Winter and Spring 2026

Hiram Hackenbacker approached the outer office of Jefferson Tracy. He pushed his glasses further up on his nose and looked toward Trish. "Hi-hiram Ha-hackenba-backer to se-see Mr Trr-racy."

"Just a moment. I'll page him to let him know you are here." Hiram nodded at Trish and moved to where there were chairs for waiting. A few moments later, Jeff's inner office door opened. Jeff stepped out and gave Hiram a smile before turning to his assistant.

"Thanks Trish. I'll be unavailable for the next hour." Turning to Hiram, Jeff held out his hand. "Thank you for coming, Mr Hackenbacker. Please come in." Hiram followed Jeff into his office and looked around the spacious room. Jeff turned to Hiram and offered, "Please take a seat."

Hiram did and held his briefcase close to his chest. "I've got the plans for you to look over. I've added some extra features and made the changes you asked me to."

Jeff smiled at the younger man. "Thank you, Hiram. Let's have a look shall we?"

Hiram returned Jeff's smile. "How is the build on the island going?"

"Just beginning. They only began the excavation last week."

The twenty-five-year-old gave a small nod and pulled out the first of his plans. "I've made some changes to the nose cone of this machine as you've asked me to. I've also redesigned the engines for this one. I thought seeing as this craft would be the first on any rescue site, it would need to get anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. We'll still have to build it and test it."

Jeff nodded. "There is always that." He picked up the blue prints for the first craft. "What about this section here?" The man indicated a small section near the main entrance panel.

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John was frustrated. He couldn't talk to his sister, and he felt Scott wasn't spending a lot of time helping out around the house. The last half of 2025 seemed to be getting better for the Tracy family. At least, that was what John and Andrew were hoping since Kathryn had left for the army. Jeff had spent most Sundays with his boys ever since his business trip to Australia. But then, winter vacation had started and Jeff seemed to phase out everything again expect his work.

The twelve-year-old didn't really understand why. He knew that winter, especially Christmas time, would always be hard for the family, but he couldn't work out why Jeff would shut his sons out again.

Andrew watched his stargazing nephew silently and sighed. He could see the effect that Jeff's pulling away had on all five Tracy boys. And he already knew what it had done to Kathryn. She'd defied Jeff and joined the army. He moved to sit beside the young pre-teen. "How are you holding up, Spaceman?"

John sniffed. "I miss Mom."

Andrew wrapped his arm around the boy. "So do I. Sometimes I can't believe it's been two years already."

"Why is Dad ignoring us again? Things were better when he spent time with us."

"I don't know, John." Andrew sighed and allowed John to cry into his shoulder. "Tell you what, I'll give your dad a call and let him know that you kids miss him just as much as you miss your mom."

John sniffed and gave a slight nod. "Thanks Uncle Andy." He pulled away from his uncle slightly. "I wish I could talk to Kate. She always knew what to say."

Andrew smiled slightly. "Go on, Spaceman. I'll get dinner ready."

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Kathryn looked down at the picture frame of her and her mother. It had been just over two years since Lucy had died due to an unfortunate accident on the family's winter vacation. Jeff had taken the family to the Rockies for a ski retreat. On January 3rd, 2024, Lucy had taken Kathryn, Gordon and Alan out for a day of sledding and she ended up being killed by an avalanche. Kathryn remembered her mother making sure Alan got to safety, but at the loss of her own life.

"You alright, Keith-Tracy?"

Kathryn looked up at her friend and unit mate. "Yeah. It's just hard."

"What is?" Kelly Davis asked with a laugh. "The army or the work?"

"More like the time of year."

"It's January. Yeah, we didn't get to head home for Christmas, but that's army life for you."

Kathryn returned her attention to the photograph in her hand - it was the last one taken of her with her mother. "Mom died two years ago. In January."

"I'm sorry, man."

"There's nothing you can do about it." Kathryn sighed. "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap. I'm the only girl in my family, so it's hard not having her around for things."

"I feel for you. I really do."

"Thanks," Kathryn returned. "But I don't see how."

