Author(s): B (Creatively Licensed B) & Jess (Life's Crash Test Dummy/LCTD)

Disclaimer: Don't own.

A/N: If you follow both of us on Twitter (God bless you) you'd know LCTD still flirts with me and begs me to love her (lol, :P) but we don't really write together anymore. Fortunately, I got to spend my last two days off from work, writing in Google Docs with her like old times and this is what happened. Enjoy!


My Friend the Monster

After spending most of their young adult lives debating the pros and cons of living in the city verses the suburbs, in the winter of Kelly's twenty-sixth year, Nicky went ahead and bought her little dream house with the red door and navy shutters. Cardboard box by cardboard box, they moved their entire lives to a sleepy neighborhood outside of Denver.

Early one morning Kelly turns and sees Nicky asleep on the other side of the bed. She watches him for a second, making a mental note to remind him to shave, but not before she gets to feel the scruff when he kisses her like he does every morning. While some would feel trapped by the monotony, Kelly likes to think of it as stability, which neither had while growing up.

When Nicky starts to wake well before their alarm goes off (they're both early rises) Kelly pretends she's still asleep. She listens to the way the bed creaks as he curls his arm around her, pulling her closer to snuggle. It takes everything in her not to smile.

"I know you're awake, Parks."

She tries to sound groggy. "Now I am. Thanks a lot."

Before she opens her eyes, Kelly feels his lips just under her jaw. She brings her hand to his cheek, raking her fingernails through his stubble.

"G'morning," he whispers.

"Morning," she says, just as quietly. He kisses her neck and his facial hair tickles. When she feels him nip at her skin, Kelly groans. "Nick, we have to get up soon…"

Despite her firm tone, Kelly guides his hand across her thighs, between her legs. Nicky leans back enough to see her face, amused, almost smug. "You sure you want me to stop?"

Kelly wraps her arm around his neck and kisses his lips. She remembers when they were awkward teens having sex and how she'd be terrified to open her eyes the next morning because sometimes he'd be there, but others he'd already be gone. She held her breath on possibility, but now it's guaranteed. His tongue just grazes hers when the door flies open, little feet pitter-patter against the wooden floorboards and the entire bed starts to bounce.

"Smooching!" a little boy shouts. His long, unruly hair flops around his cheeks as he continues to bounce up and down. His smile is patronizing, but the cute Batman pajamas he's wearing work well as a distraction. "Mom, dad, don't you ever get sick of smooching?"

Kelly sits up, combing her son's hair to one side. "Don't you ever get sick of this? It was cute when you looked like a mini Tim Riggins, but your hair is getting ridiculous, Parker."

"We're so getting your hair cut," Nicky says. Parker Martin Russo pouts, but his father shakes his head. "No. Nu-uh. If your grandpa saw your hair I would never hear the end of it. Plus, we have dinner with your great-grandparents tonight. You know what that means."

Kelly groans and Nicky gives her a pointed look. She isn't setting the best example for her son, which happens a lot more than he'd like. "Nick, your grandparents hate me."

"Why do Nonna and Nonno hate momma?"

"They don't hate you," Nicky assures her. Letting Parker sit back against her, Kelly rolls her eyes. "And we don't use that word in this house."

"Uh, if they don't h-a-t-e me then why do they both look at me like I'm a dirty s-l-u-t?"

"Kelly, he can spell. Swear jar."

"At least she's spelling them and not saying them anymore. I'm proud of you, mom." Parker kisses the back of Kelly's hand and she smile, messing with his scraggly hair.

"Nick, your grandparents weren't exactly happy when we told them I was pregnant. They liked it even less that we had no plans to get married and we still don't. Let's not forget that your grandma thinks I'm a total inadequate mother just because I like having a job and I'm not freaking Giada Di Laurentiis in the kitchen."

"I only like grilled cheese when you make it," Parker says. Kelly hugs him, clearly enjoying his I Love My Mom More Than Anyone 'Cause She Could Kick Your Mommy AND Daddy's Butts phase.

"Kel, deep down, Nonna respects you because she knows you're tough like she is. And they both love Parker, spoil him rotten."

"Hey! I'm not spoiled or rotten!" Parker argues. "I'm not garbage!"

"Our boy isn't garbage, Nick," Kelly says. It's obvious how much she freaking loves her kid and best of all, he knows. "But he does need a haircut. Take him after school? Not too much off the top, no buzzcut. His head is shaped like an e-g-g."

Parker uses his index finger and writes the letters out across his palm. "My head is not shaped like an egg!"

"How can you even tell with all his hair?" Nicky pulls Parker away from his mom and tickles him till he shrieks with laughter. "Okay, time to get ready for the day. All three of us."

Parker yells, "Race ya!" as he runs out the door. Nicky shouts after him that there's no point because Kelly always takes the longest to get ready. She rolls her eyes because, fine, maybe it's true, and yanks Nicky back to finish the kiss their son interrupted.

This isn't how Kelly thought her life would be, but it's obvious she loves it. For once, reality exceeds expectation. Their two story, three bedroom house might be miniscule compared to the mansions they grew up in as kids, but here they marked the doorway to track Parker's height and hung family photos on newly painted walls. They've made it their home.

When she got pregnant, Kelly was terrified and seriously considered her options. Nicky was back in Denver, working with Marty, gearing up for 2016, and they reconnected, but weren't in a relationship. They used protection, obviously, but there's always that sliver of a chance, in other words them. Nicky didn't even question whether the baby was his or not, just told her he wouldn't leave again and he's kept that promise so far.

Without a doubt, Kelly's still a bitch with issues, but for Parker's sake, she tries to be patient and control her psychotic tendencies even when stupid people irritate the fuck out of her. And at least she isn't alone. Her dad even wanted her to move in with them and for the baby to grow up in Littleton. Her stepmom started shopping for baby things within the first week of Kelly's decision to keep it. Rather than moving in with them, her scary pregnant phase was spent sharing a tiny ass apartment in the city with Nicky. They haven't looked back since.

"I'll unlock the car while you kiss goodbye!" Parker announces after a quick breakfast. With his Denver Elite backpack bounding on his back, Parker grabs Nicky's keys and runs to the door.

"Dinner with my grandparents tonight."

"Your son's haircut," Kelly reminds him, touching up her lipgloss in the hall mirror. Nicky slides behind her, letting his lips trail along her exposed shoulder and Kelly smiles, leaning against him. "It's an Olympic year. If any of my clients get injured in that gym…"

"If a s-t-u-p-i-d camera crew barges into my gym and interrupts my practice for another surprise interview for the morning news…" Nicky eyes her through the mirror. "Just because you're sleeping with the head coach at DE don't think you own the place."

"At least it's me representing your gymnasts and not someone like my mother."

"Don't even joke." Nicky kisses the side of her face. "Have a good day, Parks."

Kelly slowly laces their fingers and pulls him out the door, runs through her schedule, trying to see if she can meet Nicky for lunch. All thought deserts her when she sees that her son isn't alone in the driveway. Nicky squeezes her hand, trying to keep her grounded, but it's no help. She's barely spoken to Sheila Baboyon since their fallout post-2012 Olympic Trials.

"No, she didn't have a daughter. I'm a boy! My hair's just long," Parker says. "Who are you?"

"Get away from my son!" Kelly screams. Parker looks her way, frightened by the hostility in Kelly's voice. "Parker, in the car. Now."

Sheila laughs. "Tell me you named the boy after yourself and not your father."

"Parker, listen to your mom," Nicky says. Parker is rooted in his spot and Nicky has to gently usher him away. "We need to get you to school."

"It was nice meeting you," Parker says as an afterthought, climbing into the SUV.

Sheila waves goodbye. "Well, now, he's shockingly polite. Must get that from his dad's side. School? So does this mean he hasn't started his gymnastics training? That's the real shocker."

"No, because unlike some people, I'm not about to put that kind of pressure on a little kid." Kelly threads her fingers through her hair, completely out of sorts. "I need to get to work."

"And how is my management company that you stole right out from under me?" Sheila asks.

"You need to leave and if I ever see you anywhere near here again I swear I'll call the cops."

Kelly's glare doesn't even make a dent in Sheila's tight-lipped smile.

"Aw, my beautiful girl," Sheila coos. "Your threats aren't any more convincing than when you were young, but at least you're still pretty."

Throughout the day, Nicky and Kelly keep up a conversation via text; mostly her typing in all caps and him reassuring her that everything is okay. Sheila appearing out of thin air isn't a sign of the apocalypse. Kelly isn't sixteen anymore. Sheila can't hurt her if she doesn't let her.

"Hi yah!"

Nicky nearly jumps, walking out to his SUV in the Denver Elite parking lot at the end of the workday. Sheila surprises him, blocking his car door. A large Mary Poppins-esque carpetbag sits at her feet. Nicky's instincts tell him to run and wait inside till she gives up and leaves, but he vetoes that course of action, thinking of Parker waiting for him and how Nicky always waited for his father, who never showed up.

"Hi?"

"Nicky Russo! Or should I call you son-in-law now?" Sheila's eyes skirt downward and Nicky knows she's checking for a ring, which he doesn't have. "Whoops! Anyways, do you still go by Nicky? I figured you would have dropped the eee by now."

Nicky folds his arms, hiding his hands. "What are you doing here, Sheila?"

"What? I can't visit my daughter and her you and my grandson?"

The muscles of his jaw clench as Nicky stops himself from saying what he's thinking. No. She has no right to visit, not when she refused to be there through the pregnancy, wasn't there for the birth and never even acknowledged any of Parker's birthdays or Kelly's. At least Nicky's dad shows up on occasion or at the very least sends a card.

"I know I'm not your favorite person," Sheila says, "but I need to talk to Kelly. It's important. And I don't know how to when she won't even breathe the same air as me for three seconds."

"Can you blame her after everything you put her through?"

Some memories lead to nostalgia and others to pain locked in the past. Nicky gets angry, remembering how desperate he was for Kelly to love him and how she desperately wanted to, but couldn't because she was never taught to love nor shown what it looked and felt like. It took them so long to break down walls set in place by the woman in front of him.

"What could be so important that you had to ambush us like that this morning?" Nicky demands to know.

"I'm dying."

Everyone's acting funny and Parker might be six, but he isn't dumb. He knows it has to do with that lady from this morning. His parents and even Uncle Marty talk to him about Stranger Danger all the time (seriously, all the time) but that lady seemed okay, nice even. By his mom's reaction, that isn't truth. So why is that lady in the car when his dad comes to pick Parker up from school?

Nicky keeps his eyes on the road, doesn't say anything, and Parker, curious, keeps sneaking looks at the lady. The radio has just started playing Christmas music, jolly and upbeat, misplayed alongside the tension in the car.

"Hi. I'm Parker," he says. "Who're you?"

"This is Ms. Baboyon," Nicky says before she can respond.

"Nice to meet you, Ms. Bu-boy-yan. That's three syllables. One more than my name." Parker stretches his arm as far as it will go and Sheila bridges the other half, taking his hand.

"Nice to meet you too," Sheila says sweetly. "I'm your…grandma." Sheila cringes at the word and in turn it sounds unnatural coming from her. "Your, uh, mother's mom."

Nicky gives her a brief, sharp look. "Sheila, I don't think…"

"I do have a real one!" Parker celebrates, pumping his fists in the air. "Now I have a Nonna, Nonno, two grandpas, a grandma and a Nancy!"

"A Nancy?" Sheila repeats, looking to Nicky. "Richard's secretary? He married his mistress?"

"What's a mistress?" Parker asks.

"Not a swear word, but not nice either," Nicky replies. He turns into the parking lot of a little barbershop and parks right in front. "Alright. Let's get your hair cut."

Parker frowns and his eyes get bigger, adorable and heart wrenching. "Dad, I don't wanna."

"Why not?" Sheila asks, speaking in a loud, grand tone that immediately has Parker's attention. "Let me ask you something. Have you ever seen a male gymnast with long hair? No, it all just gets in the way! You're a gymnast, aren't you? Like mommy and daddy?"

"I will be!" Park says with such excitement. "Ms. Baboyon, it isn't gonna hurt, is it?"

"Of course not! It won't hurt at all. You'll see it won't turn out so bad. That's how you become brave. Plus, you'll have me and your dad."

"Okay. I'm ready."

