Work Header

yes, you make my life worthwhile

Work Text:

“He comes home and shows me what he’s been doing all day and what exciting jackets and shoes he’s got coming through. And then I say something boring like ‘I got kicked today.”

–Gary Barlow speaking about his husband, Mark Owen. Daily Mail

“Well we can't bloody well make them burgundy and white, can we?!” Gary hollers, red in the face and exasperated. “That’s already Robbie’s team’s colours!”

Jude fixes him with a glare, lips in a thin line. He crosses his arms and like that he’s the spitting image of Gary, is the problem. “I'll tell Dad you cussed again.”

Gary’s resolve stutters the tiniest bit.

“I have him on speed dial,” Jude threatens, still keeping his cool although his eyebrows are furrowed and he’s having a proper strop. “He'll think burgundy and white works just fine.”

Gary rolls his eyes. He isn't aware that he’s huffing and crossing his arms until Skyler chuckles from across the room and points it out, jokes that him and Jude are the identical twins. Gary immediately uncrosses his arms and argues, “Well, your Dad’s practically colour blind, so don't flatter yourself, alright.”

“I’m going to tell him you said that too!” Jude cries even louder, stomping his foot and throwing his hands in the air. “We're doing burgundy and white or I'm calling all of this off!”

“You can't call anything off! I'm the coach.”

“Well you're not a very organised one!”

Gary narrows his eyes at his son, lips pursed. He’s not very amused with him right now. This is what he gets for having a pair of boys with Mark. This is what he gets for having children with him, period. This is God pointing his finger at Gary and telling him, I told you so, mate, don’t say I didn’t, you should have seen this coming.

And then it dawns on him.

“I’m going to tell your Dad you said that,” Gary says with his head up high, finally getting the upper hand for the very first time since they started arguing half an hour ago.

Jude’s glare weakens, although he tries not to show it. Just like Mark usually does, Gary thinks to himself. He quickly gets his resolve back together, but Gary can see the worry in his eyes. “You wouldn’t,” he challenges.

“You’re not the only one with Dad on speed dial, buddy.”

They stare each other down for a while, stormy emerald boring into furious green. Gary knows that because Jude is an exact replica of himself, he’s nothing if not stubborn as hell and almost, if not more, of an annoyingly determined little pest. One of them will have to give up eventually, but Gary already let Jude decide the team logo so there’s no way in hell he’s going to let him pick the kit colours as well.

He'll be damned if he loses all of his battles with his nine year old son.

“Fine,” Jude groans just as the silence comes to feel like too much for Gary. He balls his hands into tight fists and crosses his arms yet again. “We can do burgundy and gold, but I think it’s absolutely ridiculous and we’ll look like idiots.”

Gary gasps, loud and maybe a little more dramatic than strictly necessary. “I’m telling Dad!” he cries in horror, not above playing dirty anymore.

“Go ahead!” Jude challenges. “He likes me better than you!”

And, that’s it then. So what if Gary spends the next twenty minutes chasing his nine year old around the pool? He’s a grown man, he can do that. Even if he does end up in a tangled fit of limbs, slipping into the water and being giggled at by the rest of his kids. He’s a proper adult. He can do that, if that’s what it takes to win an argument with his son.

“But at least Charlie not giving you any trouble, right?” Mark giggles into his phone after hearing Gary’s play-by-play of the last week’s shenanigans. Christ, he misses his babies so much. And Gary, too, maybe. Just the tiniest bit. He’s alright, as far as husbands go, or whatever.

“No,” Gary huffs exaggeratedly on the other line. Mark can practically hear him rolling his eyes. “She’s the only one keeping me sane in this madhouse, and even that’s an understatement. Your children are proper menaces, Marko, when are you coming back and saving me?”

Mark sighs, his breath a little shaky on the exhale. “Two more weeks, babe. I’ll be home soon. M’sure you can keep my little zoo animals together for a little bit longer, you’ll be just fine, darling.” 

“I don't know, mate, they're seriously getting to me core. Skyler’s already asking if he’s allowed to start break-dancing with Jason, as if he needs another twisted ankle.” Gary pauses for a second and Mark can hear him yelling at Pammy to absolutely not put Charlie in the alligator costume—which. Alright. Clearly Mark’s missing out on more than just a little bit. “Sorry about that,” Gary says when he comes back. “The kids wanna go over to Robbie’s and apparently they've got some sort of competition with their cousins about who’s got the cutest baby and—Jesus, I genuinely think I'm losing it, Mark. If I have to look at another bunny costume I'm going to go mad.”

Mark barks a loud laugh, throwing a hand over his mouth and hoping that Gary’s phone wasn’t too close to his ear. “S’alright, babe,” he giggles. “At least that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about, yeah? Charlie wins all the cute baby contests. Bunny costume or not,” he adds after a beat.

“Apparently,” Gary lowers his voice like he’s telling his husband top-secret information. “Word on the street is that Robbie and Ayda bought Teddy a dress with birdies on them, Mark—birdies, can you believe it?—and she looks proper heartbreaking in it.”

“They wouldn't dare,” Mark gasps. “Who’s giving you this information, anyway? Charlie herself?”

Gary whines petulantly on the phone. “Hey, now. I've got people who know people, alright? Are you trying to win this cutest baby contest or not, Marko?”

“I'll let the Barlow genes do all the work there, Gaz. Charlie’s in good hands.”

