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The Struggle Is Real

Turning into the school parking lot, Owen pulled into an empty space and turned off the truck. While he'd left work in a hurry to get there, now that he'd arrived, he didn't actually want to go in. He still couldn't quite believe what he'd been told. Maisie had been in a fight? She'd punched someone? Maisie? Really?

He sat there for a couple more moments, before finally exiting the truck. He wasn't really sure how he was supposed to feel about all of this. Probably mad, considering she'd apparently been in a fight. But he still didn't know why and it felt unfair to judge her until he knew that. He'd thrown his fair share of punches (okay, maybe more than his fair share) over his lifetime. And he wasn't the type of person who thought that fighting was never justified.

As he headed, slowly, towards the school entrance, he debated again if he should call Claire. He knew she had some really big meetings today and didn't really want to disturb her. He also wasn't sure how she'd react. Sure, she hadn't seemed upset when he'd punched out Hoskins all those years before. And he was pretty sure she wished that she'd been the one who had done it. But, he didn't think she was going to be quite so happy (or forgiving) to find out that Maisie had been in a fight. As he entered the school, he decided it could wait until Claire got home. It'd buy him time to figure out what had happened first. Then he could figure out how to tell her. Or how to get Maisie to tell her. That would be character building, right?

Entering the school, he headed for the office. There were a few chairs across from the reception counter, and he immediately saw Maisie and another girl he was pretty sure he recognized from her class sitting there, an empty chair between them. Maisie was slouched in her seat, arms crossed and a scowl on her face. He paused in the doorway, using the moment before Maisie saw him to give her a quick once over. She didn't look hurt.

"Owen." Maisie looked relieved when she spotted him, and Owen worked hard to keep his face neutral. He still wasn't sure how he was supposed to react to all of this.

"Are you okay?" Owen asked, moving over and crouching down in front of her and giving her a more thorough look over.

"I'm fine," Maisie nodded. She glared at the other girl before turning back to Owen. "Can we go?"

"Not quite yet," Owen said, standing back up, and resting his hand briefly on her shoulder. "I need to…" He trailed off. He wasn't quite sure what he needed to do. Probably talk to someone. He turned around, looking towards the receptionist.

"Mr. Grady?" The woman at the counter looked up at him, and he nodded. "Great. I'll just let Mr. Minton know."

While the woman hurried off, Owen quickly turned back to Maisie. "Who's Mr. Minton?"

"The Vice Principal," Maisie said.

"He's ready," the receptionist interrupted, beckoning Owen to follow her. She led him around the desk and to an office.

When Owen entered, the man behind the desk stood up and they quickly shook hands before Mr. Minton gestured for Owen to take a seat.

"What happened?" Owen asked.

"Well," Mr. Minton leaned back in his chair. "What we know is that over lunchtime an argument broke out between Maisie and Gretchen. We're still not clear on what started it, and neither of them are talking. It escalated quickly, and before the cafeteria supervisors realized what was happening, they were on each other. We're not sure who threw the first punch, it seems to have been pretty mutual. And, to be honest, it's not really a detail we're too concerned with right now."

"I still can't quite believe Maisie was fighting," Owen admitted. "It's not like her, at all."

"We've never had any issues with either Maisie or Gretchen before," the Vice Principal agreed. "It's definitely out of the blue."

"What happens now?" Owen asked, dreading the answer. He knew that kids could get kicked out school for fighting. And that the school had a very strict bullying guideline.

"Since we're not sure who started the fight, and no one's talking. And since it's the first incident for both of them and appears to be pretty mutual, we've decided to just suspend them for the rest of the week."

"Suspend?" Owen repeated. He was glad he was sitting. Claire was not going to be happy. Hell, he was not happy.

"Yes," Mr. Minton nodded. "And if it happens again…"

"It won't," Owen quickly reassured him. "Trust me, we'll be talking about this. Just… fighting? I still can't believe she was fighting."

"There's probably something else going on," the Vice Principal advised. "We don't usually see kids just randomly go at it, not without some precipitating event. They're both generally in the same friend group, and since no one else would say anything, we're sure there's more to the story. See if you can't get it out of Maisie."