It doesn't take a lot for Parker to like a person, even grumpy old men like his Uncle Marty. He likes everyone until they do something that isn't nice like when Brie Mae Tucker pushed him to the ground at his last birthday party. Ms. Baboyon is nice to him so when they get out of the car, Parker grabs her hand and they walk into the shop together.

Ms. Baboyon doesn't look like his mom, but Parker sees it right when he sits and she tells the barber exactly how his hair should be. Short to show off his face more, clean on the sides and enough on top to run your fingers through. She talks very fast and knows exactly what she wants and it reminds him of his mom. Parker doesn't understand why his dad looks so nervous. It hasn't even been an hour and already Parker thinks Ms. Baboyon is the coolest.

"WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT MONSTER DOING IN OUR HOUSE, NICK?"

"Hey, that's a five dollar swear and you need to keep it down because Parker's in the next room," Nicky says calmly. "He will call you out on owing the swear jar."

Despite Nicky's lighthearted attempt, Kelly keeps paces back and forth in their kitchen. He better fucking know not to try to touch her right now because she is pissed and not beyond beating the shit out of him.

"She's sitting next to our son in our living room," Kelly says, quieter, but still just as angry. "Do you remember what we said when Parker was born?"

"That we'd protect him," Nicky says, "especially from your maniac bitch of mom."

Those are her words exactly, just spoken six years later.

"But," Nicky continues, "I think you should at least talk to her first…"

"Oh, my God!" Kelly shouts. At this point, yeah, fuck trying to be quiet. This isn't one of those things they should be quietly discussing. Kelly's already preoccupied with kicking Sheila the fuck out. "What lie did she tell you to get you on her side?"

"I'm not on her side. Hell no, Parks, but she's dying."

Kelly stalls, hearing the words and the emotion in Nicky's voice. He lost his mother when he was just a little older than Parker. He has his own issues with mothers and death. Sheila couldn't have known that this unless she really did her research before trying to play him.

"Jesus." Kelly loudly exhales. "Right when I think that monster can't sink any lower…"

"At least hear her out."

Nicky's never forces his opinion on her, but he isn't afraid to tell her what he thinks, even if it isn't what she wants to hear. When she takes a deep breath and her shoulders drop, that's his cue to pull her close and whisper sweet encouragements into her hair.

The swinging door separating the kitchen and living room is a flimsy one, so much so that Kelly's screams are distracting Parker from his TV viewing and so he has to turn up the volume. Sheila's eyes roam all around the house, carefully examining the modern, homey décor. Unpacked boxes are all around the room and clutters of miscellaneous items on every flat surface.

"Is it always this messy?" Sheila asks.

"We just moved here," Parker tells her. "I think it's too big, but dad says we need more space 'cause mom shops too much. There's a park down the street so I guess it's okay."

"And no time to unpack, I assume. Too busy with Denver Elite and KPE," Sheila says, thinking aloud more than anything. "When's the cleaning crew scheduled to come? You do have a cleaning crew, don't you? God knows Kelly has never learned to pick up after herself."

Before Parker replies, Kelly shouts a string of words that aren't very nice in the next room.

Sheila purses her lips, less concerned with the mess, waiting to see how his mother's behavior affects Parker. "Is your mom always like this?"

"I've never seen her this mad before," Parker says. "I don't think she likes you."

"Honest. Sharp. I'm starting to see the resemblance to your mother. You poor thing," Sheila muses. "So do your parents fight like this a lot?"

"They aren't fighting," he corrects her. "Mom's just yelling and dad's listening. Then he'll kiss it all better and then we go to dinner. You get used to it, Ms. Baboyon."

"Alright, enough of this Ms. Baboyon business. We're family! I'm your grandma! Call me Sitti."

Parker shrugs his shoulders. "Okay."

They sit in a comfortable silence, watching singing preteens on TV. The jokes aren't very funny so Parker doesn't laugh, but continues to stare like a pintsize zombie. Sheila thinks to ask if he should be doing homework when Kelly storms in. She appears calmer than her screaming would suggest.

"Parker, upstairs, you need to get ready for dinner. I need to talk to Ms. Baboyon alone."

"She wants to be called Sitti, mom."

"Parker."

He's annoyed, but doesn't say anything as he shuts off the TV and hops off the couch. When he passes Kelly on his way to the stairs, she runs her hand over the top of his head.

"I like your hair," Kelly says, a lot more gentle than before.

"Thank you," Parker says. He really is oddly polite. "You should thank Sitti. She told the man how to cut it. Can she come to dinner too? I want her to sit next to me."

"Parker, go get changed," Kelly orders. He does as he's told, but stomps his feet on his way up the stairs, letting her know he isn't happy she didn't answer his question. Nicky joins Kelly on the loveseat, across from Sheila, who's on the couch. Nicky doesn't say anything and doesn't try to act as a human shield. He knows this is Kelly's fight to win.

"Parker is a great kid," Sheila says, "but you need to give the boy a little leash room. We get it, Kelly, you wear the pants in this family, but if you don't let up just a little, Parker is going to make some lucky girl a cute pet some day."

"What are you doing here?" Kelly gets straight to the point. "What's with this dying crap you fed Nick?"

"It isn't crap. The doctors gave me six months, but I know it'll be sooner..."

"Bullshit."

"Hey," Sheila snaps. Her cold, familiar eyes makes Kelly feel so small, like a child getting scolded. Kelly weaves her fingers through Nicky's and holds on tight. "You're older, you have a family, sure, but I'm still your mother. A little respect would be nice."

"I'm not sixteen anymore," Kelly reminds her. "You can't say shit and manipulate me. I can talk to you however I want! Just tell me why you're here so you can get it and go. Is it money? I'd gladly write you a check and show you out."

"It's cancer," Sheila says. That word is so powerful the silence that follows is deafening. "I was diagnosed September 2012. Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer. 12 rounds of chemo, and finally, last January they said it was gone. Best thing I ever heard. I started living, really living, traveling, celebrated like it was the 60's again." Sheila pauses, laughing despite her tears. "Now they're telling me it metastasized into my bones…"

"And there's nothing you can do about it?"

"Kelly, I don't know if you've noticed or not, but I'm old," Sheila says bluntly. "Last time, the surgery, the chemo and radiation, I fought through it and, honey, that isn't living. I'd rather enjoy what I have left and tie up some loose ends. I know I was a crap mother, everything I put you through and for what, money, which isn't going to do me any good anymore. I've been trying to work up the nerve to see you, resolve some of our issues and damnit, in the least, see if you're okay. Then I can die with dignity…and my own hair."

Sheila's the only one who tries to laugh at her joke while tears spill down her face.

"Does dad know?"

Sheila nods. "But I made Richard promise not to tell you. Not that you'd care either way…"

"That's it?" Kelly asks. "You're just going to die?"

"Kelly, there's no use anymore," Sheila says with another strangled laugh. "My doctor suggested intensive chemotherapy, but I said to hell with that. I chose palliative care. They can't kill the cancer, but I'm getting treatment that helps tremendously with the pain. It's the reason I'm even here right now, talking to you, sitting upright. Otherwise I'd be curled up on my side in bed, in too much pain to eat or breathe."

"You're just slowing down the dying process," Nicky says, trying to make sense of it himself.

"Just long enough to see my only daughter one last time and meet my grandson," Sheila says. "All I want is a week. It'll be like I'm not even here. I just want to see you and your gorgeous family and your life in action. C'mon, kids, honor a dying woman's last wish? It always seemed extremely ageist to me that the Make a Wish foundation only caters to children…"

"We have to get ready for dinner," Kelly says flatly. She stands on shaky legs and leads Nicky to the stairs with hands that never untangled, not once. Nicky turns to Sheila with eyes full of sympathy, but Kelly doesn't look back at her, refuses to.

Nicky stops at the top of the stairs and clears his throat. "Uh, Sheila, there's, um, nothing to eat in the house unless you like carrot sticks and juice boxes. We're about to go to dinner with my dad and my grandparents. Why don't you come along?"

"Oh, that's sweet, but I wouldn't want to impose…"

"I insist," Nicky says. "There's a bathroom down there, to the left, if you need it."

Sheila gives him a smile, eyes shining with unshed tears, and Nicky nods back. Kelly's hard to read, but then, she's always been that way. It's automatic after so much of their lives had been spent staring at scoreboards and hoping for the best while a dozen cameras waited for any slip of emotion. Once they're safe behind their bedroom door, Kelly's steely exterior finally cracks.

"If you're mad that I invited her to dinner, I'm sorry, but I felt like I had to do something."

"I'm not mad at you," Kelly says. "Her on the other hand, she made my life miserable for, what, eighteen years and now I'm supposed to feel sorry for her? This is so fucked up. Either I feel like a sucker, giving into her, or feel like an asshole, throwing her out when she has…"

Kelly can't even say it, just shakes her head. Refusing yet again.

"It's up to you," Nicky says. "If you want her to leave after dinner then that's it. We'll show her the door. Whatever you decide, I'm with you."

Kelly turns to Nicky, who has his hands on her shoulders, gently massaging. "God, Nick, you're so useless. Why do I even bother keeping you around?"

"Making executive decisions isn't why you love me." Nicky kisses her cheek and rubs her shoulders a little more before going to check if Parker is appropriate dressed for dinner, which, knowing Parker, he isn't.

Left alone with her thoughts, Kelly stares at her reflection in the nearby mirror. She has a tendency to hate herself after making executive decisions. Her gut tells her this won't turn out any different.

"Parks, relax."

"I am relaxed!"

"I've seen you relaxed," Nicky say. "This is more like a panic attack. I'm debating if we should stop by a grocery store and get a brown paper bag for you to breathe in."

Playing with her beaded necklace, Sheila leans over to Parker and asks, "Why is your mom acting like a crazy person?"

"B'cause Nonna and Nonno think momma ruined dad's life," Parker whispers, hands cupped around his mouth. "I dunno why. That's just what she says."

"That's not very nice," Sheila says. Parker nods in agreement.

The restaurant is a fancy Italian one just inside the city. As Parker tells Sheila the "rules" that regulate dinner with the Russos, Kelly tries to see her reflection in the side of the SUV.

"God, why did no one tell me I look like a stripper before we left the house? My dress is too short, isn't it?" Kelly frets.

"Pshh, it's nearly touching your knees!" Sheila points out. "You're practically Amish!"

Kelly pays her no attention, doesn't even acknowledge Sheila. Nicky rounds the front of the car, trying to hide how he finds Kelly's borderline panic attack mildly entertaining.

"C'mon." Parker grabs Sheila's and she's just as surprised as she had been at the barbershop. He's dashing in his charcoal vest over a little white oxford and a tiny, skinny tie. His dark slacks keep sliding down, getting caught beneath the back of his shiny, leather shoes. You'd think they're going to a fancy party and not just dinner. "They always do this before seeing Nonna and Nonno. Dad calms her down."

As they cross the street, Sheila watches Nicky and Kelly hug. "Your daddy really loves your mommy, doesn't he?"

"Yup," Parker replies without hesitation.

"Then why aren't they married yet?" Sheila asks without thinking. Especially in that getup, it's easy to forget that Parker's only in the first grade and not just a tiny adult.

"Dunno. You could ask mom, but she might explode."

Sheila laughs just as Parker lets go of her hand and runs over to an older, Italian couple with matching snow-white hair. He hugs them and then goes to shake hands with a salt and pepper haired fox Sheila assumes is Nicky's father. At least receding hairline isn't in their genes. Sheila straightens her blouse before she walks over. If the Russos can't see how lucky Nicky is to have Kelly, by the end of dinner they will. Sheila's determined to make it happen.

"Mom, why won't you marry dad?" Parker asks, climbing into bed. He's in his Star Wars pajamas her dad bought him and that Parker loves. They got home late from dinner so they have to skip their routine story time before bed. Parker doesn't seem too upset. Apparently he has bigger things on his mind.

Caught off guard, Kelly purses her lips as she tucks him in. "Why are you asking?"

"So I can tell Sitti. She asked before dinner. So?"

"Parker, it's late." Kelly kisses the top of his head. "Goodnight."

"Hey, have you decided yet?" Nicky asks, swinging into the room with his hand on the doorframe. He smiles because like every big dork, Nicky loves Star Wars too. "Night, son."

"Goodnight!" Parker squeaks. "Wait, decided what?"

