Her alarm is loud and early, but Ali swings her feet onto the floor and switches on the light before silencing it.
"Jesus Christ. What time is it?"
"Five fifteen. Sorry, work," Ali answers with a chuckle, already breezing through the doorway. A minute later she's back, already halfway through a bottle of water, placing a second one down on the nightstand. "There's coffee in the kitchen," Ali offers, "although there's probably not much to eat, definitely no milk," she adds apprehensively on her way to the bathroom. She's terrible about shopping for groceries. She travels for work at least a few times a month and when Ali is at home she eats most of her meals at the office or out.
She walks out of the bathroom a half hour later in her monogrammed robe, hair and makeup perfect, as her date is zipping her dress from last night back up. Ali can smell the cup of coffee steaming on the nightstand.
"Do you always wake up at the ass crack of dawn?" Her date jokes, slipping her earrings back on.
Ali chuckles, spinning around in her walk-in closet trying to decide on an outfit for the day. It doesn't actually matter what she picks, the wardrobe team will pick something flattering for TV that has just a hint of holiday cheer without being over the top before she goes on air. "Pretty much," she answers lightly, plucking a black skirt and a long-sleeved white silk blouse off the racks and going to look for a nude bra and some panties. The curtains were drawn, but no sunlight would have come in if they had been open. It's almost as dark out as New York City gets when Ali pulls out of her building's garage. That's the way she liked it though. Traffic was lighter and the streets were calmer early in the morning. It was quiet out. There was something special about New York City before the sun rose. It made her feel like the early bird really did get the worm.
Dawn was just beginning to break when Ali's car pulled up to the curb outside her office. "Thanks Cory," Ali smiled as she handed her key to the valet and ducked her head against the wind for the short stride to the doorway.
"Did you hear about Mike?" Ali's assistant Gavin hurried into her office before she was finished hanging up her coat and putting her bag down. He was buzzing with even more energy than usual, placing her morning coffee on her desk before pulling back to smooth his tie down while looking over his shoulder in each direction out at the hallway.
"Good morning to you too, Gavin," Ali said with a laugh, reaching for the coffee slowly even though she felt like shooting it back in one go and asking Gavin to get her another.
"Good morning, Alexandra," Gavin plastered a saccharine sweet smile on his face while resting his chin in his palm. "How was your evening?" He asked rhetorically, answering for her, "oh fine." He swatted a hand out in front of his face dismissively. "Have a good time with Lauren?" He asked again, "oh she was fun," he answered for her again. "What?" He asked sincerely this time, taking in Ali's distressed face.
"I thought her name was Meg," she stated worriedly.
Gavin rolled his eyes, "I don't know babe, I never met her. Now, did you hear about Mike, or not?" He asked again with urgency.
"No," Ali shook her head from side to side, leaning back in her chair and sipping her coffee, "what about Mike?"
Gavin crossed his arms over her chest, a smug grin on his lips, peeking over his shoulder once before answering, "he had his appendix removed last night--"
"Is he okay?" Ali interrupted, moving her heels off the desk and leaning forward in her chair.
"He's fine, he's fine," Gavin hushed her and then started to whisper, "but they need someone for the Knick's game tonight," he glanced over his shoulder again, "and Katie and Will have already left for Christmas," he finished, looking at Ali expectantly, his eyebrows raised.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Ali said with a shake of her head as she turned to her computer to pull up her schedule for the day. Ali had retired from playing soccer after the 2020 Olympics and had been offered a position as a correspondent for ESPN almost immediately. It had been over a year since Ali started and she had worked her way up from being a "correspondent", essentially a freelancer assigned mostly to cover to domestic national team friendlies, to being a regular anchor on some of the morning and evening shows. She hadn't been tasked with live commentary for a sport besides soccer yet, and it would be a big promotion for her in the field if she was. It wasn't easy for women to move upward in the profession but she had lucked out after landing a spot on the team that covered the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup early that summer. She excelled at the assignment and viewership had been high, which led to a spot in the SportsCenter anchor rotation that started off sparse and quickly became more frequent. Getting assigned to a basketball game would be big though. Football was Ali's passion and obviously where she had the most experience, but she was eager to prove she was versatile and could cover other sports well too. It was less than two months away, but Ali also knew there was still a possibility she could land a small spot covering some aspect of the Winter Olympics either with ESPN or NBC or one of their affiliates.
"Well," Gavin glanced over his shoulder one final time before slowly backing out of Ali's office, "Mr. King just got off the elevator so..."
