A/N: This story is double the 1500 words I try to keep them at. Blame... chibijem :)
February 1, 1992
Remington moved about the bedroom quietly, pulling a cerulean knit sweater on over top of his white oxford then affixing a watch to his wrist. The sound of the bed sheets behind of him rustling reached him first, then the sound of Laura's sleep deepened voice as she sat up and drew her hands through her hair.
"While you're running your errands this morning, I need you to stop by Kmart and pick up each of the girls a couple of packages of white tights. They're down to one decent pair a piece." He didn't bother to suppress his groan of dismay. Her natural aversion to shopping designated him as the primary purchaser in the household. While he didn't mind – in fact enjoyed it for the most part – there were a few exceptions, such as visits to the so called super stores where customers were often unpleasant and service deplorable.
"Aw," he openly complained.
"It's a dirty job, Mr. Steele, but somebody's got to do it," she replied with not the least bit of empathy. "However, I'd be happy to do it in exchange for you taking the girls to the dentist Wednesday…"
"How many pairs a piece should I pick up?" She smiled beatifically at him.
"A half dozen each should do."
While it had seemed easy pickings at the time, Kmart over the dentist, by the end of their short foray into the store, he had come to question if the dentist would have been the lesser of the two evils.
Kmart had, of course, conveniently arranged for the children's clothing department to sit directly across the aisle from the toy section in an attempt to exploit the wallets of parents everywhere. Had he not been one of those parents, he would have likely applauded the marketing ploy, but given it was his wallet they were attempting to empty, well…
And on this day he paid, although not in the form of money.
The girls had galloped across the aisle to ooh-and-ah over the selection of Barbies, Barbie accessories, and dolls. He'd kept one eye upon them while tossing the requested dozen pair of white tights into the shopping basket he carried, then with thoughts of having to return to the retail jungle any time soon, tossed another dozen pairs in varying colors into his basket as well. When he walked over to gather the girls, Sophie stood clutching a box tightly to her chest, her large green eyes looking up at him with hope shining in them.
"What have you there, a thaisce?" he inquired.
Turning the box around to face him, she showed off the pretty Barbie in an emerald green evening gown.
"May I have her, please?" she asked quietly.
It was a first for Sophie, to ask for anything unless the girls were specifically instructed to find themselves a little treat, and he was sorely tempted to give in. But, events the week following Christmas came roaring back to his mind.
The girls had arrived home after Saturday morning errands with several new Barbie outfits. He'd nearly scampered back out the door given the look Laura had leveled on him and throughout the afternoon he'd gnawed nervously on a thumbnail, waiting for the explosion to come. Oh, he enjoyed her bits of pique – in truth often nudged her towards them – but prolonged silence always meant dire consequences to come. Sure enough, that night, in a cool, calm voice, she made herself abundantly clear.
Sidling up to him in the kitchen as he'd made dinner, she'd wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Mr. Steele, the girls are constantly being inundated with stuff from our families and friends. I believe we've previously agreed, we don't want our children growing up spoiled and believing they're entitled. If I'm correct in this nod your head." Warily he did just that. "Since you seem unable to resist the temptation to buy their adoration, I'm going to make it simple for you: The next time the girls come home with anything they do not need for survival, you are going to find yourself in time out for a month on the couch."
Well, she'd made her point, handily. So now, he took the box containing the coveted Barbie from Sophie's arms and placed it back on the shelf.
"Mommy has made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that there will be no… treats," he said for lack of a better word, "Except on holidays and special occasions and your Da," he tweaked her nose, "Doesn't wish to spend a month in time out. Perhaps for your birthday, Sophie Bird. After all, it's not terribly long from now. So, Little Ladies Steele, let's buy your tights and get home before our groceries spoil, eh?"
To his infinite shock, she'd yanked the box down off the shelf again, wrapping her arms around it.
"Please?" she tried again.
"Not today, Sophie," he answered firmly. Then another stunning event, when he'd reached for the toy, she'd stepped back away from him, shaking her head. When he stepped to her and again took away the toy, she let out a wail he'd only heard the likes of from Olivia when in the midst of a temper tantrum.
"Please! Please!" she screeched, her voice growing louder. She became more hysterical with each word spoken.