"Go to sleep, Parker. You have school in the morning and you're almost as grouchy as Uncle Marty when you stay up late." Kelly clicks on his nightlight and starts to walk to the door. She whispers for Nicky to kiss their son goodnight while she deals with Sheila.

Only as she descends the stairs in bare feet does Kelly wonder if she should have warned Nicky that Parker would probably ask him the same thing, but that would mean bringing up marriage and that isn't something Kelly wants to do, especially after the day she's had.

"Kelly," Sheila calls out when she sees her at the foot of the stairs. "Have you seen this new reality show? This is just getting out of hand. The things people will do for their measly fifteen minutes of fame. It really is fifteen minutes with all the commercials in between."

"Why are you asking Parker about my relationship with Nick? He just asked me why we aren't married!" Kelly doesn't mean to yell. She just refuses to waste time with small talk.

"What? It slipped," Sheila replies. "And it's a good question too. Nicky's grandparents were thinking it too. Of course, no one mentioned it at dinner. Even I know it isn't appropriate."

"God, and that train wreck of a dinner…"

"What?" Sheila asks again. "I thought it went well."

"Are you kidding me?" Kelly asks. "Oh, my God. Do you even see it when you're doing it?"

"And what was I doing that was so offensive?"

"Quit trying to look so innocent," she hisses. "You don't have to try to sell me to Nick's family. I'm not your client and you sure as hell aren't my manager. Half the time you didn't even know what you were talking about. Typical!"

"I wasn't trying to sell you!" Sheila argues. "I shouldn't have to. Look around! You have so much to be proud of! And they should know it!"

"Whatever." Kelly bites her bottom lip, trying to stay in control. "You can stay, but only because Parker is going to be devastated if you leave in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. The guest room is upstairs, first door on the left. If you need anything don't ask."

Kelly starts for the stairs, but stops when she hears Sheila's low, chilling laugh. "You know, you told me you aren't sixteen anymore, but you're still acting like it. From what I've seen today, Parker is more mature than you and he's a child."

Kelly stomps up the first two stairs, but when she realizes what she's doing, she walks the rest of the way barely making a sound. She has grown up, at least a little.

A Saturday spent at the Tucker lake house, the very one he's had since he first came to Boulder. Kelly, Payson and Lauren lounge around by the fireplace, a giant Christmas tree already set up and decorated in the corner. Through the massive glass wall they can see Austin and Nicky, who're crazy enough to grill outside in December while Parker and Brie Mae Tucker, Austin and Payson's four-year-old, inspect the sky for snow.

"Kelly, slow down."

She ignores Payson completely, filling her wineglass close to the top. Payson and Lauren trade looks, but neither says anything. Kelly brings the rim to her lips and drinks more than she should at once.

"Okay, I'm going to warn you, KP, not your brightest idea." Payson pries Kelly's fingers off the bottle and puts it away. Before she can take her glass too, Kelly goes back over to sit with Lauren.

"You don't get what it's like to have mommy issues, Pay," Lauren says. "I say drink on."

"A drink, cool, not the whole bottle," Payson scolds. "Especially this early with the kids here."

"Did I mention Parker loves her?" Wine swishes from side to side as Kelly tries to talk with her hands. "Sheila's been staying with us less than three full days and already whenever he's around her, Parker never leaves her side! He asked if she's going to live with us for now on. And he looked so excited about it. Ugh, she's trying to turn him against me, I know it."

Payson laughs. "Austin says the same thing about my mom and Brie. Maybe I'm being naive here, but what if she just wants to spend her last moments with her grandson and has no ulterior motives?"

"You're naïve," Kelly and Lauren say in union.

Kelly takes another hefty pull of her red wine. "Oh! Did I tell you I caught her going through our things? She was in our master bathroom medicine cabinet. Then she had the nerve to call me out on why she found condoms and my birth control pills. Who does that?"

"Maybe she wants more grandchildren?" Payson suggests.

"Parker's enough. Thank you very much."

"I know exactly how you feel." Payson clinks her glass (although Payson's is filled with water) against Kelly's, which is nearly empty. "Austin just stood there throughout the whole birth and twelve hours later, mind you, when he's holding her, he gives me this big grin and says he wants more."

"I hope you said no."

"I said hell no," Payson says. They clink glasses again. "We're settled, Brie is potty trained and going to school, I don't know, maybe I wouldn't mind another baby, but giving birth is no fun."

"Having kids sounds gross," Lauren comments. "And that's my contribution to the conversation. I'm so single it's depressing. I'm stuck here with the mommy club while Kaylie is on tour with Damon, probably partying every night and sleeping with groupies."

"I doubt she's sleeping with groupies," Kelly interjects. "Most groupies are sluts with surgically alters boobs, trying to sleep with the drummer. Unless Kaylie's experimenting late in the game without mentioning anything, she's probably sleeping with the roadies."

"Or Damon," Lauren says. A lengthy pause follows. "What? We were all thinking it."

"At least someone's having sex," Kelly says bitterly. "Nick won't touch me because Sheila in sleeping on the other side of the wall. God, she's ruining my life all over again. And she asked our six-year-old why Nick and I aren't married and now Parker won't stop bringing it up."

Payson tilts her head towards Kelly with a sly smile. "Why aren't you married?"

"And I'm going to need the rest of that bottle." Kelly stands up and goes back over to the bar, finishing her glass on her way there.

"Because," Lauren answers, "with how many times Nicky proposed just to get shot down, he's probably tired of asking. I wouldn't be surprised if he gave up and returned the ring."

"Lo," Payson hisses, smacking her best friend's arm. With her back to them, Kelly stares at her left hand and curls her fingers into an angry fist.

"This is all Sheila's fault," Kelly complains. "We were fine. We were happy and didn't have to think about stupid marriage and now she's living in our house and messing everything up like every other time she was in my life."

Kelly takes a much-needed breath, trying to compose herself before the other girls see her face. She lets her elbows rest on the smooth wooden bar, head down, fingers in her hair.

"What about all the cancer stuff?" Payson asks boldly. "How are you dealing with that?"

"I'm not," Kelly says. "By this time next week she won't be living with us anymore and things will go back to normal and I won't have to think about it or her ever again."

"Okay, that's not healthy and this is me talking," Lauren cuts in. "If you want, my therapist is really good. Talking to her helped a lot after my mom died."

Kelly scowls at the idea alone. "No, thanks. No therapy."

Payson walks over and carefully moves the wineglass away before supportively running her hand down Kelly's shoulder. Kelly smiles weakly and they both go back to where Lauren is, opening a different bottle, white wine this time. Lauren's phone buzzes against the glass coffee table and Payson reaches for it.

"Carter Anderson is calling you…"

"Oh. That." Lauren rolls her eyes. "Someone must have told him I just broke up with Jake because he's been calling me nonstop since. Take care of that, will ya, Pay?"

"And tell him what exactly?"

"That I went to live on Mars. I don't know. Whatever you want. Just make him go away." Lauren hands a new glass of wine to Kelly, who takes it almost greedily, and one to Payson, but she waves off the offer and answers the call.

"Hi, Carter! Yeah, it has been a long time." Payson has this weird sort of enthusiasm in her voice and it's wholly inappropriate for the situation. Kelly nearly chokes on her wine and Lauren groans, ripping the phone away from Payson and handing it to Kelly.

"Hey, Car-Car, it's Kelly Parker. Lauren doesn't want to talk to you. Unless you magically turn into a hot Olympic wrestler named Jake then you should just fuck off. What? After, oh, screwing her over and disappearing from her life, you think you can just worm your way back in like nothing? You're toxic. You're cancer. Just stay the fuck away." Kelly ends the call and tosses it back to Lauren before she goes on drinking like nothing happened.

It's easy to see that both of the Rock girls (because they'll never stop being Rock girls, even after retirement) are worried. Kelly feels it, but won't acknowledge it.

"So," Lauren says. "I'm not saying you're going to need grief therapy or anything, but I'm just going to go ahead and text you the number to mine. When—if you call, tell her Lauren Tanner referred you."

Kelly stares blankly into her glass for a moment before finishing it off.

"I think I saw a snowflake!"

"Nu-uh!"

"Yu-huh!"

"You don't know anything. You're just a baby," Parker says. He came to this conclusion scientifically, of course. Anyone shorter than him is a baby. Brie Mae Tucker, in her little red riding hood winter coat is indeed shorter than him.

"Am not!" Brie pushes aside her honey blonde hair, tousled by the breeze. "Shut up!"

"That's a swear! Swear jar!" Parker shouts. He runs to his dad, wearing Denver Elite sweater that's a tad big on him. "Brie told me to s up!"

"He's trying to make me cry!" Brie shouts back.

"Alright, enough." Nicky plays referee. "You should know better, Parker. You're older."

"She said she saw a snowflake, but she didn't and I was just telling her." Parker's way too good at playing innocent, swaying from side to side, looking all around. And it's not gonna snow. The weather man said."

"There's always the chance for a Christmas miracle," Austin argues.

"Hopefully not anytime soon," Nicky says. "I'm yet to string up the lights."

"Can we do it tonight, dad?" Parker asks. "Then we have to get our tree! Sitti says she never used to get one when mommy was little so she says we should get the biggest one! Bigger than Brie's!" The little girl sticks her tongue out at him and Parker does the same in return. "We got hot chocolate yesterday and Sitti got the man to put extra whipped cream on mine. She just tells people what she wants and they do it. Mom does that too."

"Don't," Nicky warns him. "Don't say your mom is anything like Sheila, especially in front of her."

"Why wouldn't she wanna be like Sitti?"

Austin chuckles. "You're better off not knowing, kid."

"Can we go play on the playground?" Parker holds his hand out to Brie, who immediately takes it like they weren't just yelling at each other a minute ago. "I'll watch the baby."

"I'm not a baby!" Brie argues in her cute little voice, cheeks red from the cold. Parker laughs at her and playfully pulling her hood down over her eyes.

"Not too long. It's cold." Nicky nods. "Just stay where we can see you."

"And nowhere near the lake," Austin warns them.

Parker practically drags Brie by the hand and she waddles in her boots to keep up with him. Austin watches with a grin as the two approach the wooden fortress of a playground that Austin built himself, including a high bar and a set of rings.

"I'm telling you, Russo, our kids are going to date one day."

"God, I hope not. That would mean possibly being related to you."

Austin laughs. "I can see it. They're going to date and break up over and over and we're going to tell them to suck it up because we aren't going to stop being friends because of their teen drama. They'll go to the Olympics together, gymnasts, obviously, then after a dozen gold medals each, they'll retire, get married and give us genetically perfect superhuman grandbabies."

"In that order?"

"You and me are probably the wrong people to talk about doing things in order." Austin starts putting food on the grill and Nicky can't help, but stare at the wedding band on Austin's left hand. He proposed four weeks after they found out Payson was pregnant and they were married before her second trimester. "So where's this Sitti now?"

"Hospital, treatment. Sheila tells us as little as possible, says she doesn't want to bother us with the depressing details. We, uh, borrowed one of my dad's cars—you know he just has them collecting dust—so she's using that, even if I'm not sure she should be driving. I'm not sure she should be doing half the things she does, but Kelly just says to let her live her life."

"Crazy," Austin says. "Parker seems to like her."

"Like her?" Nicky reaches into the cooler and pulls out two beers, trying not to touch the ice cold water they'd been sitting in. "He's ready to start a fan club."

"And how's Kelly taking all of this?"

"She hates it. Stressed out. I wish I could do something, but I don't know what."

"Hey." Payson walks out onto the patio with a long blonde braid swishing down her back. Austin abandons the grill and goes to greet her, spinning in a circle. When they kiss, Nicky almost wants to laugh, thinking about their younger years when both Nicky and Austin wanted Kaylie Cruz. Then somehow they ended up getting her best friends pregnant. That's life.

"W'sup?" Austin asks.

"Max called, but we were too busy talking and missed it."

"Too busy bragging about me?" Austin smirks, arms still around her waist.

"Sure." Payson shakes her head, but smiles and Austin dramatically rolls his eyes. "How are the kids?"

The three look across the yard and see Brie go down the slide while Parker is on the bridge, moving along it with his hands, as if they were parallel bars.

"Having too much fun to realize they're freezing," Austin replies.

"Well, you should call Max. Maybe this means he's finally back in the country and just in time for Christmas," Payson says. "Oh, and Nicky, Kelly's drunk."