Ali's eyes shot up from her computer screen to see Mr. King charging down the hall toward her office.
"Kriegs," he entered her office briskly without preamble after a quick nod in Gavin's direction who was back at his desk outside her door. "Mike's laid up tonight. We need someone on color for the Knick's tonight. You up for it?"
"Oh, yeah, absolutely," Ali hopped out of her chair enthusiastically, "of course I'd love the opportunity, I'd be honored, Mr. King, thank you so much."
"Great," he smiled, clapped his hands together and then was gone just as quickly as he came, leaving Ali standing alone at her desk. She wasn't alone for long though because Gavin hurried back in as soon as he saw Mr. King get back on the elevator.
"Smooth," he whispered.
"Oh shut up," Ali huffed, sinking back into her seat, now starting to fully process the extent of the challenge she had just accepted.
"Here's you're packet," he said, placing the short stack of papers intended to prep her for her morning slot on her desk, "you're due down in wardrobe in thirty."
"Thanks," she said, glancing through the stack.
"Congrats on the Knicks game, you earned it," he said sincerely, knowing how hard she had worked to move up in the ranks as quickly as she had.
"Let's hope I don't fuck it up," she mumbled, looking up at him worriedly.
"You're gonna crush," he promised, his enthusiasm a few notches too high. "Hey, do you want me to change your flight?" He asked, quickly trying to deflect any chastising for his over the top peppiness.
"Shit," Ali closed her eyes remembering that she was supposed to fly down with Kyle to her mom's for Christmas that evening. Their flight was early that evening. "Is the game at 7?"
"Yeah," Gavin confirmed, "they'll need you down there around five I'd guess. Probably not walking out the door until 10:30?"
"Crap," Ali shook her head. Finding another flight on the night before Christmas Eve was going to be murder and there might not be any flights at all leaving after 11. "Yeah, see if you can get me a later flight. Damn it," Ali brought her fingers up to her temples. She hadn't even packed yet, planning to go home as soon as soon as her afternoon slot was over to throw a bag together. That was clearly no longer an option. She quickly calculated that she would have no time to make it to her apartment and back between when they needed her on air during the morning and afternoon and then the game. A short, easy, straightforward day had turned into an extra long and logistically challenging one. She turned on a huge smile and looked up at Gavin. "Gavin," she started slowly and calmly, mostly for her own sake, "I need you to get me a new flight, maybe LaGuardia instead of JFK if you can, it'll be closer, and then I need you to go to my apartment and pack me a bag. Five days, four nights. I don't really care what I'm wearing as long as it's weather appropriate, and that I have something not black to wear on Christmas day. My TSA toiletry bag should still be in my carry on. And the gifts for my family should all be in a Barney's bag by my front door. I really don't want to have to check a bag so please, make it all fit," she looked up at him with an apprehensive smile. Gavin had been her assistant since she was hired by ESPN as an employee late that spring, and he was great at his job, but Ali hated asking him to do things that were really outside of her job, mostly because he was so gracious about it and she really didn't want to take advantage. She always felt bad asking if he could mail a present she had forgotten about, and the only other time she had ever asked him to handle something at her apartment for her was two months ago when a pipe burst in the unit next door and the pumper needed to access her apartment when she needed to be on air and Kyle couldn't cover for her. She still felt a little guilty but she was totally backed into a corner today and it was because of work.
Gavin had already pulled out his phone though and was tapping away making notes furiously. "And do you me want to pack your, um," he paused, trying to come up with a professional way to put it.
Ali dropped her head to the side wondering what he could be getting at, Gavin was rarely at a loss for words.
"Delicates?" He asked.
"I'm going for four nights, I'm not just going to bring the pair of underwear I'm wearing right now," she laughed out, "so yes, and thank you. Oh, and can you grab something for me to change into for the plane. Leggings and a comfy top or something?"
"New flight, presents, clothes, ugly Christmas sweater, panties, toiletries, plane clothes," he rattled off, "anything else? Bathing suit? You're going to Miami, babes."
"Oh yeah," she agreed, "and a workout outfit and sneakers, please."
Gavin nodded, tacking them on to his list.
"Oh man, and can you put a reminder in my calendar to call Kyle and let him know about the flight once we're off air this morning?" Ali cringed knowing her brother was going to be disappointed they wouldn't be flying out together, cutting short their already short time together. "And my mom too."
