|Thanks to Elizabeth Marshall for sage editing advice and general wonderfulness
The warm scent of cooking dinner wafted into the hall. Ancel pushed the door shut behind him and headed for the chatter he could hear from the kitchen.
"Daddy!" The little voice pierced right through his heart as it always did. He leaned down to his daughter's level to kiss her.
"We're cooking," she informed him proudly. "Here." She popped a baby carrot into his mouth. He crunched it happily and nibbled at her small fingers.
"Mmm, delicious." She squealed and pulled her hand away.
"No, the carrot, eat the carrot!"
Ancel made a mock disappointed face. "Oh, the carrot." Allyson giggled at his crestfallen look. "You're silly."
He kissed the top of her head.
"How about one for me?"
Ancel looked up, landed a quick kiss on the lips of another familiar face. "The house smells wonderful, Mal. We'd make a fortune bottling it in air freshener."
Malcolm grinned, lifted An's tie. "You look so…formal."
"I'd fund your projects, honey," Mal said, eyes looking dark at him. Ancel couldn't help smiling back even as he colored a bit.
"What's for dinner?"
"You'll see. It'll be good. We've been slaving in the kitchen, barefoot and p-" Malcolm shot a quick glance at Ally, who was deep in thought as she tossed carrots into a big wooden bowl, cherry tomatoes into another. "Well, barefoot anyway."
Ancel grinned. Mal was extraordinarily careful around Ally. Despite Ancel's promises she wouldn't break, Malcolm had been afraid to hold her those first few weeks. To the point that his hands shook. It was Ancel who had sat behind him, cradling them both, steadying Mal's quivering arms. The three of them still piled sometimes on the rocking loveseat, a big overstuffed number that might have been handmade for a family like theirs.
They might outgrow it, Ancel considered. He took a moment to observe his daughter as she worked, in a rare quiet moment. Her brow was furrowed slightly in concentration, sparkling dark eyes intent on her task. She was built on fine, elegant lines; he memorized for the thousandth time her dainty princess hands, the soft, narrow planes of her face. No, Ancel noted, removing his gaze from the child reluctantly, striding to the sink to wash his hands, they were unlikely to outgrow the chair anytime soon.
He sat in the opposite chair, lifted Ally to his knee. "How was your day, Pepin?"
She giggled. "No, I'm Allyson, I'm not Pepin!"
"Well, if Grandma Frieda had her way, you would have been Pepin…"
"Ally Ally Ally," she reminded him firmly.
"Daddy An's a big tease, isn't he," Malcolm offered, dropping into the chair Allyson had vacated.
"Yes," Ally nodded vigorously. Her smile said it all: she loved to be afforded adult status in conversation.
"I am," Ancel agreed sorrowfully, "I'm terrible."
"No, no, you're nice, I like you," Ally assured him. She snuggled back against him. "Cameron has a puppy," she said conversationally. "He's little and brown."
An lifted a brow at Malcolm over the small dark head. Mal raised his own eyes skyward. "We had a playdate today," he said by way of explanation.
Ah. "Was it fun?" Ancel asked, absently smoothing Ally's satin hair.
"We had peanut butter for snack and Cameron's nanny is so nice, her name is Floor and the puppy's name is Chocolate," Allyson said in one breath.
"Sounds like you had fun… 'Floor'?" An mouthed over Ally's head to Malcolm.
"Fleur," Malcolm said out loud.
"Yeah, Floor, her name is Floor and she made a braid in my hair but it fell out when we were playing with Chocolate, but he doesn't bite." Allyson grinned up at Ancel. "You bit me when you came in but you're not a puppy!" Her little face screwed up in a huge smile at her own joke.
An dug her gently in the ribs. "My little comedienne."
Ally laughed and Ancel stood up, scooping her up with him. "Let's get the table ready for dinner, Pepin."
Ally wriggled, reaching for the cabinet. "Forks, knife, spoon!" she chanted loudly. Ancel set her down and handed her soft plastic placemats instead, glanced to Mal where he stood guard over their dinner.
"How's the Pace manuscript coming, love?"
Mal turned from the stove, slowly stirring the simmering contents of the large blue pot. "Steady but slow, thanks. Patrick's taking his time with the overhead."
Ancel watched Mal steadily, one of his hands lightly on Ally's shoulder as she lay placemats down on the table. Mal's jaw looked hard, the way it did when he clenched his teeth. An went over to him, dropped a hand gently on his neck to rub. "Stressful day?"
Mal sighed contentedly at his touch. "Well…the playdate was nice…"
An wrapped an arm around his waist, gave him a quick squeeze. "When's the deadline?"
"I was hoping to get it done by Thursday."
"But I have until next Tuesday."
An dropped a quick kiss on his hair. "Don't torture yourself, Mal. Take the time you have."
Malcolm shifted, tense under his hands. "It'll hang over me…"
"Not if you leave it in your briefcase." Mal smiled slightly. It was an old private phrase of theirs. And it had gotten easier over the years. But still…
An patted the closest hip. "Briefcase, Mal." He turned. "Ally? Do you want to get out some cups?"
"Pink ones pink ones!" she cried. Ally hated to be left out of anything so in deference to her the whole family ate and drank off plastic when they were together. Couple Nights involved glass and china. Ancel loved those elegant meals, complete with the staples of their early life together: candles, the kind of food that would make Ally screw up her tiny nose, linen napkins and adult conversation. An felt his heart tug though as he watched Allyson carefully setting large pink cups at each of their places, standing on tiptoe to reach across the table. Family dinners, he knew, were worth the indignity of drinking from plastic. Worth much more than that.
