Mari tried her best to stifle a yawn as she headed up the long staircase. It was barely four in the afternoon, and she already felt like she was ready for bed.
Things had been so crazy lately, both at work and at home. Her piano students were busy preparing for their upcoming concert, there was a new production starting down at the theater, Clara’s dance recital was in less than a week, Colette was getting ready to go back to work, Jonas was up for a big promotion, Stefan was scrambling to find a job, and Tobi was still making headlines for helping the national team quailfy for the World Cup for the first time in years.
Mari’s head was spinning just thinking about it. Not to mention the new baby… And having Josh here…
An unpleasant sensation crept into her stomach at the thought. With every visit, she kept hoping that things would get easier. But they never did.
Mari did her best to chase the unpleasant thought from her mind as she headed toward Tobi and Colette’s bedroom. Her daughter-in-law had been working on lesson plans when Mari arrived home from rehearsal just a few minutes before. “Would you mind peeking in on Gus for me?” She’d asked. “I think his nap’s just about over.”
She was more than happy to, of course. Her new grandson’s sweet little face was exactly the thing she needed after the day she’d had. Hell, after the MONTH I’ve had. Mari almost laughed as she opened the bedroom door.
Mari knew that Tobi and Stefan were having Josh over that afternoon, but she’d assumed he was still out back making snowmen with the kids.
She quickly forced a smile, as she always did when she was forced to interact with her sons’ biological father. “Sorry.” Mari said kindly. “I didn’t realize you were in here… I was just checking in on Augg— Gus.” Her eyes darted toward her gurgling grandson for a moment. “But it looks like you’ve got it covered.”
The woman backed toward the door as she spoke, eager to make her escape. Oh God, this is the first time we’ve been alone together since… Mari did not want to think about the last time. It was too unpleasant. Too painful. Too embarrassing to remember that night at the hotel all those months ago.
Josh glanced over his shoulder. “Mari, wait.” He returned the baby to his crib and turned to face her. “We can’t keep going like this. You and I – we need to talk.”
Oh God, why is he doing this?! Her smile faltered slightly. “W-what’s there to talk about?” She stammered. “And you’re staying for dinner anyway, aren’t you?” Her voice was almost hopeful. “We can talk then.” Mari knew full-well that he was not referring to their usual uncomfortable small-talk. But she had to try. Can’t this guy take a fucking hint?
“I was a jackass – a royal asshat.” He crossed the room, coming closer to her. “I never was able to apologize to you personally for what happened. I know Jonas passed my apology on to you, but I did want the chance to actually say I’m sorry to you.”
‘Asshat’?! For a moment, Mari almost laughed. That’s a new one… She hesitated before replying. “Thanks.” She said at last. “But, to be fair, you were absolutely right. I was being a bitch.” Mari shrugged slightly, and found herself no longer able to meet his gaze. “And I’m the one who’s sorry.”
Her cheeks grew warm as the words passed her lips. God, why was that so fucking hard to say? Mari stared at the floor as she waited anxiously for Josh’s reply, wishing she were standing in that room with anyone but him.
Josh snorted softly and smiled crookedly. “Why don’t we just split the difference and call us both sorry?”
Mari lifted her gaze at the sound of his laugh. Is he seriously SMILING right now? She shook her head slowly. “Why are you being like this?” Mari fought not to raise her voice in frustration. “I mean, you make it sound like everything’s okay now. Like it’s that easy to fix this fucking mess.” A small sigh escaped her lips. “But it’s not. Look, I’m glad we both apologized, okay? I really am. But can we stop pretending things will ever be normal? Because I’m sorry, Josh. But they won’t be. They can’t.”
He sighed softly. “But why? Why does it have to be hard, Mari? Why can’t we try to get along? Not be civil and make awkward small talk – actually get along. Like regular people.”
“Because I’m not a regular person, Josh!” This time, Mari was not quite as successful in controlling her volume. She closed her eyes for a moment, and took a deep breath before continuing. “I have been fighting for years to be one. And for a long time, I thought I finally was. Regular. Normal. Happy.” She let out a short, bitter laugh. “But from the moment you walked into my sons’ lives, you’ve been reminding me that I’m not.” She paused. “And I know now that it’s not your fault, okay? It’s mine.”
“I understand that,” he replied earnestly. “But I’ve heard a lot about you, Mari. From Jonas and Tobi and Stefan. And from what I’ve heard, you really sound like someone I’d like to be friends with. I understand that I’m a complication in your life, and a reminder of things you’d rather forget. I just think that you’re someone I’d like to actually know.”
Mari did not speak for a long time as she took in his words. How can he say that? Why the Hell would anyone ever WANT to know me? She wondered, incredulous. Doesn’t he know what I’m like? Doesn’t he know I’m –
She closed her eyes, and took three slow, deep breaths. No. She told herself firmly. Stop.
At last, she found her voice. “Look.” Mari’s voice was soft. “You’re a nice guy. I didn’t want to let myself see that before. I was too busy convincing myself you were trying to swoop in and fuck up my family or something.” She shook her head. “But I know you aren’t. And I really appreciate how kind you’ve been to my boys… My whole family, really. But this is still so damn hard for me. I don’t think you’ll ever understand how much this whole thing just… kills me.” Her eyes stung sharply for a moment. Mari did her best to blink her tears away before continuing.
“I know how much it would mean to the boys if we could be friends. And who knows? Maybe someday…” Mari shrugged, leaving the thought unfinished. Yeah right. She thought secretly. “But not now.”
Josh nodded slowly. “Yeah, I get that. Baby steps, right?” He smiled a little and offered his hand to her. “If we can’t be friends, maybe friend-adjacent.”
He’s really trying. Mari realized, staring down at his outstretched hand. Maybe he really is serious about this ‘getting along’ thing… But what about her?
Am I ready? She asked herself uncertainly. Can I really do this?
His hand was rough and warm in hers.
Thank you to JoieWilder for writing all of Josh’s dialogue and actions in this chapter.