Oh, maybe I came on too strong
Maybe I waited too long
Maybe I played my cards wrong
Oh, just a little bit wrong
Baby I apologize for it
I could fall or I could fly
Here in your aeroplane
And I could live, I could die
Hanging on the words you say
And I've been known to give my all
And jumping in harder than
Ten thousand rocks on the lake
So don't call me baby
Unless you mean it
Don't tell me you need me
If you don't believe it
So let me know the truth
Before I dive right into you
(Christen - “Dive” by Ed Sheeran)
I set out on a narrow way many years ago
Hoping I would find true love along the broken road
But I got lost a time or two
Wiped my brow and kept pushing through
I couldn't see how every sign pointed straight to you
Every long lost dream led me to where you are
Others who broke my heart, they were like Northern stars
Pointing me on my way into your loving arms
This much I know is true
That God bless the broken road that led me straight to you
I think about the years I spent just passing through
I'd like to have the time I lost and give it back to you
But you just smile and take my hand
You've been there, you understand
It's all part of a grander plan that is coming true
(Tobin - “Bless the Broken Road” by Selah, Melodie Crittenden)
Amanda had a tradition on the last day of training before the Fourth of July break. It was a tradition that Christen loved .
“CUPPIES!” Kelley cheered, throwing an arm around Christen’s neck.
Christen laughed and slung her arm around Kelley’s shoulders, letting Kelley march them across the field and toward the goal. The rest of the team paired off, each pair choosing a “Country” to represent. The pairs would try to score off a cross that one of the coaches sent in, and if they scored, they moved onto the next round of “cuppies.” If you failed to score, you were out. They’d play until there was one team standing, who would be crowned the Cuppies Champions and got to lord it over the rest of the team for the rest of the season.
“We’re going to be deja-booty,” Kelley decided, announcing it to the team.
“I think you mean Djibouti,” Christen corrected with a chuckle.
Once every pair had selected their home country, with Becky and her partner going head to head with two others for the honor of being the U.S., Amanda got things started. She sent a cross into the box, one Kelley physically manhandled people out of the way of and got on the end of. She sent a volley into the net and cheered.
“Hell yes! Suck it! How deja booty taste?” Kelley screamed, flexing her muscles.
“O’Hara, get off the field and let the rest of the pairs try to score!” Amanda called out, sending in another cross.
Laughing, Christen dragged Kelley out of the eighteen yard box, sitting down a few yards away from the madness of Cuppies.
“You want to grill with me tomorrow?” Kelley asked, watching the other pairs fight to score.
“I can’t,” Christen replied, hoping Kelley would leave it there and leave her be. But this was Kelley O’Hara, so that was never going to happen.
Kelley’s eyes snapped away from the goal and onto Christen. “What do you mean, you can’t?”
“I have plans,” Christen shrugged, trying not to let her smile give her away.
“You always have plans lately,” Kelley whined. “And you don’t tell me what they are, so I can’t even live vicariously through you.”
Seeing Becky approaching them with a few water bottles, Christen decided that if she was going to have to face Tobin’s family tomorrow, she should take all the advice and help she could get.
Taking the water from Becky with a smile, Christen looked around and noticed the other pairs that had gone through sitting far enough away that whatever conversation they were going to have was going to be private.
“So…” Christen started, clearing her throat and scratching at her jaw. “I think you two should know that I’m seeing someone.”
Kelley spat out her water, some of it hitting Becky but most of it landing on the grass.
“Ugh, control yourself,” Becky grumbled, wiping at her face with her practice shirt.
“I FUCKING KNEW IT!” Kelley yelled, pointing at Christen.
“Kelley!” Christen hissed, her eyes going wide.
Becky rolled her eyes at Kelley and then fixed Christen with a smile. “I don’t know what her deal is, but I’m really happy you’re happy, Press.”
“Please, please, please tell me it’s Tar Heel,” Kelley begged, tugging on Christen’s t-shirt.
Christen just took a long sip of water instead of confirming it. But her silence and her blush were enough for Becky and Kelley.
“HOLY SHIT! YOU BEAT ME TO GETTING A MILF?!” Kelley blurted out.
Christen choked on the water and turned beet red. “Kelley,” she hissed again, her embarrassment making her voice come out higher than normal.
“Sorry,” Kelley whispered. “I just didn’t think you had it in you. Is she good? I bet she’s really good. She has one of those faces that says she’s gone down on women and is good at it.”
“I see that,” Becky agreed, her tone nonchalant as always.
“Right? I think it’s the eyes...or maybe the lips?” Kelley mumbled.
“You guys, stop !” Christen laughed, shaking her head and feeling her blush deepen. “I didn’t say something so you could give me shit about it. I’m going to meet her family tomorrow and I might be freaking out a little bit. So I-”
“OH MY GOD!” Kelley lost it again. “This is serious. You’re serious with Tar Heel.”
Christen ducked her head and ran a hand over her hair. It had only been about a month since MoMA, since they’d decided to give this thing a shot, but it already felt serious. It felt serious and terrifying and extraordinary.
“We’re taking things slow, to make sure that we work before telling Scottie or anything,” Christen mumbled, looking up from the grass between her two friends.
“That’s really sweet,” Becky hummed. “We’re really happy for you, Press, and you’re totally gonna impress her parents.”
Kelley’s eyes widened in realization when Becky mentioned the word ‘parents.’ She grew a little more serious than she had been, her teasing and chaotic playfulness subsiding for the moment.
“Do you feel ready to meet her family? I’m sure you don’t have to. It’s Tar Heel; she’s totally smitten with you, so if you didn’t want to go so soon, she probably wouldn’t push you to,” Kelley said.
“I just think...parents get this idea in their heads about who they want their kids to be with. And I don’t know if I fit the bill for their daughter,” Christen replied, her mouth pressed into a thin line as she picked blades of grass from the ground.
“Christen,” Kelley scoffed. “You’re the most painfully amazing person I know. It’s hard to be friends with you because everyone likes you more. But also, Glennon called Tar Heel’s ex-wife the devil. I doubt her parents are expecting anything if she was already married to the worst.”
“I think you’ll exceed their expectations, Press. Give yourself a little more credit,” Becky added, reaching out to give Christen’s arm a squeeze.
“Plus, Scottie loves you, and they love Scottie,” Kelley added. “And Tar Heel probably loves you too, but I wouldn’t know because you haven’t told me anything about dating her!”
“I told you now though, didn’t I?” Christen replied, pointedly ignoring the love comment and the way it made her heart skip a beat.
“How was the first date? Where did you go? Did you kiss? Is she a good kisser?” Kelley asked, nearly bouncing off the grass.
Christen beamed as she thought back to that night. “It was perfect,” she sighed happily.
“Is she really good in bed?” Kelley pried.
“We haven’t-” Christen blushed and scratched at her jaw again.
“Are you serious?” Kelley asked, her jaw dropping.
“Hey, I think that’s a good thing,” Becky interjected, siding with Christen on this one. “It’s good to wait if that’s what you both think is what’s best.”
“It is. I’m just surprised. You must actually like her a lot,” Kelley hummed.
Christen nodded, the gesture small. “I really do,” she whispered, leaning back on her hands in the grass and smiling at her friends.
“Wait...you haven’t had sex in a month?” Kelley double-checked.
“Longer, I think. Since the Academy started,” Christen replied. “ Since I met Tobin and she turned my world upside down,” Christen thought to herself.
“Jeez,” Kelley hummed. “You’ve got it bad.”
“It’s a good look on you,” Becky grinned, knocking her shoulder into Christen’s.
“Thanks guys,” Christen replied. “And if we could just keep this between us, that would be great.”
“Of course,” Becky nodded.
“I’ll try not to run and tell Scottie,” Kelley teased.
“Please don’t,” Christen shook her head, shooting Kelley a warning look. Getting a nod in response, she softened and smiled. “And I can see that you have more questions, so just ask them Kel. But I reserve the right not to say anything,” she added, picking up her water bottle.