The three of them lay in a circle on their stomachs, playing Hungry Hungry Hippo. It was a recent hand-me-down from an older cousin, cleaning her closets out for college, and Ally had begged to play it immediately - and most nights since its bequest. Mal wasn't crazy about it - An caught the other man casting occasional longing glances toward the bright, new, educationally-sound games stacked neatly in the play area. Ally's love of the game was difficult to turn down, though, and anything that drew the three of them together to the living room rug, laughing and enjoying themselves like this, had some value even if it wasn't educational.
So An told Mal.
And so Mal accepted.
Although he couldn't seem to resist counting each marble slowly and carefully, slipping in a brief math lesson. Ally was only too happy to count along, proud of her newly acquired numbers.
And counting was the best way to get the game put away. An withheld the word "bath" as long as he could - it had the effect of "walk" on a frisky puppy, except that the released energy was disgruntled instead of excited. Instead their family of three separated the marbles into colors and counted them carefully back into their container. Ally slapped the hippo handles a few more times, patted the purple one, her favorite, one last time, and let Mal drop the cover over the box.
An carried the box back to the shelf while Mal scooped Ally up. "We're late, we're late, for a very important date," he rhymed, lifting her to his shoulder.
An patted Ally's foot as she passed, scanned Mal's face with the rapid, expert glance of a longtime lover. Mal's eyes were warm, focused on Ally, but An saw a brief shadow in them, saw Mal's own glance drift as if of its own accord toward the closed door of the office. An smiled at both of them but caught Mal's eye, transmitting as much meaning through the quick glance as he could. Mal colored slightly, confirming An's suspicions, and jiggled Ally a bit as they headed out of the room.
"No bath!" An could hear Ally call out as they mounted the stairs, but it sounded like something of an afterthought.
An couldn't resist a private smile, seeing how their tag-team parenting had improved. Racing, really, to keep up with Ally, whose quick little mind moved faster each day.
"Sleep, love." The words were muffled slightly by Mal's soft dark hair, tucked under An's chin. Daughter bathed, story read, tantrum averted, and lights out, the two men were settled in their own bed.
Mal's body rested slightly tense against An's. Ancel slid his hand beneath Mal's tee shirt to rub the warm skin of his back, try to absorb some of the tension. In the early days of their relationship he'd had to coax Mal from his work, urge him to sleep. The flexibility of his career was both its benefit and its detriment: Mal could just as easily put in a fraction of the hours he sometimes tried to push himself toward. With the limits they'd set, Mal could work and have a life with An too; these days, family time filled most of the looser hours of their schedule. Mal's love for Ally was strong enough to overcome a great deal of his natural workaholic tendencies; it was Mal's regard for himself that concerned An. He knew Mal would far rather sacrifice the few hours he had to himself than give up time with Allyson.
An hadn't missed Mal's stolen glances toward his office where the symbolic stuffed briefcase rested. Now he massaged him gently, urging him toward sleep, holding him firmly enough, he hoped, to direct him toward the right course.
"Hey." An closed the door softly behind him, squinting slightly as his eyes adjusted to the bright light. Mal's head shot up, with the good grace to look alarmed. "An…"
Ancel's hands went to his hips. "Malcolm. Not okay," he said quietly.
Mal blushed. "A few more hours and it's done."
"These aren't the few hours, love. It's late and we need to sleep."
Mal sighed. He knew the look and its implications well. "An…I'm sorry…"
Ancel kissed his forehead. "Sorry I saw the light on, maybe."
"I just wanted to finish it before…"
"I know, Mal." An cut him off, his voice matter of fact but without accusation. "You wanted to finish long before the deadline. You're not in competition at the company, you know. They appreciate you. And, Mal, I said no."
"I hate it hanging over me…"
"It's not hanging, Mal. But you can't work all hours, it's not healthy."
Mal nibbled thoughtfully at his lower lip, a habit An had nearly cured; he took a hand off his hip now to rub a thumb gently across his lover's mouth, stilling the work of his teeth.
An watched him tenderly. He was thorough if nothing else, Malcolm, he threw himself into every task he undertook and worked it vigorously until completion. When they'd met Malcolm brought work home every night, curled up in bed with manuscripts and read until exhaustion overtook him.
Mal adored Ally; his workaholic tendencies, much better regulated these days, rarely if ever edged into his time with her. No, Mal would much prefer to take his own time to work, even if it meant losing sleep.
Even if it meant tiptoeing out of bed to do it.
His eyes were downcast. "I Am sorry, Ancel…"
"Bed, Mal." An held out a hand, pulled Malcolm close and gave him a hug. Held him tightly enough to transfer his sureness to his lover. Mal gulped once into his neck. "We…"
"Tomorrow, love," Ancel said softly. Mal nodded, swallowing hard. He knew the answer would be the same; An knew Malcolm found reassurance in the repetition.
They walked up the creaky stair, along the landing, quiet as mice. Once Ally was asleep for the night she stayed down; there were no sounds from behind her slightly open door. Back in their big bed Mal rolled into Ancel's arms, rested his head on An's chest. An threaded his fingers through the other man's hair, softly, steadily, until his breathing evened out and Ancel followed him into sleep.
Ally woke them before the alarm. In fact, Ancel wasn't completely certain why they set an alarm, considering the clockwork precision with which their small daughter appeared in their doorway each morning…sometimes painfully close to dawn.
An groaned slightly, sitting up. "Ally, baby," his voice was hoarse with sleep. "It's early."
"It's light!" Ally pointed to the window. "When it's light it's morning!" She bounced to the bed. "Can we make pancakes? I want to mix the batter!"
Ancel shook his head slightly, clearing it. The hunched shape under the covers next to him didn't move, a sure sign Mal hadn't slept enough last night. He usually wakened at Ally's first footsteps in the hall. An reached to pat him awake, then thought better of it.