“You're bloody right she is,” Gary huffs. “Anyway, I’ve gotta do important things, like defend my genetic line to the entire neighbourhood, so I hope you’re happy playing with your sequins and glitter back in Milan.”

“Hey, no, don't leave me yet,” Mark pouts. The clock on the wall tells him they've been on the phone for almost two hours now, but it’s felt like barely even ten minutes. “I miss you guys,” he admits sheepishly.

And he does. Miserably so. He’d gotten a chance to talk to all of the kids—even Charlie, who just spent ten minutes spitting bubbles into the phone and giggling wildly, Gary’s own laughter bright in the background—but he still feels so far away from them. It’s not like residential London and Milan are worlds apart, but it’s different when you're a parent who’s been away from home for nearly a month now. Mark vows, silently, to never again spend this much time away from his kids ever again, Fendi and weekend visits and two hour phone calls be damned.

“We miss you too, darling,” Gary sighs a little later. His voice is clearer now, probably having stepped out of the room and away from their insanely loud children for a bit. “I can't wait to kiss you when you come back.”

Mark plays with a loose string in his t-shirt and smiles, but it’s weary and tired. “Can't wait to kiss you back.”

“M’gonna snog you senseless the second I see you, Marko. In front of the kids and everything.” Gary adds with a proud giggle at the end, “They’ll hate me so much. God, I can’t wait.” 

“Let them. I deserve to be snogged senseless.”

Gary hums in agreement. “Mmm. Always do.”

“I’ll let you get back to the kids, then,” Mark says regretfully when he notices how late it’s getting. If he doesn’t force himself to say goodbye, chances are that he will literally not step away from his phone until sunrise. “And please don’t let them dress Charlie in an alligator costume, alright? She looks much cuter in her white dress–the one with the little sunflowers at the bottom? Ask Pammy to get it out, she knows which one I’m talking about it.”

“Will do, darling. I’ll call you tomorrow. Same time?”

“Yeah, of course. Give the kids a kiss from me, Gaz.”

He waits for reply as the volume on the other end of the line gets loud again. He hears what sounds like Pammy calling Gary out for being un-punch-u-al and Gary babbling back about how she’s the one who called Dad in the first place. Mark listens closely to the bickering and the ruckus, missing it dearly in this too-large apartment in Milan. It’s just two more weeks, he tells himself. Two more weeks and he’ll be home. He can do that.

“These kids do not deserve your kisses,” Gary argues when he comes back on the line. “They deserve to be stuck at Uncle Jason’s house for the rest of the summer so they can learn a thing or two about proper human behaviour.”

Mark hears Skyler shouting excitedly, “So we can start break-dancing then!”

“No!” Gary cries in exasperation. “Look, Mark, I’ve got to go. Your children are driving me mental and Robbie’s gonna kill me if I make him wait on dinner any longer. I’ll talk to you soon, babe. Love you.”

“Love you too,” Mark laughs.

“See you in two weeks, if I’m still alive by then.”

“Please do. I’m really looking forward to being snogged senseless.”

Gary says a final goodbye—chirpier this time with a hint of what awaits them in the coming weeks. Mark hangs up regretfully and plugs his phone into its charger. Just two more weeks, he tells himself for the millionth time in just the last 24 hours alone. He can do that.

The first practice of the season is on the first Monday in July. Gary wakes up at the asscrack of dawn to feed Charlie and then spends the next two hours twisting and turning in bed because he’s so bloody nervous. It’s his first season coaching, and only because Robbie moved to a new neighbourhood and all the kids had begged Gary to become the replacement. It still feels a bit weird, but he owns a goddamn football club. How hard could coaching a 4-7 year olds neighbourhood football team really be?

If Gary is just ‘nervous’ then Pammy is completely about to lose her mind.

A little after nine in the morning, he gives up on any attempt at going back to sleep and patters into the kitchen. He doesn’t know how he doesn’t notice her, but he’s putting the kettle on when he hears a loud crash and jumps a good ten feet into the air. When he turns around he finds Pammy stretched out like a starfish on the kitchen table. She’s wearing her sailor onesie and her hair’s a mess and she just gave Gary a heart attack, but she looks fucking cute as hell. (There’s a plastic bowl on the floor; he ignores it.)

“Pammy!” he shrieks. “What are you doing?”

Pammy doesn’t bother looking at him, just keeps her eyes on the ceiling and lets out a tiresome sigh. “I’m stressed, Papa,” she exhales.

“You’re seven years old, puddy-cat. You can’t even spell stressed right yet.” Gary rolls his eyes, but turns the heat on the stove down a bit and walks over to the table. “What’s up, baby?” he asks with a poke to her belly. Usually she frowns at that and tries to bite his hand off, but today she just lets him poke her little pouch of a belly and doesn’t say a word. “Hey,” Gary coos softly when she still doesn’t react. He sits down on one of the chairs and holds her small hand in his. “What’s wrong, love? Come on, tell Papa so he can make you happy again. What’s the matter?”

Reluctantly, Pammy rolls onto her side and faces her father, one hand still in his and the other underneath her head. She curls into herself instinctively and inches toward the edge of the table, closer to Gary. She doesn’t look him in the eyes, but she mumbles self-consciously, “What if I’m no good today?”