Austin scoffs. "Did she drink all the good stuff Lauren brought over?"

"Shut up, Austin. She's going through a rough time. And she drank the wine, not your scotch." Payson lightly slaps his arm. "It's better this way," Payson tries to stick up for her friend, racking her brain for some logical benefit. "Maybe she'll sober up before you go home tonight? I just don't know if she'll be okay around the kids or pass out before dinner."

"Great. Thanks, Pay, I appreciate it." Nicky stares at his untouched beer and hands it off to Austin since it looks like he's playing designated driver tonight.

"And you should totally have sex with her," Payson says, very seriously. Austin chokes mid-gulp and laughs after, beer spilling down his cheek. "Obviously, not tonight, but soon. Wasn't sex how you two coped with all the stress the entire time at the USATC?"

"I can vouch for that," Austin says. "That's why I could never hang out in our room and was forced to hang out with you girls the entire time."

"Yeah, but that's when we were kids, I wasn't pushing thirty, we didn't have a son and her dying mom wasn't living in our house." Nicky's eyes are on the beer bottle and damnit, one wouldn't hurt, but he shakes it off. "Thanks for the suggestion, Pay."

"More like direct order." Austin smirks at her. "Do you see why I love her? I love you, Keeler."

Austin and Payson get caught up, arms around each other, trading sweet kisses between smiles. Nicky shakes his head and moves around them to turn over the peppers that are blackening on one side. He shoves his frozen hands into his coat pockets and heads down the slope to where the children are playing.

"Dad! I told Brie you're the best at rings! Show her, dad!"

Nicky laughs and blows hot hair against his hands before wiping them clean against his jeans. The rings are suspended in the air by chains rather than cables and they're lower to the ground. Nicky won gold in London on rings when everyone was certain China or Romania had this event. He doesn't do anything fancy, the standard handstand, forward then rearwards, and a few basic skills, but the kids cheer for him like he's back in the games. Nicky releases and lands gracefully on his feet, but holy shit, his back, chest and wrists are not happy.

Parker jumps for the monkey bars and hangs on for a second before dropping to his feet. "Dad, why does mom hate Sitti?"

Nicky freezes, not know how to answer. When Parker first started learning to talk and ask questions, they said they weren't going to talk down to him or lie because it's easier than the truth. Their latest predicament is really starting to challenge them as parents.

"What do we say about that word, Parker? … Even if it is true." Nicky rubs his hand down his face. "Sheila's nice to you, right?" Parker nods, without question. "Well, she wasn't very nice to your mom when she was little."

"Why?"

Nicky shrugs. He can't for the life of him figure that one out either.

"But Sitti's nice to mom now," Parker argues. "She really wants mom to like her."

"Sometimes wanting something isn't enough." There's confusion in Parker's almond-shaped eyes and Nicky knows trying to explain it more isn't going to help. It's a life lesson better experienced. If Sheila's condition is as bad as it sounds and Parker gets more and more attached, it's a life lesson Parker's about to learn a lot sooner than Nicky would've liked.

When they get home from Boulder it's already late into the night. Parker fell asleep during the drive, which Nicky doesn't understand because Kelly kept trying to turn up the radio and sing along to Christmas songs. Once home, Nicky hoists Parker into his arms and gets him to bed before going back to do the same with Kelly.

He steps out onto the porch and Kelly is sitting there on the steps, staring up at the cloudless sky. Nicky sits next to her, finding the moon far from full and so bright. When he was living in Dallas and would look up to find a crescent moon, he'd always think of Kelly. She taught him that something (or someone) doesn't have to be whole for you to see it's beautiful and love it.

"That wine was good." Kelly leans against Nicky to keep from falling over. "Really good."

"Wine always reminds me of my dad."

"Ugh, can we not talk about parents? I'm so sick of it. We should take a vacation."

Nicky smiles softly. "A Christmas getaway?"

"Yeah," she says. "Just grab Parker, quietly pack up the car and drive to Disneyland."

"Why not go bigger?" Nicky plays along. On their dark porch, with only the stars and moon watching, it's easy to slip away from reality. "Disneyworld! Then we can go to Harry Potter world after."

"Oh, my God! Yeah!" Kelly shouts, but catches herself and covers her mouth with her hand, trying really hard to control the need to giggle. "We can see if we have points at the timeshare in Orlando! We just need to be quiet so mom—Sheila doesn't wake up and try to tag along."

Nicky nods, picturing it in his head as he presses his forehead to hers. She brings her lips to his, kissing him gently at first, but then forceful, almost violent, with her fingers digging into coat. Nicky kisses her back until the fantasy slips away, replaced with the need to breathe.

"Yeah," Nicky says softly. "Let's just forget that we both have jobs, people relying on us to make sure the world doesn't end and Parker has to go to school…and that your mom is dying."

Eyes shut tight, Kelly purses her lips and yanks him by the collar of his shirt, kissing him hard with lips already parted. "Hey, Nick, remember when things used to get really shitty when we were younger and we'd fuck and things would just…be better…less scary."

Nicky slides his fingers through her hair. "But we weren't fixing anything. We were just running and hoping…"

She rests her head against his shoulder and sighs. "We aren't going to Disneyworld, are we?"

"One day. Maybe this summer," he says. "Tonight, we're going to bed."

Nicky starts to stand, but Kelly refuses to move. She gets so good at hiding it sometimes, denying her past, preoccupied with the present, planning for the future. Here, she reminds him so much of that sixteen-year-old girl who'd show up on his porch in the middle of the night, asking for him to help her forget at least till morning.

"Why are you still with me?" Kelly asks. "Imma mess 'n still horrible."

He hates seeing her like this and so he takes her hand and tries to think of the perfect thing to say. "Remember those times I'd randomly call you? When I was in Dallas and you were here and when I was in London—"

"And I was still here," she says.

"You remember." He smiles, rubbing his thumb back and forth between her knuckles. "I'd call you, basically freaking out to the point where I needed a brown paper bag to breathe in and you'd just listen and it was really awkward even after we hung up, but I didn't care because it was better than not talking. When I left for Dallas, you said we were just gonna have to settle on being secretly in love with each other, but I didn't want to settle. Couldn't. I wanted all of you and I wanted everyone to know."

"Nick, I'm trying really hard to listen to what you're saying because I love you, but I'm going to pass out soon-ish."

Nicky stands and hoists her up with him. "I love you too."

The next morning, Kelly is hungover and stays in bed all morning while Nicky juggles talking on the phone and flipping pancakes on the stove. The TV isn't on and Parker isn't in his room. Sheila looks out the window and sees her grandson jumping up and down on the trampoline they have in the yard. It's cold to the point where his breath comes out in streaks, but it hasn't snowed once since October.

"Impressive!" Sheila walks out into the yard and over to Parker, who flops from his back to his feet over and over again.

"Thanks!"

"So when does your real training start?"

"Not yet," Parker replies. "Uncle Marty—" Sheila snorts with laughter at that. "—He says if I wanna I can start serious training when I turn seven. It's my decision on my seventh birthday even if my mom and dad want me to have a normal childhood or something."

Sheila scoffs. "Normal is boring."

Parker's face lights up. "I know, right!"

"Why don't you come inside, Parker? It's too cold. I want to show you something." Sheila waves him over and Parker follows without argument. "You know, your momma was the very best when she was just a little older than you."

"Yeah, I saw videos and stuff with her hair like this." Parker curls his hands into fists and plops them atop his head, simulating Kelly's signature buns. Sheila smiles and Parker grins back, the little ham.

"Are you proud of your momma or what?"

"She's the best! She has all those trophies and medals! And she used to fly! How cool is that?"

"Good. You should be. Your mom is world class." They sit together on the couch and Sheila pulls her carpetbag into her lap. "Do you like to paint?"

"Like finger paint?"

"No, too messy. I don't think your parents would like that very much." Sheila pulls out handfuls of ceramic Christmas ornaments. "See, we have to paint them and when you finally get a tree we can hang them on it. Sounds fun?"

"Super fun!" Parker nods and Sheila hands him a paintbrush. "Sitti, you aren't planning on leaving soon, are you? I like you living with us."

"I can't stay forever, Parker, but I will as long as I can."

All Parker talks about Monday after school is how every classroom has a Christmas tree and how much they need one. Nicky is working a little later than usual so Kelly has to pick up Parker and they plan to meet him at DE before going to get a tree, but Parker demands Sheila go with them. Tired after a long day, Kelly gives in, drives all the way to their house to pick up Sheila and decide to meet Nicky at the nearest tree farm instead.

When they get there, the smell of fresh pine trees is enchanting and mixed with the chill in the air it starts to feel like Christmas. Parker gets overly excited like he always does and Kelly has to shout for him to watch where he's going when he almost gets bulldozed by people moving trees. In addition to the biggest tree on the farm, Parker needs to have a miniature one for his room and when Kelly refuses, things turn nasty fast.

"I want the baby tree!"

"Parker, you don't need it. We are not paying $80 for a big one and another $40 for that little one. They're trees, Parker. Think of what else we could buy with $40 that I guarantee will last longer than a tree," Kelly explains. "It just makes sense."

"No! I want the baby one too!"

Kelly curls her bottom lip between her teeth. This is the last thing she needs right now.

"Well, that's too bad for you," Kelly says, trying to keep from rising her voice in public. "We're done arguing about this. Look, they have reindeer. Why don't we go on a sleigh ride while we wait for your dad to get here?"

Parker growls and angrily kicks at the dirt and it flies through the air, hitting a few people walking by. He doesn't apologize, just glaring hard at his mom and Kelly hates it, mostly because she knows this is exactly how she was at his age.

"Both of you are embarrassing," Sheila murmurs. "I'll buy him the baby tree. Christ, Kelly, it's Christmas. All he wants is a tree for his room."

Parker's face lights up at his Sitti coming to the rescue. As if Kelly wasn't upset before. She is downright livid.

"No, Sheila, we aren't getting two trees. I'm trying to teach him that he can't get his way by acting like a brat and I don't appreciate you telling me how to parent." Kelly sighs and squats to accommodate the height difference, looking at Parker. "I know you're angry and that's fine, be angry. I'm going to go look at the wreaths and when you calm down and realize how you're acting, we can get some hot chocolate or cider, but we are not buying a second tree."

Kelly fixes the beanie atop his head and Parker shoulders away, his gloved hands in fists. He walks away, kicking up flurries of dirt as he does. When he gets farther and farther away, Sheila looks to Kelly, who's on her phone, texting.

"Aren't you going to go after him?" Sheila demands. "If it were you acting like that I would have yanked you in the car and said screw it, no tree at all."

"We're on a farm, far from civilization. He has nowhere to go. Once he's ready, he'll come back." Kelly makes sure to check where he is every few seconds, making sure he isn't talking to creepers, but she isn't about to give in.

By the time Nicky shows up, the sun is setting and it's getting colder. Parker walks back over with sad eyes and apologizes to Kelly, saying he doesn't need the baby tree and that he's sorry for kicking dirt because it isn't nice. As Nicky and Sheila buy the hot chocolate and cider, Parker and Kelly walk ahead and hunt for the perfect tree, hand in hand.

"Nick's cooking. Dinner should be ready soon," Kelly announces. Sheila is by the fully assembled Christmas tree, hanging one of their hand painted ornaments on a sturdy branch. It's easy to tell which are hers and which are Parker's. All of Sheila's angels and carolers have tan skin and rosy cheeks while Parker's Frosty the Snowman is orange like an Oompa Loompa and his Santa's face is green. The contrast is sort of cute.

"He works all day, comes home and cooks for you?"

"Yeah, while I check Parker's homework," Kelly says. "I didn't exactly learn growing up."

"When are you going to get married already?" Sheila asks. "Clearly not before I bite the big one, but hopefully before Parker started courting girls. That boy's a charmer. It'd be embarrassing if your kid beats you to the altar. Do you need me to give Nicky a nudge? That's the one benefit of dying. I can say whatever I want to whoever."

"Please. You had no problem doing that even before the cancer," Kelly snaps. "And don't say anything to Nick about this. Believe me, he doesn't need a nudge."

"So he's asked you to marry him?"

"Keep it down." Kelly looks over at the door to the kitchen. "Yes, he has…three times."

"Three times? Three times!"

