"Amelia, for gods' sake, I nearly break my neck on this damn baseball bat every day!"
Amelia looks up as you walk into the lounge, tapping her very lightly on the top of her head with the handle end of the bat, "Remember to put it away, baby."
"Sorry, Mom," she says, taking it from you and leaning it against the wall, making you roll your eyes.
"That's not much better, but it'll do until you can take it upstairs to your room, okay?" you tell her, earning a nod as she goes back to the game she was playing on the DS. You let her play on it a while, but she prefers to be outside. Of course, it's too dark for her to be out right now, so she's in the lounge.
You walk over to her younger sister, Madeline, and see that she is, yet again, reading about wildlife. "If you don't get a job to do with animals then I'll be very surprised, dear," you say, smiling as she scribbles something down on a bit of paper.
"I want to work with polar bears..." she says, yet again. It isn't anything new, so you nod again.
"I know. Anyway, listen, your dad is nearly here. Put your things away."
Amelia sighs and snaps the DS shut with a loud clack. "Amelia, be careful! That's not yours."
"It's not broken! It's fine!" she yells back as she runs up the stairs, taking the bat with her.
Madeline closes her large book carefully and looks up at you, hugging her huge polar bear plush to her chest, "...How long is Daddy going to be here? Is he going to stay a bit longer this time?"
You shrug, starting to pick up a couple of stray pens, setting them on the table with the drawing pad. "I don't know, Maddie. Just... tell him about what's been happening at school, what you've been doing... You can tell him about that special award you got at school, can't you?"
She nods and you can only hope she won't cry again when he has to leave. That's your main problem with her. Amelia isn't so bad, rather indifferent to his coming and going, but you know she'd prefer it if he stayed, too.
Soon enough, she comes back down at you look at her, "Amelia, honey, listen... If your dad gives you another present, please, for gods' sake, thank him and be polite. Please, Amelia."
"I will. But, if it's another stupid thing then--"
You interrupt her, "Then you'll still be polite and say thank you, won't you?"
Just as she says that, the doorbell rings. You curl your hand into tight fists and take a deep breath before uncurling them and moving towards the door.
No shouting. Not in front of the girls. That was the promise you made to yourself and you're going to stick to it.
As you open the door, Arthur is standing on the other side. He's looking back towards his car, as if he wants to just get back in it and drive away, but, obviously, it's too late for that now. He spins back to face you and puts a small, sad smile on his face. "Hi, ________, love," he says.
"Don't. Don't call me that, please," you say. Little names like that were what he used to call you and, as far as you're concerned, that was the past.
"...I'm sorry. I just--"
"The girls are in the lounge," you say, stepping out of his way so he can come in, which he does.
As he steps inside, it's odd because he seems like a stranger, not like he had lived here for fifteen years before. You moved in a couple of years before you were married and then had a few years gap before you had Amelia and then Madeline. It's like he's stepping into the house for the first time, and it makes you uncomfortable.
Following after him, he goes into the lounge and smiles warmly at the girls. "Hello, Amelia. Hello, Madeline."
"Hey, dad," Amelia says, putting the DS down again and getting to her feet to hug him tightly as he strokes her hair softly, "How are you?"
Arthur finds her asking rather amusing and another little smile appears on his face, "Very well, thank you, poppet. And yourself?"
"Yeah, I'm alright," she replies, sitting down on the couch so he can turn to Madeline and see her walking over to him. He takes her into a hug, too.
"How are you, princess?" he asks.
"I got an award at school and they put my work on the wall," she tells him with a smile and he grins back.
"That's wonderful, darling. I'm very proud of you." Arthur lets her go and stands in the quiet for a moment before saying, "I've got you some gifts."
Amelia doesn't even perk up, knowing it's going to be something awful for her tastes. Madeline waits patiently and politely and feigns happiness when she is presented with a doll. A princess barbie doll with a large puffy dress which is certainly neither one of the girls' interests. Amelia gets an identical present, which she looks at with little interest. Still, she thanks him, which you're grateful for, and gives him another hug.
Madeline hugs him again, too, saying as enthusiastically as her quiet voice can manage, "Thank you, daddy, it's lovely."
"You're welcome, poppet. I thought you might like them. I got you the same so you wouldn't be jealous of one another, but... Well, you could have always shared, but..."
"Girls, why don't you take your presents upstairs? Amelia, for goodness' sake, put that game down before I take it off of you for the night," you say, reaching for it but she closes it again and puts it on the table to take her doll upstairs with her sister.
When they're gone, you turn to Arthur. "Dolls? Honestly, do you not know your daughters at all?"
He looks confused. "Excuse me?"
"Arthur, Amelia has never been interested in a doll in her life unless it's got bulging muscles and a superhero logo stamped on its chest. Madeline is just polite."