Gary’s natural response is to tell her that she’s mad because she really is brilliant at football and there’s a reason why she made it on the team in the first place. But he knows that she needs more than that right now, so he doesn’t jump into that. Whatever insecurities her seven year old head is cluttered with, it’s probably not going to go away with a few words of encouragement from her Papa (who’s maybe just the smallest bit biased and Pammy is aware of that much, even if she can’t spell biased). She’s so much like Gary in that sense; when he was younger and more stubborn, impossible to read and unwilling to open up to anyone that wasn’t his mother or Mark. So he does what his mother and Mark always did: he decides to talk it out instead of jumping into reassurances.

Gary tilts his head to the side and whispers quietly, “What makes you think you won’t be any good, darling?”

Pammy barely manages a weak shrug against the wooden table. “M’too nervous,” she mumbles. 

“Didn't sleep well, I’m guessing?”

“No,” she shakes her head, “I couldn’t sleep Papa.”  

“And why is that?”

Her voice is barely audible over the quiet hum of the kettle, her round face blushing and hidden behind her chestnut locks in the morning light. “I miss Daddy,” she admits sheepishly. “When is he coming home?”

Gary heart aches painfully in his chest. It’s too early in the morning for his body to be this weak at just the mention of his husband’s name, but he can’t even imagine what it’s like for Pammy, whose biggest fan has always been Mark. Sure, Gary, Jude and Skyler had helped her with her passing and her kicking, but Mark is the head cheerleader of the Barlow family. He’s the one who encouraged her to sign up for the sport and bought her her first pair of cleats and threw her an entire party when she made it into the team. (Even though everybody gets into the team; these are four to seven year olds, not European champions.) It’s going to be hard for Pammy to go to her very first footie practice without Mark there to cheer her on, but it’s just that: her first footie practice of so many more.

Gary nudges his forehead against Pammy’s, getting her to finally look up at him. “He’ll be home soon,” he reminds her, “sooner than you think, anyways. And he’ll be here for your first game and your first day of school, puddy-cat. You know Daddy would be here right now if he could.”

“I know,” Pammy sighs forlornly. “I do understand he has stuff to do in Milan, I just miss him is all.” She chews on her bottom lip and plays with Gary’s wedding ring distractedly. “He is my good luck charm.”

“Want to know a secret?”

Pammy glances at her dad and nods just once, the smallest hint of genuine curiosity twinkling in her eyes. She’s definitely a Barlow.

Gary kisses the apples of her cheeks, her forehead, the tip of her cute little button nose. “He’s my good luck charm too,” he confesses shamelessly.

Pammy doesn’t say anything for a while, just soaks up the feeling of her Papa’s kisses against her tired, sleep-warm skin in the hazy light of the early morning. She closes her eyes and Gary kisses her eyelids as well and it’s quiet in their empty kitchen. For a while Gary thinks she’s fallen back asleep until he hears her mumble sleepily, “Is that why you lose to Jude in Mario-Kart all of the time now?”

And then it’s not so quiet in their little kitchen, not with the kettle going off and Pammy’s bright giggles ringing in the room as Gary tickles the sleep out of her system.

Later, when Gary’s had his tea and Pammy’s had her eggs on toast, they go out to the backyard and kick the ball around for a good while to get rid of Pammy’s (and Gary’s) nerves. Gary claps a little bit louder every time that Pammy steals the ball from him and cheers a little more excitedly and Pammy tells him to stop because it’s embarrassing, but Gary knows that she really means thank you, you make an alright cheerleader.

If Mark’s learned anything over the years, it’s that the Barlow family does not do well with surprises. 

Which is exactly why he comes back home a few days earlier than expected and goes straight to the football pitch where Pammy’s team is holding their final practice session before their very first game. (It’s an event he’s had saved in his calendar for a very long time, alright. He knows the entire team’s schedule like the back of his hand–or Gary’s hand, to be more accurate.) Howard picks him up from the train station and drives him to the pitch, even promises to drop his luggage off at the house for him. Mark knows it’s just Howard’s weak attempt at getting a glimpse of his competition and seeing how Gary’s coming along as a coach, so he doesn’t let it slide. He does, however, spend a good ten minutes keeping his arms crossed and doesn’t move away from the front of Howard’s car in the parking lot until he gives up and drives away. 

Having four kids has taught Mark a lot about stubborn nuisances. (So has being married to Gary Barlow for eighteen years.)

Jude—as the assistant coach—has been keeping Mark up to date with Pammy’s footie team throughout the summer, but it still makes Mark squeal a little bit when he walks onto the pitch and towards one section of the benches. There’s a couple of other parents here, probably a bit early for pick up as the sun is getting ready to set, so Mark picks a spot toward the back of the bench and tries to go unnoticed. He fixes his sunglasses down and looks out on the field where twenty or so toddlers are taking turns shooting into the net.

It’s not so hard to pick Pammy out in the crowd; her long, brown hair falling out of her braid helplessly as she jumps up and down in line, eagerly waiting for her turn. She’s smaller than most of her team and her jersey hangs off her shoulders a little bit, but even from this far away Mark can pick out her thin nose and red cheeks; her bony knees and the way she nervously (and no doubt excitedly) twists her fingers against her sides. Mark watches her in silence and it feels like tunnel vision when he tunes the rest of the world out and waits for her turn at the kick, his own belly fluttering with nerves as well.

She kicks it into the bottom right of the net and it goes in, of course it does. It takes all of Mark’s self-control to not jump up on the stands and go straight into one of the cheers he’d written whilst in Milan. Of course, that can’t be said for a certain other person.

“Brilliant, Pam! Absolutely beautiful shot, baby! Amazing!”