"Yeah, thanks," Owen said numbly. Great, just what he wanted to take home to Claire. Hey, Maisie was suspended for fighting and we must have missed something, because the school doesn't even know why they were fighting. That was going to go over like a lead balloon. "A whole week?" Owen confirmed, pausing in his motion to stand up.

"Just the rest of this one," Mr. Minton supplied. "It's only Tuesday, so that will be long enough."

"Okay," Owen agreed as he stood. He walked back to the receptionist and asked her quickly if there was anything else he needed to do, or if they were good to go. Getting confirmation that they were in the clear, Owen turned back to Maisie. "Come on," he said, gesturing for her to stand up and head out in front of him.

They were quiet as the exited the building, passing another parent, probably Gretchen's mom if Owen had to guess, on her way in. Once outside, Owen started towards the parking lot, but Maisie hesitated.

"What?" Owen asked.

"My bike…" Maisie pointed towards the bike racks.

"Right," Owen sighed. "We can stick it in the back of the truck." He waited for Maisie to grab it and, as they walked it to his truck, he debated what to say.

"What happened?" Owen finally asked, as the two fastened their seat belts.

"Nothing," Maisie mumbled, looking away from him.

"It's not nothing," Owen disagreed. "A fight, Maisie. You got in a fight! You've been suspended!"

"Yeah, so?" Maisie huffed, arms crossing over her chest again, glare settling on her face.

"Fighting is never the answer," Owen found himself saying and he had to hide his own cringe at his words.

"Right," Maisie rolled her eyes at him. "Like you're going to tell me that you've never been in a fight. I saw you."

"When–? Oh," Owen sighed. "That was different. Those guys… What they were doing… What happened that night doesn't make this okay."

"Whatever," Maisie shrugged him off.

Owen took a deep breath, before pulling the truck out of the parking spot. He could feel his temper building and knew it wouldn't do either of them any good if he exploded in the truck.

The ride home was short, and as soon as he pulled the truck to a stop in the driveway, Maisie had her door open and was heading into the house.

"Hold up," Owen called after her, pulling her bike from the back and storing it in the garage before he forgot. He caught up with her in the hallway, where she was heading up the stairs.

"What?" Maisie replied, her tone still flippant.

"You better watch that tone, kiddo," Owen said, his voice low and controlled. "This is not a vacation, you get that, right? This is serious."

"It's three days of no school," Maisie said. "Sounds like a vacation to me."

"Yeah, not so easy," Owen shook his head. "First up, hand them over."

"Hand what over?"

"Your phone and your iPad," Owen said, hand out.

"Why?"

"Because you're definitely not having access to either of those while you're suspended," Owen replied.

Maisie fished around in her backpack before handing over her phone.

"And your iPad?"

"It's upstairs."

"Let's go get it," Owen followed her up the stairs into her room, watching as she unplugged the iPad before handing it over.

"Is that all?" Maisie asked, hands on her hips as she glared at him.

"Not even close," Owen fired back. "But, I'm going to wait for Claire to get home before we decide what the appropriate consequences will be. For now… for now, you need to just stay in your room until Claire gets here. We'll deal with all of this then."

"Fine." Maisie sat down on her bed, still glaring at him.

"Fine." Owen repeated, although his tone was more resigned. He looked at her for a moment, wondering who this child was, before retreating from her room, pulling the door closed behind him.

Heading back down stairs, he deposited the phone and iPad onto the kitchen counter, before pacing back and forth across the room. What the hell had happened? What had they missed? When had Maisie turned into… whatever she was today? He vaguely recalled Claire saying that he had no idea just how mean girls could be, but… was that what was going on? Was this a grade 6 girls thing?

He'd always thought that dealing with Maisie was going to be easy, at least relative to his past experience with training animals. It's not like the raptors or dolphins could even tell him what was going on. But, he was realizing, he forgot just how much more complicated human relationships were.

