soccer training, talking as they waited for her. Tobin had been outraged when Christen told her US Soccer had prohibited Mal from playing in her senior year because of all her youth national experience and commitments, but wore a proud smile when she heard that Mal still went to every training and game she could, always supporting her team.

She’d let Tobin and Mal chat all the way home, her forehead throbbing pretty consistently by the time they got back, her throat scratchy as well. She waved her arm dismissively when Tobin suggested take out for dinner, no one being bothered to cook, and when Mal saw how apathetic her response was, she knew something was wrong.

“Chris, you never agree to getting take out that fast.” Mal came around to where Christen sat on the stool, looking at her properly for the first time since they’d been home. “Are you feeling sick? You don’t look so good.”

Christen knew that rushing tilt in Mal’s voice, the nervousness that creeped into it when she got panicked that Christen wasn’t okay. She felt like shit, and it had all seemed to come on so rapidly that day, but she didn’t want to worry Mal. Instead, she smiled, taking Mal’s hand that rested on her forehead and squeezing it reassuringly.

“I’m fine, baby. Just a little headache.”

She saw the look Mal gave Tobin, and she saw the look Tobin gave her. Even she didn’t believe her own lie if she was being honest. It finally caught up to her later when she only managed to eat a quarter of her dinner, pushing the rest away.

“Chris.” Mal whined a bit, looking at her worriedly over the kitchen bench. “Please don’t lie. Are you feeling okay?”

Looking between Mal and Tobin, Christen knew she wouldn’t be able to get out of this. She wanted to brush them off – it’s not like she had any plans tomorrow besides taking Mal to school and she could sleep after that. But at this point, Mal wouldn’t take a dismissal for an answer, and she could see by the knowing look in her eyes that Tobin wouldn’t either.

“I think I might be getting a little sick.”

“What kind of sick?”

“Probably just a cold, or maybe it’s just a headache that will go away tomorrow. I promise it’s nothing to worry about.” Christen locked eyes with Mal, wanting to make sure her sister wasn’t going to stress about anything.

Mal pouted at her sister being sick, quickly finishing the rest of her dinner before going over to Christen. “You need to go to bed.”

The matter of fact way Mal spoke brought a smile onto Christen’s face despite how awful she was feeling. “I do, do I?”

“You do. Right, Tobin?”

Tobin nodded, with a grin. “Definitely. Doctor’s orders!” She smiled softly when Christen laughed a bit, talking in an empathetic tone. “I’m sorry you feel so average, Chris. You should sleep, it’ll help.”

As if Mal could predict what Christen was about to say when she opened her mouth, she started talking first. “I’ll do all my homework and I won’t come to bed super late and all that other stuff you were about to tell me.”

Christen rolled her eyes, elbowing Mal lightly. “Okay, smart ass. I was going to say that I’ll sleep on the couch tonight, and you can take the bed. I don’t want you near me and getting sick when Qualifiers start so soon.”

Both Tobin and Mal opened their mouth in protest, Tobin speaking out first. “Chris, you are not sleeping on the couch. You’re sick, you’re sleeping in the bed. Mal and I can sleep in the other bed.”

“Really?” Mal’s eyes lit up in excitement at the thought of a sleepover with Tobin. “That’ll be so fun.”

“Ouch, betrayed by my own little sister.” Christen laughed, seeing Mal roll her eyes. “Are you sure that’s okay, Tobin?”

“Of course. Just focus on feeling better, okay Chris? Mal and I have got everything else sorted.”

Christen nodded, smiling gratefully but sighing at the same time, not liking feeling vulnerable or out of control of what was happening.

But then she’d hugged Tobin goodnight, resting her cheek on her shoulder, feeling Tobin’s hand scratch lightly at her head. And then Mal had come to check on her when she got into bed, bringing her a water bottle and pulling the covers up to her chest. She saw Tobin standing in the doorway, smiling gently at her, and she willed herself to wake up feeling better in the morning, having fought off whatever had overcome her through the night.

Her body felt weary but her soul was content. She wanted to make the most of these oncoming days with her two favorite people at this beautiful house.

She wanted to say thank you to Tobin, to tell Mal how kind she was, but all she managed was a small smile as the exhaustion overtook her. Her eyes closed on their own volition just seconds before she missed Mal and Tobin talking.

“Does she get sick often?”

“No, hardly ever. And when she does, trying to get her to stay in bed long enough to rest is like bathing a cat.”

“…a cat who likes water?”

“No, a cat who has never hated anything as much as water. I wondered whether this would happen to her, she hasn’t stopped working in months and now that her body is finally relaxing it’s all caught up to her.”

“Don’t worry, Mal. She’ll be okay with some time. This is the most relaxing place she could be to get better. And when you’re at school during the day this week, I’ll look after her.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah, Mal. I’d do anything for her.”

“I know. Let’s go watch a movie.”

“After you finish your homework.”

“Ugh, fine. If I get stuck, I hope you’re good at math. Otherwise we’re facetiming Kelley for help.”

“Deal.”

 

Chapter Text

Christen didn’t get sick.

Well, sometimes she did.

But it happened so rarely that she almost genuinely came to believe she had mind over mattered any sickness away from her body. She knew that being sick brought on difficulties she couldn’t afford to deal with – sometimes literally.

When they were in foster care, getting sick was one of the most stress inducing times she could remember. Foster parents, (well the ones they got lumped with), despised any of their foster kids getting sick, because it meant they had to take time off work or have a kid around the house with them all day. You could feel their annoyance, and there was no telling whether it was brewing anger.

The stress for Christen grew tenfold whenever Mal showed signs of getting sick. Elementary school was a cesspit of germs, so it was almost inevitable that she would occasionally. But if one of them was sick, it meant they had to stay home alone with a foster parent. Rightly or wrongly, Christen never trusted any of them. There was no way she wanted to leave Mal in their care.

Christen couldn’t get sick, because then she wouldn’t be able to look after Mal, wouldn’t be able to pick her up from school or help her with her homework or tuck her into bed. Mal couldn’t get sick, because then Christen would have to leave her at home all day with a foster parent. She knew how miserable Mal would be without her, and if she was honest, she felt the same.

So, Christen learnt to push through. She didn’t stop for a common cold, she didn’t stop when she had a headache, or a sore foot. She needed to be healthy to be able to work, and she needed to not get sick so she could be there for Mal.

She couldn’t get sick, so she just didn’t.

(Sometimes Christen was frightened of her own force of will).

But, as she was realizing, she was only human. Everyone fell to sickness at some point. There were just some things she couldn’t control, and she’d have to come to grips with that, and fast, because the sickness that was settling in on her body? Well, it was shaping up to be an eventful few days for the Manhattan Beach household.

As Christen slept in the soft bed at Tobin’s house, for once, the majority of her dreams weren’t bad memories or haunting voices. They were just an empty nothing, as if one second Christen had closed her eyes to sleep and the next it was morning. She thought at some point she had heard a beeping next to her, and something that sounded like Mal calling her name. But the thought of moving at all was too much, so her mind easily slipped out of the bare consciousness it had been in.

When she next came to, she had no concept of what time it was. Her brain was so fuzzy, her body felt like a lead weight. Her hand came up to rub at her eyes, trying to coax them into opening, and her ears pricked slightly at familiar voices that sounded both close and far away.

“Sorry to get you out of bed, Tobin, but I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t want to wake her when she’s like that.”

“It’s okay, Mal. I don’t mind at all, I promise. Do you think she’s gotten worse overnight?”

“Yeah, she barely moved at all when I called out to her, or when her alarm was going off. And you know Christen, she’s always the first one awake. She must be feeling really sick.”

It took Christen’s brain a long time to realise that Mal and Tobin were talking about her. She finally cracked her eyes open, feeling how congested her nose was and how her forehead throbbed when she did. She wanted to get out of bed, but she couldn’t make her body find the will.

“Okay, are you almost ready for school? Go and eat some breakfast and I’ll check on Christen. Then I’ll take you.”

Fuck.

Mal had school today!

The panic that set in Christen did its best to override her body’s absolute refusal to do anything, and she forced her legs to move, pulling them over the side of the bed. She rested a hand on the bedside table to push herself up.

“Whoa, hey, hey.” Tobin’s voice called out, her strong arms catching her as her vision blurred out and she got light headed attempting to stand. “I’ve got you, Chris. Lay back down, there you go.”

Before she knew what was happening Tobin had helped her lay down, pulling the covers back over her and sitting on the side of the bed. She breathed in deeply, attempting to make her head stop spinning, and Tobin’s face finally came back into focus in her eyesight.

“Mal’s scho – ” Christen started to speak and then stopped, the croak in her voice startling even her. She was so congested and her throat was so dry – she still didn’t know what time it was, if Mal was late, or how she got so sick so fast.

“Here, drink some of this, okay?” Tobin placed a hand against her back, pulling her up ever so slightly as she handed her the water bottle. As she took grateful sips, Tobin spoke again. “Mal’s not late, don’t worry. She’s just eating breakfast and then I’m going to take her to school.”

“Bu – ”

“What, Chris, do you think I’m letting you near a car when you can’t even stand?” Tobin wore a soft smile, shaking her head knowingly at Christen. “You’re sick, probably the flu, and you’re staying here and resting until you get better.”

Christen wanted to argue back, but doing anything more than nodding lightly at Tobin’s words was out of her capacity. She can’t remember the last time she got this sick – she barely ever did, in fact. Her body was used to constantly being on the go, she never gave it enough time off for it to even consider feeling like this.

It was just her luck that when she’d had a few of the most relaxing days of her life at the beach, now her body decided to betray her.

She swallowed the last of the water, wincing at how it scratched against her throat when she did. “Are you sure you can take her?”

“I dunno, my schedule is pretty busy today. I was going to lay in the sun, and read a book, and take a nap, and probably go surfing. Not sure any of those can be moved.” Tobin spoke with a grin as Christen barely managed to roll her eyes, weakly shoving her arm. “Of course I can, Chris.”

Christen closed her eyes again, bringing both hands up to rest on her warm forehead. She hated feeling like she wasn’t in control, or that she was burdening Tobin. But the way she felt wasn’t giving her many options. She gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you. I’m sure I’ll feel better later today.”

Her eyes were closed so she missed Tobin’s doubtful look. “Just rest as much as you can, okay? Don’t worry about anything, I’ll take care of Mal.”

As if on cue, Mal walked into the bedroom, walking over to stand by Tobin. “Chris?”

Christen’s eyes opened, looking at her sister who was wearing a hesitant expression. “Hey, baby. Are you ready for school?”

Mal nodded, moving closer to her. “How are you feeling?”

“Not great.” There was no point in lying, it was blatantly obvious to all of them she was properly sick. “But I’ll be fine, this is nothing to worry about.”

“You’ll get better soon. We’ll look after you, right Tobin?”

“Of course.” Tobin smiled at her (and Christen swore she healed some in that moment).

“We gotta go. But I’ll see you after school. Just sleep, okay Chris? You just need to rest.”

“Thanks, baby.” Christen said, hating that she couldn’t give Mal a hug when she looked so sad at her being sick – she didn’t want her to catch what she had. She closed her eyes again, just to rest them, but when she did she could immediately feel her body pulling her out of consciousness. “Have a good day. I love you so much.”

Mal’s words floated in her ears, the last thing she heard before she drifted back to sleep. “Love you forever, Chrissy.”

---

In what would become Christen’s new normal over the next few days, she awoke later not knowing how long had passed, what time it was, and what was happening around her.

The curtains had been pulled shut, but the sun was still peeking out of either side, warming the room considerably. It made Christen realise she was hot, way too hot. She shoved the blankets off her, wiping at her damp brow as she struggled to make sense of what was going on.

She must have been making a noise, because Tobin entered the room holding a paper bag. It took her a while to realise Tobin asked her a question, and when she tilted her head to the side like a puppy from where it lay on the pillow she swore Tobin’s gaze melted into what Mal would call ‘heart eyes.’

(The fever must be making her delirious).

Tobin came to sit at the edge of the bed again, pulling the blankets all the way off Christen when she saw her struggling to kick them off. “You’re okay, I’m here.” Her voice was clearer now, ringing through Christen’s ears.

“Time?” Christen managed to get out, her brain comprehending enough to be shocked when Tobin told her it was past lunch already.

“I assume the food situation is a no-go?” Tobin asked, nodding quickly when Christen paled under her fever red cheeks at the thought. She smiled easily, tucking a piece of hair that had stuck to Christen’s sweaty forehead out of the way. “I got you some stuff from the pharmacy, it’ll help you feel better.”

“Tob…no.” Christen whined, actually whined, a sound that hadn’t left her mouth in a long time. She wasn’t this person. She wasn’t someone who lay sick in a bed, whining, too pathetic to get up and look after themselves. She wasn’t someone who let others take care of her, she took care of others. She used to be able to shake off anything.

What happened to her?

Tobin had a look on her face like she entirely expected this, digging around in the bag. “I’m not sure if you’ve seen yourself recently, but I don’t really think you’re in a position to stop me.” She held a thermometer up to Christen’s mouth, raising an eyebrow until Christen parted her lips ever so slightly to take it in.

She looked at Tobin who had those same soft eyes again. The woman laughed. “You’re cute when you pout, Chris.”

(At that, she only pouted more).

“Hmm, 101.5.” Tobin looked at the thermometer with a pondering gaze before digging around in the bag more, pulling out various items. She put some tablets into her hand, holding a bottle and a spoon in the other, and Christen tried to protest again.

“…you buy m…” The words were in Christen’s brain somewhere, but she just couldn’t get them out.

“Can you say that again?”

She was so hot, and thinking was hurting her brain. “You buy…medicine?”

“Oh. Yeah, I bought it for you.”

“Why?”

Tobin stopped her movements, looking at Christen with a stare of half disbelief. “Why? What do you mean why? I want you to get better.”

The intensity in Tobin’s eyes was making Christen’s insides squirm, but not in the bad way. She stared back at her, not sure how to respond, not sure how to think about someone other than Mal caring so much about her being sick, doing something to make her feel better. It was hard to comprehend it, let alone make her brain work enough to put that into words.

“You don’t have to fight through things on your own anymore, Chris.” Tobin’s gaze softened, and she gently held Christen’s hand in her own. Tobin’s hand was nice and cold against Christen’s warm skin, and she closed her eyes as she focussed on it soothing her. “I’m here for you, for anything.”

It was nice, so nice, being there with Tobin. Her eyes were closed and Christen could feel sleep pulling her back under, before Tobin’s voice spoke out again, lulling her out of dreams into opening her eyes.

“Hey, hey, don’t fall asleep just yet.”

Christen grumbled, her eyes still half shut. She thought she heard Tobin laugh softly in response and she grumbled more. “I’m sleep…”

Okay, now Tobin was definitely laughing. The smile shone through her voice.

“I know, Chris. I know you want to sleep. You just need to take this medicine, okay?”

The room was so warm, and Christen’s head was throbbing. She didn’t want to take the medicine. She didn’t need it. She was Christen Press, she could will this away. Her eyes closed in finality.

“No.”

The smile was still in Tobin’s voice. “Please, Chris? Can you do it for me?”

One eye cracked open. “For you?”

The smile of Tobin’s that she could see looked so endearing, as if Tobin was staring at the cutest thing to ever live. This fever really was making Christen delirious. “Yeah, Chris, for me.”

“Okay.” Christen hummed, thinking that sounded like a good plan in her head. She’d do anything for Tobin, because her smile was so pretty and her eyes were so pretty and her hair was so pretty and her voice was so pretty.

“I think you’re really pretty too, Chris.”

It took a while for Christen to register that she’d said all of that out loud, and by the time she had, Tobin had already given her some tablets to take and held a spoon of medicine up to her mouth. Tobin had then disappeared into the bathroom and Christen rested her hands over her head, trying to make sense of it all.

That was definitely something a non-delirious Christen wouldn’t have said, but the fever was coming over her again, and she couldn’t find it in herself to care. She kicked at the blankets more, brushing her sweaty hair off her shoulders.

“Shhh, Chris. It’s okay.” Tobin was back, a cool hand resting on her shoulder, and it was only then Christen realized she was letting out whimpers of discomfort. She let Tobin gently lift her head off the pillow, gathering her hair up and tying it into a bun at the top of her head. The heat taken off her neck felt magical, just like the soft cool cloth Tobin lay against her forehead.

“Tob…” She tried to start, wanting to thank her, but Tobin shushed her again, sitting on the side of the bed.

“Sleep, Chris. It’s okay. I’m here.”

So she did.

---

How did she know if she was awake or not? It felt like minutes but it could have been hours. She was in and out, feeling things then feeling nothing. The blankets were pulled up to her chest and pulled back down again, the cloth on her head was replaced, the voices floated in and out of her ears.

“I’ve never seen her sleep so much.”

“I know it might seem scary, Mal, but I promise she’s fine. Her temperature is hot but it’s not worrying, and if she’s talking in her sleep she’s just a bit delirious from the fever.”

“Will she wake up tonight?”

“I don’t know, bud, maybe not. It’s good for her to get as much sleep as she can.”

“We can check on her before we go to sleep, right?”

“Of course. And hey, this just means you and I get to hang out, do lots of surfing together, just like we did tonight. You were killing it out there.”

“You think so? It feels so great in the ocean. You’re a really good teacher, Tobin.”

“Can I record you saying that so I can rub it in Kelley’s face later?”

---

Mal was there, in her dreams. Tobin too. Mal’s little hand held hers, and Tobin’s cool fingers traced along her cheekbones. They whispered goodnight, but they were already sleeping, weren’t they?

---

“Chris, are you awake?”

No, she wasn’t awake. She was floating in her dreams, eyes closed, keeping the light out. Maybe she moved, made a noise, and a hand that felt like Mal’s slipped into hers.

“I’m going to school now. I just wanted to say I love you.”

She wasn’t awake, she wasn’t asleep, but she didn’t – couldn’t respond. If she did she would have to realize how much her head hurt, how sore her throat was, how congested she felt.

Another voice floated in the room, another cool cloth was placed on her forehead.

“She’ll be okay, Mal. This is all normal, I promise. Let’s get you to school.”

Mal’s hand squeezed hers gently, and her voice was so tiny it barely registered in Christen’s ears. “Please feel better soon, Chris. I hate seeing you so sick.”

For Christen’s peace of mind, it was better her than Mal.

Her heart dropped to her stomach when Mal’s teacher told her, standing outside the elementary school.

“Mallory left early today, she got sick and your foster mother took her home.”

 A million questions were buzzing through Christen’s mind. She had been there to pick Mal up, just like every day, but after every kid had come out, she had asked the teacher in a panic. Mal was usually one of the first kids out, always so excited to see Christen.

She had naively hoped Mal was on the playground, or running on the field with the other five year olds. But Mal getting sick, so sick that their foster mother had to come and pick her up? That was bad.

She barely got a thank you out to the teacher before she took off in a run back to the house, the thought of her poor baby sister sick there without her making her run faster. Luckily this foster house, their second one, was not so far from the school.

She burst through the door, panting as she struggled to pull off her shoes. She must have been making a loud noise, because a voice yelled through the house at her.

“Stop charging around this house, Christen! You better pray you don’t break anything.”

Christen’s head shot up when she heard her foster mother’s voice, and she quickly went in to the lounge where she was.  

“Where’s Mal?” She blurted out, seeing the look on Lisa’s face at her tone. She knew she’d get chewed out later for being ‘disrespectful’ or whatever they wanted to call it, but at that moment she didn’t care, she just needed to know that Mal was okay.  

If Lisa took another second longer to answer her, Christen was going to walk away, but then Lisa waved her arm down the hall, speaking apathetically. “She’s in the bathroom. And she better not be making a mess – ”

Christen didn’t wait to hear the end of whatever ridiculous complaint Lisa was about to have. Instead she turned quickly, basically running down the hall to where the bathroom door was closed. She tried to open it, but it was locked, and a small part of her felt relieved that her five year old baby sister had listened to her rules and locked the door of any room she was in without her there.

“Mal? It’s me, can you open the door?”

She waited anxiously for the few seconds it took Mal’s little feet to shuffle to the door. When it opened, her heart broke. “Oh, baby.”

Mal’s skin was pale, her forehead sweaty and her eyes watering. She was shaking, and she looked the most miserable Christen had seen her in a long time. Christen got on her knees, immediately pulling Mal into her arms and holding her close. She felt her baby sister start to cry, hot wet tears sticking to her neck, and she just held her tighter.

“It’s okay, baby. I’m here now, I’m here.”

She picked Mal up, feeling her wrap her little legs around her waist as she clung to her. Christen shut the door, locking it again, and made calming, comforting noises to Mal as she rocked her ever so slightly back and forth.

When Mal’s sobs started to die down and she was just sniffling into the collar of Christen’s shirt, Christen decided it was time to find out what had happened. At least, that’s what she intended, until Mal was set back on the floor and her whole face went a shade paler.

“Okay, it’s okay,” Christen quickly moved Mal over to the toilet bowl, just in time for her to empty the contents of her stomach into it, which by this point, didn’t look like much. Christen rubbed her back gently, holding one of her little hands until she was sure Mal was finished.

“Oh my baby love. Being sick is no fun, is it?” Christen sat Mal on the bathroom counter so they were almost eye level. Mal looked up at her, tears threatening to fall down her cheeks again, a dismal expression on her face. “Can you tell me what happened?”  

Mal’s bottom lip wobbled as she softly explained to Christen, trying not to cry. “At lunch time  I barfed in the bush. The teacher sent me to the nurse.”

“Was the nurse nice to you?”  

“Yeah. B-but then she said she had to send me home a-and she called Lisa. I said I want to wait for you, Chrissy, b-but she didn’t-didn’t – ”

“Shhh, it’s okay.” Christen stopped her speaking, seeing the tears falling down Mal’s face again and knowing talking about school was only going to make her more upset. She let Mal ride out the tears before she asked more questions, having to know how their foster mother handled Mal when she was with her.

“I think Lisa was angry she missed her shows.” Mal answered Christen’s question when she was calmer, holding onto her hand. “She said don’t barf on the floor, so I came here to wait for you.”  

“Have you been in here all by yourself since you got home?”

Mal nodded, and Christen’s heart broke more. It’s not like she wanted Lisa or John to be in here with Mal, they’d clearly only upset her more. But leaving a sick five year old on her own was a form of lazy and mean that riled Christen up. “I’m sorry you were by yourself, baby, that must have been really awful.”

“You’re here now.”

“Yeah. I’m here now.”

Mal still looked queasy, so Christen took a seat on the cold tiled floor next to the toilet. Mal curled up in her lap, cradled by her, her head resting in the crook of her neck.  

She knew she was in for a long haul. It was just coming up to 5pm, and it wasn’t until after 7pm that they finally moved from that spot, Mal having thrown up again. Christen was pretty sure it was safe to try and get Mal into the bed for some sleep now, but she first put her in the shower, trying to wash away some of the unpleasant day.  

Dressing her in warm pants and one of Christen’s sweaters that engulfed her in the most adorable way, she carried Mal to the bedroom, laying her on their tiny bed. She coaxed her into taking some little sips of water and Mal looked up at her with such sad eyes that Christen couldn’t help but lay down next to her, holding her close as she hummed softly.

“Time to have a big sleep. I know you feel really awful. But you’ll be better in no time.”

“Will you stay with me?”

“Always, baby.” Christen kissed the side of Mal’s head over and over. “Were you scared today?”

Mal rolled over in her arms, turning towards her. “When I was by myself.”

“You’re so brave. I’m here now, so you don’t have to worry. Sleep now, baby, I love you so much.”

“Love you forever, Chrissy.”

Christen stayed until she was sure Mal was asleep, and then some. She was trying to find the courage to go and talk to their foster parents, not knowing at that point if Mal would be at school the next day. Worry churned in her gut as she thought about the fact that she might have to leave Mal with one of them, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to handle it.

As it turned out, though, she didn’t have to worry about any of that.

“I’m not taking the time out of my day to pick her up again.” Lisa said to Christen later when she’d finally steeled herself to walk back into the living room, standing by the door. She’d asked Lisa what might happen if Mal was still sick tomorrow. “I’ve got plans at the casino. If she’s still sick, you’re staying home to look after her.”

Christen’s eyes widened, trying not to let the relief show on her face. She knew she should have been more concerned about missing school, but the fact that she wouldn’t have to worry about Mal meant so much more to her. “I will, I’ll stay home and make sure she gets better.”

A dismissive wave came from Lisa, her eyes glued to the television. “I better not find any mess in that bathroom. Or the bedroom.”

“You won’t.” Christen’s head shook adamantly, before reluctantly saying her next words. “Thank you, Lisa, for picking Mal up.”

“Well I wasn’t about to say no to a school if there was a sick kid there, was I?” Lisa said, and Christen was almost surprised, thinking this sounded like something genuine from the woman. “She should be grateful. I missed Dr Phil to pick her up.”  

And just like that, the genuineness was gone. Christen swallowed the words she wanted to say, instead saying thank you again, and departing back to the bedroom with a bucket in hand to put by the bedside.

It was a good thing she did, as well, because not even two hours later (and just as she was finishing her math homework) Mal sprung awake, retching. Christen got the bucket to her just in time.  

They spent the rest of the night in the bathroom, Mal curled up Christen’s lap when she wasn’t throwing up. Christen lost track of time, knowing at least that neither of them would have to be at school the next day, because she knew she wouldn’t be getting any sleep and would likely catch the bug herself.

It was times like this, when Mal was quietly crying in misery against her, gripping her shirt like Christen was the only thing keeping her to the Earth – which really – she was, that Christen missed her parents the most. Missed their guidance, missed the way they would always know how to make things better.  

She was not yet 16, having been saddled with this insurmountable job of looking after her baby sister, and she just didn’t know if she could do it. She didn’t know how she’d find the strength, she was already so tired. Always so tired.  

“I’m here, baby, I’m here. I promise it’ll be okay soon. I’m here, I’m here.”

Christen said the words to Mal, but she really wanted someone to be saying them to her. She wanted to be in her parents arms, be crying into their chests the same way Mal was with her. She missed them with every fibre of her being. She missed them so much it hurt. She missed them and she wanted to scream into the depths of the world.  

It was like she could hear them calling for her.

“Chris, Chris! Christen! Christe – ”

Reality snapped back into Christen’s brain as her eyes ripped open, the distressed sleep she was in having been pulled out from under her. She’d tried to shoot up, but there was a hand on her shoulder keeping her laying down. Someone was still calling her name.

“Hey, Chris, it’s okay, you’re okay.”

It took her a while, but eventually she remembered she wasn’t 15 anymore and wasn’t in her second foster house. Instead, she was shrouded in the flu, laying in bed with the figure of an angel standing above her, concern written across her expression as she continued to murmur out reassuring words.

“I’m here, Chris, you’re okay.”

So maybe Christen didn’t have someone when she needed them all those years back telling her everything would be okay. But having Tobin now? It was more than she could have hoped for.

She tried to speak but the hoarseness in her throat stopped her. The flu was really doing a number on her. She accepted Tobin’s help in pulling her head up, taking tiny sips of water – but Tobin still had that concerned look in her eyes. Was still watching Christen like something bad had happened, like she was worried about something more than the flu.

When Christen swallowed around the pain in her throat again, she realized with a sunken feeling what Tobin had heard.

“I was screaming.”

It was a statement rather than a question. Tobin nodded in response, her hand still cradled behind Christen’s head.

“I’m sorry.”

Tobin’s eyes clenched shut like she herself was in pain. “Chris, no. Please don’t say that. Don’t ever be sorry for something like that.”

Tears welled in Christen’s eyes involuntarily at Tobin’s words, her face flushing. She wiped her damp brow with the back of her hand and just like always, Tobin was in sync with her, pulling the blankets off her and putting a cool cloth on her forehead.

“I…I don’t usually have nightmares that bad, only sometimes. I just…”

“Chris, we don’t have to talk about it if you’re not ready.”

“Okay.” Christen nodded, knowing she wanted to explain but just not now, not when she was so hot and feeling disgusting and entirely dishevelled.

“Do you think you feel up to getting in the shower? It might help you feel better.”

The thought of putting any effort into standing up to do that was horrible, but the promise of the cold water washing away whatever had been plaguing her for the last 24 plus hours made her overcome it. When she stood under the water, feeling it hit her warm skin gloriously, she knew she’d made the right decision.

Her feet slowly shuffled back to the bedroom when she got out. She was clad in only her shorts and a light t-shirt, anticipating the room being stuffy and warm.

Instead, there was a cool breeze running through the room, Tobin having opened the windows with the curtains pulled half back to let the mid-morning sun shine gently in. She also saw a new duvet on the bed, and realised Tobin must have changed the sheets. When she looked in the corner of the room to see Tobin lighting a few candles, she almost choked on the lump that appeared in her throat.

“You okay, Chris?”

Christen just stood in the doorway dumbly, looking at the room and back to Tobin and not even knowing how to respond. Before she could speak, she shivered slightly, the wind hitting her bare arms, and Tobin moved across the room.

“Sorry, I’ll close those soon. I just thought it would be good to get some fresh air in here.” She took off the hoodie she was wearing, putting it in Christen’s arms when she reached her side.

“Tobin…” Christen started weakly, but when she felt how soft the hoodie was in her arms, and saw the heart-warming look on Tobin’s face, she couldn’t pretend for a second she wanted anything more than to wear it.

As soon as it was on her she wrapped her arms around Tobin’s waist, feeling Tobin’s go around her shoulders. She felt more like a proper person than she had done since this all began, and she knew it was thanks to the woman in her arms.

“Thank you, Tobin. So much. You don’t know how special you are to me.”

With the way Tobin’s arms tightened around her as she placed the most delicate of kisses to the top of her curly hair, maybe she did.

The hug was so comfortable Christen felt herself sagging into Tobin ever so slightly, the weight of the flu in her head and the congestion in her body eventually catching back up to us. Before she knew it, Tobin had led her back to the bed, making sure she was comfortable before putting the thermometer back in her mouth.

“101. You’re getting better.” Tobin handed her the medicine to take.

“I’m feeling better.”

“That’s good.” Tobin’s smile was so beautiful, so easy. “You should try and get some more sleep.”

The pout formed on Christen’s face before she could stop it. “I want to hang out with you, though.”

“We still have a whole week and a half before we leave for qualifiers. The sooner you get better the sooner we can.”

“I feel bad I’ve dumped Mal on you like this. You’ve been so amazing with her, taking her to school and looking after her, and me. You’re too good, Tobs.”

“You haven’t dumped Mal on me, I love hanging out with her.” Tobin moved around the room, closing the windows and the curtains until it was only lit dimly. “And as for you, I love every second I’m with you. Whether you’re coddled with the flu or not. And especially when you’re wearing my clothes.”

Christen’s face was already flushed red with fever, but she still felt her cheeks get hot. Tobin sat down on the side of the bed and like it was the most natural movement, Christen took her hand, feeling the ring on it, finding comfort in it as always. “Me too.”

-----------

She doesn’t remember falling asleep. One second she was staring at Tobin’s kind face, the next she was reading 4:57pm on the clock beside the bed. She fumbled around for her phone, seeing she had two text messages waiting for her.

 

Mallory Press 1:56pm

love you chrissy xxxxx

 

Tobin Heath 3:18pm

Mal and I are going to a training centre after school, so we’ll be back about 6 with dinner! Hope you’re resting well :)

 

After reading them, she swore she closed her eyes for only a few seconds before she heard Mal in the room.

“Hey, baby, are you back already?”

“It’s 6:30, Chris.” Mal laughed softly, seeing the confusion on Christen’s face. “How are you feeling?”

“Better.” It wasn’t a lie, she was feeling better. Still not great, but better than before. The beam on Mal’s face was all Christen cared about.

“That’s great! Tobin must be taking good care of you, huh?”

“Shut up.” Christen rolled her eyes at Mal’s knowing smirk.

“I hear you’ve even turned into a somewhat good patient.”

Christen pointedly ignored her sister’s goading. “Tell me about the training centre.”

“It was so cool! I’ve never seen some of the machines they have there, it was focussing on first touch and finishing. I loved it.”

“That sounds like fun. How was school?”

“It was good.” Mal said, watching Christen’s eyes flutter open and shut despite wanting to keep in the conversation. “I love you, Chris. Go back to sleep.”

She already was.

----------

“Tobin, I swear I’m feeling better today.”

“Your temperature seems to disagree with me. It’s still kind of high, 100.5.”

“But I’m definitely feeling okay enough to watch a movie. I won’t move a muscle. No effort involved. I just want to hang out.”

“You’re not gonna last more than 10 minutes, I bet. Don’t give me those eyes.”

Christen grinned, knowing her pout and wide eyes were working on Tobin. She really was feeling better, and at the third day of staying in bed, she was starting to go a little stir crazy. She hated being sick. She knew she was a bad patient, but she knew she could get Tobin to crack. She wanted to do something other than sleep.

“We can watch Harry Potter.”

Tobin just laughed in defeat. “You’re too cunning for your own good.”

Once they were settled with the laptop set up, Tobin sitting against the headboard beside her where she lay, she moved her head to rest against the side of Tobin’s thigh, which was covered in a soft blanket.

“Thought you weren’t gonna move a muscle?”

“I can move back to the pillow, if you want.” Christen grinned into Tobin’s thigh, even more when the other woman rushed to stop her.

“No, no. This is good.”

Tobin’s hand came to rest in her hair, lightly carding her fingers through it. Yeah, it was definitely good.

----------

Tobin Heath 2:55pm

What I tell ya? 13 minutes in and you were gone. You missed Harry getting sorted into Gryffindor! We can try again tomorrow, haha. Sleep well, Chris.

 

“Fuck.” Christen shook her head at herself, yawning and smiling at the text as she re-read it. Okay, so she was feeling better, but maybe not as better as she thought.

----------

Today was the day.

“I’m telling you. I’m making it through without sleeping.”

“Hmm, 99.8. Maybe you will.” Tobin took the thermometer out of her mouth, giving Christen some medicine and a smoothie. It would be the first substantive thing she’d eaten in over three days, and if she could keep that down it would be a positive sign. “Although I am partial to an afternoon nap on a Friday.”

“I’m sure I can indulge that.” Christen drank some of the smoothie, feeling how famished she really was. “Thank you for this. How was Mal this morning?”

“Good. She’s buzzing for the weekend, she can’t wait to get out surfing. Neither can I.”

Tobin’s excited smile was contagious, and Christen just shook her head fondly. “You two are pretty cute.”

“I think so.”

Christen rolled her eyes, laughing along with Tobin. “Clearly humble, too.”

---

Christen did manage to stay awake for most of the day, only acquiescing to a nap when Tobin herself looked like she needed one. They’d watched two movies, Christen had eaten half of a sandwich, and they were sitting in the car waiting outside Mal’s school.

“Remember at camp when you thought you were getting a stomach bug but it turned out you just ate too much dessert?”

Tobin burst out laughing at Christen’s words, clearly remembering that time from 12 years ago. “Vividly. I was so worried I was going to miss training the next day.”

“You said you were going to swear off chocolate cake after that. Did you hold that up?”

“Not a chance. It was probably the first thing I ate when I got home.” Tobin grinned. “Stomach bugs are no joke.”

“Yeah.” Christen sighed, getting lost in her thoughts. “Mal had a real bad one when she was five. We were in our second foster home.”

Tobin just nodded, letting Christen take her time with telling the story.

“The foster parents in that house, they were…they were okay. They weren’t crazy like the ones in our first house that used to lock the fridge and cupboards, but they weren’t good, either. Everything was a chore for them, and they made it known whenever they had to do something for us that they found difficult. Even though there was never anything hard.”

“That must have been really hard to navigate.”

“Yeah. I remember sitting on the bathroom floor with Mal in my lap around 3am wondering what the hell I was doing, and what I was going to do. I had absolutely no idea.” She looked out the window at the school. “That’s what I had the nightmare about, the other day. It was the first time I really realised there was no one there for us. No one to help me figure it all out. It was a horrible feeling to know that I couldn’t rely on anyone else. It was just Mal and I.”

“I can’t even imagine.”

Christen smiled slightly, squeezing Tobin’s hand. “If Mal was here she’d say that none of that mattered now, because we had people in our corner. People like you.”

“And you? What would you say?” The intensity in Tobin’s eyes made Christen wonder if there was more to her question.

“I know Mal is still really affected by our past. But I protected her from what I could, and I don’t regret that at all. I see the joy still in her, and I’d do it all again for her to keep that. I wish none of it still mattered for me. But I’m worried it really messed me up. And I’d be lying to say that it all goes away, even if we have amazing people here for us now.”

Tobin shook her head, squeezing her hand back. “Of course it would still affect you, Chris. It always will. Something so monumental like your past experiences don’t just go away, you can’t just get over it. People heal in different ways and at different paces. But day by day, we keep moving forward.”

A tear dropped down Christen’s cheek, and she hurriedly wiped it away. “And what if I never do heal?”

“No one is perfect, Chris. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. To not heal completely is normal. But if you think you’re not healing, you haven’t seen yourself these last few weeks. You’re shining, Chris. And it’s because you’re working so hard on yourself, even when it’s difficult. Our past makes us who we are, and who you are is a phenomenal person. You’re not broken, you’re just human.”

Christen wrapped her arms around Tobin from where she sat in the passenger’s seat, burying her head into her neck. “The past will always matter to me. I can’t let go of it that easy. But having the team around, having you around – it’s everything I need. You make everything better, Tobin. Everything has more light, more fun. I’m so grateful for you. Thank you.”

“Thank you for letting me in, Chris. I know it’s not easy. You’re more incredible than you’ll ever know.”

Christen pulled her head back, still in Tobin’s space, smiling softly at her. She could get lost in her eyes, the way her olive skin glowed, her shiny lips. She felt her heart beat erratically at that thought, suddenly realizing what position they were in. She was so close, it wouldn’t take much. All she’d have to do is just lean closer, just a bit, just like –

“Chris!”

The back door opened when Mal called out to her, and Tobin and Christen broke apart so fast it was like they’d been shocked. Christen schooled her expression just in time to see Mal’s face leaning into the front, overjoyed to see her older sister feeling well enough to pick her up.

“Hey, baby.” Christen blushed when she realised she was still holding Tobin’s hand, giving it a final squeeze before untangling their fingers.

“You’re here! How are you feeling?”

“A lot better. In another day or so I think I should be free of it.”

Mal grinned, kissing her cheek quickly before she sat back in her seat, buckling her seat belt. “I used my free period today to do my homework. So can we go surfing when we get home?”

Tobin responded enthusiastically to Mal’s request, and Christen looked on fondly as they chatted excitedly all the way home. Her favorite people were really something else.

----------

True to her words, a couple of days later Christen was back to full health. It was only just under a week until they’d all have to fly to Houston for the start of qualifying camp, but she was determined to make up for lost time.

They spent the weekend at the beach again, and Tobin and Mal managed to drag Christen into the water more than once with their surfboards. When Mal was at school, Christen and Tobin spent their days together, going for walks and cooking together and goofing around.

It was all very domestic, it was all very comfortable. Christen tried not to think about how comfortable it was, fearing she would freak out when she really realized how much her happiness and stability right now was relying on Tobin and this little rhythm they’d created.

What would happen if they lost that?

She could even see Mal was feeling that security, too. Mal had always idolized Tobin, had always been close with her. But Christen knew her baby sister inside out. She could see that all the time Mal and Tobin had spent together had made them closer than ever. Mal followed Christen’s lead in trusting people, but Tobin had also proved directly that Mal could rely on her.

Tobin had taken her to school, was never late in picking her up, remembered when she had school soccer practice, bought food for the whole house, helped her with her homework, soccer and surfing, reassured her during the day and night when she was worried about Christen and most importantly for Mal, had so clearly looked after Christen.

It had warmed Christen’s heart to see how Mal and Tobin’s relationship had developed, and even more so when she saw them attached at the hip. Tobin fitted right in to how Christen and Mal often showed their love by physical touch, Mal never being afraid to hug Tobin or jump on her or have tickle wars or come up with crazy handshakes. Tobin could often be seen with one arm around Mal, brushing at her head or picking her up and spinning her around.

This was everything to Christen. Seeing Mal so happy, seeing Tobin so happy. Feeling that happiness herself. She knew her past had made her the type of person to be sceptical that a feeling like that would stick around.

But that was before Tobin came back into their lives. Before she didn’t have to worry herself night after night over money, or being enough for Mal, or anything else. Things were good, and it was okay to enjoy it. She was learning to let herself lean into it.

Happy Christen radiated like sunshine. There was no better example of that than when they were at the airport.

“Flight 1271 to Houston departing in 40 minutes, all passengers please go to gate 12.” A man’s voice ran through the airport intercom as Christen, Mal and Tobin walked towards their gate.

“40 minutes!” Christen tried to contain her excitement, but from the looks Tobin and Mal had been giving her all morning, she wasn’t doing very well.

It was early, and they were at LAX ready to fly to Houston for Olympic Qualifiers. They’d spent the few days before discussing logistics, Tobin convincing Christen that she didn’t have to take all of her and Mal’s stuff with her this time, they could leave what they didn’t need at the house because they had it to come back to.

(Seeing how natural Tobin’s invitation was gave Christen excited butterflies, not unlike she was feeling now).

It had been years, 12 to be exact, since Christen had last flown on a plane. She’d gone all the way to the East Coast for the u-17 camp, and she remembered coming back to LA and spending the entire car ride home telling Mal about what tiny cars and houses looked from way up high while her parents listened fondly on.

Then as the years passed, it was Mal who was doing all the flying, not Christen. Mal had been to countless different cities, out of the country, all from the opportunities given to her by soccer. Christen hadn’t been jealous, she was always so happy to see how excited Mal was about it. She did used to wonder if she’d ever experience the thrill of flying again, though.