Mark turns his attention a few meters away from his daughter and finds Gary instantly; his lean form in the late sun clapping loudly and grinning even wider. He’s wearing those obnoxious wayfarer of his–the ones that Mark adores so hopelessly; they make him weak in the knees in seconds–that match perfectly with his coach’s jersey and loose shorts. (Mark also notices that Gary’s wearing the exact same bright pink cleats as Pammy, but he won’t say anything about that until he’s got Gary cornered in bed.)

Mark has barely gotten a chance to take in the sight of his husband when he hears another chorus of wild cheers and equally loud clapping. He twists his head and of course, right at sidelines stands the rest of their kids. Skyler and Jude chant Pammy’s name as she shuffles to the back of the line, a bright red blush on her cheeks, and they don’t bother to stop even when the next kid takes a shot and it goes in as well. It’s a little embarrassing, Mark can imagine, but it’s not intended as so. Jude and Skyler are genuinely proud of their sister and it’s obvious with their upbeat spirit and their high-fives, how they hold Charlie in their arms and point to Pammy’s direction, probably bragging like mad about her goal.

So maybe it is a bit embarrassing, but only because it’s all so bloody familiar to Mark. He’s seen that kind of behaviour before—specifically from himself at literally every game Gary’s ever played; that unconditional pride and adoration, the desperate need to recall every second of the game to anyone and everyone in a five mile radius. It was different with him and Gary, of course, but it still makes Mark feel so fucking unconditionally good that his children are so supportive of one another; that they got all the best parts of him and Gary in one.

Plus, they’re alright as far as cheerleaders go, but Mark could probably still teach them a thing or two.

While another kid takes their turn, Mark plucks his phone out from his pocket and sets his eyes back to Gary. He really does look painfully good, hair all windswept and messy, knobby knees out on display, beard unshaven and rough. He goes nearly breathless when his husband turns around to help one of the keepers with their gloves and he gets a perfect view of Gary’s bum, round and gloriously accentuated in his bright white shorts.

Without tearing his eyes away from the view he sends his husband a short Your bum looks so fucking good and then quickly adds God I missed you. xx because it’s true and his mouth is only slightly dry at the sight of him. Mark sits there nervously, phone in his hands as he bites back the biggest grin, and watches from his spot on the benches as Gary takes his phone out from his pocket a few moments later. Some kid takes the shot, misses, and Gary stares at his phone for what feels like 50 years.

Getting impatient, Mark sends another text.

Am I still allowed to blow you in the changing rooms even if you’re not on the team? M.B x

He waits a minute and then adds a simple, Coach? He absolutely does not regret it for a second when Gary’s resolve completely falters and he blows his whistle, announces that practice is over right then and there. The kids look a bit taken aback, but Mark barks out a laugh that is apparently loud enough to immediately catch Gary’s attention because as soon as he gathers himself and looks back down at the pitch he finds Gary’s eyes on him, no longer wearing those stupidly seductive wayfarer of his. It almost looks like he’s glaring, but Mark doesn’t miss the light blush high on his cheeks and his hands on his hips, how his lips are twisted to keep from grinning and the way he shakes his head fondly. Mark waves a sneaky little hello and mouths an I love you happily. What he gets in return is Gary rolling his eyes and tapping the side of his hand against his forehead—sign language for bastard, Mark recognises.  

Gary goes back to the children huddled around him and Mark decides to let him be, but only after sending out one last text.

Love you forever .xx

Saturday morning club football means lots of pairs of boots, muddy foot prints on the kitchen floor and watching from the sidelines. But for Mark it also means cheering, cutting up orange slices and getting to perv on the manager. It’s all round family fun for everyone basically.

Mark wrings his fingers together and jostles his leg up and down ruining a patch of grass but calming his nerves. They are down a point, and he doesn’t want them going into the break losing. He tries to put his hands in the pockets of his club jacket to stop them from moving, he needs to focus on that and not his desire to break into shouting tactics loudly because apparently that is embarrassing or something. He reminds himself to just remember it’s him and the game, no other distractions. Also that it’s just a game.

His focus is so intense watching one particular pair of feet move and a ball roll around that it stops him realising someone is pulling his sleeve.

“Daddy,” a little voice says on the edge of his subconscious with a tug.

Something pulls harder but someone makes a very good pass and Mark’s eyes dart to follow it. It’s a good move and his heart rate quickens. 

“Daddy,” the voice says again with a violent tug on his sleeve. It’s so strong his feet move and he loses his footing, slipping in the wet grass and pulling him back into reality.

That reality is three grumpy and slightly bored faces staring at him from their fold up chairs. 

Mark alternates quickly looking to watch the players and looking down at Skyler.

“Can we eat the orange slices?” he says with a typical Barlow smile, knowing the answer but wanting to push his luck hoping Mark will distractedly say yes.

Skyler who is very dedicated to his cause even gets down on his knees and puts his hands together to imitate praying with little pouts, a true dramatic.

“No puddy-cat,” Mark says crouching down and opening the bag filled with cones, an extra ball and the first aid kit, “You can have juice boxes though.”

Jude cheers at the suggestion, while Skyler grumbles just a little bit just for show. He retrieves four apple juice boxes and hands them out to hungry little hands who thank him immediately. While trying to open the straw for Charlie who waits politely with stretched out hands all the other families start shouting and clapping.