“Does she have tattoos? I totally see her as one of those artists with hidden tattoos,” Kelley grinned.
“Nope, Tobin Heath is not inked,” Christen laughed. “She’s deathly afraid of needles.”
“Shoot. Did you use tongue in your first kiss?” Kelley smirked.
“No,” Christen blushed.
“Later on that same date, though, right?” Kelley pressed, knowing what the blush meant.
“You totally want to have sex with her, right?”
“No comment,” Christen repeated, her blush growing impossibly redder and heating her cheeks.
“This is no fun if you’re just gonna say no comment. Oooh where was your first kiss? I want the juicy details,” Kelley asked, closing her eyes to visualize.
Christen was immediately transported back to that night, to the way Tobin’s lips had felt pressed against her own, to the way the scents of sandalwood and something floral had invaded her senses.
“My kitchen, in front of my very expensive coffee maker,” Christen replied, grinning.
“In front of Janice?!” Kelley laughed. “Last question...Scottie calls Tobin Mommy right? I promise this isn’t a dirty question.”
“It better not be,” Becky fake gagged, making Christen laugh.
“She does,” Christen nodded at Kelley.
“Say...seven years from now, would you want to be Momma or Mom?” Kelley grinned, flopping back onto her elbows and watching Christen process her question.
Christen’s stomach dropped and it suddenly felt like the sun got brighter and the air got thinner. She took a deep breath in and tried not to focus on the nerves that seemed to start in her stomach and spiral out into every single part of her.
“Dude, it’s been a month. Don’t freak her out,” Becky scolded, smacking Kelley’s knee. “Scottie calls her Christen.”
“Yeah,” Christen replied quietly, her mind still turning over Kelley’s question, trying to decide if she was more afraid of disappointing Scottie and Tobin and losing the chance to ever become that figure for Scottie, or of actually becoming Momma or Mom. At this point, she didn’t know, but she wasn’t about to let Kelley’s question derail her. “I’m partial to ‘my favorite soccer player’ though, so,” Christen added, her smile a bit tight but no less genuine.
“Okay, but here’s my question,” Becky interrupted.
“Finally, sanity prevails,” Christen teased.
“Does she make you happy?”
Christen’s response was immediate in the way her face lit up and a large smile made its way onto her face. “Happier than I’ve been in a long time,” Christen murmured, knocking her cleat into Becky’s.
“Mom, I’ve told you everything I can possibly tell you,” Tobin sighed, throwing Scottie’s bathing suit into a backpack and talking to her mom on speakerphone, so that she could move around Scottie’s room without holding the phone.
“But what if she can’t eat corn? What if she’s allergic like Katie’s first boyfriend? I will not have the girl who has finally brought a smile back to your face die of anaphylactic shock at my barbecue,” Cindy retorted with slight fear in her voice.
“If she were allergic to corn, she wouldn’t eat it,” Tobin huffed, trying to find Scottie’s sunglasses that she got from Christen. She’d had a bit of a meltdown that morning when she hadn’t been able to find them in her, once again, messy room.
“But what if she accidentally grabs some-”
“Mom, take a deep breath. She isn’t allergic to corn. We had tacos like four nights ago, and there was corn in hers. She isn’t allergic to anything,” Tobin sighed.
The sound of the front door’s buzzer traveled through the house, making both Tobin and Scottie jerk up from what they were doing.
“Can I get it?” Scottie begged. She jutted her lower lip out in her signature pout and put her hands up in front of her chest in a begging gesture.
Tobin peeked through one of the front windows and craned her neck to see that it was Christen. “Sure, Scottie,” she nodded, continuing to talk to her mom.
Scottie raced down the stairs, excited to see Christen, even though she’d just been over for a movie night a couple nights ago. She threw the door open with a huge smile.
“Scottie Heath!” Christen greeted, lifting her sunglasses up on her head and pushing curls away from her face.
“Christen! You’re going to Grandma’s with us!” Scottie cheered, reaching out for Christen’s hand.
“I am!” Christen replied, trying to match the kid’s excitement despite the slight nerves swirling around within her. She took Scottie’s hand and let the girl lead her inside and up the flights of stairs to her bedroom.
“Mommy and I have been searching everywhere for my sunglasses. She’s not happy because I’m a little messy,” Scottie sighed.
“A little mess isn’t bad,” Christen replied, trying to think back in her own mind for where she’d seen those sunglasses last. “Did you check the basement?”
“No. I really think they’re in my room. You can come help look,” Scottie said.
“I’d love to,” Christen grinned, swinging Scottie’s hand between them as they climbed the last few stairs leading up to the third floor.
“Mom, you really don’t need to worry,” Tobin sighed, sitting down on the floor and leaning back against Scottie’s bed, surrounded by her clothes and shoes and toys that she hadn’t put away even after Tobin had asked her to the night before.
Christen and Scottie both shared a quiet laugh, heading toward Scottie’s room and hearing Tobin’s voice come from behind the cracked door.
“Fine, fine, I’ll stop fussing,” Cindy hummed, her voice loud, coming from where the phone sat on the bedside table.
“No you won’t,” Tobin laughed.
“You haven’t brought anyone home in a long time, kiddo. I just don’t want our craziness over here to scare her off,” Cindy replied.
“I know,” Tobin mumbled.
Christen’s steps faltered a bit at that. She knew that Tobin hadn’t seriously dated recently, or much at all since Roni. But she’d assumed that Tobin still had dated enough to bring someone home. She hadn’t expected to be the first one since Tobin’s ex-wife.
“Just don’t be weird,” Tobin added with a soft chuckle.
“Me? Weird? I birthed you, you can’t say stuff like that to me!”
“Don’t pull out the photo albums of us as kids. You can show Scottie and nothing else,” Tobin warned.
“Oh Tobs, your baby photos are already out! See you soon! Love ya, gotta go, bye!”
“Shit,” Tobin mumbled, lifting up off the floor and looking down at the plastic action figure that she’d accidentally sat on.
“That’s a bad word, Mommy,” Scottie giggled, running into the room and jumping onto the bed, sitting right by where Tobin was leaning against the bed.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t say anything,” Tobin said.
“You heard it too Christen, right?” Scottie asked, smiling sweetly at where Christen hovered in the doorway of her bedroom.
“Uh...” Christen trailed off, shooting Tobin a panicked look, unsure what to say in this situation.
“I’m sorry I said a bad word,” Tobin said, turning around to look at Scottie. “I shouldn’t say them if I don’t want you to.”
Scottie pressed a kiss to Tobin’s head and then let out a gasp. She scrambled off the bed and dove under her dresser. “GOT ‘EM!” she cheered, squirming back out and holding the sunglasses triumphantly.
“Scottie Katherine,” Tobin sighed, rubbing her eyes with her hands.
Scottie deflated slightly at the sound of her almost full name. “Yes?” she mumbled.
“Do you remember what I asked you to do last night before dinner?”
“To tell Christen that she looks really pretty today and ask her if she wants to swim with me at Grandma’s?” Scottie said, cocking her head to the side.
Christen arched a brow in Tobin’s direction, a smile pulling at her lips as she watched Tobin flounder just a bit.
“No, the other thing,” Tobin shook her head, keeping her voice as serious as she could.
“Oh, to clean up my mess,” Scottie nodded.
“Do you remember what I reminded you to do after dinner?”
“To clean up my mess,” Scottie repeated, her shoulders slumping just a bit more.
“Do you think you can turn on your super speed and clean while I get the rest of our stuff in the car?” Tobin sighed, hating when Scottie looked bummed.
“I can totally super speed clean!” Scottie said, smiling just a bit at Tobin.
“Don’t shove it under your dresser or in your closet,” Tobin warned.
“Or under my bed,” Scottie sighed, like she’d already thought of that idea and knew it wouldn’t fly either.
“That’s right. In the baskets and in the drawers and in the laundry hamper,” Tobin nodded, standing up from where she was sitting on the floor. “You want me to put your sunglasses in the car?”