"You got it," he said with a thumbs up, turning to get going on his list.
"Oh shit, and can you drive my car back?" Ali asked hopefully, "I drove today so I could get home quick after the show."
"Let me have them keys!" He answered excitedly.
Ali had just gotten off the phone with her brother Kyle when she got a text from Gavin with a picture of five outfits laid out. "Y/N?" it read with a crown emoji. She sent back a thumbs up and added "my down coat for when I stop in the DMV!"
After her conversation with her brother Ali realized she shouldn't have been worried about calling him. Of course he whined about the loss of time together, and how someone gross or underage, or worse, both, would undoubtedly be taking her seat next to him; but he was incredibly supportive of her opportunity to commentate the Knick's game. He swore up and down he would find a way to watch the game, promising to pay whatever exorbitant rate the airline was charging for in flight WiFi if he needed to.
When she got off the phone with her mom she had another text from Gavin, "It fits!" It read, "I'll accept my 'best assistant of 2021' award anytime."
"If you want to be the absolute best, you'll grab Shake Shack for us on your way back," she replied.
"You got a call while you were on air. No fries until you spill about this one, sweetie" he wrote back, following it up with a winky face emoji.
"Sorry, about to lug your carryon and gigantic down coat through the line of tourists at Shake Shack, can't really talk see ya soon."
Ali huffed and focussed on sifting through her email. She was an inbox zero kind of person, but she was rarely ever able to experience it for longer than five minutes. She'd spent the past couple of weeks trying to really stay on top of things so that when she came back from Christmas it wouldn't be too much of a nightmare. In the past couple of hours she had easily gotten ten emails alone about the game tonight, from scouting reports on players, to logistics like picking up her press credentials and when a car would be arriving to take her to the Garden.
Ali didn't even look up from the email she was writing when she heard Gavin walk in, rolling her suitcase along. "Who called?" She asked quickly. She hadn't been able to shake the curiosity his text had piqued.
"Well wouldn't you like to know?" He sung, plopping himself and the bag from Shake Shack down at the small table that was next to her floor to ceiling window.
Ali hit send on the email she had been working on and then made her way out from behind her desk to join him, glaring at him the whole way.
"Ashlyn Harris," he answered with a knowing lilt in his voice.
"What did she say?" Ali asked in a voice that was hard to read.
"To give her a call back. Left her number," Gavin shrugged casually taking a sip of his milkshake.
Ali hadn't heard from Ashlyn in years, hadn't seen her in longer.
Gavin's hand waving in front of Ali's face finally brought her out of her thoughts. "Sorry, what?"
"I said, who is she?"
"An old teammate," Ali answered quickly, reaching for the bag to grab her food but Gavin tugged it away and out of reach, raising an eyebrow when she looked up at him. "An old friend, I haven't seen her in ages," she elaborated, but barely.
Gavin cocked his head to the side, as if he knew there was more to it. He pulled his phone out and flashed Ali an ancient picture of her and Ashlyn huddled close, looking over a menu at a nicely set table, Ashlyn's arm wrapped over Ali's shoulder. "Let's get our stories straight," he read off the phone, "we're sisters and we're venture capitalists from New Hampshire. Yeah, girl, better get your story straight," he winked.
Ali rolled her eyes, "we dated okay," holding her hand out for her lunch.
"I'm listening," Gavin looked back down at his phone and cleared his throat, now that he had confirmation that there was more between the two he wasn't going to let up so easily. "Just had the best Nutella sandwich dot dot dot Alex B Krieger smiley face." Gavin smiled at Ali's stunned face, "girl, I brought receipts so you best get spillin'." In an act of mercy he reached into the bag and shoved Ali's hamburger and some napkins over to her.
Ali shrugged, ripping the wax paper open and placing a napkin across her lap, "we met on the national team, duh, and we dated -- we were together, but I was in Germany and she was over here and we broke up. And I was overseas for like a decade. End of story. I saw her at National Team camps but she retired a few years before me. I haven't seen her since...probably Crystal's wedding like four plus years ago," Ali took a bite of her burger and looked Gavin dead in the eye.
"Well," he said giddily, wiggling a bit in his chair, flipping through his phone again, "since you haven't seen her in so long, I checked for you and she. Is. Hot." Gavin shoved his phone in her face, "I mean she was cute back then but, damn look at her now. Glow up."