"God, why did I tell you that?" Kelly groans, heading up the stairs. Sheila tries to race over, but when she goes to take a step, her leg gives out and she winces, groping for the end table to keep standing. Without even realizing, Kelly reaches out as if to steady her, but Sheila just ignores the whole thing and meets her near the stairs.

"And why didn't you say yes?"

"We are not having this conversation."

"Do you love him?" Sheila asks. Kelly doesn't even have to respond. Her face says everything. "Then you should tell him. All the time. And marry him. Hell, you should ask him if you need to. Don't waste a second." Getting sick did something to her, changed her, and Kelly sees it in these little moments. Sheila sighs wistfully. "I know I would have said yes the first time."

"Gross," Kelly says. "Maybe that attitude is why you've been married and divorced twice now."

Instead of getting offended and snarling at her, Sheila laughs, full of nostalgia. "I was nineteen the first time I got married. Spring Break. Bali, Indonesia. I don't think it was a legal marriage. Then again, neither were all the drugs I was on at the time."

"Unbelievable." Kelly finds her anger again and intends to hold on as long as she can. "When you were nineteen you got married to some Indonesian guy who didn't even speak English and when I was nineteen I found out I was pregnant and the father is a guy who loves me so much it's unreal. And you had the nerve to call me a whore and cut me off?"

"Kelly, you cut me off long before that."

"Yeah, because you believed in that little friggin' psycho, Wendy Capshaw, more than you believed in me, your own daughter! Not to mention you're a frickin' racist!"

"What do you mean racist?" Sheila shouts back.

"Uh, everything you said at that stupid invasion of Coach Mac's house. Not to mention all the little comments you made right in front of Jordan!"

"That wasn't racism! That was competitorism! I thrived to take down whoever was in your way because that's how much I believed in you and you winning!"

"Yeah, for your own selfish reason!" Kelly screams.

"Hey, is everything okay in here?" Nicky asks.

"STAY OUT OF IT!" both women yell, turning in perfect synchronization to throw similar glares at Nicky. Stopping in the doorway, Nicky turns right around and retreats.

"I called you after I found out I was pregnant. I told you before Nick or dad or anyone! I was scared and alone, hoping my mother, despite all of our drama, would be there for me, but instead you called me a whore and said I made the biggest mistake of my life!" When she realizes she's yelling, Kelly takes a moment just to breathe. "Parker is the best thing to happen to me. And he needs me to check his homework right now so I'm done talking to you."

"Kelly," Sheila says, when she's already halfway up the stairs. "You really are a good mother."

Kelly knows it and feels it, but she doesn't quite believe that Sheila does. Her words have always been empty and Kelly doesn't believe impending death has changed that.

Their home feels too much like a battleground these days. It's come to the point where Parker doesn't even ask questions anymore. Nicky knows he wants to know why his mom and his grandma have nightly screaming matches and why the silence hurts so much, but he doesn't. He bottles it up. Nicky knows a lot about bottling up feelings and it isn't something he wants his son to learn.

When Nicky gets a text that Max is at the Denver Airport, he has no choice but to respond. He drives over before picking up Parker from school and finds his older cousin sitting on the curb at arrivals, wearing sunglasses and rocking a full, Tom Hanks Castaway beard.

"Max, what are you doing here?" Nicky asks. Max just pulls him into a hug after loading his backpack into the second row and climbing into the front seat.

"It's Christmas!" Max shouts. "I thought I'd stop by, see Nonna and Nonno; see what my favorite cousin is doing. I've been traveling through Asia. It's gorgeous out there, got some amazing shots and met some cool people. And I got a lil' something-something for PJ."

"Why do you bring him gifts every time you visit?" Nicky asks. "Your mom does too, every time she comes in from New York. Uncle Joe and the cousins from Boston too."

"It's a Russo thing," Max answers. "Then again, they stopped trying to buy our love when you chose to coach gymnastics over med school and they disowned me entirely after finding out I like to fuck men on occasion."

"Anyways, I know you aren't here just because it's Christmas," Nicky says. "You owe someone money? You slept with someone's wife? … Husband?"

"Hilarious," Max says dryly. "I was back in New York City for a few days, stopped by some galleries, had dinner with Faith, but after spending the last seven months exploring Phang Nga Bay in a canoe and surfing in West Sumbawa, the city is just fucking loud."

"Wait till you see my house," Nicky mutters.

"What's wrong with your house? I was hoping I could crash in the spare room. I already asked Austin if I could stay at the lake house, but his parents are visiting for Christmas and Ava's going to be there…"

"And Payson doesn't want you anywhere near Brie." Nicky smiles knowingly. "You can stay with us if you delete fuck from your vocabulary, oh, and don't mind sharing a bed with Kelly's mom."

"Her mom? The psycho who chased you out of Denver?"

"She didn't chase me out." Nicky shifts uncomfortably at the memory. "Uh, yeah, Sheila's been staying with us for a while now. She's sick. Terminal."

"That sucks." Max sacrifices a few seconds of sympathetic silence, but only a few. "So I can sleep on your couch, then? This close to the holidays I doubt any of the nice hotels have rooms and there's no way in hell I'm going to stay with your dad."

"Has anyone ever told you that running from your problems doesn't make them go away?"

Max checks himself out in the mirror and laughs. "You of all people would know, dad."

When Nicky pulls up to the elementary school, Max throws the door open and runs to hug Parker. Max really does look like a deranged hobo as he throws Parker over his shoulder and carries him like that to the car. They both get in the backseat, leaving Nicky to play taxi.

"Whoa, Uncle Max! There's so much hair on your face!" Parker brings his hand up to Max's cheek, petting him like he would a dog.

"I know. As soon as we get home, Uncle Max is gonna show you how to shave."

"Cool!" Parker shouts. "Uncle Max, you're my favorite uncle. You know why?"

"My natural born coolness," he replies. Nicky scoffs from the driver's seat.

"And?" Parker presses.

"And I bring you cool presents from all over the world." Parker claps as Max unzips his backpack and pulls out a large glass bottle filled with bronze liquor and things floating inside, including a snake. Parker gasps as Max slides it into his little hands.

"Neat, right?" Max asks. "It's a special whisky infused with a real Cobra and herbs. I thought it'd look cool in your new room. I got two more and your dad, Uncle Austin and me are gonna drink it."

"Sick!" Parker shouts. The kid likes to shout.

"I am not drinking that," Nicky says.

"It's whisky, Nicky! You have to!"

"What's whisky?" Parker asks.

"It's, uh…"

"Horse pee," Nicky replies.

Parker's nose crinkles in disgust. "Why are you gonna drink it?"

"Because adults are weird and willing to do anything to feel young again. You're young now so enjoy it while it lasts, okay?" Max ruffles Parker's hair. "The story is, in Southeast Asia, it's a very strong Aphrodisiac and they use it as medicine to treat back and muscle pain."

"Maybe Sitti can have some since it's for pain…"

"But not this one," Max goes on, moving through the tension especially since he doesn't quite understand it. "This is yours. The other two I got are for drinking. There's a giant centipede in one and a huge Thai spider in the other. You want to see?"

Parker gasps and demands for Max to show him. Nicky can't imagine Kelly liking that he's bringing home another stray, but maybe Max can ease the inevitable pain over losing the other. As the days go on and the clock ticks down, Nicky's willing to try anything.

"Nick, when did our house become a zoo?"

"I don't even know." Kelly hands him a dish to dry and as he does, Nicky peeks into the next room. Sheila in her bathrobe, Max with a clean shaken face and Parker sits in between them; all stare at TV, not even talking. "Parker, five more minutes and then bed!"

"'Kay! Uncle Max has a very im-por-tant Skype date, but can Sitti read with us tonight?"

"Did you ask her?" Nicky shouts back. Kelly flicks soapsuds in his face. "What? What was I supposed to say?"

Kelly doesn't talk to him the rest of the time they do dishes, but he does get a smile out of her when he tells her she looks hot especially when she fails at washing dishes and the whole bottom half of her shirt gets wet. Kelly goes to change while the others meet in Parker's room.

"What book are we reading tonight?" Kelly asks.

"We're at the end of My Friend the Monster. I fell asleep last time, 'member?" Parker crawls beneath the covers. "Sitti, sit with me!"

Parker hands her the book to read and Sheila adjusts her glasses on her nose. "The boys came to Humbert's house, but only Humbert went in first. 'I have to ask my mother about you staying,' Humbert explained. Hal couldn't see anyone in the house, but he heard Humbert's mother talking. 'He is a Small Eyes. Why have you brought him here? He can't stay here. His is our enemy,' she said.

" 'He is not our enemy,' Humber replied. 'He is my friend.' Hal couldn't hear what she said after that, but soon Humbert returned and brought Hal into his house. Despite what she had said, Humbert's mother was very kind to Hal. She gave the boys dinner and a bath, and then she put them to sleep."

"That's one of my favorite parts!" Parker says. "The whole book is my favorite. Because Hal is a human and Humbert is a monster boy and they're a lot different, but it doesn't mean they can't be friends. And that happens in real life too. That's what mom says. Right, mom?"

"Right," Kelly agrees.

They take turns reading until they get to the end, which curiously enough, doesn't end with a happily ever after, but with hope for a future where Hal becomes kind and makes it so that humans and monsters can peacefully coexist.

"G'night, Sitti."

"Goodnight, little prince." Sheila remains in the doorway, watching as Kelly kisses her son goodnight. Nicky starts to tuck him, but stops to argue with Parker over how he's hugging the bottle of snake juice as if it were a stuffed animal.

"Nice choice in books," Sheila says once Kelly walks out of the room.

"I'm teaching my son not to discriminate. Apparently, not even against monsters. I've had the book since I was a kid. Dad bought it for me. He always made sure I read. If I remember right, you would just turn on the TV to distract me while you worked."

"I know I never tried back then, but I am now," Sheila says softly. "I meant what I said the other night. You're light-years ahead of me when you were his age or you at any age if we're being honest. It kind of amazes me that Parker even likes me. Whenever he calls me Sitti…" Sheila smiles, proud.

"What is that?" Kelly asks. "He's six. He's perfectly capable of saying your name or grandma."

Sheila is visibly uncomfortable with that word and seeing it, Kelly almost smiles.

"It's what I called my grandmother and it's what I would have made you call my mother."

"I never got to meet her…"

"She passed away when you were still a baby. Breast cancer too." Kelly swears her heart stops beating and aches when she hears that. "Kelly, I know I'm in no position to be telling you what to do, but our family has a history for the damn thing so you need to be attentive. And God forbid if you are diagnosed one day, you fight like hell because your boys need you."

The silence that follows is a tense one. Feeling like she's just been smacked with reality, Kelly's eyes suddenly start to tear.

"I don't mean to scare you. It's just something I needed to say. Goodnight, sweetheart," Sheila says with her hand on the doorknob to the guest room.

Kelly just stands there in the dark hallway, wondering how she never considered this particular possibility. The very idea of getting sick one day, putting Nicky and Parker through that, scares the shit out of her. She tells herself that there's no use in thinking like that, worrying about something that's either impossible or inevitable. She begins to see why Sheila is doing this, using the time she has left the best she can.

"Max is ridiculous. I can't believe he got our six-year-old a snake in a bottle of whisky. And he wants us to drink that stuff?" Nicky comes up behind her and Kelly quickly turns to hug him as if they've been separated for months and not mere minutes. In a much more serious, almost deadly voice, Nicky asks, "What did she say to you?"

"Nick, do you still have that engagement ring? You didn't like, return it, right?"

He stares at her, puzzled. "Yeah, of course I have it. It was my mom's. Why would you—"

"Ask me again," Kelly whispers. "Not right this second, but soon."

Kelly smiles, runs her hand down his prickly jaw before rising on the front of her feet to kiss him. The guest room door squeaks open and Nicky nearly jumps away from Kelly. He really needs to get over it already.

"And just so you know, I'm usually a heavy sleeper and I also use earplugs!" Sheila announces. "They could drop a nuclear bomb and I'd sleep straight through it, like a baby."

"I, on the other hand, hear everything!" Max shouts from downstairs. "And don't forget you have a kid, who already has Kelly Parker for a mom and doesn't need any more trauma in his life!"

"Party pooper!" Sheila yells back. "I thought gays are supposed to be fun and provocative!"

"STOP TALKING! I AM TRYING TO SLEEP!" Parker shouts.