Scottie shook her head and walked over to hand them to Christen. “Don’t let these out of your sight,” Scottie instructed seriously before turning back around and starting to gather up her toys.
“I feel wounded,” Tobin mumbled under her breath as she passed by Christen at the door.
“Poor Tobin,” Christen teased at a whisper, following Tobin out of Scottie’s room and down the hall.
Tobin grabbed three pool towels out of the linen closet and carried them down the stairs to the kitchen where her backpack was waiting at the door, full of snacks for Scottie and a couple books and CDs that she might want in the car, as well as her own swimsuit and a change of clothes for both her and Scottie.
Christen sat down in one of the bar stools, watching Tobin move around the kitchen as she got things ready to go.
After getting out three water bottles and setting them down on the counter, Tobin paused. “Wait, I forgot something.”
Christen tilted her head to the side. “What’d you forget?” she asked, her brow furrowed.
Tobin moved out of the kitchen and leaned against the bar next to Christen, fixing Christen with a sheepish smile.
“Hi,” Tobin whispered.
“Hi works,” Christen grinned, sinking into the warmth in Tobin’s brown eyes.
Tobin leaned down and quickly pressed a kiss to Christen’s lips. “It’s good to see you, and I’m glad you’re coming with us.”
Christen pecked Tobin once more before leaning back in the bar stool. “I am too, even if I am one of the first people you’ve brought home in awhile,” she teased, trying not to let the seriousness of the implications behind that add to her already nervous stomach.
“You’re not one of the first,” Tobin admitted, moving back into the kitchen to fill up the three water bottles she’d abandoned.
“As long as I crack the top three, I’m happy,” Christen chuckled, smoothing her hand out over her jean shorts, seeking out nonexistent wrinkles.
“You’re the only one,” Tobin mumbled as she capped the bottles.
“Oh, wow,” Christen replied, a little surprised.
“It’s not a big deal. You don’t need to stress about it,” Tobin hurriedly said, trying not to make the trip to her mom’s house any more stressful.
“I have had stress in my body since you asked me,” Christen said with a tight laugh. “But it’s not a you thing. I just haven’t done the whole meet the parents thing in a long time, so...I’m nervous.”
“How long?” Tobin asked curiously.
“Since I played in Sweden,” Christen murmured, thinking back on the painfully awkward dinner she’d had with the parents and grandparents of her short-term girlfriend when she played overseas. Her ex had to translate for her the entire dinner and the food had been terrible. All around, it had not been a very positive experience. It was one she was hoping not to repeat today.
“So, you dated some super attractive international player? Cool cool cool,” Tobin hummed awkwardly.
Christen got up from the bar stool and slipped around the counter, wrapping her arms around Tobin from behind and tucking her chin on Tobin’s shoulder. “Going out with the only other gay girl on the team because you both were lonely doesn’t really count as serious dating.”
“Have I told you that you look really beautiful today and that I really missed you?”
“Not yet, and I think I missed it...what was that you just said?” Christen teased, tucking her face into the side of Tobin’s neck.
“You look beautiful, and I missed you,” Tobin sighed, sinking into Christen’s arms.
“I DID IT, MOMMY!” Scottie yelled, her footsteps starting to echo down the stairs.
Christen dropped a kiss to the side of Tobin’s neck and unwound her arms from around Tobin’s waist. She stepped back and moved to the barstool again, jumping back onto it.
“Are we ready?” Tobin asked, smiling as soon as she saw that Scottie was once again in her PRESS jersey, paired with the red, white, and blue snapback Tobin had given her.
“Ready Freddy!” Scottie replied, skidding to a halt in the kitchen and standing by Christen’s side. She dropped her chin on Christen’s knee and smiled up at her.
“You look really pretty today,” Scottie grinned.
Christen tapped her finger against the brim of the snapback and knocked it down over Scottie’s eyes.
“Thanks, kid. You look super cool in this hat,” Christen replied with a smile.
“Mommy got it for me,” Scottie beamed, dancing away from Christen and toward the staircase. She took a water bottle from Tobin and carried her own small bag down the stairs to the car.
“Are you ready?” Tobin asked, looking over at Christen as she pulled her bag over her shoulder.
Christen let out a long breath. “As I’ll ever be. But remember, offsides.”
“Offsides, and we’re out of there,” Tobin nodded.
“Did you know that we lost the only copy of Frozen ?” Scottie sighed from her place in the backseat.
“I did hear the bad news, kid,” Christen nodded, turning around to pout at Scottie and then dropping back into the passenger’s seat, silently chuckling to herself.
“Actually, Scottie, I found one more CD of Frozen , and I ordered it. It just hasn’t gotten here yet,” Tobin said, feeling a little bad about the tiny lie she’d told in a moment of frustration.
“Yeeees!” Scottie said, pumping her fist at her side.
It didn’t really feel like Tobin had “lost” the CD though, because now that the promise of another hung in the air, Scottie decided to sing the entire album from start to finish, just without music.
“Offsides,” Tobin mumbled when Scottie reached the highest note in “Let it Go.”
Christen hid her laugh behind her hand and shook her head, itching to reach out and take Tobin’s hand on the gear shift in her own, but knowing she couldn’t. Not yet. Maybe someday soon though.
“Scottie?” Christen asked, turning to look over her shoulder and pausing Scottie halfway through the next verse.
“Do you know that one song from Moana? The one she sings to the sea?”
“Duuuuh,” Scottie giggled.
“I love that song,” Christen replied. “Do you think you could sing it for me?”
“Are you going to sing with me?” Scottie asked.
“Oh, I don’t sing,” Christen shook her head. She’d gone into this with good intentions, trying to get the Frozen sing-along to stop by changing movies, and now she was being roped into singing.
“Pleeeaaaassseeee,” Scottie begged, reaching forward to touch Christen’s shoulder.
“Only if Tobin sings too,” Christen bargained, already dreading this.
“You don’t want Mommy to sing,” Scottie said, reaching for the Goldfish that Tobin had packed.
Christen snorted, grabbed the bag for Scottie, and handed it back to her. “Fine, I’ll sing with you, but only if I get some Goldfish.”
“You’ve got yourself a deal,” Scottie grinned.
After a fist-bump and an exchange of Goldfish, Scottie started to sing “How Far I’ll Go” in that endearingly off-key way of hers. Christen shoved the Goldfish in her mouth, looking for some kind of momentary reprieve from having to join in.
“Hey, Chris?” Tobin whispered, glancing over at Christen as she drove.
“Yeah?” Christen mumbled around her mouthful of Goldfish.
“I can’t hear you,” Tobin grinned, her eyes crinkling with her huge smile.
Christen narrowed her eyes at Tobin and wished she could kiss that smile right off her face. But since she couldn’t, she swallowed the Goldfish, took a sip of water from Tobin’s water bottle, and prepared to hold up her end of the bargain.
“Come on, Christen!” Scottie giggled, jumping into the next verse. “I can lead with pride, I can make us strong,” she sang, holding up her arms and flexing as she did so, earning her chuckles from both Tobin and Christen.
Finally, Christen joined in and started to sing along with Scottie. She turned around in her seat to face Scottie, a smile on her face. “I’ll be satisfied if I play along. But the voice inside sings a different song-”
“WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?” Tobin screamed along with the song, sending both Scottie and Christen into a fit of laughter.
“SEE THE LIGHT AS IT SHINES ON THE SEA?” the three of them sang all together, their laughter making it hard to sing. “IT’S BLINDING!”
Tobin pulled her handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped at her eyes and the tears that were slipping out because of her laughter.
Scottie continued to sing as Tobin stopped, but Christen continued as well, both her and Scottie’s volume returning to normal now that Tobin was no longer pushing them into a screaming sing-along.
“But no one knows, how far it goes,” Christen sang, playfully bobbing her head to the non-existent beat, making Scottie giggle.
“This is all I want,” Tobin thought to herself, trying her hardest to focus on driving when every single part of her wanted to turn in her seat and watch Christen make her daughter laugh and smile and sing.