"They seemed to like them--"
"I said polite, Arthur, and I meant it. God, it's like every thought about your own children just flew out of your head the second you fucked that poodle princess and--"
"Don't bring Francine into this. Please, I thought we were done with talking about her."
You stare at him, "...Are you serious? Oh, my god, how am I supposed to be done talking about the one thing you did to completely betray me and your family?!"
"________, look, I didn't mean to--"
"Don't give me that, Arthur, I'm not in the mood for your lies," you say, moving away to gather up a few more things, tidying up after the girls. "Don't say you didn't mean to because how can you not mean to sleep with someone else?"
"She seduced me and if it weren't for the drink I wouldn't have ended up there," he tells you.
"Oh, right, and what got you there the second time? You can't make a drunken mistake twice with the same woman. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I'm glad your fucking happy now that you've effectively wrecked everything we had and would have had."
"...I haven't seen Francine since I moved out. She was going back to France."
You look up at him, putting a hand on your hip, "I don't care. What, did you think telling me that was going to change things?"
He shook his head, sitting on the arm of the couch, "That's why you weren't meant to find out at all! She was leaving, going out of my life for good, so I wouldn't have had to deal with her wrecking what we have!"
"HAD, Arthur. We don't have it anymore. How the hell was my not finding out going to just fix everything. You could have cheated on me again and then what, Arthur? Would I have just sat around waiting to see if you may or may not come home again?" you ask, tears brimming in your eyes as you watch him for a moment, a look of defeat washing across his features, clearly telling you that it happening again with someone else could have been a possibility. "...I don't think so. It would have happened again, and I... I just don't know what I did..."
You reach down to put what you're holding in its box and push it to the side with your foot. As you're looking away, you hear him say, "You didn't do anything. You're the most perfect woman in the world and that's why I married you."
"I'm clearly not good enough, Arthur, so just stop it, okay?" you say, wiping your eyes with your sleeve.
"No, ________, it's very much true. It was just... My issue. What happened with her was all down to me as I cared about her, too, but no one could replace you. Really, love, no one would ever replace you..."
You pause, looking back to him and it's taking all your effort to keep a straight face as you shake your head. "Then you should have thought about that before you did what you did, shouldn't you?"
He sighs and nods, "I know... I know I should have and I'm so sorry for hurting you like that." He gets up and approaches you, putting a hand on your shoulder. You immediately shrug it off and turn away again. He simply replaces his hand, squeezing your shoulder gently. "I love you, sweetheart, and I always will. I've been so stupid."
"...It's not going to change the fact that you'd sleep with another woman if we were still together, though, is it?"
He obviously starts to realise there is no way to save your relationship, because he soon sighs again and says, "...I... I'm awful for saying so, but no. No, I wouldn't be able to make that promise. I just... I-I needed a change, despite how dreadful it sounds and how awful--"
"Okay, just stop there. I'll call the girls back down and you can spend some time with them before you leave whilst I finish cooking. We're done here. I can't listen to any more of this bullshit. You're basically saying you were alright with me but you'd want a girl on the side at the same time. That's not acceptable. You're disgusting." You push his hand off again and move to the stairs, calling, "Amelia, Madeline, come and talk with your dad!"
You don't even look at him again as you go into the kitchen, the girls coming downstairs and sitting on the couch to talk to their father about school, what else they've been doing, what their weekend was like. Amelia perks up when she gets into the talk of baseball, her usual excited chattering distracting you for a moment as you place four plates around the table, ready for dinner. The plan is for them to go and stay with him this weekend, so you hear him say that she'll be able to show off what she can do, which she agrees to, happily. He tells Madeline that they might even take a trip to the zoo on Saturday, which cheers her up immensely.
Of course, this happy talk wasn't to last as Amelia asks the one question you were hoping she wouldn't until she was a bit older. "Dad? Do you... Do you love the other lady more than Mom?"
You freeze as you wait for the answer Arthur is going to give, leaning around the door a tiny bit to watch them. He looks sad as he gets up and kneels in front of them both. "No, I don't, but what happened with us is a bit hard for you two to understand just yet. Just know that we love you both, and we're not going to stop loving you. You're most important. ...It's been quite a while since I moved out. Why would you ask that now?"
"We heard you and mom yelling at each other again," Madeline says, cuddling up to her sister, "She sounded pretty mad..."
Arthur nods, "I see. Well, she was, a little bit, but try not to think about it. You still have both of us, don't you? And you get to see me as often as possible, right?"
The girls nod and Amelia says, "Right. ...Hey, dad?"
"If you get another girlfriend, you won't forget us, right? It's different with mom, 'cause we live with her, but you live somewhere else, so..."