Nicky and Kelly share a smile before she hooks her finger through the belt loop of his jeans and drags him to their bedroom.

Max doesn't think he'd ever try to live in Colorado ever again, but he does like to visit. Nicky and Kelly and Austin and Payson are domesticated as fuck with real jobs and shit, but Lauren Tanner now owns one of Denver's hottest nightclubs and that's fun. They made a deal that he gets in free and drinks for free if he brings in a hot crowd that pays. With their history far in the past, Lauren rants to him about her on-again-off-again-always-and-forever boy toy, Jake, and Max considers telling her why he's really spending the holidays in Colorado, but doesn't.

He even hangs out with Sheila a little too. She isn't the average granny, has an evil, devious side to her and Max can dig that. He drives her to the hospital and to the grocery store after and they watch daytime soap operas while painting ceramic ornaments. With how fast-pace his life has been, this chill time, Max sort of likes it.

When Nicky and Kelly have their Date Night, which is an actual thing they do every week, apparently, Sheila suggests baking cookies once Parker finishes his homework. Being Parker, he's game for pretty much anything. Max hangs out in the kitchen while they break out the pre-made cookie dough that comes in a tube and the Christmas cookie cutters Sheila bought.

"Hey, you, are you going to help us with the cookies or are you too busy trying to decide if you're going to cross-dress as Britney or X-tina in the club tonight?" Sheila asks playfully.

Untouched by her verbal jab, Max replies, "I don't cook. Or bake. Those are my two least favorite things to do in the kitchen."

"A gay that isn't provocative or flamboyant, doesn't lift a finger in the kitchen and doesn't do hair? By my count, you're not very good at this gay thing, Max."

"What's a gay?" Parker asks.

"Your uncle," Sheila replies.

"I know that," Parker says impatiently. Sheila smiles and Max does too, leaning back in his chair, imagining what Kelly would think of this conversation. "Is it like a club?"

"I'm not one. Not officially. And it's probably something you should ask your parents when you're old enough to sit in the front seat of a car and not any sooner," Max say. "Sitti is just teasing. Just because someone's gay doesn't mean they're a colorful caricature, just people. Remember that, okay?"

"Okay," Parker agrees. "You sure you don't wanna help, Uncle Max?"

"You look like you're doing fine without me," Max reassures him. "I'm not a real cookie person. I could go for some brownies. Special brownies."

"What makes special brownies special?" Parker questions his babysitters, who exchange mischievous smiles.

"Dill weed," Max replies. "It's an herb."

"To tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind some dill weed by itself, if you know what I mean." Sheila winks at Max and he reads it more as a request than more teasing.

"I might know someone…" Max lets his words trail off, furthering the real negotiation right over Parker's head as he makes a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a person.

Sheila raises her eyebrows. "How much you need for it?"

"No charge. What are in-laws for, right?"

"Are we still talking about brownies?" Parker inquires, suspiciously looking between them.

"I bet you've never eaten raw cookie dough before, have you?" Sheila asks. Parker shakes his head no. "It is the best! Why don't you try it? Just a little won't kill you and your mom isn't home anyways. As long as someone doesn't tattle."

They both look at Max, who slaps his hand over his eyes. "I didn't see nothing."

"You guys are my favorite babysitters ever!"

Max drops his hand just in time to see Parker throw himself into hugging Sheila. Max quickly snaps a photo. It's the first, last and only picture they ever take together.

Kaylie Cruz's surprise visit for the holidays means a night out in the city. It also means trying to find a last minute babysitter willing to stay late.

"Maybe we should see if Parker could stay Brie and Payson's parents."

"All the way in Boulder when we're meeting everyone in the city? No way," Nicky disagrees. It makes no logical sense and Nicky has always been about logic. "Kelly, it'll be fine. Parker, tell your mom everything is going to be fine!"

"Everything is going to be fine!" Parker shouts, sure to annunciate. "We're gonna watch Deck the Halls! Sitti says it's a Christmas classic no one knows about!"

Kelly pause, wand of mascara in hand, and turns to Nicky. "Is that age appropriate?"

Nicky shrugs, buttoning his shirt. "I've never heard of it."

"Me neither."

Nicky tells her she looks beautiful and Kelly playfully tells him to go do something with his hair. The last time they left Parker alone for an evening with Sheila and Max, which was arguably worst, that night turned out fine so this one shouldn't be much different.

After drilling Parker on how to dial 9-1-1 and making him recite their address, Kelly, Nicky and Max head for Lauren's nightclub downtown. Kaylie is already there, chatting with Lauren and Jake in the VIP balcony. When they spot each other, Kelly and Kaylie quickly embrace, unable to contain their excitement. When Payson and Austin finally join them, they spend the evening sipping drinks and catching up.

"Okay, so Nick and I tried to go into Lauren's office to call home and see how things are with Sheila and Parker, walked in on Lauren and Jake pretty close to going at it on her desk. I didn't know Tanner had a tramp stamp."

Kaylie laughs from where she is, leaning against the balcony railing, martini glass in hand, looking out at the city lights. Kelly goes to join her, still uneasy about her son home alone with her psycho mother, but not as much as she would have been a week ago.

"The first time I went on tour with Damon, when I was Merch Girl and not a headlining act. We stopped over in LA for a show when Lo was interning at that fashion magazine, went out after and things got a little crazy. Razor, Damon's friend, has the exact same tattoo, same place."

Kelly laughs, doesn't even want to try and picture it.

"So what's with Sheila living in your house, babysitting your son?" Kaylie asks. "Payson said you were freaking out about it last weekend and now you don't seem so freaked out."

"I'm not saying I trust her—"

"Uh, isn't that exactly what you're saying?" Kaylie says accuses. "You left Parker with her."

"Fine." Kelly knows Kaylie's only calling her out because she cares, but explaining yourself is never fun. "I'm not saying I forgive her for my mess of an existence, but Parker loves her and she's surprisingly good with him. I can see where she's coming from and why she wanted this. I don't discriminate against monsters."

Kaylie doesn't push, just drinks. "I was always jealous of your life, you know."

Kelly snorts. "I've been in love with the same guy since I was sixteen, had his baby at twenty, turned him down so many times he probably won't ask me to marry him ever again, and, oh, his loser cousin, still bisexual, by the way, and my mother, who's dying, are all under our roof. Right. So much to be jealous of."

"Um, Nicky is in love with you too, you both have steady, great paying jobs and your son is so adorable he honestly should have been a Gerber baby." Kaylie nudges Kelly with her shoulder. "You think I'm better off?"

"A new city every night, the rush of performing in front of a crowd—"

"The loneliness, empty penthouse suites, hearing about all my friends settling down," Kaylie says, staring straight forward. "Freedom is amazing and everything, but if you're alone…"

"Stop being dramatic," Kelly says. "What about Damon?"

"Whose son hates me and steals Damon away every chance he gets. I don't know. He thinks I stole his dad from his mom."

"You sort of did." Kelly laughs even if she knows it's inappropriate. The mood out here is a little too heavy for what she wants right now.

"God, even Austin is domesticated, not to mention blissed-out, showing me pictures of his kid, like, no, it's not awkward at all even if, oh, I lost my virginity to the guy and now he's married to Payson of all people and she's just popping out litters of kids for him!"

"What?"

"She wasn't drinking tonight," Kaylie points out and takes another sip.

"Payson isn't a big drinker."

Kaylie sighs, pinching between her eyebrows. "I know I sound bitter, but… am I the only one who even remembers how things used to be?"

They remember, but they'd rather forget. Nicky and Kelly weren't even in a real relationship. Lauren chased Jake to the west coast, using connections, trying on about a million different occupations. Austin was a mess after Kaylie left on that first tour with Damon (finally free and all that), but then he started working at the Rock, him and Payson clicked, like they've always clicked in the past, just on a deeper level. Things are much better than before and Kaylie is the only one who disagrees.

"We're too young to be so old." Kaylie lifts her glass, but it's already empty. Kelly thinks she's exactly where she should be in life, but she's sensitive enough to not say it aloud.

Max ends up going home with some random and it leaves Kelly free to tease Nicky the entire drive home with her sexy smile and her hand that can't seem to keep still on his thigh. Once they're parked on their street, Nicky turns to her with eyes full of an intensity she knows well and her expression says she fucking loves. He forgets to be shy and awkward when her hands gently feel up his abs and he kisses her until kissing isn't enough.

Nicky's certain a snake in whisky is a weak aphrodisiac compared to Kelly's fast breaths so close to his ear and hot on his skin. The confined backseat of her car is not ideal, but it'll have to do. Kelly bites her lip to muffle the sounds she needs to make, a habit that formed after years of having a sleeping child in the house. Here she can be as loud as she wants and Nicky intends to take her there.

Kelly whispers about what bad parents they are, having sex in her car and sneaking in just before sunrise. She insists they check on Parker before they pass out and when she pushes on the door, his bed is empty. Paralyzing fear ruins how fucking satisfied she is and Kelly immediately marches to the guest room.

Relief comes the moment she sees Sheila asleep on one side of the bed and Parker on the other, My Friend the Monster open between them. Kelly hears Nicky laughing at her and she makes a mental note to smack him when he least expects it. Kelly reaches for the doorknob, but pauses when she notices the line of pill bottles on the dresser. There's a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, but Kelly does her best to ignore it and closes the door.

"So, after your sex reassignment surgery, what name will you go by?" Sheila asks. "I like Margo for you. Or maybe Margot. That's much more hip, I suppose. Silent tmaybe."

"You're lucky I like you," Max says. "You're one of the most offensive people I've ever met."

"Thank you. All joking aside, when are you going to cut the crap and pick a gender already?"

"From the way you talk, it sounds like you chose a gender for me even if you're so terribly disappointed by how bad of a gay I'd make." Max laughs at himself, at Sheila, at how his crisis pales in comparison to hers. He breathing out a streak of smoke and passes the joint to her. "You make it sound so easy. You're just like everyone else."

"I am? I'm old enough to be your mother and I'm here, smoking pot with you!" Sheila laughs hysterically. "No, no, no. I tease, but, seriously, you're doing well. You, my friend, are young and free and meant to explore, just like how Nicky and Kelly were meant to find each other and start a family early."

Max laughs. "I mean, yeah, they had the best kid in the whole universe, but do you really think they'll be together forever?"

Sheila reaches for the rolling paper they bought at the nearest liquor store and hurls it at Max. "What is with you Russos? Your grandparents hate Kelly. And now you're telling me you don't think they'll last?"

"My grandparents barely speak English and they have their reasons. For one, they got married young. My grandma was sixteen, but that was back in Italy, a whole other world. My mom got pregnant young, my dad stuck around five months into her pregnancy and split. Nicky's mom was young when she got pregnant and everyone thought that would last, but it ended pretty tragically. They're just expecting the worse. We're just, I don't know, jaded."

"But if we change one bit of that then us, here, now, wouldn't exist. Our world would be entirely different," Sheila says like something out of a sci-fi movie. "It all happens for a reason."

"And you getting sick," Max says, somber. "I'm supposed to believe cancer has a purpose? If there is a God and he loves his people so damn much, why does shit like this exist?"

"Well, if I never got sick I wouldn't be here right now, getting high with your depressing ass," Sheila reasons. Max nods before taking a swig of his beer. Touché. "I'm almost glad. Otherwise I'd probably be in Bali or something. It's been more than a week and Kelly has yet to kick me out. All things considered, it's a miracle."

"Who knows? Maybe you'll even make it to Christmas."

"That's a little too wishful thinking." Sheila puffs and passes it to Max. He offers her his beer, but Sheila refuses, letting the smoke slowly pour from her lips. "It's no use, Max. Just know that when I'm gone, I'm sure your life is going to be my new favorite reality show."

"Do me a favor?" Max asks. "Could you get Kurt Cobain to watch? I always thought he was hot. Cleopatra too."

Suddenly, the door to the old shed rattles and Max and Sheila are both too stoned to do anything other than giggle about how much trouble they're in. Nicky steps inside and reaches for the light switch, but then he notices the bulb already glowing and catches the scent, stumbling backwards.

"Nicky!" Max shouts. "We're trying to hotbox and you're kinda ruining it!"

"What the hell?" Nicky yells. He's really starting to get his dad lungs and he'll probably need them when Parker reaches his teens. "Max, are you…? In my backyard? Are you kidding me! Kelly would kick your ass if she knew you brought…this into our house!"