“Hi!” Cindy greeted, pulling open the front door of a quaint, two-story colonial on a quiet, tree-lined cul-de-sac in New Jersey.
“Grandma!” Scottie cheered, wrapping her arms around Cindy’s waist.
“Peanut!” Cindy grinned, swaying Scottie back and forth as she returned the hug.
“Hey, Mom,” Tobin said, leaning forward and pressing a soft kiss to Cindy’s cheek.
“She’s beautiful,” Cindy whispered to Tobin before pressing a kiss to her daughter’s cheek in return. Cindy then leaned around Tobin to smile at Christen who hovered a few steps behind. “You must be Christen,” Cindy greeted.
“That’s me,” Christen grinned, holding out her hand for Cindy to shake, praying that it wasn’t clammy after wiping it a few times against her jean shorts. “Thank you for letting me crash your family barbecue.”
Cindy shook Christen’s hand gently. “You’re more than welcome. We’re glad to finally meet you. Scottie’s told us all about you. I will say, though, we’re big huggers, so be prepared to duck if you don’t want a big group hug.”
“I appreciate the heads up,” Christen chuckled weakly.
“Come on in,” Cindy said only to Tobin and Christen, since Scottie had already sprinted into the house to find Tobin’s dad.
Tobin reached out and tangled her fingers with Christen’s, offering her some sort of comfort as they walked into the house. Christen gave Tobin’s hand a gentle squeeze, thanking her for the silent show of support.
“You have a beautiful home,” Christen complimented, taking in the gorgeous hardwood and light blue walls covered in paintings and pictures, much like Tobin’s were.
“Thank you,” Cindy smiled, leading the way to the kitchen where everyone was gathered.
Christen watched, a bit overwhelmed as a small crowd of people descended upon them, throwing out greetings and hugs and loud laughter. She’d quickly dropped Tobin’s hand and taken a giant step backward, not wanting to be in the middle of that, allowing Tobin the space to greet her family without being in the way.
It wasn’t hard, necessarily, to be here. But it wasn’t exactly easy either. It wasn’t easy to stand here and watch a family interact. To watch a mom and a dad embrace their kids and enjoy a holiday all together. It made her chest ache and her breath catch in her throat and it made her want to scream ‘offsides’ at the top of her lungs.
But then Tobin looked over and grinned at her. She grinned that dopey, lopsided, almost too big for her face grin and it got a little easier to breathe.
“Hey,” Tobin said, slipping out from her sister’s grasp and making her way back over to Christen. “You want to put these down somewhere?” Tobin asked, holding her backpack up to show Christen. She could see the slight hesitation, maybe even panic in Christen’s eyes, and she wanted to slip into another room, to give her a moment to breath, to say ‘offsides’ if she needed to, to decide if she could do this.
Christen nodded and let Tobin lead her out of the kitchen, knowing she’d have time to formally meet the Heath family members after she’d gotten everything she was feeling under control. They made their way down the hallway, hands clasped, and then up the stairs. Tobin gently pulled her to the last door on the left and led her in.
“Don’t tease. I didn’t redecorate after I turned eleven,” Tobin warned, walking into the room with soccer posters and paraphernalia covering every inch of it.
“It’s cute,” Christen hummed. “My room looked pretty much just like this growing up.”
“Here,” Tobin murmured, slipping Christen’s bag off of her shoulder and hanging it on the back of the desk chair in the corner.
“Thank you,” Christen whispered, doing her best to smile at Tobin.
“I know they’re a lot and loud, and if you say ‘offsides’ right now, I won’t be upset,” Tobin worried out loud.
“I think I just need a minute,” Christen replied softly, hating the concern shining in Tobin’s eyes.
“Like...a minute alone or a minute where I’ll stop worrying and sit quietly with you?” Tobin asked.
Christen reached out to slip Tobin’s backpack off of her shoulder and placed it on the floor next to the desk chair. She then wrapped her arms around Tobin’s waist and buried her face in the crook of Tobin’s neck.
“Just hold me, please,” Christen mumbled, wondering when she’d become someone who sought comfort from embraces like this instead of dodging them. It was probably around the time Scottie and Tobin came into her life and changed everything, flipping everything on its head in the best of ways.
“I was really hoping you’d say that,” Tobin whispered, pressing her lips to the side of Christen’s neck and wrapping her arms securely around Christen. She knew there wasn’t much she could do to make this any easier for Christen. She couldn’t bring back all that Christen had lost, but she was willing to do anything that was within her power.
Christen could still hear the loud voices coming from downstairs, the clinking of plates and clanging of pots from the kitchen. But as she stood in Tobin’s arms, gathering strength from the embrace, she felt a little better about having to go down there and join it.
“I won’t make a habit of dragging you away. I just needed one more hug,” Christen hummed.
“You aren’t dragging me away. I asked you to come here because I wanted to spend time with you,” Tobin assured Christen, rubbing her hands along Christen’s back.
With a final breath, Christen set her shoulders and leaned back. “I can do this,” Christen said with more confidence than she felt. “And I might need to call a few offsides, but I am happy I’m here with you.”
“You can call offsides as often as you want. We can drive around the block. We can come up here. We can go home. Whatever you want. I just wanted to spend the day with you and Scottie, although she’s ditched us for my dad at the moment,” Tobin said with a small smile.
“Then let’s go find her and spend some time together. Just...stick close, yeah?” Christen asked, her forehead furrowing just a bit, hoping she wasn’t asking for too much.
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” Tobin said, leaning forward to press a kiss to Christen’s lips.
“It’s really nice to meet you,” Perry said, her smile growing as she saw Scottie run up and hold onto Christen’s shirt, ready to get her attention.
“It’s great to meet you too. Tobin’s told me a lot about you,” Christen replied with a matching smile, her hand immediately falling to Scottie’s back to keep her close.
“Scottie called me a few weeks ago to tell me all about Coach Christen,” Perry grinned.
“I’m just Christen today,” Christen chuckled.
Perry leaned into Christen’s space, not wanting Scottie to hear her. “Thanks for making Tobin look like a happy little doofus again.”
Christen blushed and quickly looked down at Scottie, thankful the girl seemed content to make silly faces at Tobin, who sat a few feet away with Perry’s husband.
“I don’t know if I’m the one doing that. Scottie seems to make everyone around her happy,” Christen said quietly.
“Yeah, but you make my sister all lovesick, which I haven’t seen in a really long time,” Perry emphasized.
Christen’s blush deepened and she scratched at the corner of her jaw a little self-consciously.
“Oh, I don’t know- I mean, I don’t think-” Christen stuttered, desperate to find a response that wouldn’t make her sound like a happy little doofus.
“Perry, don’t be weird,” Tobin warned from where she was sitting, unable to hear the conversation but able to see that Christen looked uncomfortable.
“Tobin, don’t be an-” Perry paused and mouthed ‘asshole’ in Tobin’s direction with a sweet smile.
“Christen, do you want anything to drink?” Perry’s husband asked. “The sisters are about to argue.”
“Yes, please. Literally anything with a little alcohol in it! Thanks!” Christen replied with a laugh, throwing him a thumbs up in gratitude.
“We aren’t about to fight,” Perry sighed, rolling her eyes.
“Christen?” Scottie said, looking up with wide eyes.
Christen looked down and smiled softly at Scottie, moving her hand to brush some stray flyaways from Scottie’s forehead.
“Yeah?” Christen hummed.
“Will you play with me?” Scottie asked, hooking a finger in Christen’s belt loop.
Christen nodded. “Whatcha wanna play?”
“Bird game,” Scottie said, a huge smile stretching onto her face.
“Um...the bird game,” Christen mumbled, totally at a loss for what that could possibly be.
“What’s up?” Tobin asked, walking up and resting a hand on Christen’s back.
“Bird game?” Christen said, shaking her head a little with a laugh.
“Badminton,” Tobin chuckled. “You hit the birdie.”
“Ohhhh,” Christen laughed. She looked back down at Scottie and winked. “Let’s go play the bird game and I’ll even maybe let you win.”
“Mommy’s on my team, so I’ll probably win,” Scottie grinned.