Ali glanced up at the picture, smiling and shaking her head at him before ducking down for another bite. In the picture Ashlyn was posing with someone Ali didn't recognize in what looked to be a big crowd. She was dressed pretty casually, dark jeans and a just off white t-shirt, but Gavin was right, she did look hot, in a soft, sun kissed, windswept kind of way, her smile easy and warm.
"God her smile is a dream," he adds.
"Can you chill out? You're gay, remember?" she laughed. "What did she say? I think I've earned my fries and shake, please and thanks."
Gavin slid the fries across the table to her, "question for your shake before it melts, why'd you break up?"
"Too many reasons," Ali answered quickly, holding her hand out for the milkshake.
"Ugh, cop out," he huffed, sending the shake across the table too.
"What did she say?" Ali asked again after a long sip.
"She just asked to speak with you, said the number she had for you was disconnected, asked if you were available. I told her you were on air and asked if she wanted to leave a message. She laughed and said she should have known that and just asked for a call back, left her number. She was super nice and chill on the phone."
"Okay, well just put it in my calendar to call her when I get back. I don't have time today and I can't call on Christmas Eve."
"I bet you could though," he countered.
Ali rolled her eyes. "You can still leave once I'm on air this afternoon you know, are you and Carlos still having everyone over for the seven fishes and then Christmas dinner?"
"Yes," he answered nervously, "all I want for Christmas is my apartment back. Carlos started prepping for the fishes yesterday and stuff is everywhere."
"That'll be nice though," Ali gushed, "having both your families over."
"Yeah, it'll be nice," he agreed, "but crowded. What do you want under your tree, AK?"
"I've got everything I need, just the Florida sunshine."
"Oh come on," he countered, "everyone wants something. Santa won't hold it against you if you tell me."
"I'm serious," Ali insisted, "I've got everything I want, my life is great."
Gavin shook his head with a small smile, "well I want a raise," crumpling up his trash from lunch and stuffing it back into the bag. "Kathy and Jim are going to brief you on the game while you're in hair and makeup for the two o'clock show. A driver will be here at quarter of five to take you over to the garden. I got you on an 11:59 out of JFK, sorry LaGuardia had nothing. It's got an hour layover in Atlanta. That's all there was, sorry. Your boarding pass is already in your passbook."
"Thanks for all your help today Gavin, I know I for one came into the office thinking it was going to be really straightforward and short day." Ali smiled up at him and checked her watch, realizing she needed to start getting ready for her afternoon slot in a minute. "And if I don't see you before we leave, have a really nice Christmas, and give Carlos my love."
"You too, Ali. You deserve a real vacation, okay?" He tried to remind her. "And good luck tonight, you'll do great!" Gavin gave her a big thumbs up before scuttling back to his desk to finish up what he needed to do in order to be able to leave early.
After bolting out of the Garden Ali spent the full thirty minutes it took for her cab to go the sixteen miles to JFK bouncing her leg up and down. After hurrying through the terminal doors and down the hallways towards security Ali rolled her bag up to the TSA pre-check line. She glanced at her watch impatiently; her plane left in forty five minutes and would be boarding in fifteen. Ali lifted her carry on and purse onto the belt and threw her winter coat into a tray before sliding it through. Once she had been waved through the body scanner Ali waited for her bags and coat to come through. She looked over at the regular security line full of parents trying to usher worried children through body scanners, and to hush crying babies while trying to tie and untie more pairs of shoes than Ali wanted to think about. She was more than happy to travel alone while keeping her shoes on and laptop inside her bag.
Ali got to her gate five minutes before boarding was to start. The seats by the gate were packed with sprawled limbs, coats, luggage, and snacks falling everywhere. A girl in an NYU sweatshirt sat hunkered under headphones, armed with her iPhone out in front of her in a seat closest to the jetway, her body turned away from the toddler sprawled out on the seat next to her. Ali didn't bother looking for a seat, she would be boarding with the priority group in a matter of minutes anyways.
It was after the flight attendant's third announcement saying that the flight was overbooked, and that the airline would be complimentarily rebooking any volunteers willing to give up their seat on the next flight out as well as giving them an airline voucher that increased in amount with each announcement, that Ali looked around and thought that she might give up her seat. She was traveling alone and there was no one depending on her to reach her destination on time. She was getting in so late (early, really) that she had made her mom and Kyle promise not to pick her up, she was more than capable of hailing a cab. Ali didn't know where the other travelers were going, but she thought back to her freshman year in college. She had loved PSU, but once the Christmas lights started appearing on tree after tree around State College it had almost started to feel wrong to away from home. Even back then she knew her family would never again have a Christmas like the ones she remembered from when she was little, both her parents and Kyle huddled under the tree unwrapping gifts and burning their tongues on hot chocolate. Her mom had moved all the way down to Florida and her brother was as deep into his addiction as he had ever been at that time, and school was a bit of barrier from the messier parts of her family, but even so, as she had finished up her final exams for the first time as a Freshman that December she longed to be home deep in her heart, even if was a bit messy.