Mark’s head darts to catch his daughter being pulled into the middle of a group hug. Her teammates kiss her cheeks and pull her tight patting her on the head. The ball lies in the goal and the goalkeeper lies on the ground.

Last time, which was only last week, Mark missed her score he had to issue an apology personally to Pammy, the assistant manager and then to the rest of the world via twitter.

Mark quickly stands up straight turning toward the kids motioning for them to join. He is going to get in so much trouble for missing this once again.

“Clap clap clap!” He says clapping as loud as possible. “Where is the sign Jude?” Mark says assisting the smallest of the Barlow’s to get on their feet to support their sister.

Jude groans, “Do I really have to,” but still retrieves his “Go Pammy!” sign from behind his chair and holds it proudly in the air.

Skyler retrieves his cheerleading pom pom’s unprompted and jumps up and down. They each hold a juice box in one hand and a sparkly pom pom in the other.

Their entire troop causes quite a racket as per usual, getting a few laughs and stares.

Mark isn’t bragging but the Barlow’s are the best support team here on a weekly basis, it’s just a fact that their cheering skills are excellent. Singers obviously create kids with really good sets of lungs on them. It’s just a genetic fact.

Pammy spots them and blushes giving her biggest supporters a smile and then a graceful bow.

“Good job Pammy! Good job team,” Mark says providing everyone on his little team with a pat on the back.

“Do you think she noticed?” Skyler says scratching his head looking a tab bit worried.

“Maybe,” Mark shrugs, “But she’ll understand we had a juice box situation.”

Skyler nods back seriously (juice box situations are very serious) and Jude laughs into the back of his hand shaking his head. Mark tries to focus his attention back on the match not wanting to miss another crucial piece of game play and be subject to his daughter’s piercing gaze over the dinner table. He also really really wants the team to win.

But he is quickly distracted by a hand sneaking up his back and into his jacket. He knows that hand far too well to be surprised as to its owner or its intentions.

“Hi,” Gary says from behind, so close Mark can feel his smile and breath on the shell of his ear.

“Don’t you have somewhere to be Mr. Manager?” Mark says sweetly, turning around to smile at him.

“Coach actually,” Gary corrects with a wink and a point to the embroidery on his fancy jacket like it actually matters. Minor technicalities. 

“Shh don’t ruin the illusion.”

“You’re distracting me,” Gary says like it’s a no brainer. This sort of ridiculousness seems to happen every week.

“Well that makes two of us then,” Mark replies his attention now diverted from the game once again.

Gary smirks, “Missed her goal again?” and looks at the kids for a reaction. He shakes his head at their guilty little smiles that peer back at him from behind juice boxes.

“Oops!” Charlie says and then makes grabby hands from her spot in Jude’s lap saying, “Papa!”

Gary reaches down and scoops her up into his arms easily. She instantly cuddles into his side wrapping her arms around his neck. He smiles at Mark, arching his eyebrows forcing an answer out of him.

Mark grimaces, “Maybe we missed it.” 

Gary rolls his eyes dramatically just get a response out of Mark. He shakes his head and kisses the top of Charlie’s. He swore she was wearing a beanie when they left the house. She hands him her empty juice box as a present. “What are we going to do with him?” he asks the two year old.

She looks up at her daddy and back to her Papa, she points her finger at Mark saying cheerfully, “Bye!"

This is also something that seems to happen every week. The theft of Charlie. Mark fakes shock and grabs her hands pretending to eat them peppering them with kisses disguised as chomping. She giggles and kicks her legs.

“Incoming!” Jude shouts as the halftime whistle blows and the players leave the field.

Pammy stomps over hands on hips with grass stained knees and a bit of mud on her left cheek.  She smiles sweetly at both her Papa and Dad.

“Was that a good pass?” she asks Gary. She is tiny but lethal, with a face and smile that will make you want to do anything and a sharp tongue. Mark likes to jokingly say he isn’t sure where it came from.

Mark smiles watching Gary’s internal panic, does he admit he was having a fault in concentration or does he bluff his way through this one?

“It was great Pam,” he says leaning down slightly to pat her on the head. Mark smiles, he hopes Pammy’s giraffe legs doesn’t make her taller than him.

“Wrong! I didn’t even make a pass,” she says. Gary laughs quietly when he catches Mark doing the same.

“Stop flirting with each other!” she pleads, “Pay attention to my game.”

Also yet again another thing that seems to happen every single week, or really any given day. She grabs her orange slices and runs back to her teammates, eyeing them and dramatically pointing as she leaves.

“You heard her stop flirting with me,” Mark mocks with arms folded and slightly blushing cheeks.

“Just for that I’m taking Charlie,” Gary says taking a step back retreating to where the players are talking to the managers.

Mark pouts as Charlie waves goodbye. “No,” he says like someone is taking his favourite toy because really it’s quite similar. He stretches his hands out but she isn’t interested not when Gary has the promise of cuddles.

“Didn’t you hear her Mark? Bye!” Gary says taking her hand and waving it about.

“Just don’t let her fall in the mud again,” Mark mumbles fishing his phone out of his back pocket because they look really cute together with their matching boots and Twitter definitely needs to know about that.

They end up winning like always. Pammy claims she is the winning secret. Gary claims it’s his ‘bloody brilliant coaching skills’. Mark puts up a good fight that is it him and his cheer squad.

