“Can I get a tattoo?”
“Not yet, trouble. Turns out there are laws against tattooing children.”
“I’m not a child!” Shea said, pouting as she attempted to steal a piece of Al’s toast. It served him right for daydreaming, really.
“Sure you’re not,” Leo grinned, stealing the toast back from her and returning it to his brother, who hadn’t even noticed that it was missing. “Al? You ok, there?”
“You’re looking a bit spaced out, even by your standards. Everything alright?”
“I don’t know yet,” Al said, looking down at his phone for what felt like the millionth time. “I hope so.”
“Well, stop fidgeting, it’s making me nervous,” Ellie said, chasing the last few pieces of fruit around her bowl with her spoon. “At least finish your food.”
“Not hungry,” he mumbled.
“Well, I am,” Shea said. “Can I have your toast?”
She grinned, sticking her tongue out at Leo before happily digging into her prize. Ellie raised an eyebrow at the younger girl, which was ignored with the ease that only a younger sibling can manage. She’d had plenty of time to find that out, even before Shea.
Al’s phone buzzed, and everyone fell silent. Al picked up the phone, blushing slightly at all the attention, and opened the message.
He began to glow.
“Well, no need to ask if you’re happy,” Leo said, biting his lip to keep from laughing.
“What do you mean?” Al looked down at his hands, and his eyes widened. “Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.”
“Oh, yes! Now I really want to know what she said.”
“What makes you think I’m talking to a girl?”
“Hmm, I wonder what would give us that idea,” Malik said, sitting down at the table. His dad senses were tingling – this was definitely a potential embarrass-your-children moment, and he wasn’t going to miss it.
Shea peeked over Al’s shoulder at the screen. “It’s Yaritza!”
“Oi!” he said, quickly turning the screen off. His cheeks were nearly red enough to outshine his aura.
“Ooooh, what did it say?” Ellie asked, giggling.
“It was boring. It just said Sure. See you tomorrow.”
Leo shook his head in mock disappointment. “Is that all?”
“You’re all horrible, you know that?” Al said. He wasn’t pouting. Honest.
“We love you, really,” Ellie said, looking own at her own phone. “Right, school time!”
Altair looked around frantically. He couldn’t go like this! What was the point of a disguise if you were lit up like a Winterfest tree? “Don’t leave me!”
“I thought we were all horrible,” Ellie said, brushing a couple of crumbs off her top before standing up. “Not to worry, I’m sure dad can help.”
“Who, me? I suppose I could try,” Malik said, striking a dramatic pose. Well, Al was certain it was meant to be dramatic. It looked more like his father was trying to ward off a herd of tiny bees.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” she said, and before he could protest again she was out the door.
“So, all I need to do is make you feel something that contradicts the happiness, right?” Malik asked.
20 minutes later
“… and that is why you always need protection,” Malik finished. He’d worked on the script for that particular talk with help from his husband. Of course, Lor had planned on waiting until the kids were adults before broaching the subject, but desperate times called for desperate measures. He hadn’t wanted to make his son angry or sad, so embarrassment had been his only option.
“Have fun at school!”
“Shea, honey, what’s wrong?”
“It’s Mothers Day today, and the teachers had us all make cards, and…” Shea’s voice cracked. She took a deep breath, willing herself not to cry. “I said that I didn’t have anyone to make a card for, because I have two dads.”
Ellie knelt down and hugged her, an all the tears she had held back started to fall.
“Did the teacher let you make something else instead?”
She shook her head. “Mr Newbridge told me not to lie. He said that I did have one, and I had to make it for her and decorate it with things she likes. Then,” she sobbed even louder, “Danny said that I shouldn’t bother, because she’d just set fire to it.” She wept as Ellie held her.
“She’s not my mum. She’s not!”
“I know she’s not,” came a voice from behind her, and she found herself in the middle of a hug sandwich. Leo’s headphones were digging into her neck, but she didn’t care.
“Ellie?” Leo said, looking over Shea’s head at his sister. “I think cake is needed.”
“I think you’re right.” Ellie stood up. “I’ll be right back, ok, sweetie?”
Shea nodded, watching her go before Leo spun her around gently to face him. “Hey, I have an idea. How would you like to join the coolest club ever?”
She sniffled. “What makes it cool?”
“Only cool people are allowed to join. So far it’s just me and Lyra, but I think you have what it takes,” Leo whispered, making a show of looking out for eavesdroppers. “We’re going to have our first meeting tomorrow night. Wanna come?”
Shea nodded. She was pretty sure that Leo was making this up as he went along, but it helped anyway. It was nice to be wanted. When Ellie came back, arms laden with half a cake and some plates, she even managed a small smile.
“So you’ll come with me?”
“Of course I will. Why you need someone to walk across the road with you is beyond me, but I’ve got nothing else to do.”
Al smiled at her and stood up. Those chairs were far to small for either of them, but sitting at the small table gave the illusion of privacy. He closed his eyes and removed his disguise.
“Al? Are we going later?”Ellie asked.
He shook his head. “If I don’t do it now, I never will.”
He walked out the door and, bemused, Ellie trailed after him. She found him standing on the pavement at the side of the house, looking nervously out across the road.
“So, where do you want to go?” she said, looking around. Everything about this was unprecedented, and she didn’t want to ruin it. He turned to look at her, his smile looking more queasy by the moment.