“Then who’s on my team?!” Christen protested.
“You’re a professional athlete,” Tobin teased.
“I’ll go set up!” Scottie cheered, racing across the backyard over to the grass.
Christen slipped her free hand around Tobin’s back and let out a small laugh, enjoying their brief moment of alone time. “I’m not a professional badminton player,” she replied.
“Fine, you can have Cole,” Tobin said, pointing across the room at her nephew, the toddler who was sitting on her dad’s lap.
“How generous,” Christen mumbled, ignoring the urge to kiss the teasing smirk from Tobin’s lips.
“Don’t worry, baby. I’ll go easy on you,” Tobin whispered in Christen’s ear.
Christen shivered, not just at the feeling of Tobin’s breath ghosting across the shell of her ear, but at the sound of ‘baby’ leaving her lips. She reflexively tightened her hold on Tobin’s back and narrowed her eyes playfully at Tobin.
“Watch it, Tobin Heath. We’re in public,” Christen whispered, her voice growing just a bit gravelly.
“Unfoooortunately,” Tobin hummed, spinning out of Christen’s grasp and walking around to the part of the yard where Scottie was trying to set up the small net.
Christen managed to win all three games, even when she actively tried not to. She did feel a little bad, but she couldn’t deny that watching the slight competitive streak within Tobin that came out with every win she got was worth it.
“This is lame,” Scottie pouted. “I’m playing with Christen next time.”
“Oh you don’t want to be on her team anymore?” Christen teased, her hands falling to her hips.
Tobin rolled her eyes but pulled her phone out of her pocket to take a picture of Christen in that exact moment, not even bothering to defend herself.
“No paparazzi!” Christen called out, making Scottie giggle.
“You’re doing the power pose. I’m just documenting it, so that you’ll know what I’m talking about,” Tobin laughed.
Scottie ducked under the net and stood by Christen’s side, putting her hands on her hips in the same power pose.
“Okay, you can paparazzi again, Mommy!” Scottie said, beaming over at Tobin.
Tobin stepped around the net and held her phone up. “Scottie, what do we say instead of cheese?”
“KRISPY KREME!” Scottie yelled, her grin growing impossibly wider.
Tobin took way too many pictures, smiling at the way Scottie tried to match Christen’s stance perfectly.
Christen let Tobin take a few more pictures before she broke the power pose and bent down to get her revenge for the tickle attack in the basement the other day. She tickled Scottie, making the girl giggle and shriek and try to run away, but Christen had her trapped.
The entire tickle fight was caught on Tobin’s phone in pictures of a laughing Christen and a giggling Scottie. Tobin knew she’d be staring at these for months, just letting her heart melt at each one.
“I give!” Scottie squealed with glee, making Christen finally stop, a little breathless. Christen grinned and picked Scottie up, settling her against her hip.
“Stop being so cute, you guys. My phone storage is already limited,” Tobin sighed, snapping another picture.
Christen smirked and leaned closer to Scottie, whispering something into her ear and making the girl look over at Tobin and then nod.
“No,” Tobin shook her head. “I don’t know what Christen just said, but no.”
Christen and Scottie shared a smile and then Christen nodded, giving Scottie the go-ahead to reply.
“Mommy, Christen said to tell you that you look really pretty today,” Scottie announced.
Tobin’s cheeks immediately flushed at the compliment. She stepped forward to stand with the two of them, leaning forward to place a kiss on Scottie’s cheek.
“You can tell Christen thank you,” Tobin hummed.
“Mommy says thank you. Okay, can we swim now?” Scottie asked, looking between Christen and Tobin excitedly. “I brought my bathing suit with the dolphins on them and I really want to show Grandma.”
“Sure, little bit,” Tobin nodded.
Christen readjusted Scottie in her arms and playfully threw the girl over her shoulder, holding Scottie’s legs.
“Hey, Tobin, I’ve got a sack of potatoes here, know where I could put it?” Christen wondered, her tone playful and light.
“The pool?” Tobin teased.
“NOOOOO!” Scottie giggled, squirming a bit.
“Anywhere else?” Christen asked with a smile, stepping back and spinning around, making Scottie laugh even harder.
“Hmm…” Tobin pretended to ponder. “I think I usually keep potatoes upstairs.”
“Perfect!” Christen replied, carrying a giggly Scottie across the backyard and into the kitchen.
“I’m not a sack of potatoes!” Scottie laughed, twisting her head around and spying Cindy in the kitchen. She waved at her grandma before falling into another fit of laughter. Cindy watched the three of them waltz by the kitchen, a smile on her face.
“I think sacks of potatoes should go on the bed,” Christen said, reaching the top of the stairs and carrying Scottie down the hallway toward Tobin’s room.
“That’s a great idea,” Tobin hummed, pushing open the door for Christen and letting her carry Scottie inside.
Christen gently dropped Scottie onto the bed, laughing as Scottie laughed.
“Christen, you’re silly,” Scottie giggled, sitting up on the bed with a light bounce.
“Not as silly as you,” Christen winked.
“Are you gonna swim too?” Scottie asked.
“Of course! I wanna see the dolphin swimsuit in action,” Christen replied with a smile.
“Let’s get changed,” Tobin said, picking her bag up and dropping it on the bed next to Scottie.
Christen immediately moved to grab her bag from the desk chair, ghosting her hand across the small of Tobin’s back softly as she moved toward the door.
“The bathroom’s right through there,” Tobin said, pointing over her shoulder.
“Thanks, ba- Tobin ,” Christen replied, covering up her near slip-up with a cough and a quick retreat out of the bedroom.
“All right, plug your nose,” Tobin said, pulling Scottie into her already tired arms for the dozenth time.
“It’s plugged,” Scottie said with a nasally sound in her voice.
“1…” Tobin said, swinging Scottie’s body back through the air.
“2…” Scottie squealed in anticipation.
“3!” Tobin said, releasing Scottie and sending her through the air and further across the pool where she landed with a splash.
Christen grinned from her spot on the edge of the pool, a towel wrapped around her as she swung her legs through the water. She’d gotten out a few minutes ago, but Scottie had wanted a few more chances to be thrown in the air, so she and Tobin had stayed in the pool. Christen had only left to grab a towel before quickly coming back, settling on the edge with a constant smile on her face as she watched Tobin and Scottie.
“Mind if I join?” Cindy asked, pointing at the spot next to Christen.
“Not at all,” Christen replied, scooting over just a bit to give Cindy more room. She hadn’t interacted much with Tobin’s mom since showing up at the barbecue, having only met the entire family briefly before sticking close to Tobin’s side ever since.
“Scottie’s a ball of energy, isn’t she?” Cindy laughed, watching Scottie and Tobin countdown from ten before they both went under the water for an ‘underwater tea party.’
Christen chuckled with a nod, feeling a slight soreness in her arms from when she’d taken turns with Tobin throwing the girl into the air.
“I don’t know where she keeps it all,” Christen replied.
“I wish I knew. I wish I had a fraction of it,” Cindy sighed, enjoying the sounds of her family in the backyard. “She really likes you.”
Christen swallowed thickly, bobbing her head slightly as her chest got tight with such a raw feeling of love for the girl who’d just come back to the surface, spluttering and giggling and so goddamn happy.
“The feeling’s mutual,” Christen admitted softly.
“ She really likes you too,” Cindy added, knocking her shoulder against Christen’s.
That made Christen blush and duck her head, her eyes falling to the colorful stripes on the towel she had wrapped around her.
“That’s mutual too,” Christen said, shooting a small, albeit shy, smile over at Cindy.
“Good. So we can plan on seeing you at more family barbecues?” Cindy asked.
“As long as I’m not traveling for a game or something, you can count me in,” Christen replied, enjoying the ease with which she was able to converse with Cindy. It didn’t feel awkward, it felt like they’d had poolside talks about Tobin and Scottie for years.
“Tobin’s dad and I are planning on coming to the next home game,” she said, watching Scottie climb onto Tobin’s back.