"Sophia, that's enough of that now," he told her sternly. She only grew all the louder, drawing disapproving and concerned looks from customers and staff alike. He barely noticed Olivia tugging on the leg of his pants.
"Stay out of this, Olivia Elena," he warned. Glaring at him, she clamped her mouth closed. When her Mommy or Da used her full name it meant big trouble to come if she didn't listen.
Not knowing what else to do, Remington set his basket down on the floor, plucked his wailing daughter up, grabbed Olivia's hand then walked through the store and out the door. By the time he'd pulled the Explorer onto their driveway, Sophia's fit had reduced to sporadic sniffles. When they entered the house, Remington pointed a finger towards the stairs.
"Sophia, go to your room until your mother and I can talk, then one of us will be up to speak with you," he ordered. Head hanging, still sniffling, she did as she was told. Olivia made to follow her, then was brought up short by her Da's firm words. "Olivia, you may go anywhere you wish downstairs, but your sister will go to her room alone, understood?" Livvie's lip puffed out, unhappily.
"Yes, Da." She slunk away to the playroom.
Laura watched the entire scene from the couch where she sipped a cup of coffee. She waited until she was certain both girls were out of earshot before speaking.
"Should I ask?" He dragged a hand through his hair, and turned to face her. His anxiety was evident in the strain seen around his eyes. Standing, she picked up Holt and sat him down in his playpen with a few toys. "I'll help you get the groceries in and we'll talk…"
A week later…
"She barely even looks at me, Laura," Remington fretted, as he paced the bedroom, "Let alone speaks to me. And now…" He halted in his tracks, back to her and rubbed a hand over his face, then scowled, still unused to the beard he was now sporting.
Laura stood up from where she'd been sitting on the side of the bed, and went to him. He'd first expressed his concerns to her three days past, and she'd kept a careful eye on the situation. Sophie had certainly never been disrespectful, doing as told, answering questions when asked, yet it was clear she was doing everything in her power to avoid her Da when she could. Laura's attempts to get their oldest daughter to speak with her went in vain, as Sophie was totally shut down when it came to the topic of her father and what had happened in that store. Then today, Sophie had refused to run Saturday morning errands with her father, something she and Livvie both looked forward to each week. But tonight had proved the blow that had left him thoroughly gutted.
They'd gone through their nightly bedtime routine: Prayers, story, then goodnights. Remington had been unable to hide his injury when he'd leaned down to kiss Sophie goodnight and she had turned away from him before pulling her sheet as high as she could and plopping a thumb in her mouth.
"She's not talking to me about what's upset her either," she commiserated in frustration. Tapping a single finger to her lips, her eyes widened and she stood up. "I got it."
With those three words she disappeared from the room as he spun on his heel and watched her depart, wondering what had gotten into Laura now. He found out soon enough, as she walked back into the room, hand-in-hand with a still quite awake Olivia. Leading her to the couch, Laura took a seat then patted the place next to her, indicating Livvie should sit as well.
"Mr. Steele?" Laura called to him, with a pointed look at the seat on the other side of Olivia. Somewhat reluctantly, he joined his wife and child. Once he was seated, Laura turned to their daughter. "Livvie, your Da and I are very proud of what a wonderful sister you are to Sophie." Livvie beamed under the praise and squirmed closer to her father. "Sophie has been very lucky to have you to talk to and to share her secrets with. Normally neither your Da nor I would ask what Sophie has spoken to you about, but right now we are very worried about her. Do you understand?"
"'Cause Sophie's sad?" Livvie asked with a tilt of her had.
"Yes, exactly. And there are some times, not very often, that keeping someone's secrets can make things worse. I think that this is one of those times. So, I'm going to ask you a few questions, and I need you to be honest because you are not hurting Sophie but helping her. Do you understand?" Livvie nodded her head solemnly in response to her mother's serious tone.
"Yes, Mommy." Laura's eyes lifted to Remington and saw his discomfort at asking their daughter to 'sell out' her sister. She winced apologetically, then returned her focus to her daughter.
"Livvie, why was Sophie so upset about that Barbie when you went to the store with Da last week?" Livvie bit her lip, clearly resistant to answering, but Laura's steady, expectant gaze left her shoulders slumping.
"It looked like her other Mommy." Remington lifted his hand and held it to his mouth, feeling more than a little guilty. He hadn't even looked.
