Hannah is starting to rue the day little Ekaterina Park smiled her way into the hearts of her classmates at Little Lions’ Daycare. There are any number of equally qualified places in Hartford, especially for a little Alpha so obviously bored to tears with much of what she’s being forced to learn, but Ekaterina’s perpetually frazzled omega mother--looking for the closest daycare to and from her daily commute to the FBI office in New Haven--had been politely but firmly insistent on squeezing her child in last minute, far past the deadline for new arrivals. And thus, ever since, working has been something of a nightmare. Ekaterina is charming, deeply intelligent, and has a tendency to be a little bit of a queen bee. She’s a six-year-old terror.
She’s never outright unkind to her classmates, but she has limits and tests and initiations. This child would have to find some way to dismember a doll before being allowed to play pretend McDonalds during outside playtime; that child needed to perfectly recite, in Spanish, the numbers one through ten. Most ordinary children are kind enough, but lack of focus is their trademark, so Hannah and her coworkers have fielded many a frustrated or weepy child’s appeal for advice. Ekaterina said do this, Ekaterina said wear your hair down, Ekaterina wants to know if she can bring some of her daddy’s cookies next week but only if they did the Numa Numa Dance with her, and what even is the Numa Numa?
Today, the issue is simple. Ekaterina’s birthday is rapidly approaching--the fourth of June--and there is no guarantee that her father will be in town for it because she has been out for work. She’s made her frustration open and clear for everyone willing to hear it, and her misery has spread like a disease to her classmates. Without her there to corral them into organized games of pretend or regale them with her whimsical stories, the morale of Hannah’s Creative Cubs crew has been on a noticeable downtick. Hannah has given many a hug and wiped tears and spoken words of encouragement that are falling on ears deaf with sadness.
“But, like,” Tyrone is saying, tiredly running his hand through his wild, kinky curls, “she’s been here for almost nine months and none of us have even seen her dad.”
They’ve all smelt her, to be sure. The smell of a healthy and protective Alpha is distinctive, and it follows both Ekaterina and her mother like a brand. Silent, just shy of obnoxious, do not touch . They’ve all managed to wiggle information out Mrs. Park about her Mate--she studies fashion part time at the nearby university, and she’s trying to disentangle herself from her family business to stay home with their daughter as she pursues her real dream of being a designer. It seems like such an odd pursuit, and she can’t imagine how their work would ever see them crossing circles.
“That’s what I’m saying!” Hannah fusses. “Maybe this is it. Maybe this is a way to get her attention. I feel bad for Kat, though. Her parents are always busy.”
“I bet they expect a lot of her.” Molly interjects.
She’s met with murmurs of contemplative agreement, her fellow workers expressing their solidarity on their shared lunch break with a shake of their heads.
They launch into several theories on little Ekaterina’s strange behavior. Will thinks she’s just a genius and needs to be placed somewhere she’ll be challenged, which Hannah privately admits to herself might not be an untruth. Meredith is guiltily amused by Ekaterina’s recent mission to teach her classmates basic Korean. Pilar bemusedly recounts a conversation in stilted Spanish--Ekaterina had frustratedly said “I’m learning! Excuse mistake!” after forgetting the word for blue.
Eventually, a soft knock draws their attention to the door.
Standing there is a woman Hannah has never seen before, but there’s still something familiar about her. She’s fairly tall, and is wearing a wildly patterned pantsuit, all diagonal stripes in differing dark blues and blacks. Her honey blonde hair is pulled over her shoulders, resting just along her collarbones in a fresh cut. She looks professional. She looks expensive. The way she holds herself is somehow both casual and loud, shoulders back and straight, taking up space in the unconscious way of Alphas.
“Can we help you, Miss…?” Hannah hedges.
“Park.” The woman supplies, and Hannah is briefly stunned by the richness of her voice.
Then, several other things begin to make a lot of sense pretty quickly.
“Oh, wow!” Molly exclaims, rather unprofessionally. “Hi! It’s so nice to meet you!”
“Yeah, feeling’s mutual, I guess,” Mrs. Park--Villanelle, Hannah remembers the records listing her name as--says, her flatly amused expression completely at odds with the greeting.
They’ve all been caught off guard, a swarm of omegas faced with confrontation with an unfamiliar Alpha, both nervous and quietly delighted to happen upon at least a part of the source of their gossip. Hannah’s stuck on the last name. Even if an omega keeps their last name, it’s a little uncommon to see an Alpha taking their omega’s last name in a marriage. Still, the off-color aura of her somehow fits the oddity.
“Did you come to surprise Kat?”
The little half smile on Mrs. Park’s face falls at that. “Don’t call her that.”
Hannah blinks, casts a quick glance at where her coworkers are gaping at them. “...Okay. Did you come to surprise Ekaterina?”
The smile is back. “Yeah. They’re playing outside right now, right? I’ll sign her out. I promised her ice cream when I got back.”
Her accent sounds vaguely Eastern European, softened by an obvious comfort with English.