Owen glanced down at his watch. 1:48. Claire wasn't expected home until after 5. It was going to be a long afternoon.

x x x

"Hi," Claire called out as she entered the house. It was approaching 5:30 and she was feeling dead on her feet. Who's bright idea was it to stack all these investor meetings over the same week? Oh, right, hers. Dammit. She just had to survive three more days and her schedule would ease up some.

"Hey."

Claire looked up, surprised to see Owen hovering in the doorway, as she pulled off her shoes and hung up her coat. He looked nervous, which was not an emotion she normally ever saw on him.

"What's wrong?" she asked, her mind immediately racing, trying to figure out what she could've missed.

"It's Maisie," Owen said tightly, and Claire felt her heart drop.

"What happened? Is she okay? Is she here?" The questions tumbled out.

"She's upstairs," Owen reassured, stepping towards her and placing his hands on her arms, steading her. "And she's fine. You… well…"

"What happened?" Claire repeated.

"She got in a fight," Owen said. "I got called to the school just after lunch."

"A fight?!" Claire repeated, not quite believing what she was hearing. "Maisie?"

"My reaction exactly," Owen nodded. "But, yeah. And Mr. Minton couldn't tell me why. And Maisie was not in a mood to talk…"

"Is she hurt?" Claire asked, her mind racing as she tried to sort through her thoughts and feelings.

"No," Owen shook his head. "She's fine. Just… angry. And full of attitude. I didn't really know what to do."

"What's she doing now?"

"I told her she had to stay in her room and I took away her iPad and phone," Owen said, leading Claire into the kitchen, pointing to the two devices sitting on the counter. "I said you and I would figure out what the rest of her consequences would be."

"What did the school say?"

"She's suspended for the rest of the week," Owen admitted, wincing in advance of her reaction.

"Suspended?!" Claire sat down in one of the stools by the counter, looking at Owen in disbelief.

"He said because it was the first fight for both of them, and that it seemed to be mutual, that they'd both get a suspension. But, that if it happens again…" Owen propped his hip against the counter, fiddling with the phone beside him.

"Did you try to get it reduced?" Claire asked.

"No," Owen looked a bit sheepish. "To be honest, I was still in shock and… well, I'm not sure she doesn't deserve it yet. I still don't know why she was fighting."

"Yeah," Claire sighed. "That's probably the first thing we need to sort out. That's so unlike her."

The beep from the phone that Owen was fiddling with had him almost dropping it in surprise. He glanced down at the screen out of reflex, and then did a double take, picking it up and reading what was there.

"What?" Claire asked, surprised by his actions.

"Maybe there's some clues here," Owen said, holding the phone out so Claire could read the message for herself.

I cant believe you got me suspended. Your a bitch.

Claire quickly unlocked the phone and opened the app. "Gretchen… is this the one she was fighting with?" she said, as she started scrolling up through the message history.

"Yeah," Owen nodded. He moved around, resting a hand on the back of Claire's stool so he could look at the screen over her shoulder.

Claire scrolled back through a few days worth of messages, finding what seemed to be the start of the chain, before following it down. It was a group thread between Maisie and her friend group. It started innocently enough, with Maisie sharing a picture of Blue. Actually, looking closely, they both realized it was a photo she must have taken at the DPG when Owen had gone on the sanctuary visit, as it showed both Blue and Owen, and appeared to be a picture taken of a TV screen – probably when Maisie had watched the visit.

The conversation started with another girl in the chain asking Maisie if she ever got to visit the dinosaurs. And Maisie admitted that, no, she hadn't, but she got to see stuff that wasn't publicized. Gretchen hadn't believed her, and Maisie had shared the photo as "proof." Gretchen had dismissed it, saying that having that photo didn't mean that Maisie had seen that, just that she had access to that photo. And then she'd dismissed it all, by saying it didn't matter anyway, that the world would be better off without the dinosaurs.

It had all gone downhill from there. Maisie had been, unsurprisingly, defensive about the dinosaurs. And her tone quickly escalated from reasonable disagreement to outright hostility and toeing, if not crossing, the line into bullying. Most of the others on the chat appeared to stay silent, although one girl attempted to get them both to calm down. It was mainly a back and forth between Maisie and Gretchen that just got nastier and nastier, with each calling the other names. Claire paused briefly over one message that Maisie had sent: People paid millions to see them. I doubt anyone would pay anything to see you.