"My dad left when I was seven. It felt like he died to me. I've tried to find him, to see what happened but I haven't found him yet." Davis gave Kathryn a reassuring smile. "I always wondered what it would be like growing up with both a mom and a dad. At least you had that chance."

The younger teen snorted. "The man you call my dad is not exactly my biological father now, is he? My birth father wasn't even around when I was born."

"Are you going to find him?" When Kathryn frowned at Davis' question, the older girl expanded her question. "I mean, your biological father. Are you going to find him?"

"Yeah. I guess I'll always have questions about him. Like why did he leave Mom?"

"Lights out in ten." The order came over the com system. Davis gave Kathryn a parting smile and made for her area of the barracks. Before she could fully depart, the younger girl grabbed her arm.

"Thanks," Kathryn whispered.

Davis gave her a brief nod and left the teen thinking over her situation.

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"Jeff," Andrew asked as the billionaire made his way into the kitchen late one Friday night. "How important is this family to you?"

Jeff frowned and turned to view his brother-in-law put away the last of the day's dishes. "You really have to ask me that, Andy?"

Andrew shut the cupboard and turned to look at Jeff. "Yes. It seems that your company has monopolized your life ever since Luce died. Why is that? In fact, other than the six months last year after Katie left, why is it that you've spent more time elsewhere since Mrs Tracy died?"

Jeff looked to the floor. "You wouldn't understand."

"I lost my own mother, thank you very much. I know what it's like to lose a parent. But I don't understand what you're doing. Not unless you explain it to me!" The older man moved out of the kitchen and into the living area. Andrew followed his brother in law. "Damn it, Jeff! Are you going to be so difficult about this?"

Jeff whirled on the younger man. "What would you have me say, Andrew? Each time I see one of the boys, or heaven forbid, Kathryn, I see her staring back at me!"

"At least she's left you six reminders of her! Those kids, especially John, find it so hard to cope without Luce or you!" Andrew balled up his fists and took a step closer to Jeff. "You are a stubborn bastard sometimes!"

"Oh," Jeff said with a roll of his eyes. "The next thing you'll tell me is that you hate me."

Andrew frowned. "I may not like you right now, Jefferson Tracy, but I certainly don't hate you. It's no wonder Katie left for the army without talking to you first."

Jeff took a step closer to his brother-in-law and lost some of his steam. "What would you have me do?" he asked in a tired voice. "I can't very well go and revoke Kathryn's choice now. She's stuck in the army now."

The younger man sighed and unclenched his fists. "You can stop ignoring the children you do still have living at home. From what Kathryn's told me, you could have lost your wife and three of your children that day on the mountain."

The billionaire ran a hand over his face. He looked around the living area. It still pained him to see the reminders of his Lucy scattered around the room but he couldn't bring himself to change it. "I make no promises, but I'll try. You're no angel yourself, Andy."

"I never said I was. That's all I can ask of you. But if you don't try, I'll have to take legal action."

Neither of the men had seen John at the door of the kitchen.

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When Kathryn next phoned (it was two days later), John was the one who answered her call. "Hello?"

The eighteen-year-old frowned and tried to determine which of her brothers had answered the phone. "Johnny? Is everything alright?"

John sniffed on the other end of the phone. "Katie, can I come and live with you?"

Kathryn was taken aback by the question. "Tell me what's happened." The girl knew that John wouldn't have asked her if he could live with her unless something bad had happened.

"Dad doesn't want us anymore. He spends all his time at work."

"We were okay when I was home. What's changed now?"

John sniffed on the other end of the line and Kathryn desperately wanted to be with her little brother. "Uncle Andy wants to take us off Dad."

"What do you mean? Things can't be that bad?"

"I heard them talking on Friday. It's what I heard. I don't like it here anymore. Please, Katie. I want to live with you."

Kathryn was about to answer but she heard a scuffle at the other end of the phone. "Johnny? Are you still there?"

"Hello, Kathryn."

The teen recognised the voice on the other end of the phone instantly. "Dad, what the heck is going on?"

Jeff sighed and took a deep breath. "I don't know, honey. I wasn't aware that John had overheard the conversation I had with Andy. We miss you here."

Kathryn swallowed and looked over her shoulder to see if there was anyone waiting for the phone. There wasn't so she couldn't use that as an excuse to hang up the phone. "So I heard you'd brought an island."