Hannah scrambles to her feet, briefly brushes the crumbs off of her shirt, and squeaks out a “Follow me!” as she leads Ekaterina’s father through the halls. She has so many questions. She’s so tempted. What does she do for work? Are they going to see more of her now? Is she only coming here today because she won’t be able to make the actual birthday afterall? She’s so much younger than Eve Park--how did they meet?
But they’re outside and Hannah’s aide cheerily walks over to her to report on the daily goings on. In the interim, Ekaterina has caught sight of them and yelled out a “Daddy!” and rushed over. Mrs. Park lets out a little laugh, kneels, and then catches her daughter easily as anything, pulling her up into a hug. Ekaterina looks mostly like her mother--has her lovely almond shaped eyes, her curly dark hair. But as she pulls back to take her father in, Hannah realizes that they have so much in common that it is almost uncanny. It’s in the confidence of their mannerisms, in raised brows and smiles shot sideways like conspiracies.
Then, Ekaterina’s little face crumples as she says, “You promised you’d be back a week ago.”
“I’m sorry.” Mrs. Park says, her face serious. “Are you mad?”
“Yeah! I’m really, really mad!”
“That’s okay. I broke my promise, it’s okay to feel mad. Do you still want ice cream?”
And Ekaterina is sniffling in the cutely dramatic way of all kids, the kind of performative sadness that builds both affection and amusement and exasperation. She rubs at her face and says, “You owe me three fuhlayvors.”
“Flavors,” Mrs. Park corrects.
“That’s what I said .”
“Is not,” said with a deep, teasing tone, as Mrs. Park exaggeratedly rolls her eyes.
“We’ll workshop it. And we can get some extra ice cream to surprise your omma.”
Ekaterina’s sadness is forgotten in the wake of childish disgust. “You guys are gonna be gross again.”
“If we hadn’t been gross, you wouldn’t have been born! Be more grateful, you little weirdo!” Mrs. Park laughs, adjusting Ekaterina until she’s resting on her hip.
Ekaterina instantly rests her head on Mrs. Park’s collarbone, for once all out of chatter. Hannah can’t help a smile at the sight of it.
“Come on, I’ll take you up front.”
The brief walk to the classroom for Ekaterina’s things and then front office is littered with burbling conversation between parent and child. Only some of it is in English. Occasionally, Ekaterina lets out a shriek of laughter and bursts out with, “That’s not the right word!” which without fail earns her a playful challenge to provide the correct one, if she’s so big and bad. Hannah recognizes French, of course Korean, and what she thinks might be Farsi.
As Hannah is running them through the paces, Mrs. Park sets her daughter down and says, “Katya, go wait by the door while we talk.”
And Ekaterina, to Hannah’s astonishment, obeys without complaint. She does, however, sway impatiently back and forth on her feet and watch them, completely without shame.
Mrs. Park stands uncomfortably close. Certainly too close for a mated Alpha to an omega she doesn’t know, and too close for strangers besides. That same scent that lingers on her little family fills Hannah’s nose--a vaguely floral musk. Mrs. Park stuffs her hands into her pockets and smiles down at Hannah.
“Next time you want to gossip about my kid, do it with the door closed.”
Then she takes the proffered pen and signs her name, Villanelle P. xoxo.
Ekaterina Park is withdrawn from the Little Lions’ Daycare by the end of the week.
“I just, really needed to have a habit away from work and my family, you know?” Is the only explanation Nathan gets for Eve Park joining their book club.
She and her family are a bit notorious at the Hartford Public Library. Her daughter is a chatty, precocious thing, not really one to withhold a thought as it occurs to her, which has gotten her into a bit of trouble with both children her age and with adults. Eve’s Alpha, a young woman with a job none of them have been able to really pin down, is like a less sweet, more vulgar version of their child, and has gotten into similar trouble with people of all age groups.
“Yeah,” Nathan says, “I bet.”
The guiltily knowing look on her face is enough to break Nathan’s momentary irritation. He is a parent, too, knows well the challenges and ins and outs of balancing work with family and somehow having to squeeze in self-care. Who knows, maybe this will be good for the Parks--maybe not having Eve around to lovingly, unknowingly instigate her family’s unique social awkwardness will help them undergo some rapid learning.
“Are they really that bad?” Eve asks, surprising him.
“What? No. They’re just. Big personalities.”
The big personalities in question are standing just outside the glass door, watching from an unsubtle distance. Villanelle gives Nathan a smile that looks more like a grimace than anything, and little Ekaterina gives her mother two encouraging thumbs up. Eve melts at the sight of them.
“When is the next meeting? I can catch up. I need to get back into reading.”
“Next meeting is Thursday night. We’re reading Outlander and Warm Bodies . Comparing romances of different generations.”
Eve gives him a bright smile. “Thanks so much!”