He smiled at Ally, lifted a finger to his lips. "Shhh," he said quietly, "We'll let Daddy Mal sleep a bit. Shall we get him some breakfast?"
He swung his legs over the side of the bed. Ally entered the room on exaggerated tiptoes, hand over her mouth to be extra quiet, and held her arms up to be lifted. Ancel scooped her up and drew the door shut behind them.
"I can do those myself," Ally said imperiously, reaching for the small red shoes. "See, I can tie them, they're belcro."
An smiled as he watched her stuff little feet into impossibly tiny shoes with the imperious grace of a miniature Cinderella. Silently he thanked whatever fashion gods had ensured the return of "belcro" to footwear fashion, for Ally's enjoyment and the ease of their morning routine.
She loved dressing herself. The more complicated, the better; she thrived on ruffles and buttons. Mal had gotten them a subscription to the Children's Symphony last year - if Ally took after him, she'd be decidedly musical - and the monthly treat appealed deeply to their daughter's inner princess. She was thrilled to don her fanciest dress and patent-leather slippers, sat perfectly still while Ancel brushed her hair until it shone, clipped a bow at the back…and then fairly exploded with energy the moment the lights went down in the theatre, spending the first movement wriggling in her seat to see the people behind them, and the rest of the concert amusing herself with other small musical prodigies in the comfortable carpeted aisles.
"Maybe when she's older…" An had suggested tactfully. For now Mal settled for playing the Goldberg Variations on the living room stereo while Ally conducted complex search and destroy missions with her Barbies. They were particularly fierce looking dolls as Ally had given them crew cuts several months ago when, to both men's surprise, she'd broken through the childproof lock on the kitchen junk drawer to retrieve a pair of scissors. An had hoped the dolls' appearance would dissuade Ally from unofficial haircutting missions - they resembled shorn sheep - but he wasn't sure how effective the object lesson had been. Ally had repeated obediently that she would Not Use Scissors Without Asking First Ever Again, but An had seen her later cradling a Barbie, stroking the doll's stubbly, partially bald head with one small finger and crooning "pretty, pretty."
An looked affectionately at Ally now as she yanked the last strip of Velcro across her shoe. "All done!" she beamed.
There would be time for the symphony, yet.
Malcolm appeared sleepy-eyed in the kitchen.
"Did the music wake you?" An crossed to him with a steaming mug of coffee.
"Free To Be You and Me" drifted in from the living room. Ally was passionately drawn to the music and Ancel liked the live and let live message, even if it was a bit dated. It was, of late, their breakfast music of choice. Ancel had found years back that music motivated his sometimes slow-moving lover to perk up in the mornings. Music with words, that is, not the pet sonatas Mal loved to listen to when he cooked or edited. Whoever was up first usually flicked on the CD player out of sheer habit. Now Ancel found himself humming along without realizing.
Well, I don't care if I'm pretty at all, and I don't care if you never grow tall…I like what I look like, and you're nice small. We don't have to change at all…
Mal shook his head. "I should have been up ages ago."
"You were sleeping," Ally agreed, fisting her Peter Rabbit spoon and plunging it into her corn flakes. "You were sleeping a long time!"
Mal smiled a little. "Everyone's a critic."
An ruffled his hair. "You're fine, Mal. Sit down and eat something."
"Tomorrow we're making pancakes," Ally chatted happily. "Right Daddy? We're making pancakes and I'm putting chips in them!"
An eased into a kitchen chair, stirring milk into his cup. "On Saturday, Pepin. Saturday we'll all make pancakes."
"Yeah." Ally nodded vigorously. At four, her world was divided conceptually into Now, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, even though she could rattle off the days of the week as rapidly and easily as the alphabet, the numbers up to a hundred, and the names of her seven cousins. "Tomorrow," she agreed, her face pure pleasure. An could watch her forever. He could…
…He could be late. He swallowed the rest of his coffee.
Ally wrapped her arms around Mal at the door. "Daddy An's taking me to school," she explained for his benefit. She snuggled against him. "Will you pick me up?"
"Lianne's picking you up today, sweetie." Mal gave her a kiss, set her gently on her feet. "But I'll be here when you get back from Karate."
"I want you to pick me up," she whined, clutching a fistful of Mal's slacks. "You pick me up, okay?"
An reached for her and she drew in a deep breath: the universal precursor to a shriek.
"I'll pick you up tomorrow, Ally, and I'll be here as soon as you get back from Karate," Mal said hastily.
"When I get back from Karate," she mused, weighing the bargain. "Okay. We're going to school now," she narrated, one of her more endearing habits; An stifled a smile as she slipped her small hand into his. He leaned to give Mal a quick kiss. "I'll be back in twenty minutes, love," he said in his ear.
Mal sighed, knowing well what he had to do. "Have a good day at school, Ally!" was all he said as they headed across the drive.
The sound of Ally's chatter floated across to him as he closed the front door. "And Cameron's puppy is so soft…"
An shut the door behind him with a decisive click, leaned against it for a moment, gathering decision and strength.
Inside Mal was where he expected him, curled up quiet and pensive on the window seat. Ancel knew his lover well; Mal was naturally wound too tightly for corners, finding the lack of stimulation distracting rather than focusing him on his thoughts. The window seat had been a lucky feature of the house, offering Mal a literal window for his thinking. He sat now with his forehead pressed against the glass - no matter how they cleaned it, Ancel could always find Mal's impression on that window, as easily as catching his hand in the night, rolling over in bed to see him there in the dark.
An dropped a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"I know what I did," Mal said softly, as they faced each other in the study. "I'm sorry. We don't have to…."
Ancel listened quietly, tucking an errant strand of Mal's hair behind his ear. He knew Malcolm needed this conversation as much as the rest of their routine.
"We do have to, love," he said simply. "I told you no more work on the project late at night."