“I’ll make sure you guys get the VIP treatment then,” Christen winked.
“That’s very sweet,” Cindy hummed. “We’ve heard all about Scottie’s VIP treatment.”
Christen shrugged, not wanting to make it a big deal. “I didn’t really do much,” she said.
“In Scottie’s eyes you did,” Cindy said, looking over at Christen. “And in Tobin’s.”
Christen let out a long breath, thinking about how much more she could be doing, how much more she should be doing, especially when it felt like Tobin and Scottie had literally changed her life.
“I’m not so sure about that, but thank you,” Christen replied quietly, having to tear her gaze away from the emotional look in Cindy’s eyes, eyes that looked so much like Tobin’s it was a bit overwhelming.
“Tobin!” Perry called from the other side of the pool. “Watch Cole, okay?” she said, waving Tobin over, so that Tobin would take her son.
“Where are you going?” Tobin asked, now with Scottie on her back and Cole holding onto her neck.
“I want to get wine before I sit in the pool with him,” Perry said, as if it were painfully obvious.
Cindy couldn’t stop the laugh that slipped from her lips at their interaction. “Do you have siblings?”
Christen had expertly avoided questions like these in the past eight months, questions of the probing, personal variety. She had expertly crafted vague responses and changes of subjects. But then Tobin had come into her life, and she’d stopped avoiding and crafting. She just wished it didn’t feel so painful sometimes to talk about things like this, especially when the question was such an innocent one, only asked to get to know her better.
“Two sisters,” Christen managed, trying not to let her smile dim in the slightest.
“So, you know exactly what that’s like,” Cindy said, referencing Tobin and Perry’s interaction.
“Definitely,” Christen agreed.
“Are you the youngest?”
“Middle. The forever forgotten child,” Christen teased, trying to take deep breaths and remind herself that talking about family was normal . It was a good thing. It probably would make it hurt less if she did it more.
“No wonder you and Tobin get along,” Cindy laughed. “I can’t wait for you to meet her other sister and little brother.”
“I’ll get everyone the VIP treatment at any Gotham game they want to come to,” Christen replied easily.
“You don’t need to win us over,” Cindy grinned. “We already like you. As soon as we saw you play with Scottie, we fell for you.”
Christen chewed on the inside of her cheek, feeling that familiar weight on her chest. The one that always cropped up whenever family came up in conversation, either her own family or the tiny family she was slowly falling for.
“Well, I- um, I like you guys too,” Christen said, resisting the urge to scratch at her jaw. It felt impossible that they could already like her, could already want her to come back for every family barbecue. She didn’t feel worthy of it in the slightest.
“Christen,” Scottie said, paddling to the side of the pool and gripping onto Christen’s leg when she got there.
Tobin followed behind, holding Cole, his hands tangled in the necklace she was wearing.
“Hey, cutie. You have fun out there?” Christen asked, smiling down at Scottie, trying desperately not to look up and see the adorable way Tobin was playing with her nephew. She was even more desperate to ignore the fluttering in her chest at the sight of a toddler in Tobin’s arms.
“Mhm, but I’m hungry,” Scottie said.
“Want to get out and get some food?” Christen wondered, tilting her head to the side a bit.
“Yes,” Scottie nodded before she sank under water again and swam toward the steps to get out.
“I think you need to drive us home,” Tobin joked, holding a limp arm out in front of her.
“Aw, is someone tired?” Christen teased, flicking some water up at Tobin and expertly avoiding hitting Cole.
“Woooow,” Tobin said, playfully feigning hurt. “And just because of that,” Tobin said, a smirk spreading across her face, “You can hold Cole.” She lifted the toddler out of the water where she was holding him and letting him splash, and held him over Christen’s lap.
Christen rolled her eyes and took Cole into her lap, wrapping her arms around his back. She felt a little out of her depth but figured that as long as the kid kept looking at her with that wide-eyed smile, she was doing fine.
“You do the sweetest things for me,” Christen winked, earning a chuckle from Cindy.
“I’m gonna set the table,” Cindy grinned. “You’re a natural, don’t worry.”
Christen smiled up at Cindy and then turned back to look at Tobin over Cole’s head.
“I really can drive if you want,” Christen offered.
“That’s okay,” Tobin hummed, stepping a little closer, her lopsided grin full of mirth and the desire to keep getting closer.
“Tobin, Scottie’s right there,” Christen whispered, nodding her head at where the girl was standing next to Tobin’s dad at the grill, helping him flip burgers.
Tobin let out a sigh and fell back into the water dramatically. It was getting increasingly hard to not touch Christen or talk to her the way she would if they were on their own. The swimsuits obviously didn’t help, even if Christen had gone with a modest one-piece. It still reminded Tobin a little too much of the Body Issue that she’d stumbled upon.
So, instead of letting her impulses drive her to do something ill-timed, Tobin swam toward the steps and climbed out of the pool, wrapping her arms around Scottie and leaning down to ask her if she was ready to dry off and get food.
“Your aunt is a drama queen, Mister Cole. Yes she is, a super-duper big one,” Christen mumbled, her pointer finger held tightly in Cole’s fist. “But I really like her. You gotta keep that a secret, okay?”
Cole just nodded, distracted by the necklace around Christen’s neck.
“Sorry, he’s into shiny things right now,” Perry said as soon as she saw that Christen was holding her son.
“He’s okay,” Christen threw out, content to let Cole sit in her lap and play with her necklace since it got her out of answering personal questions or feeling that pressure in her chest that seemed to be building slowly with every happy family moment that happened in the backyard.
“I think we’re gonna eat soon, and Scottie said she wants you beside her, so I’ll take this little cutie,” Perry said, bending down and holding her arms out for Cole.
Christen gently lifted Cole up, then stood up from the edge of the pool. She walked over to where she’d discarded her shorts, pulling them on over her suit and grabbing the flannel Tobin had brought downstairs with her. She buttoned it up and then made her way over to the back deck where a large, farm table sat piled high with food and plates.
“Sorry,” Tobin mumbled, slipping back into Christen’s space. “She needed a towel.”
“It’s okay,” Christen assured quietly, smiling at Tobin and gently tucking a few wet strands of hair behind her ear for her.
“How’s it going?” Tobin checked in.
“I’m about halfway to an offsides I think,” Christen whispered, subconsciously lifting her hand to rub at her sternum, right where the pressure seemed to be building.
“Okay, well food is still cooking. Want to go for a walk or make a trip to the grocery store for ice?” Tobin asked.
“CHRISTEN!” Scottie called, running onto the back deck with her hairbrush in hand.
“Saved by the bell,” Christen winked, stepping out of Tobin’s space and putting a more respectable amount of distance between them.
“Will you brush my hair?” Scottie asked.
Christen held her hand out for the hairbrush with a smile. “Totally, just waiting for a please,” she said teasingly.
“You don’t have to,” Tobin whispered softly, already worrying a little that so much family was too much, that it was too soon, that Christen really didn’t need to be put in this situation when she hadn’t even fully grieved her own loss.
“Scottie, you can ask grandma to do it,” Tobin suggested.
“Please, Christen? Please, please, pretty please?” Scottie asked, jutting her lower lip out in a pout.
“It’s okay,” Christen hummed, giving Tobin a small nod before turning back to Scottie. Scottie pulled Christen toward the steps that led down to the yard, picking one to sit on in front of Christen.
Christen sank down to the step behind Scottie, pulling the dark blonde hair over Scottie’s shoulders and onto her back so she could brush it. She gently ran the brush through the wet curls, losing herself in the mindless motion.
“Mommy says this is the best feeling in the world,” Scottie mumbled sleepily.
“It is,” Christen replied, smiling a bit at how zen Scottie sounded, so unlike her typical Energizer Bunny self.
“Does your mommy brush your hair?” Scottie asked softly.
Christen’s hands stilled at the question, the brush nearly slipping from her grasp. The weight on her chest was immediate, the thickness in her throat making it nearly impossible to take in a deep breath.