In the days leading up to the meeting, Nathan extends his warnings to other members of the group, and begs them to give Eve a chance. The issue is not Eve, perse. She’s a little odd, but she’s generally well liked--she has a wry kind of humor that never really hits low. It makes people feel included. Everyone is in on the joke and people like to hear what she has to say, especially with her history working for the British government.
The issue is that she and her little family are attached at the hip. They do everything together. With Eve being mated to a young Alpha, there are assorted dangers to giving the wrong signals. Villanelle is indulgent and protective, and with that wardrobe, she’s obviously making bank or comes from old money. Nathan knows Alphas like her. She’d love nothing more than to have them all to herself. Not for the first time, he wonders where the heck Eve met her, and how two people like oil and water managed to stay together.
Sure enough, the first meeting sees Eve peppering Villanelle’s cheek with rapid little kisses of farewell, long after she’d hugged and kissed their daughter (who had had much less qualms about leaving her mother, as she is a voracious reader and is excited to challenge herself), interspersed with murmured comments of, “Please leave,” and “Love you, bye.” and a worryingly amusing, “Make sure Katya doesn’t start a fire or something.”
“What if I am the one starting the fire?” Villanelle pouts, soaking up the affection. It’s the first break in a stream of complaints--why do I have to leave, Eve it’s not fair, I’ll sit in the corner and be quiet...
Her hands are firm on Eve’s upper arms, thumbs rubbing little circles. She looks positively chic today in a black turtleneck, red and blue plaid pants, and tan boots. Eve, with her coy sundress, looks like she just stepped out of a garden, simply and breezily beautiful as always.
“Well then ask Katya to make sure you don’t.”
“I love you.”
“I love you more.”
“It’s not a competition, honey.”
“It totally is, how can I prove it?”
“By letting me talk about books for a few hours on my own.”
Defeated, Villanelle rolls her eyes. “Fine, but we’ll be nearby.”
“You could have stayed home, I promise you that!” Eve laughs.
Villanelle sways close and Eve easily tilts her head to the side, allowing the Alpha to nose busily at her skin, leaving her mark. It’s kind of indecent, but there’s a sweetness to it, and a comically wretched sadness in Villanelle’s closed eyes and jutting lips, so Nathan urges the rest of the group to turn to the page in the first book they’ll be discussing.
By the time their little scenting ritual is done, Eve bustles over and pulls her books from her large purse. She’s a silent observer for much of the discussion, but she watches attentively, nodding and emoting along to different analyses. Occasionally, her wife or daughter will pop up to wave or display some find, not satisfied until she nods or shakes her head, sometimes chuckling silently at the reactions she gets.
“Eve,” Nathan says, “I’ve noticed you’ve been kind of quiet the whole time. Do you have any thoughts?”
“Who, me? Ah, well. I, um, finished both books.”
Book club no no number one. Nobody likes a braggart or a know-it-all!
“What’d you think of them?” Someone else asks, leaning forward.
“I kind of, um. Hated them. For different but similar reasons? I don’t know. Sorry, I’m being a total spoilsport. I still totally loved hearing what you guys thought about what you’ve read so far.”
“What’d you hate?” Nathan asks, genuinely curious.
“It’s like… both of these books tell a story about a really obsessive kind of romance. For Outlander , you get a woman basically leaving her whole life behind for this Alpha she doesn’t know. Like yeah, they’re true mates or whatever, but she comes to him with no resources or social network, and then they’re forced to marry and then she just becomes okay with it really fast?
“And Warm Bodies . Oh, do I have my issues with it. It’s such an amazing and creative idea, and it’s boiled down to this almost manic pixie dream girl schtick. He wants to feel again and he ate the brain of her boyfriend and now he’s trying to step into that identity? And he keeps her hostage with all of the other zombies where she might be chow--”
She’s interrupted by the door bursting open. Ekaterina stomps her huffy way in and says, “Omma, this stupid man tried to tell me I couldn’t read one of the Hen--Hardy--Harrity Potter books because I’m too little and daddy threatened to punch him and now they wanna kick us out.”
Her little face is flush with displeasure. Eve lets out a little coo, folding her book closed to stuff back into her purse so she can gather her child up into a sideways hug as she approaches, smoothing her hand over wild curls. Ekaterina is her mother’s carbon copy, save for the scowl that is all Villanelle.
“Please tell me daddy didn’t actually punch him.” Eve murmurs.
“She might have when I wasn’t looking.” Ekaterina complains.
Eve glances briefly up at the ceiling, biting her lips. Nathan can’t tell if she’s frustrated or trying not to laugh. That seems to happen to her a lot when it comes to Villanelle.
“Okay. How about, we go stop daddy from getting an assault charge, go to the book shop, and buy you all of the Harrity Potter books?”
“I like that idea.” Ekaterina mumbles into Eve’s neck. She nuzzles into the opposite side her father had, leaves her own unconscious little mark, Alpha to the core.
Villanelle rushes up to the door. “Eve, we have to go.” It looks like there are security guards behind her.
Eve gives them all an apologetic look. “Duty calls. See you next Thursday?”
They don’t see her next Thursday.