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A Christmas Glimpse

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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.

"Who called?"

"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.

Chapter Text

Every thought that was racing through her mind vanished as soon as she saw that the woman still in bed bouncing the baby on her lap was none other than Ashlyn Harris. Ashlyn didn't seem surprised or anxious at all though, and that quickly jumps to the top of the things Ali finds shocking about her current situation.

Ashlyn leans across the bed, reaching for Ali's hand and giving it a gentle tug and squeeze, "strong coffee, babe," she almost pleads before turning back to tickle the toddler's tummy. Babe? Ali's frozen. She has no idea where she is beyond the fact that she's probably in Ashlyn Harris's bedroom, maybe? And Ashlyn has a kid? Two kids? One that looks to be three or four? Ali had no idea, how did she completely miss the memo on that one? Sure, they hadn't remained very close after they broke up and Ali stayed in Germany, but they were still close with some of the same people, and Ali can't believe she wouldn't have heard if Ashlyn had had not one but two children. And how did she get here? When did she get here? And it's Christmas day already? Ali still hasn't moved a muscle and Ashlyn looks up at her again before spreading across the bed to reach around on the nightstand to Ali's left. "Al, they're right here," she says with a hint of chiding, holding up a pair of glasses.

That snaps Ali out of her daze and she grabs a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt off a chair after she shoves the glasses on, and she's out of there, bounding down the stairs two at a time. At the bottom of the steps is a mostly glass door to the outside and Ali quickly darts outside. She was hoping her car would be there but it's not in the driveway or on the street. The street. 'Fuck,' Ali thinks, 'this is not New York City.' She's on a suburban street with palm trees scattered about, and the air was easily warmer than New York. Ali shivered a bit in the short sleeve shirt she had grabbed, but it felt at least twenty degrees warmer than New York City would have been at Sunrise.

"Merry Christmas, Ali!"

Ali spins around to find a woman she hadn't seen in even longer than Ashlyn beaming at her and carrying bags of presents her way. "Tammeye," Ali gasped, an unsure smile coming to her face.

Ashlyn's mom placed a kiss on Ali's cheek as she walked past her on the way into the house.

"Hey, will you grab this," Ashlyn's brother was by her side before she had a chance to catch her breath, and he was carrying three bags of gifts and was trying to balance one oddly shaped present in his arms.

"Uh, y-yeah," Ali stuttered, and took the big and unbalanced gift off his pile, not wanting to be rude.

"Merry Christmas, Als," he said with a conspiratorial chuckle before placing a kiss on her cheek.

Ali didn't know what to do besides follow him back inside. "Chris, where's my M4?" She asked after putting the present down on a bench just inside the door.

"What are you talking about?" Chris asked with a huff as he placed the bags of gifts down, trying to lean them against each other so they wouldn't all topple over.

"My car, where is it?" She repeated more urgently.

"Uh, probably in the garage, where you keep it?" He gave her a dopey look, nodding around the corner and pulling a set of keys off a row of hooks on the wall and dangling them in front of her. "Definitely not an M4 though," he mumbled to himself after she snatched the keys out of his hand and rushed through the door.

When she hit the 'unlock button' on the key fob the lights on a white BMW x6 flashed and Ali hopped in without thinking. The car was an older model, probably at least eight years old; it wasn't anywhere near as new or as fun as her M4.


 

Ali had been driving around the neighborhood for over ten minutes without finding her way to a main road when the gas light went on. "Damn," she hissed, pulling over to see if she could find a gas station on the navigation system.

She noticed the diamond while turning her head to look left before re-entering traffic (even though there was none). Her left hand was gripping the top of the steering wheel and the diamond on her ring finger caught the rising sun just right and it nearly blinded her. "What the fuck," she gasped. Ali brought her right index finger up to the band to inspect it. Definitely real, and not just one band either. On her left ring finger was a very impressive, but refined solitaire diamond ring, stacked above a matching band with a full circle of small encrusted diamonds. "What is going on?" Ali asked aloud.