His eyes were terrified. It looked like she was going to have to take this into her own hands after all.
“How about the beginning of that path over there? That’s not far.”
He nodded and turned to face the road. He tried to move but his feet were glued to the ground, and the corner seemed to be getting further and further away. His breath was coming faster now, and his heartbeat felt more like a vibration than a steady rhythm. He could do this. He had to do this.
He looked at Ellie, her expression open and encouraging. She believed in him, too.
Altair took a deep breath, and stepped forward. He was no longer in the safe zone. He was outside.
Step by step, they walked steadily. Al kept his eyes on his feet, counting slowly in his head and trying to breathe along with it. In and out. In and out. Left foot, right foot. On and on.
“You did it!”
He looked up startled.
“I… I did?” He could hardly believe it. His face split into an answering smile, even as he grew dizzy. Turns out he hadn’t been breathing as well as he had thought. He felt Ellie’s hand steadying him, and he closed his eyes.
He’d done it.
“Thank you,” he said, opening his eyes once more. “I know it doesn’t seem like much, but-”
“Don’t be silly, Al. This is a big step forward,” she paused, “no pun intended.”
He laughed quietly, hoping that she couldn’t hear the shaking in his voice.
“So,” she said, eyes glinting mischievously, “do you want to keep going now?”
“Ah well, it was worth a try,” she laughed. “Lets go home.”
“Thank you again. Really.”
Al was nervous. While his trip outside had been terrifying, this was scary in a whole different way. What if she was angry with him?
The moment he saw her face, he knew it wasn’t the case. She was smiling at him, and not in the slightly sad way she had when she’d last seen him. This was a proper, warm smile, and he couldn’t help but return it.
“Hey, Al. I missed you.”
“I missed you, too. I’m sorry I went quiet for a bit. I was thinking.”
“Oooh, don’t try too hard. Don’t want you hurting yourself,” she said, her dimples more pronounced as her smile grew wider.
“I guess I deserved that,” he laughed. “I was wondering-”
“Al? Malik called from inside the house, “are you going to invite your friend in?”
He blushed, running his hand through his hair. “Yari? Can you come with me a sec?” She nodded, and he paused a second before gently touching her hand. She didn’t pull away, so he laced his fingers through hers and led her around to the side of the house. She followed easily, and his nerves began to fade. This was going better than he’d dared hope.
“I thought about what you said. About me being scared.”
“Al, I-” she started.
“You were right,” he said. “And maybe I still am a little, but I’m going to work on that. I’m going to work on it all.”
“Even though you’re scared?”
He nodded. “I crossed the road today.”
“I… congratulations?” she said, confusion written all over her face.
“Without my disguise.”
Her eyes widened, and her mouth fell slightly open. He felt a new rush of pride at his accomplishment. She knew how much it meant to him.
“I don’t want to be scared. It might take a while, but I won’t let it stop me.”
Yaritza hugged him. “I’m so happy for you.”
“That’s not all.”
He took a deep breath. “I really like you. I know that I messed up before, but if there’s a chance that I can make it up to you…”
He looked up at her. So many emotions were flitting across her face that he couldn’t keep track. He opened his mouth to reassure her that she could say no, but she spoke before he could make a sound.
“You really want to?”
“Yes. I do.”
“What if you get scared again?”
“I can’t promise that I won’t, but I promise that I’ll keep trying.”
A small smile played at the corners of her lips. “Is that so?”
“Prove it,” she grinned. “Kiss me, and I’ll believe you.”
His heart soared. “Come with me.”
“What, again?” she laughed, allowing herself to be pulled along again. This time they went inside. Leo was staring at the dollhouse, glaring at it as if it had broken itself – which he knew wasn’t the case. Al ignored the mess and stopped, turning to face her in the middle of the room.
He stepped back, hoping that he’d done the right thing. He hadn’t want her to think that he would only be brave for her when they were alone, but now he wasn’t so sure he’d made the right decision. What if she-
Maybe he really didn’t need to worry so much.
“So, are you ready to go?”
Shea grinned. She couldn’t believe they were actually going to sneak out. This was the sort of thing that only happened in books, as far as she knew.
How had Leo convinced Lyra to play along, though?
She felt a little disappointed when they arrived at the empty lot. Sneaking out was a bit of an adventure in itself, but she’d been hoping for something a little less… anti-climatic.
“Come on, lass,” Lyra said, grinning. “It’s time to start setting up.”
Setting up? Shea watched in amazement as between them, the two teenagers managed to retrieve item after item from goodness knows where. Leo had gone behind a tree and come back with a chair! It was like magic.
“Welcome to the club, Shea.”
It was warm and inviting around the makeshift bonfire. She could hear the soft crackling of the wood as it burnt, mixing with the slightly static-y music coming from the small radio Lyra had brought with them.
“Hey, you two! Want to see something cool?”
It was like something out of a dream.
“I can’t believe you actually have a club,” she said to Leo, giggling when he rolled her eyes at her.
“Did you think I was lying?”
“I thought that you were just trying to make me feel better,” she admitted, once again entranced by Lyra’s dancing, “but you weren’t. There’s no way you would have been able to do all this in one day.”
“Do you know what else I wasn’t lying about?” he said, turning up the music.
She shook her head, swaying to the beat.
“This club is only for cool people. You fit right in.”