Now that it was in front of her, she could barely keep it together.

“You are the only person in the airport with this much energy at this hour.” Mal yawned, pushing Christen’s arm away when she knocked her shoulder into her.

“Who wouldn’t have this much energy? We’re about to be thousands of feet up in the air! Seeing the little toy houses and little ant people. I can’t wait.” Christen beamed to the two of them, seeing Mal playfully roll her eyes and seeing a dumb smile sitting on Tobin’s face. “What?”

“Nothing.” Tobin blushed, the smile remaining on her face as she walked. It only grew the more Christen kept excitedly talking.

When they reached their gate, Tobin lead them to some seats that they both soon realised were a bit more secluded than the others. Tobin had warned them that some people might recognize her, and maybe even Mal (to which Mal had snorted) but if they just went about their business no one should bother them.

“Mal, you love me, right?”

Mal raised an eyebrow at Tobin’s statement. “What do you want?”

“The plane takes off in 40 minutes, which means there’s at least 20 minutes for me to nap right here. But I also need coffee, Mal, I need it. And that line is really long.” Tobin looked longingly over at the café near the gate, almost as if she could smell the coffee beans from there.

“You really have a problem.” Mal tried to sound serious even though she was laughing at Tobin’s pleading expression. She put on an exaggerated voice. “I suppose I can do that for you. But it’s gonna cost.”

“It’s gonna cost? I thought I was talking to Mallory Press, member of the USWNT, officially making the big bucks?”

Tobin!” Mal whined in embarrassment, and Christen tried not to squeal at their interactions. It was exactly the kind of teasing conversation she and Mal would have, and it only showed how close Tobin and Mal had gotten. “You’re so embarrassing.”

Tobin laughed, seeing the blush rise to Mal’s cheeks. She pulled a $20 out of her pocket and handed it over. “Buy whatever you want for yourself, as well.”

“You’re gonna regret saying that.” Mal grinned, taking Tobin’s headphones from around her neck and placing them over her ears as she walked away.

“Mallory Press do not spend money that isn’t yours!”

“Chris, it’s okay, I want her to.”

Christen rolled her eyes in fondness at Tobin, looking at Mal walking over to the line and knowing she wouldn’t be able to hear them anyways. She was tapping away at her phone, probably trying to beat the high score in the latest game that Sonnett had gotten everyone addicted to.

“Final call for Flight 1274 to New York City.” The intercom voice spoke again, making Christen’s head snap up.

“New York? I would probably combust if I ever got to go there.” She said out loud, mostly to herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tobin with that same dumb smile on her face and she looked at her. “What? Doesn’t New York just sound so incredible? And can you imagine flying in there? Seeing the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty and it’s all so small because you’re so high in the air and – ”

“You’re so cute.” Tobin blurted out, and Christen stopped talking. Her eyes went wide and an immediate blush painted her cheeks.

The outburst maybe surprised Tobin as well, her having the same reaction. It took her a while to keep talking. “You’re so cute when you’re excited like this. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone this amped to take a flight. Everyone I know just takes it for granted, including me. But you’re different, and of course you are. You shine like the sun in here, Chris. I…I’ve wanted to tell you that all morning.”

Maybe Christen wouldn’t have to wait to go to New York before she combusted, because she was pretty sure she was about to right then and there.

Tobin called her cute. Tobin Heath, called her, Christen Press, cute. She said she was cute, and she said she was like the sun.

That she shone like the sun.

Christen was definitely going to combust.

She couldn’t address all of that, she couldn’t ever hope to respond to it with something of equal measure. She knew that if she started telling Tobin how cute she thought she was it would just end up in her rambling for hours on end about how her eyes glistened and her smile could change anyone’s day.

She knew the blush painted on her cheeks would give her away, but she tried to school herself.

(It took a long time).

“Did you send my baby sister away to buy you coffee just so you could tell me that?”

A sheepish, hesitant look crossed Tobin’s face. “…Maybe?”

“Good.” Christen smiled with finality, sending a wink to Tobin as she watched the other woman practically crumble under her blush. She could feel her own heart beating erratically and she almost had to sit on her hands with how much they were shaking. Just breathe, Christen.

Tobin Heath was going to be the end of her, she could just tell.

She snuck another glance up at Tobin, seeing her soft smile mirrored on the woman’s face. Tobin’s brown eyes melted into hers, but then flicked just to the side of her. Before Christen could turn to see what had caught her attention, Tobin gasped.

“Look!” She spun Christen around in her seat, pointing over to where Mal was standing in the line. She was still relatively near the back, but standing next to her was a young girl probably no older than 12, wearing an Alex Morgan jersey, talking animatedly to her.

“Who is that?”

“No idea.” Tobin shook her head, though an excited smile was forming on her face. “But I think this might be Mal’s first fan encounter.”

“Oh my god!” Christen watched as the young girl talked to her sister a mile a minute, Mal’s attention completely focussed on her as she laughed at something she said. With the way the girl was moving around, it looked like she was re-enacting Mal’s first goal. She must have been at the game.

Mal’s hands were in her hair a lot, tugging at her ponytail and brushing the fly-aways down. “Oh, she’s nervous.”

“You reckon?”

“Yeah, that’s her give away. Wait, I want to take a photo, this is so cute.” Christen got her phone out to take a picture just as the little girl posed with Mal as her Mom took a photo of the two of them. Mal then signed something for the girl and she went on her way, waving back to her as she left.

Immediately after, Mal turned to look over at Christen and Tobin with wide eyes and a ‘I can’t believe that just happened’ expression, to which Christen and Tobin responded with huge smiles and a thumbs up.

Christen kept watching Mal after that, smiling when she saw Mal shake her head a few times. The blush was evident on her cheeks as she was clearly still coming to terms with what just happened. When Mal looked down at her phone and smiled so wide she laughed, Tobin showed Christen her phone, seeing the messages app open with a text to Mal.

 

Tobin Heath 6:41am

Soak it all in, bud. This is just the start.

 

The plane ride was just as exciting as Christen had imagined it. She’d been given the window seat and her eyes barely left the view the entire time. Occasionally she’d tap Mal on the arm beside her, pointing things out outside the window, and every time she looked across she saw Tobin with that dumb smile on her face again.

Mal and Tobin had fallen asleep on each other half way through the trip. Christen made sure to take a photo of them dozing before she took probably 30 others of the landscape passing them by.

She was still completely buzzing when they got to the hotel, a stark contrast to the other players that had arrived around the same time as well, all yawning and still trying to wake themselves up.

It was only the start, but being at camp in Houston already had a different feel to it than the January camp. Everyone on the team was still hungry to secure their spot, always competitive and always working hard. But now the team had a solid purpose – they had to qualify for the Olympics and they had to do it together.

With the way Mal, Lindsey, Sonnett and Rose jumped on each other when they reunited at the hotel, anyone would have thought they hadn’t seen each other in years. They next all jumped on Christen, and she was laughing so hard by the end of it she was almost crying.

It felt good to miss people and be missed by them, too.

----------

“So, because the game is in two days, I heard we have a free afternoon tomorrow.” Tobin leaned against the wall of the coffee store next to Christen. She flipped her hair back under the hat she was wearing and Christen had to remember how to breathe, trying to figure out how someone like Tobin could simultaneously be so effortlessly cool and hot and cute and –

Right, she had to respond.

“Yeah?”

Well, she tried.

“Yeah.” Tobin laughed at her slightly, shaking her head fondly.

Three days had passed since they’d arrived in Houston, the team training for their first match against Costa Rica. They had all easily gotten into the rhythm of camp again, Mal rooming with Becky (which Mal was ecstatic about, looking up to the experienced player in every way), Tobin with Julie, Christen getting another room to herself.

Mal had been juggling school work and trainings, having to bring an entire extra suitcase just for her textbooks, and Christen had been spending time with the team when she could, practicing yoga and exploring the city.

She’d settled into this lifestyle quite comfortably, and she had to admit, the start of this camp where she knew she and Mal had a house and some kind of money to go back to, as opposed to the start of last camp, was a welcomed change.

She and Tobin grew closer every day. The more confident Christen felt with the team, the more comfortable she was leaving Mal with them. Currently, Becky had volunteered to help Mal with her homework should she need it, practically pushing her out the door when Tobin came to ask if she wanted to get coffee.

Tobin spoke again, clearing her throat before she did so. “I wanted to ask you something. I know we haven’t really talked about this recently, and I know you’ve said no to this…a lot. But I just wanted to ask again.”

Christen had absolutely no idea where Tobin was going with this, and honestly she tried to be stressed by what she might ask. But Tobin was fumbling over her words, blushing and rubbing her hand against the back of her neck in the most adorable way. She struggled to focus on anything but that. “Tobin, it’s okay, you can ask me.”

“Please don’t feel like you have to say yes, I know this is something you’re working on with yourself but I just wondered…if maybe you wanted to come to the training fields tomorrow after we finish practice. Just to have a kick around, that’s it. With me. If you want.”

Tobin could barely meet her eyes after she’d asked that, rambling on towards the end until she just cut herself off completely. Christen could tell she was nervous, and that was understandable. It had been a while since Tobin had asked her this, but the last few times she had asked before giving up altogether Christen had said no every time.

If Christen found it hard to say no to Tobin before, she found it almost impossible now. When Tobin looked back up at her, her big brown eyes staring straight into her soul – she struggled to come up with reasons why not. She knew she had gotten better with soccer, mentally – much better. Playing with Mal had been so healing, as had watching her game. But soccer was something she so associated with Tobin, and the last time she played properly had been with Tobin.

Was she ready to face it in that way?

“Tobin…I don’t know.” Christen said weakly, wondering if she had the will inside her to say no. “It’s been so long since I’ve played.”

“We don’t have to play. We don’t have to do anything serious. We can just get some food and kick some balls around. Lay in the grass and watch the clouds. Just for fun. Like we used to.”

Christen must have had quite the hesitant look on her face because Tobin jumped in to speak again. “Please don’t feel pressured to. Only come if you’re comfortable. Just know that I am so down if you are.”

Tobin’s nervous smile at the end was too much for Christen’s heart, and before she really knew what she was doing she found herself nodding.

“Really? You’ll come?” Tobin’s excited demeanour could have rivalled a puppy. “Are you sure it’s something you want and you’re not just saying yes to be nice?”

The more Christen thought about it, the more sure she was that this was something she should say yes to. She’d never really know if she would be ready to face soccer with Tobin again, not with all the dreams they had tied up together in it. But she was doing so well, she’d done so well with Mal and she was proud of herself. She owed it to herself to keep trying.

“I’m sure. It’ll be fun.” Christen bumped Tobin’s shoulder softly, both of them blushing. “Just like old times?”

“Yeah, Chris. Just like old times.”

----------

“Oh. My. God. Tobin asked you on a date?!”

What?

Both Mal and Christen’s eyes met each other in the mirror in shock for completely different reasons. Mal had come by Christen’s room that night to get her older sister to braid her hair. They had been chatting, and Christen had casually mentioned to Mal what her and Tobin discussed earlier that day.

“Mal, Tobin did not ask me on a date.”

Mal’s eyes went wide. “What do you mean she didn’t ask you on a date? She said let’s go get food and kick a ball around. Christen, she said let’s look at the clouds! Does she have to make a neon sign next?”

Christen just rolled her eyes, focussing on pulling the second side of Mal’s hair into little segments. Mal wasn’t right. Tobin didn’t ask her on a date.

Did she?

Christen hadn’t even thought about that being a possibility at all. She was too preoccupied thinking about what it would be like to play soccer with Tobin again that she forgot to even be worried about what Tobin was trying to say to her.

She wasn’t blind, she knew Tobin was interested in her. As to how interested, the jury was still out. Christen didn’t want to get her hopes up and she also didn’t want to ruin the friendship that she and Tobin had recommenced after so long apart. It was worth everything to her, and she’d never risk it.

That’s why it was definitely not a date.

“All those things are just dumb stuff we did as teenagers. She just wants to reminisce, that’s all.”

Mal just groaned, trying to drop her head into her hands but being pulled back by Christen’s grip in her hair. “You’re more frustrating than my homework, sometimes. And that’s saying something.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.” Christen grinned, shoving Mal’s shoulder lightly. “Tobin and I are just friends.”

“Well Lindsey and I are just friends, too, and I don’t give her the heart eyes and longing stares that the two of you do.”

“We do not.” Christen tried to sound convincing, but by the look in Mal’s eyes it did not succeed.

“Chris, don’t get in your head about this, okay? You and Tobin, you work so seamlessly together. I’m not saying you have to go out and marry her tomorrow, but it’s clear the two of you like each other.” Mal’s tone of voice left no room for disagreement, not like Christen could have offered anything to counter it. “If this is something you want, don’t let it pass you by.”

The words coming out of Mal’s mouth made sense, but it wasn’t so easy for Christen. “It feels more complicated than that to me, Mal.”

“It doesn’t have to be, though. I know you’ve always been hesitant about getting into a proper relationship, and I know that was because of me and our situation. But things are different now, Chris. And people like Tobin, they don’t come by all the time. You don’t see a connection like the two of you have all the time.”

Christen just stared intently at her fingers moving between Mal’s hair as she listened.

“If you like her, and if it feels right for you, try to let yourself follow your heart. Don’t let your head stop you. You deserve everything in the world, Chris. And I’ll give everything I can to you, but I see how happy you are around Tobin. Don’t you want to see what it would be like to open yourself up to that possibility? What that could give you?”

The hair tie snapped into place around the bottom of Mal’s hair and Christen smiled softly at her in the mirror, curling some of her baby hairs behind her ear. “When did you get so wise, hey?”

From where she sat on the floor, Mal leant her head against the inside of Christen’s knee, curling her hand around her ankle. “Will you promise me you’ll at least think about it?”

Christen knew Mal was right. To not lean into her feelings about Tobin and hide behind an excuse that really didn’t exist anymore wouldn’t be doing herself any favors. She was scared, terrified of letting her heart take control with something like this. But she’d also never felt this way about anyone.

It was Tobin, it always had been. She was always the exception for Christen. She had spent so much of her life being strong, and she knew she was her own person. But deep down, she longed for someone to be in her corner. Her friendship with Tobin provided her with that, but she also knew it could provide her with so much more if she was willing to take the leap and follow her heart.

She could try. She could do that.

“I will, I promise. It might take me some time, but I think you’re right. I…I guess I’m just scared of losing what I have with Tobin if I take the risk.”

“You couldn’t lose her, Chris. She just got you back. You should hear the way she talks about you, see the look on her face that she gets. No one will ever be good enough for you in my eyes, Chris. But Tobin is the closest anyone will get. She’s great, and so are you.”

“You think so?”

Mal smiled into her knee, rolling her eyes at Christen. “I know so.” She then turned around, scrambling to sit up on the bed next to Christen so she could wrap her arms around her. “I’m really proud of you, Chris. I know this stuff is really hard for you, but you’re trying anyway. I love you.”

She wasn’t even going to pretend like Mal’s words and comfort didn’t bring a mist to her eyes. This kid was everything to her. “I love you too, baby.”

----------

Mal was everything to her. But at this moment, Christen was really wishing she had never talked about it with her, so Mal could never have mentioned the possibility of this being a date.

Because oh, how she wanted this to be a date.

In her opinion, Tobin really hadn’t given any indications either way. (According to Mal, anyone with half a brain could see it was a date), but Christen wasn’t convinced. Or rather, she wasn’t convinced enough to let herself hope.

She had met Tobin at a place for a light lunch after the morning training, and Christen could feel her phone vibrating with repeated texts, no doubt from Mal about the ‘date which might not be a date’ which she was pointedly ignoring.  

Christen soccer gear pressed into her back from where it sat in her bag, walking to the training centre after eating. But it wasn’t the fear of playing soccer with Tobin again that was consuming her right now.

It was more how stunning Tobin’s eyes were, and how her hair glistened in the sun, and how her smile made Christen feel like there was nothing wrong in the world, not with something that beautiful in front of her.

Even the way Tobin walked was mesmerizing to Christen. She bounced in step when she talked, grinning wide when she told a story, eyes crinkling when she laughed.

They took their time warming up, Tobin juggling a ball around as Christen did her laces up. Well, she tried to do her laces up. She kept getting distracted by the way Tobin’s body was moving in such close proximity to her – how her calves showed in her legs when she pressed on the ground, how her eyes were fixed in concentration, how the ring shone on her finger in the sun.

It was probably her fifth attempt to tie a knot when Tobin crouched down on the ground in front of her, smiling easily. “Everything okay?”

The way Christen’s insides were scrambling from nerves both of soccer and the maybe-date she was on made her decidedly not okay. But she tried to be brave, pushing past the desire to give into the panic. “Yeah. I’m good.”

Then, Tobin’s soft hands were on hers, gently pushing her fingers away from the laces as she did them up for her. When she finished, she took Christen’s hands in hers. “I know you’re a little nervous. But it’s just you and me, yeah? Just like before, together on the field. It’s inside you, Chris. Even if you haven’t played for 12 years, it’ll always be inside you.”  

Like usual, Tobin was right.

When Christen eventually found her feet, she picked up a ball and kicked it as high as she could in the air, making Tobin burst out laughing and run after it. They stood on opposite sides of the field for a while, sending long balls to each other, before Tobin started firing them at goal.

Christen hadn’t stopped smiling the entire time she was there. Soccer had always been so fun for her, and especially with Tobin. She was worried painful memories would strike up, all those nights she lost sleep wondering if Tobin was thinking about how she never showed up to the next camp, and how much she was missing out on.

But it was impossible. Those times were hard for Christen, some of the hardest. But now she was the happiest she had been in so long. She had been working on herself, she had good people around her. The past still hurt, but it didn’t cut her like it used to. She was growing stronger than it.

So, instead of freaking out when Tobin lined up 10 balls across the 18 yard line for her to shoot at goal, she took a deep breath and walked up to them, putting her foot on top of the first one.

“I used to shoot 200 of these a day. Lined up just like this.”

Tobin smiled at her. “I know.”

“I used to get every single one in.”

“I know.”

“I probably wouldn’t be able to get half of these 10 in.”

“I think you could. I think you could get them all.”

Eyes met in somewhat of a challenge, both of them grinning at each other. “You do?”

“Of course. You’re Christen Press.”

“I’m 12 years out of practice Christen Press.”

“You still love soccer.”

“I don’t want to play professionally anymore, Tobin. That’s not my future.”

“That doesn’t matter. I didn’t ask you here to change your mind. I asked you here because you love soccer. There’s so many ways that can manifest outside of professional leagues. You don’t just have to be a spectator for the rest of your life, Chris. You get to enjoy it, still. And I get to enjoy being with you, here.”

Christen’s face blushed as she looked back at the balls on the ground. “It feels like so long ago. I played with Mal last month for her. But now this is for me. How do I know it’s still a part of me?”

Tobin took Christen’s hand and touched it to her heart, keeping their fingers intertwined when they lowered back down. “It’ll always be in you. In here. Remember?”

She took a deep breath in, letting the words sink through her.  “Yeah. I do. Will you be there for me at the end?” She pointed to where the last ball was placed, feeling Tobin squeeze her hand back, their rings knocking together.

“Yeah, Chris. Always.”

One.

Tobin moved to the end and Christen took a few steps back, looking at the ball then at the goal. She started easy, sending it low and hard straight down the middle. She couldn’t hide the smile on her face when Tobin let out a whooping cheer.

Two.

She gave it more of a run, getting some lift on it, watching as it sailed near the left side before hitting the back of the net.

Three.

She got brave and hit it with her left foot, letting out an excited gasp when it flew into the middle of the goal.

Four. Five. Six.

Tobin’s words of encouragement spurred her on. She sent three in a row to the bottom right corner, laughing when Tobin jumped up and down each time.

Seven.

This one was close, hitting the underside of the crossbar, before flinging itself into the back of the net.

Eight. Nine.

One to the top right and one to the middle left. She couldn’t keep the smile off her face.

Ten.

She’d barely lined herself up with the ball before Tobin moved in front of it, an eyebrow raised. She asked what she was doing, even though she already knew. Tobin told her to get around her. Cut it back, score a goal, embarrass her defending skills once more just like she used to.

Go out with a bang.

And so she did.

She took it to the right first, laughing with Tobin as her efforts were thwarted, even cheekily trying to nutmeg the other woman. Moving back with the ball, she thought about the space she had, and decided to go with her old classic.

She took it to the left, not waiting long before cutting it back inside, immediately shooting it with her right. She saw it sail into the net before her entire face broke out into a smile, her arms shooting up in the air.

Tobin was there, right beside her, just like she’d promised. She cheered her loudest yet, wrapping her arms around Christen’s waist as Christen’s arms found themselves around her shoulders, her fingers curling into her baby hairs.

“You did it, Chris. You just overcame something huge. You’re the strongest person I know.”

Christen buried her head in Tobin’s neck, still laughing and smiling, still riding her high. She’d felt great when she played with Mal before Mal’s first game. Now, with taking something so embedded in her past and not only reliving it, but thriving in it? She felt like she was flying.

She lifted her head from Tobin, arms still wrapped around her neck, beaming as she saw the excitement and pride (and if Mal were there, she’d say those dang heart eyes) in her expression.

Her heart felt like it might explode from how much she cared about Tobin. How happy she was to be there with her.

Her arms were still around Tobin, and Tobin’s were still around hers. She could pull away. She maybe should pull away. She still didn’t know if this was a date or not.

But so far since Tobin had come back into her life, taking chances had been working out for her. She caught Tobin’s eyes, gleaming bright, and her gaze flicked down to her lips that were softly stretched into a smile.

Mal’s words floated in her mind. “Don’t let it pass you by.”

She wouldn’t. This was what she wanted. And the way Tobin smiled at her, squeezed her arms around her waist where she held her close, this was what she wanted too.

Christen had been so lost for so long. When she pulled Tobin in closer, nudging her nose gently against hers and feeling the tiny puffs of breath on her skin, she didn’t feel like she was on her own, anymore.

When their lips met, pressing against each other, she knew she’d been found.

 

Chapter Text

Though she’d deny it to even herself, Christen had thought of this kiss more times than she could count.

She’d thought of it for 12 years, since she first laid eyes on Tobin.

Every time she snuck a glance at her while their u-17 coach had talked to the team, every time she watched her face set in concentration when she was performing a trick, every time her head was thrown back in laughter, every time she looked at Christen with her lips pulled into a soft smile, settling comfortably in her soul.

At 15, Tobin had near knocked Christen off her feet and she had a feeling things would never be the same.

At 27, Christen was thankful Tobin’s arms were wrapped around her waist, for the feel of her lips on hers might have caused her legs to give out on her entirely.

Now she knew things would never be the same.

That thought made her buzz with such happiness that a smile broke out on her face, making Tobin laugh softly and break apart the kiss.

Tobin pecked the tip of her nose gently as she moved away, a smile just as wide appearing on her face. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Christen twirled her fingers again in the baby hairs at the back of Tobin’s neck, feeling Tobin’s arms pull her in closer by her waist if that was even possible.

They both stood there, dumb smiles on their faces for who knows how long. Christen couldn’t stop staring at Tobin – at her eyes, her tiny freckles, her smile lines. The sun shone off her skin and she could have gotten lost in it, happily. She was so overwhelmed in the best way and needed Tobin close, even closer than they were.

Tobin seemed to sense that too and hugged Christen again, this time being the one to bury her face in the crook of Christen’s neck. Christen smiled when she felt Tobin’s little puffs of breath hitting her skin rhythmically. She’d never felt so connected to the other woman.

“I’ve been waiting for that kiss for a long time.” Christen murmured, feeling Tobin smile against her neck and place a delicate kiss to the skin there.

“I’ve been waiting longer.”

The response drew a laugh out of Christen as she rolled her eyes at Tobin’s constant playful competitiveness. Under that though, was a burning excitement, that Tobin really had wanted her for as long as she had, too.

Tobin had always been on her mind, and even more so in the last month. She was so completely wrapped up in her, she knew she was a fool for her. Feeling her pressed right against her, though, her arms around hers, Christen couldn’t find it in herself to care.

When they pulled away they were still smiling, Christen curling some of Tobin’s hair behind her ear. “You’re beautiful, you know?”

“I know.”

The eye roll was back. “Okay, that was on me.”

Tobin burst out laughing, and it was one of the most dazzling things Christen had ever seen.

“You’re also a complete dork.”

At that, Tobin just grinned, laying down on the grass with her hands behind her head as she squinted up at Christen in the sun. “Yeah, but you totally just kissed this dork.”

“I did.” Christen sat on the grass beside Tobin, laying down so that her head rested back on Tobin’s stomach and her legs stretched out to the side. “And I’d do it again, if she’s lucky.”

When Tobin laughed softly, Christen’s head bounced from where it lay. Tobin moved her hands up so they rested on Christen’s hair gently, the tips of her fingers scratching softly through her curls while Christen tried not to moan in pleasure at the feeling.

“I’m feeling pretty lucky.”

Christen’s eyes closed in bliss with the feeling of Tobin, the feeling of the sun shining down on them as they lay under the sky just like they used to, the feeling of a deep sense of peace.

They lay in the quiet for a while, before Christen’s thoughts drifted to Mal briefly, and her eyes opened with a hesitant question.

“Tobin?”

“Yeah?”

“Was…” Come on Christen, you just kissed her, you can ask her this. “Was this a date?”

Tobin’s hands stopped moving through her hair, and Christen was suddenly too frightened to turn her head to the side to see the expression on her face. Just when she thought she’d forgotten how to breathe, Tobin let out a soft, comforting laugh.

“Um…” Tobin’s voice sounded a little flustered, and Christen finally found the courage to twist her head to look over at her. Their eyes met and they both melted a bit, smiling at each other until Tobin remembered to speak again. “I think I thought it was going to be. I had hyped myself up for so long before asking you here that it was going to be a date.”

Christen smiled at how cute and nervous Tobin was being. She took one of her hands in hers, squeezing at it reassuringly. The silent encouragement spurred Tobin on.

“But when I asked you, I realized just how huge it was for you to be coming back to the soccer field, and to be coming back without Mal. And I didn’t want to put anything more on you by making this a date, like more pressure or something that might make you nervous. I know this was a big moment for you, so I wanted you to have it just for you.”

A lump formed in Christen’s throat as she listened to Tobin’s words. It was so clear that Tobin cared so much, and that her empathy and intentionality was present in everything she did. Tobin hadn’t wanted to overshadow Christen’s moment of being back on the field, hadn’t wanted to rush her into anything.

“You let me go at my own pace.” Christen murmured as she kissed their intertwined hands. “You let me kiss you.”

Tobin nodded, her eyes glistening just like Christen’s. “Yeah.”

A sudden urge to be close to Tobin again, closer than they were, ran through Christen. She turned her body, pushing herself up to where Tobin lay and rested her head on her shoulder. “Thank you, Tobin. That…that means everything.”

“Anything for you, Chris.” Tobin’s arm came around the back of her neck, pulling her in tighter. “But for the record, I would definitely love to take you on a date. On a real one, and I’d do it properly. If that’s what you want.”

Despite the fact that they had just kissed and had been physically closer than ever before, Christen blushed at the question, still being unable to comprehend that Tobin was really asking her that. “I would love that.”

“Good.” Tobin hummed in happy finality, both of them looking up at the sky and the clouds that were passing them by.

“Mal totally thought this was a date.”

“Did she?”

“Yeah.” Christen laughed, feeling Tobin laughing under her as well. “She swore up and down anyone with a brain could figure that out.”

“Did you think this was a date?”

“I hadn’t thought about it, until Mal started saying that. I was too nervous about playing soccer with you again. But when she did, the idea of it sounded pretty good.”

“Pretty good, hey?” The grin was evident in Tobin’s tone of voice.

“Yeah. Really good.” Christen beamed. “But you were right. All of the thoughts of whether this was a date or not just faded when I got to the field. All I could think about was how I’d left soccer, and how I was going to find myself in it again. And when I did, when you were here with me, it all clicked into place. You clicked into place.”

“I’m glad.” Tobin murmured, her thumb gently stroking over Christen’s shoulder. “You’re incredible, you know that?”

“I know.”

Tobin just laughed, shaking her head fondly. “And absolutely gorgeous.”

“I know.”

“And you have really good taste in women.”

Now Christen was laughing, rolling her eyes at Tobin. “See? A complete dork.”

---

Two hours later, more talking, more kicking the ball around, more attempting to nutmeg Tobin with two successes, the two women were finally packing up their things on the side of the field.

Christen checked her phone for the first time since she’d met up with Tobin. She had a lot of missed texts, mostly from Mal, which spanned from encouraging motivation to teasing to the last three which just said –

 

Mallory Press 5:28pm

word got out about your ‘maybe date’ and now the team is voting on whether they think it is a date or not

i swear i didn’t say anything to anyone, chris! this was all kelley and alex

(but for the record it was totally a date)

 

“Oh dang.”

“What’s wrong?” Tobin was halfway through putting her socks in her bag, looking over at Christen who was holding her phone.

“No, nothing’s wrong.” Christen smiled easily, though groaned as she scrolled up on her phone again before tossing it to Tobin. “I guess there’s no secrets in this team.”

Tobin read the messages from Mal, laughing but also sighing in exasperation. “I really don’t know what I expected when I told those two. Are you okay that everyone knows? I know they can all be pretty overbearing sometimes, and – ”

“Tobs, hey, it’s fine. I promise it’s not a big deal. I love them all. It’s nice having so many friends around. It hasn’t always been that way for me. This kind of light hearted teasing and bonding is what I miss the most about being part of a team.”

Tobin’s face was stuck between a happy and sad smile at Christen’s admission. “Okay. Well, brace yourself, is all I’m saying.”

“Nothing we can’t handle.” Christen said with a wink, accepting Tobin’s outstretched hand as she pulled herself up and they began the walk back to the hotel.

Christen knew she probably looked like a dumbstruck fool, walking in giddiness with a blushing smile on her face that just wouldn’t quit. Next to her, Tobin wasn’t faring any better. Their hands brushed nervously past each other more times than they could count before Christen finally found the courage to clasp them together properly, feeling the perfect way Tobin’s hand fitted into hers.

It was scary, almost, at how fast Tobin had embedded herself in Christen’s heart.

They were three blocks away from the hotel when Tobin’s thumb started stroking against the back of Christen’s palm soothingly.

They were two blocks away from the hotel when Christen readjusted the hat sitting on Tobin’s head, curling a piece of her hair behind her ear while they waited for the crossing light to go green.

They were one block away from the hotel when –

“Hey.” Tobin said, giving Christen a quick, small kiss when she turned her way.

Christen almost tripped over her own feet when that happened, blushing and smiling and gripping Tobin’s hand tight to keep her steady.

“Ass.”

Tobin laughed, clearly enjoying herself. “You liked it.”

“I don’t know, it was over so quickly. I’d have to get another one to be sure.”

“If you’re lucky.”

Christen stopped in her tracks, pulling Tobin close to her. “I’m feeling pretty lucky.”

Tobin’s lips molded against hers and Christen swore she’d never do anything wrong for as long as she lived if she got to keep kissing Tobin like this. It was soft and it was sweet and it was the most amazing thing Christen had experienced. They were there together, like it was inevitable. They weren’t going anywhere.

They both broke apart to breathe, Christen kissing Tobin once more softly as she moved away, smiling so deeply her eyes crinkled. “Okay, yeah. I definitely liked it.”

Tobin’s eyes squeezed together like she physically didn’t know what to do with her face. “Chris, you…you can’t do stuff like that. You’re too cute. I can’t handle it.”

Trailing her eyes on the ground for fear her face had turned permanently red in a blush, Christen pulled them forward again, continuing the short walk to the hotel. When they were almost at the entrance, Tobin stopped them, pulling Christen to the side.

“Just in case Kelley is camped out in the lobby waiting to ambush us, I wanted to tell you something.”

It was really hard to concentrate on what Tobin was saying when she was still holding her hand, pressed almost into her side as they stood close together, but Christen tried.

“I like you, Christen. I really, really like you. I’ve liked you for 12 years. And now that you’re here with me, I want to do this properly. I know things are a bit hectic here at camp, but I want to talk to you about us, and I want to know what you’re feeling. That’s really important to me.” Tobin said, seeing Christen nod in agreement. “Would it be okay if we talked after playing Costa Rica tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

“And I…I just want you to know that we can move at our own pace. There’s no rush on anything. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”

“Me too. I’m right here.” Christen squeezed Tobin’s hand, feeling a deep sense of security and peace at Tobin’s words. They weren’t together yet, Tobin wasn’t her girlfriend, but already she was showing how communicative she was, how open she was. She was giving Christen every reason to trust her, and with the way Christen melted every time she looked at her, it was working.

So what if Tobin had captured her heart totally and completely? So what if she fell too fast? When Christen was staring into her kind eyes, seeing that tiny smile quirk at the corner of her lips, it was worth it.

“For the record, Tobin, I really, really like you, too.”

----------

If they were lured into a false sense of security when no one hounded them upon their entry into the lobby, that totally disappeared when they walked into the dining area for dinner. They weren’t even holding hands, Tobin walking a few steps ahead of Christen, but the entire team still erupted into chatter and cheers, painting a blush on both of their faces.

Christen could barely make eye contact with any of them, seeking out Mal to go and check on her and saying nothing to anyone else. Tobin walked straight to where the food was, trying and failing to keep the smile off her face.

Christen almost laughed when she got to where Mal was sitting. Her baby sister was buzzing in anticipation, almost falling off her seat with excitement. Christen could see Mal was practically bursting with the desire to ask her 10 million questions and was doing everything in her power to contain herself.

“Not a single word. We’ll talk later.” Christen murmured into Mal’s ear as she wrapped her in a hug from behind. Mal had to put her hand over her mouth to muffle her squeal, knowing that meant something good had happened.

Christen tried to play it cool, desperately avoiding looking over at Tobin where she could see her out of the corner of her eye. They’d been together all afternoon and it hadn’t even been one minute apart but she already missed having her close.

She stole a couple of carrot sticks off Mal’s plate, still standing behind her. “Did you finish your school work?”

“Yeah. Becky helped look over my English report because she’d already read the book.”

Becky, sitting opposite Mal, waved off Christen’s grateful smile, telling her it was no big deal. Sonnett then started complaining to Becky that she’d never helped her with any of her college work last year, and Christen took that as her cue to go and get some food.

Tobin was still getting her dinner as well, standing a few stations down at the vegetable section as she stared absently at the broccoli with a dumb smile on her face. Christen chanced a glance at her and knew it was a mistake, because then she got the same dumb smile on her face and it just wouldn’t quit.

“I know that smile.”

The voice next to Christen startled her, almost making her drop the spoon for the pasta she was holding. “Ali, hey.”

Ali laughed, placing a hand on Christen’s shoulder. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No, you’re fine. I was zoning out, anyways.”

Ali’s eyes involuntarily flicked to where Tobin was still standing, and a tiny grin came on her face. “I can see. So I take it the date went well?”

“Not a date.”

“Of course.” Ali’s eyebrow raise told Christen that she didn’t really believe her. “Well, then I take it the non-date went well?”

“It went well.” The smile burst onto Christen’s face whether she wanted it to or not. “Really well.”

“Yes, girl! That’s what I like to hear.”

Christen couldn’t help but laugh, Ali’s infectious energy rubbing off on her. Ali and Ash were two people she wished she’d gotten to spend more time with. Every time she had, she was left feeling so loved and supported. She admired their strength as a couple and as individuals, and she deeply appreciated how respectful they were of her and Mal.

“Mal is going to be so mad if I talk to someone else about it before her.”

“Hey, I get that, sister privilege.” Ali smiled easily. “If you ever need another ear, just know I’m here.”

“Thanks, Ali. I appreciate that.”

Said sister privilege was invoked as soon as Christen had put the last forkful of dinner into her mouth, Mal practically dragging her out of her seat. As she walked past everyone towards the exit, she couldn’t help but sneak a look at Tobin. It seemed Tobin also had the same idea, because when their eyes met with those smiles on their faces it was like everything else in the room disappeared.

Someone, maybe Alex or Kelley, yelled out a cheer that got Christen moving again, blushing as she went. Mal was bouncing on her feet the entire elevator ride up, tapping the key card impatiently against the door to Christen’s room and turning on her as soon as it shut behind them.

“You totally kissed.”

“Mal, let a girl breathe.” Christen tried, but she couldn’t look at Mal without blushing and smiling stupidly, and she knew it would be pointless to try and deny it.

“Oh my god, you kissed!” Mal exclaimed to the room, hands on her head in disbelief as she started walking around like she didn’t know how to comprehend the information. “Tell me everything.”

And so Christen did. Mal was absolutely enthralled, she loved listening to Christen talking excitedly about her life. This was new for both of them, and they fed off each other’s high energy. It wasn’t often that Christen had riveting news to tell Mal. Usually it was Mal having life experiences and getting to share them with her.

Christen breathed a deep sigh of relief when she heard the door to the Diner open, seeing Mal walk in. It was half an hour later than the 12 year old usually got there after school, and Christen had almost started to panic that something bad had happened.

She tried not to get an impatient look on her face as the man she was serving took a whole minute to decide whether he wanted his sandwich toasted or not. He finally made his mind up and she plastered on a smile, ripping off the order and practically throwing it into the kitchen with an apologetic look as she raced over to where Mal sat in her usual booth.

“Hi, baby. I was starting to get worried.” She leant down to kiss Mal on the cheek, but her sister squirmed away. She pulled back to look at Mal curiously, having never had that reaction from her before. When she studied her face, she saw Mal was blushing and was fidgeting with her hands. “What’s going on?”

Instead of answering, Mal reached up her hands to hug Christen and kissed her on the cheek, pulling back the slightest bit so they were face to face. “Hi, Chris. You can kiss me here.”

Christen wore a bemused expression as Mal pointed to her forehead, but she kissed her there anyways, wondering all the while what had gotten into her goofy baby sister. “And what have I done to have cheek kissing privileges revoked?”

Mal laughed, blushing more. She cupped her right cheek, almost like she was protecting it. Her eyes got nervous, just like her smile, and she leaned in to whisper so quietly Christen barely heard her. “A boy kissed me on the cheek after school.”

That was the last thing Christen was expecting to hear. She felt about 50 different emotions at once – despair that her baby sister was growing up so fast, shock that it had happened, heart melting that Mal was being so precious about it, and had told her straight away – but she tried to keep her expression light.

Mal would always be her baby sister, and Christen would always try to protect her. But she didn’t need to protect Mal from (what she hoped) was just a sweet boy kissing her cheek.  

She was 12, that was about as harmless as it could get. Christen knew Mal knew all she needed to know at that age about feelings, dating, boys and girls – Mal loudly complained every time Christen made her sit down to discuss it. But Mal was innocent, she knew she was. She didn’t have to worry about her. Mal would sooner quit soccer than do something she knew Christen would disapprove of.

So here they were, in the middle of Christen’s shift, Mal having her first brush of pre-pubescent romance and sharing it all with a blushing smile to her older sister. Christen wished she could capture this moment and have it forever.

“A boy kissed you on the cheek?” Christen responded in a stage whisper, causing Mal to laugh and shush her, her face still beet red. She was about to ask Mal to give her all the details, but then she heard the chef call out to her.

“Christen, order up!”

Christen groaned, poking a face at Mal as she heard herself get called back to work. She felt terrible leaving Mal hanging like this when the young girl was so clearly bursting at the seams to spill what had happened to her. But she’d get a break soon, and they’d be able to go home soon after that.

“I’m sorry, baby. I want to hear about this so bad. On my break we’ll talk, okay?” She barely waited for Mal to nod, kissing the side of her head before getting back to it. A while later, she looked over at Mal and struggled to keep her laugh in.

Mal was sitting there, pencil in hand, staring at her homework with far away eyes and a dopey smile on her face. Christen wanted to squeal at how cute the scene was, knowing Mal would be replaying the tiny cheek kiss over and over in her mind. If her baby sister had to grow up, she was glad it was this slow and adorable.

She didn’t want to think how the cheek kiss Mal got meant her 12 year old sister clearly had more game than she does. Christen was 22, and hadn’t let anyone get that close to her in years. The last time she kissed someone was coming up probably four years ago.

She definitely didn’t want to think about the person her mind drifted to when she thought about kissing someone, a person she hasn’t seen in 7 years but who she missed with every fibre of her being.

She was sure Tobin was out there, kissing people. People that weren’t her.

“I’ll…have….the rice bowl.” The person at the table finally decided, snapping Christen out of her daydream. Christen smiled and nodded, one eyebrow still half raised as she looked at the customer, not entirely sure he was confident in his order.

“The rice bowl?”

“Um…yes.”

Well, she’d given him the chance. She took his order and handed it into the kitchen, feeling like it was about time to take her break when a table of 8 walked in.  

She hadn’t even opened her mouth to ask before her manager gave her pleading eyes to take the table, knowing they were short on people. Christen sighed internally, glancing a look over at Mal. She felt bad delaying their chat, but when she saw Mal still with that same smile on her face, she knew she would be okay with it.  

By the time she’d taken the orders of the table and come back, her colleague had informed her that rice bowl man had in fact changed his mind, right as the chef had finished making it.

“Are you fucking….oh my god.” Christen swore under her breath, shooting a look at her colleague that she wholeheartedly reciprocated, a kind of ‘get me the fuck out of this place before I lose it’ look.

Taking the rice bowl, she informed the chef of the man’s new order before grabbing a fork and heading over to the booth Mal was sitting at. At least she could give Mal dinner now, and at least the food wouldn’t be wasted entirely.  