“Um-” Christen started, completely unsure how to answer this and even more unsure if she could say anything without the tears, the ones that now swam in her eyes and blurred her vision, leaking out and falling down her cheeks. “Not- um, not anymore, Scottie,” she said in a small voice.
“Cause you're grown up?”
“Yeah,” Christen breathed out, her hands still not moving, the brush barely held between her fingertips now.
Tobin was setting the table on the deck, glancing down the steps at Christen and Scottie every few minutes to make sure everything was okay. When she saw Christen’s hands stop moving, she wondered what they were talking about, what Scottie was saying to stop Christen from brushing all the knots out of Scottie’s hair. She was curious, but she wasn’t worried. Christen had said she was okay, so she decided to wait for an offsides call or something.
“Maybe if you asked her she’d still do it,” Scottie hummed innocently.
“Oh god, I can’t do this,” Christen thought, feeling the threat of tears become far too great. The question had landed like a blow to the chest, like a punch to the gut, a knife to the heart. It was too much.
Christen quickly moved the brush away from Scottie’s head, dropping it to the step beside her. “I- I forgot something upstairs, can you ask Tobin to finish brushing your hair?” Christen said, trying to keep the wobble out of her voice, not wanting to alarm Scottie.
“Okay,” Scottie said, turning around to look at Christen.
Christen immediately turned her head away from Scottie’s curious gaze, knowing that her eyes were full of tears and her lower lip trembled. She quickly got up from the step and hurried toward the backdoor, brushing by Perry and her husband who stood next to the table, ducking her head as she did so.
“Chris?” Tobin asked, the name hardly leaving her lips before Christen was gone. She hurried down the steps to where Scottie was sitting. “Hey, buddy?”
“Christen said you’re going to finish brushing my hair for me,” Scottie said, holding out the hairbrush.
“I can do that,” Tobin said, wishing more than anything that she could run after Christen, but no matter what, every single day, she was a mom first, and she wanted to make sure that Scottie was okay. “Did she say where she was going?” Tobin asked, pulling the hairbrush through Scottie’s hair.
“I don’t remember. We were just talking about brushing hair,” Scottie shrugged, tapping her palms against her bent knees.
“What about brushing hair, little bit?” Tobin asked, slowly unknotting a strand of Scottie’s hair.
“How Christen’s mom doesn’t do it for her anymore, but then I told her she should just ask. Because sometimes I know you’re sleepy and don’t want to do it, but I ask anyway and you always say yes,” Scottie explained.
Tobin’s stomach sank at Scottie’s words. She knew it was coming. It was bound to happen at some point. Scottie was a chatterbox and super curious, but Tobin had hoped that this could have waited a few more months, that Christen could have had a little more time with Scottie and a little more time to grieve.
“I think your hair looks great,” Tobin hummed.
“Can you give me space buns, Mommy?” Scottie asked, turning to smile at Tobin over her shoulder.
Tobin’s heart ached at her conflicting desires. She nodded softly, though, not wanting to alert Scottie to anything being wrong.
“Turn around, dude,” she said, separating Scottie’s hair into two sections and wrapping two ponytails around two very messy space buns on the top of her head. “You want to go show Grandma?”
“And then Christen!” Scottie said, shooting to her feet.
“Hey, buddy,” Tobin hummed.
“What is it?” Scottie asked, her brow furrowing slightly.
Tobin stood up and kissed Scottie’s forehead gently. “I think Grandma wants your help with the cookies. You can show Christen your space buns after that, okay?”
Scottie threw up the shaka sign Tobin had taught her and then took off toward the kitchen. “Grandma! I have space buns!”
Without running and freaking out her family, Tobin hurried through the house and up the stairs. She jogged down the hall until she got to her old bedroom door and knocked quietly.
“I’ll be right out,” Christen’s voice drifted through the door, shaky and wet.
“Can I come in?” Tobin asked, leaning her forehead against the doorframe.
It was silent for a few moments, where no sound could be heard from inside the room. Tobin wanted to peek inside, to step in for just a moment and make sure that everything was okay, but she couldn’t, not without Christen’s consent, not when she was hurting as much as she was. So instead, Tobin waited in the hall, her heart hammering and aching for a response.
“Yes,” came Christen’s soft, eventual reply.
Tobin stepped into the room, shutting the door softly behind her. She slowly made her way across the room, stopping a few feet away from Christen and crouching down, so that she was on the same level.
Christen was sitting on the floor, her back propped up against the foot of Tobin’s childhood bed. Her knees were tucked to her chest, and her arms were wrapped around her legs, a far off look in her watery eyes.
“I’ll come down in a second,” Christen said, repeating the similar sentiment in a slightly detached voice.
“You don’t need to,” Tobin replied, her voice soft and gentle. She sank down, so that she was sitting too, giving Christen space if she needed it but trying to show that she wasn’t going anywhere unless asked.
Christen just nodded, taking a deep breath in through her nose and noiselessly releasing it through her parted lips. She still didn’t look at Tobin, her unseeing eyes fixed on a spot on Tobin’s wall.
Tobin didn’t really know what to do. She didn’t really think apologizing for something Scottie had innocently mentioned would help. She figured that if Christen wanted her to touch her, she’d reach for her. So, all she did was sit and wait, feeling highly unhelpful.
After a while spent in silence, Christen finally spoke up. “My sister sent me this article once, right after our parents died,” Christen whispered, wiping stubbornly at a single tear that slipped down her cheek. “I didn’t read it. Not for a long time. I didn’t open it until May 6th.”
“What was the article about?” Tobin asked softly.
Christen hadn’t read it as well as she should have, even then. Even if things started to fundamentally shift for her on May 6th, on the first day Tobin had brought her coffee almost two months ago, she still hadn’t been able to stomach the hard parts. But she’d gotten the gist enough, and for whatever reason, she felt the need to talk about it.
“It talked about how grief is like a ball in a box,” Christen replied. “And at first the ball is too big for the box, it pushes at the seams and makes you feel like nothing will ever be fine again.”
Christen unfurled one of her arms from around her knees. She reached out for Tobin’s hand, blindly reaching for it since she couldn’t look away from the wall, not without losing her tenuous grip on her emotions.
Without hesitation, Tobin scooted closer on the floor and slipped her hand into Christen’s, holding tightly and running her thumb across the back of her hand in small, soothing circles.
“Eventually, the ball shrinks. As time passes, it grows just a little bit smaller. But the ball doesn’t just sit still in the middle of the box, it bounces around, knocking into the sides...or something, some of the details are fuzzy.”
“That sounds like a good metaphor,” Tobin mumbled, not knowing what to say in this situation.
“Yeah, it’s nice when the ball decides to just hang out in the middle of the box, because it doesn’t feel like it’s there anymore. You can forget it exists for a moment. You can have tickle fights and date nights and you can breathe ,” Christen continued, the ghost of a smile tugging at her lips. A smile that dropped quickly. “But then the ball moves and it hits a wall, and suddenly those things aren’t easy to do anymore. It reminds you it’s there, even if maybe you didn’t want or need the reminder,” she added, her lower lip trembling as she felt the proverbial ball repeatedly hitting into her every wall, making it impossible to ignore right now.
“Would you mind if I move closer?” Tobin asked, glancing at the foot of space between them.
“That’s fine,” Christen whispered, her voice still a bit detached and wobbly, her tears falling without anything holding them back anymore.
Tobin moved so that she was sitting right next to Christen, their legs touching and their hands still tangled.
“It’s okay to not be able to do those things all the time,” Tobin said, quietly.
“I’m dating a woman with an almost eight-year-old who loves tickle fights. Those are things I need to be able to do,” Christen reasoned, her voice slightly strained.
“We aren’t- I mean, no one is expecting you to be happy all the time. Scottie can ask someone else for a tickle fight if it's hard today, and if dates aren’t in the cards, we can take a nap or sit just like this,” Tobin whispered. “There are no expectations for how you have to be.”
Christen nodded again, blinking a bit out of her vacant stare. She forced herself to take a deep breath and then look over at Tobin.