Somehow, she knew her father knew she was changing the topic of conversation. "I did."

"Why?"

"It's getting harder to stay anonymous in Kansas. I want to protect the boys, or at least have a getaway when things get too much."

"It wouldn't have anything to do with you trying to get away from memories?"

"I could never get away from your mom. I wouldn't want to."

Kathryn smiled to herself and said, "I know that Dad. I think it would be good for the family to have a fresh start."

She wondered if her dad was nodding to her statement. "How's the army going?"

"It's hard. But I made my choice, and I think I needed the change."

"I can't blame you for that."

"Dad," Kathryn began and then sighed. "Please don't do anything to hurt Johnny or Alan. Virg, Gordon and Scotty either." She heard her father sigh in response. "Don't abandon them again."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I didn't want to be abandoned by you or Tony. But I was. You left me to look after my brothers while you went to work as if everything was normal all the while emotionally withdrawing from us. Who's going to teach Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon or Alan about being a man if you're not there? You certainly taught me a lot about your priorities the last few years." As soon as Kathryn had said that, she wanted to take her words back. "I needed you to tell me things were going to get better." She looked over her shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Davis was waiting to use the phone. "I've got to go. Someone else wants to use the phone. Tell my brothers I love them." She hung up the phone before Jeff could protest and brushed past Davis on her way of the room.

"Everything alright?" Davis asked.

"Why wouldn't it be?" Kathryn shot back before she headed to the gym.

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Jeff looked at the dead receiver in his hand before hanging it back on the cradle. "I love you, Kathryn," he whispered. It was not the first time in the last year that his thoughts were turned back to the little girl he first met sixteen years before. What had happened to that girl he once knew?

The first think he knew he had to do though, was to go and talk to John. In fact, it would be good to talk to all of his sons. Jeff swallowed around the sudden lump that had formed in his throat. He ran a hand over his face and left the kitchen. Moving through the house, he found John in his room packing a few of his belongings into his backpack. Jeff felt his heart constrict slightly and knocked on the door frame. John jumped at the sound.

"Are you okay?" Jeff asked. John bit his lower lip and turned back to what he was doing. The father entered the room and sat on the bed. "Talk to me son. Tell me what's wrong."

The twelve-year-old blinked back his tears and joined his father on the bed. "Are you really going to let Uncle Andy have us, Dad?"

Jeff reached out to his second-born son and wrapped his arm around him. "Not if I can help it, John. It's been so hard, these past few years." He felt the boy nod against his chest and took a deep breath. "I miss your mom so much."

"I miss her too."

Jeff ran a hand through John's blond hair and then lifted his son's gaze so it met his own. "I don't know what the future holds, son, but I'm going to try and be here more for you."

John sniffed. "You promise Dad?"

The father swallowed hard and gave a nod. "Yeah, I promise."

The boy pulled away from his father first and gave the older Tracy a rueful smile. "Thanks Dad." He paused for a moment, pondering his next question and then asked, "Is Kathryn really a part of this family?"

Jeff frowned at the question as he answered, "Of course she is. Why do you ask?"

"It's just that Scott said something about her being adopted."

Realization dawned on the father's face. Jeff pulled fully away from John so that he could look at his son's face. "Kathryn is a very special part of this family. Even though I adopted her when I married Mom, it doesn't make any difference to me. All of you are special to me." He smiled slightly. "I'm proud of you, John."

John frowned and asked, "Why?"

Jeff didn't really know how to answer that except, "For just being you." John smiled finally and the Tracy patriarch felt a small part of his heart start to heal.

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The family began to heal together after Jeff started to work at being a better father to his sons. January soon passed into February and then to March. During that time, things around the Tracy home in Kansas became a thriving place and Andy felt better at the conversation he'd had with his brother-in-law earlier in the year.

Slowly, Jeff began to warm up to the idea of raising his sons. His plan of having rescue equipment also developed nicely and toward the end of the month of March, he made another trip south to Australia and the island home he was building. Scott, wondering what was so interesting in the Southern hemisphere, asked the billionaire after he came back.