"Proceed to the route," the navigation system prompted again.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Ali mumbled as she merged back onto the road.

On the drive to the gas station Ali realized she didn't have her wallet and therefor didn't have her credit card or any cash, and thus no way to pay for gas. When she was looking up a gas station Ali learned that she was in Orlando, but that did little to explain how she had gotten there. Did someone roofie her on the plane down to see her mom? Does she have amnesia? That still doesn't explain how she got in Ashlyn Harris's bed. Maybe this was all just a bad dream.

Ali pulled up to the gas station and rummaged through the console before she was able to find a twenty dollar bill. "Can I get fifteen dollars of premium?" Ali asked after rolling down her window.

"You got it, Dear," the attendant answered.

"You!" Ali hopped out of the car and followed the woman to the back of the car. "What did you do?"

"Me?" The woman pumping Ali's gas was none other than the flight attendant that rebooked her flight to Miami, her shirt even had a patch embossed with "Carolyn" on the left pocket. "I told you, Alexandra, you chose this," she answered calmly.

"Chose this? What even is this? What is going on?" Ali demanded urgently.

"Ali, calm down," Carolyn returned the hose to the pump and twisted the cap back onto the tank, "it's okay dear. Let's go for a little drive okay?" Carolyn got into the driver's seat and started the car but Ali didn't move. "Come on, dear," she tried again, "I'll explain it all to you, I know it's a bit of a shock at first."

Ali slowly walked around to the passenger seat, unsure what other options she had. "Did you drug me or something?" Ali asked as she clicked her seatbelt in.

"Oh of course not," the woman answered, "nothing like that. Sweetheart, this is a glimpse."

"A glimpse of what?"

"You have to figure that out. But you have time, dear."

"How much time?" Ali asked, how long until she could go back to work? Back to her life?

"As long as you need. It might be short or...you might take a little longer."

"Maybe you could just, tell me," Ali suggested, "and then we could move on, it'll be easier for us both," she reasoned.
 "Oh, I can't do that, dear. This is for you to figure out on your own."

"Figure out, what?" Ali asked again. They were driving down the highway now and nothing looked familiar.

"It'll come to you, Alexandra, if you let it." Carolyn pulled over in the parking lot of a Christmas Tree Shoppe that was closed. Ironic, Ali thought. "Here you go," Carolyn handed Ali a small green box.

"What is that?" She asked.

"Just open it," Carolyn, instructed.

Ali opened the box to find a gold bicycle bell inside. "What's this for?"

"I have to go now and see about somebody else. Good luck, Alexandra."

"Wait, now you're leaving me? Will you--will you come when I ring the bell?" Ali asked desperately.

Carolyn reached over and pushed a few buttons on the navigation system, "it knows how to get home. Merry Christmas"

"Wait!" Ali called, but it was too late, Carolyn was out of the car and then out of sight. "What the actual fuck?!"

"Proceed to the route," the car instructed.

"Oh shove it," Ali groaned.


 

Ali pulled into the driveway she had raced out of just hours ago and sighed. She didn't know what she was doing back here, but she also didn't know where else she was supposed to go. She had no wallet, no phone, and no shoes. The door inside from the garage was unlocked and Ali walked in slowly, heading toward a voice she heard just down the hallway.

"Alex!" Ashlyn pulled the phone away from her ear and rushed over to where Ali was standing stock still, quickly wrapping her up in a tight hug.

"Um, yeah, sorry," Ashlyn said back into the phone after releasing Ali, "she just walked in. Yeah you too, thank you." Ashlyn ended the call and turned her attention back to Ali, "where have you been?"

Ali didn't answer, her mouth opening and closing trying to form words but finding nothing.

"Do you have any idea what you put us through? You left at eight on Christmas morning without a single word about where you were going, or even that you were leaving. I had no idea if you were okay. You didn't even take your phone. I called everyone trying to figure out where you were. Who bolts from their family on Christmas morning, Ali? Who?!"

