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A Christmas Glimpse

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"You're not my real Mommy, are you?" Milo asked slowly but resolutely as his big green eyes roamed over Ali, appraising her. His hair was lighter than her's was as child, and there were some blonde highlights still hanging in there from the summer. His statement was inquisitive but Ali could tell he had already made up his mind.

"Not exactly," she admitted, "I live in New York City, with the big buildings?"

"I've been there," he reported eagerly, "where Uncle Kyle lives, and Luna."

"Yeah, and I'm on TV sometimes, but this is just a glimpse," she reasoned, trying to reassure one of them at least.

"Where's my real Mommy?" He asked, suddenly worried. His lips turned down and Ali feared he was going to start crying.

"I'm not sure, sweetie, but don't worry; I'm sure she'll be back really soon, and I know she loves you lots and lots. She'll be back before you know it," Ali promised, hoping it would come true.

Milo stared up at her, inspecting every inch of her face. Slowly, he got up on his knees so their faces were even and brought one hand up to her nose, squeezing it gently before placing both of his hands on her cheeks and squishing them around.

"What are you doing?" Ali whispered apprehensively.

"They did a pretty good job," he told her, leaning around to give her earlobe a gentle tug.

"Who did?"

"The aliens, on the mothership," he stated as if it should be obvious. "You look just like her."

"Oh, uh thanks," Ali giggled, not expecting the conversation to take that turn.

"Do you like kids?" He asked seriously, sitting back onto his heels.

"Usually," she answered.

"Can you make hot chocolate? And chocolate chip cookies," He was quick to add.

"Yeah, and I make great cookies," she promised, Deb had taught her how after all.

"Promise you won't kidnap me and my sister? And put stuff in our brains?" He asked again, jumping back to the Ali as an alien topic.

"Cross my heart," Ali promised, making the motion across her chest.

"Welcome to Earth," he said after a couple beats, smiling up at her.

Ali smiled back unable to contain a small chuckle, relieved and also a little tickled that the explanation most obvious to him was that she was an alien.

"Lily's kinda stinky," he pointed out as she started to whimper quietly.

"Yeah," Ali agreed regretfully. "Do you ever change her diaper?"

"No," he answer quickly and firmly, pursing his and shaking his head back and forth.


"What?" Ashlyn asked after catching Ali staring at her for the third time since they left her mom's house.

"Nothing," Ali deflected quickly, snapping her head back to look out the windshield.

"Do I have spit up on me or something?" Ashlyn asked nervously after catching Ali staring again a few minutes later, brushing at her shoulder reflexively.

"No, no, you're good," Ali assured her. "You're're really beautiful," she admitted shyly before quickly turning to look out the window.

Ashlyn looked over her with a raised eyebrow for a moment before returning her eyes the road. Christmas morning had been a Saturday, so lots of people traveling home on Sunday so they could get back to work on Monday morning, and the highway was crowded.

"I mean, you were really hot when we met, don't get me wrong, but there's something about you now; you're really beautiful, Ashlyn. Not that you weren't then you've matured -- in the best way. I'm digging myself into a huge hole here, aren't I?" Ali ducked her eyes and rubbed at her forehead. "You're really beautiful, that's all. Sorry." Ali turned her eyes back to the road in front of her and tried to sink as far into the bucket seat as she could.

"You're not," Ashlyn said quietly.

"Huh?" Ali whipped her head around.

"Not digging yourself into a hole," Ashlyn clarified with a small smile.

"Okay, good," Ali breathed out, relieved.

A few moments went by before Ashlyn spoke up again. "How do you do that?"

"Do what?"

"We've been together for over ten years. You see me everyday. I usually have spit-up on my shirt, or play dough in my hair. But you look at me like it's the first time." Ashlyn adjusted her grip on the steering wheel and laced her right hand with the one Ali was using to pull apart a hole on the thigh of her jeans. Ali couldn't help but let out a long yawn. The seat warmer and motion of the car were lulling her sleep. It was only about six o'clock, but Ali felt it had been one of the longest days her life, longer than any day of preseason or rehab she had ever endured. Going to the beach with a four and one year old had been more tiring than any workout Ali had been put through, and she didn't even feel like she had done much besides sunbathe. Her mom and Kyle had both been so eager to play with the kids that Ali had pretty much sat back for the time they were there. Milo was a very sweet boy, but he was four and wanted things done the way he was used to them being done, and Ali had no idea how that was. She also was, admittedly, a little clueless when it came to caring for children. Her mom gave her quite the look when she poured Milo orange juice in a tall glass cup at breakfast. "We still have sippy cups here for him, hun," her mom had said, a little perplexed. Ali had smiled sheepishly and opened every single one of the cabinets before she found a small fortune of sippy cups.

Ali woke up rather abruptly, the brake lights of the cars in front of them burned her eyes a bit. "Where are we?" She asked groggily.