“Look at you, you get kissed once and suddenly you’re too good for your homework?”

“Christen!” Mal snapped out of her daze, her face blushing even more at what Christen had said as she slapped at her arm. “That’s top secret information.”

“Oh, of course. How silly of me.” Christen grinned, putting a glass of water down in front of Mal. “Can you at least humor me and pretend to write something on this worksheet? It won’t finish itself.”

“I have, see?”

Christen just rolled her eyes when Mal showed her where she’d written her name on the top of the worksheet. “Hey, you don’t get to be funny. I’m the funny sister. Go find another thing to be.” She laughed before kissing Mal’s head. “Here, eat this for dinner, okay?”

“Thanks. Are you eating as well?”

“Not until later.” Christen crouched beside the booth, so she was more eye level with Mal. “We’ve got really busy all of a sudden, my manager wants me to work through my break. But she said if I do that, as soon as it dies down we can leave. I know you were looking forward to talking to me, but would it be okay if that waited? It should still be light out and we can walk, and then you can tell me all about this boy.”

She ended with a little grin, watching Mal blush as her pout at Christen continuing to work turned into a smile. “Okay.”

“Yeah?” Christen was filled with relief, once again sending thanks to the universe that Mal was such an easy going kid. She stood up, kissing her on the head again. “Thank you for understanding. I love you, baby.”  

“Love you, too.”  

Mal gave her the biggest smile she could, and Christen kept the sight of it in her mind for motivation for the next two hours before she was finally given the all clear from her manager to head off.

“Freedom!” She yelled out when they had walked at least a block away from the diner, not wanting to be overheard by anyone else.

Mal laughed next to her, grabbing her hand as she hopped over some stumps in the pavement before jumping onto a bus bench, pulling Christen back by her shoulders.

“Alright, lazy bones, get on.”

Mal basically jumped onto her back, feeling her legs wrap around her waist and her arms hand loosely around her neck. Mal was lucky she was small for her age. “So, tell me, tell me, tell me! Who is this boy, where did it happen?”

Christen listened with rapt attention as Mal recounted the day to her. The boy, Luke, had seen her doing this soccer trick at lunch time. He’d run to find her when the final bell rang, asking her to stay back to teach him. When she’d stayed with him until he mastered it he hugged her, then quickly pecked her cheek as he ran off, yelling that he’d see her at school tomorrow.

While Mal was telling this, she was breaking off pieces of a cream cheese filled bagel that the Diner chef had tossed to Christen on her way out and was feeding it to Christen from where she was held on her back. Mal got so excited at one part of her recount of the day she’d missed Christen’s mouth completely, the piece of bagel flying into her cheek making them laugh so much Christen had to put her on the ground so as to not drop her.

They happily walked side by side, Mal excitedly grabbing Christen’s hand when the parts of the story she was telling were really good. Christen gave her full attention to Mal, reacting in all the right places and making excited comments to her.

She was genuinely so overjoyed her sister had experienced such a wholesome thing that had made her so happy. Not to mention she felt so reaffirmed in the trust between the two of them that Mal hadn’t wanted to hide this from her at all. She was so excited to tell Christen, and it relieved the woman beyond measure that Mal knew she could always tell her anything.

“Luke sounds like a cool kid.” She said, as Mal nodded in agreement. “So, your first cheek kiss from a boy. Final thoughts?”

Mal giggled when Christen held a hand out to her mouth like she was holding a microphone. “Hmm…not gross. It was nice. Good. Yeah.” She blushed again.

“Obviously you lose points because it was a boy.” Christen laughed at Mal’s face when she said that, dodging away from her trying to whack her arm.

“Hey, you promised me when I was younger that you wouldn’t discriminate against me if I was straight!” Mal laughed hard when Christen absolutely lost it when she said that. Her older sister was doubled over, tears almost leaking out of her eyes.  

“Okay, maybe you are the funny sister.” Christen managed to get out around her laughs. She absolutely adored Mal’s sense of humor, and the story behind Mal’s statement was one of her favorite memories of a little Mal. “You’re killing me, kid. That was so good.”

Mal just laughed more, jumping back onto Christen’s back. “Well, I’m too young for a boyfriend, anyways.”

A small part of Christen was relieved when she heard that. She wasn’t about to coddle Mal forever, but she also wasn’t ready for her baby sister to grow up that quickly. “You said it, not me.”

“You’re probably thinking it.”

“Perhaps.” Christen grinned, hoisting Mal up on her back more. “So have I been banned from cheek kissing for life? Has Luke already overtaken me?”

A giggle left Mal’s mouth as her blush returned, and she buried her head in Christen’s shoulder. “No one will ever overtake you, Chris. You’re my number one.” Mal jumped down from Christen’s back. “Of course you can kiss my cheeks. But tonight I’m saving this cheek. Just for tonight."  

Christen wanted to cry at how adorable Mal was as she walked next to her, cupping her right cheek where her school mate had kissed her that afternoon. She felt like her heart had melted, and she just wanted to pick Mal up and never let her go.

“Well thank goodness,” She said with a grin, wrapping her arm around Mal’s shoulders and leaning down to peck her left cheek over and over. “You’re my number one, as well, baby. Always.”

“I can’t believe this!” Mal squealed out in excitement, covering her face with her hands as she tried to comprehend the story of Christen kissing Tobin at the field. “Well, actually I can. You two have been so heart eyes for each other since the moment you met again in January. But oh my god, Chris, you actually did it. I’m overwhelmed.”

Mal flopped on her back onto the bed, and Christen did the same beside her.

“If you’re overwhelmed, I don’t even know what I am. Today feels like a fever dream. Ouch! Mal!”

“What? I’m pinching you to tell you it’s real.” Mal grinned playfully, rubbing at her arm to soothe the pain. “So, was I right? Was it a date?”

Christen laughed. “Well, Tobin said she intended it to be at first, but she realized how important it was for me to be comfortable on the field and not worry about something else. So this wasn’t really a date, but she did ask me on a proper one.”

“She did?”

“Yeah. She said she really likes me.”

“And you really like her.”

“I do.”

Mal squealed again, unable to contain her excitement. “She clearly cares about you so much.”

“She does. It’s a little scary.”

“Scary?” Mal sat up on her side, leaning on her elbow to look at Christen as she listened to her.

“I just…I feel so much for her. I’ve cared about her for so long. And since we’ve reconnected I feel like every day our bond gets stronger. Being around her is the most amazing thing. But I’ve never felt like this about anyone. I’m trying not to let it overwhelm me right now. But it could. I know it could. That’s why it’s scary.”

Mal reached a hand over to hold Christen’s. “I think that’s normal when people care a lot, to be scared of losing something so great. If it doesn’t scare you I don’t think it’s worth pursuing. But you don’t have to jump right in with her, either. This is new for you.”

“I know.” Christen knew well. She’d never dated anyone properly, could never afford the time away from Mal to devote to anyone else. Not that she’d ever let anyone close enough to be given the chance. “You’re right. I think I’ll feel better once we’ve talked properly about it. Tobin said we should talk after the game tomorrow.”

“That sounds good.” Mal got a grin on her face. “I bet she’ll play so good tomorrow. She’ll be showing off for you.”

Christen rolled her eyes, shoving Mal’s arm. But she couldn’t deny the smile that set on her face at that thought – that even in a serious game, with a crowd of thousands watching, Tobin would be thinking about her.

----------

It was having that thought that made what she heard at the game the next day so much harder to stomach.

The morning had started off great. To her immense surprise, Tobin had woken early, knocking on her door to ask if she wanted to get coffee. It was an afternoon game, meaning their routine would have to start earlier than usual.

The night apart hadn’t set in any awkwardness between them. They were still blushing, shy idiots around each other, brushing their hands together until one of them was brave enough to intertwine their fingers. They still looked at each other with those dumb smiles, still teased each other, still talked about anything and everything.

Still looked at each other like the rest of the world just disappeared.

They hadn’t kissed again, but after Christen had sent Mal off to the bus with a massive hug, wishing her all the best, Tobin had hugged her as well, burying her head into her neck. Christen had felt her place a delicate kiss on her skin there before she let go and walked towards the bus. Christen was so dazed by the move she barely remembered to wish her good luck.

They were playing Costa Rica, and Christen hadn’t thought anything of it. She hadn’t known to think anything of it.

She soon realized that was the problem.

She had always known Tobin, had always held her close to her heart. She knew her well when they were 15, she had followed her career at arms-length but it was still enough to know where she’d ended up. They reconnected this year and they worked so seamlessly together that she felt like they’d never been apart.

But they had. And Christen was realizing there was a lot about Tobin, a lot that had happened in their time apart, that she didn’t know.

She hadn’t meant to listen in on the conversation that was happening in the row behind her. But the women, who Christen was pretty sure were relations of Allie Long, were talking loud. And with Zach and Servando not joining her in watching the qualifying games until the semi-finals, Christen had no one beside her to distract her.

“Look, that’s Shirley Cruz. The number 10.” One of the women behind her had said, and Christen’s eyes involuntarily flicked over to her. She was warming up with her team, the US yet to take the field, but Christen didn’t know why someone would be pointing her out.

And then the next woman spoke.

“Oh, so that’s her? No wonder she’s got Tobin’s eye, she’s beautiful.”

“No, Allie told me they broke up.”  

“Well, Tobin was definitely still going to Paris to visit her late last year, I remember because Allie met up with her in Spain in December.”

“Oh, well maybe they are still together, I don’t know. They’ll be feisty on the field tonight in any case. I’m excited.”  

Christen’s heart had dropped to her stomach with every new word the women had spoken. It was a lot to take in all at once, and she struggled to make sense of it.

She’d been so wrapped up in Tobin, so entranced in what was happening between them that she didn’t even think about this. Just because Christen didn’t have a past with anyone, that didn’t mean that Tobin didn’t either.

It was then that Christen realized just how fast she’d moved in her own mind with Tobin. Sure, she’d always had a crush on her, and she hadn’t stopped thinking about her in 12 years. But 12 years was a long time. So much had happened, clearly for the both of them. Was one month being back together really enough time to settle the years they’d been apart?

The more Christen thought about it, the more she convinced herself it wasn’t. From what she’d heard there was a chance that Tobin and Shirley were still together. Could that be true?

As soon as that thought crossed her mind, she threw it out. She couldn’t believe she’d even for a second think Tobin was that kind of person. She might not know a big part of her life, but she knew Tobin’s heart. Tobin would never cheat on anyone, she just wouldn’t.

But this breakup sounded recent. And it sounded like they’d been together for a while. Christen didn’t know what to think about it. She knew she couldn’t be angry that she didn’t know – she’d never asked Tobin and it’s not like Tobin had been purposefully deceitful. It was just the last thing she expected to hear today, and it threw her. As much as she tried not to, she got completely in her head about it.

Tobin was embedded in her heart, but it made her nervous that there was so much of her life she didn’t know about. She worried that she was assuming Tobin was the same person she was 12 years ago. Then she panicked that Tobin was doing the same, because Christen was definitely not who she was at 15.

What hurt the most for her, and what she figured was the source of the underlying embarrassment, was that Tobin was clearly going to be on this field thinking about someone else other than her. And of course there was nothing wrong with that. It was completely normal. But she just couldn’t shake the shock of it. She’d gotten so wrapped up in Tobin, especially from yesterday, that she’d fooled herself into thinking she would be the only one on Tobin’s mind.

Her brain was in such an overdrive she didn’t even realize the teams were lined up for the start of the game. Mal was clearly excited, this being potentially her second cap tonight if all went well. Christen plastered a smile on her face, keeping her eyes trained on Mal as she waved to her, both of them sending their kiss to each other.

The game was great, but Christen struggled to get into it. They went up 3-0 in the first half, and Tobin scored in the second. But the only time Christen really came alive was when Mal came on the field in the 68th minute. She pushed aside her own feelings, cheering her heart out when she did something great, encouraging her under her breath like Mal could hear her all the way from the field.

It was a comprehensive 5-0 victory. Christen sat with her leg tapping up and down as she watched the players after the game. She smiled when she saw Alex swinging Mal around in a hug, and when Sonnett and Lindsey were trying to perfect their handshake. She watched Julie and Crystal laughing together, and then she saw Tobin.

Tobin was moving away from the group of the US players, slowly walking over until she reached the red number 10 Costa Rican jersey. It barely looked like they talked before they had their arms wrapped around each other, and Christen made herself look away.

She wished she could turn her ears off from hearing the gossiping of the women behind her again, though, as they were analyzing the hug second by second. It wasn’t doing her state of mind any favors.

She stared at the fabric of her jeans intently until she felt the crowd around her start to dissipate. When she looked up, she saw Mal waiting for her at the barrier.

“Your second cap! Baby, I’m so proud of you.” Christen hugged Mal, burying her face into her neck, maybe holding onto her longer than she usually would have. Mal didn’t mention anything, probably thinking this was just Christen’s way of showing her pride. It was the first time in the two hours that had passed where Christen had felt the smallest bit better.

“Thanks, Chris. I saw you cheering for me.”

“Always.”

“And I told you Tobin would show off. That goal she scored was totally for you.”

Christen thought she’d be prepared, thought she’d be able to play it off, but the downtrodden look passed by her face too slowly and Mal frowned.

“Chris? What’s wrong?”

It was neither the time nor the place to be talking about this. Luckily, Christen didn’t have to come up with an excuse, because Rose yelled from a few feet away, calling Mal’s name as the team was being lead back to the tunnel.

Mal turned back to Christen, clearly conflicted, and Christen shook her head.

“Go, Mal. It’s nothing, just me overthinking things. We’ll talk later, okay?”

“Aren’t you going to come in the tunnel?”

Christen shook her head, not being ready to potentially face Tobin when she still had to wrap her mind around what it was thinking. “I’m just going to go back to the hotel. I’ll see you there, okay? Go have fun with the team.”

“Chris – ”

“Baby, look at me. I promise you I’m fine.” Christen put her hands on Mal’s shoulders, squeezing them and giving her a smile. “Go on, okay?”

“Okay. But we’re talking later!” Mal hugged her once more before taking off to join her friends. Christen turned and walked straight up the stairs, not wanting to be in that stadium any longer than she had to.

---

An hour later there was a knock at the hotel door. Christen’s heart jumped in its chest, even though she knew it was probably just Mal. She was so confident in that assumption, in fact, that she didn’t even check before opening the door.

“Oh, hey.”

“Wow, Christen. Way to make a girl feel special.” Kelley stood on the other side of the door, a grin on her face.

“Sorry, Kelley.” Christen wore an apologetic smile. “I just thought you’d be someone else.”

“Oh? Hoping for a late night visit from a certain number 17?”

Once again, Christen’s defences failed her, and her face gave her away before she could school it.

Confusion took over Kelley’s face. “Or not…Christen, do we need to talk?”

“No, no I’m fine.”

Even a child could have seen her lie. But she was so embarrassed by her internal response to what had happened today. She couldn’t talk about it.

“Are you sure? Because you don’t look fine.”

Of course she didn’t. In the last few hours Christen had near driven herself crazy with the amount of overthinking she’d done.

“No, I am. Everything is fine.”

Kelley’s eyebrows raised, barely trying to hide her suspicion. “Okay, if you say so. In that case I’ll go get Tobin and – ”

“No!” Christen cut Kelley off, and she knew her poorly concealed lie was over when she did. “Don’t get Tobin.”

The last thing she wanted at that point was to see Tobin. Not because she didn’t want to be around her, because god, she wanted to be around her all the time. But she knew she had to work through this before she saw her, otherwise she’d say something stupid. She knew this wasn’t a big deal, it had just completely thrown her, and she needed to process it.

Christen got frustrated at herself that she couldn’t take Kelley up on her offer. But it went against all of her defences to say yes.

“Christen,” Kelley sighed, her face softening as she put a comforting hand on Christen’s arm. “Talk to me, okay? You look so conflicted and I hate to think Tobin has messed up with you already after only one day.”

Kelley’s attempt at a joke got the tiniest laugh out of Christen that she could manage, and she shook her head. “Tobin hasn’t messed up. It’s me, I just…I don’t know.”

“It’s okay to be confused. And it’s also okay to lean on your friends for help when you are. I’m your friend, Christen. I’m here for you, okay?” Kelley didn’t prod or pressure her, she just gave Christen the push she needed. “Do you want to talk?”

Christen let her mouth speak before her brain could catch up and stop her. “Please.”

Kelley looked a bit surprised that her words had actually worked, but she moved into the room and sat down on the bed. Christen perched beside her, and it took her a while to say something. She was suddenly very unsure about how to start the conversation.

“What’s going on, Christen?”

“Um,” Christen trailed off before she could start, staring at the floor before helplessly turning to Kelley.

“It’s okay, just take your time. If it’s not me you want to talk to, I can get someone else.”

“No, no I do. You’re a good friend, Kelley. I’m sorry. I just don’t know how to start this. Because it’s about Tobin.”

“Okay,” Kelley nodded, waiting patiently and easily for Christen to continue. When she still didn’t say anything, Kelley spoke again. “Do you want me to text Ali? I know y’all haven’t really gotten the chance to spend time together properly, but if there’s one person who is good at relationship chat, it’s definitely her.”

“Yes,” The reply was instantaneous, Christen feeling a sense of relief at Kelley’s suggestion. She remembered her conversation with Ali yesterday. Knowing she was dating Ashlyn and might have some clue about how to navigate this helped Christen’s mind a lot. “Please, that would be great.”

Within a few minutes Ali had entered the room, and although Christen felt safe and trusted the two of them, she was just stuck.

“I’m sorry, this is all new for me. I…I don’t really know how to start this conversation, and I really hope what I say doesn’t come out wrong, because I know it could and I don’t want you to judge me for it – ”

“Christen, we would never judge you.” Kelley sat up, squeezing her hand. “I promise whatever you have to say is safe with us.”

Deep breaths, Christen. You can do this.

“At the game today, I overheard some people talking about Tobin and Shirley Cruz. And up until then I’d never heard of Shirley Cruz before.” Christen paused, waiting to see their reactions. Kelley’s face formed into an understanding ‘oh’ look, suddenly catching on to why Christen was acting the way she was. Ali had her expression schooled, waiting for her to keep talking.

“I, uh…I guess I just need some help to make sense of it. I wasn’t sure from what I heard whether they’re still together, or if they’ve only just broken up, and then I saw them hug at the end and –” She stopped herself, looking helplessly at the two woman as she heard her own words. “Please don’t think I’m some crazy, jealous person that kissed Tobin a couple of times and now I think she’s mine. Or that I want to control what she does. I swear that’s not what this is about. I just…I’ve never been in a relationship before. Which I know is – I’m 27. I uh…The information just overwhelmed me. It made me realize there’s so much about Tobin I don’t know. And then I got in my own head about it, as you can see.”

The room was silent for a bit. With each second that passed Christen felt her insides screw up so tight she might throw up. Just as she was about to say something, Kelley started speaking.

“Tobin and Shirley aren’t together anymore. They broke up for good in December last year. Tobin would never, she would never lead someone on or kiss someone or do anything with someone else if she was still in a relationship. She’s not that person.”

Christen nodded furiously, feeling incredibly guilty. She was worried Kelley would judge her for even suggesting it, even though she didn’t believe it, that was just what she had heard. Tobin was Kelley’s friend first, and she would want to defend her, of course.

“No, I know that. I’m sorry if I insinuated that she would do that, I never believed it myself. I promise, as soon as I heard what was said and it crossed my mind, I tossed it away. I know Tobin isn’t that person, that’s not what this is about. I probably sound crazy – ”

“Christen, hey, it’s okay.” Kelley stopped her rambling, taking her hand. “I promise we don’t think that. It’s entirely understandable to hear something so vague like that and wonder about things because you don’t know what’s going on. You don’t have to justify yourself to us, it won’t help you work through the thoughts in your head.”

Ali nodded, smiling comfortingly. “You’re only human, Christen. If you heard what you heard and didn’t have all these questions you have, it would be weird. I can see this is really hard for you to talk about, but I know it’ll help you for when you talk to Tobin about this. Because you know you need to talk to Tobin about this, right?”

Christen nodded, knowing Ali was right. As much as she wished she could conveniently forget about what she’d heard and go back to being completely infatuated with Tobin, she knew they’d have to have a conversation.

“This isn’t our story to tell, you’ll have to ask Tobin for the full version. The short one is that Tobin and Shirley dated for two years consistently when they were playing at PSG together, and then on and off all of last year.” Christen listened to Ali speak with complete attention. “It ended fine, but Tobin feels guilty for breaking up with her because it’s Tobin and she never wants to hurt anyone. That hug you saw today, that was Tobin’s way of apologizing and seeing if she was doing okay.”

“But there’s nothing more there,” Kelley carried on from Ali. “Nothing at all. Tobin hadn’t had her heart in that relationship for a long time. And all the time I saw her with Shirley, I never saw her act the way she does when she’s around you.”

Christen blushed, feeling her heart rate slowly return to normal now that she was talking through her worries instead of bottling them up. “I’m not jealous, I swear. Whatever Tobin did before we met again, that’s her life. I would never get mad at her for living it. ”

“We know, Christen. You’re just trying to wrap your head around it all, and that’s okay.”

Kelley nodded. “It has been what, 12 years since y’all last saw each other? A lot has happened in that time, for both of you.”

“I know.” Christen picked at the duvet on the beds, willing herself to be brave and keep talking. “I guess I must have assumed that Tobin and I were different. I met her at 15 and I never forgot her. And while I didn’t know if we would ever see each other again, every time I looked at the ring on my finger I was reminded how incredible she was. She gave me so much strength. And now we’ve met again, and I find out she thought the same of me, that my ring gave her strength, and I just guess I blocked out everything else because – ”

“Hold the fucking phone,” Kelley’s eyes were wide, and she had Christen’s hand in a crushing grip. “The ring Tobin wears on her finger is yours? She’s been wearing your ring for 12 years? And you’ve been wearing hers?”

Christen could have laughed at how Kelley looked like she might burst. She nodded, and Kelley let a sound out of her mouth that wasn’t entirely English.

“WHAT!” Kelley’s shriek startled Ali, who was looking partially confused at this latest series of events. “Holy fucking fuck!”

“Care to explain?”

“Ali, holy shit, I feel like I’ve just been told the secrets of the universe.” Kelley sat up on her knees, unable to contain her excitement. “I’ve been wanting to know where Tobin got her ring from for years. Years! You know that ring she wears on her right hand? The one she never takes off?”

Ali nodded, slowly grasping the significance of the story.

“Yeah, well it’s Christen’s! And this,” Kelley grabs Christen’s hand, holding the ring up to Ali’s face so she can see it, “Is Tobin’s! They’ve been wearing each other’s rings since they were 15 years old, Ali. What the actual fuck! I can’t believe Tobin never told me. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me! Who else knows about this? Does Alex know? Alex is going to lose her mind, holy – ”

Ali slapped her hand over Kelley’s mouth, pulling her down into her to shut her up as Christen watched on in amusement. She looked down at Kelley, an eyebrow raised. “I’m excited about this news as well, Kelley, but do you think we can stay on track? I’m not sure seeing you flail about is actually helping Christen.”

The look on Kelley’s face indicated she wasn’t happy about being restrained, but she gave Christen a stare that said they were absolutely going to talk about that more later.

“It’s okay, I feel a bit better, actually.”

Ali smiled gently. “Yeah? How are you thinking about it all now?” 

“I feel good about talking to Tobin. I think if I had seen her before I talked to you two I would have freaked out, said something I didn’t mean. I…I really like her.” Christen blushed at the excited sound Kelley made, her mouth still covered by Ali’s hand. “And that kind of makes everything more complicated. I’ve never felt this strongly about anyone. I think I got ahead of myself, went too fast. I love being around her, but I just need to take it slow.”

“That sounds perfectly normal. You don’t even want to know how long it took Ash and I to sort our shit out. But taking the time to get to know each other first, all the time you’ve spent apart, that gap will close. It’ll give you a strong base to start from.”

“Oh lord above, please don’t take as long as Ali and Ash did to sort it out.” Kelley had taken Ali’s hand off her mouth to speak. “I can’t go through that again, the tension whenever the both of them walked into a room almost killed me.”

“Shut up, O’Hara.” Ali rolled her eyes, before looking back at Christen. “And just so you know, it doesn’t matter at all that you’ve never been in a relationship. Don’t compare yourself to whatever timelines society has created for us, especially not when you were going through all you were in the last decade or so. It doesn’t mean anything, and it shouldn’t make you feel insecure, okay?”

Christen nodded, feeling an underlying rush of embarrassment but ultimately so grateful for Ali’s words. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had a conversation like this with good friends, let alone been the one seeking out advice for someone she liked, no less.

It sounded so stupid and obvious when she thought about it, but talking to people really did help. She had almost pushed Kelley away tonight, and who knows what would have happened then. She knew Tobin was too important not to put the effort in, and as she thought about her, she got an overwhelming urge to seek her out.

It seemed like Ali could sense that, because she shut Kelley up before she could start about the rings again, nodding her head towards Christen. “I think someone wants to go and find Tobin now.”

Kelley got a knowing smile on her face and sat up. “Well, I’m going to go and find your little shit of a sister and make her look me in the eyes and tell me how she could have kept this ring secret from me. And then we’re going to tell Alex and she’s going to absolutely lose it. I can’t wait.”

“Tell Mal I’ll come and see her later, okay?”

“You got it, Press.” 

“And thanks, both of you. I, uh…I’m a bit out of practice with the whole sharing feelings thing. I know it’s probably frustrating to listen to. But I really appreciate you being here.”

“You’re not frustrating at all. This is what friends are for.” Ali hugged her tight, and Kelley did the same. She’d barely said goodbye to them before she heard Tobin approach from the other side.

“Chris, hey.”

She’d just spent the last few hours agonizing about Tobin, but as soon as she saw her, all she wanted to do was be in her arms. When she got close enough she did exactly that, throwing her arms around her shoulders and holding her close.

“Hi.” She murmured back into Tobin’s shoulder, pressing the side of her face into it as she felt Tobin’s arms enclose around her waist. They stayed that close for a few minutes, Christen letting herself enjoy Tobin’s warmth before she took a deep breath in and pulled back, ready to face the conversation ahead.

“I didn’t see you after the game.”

“I know.”

“Is everything okay?”

Tobin looked at her with such soft, caring eyes, that Christen wished more than anything she could take back the last few hours. She felt so ridiculous that she’d ever put into doubt anything about Tobin. She looked at her and her heart just melted.

When Tobin cupped the side of her face, stroking her cheek with a thumb, she blushed and looked at the ground. “It’s nothing. It’s stupid. Really stupid, actually.”

“Nothing you say could be stupid.”

“No, this really is.”

Tobin gently reached behind her and opened the door to her hotel room, leading them to sit side by side on the bed. “Well, I think I need to hear it to decide whether it’s stupid or not. I’ve been around Kelley for far too many years, I think I can spot a stupid comment when I hear one.”

A tiny grin formed on Christen’s face as she stared intently at her hands. How could she even begin to try and explain what her brain had just put her through? How could she tell Tobin the truth without letting herself look like a fool in the process?

“I, uh…I was at the game today.” She stated the obvious, watching as Tobin nodded with an encouraging smile, gently holding her hand in hers. “And I, uh…I heard some things about Shirley. Shirley Cruz.”

“Oh.” The blood rushed out of Tobin’s face so fast Christen hurried to grip her hand and keep talking.

“No, no. Tobin, it’s okay. There’s a lot more to the story. I promise it’s okay.”

Tobin eventually looked at her in the eyes again, worry written over all her features. Christen’s heart hurt at how torn Tobin looked, and all she wanted to do was explain the situation, do anything to wipe that sadness from her face and never see it again.

“It started when I heard this comment from someone behind me.” Christen forced herself to tell the whole truth to Tobin, everything from what she heard to what she was feeling after it, just like she’d told Kelley and Ali. Tobin stayed silent through it all, nodding and holding her hand, the color slowly coming back to her face the more Christen talked.

When she finished, Tobin was silent for a while, just as Kelley and Ali had been. If Christen thought she was nervous waiting for a response from them, it was nothing compared to what she felt like now.

“I’m sorry for not telling you about Shirley sooner, Chris. I know it sounds convenient to say now, but I swear I had planned on telling you after the game. That’s why said yesterday we should wait to talk.”

Christen nodded, squeezing Tobin’s hand reassuringly. “I believe you, I do. I promise I don’t hold anything against you, and I promise I don’t have any issue with the fact you two dated. That would be so unfair of me. I’m not that person.”

A soft smile quirked at the corner of Tobin’s lips, and she brought her other hand to rest over Christen’s, cradling it. “I know. And I promise I don’t think you do. I’m sorry you had to find out that way, though. It can’t have been easy to sit with those thoughts all that time.”

When Tobin said that, Christen’s chest felt like it was about to burst. She’d just freaked out on Tobin for three hours over something that really didn’t matter, and now Tobin was here comforting her about it, validating her feelings about it! She squeezed her eyes shut, leaning her head down until it knocked against Tobin’s shoulder and rested it there. “You’re too good, Tobs. How are you so good? You just…I totally flipped over nothing. And you’re here just…being perfect.”

She felt Tobin laugh softly under her, and one of her hands came up to rub lightly at her back. “I’m not perfect.”

Christen made a grumble of disagreement against Tobin’s shoulder, letting herself enjoy the touch for a while before sitting back up. “I’m sorry for the reactions I had. This is all new for me.”

“What, getting to kiss someone as beautiful as myself?”

The grin on Tobin’s face only widened when Christen rolled her eyes, pushing at her shoulder while she called her an ass. “Yes. But I’m serious. I’ve never been in a relationship before. And I know we’re not in one now, not yet anyway,” She struggled to keep her smile in when Tobin beamed at that, “But…I didn’t not date because I was waiting for you to come back into my life. I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again. I didn’t date because my life has only ever had time for work, taking care of Mal and sleep. In that order.”

A frown flashed across Tobin’s face, her eyes looking pained at Christen’s admission. She squeezed her hands, encouraging her to continue.

“When I did think about dating, and kissing, and having someone, you were always in my mind. You never left. But those things, they didn’t matter to me. I could put all of that behind me if it meant better things for Mal. But now you’re here and…I can’t put you behind me. I can’t let you go. Doing this with you, this is for me. That’s how much you mean to me, Tobin.”

“Chris, I…” Tobin had tears glistening in her eyes. She brought both of Christen’s hands up to her lips, kissing them gently. “You mean so much to me, as well. That was beautiful, what you said. And I know it won’t change that it happened, but it’s devastating hearing about how much you’ve gone through. You’re the strongest person I know. You don’t ever have to be sorry for reacting the way you did today, you don’t have to apologise for your feelings because you’re new to this. It doesn’t matter at all to me whether you’ve dated none or a hundred people.”

Christen let out a laugh at that, matching Tobin’s soft smile.

“I know you think you reacted badly, but you honestly didn’t. You heard some surprising news, you tried to process it, you let people in and let your friends help you, and you told me about it. About all of it. Can you see how far you’ve come? A month ago, would you have done any of that?”

It surprised Christen to realize she’d never thought of it like that. She knew she wouldn’t have done any of that a month ago. She would have shut down completely upon hearing what she heard, pretending everything was fine. She shook her head, seeing Tobin’s smile grow bigger.

“You see? You don’t give yourself enough credit for how well you’re doing, Chris. You can’t control how you feel about things, but you can control how you work through them. That’s exactly what you’re doing.” Tobin brushed her thumb across Christen’s cheek, and she could have cried at how soft it was. “And if you think you weren’t the first person on my mind when my thoughts drifted from the game tonight, you couldn’t be more wrong.”

A blush on Christen’s face grew, right under where Tobin’s thumb rested on her cheek.

“That’s nice to hear. Really nice.” She interlaced her fingers with Tobin’s hand. “Was tonight the first time you saw Shirley since you broke up?”

“Yeah.” A heavy sort of look came across Tobin’s face.

“That must have been hard to deal with. How was it, seeing her again?”

The look rested in Tobin’s eyes for a few seconds longer, before she tried to brush it off. “We don’t have to talk about her, Chris.”

“I know we don’t,” Christen wore a comforting smile, genuinely at peace with the topic, “But it’s clearly on your mind. And it’s totally understandable for it to be. It sounded like you two were together for a while. I don’t want to push you if you don’t want to talk about it, but your feelings matter too. They matter so much. I want to hear about them.”

Tobin gave her a grateful smile, and started talking. She started from the beginning, about how she was in a hectic stage of her life, moving across the world and needing to really figure out who she was as a soccer player. Shirley was there and she was some stability for Tobin. She wasn’t ever really sure if she loved her, not properly, but she cared for her a lot. It was good there, and life in Paris felt like a weird alternate reality, almost like things had stopped back home while she was there.

Last year, 2015, when she came back to the Thorns and back to the States to live, the real cracks in their relationship started to show. Long distance was hard, her heart wasn’t in it, but Shirley was someone important to her. She knows she let it drag out longer than she should have, and even though she was sure Shirley could have seen it coming, the woman was still surprised when she broke up with her in December. She feels bad for how hurt Shirley was about it, but she knew it was the right thing to do.

“Trust me, Chris. When you say you don’t want to let me go I feel the exact same way about you. I always knew we’d meet again. But 12 years is a long time. You were on my mind, always. But life happens, I guess, and it was good with Shirley until it just wasn’t.” Tobin sighed, but looked up at her with a tiny smile. “I met Mal last year, and she reminded me of you so much. I started to think about you more and more, and even the thought of you made my heart beat faster than I had ever felt it with Shirley.”

“Really?” Christen’s heart jumped at that news. So Tobin had been thinking of her last year, before they’d even met. She looked at Tobin seriously. “You didn’t break up with her on the assumption we’d meet again, did you?”

“No, I didn’t.” Tobin laughed lightly at the expression on Christen’s face. “It was inevitable, really. I guess it was just the reminder I needed, of the kind of person I really want to be around.”

Tobin squeezed Christen’s hand when she said that, making her blush again.

“You hugged her, at the end of the game. Were you both okay?”

“Yeah. It was good. Good to see her, and good to see she was doing well. I felt bad, for how it ended. Even though there wasn’t really any animosity, I just hate making people upset.”

“See? You’re too good.”

Tobin smiled, shaking her head. “Thank you, for listening to all of that. I guess I did need to get it off my chest.”

“Of course. I’m here for you, anytime, for anything.” Christen felt grateful she could finally be there for Tobin after all she’d done for her. “I, uh…I think it would be good, if you wanted, if we could talk more about our pasts. What happened in the time we were apart. We don’t have to like, sit down at do it all at once. Just whenever it work, I guess. So we can know more about each other, be less caught off guard when things come up.”

She looked up nervously at Tobin, willing herself to continue. “I’m going to need you to be patient with me, really patient. As you’ve probably seen talking isn’t really my strong suit, and especially not about that time in my life. But I can see how important it is. So much happened for both of us, and it really shaped who we are. I want to know about your life, Tobin. I really do.”

A proud smile crossed Tobin’s face. “I want to know about yours too, whatever you’re willing to tell me. I won’t ever pressure you. That sounds like a really good idea. I know it’s not easy for you. You’re doing so well, Chris.”

Christen blushed, feeling grounded by Tobin’s hands in hers. She could see from the look on Tobin’s face the woman was figuring out how to say her next words to her. She stroked her thumb over the back of Tobin’s palm calmly while she waited.

“We both know how we feel about each other.” Tobin started, smiling shyly. “And I know you’re committed to trying your best, just like I am. But I think – and please don’t take this the wrong way – I think it would be good to take this slow.” She trailed off a bit at the end, waiting for Christen’s reaction.

To Christen’s surprise, Tobin’s words didn’t panic her at all. In fact, she completely agreed, even feeling relieved Tobin had said that.

“I feel like I know you so well in my heart, even though we’ve only spent such little time together. But you’re right, 12 years apart is a long time. And so much did happen. I don’t want to ruin what we have going because we were too willing to skip over that. You’re too important. I may have dated before, been in a relationship before, but none of those compare to how I feel about you. I want to do this right.”

Christen was glad Tobin stopped talking, because if another sweet word came out of her mouth she was going to start crying. She still really couldn’t believe how Tobin was real, sometimes. It was like she knew her so completely, knew what she needed before she even did. “I want to do this right as well. Going slow is good. Going at our own pace.”

“Yeah. I’d like that.”

Christen wanted to kiss Tobin, she really wanted to kiss her. But more than that, she wanted to be close to her. She moved in, pressing her lips against Tobin’s jaw before leaning into Tobin, her head resting on her shoulder. Tobin pulled her closer, wrapping her arms around her as she held her, dropping a kiss to the top of her head.

Christen’s eyes closed in content, one of her hands coming up to clasp at the neck of Tobin’s shirt where her head lay. “Thank you, Tobin. For everything. For being you.”

Tobin just kissed her head again, murmuring out her own thanks back to her. They were in silence for a while, feeling each other close, when Christen remembered a part of her conversation from earlier.

“Oh, and just a heads up? Kelley knows about the rings.”

She felt Tobin laugh under her, groaning at the thought of the bombardment she’d get from Kelley for keeping this a secret for so long. “Well, it was going to happen eventually. Did she lose it?”

Christen grinned. “Yeah, her reaction definitely didn’t disappoint.”

“I can’t tell if I’m glad or not that I missed it.”

“Well, if yesterday was anything to go by, the team isn’t done with their teasing by a long shot.”

“That sounds about right.” Tobin’s voice had a resigned tone to it, like she knew there was no escape.

“You’ll be okay.” Christen laughed when she snuck a look up to see Tobin’s pout. “I’ll be there with you.”

The happiness that settled inside Christen when she saw out of the corner of her eye that Tobin’s pout had changed into a smile at that – just smiling out into the room at the thought of being with Christen – it wiped away any last fragment of whatever had been worrying Christen that day.

Things were early for them, but Tobin had always been in her heart.

They were going to take it slow, but they were both in it together, building a solid foundation.

She would have to talk about her past, but Tobin would be there with her every step of the way.

Tobin scared her, but it was a good kind of scared. It wasn’t a feeling Christen wanted to run away from. Not anymore.

It made Christen know she was alive. Not just surviving, but living. Tobin was the kind of person that made Christen want to be better, want to heal, want to know what was out there for her.

Mal had told Christen that being scared was good. That it let you know what you were fighting for was worth it. That it meant too much to let go.

When she rested against Tobin, feeling how fast both of their hearts were beating, feeling how at home she felt in her arms, she was starting to see just how right Mal was.

 

Chapter Text

It was nice, being held in Tobin’s arms.

Christen felt safe, being held in Tobin’s arms.

She could have fallen asleep, being held in Tobin’s arms.

Could have.

But then there were frantic knocks at the door, and Mal’s voice was calling her name. Christen pulled herself from her state of semi-unconsciousness so fast it took her a few seconds to figure out that Mal wasn’t actually in any danger. Instead, her voice was laced with laughter as she told her to open the door, quick.

“Kelley’s on a warpath but she can’t kill me with witnesses around so we gotta go to the dining room!” Mal’s cheeks were flushed, clearly having run to her room from wherever Kelley was, eyes alight with entertainment. “You told them about the rings! This is so exciting.”

Mal finished talking, and looked past Christen to see Tobin still sitting on the bed. Her eyes flicked back to Christen, one eyebrow quirked.

“I’m good, now. Really good.” Christen said in a quiet voice, answering Mal’s silent question given what Mal had seen of her at the end of the Costa Rica game. She wore a blushing smile that Mal noticed, the younger girl beaming at her in response.

“Come on, Tobin! I’m not getting maimed on account of you being slow.”

Christen laughed at Mal’s statement and turned back to where Tobin was. Her heart almost burst out of her chest as she took in how soft Tobin looked from where she sat, clearly having been in the same position as Christen before of almost falling asleep.

She held her arm to her, clasping her hand open and shut a few times as encouragement for Tobin to get out of bed. Tobin’s hand squeezed hers when she reached it, holding her hand to the elevator and all the way down to the dining room floor. The only reason they pulled apart was because Mal slotted herself in between them, pressing into both of their sides.

“Kelley can’t get me if I have protection.”

Tobin just laughed, shaking her head and wrapping an arm around Mal’s shoulder as they entered the room.

Evidently, word travelled fast in this team. The first ones racing over to them were Sonnett, Lindsey and Rose. Sonnett showed none of the restraint she did a couple of days ago when Christen and Tobin returned from their date – the absence of Becky to keep Sonnett in line was definitely noticeable – and all three of Mal’s best friends were basically falling over each other to look at their rings.

Christen and Tobin blushed, obliging the young women whilst listening to them speak excitedly.

“I can’t believe it, this is so romantic.”

“Kelley was right!”

“Mal how did you keep this a secret?”

“Yeah, Mal, how did you keep this a secret?” Kelley’s voice entered the mix from behind, grabbing Mal under her arms and hauling her away from Tobin and Christen while they were distracted by the women looking at their rings.

Mal shrieked in surprise, laughing hysterically as Kelley held her while Alex tickled her sides, both of them playfully berating the young player on why they weren’t good enough friends for her to have told them.

“Chris! Tobin! Help!” Mal pitifully tried to call out, laughing hysterically as the onslaught continued and Kelley shook her head with a grin.

“Oh no, you’re on your own you little traitor.”

Luckily for Mal, Tobin was well practiced in this treatment from Kelley and Alex, and she stepped over to her. “Don’t worry, Mal, you just have to know Kelley’s weak spots.” Tobin zapped Kelley’s sides, making the woman practically drop Mal in her reaction as she laughed at Tobin, calling her an asshole.

“You want some of me too, Morgan?” Tobin grinned at Alex as Mal managed to scramble away, running back to Christen’s side and hiding behind her as she panted and laughed.