"Whoa, there, buddy boy." Sheila waves a hand at him. "We never bring it inside the house. Nowhere near my grandson. We always smoke here."

"You've done this more than once?"

Max and Sheila look at each other again and giggles spill out.

"Why would you do something so incredibly stupid?" Nicky glares at his cousin.

"She asked for it, Nicky."

"And that's supposed to make it okay?"

"You don't get it, Nicky. She's dying!" Max screams till his voice breaks. "Even Parker knows how much pain she's in, but you and Kelly just try to go on day after day like Sheila isn't running out of hers. So whatever she wants I'm going to deliver. And I know you tell Kelly everything, but this time, for Sheila, at least have the courtesy to wait until she's gone, man."

Nicky stands back, outside the shed, blowing hot air from his cheeks on the chilly afternoon. "You're right. Okay. I'm sorry. Just get rid of everything when you're done and FeBreze."

He grabs a box of tools off one of the shelves and walks out. Max scrambles to his feel and watches Nicky go back into the house before he shuts the door and starts laughing.

"That was brilliant!" Sheila sings. "The courtesy part, I've never seen someone other than me play a poor sap so beautifully!"

"Thank you." Max gives her a bow before slumping down next to Sheila on the workbench. She hands him his beer and Max takes another pull. "I can't believe he bought that!"

"Too nice for his own good, that one. Y'know, if I had a son, well, Nicky is the perfect son-in-law, for sure, but if I had an actual son that shot out of my actual uterus, I'd want him to be nothing like you. But you've definitely got the looks and your terrible, terrible confusion over your sexuality amuses me so."

"I'm here to entertain." Max laughs. "So should I roll another?"

The devil herself gives him a grin. "You only live once, right?"

Kelly finally gets around to unpacking all of the boxes leftover from their move. As she's arranging things in the kitchen she notices the swear jar filled to the brim with cash, some singles, fives and even twenties.

"Why is there so much money in the swear jar?" Kelly asks. "Max, wasn't it?"

"No!" Parker answers. "Sitti made a donation! She doesn't need it anymore!"

That strikes a chord with Kelly, the same way it did when she saw the pill bottles. Kelly pushes past the swinging door and quietly observes as Parker and Sheila sit together on the couch, watching one of Kelly's old gymnastics videos.

"Whoa! Can I learn to do that or is it just for girls?"

"Of course, you can," Sheila says. "But ask your father to teach you and not Old Man Marty."

Kelly stands back, more interested in the little exchange between her son and mother, how they look at each other and share laughs. When Nicky walks in, he calls for them to help Max and him unload groceries. Parker grabs his sweater and races out the door, asking if Nicky bought the right cereal this time. Before Sheila can follow, Kelly stops her.

"What's wrong with you?" Kelly hisses.

Sheila just smiles and it's infuriating. "A lot, but c'est la vie. I'm—"

"Dying, yes, I know. You talk about it like, all the time. And in front of my kid, who's six and too young to know what it's like to lose someone. So, again, I'll ask what is wrong with you? You should be getting help! Not sitting here like everything is fine! God, and I thought you were fucked up before…"

Instead of anger like Kelly expects, Sheila frowns sympathetically. "Swear jar."

"Just stop. Why am I more freaked out about this than you?"

"Because you have so much more to live for. I, on the other hand…" Sheila reaches out to touch her, but Kelly jerks away. "It's the fear of dying, but once you get over that it's a piece of cake. I'm content with what I'm leaving behind. Not that you ever needed me."

"I did," Kelly argues. "I needed you so much but you were never there for me."

"And I hate myself for it, but if I could go back and undo it I wouldn't dare. It sounds horrible, but I wouldn't change a thing because if I did, it would change you, it would change everything. And you have this beautiful life and I'd never try to take that from you."

Before Sheila can try to hug her, Kelly storms out of the house and doesn't even bothering to grab a coat. Parker says something to her about Max buying eggnog, but Kelly can't face him right now and just walks off. Nicky shouts after her, over and over, and when she's three houses down the street, he runs up and grabs her by the arm, making her face him.

"What the hell, Parks?"

"I'm scared for her, Nick. I'm still angry and I still hate her, but…I don't want to see her die." Kelly doesn't know if she's shaking because of the cold, but she can't stop. "There were so many times I wished she were dead and now…"

"Don't. Don't do this. It isn't going to help anyone and she wouldn't want it." Nicky takes his jacket off and wraps it around her. He carefully takes her hands in his, trying to warm her frozen fingers. "So I guess now would be the wrong time to propose?"

Kelly presses her face to his chest and laughs through her tears.

At the end of the night Nicky reaches to turn out the porch light when he sees Sheila through the window, sitting there, staring into the dark. It has to be below twenty out and he doesn't know how long she's been there. Nicky quietly sneaks out the front door and sits with her.

"Since when did we have a bench?"

"Max found it for free on that Craigslist thing," Sheila replies. Her eyes are shut and he's almost afraid he's intruding on her nightly meditation or something. "He probably spotted it while finding participants for his next act of sexual misconduct." A big smile crosses her face. "He's a good kid. Not as confused as he lets on."

"Does that mean he's officially out of the closet?"

"For a coach, you aren't very observant, are you?" Sheila slowly opens her eyes. "I, on the other hand, have impeccable observation skills. Like when you were new in Denver, the way you used to look at my daughter. I think I noticed even before you realized you were doing it."

"Then why didn't you stop it sooner?"

"Denial, probably," she replies. "I didn't want to believe my Kelly, my perfect, ruthless gymnast machine, had a soft spot for an awkward boy with bad wrists, bad hair and his face on every bottom feeder tabloid. Of course, catching you two together in my mobile office of all places. That one was a little hard to overlook."

Nicky laughs. "You were so pissed."

"I was!" Sheila agrees, nostalgic if anything. "And scared, because you weren't apart of the plan. Neither was Kaylie Cruz or her making friends, quitting the sport entirely…getting pregnant. Then there was the whole my own daughter suing me and taking my company. Kelly taking over KPE was always apart of the plan. I just thought I'd be the one showing her how to run it."

"Is that why you didn't fight for the company?" Nicky asks. "You were already sick…"

Sheila nods. "But she did better than I expected. She doesn't believe me, but I mean it."

"I…I don't know what to do," Nicky confesses, scratching his fingers through his hair. "After you go, Parker isn't going to take it well, but I'm…I'm scared Kelly is going to take it even harder and I don't know…"

Sheila laughs weakly and touches his shoulder. "We can't plan for these things. You just need to roll with the punches. And whatever you do, do not leave this time."

Nicky shakes his head, smiling sadly. "Not funny."

"Take care of my babies, both of them."

Nicky leans back with a deep breath of cold air. "I'm going to ask Kelly to marry me tomorrow."

Sheila chuckles, but it comes out more as a dry cough. "Fourth time's the charm?"

"You know about the other times?"

"It's not your fault," she assures him. "It's mine. Every broken part of her, all my doing."

"I love every part of her, broken or not."

Nicky is ready to suggest they go inside when Sheila unexpectedly hugs him. Thrown off and so naturally awkward, Nicky tenses and his arms flail as he mutters a, "Whoa, uh, okay," but Sheila doesn't let go and Nicky eventually hugs her in return.

"Now, I really get to call you son-in-law."

When Kelly wakes up in the morning, instead of taking a moment to watch Nicky still asleep, the first thing Kelly sees is the clock that says she's an hour behind schedule. She curses and throws the covers off, but when she looks over to bitch at Nicky for oversleeping, his side of the bed is empty.

"Nick!" Kelly shouts. "What's going on?"

"Mom!" Parker shouts. "Mom, come quick!"

Parker runs into the room and he isn't even dressed for school. Kelly thinks of Sheila, her expression going blank as Parker tugs on her arm. She keeps asking him what's wrong, but Parker won't giver any details, just leads her downstairs. Kelly stops in the doorway between the foyer and the living room, noticing how someone did a little extra decorating, turning it into a winter wonderland.

"Okay, what's going on?" Kelly asks. "It's another week till Christmas, isn't it? Nick!"

"Parks, what's with all the yelling?" Nicky walks into the room, wearing his DE polo shirt like any other day. Sheila is a step behind him, grinning. Kelly takes a breath and the relief surprises even her. "Why aren't you ready for work?"

"Seriously, my alarm didn't go off and you apparently didn't bother to wake me up and then Parker was yelling so I thought something was wrong," Kelly vents. Parker tugs at the pajama pants she's wearing and points up.

When Kelly follows his eyes, she sees a sprig of mistletoe held together by a red ribbon and attached is the diamond engagement ring she's seen three times before. Kelly looks at Nicky, shocked, and he just smiles, untangles the ring from the ribbon and gets down on one knee.

"Kelly Anne Parker, I know me asking you to marry me has become the running joke among our friends and family, but I love you and I know we can love each other without being married, we've been doing that, but I'd really, really, really love it if we were. So, Parks, will you marry me?"

She tries to remember the last three times and why she would ever turn him down. As she tells him yes, nodding her head, those memories seem so far and foreign to her now. Nicky slides the ring on her finger and Kelly pulls him to his feet so they can kiss already. When she wraps her arms around his neck and hugs him tight, Nicky whispers that he set her clock an hour forward just for dramatic effect. Kelly slaps his arm and kisses him again.

They have an early dinner with Richard and Nancy Parker, Kelly's dad and stepmom, to tell them about the engagement. Afterwards, they go to a little park with an ice rink and Max tries to teach Parker how to skate or at least stand on the ice. While Nancy gushes over Kelly's ring, Richard takes Sheila by the arm and steers her down a walking path that loops around the rink.

"Good to see you, Sheila."

She hums softly. "Tell me, Richie, when did we get so old?"

"Speak for yourself. You, my darling dear, look like utter shit."

"Side effect of dying," Sheila assures him. "You look good, Richard. Your second wife, she is gorgeous. One thing though and I thought to ask you privately as to not embarrass the girl, but she must still have to ride in cars with a car seat, doesn't she?"

"Sheila."

"I mean, it is by weight these days—"

"That's very sensitive of you, especially since one of your daughter's best friends has been battling an eating disorder since she was sixteen."

"I'm a very sensitive person," Sheila says sarcastically. "But I'm also opinionated. I have breast cancer, but that doesn't stop me from calling out a pair of fake tits when I see 'em."

Richard laughs, taking her gloved hand in his. "How are you, love? Well, you know, other than, as you so eloquently put it, dying."

"Fantastic." Sheila glances across the way to where Parker is angrily shouting at Max for laughing when he fell down.

"That boy adores you."

"What's there not to adore?"

"Sheila, why do I feel like you're happier to be dying than you were our entire marriage?"

"Don't be so self-centered, Richie. The world does not revolve around you. Truth is I was a mess long before you and long after and I still can't believe I wasted my prime married to you." Richard throws his head back with a laugh. "But I appreciate you taking care of Kelly when I lost it, let my ambition get the best of me."

"I should be thanking you. Otherwise I never would have gotten a second chance with her," he says. "Sheila Baboyon, you were the love of my life, the mother of my child and the bane of my existence in that order. Save me a barstool in hell. Let's hope the champagne is free."

"As the devil probes you, no doubt," Sheila adds. "That first part I liked. You know, Richie, I'm starting to feel like I could have loved you…if I didn't marry you for your cold, hard cash first."

Richard stops in front of her, giving Sheila a chase kiss on the lips. "Goodbye, darling."

"Goodbye, dear."

"Momma, something's wrong!" Parker shouts. "Sitti can't get out of bed!"

Fuck. The fear and the urgency in Parker's voice is indication enough. It's time. This is what they've been waiting the better part of December for. Parker grabs Kelly's fingers and squeezes tight as he yanks her up the stairs and to Sheila's room. She's under the covers, trying her best not to tremble, curled up on her side. Her skin is pale and her eyes vacant.

"Mom," Kelly says. It's the first time she's called her that and meant to. Sheila hears, knows and tries to smile. "Are you okay?"

"Perfect thing to ask a woman on her deathbed, dumb-dumb." Sheila sounds so frail, unable to mask her weakening state like she has been for weeks. Her bony hand hangs off the edge of the bed. "Parker…" He quickly steps in and grips her hand. "I think it's time, b—bud, like we talked 'bout. I'm going…"

"Nooo! You can't leave before Christmas! No! You're mine, Sitti. You're ours." He looks at Kelly with tears. "Mom, don't let the universe take her!"