"I know," Mal whispered.
"And what did I mean?"
"Not to do any more." Mal looked miserably at his hands.
"Hey," An tipped his chin up, kissed him. "We're going to straighten this out now."
It was a ritual as familiar as the feel of Mal's body, the soft intake of breath Ancel could feel in Mal's stomach as the other man lowered himself slowly across the waiting lap. An took his arms, steadied him. Rested one hand on the curve of his hip, rubbed gently over his buttocks. He lifted his arm and delivered the first swat. Malcolm hissed at the contact, twisting involuntarily as Ancel's hand smacked down again, firmly, repeatedly, building the heat, working systematically lower to the tops of Mal's thighs. He moaned quietly and the tears began.
"I shouldn't obsess over this stuff, they do like my work there. I've never been late on anything!" Mal cried.
"All that is true," Ancel said soothingly, stroking the hot skin before him. "But right now I want you to think about what I said."
He repeated it, now, with the first stroke of the paddle. "No. I said no."
Malcolm cried out as the paddle descended again, and again.
"I said no," An repeated. "Which meant no more work." He stopped talking then as he knew from long experience Mal would hear little else; he concentrated instead on the non-verbal cues, the sensations surrounding them both: the tension in Mal's body, jerking forward as the paddle struck, the color of his flesh, growing redder and more angry, his own tight grip on the instrument's handle, controlling each downward swipe, and Mal's cries, drifting from pain to penitence. He wrapped his arm more tightly around Malcolm's quivering body and finished the job.
Ancel stretched slightly, arching stiff muscles, trying not to jostle the sleeping form lying heavily across his chest.
"Mal." He ran his fingers through soft dark hair. "Wake up, love."
Malcolm shifted against him, wincing as his body protested. His eyes fluttered slowly open. "What time is it?"
"Why do you need to know, you're not going anywhere," An teased, his voice gentle. He rubbed Mal's back briefly, slid his hand lower to stroke where he was still tender.
Mal sighed heartily. "Why don't I remember what this feels like Before the fact, hm?"
Ancel kissed his forehead. "You do, a lot more than you used to."
Mal appeared to consider this for a moment. Ancel kissed him again, rubbed gently at the worry line on his lover's forehead. "Relax, Mal. We're neither of us going anywhere for hours."
Mal blinked. "You've got class…"
"Rilke at four, that's all."
"Your level-one drill, at noon," Mal pointed out; he had all their schedules memorized.
"Christa's taking it, it's good practice for her."
"But nothing, Mal." He brushed the bangs from Mal's forehead, smiled at him. "It's my decision to stay, not yours."
"I know, but…"
"You do know, if you think about it. My actions are my responsibility. Right?" His voice was kind but firm.
"Good then." An lifted Mal away for a moment, shifted position, and drew Malcolm back down against him. He rubbed gently at the stiff muscles around Mal's shoulders.
Mal subsided, his breathing still thick. Ancel rested his chin on top of Mal's head. Malcolm relaxed slowly, weary from his earlier emotions. An knew from experience what his lover needed now was physical closeness combined with emotional space. Catharsis over, he craved relief from the emotional release. Knowing this, An held him close, continued his gentle massage with one hand and used the other to flick on the television.
"Trading spaces marathon, Mal," he said casually.
"Heat it at 375 for half an hour. I know, An." Mal's tone was patiently put out.
"I'll be home by seven, but Ally will want to eat when she gets in; you go ahead and eat with her."
Mal nodded, swiped a hand across his forehead. An didn't miss the gesture. He put a hand on the back of Mal's neck, rubbed gently. "Head still hurt?"
Mal shrugged. He'd swallowed two painkillers an hour or so earlier, having complained of a headache. He had spent much of the afternoon relaxing and reconnecting with Ancel, watching silly television, lounging in a long, hot shower together, and just chatting, stretched out on the couch with his face comfortably buried in An's lap.
As usual he wanted a lot of physical affection after punishment and Ancel was happy to oblige. He'd had to gently peel his lover away to get dinner ready, only to find him hovering nearby, looking for frequent reassuring gestures and words. Now Ancel slid the neatly prepared food into the fridge.
"Come," he held out a hand. He'd planned the afternoon carefully to make sure he didn't cook and run, knowing that would leave Mal agitated; he wanted to ensure some solid time for the two of them together before he left. Mal moved willingly into his arms now; he held him tightly for a moment, then urged them both back to the living room and the comfort of their big soft couch.
"Lianne will bring Ally around five thirty." He stole another kiss, cupped the back of Mal's head where it tucked into his shoulder. "You take it easy until then, got it?"
"It's fine, love. You just stick to our schedule."
Mal grimaced slightly. "I will."
"Don't think of touching that manuscript until tomorrow, like we discussed," he said, in a tone an outsider would hear as mock severity. But Mal knew and understood, from the gentle flush of his neck at An's words. "I know, An. I won't."
"I love you," Ancel said, kissing Mal's forehead firmly. "So much."
"I know," Mal smiled though. "I love you too. Hurry back."
"Always. Be good."
"Cameron's puppy has a wet nose and it's cold. He put it right on my hand, right here." Ally knelt up on the living room rug to show Mal a spot in the middle of her small palm. "Right here, see? Floor says, put your hand out flat like this. Then you don't scare the puppy." She stopped for a breath. "I like that puppy, Dad."
Mal grinned, stretched out on the couch. "I was sort of getting that idea."
Allyson bounced down, then back up. "Maybe we can get a puppy."
Ancel paused in the doorway, smiling inwardly as he watched Mal freeze. Mal, whose bookshelves were lined with parenting tomes, couldn't bring himself to pull out any of the old clichés: Maybe When You're Older might have been nice here, An thought. He couldn't help a twinge of pride at his smart little daughter; ever a strategist, she tended to switch to the more mature "Dad" when she was starting a clear adult argument and needed to be taken Very Seriously.