To celebrate all of these very talented achievements (and everyone’s good behaviour) they are all treated to a trip to their favourite ice cream parlour. It’s small and a little bit quirky, but nice because everyone who works there leaves them relatively alone and they didn’t ban them that one time Skyler poured a milkshake over Jude’s head.

“You can pick one thing from the menu,” Gary says sliding a menu to each and everyone in the circle booth apart from Mark who he will have to share with. Plenty of little hands eagerly take the menus and thank him sweetly in return.

The boys pout at exactly the same time. “Just one?”

“One means one,” Gary says to Skyler.

“One and a half?” Jude says with a crooked smile.

Gary shakes his head.

“Why don’t you two just pick a different one each, and then share the two,” Mark says smiling laying out his grand plan. They think it’s a great idea, because they think its cheating the system when really it isn’t.

Mark sits right at the edge of the circular booth and Gary slides in next to him for the moment. He is pretty sure he will end up having to move when Pammy needs her banana split cut up or the boys need to be separated.

“What do you want?” Mark asks bumping his shoulder into Gary’s one.

Gary thinks for a second scanning the menu, then looks at Mark. “Do you think we’re sharing?”

Mark smiles but keeps quiet just drumming his fingers against the table.

“Get your own,” Gary says sarcastically grabbing their shared menu and hiding it so Mark can’t try and copy him or convince him to get something he likes.

“Now I’m just going to have to steal some. Sharing is caring,” Mark pouts dramatically.

Pammy smiles up from her menu across the table and says ever so politely, “You can share mine I don’t mind.”

“Thank you baby, but it’s alright Papa is just being silly,” Mark replies smiling at Pammy and then he whispers to her just loud enough so Gary can hear, “He really doesn’t mind sharing.”

“Right,” Gary says placing the menu back on the table, “Everyone ready?”

“Yes,” Jude nods. Pammy next to him shakes her head panicked and annoyed that she can’t read the menu as well as everyone else.

Skyler leans into her to help her out and points down to the menu finding what she wants after she whispers it in his ear.“That’s the one,” he says proudly.

She replaces his finger with her pointer finger and proclaims, “I’m ready.”

“So are we,” Skyler says doing the same thing with his finger as Pammy, to not lose the item he had so carefully picked out with his excellent reading skills. 

“And Charlie?” Gary says leaning forward to look past Mark, who is too engrossed in the menu, to see her.

She has the menu open and perched on her head like a hat. It covers her entire face and she can’t see anything. 

“Babe,” Gary says turning Mark’s head towards her with a hand on his cheek. 

Everyone at the table giggles. “What are you doing?” Mark says between laughs at his daughter as he carefully removes her menu hat and places it on the table.

“Hi,” she says when she can see again.

“Do you know what she’s getting?” Gary asks Mark instead. He nods, still laughing as Charlie leans into him. 

“Okay. Pammy first,” Gary says.

“Rainbow delight.”

“Right. Okay,” Gary says moving onto the next one.

“Wait repeat that,” Mark says opening his phone up to type it out in a lovely neat and organised list. Mark knows this is always an eternal struggle, they never seem to get it right. He isn’t sure if his children just change their minds, swap with each, steal from each other or if Gary is just terrible at getting it right (and refuses to let anyone else do his job).

Gary closes the app. “No. I’ve got it.”

“Gaz,” Mark whines drawing the syllable out and opening the app up again. “You mess it up every time,” he says quietly.

Gary shakes his head. “It was one time.”

“It’s every time,” Mark says looking for back up from the kids. 

“Fine,” Gary says, “We’ll be that family that makes a list. Bloody weird.” 

Mark smiles having won the battle. “Repeat that,” he asks Pammy.

“Rainbow delight, no cherry.”

He types it out and then motions at a grumpy Gary to continue asking.

Jude laughs and Pammy glares at him. “What?”

Jude just shrugs. “Sounds gross that’s all."

“You sound gross,” Pammy says under her breathe. She can’t help it if she doesn’t want a fruity weird choice.

“Pammy,” Gary says with a warning tone. Pammy huffs out a breath, her stupid brother making her the bad one once again.


He takes his time reading out the menu proudly running his finger along the words as he goes, “Triple chocolate sundae. One scoop of chocolate ice cream, with hot chocolate fudge sauce and topped with sprinkles.”

“I’m not going to write all of that,” Mark tells Gary quietly as he types the orders out.

“You don’t need to, I’ve got it all up here anyway,” he says pointing to his brain. 

“Jude,” Gary says prompting his son.

“Just so we are clear if we are going in age order I should have been before Skyler and Pammy,” Jude tells everyone on the table.

“We all know you’re older than us,“ Pammy says because they hear about it all the time. Like fifty times a day.


Mark doesn’t reply for Charlie though just smiles and starts to type her order out on his phone silently.

“Hey! I’m in charge here,” Gary says grabbing the phone from Mark.

“Oh so you want to do that now? Thought you didn’t need it.”

Gary ignores him.

“What would you like Charlie?” he asks his youngest daughter.

She shrugs and points to the last thing on the menu the closest one to her. The Mount Everest, the vanilla ice cream tower supposed to be shared by five people.

“Maybe not that one,” he sighs.

He writes down to get her the smallest children’s sundae possible. 

“Okay that’s everyone then,” Gary says standing up.

“Oh cute, you’re going to order for me,” Mark says sarcastically, tugging on Gary arm with a glint in his eyes.

He knows Gary is trying to be funny by deliberately ignoring him.

“Nope, not getting you anything.”