“No, I’m good.” Alex’s hands were up, a similar grin on her face, knowing how rough and ready her and Tobin could get. “You are an asshole, though. Can’t believe we’ve been asking all these years and you never told us.”

Alex moved closer to Tobin, picking up her hand and examining the ring again, the same one she’d seen on her friend for 12 years. “I’m happy for you, Tobs. You look it, too.” She squeezed Tobin’s hand, speaking softly to her. “This is something special. Don’t let it go.”

“I won’t.” Tobin smiled gratefully at Alex, squeezing her hand as well as she turned back to where the rest of their team was coming over to them, teasing comments and romantic sighs filling the room not just for the next while, but for the entire dinner period.

Christen and Tobin blushed the whole time, their ears turning redder and redder with every mention of a ring. This only spurred the team on more, all of them loving seeing how happy the two women were, and how wholesome their budding romance was. Anyone could notice the sparks between the two, and they wanted to help it grow in any way they could.

Christen went to sleep that night feeling happier than ever before, her lips still tingling from the soft kiss that Tobin had pressed to them as she dropped her to her room after dinner, a soft ‘see you in the morning’ that made her insides scramble in the best way imaginable.

----------

The next few days were truly no rest for the wicked, the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament being brutal in the short amount of time it gave players between the games.

Christen’s life was a mix of hanging out with the team, helping Mal with her homework, doing yoga, hanging out with Tobin, stealing sweet kisses from Tobin, getting lost in Tobin’s eyes…the list could go on.

They beat Mexico 1-0 in their next game, Tobin playing the whole match and Mal subbing in in the 75th minute. Tobin had pouted the whole evening after the game, Christen suspected for her amusement alone, as she was ordered to take two ice baths – one extra because she didn’t stay in the first time long enough and Dawn suffered no fools or short cuts.

She came to dinner shivering, wrapped in a hoodie. The only contented smile on her face appeared when Christen curled her hand around her lower arm under the table, stroking softly over the skin there as they ate.

(Christen is still amazed she was able to touch Tobin’s soft olive skin for so long and not choke on her own food. She definitely didn’t take in any of the conversation that was happening with the players around her, that’s for sure).

Three days later and they were playing Puerto Rico, their last group match before they moved on to the semi-finals. Mal squealed and Christen’s heart leapt in excitement when they heard Mal would be starting, her first national team start. Kelley, ever on brand, just walked up to Tobin with a grin, saying she better give her an assist she can score on and then she’ll consider forgiving Tobin for omitting the information about the rings all these years.

“Good luck, baby. But you don’t need it. You’ve got it in here, and you’re going to be amazing.” Christen smiled proudly at Mal as they stood outside the bus, before her little sister threw her arms around her, practically buzzing in excitement.

“See you after the game, Chris.”

“I’ll be there. You’ll hear me. I love you.”

“Love you forever.”

Christen knew Tobin was standing just to the side of her, waiting for her turn to say goodbye. But even if she didn’t, she would have soon figured it out, because the entire right side of the bus started making kissy faces through the window. Christen was pretty sure she even saw Sonnett press her lips straight against the window, before Lindsey smacked her across the head and yelled at her, probably something about basic hygiene.

“That smile of yours makes me melt.” Tobin pulled her attention away from the bus, and the sweet statement made Christen weak in the knees. She took Tobin’s hand, feeling the other woman immediately move her fingers to play absently with the ring sitting on her finger.

How was this Christen’s life? How did she get so lucky?

She smiled that same dumb smile at Tobin, completely lost in her eyes, only barely remembering to care that she was supposed to reply. Tobin just laughed softly, curling a piece of Christen’s hair behind her ear. “You’re too cute.”

“You gotta stop,” Christen blushed, not being able to handle any more of Tobin’s compliments for fear she might combust and cease to function. “You’re the cute one. And hilarious. And talented. And you’re going to kick some ass tonight.”

“Only some?” Tobin grinned, prompting Christen to give her an eye roll. Tobin tapped her cheek with a mischievous expression, and when Christen moved in to kiss her there she turned her face at the last second, pecking her lips instead. “See you after the game.”

Christen isn’t sure how she managed, but she nodded, telling Tobin to be great as she squeezed her hand. Tobin eventually left for the bus, walking into it to the cheers and teasing of her teammates. Christen just laughed, sending Mal their kiss and flipping off Sonnett and Kelley before she went back into the hotel, waiting for her time to go to the game.

---

Mal’s first start couldn’t have been better. Christen was nearly on her feet the whole first five minutes, knowing it had to be soon that Mal got to make a run down the wing. That time came in the sixth minute, Mal stepping over the ball and around a player as she took off down the left hand side, her teammates running into the box with her.

“Pick your head up, pick your head up.” Christen chanted under her breath, her fingers tangled nervously together as Mal neared the time to cross the ball. Relief and excitement rushed through her when she saw Mal look up before passing, sending a perfect low cross to Crystal who slotted it in the back of the net.

She didn’t have to wait long for the next bout of excitement. In the 18th minute Mal had the ball in the box and cut through two defenders until one of them tripped her and she fell to the ground with a slam. Christen winced, her heart stopping before Mal bounced right up, nodding to Julie who came to check on her as the referee blew her whistle for a penalty. Carli slotted it in the net, 2-0 to the USA.

The first half ended well, and to Christen’s utter amusement, Tobin managed to redeem herself in Kelley’s eyes by sending her a cross that Kelley flicked in between her legs to go straight into the goal. It was such a Tobin-esque goal that Christen knew Kelley would hold it over her head for weeks to come. She saw the two of them cracking up laughing together as they ran back to the half, 3-0 up.

The excitement in the second half only continued. In the 60th minute, Mal made another darting run between defenders in the box, shooting what looked like a cross to Alex before it bounced off a defenders foot, flicking off into the goal. Christen jumped to her feet, cheering out for her sister’s efforts, knowing it would be counted as an own goal but being stoked just the same.

Later, Mal took the ball across the box when a defender poked it away right to Tobin’s feet. Tobin one timed it, sending a screamer into the top left corner that had the whole team jumping on her, and Christen on her feet again.

It was lucky she managed to stay standing at all, because when Tobin was running back to the half way line she turned and pointed up at her, right at her, sending her a beaming smile that made Christen weak in the knees. Her cheeks flushed immediately with heat, a smitten smile etched on her face for not only the few minutes after, but the whole rest of the game.

Tobin had scored, and pointed to her. Tobin had scored, and she’d dedicated it to her. There was a crowd of thousands around her, of tens of thousands more watching at home, and out of everyone and everything going on, Tobin was thinking of her. This time she knew it. Her and Tobin had talked about it. That security and sense of trust they’d established between themselves enveloped Christen’s heart in such a warm embrace it was a miracle she noticed anything else the whole game.

“I’m so proud of you!” Christen spun Mal around in her arms once she’d gotten let onto the field by security, Mal laughing in happiness. She’d had her first start and had assisted one goal and forced an own goal. “You put in so much work tonight.”

“Mallory! Mallory!” The crowd behind them screamed with excitement that Mal was standing so close to them, having gone over there to get Christen. They were holding all kinds of merchandise out, wanting her signature, and Mal looked a bit wide eyed at all the commotion going on, just for her.

Then she looked further along from the crowd, where a bunch of reporters with cameras were waiting, all looking eager to talk to her. She immediately turned back to Christen, mild panic in her eyes.

Christen had seen where she’d looked, and she put her hands on Mal’s shoulders. “You don’t have to go over there. You don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to. Ignore the reporters, okay?”

“Mallory!” The crowd continued to shout, and then the cheer got louder.

“Hey, bud. You want to come sign some shirts with me?” Ashlyn had arrived next to the sisters, sensing Mal might be getting overwhelmed.

Mal looked to Christen for guidance, and her sister gave her an encouraging smile. She knew if Mal could forget about the reporters and focus on the fans she’d have a really good time. “Go sign things if you want to, baby. They want to celebrate the game with you.”

Mal slowly but surely got an excited look on her face, glancing over to the crowd and hearing them erupt into cheers for her again. She smiled at Ash, nodding to her, feeling comforted when Ash dropped an arm around her shoulders. “Okay.” She said to Christen. “Will you wait for me at the tunnel?”

With an excited nod and squeeze to the hand, Christen let Mal go, watching her little sister walk towards the huge crowd with Ash, who she gave a grateful smile to. Christen once again marvelled at how big Mal seemed in these moments, even though she was just 17 and could easily get overwhelmed at everything in her path. She took a quick photo on her phone and turned towards the tunnel, only to be met in step by Crystal.

Christen loved Crystal. She was so much fun, had so much energy, and she reminded her so much of the light and brightness that lived in her parents. Crystal wrapped her arm around Christen’s waist, pulling her into a side hug as they walked together.

“You gonna go out there and score 5 goals every match now?” Christen asked with an excited smile as Crystal had just contributed 5 of the USA’s 10 goals that game. Crystal just cracked up in response, sending out a sassy reply before giving Christen a knowing look.

“Girl, I’m more excited about that little dedication Tobin did after her goal. I’ve known her for years, and I’ve never once seen her do anything like that.” Crystal laughed at Christen’s blush. “You and her, oh you make my heart weak!”

“Oh, shut up.” Christen grinned, bumping into Crystal’s side with blushing cheeks.

“And here comes your boo. I’ll let you go.” Crystal slipped away with a wink, just as Tobin reached her side.

It was a shame they were standing in a field still surrounded by hundreds of fans, most of which had cameras out, because Christen wanted nothing more than to throw her arms around Tobin, bury her head in her neck and feel her place a kiss on her head that Tobin had become partial to doing recently.

She settled for being impressed by her own self-restraint as she smiled at Tobin, her eyes shining, hugging her for what she hoped was an appropriate amount of time. “Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Some game you had.”

“Yeah?” Tobin’s eyes were bright, her smile easy and so, so beautiful. Christen marvelled at how someone could look so stunning even after playing such an intense game. “Would you say we kicked the adequate amount of ass?”

Laughter fell out of Christen’s mouth, and she swore Tobin’s smile grew bigger at the sight. “Definitely.” She stepped closer to Tobin, pressing against her side. “I liked your goal. And I liked the celebration even more.”

This time it was Tobin’s turn to blush, and she stared at the ground in a shy smile before sending it Christen’s way. “I hope it can be the first of many, for you.”

“I’d like that.”

It was a shame they were standing in a field still surrounded by hundreds of fans, most of which had cameras out. But really, in that moment, all Christen saw was Tobin.

“Semi-finals, baby!” A screeching Kelley O’Hara jumping on Christen’s back knocked her straight out of her reverie, and if Tobin wasn’t standing right there she probably would have fallen on the ground.

“Fuck! Kelley!” Christen’s reaction had those around her laughing, most of all Kelley, who managed to stay on her back despite Christen’s joking attempts to throw her off. “You ass!”

“Can’t a girl be excited we’re one step closer to Olympic Qualification?” Kelley spoke through a grin. “My legs are sore, I must rest. Onwards, my noble – ”

“If you say steed and inadvertently refer to me as a horse I’m dropping you on your ass so fast you won’t even know what happened.”

“ – friend, Christen! I was going to say friend! O ye of little faith.”

“Shut up, Kelley.”

----------

The fifth groan in a row came out of Mal’s mouth and Christen tried not to laugh as she threw a shirt on.

“Strangely enough, groaning at the equations won’t help you solve them.”

“Not another word. You’re leaving me to deal with this hell on my own.” Mal muttered as she sat at the desk in Christen’s hotel room, school books spread over every surface. She’d hit a wall yet again with calculus and Christen couldn’t stay to help because she was going to lunch with her friends.

Her friends.

A strange flutter happened in her stomach when she thought about that, still not quite used to it. Her friends. This very normal part of life was something Christen had pushed aside for herself because hanging out with friends meant giving up time she did not have, and that wasn’t a priority for her.

But now Zach and Servando had shown up to Houston, here for the last two matches of the tournament, with the semi-final game tomorrow. Christen had asked Julie, Alex and Tobin at breakfast that morning, getting the priceless reaction of toast falling out of Alex’s mouth in shock happiness and Julie squealing in excitement at the news that she, Zach and Servando had a group chat going and had thought lunch for all six of them would be fun.

Tobin had stared at her with soft eyes and a knowing look, loving how big Christen’s smile got every time she talked about her friends.

“I’m sorry, baby. You know I would stay and help if I could.” Christen slipped her shoes on and dropped a kiss to Mal’s temple, picking up her phone and her wallet.

“I know. Don’t feel bad, I’m only joking. Well, not about calculus being the worst.” Mal turned to her with a smile, leaning up from her seat to kiss her cheek. “Have fun on your triple date!”

“This is not a triple date, we’re just getting lunch.”

Mal had already turned back to her work, waving Christen off absently. “Yeah, yeah, sure it’s not a date.”

There was a knock at the door and Christen knew it was Tobin picking her up. She laughed at Mal, kissing her head again. “Make sure you take a break soon, okay? You’ve put in a lot of school and soccer work recently. You’re doing so well.” She walked towards the door. “I’m really proud of you.”

“I’m proud of you!” Mal called out with a cheeky grin, rolling her eyes fondly when she saw Christen open the door for Tobin, both of them immediately getting lost in each other again with those ridiculous dumb smiles.

Hopeless idiots.

----------

GO MAL! WHOOOO! SHE DID IT!”

Five of the six guests at the table were crowded around Servando’s phone as they watched the video of Mal’s first goal from her first cap and Christen’s overjoyed reaction for probably the tenth time in a row.

“Look at her face, she’s so happy!” Alex clutched her heart as she laughed at the screen, telling Servando to play it again.

Christen just sat in her seat, blushing. Tobin’s face melted at how wholesome Christen was in the video, her heart eyes on full show. Christen had had to look away because otherwise she was worried she’d lose control and kiss her right then and there.

“Let me see the photo again?” Julie asked, squealing at Christen’s face in the photo Servando had taken when Mal had first gotten onto the field. She had a massive smile on her face but her hands half covered it, almost as if she’d wanted to watch but was too nervous at the same time.

Zach just laughed at Christen across the table, shaking his head with a grin. “You’re something else, Press. I can’t wait for these next two games.”

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. I’ll start filming you two next if you’re not careful.” Christen’s tongue stuck out at Zach and Servando, the group finally breaking away from the phone and settling back into their seats at the table.

Tobin’s hand came to squeeze at her thigh reassuringly where she sat next to her, the softest smile on her face. “You’re too pure for this world, Chris.”

Her blush only grew, a shaking hand managing to find Tobin’s on her thigh to give it a squeeze. She tried to control her racing heart-beat. Tobin would really be the end of her one day.

“I’m so full. That was such a good lunch.” Zach sat back in his chair, grinning at his fiancé when she snorted at that comment, knowing he’d be back eating something more in the next hour. “How are you all feeling for the game tomorrow?”

The three players looked between each other, excited smiles on their faces. “Ready.” Alex said, the others nodding. “This is the only game that matters, it’s the decider for if we get to Rio. We’ve gotta go out there with everything.”

Zach smiled. “You’re going to – ”

“I’m so sorry to interrupt but could I please get a picture with you all?” A nervous looking young woman approached their table, Zach stopping mid-sentence when she began to talk. They agreed, nodding their heads easily, knowing that although it wasn’t really ideal to be interrupted at every restaurant outing they did, the fans were always great and they’d never really say no.

Christen took her hand off Tobin’s hand that was still on her thigh, feeling Tobin lift her hand off altogether. She half stood up in her seat, holding out her hand for the woman’s phone in the assumption that she’d want her to take the photo. After all, she was sitting at the table with five professional athletes. It was obvious Christen wasn’t meant to be in this.

When she reached out for the phone, the woman looked at her hesitantly. “Oh, no, I want you to be in it, too!”

A perplexed look came across Christen’s face. “Me?”

“Yeah! You’re Christen Press, right?” The woman said, both excitedly and nervously, although looking more and more hesitant as panic slightly set in on Christen’s face. “Mallory’s sister?”

“How…how do you…” Christen felt Tobin put a hand on the small of her back, maybe in an effort to settle her, maybe in an effort to get her to just sit down again. Instead, she did neither, still standing in puzzlement as the woman in front of her rushed to explain herself.

“I saw you on ESPN, after Mallory’s first cap she went to hug you, and there’s some other videos out there from the games recently. I think it’s so cool you support your sister so much.”

“ESPN?” Christen was having a hard time coming to grips with all of this information.

“Yeah! You haven’t seen it? Don’t you have Instagram or Twitter or something?”

She didn’t. It hadn’t been around when she was younger and she’d never cared for it when she was older. Mal had Instagram for professional purposes but barely used it, and the only stuff on there was about soccer. She didn’t know what to say in response, but she felt Tobin’s hand press more firmly into her back, so she let it guide her down into the seat.

“I’ll take the photo of all of us.” Alex announced from where she sat opposite Christen at the edge of the table, getting handed the woman’s phone and turning it on selfie mode. This allowed Christen a few grateful seconds to breathe, trying to process what she’d been told.

She managed to pull herself together to smile for the photo – well, she hoped it came out as a smile, and the woman was so excited once the photo had been taken there was no lasting awkwardness despite the shell shocked interaction Christen had had with her. She watched the woman walk away and kept staring in the distance, only coming back to when Tobin squeezed her hand.

“Chris?”

“Hm?” She turned to look at Tobin, seeing concern swimming in the back of her eyes. The others at the table wore similar expressions, and it was all getting a bit much.

“I just asked if you were okay.”

“Oh, sorry.” Christen hadn’t even heard her. “Can…can we go?”

Tobin nodded quickly, barely glancing at the others who shared her sentiment before standing up. Tobin made to pull her wallet out but was stopped by Zach who shook his head, already having slipped what Christen saw was well enough to cover their lunch under the bill at the table. She wanted to protest, but her brain was still swimming with the information she’d just heard.

ESPN was no joke. What did that woman mean she’d seen her on there? She tried to remember what happened at Mal’s first cap. The interview Mal and Alex did had surely played on there, but they must have shown Mal running over to hug her as well.

Had they said something about her and Mal on the show? Their family life wasn’t common knowledge, nothing US Soccer had released discussed it. Not even kids at Mal’s school knew the full story, only knowing Christen was Mal’s guardian. That’s how well guarded they were.

Maybe something had gotten out? Maybe Joseph…no, he was a stupid social worker, but he wasn’t that stupid. That was lose your job, have your licence revoked kind of stupid.

Memories of the three games she’d attended in the last week rushed through her mind as she tried to piece the information together. She thought about what happened at the games, where she sat, who was around her. She didn’t think she’d stood out.

But, when she thought harder…Mal had always come up to her after the games, yelling her name, standing right at the barrier. Tobin had been there sometimes too. She’d talked to Mal right in front of the crowd with the cameras, and she’d talked to Tobin when the crowd was still there as well.

The woman had said there were videos from the games. Who had been filming? Were they really on the internet?

She doesn’t realize she’s walking out of the restaurant until Tobin has to physically stop her from crashing into a chair. They’re following the others, Christen completely lost in her thoughts, and she shook her head to snap out of it, looking over at Tobin.

“Did you know about this?”

Tobin shook her head no, and she believed her. She’d barely seen Tobin on her phone since she’d known her, much less on any social media apps.

“Should I have expected this?”

“I should have warned you. But I guess I’ve gotten so good at ignoring the noise I forgot all about it. I’m sorry.” Tobin wore an apologetic look, and Christen shook her head in forgiveness. “If it helps, I don’t think there’ll be much out there. Fans love to take videos and maybe in some of them you can hear talking, but once you’re a few yards away from the barrier they can’t hear anything.”

Christen tried to mull over that information. “It’s not that I’m expecting to remain anonymous, but it makes me uneasy. Mal and I have always been incredibly private. I know I legally adopted her but she’s still 17, and both of us will have issues with that until she turns 18. I don’t like the idea of people knowing who I am if they’re trying to figure out more about Mal and I’s past.”

Christen smiled at Alex in thanks as she held the door open for them. She was surprised to see the star forward wearing a little grin.

“What do you know, Alex?”

“I’m not saying there’ll be no one out there wondering about you and Mal. But I’d be willing to bet, a lot actually, that the woman knew who you were today not because of speculation about your family, but because of how much you and this one have been seen together recently.” Alex pointed at Tobin who looked the picture of comic surprise, tilting her head like a confused puppy.

“What?”

“Have you ever seen your fans online, Tobin? You can’t honestly be surprised they’d be obsessing over you and a beautiful woman looking closer and closer every time you’re seen together.”

Suddenly, the news Christen heard from the woman felt entirely less worrisome to her. She knew there was an element involving Mal, an important one she’d have to discuss with her as journalists were growing more interested by the day. But knowing fans were recognizing her because she may or may not be romantically linked to Tobin?

It kind of gave her butterflies.

Zach and Servando were unable to restrain their laughter at Tobin’s blushing expression, Julie and Alex smacking them on the arm as they lead them back to the cars to wait, giving Christen and Tobin some privacy to talk.

“Tobin? Are you okay?”

An unreadable expression sat on Tobin’s face. “Are you okay, Chris? I’m sorry you got put in that position earlier. I never thought something like that would happen this soon.”

“Your fans would be disappointed to hear you have such little faith in them.” Christen wore a tiny grin, and Tobin’s face relaxed at that, lightening on seeing Christen wasn’t too traumatized.

“They’re great but they can be a lot. I wanted to talk to you about this, I just didn’t think we’d have to so soon.”

Christen nodded, knowing it was a conversation they’d have to have. “Are you okay with them talking about us like that?”

“I should be asking you that. You’re the one that’s new to this.”

“That’s true.” Christen nodded, nodding to the cars as they began to walk there. “But I’m not the one in the public eye. You’re the one that will have to face the questions, if there are any.”

“Well, I’d love to first take you on a date before anyone starts asking me anything.” Tobin looked over at her and smiled, bumping into her shoulder gently. “If people want to talk about us, I don’t care. It doesn’t change how I feel about you. All I want is for you to be happy and comfortable. If what happened today didn’t make you feel that way, I’ll do my best to keep you from that. I promise.”

God there was never a moment that Christen wanted to kiss Tobin more than right then. She felt like her heart was melting and exploding at the same time, feeling the concern and care rolling off Tobin onto her.

“I’ll admit it is a little unsettling, having people know of me. But I get it comes with the territory.” They stopped a few yards away from the car, Christen being able to see the others in it. “All I want is to protect Mal, and protect our story. So if people want to know me to know about that, I have a problem.”

Tobin nodded, agreeing with her.

“But, if people want to know me because they’re excited there might be something going on with us? Let them. All I care about is making this work between us. I’ll always be a private person. But I’ll never expect that I won’t be known because of the nature of your job. And I don’t want to have to shy away from you, either. I can block everyone else out. Can you?”

“In a heartbeat. I’ve been doing it for a lot of years already.” Tobin grinned easily. “Thank you, for being so cool with this. I know it’s a lot. But you’re right, it does come with the territory. And you know I’d never say anything to anyone about your past, and neither would anyone else on our team, as well.”

“I know.” Christen nodded. “And I know Mal will say something about it, but only when she’s ready. The emails are still piling up in my inbox, journalists from all over. But when I mentioned it to her the other day, she kind of shut down. I need to talk to her about it.”

“You know, I’d bet my bottom dollar Lindsey, Sonnett and Rose have seen whatever videos or photos are circulating the internet of us and what people are saying about it. Sonnett’s probably got a whole folder saved already. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve shown Mal.”

Christen laughed as they got into the car. “Yeah, that’s definitely some cheeky thing she’d store away to use against me later. I’ll wear her down when I get back, see what she knows.”

---

When she opened the door to her hotel room a short while later, Christen didn’t get the immediate chance to speak to Mal. Standing there were two people on the USWNT staff she’d seen before but never met, one of them holding a video camera with a microphone attached.

“Oh shit, sorry. Did I interrupt?”

“No, no, you’re fine!” The woman with the camera said, stepping away to let Christen into the room properly after they all introduced themselves to each other.

She saw Mal still sitting at the desk where she’d left her, pen in hand, and walked over to her. “What’s going on?”

“The team does these behind the scenes videos and they’re filming some of me doing homework.”

“Wow, your audience is about to be bored to death.” Christen deadpanned to the camera people, earning a slap to the arm from Mal.

“Shut up, Christen. It’s because I have a story to tell.”

“Oh?” Christen looked at Mal in question, before stepping back behind the cameras. “Please, entertain me.”

“I will.” Mal poked her tongue out at her, before hearing from the camerawoman they were rolling. She turned to pick up a book from her desk, speaking to the camera. “I’m reading the Handmaid’s Tale, so there’s that. And then, big ol’ American Government right here.”

Christen snorted as Mal slapped the cover of the textbook, making Mal laugh as well. Then she raised an eyebrow, as if to ask Mal where was this story she had to tell was.

“So I was down at lunch with the team before, taking a break.” Mal wasn’t necessarily speaking into the camera, more to Christen standing behind it. “And we were talking about my school, and Lyssa asked what Math I was in. I said calculus, and I don’t get it right now. She’s like, I’ll come up to the room and try and help, and then people just kept on flooding in trying to help, and then eventually no one could get it and everyone just kind of left.”

Christen’s hand had moved to cover her mouth as Mal told the story, holding her laugh in, but when Mal got to the end and saw her face she started laughing, setting Christen off, too.

“What do you think is the hardest part about having to do your school work on your own in the national team environment?”

“Well, I honestly wouldn’t be able to do it without my sister’s help. She’s the smartest person I know.” Mal answered the camerawoman, sending a tiny grin to Christen. “I think that the learning part, actually learning not doing the stuff, is the hardest part. Also my communication with my teachers is really on point. And they understand everything that’s going on so I can’t thank them enough for being so flexible with everything, cause, I mean, I don’t think I’d be able to do both school and soccer. So I’m really lucky.”

Christen couldn’t really relax in the room until the camera people left, thanking them for letting them interrupt Mal’s work. As soon as the door shut, Mal turned to her.

“So, how was it?”

A blush painted Christen’s cheeks immediately. “It was good. Fun. Something interesting happened.”

“What?”

“This woman came up to the table to ask for a photo, I assumed with everyone else. Then she says she wants me to be in it too. She knew my name, and that I was your older sister.”

The expression on Mal’s face is a mix of confusion and panic. “What? How did she know you?”

“That’s what I wondered. She said there was a video on ESPN after your first cap. But as to how she knew my name, I guess it was from videos people had taken of the recent games.”

“That’s weird. That’s really weird, right?” Mal tried to keep her voice light, but Christen could hear the way it faltered.

“It is weird.”

“Did she…did she know anything?”

Christen held her hand out for Mal to take, and pulled her to sit next to her on the edge of the bed. She could see how instantly unnerved Mal was about it. “She didn’t. And that was what I was worried about as well. It really unsettled me. I hated it.”

A look of confusion still sat on Mal’s face. “Why are you blushing, then?”

“I’m not!”

“Are too.”

An arm swatted at Mal and Christen rolled her eyes. “Alex said that this woman most likely knew who I was because Tobin’s fans would be talking about her and I being seen together a lot, recently. Talking about us, and what might be going on with us.”

Surprise came across Mal’s face. “So it’s not about you and I, it’s about you and Tobin?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh my god!” A huge beam appeared on Mal’s face, colored in relief. “That’s so funny! They probably think you’re together. Well, you basically are. So what did you eat for lunch?”

“I had pasta.” Christen said, slanting her eyes somewhat at Mal’s diversion of topic. She wasn’t quite done with it yet, and wanted to bring it back. “And you’re right, it is funny. Had you not heard anything about this? I assumed Sonnett or someone would have seen something by now.”

Mal shook her head, but her eyes lit up with an idea, trying to mask the panic still sitting on her face. “I bet she’s seen something. I’ll go ask her.” She tried to get up and make a hasty escape before Christen grabbed her arm to stop her.

“Wait, wait, you’re not finished yet.”

Christen! I’ve been doing school work all day. It’s not fair!”

Christen raised an eyebrow at Mal’s outburst, not being fooled by what her sister was trying to pull. Mal’s complete 180 in behavior was an instant give away. She was never petulant like this unless she was trying to avoid something.  “Can you please come and sit back down?”

A grumble and a half left Mal’s lips as she debated ignoring Christen before giving in, sulking back to sit on the bed.

“I don’t want you to leave yet because I’m not finished talking to you about this. This isn’t about school, though I am really proud of all your hard work. This talk is about something else. I know you know that. And your reaction to it suggests this is something we need to discuss.”

“This is about you and Tobin, not me.” Mal mumbled, still looking at the bed.

“It is about you. I saw how panicked you looked when I said what happened with the woman. And now you’re super eager to get out of the room.” Christen put her fingers under Mal’s chin and tilted her head up so she was looking at her. “It’s perfectly normal to be unsettled that someone recognized me, especially if it’s to do with our past. I know it’s something we’ve always kept guarded, particularly you.”

The beginnings of tears were glistening in Mal’s eyes, and Christen’s heart broke.

“Baby, please talk to me. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Mal was clearly struggling with what to say, trying to make sense of her thoughts. She sat in silence for a while, before doing the thing she knew always brought her stability and comfort, and shifted across the bed so she could burrow into Christen’s side.

Christen’s arm wrapped around her shoulders instantly, pulling her close, and she dropped a kiss to the top of Mal’s head, murmuring to her how much she loved her.

“I’m sorry to get frustrated. I’m not mad at you.” Mal murmured, and Christen let her speak. “I know journalists are asking about me. You showed me their emails. But I don’t like it. I don’t want to talk to any of them. It’s nobody’s business what happened to us in the past.”

Christen nodded, not feeling surprised Mal reacted this way. Mal had never told anyone about their past, and Tobin was the first teammate she’d told, ever, before telling the rest of the team since they’d bonded so intensely over their time here.

But Mal knew how media spun stories, created narratives around players. She was already the youngest player in over a decade on this team, already fighting against people’s assumptions in that regard. To have something as traumatic as their past out there would only invite more questions, would only make it harder for her.

Maybe one day she would be ready to talk about it. But she was still only 17. Christen would never, would never put something this big on her baby sister’s shoulders. Not when she was already tackling so much else.

“That sounds perfectly reasonable. And I agree, it’s nobody’s business. You don’t have to say anything to anyone, not until you’re ready, or not ever. The journalists are asking, but you’re a soccer player first, not a public personality. You don’t owe an explanation.”

Mal just burrowed into Christen more, letting herself be reassured by her older sister’s words. Christen kissed Mal’s head again, rocking her ever so slightly. “What has you most worried about this?”

“If I tell a reporter I’m an orphan, it’s not like people will accept that as an answer and not ask anything more. They’ll want to know how they died, foster care, you, and…and I’m still 17 and I can’t bear the thought of having to talk about that while Joseph still thinks he has any kind of involvement in anything.”

Christen had a feeling Mal would still be worried about things because of her age. It was like no matter how much she reassured her that she had legally adopted her, Joseph had messed them up so much it wasn’t ever something either of them would get over until Mal’s birthday.

“I don’t want to have narratives written about me by anyone. I want to write my own.” Mal sat up, looking at Christen to see the proudest beam sitting on Christen’s face. “Maybe one day I’ll talk. But not now. Is that what you feel, too?”

“Yeah, it is. I’ll never say anything, and neither will anyone else, not until you’re ready. So you don’t have to worry if people start to recognize me. You don’t have to talk to anyone, and you don’t have to change the way you’re behaving either, okay? If you want to see me after the games, hug me, talk about me to people, that’s completely fine. If people ask you something you don’t want to answer, you can say no, okay?”

Mal nodded, taking a deep breath and feeling wholeheartedly reassured. “Thanks, Chrissy.”

“I’m so proud of the person you are, Mal.”

“I’m proud of you too.” Mal kissed her cheek. “But I’m still going to go and see Sonnett about those videos of you and Tobin.”

Christen just rolled her eyes. Some things never change.

----------

Soccer was fun, so much fun.

But soccer with friends? Christen couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.

“Let’s go USA!” Zach said gleefully. He, Servando and Christen got to their feet in a cheer as the countdown for the game started. She could see Mal on the field, Alex in the middle, Tobin on the opposite wing, Julie behind them, and the rest of the team in position and looking ready to win.

Christen cheered, throwing her arms around the guys on either side of her as Servando held his phone up in selfie mode to get a picture of them all. They wanted to remember this one, it was the decider of whether the US would get to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

And get there they would.

In the 11th minute Mal took off down the right hand side of the field, cutting the ball back across the goal in a way that looked like it had missed Alex and Carli, until Tobin arrived right on time, hitting the ball on a spin and sending it into the back of the net.

Everyone jumped to their feet in celebration, Christen cheering her heart out for her two favorite people. She watched in delight as Mal ran to Tobin, jumping into her open arms in celebration, the rest of the team piling on top of them.

One goal closer to the Olympics. That soon turned into two when Lindsey assisted Alex in the 30th minute, three when Carli scored in the 43rd minute and four when Alex scored a blinder in the 71st minute.

Christen felt certain her heart would burst right out of her chest at the sight of the team celebrating with each other after the game. They were headed to the Olympics, they had done it. Her baby sister had helped the team to another world tournament.

She couldn’t help her wide smile, and it near burst right off her face two days later when they beat Canada 2-0 in the final, goals from Lindsey and Tobin to seal the deal.

“Champions!” Servando chanted, jumping around with his hands in the air in anticipation of the team doing the rounds with the crowd and dancing with the fans.

Sure enough they made their way over, instantly spotting the friends and family sitting in the section. The players danced around on the field, all of them clutching at their hearts at the sight of Christen, Servando and Zach jumping and cheering.

Christen could see everyone in the crowd with their phones out, no doubt recording what was going on. But she had the happiest feeling in her chest, and when Tobin threw an arm around Mal’s shoulder, both of them pointing up to her with beams on their faces, there wasn’t anything in the world that could make Christen care.

----------

It was both exhilarating and terrifying how fast Christen had gotten used to what seemed to be their new normal.

Olympic Qualifying had ended, the NWSL pre-season hadn’t started back yet, and the next thing on the schedule (assuming everyone made the roster) was the She Believes Cup training camp in two weeks’ time. They were on a flight back to LA the next day.

They, being Christen, Mal and Tobin.

They had been packing their bags, and it barely took more than a “Will you come? Back to LA?” from Christen before Tobin was nodding instantly, a dumb smile on her face.

They had been on the plane home, Christen by the window, Mal asleep on her shoulder with her legs resting in Tobin’s lap, and it barely took more than a “Will you go on a date with me? Tomorrow?” from Tobin before Christen was nodding instantly, a dumb smile on her face.

They had been in the car, dropping Mal back at school on Monday, sending her off with a hug and a kiss. Then they were back at the house, shy smiles and excited eyes as they got ready for the day. And then Tobin had held out her hand, Christen intertwining their fingers, and they started their walk down the beach feeling like this was something they could get used to pretty fast.

(Christen felt like she already had).

It wasn’t technically Christen’s first date – she’d been to the movies with a girl from her club soccer team when she had just turned 15 – but it sure felt like it. She’d had butterflies in her stomach since Tobin had asked her out the day before, even though she’d told her it would just be casual, nothing to worry about, just them and a chance to get to know each other more.

She felt Tobin’s hand in hers, strong and steady. Even though her breath hitched in her throat every time she looked over and saw how the sun shone off Tobin’s skin, glistened in her hair, made her eyes come alive, she felt a calm wash over her as well.

It kind of surprised her. Over the years, despite the lack of them she’d been on, she’d synonymized the word date with money. Paying for your own drinks or meals or activities. Paying for other’s drinks or meals or activities. It all spelled out funds and time she didn’t have. She couldn’t afford to get dressed up nice and go to dinner. She couldn’t afford tickets to a show.

Living in Tobin’s house and having been mostly in camps for the last two months, Christen’s small amount of savings were still holding strong. She still thought about money every day, she wished she could get a job. But for the next two months at least – if Mal kept making rosters – she would still have to be travelling with her.

Christen thought it would drive her crazy. She had been so consumed by her lack of money for so long she thought it would be all she could think about. But happily, instead, her brain was choosing first to be preoccupied with Tobin. And Tobin was great with the money situation.

She let Christen buy things – coffee for them or snacks or little stuff. She didn’t demand that Christen spend nothing. She didn’t patronize her or pity her. By and large she was still buying the vast majority of things for Christen and Mal – though their only real expenses were food and petrol. But it worked, because Tobin just didn’t make it a big deal.

With anyone else, Christen knew this wouldn’t have worked for her. Her thoughts would have consumed her. The shame of being poor would have been too much. But the constant worry that money brought her seemed to dissipate when Tobin was around. She’d be naïve to think it would sort itself out, or go away altogether. But for the first time in 12 years, Christen felt like she could breathe, like it wasn’t a crushing weight on her chest.

This was Tobin, she knew Tobin. She’d known Tobin in her heart for 12 years. She trusted her, she felt safe with her. The butterflies she felt were exhilarating, but they didn’t debilitate her. They told her this was something special, the start of something that she, deep down, truly felt was inevitable.

“You’re really not going to tell me where we’re going?”

“Nope.” Tobin teased, her grin easy and beautiful. “You’ll just have to wait and find out. It is a bit of a walk though.”

Christen smiled, looking forwards at the never ending expanse of beach in front of them. “That’s okay, I love the beach.”

“I know.”

Her shoulder bumped Tobin’s, a blush rising to her cheeks. “I’m really excited this is finally happening.”

“Me too. I’m sorry it took so long to find the time.”

“I think qualifying for the Olympics is a pretty good excuse to delay a first date.” Christen grinned. “I meant more that I think I’ve dreamed of going on a date with you since I was 15.”

Christen’s statement had both of them blushing, smiling shyly down at the sand they were walking on before back at each other. Tobin squeezed her hand, and she felt their rings knock together. “Me too. I thought about it so much.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Tobin blushed even more, stuttering through her next words. “I, uh…after our first camp, I spent the next two months coming up with questions in my head that I wanted to ask you. I’d even imagine what your answers might be, trying to figure out how well I knew you, and what I could say in response.”

It was about the sweetest thing Christen had ever heard. Her heart wanted to burst at how endearing it was, and also how much it hurt that she wasn’t able to give Tobin the chance to ask her, because she’d never made it to that next U-17 camp. Tobin seemed to anticipate this hurt, too, because she squeezed Christen’s hand again, giving her a soft grin.

“That’s why I’m so grateful we have now. I’ve amassed a lot of questions for you in the 12 years we’ve been apart.”

---

“Okay – Squirtle, Charmander or Bulbasaur?”

A burst of laughter erupted out of Christen at the unexpected question. It wasn’t like the other questions her and Tobin had been asking each other over the last half an hour were all serious, there was definitely a healthy dose of hilarity in most of them, but this one really came out of nowhere.

“15 year old Tobin wanted to know my starter Pokémon of choice?”

“Yes!” Tobin answered as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “And so does 27 year old Tobin, in fact. I am, how you say, very cool.”

“I don’t know, Tobs. This could really cause a rift if we have different answers.”

“I have confidence, Chris. Hit me with it.”

“Squirtle. Obviously.”

“Oh thank goodness.” Tobin exclaimed, looking genuinely relieved, and Christen laughed again, although she hadn’t really stopped this whole date. “I knew I had good taste. Okay, your turn.”

Christen tried to remember how to breathe when Tobin winked at her as she said that, feeling her hand get clammy in Tobin’s. She pondered about what she’d next like to ask Tobin, and a thought popped into her head.

“Can you tell me a bit about your experiences being gay with your family and in soccer?”

Tobin smiled at her, nodding. “Yeah. My family are great. I think my parents, they always suspected. When I was in high school, I realized my Mom started referring to whoever I might be going to all the dances with in a gender neutral way. That was the first time I told her I’d probably go with a girl. She always tried so hard, bless her. I feel so lucky all my family and friends are so supportive. I know that’s not always the case for people who are religious.”

“That’s really great, Tobin. I’m so happy to hear that.”

“Yeah. And obviously everyone on the team here knows, along with every team I’ve played in, I guess. I’ve never really done the whole ‘coming out’ thing for my professional career, in terms of making a statement or whatever. And I probably never will. Sometimes I think about doing it, I know it would help a lot of people. But at the same time, I really value my privacy, you know? And I’m not hiding. I’m proud to be here with you, holding your hand. If someone were to capture that, I wouldn’t feel the need to explain myself. I’m just being me, and I’m happy with that.”

“I really like that.” Christen smiled, feeling Tobin squeeze her hand again.

“What about you?” Tobin asked, her voice light – not expecting – just asking. “I know you were only 15 when your parents passed. But did you ever talk about it?”

This was what Christen liked about Tobin. She knew that a lot of people shied away from asking about dead relatives or friends, not knowing how to talk about it. But Tobin, she never did. She was interested, she wanted to know things. And she never pressured Christen, either. It would have been clear to her by that point Christen wasn't the most avid talker about her parents. She wanted to share stories all the time, but she was still learning to deal with the hurt of their memory, even after all these years. Some days it flowed out of her. Other days she refused to talk about them. But she loved that Tobin asked, still. Gave her the option. Because she did want to tell her about them, even if it was hard.

“Yeah. They were so great, as well. I never felt like they expected me to be straight and then I had to correct them. I guess I just always had a feeling I was gay, and when I talked to my mom about it when I started high school, it was like the most normal thing in the world to her. I…I obviously wish I had more time with them. Every day, I do. But this is one thing I’m so grateful for, that I got to have with them before they went.”

“That’s really special, Chris. They sound like they were amazing parents.”