Watching the look of well-concealed horror on Mal's face - there were practically puppies spinning around in his pupils - An chose his own favorite strategy: distraction. "Bath time for everyone whose name starts with A!" he sang, striding into the room.
Ally leapt to her feet immediately. "Daddy, no, your real name starts with a A too," she protested.
"Does it?" An furrowed his brow, looking puzzled.
"Yes!" Ally squeaked. "A, like me, A for Ally."
"How about that, I guess you're right. Well, good thing I had a shower this morning."
An lowered the CD player slightly, held out a hand to Ally. "Come on, Pepin."
Every boy in this land grows to be his own man; In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman; Take my hand, come with me where the children are free, come with me, take my hand, and we'll run…
Ally pulled her hand back. "No bath," she offered optimistically.
"Who's coming in with you tonight?" An picked up a Barbie bent double on the coffee table. "How about we wash this one's hair, hm?" He handed the doll to Ally. She glanced at the sparse, spiky strands covering the doll's head, then cast a lingering glance at Mal, torn.
Mal stood up. "I'm going to make some decaf." He touched Ally's hair. "I'll come in and read with you after your bath, sweetie," he assured her and headed for the kitchen. Ally watched him go, then slowly put her hand in An's. "No bath," she tried again, but sounded a little less certain this time.
An picked her up, wincing slightly as the sharp plastic hand of Ally's Barbie poked him in the neck. "Blue bubbles or green bubbles?" he asked casually as they approached the staircase.
"So much for sleeping on my back," Mal muttered into An's chest. His complaint lacked fervor, or maybe it was the way he burrowed against the warm body of his lover. Ancel laughed a bit, rumbling against Mal's cheek. "I think you'll live."
Mal pressed a kiss to the skin nearest his mouth, ran a hand down the smooth planes of Ancel's chest, stroked his hip.
"I thought you were so sore?" An asked, close to Mal's ear.
"Well…not so sore…"
Ancel kissed him. "It's early yet, love. We haven't even gotten the first glass of-"
Mal sat up with a soft sound of pain, grinned in spite of himself. An saw the flash of his white teeth in the darkness.
"My room is so dark!" Ally complained as An carried her out of their bedroom. "It's all dark in there!"
"Your nightlight is plugged in, Ally," Ancel told her patiently as she sipped water from her favorite elephant cup, tucked back into bed.
"I'm not tired," she said, stifling a yawn.
"Finish your water, Pepin." He stroked his thumb absently against her small hand; she still clutched his tightly with the hand not holding her glass of water.
Her eyes drooped. "Leave my door open, open a lot," she directed sleepily.
Ancel kissed her forehead. "Yes boss."
"Sore or not, the next glass of water is yours," Ancel ordered with mock annoyance and he burrowed once again under the covers next to Mal.
Mal shook his head. "I'm on disability here, Cap'n. I'm afraid you're taking water duty all by yourself."
An rolled his eyes skyward, held out his arms for Mal to snuggle again. "Just wait," Mal mumbled against him, "enjoy these glasses of water; she's going to want the car keys one day…."
Or perhaps a puppy, and An wasn't sure which was more terrifying.
At breakfast the next morning he was regaled with more stories of Cameron's dog, this time focusing on the pup's paws. "He has pointy nails on his hands," Ally explained, sinking sharp little teeth into her English muffin. "And when he runs around they go Click! Click!"
Mal raised his eyebrows across the table at Ancel. "I think all future playdates in n-o-p-e-t homes, what do you say?"
Ally turned sharp dark eyes on him, n-o was a word she could spell, Mal realized a moment too late. "N-o means No!" she said. "No what?"
"No…time for chit-chat," An rescued. He tugged one of Ally's pigtails gently. "Someone's going to be late for school!"
"No, the big hand isn't on the four yet, Daddy," Ally said patiently.
"Ah. You're right. Drink your juice, Ally."
She took a long gulp.
Ancel kissed them both good-bye on the drive. "See you this afternoon, loves." He unlocked his car to the pleasant background of Ally's chatter, listening to Mal buckle her into her carseat. She had an opinion on everything, his daughter. Reminded him of someone.
"Griffin was bad today," Ally said around a mouthful of meatloaf.
Mal was pushing salad around his plate, from the looks of him, half his mind still on the project he'd left in the den, having spent his allotted hour hard at work on it. Now he looked up. "What happened, sweetie?"
He met Ancel's glance across the table, somewhere between warning and concern, and gave him a wan but sincere smile in return. He put a forkful of rice into his mouth.
"It's not nice to say bad things, you're supposed to be nice in school," Ally lectured. "Miss Erica says be nice."
Ally poked experimentally at the small heap of peas on her plate.
"Griffin said," Ally stabbed her fork into a piece of meat, "He said, 'Ally's dad's got yellow hair, he's not her real dad.'"
Ancel swallowed. It was not the first time something like this happened, it would not be the last. He nodded encouragingly at Ally, inviting her to keep talking.
"'Cause I have black hair…" she said softly.
Ally did have black hair. And sparkling almond-shaped eyes, petal-soft tawny skin. Ancel knew both these things for certain: that he was biased, and that his daughter was especially beautiful. He remembered vividly when they had first brought Allyson home, tucked her into the crib in their bedroom, it had been Mal who could not get enough of looking at her. As little as they both slept those first few months, as many times a night as they woke to comfort and feed and change the littlest member of their family, Malcolm still had to be coaxed back to bed to snatch precious blocks of sleep. When An remembered his small daughter in her crib, the view was Mal too, An's arms wrapped around him from behind, coaxing his anxious love back to bed. An, who five years prior might not have called himself an emotional man, now found his eyes damp if he looked too long at Ally's baby book, remembered so clearly the way her tiny fist curled around his finger, the first time he'd touched her.