"Could you, um, stop yelling at me?" Ali asked timidly. Ashlyn's speech made her feel about five years old and like she had been called to the principal's office. She couldn't even remember the last time someone raised their voice and scolded her like that in a personal setting. Not to mention she hadn't done anything wrong because she definitely was not a part of this family.

Ashlyn took a breathe before she calmly asked again, "where were you?"

"I was...driving around--"

"Why?" Ashlyn interrupted.

"Ya know I.." Ali paused, not sure how to continue, "I woke up and I couldn't remember, I didn't know -- this -- I, I'm not a mom. I don't live in Florida. The isn't my life."

"Ugh," Ashlyn rolled her eyes, thinking Ali was pulling her leg, "it's not funny, Alex." She walked over to the sink and started throwing some of the dishes from breakfast into the sink. "I'm really mad this time. Like really mad. How could you -- why did you. What are you doing?" Ashlyn turned back around to face Ali who was holding up the bicycle bell and ringing it repeatedly.

Just then the little boy Ali had seen jumping up and down on the bed that morning came rolling through the kitchen on a tricycle. "Woah!" He grabbed the bell from Ali's hand and slipped it onto his handlebars. "Thanks, Mommy!" He gave her leg a quick side hug before pedaling on through to the next room.

"Hey, I need that!" Ali called after him. "He took my bell," she said, turning back to Ashlyn.

"We spent a whole day putting that trike together for Milo and you didn't even get to see him freak out when he opened it. You missed all the presents, Al. It was Lily's first Christmas awake and you weren't even there."

Ali paused, not sure at all what to do. She prayed this was all just a dream and that she would be home when she woke up. "I'm sorry," she said, hoping this argument she didn't even want to enter into would end.

Ashlyn sighed and looked up to the ceiling. "Ali -- shoot," she said, her eye catching the time blinking from the stove, "we were supposed to leave for your mom's twenty minutes ago." Ali's mom's? Well, that couldn't be so bad. That's where she was supposed to be going today anyways. "We don't even have time for this. At least you're okay," Ashlyn shook her head, "it's--fine. We're okay. Just, go change and I'll get the car loaded."


 

Even though the traffic was incredibly light on Christmas Day the ride down to Miami was still long and painfully quiet. Milo had talked excitedly for fifteen or twenty minutes about all the presents Santa and Grandma and his Uncle brought him, but once Ashlyn put Toy Story on it only took him a few minutes to completely pass out. Ali literally sat on her hands when she got in the car, feeling completely out of place and awkward. In her mind, she was riding in a car with an ex-girlfriend she hadn't seen in at least five years, plus her two kids, which made her feel unprepared and awkward. But it was made more than clear to her that in Ashlyn's mind, she was riding with her wife who had skipped out on Christmas morning and their two kids, which made Ali feel like she was walking on eggshells.

"You can breathe, you know."

"What?" Ali whipped her head around to look at Ashlyn. She had been staring straight out the window for the entire ride now and it been over an hour and a half.

"You're like sitting there on your hands completely still. You're not even leaning back in the seat."

"Sorry," Ali apologized, pulling her hands out from her under her legs and leaning back in her seat. She rubbed her hands up and down her thighs.

The rest of the ride was quiet save for the Christmas music playing quietly until Milo woke up as they were waiting at the stop light at the bottom of the exit off of the highway. "Mommy, I'm thirsty," he said, rubbing the sleep from his brown eyes.

Ashlyn turned the car right when the light turned green, "Ali," she said, waving her hand in front of Ali's face.

"Sorry, what?" She asked, turning her head around.

"Thirsty, Mommy," Milo repeated eagerly.

"Oh, um," Ali looked around her seat for something to drink.

"There's juice in the bag," Ashlyn offered.

"Right," Ali leaned behind Ashlyn's seat and pulled out a juice box from the bag on the floor. "Here you go," she smiled and handed the juice box back to him.

"I can't do the straw," he huffed, holding it back out to her.

"Right, sorry," Ali apologized again before pulling the straw out of the plastic wrapping and poking it into the juice box.