"The exit for I-4," Ashlyn answered quietly, "well, we're probably still a mile and half away," she corrected herself. The cars were bumper to bumper. They would move up a couple car lengths and then come to a complete stop for a moment or two and then move up a bit again.

"Home now?" A small voice piped up from the backseat.

"Not yet, buddy," Ashlyn answered looking up at Milo via the rearview mirror, "you can go back to sleep for a little while."

"Hey, are you okay to keep driving?" Ali asked, looking at the dashboard clock and seeing that she had been asleep for a solid two hours. "I can switch with you," she offered, realizing after the words left her mouth that she had no idea where they were going.

"That's okay," Ashlyn declined, "we're not even twenty miles away."

"You sure? It's going to be the slowest twenty miles of the trip," Ali reasoned, trying to keep the relief out of her voice.

"Yeah, I'm good," Ashlyn assured her, reaching over the console to give Ali's thigh a squeeze, "thanks, baby."

Ali's stomach dropped at the pet name. She didn't really do cutesy relationship stuff, mostly because she didn't really do relationships. She'd tell you it was because she hadn't met anyone who was worth the time and effort, anyone who wanted a relationship, anyone she felt an actual connection with. What she would leave out of her explanation was that although she never said it, she constructed her dating life in a way that drew a clear line in the sand, and showed that a relationships wasn't really on the table to begin with. Ali never offered enough of herself to indicate she was someone who wanted to put in the time and effort.

"That meeting I have at TWLOHA is tomorrow," Ashlyn broke through Ali's mental tangent, "are you still good to take them to daycare and pick them up?"

"School, mom!" Milo corrected Ashlyn from the backseat, "Lily goes to daycare but I go to school!"

"You're right, bud, I'm sorry," Ashlyn grinned as she backtracked herself, speaking louder for the passenger in the backseat's benefit, "Mommy, can you still take Lily to daycare and Milo down the hall to his preschool classroom in the morning? I know winter camp starts tomorrow, but you guys don't start until 10:00, right?"

"Um, yeah? I should probably double check," because I don't have a fucking clue what you're talking about, Ali finished the sentence in her head.

"Here, use my phone," Ashlyn offered, holding her thumb over the home button so it would unlock as she took it out of the cupholder and handed it to Ali. "I can't believe you left yours at home."

Ali wasn't surprised that the pink calendar was Alex - Work, and it showed Winter Camp from ten to three, Monday through Thursday that week. "Um yeah, you were right, ten to three," she reported back, quickly locking the phone and putting it back in the cupholder, feeling like she had opened something private.

"And we're going to the zoo tomorrow!" Milo exclaimed.

"That you are, but your sister's sleeping, so let's use our quiet voices," Ashlyn reminded him.

"Sorry," he whispered forcefully from the backseat. "We're going to the zoo tomorrow," he tried again in a softer voice but one still full of excitement, causing Ali to chuckle softly.

"Yes you are," Ashlyn confirmed again, "so you need to be extra on time in the morning."

Milo promised his punctuality and chattered on about which animals he was most excited to see.

Another forty minutes later they finally pulled up to the house. Ashlyn parked in the driveway so the opening of the garage door wouldn't wake Lily or Milo, who had fallen back asleep only ten minutes ago.

"Hey! You know the rules!" Ashlyn whisper shouted when Ali walked into the bedroom with her phone mid-scroll after they had put Milo and Lily into their beds.

"Oh, she's got rules now," Ali replied with a laugh, eyes never leaving the screen.

"Come on, Al, no phones in the bedroom," Ashlyn repeated a little solemnly.

"Are you serious?" Ali's tone was full of genuine wonder.

"Hey, it's not my fault you forgot it here overnight. Now skedaddle before that week of diaper duty is all yours," Ashlyn threatened as she walked into their bathroom.

"Ugh," Ali huffed as she shuffled out of the room to return her phone to the kitchen. Who would ever come up with a rule like that?

After putting her phone back where she found it downstairs and washing her face and brushing her teeth Ali crawled into bed. Despite how tired she felt, Ali didn't sleep well that night. She felt like she was only half asleep for most of the night, breaking through to full consciousness every hour or so and glancing at the clock to see what time it was. She wasn't entirely sure why she cared so much, but she was nervous for the day ahead. Ali was supposed to get Milo and Lily ready for the day and take them to daycare and then go to work, and yet she didn't even know where those places were. This wasn't her life, but Ali still had a strong drive to excel at whatever she did.