Now his daughter's dark eyes were wide and troubled.
"What did you say to him?" Mal asked casually.
"I said, is too my real dad, not all fam'lies look the same," she said. "They don't," she added stubbornly.
"No, they don't," Ancel agreed. "That was a good answer, Pepin," he praised, glad she'd remembered their conversations on the subject when she needed them.
"I used to come from another where else," Ally said conversationally. She looked up at her parents. "Tell me about the big airplane again."
Ancel watched Mal's eyes soften, remembering.
It was a while since they'd read this particular book.
It was one of several well-meaning friends and family had given them to welcome Ally into their home. The books had bright, optimistic, declarative titles: "All Families Are Different"; "My Parents Chose Me Specially"; and this one, "We Are So Lucky." It was An's favorite: there was something about the brightly-colored illustrations, with their purple and green silhouettes for characters. The cheerful, streaky drawings were unidentifiable as any particular race, ethnicity, or gender, and the simple but heartfelt text appealed to all three of them.
Now Ancel opened the familiar cover, smiling down at Ally. She settled between her fathers against the white-carved headboard of her bed, bathed, pajama-clad and smelling of bubble gum-flavored toothpaste. An met Malcolm's eyes over the shining top of Ally's head, struck once again, somewhere between awe and sentiment, at how quickly their child was growing. Once content to be read to, now Ally liked to pick her favorite letters out of pages of text…and license plates, and street signs, and anywhere else she could. She would be reading soon, An thought.
Ally bounced a little in her place, one small finger alighting on the first page. "A for Allyson," she murmured happily. An combed his fingers through her satin hair.
"You read, Ally," Mal suggested gently. Their daughter smiled. She knew the first few pages by heart, and began "reading" straightaway.
"My fam'ly wanted a baby So Much," she began in a clear voice.
"Night, Daddy," she mumbled later, half-sleep garbling her words as Mal eased her gently off their laps and under the covers. They leaned to kiss her in turns, Ally drifting to sleep almost immediately. Very carefully Ancel detached her small fingers from his own, tucking her hand around the stuffed panda she'd slept with since birth.
Wasn't it be confusing, calling them both Daddy? It was another area of their lives where their assertive little daughter had made her opinions known. Before Ally's arrival there had been complex discussions of what she should call them. They had touched on various options - Papa, as Ancel called his own German-born father; Pop, nixed for sounding too much like breakfast cereal - only to find the moniker debate moot.
For their intelligent child, whose quick mind fascinated both men, their loving child, spoke her first words far younger than the doctor had expected: eyes fixed firmly on both An and Mal she had chirped, "Daddy!"
She was a smart baby, Ancel thought now, unable to suppress his pride. Fiercely independent when she felt like it, she had simply decided herself what she would call them. When nightmares woke her, if she took a tumble or simply needed her parent, she could call "Daddy!" and either or both men would come running.
His sweet, strategic child. Her independent streak worried Mal more often than Ancel. With limits, within boundaries, An knew she would fly. Malcolm hovered around the edges at times, anxious and protective, but they were all learning as they grew together.
It was something Ancel had assured himself as well as Mal when they worried about run-ins like the one their small daughter had braved at preschool that day. When An tucked her in he found himself facing the fact that with every new piece of knowledge she absorbed, every new skill she achieved, she was moving further from the innocent infant they'd brought home four years ago. From the tiny creature they could protect.
It was something he would murmur to Mal years ago, when the other man could not resist drifting into Ally's room during the night, almost hourly at one point, to check the baby's breathing. And he had said it more firmly, settling Malcolm down when his lover's anxiety kept him awake during the night. She was in her own room. An would place the monitor on the night table, resettle them in bed, and rub Mal's back until the soothing combination of his massage and the deep, rhythmic sounds of Allyson's breathing eased them both to sleep.
It was Ancel's turn to pick Ally up from nursery school; familiar now with the fickle world of four-year-olds, he was not surprised to hear Ally ask hopefully, as he swung her into his arms, "Can Griffin come over to play?"
An stooped to lift her small backpack, the sheaf of drawings on thick, yellowish paper. "Sure, soon," he assured his daughter.
Satisfied, she pushed a lock of dark hair behind one ear. "I fed Twinkle today," she reported brightly. "He's not a real pig, just a guinea pig. Real pigs have curly tails but Twinkle doesn't have a tail at all. Dogs have tails," she added slyly, leaning her head on An's shoulder.
He laughed and shifted her to his other arm. "Speaking of tails, we'd better get ours home."
"I don't have a tail!" Ally protested, giggling, as he carried her down the steps and out across the playground.
It was still light as they drove across town. An glanced in the rear-view mirror, smiling at his daughter. "What should we cook for dinner tonight?" he asked her.
"Elephants!" she cried. It was an old joke between them.
"No lions?" Ancel asked.
"No lions. No, giraffes! Giraffes for dinner," Ally cried. "And carrots," she added.
"Giraffes and carrots it is."
Finding the refrigerator stunningly empty of African wildlife, Ancel and Ally settled for hamburgers. He sank his hands into a bowl of chopped meat, shaping small patties. Ally, standing on the stepstool beside him, was counting out string beans.
"I'm going to eat four of them, Daddy," she explained.
"Four, hm? I think you might need more than that, Ally, if you want to grow big and strong…."
"I am BIG," Ally said indignantly. "See…" she stretched on tiptoes, then made a ferocious face. "Dad…Dad…" she tugged at the strings of Ancel's apron.
"Wait, Pepin," he detached her fingers as her maneuverings untied the laces and the apron fell loose. She scowled and stepped back as he retied the garment.