“They were. They were the best.” Christen nodded, squeezing Tobin’s hand the tightest she had yet. She let herself bask in their memory, feeling the sun shining on her, like they were right there with her. “I have a really funny story about this, actually. It’s about Mal.”

An excited grin immediately came across Tobin’s face and Christen laughed, loving knowing that her stories about Mal as a kid already had a reputation of being hilarious. And it was true, Mal was the funniest kid she knew. 

Mal was wearing the hardest thinking face Christen had seen on her in a while. She held her hand as they walked home from school, the six year old skipping and jumping along though with decidedly less pep in her step than usual.  

Just as Christen was about to ask her what was up, Mal came out with a question that was very much indicative of the hilarious and weird age she was at. “What’s a lesbean?”

“A what?”

Christen’s confused expression made Mal hesitate for a second as she looked up at her, before she doubled down on her statement. “A lesbean.”

“A le…Mal, do you mean lesbian?”

“Yeah! That’s it.”

Of all the things Christen was anticipating Mal asking, this was last on the list. She had the tiniest of amused smiles on her face, wondering where this was coming from. “Where did you hear that?”  

“Today when we were reading in class.”

“You were reading about lesbians?”

Mal giggled, shaking her head like Christen was the silliest person she knew. “No, Chrissy! In the book, two ducks got a wedding.”

Christen smiled at her, encouraging her on with a nod.

“And Jessica, she said it had to be a boy and a girl. Then Max said it could be two girls because they could be lesbeans. Or it could be two boys if they were something. But I didn’t know what it means.”

“Right, I’m with you now.” Christen nodded, trying to quickly think about the most simple way to talk to Mal about this. She didn’t need to give her a whole gender and sexuality lesson, she was only six, and Christen at 16 wasn’t exactly the world’s expert on the topic. But this was obviously important, so she wanted to do it as well as she could.

“If someone in your class was gay, that would mean they were a boy who liked another boy.”

Mal giggled at that, her face flushing red as she stared at the pavement they were walking along. “Like like?”

“Yeah. Like like.” Christen couldn’t help but laugh at how adorable and innocent Mal was on hearing that word. “And if someone in your class was a lesbian, that would mean they were a girl who liked another girl.”

Mal nodded, thinking about what she said. “So if the two ducks got a wedding and they are girls then they are lesbean ducks?”  

“Lesbian, Mal. And yes, they might be. They might call themselves a lesbian or they might call themselves gay, because gay sometimes means girls who like girls too. But, the ducks could also be bisexual. That’s when a girl likes boys and girls, or a boy likes boys and girls.”

“Bisexual.”

“That’s right. And there’s also some people who don’t like to call themselves a boy or a girl. So there’s lots of different things out there. Does that make sense?”

“I think so.” The wheels in Mal’s brain were ticking as they stood and waited for a green light to cross the street.

“Mal, did you know that I’m gay?” In all honesty, Christen didn’t actually know if Mal knew that or not. It’s not like it had come up since they’d been in foster care, and Mal was probably too young to ever remember her discussing it with their parents.

“You are?”

“Yeah. I like girls. I like like them.”

“Okay.” Mal thought about it, then got an excited smile on her face, like she’d just figured something out. “I’m going to be gay, too!”

Christen didn’t react fast enough, and a laugh came out of her mouth before she could stop it. “Oh, my baby love. That’s not exactly how it works.”

“What do you mean?” Mal’s face had lost its excitement, turning into a downtrodden expression second by second.

“That’s not something we get to choose. It’s just who we are, inside. We don’t have any control over it.”

“But…but you’re gay."  

Christen didn’t know what to do with herself, she wanted to laugh and cry and squeeze Mal’s cheeks forever at how precious and worried her little face was right then. “Yeah, I am.” She lead them over to a nearby park bench and sat down, pulling Mal onto her lap to finish their talk.

“Then can’t I be gay?”

“You can, Mal, of course you can be gay, if that’s who you really are. You can’t choose it, though. You can’t force it.”

“I’m gay. I know it.” Mal said with such finality, crossing her arms. Christen had never worked so hard in her life not to laugh. She was scared if she opened her mouth to speak she’d just burst into laughter, so she stayed quiet for a moment, and Mal got a worried look in her eyes. “I just want to be like you.”

“Oh, baby.” Christen pulled Mal into her chest, feeling her head rest there before she let herself smile at the sky, tears almost falling out of her eyes at how hilarious and precious this situation was.

“It’s not something you have to worry about right now. Sometimes kids your age get a feeling of what they might be, and sometimes people don’t know until they’re in high school, or college, or even when they’re old. I love that you want to be like me, but whatever you are, it will be special to you. You could be gay or bisexual or straight or you might feel you don’t want to define yourself at all, and that’s completely fine.”

“What’s straight?”

“That’s when a boy likes girls or a girl likes boys.”  

"What if I’m that? Will you still love me if I’m straight?”  

Christen could have never imagined this conversation happening, not with a six year old, and especially not with Mal’s hilarious comments that were also incredibly heartfelt. She loved the innocence of Mal, how she didn’t know the tribulations out there for people who weren’t straight. “Baby, I’ll love you always, no matter what. You could be anything in the world and I’ll never stop loving you. I’ll never judge you and I’ll never think less of you.”

Christen tilted Mal’s head up, seeing tears in her baby sister’s eyes with a lone one rolling down her cheek. “Oh baby, please don’t cry. It’s okay, it’s all okay. I promise you don’t have to worry about this right now. This is something for when you’re older, okay? Don’t let it upset you.” She wiped Mal’s tears away before hugging her tight and setting her back on her lap.

“You can talk to me about this anytime you want to. But know that whenever you find out this part of yourself, it won’t matter to me. You’ll still be my Mal, you’ll still be adorable and funny and talented and loving and no part of you will change. And as you grow up, some of your friends will realize who they are, whether it’s gay, straight, bisexual,  a boy, a girl or neither. And it’s our job as good friends to always treat them the same, too. We never judge anyone, okay? We never discriminate against anyone.”

Mal nodded, snuggling into her chest. “I didn’t know you were gay but you’re still my Chrissy.”

Christen’s heart clenched, wrapping her arms tight around Mal. “Exactly. I love you so much, baby.”

“Love you forever, Chrissy.” Mal slid off Christen’s lap and held out her hand for her to take, pulling them back onto the pavement to continue the walk home. “I’m gonna teach Jessica all about lesbeans tomorrow.”

Christen just laughed softly, shaking her head. Well, she’d tried. That was life with a six year old. “You’re the best kid in the world, Mal. Never, ever change.”

Tobin was laughing so much she was almost crying, and they had to stop walking. Christen’s heart hurt at how adorable the memory was, and she laughed at it and also at Tobin’s reaction, the other woman literally clutching at her chest.

“You’ve got to be kidding. That’s the cutest shit I’ve ever heard in my life!” Tobin wiped at her eyes. “She really cried because she wanted to be gay like you? And she made you promise you wouldn’t judge her if she was straight?”

Christen nodded, bursting out laughing. “She was pretty hilarious, right? Kept me on my toes, that’s for sure.”

“Oh wow, that was amazing. She’s so great.”

“She’s the best.” They re-joined hands as they kept walking. She was about to speak again before they rounded a corner on the boardwalk, coming face to face with a little shack. “Paddle boarding?”

Tobin had a hopeful look in her eyes, trying to gage Christen’s reaction to seeing it. When Christen’s face split into an excited beam Tobin let out a relieved breath, smiling along with her.

“Are we really doing it? I’ve always wanted to try this! This is so exciting, Tobin!” Christen bounced in place, not realizing how hard she was squeezing Tobin’s hand until the other woman let out the tiniest squeak of pain and she let it go, apologizing profusely. Tobin just shook her head at her fondly, that dumb smile back again, and she brought Christen’s hand up to her mouth to place a kiss on her knuckles gently.

“I’m really glad to be here with you.”

Christen’s excitement settled, her eyes softening as she felt Tobin’s lips press to her hand. She stepped forward, cupping Tobin’s cheek before pressing her lips to hers, ever so gently nipping Tobin’s bottom lip as she pulled away, blushing at how dazed Tobin’s eyes looked. “I’m glad too. And so happy.” She smiled, pecking Tobin’s lips again. “And I’m probably definitely going to fall in the ocean multiple times so I hope you’re a patient teacher.”

---

Tobin, as it turned out, was a brilliant teacher. They’d made it to the end of their session, Christen having successfully learnt how to stand – while Tobin admired the muscles in her core she’d developed through yoga – and had managed to stay upright on the board and crucially, not in the ocean.

In fact, Christen was so pleased with her efforts she felt confident enough to get distracted by the way Tobin moved on her own board, the muscles in her back and arms rippling with every push of the paddle in the water. She was doing so well, until Tobin flipped her hair, the sun hitting her skin in the most glorious light as she sent a smile her way.

Christen was falling. No, she was literally falling – the water hit her cool and hard and she spluttered as her head popped up for air, laughing at herself and feeling Tobin crack up next to her. Not one to let Tobin get away with that, Christen reached out her leg in the water and gave Tobin’s board a loving push, sending the other woman into the water, still laughing.

They dried themselves off back at shore, sitting at an outdoor table beside a Vietnamese food truck sharing summer rolls and basking in the afternoon sun. Tobin had paid for the paddle-boarding, and smiled with an easy nod when Christen told her she was going to buy them lunch.

“You know as soon as Mal finds out we went paddle boarding she’s going to be on your case to bring her here as well.”

Tobin grinned. “Yeah, that’s what I figured. I’d be so down for that, though.”

“I love how good you are with her.” A warmth settled in Christen as she looked at Tobin, her face hurting from how much she smiled when Tobin blushed at that. “Mal being happy, it’s so important to me. The most important thing. And she’s so happy, here. With the team and with you and – ” Christen reached across the table to take Tobin’s hand in hers. “You’re really something else, you know that?”

It looked like it took Tobin a while to gather herself after that, if the blush painting her cheeks was any indication. She squeezed Christen’s hand back. “It’s nothing compared to how you are with her. You’re incredible. You’ve given her such a good life. And I know it hasn’t been easy, not in the slightest. And there’ll still be hard parts to come. But…I hope now things seem a little lighter, a little more hopeful for you. Because you seem happy. Happier. If I can say so.” Tobin gave her a shy smile, her blush still there. “And you can start to thrive as well. Not just live to get to the next day, but live to live.”

Tobin’s words sunk into Christen as she listened to them. It meant so much to see how deeply Tobin cared. That she recognized Christen’s sacrifices, but reminded her that wasn’t how it had to be anymore. It would be hard but it wasn’t impossible, not anymore. Not with her there, not with friends to help. Mal was doing so good. Now Christen could, as well.

The silence that sat between them made a hesitant look cross Tobin’s features. “I’m sorry if that was overstepping. I don’t mean you don’t have a fulfilling life, Chris. Of course you do. I just mean – ”

“No, no. It’s okay. I didn’t think that.” Christen rushed to stop Tobin, realizing she’d been pondering her thoughts for too long. “I know I’ve been living my life for the last 12 years putting every need Mal has over my own. And it’s not easy to try and reverse that now. But I am trying. I am.” Christen squeezed her hand. “I’m trying for myself, and for Mal. And also for you. I’m in this, Tobs, with you. I like being here with you, and I want to be my whole self when I am with you. I’m learning what I want, what it’s like to put myself first. And having you by my side while that happens, it’s more than I could have ever dreamed of.”

“That’s how I feel when I’m with you. All the time.” Tobin murmured, causing Christen to blush and choke on air, not being prepared for how sweet and entirely encompassing Tobin’s words would be.

It’s really a miracle she got out her next question at all.

“Would you want to go on another date with me? Maybe?” Christen asked, barely managing to not stumble over her words as her face threatened to set on fire at how hot it was. Her heart was racing, waiting for Tobin’s response with clammy hands.

Tobin brought their intertwined hands up to her mouth and kissed them, before deciding to do one better and leant across the table, kissing her. “I would love to.” She murmured against her lips, soft and sweet. Christen was certain she was going to pass out.

All she managed was a blushing smile in response, nodding her head and laughing at herself – and at Tobin’s reaction as well.

“Wow, being asked out on another date before I’ve even finished the first one? I must be doing something right.”

“The date’s not done?” Christen asked, seeing Tobin’s grin in response.

“Well, I guess it technically is. But, we’ve got a whole beach to walk back yet. There may or may not be an ice cream stand we pass on the way. And me, I’ve had a lot of time to think of questions I want to ask you. 12 years, in fact.” Tobin winked as she stood up, gently pulling Christen to her feet as she lead them back across the beach, heading in the direction they came. “I haven’t even come close to knowing everything I want to know about you, Christen Press.”

Their hands fit together so perfectly, rings sitting side by side as they walked in step. There was so much she wanted to know about Tobin, as well. So much she couldn’t wait to find out.

She hoped there would never be enough things to discover about each other. That they would be able to keep doing this forever, because being with Tobin, it was right. She felt it deep in her soul.

Part of her already had a feeling – a beautiful, smile forever etched on her face feeling – that the hope she had was right.

Chapter Text

Christen dreamed about kissing.

She dreamed about lips.

About tongues.

She dreamed about all the times she’d kissed Tobin in the past near-three months.

(She dreamed about all the times she’d like to kiss Tobin more).

But she also dreamed about others. The kisses she’d had before.

It’s not like she had to count to remember them. There’d only been three people.

None of them held a candle to what she feels for Tobin.

But still, she dreamed about kissing.

She’d just turned 15 and it was her first date. She was more excited than nervous, her face feeling hot from how her parents had lovingly teased her as they dropped her off at the cinema and from the look her date gave her, Tia from her club soccer team, as she lead them to the back row of the near empty theatre.

Kissing wasn’t like what she expected. She had thought it would be awkward and jittery and maybe even a bit gross. But it wasn’t.

Kissing Tia was fun. What started out as a couple of little kisses over half way through the movie then turned into a classic teenage make out for the last 10 minutes of it. Christen didn’t mind being in someone else’s space and feeling their breath on her lips and all the things she thought she would.

Instead, she kind of liked how soft Tia’s lips felt pressed against her own. She liked moving her mouth in a way that made the other’s breath hitch, made them curl their hands tighter around the back of her neck like they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Maybe the most chaotic thing she ever did when she and Mal were living in their third foster home was kiss Clara, a 17 year old who had turned up with a ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude and showed it, barely lasting there three nights before running away for good. She was chill brash – everything a 16 year old Christen wasn’t.

Christen was almost embarrassed by how little it took – on the second night the two of them brushed their teeth side by side in the bathroom, Christen nervously glancing at Clara every now and again while Clara’s eyes stayed on Christen the entire time.  

Mal was asleep in the bedroom, and Christen knew she should get back to her. But something about Clara pulled her in. Christen let Clara back her into the bathroom sink, kissing her hard and fast like she’d never get the chance to again.

(When Christen overheard the next day that Clara had run away, already past state lines, she realized she never would).

She didn’t know her. And she wouldn’t miss her. But for a few nights after that kiss, Christen found herself touching her lips, remembering the way Clara’s had moulded to them, feeling a bit out of breath even by the fading memory of it.  

That’s what it was like kissing Zoe.

Zoe was a flurry of a presence in the sports bar where Christen’s second job was – a one month whirlwind that made her a bit dizzy in a way she hadn’t let herself feel since she met Tobin. Christen was 23, Zoe was 26. Zoe was carefree, turning up in one city and staying for as long as she felt like it before moving on, like a leaf that let the wind take it wherever.

She caught Christen’s attention, but maybe that’s because Christen had already caught Zoe’s. Christen wasn’t intending to. She didn’t have time to get into anything, that wasn’t her priority. She’d only recently just been able to adopt Mal, and Mal was her priority.

But Zoe was there, always there, with the little comments and touches on her arm and looks and the way she drank a beer on a hot day and it glistened off her lips…Christen was only human.

“Loosen up, Press.” Zoe would snort as Christen all but scheduled in the times they’d be able to make out – between the hour that Christen finished work and before she had to leave to pick up Mal from soccer practice three days a week.

Christen would just roll her eyes, letting Zoe’s lips swallow whatever retort she might have had.

Despite all the difficulties Christen experienced in foster care, there had never been a more stressful period of her life than the one she’d just lived through, waiting for months that turned into years to adopt Mal. Now that her baby sister was safely with her, she allowed herself a break, a sort of reprieve. That just happened to come in the form of Zoe.

Zoe wasn’t the dating type, and Christen knew she wouldn’t be there for long. She didn’t feel for Zoe in that way. They were just a moment of convenience for each other, a way to release some tension, perhaps. Christen’s lack of experience ensured they did nothing but make out – Zoe’s wandering hands were quickly stopped by a flustered Christen. But oh did she ever learn to become a talented kisser.

In the end, it wasn’t Zoe that inevitably cut it off for the two of them.

It was Christen.  

“Fuck.” Christen swore as she pulled her phone back out of her bag, seeing 10 missed calls from Mal’s club coach. Her and Zoe had come back into the break room from outside, ready to part ways for the night.

“What is it, Press?”  

Christen didn’t bother to answer, hitting call back on her phone and immediately hearing it pick up on the other end. It was a quick conversation with Mal’s coach – he was at the hospital with Mal, she had collided with another teammate at practice and the fall had broken her arm. He’d attempted to call her at training a few times, and when she didn’t pick up he’d brought her to the hospital himself.  

Apologies flowed profusely out of Christen’s mouth as she shakily threw her jacket into her bag, gathering up her other things and digging around in it to find her keys. She stumbled out some explanation, saying she had to work later than usual (a complete lie, and the guilt had already begun eating away at her). Zoe had tried to come towards her, a silent question of ‘how can I help’ on her face, but Christen couldn’t even look at her, so consumed by shame.

She didn’t ever see her again.  

Christen heard the coach say that Mal was going to need surgery on her arm, but they couldn’t proceed without her guardian there. Christen’s breath stuck in her throat at the thought of her baby sister in a hospital without her, knowing the only other time Mal had been there was probably the most traumatic memory of their time in foster care together. She practically ran out of the bar, getting to the hospital as quickly as she could, bursting through it until she reached the bed Mal was at.

“Chrissy!” Tears dripped out of Mal’s eyes as soon as she saw her older sister, clearly having kept them in up until that point. As carefully as she could without knocking her arm that was wrapped in a sling, Christen collected Mal in her arms, kissing her head over and over, telling her how sorry she was that she couldn’t get there sooner.

“It’s okay, Chris. You had to stay at work.”

Mal’s big glistening eyes were looking up at her and they held so much love and devotion and trust and Christen thought she might throw up from how guilty she felt. She’d put her own desires over Mal’s care and look what had happened. She couldn’t tell Mal the truth, she wouldn’t be able to face it. Instead she just nodded, holding Mal close again as she tried to not let her insides eat away at her.

“Don’t be sad, I’m going to be okay.” Mal had squeezed her hand, seeing the worried and despondent look that sat on Christen’s face. It almost made her laugh how wrong Mal had it. Her brain screamed at her that she deserved to feel this way. That she’d been a terrible sister. She had to accept her reality, and she’d never put herself before Mal again.  

That was before Tobin came back into her life.

It was difficult for Christen, still, to let go of the guilt-filled memories she had and let herself fully enjoy being with Tobin, and all that came with that. It was even more difficult for her to try and balance the overwhelming reactions Tobin caused in her and the effort it took to not feel embarrassed at her total lack of experience.

She could tell Tobin was holding herself back. It had been over two weeks since their first date and they’d been on three others since. One resulted in 10 kisses over the period of time together (Christen didn’t couldn’t find it in herself to care that she’d counted). The second had them making out in the car like teenagers as they waited to pick Mal up from school. The third concluded in a long kiss that left Christen weak in the knees, her telling Tobin (and only half joking) that she might have to carry her back down the trail if her legs gave out on her.

Then there were all the times Mal was at school, and there were countless times the two had shared kisses, each day becoming closer and closer both physically and emotionally.

Most of the time Christen initiated the kissing. It wasn’t that she had a problem with that, it’s just that she could tell Tobin wanted to, but restrained herself. She understood why, and if she was being honest there was a small part of herself that was glad for it, lest she freak out on Tobin and set them back.  

But the bigger part of her? She longed for Tobin. Always.

She’d gotten to a good place about balancing her feelings of obligation to Mal and her own desires. Especially at camp, where she was confident Mal was surrounded by people who had her best interests at heart, Christen was able to let herself relax more.

And so, she dreamed of kissing.

Kissing Tobin was simultaneously everything and nothing like Christen expected. When she kissed Tobin, it felt right. She couldn’t explain it. It was like something stirred in her, a deep seated feeling of inevitability that told her this was how her life was supposed to go. When she kissed Tobin, it also felt like the most mind blanking, dizzying, knock you off your feet and steal your breath experience she’d ever have. She could have never prepared herself for how intoxicating it would get. How addictive Tobin had become to her.

She dreamed about what she feels for Tobin and she wondered just how she was able to ignore these feelings inside her for so long. It was like Tobin came along and ripped her desire from where she’d buried it, waking it up and setting it alight.

Tobin’s lips were the softest things Christen had ever pressed hers against. She dreamed of the way Tobin would hold her around her waist, pulling her close and steady. She dreamed of how Tobin’s tongue would slide against her lips, opening her mouth up in one movement and claiming it like it was always meant to be hers. And oh how Christen was willing to give it to her.

She dreamed of the sounds Tobin would make, and all the sounds she was yet to. Of the way Tobin’s body reacted, and all the ways Christen wanted to see it to. Of how Tobin seemed to be equally intoxicated by her, even though she’d surely had more experienced partners before, and how Christen just wanted to be enough for her, to make her feel good, to be good –  

Christen was ripped from her sleep with a gasp, sitting upright in her bed and feeling warm, too warm.

Her hands were clammy, her neck lined with sweat and her face flushed. Her body was tingling – all over – and she was flustered, feeling on fire from her dream about Tobin. For the first time in her life she was relieved that Mal wasn’t asleep in the bed next to her. She wouldn’t have known what to do if she was ripped from a dream of that nature to see the angelic sleeping face of her baby sister.

Pulling herself to the hotel bathroom she brushed her teeth, looking in the mirror at the flush on her face, on her neck. She ran a wet cloth over her skin, barely throwing her hair up into a bun before there was a knock on the door.

She opened the door to see Tobin standing there, smiling as bright as the morning like there was nothing weird going on at all. Tobin leaned in to kiss her hello, and Christen soon realized if she wanted her brain to do anything today apart from replay her dream over and over again in her mind she was fresh out of luck.

She didn’t even realize she hadn’t kissed Tobin back, so lost in her mind was she. Her brain seemed to come alive when she saw Tobin’s look of confusion and concern. Before the woman could open her mouth to ask what was wrong, Christen tugged her into the room, letting the door close behind her as she pressed Tobin against it and kissed her.

And she didn’t just kiss her.

She kissed her.

The dream replayed in Christen’s mind as her lips pressed against Tobin’s, urgent and needy in a way she hadn’t ever been with her, or anyone, for that matter. Tobin seemed a bit unresponsive first before she moved like she was jolted, her arms encircling her waist as she pulled Christen flush against her. One of Christen’s hands cupped Tobin’s cheek, the other curling around the back of her neck and gripping her hair.

Though she initiated this kiss, Christen’s lips happily parted when she felt Tobin’s tongue against them, trying and failing to keep a whimper from falling out of her mouth at the feel of Tobin taking control.

Kissing Tobin like this short circuited Christen’s brain. She barely had the space to worry about whether she was okay at it, because when she slipped her tongue into Tobin’s mouth and she felt Tobin’s hips buck against hers, a full on keening sound left her mouth. 

Christen only just remembered to breathe before her legs gave way. She reluctantly pulled away, staying close enough that she could feel Tobin’s pants against her lips. The hand that was cupping Tobin’s cheek travelled down it, her thumb gliding over Tobin’s bottom lip and pulling it slightly as it moved down again.

She swore when she looked up at Tobin her hips bucked again. Now that she wasn’t in the midst and brain frying act of kissing her, she realized what just happened and a tiny blush painted her cheeks. She was barely able to comprehend that Tobin had that reaction to her, but when she went to move away Tobin’s arms just encircled her waist tighter.

“Fuck.” Tobin still sounded out of breath, like she’d just run a full field sprint. Her eyes were glassy, her cheeks flushed. She was looking at Christen with a mixture of want and surprise, and it took her a minute to regain her thoughts. “I’m going to miss that.”

Christen frowned at the thought, hating being reminded that after the She Believes Cup Tobin would be heading to Portland for preseason, and not back to LA with them. She shook her head at the other woman, clearly signalling that this wasn’t something they needed to get sad over just yet, that could wait.

Tobin nodded, finally seeming to catch her breath a few moments later. Christen couldn’t help but quirk her lips at the look on her face. Tobin took Christen’s hand and kissed the palm of it, holding it against her own cheek.

“Can I ask where that came from? If that’s what I’m going to be greeted with every time I knock at your door I’ll happily go out right now just to come back in, because wow.”

Laughter left Christen’s mouth, her eyes mesmerized at the way Tobin placed another kiss to the palm of her hand. She started thinking about what she might tell Tobin, and the blush that painted her face gave her away before she could even speak.

“I, uh…I had a dream.”

Tobin got a tiny grin on her face that made Christen think she wasn’t all that surprised to hear it, but was still very happy to. She raised an eyebrow in a question, silently offering Christen the chance to explain, if she wanted. And after that kiss? Christen was thinking she definitely wanted to.

Unfortunately for them, however, it seemed the rest of the team didn’t get the memo on their talking time. It was like the players at the She Believes camp came alive all at once – Alex was banging on the door, yelling at them to stop making out and come for coffee with her and the others, Mal called Christen who reluctantly stepped away from Tobin to answer the phone and explain to her step by step where she’d seen her pack her conditioner because Mal ‘just couldn’t find it and yes I’ve looked everywhere’ (she hadn’t) and Allie was clearly waiting at the elevators ready to scare whoever walked past, so far by the screams they heard it was Alyssa and Crystal.

“Maybe later?” Christen whispered to Tobin and laughed when the other woman groaned, clearly disappointed at not being able to hear about Christen’s dream. She pouted and Christen couldn’t resist pulling at her bottom lip again as she listened to what Mal was saying on the phone, a cheeky expression on Tobin all the while. “Mal it won’t be in the main part of your bag because you packed it last. Didn’t you shower in the morning before the flight?”

Tobin took her hand, pressing another kiss there. Christen felt her laugh against her palm when she rolled her eyes at the phone, Mal suddenly remembering that Christen was right as she opened the top part of her bag to find it.

“Yes, I know, I am the best person ever and you’d be lost without me and you’ll grovel at my feet forever more.” Christen joked into the phone, laughing at Mal’s indignant response. “See you later at breakfast ya little loser. I love you.”

When she hung up the phone she threw on a hoodie, walking over to the door. She turned back to see Tobin still standing in the same place, and she held her hand out to her.

“Coming?”

Tobin’s pout was still in place. “But…kisses?”

Her heart skipped a beat, a smile bursting onto her face as she waved Tobin towards her outstretched hand. When the woman eventually took it, she pulled her into her, giving her one last searing kiss and a tiny peck to follow it up. “But…coffee.”

Tobin’s groan and Christen’s laughter were then the latest sounds to join the team racket already coming from the hotel hallway as Christen dragged Tobin out with her to face the day ahead.

----------

These days, Christen felt like the only thing she thought of more than kissing Tobin was getting a job. And getting money. And the fact that Tobin wouldn’t be coming back to LA.

Okay, so many there was a lot of things.

“You’re hovering. Why are you hovering?”

Christen shot Mal an apologetic look, though her little sister’s expression was less of annoyance and more of a question.

“I’m just seeing how you’re getting on.”

“Christen.” Mal deadpanned, turning away from her school work on the laptop to face her sister standing behind her chair. Now it was a look of annoyance. Mal clearly didn’t believe her, and with how antsy Christen had been that evening she didn’t blame her.

It was two days before the first game of the She Believes Cup, and Christen asked to meet with an official from the team before the Cup overtook everything else. She’d wanted to know about the schedule for the next few months, leading up to the Olympics, and had asked – presuming that Mal made all of the next rosters – what training camps and games she’d have to attend as her guardian.

The USWNT had two friendlies scheduled against Colombia in mid-April, a month’s time, but not much else in the foreseeable future as the NWSL would be in full swing then. The wheels started turning in Christen’s head – two friendlies would be fine to manage and at the end of April Mal would be 18. Christen could finally start looking for a job, knowing she would be staying in one place for a while when they got back to LA.

When she realized she could start to solve the problem that had been eating away at her since her last day at work – albeit less stressfully since Mal started getting paid and Tobin came into the picture – she was desperate to get her hands on the laptop and start searching for jobs.

She’d told herself it was for money, for security. And it was, of course it was. But deep down, she also knew she’d feel a bit lost going back to LA without Tobin. Tobin, who she’d spent every day with for the past almost three weeks in between Qualifiers and this camp. She’d adapted so quickly to that as their new normal. But it wasn’t. And she wasn’t looking forward to the wakeup call that would hit when they returned.

Unfortunately when she’d gotten back to the room, Mal and the others had arrived back from training. Mal had piled up a bit of school work and Christen knew she had to use the laptop they shared, so she’d been hanging around the room, very noticeably by Mal, until she was done with it.

“Fine.” Christen sighed, knowing she wouldn’t be able to (and shouldn’t, really) lie to Mal. “I want to use the laptop.”

“Oh! You should have just asked!” Mal got excited, practically throwing the laptop to her, happy to have an excuse to not have to do her school work.

“Mallory Press I know you did not just throw that laptop.” Christen scolded her, barely managing to catch it. This was technically the most expensive thing they owned, and Christen was less than impressed that Mal would be so callous with it.

“Sorry!” Mal wore a sheepish expression, realizing she’d gotten too energetic. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

Christen put the laptop back down on the desk. “I know. Just…this stuff is expensive, okay? If it breaks what are you going to do? We need to be careful.”

“I’m sorry.” Mal repeated, her eyebrows creasing together unhappily knowing that she’d made Christen get stressed out.

Christen saw the look on Mal’s face and stopped, taking a breath and shaking herself out of it. She kissed Mal’s temple, crouching down and taking her hand. “ No, I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t mean to get frustrated.”

The frown was still on Mal’s face, though it had morphed into concern. “What’s wrong, Christen?”

There was a brief moment that Christen considered feigning ignorance to Mal’s question. If this was 3 months ago, Christen wouldn’t have told her the truth. Not because she wanted to lie to her, but because she didn’t want to burden Mal with her worries. It was easier keeping her baby sister carefree.

She knew she wouldn’t, though. She’d made a promise to Mal, and to herself. She had to start leaning on others. But that didn’t make it easy. It wasn’t something she could just switch on.

The hesitation on her face must have been noticeable to Mal, who tugged on her hand, pulling her up so she was sitting on her lap. Christen let out a little laugh as Mal wrapped her arms around her, knowing their roles were usually reversed in this situation. But, she had to admit, there were far worse places to be than wrapped in her sister’s arms.

“Tell me what’s up.”

Christen sighed, resting her cheek against Mal’s head as she spoke. “I’m just thinking about – “

“Mal? Christen? Are y’all ready? Dinner’s on.” Sonnett’s voice and a knock at the hotel room door floated through, cutting Christen off before she could really start. They both sighed, Christen fully losing momentum. She picked her head up to look at Mal.

“Let’s go?”

“But…” Mal sighed. She was wearing an expression that told Christen she knew how important it was to take these opportunities when they could. It was a moment for Christen to take account of just how emotionally aware and mature her sister was becoming.

“Are y’all there?” Sonnett called out again, then her voice turned to the side. “Tobs! Where’s Chr – ”

“We’re here! Be out in a minute!” Christen called out, standing up. She pulled Mal up with her, bringing her into a hug. “I love you."

“I love you too.” Mal pulled away, looking at her. “You can talk to me about anything, you know.”

“I know.” Christen kissed her head, hugging her close again before leading them out the door for dinner, joining Sonnett, Tobin and the other players in the hallway making their way down.

“What I wouldn’t do for some cake right now, I swear.” Crystal sat down at the table with a plate of healthy food, shaking her head at it. “I love being an athlete. But when you get that craving and you can’t eat it, no matter how much you want it? The worst.”

Christen almost snorted, laughing along with the rest of the table. She twirled around some pasta on her fork, once again feeling grateful for the opportunity to live at these camps where they had chefs cooking their every meal. It was a far cry better than what she was used to.

“You know, sometimes I crave Bice.”

This time, Christen did snort. She almost dropped the fork of pasta she was holding, starting somewhat incredulously at Mal. “Really? I could never eat Bice again and it would still be too soon.”

“What is Bice?” Ash asked on behalf of the rest of the group at the table, everyone looking at the two sisters.

“It’s nothing.”

“It’s great!”

Christen and Mal spoke at the same time, with conflicting statements.

Christen didn’t want to talk about Bice. To her, Bice was the epitome of their money struggles. It was the cheapest and easiest meal to cook, while being filling and still somewhat healthy for Mal’s growing athleticism. When Christen only had a few dollars left each week for food (which was often the case) she resorted to Bice.

“Bice is beans and rice. We ate it all the time, like all the time, when I was growing up – ”

“ – You’re still growing up – ”

“ – Shut up, Sonnett. When I was younger I think I said it funny so Christen started calling it Bice. It was like a staple for us. And the first thing Christen taught me how to cook. But I always liked it best when she cooked it.”

Christen really didn’t want to talk about Bice. But Mal’s last statement surprised her. She’d never thought Mal liked it better when she cooked it, because Mal was always so excited when Christen let her help out, wanting to do everything she was doing.

“Why was it better when Christen cooked?” Tobin was evidently thinking the same thing, asking before Christen could.

Mal shrugged, like it was obvious. “Christen made everything more fun. Every time we had Bice it wasn’t just Bice. It was like a game. Sometimes she used to take seasoning packets from her work and then we’d like – ”

“Mal.” Christen had heard enough. She was relieved, very much, that Mal’s associations with Bice were happy ones. But hers weren’t. And taking seasoning packets from her work to liven up bland rice and beans because there was nothing else she could give Mal was not something her memory wanted to revisit tonight, especially not when it had been so preoccupied with money and jobs already. To Mal, it was a game. To Christen, it was a sign of desperation.

Mal stopped talking when Christen said her name, looking at her curiously. Christen tried to lighten her tone, switch the conversation topic. She didn’t want to come across as being blunt with Mal, especially since her sister didn’t know her feelings on the issue, and she didn’t want to draw more attention to a topic she did not want to converse on.

“We don’t want to talk about Bice, not when we’ve got such great food here.” Christen looked away too quickly after she threw that statement out, but not quickly enough to miss the look Mal gave her.

Thankfully, Tobin was there to keep things going, seamlessly switching the conversation to the time in college that Ashlyn tried to recreate a recipe of her mom’s in their substandard student kitchen and almost burned it down in the process.

“Chris, what’s – ” Mal tried to start talking to Christen when they stood up from the table after dinner was finished, but she was soon bombarded with a hyperactive Rose and Sonnett jumping on her.

“Mal, come on!”

“Come on where?” Mal asked Rose, looking back at Christen and wanting to talk to her.

“Back to my room, we’re gonna learn that dance I showed you before.”

Christen could have laughed, seeing the dilemma on Mal’s face. She probably would have turned Rose down for everything bar learning a new dance – Mal absolutely loved dancing. Christen was so glad Rose and Sonnett (and Lindsey when they could drag her along) shared that with her.

“Mal, we’ll talk later, okay? Even if it’s late, I don’t mind.” Christen tried to make the decision easy for Mal, knowing she’d acted pretty out of the ordinary that evening (it was almost laughable that for Christen, acting out of the ordinary meant letting a tiny bit of emotions out). Mal was clearly a little worried about what was stressing her out and Christen knew she wanted to talk about it.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

No less than a few seconds after Mal had run off with her friends had Tobin come up to Christen’s side, pressing a kiss to her cheek.

“Hi.” Tobin murmured, the breath on her lips tickling Christen’s skin.

Now, Christen had planned to go back to her room and get on the laptop to look for jobs, no matter how stressful that seemed. But what she figured she really needed – or at least, this was the solution that gave her the most short term happiness – was a distraction.

Distractions for Christen could have come in many forms, but her favorite one of late was overwhelmingly Tobin’s lips, and specifically, Tobin’s lips on hers. She could think about how those lips would soon be in Portland whilst she would be in LA. But she didn’t because it was much easier just to kiss her instead.

She all but dragged Tobin back to her room, barely waiting for the door to close before kissing her, sighing in bliss at the way Tobin responded to her, feeling her take over her surroundings, take over her brain, make her forget.

After a while Tobin’s tongue swiped at her lips and her mouth opened, her eyes closing at the feel of their bodies connecting. She wrapped her arms tighter around Tobin’s shoulders, pressing in closer.

An involuntary shudder left her lips when her shirt rode up at the movement, Tobin’s fingers that were gripping her waist now touching her skin and leaving goose bumps. Christen’s reactions seemed to be propelling Tobin forward. She broke their kiss apart and pressed her lips along Christen’s jaw, sucking ever so slightly at the top of her neck.

A sound Christen had never heard come out of her own mouth then appeared, her body shuddering again with how good Tobin’s lips felt. This was what she’d wanted. She didn’t want to be reminded of her past. She didn’t want to think about the future. She wanted her mind to be clear. If it took Tobin kissing her dizzy for that to happen, well that was even better.

“Chris…fuck.” Tobin whispered against her skin, her lips moving up her neck towards her ear. “The little sounds you make, they’re addicting.”

As if to prove her point, Tobin’s lips were back on her skin, Christen’s neck turning to the side to give her more room. Her brain felt dead in the best way, Tobin's words making her body tingle. She’d never felt this affected by someone, never wanted someone so much. It was like she hadn’t ever kissed Tia or Carla or Zoe. Her brain decided nothing before now had ever mattered, nothing like the way Tobin’s lips felt on her and how her body was being reduced to a puddle.

It was too bad for Christen that Tobin’s brain wasn’t quite done with the past. She eventually pulled her lips away, pressing them one more time against Christen’s before staring at her intently, catching her breath.

“What happened at dinner? Mal was talking and you looked uncomfortable.”

Christen was trying to regain control of her racing heartbeat, trying to prevent her legs from giving out under her. She couldn’t think about dinner, or what they were talking about, even if she wanted to.

Which she most definitely did not.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Tobin’s gaze softened. One of her hands that was around Christen’s waist came up to cup her cheek, her thumb tracing her lips. Christen’s mind blanked out again. How was she supposed to think straight when Tobin was doing that?

“Are you sure? Because – ”

Christen’s lips swallowed Tobin’s reply, trying to put a stop to the conversation before it started. She nudged her back a few steps, waiting until Tobin’s legs hit the end of the bed. When she pulled away she nipped the bottom of Tobin’s lip, getting a whimper out of the other woman.

“I don’t want to talk at all.”

Oh.”

The word fell from Tobin’s mouth much like she basically fell to the bed, sitting on the edge of it with her hands still on Christen’s waist, now loosely. Christen could see her visibly gulp, her eyes turning dark.

This was what she wanted. She didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to think. Not about her past, not about going to bed hungry because she’d always feed Mal before herself, not about working to exhaustion and back again every time Mal got pulled to an academy or camp or trip and it cost so much, always so much.

She didn’t want to think about how money had a grip on her. How it always would. How she’d soon have to go back to work and how she sometimes lay awake at night wondering if she’d just work unhappily at a soulless diner for the rest of her life on minimum wage and die that way.

It’s not until Tobin was basically digging her fingers into her waist to get her attention that she realized a whole minute had passed and she might be having a panic attack.

“Chris, Chris, hey, there you are, that’s it just look at me.” Tobin’s eyes held none of the lust they did moments ago, now full of concern and protectiveness. Her hands were steady at Christen’s waist, and all Christen could manage was to grip Tobin’s forearms with her own shaky hands.

“Good, Chris. That’s it. Keep your eyes on me, okay? Just breathe with me, it’s just me.” The murmurs flowing out of Tobin’s mouth were steady, and Christen tried to see through the tears in her eyes to watch how Tobin’s chest rose and fell slowly, in time with the way she squeezed her waist, eventually in time with how Christen herself managed to control her own breathing.

She isn’t sure how much time passed. When she could hear her own thoughts again instead of the blood pumping through her ears she relaxed the tense position she was holding herself in, her legs almost buckling in the process.

“Hey, hey, I’ve got you.” Tobin’s steady hands caught her, and she pulled her into where she sat still on the edge of the bed. Christen didn’t resist, letting her body be guided until she ended up in Tobin’s lap, her legs wrapping around Tobin’s back and her front pressing into hers.

Tobin’s arms wrapped right around her, pulling her flush against her but keeping her upright so she had a clear breathing passage. Her head immediately found the crook in Tobin’s neck and she buried it there, breathing in the scent that had become so familiar, so like home and safety and comfort that it wasn’t really that long at all before she had properly calmed down.

“It’s okay. I’m here, you’re safe.”

Tobin’s words were like a salve to Christen’s heart, day by day mending it back together after all these years of feeling so lost and helpless and alone. She took ten breaths in and out – she counted – and then she kissed the side of Tobin’s neck, pulling back to face her.

Tobin’s hands had been rubbing calming circles on her back, and that didn’t stop even as their eyes met. She waited patiently for Christen to gather her thoughts, giving her a soft, supportive smile as she looked at her.

“I’m sorry.” Christen’s voice was a little raspy from her choked breaths and crying.

“Don’t be sorry.”

Christen shook her head. “I am. I shouldn’t have kissed you. Not when I knew you wanted to talk. Not when I knew I needed to talk.” She tries to hold Tobin’s eyes but she fails, her gaze falling down.