Before she changed her mind Ali strode over to the flight attendant behind the desk and asked what the next flight they could get her out on would be if she gave up her seat. The woman behind the counter, Carolyn, she introduced herself as, worked quickly away on the computer in front of her before telling Ali that they could get her on a five a.m. direct flight to Miami, arriving just after eight in the morning. She reminded Ali with a timid smile that her overall delay would only be three hours since the flight tonight had a layover in Atlanta, and that the airline would be including a sizable voucher.
"Sure, I'll do it," Ali offered quickly handing over her boarding pass and license so the flight attendant could rebook her.
"You're sure?" The flight attendant asked, looking Ali dead in the eye, no longer sounding like she was trying to make a sale. "This isn't what you planned."
"Yeah," Ali shrugged, not sure what the big deal was all of the sudden, "it's only three hours."
"Okay," the flight attendant's smile broke out across her face, "just remember you chose this."
Ali tried not to linger on the that last comment and soon enough Carolyn was asking if she'd like a complementary room at the airport Hilton. After some mental calculations Ali figured even if she only gets to sleep at the hotel for two hours, it's better than hanging around the terminal for four and a half hours, and it definitely didn't make sense to go all the way home. "Yeah, that'd be great," she answered
Carolyn handed back Ali's license and a new boarding pass, and Ali was on her way out the way she came in and almost as quickly.
After a short shuttle ride and surprisingly quick check-in Ali set an alarm and called down for a wake up call, not fully trusting herself to wake up at three in the morning after only a couple hours of sleep. She quickly washed off her make up and brushed her teeth before crawling into bed. She checks her phone one last time to make sure she set the alarm correctly and that the volume is on full blast. There are no texts back from her mom or Kyle after the one she sent them about her new flight. That was good though, it meant they had gone to sleep instead of waiting up for her.
As she was drifting off Ali wondered what her mom would think of her spending the night before Christmas Eve alone in an airport hotel room with a bag packed for only four nights. (Four nights which now would really only end up being three.) It had never bothered Ali; she was accomplished in her career, moving up quickly in the broadcast world after she returned stateside after an impressive nine year club career broad. Two World Cups and an Olympic gold. That was about as good as it gets right? So what if she worked three hundred and fifty five days of the year and hadn't had a relationship older than a month in the past handful of years. Ali's free to do what she wants, see who she wants, have sex with who she wants, go where she wants when she wants. She can decided to make a quick four hundred dollars by delaying her flight a few hours. Ali doesn't have anyone to answer to when she jumps at the chance to fill in for a late night broadcast, or take a multi-day assignment in a random far away city like Cleveland. So what if the person she sees the most on any given week is her assistant? They're pretty much friends. But is it pathetic that she's spending the night before Christmas Eve alone in an airport hotel? It's never bothered her, but she wonders a bit if it's supposed to. And even though she's spent over half her nights in the past ten years in hotel beds this one starts to feel a little lonelier than rest had.
Ali wakes up in a rush, immediately hearing noise, sunlight burning at the back of her eyes, as she feels something moving on her bed. It takes a few moments for her to remember that she's at the airport Hilton and all about her forfeited flight. Even before she opens her eyes Ali wonders where she is though, all her senses telling her she's not at a hotel, and the sunlight telling her that she's missed her flight. When she does peel her eyes open and the room comes somewhat into focus Ali is shocked. She's in no hotel, that's for sure, this is definitely a private bedroom, and she's decidedly not alone. There's a blonde woman in bed with her, and two small children jumping up and down on the mattress yelling exuberantly about how "it's Christmas! It's Christmas!" and that "Santa came! Santa came!" (In reality the younger of the two children isn't actually jumping, more like flopping around as best a fourteen month old can.) Ali leapt out of bed as quickly as she could, only sure of one thing, that she doesn't belong here. Not her bed. Not her blonde. Not her baby. Not...no. That could not be Ashlyn Harris sitting up in bed and bouncing the baby on her lap.