"Dad, what's so interesting in Australia?"

Jeff placed his travel bag down and looked toward his eldest son. "You know that I'm thinking about setting up an office in Australia somewhere."

"But Trish won't say anything about that. She said that you wouldn't like me asking about work."

Jeff cleared his throat and shot the boy a warning look. "What has gotten you so interested in Tracy Enterprises?" Scott shrugged. "Are you going to give me a verbal answer rather than that shrug?"

Scott shrugged again before shifting from one foot to the other. He lifted his eyes up to look up at his father before quickly lowering them again. "Maybe I just want to know what it's like in another country. We haven't been anywhere since…" the thirteen-year-old trailed. He was about to mention the last family vacation the Tracys had taken, but didn't want to dredge up the painful memories of losing Lucy.

Jeff ran a hand over his chin. He realised what Scott was talking about as soon as Scott had trailed in his last sentence. "Australia is not that much different from some of the places we've visited son. Maybe a little warmer in parts. But that's not really what you're interested in. Is it?"

Scott started to nod, as if to say that it was all he did want to know about before stopping and then slowly shaking his head. "Dad, that island you bought. Is it somewhere in the Pacific?"

The older Tracy smiled. "You're smarter than you let on sometimes."

"I learnt from the best." Scott directed this at his feet. He'd learnt to 'coast' through things, playing down what he knew to act 'cool'. Just as he'd seen Kathryn (and Jeff) do on occasion.

The father in Jeff noticed. He sighed. "You thinking of Kathryn?"

Scott nodded. "Yeah. It hasn't been the same without her this year."

"You're right. Things around here haven't been the same but that's what happens when you grow up. And do you want to know something else?" Jeff stopped and looked Scott in the eye. In that moment, Scott had a puzzled expression on his face that reminded the father of Lucy. He felt his heart constrict and he was forced to take a deep breath. "Susan was right. Children grow up so fast."

Scott gave his dad a shaky smile. "I hope not too fast that we don't need you Dad."

Jeff nodded slowly. "I don't want you growing up that fast either son." The troubling thing was, the father felt that the time had passed him by when it came to Kathryn. It truly seemed that the eighteen-year-old had done just what Susan had said six months before. Jeff's opinion no longer mattered to her and had decided to cut him out of her life – or at least as much as she could while still keeping in touch with the rest of the family. He sighed and ruffled his son's hair. "So what do you want for your birthday?"

The teen's eyes widened and he realised that it was nearly April. And on the 4th of April came his birthday. "I don't know. It'll be nice if Kathryn could come. But…" the teen sighed. "Whatever you get me would be great Dad."

"Okay." Scott ran off just as Virgil came up the stairs with the mail, looking for Jeff. There was one letter that the boy was turning over in his hand and frowning at. "What do you have there, son?"

"A letter from Katie, but it's not from the army base," Virgil replied, handing over the rest of the mail. "Here's the rest of the mail." He took one last look at the letter from his sister before handing it to Jeff. "It's for you."

Jeff frowned and took the letter from his middle child. "Thank you, Virgil." The eleven year old looked expectantly up at his father and Jeff smiled. Tucking the other mail under his arm (he'd had a look through and most of the mail were bills), he opened the letter from Kathryn.

'3-22-2026 Dad,

'I just thought I would let you know that my preliminary training is complete. Actually, I still have about a week to go, but by the time you get this, I probably would be finished. From what I hear from Scott, John, and Virg, things are better at home now. That's good. At least you're paying more attention to them now.

'Things are going okay for me here. I do miss the family but it hasn't been that long yet. It's good to get the chance to be out on my own actually. Anyway, I'm going to try and make it back to see the family at the end of the month after my training's over. Although I have so much more to learn. There is some leave that I'm taking but I don't know where my next orders will take me. I'll probably be stationed here for another six months to further my expertise, and it is a challenge, but the unit I've been working with finish next week. So I may see you or I may not. I'll try to come back, if only for a few days. Anyway, I've got to say happy birthday to my kid brother, don't I?