It’s only the feel of Tobin’s lips on her forehead, pressing so lovingly into her skin, that her eyes flicker back up.

“It’s okay, Chris. You don’t have to be so hard on yourself. Everyone deals with things in their own way. I know you need to talk about what happened, and I knew we would eventually. But it’s okay to want a reprieve from the thoughts in our head as well, as long as it doesn’t turn into an unhealthy coping mechanism.”

Christen nodded, agreeing with her.

“And if that’s the way you want to distract yourself, I am not complaining.” Tobin whispered the last of her sentence into Christen’s ear, making the younger woman shudder as she curled her hand around the baby hairs at the back of Tobin’s neck.

“That’s not fair, you know we need to talk.” Christen grumbled at her, not managing to resist cracking a smile at the smug grin sitting on Tobin’s face. That soon turned into full out laughter as Tobin just shrugged, pursing her lips out for a kiss that Christen pecked on them.

She leaned forward again, her head in Tobin’s neck as her arms wrapped around her, effectively koala hugging the other woman. “How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Just…you make everything better. I felt like I couldn’t breathe a few minutes ago and now I look at your face and my whole body feels lighter. You make me so happy.”

Tobin didn’t speak for a few moments, and Christen started to worry she’d said the wrong thing. But then Tobin’s arms tightened around her and she buried her head in Christen’s neck. “It’s easy, Chris. You bring out my best self. You make me the happiest I’ve ever been.”

The words could have made Christen cry, and if she stayed hugging her she probably would have. But she needed to see her face. She wanted to show Tobin how much those words meant to her, how much she meant to her. She cupped Tobin’s cheeks in her hands, kissing her with everything she had, squeezing her eyes shut and thanking anyone and everyone out there that she had been so lucky to have this woman come back to her.

“Now, if you want and if you’re ready,” Tobin said a long while after, when their kissing had slowed down to just little pecks, enjoying being in each other’s space. “Tell me about Bice.”

Christen nodded, her forehead resting against Tobin’s.

Mal was 7 and Christen 17. They were in their fourth foster home, Christen was one month into working at the diner. She was desperate for more shifts, quickly realizing if she wanted to have enough money to move out and foster Mal when she turned 18 she would need to work more. But she was new and young, and she still had to prove herself.

That was all well and good, but it didn’t make their situation right now any easier.

Christen knew she’d made the right decision when they got moved to this place, telling the foster parents they wouldn’t have to do anything for them. She could tell these people were only in it for the money. She told them she would look after Mal, they could pretend they weren’t even there.

Which was what they did, as these foster parents were barely home. She didn’t know where they spent their time, but she didn’t much care. This was the best situation they’d been in their entire time in foster care, purely because the other homes had been made awful by the foster parents themselves.

But the parents barely being home meant not having to leave anything at home. The fridge was often empty, as bare as the cupboards. Christen had learnt a lot about surviving for her and Mal. But she was also learning that having enough money for food was looking like something they’d always be struggling with.   

The exhausted sigh that left Christen’s mouth when she opened the cupboard to see exactly one can of beans, half a packet of rice and one snack box of crackers sat so deep in her bones she felt like an old woman. She had no money left, nothing for two days until she got paid.  

Beans and rice wasn’t the worst meal she could give Mal. They were staple foods in most households. She tried to convince herself that it was fine to cook this. That it didn’t symbolize a sort of desperation from her. She tried to tell herself she would choose to cook this if given the choice.  

(She tried).

“Mal, can you set the table, please?” Christen later called out from where she stirred the cooked food in the pot, not being very convinced as to the look or the taste. She got out two bowls, dishing Mal’s out first and then examining what was left, trying to work out how much she could eat so that there would still be enough for Mal to eat tomorrow.

Speaking of Mal, she was taking her sweet time with the cutlery. She had opened the drawer and seemed to be examining all the different forks she could choose from. Christen stood beside her, holding two bowls.

“Do you want to move a bit faster with that?”

Mal looked up at her, mischief in her eyes, and sprinted in place, her legs moving up and down quickly. Christen rolled her eyes, giving her a grin as she waved her hand at her, nudging her back to the table.

“You’ve definitely got Mom’s sense of humor.”

Mal’s excited eyes shot up at her when she said that. “Really?”

“For sure. She was so silly and fun, just like you.” Christen curled a piece of Mal’s hair behind her ear as she set the bowl down in front of her, sitting in the chair over. She had a bittersweet feeling inside, as always, when she spoke of their parents. It hurt her, but she knew how much Mal loved hearing about them. She tried her best to mention them as much as she could.  

“What is this?” Mal asked, half around her food, as she dug in. She clearly had no problem with eating it, prompting Christen to eat some herself and be somewhat surprised it didn’t taste as awful as she thought it would.

“It’s beans and rice.”

Mal repeated what she said – well, she thought Mal repeated what she said, but the seven year old spoke fully around her food this time, and Christen honestly couldn’t make it out.

“Baby, please don’t talk with your mouth full. It’s bad manners, I know I’ve told you that before. And did you just say Reans and Bice?”

The food in Mal’s mouth got swallowed before she spoke again. “Sorry, Chrissy.” Then she laughed, thinking about Reans and Bice. “That’s funny! We’re eating Bice!”

Christen laughed, staring at Mal with soft eyes. She loved how Mal found the fun in everything. And really, she could learn from her. There was always a game if you looked hard enough.

“Hey, you know what? There’s actually a rule when you eat Bice.”

“Really? What is it?” Mal stopped her fork half way to her mouth, captivated by Christen.

“Well, every time you eat it you have to do something different.” Christen’s brain was working a mile a minute, trying to come up with something on the spot. “It can be the way you cook it, or the way you eat it.”

Mal’s excited grin was huge. “What is it?”

“Hmmm.” Christen said, getting up from the table and opening a drawer in the kitchen. She pulled out one wooden spoon and one spatula, both far too big to eat with, and sat back at the table. “No more forks. You have to finish the rest of your dinner with this.”

Mal burst out laughing as she took the spatula, it looking pretty comically large in her little hand. The kid looked like she was having the time of her life, laughing around every mouthful she tried to put into her mouth, eventually having to scoop it onto the spatula when she got to the end.

Christen just watched her with a smile, shaking her head at herself as to why she decided to do this – she also had to eat her dinner with a wooden spoon that was far too big for purpose. She alone would not have found it funny. But Mal loved this stuff. Loved to do silly things, to be a kid. Kids thought anything out of the ordinary was fun. And if this made her eager to eat Bice, the cheapest meal Christen could think of, well, that’s what they’d do.  

-

Mal was 10 and Christen 20. Bice continued to be a staple of their diets. Christen continued to come up with new ideas. Their latest (and the easiest) was Christen swiping mini sachets of spices or the like from her work and bringing them home.

Home, which was the two of them in an apartment, Christen fostering Mal.

Mal was practically vibrating with excitement, almost bursting before Christen had even told her the Bice rule for that night.

“In my hand are two very different sachets.” Christen used an exaggerated sports announcers voice, making Mal laugh. “One, is cayenne powder which would be a delicious addition to Bice. The other, is cocoa powder, which would be a horrible addition to Bice.”

Laughter erupted from Mal, the eight year old squealing as she covered her face with her hands, taking her decision very seriously.

“Choose wisely.” Christen was almost laughing herself, and desperately hoping Mal chose the right packet. When Mal pointed to her left hand she sighed in relief, holding up the cayenne powder triumphantly as Mal jumped around the room, cheering for herself and talking for the rest of the night about it.  

-

 Mal was 14 and Christen 24.

“No one’s going to judge you if you back out, Mal.” Christen watched her baby sister stare intently at the bowl of Bice in front of her. “You’ll just have to live with the fact that I’ll be the winner and I’ll never let you forget it.”

Mal laughed and groaned at the same time, holding her hands on either side of her face. “Who knows. I might like it.”

“Sure,” Christen grinned, “You might like Bice topped with the hottest sauce we had at the diner. Who knows. One way to find out.” She winked at her and ate a forkful herself, loving the way the hotness of the food settled on her tongue.

“If I eat it really fast I won’t be able to tell. Let’s do this!”

Christen laughed for the rest of dinner at the sight of Mal shovelling the food into her mouth, both of them with tears in their eyes by the end of it. She loved these nights with Mal. She hated Bice, hated everything it stood for. She couldn’t wait to see the end of it. But she’d never grow tired of her baby sister’s light for life, and everything in it.

By the time Christen finished explaining her memories to Tobin, they were both laying on their backs on the bed, hands intertwined between them.

“I guess today I just got myself worked up about what’s going to happen after this tournament finishes. And Mal talking about Bice, I guess it was just an untimely reminder of money.”

Tobin rolled to her side, propping her head up on her arm. She let go of Christen’s hand, bringing her own up to stroke the hair off Christen’s forehead gently as she spoke. “That makes sense. It’s understandable to feel that way if you associate those memories with money. And I know this isn’t the point, but Chris, what I hear when you tell me those stories is not about how rich or poor you were. I hear how incredible of a sister you are, how much you sacrificed for Mal, how you never settled for anything but the best for her.”

There it was again, Tobin healing the cracks in her heart.

“I know it’s simplistic to tell you to forget the bad associations you have with it. But I guess I’m just saying I can see where Mal is coming from. You did that for her, and now that things won’t ever have to be that tough again, maybe you can look back at those memories in a new light.”

A knock sounded at the door, and Tobin got up to open it. Christen told her it would be Mal and it was, the youngest Press sister finally making her way from Rose’s room to come and talk to Christen.

“You have pretty good timing, Mal. We were just talking about Bice.”

Mal came and sat next to Christen on the bed, Tobin sitting opposite them. “Did I say something to make you mad at dinner?”

“No, baby. Of course not.” Christen sat up, kissing Mal’s temple as she pulled her into a hug to talk to her. “I love that you have good associations with Bice. I tried really hard when you were growing up to make the blandest meal ever more fun for you. And I always had fun, too. But I really should tell you why I don’t like to think about it now.”

And so she did.

Christen told Mal with as much candor as she could about how money weighed on her when it came to food. How she always felt bad feeding Mal Bice so much, and why she continued to make it a game. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her that she’d sometimes skip meals, or eat the smallest amount possible so Mal would always have food the next day.

But it was enough, for now. She could see Mal understood more about her, was slowly coming to realize each time they had a big talk just how much she’d been through. She wanted to let her in on that piece by piece, not all at once.

“Does this mean we’ll never eat Bice again, if I’ll always have money for us, now?” Mal whispered out in the dark later that night, well after they’d finished talking and after Tobin had left for the night and after Mal had asked to stay in Christen’s bed because she wanted to be close to her sister.

“No, baby. If you want to eat it of course we can.” Christen said with a little smile, running her hands through Mal’s hair as she waited for sleep to come. “It is pretty fun, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Mal yawned. “It’s the best. And we can show Tobin, and the others as well.”

“You and Tobin would probably burn the house down trying to come up with a rule for Bice.”

“Exactly, that’s why it would be so fun.”

Christen just rolled her eyes, kissing Mal’s head. “Go to sleep, loser. I love you.”

“Love you forever, Chrissy.”

----------

The USWNT blasted through the first two games of the first ever She Believes Cup, beating both England and France 1-0. Christen had basically jumped onto the field at the end of the France game, it having almost ended 0-0 save for an Alex Morgan goal in the 91st minute assisted by none other than Mallory Press.

She’d celebrated with her sister, before soon finding Tobin’s side, and if she’d thought she was excited about the game before, it only doubled when Tobin (looking all kinds of irresistible in her post game sweat) asked Christen on a date.

So there they were, the night before the final She Believes Cup game against Germany on the South East coast of Florida on their fifth date. They’d had the best night, finishing it off by sitting on the edge of the board walk, dangling their feet over the water below.

Christen was glowing, even if she was slowly coming to the realization that after this tournament finished, Tobin wouldn’t be flying back to LA with them like she had before. NWSL preseason had started, all the national team members being one week late for it already. Tobin would have to go to Portland, something neither of them were looking forward to, though they knew it was what had to happen.

“I’m going to miss you.”

A warmth settled inside Christen when Tobin said that, feeling the woman lay her head down on her shoulder.

“I’ll miss you, too. I don’t really think I’ve wrapped my head around the fact you won’t be coming back to LA. I’ve just been ignoring it. Even if it may have added to my stress, recently.”

Tobin nodded against her shoulder, nuzzling into the shirt and placing a kiss there. Christen took a deep breath, looking out at the water as she continued. “I really like you, Tobin. You make my heart feel things I never thought it could. You make my brain calm, you help me rationalise things. You’re patient and kind and funny. You make me feel safe, and I feel heard when you listen to me. You are so gorgeous it makes my body…fucking crazy.”

Light laughter emitted from Tobin at Christen’s last statement, and she dropped another kiss to her shoulder, silently encouraging her to continue.

“I’m so glad to be here with you. There’s nowhere else I want to be. Even though we’ll be apart for a bit, I’ll have you with me, just like I always have.”

It was quiet for a bit, but when Tobin lifted her head off Christen’s shoulder, Christen turned to face her. Their lips met, maybe in more of a flurry than they had before, both of them trying to convey through the kiss just how important they were to each other, and how much they meant it when they talked about this stuff.

Tobin’s tongue licked into Christen’s mouth, and Christen’s hand rested on the top of Tobin’s chest, just enough to feel the thundering race of her heart beat.

“If it wasn’t already clear, I’m crazy about you, too.” Tobin said a while later, when they had pulled apart. She held both of Christen’s hands in hers as they talked. “I’ve never felt this way about anyone, but I think I’ve always known I wouldn’t, ever since I first met you. You’re always on my mind, in everything I do. All the good things. All the beautiful things. I sometimes felt like I was silly wearing this ring for all these years. But in my heart I knew it was right. I don’t know how, I just did.”

Christen nodded as she listened, playing with the ring on Tobin’s finger and remembering that day like it was yesterday.

“And then you came back into my life and you just completely 180’d my world. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life and you make me just as crazy, believe me. The way you love Mal, the way you protect her and teach her and care for her – I’ll never meet someone more selfless than you. You light up any room you walk into, Chris. You’re so funny, and you are so intelligent. And I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be the one who gets to kiss you.” Tobin grinned as she waggled her eyebrows, Christen shoving her arm. “I hate that we were separated. But I’m in this, now. I’m not letting you go, if that’s what you want. I’m here with you, no matter where we are.”

“I want you here. I’m in this, too.” Christen murmured against Tobin’s lips, tears sitting in her eyes and threatening to fall down if she heard one more thing leave Tobin’s mouth because she just couldn’t believe she could be so lucky to have someone like Tobin in her life. “Should we go?”

They’d walked back, and as they were riding up the hotel elevator and stood outside Christen’s door, she realized that she didn’t want Tobin to go. She wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted, but she knew it involved Tobin being close.

Tobin seemed to sense that too, because she happily let herself be lead into the room after Christen, meeting her in the middle of the room and kissing her soft and slow. They held each other close, no urgency to their actions for a long time, until there suddenly was. It was when Christen’s fingers danced along the back of Tobin’s neck, and when Tobin’s hands at Christen’s waist slid under her shirt, not moving up, but just sitting on the warm skin.

All it took was for Christen to tug at the neck of Tobin’s shirt before Tobin was pulling it off her skin, leaving her standing in front of Christen in just her Calvin Klein sports bra. She wore a mixture of a blush and a smirk as Christen blatantly ogled her abs on display, her hands moving down from around her neck to rest against the skin there.

Christen is pretty sure she was about to pass out, because Tobin’s body couldn’t be real. Maybe at one point in her own life she had some sort of ab definition, but that was long lost. Tobin, though? Tobin has abs. Abs that ere very responsive, it seemed, as she ghosted her fingers across them, feeling them twitch at her touch.

“Tobin…” It’s all she managed, but the way it fell out of her lips was so in awe, Tobin understood.

The only reason she was feeling brave enough to do this at all is because of how much she trusted Tobin. Plus, it helped that Tobin made her mind go entirely blank, and it was a lot easier to respond to her body’s urges when she didn’t have a million thoughts in her head trying to convince her otherwise. That’s why when Tobin tugged ever so slightly at her own shirt, she lifted her arms up, Tobin’s eyes going dark as she slipped it off her body, looking at the skin revealed.

“Fuck, Chris.” Tobin looks dumbstruck, her eyes scanning down Christen’s breasts resting in a black bra and how smooth her skin was over her stomach. “You’re beautiful.”

Christen doesn’t even give herself the chance to feel worried about what’s happening, because the look in Tobin’s eyes gave her all the confidence she needed to realize that she was making Tobin feel these things, she was causing this reaction in her, and she just needed to feel her lips on hers again right now otherwise she might go crazy.

The feeling of the skin on skin contact between their bodies as they pressed back together was new in an enthralling way. Christen was convinced she’d never felt anything as soft or smooth as the skin of Tobin’s back, never believed someone could react to her touch like Tobin does, never heard as sound as beautiful as the whines that left Tobin’s mouth when she kissed along her jaw, sucking at the skin on her neck.

Then Tobin guided her back, her knees hitting the edge of the bed as she sat down on it, staring up at the panting woman, hair tussled from where Christen’s hands were in it before. She was struggling to see straight, having never focussed on anything that beautiful before in her life.

“Is this okay? If it’s not what you want, we can stop.”

And fuck, it was what she wanted. It was all she ever wanted. She nodded, her voice rasping out a yes and then Tobin leant down to kiss her again, nudging her gently back until she could get on her hands and knees above her, dipping her head down to kiss her mouth, her neck, her collar bone.

She jerked a little when Tobin’s lips hit her collar bone, feeling the cocky smirk form on Tobin’s mouth against her skin before she saw it.

“Sensitive?”

“Shut up.” Christen retorted, jerking again as Tobin just sucked a little harder into that part of her skin.

Christen was warm, a sheen of sweat sitting over her body. She lay on the bed as the world’s most beautiful woman was above her, kissing her senseless, and honestly she’s not sure she remembers how to breathe. Tobin’s kisses make whines and moans come out of her mouth, the sounds Tobin makes stirs something in her belly, feeling her underwear get damp and fuck, now this really hasn’t happened not just in a long time, but ever.

It’s that train of thought that makes her stop.

“Tobin.” Christen murmurs against Tobin’s lips, the other woman immediately stopping to listen to her, pulling them both up into a sitting position so as to not make Christen feel obligated to continue something she didn’t want to.

Christen leant her head against Tobin’s shoulder, her sweaty forehead against the olive warm skin, and she regained control of her breathing, feeling Tobin do the same.

“You make me crazy.” She murmured against her skin, kissing a pattern there before she looked up into the glazed eyes of Tobin. She can’t resist kissing her again, pulling away to see Tobin laugh slightly.

“Me? Chris, I’m lucky I’m still breathing.” Tobin rasped out, making Christen laugh. “I genuinely thought if another sound left your lips I would pass out, because I’ve never heard anything hotter in my life.”

Christen looked into Tobin’s eyes, not feeling like she had to give an explanation for stopping, but seeing such comfort and kindness in them that she actually wanted to.

“I’m…I’m sorry for stopping.”

“Nope.” Tobin shook her head, “That’s not something you have to be sorry for. That’s not something you ever have to be sorry for.”

The warmth and safety Christen was trying to describe from before exploded in her chest, and she nodded at Tobin’s words, feeling her worries start to relax. “I love doing this with you. But it’s also overwhelming. Because it means so much to me. I feel so much. And I’ve never, I uh…I don’t want to rush it.”

She tried to explain her inexperience to Tobin without actually saying it outright. She doesn’t really believe Tobin would judge her if she found out she was a virgin. But she didn’t want things to be weird. And as much as she tried to tell herself it wasn’t, she felt a sense of embarrassment that she was 27 and had never slept with a woman before. She knew she’d tell Tobin one day. She just couldn’t right now.

“You don’t have to explain yourself, Chris. But I’m glad you feel like you can. You can tell me anything. You can give me anything, and I’ll be here. I promise I don’t expect anything of you. I just like being with you, right here with you.” Tobin’s hand gently cupped her cheek, kissing her once, twice, three times.

“Will you stay? I…I don’t want to be apart from you tonight.”

Tobin’s eyes lit up with excitement and she nodded, making Christen laugh at the way she threw her shirt on, racing out of the room to get some stuff before making her way back. While she was gone, Christen sat on the edge of the bed for a while, trying to get her brain to start working again and she stood up, feeling lucky her legs didn’t buckle underneath her.

She was brushing her teeth in the bathroom when Tobin came back and joined her, starting to brush her own teeth with a wide grin as she looked at Christen through the mirror. Christen just rolled her eyes, though her own smile was permanently etched on her face. She bumped Tobin’s hip as she used the sink, squeezing her side and making her yelp and laugh as she moved back into the room.

A burning sense of excitement and anticipation crept up in her as she dawdled around the room, waiting for Tobin to be done in the bathroom. She sat on the edge of the bed and smiled at Tobin when she came back in, then burst into laughter as the woman ran and practically dove onto the bed.

“You might be the biggest goof I know, and I know my sister. You two are birds of a feather, I swear.”

“The kid knows how to have fun.” Tobin shrugged from where she’d landed, grinning at Christen. She then moved back to the head of the bed, slipping under the covers and holding her arms out. “Now come on, I believe I was promised cuddles.”

The smile on Christen’s face couldn’t get bigger if she tried. “I said nothing about cuddles.”

“And yet, here you are.” Tobin looked down at Christen as she nestled into her side, resting her head on her chest. She ran her fingers through Christen’s curls, lulling them both into a sleepy state as she murmured, “And how did I get so lucky.”

Christen could have cried when she heard the soft words, feeling the exact same way. She picked her head up, thumbing over Tobin’s lips before kissing them sweetly, gazing into her eyes as her soft smile matched Tobin’s own. “Sweet dreams, Tobin.”

“Goodnight, Christen.”

Sleeping had never been one of Christen’s strong suits, even when she was utterly exhausted. But even after a few minutes in Tobin’s arms, she could tell that this was what she’d been missing all this time.

She tried not to think about how after tomorrow, she didn’t know the next time she’d be able to ask Tobin to stay over. She tried not to think about how much she’d miss her presence, and she definitely avoided thinking about how much of her current stability was wrapped up in Tobin. How a sense of reality would hit when they got back to LA, no longer able to live in this fairy tale adventure they’d been afforded recently.

The three months she’d had Tobin back in her life had been the best she could remember in a long, long time. She’d come to rely on her for so much, and suddenly all the challenges she had in front of her that were still unresolved seemed a little more burdensome.

Though they’d talked about it with each other – she knew Tobin was realistically only a text or call away – Tobin’s house would feel empty without her. Christen’s days would feel lonely. It would be hard. And Christen worried she hadn’t nearly prepared herself for it.

But that was easy to ignore when she was wrapped up in Tobin’s arms. Easy to ignore when she felt Tobin drop a soft kiss to her head. Easy to ignore when the sounds of Tobin’s easy breathing lulled her off to sleep.

Besides, it wasn’t even that far between Portland and LA. How bad could it be?

 

Chapter Text

Christen knew what it was like to miss people.

She missed her soccer friends from when she was a kid. She missed the silly teenagers from her high school.

She missed her parents every day. Her heart ached for them every waking minute.

She thought she’d be used to it. She thought she’d be prepared to miss Tobin.

But there was no one like Tobin. For Christen, there’d never be anyone like Tobin.

Everything was a little less fun, a little less meaningful.

Everything was also a lot more stressful.

Christen wasn’t really sure how she dealt with things on her own so much before. Now, being away from the team, being away from Tobin? The problems she was facing seemed insurmountable.

It wasn’t wrong to say she wasn’t coping well. Without Tobin there, the only thing to occupy her mind was where her future would take her. It was becoming increasingly apparent to Christen that it was nowhere bright, to say the least.

Barely a few days into their first week back in LA she hit the point of no longer being able to stay at home searching the internet for jobs she wasn’t qualified for. Every application notice detailed the requirement of a degree. At this point Christen wouldn’t be surprised to see a job advertisement for a dog walker but only if you had graduated from college.

This was why Mal was going to college, this was why it was so important to Christen that she did. She wouldn’t let Mal’s future be left to the uncertainty she was in right now.

Looking for jobs day in and day out was slowly breaking Christen down inside. Not only was it reminding her of all the dreams she had of going to Stanford, breaking college records and getting a world class education, but day by day she edged closer to the stomach sinking reality that she might just have to go back to waitressing at the Diner.

And it’s not that she was ashamed of being a waitress. It’s just that she has so many memories tied up in that place, so much of her life wasted there, so many stressful and exhausted moments spent there. She wanted to believe she had put that behind her. Now she can see that was naïve. She couldn’t break into another industry with no experience. She couldn’t get experience without a degree.

It wasn’t what she wanted for her future. But she had nothing else. No direction.

When Mal had asked to get take out for dinner one school night and Christen had to say no because she had gotten to the point of having to calculate in her head how much money they could spend to make it last, Christen realized she’d hit a low she couldn’t ignore. She had to go back to the Diner.

She knew Mal could technically pay for food for them. Her money from the National Team was no joke. But Christen couldn’t bring herself to that point, couldn’t spend her baby sister’s money on food, of all things.

“Why can’t we get take out? The place we got food with Tobin that time was so good and I’ve been craving it all day.”

Christen just shook her head, driving Tobin’s car home from Mal’s school soccer practice. “We have food at home.”

She didn’t want to look over at Mal, knowing she would be tempted to change her mind. She hoped she would accept it and let it go, not push back. Mal was fighting having a frown on her face, knowing that she shouldn’t really complain about not getting take out but also not understanding why.

“I miss Tobin.”

Christen snorted. That was Mal’s sassy way of telling her that if Tobin was there she would let them get take out. Although she did also believe her – she knew that Mal really missed Tobin. Her absence was affecting them both.

“You miss being able to get your way with Tobin.”

“No!” Mal crossed her arms, giving Christen an unimpressed look. “I do miss her.”

“I know, baby. I’m just teasing.” Christen looked over at her gently when she stopped at the traffic lights, wondering whether to bring up the fact that Mal seemed a little off since she’d picked her up.

“What food is even at home?”

Well, Mal’s question wasn’t exactly a push back against her saying no to take out. But Christen could tell she wasn’t going to drop it unless she got her excited about something else. She didn’t want to do it, she really didn’t. But it was the easiest solution to get out of the problem.

“I was thinking we could make Bice.”

It worked.

“Really?” Mal’s face lit up in excitement, making Christen smile. “I thought you hated it?”

“I don’t like the association. But I can change that.” It wasn’t a lie, but Christen knew she was using this as a distraction from her other problem. And she knew she shouldn’t, she knew it. But she couldn’t face it. She’d been working on being better, talking more and not being hard on herself and not pushing down her feelings.

But what was that thing they said about good habits? It was hard to keep them but oh so easy to break them.

At least Mal was happy. The 17 year old was laughing her head off as Christen blindfolded her when they were cooking, telling her how many steps to take to get the ingredients out of the cupboards and trying to move the spoon around the pot without flinging the rice everywhere. They switched positions half way through, Mal almost making a blind Christen spill an egg all over herself instead of in the food because she was laughing so hard.

Christen knew Mal was curious about what she was going to do. Her sister had asked her some questions, clearly trying to help without pushing her because she could see Christen was struggling. Mal had encouraged Christen to look outside the box, at different jobs that were around, but even she seemed to be unable to come up with any ideas that would be realistic for Christen and her lack of a degree.

That’s how Christen found herself back at the Diner, her first workplace of 10 years, talking with the manager.

“Of course we’ll have you back.” The manager had said, looking entirely relieved to see Christen there. “You were our hardest worker.”

Yeah, no shit. With the amount of work she was always desperate for, her manager had stopped asking the group as a whole when extra shifts or night shifts popped up, knowing they all shied away from it. Instead, he would go straight to Christen, knowing she barely ever turned them down.

She managed to negotiate only having to work school hours. Work had already taken her and Mal’s free time together away too much. And she needed this job, but she didn’t need it so much that she was willing to ask Mal to spend her entire weekend there with her like she had done so much as a kid growing up.

To her disappointment, but maybe not to her surprise, she didn’t leave the Diner feeling happy or relieved that she’d sorted out her job situation. Instead, she felt a bit defeated.

It was clear Tobin could sense that, as well.

“So, I got my job back at the Diner.”

She could barely look at Tobin through the phone screen as they talked on FaceTime, being so worried about the other woman’s reaction or how she would be able to see through her so easily.

Tobin just nodded, looking at Christen. “How are you feeling about that?”

“Fine.” Christen barely managed to refrain from shrugging her shoulders indifferently, and Tobin just raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not exactly sensing happy vibes.”

Christen internally sighed, knowing she really couldn’t have expected it to be brushed over. “Well, it’s the Diner. It’s not my dream job, but it’s a job.” She looked up in time to see Tobin open her mouth, then close it again. “What?”

Tobin shook her head, but Christen asked her again, and she eventually spoke, clearly trying to choose her words carefully. “From what you’ve told me, you don’t exactly have good memories at the Diner. I’m just wondering why you chose to go back there.”

“Tobs, I told you earlier in the week how hard it was to try and find another job that would consider someone with no college degree. I didn’t really have a choice.”

“You don’t have to work, you know.”

This time, Christen’s sigh was out loud. “Tobin, I do. I know you don’t think I do, and I know Mal doesn’t think I do either, but I do. I can’t just be here, sitting around all day with no purpose and being reminded of that.”

Tobin wore a somewhat apprehensive expression, her eyes sad. “You don’t really believe that, do you? That you don’t have a purpose?”

Had she really said that? She knew it was how she felt, but she hadn’t intended to say it out loud. It made sense in her head, but she realized how bad it sounded out loud. Really, though, if someone was to ask her what her purpose in life was, she wouldn’t be able to tell them. Raising Mal? That wasn’t a good answer, and not one that would last much longer either, when Mal would turn 18. “I don’t know.”

“Chris,” Tobin sighed, leaning forward into the camera more, and Christen could just tell if they were in person, Tobin would have her hands on either side of her face, staring straight at her, begging her to listen and take in her words. She missed being in Tobin’s touch so much. “That is not true, okay? That is not true at all. Don’t ever think that.”

Tears sprang to Christen’s eyes before she could stop them. She hated that she was talking to Tobin about this. It was one of her biggest insecurities. An embarrassing topic. She hadn’t intended to share all of this.

But then, Tobin always had a way of seeing through her. Seeing what she was really feeling, maybe even before she knew it herself. She knew she couldn’t bullshit Tobin, and she didn’t want to, either. No matter how hard it was to face.

“Chris, please look at me.” Tobin asked softly, as Christen was staring out the window to try and distract herself from crying. She flicked her eyes back to the screen, seeing Tobin’s concerned face. “You are incredible. You have so much value, so much worth. A college degree does not define a person. And it’s fucked up that jobs are like that now. But it’s just not true. And it kills me to know you think that, Chris. You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”

The most genuine smile sat on Tobin’s face at the end of her talk that Christen couldn’t help but smile back, despite how she was feeling.

“You going back to work at the Diner, there’s nothing wrong with that.” Tobin continued. “If it brings you stability that’s good. But promise me you won’t give up on other avenues. There’s something out there Chris that’s perfect for you. Something you were made to do, something you’re going to do that’ll change people’s lives. You just haven’t found it yet, and that’s okay.”

Christen nodded, some relief and rationality pouring back into herself as she listened to Tobin’s words. It helped beyond anything that she could hold onto the idea that she had a purpose out there, she just hadn’t found it yet.

“You’re not going to work all those crazy hours again, are you?”

“No, just school hours. I made that clear when I went back. That was Mal’s condition as well. I don’t think she was stoked that I went back to the Diner, but I think that’s just because she knew how it used to be. She didn’t want that to happen again. Which it won’t.”

“Okay, good.” Tobin said, smiling, before scratching at the back of her neck. “Listen, I’m sorry if I came off as too much. I promise that I’d never have a problem with where you worked, I don’t care whether you’re a waitress or anything else. I just want to know that you’re happy, and that you know your worth. If that’s what you feel when you work at the Diner, then that’s great. But if it’s not, then have the mindset that the Diner is just temporary, just for now. Now that you have some time to work on yourself you can think about what you want. Not what Mal wants, or what’s best for her. What you want.”

“Yeah.” Christen smiled softly, wishing again that Tobin was with her so she could kiss her at the end of it. “I’d like that. I want to do that. And I will, I’ll try. I, just…”

“Hey, work in progress, remember? One day at a time, one foot in front of the other. It takes time, but it’ll happen.”

“I miss you so much.” Christen could barely keep it in, wanting to disappear into the phone and appear right where Tobin was. She wanted to melt into her embrace, feel the comfort of her protective arms.

“I miss you, too. I think about you all day.”

“Me too. I love our texts.” Christen smiled at the thought, thinking back to the never ending texts she and Tobin would share at any free moment the other person had, sharing whatever they were thinking about or what they were doing. It wasn’t much, and it definitely wasn’t as good as facetime, but it was enough to know they were always on each other’s minds. “So preseason is going really well?”

“Yeah,” Tobin grinned, stretching out on her couch as she lay on her back, holding her phone above her face. (Christen tried not to get distracted by how she imagined Tobin’s shirt would ride up at the action, exposing her incredibly defined abs).

“Tell me all about it.” Christen got lost in Tobin’s eyes, in the way her whole face lit up when she talked about soccer, when she talked about Portland. She loved seeing Tobin so passionate, so excited. It made her buzz with anticipation for the season to start, she couldn’t wait to see her play again, even if it was on a small screen.

“So yeah, it’s awesome.” Tobin finished up. “The team is looking good this year. But it’s also a lot of bonding. 2 and a half weeks, basically every day.”

“That is a lot.”

“I’m going to have to put Sonnett in time out sooner or later. Her and Lindsey together are like the most loveable duo and the biggest pains in my ass at the same time.”

Laughter burst out of Christen’s mouth, feeling like that was a pretty accurate description of the pair of them. “Sounds like we’re both raising kids then, huh?”

“Listen, feel free to come and take these two off my hands, because we’re not even one week in and I’m almost done.”

Christen just shook her head with a small grin on her face. “You can keep them, I’ve got my hands full with just the one here.”

And it was true.

Christen wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but over the course of their time back in LA, Mal had become noticeably grizzly, particularly in the first hour or so after school had finished each day.

“If the wind changes your face will stay stuck like that forever.”

“Shut up, Christen.” Mal barely took her eyes off the spot on the kitchen counter she’d been staring at with a scowl for the past few minutes. She was sitting there with one of her school books, but she’d barely made a dent in the work.

“What’s up? You’ve been unhappy since I picked you up today.” Christen set aside the vegetables she was chopping, leaning on her elbows on the kitchen counter to give Mal her full attention.

“It’s nothing.” Mal’s grumble did nothing to convince Christen.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’m fine.”

Christen raised an eyebrow, but decided to drop it for the time being, knowing Mal would only burst at her if she kept pushing. She clearly realized something was wrong, but she knew with a little bit of time Mal would break.

She could have laughed when not even 10 minutes, later, Mal’s weak hold against talking collapsed.

“It’s school.”

Christen set what she was doing in the kitchen aside, coming back to where she stood before. “What’s happening at school?”

“It’s just a lot.” Mal sighed, pushing away her school book and rubbing at her face, irritated. “And it’s like, everyone is being super nice. They’re all congratulating me for being on the team and doing well and they want to talk about it all the time. But they ask so many questions. They’re like the journalists. They want to know if I’m going to go pro and why am I going to college. They ask about you. And they’ve been asking about our family. I feel like now everyone cares so much about every decision I make and I just...” Mal trailed off with a frustrated growl.

A frown crossed Christen’s face, always hating to hear whenever Mal was struggling with something. She knew Mal had told her last week things were quite intense when she’d started going back to school, but she didn’t realize how bad it was.

“That must be really hard to deal with.” Christen reached across the counter to take Mal’s hand in hers, squeezing it. “I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time. I didn’t know.”

“I thought it would just die down. But it’s been almost 2 weeks and it hasn’t stopped. It just makes me frustrated. I’m not better than any of them, but they’re all acting like me being on the national team is like the most amazing thing ever.”

“It is pretty great.” Christen grinned a little, seeing Mal laugh as she shoved at her hand. “I’m just teasing. It sounds like you just wanted to go back to school and fit in with everyone again. But people are treating you differently and you don’t like it.”

“Yeah!” Mal nodded, feeling relieved to be heard. “I just want to be another kid there. I don’t like the attention. I don’t like the questions.”

“I know, baby.” Christen came around to where Mal was sitting at the bar stool, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “I know how anxious it makes you feel. And it can’t be easier knowing the emails are piling up in my inbox, as well.”

Mal just sighed, nodding. Christen always kept her up to date with what was going on with people emailing, but it wasn’t helping the situation right now.

“How would you feel, and you can absolutely say no, if instead of you having to do an interview or talk to someone, we can just pick one of the media outlets that has gotten in touch and I can make a statement to them? Just something simple, that despite all the rumors flying around you’re not going pro, and you’re still on track for UCLA?”

A few moments of silence passed as Mal considered Christen’s proposal. “You can make a statement to them?”

“Yeah. If you want. That way you don’t have to deal with any further questions. And plus, it’ll get Sonnett and Lindsey off your back.” Christen said as Mal laughed, thinking of her friends.

Since Mal had started playing on the National Team, there were rumors that she would be heading to the NWSL for the 2016 season. A few weeks ago, those rumors only soared, when the Portland Thorns traded to get to the number 1 spot in the new ranking system, so that any new allocated player would go to them.

Of course, the internet went wild, all believing this meant Mallory Press would be the newest member of the Thorns. Sonnett and Lindsey (mostly in jest, as they knew it wasn’t true), had sent Mal a few videos of them being chaotic around Providence Park, showing it off to her, sometimes dragging an unenthused Tobin into them (because she knew Christen would kill her if she tried to encourage Mal to go pro).

Mal and Christen had thought they were hilarious, but how much internet chatter the rumors had generated did surprise both of them. They let themselves look for a few minutes only, Mal eventually closing the lid of the laptop saying she’d seen enough when it all got a bit overwhelming.

That was why, a few days later, in the hour free she had before going to the Diner, Christen sat on facetime with Tobin reading out the answers to the LA Times that she and Mal had drafted together.

“…it’s all over the internet that she’s going to play professionally. It was an option that Mallory considered, but her gut feeling was that she wanted to go to college. People made speculation out of Portland getting rid of its draft pick to be in the position to take the first allocated player, who would have been Mallory. People put two and two together, but nothing formally was out there. We never talked to Portland’s coaches, general manager, organization or anyone.”

“But you did talk to their super sexy midfielder.”

“Tobin!”

Tobin let out a laugh at Christen’s exasperated face, grinning through the phone. ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I promise I listened and am taking this seriously. That sounds good, what you’ve written.”

“You don’t think it’s too much? I don’t want to give a big explanation, but I want it to be enough that they won’t keep asking.”

“They’ll always keep asking, Chris, that’s just the nature of those people and their jobs. But this statement is good. It sets the record clear, and it’s pretty definitive.”

“Okay.” Christen nodded, chewing on her bottom lip in thought as she read the statement over again.

“Are you okay, Chris? I know this is something way out of both of your comfort zones.”

“I’m okay. It’s just making me a bit uneasy. And it’s hard seeing Mal so worried about it.” Christen leant her head on her hand as she talked, seeing Tobin’s face morph into a frown.

“I wish there was something more I could do to help.”

Christen shook her head, hating seeing Tobin get upset about it as well. “You already help, so much.”

She watched as Tobin listened to her answer, it seemingly not appearing to satisfy the other woman. Tobin’s heart was so big, she always put others before herself. It made Christen’s heart soar, knowing someone was looking out for her and Mal like that. But with the unhappy face Tobin was wearing, Christen also noticed for the first time just how deep the lines in Tobin’s face seemed to sit, and how there were bags under her eyes.

“You look really tired, Tobs.”

Tobin scratched at the back of her neck, yawning without meaning to. “I guess I am a bit.”

“Are you okay?”

“I am. I just miss you, is all. I miss both of you.” Tobin smiled softly, even more when a blush painted Christen’s cheeks. “And I…”

“And you, what?”

A sigh left Tobin’s lips. “I just wish I was there with you, to help you through this stuff. With your job and with Mal and with the media. I hate knowing it’s stressing you both out. I hate being far away, I want to help.”

Suddenly, Christen’s stomach dropped. An awful realization was starting to creep into her brain. She immediately thought back on all the times she and Tobin had facetimed these last two weeks, thinking about what they talked about.

Of course, there was a healthy dose of them being gross, telling each other how much they wished they could hold the other again and how much they missed kissing. They updated each other on their days.

But mostly, Christen was slightly horrified to realize, it was her monopolizing their time, telling Tobin when she was stressed about something or unhappy with something else, being blatantly clear she was sometimes not coping very well. Tobin had always been there for her, no matter when, rationalizing things, calming her down, helping her come up with plans.

If Tobin was about to tell her she hadn’t been sleeping well because she was worried about her, Christen thought she might throw up. When she asked Tobin exactly that, and Tobin hesitated before answering, Christen’s stomach dropped further.

“Chris, it’s not like that.” Tobin rushed to reassure her, seeing the look on her face. “I’m still sleeping, I’m going to all the team things. It’s going so well here and I love it. I’m just worried about you, but that’s natural. You’re going through some hard times, it would be weird if I wasn’t.”

Christen covered her eyes with her hand, squeezing them shut. She felt so embarrassed and stupid and needy and god when did she turn into this person? She could feel her brain scrambling, begging her to reign herself in, to shut off. She would still be struggling with her problems but at least she wouldn’t be putting anyone else through that torment either.