"It's okay," he smiled at her. "What is it, babe?"
She shifted her weight from foot to foot. Ancel didn't ask her if she needed the bathroom; her typical response to that question was a vehement NO, usually bordering on a shriek. Her dignity was important to her and it had been a long time since she'd had an accident, so her parents were patient. Ally liked to be her own judge; the men in her life tried to let her when it was feasible.
"I want green corn tonight," Ally said.
An smiled down at her, filled with the rush of love he could not contain at moments like these, so simple and so gratifyingly frequent. His little darling had referred to peas as "green corn" since she was old enough to name food; it was a common dinner request. And preparing dinner with Allyson was a treat for which he felt grateful. He knew how lucky he and Mal were that their careers allowed them so much time with Ally. He wouldn't have given up these evenings with her for anything; or the late mornings they breakfasted together before he drove her to preschool; or the way she shrieked with delight ("Higher! Higher NOW!") when he pushed her on their backyard swings in the last, low glow of daylight.
"I wish all two-parent families had your schedule," their lawyer had said wistfully. She was a pretty woman, with curving Sephardic features; Ancel noticed two framed pictures of small children on her desk. They had filled out forms late into the night.
"Green corn!" Ally yelped, bringing An back from his sentimental musings.
"We don't have any green corn in the house, Ally," he told her. "Maybe we'll have some tomorrow night."
"I want some now," Ally protested.
"We're making green beans. See, can you finish helping me snap them?" He handed her a green bean and she tossed it onto the table.
"I want green corn," she repeated morosely, brow furrowed. "Go to the store and get some, Daddy."
"It's too late to go shopping now, Ally." He pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down, tried to ease his daughter into his lap. "Come, you want to help me set the table?"
"No…" she twisted in his arms. "I don't like green beans," she whimpered.
He lifted her to his knee. "You usually like them. They're yummy and they're good for you." She struggled her way back to the floor.
"I don't like green beans!" she yelled it this time. "I don't want any - no!" she shrieked when An reached for her hand.
"Do you want to go to bed?" he asked meaningfully.
Her response was another shriek. "Use your words, Ally," An instructed gently, extending his hand. She yanked her own away and spun on her heel to bolt. An's heart skipped a beat as Ally lurched close to the stove.
He realized later she'd been nearly a foot from the appliance but at the moment his only thought was a growling papa bear protectiveness; he lunged at a speed that surprised him and snatched her away from the oven, lifting her into his arms.
It was over in seconds. Startled, Ally wailed. After a tight squeeze of pure relief, An patted her back, strode up and down the kitchen rocking her slightly, as he had when she was a baby.
When she'd calmed somewhat he sat down in the same kitchen chair still akimbo by the table. He settled Ally in his lap. "What's the rule about the stove?" he asked her firmly.
"Stove is hot," she whimpered.
"It's hot. Right. So only grownups touch the stove. Kids don't go near it."
She sniffled and leaned against him.
"So we don't run around the kitchen like that, near the hot stove, ever. Right, Ally?"
He pushed her hair out of her eyes gently, stroked one damp cheek. "Right, honey?"
"Yeah," she nodded.
An kissed the top of her head, letting out a breath he realized he was still holding.
His bright little shooting star of a child, so quick, so much her own person no matter how closely they watched her.
But fine. She was fine.
"Car's here!" Ally said happily. A few dried tear marks on her cheeks were the only testament to their earlier scare as she sat coloring quietly at the small plastic table in the far corner of the kitchen. Now she leapt to her feet, darted out of the kitchen and down the hall as Mal pushed open the front door. Ancel washed his hands with soap, mindful of the raw meat, before joining his family in the foyer, planting a quick kiss on Mal's lips. Ally jumped up and down, previous temper forgotten, attaching herself to Mal's leg. "String beans for dinner!" she announced, casting a sideways glance at Ancel.
"Mmm, did you count mine?" Mal asked.
Ally nodded solemnly and An looked from one to the other of them.
We're So Lucky.
A dog barked in the distance as Ally's small feet crunched through colorful scattered leaves. Autumn was passing through, bright and crisp; Ancel smiled to see it. A few weeks into the month they would have their own Oktoberfest, Ancel inviting his students and department colleagues out to the house. Ancel and Mal cooked a huge German meal each year and their guests gathered on the big patio out back, eating spicy wurst and drinking beer under the twinkling lights they threaded through the low tree branches. Ally, if last year was any indication, would skip about with their friends' children, snatching thick slabs of black forest cake. As a yearly event it didn't quite rival Halloween, An admitted, but it was close. He made a mental note to reserve next weekend for cleaning the patio furniture, trimming the outgrowing garden weeds.
"Hey!" An winced as the soft nerf ball caught him on the leg. He'd been lost in thought.
"I got you!" Ally crowed.
"And I'll get you back, monster!" He feinted left, charged. Ally, shrieking with giggles, dove for Mal's protection, grabbing him around the legs. He went down, catching Ally first, and An dropped and rolled, somewhere between tackling and tickling them both. Ally's laughter rose over both of theirs. "Help, help!"
"Uncle," Mal protested, and the three of them broke apart. Ally shook with residual giggles. Ancel plucked a leaf out of her hair. She jumped to her feet, grabbed Mal around the neck from behind. He covered her small hands with his. "Cameron's puppy plays outside too!" she said happily. "He likes backyards a lot. Big ones!"
Then she burst into fresh laughter when Ancel rolled his eyes heavenward and collapsed back into the leaves.
"Two hours to ourselves."
Mal sounded less gleeful than wistful, An noted. He hooked an arm around the other man's neck. "That's six episodes of Barney we can watch."
Mal smiled slightly. "I suppose we can think of better things to do."