'How are things going on the island? You did mention that you're going to try and have things completed by the summer. Is it still going to happen or what? I bet once Scott finds out you're all moving to a remote island, he's going to want to get his pilot's licence as soon as he can over getting his car licence. Not so sure about the others though. You might want to invest some money into lessons for them once you do decide to move. On that note, Dad. Why an island? I know you said it was to get away from everything, but come on! You're going to the middle of nowhere and I won't be able to send the boys letters like I used to. What's the real reason for you moving to an island?

'Must go now, lights are out in 10 minutes and I want to make sure I get this sent off first thing in the morning. Give my love to Uncle Andy and my brothers. Hopefully I'll see you in a few weeks.

'Kathryn.'

Jeff was surprised to say the least and looked toward Virgil. Virgil looked back at his father. "What did she say, Dad?"

"Well, she says she's finished her training and is ready to be deployed somewhere."

"Does that mean she could go somewhere where there's fighting?"

"Maybe. I don't really know where she'll end up. We could ask her the next time we talk to her. Shall we go and see what the other boys are up to?"

Virgil nodded and followed his father downstairs again, where Andrew was just setting up something for a game.

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Kathryn placed her bag on the bed and looked around the cramped hotel room. It wasn't much, but for the first time in a long time, she was glad Jefferson Tracy was her father. Opening up her bag, she pulled out her tablet and connected to the internet. It wasn't hard to log onto the free Wi-Fi network and get into the local phone directory. Typing in 'Anthony Quinn', it didn't take her long at all to find her birth father's current address and phone number. To her surprise (or unsurprised), it also listed the initials for someone else living with him. And he hadn't moved out of Shawnee City either.

She frowned at that. He must have married some time along the road. Jotting down the number, she opened up a new tab in her internet explorer page. She googled her father's name and began scrolling down all the different pages that linked to the name of 'Anthony Quinn'. None looked all that promising. Then she remembered that her mother, aunt and uncle attended Mill Valley High School with Tony. She bought up that page on her web browser and searched under past students and alumni.

There, she found a link to Tony's automotive workshop site. And a profile for the owner. She smiled and clicked on it. Along with the picture (that Kathryn recognised from some older photos left by her mother), there was a short blurb about how Tony had met his current wife and had a kid with her. Looking down at the number she had written before, Kathryn picked up the hotel phone and was about to dial the number. Instead of calling the Quinn's, she dialled Andrew.

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Andrew had given Jeff specific instructions to meet him with the five boys on Saturday the fourth of April for lunch at the local McDonald's. For the first time in years, Jeff had entered the fast food restaurant with his sons and couldn't think of the last time he'd actually been to McDonald's. He held Alan's hand as he looked around the restaurant for his brother-in-law. Andrew had cut back his role of caregiver earlier in the year when Jeff had started looking after his sons more regularly.

"Hi Jeff," Andrew said. He'd walked in the restaurant after the Tracys had. Turning to Scott, the uncle smiled and ruffled the teen's hair. "Happy birthday Scooter."

"Uncle Andy!" Scott complained.

Jeff looked inquisitively at Andrew. "Why did you want to meet us here? I thought we were going out for dinner tonight to celebrate."

"Yes, we are, but there was someone else who wanted to join in the celebrations but couldn't make it tonight." Andrew cast his eyes around the restaurant and spotted a uniformed girl near one of the corners of the restaurant. Jeff followed his brother-in-law's gaze and also spotted the uniform. He frowned and turned his attention back to Andrew.

"Who is it?"

The girl (more like young woman, Jeff and Andrew corrected themselves) stood up and turned to face them. She saw the family staring at her and a smile crossed her face. Picking up the package that the Tracys' hadn't spotted, Kathryn made her way toward them. As soon as the five boys saw who it was, they rushed toward her and she had to stop so they could greet her.

"Katie! What are you doing here?" the five boys all asked at once.

She gave them a teasing smile. "I'm here to celebrate a birthday. One of my brothers turns 13."

"I'm 14, Kate."

"Oh! Sorry Scotty. My bad." Kathryn handed the present over. "Happy birthday."

"Thanks! I'll open it later. How long are you in town for?"

"I leave in about two hours. I've got to be back at Sam Huston tomorrow."