Arthur sat back on the couch and pulled Madeline and Amelia onto his lap, "Girls, I will never forget about you. Ever. Just like I'll never forget about your mother. You're still my family, and the most important people in the world to me, do you understand?"
"And same here," you say, walking into the lounge, "We might not be together anymore, but we're still a team when it comes to looking after you two."
"Is Alfred part of the team?"
You falter in answering, glancing to Arthur who looks confused, but after a second you say, "Well, yeah, he's part of the team. We're all a big team, okay?"
"Alfred? As in... Alfred Jones?" Arthur asks, quietly.
Amelia nods before you can answer, "Yeah, he lives here now, too, which is cool 'cause he's got a ton of video games and he's helping me with my baseball and he shows Maddie all of the cool animal videos on his iPad and--"
"And he'll be home soon, so you'd better go and wash up for dinner because it's nearly done, alright?" you tell them, stroking both of their hair.
Madeline shuffles off of Arthur's lap first, kissing his cheek before she does so, and then goes upstairs, followed by her elder sister, leaving you standing with Arthur awkwardly.
"...I didn't know you and Alfred were..."
"Well, me and you aren't together anymore, and he asked me out. He only moved in a couple of weeks ago," you say with a nod.
"...I see. Well, ________, I'm not going to make a big issue out of this. It's none of my business, of course, so... I hope you're happy with him."
You nod again, "I am, and he's really great with the girls, so you've got nothing to worry about."
As if on cue, you hear a key in the lock, alerting you of Alfred's arrival. You look up and smile when he walks in, hearing him say, "Somethin' smells awesome in here!"
"Hi, Alfie," you call.
"Hey, babe! Been hard at work, have you?" he asks, walking inside. His eyes widen a fraction when he sees Arthur, but he doesn't stop smiling, even if the smile drops a little. "Oh, hey, Arthur. How's it going?"
"It's going well, Alfred. Thank you for asking," he says, getting to his feet and looking at you, "I suppose I'd better leave you all to it."
"Ah, you don't have to do that. Why don't you stay for dinner? For the girls' sake?" Alfred suggests and you nod in agreement, despite how much you want him to say no. You have to think of Madeline and Amelia first.
"No, I don't think so. You all have dinner by yourselves. I've got something at home anyway," he said, smiling. "Thank you, though, for the offer."
"Alfred!" Amelia says happily as she walks into the lounge, "Mom has hidden the key to your games cabinet and won't let me in it! I've only got the DS with one game out!"
Alfred chuckles, "Well, if your mom says it's okay, maybe you can have an hour on a different game before bed. Have you done your homework?"
"I have! I promise, I did it all!"
He laughs again, "Well, then, as long as your mom says it's okay. Maddie, you wanna watch another animal video?"
She nods and looks up at him with a smile, "The polar bear one again, please!"
"...Girls, I've got to head home, but I'll see you at the weekend," Arthur says, as if he's an afterthought now that Alfred has come home, but they both look at him in horror.
"You're leaving already?" Madeline asks, eyes wide.
"Well, yes, you've got dinner to eat and you seem like you'll be busy afterwards--"
"Dad, stay for dinner! I didn't tell you about how hard I hit this baseball when we went to the park! It went really far, didn't it Alfred?" Amelia says.
"Sure did! You're gonna be a pro soon enough, sport," he tells her, grinning.
"And I haven't shown you my new animal drawings. I've got one to give you!" Madeline adds, taking his hand.
Arthur hesitates, not really sure what to do, but you nudge his side, "C'mon, another hour won't kill you."
"...Alright, if there's enough to go around," Arthur agrees.
Alfred smiles, "I'll go set another place at the table. Girls, wanna help me out?"
"I'll get dad's plate!" Amelia calls, running after Alfred.
"I'll get his fork!" Madeline says, chasing after her.
You smile as they all go before Arthur looks at you, "They seem to like him a lot."
"They do. Not more than you, though. They're always asking when you're gonna come over next. ...Arthur, he's not going to replace you or anything."
He shakes his head, "No, I know. I just don't want to intrude whilst you're playing happy bloody families--"
"Don't start. I'm trying to make the best of this, and the girls are the ones who come first."
"Of course they are. Always."
"...I know we're not married anymore, but we're still a team, like I said. ALL of us."
He looks at you with a soft expression before smiling slightly. Yes, you're very dysfunctional, and the break up has caused arguments, but that doesn't mean you don't care for each other anymore. You still do have each other, even if you've moved on.
"All of us," he repeats with a nod. "No matter what's happened or what's going to happen."
"Exactly. Now, come on, the happy family is missing two members." You give him a push towards the kitchen and he laughs gently, going in to join the three of them.