Once they got to Ali's mom's and as soon as everyone was inside, Ali pulled Kyle out onto the deck. "This better be good since you're ripping me away from my favorite niece and nephew," he protested as Ali pushed him through the sliding door.

"Kyle, what is going on?!" Ali hissed after closing the door behind her.

"Als, you tell me. Ash called this morning asking if I'd heard from you," Kyle sunk down onto one of the loungers and took another bite of the candy cane he had been working on. "What happened?"

Ali had no idea what to say now. Kyle was the one person she could trust above anyone else and he was totally unfazed by her showing up to their mom's house on Christmas with Ashlyn and two small children. "I think I'm...having a bad day," was the only way she could come up with to describe what she was experiencing. She sat down on the side of his lounger and rubbed her eyes and face. "So those kids are...mine?"

"Uh, yeah," he nodded with a boisterous laugh, "the most dramatic eighteen months of my life. And that's saying something."

Ali groaned, today was easily becoming the most dramatic day of her own life.

"Don't even try to protest," Kyle continued, "because you literally made me use the outdoor shower before coming into your house because I had been to a coffee shop and you couldn't have any and you 'could smell it on me,'" he mocked.

"I did not," she denied.

"Uh, yeah, yeah you did," he laughed, outraged, "I have it on video."

"Ashlyn and I are married?" Ali asked skeptically.

Kyle snorted, grabbing her left hand and bringing her ring finger up to her eye and back down a few times, "people on the moon can see that you're married," he joked.
"Quit it," Ali smacked him on the chest. "I must be really exhausted," she groaned, rubbing her face again. That was the only reasonable explanation for this twilight zone she was experiencing.

"Chill out, bb," Kyle coo-ed, pulling Ali into a tight hug, "it'll be okay, punkin."

The rest of the afternoon and evening went by easier than the morning had. Being with her family at least felt a bit normal, and it was easy enough to open gifts, eat dinner, and sit back and watch A Christmas Story. Kyle, her mom, and stepdad were all eager to spoil 'their babies' so Ali wasn't caught not knowing the basics of childcare like how to open a juice box again. As soon as the movie was over Ali made a show of stretching her arms and yawning before she excused herself for the night, saying she was beat. Of course, her mom had to speak up though, "you should probably take Lily up with you, hun. She's out for the night," her mom smiled and held the sleeping baby up to Ali.
"And, you, should be getting up to bed too, mister," Ashlyn said, poking her son's stomach.

"No!" He jumped up from where he was sprawled across her lap. "I'm not tired! One more movie, Mom. Pleaseeeeee!" He begged, clasping his hands and batting his eyes up at Ashlyn, praying for a reprieve on his bedtime.

"Yeah, Mom. Pleaseeeeee!" Kyle mimicked from where he was laying on the floor. "Just one more," he begged again, winking at Ashlyn. "We haven't even watched my favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Ali's mom got up to get more hot chocolate from the kitchen before she started laughing.

"I mean," Ashlyn started dramatically, "since it's Uncle Kyle's favorite we can watch one last one, but the then bed," she decided.

Kyle smiled to himself as he popped the twenty five minute long "movie" into the DVD player.

When Ali got upstairs, just her and the baby, she realized she had never put a baby to bed before, nor had she changed a single diaper. (Which she figured you should do before putting a baby to sleep.) She had always been in a situation where she could just hand the kid back over to their parents if they got fussy or upset. She had babysat some neighborhood kids when she was in high school but they were all old enough to use the bathroom themselves and brush their own teeth before bed. If she was being honest with herself, which she wasn't, she'd acknowledge that babies have always made her uncomfortable. They're entirely dependent on you just to survive, and they don't even have the communication skills to tell you what they need or what they don't like. She's always sure she's going to do something wrong and she knows they can smell the fear on her. Ali likes babies, but she's terrified of the way they make her feel.