"Really?" John asked. "Can I still come and live with you?" Kathryn, Andrew and Jeff all froze at the question. John gave his sister a shy smile. "Only in the summer time?"

"You'll have to see if it's okay with Dad. Besides, if you come lived with me, who's going to look after Virgil, Gordon or Alan for me? Scott's doing a great job, but he's going to need some help so that all of you can have a break."

John's smile grew wider. "I know that, Kate. Anyway, you're probably living in barracks and don't have a bed for me. Dad and Uncle Andy explained it to me."

Looking around her younger three brothers, Kathryn asked how they were doing and what they'd been up to at school. The lunch meal passed quickly as the family caught up on what everyone was doing. There were hugs all around once they'd finished and were heading out the door.

Andrew swiped the keys off Jeff for the Tracys' people mover and left his own keys to a small run-around car with Jeff. Giving his brother-in-law an appreciative nod, Jeff was left standing outside McDonald's with Kathryn.

Jeff was the first to break the silence between them. "So your first orders are back at Fort Sam Houston?"

Kathryn nodded. "I still have some more training to do, but I know the basics. I could've been stationed in Serbia now, but command thought it better if I was at Sam Houston for another six months. I get my next posting then."

"Why's that?"

"Well, I feel like there's so much more for me to learn in being a medic. I've only had six months in the army and I've learnt so much." The teen sighed and shivered. "But I've definitely missed being around my five crazy brothers. It was good to see them all again."

Jeff gave Kathryn a small smile and fought his urge to reach out and hug her. "I know we've all missed you the last seven months."

She didn't turn to face him. "At least you're making time for them now."

He desperately wanted her to turn and actually look at him. "Where do you have to be and when? I can drop you off wherever you need to go."

"I'd like that." Kathryn looked down at her watch. "I've got to be at the bus station in thirty minutes." She wrapped her arms around herself.

Jeff looked his daughter over. He frowned. Something wasn't quite right but he couldn't put his finger on it. But then, something could've have happened to her in the six months she had been in the army. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing," Kathryn returned, shrugging.

"Are you still mad at me?"

That question did cause her to turn her attention to him. "What for?"

Jeff swallowed and met his daughter's eye. "I haven't been much of a father since Luce died, have I?"

Kathryn gave him a tight smile. "No, you weren't." She picked up her bag and headed to the car Andrew had left. Jeff sighed and opened the car. Kathryn threw her gear into the back seat and climbed into the front just as her father took the driver's seat. They exited the car park for McDonald's in silence. It was a while before she broke the awkward silence. "It was hard, you know? After Mom died, it was like we lost both of you."

The billionaire reached over the gearbox and placed his hand on his daughter's arm. He focused on the road ahead and thought over what he was going to say. The only way he thought he could make things right with Kathryn was to swallow his pride. "I'm so sorry that I left you like that and you felt it was your responsibility to look after your brothers. I never meant for it to go as far as it did. Its just…" he swallowed and felt his eyes mist up. "I miss Lucy so much."

The eighteen-year-old felt her eyes widened in surprise. For the first time in her life, Jeff was opening up to her. "Dad…"

"I know the apology doesn't make up for the past few years, but I don't want to loose you too." He stopped outside the bus station and turned off the motor. Looking fully at Kathryn, he gave her smile. He reached out and ran a hand along her cheek. "I am so proud of you, baby girl." Kathryn wiped away the tears that had started falling down her cheeks when she heard Jeff tell her that he was proud. Before she could wipe both eyes, Jeff caught the tear and wiped the evidence away. "Please be careful, baby girl. I love you."

Kathryn nodded and swallowed. "I should go." Jeff nodded and got out of the car. He moved around to the other side of the car. Kathryn had just closed the back door of the car and had her bag slung across her back. "I'll see you later." She gave him a brief hug and headed into the bus station. Just as she got to the entrance, she turned back to look at Jeff. He stood leaning against the car with his hands in his pockets. "Dad, I don't hate you." She didn't give him the chance to respond. She'd already turned back and disappeared into the bus station. But when he heard that simple statement that she didn't hate him, Jeff felt lighter than when Kathryn first went into the army. There still could be a chance for them to mend their relationship, and that was something to be glad about.