When she reached the newest message at the bottom, Claire turned off the phone and placed it on the counter. She let out a long breath.

"Well…" Owen started. "Mr. Minton did say that he thought something else must have been going on."

"How did we miss all of this?" Claire asked, her gaze on the black screen of the phone. "When did Maisie start… where did she learn that? That's not our fault, is it?"

"I think we missed it because… because we generally give her the benefit of the doubt on her behaviour. Because she hasn't given us reason not to," Owen sighed, as he slid his hand off the back of the chair and rested it on Claire's back. "And no, I don't think she learned that from us. But, she spends a lot of her waking hours not around us. We're not the only influencers in her life."

"Yeah," Claire nodded. She leaned into Owen, resting against him. "This behaviour though? And that conversation? None of it excuses fighting."

"Agreed," Owen said. "Although…"

"No, no 'although' Owen," Claire said, pushing back upright and looking at him. "She can't respond to stuff like this by fighting. And she definitely needs to know that she can't respond the way she did here." Claire gestured to the phone. "That's not okay."

"I'm with you," Owen said. "I just… I don't like giving a blanket 'no' against fighting. There are times when it's justified." He quickly stopped her when Claire started to disagree. "I'm not saying it's the first action someone should take, but I don't want her to feel she can't defend herself."

Claire hesitated before nodding her agreement. "Fine. But that's not a line I think we need to be focused on right now." Owen agreed and the two lapsed into silence for a moment. "How long she's suspended again?" Claire asked.

"The rest of the week," Owen repeated. "I know you're swamped at work but… that big project I've been working on? I really can't afford to miss the rest of the week. I really couldn't afford to take this afternoon."

"What a week for this to happen," Claire sighed. She pulled out her own phone, bringing up her calendar and looking it over. "I can take her to the DPG. I'll figure out something she can do… Actually," Claire paused, tilting her head briefly in thought. "Actually, I've got the perfect thing for her to do. She can spend some time with Franklin."

"That doesn't sound like much of a punishment," Owen commented. He pulled away as the oven timer went off and he moved over to check. "She likes Franklin."

"Yeah, but Franklin leads the social media team," Claire said, getting up from the stool and pulling out dishes to set the table. "The DPG gets its fair share of nasty messages. Maybe Maisie needs to see a broader picture of what can happen with cyberbullying."

x x x

After setting the table and pulling out dinner, Owen called Maisie down. They both listened to her stomp her way down the stairs and exchanged a quick look. Clearly her mood had not improved over the afternoon.

They waited until Maisie had sat down and everyone had started eating before approaching the elephant in the room.

"So," Claire started, breaking the silence. "Owen told me what happened today."

Maisie just grunted, eyes focused on her plate.

"He didn't have a lot of details, except that you were in a fight with Gretchen. And that you've both been suspended."

Another grunt.

"Maisie," Claire said, and she waited for Maisie to look up. When she didn't, she tried again. "Mais, can you please look at me?"

Maisie finally raised her eyes, meeting Claire's.

"We just want to know what happened," Claire said. "This isn't like you. You're not one who goes around punching people. So, what was it that triggered all of this?" She wanted to give Maisie a chance to confess first. A chance for Maisie to bring up what had been going on and bring them in on it on her terms. Claire didn't like having snooped on Maisie's phone, but she also felt that she and Owen had been more than in their right to do so. Maise was only 11 and letting Claire and Owen have access to her passwords and apps had been part of the agreement from the start.

"I don't want to talk about it," Maisie said, slouching in her chair.

"Mr. Minton seems to think it started before today," Owen said. "That something caused all of this. But he said that you two, and your friends, weren't talking." Maisie still didn't say anything. Owen pushed further. "While you were upstairs you got a message on your phone." At that, Maisie perked up, although she looked weary about what she was going to hear. "You want to tell us why Gretchen would be messaging you and calling you a bit–" Owen couldn't bring himself to say it. It's not that he didn't swear, and he didn't actually have anything against using the word. At least, not normally. But to use that word while looking Maisie. Nope, he couldn't say it.