"So because Da didn't buy her the Barbie she's still sad?" Laura speculated, although it seemed absurd Sophie would still be that upset, and growing more so by the day.
"No," Olivia shook her head.
"Then what is making Sophie so unhappy?" Laura pressed. Livvie stared at her mother for a long minute, then turned away from her and climbed onto Remington's lap.
"Yes, a stór?" Reaching up, she gave his beard a tug.
"Why do you have a hairy face?" Remington looked at Laura with exasperation. They'd learned long ago that when it came to Livvie, she often took side roads when they spoke with her, and should they not address the question at hand, it would take that much longer to find out the information they were seeking. He sighed, and gave the question some thought for it was a complex answer for a four-year-old to understand.
"Well," he began, drawing out the word, "Right now Mommy and I have a job where it is important people don't recognize me. The beard helps disguise me, like a costume." Livvie gave the beard another tug.
"Like at Hawoween?" Laura resisted the urge to correct her, lest they take another fork in the road.
"Exactly," Remington agreed. Livvie gave his words serious thought, absently tugging the beard again. Her eyes lit up when an idea came to her.
"Can you take off your costume?"
"It would be quite difficult," he answered honestly. "Do you not like this one?" She looked him, sighed, and shook her head.
"You look like the mean man and yelled at Sophie," she told him despondently. Laura sat up a little straighter.
"I didn't yell at Sophie," he disagreed. "I merely told her very firmly—"
"Come on, Livvie. Let's get you back to bed," Laura announced, abruptly standing and holding out her hand.
Remington bounded to his feet to pace some more as Laura and Livvie left the room. The moment Laura reentered the room, he spun around and pointed a finger in her direction, before she even had a chance to shut the door.
"I did not yell at Sophie, Laura!" he protested vehemently.
"Castoro, Remington," Laura jumped in before he further defended himself. "The beard reminds Sophie of Castoro." He gave her a stunned, disbelieving look. "Livvie didn't say a mean man, she said 'the mean man.' You have similar builds, you both have dark hair, and now the beard…" She held up a hand and dropped it. "He allowed her to have very little, you refused to allow her to have the Barbie—"
"Because you made it very clear what the ramifications would be should I continue to indulge the children," he retorted, feeling like a man trapped. "I—" She held up a hand again, this time to stop him.
"I know what I said, and how it plays into everything that's happened," she interrupted. "Neither one of us could have anticipated Sophie finding a Barbie that reminded her of Clarissa, although both of us should have realized that for her to ask for anything at all is so out of character that we should have paid closer attention as to the reason why." With those words, she claimed her own part of the guilt in the series of events that had brought them here. "And since Sophie is so undemanding, so… yielding… you've never had reason to be cross with her. The doll, the beard, the confrontation…" she summarized, allowing him to come to his own conclusion.
He turned and stormed off to the bathroom. She followed quickly on his heels, then stood in the doorway as he yanked open a drawer and tossed scissors, electric shaver and his razor on the counter.
"What are you doing?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"Laura, I don't give a bloody damn if you have to glue a beard to my face each morning," he declared vehemently, as he unbuttoned his shirt then tossed it on the counter, "But case or no case this beard is coming off! I won't have my daughter being afraid in her own home!"
"I can't say I disagree. We'll figure out what to do about your 'costume' tomorrow."
"And I tell you what else," he continued, no less calm, "After I'm done, I'm going to that sodding store and buying that bloody Barbie."
"No, you aren't," she refuted, calmly but firmly. "Regardless of how upset Sophie is, she did misbehave and we don't reward that type of behavior in this household." She sighed deeply. "Sometime this week we'll pick it up and put it away for her birthday." With a sigh to match her own, his anger fled and his shoulders slumped. Leaning forward and pressing his hands against the counter, he looked at her in the mirror.
"I never want to see her look at me that way again, Laura." She nodded her head in understanding. She walked up behind him, wrapped her arms around his waist, and pressed her face against his back.
"I know. We'll talk to Sophie in the morning… together."
Laura put Holt in the playpen downstairs, then turned to Lena, who'd arrived for Sunday morning breakfast before she departed for Mass.