Ali had put a lot of pressure on herself since her retirement. For the first time in decades she was trying something new. She had been playing soccer for as long as she could remember, and even going off to Penn State and moving away to Germany still had soccer rooted in her transition. Her environments were entirely new but soccer and her place on a team anchored her and gave her something she knew to focus on. Since starting her post-soccer career Ali still wasn't entirely comfortable with making mistakes and how to handle them. On the field she knew when she was doing well and when she wasn't, and she was good at listening to instruction from her teammates and coaches and translating it into action. Ali was good at analyzing what she had slipped up on in order to make a productive change, and it was something she was really proud of. She had yet to develop those skills in her new career though. She was still very much a novice in the broadcasting world and it was something she hadn't experienced in a long time. To a degree, this was the same, Ali had never been caretaker before, and the job she was supposed to go to the next day was a complete mystery.

Ali was already half awake when the alarm went off just after dawn. She sat up and rubbed at her eyes.

"That's for me," Ashlyn said after shutting off the alarm and seeing Ali sitting up, "you've got time; sleep." Ashlyn kissed Ali on the cheek before climbing out of bed and finding her way into the bathroom without turning on a light. Ali knew that she was awake and there was no fighting it, so she decided to head downstairs for some coffee. Once she had a full mug, Ali slowly wandered around the first floor of the house, taking in the framed pictures on the walls before stopping in front of the Christmas tree in the middle of the living room.

The tree was at least two feet taller than Ali and wrapped from top to bottom in white lights and a thick strand of light gold ribbon. The ornaments range from simple silver globes that twinkle in the lights to handmade construction paper reindeer. Right at her eye level is a small silver frame with 'Milo's First Christmas' engraved across the top and '2017' engraved along the bottom. In the center of the frame is a picture of Ali and Ashlyn holding a tiny baby. You can't really see his face at all, but Milo is wearing an elf onesie with a tiny green with red trim beanie on his head. He's sleeping away in between their laps, but Ali and Ashlyn are both grinning up at the camera in front of a lit up Christmas tree. To Ali, they both looked exhausted, but blissfully happy.

Up a little bit and to the left was a matching frame engraved with 'Lily's First Christmas 2020' and a similar photo. Another tiny baby was fast asleep in the same onesie, but she was nestled in Ashlyn's arms. Ali was sitting next her in front of the tree with a grinning Milo in her lap. If it was possible Ali thought they looked even happier, and more tired, in the second picture.

She studied the collection of ornaments on the tree, evidence of two lives slowly combined and then lived as one. Ali recognized a few ornaments from her own family's tree, ones she had made as a small child with her name and the year written in an adult's penmanship. Others were similar, but had Ashlyn or Milo's name written along the bottom. Some she didn't recognize, but she wasn't surprised to see a small red and green surfboard, a coffee mug, a french bulldog, a German flag, and a skateboard. There was a tiny framed picture of Ali and Ashlyn holding the World Cup trophy on the field, medals hung around their necks, each grinning ear to ear. Ali could tell by the kit that it was from when the team won in 2015, but they never took that picture together.

Ali was brought out of her visual exploration when she heard Ashlyn coming down the stairs and Milo blabbering away. It sounded like he was talking about monkeys. Ashlyn smiled up at Ali before returning her attention to the four year old leading the way to the kitchen, and bouncing her daughter on her hip. "I can get them breakfast while you get ready," Ashlyn offered from behind the kitchen counter, pouring herself a cup of coffee, "I have to leave in like twenty to get out to Melbourne in time."

Ali came back downstairs exactly eighteen minutes later.

"Well, well, someone looks fancy today," Ashlyn remarked as Ali walked back into the kitchen.

"Look good, feel good--"

"Play good!" Milo finished with her, causing Ali and Ashlyn to laugh, which made Milo and Lily laugh too.

Truth was Ali had no idea where or what her work was, so she didn't want to be under dressed. She went with a pair of tight black pants, and a short sleeve black blouse, figuring it was a versatile enough outfit to pass pretty much wherever she ended up.

"Keep eating, bud," Ashlyn reminded him, "you have to leave in a little bit and you still need to get dressed and comb that hair of yours."

Milo dove back into his cereal without another word, eager to get on with his day at the zoo.

"Okay, I'm outta here," Ashlyn said to Ali, "we're supposed to be done at four, but I'll let you know when I'm leaving in case it goes long." Ashlyn walked around to the other side of breakfast bar to kiss Milo and Lily goodbye. "Have fun at the zoo buddy. I can't wait to hear all about it. Make sure you do a good job listening," Ashlyn reminded him as she kissed the top of his head. "And you," she turned to Lily and tickled her tummy as she kissed her cheek, caused Lily to giggle and squirm uncontrollably, "have fun today, little miss." Ashlyn stopped a gave Ali a kiss on her way to the garage, "love you, see you tonight."

"Have a good drive," Ali offered quietly, trying to stamp down how warm and damn near giddy Ashlyn's simple action had made her feel.

"I'm done!" Milo exclaimed, jumping out of his chair to run upstairs and get dressed, leaving his spoon rattling in the bowl.