"Because she's one," Maisie mumbled.

"Maisie!" Claire sat up straighter, shocked at the response. "We don't call people that."

"She deserves it!" Maisie cried out. "She thinks the dinosaurs should die. That it's wrong to care for them. That they don't deserve to live."

"A lot of people think that," Owen reminded Maisie. "That's not an unpopular opinion."

"Well it should be," Maisie replied, scowling. "She kept saying that because people made them, because they were just a science experiment, they should be thrown out the way lab rats are when their time is up."

"That doesn't seem worth actually fighting over," Claire commented, watching Maisie's reaction closely. Claire was starting to think she had an inkling behind what had probably tipped the scales for Maisie. That Maisie was maybe interpreting Gretchen's remarks a little more closely than Gretchen would've ever intended them.

"She just made me so mad," Maisie said, stabbing angrily at the food on her plate with her fork. "I couldn't help it. She's never even seen a dinosaur in person. She shouldn't get to say anything. We created them. How can we just toss them aside?"

"You know we're in agreement with you," Claire reminded Maisie. "And we're not tossing them aside. But, that doesn't mean that everyone has to agree with us."

"And when people don't agree," Owen picked up the thread. "Fighting isn't the way to change their mind. In fact, it usually makes people more reluctant to change."

"I've told her about the DPG. I told her about why the dinosaurs are helpful," Maisie said, dropping her fork and abandoning all pretense about eating. "She didn't want to listen."

"That happens," Owen shrugged. "I wish I could say it was easy to get people to always come around to your way of thinking, but it's not. And sometimes… sometimes you just have to agree to disagree."

"But she's wrong," Maisie insisted. "How do you agree to disagree when they're wrong?"

"Sometimes all you can do is walk away," Claire said. "It's not easy. Especially if it's something you're passionate about. But it's better to be able to feel good about your actions, then to try to force someone to your side."

"I don't feel bad about punching her," Maisie said, her gaze dropping to her plate.

Owen quickly covered his snort with a cough, dodging the kick Claire sent him under the table and grinning at her when she glared at him.

"We still need to talk about your suspension," Claire said after a couple of moments, deciding to let the topic drop for now. They had three more days to discuss it, after all.

x x x

"How'd today go?" Owen asked as they all settled around the table the following evening, a couple of boxes of pizza in the center. Claire and Maisie had picked up dinner since Owen had needed to stay late at work, trying to make up for the missed hours the day before.

"It was okay," Maisie said, pulling a slice of pepperoni onto her plate.

"What'd you do?" Owen asked as he put a couple of slices onto his own, reaching for the chili flakes.

"I spent the day with Franklin," Maisie said. "He showed me how they deal with all the social media stuff. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. He let me post a picture on Instagram."

"Not of you, right?" Owen asked immediately, his gaze darting towards Claire, who shook her head.

"No, I got to pick a screencap from the video feeds today," Maisie supplied. "And write a caption for it. It had over a thousand likes by the time we left."

"That's… good?" Owen said, not really sure what the standards were. He fell silent for a bit, as Maisie chatted away about her day and he nodded along as appropriate. Owen found himself watching Claire more than Maisie. He knew that she had spoken with Franklin the previous evening about what she had wanted him to do, and he couldn't tell from her reaction if he had done so today or not. She seemed awfully calm about everything.

He was reaching for his fourth slice of pizza when Maisie fell silent. After exchanging a glance with Claire, the two waited her out, Owen liberally sprinkling on his chili flakes before taking a bite and starting to chew.

"Franklin showed me some of the messages the DPG gets," Maisie said, playing with the crust of her last slice.

"Oh?" Owen asked, swallowing and taking a gulp from his beer. "What kind of messages?" He saw Claire was also paying more attention now. Okay, clearly Maisie hadn't said anything to her before.