"Lena, would you mind keeping an eye on Livvie and Holt while Sophie and I step outside for a minute?" Laura requested. Lena, having already been filled in by her brother, nodded her head.
"Of course," she easily agreed.
"Livvie, when we come in you, Sophie and Da can start breakfast. We won't be long."
"Okay, Mommy," Livvie replied, already kneeling at the coffee table and opening the box of crayons and coloring book Lena had waiting for her.
Outside, Laura sat down on a chaise and patted the cushion next to her.
"Come sit with me, sweet girl," she encouraged her eldest daughter. When Sophie silently sat, Laura turned towards her and took one of her hands in hers. "Soph, last week at the store, why was that Barbie so important to you?" Sophie maintained her silence but her brows pinched together and eyes welled. Laura stroked a hand along the side of her little girl's head. "Is it because she reminded you of your Mommy?" she pressed, quietly. With that question, the damn broke and Sophie threw herself into her mother's arms, as great, gulping sobs racked her tiny body. Laura wrapped an arm tightly around the child and held the back of the little blonde head with a hand as tears dampened the shoulder of her blouse. "Oh, Soph," she crooned, rocking her.
Laura waited out the storm, holding and rocking Sophie, until her heaving sobs diminished to damp hiccups. Easing Sophie back down beside her, Laura thumbed away the wetness on her cheeks. With a pair of fingers beneath the chin, she tilted Sophie's head back until a pair of tear-brightened green eyes looked at her.
"Sophie, I'm going to ask you a couple of questions and I want you to be honest with me. Did you tell your Da why you wanted the Barbie so badly?" Sophie's lips quivered and her eyes threatened to well again.
"No," she said in a tiny voice.
"Did your Da yell at you, or simply tell you very firmly 'no'?" Sophie chewed on her lower lip, as a fresh tear escaped past her lashes. "Sophie, I need an answer."
"Da said no," she whispered.
"That wasn't very fair to your Da, do you think?" Laura reasoned. "He had no idea why you wanted the Barbie and instead of telling him, you embarrassed both him and yourself by having a tantrum in the store. If you find yourself in the same situation in the future, you need to use your words and tell either your Da or me if I'm with you, why something is so important to you. Can you promise me you'll do that?"
"Yes," Sophie answered in a tremulous voice, her lip protruding further at the gentle scolding. Laura beckoned with a hand behind Sophie's back, for Remington to come join them. Pushing off from where he leaned against the rail of the terrace sipping a cup of tea, he walked their way.
"Now this is a very important question, Soph," Laura told her gently, wiping away another tear. "Your Da and I have been very worried about you this last week and last night you hurt your father's feeling, quite badly. Why are you so upset with him?" Sophie sucked her lips in and her eyes widened saucer-like, as her chest began to rise and fall in panic. "Is it because your Da's beard reminds you of the 'mean man'?" Laura's heart broke when Sophie began violently trembling and her eyes welled over again.
"I… don't… want… the me-… mean man," she gasped around her sobs. Laura stood, and pulled Sophie up into her arms.
"Oh, sweet girl, your Da and I will never, ever, let the 'mean man' near you again," she vowed, fiercely, holding Sophie tightly to her as the little girl clenched her back and wrapped her legs around her middle. "It was just a beard, Soph. It doesn't make your Da like the 'mean man.' Your Da would do anything to make you feel safe and happy. Do you know that? Hmmm? So much so that the minute we knew what had you so upset, do you know what your Da did?" Behind Laura, Remington stooped down slightly so that he was at eye level with his daughter.
"I made the beard go away," Remington announced softly. Sophie's head jerked up and she stared at her father through tear blurred eyes. "Come to your Da, a thaisce…" He reached for his little girl as Laura swiveled slightly to give him easier access. "Come… come…"
When he took Sophie in his arms, she didn't turn away from him this time, but to him – reminding him very much of a woman who'd once been afraid to do the same, but had learned in time. When Sophie wrapped her arms around his neck and legs around his waist, holding on for dear life as she cried, he finally felt a small bit of peace for the first time in a week.
"I'm going to check on Livvie and Holt," Laura announced softly. Father and daughter needed some time alone.
It would be months before the Steele's realized this was the turning point for Sophie, for Laura's words and Remington's deed finally cemented, in her young mind, that she was safe and always would be with her Mommy, Da and her new family.