“Chris,” Tobin called softly, wanting desperately for Christen to look back at her. “Chris, please. It’s okay, I promise. Can you look at me?”

With a strength she didn’t know she possessed, she managed to avoid just impulse-hanging up on Tobin and instead looked at her to address the problem.

“I’m so sorry,” The apology fell from her lips instantly, wanting to reach through the screen and wipe away any of the worry lines she’d caused in Tobin, any of the missed hours of sleep. “I didn’t realize how I was coming across, I didn’t even think about how it would be affecting you.”

“Christen, it’s nothing to be sorry for.”

“No, it is.” Christen shook her head. “I rely on you so much, I didn’t…I didn’t even think about how much of a burden I put on you. You’re dealing with all my shit yourself, and I’m not even…god did I even ask how you were at all?”

Tobin moved the phone closer, and Christen recognized the same sadness at not being able to physically be there that she felt. “You did ask, it was basically the first thing you said when I picked up.”

Christen saw Tobin’s small smile and a pinch of relief flooded through her, at least knowing she hadn’t been totally as oblivious as she thought. “My point still stands. I’m burdening you.”

“You’re not. I promise I would tell you if you were.” Tobin stated, her voice firm, hoping some of it would get through to Christen. “I…I’m learning here too, okay? I’ve never felt this way about someone before. I’ve never cared about someone the way I care about you. I think even without all this going on, you’d keep me up at night just from how much I adore you, how much I always want to be with you. I can’t stop thinking about you, Chris. You mean so much to me.”

A tear slid out of Christen’s eye, and she didn’t even bother to wipe it away. “You mean the world to me. I think about you all the time, too. I’m sorry if you’re stressed because of me.”

“No, it’s not your fault. Sometimes I just think too much, I want to help with everything, even if it’s not really realistic. For you, I want to do everything. So I’m still learning to accept what I can and can’t control. And when I do, I’ll start getting more sleep.” Tobin laughed a bit, and Christen smiled at how cute she was. “The last thing I’d want is for you to keep things inside and not share them. You need to have someone to talk to, Chris. Whether it’s me or Mal or Kelley, Ali, Alex, anyone. All of us would pick the phone up for you at any hour of the day. No one would judge you, you know that, right?”

“I know. I guess I’m still learning that, too.”

“That’s okay. As long as we’re both trying.” Tobin smiled adoringly at her, resting her cheek on her bent up knees before she looked at something beyond the screen. “Don’t you have work soon?”

Christen checked the time, eyes widening when she realized she’d have to leave in five minutes if she didn’t want to be late. “Shit! I totally lost track of time.” She jumped up and ran into the bedroom, bringing her phone with her and throwing it on the bed.

She searched around for her Diner shirt, exclaiming triumphantly when she found it before pulling her day time shirt off, ready to change into it.

“Or, on second thought, you could skip work and we could continue this chat with our shirts off.” Tobin called out to her, the phone falling on the bed in a way that the camera caught Christen in her bra, about to put her other shirt on.

Christen just laughed, pulling the shirt over her head and rolling her eyes, picking the phone back up. “In your dreams, Heath.”

“And apparently in yours, too, Press!” Tobin called back with a cheeky grin, eyes bright and smile wide. Christen would give anything to be with her, to hold her again, kiss her with all that she had.

It wasn’t that long before the next round of National Team friendlies. They missed each other with every fibre of their being, but surely they could wait that long, right?

---

Mallory Press 2:06pm

we have a soccer meeting after school today so I’ll be late. you can stay at work and I’ll text you when we’re nearly done to pick me up?

 

Christen had gotten that text from Mal two hours ago, and she told her manager she’d be able to stay a little bit later that day. It wasn’t very busy for a Friday afternoon, but it was still humming enough to keep her moving.

It was the end of her second week back at the Diner, almost three weeks since her and Mal had got back to LA. In some instances it felt like she’d never left. In others, it was completely different. She wasn’t exhausted here like she used to be. She wasn’t as stressed as she once was. She’d approached it the way Tobin encouraged her to. This was just temporary, just so she could get some money again. She’d keep looking for something else, something she was passionate about. It kept her going.

She was almost through refilling a customer’s coffee when the door to the Diner opened. She’d just put the coffee jug down and was about to turn around to greet the new guests when a voice behind her stopped her in her tracks.

“Excuse me, miss, are you the beautiful waitress here that can show us to a table?”

Christen had never spun around so fast in her life.

Tobin?!”

Standing right in front of her, a beaming grin on her face, Mal standing beside her, was Tobin fucking Heath. Tobin, who Christen thought was stuck in Portland with pre-season team bonding. She was so shocked she couldn’t even move, her face morphed into delighted surprise as she took in Tobin in front of her.

She was more gorgeous than Christen remembered, and it hadn’t even been that long. Her face seemed more tan, her hair a little brighter. She’d clearly been training out in the sun a lot. Her eyes gleamed and her face was lit up. God, Christen had missed her so much.

“Hi, beautiful.”

The words were barely out of Tobin’s mouth before Christen snapped out of her reverie. She near slammed herself into Tobin, throwing her arms around her neck and hugging her tight. She felt Tobin laugh against her shoulder as she wrapped her arms around her waist, pulling her closer. Christen buried her head into Tobin’s neck, breathing in the scent she’d missed so dearly, the feeling of comfort that being held by her brought.

She felt Tobin drop a kiss to her shoulder before she pulled away, taking one of her hands in hers. Christen was entirely too happy to have it be held.

“What are you doing here? When did you get here? How? And you got Mal? I thought – oh, you little sneak!” Christen voiced her thoughts out loud, ending with Mal and figuring Tobin must have told her she was coming.

Mal just laughed, and Christen wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her into her side and kissing her head. “How long have you known about this?”

“Only today!” Mal said, her face bright and happy. “Tobin text me when I got to school, so that’s why I had to come up with a soccer meeting excuse so you’d still be here.”

The smile couldn’t have left Christen’s face even if she tried. She squeezed Tobin’s hand excitedly, wanting to cry at how overwhelmed and happy she felt at that moment. “When did you decide to come?”

“Well, the team has been spending literally every day together for the past two and a half weeks. This was our first free weekend. If I’m honest I’d been thinking about coming to LA ever since I got back to Portland, and I knew this was the best time to do it. I’m here until Sunday night.”

“Really!?” Christen thought she might pass out. She saw Tobin laugh in response, the woman’s eyes glistening with happiness, too, and she could see Mal beaming at the both of them, everyone to be back together. “I can’t believe this. I’m so happy to see you.”

“Me too, Chris. I missed you so much.”

“Chris, are you finished?” Mal asked her, clearly eager to get out of there and back home with everyone.

“What’s the time?”

“4:10pm.”

Christen groaned. “No, I still have 20 minutes.”

“Great! We can watch you work.” Tobin grinned and waggled her eyebrows.

Christen just laughed, shoving Tobin’s arm. “Yeah, because working in a Diner is so sexy.”

“It is if you’re the one working here.”

“Gross!” Mal exclaimed, slapping her hands over her ears. “You two are disgusting!”

Christen and Tobin just laughed, both making kissy faces at Mal who dodged out of their way.

“Come on, Tobin. I’ll show you where we sit.” Mal dragged Tobin away from Christen, shaking her head at the two hopeless idiots. She led Tobin to sit at the booth she had sat in for countless days since she was 7 years old. “This is my booth. Technically it’s for customers, but whenever I was here while Christen was working, this is where I sat. I’m pretty sure it’s got my butt indented into it at this point.”

Christen snorted as she listened to Mal talk, knowing that was probably true. Tobin and Mal sat down in the booth, and Christen just stood there, knowing she had a completely dopey smile on her face but not caring at all about it.

“Chris, can you make us your chocolate cake shake, please?” Mal asked with a hopeful tone, clasping her hands together on the table.

Christen just laughed at her, turning to Tobin. “Aren’t you on some kind of preseason diet?”

“If chocolate cake shakes are involved, definitely not.”

“We can share one! I’m sure Dawn would be satisfied with that.” Mal said, trying to convince her older sister to let them have the delicious drink. When they both wore pleading doe eyes and a pout, Christen had to cover her hands with her face, her smile was so big. Her heart felt like it couldn’t get any fuller.

“Oh my god, both of you stop. You’re too cute. Yes I’ll make you one. But no distractions, okay? If I want to leave on time I can’t be slacking off.”

“Ma’am yes, ma’am.” Mal said, Tobin saluting as she did.

Christen just walked away from them, shaking her head and wondering how she got stuck with the two biggest dorks on the planet.

---

The happiness ran through Christen like a tidal wave, almost knocking her over with its intensity. It had been such a hard few weeks since they’d gotten back to LA, trying to adapt to their lives again without the person they both really wanted there with them.

Now that Tobin was back, even just for the weekend, it was like everything had settled back into place. Her face actually hurt from how much she had smiled. And it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.

“Tobin Heath, do you understand the magnitude of what you’re about to experience?” Christen asked Tobin as she threw her hair up into a bun, fresh out of the ocean where they all went swimming once they’d left the Diner that afternoon.

Tobin looked just as giddy as Christen did, the smile permanently etched onto her face as well. She hadn’t taken her eyes off Christen since she’d seen her again, and they both had trouble keeping physically apart. They were always touching, a reassuring hand or an arm wrapped around a waist. Their first kiss back together when they were floating peacefully in the ocean was like heaven on Earth.

“No other person besides Christen and me has ever eaten our Bice. You’re going to be the first!” Mal jumped onto Tobin’s back, the 17 year old also buzzing with the excitement of having Tobin back with them and seeing her sister so happy again.

“It’s an honor, truly.” Tobin wrapped her arms around Mal’s legs on her back, jumping up and hoisting her higher, making her laugh and cling onto Tobin’s shoulders.

A soft expression came past Christen’s face as she watched the two interact. “Okay, so, we still need a rule for tonight’s Bice. What’s it going to be?”

“You make it! You always make the most fun ones.”

“Okay,” Christen laughed at Mal’s enthusiasm, knowing how excited she was for this. It was the happiest surprise for herself, as well, feeling that for the first time in her life, she was also excited about Bice. She knew when she suggested it to Mal the week before she was only using it as a distraction, and she really shouldn’t have. But this time, when Mal asked, Christen found herself wanting to do it. Wanting to change her associations with it, and wanting to show Tobin more about their lives.

A few minutes later, the three of them were spread around the space in the kitchen, all giddy with anticipation as Christen held an egg in her hand. She had a timer set on her phone for 10 seconds, and had explained they had to throw the egg around their little circle 10 times before the 10 seconds was up. If it dropped or they were too slow, they couldn’t have eggs with the Bice that night.

“Why am I so nervous,” Tobin laughed, jumping up and down like she was waiting for the starting whistle of a soccer game.

Mal couldn’t stop laughing, her hands coming up to cover her face as she made a noise of nervous anticipation. “I’m going to be so angry at myself if I drop the egg. I love Bice with eggs.”

Christen just laughed at both of them, shaking her head. “It’s okay, guys, we can do this. One second for each throw. I believe in us!” She set the timer on her phone, it counting down from five before it would let them start. She didn’t know how she was going to concentrate on the first throw to Tobin, since her game-ready face made her want to kiss her silly, but she’d have to find the will.

---

“That dinner tasted so much better because I really feel like we earned it.” Mal said way later after they’d eaten dinner and done the dishes, thinking about how good her Bice was with the egg mixed into it. She had changed into her pyjamas and smiled as Tobin patted the spot on the couch in between her and Christen to sit down. “You have to send me that video, Tobs.”

Tobin grinned. She’d set her phone up to film their egg throwing game, capturing their success as Christen caught the last throw milliseconds before the timer went off. Tobin and Mal had both run to her, jumping on her like she’d scored a goal in one of their National Team games, and the force of their impact made the egg smash in Christen’s hand, sending them all falling to the floor in laughter.

They’d technically completed the challenge, so they still got to have eggs with dinner, even if Christen had to change her shirt to get rid of the yolky stains.

“It was such a good dinner, Chris.”

A small blush rose on Christen’s cheeks at Tobin’s compliment. She had started to feel a bit of hesitation about Tobin eating Bice, wanting her to like it – it actually could be pretty nice if you had decent ingredients and spices to add to it, which luckily for them, they did now. “You think so?”

“Yeah, it was awesome. I’m so full now.”

“Christen is the best cook.” Mal leaned a bit into Christen’s side, feeling her sister laugh a bit and wrap an arm around her shoulders as she thanked them for being so nice. Tobin hit play on the movie on the tv a moment later, all three of them settling in for the night to watch.

It was the first moment of silence that had passed since Tobin had arrived that afternoon. They had been chatting to each other non-stop, laughing and cheering and squealing as they messed around, having fun, being as energetic and happy as their reunion made them feel.

As the movie played it gave Christen the chance to reflect on how much Tobin added to her and Mal’s lives. Christen knew she’d always have Mal, and she would be more than happy with her, forever. But knowing how much better things were with Tobin, knowing how complete things felt with her, it made Christen’s heart want to burst at how much she felt when she was with them both.

Mal had ended up pressed fully into Christen’s side, head lulled against her chest, body heavy. It had been a big week, and the excitement of the afternoon had finally caught up to her. Closer to the end of the movie she made a little noise in her sleep, her a tiny frown coming over her face.

“Shhh, shhh.” Christen murmured, bringing her hand up to stroke against her forehead gently. “I’m here.”

The frown creased out on Mal’s face as she entered a peaceful slumber again, looking so much younger than she already was in her sleep. Christen watched her for a little while longer with a smile on her face, making sure she was properly settled, before she looked up to see Tobin’s eyes on her.

“What?” She whispered.

Tobin just shook her head, looking at her with a completely heartfelt smile, her eyes soft. She reached for the blanket on the end of the couch and lay it gently over Mal’s legs, and yeah, Christen’s heart was definitely about to burst.  

A while later when the movie ended, they all stayed on the couch for a little bit, the credits rolling softly in the background. Christen was looking at Tobin with a soft smile, Tobin’s arm stretched out across the back of the couch to stroke her fingertips over her arm in a peaceful rhythm.

“I’m so happy you’re here.” Christen murmured to her, seeing Tobin smile widely in response, making a kissy face at her. Suddenly, the movements of Tobin’s fingers on her arm made Christen shudder, and she realized just how much she wanted to be close to Tobin, to feel her in her arms, to feel her lips on hers again. “Let’s go to bed?”

“Do you need help with Mal?”

“No, it’s okay. I’ve had many years of experience with the couch to bed operation.” Christen grinned at her, winking, before sitting up properly on the couch, pulling Mal upright with her. “Baby, time to wake up a little. It’s bed time.”

A still half asleep Mal just mumbled, not opening her eyes, letting herself be manoeuvred by Christen into a standing position. Christen wrapped one of Mal’s arms around her shoulders, and put an arm of her own around Mal’s waist, leading her the short distance to the closest bedroom. 

Christen thought Mal would fall back asleep immediately like she always did when her head hit the pillow, but as she sat on the edge of the bed waiting to see her breathing even out, she could tell Mal was still somewhat awake.

“Chris?” Mal’s sleepy mumble came out, her eyes still closed.

“I’m here.” Christen brushed some of Mal’s hair off her forehead, trying to lull her into sleep.

“I’m glad we made Bice tonight.”

The statement made Christen smile. It was her new favorite memory of the dish. “Me too.”

“I know you didn’t really want to last week.” Mal’s voice was still laced with sleep, but she spoke the truth nonetheless.

Guilt churned in Christen’s stomach. She clearly hadn’t been as subtle as she’d thought. She used Bice as a distraction method, and she knew she shouldn’t have, but things were just so overwhelming for her that day. She’d had fun with Mal, cooking blindfolded was a recipe for a lot of laughs. But still, Christen was once again reminded how emotionally aware and mature her little sister was.

“Yeah. I’m sorry.”

“’s okay.”

“I’m trying, Mal.”

“I know.” Mal still hadn’t opened her eyes, clearly trying to keep the sleep she could so easily fall back into once the conversation was over, but a small, reassuring smile crossed her face. It made Christen want to cry, want to wrap Mal up in her arms, keep her with her always, made her heart burst open at how much she utterly and completely loved her.

“Most beautiful thing.” Mal murmured, her voice somewhat muffled from where her face was pressed into the pillow. “Love you forever.”

Christen leaned down, kissing her on the cheek a few times and resting her forehead against the most important person in the world to her. “I love you so much, baby. You’re my most beautiful thing, too. You always will be.”

The smile stayed on Mal’s face when she said that, and she waited a few more minutes in the room with her, listening to her steady breaths, stroking a hand across her hair, finally then being satisfied that Mal was fine and she could go back to Tobin. She tracked out of the room and down the hall, her eager grin of anticipation only growing when she saw Tobin in the other bedroom.

“Hi.”

Tobin turned to her, a beaming grin on her face. She opened up her arms and Christen gladly sunk into them, wrapping herself in Tobin and feeling her do the same, just as she’d been so desperately craving all these weeks apart.

They stayed locked together like that for a while, breathing each other in, content to just be. Tobin eventually pulled slightly out of the hug, moving back so her lips could press against Christen’s cheek, then her jaw, then the corner of her mouth, and finally her own lips. Christen sighed into the kiss, wrapping her arms closer around Tobin’s neck, everything inside of her clicking completely into place now that she had this back.

They kissed languidly and sweetly, reacquainting themselves with each other. Tobin’s hands sat at her waist, slipping under her shirt to rest at the skin on her hips, and Christen was pleasantly surprised that the only reaction it caused in her was to pull Tobin closer, kiss her a little bit harder.

Eventually they had to break to catch their breath, pulling away and resting their foreheads together. Tobin murmured they should get ready for bed, and within a few minutes they were both sliding under the covers. Christen didn’t miss the way Tobin fully checked out her legs before she got into bed, clad in only a shirt and panties. Frankly she’s surprised she didn’t choke on air at the sight of what Tobin was wearing, her shirt and Supreme boxers sitting on her body in the most irresistible way.

“Missed you so much.” Tobin murmured against her skin as she kissed down it, trailing along the corner of her jaw before moving down her neck. “Can’t stand being away from you now.”

A tiny keening sound left Christen’s lips as Tobin sucked gently at a spot just below her ear, nipping at her ear lobe as she spoke. This was not how she was expecting her Friday night to have gone but really, there was nowhere else she’d rather be. She pulled Tobin back up to her, kissing her again, slipping her tongue into her mouth and rolling them over so she was slightly on top of the other woman.

“I missed you, too. Missed this.” She bit gently at Tobin’s full bottom lip, soothing it with her tongue when Tobin hissed, and her eyes grew darker.

She wanted that look of Tobin’s etched into her mind forever.

It propelled her forward, gave her the confidence she was lacking to keep going, knowing she was making her feel good. She kissed down her neck, feeling Tobin’s hands run across her back, before edging slowly as ever down further, until they were sitting at the top of her butt. Christen nipped at a spot on Tobin’s neck, licking her tongue across it after, and Tobin’s fingertips pressed into the flesh they were holding, making Christen’s hips buck.

They both let out a moan when the movement made them rub against each other, Christen’s thigh falling in between Tobin’s partially spread legs and only increasing the friction. Christen shuddered at the feeling, knowing how much she wanted it, acutely aware of how wet she had gotten. She pulled back from Tobin’s neck, both of them panting and looking at each other before Christen moved ever so slightly again, feeling her centre connecting with Tobin’s thigh and knowing Tobin could feel the same.

“You’re so beautiful, Christen.”

A hot flush shot over Christen’s skin, she’d never felt anything like this before. Tobin’s eyes were dark and she knew she looked the same. She moved again and the feeling in her core made her whine, Tobin too, neither of them unable to remain quiet.

It took Christen a while to remember why she was trying to keep quiet, before her brain registered Mal was sleeping down the hall, and Tobin’s hips bucked again, and she had never done this before, and all of the thoughts and feelings swimming in her brain collided and then she pulled herself off of Tobin, trying to catch her breath.

Beside her, Tobin immediately sat up, the lust in her eyes gone as she looked over. Christen took one of Tobin’s hands in hers, her silent way of telling her she hadn’t done anything wrong.

“I’m here, Chris. Take your time.” Tobin murmured. The comfort washed over her. Made her feel so safe.

“Will you hold me?”

Tobin nodded instantly, opening her arms out from where she sat against the headboard for Christen to crawl into, leaning her back against her front as Tobin’s arms circled around her. It took her a few minutes to start talking. She didn’t want to have this conversation. But she knew if she ever wanted to sleep with Tobin – and fuck, she really wanted to – she’d have to talk to her about it.

“I’m a virgin.” She half blurted out, feeling her cheeks go red hot with embarrassment, and maybe shame, feeling glad she didn’t have to look at Tobin’s face when she said that.

She didn’t know what kind of response she expected from Tobin. But like always, the woman knocked her off her feet. She intertwined Christen’s fingers with her own, kissing her cheek softly as she rested her chin on Christen’s shoulder, giving her time and gentle encouragement to continue.

“I want you, Tobin. I want you so bad, believe me. I just…I couldn’t do it without talking to you first. Because I know I’d freeze up, otherwise, like I have been. It’s stupid, I know. I’m 27 years old and I’m a virgin.” Christen scoffed a bit at herself, realizing how pathetic it sounded to her when she said it out loud.

“It’s not stupid.” Tobin murmured, not moving from her tight hold on Christen, not shying away at all. “It’s not anything. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s you, and that’s fine, Chris, it honestly is.”

Christen turned a bit in Tobin’s hold, now wanting to see her face, wanting to see the genuineness in her eyes, to see she was telling the truth. Tobin’s eyes, as always, mesmerized Christen, glimmering and boring into her like they were speaking to her soul.

“I just want to be enough for you.”

“You are already, Christen. You’re more than enough. You…fuck, you drive me crazy. I know you’re self-conscious, I know you’re worried. But when you kiss me like that, when you touch me. I’ve never been this worked up by someone. Never felt this much.” Tobin kissed the corner of Christen’s mouth and she shivered. “We could do nothing and you would be enough. As long as you’re happy and comfortable with what’s happening, I’ll never have a problem.”

“I’ve never felt this way with anyone, either. I’ve never been with anyone. You’re the fourth person I’ve ever kissed.” Christen said, deliberating whether to tell her about Tia, Carla and Zoe. In the end she did, feeling surprised that by the end of her recounts she felt lighter, like a weight was lifted off her when she shared that with Tobin.

“Well, you know what they say, fourth time’s the charm.”

Christen burst out laughing, slapping her hand over her mouth to quiet the sound, feeling Tobin laughing against her as well. “Tobin, nobody says that.”

“Well, if you’re lucky, you might soon.” Tobin winked at her, and Christen’s brain short circuited again.

“I hope so. I want to. There is one other problem, though.” Christen said, seeing Tobin tilt her head to the side in question. “I can’t have sex when I know Mal is asleep down the hall, I just can’t. I don’t want to be worried about being loud or her waking up or just…I don’t know, it feels wrong to me.”

Tobin smiled, nodding in complete understanding, a planning glint in her eyes. “I think I have a solution for that, actually.”

---

“Alex!” Mal was running out of the car as soon as Tobin had shut the engine off, jumping on the older forward she absolutely idolized as Alex caught her with a laugh. “I missed you!”

“Missed you too. I’m excited for tonight!”

Christen and Tobin got out of the car as well, walking over to where Alex and Mal were standing outside the front of Alex and Servando’s LA house. Tobin had told Christen that she knew Alex was back in LA for a long weekend, the Orlando Pride giving their team a break from pre-season training and bonding as well. She’d already had a couple of nights alone with Servando, and had agreed pretty easily (with a lot of teasing) when Tobin asked her if Mal could stay at her house that night.

It wasn’t beyond Christen that she was essentially shipping off her little sister so she and Tobin could have the house to themselves and maybe have sex. She thought Mal had somewhat caught onto that reasoning as well, but thankfully, Mal was most excited to be back hanging out with Alex, particularly as they were puppy sitting at the moment.

Speaking of, Servando walked down the front steps to greet everyone, the little puppy nestled in his arms. Mal let out a coo, her hands covering her mouth in adoration as he handed the puppy over to her, before opening his arms out for Christen as she happily ran to him to give him a hug.

Servando spun Christen around and she laughed, genuinely ecstatic to see her friend again. He hugged Tobin with a huge smile on his face, all of them standing around and chatting for a while.

“So we’re good for brunch tomorrow, yeah?” Alex asked Tobin and Christen, seeing them nod in response. She threw an arm around Mal’s shoulders as she pulled her into her. “I might give Mal back at the end of it, if you’re lucky.”

Mal just grinned, bouncing in excitement with the puppy in her arms, nestled in the embrace of one of her favorite teammates. “You guys can go now, we’ll see you tomorrow.”

A laugh burst out of Christen and Tobin. “Well alright then, I see I’ve been replaced already.” Christen joked, opening her arms out as Mal hugged her, kissing her cheek. “I love you, be good, okay?”

“I’m not 5, Christen, I know how to behave.” Mal grumbled, clearly wanting to look cool in front of Alex who she was 100% comfortable around and trusted, but was still very much her idol.

“Don’t worry, the only person who needs to be reminded about behavior is Servando.” Tobin teased, as she hugged Mal, smiling softly when Mal kissed her on the cheek as well.

“Here, here.” Alex grinned, seeing Servando roll his eyes.

“Love you, Chris.” Mal leaned into her for one more hug, before turning back to Alex and Servando excitedly. “Do you think he can learn any tricks in one night?”

Servando nodded seriously, already discussing with Mal what he thought they’d be able to accomplish as they walked into the house.

“Thanks, Al. We owe you guys one.”

“It’s not a chore for us, we love Mal.” Alex hugged them both, sending a knowing smile Tobin’s way. She winked at them, turning back towards the house. “Have fun tonight.”

Christen’s blush lasted all the way to the car, only ending when she realized that Tobin wasn’t driving the way back to the house. “Where are we going?”

“I thought we could go to dinner.”

“Now? I’m not dressed for dinner!” Christen looked down at herself, seeing the denim shorts and yellow shirt she was in.

Tobin just shook her head with a smile. “What do you mean? You look beautiful. Plus, where we’re going is very chill. That is, if you want to go on a date with me?”

Christen just blushed, taking Tobin’s right hand and kissing the palm of it. “You drive a hard bargain, Heath. But I accept.”

---

There was something different in the air, at dinner. They couldn’t stop staring into each other’s eyes, couldn’t keep their hands apart. Christen swore every time Tobin looked at her she shivered, feeling the charged atmosphere between them, knowing where the night could lead.

She was nervous, of course she was. But now that she’d cleared the air with Tobin, the excited anticipation overshadowed the nervousness inside her. It was like she could feel the electricity between them when they touched. She had to hold her hands steady during their meal to keep them from shaking.

Looking at Tobin was causing her brain to fuzz out, it was hard to think straight with someone that beautiful sitting across from her. She really had to focus to listen and take in the words coming out of Tobin’s mouth, and from what Tobin said next, she was really glad she did.

“Coming back here for the weekend and being with you and Mal, being by your side again, it’s just confirmed in me something I’ve known all along. Since the start of this year, and I think really, since I was 15.” Tobin said softly, holding Christen’s hands in hers. “Nothing feels right when I’m not with you anymore. Everything is a little more dull. You make me feel alive, Christen. And I know we can’t always be together, but I don’t ever want to be apart. Physically, but also in here.”

Tobin touched her heart, and Christen felt her insides go warm. She held their hands together steady, feeling the pulse in Tobin’s wrist thunder just the same as hers.

“Being away from you, being in Portland and knowing you were here and knowing that I couldn’t officially call you mine was the worst. I don’t want to leave again, but I really don’t want to leave without asking you this.” Tobin wore a small and endearing smile, looking at Christen with heartfelt eyes. “If it’s what you want, would you be my girlfriend?”

Christen was pretty sure Tobin’s hands were the only things keeping her tethered to the Earth at that point. She felt herself nodding, the smile on her face so wide it threatened to split right off it, and when her brain finally caught up with her body she laughed a little, spluttering out a yes before leaning across the table, kissing Tobin (but not like she wanted to, not like she immediately needed to).

They both looked at each other, eyes drinking in the other, and they were out the door as soon as they could leave some money for their food, hands clasped together, humming electricity between them all the way back to Manhattan Beach, all the way into the house, right until Tobin shut the front door and pressed Christen against it, kissing her hard.

Christen had never kissed her girlfriend before. Had never had one to. She smiled into the kiss, opening her mouth when Tobin’s tongue slid across her lips, moaning when she felt Tobin’s wandering hands shift from down her back to grab at her butt.

(She hadn’t asked her, but she was starting to figure out that Tobin was probably a butt girl).

Before she knew what was happening, Tobin hands cupped under her butt, lifting her effortlessly into her arms, as Christen’s legs locked around her to keep her steady. Christen made a noise of surprise, breaking their kiss to look at Tobin, trying desperately to catch her breath.

“Is this okay?”

Christen nodded frantically, feeling Tobin’s strong muscles clench against her, keeping her body close to her. It was more than okay. It was the hottest thing that had ever happened to her.

“Do you want to go to the bedroom?”

“Y-yeah.” Christen had trouble speaking, and Tobin’s smirk against her neck as she stuttered out an answer told her she was enjoying the effect she was having on her. Tobin carried her the short distance to the bedroom, lips attached to her neck all the while. Christen had her fists clenched in the back of her shirt, wondering how she was going to make it through the night without passing out in pleasure.

When Tobin laid her down on the bed gently, she took off her shirt straight after, standing at the foot of the bed in a sports bra and shorts. Christen hungrily drank her in, her eyes popping straight to the defined muscles of Tobin’s abs, growing darker when they twitched.

“You like what you see?” Tobin’s cocky side was coming out to play, and it made Christen shudder as her gravelly voice trailed throughout the room, eyes dark with want.

“You know I do.”

“Can I?” Tobin leaned down to where she lay on the bed, fingertips hovering against the edge of Christen’s shirt.

“Please.” Christen breathed out, feeling herself grow wetter by the second as Tobin took in her shirtless self once she’d removed the item of clothing. Christen was emboldened by Tobin’s desire, and she reached around to the back of her own bra, unclipping it. Tobin’s exhale of breath was shaky, much like her hands as they moved Christen’s bra off her chest, completely revealing her top half to Tobin.

“Fuck, Christen.” Tobin’s eyes were wide with want, staring at her skin. Goosebumps trailed over Christen’s chest as she shuddered under Tobin’s gaze again, feeling the sudden need to be touched by Tobin, like she never had before.

She took one of Tobin’s hands, leading it up to her left breast and resting it there. They both moaned at the action, Tobin for what she was feeling, and Christen for the way Tobin’s hand immediately squeezed the flesh, experimenting with movement, seeing what drove her crazy.

(So far, it was everything).

Tobin’s other hand soon joined, and Christen’s back arched when Tobin’s fingers rolled over her nipples, pinching and tugging ever so slightly in a way that shot heat straight to Christen’s core.

“Does that feel good, Chris?”

Christen’s body was slowly catching on fire, pressure building up in the most delicious way as Tobin carried on her ministrations. She’d barely stumbled out a yes in reply before she saw Tobin lean down, flattening her tongue across one of her nipples before swirling it around and sucking it into her mouth.

“Oh, fuck.” Christen moaned, her hands coming to rest in Tobin’s hair as the other woman worked away at her chest. If this was how she was feeling just from Tobin toying with her breasts, she had no idea how she was going to survive the overwhelming need to be touched between her legs, where she felt like she was practically dripping through her panties.

She pulled Tobin back up to her after a while, needing to kiss her, to feel her against her. Tobin shrugged off her sports bra as she did so, hovering over her. With bold hands, Christen squeezed at Tobin’s chest as they kissed, making the woman on top of her falter, one of her arms almost collapsing as she broke the kiss to pant, whining when Christen squeezed at her nipples.

“Is this okay?”

“Yes, Chris, fuck. Feels good.” 

A warmth settled in Christen, knowing that. She reached down to Tobin’s abs, trailing her fingers along them before tugging at Tobin’s shorts, a silent request. Tobin obliged, slipping off her shorts, before seeing Christen lifting her own hips up. Christen nodded at her, biting her lip when Tobin edged her shorts down her legs, leaving her only in her panties.

“Beautiful. You’re so fucking beautiful.” Tobin’s hands rested on Christen’s thighs, her thumbs rubbing circles into the skin there. Christen shuddered again, a keening sound leaving her lips as she beckoned Tobin back down to her.

“Want you.” She kissed her hard, panting against her. “Need you so bad.”

“Okay, Chris, I’m here. I’ve got you.” One of Tobin’s hands slid under her back, pulling her up into her more, the other toyed with one of her nipples.

“Want you to hold me. Want you close when you touch me. When you fuck me.”

Tobin groaned at Christen’s whispered comments, a sheen of sweat breaking out on her forehead as she nodded, scrambling up on the bed to where she sat the night before, pulling Christen into her.

Christen felt Tobin encompass her, making her feel everything – the way her hard nipples pressed into her back, the way she could feel how wet Tobin was through her boxers, the way Tobin held her close, making her feel so safe.

She angled her body ever so slightly against Tobin, turning so she could easily kiss her.

“Gonna make you feel good, Chris.” Tobin whispered into her ear, kissing down the side of her jaw, sucking at her neck. “Gonna show you how you always deserve to feel.”

There was another moan as Tobin’s hands found her chest again, and Christen closed her mouth, trying to reign in the pleasure she was feeling.

“Don’t keep those sounds in, Chris, they’re so hot. You’re so fucking hot, so beautiful. They make you sound so good, you’re so good.”

A strangled cry, the loudest of the night (so far) left Christen’s lips at Tobin’s husks, the intensity of the pleasure she got from her words was making her brain go delightfully blank. She could feel Tobin’s smirk against the back of her bare shoulder as she reacted that way, sucking at the skin there.

“That’s interesting.” Tobin commented, almost nonchalantly, as if she hadn’t just discovered one of Christen’s kinks. The near indifference made Christen shudder, and Tobin tucked that piece of information in the back of her brain, no doubt planning to use it again at another time.

Christen considered herself a patient person. But after she’d lost count of the time spent by Tobin’s wandering hands, her low gravel whispers, the way Christen could feel her desire almost dripping off her own thighs, she felt like she was going to lose her mind unless Tobin touched her, now. She opened her legs, hooking one of them under Tobin’s ankle, and she desperately tugged at her own underwear.

“You want these off, Chris?” Tobin’s hand covered her own, a teasing tone in her voice, fingers dancing at the sweaty skin on her hips.

Christen nodded frantically, pressing her face into the side of Tobin’s neck, never having felt this good before. She almost moaned in relief when Tobin pushed them down her legs, feeling Tobin’s hands trail back up her thighs, across her stomach, back down again.

“Tobin, please, please.” Christen almost chanted it, lost in the pleasure of Tobin’s touch and needing to feel more.

“What do you want, Chris?” Tobin’s voice was so strong, so confident and sexy, it sent Christen unravelling every time it hit her ears.

“Touch me, please.”

A garbled cry left Christen’s mouth when Tobin’s hands came up to cup her chest, sending her pleasure, but not where she needed it. “Here?”

“No, no.” Christen writhed against Tobin’s teasing, squeezing her legs together for some relief. Tobin kissed her once more, trailing her hand down her stomach and pushing her legs apart before dragging a finger right through her folds, sending Christen into a melted puddle.

“Is this what you want, pretty girl?” Tobin whispered against Christen’s ear, circling her clit, coating her fingers in her slick. Christen keened at how overwhelming the assault on all her senses was. “Open your eyes for me.”

She didn’t even realize she had squeezed them shut in the pleasure of the moment. The sight that Tobin greeted her with near made her come on the spot. Tobin was holding two of her fingers up, wet from Christen’s arousal, and she slipped them into her mouth, groaning at the taste.

Their lips crashed together after that, Christen moaning at the taste on Tobin’s tongue, knowing she was about to start touching herself if Tobin didn’t get her hand back down there.

“Please, Tobin, inside. I need you.” She panted against Tobin’s mouth, forehead pressed against hers, and when Tobin’s fingers hit her folds once more, she shivered, feeling Tobin’s index finger resting at her entrance.

“I’m here. Look at me, okay, Chris? Keep your eyes on me.” Tobin murmured out comfortingly as she slowly pressed her finger into Christen, both of them groaning at the feeling. “Fuck, Chris, you’re so tight. So wet around me, so perfect.”

The look in Tobin’s eyes was making Christen see stars, let alone the shudder that her words caused or the feeling of her finger inside her. Christen was almost unaware of the noises leaving her mouth at this point, the whines and moans of pleasure falling from her lips when the thrusts of Tobin’s finger started to gain momentum, slowly stretching her out.

“Tell me how you feel, Chris.”

Christen couldn’t speak, that she was sure of. Tobin slowed down her movements, wanting to hear confirmation from her that she was okay, and Christen near rocked herself down onto the finger just to keep the feeling going.

“Talk to me, let me hear you.”

“Good, feels so good.” Christen keened, crying out when Tobin’s finger curled against her front wall and a spark of pleasure spasmed throughout her body. “Please, Tobin, more, more.”

Tobin’s pace picked up, satisfied Christen was into what was happening. The bottom of her palm slid against Christen’s clit and it built her up, the feeling in her stomach coiling blissfully as Tobin worked on her.

Christen had never felt this good in her life, she didn’t want it to end. She didn’t want the feeling of being so completely wrapped up in Tobin to go away, but as time went on she could feel the coil in herself close to snapping.

“Yes, Tobs, yes…fuck.” Christen was lost in the pleasure, it building and building in her until she felt like she was going to burst. She grabbed Tobin’s free hand, squeezing it tight, her body rocking in time with Tobin’s thrusts.

“Let go, it’s okay. I’m here, I’m right here.” Tobin murmured into her skin, kissing her neck, her jaw, her lips. Christen clenched against her fingers, tight against her, and she could feel she was close to coming. It didn’t take much more, another finger slipped into her, a few well-placed brushes pressed against her clit as fingers curled against her wall before Tobin husked into her ear, “Come for me, pretty girl. Let go.”

Christen honestly couldn’t say if she blacked out or not, the feeling of her orgasm entirely overwhelming her. Her whole body went stiff for a few seconds, her toes curling inwards, before she breathed out and she shuddered and spasmed, coming apart against Tobin’s fingers, her body slick with sweat against Tobin’s skin.

She had stars in her eyes, her breathing was labored, her head light. More than a few minutes passed as she tried to regain her senses, Tobin’s fingers still inside of her, riding her ever so gently through the orgasm, until Christen was so sensitive even the slightest touch against her made her twitch and Tobin moved her hand away.

“You look so beautiful like this, so fucking pretty when you come for me like that.”

Christen’s body spasmed again at Tobin’s words, seeing how dark her eyes were, seeing her chest rising and falling with the weight of her breath.

“Are you okay, Chris?”

She thought she nodded, maybe made a garbled sound of confirmation. It took her another good minute for actual words to come back to her, staring up into Tobin’s eyes. “I think I might have blacked out. I feel so good. Fuck you’re amazing at that.”

She saw Tobin grin, moving her hand from her inner thigh up to her mouth, clearly intent on tasting Christen again. That was before Christen guided her hand into her own mouth, swirling her tongue around Tobin’s two fingers and making Tobin’s hips jerk.

“Fuck.” Tobin’s eyes near rolled into the back of her head, letting the feeling of Christen’s mouth on her fingers take her over. She kissed her hard after that, keeping her close. The sounds now leaving Tobin’s mouth made the energy come back into Christen’s body, and she turned her front onto Tobin’s, pushing the woman down to lay on her back as she straddled her waist.

Tobin’s eyes were locked onto her, dark with desire as she leant down, leaving a trail of wet kisses along her neck, across her collarbone, finally getting to her breasts where she nipped and licked at her nipples until Tobin was a squirming mess under her.

“You like that, pretty girl?” Christen toyed with Tobin, using the words that had made her come apart so deliciously before against her, seeing Tobin jolt with pleasure at hearing them, hearing her broken groan of approval.

Christen kept her wet kissing going, down her stomach, spending time tracing her abs with her tongue, before nipping at the waistband of her boxers.

“Off, Chris, please.” Tobin desperately asked, sighing in relief when Christen pulled the garment off her.

Christen didn’t think it was possible for any word to describe how utterly breath-taking Tobin was. Her muscles rippled with each movement she made, her olive skin shiny with sweat, her hair splayed out around her head like the goddess that she was.

“You’re gorgeous, Tobin. How are you even real?” Christen breathed out, running her hands along Tobin’s legs, along the calf muscles she loved so much, along the soft skin of her inner thighs.

Tobin’s legs parted for her, and Christen’s hands stilled on her thighs, looking at how wet and needy Tobin was in front of her, shuddering at what she imagined Tobin would feel like, what Tobin would taste like.

“Chris, you don’t have to.” Tobin saw Christen stop her movements, staring at her, and Christen crawled back up her, kissing her.

“I want to. Want to make you feel like I just did. Make you feel so good.” Christen sucked at the underside of her jaw. She wanted to give Tobin all of those things, but she hadn’t ever done it before. “I don’t…help me, please?”

“Yea-yeah.” Tobin nodded, hands rubbing circles on Christen’s back, helping guide her by making it very clear what she liked, her moans and whines flowing out of her mouth when Christen kissed down her body again, when she sucked at her skin, nipped at it, soothed it with licks.

“Yeah…yeah, fuck Chris. That feels so good.”