“So we’re sharing then?” Mark winks as Gary walks to the counter. They are totally sharing.

Mark smiles back at the kids who watch them both. Pammy seems to be lovely gazing at them with heart eyes, in awe of everything her two favourite people in the world do. While Jude and Skyler make gagging noises, causing Charlie to imitate them.

“You two are so gross,” Pammy says with certain fondness. “So we’re sharing then?” she repeats batting her eyelashes at her brothers who laugh.

“One day,” Mark starts wistfully, “You’re going to be really gross, I’m going to remember that.”

When Gary returns the first thing Mark whispers to him is, “Did you get a caramel delight? Did you remember extra hot sauce?”

“Yes,” Gary says like it is the most obvious answer in the world putting his arm around him and earning a kiss.

For the first time ever probably nobody gets the wrong ice cream (also nobody gets ice cream in their hair, small victories!) Gary brags that he doesn’t get it wrong every time and Pammy has to issue a formal apology. 

“I, Pammy Barlow, apologise for stating that you get the order wrong every time. I am sorry for any harm that that statement has caused,” she says standing with her hand on a menu held by Skyler.

Everyone politely claps. “Apology accepted,” Gary says pretending to wipe a tear from his eye.

“Daddy your turn,” Pammy says.

Mark shrugs and stands up and places his hand on the menu. “I, Mark Anthony Barlow (nee Owen), apologise for stating that you get the order wrong every time. I’m not sorry for having excellent ideas like making a list which made this miracle happen today.”

Mark gets the biggest round of applause. He is pretty sure the table next to them claps as well.

"Papa I want Daddy to do my nails, you never stay in the lines" Pammy complains, giggling as Gary gets the bright pink on her skin again.

"If you would stop biting your nails this would be easier" He points out and glances up from his handy work long enough to see Pammy glare at him and stick her tongue out.

This is Mark in so many ways that sometimes it's scary.

"Stop moving your hands or I'll paint your whole hand, for god’s sake,” Gary warns. Pammy makes a discontented noise and stills her hands. Mark paints them better. It's true, but he's in the living room taming three little wild beasts so she's just going to have to deal with it.

“You two sit,” Mark says scooping up two rouge boys and placing their back on the couch easily avoiding their small kicking feets. Double trouble.

So they are just missing one.

There is some noise in the hallway and then Gary and Pammy appear. Gary expected Pammy to be in her pyjamas after her bath like she is supposed to be but instead she is in her pink princess dress and crown. Gary is so so easy.

That is problem number one. Getting her to take it off may be an issue. There was once a week where it was a battle every morning to remind her she couldn’t wear it to school.

She has also convinced Gary to crawl along the floor with her on his back. Problem number two.

“What are you two doing?” Mark asks very amused.

“I’m riding my unicorn,” she says pointing her wand at Mark and making sounds like a gun. She spends too much time with her brothers.

“Unicorn? I thought I was a noble steed,” Gary says with shortened breath but still crawling along happily.

Mark smiles down at him and asks Pammy, “What happened to your pyjamas?”

“Well I’m not going to bed yet so...” she says with complete innocence and wide grin.

“Well, you are very soon,” Mark says motioning for her to get off her ‘unicorn’ which she does with a sigh and wriggles her way in between her brothers like a little diplomatic peacekeeper with a wand as a weapon.

“What did happen to the pyjama’s?” Mark asks Gary who is flopped on his back lying on the carpet.

“I honestly don’t know,” Gary says smiling, knowing exactly.

He pads down the dark hall yawning and stretching quietly passing a few doors until he reaches the one he was looking for. It’s the smallest room for the smallest girl.  He opens the door on and switches on the lights.

Charlie stand in his crib hands clutching the railings with little sobs leaving his mouth. When she sees the door slowly creep open and the room light up the tears stop rolling and she looks up. 

Her face lights up when she says, “Papa.”

“What’s all this noise about Charlie?” Gary asks quietly, well aware that Mark can hear them, as he picks her up.

She extends her hand toward her window where the smallest of morning light peeks through the curtains, “Morning Papa,” she repeats softly.

Gary wouldn’t quite count it as morning yet. But it’s arguable she is correct.

He changes her quickly and puts her back into her pyjamas. He walks them back toward the bedroom, carrying both Charlie and her favourite blanket. Normally he would find some breakfast for her but he doesn’t want to get in trouble, apparently this week is raw food snacks week with the exception of ice cream apparently. Gary doesn’t know how that works.

But it’s cute how Mark is so concerned about brain growth and functionality. Gary thinks that’s a weird thought and swears he will never ever verbalise it. He blames it on the lack of sleep.

Mark is lying face down asleep again so Gary motions to Charlie to be very quiet as they sneak back into bed. She mimics him by placing her fingers on her wide grin. But he can see her eyes twinkling just waiting to get her hands on Mark.

They slip back into Gary’s side and Charlie wriggles her way into between Gary and Mark with her blanket. He smiles at the way Charlie kisses Mark’s cheek and tries to snuggle into him. She is way too awake however and she wriggles around like a bed bug. Gary gets kicked by footie pajamaed feet so he is pretty certain Mark gets kicked on the shin as a wake up present.

It only takes a matter of seconds before Mark is turning his face, dented with indents from the sheet and saying, “Morning Charlie.”

Charlie’s eyes light up and she wriggles into his arms as he sits up slowly rubbing his eyes. Gary sighs, he feels guilty for not just taking her out to put a movie on or to play with her toy kitchen.