"Did you know they get hate mail?" Maisie said, her gaze darting between the two. Both Owen and Claire nodded. "Some of the stuff that people write… Why do they do that?"

"Lots of reasons," Claire said. "They want attention. They actually strongly feel that way. They get a thrill out of saying it… It's hard to know what drives most people. It's like your conversation with Gretchen. Sometimes it starts with just a simple disagreement, and then… bam, it's gone way off course and people are now mad and yelling. Well, the internet equivalent of yelling."

"All caps," Maisie nodded. "I saw some of those."

"Did Franklin show you that most were anonymous?" Claire asked.

"Yeah," Maise nodded. "He called some of them trolls. Said there are people who will do so repeatedly so they just block them." Maisie fell silent, she put down her crust and then looked up at Claire. "Some of them mention you by name."

Owen's gaze swung sharply towards Claire at that. It was something he realized he'd never thought about, but, hearing it from Maisie, he realized he probably should have. Claire didn't look surprised.

"Sometimes they do," Claire nodded. Owen caught her gaze briefly, before she focused on Maisie. "I'm the most public face of the company, so it makes me an easy target."

"Does it scare you?" Maisie asked. "Or make you mad?"

"Both of those," Claire nodded. "But, there's also a reason I don't deal with the social media. Franklin and the others only show me if there's a cause for concern, so I don't see most of it."

"'Cause for concern'... what does that mean?"

"Well," Claire hesitated, her gaze darting towards Owen's again. He could feel anger building up within him. He was mad that he'd never thought about this happening. That he hadn't been aware of what may be going on. And over how powerless he felt to do anything about it. "Sometimes, they get pretty specific or are repetitive enough that the team flags them as being a potential security issue. If that happens, and it's rare that it does," she added, with her gaze locked on Owen's, "then we report them to the proper authorities."

"Like the police?" Maisie's eyes widened.

"Sometimes," Claire admitted. "Usually we start by going through the social media company. Depends what it is. But, like I said. It's rare. And it's nothing that you," her gaze swung over to Owen's, "either of you, need to be concerned about. I wouldn't keep that from you."

The rest of the meal was pretty quiet as the three finished eating, before they quickly cleaned up the kitchen. Just as they were all about to head into different directions, Owen stopped them.

"You know…" Owen started, and Maisie and Claire both turned and looked back at him from the doorway. "It'd probably be a good idea for you two to take a self-defense course. While we don't condone fighting," Owen gave a pointed look at Maisie, "It's still a good skill to have, in case it's ever necessary."

"What about you?" Maisie said. "Have you taken one?"

"I haven't," Owen said. "But I've had other training before." Owen caught Claire's eye and sighed, before adding "Actually, all three of us could take one. Let me ask around."

"Okay," Maisie shrugged, seemingly indifferent to the idea turning to leave.

Claire caught Maisie's arm as she was about to head out. "Homework," Claire said sternly, pointing back at the kitchen table. "You're still grounded."

"Fine," Maisie sighed. "I just need to grab my backpack."

After Maisie left, it was Owen's turn to grab Claire's attention. "These trolls, or whoever they are… you sure it's nothing to be concerned about?"

"I promise," Claire nodded. "I'd tell you, if there was."

Owen held her gaze, searching to see if she was hiding something. But Claire had never been good at lying to him, and it didn't appear that she was now either. "Okay. Just… If there is something… you'll tell me, right?"

"I will," Claire promised. She reached for him, stretching up to give him a quick kiss, although he pulled her towards him, deepening it, not that Claire resisted.

"Ugh, gross," Maisie said, entering the kitchen with her bag. "Can't you do that somewhere else?"

"Sure," Owen grinned at Maisie, starting to pull Claire from the room.

"Wait," Maisie said, just as the two were about to leave. "I need some help with my math homework."

Owen let Claire's hand drop, his head hanging briefly. "Be right there," he told Maisie, before turning back to Claire and giving her a quick kiss. "Later," he promised her softly, before giving her another one, trying to deepen it.

Claire pulled away, pushing him towards the kitchen table. She gave him a smile and with a laugh reminded him, "The sooner you help her…"