“She caught me off guard. One second she was talking about how good it feels to have her hair brushed and the next she was asking about my- my mom, and I just-” Christen’s jaw tightened as fresh tears pooled in her green eyes.
“I know, baby,” Tobin hummed.
“I want to be okay for you two. I want to be okay so bad, but then the ball hits a wall, and I don’t feel okay anymore,” Christen whispered, her grip tightening on Tobin’s hand, almost painfully.
“You don’t need to be okay,” Tobin said, reaching out for Christen. She pulled Christen’s legs into her lap, just wanting to hold her somehow. “Eight months is not a long time, and if you’re still not always okay after eight years, that’s okay too.”
“I don’t remember what the article said about how small the ball will be in eight years,” Christen mumbled, simply letting herself be held.
“You don’t need to be anything more than you are for us,” Tobin repeated.
The words hit Christen in the chest, but not in the same way Scottie’s had. These words made the pain in her chest lighten. These words were like a balm to her soul. These words made her feel like she could be her messed up, grieving self and that Tobin and Scottie would still stick around.
“She didn’t- I mean, Scottie didn’t realize- right?” Christen said, her words tight with worry.
“No, she didn’t,” Tobin whispered.
Christen sagged in Tobin’s arms, a stuttering breath leaving her lips. “Good. That’s good,” she murmured.
Tobin rubbed a hand along Christen’s back, slowly moving her hand up and down. “You know that she loves you. That’s not gonna change if you get sad or if some moments are more painful than others.”
Even if she knew they were talking about Scottie, it felt like there was just a little more behind Tobin’s words. More than there should be this early on, and it wasn’t explicit or anything, but it had the pain in Christen’s chest easing even more. The promise of more behind the words had Christen realizing that even if moments like these continued to happen, because they would, if she had Tobin there to hold her and Scottie to love her, maybe she would survive it better than she had been.
“Your parents are going to think we’re making out up here before dinner like a couple of teenagers,” Christen whispered, the corner of her mouth lifting just a bit.
“That’s okay,” Tobin hummed, a smile reaching her lips slightly.
“Maybe I should give you a hickey, just in case.”
“I think you’d have a lot of explaining to do to a seven-year-old,” Tobin teased.
Christen choked out a laugh, pressing herself just a bit closer to Tobin. “Yeah...thank you.”
“For saving you from a child’s inquisition? You’re very welcome,” Tobin teased.
“For coming after me,” Christen replied, brushing her lips across the side of Tobin’s throat gently.
“You never have to thank me for that,” Tobin whispered.
And with that, another knot of pain loosened, and it got just a bit easier to breathe. Christen leaned off of Tobin’s chest, looking into those brown eyes so full of concern and care that it made her melt.
“I’m going to need to pay to get this t-shirt dry-cleaned too,” Christen sighed, running her thumb across the small smudges of mascara she’d left near the collar.
“I’ll add it to your tab,” Tobin murmured, resting her forehead against Christen’s. “We can leave,” Tobin offered. “I know a really good burger place in Jersey City.”
“I’m not calling offsides,” Christen shook her head, making Tobin’s forehead bounce against hers gently. “I’m good, and I think I’d really like a Scottie hug.”
“She’s dying to show you the really horrible job I did with her hair,” Tobin laughed. “I can’t get space buns down for the life of me.”
“I’m actually really good at them,” Christen confessed with a small, huff of a laugh. “But I’m sure yours are great.”
“They’re only cute because she’s cute,” Tobin admitted.
Christen lifted her free hand and cupped the side of Tobin’s face. She ran her thumb across Tobin’s cheekbone slowly.
“You’re cute,” Christen hummed, her smile coming a little easier now. “And you’ve called me baby twice now.”
Tobin pressed a kiss to Christen’s forehead, trying to play off her slightly embarrassed blush with a gentle kiss. She hadn’t necessarily meant to let the word slip. In fact, she’d never called someone ‘baby,’ but with Christen, the term of endearment had felt natural.
“Is that okay?” Tobin asked softly.
“Very okay,” Christen replied at no more than a whisper, her thumb continuing its path across Tobin’s cheek and down across her smile lines, the ones that grew deeper with her answer. “You promise this isn’t too much?” she asked a little hesitantly, an embarrassed flush creeping up her neck.
Christen knew this was a lot. The fact that she had to come up here during a family barbecue and breakdown wasn’t easy to deal with. She knew it wasn’t going to be the last time something like this happened. She also knew that not everyone wanted to sign up for this, for walking alongside someone who was grieving. But Christen hoped it wasn’t too much. She hoped Tobin would say what she thought she’d say. She hoped Tobin would want to continue walking alongside her.
“I promise,” Tobin nodded. “I didn’t start dating you because I thought it would be easy. Some parts are super easy, don’t get me wrong. But I want to date you because I want to be with you, even when you’re having a bad day or when the ball in the box is rolling all over the place. I’ve never wanted to be with someone who’s always smiling or pretending things are okay when they aren’t. This, ” Tobin said, gesturing at Christen, “This doesn’t scare me. I just want to be here.”
There was nothing Christen could say to capture the way her heart completely and totally healed at Tobin’s words. There was nothing Christen could do to express her gratitude or her care for the woman in front of her. There was nothing to say or do, besides crash her lips against Tobin’s and kiss her with everything she was feeling.
“Thank you for being here,” Christen whispered into the breath of space she put between them before pressing another kiss to Tobin’s lips once more.
“Thank you for letting me,” Tobin whispered back, brushing her thumbs along Christen’s cheekbones.
The beautiful thing about a family barbecue was that things got hectic around dinner time. It allowed Tobin and Christen to slip back downstairs, almost without anyone having noticed their absence. Except Scottie, who was waiting alone in the kitchen for her mom and Christen to reappear. She’d been spending her time watching cookies bake in the oven.
“Mommy, you found her!” Scottie said from where she was now snitching fruit off of the counter.
“Whoa, those are awesome space buns!” Christen said, pulling her hand out of Tobin’s slyly and making her way over to the counter. She picked Scottie up and settled her against her hip.
“Thank you,” Scottie blushed, pressing her face against Christen’s neck.
“Whoever did them must be super talented,” Christen replied, running her hand up and down Scottie’s back.
“Mommy’s the best at hair,” Scottie mumbled against Christen’s skin.
“And do you know who gives the best hugs?” Christen whispered.
“Who?” Scottie asked, pulling back to look at Christen.
“You do,” Christen replied, smiling softly. “Think I could have one of those magical hugs right now?”
Scottie put her arms around Christen’s neck and burrowed even closer, squeezing tightly. “I love you,” she whispered as soon as Christen was hugging her back.
“I love you too,” Christen replied, her chest tightening for an entirely different reason now.
“Will you and Mommy sit by me at dinner?”
“Totally,” Christen murmured. “Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Tobin hadn’t wanted to intrude on their moment, but upon hearing her name, she slipped into the space and wrapped her arms around the two of them, keeping Scottie in the middle.
“I get to sit by you ?” she asked Scottie, widening her eyes to show Scottie just how cool that was.
“Duh, Mommy!” Scottie giggled.
“Let’s go, slow pokes! Burger’s are getting cold!” Tobin’s dad said, poking his head into the kitchen from the back door.
“Yeah, jeez slow pokes,” Tobin teased, poking Christen and Scottie in the sides and making them both squirm and laugh.
Tobin led the way outside, with Christen carrying Scottie following behind her. They settled into the three open spots at the table, Scottie between the two adults. She would alternate whose hand she would grab for, eating her burger one-handed so she could always be holding Christen’s or Tobin’s hand.
Conversation flowed easily around the table, the topics floating from summer plans to the newest Netflix shows. And the whole time, Christen always felt Scottie’s hand in her own, or Tobin’s hand on her back, making her feel marginally better with every moment that passed.
As the day faded into night, as fireworks lit up the dark sky and sparklers were passed around, Christen still had Scottie’s hand in her own and Tobin’s hand on her back, and she didn’t just feel marginally better. She felt better than she had in a long, long time.