Tobin’s praise spurred Christen on, her kisses ending up at Tobin’s inner thighs as she lay down between Tobin’s legs, looking at how wet her girlfriend was for her. Tobin’s eyes widened when she saw the position Christen had ended up in, sitting up on her elbows to make sure she didn’t miss anything.

It didn’t matter, really, because when Christen leaned in and licked her tongue right up Tobin’s slit, Tobin’s arms collapsed under her, her whole body shuddering at how good Christen’s actions felt. The corner of Christen’s mouth quirked up into a grin, the taste of Tobin so good against her tongue, and she circled Tobin’s clit a few times, flicking at it before pulling away.

“Is that okay?”

Tobin managed to raise her head to look at her after she asked that, a look of disbelief and amazement and daze sitting on her face. “Is that…Chris, if that’s what you want to do, please don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. Feels good, feels so good.”

It was all the encouragement Christen needed to keep going. She licked through Tobin’s folds again, circling back up to her clit, loving the feeling of being encompassed by Tobin, feeling her strong thighs on either side of her head. She wrapped her arms around Tobin’s hips, feeling Tobin’s hands come down and grab at hers, needing something to ground her as Christen worked her up and up, drinking in Tobin the wetter she got.

“Chris, please, inside,” Tobin was a mess, panting and shuddering above her, clenching at nothing as she neared her release. Christen let go of one of her hands, dragging her finger through her wet folds before pushing one in, both of them groaning at the feeling of being inside.

It didn’t take much longer for Tobin to come apart after that. Christen added another finger, curling them like she’d felt Tobin do and knowing she’d hit the mark when Tobin cried out above her, jerking. She moved her tongue back to her clit, sucking it entirely into her mouth, and Tobin’s hand went into her hair, pushing herself against Christen’s mouth as she came, back arching off the bed and collapsing back down with a shuddering sigh, twitching and jerking through every kitten lick Christen left as she rode her orgasm out.

“Here, Chris, c’mere,” Tobin panted, tugging at Christen’s hand until she moved up, laying half on her and half on the bed. Tobin wrapped her arms around her, kissing her senseless, both of them panting against each other as they got lost in their eyes.

“That was…that was…fuck. Chris, that was incredible.” Tobin said later, after she’d properly caught her breath, one hand in Christen’s hair, the other rubbing calmly across her back. “If that was you with no experience, I’m worried I’m not going to make next time. You’ll be the end of me. You and your fingers and that mouth.”

Christen nipped at her bottom lip as she said that, running her tongue across Tobin’s lips and dipping into her mouth before teasingly pulling back. “I’m glad you liked it.”

“Liked it? Christen, I fucking loved it. I’ve never felt that good during sex. Never.”

Another hot blush ran across Christen’s body, her insides squirming in delight at hearing that. Hearing she did good, that she was enough. “You make it easy. You’re so beautiful. I can’t believe I’m this lucky to have you.”

A wide smile broke onto Tobin’s face as she pulled Christen into her, guiding her head to lay down on her chest, wrapping her arms around her and holding her close. Christen closed her eyes as she listened to Tobin’s still somewhat erratic heartbeat, tasting the sweat on Tobin’s skin against her lips and letting the warmth of her body overcome her.

“I feel the same. Only more, because you are the most beautiful woman to walk the Earth. And I totally just slept with the most beautiful woman ever. Who is my girlfriend.”

Happiness spun through Christen so fast it almost made her breath hitch. “Can you imagine if our 15 year old selves knew we’d end up here?”

Tobin chuckled against her. “If you told my 15 year old self I would get the chance to even just kiss you one day, I probably would have come in my pants like some horny school boy. I couldn’t keep my eyes off you, Chris. You were the prettiest girl I had ever seen. You still are.”

It wasn’t sadness that caused Christen’s eyes to glisten over, it was pure happiness, a feeling of completeness that settled deep in her bones. She rolled onto her front, bringing her hands up to Tobin’s chest and resting her chin on them, gazing into her girlfriend’s eyes. “I’m so happy. You make me so happy. Thank you for coming back to me. For never forgetting about me. Thank you for being so patient and kind all these months. I wish I could go back in time, tell 15 year old Christen what lay ahead in her future. Not all the sad parts, but the part with you. The part where we end up back together, and it makes everything feel right again.”

“I can’t believe tomorrow is the last day of camp.” Tobin had a glum look on her face, watching the ball roll back and forth between them as they sat opposite each other on the field after practice. Their legs were outstretched, the tops of their boots touching, and Christen nudged her foot into Tobin’s, giving her a smile.

“We still have tonight. And most of tomorrow. And, if we’re lucky, all the next times after that.”

“Oh, you don’t need luck, Chris. You’ve got more talent in your pinky finger than anyone else here. You’ll be back at the next camp.”

A blush soared onto Christen’s cheeks, her heart beat racing at Tobin’s compliment. She couldn’t believe Tobin thought she was the most talented person here. Coming from her, that meant so much. “You will be too, you’re so talented.”

“It’s just so far away. How am I mean to survive without you every day now?” Tobin groaned in an overdramatic fashion, flopping down onto her back with her arms splayed out. Christen almost choked on air as she breathed in, feeling dizzy in all the best ways that Tobin thought that much of her. “Come lay with me, Chris.”

Without her brain catching up to her body, Christen crawled over to where Tobin lay on the grass, laying down beside her. They stared up at the clouds, their after practice ritual at this point. Christen tried to hide the sharp intake of breath she felt when Tobin curled one of her pinky fingers against her own.  

“Promise we’ll see each other again?” Tobin whispered out, almost too quiet for Christen to hear. Christen curled her pinky tighter against Tobin’s, nodding.

“Promise.”

“I’ll miss you. You’re my best friend.”

“Yeah.” Christen fought hard to keep the tears that wanted to well in her eyes at bay, also fighting the overwhelming urge to pull Tobin into her and never let her go. It had only been just over two weeks but something had changed in their young lives. You didn’t have a connection with someone like this and have it drift away forever. Tobin stirred something in her, and she desperately wished she could see into the future, see where they would end up. “You’re my best friend, too. I’ll never stop missing you.”  

“Sleep over tonight?” Tobin turned to her side, pulling Christen so they were face to face. Christen just nodded dumbly, knowing she could never (and would never want to) refuse Tobin. “How am I going to survive saying goodbye to you tomorrow? I already want to cry thinking about it.”

Christen just smiled softly at Tobin, feeling how rosy her cheeks were. “Not goodbye. Just see you later. Maybe we can figure out a way to not forget each other.”

“Yeah.” They rolled onto their backs again, and if Christen could have seen Tobin, she would have seen her toying with the ring on her finger, an idea already formulating in her head. “I like that.”

Tobin just smiled, stroking her thumb across Christen’s forehead, down her cheek, tracing her lips. “I wish you could have told me, too.”

“But we’re here now.”

“Yeah. Here now.”

“And we’re not going anywhere?” Christen asked, seeing Tobin’s dazzling smile appear once more.

“You’d have to drag me away.”

 

Chapter Text

Of course this would happen.

Of course.

It was just their luck.

Just their luck that Tobin and Kelley got roomed together at the next camp for the two friendlies against Colombia. Just their luck that the woman sprung into the room, grinning like the cat that ate the canary, looking at them from where they sat on Tobin’s bed.

“I should have brought cake.”

Kelley’s statement threw off Christen and Tobin. They both tilted their heads to the side in question.

“To say ‘congrats on the sex!’” Kelley leaned on the side of the wall in laughter, even more so when Christen snorted, blushing bright red. Tobin covered her face with her hands.

“Alex told you?”

“Of course Alex told me! She called me as soon as Mal had gone to sleep!” Kelley wiped tears from her eyes. “I can’t believe you kicked poor Mal out of the house so you two could bang!”

“Kelley!” Christen chided, though her lips were quirking. “We didn’t kick her out.”

“Okay, Pressy, whatever you want to tell yourself.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t have?” Tobin challenged, an eyebrow raised.

“Are you kidding? Tobin, if I were you, I would have tossed that kid on the street the minute I got back to LA. It’s a miracle you two didn’t jump each other’s bones sooner.”

“I’d say bones were jumped at exactly the right time. Or should I say times.”

“Okay, okay, okay!” Kelley raised her eyebrows in an impressed fashion at Tobin’s wide grin, Christen just shaking her head with a blush. “No need to brag. We can’t all get laid by a fine piece whenever we have a free room.”

“Excuse me, my girlfriend is the finest piece.”

Kelley’s mouth dropped open. “Hold the fucking phone. Did you just say girlfriend?” She gasped out loud when both Tobin and Christen grinned. Before either of them could stop it, Kelley ran onto the bed and practically jumped on top of them, wrapping her arms around them both.

“Oh, my babies are growing up! I’m a proud Mama Hen!” She kissed them both on the head, laughing as they shoved her away. “Look at you two, you’re glowing.”

“Shut up, Kelley.”

“Tobs, I’m serious! Like really.” Kelley beamed, clutching at her heart. “You both look so happy. I’m so happy this happened. You’re great together.”

A lump formed in Christen’s throat, seeing the look on Kelley’s face and feeling what she was saying so deep in her heart. She did feel like she was glowing. Everything felt so right. She was the happiest she’d been in a long time. “Thanks, Kell.”

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to once more go and find your little shit of a sister and give her the beat down for again failing to inform me of a milestone in your relationship.” Kelley was out the door before they knew it, leaving both of them wide eyed as to what had just happened.

“She’s the human version of a whirlwind.”

“If you think she’s bad just wait until you meet my family. Especially my Mom.” Tobin snorted, but then seemed to realize what topic she’d brought up.

Of course, Christen could see in Tobin’s eyes that she was trying to be respectful about family talk. Especially now, when Christen knew Tobin was aware the anniversary of their parents’ death was a month away. If Christen didn’t want to talk about what it was like to have a mother gush over her daughter’s girlfriend, something she would never get to experience with her own mom, Tobin would do everything in her power to avoid putting her through that pain.

Christen knew Tobin was close with her family from conversations they’d had when they were 15. Knew Tobin didn’t want to go to college too far away from her family, just like her. Knew Tobin’s house was full of laughter and loudness and love, just like hers used to be.

Tobin had talked about her family a bit to her, and she’d heard her on the phone to her Mom when she visited them in LA, smiling to herself at the loving tone that took over in Tobin’s voice. Of course Christen was nervous to meet Tobin’s family, like any girlfriend would be. But she was also nervous about something else.

“Hey, where’d you go?” Tobin gently squeezed her hand, bringing her mind back from its thoughts.

“Sorry. Just thinking.”

“You want to talk about it?”

It was almost flippant, the way Tobin had asked the question, but Christen knew her. She could hear the underlying care in her voice, knew that Tobin was trying to show she was there for her without pushing her if she wasn’t ready.

“Just nervous at the thought of meeting your family.” Christen fiddled with Tobin’s fingers in her hand, distracting herself so she didn’t succumb to the impulse in her brain to switch topics and brush her feelings off.

“They’re honestly a bunch of loveable idiots. You and Mal will fit in fine.” The joke eased some of the tension out of Christen.

“It’s not that I’m worried they’ll be too much. I’m…I guess I’m just worried about how I will be. I worry sometimes I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be around family like that. Maybe it’ll get to me. And I’ll just spend the whole time wanting to cry.”

Tobin brought their intertwined hands to her mouth, pressing a kiss to Christen’s knuckles. “You might, though I guarantee if you do end up crying it’ll be because my Dad’s jokes are shit.” Tobin grinned at her own bad joke. “I promise when you meet them altogether, and honestly with my track record it won’t be for a while, no matter what happens they will love you and Mal. They don’t know what happened, but they all definitely remember how I wouldn’t shut up about my new best friend Christen 12 years ago. When I told Mom back in January that you were Mal’s older sister and we’d reconnected, she was so over the moon.”

Christen’s lips quirked up, feeling a weird mix of emotions at the story but mostly happiness. “Have you told her we’re together?”

“Not yet. Why? Want to keep me your dirty little secret?”

“You’re such an ass, Tobin.” Christen rolled her eyes at Tobin’s proud grin. “And no, I was just thinking that when you did, if you were to facetime her at some point, maybe I could meet her then. Get to know her a bit.”

“You say this now, but when you’re 3 hours into the call listening to her recount my childhood years one by one you’ll regret it.”

Christen’s eyes lit up. “On second thought, let’s call her now. That sounds fantastic.

---

“Holy fuck it’s fucking freezing!”

Zach’s booming laughter was cut off by Christen elbowing him in the side, which only made him start up louder again. They were sitting in the stadium in Connecticut, waiting for the players to take the field for the first game versus Colombia. These two matches were being played on the East Coast, so Zach – living in Philadelphia – was of course coming along.

“Shut up, Zach. We can’t all be built running like a furnace like you. I’m skin and bones and I’m dying.” Christen tried to burrow further into the scarf she had wrapped around her neck, feeling the evening cold seep in despite her many layers and knit cap on her head. She wondered what possessed the USWNT to schedule games on the East Coast in early April. Yet here they were.

“No, you’re just from California with zero ability to accept the weather if it’s anything but a sunny day.”

“You sound like Tobin. She’s always so smug when I get cold. You’d think they slept outside in the snow to toughen kids up the way she talks about her childhood New Jersey winters. I’m sorry I’m from California where the weather is nice!

Zach just laughed even more, highly entertained at how Christen lost all rationality in the cold weather. He easily slipped off his own jacket, still wearing another two layers under that himself, and moved to wrap it around Christen’s shoulders.

“Zach, no, I can’t take your jac– ” Christen immediately cut herself off. The warmth that completely enclosed her body when the jacket wrapped around her made her eyes close in relief. “Is it too late for me to take back that attempt at being polite because I really don’t want to give this back to you now.”

“Only if you’re able to withstand me teasing you for the rest of the game that I also grew up in California and am not cold right now.”

Christen zipped the jacket right up, practically groaning at how warm she suddenly was. There was not a care at all at how hilarious it looked engulfing her petite frame. “Deal. I’m too happy now to care. Thank you so much.” She grinned at Zach’s phone when he took a photo of her, feeling her own phone get a notification a minute later.

 

Ertz so good to Fan Club 5:50pm

Image attached

Christen braving the elements

 

Servanderino to Fan Club 5:52pm

Image attached

Same

 

“Oh, that little shit.” Christen gasped at her phone as she saw Servando sitting in his backyard in California, still wearing his MLS training kit, the afternoon sun shining down on him. Zach just laughed more.

 

CP to Fan Club 5:52pm

Absolute traitor. If you were really our friend you’d be suffering with us

 

Servanderino to Fan Club 5:53pm

I’ll just go jump in the freezer real quick for you

 

CP to Fan Club 5:54pm

It’s what a loyal friend would do

 

“You know, I wouldn’t put it past him to actually do that for the joke.” Zach said as both of their eyes were drawn to the players coming out ready for the start of the game.

“Neither.” Christen found Mal on the field, nodding when she saw her with a long sleeve under her jersey and gloves on. She spotted Tobin soon after, and – “Oh of course this idiot wears a short sleeved jersey in sub 40 temperatures. I can’t stand her, I really can’t.”

(The heart shaped eyes and the biggest smile on her face really didn’t make any of that believable).

---

Christen heard them before she saw them, waiting in the tunnel after the match ended for the team to come off the field and get back to the warmth of the hotel.

Tobin absolutely cracked up, almost crouching down to recover from the hilarious sight of Christen in Zach’s jacket, still zipped up all the way to the top and falling almost to her knees. Julie’s laughter soon joined in, running up to Christen and hugging her as she lost it in amusement.

The adult response Christen gave was to flip them both off, shoving Zach away when he joined the fold of laughter again, feeling warm and fuzzy inside with her people in all the best ways.

---

“You were lights out, tonight. I love watching you take free kicks.” Christen murmured in the dark, her hand brushing through Tobin’s hair where her head laid on her chest. She felt Tobin smile against her, and if she could see her face she’d probably be blushing.

The team had played their second game against Chile that day. The first game ended 7-0, this one was 3-0. Tobin had assisted two of the goals from her free kicks, both of them Julie scored off.

(Christen was pretty sure her and Zach were the loudest fans in the stadium by far when that happened).

“Thanks, Chris. I like knowing you’re watching me.”

“Trying to show off for me?”

Tobin just laughed into her chest, pressing a kiss over the thin shirt she was wearing to sleep. “Maybe.”

“You’re too cute.” Christen ran her thumb down the side of Tobin’s face, her fingers gently dancing patterns into her skin. They lay in silence a few more minutes, both of them trying to soak up the last night they had together before they’d once again be separated. Tobin had spent almost all the nights at this camp in Christen’s room – for both sleep and other activities – and neither was ready for it to end.

In some ways they felt like this time would be harder. They were so much closer than they were before – every day together made the days apart worse.

But they knew this time there would be some reprieve to the separation, even for just a weekend. Christen’s stomach twisted in excitement every time she thought about it, and how ecstatic Mal would be when she realized.

Speaking of, her phone lit up with a notification.

 

Mallory Press 10:39pm

Chris are you awake?

 

Christen Press 10:39pm

What’s up?


Instead of answering, Mal opened the door to her hotel room a few seconds later, Christen flicking on the soft bedside lamp at the same time. Tobin picked her head up off Christen’s chest, looking around a bit before she smiled at Mal.

“Sorry!” Mal spoke quietly, even though none of them were asleep. She walked to the desk where she’d been set up doing her school work all camp, same as always. “I just need to get the laptop.”

“What for?”

“I’m showing Ash the school soccer shots we put together for the senior class video.” Mal said with a hint of excitement in her voice.

Christen smiled both at Mal’s excitement, and that she’d been talking about it with Ash as they roomed together. It warmed her heart to hear Ash had been interested and engaged enough to ask to see it. “Hey, c’mere and give me a kiss goodnight.”

“That’s what Tobin is for.” Mal laughed as she walked over, squealing as Christen wrapped an arm around her and pulled her down onto the bed on her other side. Mal put her hands on either side of Christen’s cheeks and squished them together, speaking in a silly voice. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Christen just laughed at Mal’s antics, even more when she leaned in and kissed her cheek before blowing a raspberry on it. “Gross, Mal.”

“You asked for it.”

“If that’s how you kiss I feel sorry for whoever you’re kissing in the future.” Christen grinned, feeling Tobin pick her head up off her chest with a somewhat frown on her face.

“Who is Mal kissing?”

“Oh, help me.” Mal muttered as Christen burst out laughing, seeing the look on Tobin’s face.

“Mal’s not kissing anyone, tiger, settle down.”

“Mal’s not kissing anyone yet, you mean.”

“Oh yeah?” Christen grinned at Mal, playfulness in her eyes. “Who’s going to be the lucky person?”

“Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe the next suitor to declare their love for me. I think this guy got halfway through proposing to me after the game a few days ago before Tobin glared him down. I probably would have said yes, too.” She wore a mischievous grin as Tobin rolled her eyes, flicking the younger girl’s forehead.

Christen tried not to pass out at how cute and protective Tobin was. She wrapped both of her arms around Mal in an over-exaggerated fashion. “Oh my baby love please don’t grow up on me yet, I’m going to cry when you turn 18.”

“Shut up, no you won’t.”

“I might. Tobin definitely will.”

Mal laughed as Tobin rolled her eyes again. “Tobin, we’ll facetime you on my birthday so you can cry from Portland.”

“I’ll be crying because I won’t be there with you.” Tobin said, sending half a wink to Christen as she spoke and making the excited twist in Christen’s stomach come back.

“Okay I’m going, Ash might send out a search party soon.” Mal announced, kissing Christen’s cheek once more. “Night, Chris. Love you.”

“Love you, baby. Sleep tight.”

Mal then grinned again, leaning down to Tobin’s cheek and blowing a raspberry on it until the older woman pulled away in fits of laughter, shoving at her arm. “Goodnight little sleepy Toby.” Mal cooed in a silly voice. “I love you.”

“I love you too, you little shit.” Tobin kissed Mal’s head, giving her a playful shove off the bed.

“You’re totally going to cry when Mal turns 18.”

Tobin’s sleepy voice made a knowing smile come onto Christen’s face when she whispered it in the dark after Mal had left the room.

“I know. I’m going to be a mess.”

----------

Three weeks later it was the end of April and Tobin was right. A lump in Christen’s throat appeared every time she thought about the fact that tomorrow her baby sister would be 18.

It wasn’t just that Mal was growing up. This birthday was so significant for the both of them. It had been the thing they had looked at for years as the only date which would signify Mal was officially out of the State’s hands. Joseph had really done a number on them both. They knew that even though Christen had adopted Mal, when the clock struck midnight, they’d both breathe a little easier forever.

That’s exactly what the sisters were doing, lying in bed together at the Manhattan Beach house talking and laughing, waiting for the last few minutes of the day to pass until it was officially April 29. Christen had a sense of giddy anticipation, and when she looked over at Mal, she could see that same feeling written all over her face.

“One minute left of being 17.”

Mal made a noise of excitement, watching the clock like a hawk. “I can’t believe I’m going to be 18.”

“I can’t either. 18 is the real deal.”

“It’s going to be so weird. But good. Not having to worry about being a minor anymore.”

Christen nodded, brushing some of Mal’s hair out of her face as she stared at her with a soft smile. “Ready for the start of the rest of your life?”

“Yeah. So ready.”

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” They counted down, seeing the phone switch to 12:00am April 29, 2016. Mal laughed out loud and Christen pulled her in, wrapping her arms around her with a beaming smile as she felt a deep weight of their past drift off her.

“Happy birthday, baby love.” Christen murmured into Mal’s hair, holding her close. “I love you, my big eighteen year old.” She could feel Mal laughing against her, and she kissed her hair.

“Love you forever, Chrissy.” Mal kissed her cheek, pulling back to look at her with the most hopeful expression.

Christen grinned. “I see turning 18 didn’t get rid of those puppy dog eyes. This is a silly question, I know, but do you want to read it now or in the morning?”

The way Mal almost shook with excitement told her enough. “Now, please.”

Tucked safely under the pillow, Christen pulled out a white envelope, Mal’s name beautifully written on the front along with an 18. Mal held it preciously in her hands, slowly opening it up before pulling out the letter inside. She tucked herself against Christen, excited eyes scanning the paper, and Christen saw 12 years of birthdays flash before her.

“Happy birthday, baby love.” Christen whispered into the morning air as Mal blinked awake, one of her little hands rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “You’re 6 years old today!”

As consciousness dripped into Mal’s being her smile grew, cuddling in closer to where Christen’s arm held her on the bed they shared. “I’m six!”

“You are. I love you, my big six year old.”

“Love you forever, Chrissy.”

Christen could have cried at how content Mal was to snuggle in her arms. She was just excited to turn six, not expecting anything at all. Mal was somewhat aware that birthdays usually meant big things, but Christen wasn’t sure if she could remember her fifth birthday from the year before. Frankly it was too upsetting for Christen to want to talk about it yet.

It was almost one year on from the anniversary of their parents death. The most horrible thing about Mal’s birthday would be that a week later they’d go through the worst day of their year. It still cut like a knife in Christen’s heart every time she thought of them.

She was determined to make this day special for Mal, though, even though she had exactly zero dollars to do it with.  

"Hey, I have a surprise for you.”

“Really?” Mal’s excited eyes turned to her, her face lit up. “What is it?”

Christen grinned, pretending to forget as she put on a thinking face. “Well, if only I could remember where I put it. I think it was around here somewhere,” She looked around the room of their third foster home, seeing Mal’s eyes follow hers before the excitement became too much for the six year old and she jumped off the bed.

“It might have been by the door,” Christen watched in amusement as Mal ran to the closed door. “No, no, it wasn’t there. It might have been under the bed.”

Mal crouched under the bed, looking but not finding anything.

“Oh, no, that’s right, I didn’t leave it there either.” Christen laughed as Mal giggled, jumping at her on the bed.

“Chrissy you so silly!”

“Oh, I remember now!” Christen exclaimed, Mal’s eyes widening in anticipation. “I left it somewhere safe. It’s in the school bag of the person I love most in the whole entire world.”

A gasp left Mal’s mouth, and she scrambled off the bed towards her own school bag. Christen watched her with a smile, just because she was so cute, but also because she knew that she was the one Christen loved the most. As if she could forget. Christen told her that about thirty times a day.  

“Look, Chrissy!” Mal was practically buzzing in excitement as she pulled a light blue envelope out of her bag, with her name in big letters across it and a number 6.

“Oh, is that for me? I think it says Christen on there.”

Mal laughed in the most delighted fashion. She raced back to the bed and jumped into Christen’s lap, the envelope clenched tightly in her hand. “It says Mal!”

The way Mal was so precious and careful in opening the envelope made Christen want to crumble. She wished she could have done something amazing for Mal, something she deserved. This had been the worst year of their lives. And she did have a few little presents for her, a little bracelet she’d woven together, a tiny bag of candy she’d kept from school one day, a shiny blue pen she’d never used herself because Mal was obsessed with stationery at the moment.

But the one thing she had thought of that was free, and that she knew would mean a lot to Mal, was the letter Mal was pulling out of the envelope, gasping in excitement when she opened it. It had a lot of colors and little drawings on it, Christen had spent yesterday’s lunch period in the art room at her high school making it.

“Your handwriting!”

“Yeah. I wrote you a letter. Do you want to read it, baby?” Christen told herself she wasn’t going to cry today, but she almost broke when Mal frantically nodded, her excited eyes turning to determination when she looked at the words on the paper. Christen had tried to use simple words so Mal could read most of it herself – she was so proud at how good a reader Mal was for her age – though she knew there were some parts of it she might struggle with.

“To my most beautiful thing in the world. I love you sooooooooo much.” Mal read aloud slowly, her index finger following along the paper as she went. She giggled at the emphasis Christen had written around the words. “You are the most clever, fun, kind and loving person I know. You are also the best soccer player ever! I love how you find the good in everything. You make every day fun and exciting. You are so und-under- and pat-” Mal looked up at Christen for help.

“You are so understanding and patient.”

“You give me the best hugs and kisses. I am so proud of the person you are. You always try your best and you never give up. Your heart is so big. You are so fun and silly and goofy. You have the best imag – ”

“Imagination.”

“Imag-ation. There’s no one else like you, and that’s the best thing ever! Thank you for being my sister. I know some…times life is scary and con – ”

“Confusing.”

“Confusing, but I feel safe with you bee…because I know you love me so much, just like I love you. I know you miss Mommy and Daddy, I do, too. But they love you and they are proud of you. I will always be here for you and I will always love you no matter what. I am so excited to see you grow up and shine. Happy Birthday to my big 6 year old. Love, Chrissy.”

Mal finished reading and stared up at Christen in wonder. “You wrote that for me?”

“It’s your special day. I wanted to tell you how much I loved you. And now you can read it whenever you want.”

Mal hugged the letter close to her chest and a tear dropped from Christen’s eye at the sight. God, she loved this kid so fucking much her heart felt like it was completely overflowing. Mal was the only thing that mattered to her. She’d do anything to keep her happy, for as long as she lived.

“I love it so much, Chrissy. Thank you!” Mal snuggled into her, then held the letter up for her to take. “Will you read it to me?”

Christen just laughed, reading it out loud. She watched the smile that formed on Mal’s face at the words, the little blush that came onto her cheeks at all the nice things in the letter. She finished it, and Mal asked her to read it again, the exact same thing happening. By the time they really had to get going for school, Christen had read the letter to Mal five times, and when they got home that evening, she read it some more.  

They might not have had money to spend on each other. But that year a tradition was born, and it has been the thing they loved the most about birthdays ever since.

Mal stared down at the letter for her 18th birthday, silent after she’d finished reading it. Christen let her have a moment – thought she might be reading it to herself again –  when she saw a tear fall from Mal’s eye onto the paper, ever so slightly smudging the ink.

“Baby, are you crying?” Christen put her hand under Mal’s chin, lifting her head to see tears rapidly gathering in her eyes. A sob fell from Mal’s mouth and she turned into Christen, her older sister wrapping her arms around her.

“Shhh, it’s okay. I’m here.” At this reassurance Mal seemed to cry more. Christen really had no idea what had brought it on. Mal’s hot tears dripped against her neck and she continued her gentle murmurs, waiting for her to calm down before asking what was wrong.

“I…I-I don’t want to be 18!”

That was the last thing Christen was expecting to hear. Mal had been buzzing a few minutes ago. “Can you tell me why?”

The tears were back, Mal’s voice watery as she tried to explain. “Not a kid anymore an-and you can’t come to camps anymore. I don’t want you to leave me behind! I’m an adult and everything’s going to change bu-but I just want to be your little sister an-an-and don’t want you to stop calling me baby and I-I-I…I just want you!”

“Oh, my baby love.” Christen cooed, shushing Mal’s sobs and rocking her gently side to side. She maybe should have seen this coming, what with what she’d written in the letter. It was clear that all of this had dawned on Mal only as she read it.

Christen squeezed her eyes shut, a tear still falling out of them, wondering how it was possible after all these years to love Mal more and more every single day. Mal’s words had made her heart overflow, and had almost made her laugh. All Mal wanted was Christen, that was all she wanted to be happy. Christen was her stability, and she was hers. Mal would have traded the birthday she was most excited for just to keep Christen with her forever.

“Deep breaths.” Christen felt Mal’s sobs settle down, and she kissed her head from where it rested against her neck. “Can you look up at me?”

Mal’s glistening eyes met hers and Christen smiled softly, cupping her cheek as she wiped the tears off her face. “I love you so much. You are my entire world. And nothing will ever change that, no matter how old you are. You’ll always be my baby. I promise with my whole heart you’ll always have me. Okay?”

“Okay.”

The look on Mal’s face was so vulnerable Christen pulled her back into her chest, holding her head protectively. “Can I read the letter to you?”

Mal nodded, handing it over. It had become tradition for Mal to read it herself first, then for Christen for her to read it to her as many times as she wanted. It always made Mal feel special. But this time it was more important. This time it was for Christen to really show her what she meant.

To my most beautiful thing in the world. I love you sooooooooo much. When I look at you, I see every good and pure thing that ever existed. My heart bursts every day when you smile and laugh. After all these years, after everything you’ve been through, you still find the good in everything. You walk around with this joy in your heart and you share it with others.

There’s not enough words to describe how completely proud I am of the person you are. You are intelligent, respectful, hilarious, silly, loving and empathetic. I’m proud of all of your achievements, always. But I’m more proud of what it took for you to get there. You are resilient. You strive for greatness. You never quit. You can do anything you set your mind to. There’s so many reasons that you could have never made it to where you are today. And you beat them all. You could conquer the world if you wanted to, my baby love. I’ll forever be in awe of you.

Now you’re taking your first steps into the adult world. We’ve both waited a long time for this. I’m so happy that you’ll finally have peace. Things are going to change, now, and I know that’s scary for you. It’s scary for me, too – it’s always just been you and me. And it always will be, I promise. It just might be a little different. I want to protect you from the world but now I have to accept you’re venturing out into it. I’m so excited to see you grow, to see you keep shining. Whether we’re together or apart, I’ll always be your number one fan. I’ll always be cheering the loudest for you.

Life has been a big rollercoaster for us. But throughout it all, you’ve been my constant refuge. You lift me up. You inspire me every day. Your smile could pull me through anything. You still give the best hugs. I feel so loved by you, and I love every single thing about you (even when you get cheeky)! I’m so stupid lucky to be your sister.

I love you more than the stars and the moon, more than the sun and the sky. I would go through all of life’s pains just to keep that smile on your face. You’re my best friend, my beautiful baby. No matter where you are in the world, I hope you know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you. I’ll be there for all your highs and lows. Things might change around us, but you and me, we’re forever.

You’re my most beautiful thing in the world, and you always will be. Happy Birthday to my big 18 year old. Love, Chrissy.”

When she finished reading, she looked down at Mal to see tears sitting on her cheeks again. “See, baby? I meant every word. You’ll always have me.”

Mal nodded, clinging onto Christen tight. “The letter was so nice. It’s my favorite one yet.”

“You say that every birthday.” Christen wore a small grin, wiping her tears away.

“I loved it. Thank you so much. No present I could get would ever mean more than this. I know I’ll never know how much you went through for me. But I swear I’ll never take this life for granted. You mean everything to me, you’re the best person in the world. My most beautiful thing.”

There it was again, Christen’s heart bursting. She didn’t know how it was possible to feel so much love in her heart for someone like this. Her love for Mal poured out of everything she had.

“I love you, baby. So much.”

“I love you forever, Chrissy.” Mal burrowed into her older sister, feeling the safety wrap around her. “I know it’s late but can you read it again? Pretty please?”

Christen laughed around her tears, wiping at her eyes. She read the letter to Mal again, and again and again until she felt her go heavy against her, slipping into a peaceful sleep.

Though she tried to follow Mal, she found sleep unable to find her. Maybe it was the emotions of the evening keeping her brain moving. Maybe it was her need to protect her baby sister, wanting to stay awake to be able to settle even the tiniest of her discomforts.

As she lay there, she couldn’t help but think about what Mal had cried for. How things had changed between them, now. Mal was legally an adult in the eyes of the State. Though Christen knew she’d always need her, Mal could technically go on her own and be fine.

Much like it had dawned on Mal a short time ago, a realization slowly crept into Christen that she no longer had to dedicate her entire existence to Mal. Rather than it be freeing, the first step towards her truly living life for herself, she felt her body seize with panic.

Everything she did had always been for Mal. She never had time to focus on herself, and she didn’t have time to think about whether that was right. If Christen of the past had to point to a purpose in her life, she could think about the life she wanted Mal to have, the one she never got.

Christen worked for Mal. She stayed positive for Mal. She never gave up for Mal. That was her purpose, and it had been for the past 12 years.

Who was she if she wasn’t Mal’s guardian? If she didn’t need to revolve her world around Mal anymore? She’d never had to think about the direction of her own life because that thinking got in the way of what was best for Mal.

Mal still needed her, and still would for many years. But so much of what Christen used to have to do for Mal was slipping away as time went on. It hadn’t really occurred to her before how much of her identity was wrapped up in Mal.

She knew Mal was scared about things changing. But the feeling sitting in her stomach now, the one twisting it up, the voice whispering in her head that now she really had no purpose – it was starting to make her think she was the most scared of all.

---

“…and I got so many messages today.” The smile was almost bursting off Mal’s face as she recounted her birthday when Christen picked her up from school.    

“Yeah? That’s so nice. Who messaged you?” Christen could barely contain her own joy, knowing if Mal was this happy now, she was about to be even more so in a few moments. She listened as Mal flicked through her messages, reading them out to Christen as they drove.

“Tobin sent me the nicest messaage.” Mal said, scrolling through her phone to read it out. “She also said we should facetime her tonight.”

“That sounds like a great idea.” Christen managed to keep her voice even, Mal still looking at her phone.

“Oh, and Lindsey and Sonnett sent me this hilarious video. I’ll show you when we get hom…” Mal finally looked up from her phone, looking at the scenery outside. “This isn’t the way home.”

“It’s not.”

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” Christen saw Mal look at her, the beginnings of anticipation building in her eyes. She knew it wouldn’t be much longer before Mal figured it out. They never drove out this way unless they were going to –

“Are we going to LAX?”

Christen didn’t even have to answer, the quirk of her lips said it all.

No!” Mal’s face was the picture of euphoria. “Are you serious?”

“What? I never said anything.”

“Christen!” Mal bounced in her seat, eyes darting between the road signs they were passing and her older sister’s amused face. “Oh my god, are we really going to LAX? Please, please tell me.”

She couldn’t resist that face. “Yes, we’re going to LAX.”

“Who are we picking up? Who’s coming to LA?”

Oh, now this was a development Christen wasn’t anticipating. She grinned, realizing Mal really had no clue. “We’re not picking anyone up.”

Chris!” Mal groaned through her smile, hands covering her face. “Please tell me, I can’t stand it!”

There were major regrets floating through Christen’s mind that she didn’t set her phone to video this. “Mal, seriously. We’re not picking anyone up.”

“What do you mean? We have to be picking someone up, otherwise why would we be…” Mal’s hands dropped from her face, her eyes wide, just as Christen took the turn to LAX parking. “Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Are we going somewhere?”

Again, Christen didn’t even have to answer.

“Oh my god! Are we really?”

“Really, really.” Christen laughed at Mal’s reaction, her heart filling with love.

“Where are we going? I don’t have any of my things!”

“I packed you a bag, it’s in the trunk. Everything you need is in there.”

“Christen, oh my god, what the fuck!” Mal jumped out of the car as soon as Christen had parked it, running to see their bags to confirm it was really real.

Christen spent the walk to the terminal laughing as Mal begged her to tell her where they were going. She figured Mal must have at least had some clue, but it was fun to keep the game up. It wasn’t until they got all the way to the front desk that it was revealed.

“So you have a round trip to Portland flying out tonight at 5pm and arriving back on Sunday at 8pm?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Christen tried not to lose it at the way Mal muffled her squeal behind her hand, gripping onto her arm and shaking it in excitement. It wasn’t until they left the check in line and were out of sight that Mal jumped on Christen, eyes lit up.

“We’re going to Portland! We’re going to see Tobin?”

“When we get through security you can call her and see for yourself.”

20 minutes later, Tobin’s grin was wide and easy when her face came onto the screen. “Well hello there, Mallory Press. Happy birthday!”

“Tobin!” Mal could barely keep the phone still as she buzzed with excitement. “We’re coming to Portland!” She turned the camera to Christen who blew kisses to Tobin, her stomach fluttering with the anticipation of seeing her girlfriend again so soon.

“You finally got let in on the surprise, hey?”

“I’m so excited!”

“I’m so excited too! And so are these losers.” Tobin panned the camera across to show Sonnett and Lindsey sitting on the couch in her apartment, clearly having been there waiting to reveal themselves. They and Mal all laughed and chattered over the top of each other, somehow managing to have an actual conversation between themselves.

“So, you going to Portland is actually a birthday present from both Tobin and I.” Christen said later, sitting down with Mal in the facetime call. “We wanted to give you a surprise, and we wanted you to be able to spend your birthday with as many friends as possible, as well.”

“Thank you so much, both of you! I can’t wait to see you and Sonnett and Lindsey.”

Sonnett and Lindsey cheered at this, both squished on the couch next to Tobin, getting all up in her personal space and fondly annoying her, like always.

“As great as we are, it’s not just us, Mal.” Tobin grinned, seeing Mal’s confused face. “We’ve got a home game tomorrow night, which you and Chris are obviously coming to – ”

Mal gasped, slapping Christen’s leg. “We’re going to a Providence Park game! Wait, wait, you’re playing – ”

“Washington Spirit!” Sonnett and Lindsey cheered again, seeing Mal connect the dots that the four best friends would be reunited.

“Rose will be there! And Ali and Crystal! Oh my god I’m gonna cry.”

Christen wrapped her arm around Mal’s shoulder, laughing into her hair as she left a kiss there, only imagining how overwhelmed and excited Mal would be right then. That sense of overflowing joy never left the sisters, Mal especially, from take-off to landing. Her infectious energy sent her flying into Sonnett, Lindsey and Tobin’s arms when they saw them at the arrivals gate.

Mal genuinely had tears of happiness in her eyes, breaking off with Lindsey and Sonnett as Christen wrapped her arms tight around Tobin, burying her head into her neck.

“Hi.” She sighed out happily, Tobin’s scent surrounding her in familiar comfort. Everything felt right again. “I missed you.”

“Missed you too, beautiful.” Tobin kissed her softly, not really one for PDA. But the overwhelming smile on her face told Christen all she needed to know about how happy she was to see them.

They quickly piled back into the car, Mal finally getting to hear about how the plan came about, with the timing of a Portland home game versus the Spirit to be the icing on the cake. The three young ones in the back facetimed Rose on the way home, convincing her to sneak out of her team’s hotel and they would drive by so she could see Mal on her actual birthday.

“Oh my god, they’re actually insane.” Christen laughed out loud as she and Tobin watched the four best friends jumping all over each other on the sidewalk outside the hotel.

“They’re something else, that’s for sure.”

Knowing they had a bit of privacy, Christen leaned over the console, capturing Tobin’s lips in a kiss she wished she could have given her everyday they were apart. Tobin’s lips were just as soft as she remembered, just as full. Her tongue still sent shivers down her spine when it swiped against her lips, licked into her mouth –

– and the kids they carted around everywhere they went were still little shits as always, tapping on the window and making kissy faces against it forcing the two of them apart as Tobin threatened to drive off without them.

---

“I love this photo from tonight.”

Christen lifted her head off Tobin’s chest and squinted a bit in the dark at the bright light of the screen. She smiled at what she saw, a photo of Mal with a cake in front of her, Christen with her arms wrapped around her in a hug from behind. The candles were lit, the glow shining off their faces as they beamed at the camera.

“You both look so happy.”

“We are so happy.” Christen kissed to the top of Tobin’s bare chest, nuzzling her nose against the soft olive skin there. She lay her head down, sighing in content, feeling Tobin’s arms wrap around her bare back. Their smooth legs slid together, warmth enclosing her from all over.

When Mal, Lindsey and Sonnett had taken off one floor down the building to Lindsey’s apartment late that night, Tobin and Christen had wasted no time being reacquainted with each other’s bodies. They both missed the physical connection they had become so comfortable with.

“Thank you for this. For making Mal’s birthday so special.”

“I did no more than you.”

Christen smiled softly, being lulled into relaxation by the way Tobin’s fingers were gently dancing patterns along her back. She and Tobin had gone 50/50 on the flights for them, Christen wanting to pay it all but Tobin insisting that she wanted in on this present for Mal as well.

“Just, thank you for being here. For being all in this with me. I couldn’t ever be with someone that didn’t understand the dynamic with Mal, but you – you go beyond that. You should have seen her face when she found out we were coming to Portland. She was so excited to s