She opened up every bag in the room before she found some diapers, and she whispered, "please stay asleep, please stay asleep," as she unbuttoned the little girl's red and green striped onesie. She was almost done snapping the onesie back up after switching out the old diaper for a new one that may or may not have been put on backwards, when she heard a quiet, soft yawn. Ali froze, hoping if she didn't move the baby would fall back to sleep. Ali strained her eyes to look at the girl's face and couldn't keep herself from letting out a small gasp. Those were her brown eyes staring back at her, and that was her tiny little nose scrunching up. As much as people had always said she and Kyle looked alike (and they did) this was like all the baby picture of herself she'd ever seen come to life.

"Please go back to sleep," Ali whispered, "please?"

It must have been a Christmas Miracle, because as fast as she was half awake, she was half asleep again, allowing Ali to lower her down into the crib. Ali tiptoed to the bathroom as quickly as she could, and then spent four minutes slowly pulling back the duvet and gingerly lowering herself into the bed, trying to keep the rustling of the sheets to a bare minimum to avoid waking Lily up again.

Ali closed her eyes and tried to focus on her breathing, willing herself to sleep as quickly as possible. She was sure that when she woke up this would all just be a dream.


 

Ali woke up and could just feel that she was alone in bed. A victory. She kept her eyes closed and said a silent prayer that she had woken up from whatever sleep deprived, lifetime holiday movie induced dreamed she had been in. She kept her eyes closed and slowly ran her hand along the bed between the sheets until her fingertips reached the end of the mattress. Ali let out a grateful sigh and a smile tugged at the corner of her lips until she heard it. The unmistakeable cry of a baby. "Damn," she whispered, so sure that whatever this was, had been over.

Ali sat up in bed and dug the heels of her palms into her eyes. Not again.

"Hey, you're up," Ashlyn walked into the room wearing board shorts and a cutoff. "And you're up," she cooed, reaching into the pack and play to pull Lily up onto her hip, who quieted as soon as she was in her mother's arms, being old enough to know that as soon as she had gotten their attention she usually got what she wanted or needed. "Kyle and I won't be out too long," Ashlyn said turning her attention back to Ali, "the waves don't look super great today. Okay?" Ashlyn leaned down and handed Ali the stretching baby.

"Um, yeah, of course," Ali answered, not used to another adult running their plans by her. The door creaked and a small head poked in just below the knob.

"Morning, sleepyhead," Ashlyn laughed as Milo dragged himself into the room. She picked him up and put him on her hip. "You slept late today, buddy."

Ali looked at the bedside clock. It was seven in the morning, and he slept late?

"Mom?" He asked sleepily, nuzzling into Ashlyn's neck, his hair sticking out every which way.

"Yeah, buddy," she answered softly, rubbing at his back with her free hand.

"Is Christmas over?" He asked worriedly.

Ali couldn't help but let out a bark of laughter.

"It's the day after Christmas, buddy," Ashlyn smiled, "but I bet if you ask nicely Nana will will make pancakes in Christmas shapes for you."

"Are we going to the beach?" He asked, his eye catching the bathing suit string that looped around Ashlyn's neck under her t-shirt.

"I'm going surfing with Uncle Kyle for a little bit, and you're going to stay here and have breakfast with Mommy and Lily and Nana and Papa, but after I get back maybe we can all go together if you want."

"Ash let's goooooo," Kyle sang, popping his head into the room with a big smile.

"Okay, I'm coming." Ashlyn put Milo down onto the comforter next to Ali and gave them each a kiss, "bye, bye, bye," she said following Kyle out of the room.

"You're leaving them?" Ali asked, not ready to be the sole 'parent' in charge of two children under five years old.

"A comedian!" Kyle howled. He and Ashlyn both burst out laughing in the hallway, and Ali could hear him say, "as if she wouldn't burn all your boards if you took little Lily with you," as they went down the stairs.

Ali looked down at the baby in her lap who was starting to fuss about and then at the boy at her feet looking up at her expectantly, "well I guess it's just you and me," she said nervously.

Chapter Text

"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 just...you'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 just...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.