"Better things than Barney?" Ancel feigned shock. "Grover, then?"
Mal shook his head.
"Puppies?" An teased.
Mal moved closer to Ancel, lowering his voice. "How about Beauty and the Beast?"
"I resent that, young man," Ancel said, mock-stern, but the last of his protests were drowned out when Mal descended, apparently determined on showing Ancel better ways to spend the time. And An, from his response, didn't exactly object to Mal's methods.
Now Mal drew back the living room drapes. An folded his arms around the other man from behind. "They'll be back soon, love."
"I know…" Mal's voice trailed off and he seemed unable to resist a quick glance down the winding lane past their driveway.
"Come here," An drew him gently away from the window, settled them both in the overstuffed chair by the hearth. "My mother raised four kids, Mal. Four big, loud, rough kids," he added, smiling. "She thinks Ally's an angel."
Mal snorted, but pinkened a bit at the praise. He loved when people loved Ally. "She's an angel for Grandma, anyway," Mal said, lips quirking into a half-smile.
"Stop worrying, love. She's fine and she's getting a nice treat." An slipped his hand under Malcolm's collar gently, rubbed his stiff shoulders until they started to relax. He withdrew his hand and kissed him. "How about a nice massage to make you feel better?"
"That sounds good," Mal said softly.
"Great," Ancel said, deadpan, swiveling in the chair to turn his back to Malcolm. "My neck is killing me."
Mal's outraged laughter was music to his ears.
In a few hours An's mother would return with Ally, pink-cheeked and talkative from her special day with Grandma. There would be milk in elephant cups, dinner on plastic, stories before bedtime. For now though in the extreme silence only found in a house devoid of its usual children, there were only Ancel and Malcolm, and the dance for two they had perfected years before they had become a threesome.
"I'm home!" Ally shouted as she poked the doorbell over and over with one small thumb, broadcasting her arrival as she loved to do.
"Did you have fun?" Ancel asked his mother as his daughter launched herself at him, attaching arms and legs. He peeled her off gently, lifted her high in the air. "Were you good for Grandma?"
"I'm good," Ally responded.
Mal joined them in the hall and Ally held out one arm to him, settling it comfortably around his neck, effectively joining all three of them together.
Grandma Frieda chose that moment to bid her farewell, adding that she wished she'd brought her camera. Mal kissed the top of Ally's head. "How was the movie, sweetie?"
"So fun," Ally said happily.
She twisted in An's arms to see at both of them. "Dogs know how to catch sticks, if you throw some," she reported, looking fetchingly at both men. "Maybe we need a dog."
"What we need, love," An whispered urgently, once Ally was asleep, "is a book called something like 'We Are a No-Dog Family.'"
Mal grinned. "Or maybe 'My Mean Dads Won't Buy a Dog Because They Just Finished Housebreaking Me.'"
"You're an excellent researcher, Mal. Find one!"
"I'm in publishing, aren't I?" Mal grumbled. "Hell, I'll commission one."
An laughed out loud. "Pet-free zone, Mal. Just keep telling yourself that."
Malcolm sighed. "I know, it's just hard to refuse someone so cute."
"Ah, but you just need practice, love," An said knowingly, kissing him. "It gets easier. Trust me."
"Daddy! Dad Dad Dad," Ally jumped on him the moment he came in the door. Grabbed one of his large hands with both of hers and tugged him toward the living room.
An laughed and fended her off gently. "Let me just put my bag down, Pepin."
She propped her hands on her hips and grinned up at him. "Guess what guess what?"
He hung his coat on its regular hook in the hall, set his briefcase down beside it and held a hand out to his daughter. "What, Ally?"
"Daddy Mal got me a puppy! I got a puppy!" she squealed, barely able to contain herself. She grabbed his hand tight, dragged him with her through the wide entryway.
An couldn't help but be amused by the sight they must have made, this tiny child braced hard against the large weight behind her, dragging a full-grown man with her as easily as she'd wrapped both men around her finger. From the first moment she'd wrapped her own minuscule fingers around theirs.
Ancel let her pull him into the living room where, in the middle of the carpet, sat a small dog, unmistakably a collie with its soft brown and white markings and graceful pointed head.
And leaning against the wall, arms folded, looking quite satisfied with himself, was Malcolm.
Ally broke away from Ancel, galloped toward the puppy and dropped to the ground to stroke its back and mock-wrestle.
An sidled next to Mal, drew a deep breath.
"You…are a genius," he whispered in his ear. "A genius…although you shaved a few years off my life," he teased.
Mal grinned and An kissed the side of his head quickly, knowing Mal knew he knew that a puppy purchase would never have taken place without previous discussion. The gravity of their role as parents never escaped Mal.
Ally lifted the puppy in the air and waved it toward Ancel. "Look, Dad, see my puppy?"
And neither did the fun parts. For either of them, An noted.
"Your puppy's beautiful, Pepin," he assured his daughter.
Ally nodded. "Yeah. He's so cute like Cameron's puppy. My puppy is hungry now," she observed and held one small hand beneath its unmoving mouth. "I'm feeding him bones!"
Mal grinned. "Thank god for Gund."
Ancel watched his daughter play happily on the floor, talking quietly to herself and the puppy. Looked back at Malcolm, his face bright and free of strain, eyes laughing.
"And, aside from saving the universe, how was your day?"
"Promising. We had a nice pet-free playdate," Malcolm said quietly. "Lovely little girl from Ally's class. That plus the new toy, I think, just might get us past this phase unscathed…."
An grinned. "Good thing Ally has you."
Ally looked up at her name. She patted the realistic fur of the dog in her lap and beamed at both men. "Know what?" she asked cheerfully, black button-eyes sparkling. "Maika's got a little baby brother at her house and he's real cute..."