“Daddy,” Charlie giggles as Mark kisses her head and tickles her sides.  

But then he doesn’t feel so guilty because his heart feels so big it could explode. Because Mark is pretending to be the tickle monster capturing the princess while he is running on under five hours of very interrupted sleep. Gary knows he wouldn’t want to be woken up by anything else. It’s something they can definitely agree on.

When Mark finally lets Charlie go she snuggles back into the gap between them content to have her hair pet like normal while she cuddles her blanket and occasionally says her profound thoughts aloud.

Gary grabs Mark’s hand and rubs his thumb along the back of it. Mark smiles at his gentle show of affection and greets him with a, “Good morning.”

Gary smiles shyly and replies, “I love you.”

Mark shakes his head with a chuckle as if to say, ‘What has gotten into you?’ and replies, “I love you two.”

He kisses them both and laughs at his own joke. 

Charlie looks up with inquisitive eyes and says, “Love.”

Mark brushes a hand through her hair and nods, “Good job puddy-cat.” 

The three of them lazily lay in bed for a while nobody really feeling that up to do anything but try to fall back asleep, much to Charlie’s distain. Gary only leaves to fetch them both tea from the kitchen and returns with a new little shadow following quick on his tail.

“Look who found me,” he says quietly.

He places Mark’s mug on his side table trying to not make much of a sound. Charlie seems to have quietened down, with Mark’s magic hands and ability to sooth her into slumber via lullabies. He sits up halfway on the pillows and has Charlie laying on his bare chest her eyes heavy and lidded. His large hands hold her little ones in a soft embrace drawing circles in her palms and softly singing about he just wants it to be him and her forever.

It’s not that that Gary smiles at however.

They appear to be watching over her, protecting her from above her crown like a halo. His heart warms at a picture he has never grown tired of seeing. It’s the same image he has seen five times before but it has the same damn effect. It’s just nice the way her nose brushes his arm as she senses Gary has returned and he can feel his heart flutter.

Pammy comes quickly bounding into the room bearing both her favourite story book and her fluffy rabbit soft toy. The quiet is about to be ruined indefinitely.

“Charlie!” she says jumping onto the bed and crawling up to kiss her sister’s forehead as she stirs even more.

“Daddy!” she says kissing Mark’s forehead as well. She wriggles her way into Gary lap as he sits back in bed, his tea on his side table.

“You don’t want to sit on Daddy?” Gary asks being squished and poked by rouge elbows and knees.

Pammy shakes her head and thrusts Gary her book. “No Papa, I want you to read me Ratburger!’”

After the riveting tale told by the self proclaimed best story teller ever, Pammy and Charlie just seem content with cuddles alternating between Mark and Gary or hiding under the blankets scaring each other.

The boys seem to have ventured downstairs only to find it empty and retreat back up to the bedroom for company. Jude and Skyler come baring food obviously snuck out of the top shelf in the pantry, which means one of them climbed on the other’s shoulders to sneak it. They put a new meaning in the phrase double trouble. Honestly. They end up perching themselves at the end of the bed.

“Alright, I’m going inside. You can just stay here and watch for sharks,” Ariel tells Flounder. 

Mark can hear all the dialogue as he stirs the milk into his tea and picks it up. As quiet as possible he sneaks down the hall trying not to make a single noise. The door is slightly ajar but that isn’t what he is looking at.

Gary is the one who has opened it just an inch, and he stands with crossed arms peering just slightly into the movie room trying his best at spying. He seems to be contemplating his move, rocking up and down on his feet.

“Boo,” Mark says quietly from behind trying to startle him. Gary jumps surprised and then smacks him on the arm lightly. They try their best not to make a sound, keeping undercover together.

All of their kids sit huddled under one blanket on the floor, propped up on pillows and snuggling each other in a cuddle pile. Apart from Pammy who sits awkwardly on the couch. Mark laughs because Gary really has nothing to worry about, they are sitting almost a meter apart not touching at all. Apparently this is not acceptable in Gary’s mind.

“Ariel, do you really think there might be sharks around here?” Flounder whispers. Charlie hides her head under the blanket.

“I knew that would happen,” Gary whispers.

“She won’t make it past the shark scene like usual,” Mark sighs. Every time she cries if they don’t let her join in on the movie, every time she cries when something scary happens. They can’t win so it’s better to just let her wait it out and run away when the monsters come out.

“Where’s mine?” Gary asks looking at Mark’s tea.

“In the kitchen.”

“Always so good to me,” Gary says brushing a hand cover Mark’s cheek watching him smile back his ‘I’m a perfect spouse and I know it’ smile.

“I think we should leave them alone,” Mark says as the kids giggle as Ariel gets excited over finding a fork.

As soon as the shark jumps into the picture Charlie screams from under the blanket.

“Shark! Shark , we’re going to die Ariel!”

She is out from under the covers and pillows and Skyler’s arms in a split second running toward the door. At the door she finds exactly who she wants, “Papa.”

Immediately she is in his arms just where she wants to be. And they both laugh because they knew that was going to happen for sure.

Mark takes a step back from the door. “Come on, before they force us to duet Part of Your World.”

They never force them to do that. It is always Mark’s idea and it is completely voluntary.

Gary doesn’t move, he stays put biting his bottom lip and staring into the darkness. He doesn’t move until Mark takes his hand and leads him away. “It will be fine. Plus your tea is going cold.”