"Parker…"

"Hey, no tears, soldier." Sheila wipes away the wet streaks down his cheeks and it seems to take all the energy she has. "Sitti's an old lady. This body is no good anymore. I'll still be here, with you, when it rains and the clouds move, that's me, reminding you that I got my eye on you s—so you better be good…"

"And when I steal a cookie before dinner and the wind makes angry sounds on the windows."

Sheila laughs hoarsely. "Take care of your mom and dad, especially that troublemaker Uncle Max. And go easy on the girls. Be nice to them."

"I will. I love you."

"And I love you …"

"Parker." Kelly's voice gives out and she has to clear her throat. "Can you get Sitti water?"

"Yes, ma'am. Goodbye, Sitti."

"Goodbye, little love."

Parker holds her hand as long as he can before leaving Kelly and Sheila alone together.

"You did g—good, baby," Sheila tells Kelly. She looks away, but Sheila continues, "If your man asked you to marry him four times and you said no three times and he bothered for a fourth, he's yours. And your kid, smart, has the biggest heart. I know I don't have to tell you to protect that best you can. You've done a wonderful job so far, like I never did with you…"

"Why'd you do this?" Kelly whisper angrily. "Why did you come into our lives just to…"

Kelly can't decipher the emotion behind the potential tears, whether it's spite or sadness or fear, but she feels it to the point where she can't even speak anymore.

"Because I'm selfish. My one sin to keep," Sheila says. "I'm sorry, Kelly. I'm glad I got to see you…get to know my grandson…smoked pot for the first time since the 80's."

"I'm going to ignore that last one."

"I'm proud of you. You should be proud of you too."

She reaches out to her and Kelly takes her hand, sitting with her until Sheila falls asleep for the last time. She's gone by morning. No traumatic screams or hectic rush to the hospital. She just stops breathing in the middle of the night and floats away.

Sheila had everything planned out down to what she'd wear at her funeral and who would be invited. Her gravestone sits a long way up a grassy hill at the local cemetery, but not quite at the top. Five of them stand there on the insanely green lawn even if only four were invited. (Max feels she would have want him there and nothing could stop him from attending.) The priest doesn't seem one bit puzzled by the small turnout and goes on conducting the burial.

Parker, dressed in his best suit, had made sure to place one of the Christmas ornaments in her casket, the one they painted together. Once it's over, they all stand in silence for a minute and begin the journey back down the hill together.

Later that night, after putting Parker to bed, Max opens one of his whisky bottles, the one with the giant ass spider in it. Kelly grabs a glass, demands he pour and drinks herself to sleep.

Kelly calls in sick the following week. She's always been a firm believer in doing things yourself if you want them done right, but she can't even think of work right now. She stays in bed most of the time, trying to figure out why she feels what she does and how to deal with it.

"Parks, I gotta run to DE. There's been a pipe burst and Marty says it's a complete disaster. Max is out, took my dad's car. You can keep an eye on Parker, right? Or should I call Payson and see if they can watch him for the day?"

"I can watch my son, Nick. It's all I've done for the last six years."

When Nicky doesn't immediately respond, Kelly faces him. He looks afraid of her, afraid for her, and Kelly doesn't want that. She holds her hand out to him and Nicky crawls into bed with her, pulling the sheets around the both of them, drawing her into his arms.

"That was bitchy, I know," Kelly says. "I just…I don't know why I'm doing this. She was awful. She used me, whored me out to further her deranged agenda. She told me I didn't need things like love and friends and you and Parker. I hated her so much, so much of my life just fucking wasted and now she's dead and I should be happy or at least okay…but I'm not."

Nicky hugs her. "She was your mom."

"A shitty one." Kelly grinds her teeth together. "But a really great grandma to Parker."

"Yeah, she was." Nicky brushes strands of hair away from her eyes. "I don't have to go. I'm sure Marty is perfectly capable of calling a plumber and cleaning up. We can dip into the swear jar and do something as a family. Probably not Disneyworld…"

Kelly smiles faintly. "No, the gym needs you. You don't have to worry. I'm just…tired."

"Okay."

Nicky nuzzles her nose with his to make her smile and kisses her lips, knowing just how to make her feel loved. Once he goes, Kelly curls up under the covers on this particularly cold morning and reaches for her phone. It's almost too easy to find the number of Lauren's therapist. Calling is a different matter entirely.

"Mom, where's my ski pants? The puffy marshmallow ones!"

Kelly turns over in bed with eyes shut tight. She just doesn't have the energy today.

"Mom!"

"Check your closet! Bottom dresser drawer!" she lazily shouts back.

"What about my fluffy hat? The one you said looks like a ewok?"

Kelly groans, trying to burrow deeper into her bed.

"MOM!"

"PARKER!" she screams back and when it's just silent after, Kelly curses. She just lost her shitty mom, but it doesn't give her a right to be one. "Should be there too! Parker, what are you up to?"

"Just playing! Okay, found it! Thank you! You can go back to sleep now! I love you!"

Kelly feels like a bitch as she pulls the sheets over her head. She closes her eyes just for a second before she plans to check on her son. When she pushes the blanket off her head and looks at her phone, she's slammed with terror. It's nearly three in the afternoon and she hasn't left her bed. Kelly scrambles to get up and grabs one of Nicky's hoodies to wear. Shit. Parker must be starving.

"Parker!" Kelly checks his room, but he isn't there. She doesn't go near the guest room that's still full of Sheila's things, waiting to be packed up, a difficult feat since Kelly can't even bring herself to walk in. "Parker!"

She panics when she checks the living room and dinning room and he isn't there. The TV is off. In the kitchen, the bread is left open on the kitchen counter along with a jar of mayo and a bag of chips. There's a sandwich fully assembled on a plate, untouched, and complete with a Christmas cookie. Parker isn't anywhere in sight. Kelly grabs the phone, thinking Max or Nicky must have came home and took him somewhere, but they would have left a note or something.

"OH MY GOODNESS! IT'S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE!"

She'd know that squirrely voice anywhere. Kelly looks out the window and her eyes widen at the snow covering the ground. Parker is bundled up and slipping and sliding on trampoline as snow continues to fall from the sky. Kelly grabs her coat and boots from the hall closet before joining him outside.

"Finally!" Parker jumps, thrusting a fist in the air. "Thank you so much! I love snow!"

"Parker, who are you talking to?"

He turns to her, caught, bashful and that expression is so Nicky that Kelly has to smile.

"Morning, mom!" Parker calls back. "I know she's not here, but I was just thanking Sitti 'cause she's watching! I put snow on my Christmas list and I think she talked someone into it because, look, it's snowing! I made you a sandwich for when you woke up. Did you see?"

"I did. Thank you." Parker runs into her arms and Kelly just holds him for a second. "I wasn't very nice to you this morning. I'm sorry," she says, kissing the top of his head.

"S'okay. You're sad about Sitti. It's okay to be sad sometimes." Parker hugs her tight around her neck and Kelly squeezes her eyes tight, trying not to cry. Maybe Sheila had a point when she said Parker was more mature than her. "Watch me make a snow angel, mom!"

Parker flops back down into the snow and moves his arms and legs back and forth, telling her a story from last Christmas when they spent the holidays in Aspen. She's a little shocked he remembers that far back, but then, stories from the winter of his fifth year are Parker's favorite. After Kelly helps him up, they text a picture of the snow angel to Nicky before going inside for lunch and hot chocolate.

"I think I'm going to go to therapy," Kelly says.

"Sounds fun." Parker munches on a cookie. "What do you do there?"

"I have no idea, but apparently it's supposed to be good for you."

"Can I go to therapy with you?" Parker asks.

Kelly smiles and ruffles his hair that's gotten a little longer since the last time he cut it. "Not this time. Mom's gotta do this one on her own."

Things slowly start to stabilize with the pasting days. They have a quiet Christmas at Kelly's dad's house. Instead of hitting up the club with Max on New Years, they take Parker to one of the lookout spots to watch the fireworks. They even let him throw some of Max's illegal fireworks the next night, more souvenirs from Southeast Asia.

"When are you going to get married already?" Parker inquires during one of their routine story time. Kelly follows behind her boys, playing with the engagement ring on her finger. "Can you make it soon? And while you go on your smooching trip, I wanna stay with Uncle Max!"

"Not happening," Kelly says sharply. "You can stay with Aunt Payson and Uncle Aus or boarding school in Alaska and that's it."

Parker pouts. "What about Uncle Marty? Or Aunt Faith! She'll be here for the wedding, right?"

"Wow, our son, the comedian!" Once Nicky reaches the top of the stairs, he hoists Parker over his shoulder, carrying him to his room. "I don't think you have to worry about this for a while. We still have a lot to work out before we even set a date for the wedding."

Kelly follows them into Parker's room. "I think a spring wedding would be nice."

They haven't talked about the wedding once and to hear Kelly say that, Nicky has to go over and kiss her.

"Smooching is all you ever do," Parker complains, jumping into bed. "I'm the reader tonight!"

"Go you," Kelly says dully, but with a smile. "What are we reading?"

"My Friend the Monster from the beginning!"

"Duh, mom," Nicky says playfully. "It's only Parker's favorite."

"Parker, tell your dad to stop it before mommy says something and owes the swear jar."

"Mom, dad, stop being cute."

Before they can start, there's a knock at the door.

"Uncle Max, just in time!" Parker shouts. "My Friend the Monster!"

"Again? At this point, we could all probably recite it by heart," Max teases. "Not tonight. Uncle Max needs to pack. Last minute shoot in Mexico. I have to catch a flight out first thing tomorrow morning."

"Done running?" Nicky asks.

"Life's too short, right?" Max smiles, but then sees Parker's disappointment. "Hey, don't be sad, PJ. I gotta get my life back on track, but you know what that means…"

"Goodbye present!" Parker cheers. "And presents when you visit again!"

Nicky shakes his head. "Parker, you are so spoiled."

"Stop, dad!" Parker lightly shoves his former gymnast father. "What is it, Uncle Max?"

Max walks into the room with a flat, square present wrapped in newspaper. He sits at the foot of his bed and hands it to Parker. After letting the shredded newspaper fall to the ground, Parker holds up a black picture frame containing a black and white photo of Sheila and Parker hugging in the kitchen while baking cookies.

Kelly tenses and Nicky knowingly takes her hand. Though she's working through it, Kelly still doesn't know what to think. Sheila was horrible to her, left lasting emotional scars, but there's no denying that Parker and Sheila bonded. It's evident by the way her son smiles and scouts for a place to hang it.

"I hope that's okay," Max whispers.

Kelly nods. "Max, why don't you stay for a couple pages?"

He nods back. "Why not? I can spare a minute or two."

"This is a story about a boy named Hal," Parker reads. "Hal is a prince. His parents, the King and the Queen, wanted him to be handsome, very, very smart, and very, very special. They were disappointed though, because he was just like other boys and girls. He wanted to play with the other children who lived outside the castle, but his parents wouldn't let him."

"You know that you're very, very handsome and smart and special, right?" Kelly asks.

"And we'd never be disappointed in you ever," Nicky adds.

"And you can play with whoever you want," Kelly says.

"Except like, pedophiles," Max says. "PJ, if some creepy dude with a van—"

"You're ruining the story!" Parker scolds them. All three of the supposed adults in the room zip their lips so Parker can focus on the book once again.

Parker falls asleep just as Max takes his turn to read. Once they tuck him in and turn on his nightlight, Kelly, Max and Nicky pack what's left of Sheila's things in a single cardboard box.


A/N: I love LCTD, the ridiculous length of this story & all the John Green/Wes Anderson inspired moments in this. Say what you want, but the Sheila/Kelly scenes were probably the highlight of a S3 that was meh at best. I love writing Sheila as her horrible self so it was fun to step away and write her with a more sympathetic lens.

I've pretty much abandoned the site (sorry) and stopped writing MIOBI fics (sorry x 2) but I also really, really, really want to reach 50 stories. lol. I do appreciate all the PMs and random reviews I get, especially from new readers and my Nickelly shippers. We can still be friends. Twitter. Tumblr. Creep me on Formspring even. Links on my profile, lovlies.

What'd you think? Is anyone from the fandom even here anymore? What should my 50th (possibly last) fic be about? Review.