“There.” Jocelyne stepped back, admiring her handiwork. “That’s… not so bad, right?”
Beside her, Elliot laughed. “Well, it’s standing, at least. The real test will be to see if it can actually hold a computer…”
“One way to find out?”
Elliot shook his head. “Nah… It can wait til later.” He said. They’d already spent the past several hours getting his new apartment set up. The little things could wait. “Thanks, by the way. For helping out.” He added seriously.
Jocelyne smiled, sending a wave of butterflies through his stomach. “It’s the least I can do. You’ve been amazing throughout this whole thing, Elliot. Just like always.”
A slight warmth came to his cheeks at her words. He could not be sure if it was from embarrassment or anger. More like I gave up everything for you. He thought almost bitterly. Just like always.
But deep down, Elliot knew he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He couldn’t have. He needed to be there for his girls. And Jocelyne needed to be there for Zayne.
Elliot just shrugged, and quickly changed the subject. “Hey, since we’re pretty much done around here, wanna pick up the girls and grab something to eat?”
His ex nodded. “Sounds good to me. Who knew putting together furniture could help you work up such an appetite?” She let out a small laugh. “But do you mind if we bring Zayne along?” Jocelyne asked almost guiltily. “I’ve been trying to make him feel included, y’know? I mean, he’s family now… Well, he was always family.” She corrected herself. “But…”
Elliot hesitated for just a moment. “Sure.” He replied. “I get it. That’s fine.”
“Are you sure?”
He nodded. “It’s like you said – he’s family.”
Elliot’s heart truly broke for the little boy – which was why he simply couldn’t bring himself to resent him, no matter how tempting it was. “Give me a minute to find my wallet in this mess and we can head over.”
“Great.” Jocelyne smiled. “I’ll drive.”
As they pulled up to Jocelyne’s parents’ house, Elliot could not help but notice that one of the cars out front seemed strangely out of place. Elliot had not been to the Rosebrook house often enough to recognize all the vehicles, but he could tell there was definitely one car too many.
He gave Jocelyne a curious look. She seemed to understand immediately.
“Mark must be visiting.” She explained with a small shrug. There was a hint of an emotion in her voice that Elliot could not quite name.
He fought to hide his discomfort as they approached the front door. I should have known…
Sure enough, they walked through the door and were greeted by the sounds of several voices coming from the living room. Among them, Elliot could make out a deep male voice, speaking English with a distinct British accent.
“Okay, so… how many points was that worth?” Mark asked curiously.
“Ten!” Charlie smiled brightly as she cheered on her Void Critter. “But it’s not really points… It’s kinda hard to explain.”
“I bet Zayne could tell you.” Alex chimed in, looking over at the little boy who sat on the couch. “It’s still hard to talk to him, but he knows all about Void Critters. I can tell!”
Tony glanced up from the cartoon as her parents entered the room, finally making their presence known. “Daddy! Hi Daddy!” She hopped up off the couch. “Hi Mommy!”
“Hey, honey.” Elliot bent forward as his daughter practically leapt into his arms.
“All moved in?” Colette asked kindly.
“More or less.” Elliot shrugged. “We got all the big stuff done, at least.”
“Well, if you need any more help, you know who to call.” Tobi offered.
Elliot simply nodded. “Thanks.”
Jocelyne’s parents and grandparents had offered more than once to help with the move, but he’d turned down every offer. It felt strange to accept help from the Rosebrooks. They always went out of their way to be kind to him, and to treat him like a member of the family. But while they may have been his daughters’ family, they were not his. And they never would be.
“We just wanted to grab the kiddos and go get a bite to eat.” Jocelyne explained, her voice calling Elliot back to the present.
Elliot couldn’t help but notice that she still had not even glanced in Mark’s direction… But Mark was definitely looking in hers.
“Lunch with Mommy AND Daddy?!” Alex’s eyes lit up at her mother’s words. “Cool!”
It suddenly struck Elliot just how rarely the girls ever saw him and Jocelyne together. The thought sent a wave of sadness washing over him. He and his sister had been lucky enough to grow up in a home with both of their parents, just as Jocelyne had. How many years had he taken for granted just how lucky he’d been? Elliot did his best to will the feeling away.
“Zayne, would you like to get some lunch with us?” Jocelyne turned her attention to her nephew, addressing him in German.
“Um…” Zayne hesitated. He turned uncertainly toward his grandmother, who nodded encouragingly at the little boy. “Y-yeah. I guess so.” He agreed at last, his voice very small. “Okay.”
Zayne bid his grandparents and great-grandparents goodbye in German while his cousins did the same in English.
“Thanks for playin’ Void Critters with us, Mark!” Charlie beamed. “Nex’ time I’ll teach you how to train your Yorier, okay?”
The man laughed softly. “Sounds perfect.”
“Mommy, Zayne’s grandpa is SO cool!” Tony smiled sweetly at her mother as Charlie and Alex joined her. “He played Void Critters with us and helped Alex beat Charlie’s Vulpes!”
Elliot watched Jocelyne’s smile falter. “Wow!” Her enthusiasm was clearly forced. “That’s awesome.”
“I think the girls are trying to convert me or something.” Mark stepped toward them, smiling. “Zayne too, actually… He already talked me into downloading that silly Void Critter Go app.”
A weak laugh escaped Jocelyne’s lips. “Yeah, the girls roped me into that one a while ago.” She hesitated for a moment before continuing. “Um, thank you, by the way. For being so great with the girls.”
“My pleasure. They’re fun. Really sweet kids. Smart too.” Mark smiled warmly at her. “Just like their mother.”
Elliot felt a white-hot burst of anger threatening to flare up inside of him. The way Mark was looking at Jocelyne… Even after all these years, he resented Mark for what he’d done. Destroying their family. Standing in the way of their happiness.
He glanced over at Jocelyne, who had still said nothing in response to Mark’s comment. But she didn’t have to – her eyes said it all.
Elliot cleared his throat a bit louder than necessary. “Yeah, thanks Mark.” He muttered quickly. “It was nice to see you, Mr. and Mrs. Rosebrook. Mr. and Mrs. Klein.”
“You too, Elliot.” Jonas smiled.
He just barely managed to force one in return.
Elliot was silent as he followed Jocelyne and the children toward the front door. He marveled at how normal it almost felt – hearing Jocelyne laugh with the girls, seeing little Zayne tag along with them, bubbly and happy as ever, despite all he’d been through.
They were a little, broken family – one Elliot barely felt a part of.
He longed to know what things would be like if he and Jocelyne were still together – if she had loved him the way he’d loved her.
What would it be like to help raise Zayne? To finally have the son he’d always wanted?
How would it feel to go out to lunch, or see a movie, or go to the park together as a family? A real, whole family?
To wake up beside the mother of his children every morning?
To have full custody of his daughters, and get to see them every day?
Elliot would never know. Because their family would never be normal. It would always be broken.
But broken or not, they were still his family. He loved them more than anything. And no matter how shitty things were in his life, Elliot knew he had to stay strong for his girls.
Just like always.
This was my 250th chapter, guys! 😮
Thank you all so much for reading. I appreciate each and every one of you (including you silent lurkers out there!) ❤