Rio tenses as he hears the woman approach. It seems ridiculous to think that anyone would attack him in broad daylight at a park full of witnesses, but watching Marcus makes him extra vigilant. He can't help it.
"Rio!" She says, and he relaxes. He's not overly fond of the PTA crowd, finds them boring and petty-minded, but he cultivates their friendships as one of the small yet satisfying ways he has to fuck with Beth. She hates it.
(He is positive the other members are taking bets on how long it will take them to fuck or try to kill each other. Little do they know.)
Lara settles beside him and he smiles at her. She's not the most interesting person to talk to, but she seems to have dirt on everyone and he respects that. Their semi-friendly relationship started with her increasingly desperate attempts to get a read on him. He found it amusing.
He says hello and looks back at the playground. Unfortunately Beth has moved away from Marcus's general vicinity so it's harder to watch her without looking like he's watching her.
The first PTA meeting he walked into, she'd given him a look of total abject horror before quickly resuming her standard Passive Housewife expression. He'd enjoyed riling her up until she completely cracked, yelling gluten-free snacks are non-negotiable! at him across the table like a maniac and stunning the rest of the room into silence. They'd stared at each other intensely until someone awkwardly cleared their throat and suggested they take a tea break
(She'd pulled him aside and demanded to know why he was trying to fuck with her by attending a PTA meeting. He denied it lazily, not even trying to sound genuine. She'd carved out a space in his life like it was nothing. He wanted to retaliate. Invade every aspect of her existence.)
She'd stormed off and spent the rest of the break agressively loading a paper plate with pieces of cantelope and then left it on the table without eating any. He's pretty sure that's when the betting started.
"Hi Beth!" Lara calls out brightly, he turns and sees her at a bench, negotiating orange slices for all four of her kids at once. She turns and waves back distractedly. Her kids chow down on the oranges and scatter, except for Emma who's clinging to her mom's legs. He wonders where Dean is.
"What's her deal?" He asks Lara. "She takes a lot of small shit seriously."
They typically have about three intense, level-voiced arguments per meeting, and even more at events. Watching Beth keep perfectly calm while telling him to go to hell in Soccer Mom Speak turns him on more than he'd care to admit.
"Oh, she's fine." Lara says, "she's a bit intense about this PTA stuff, but there's always at least one who is. At least Beth won't chase you down with a pitchfork for forgetting a meeting. And she keeps the wolves at bay, so to speak."
Beth moves back into his line of sight, chasing a squealing Emma towards the monkey bars. She stops to lean against them for a second, clutching her side and laughing. Her hair is toussled and she has pinebark stains on her trousers.
It takes him a couple seconds to recover.
"We're all very relieved you've got her arguing now," Lara is saying, "she was becoming less engaged since she took over her husband's buisness, and you know Karen H is just looking for an opening so she can run the rest of us into the ground over her stupid paleo diet."
Another mom, whose name escapes him, drifts over and catches the tail end of her sentance.
"Oh god, she needs to stop," Mom #2 says, "we don't all need to bring paleo options. Her kids are the only ones on that diet."
"And no one else wants to eat the snacks she brings anyway, so what's the problem?" Lara adds, and they both laugh.
Beth glances over and sees him, sandwhiched between them, completely out of his element. She looks amused.
"Why'd she take over the business?" He asks in retalition.
"Probably because Dean went bankrupt. Twice." Lara adds with relish.
"Apparently she had to bail him out both times," Mom #2 chimes in, "god knows how."
"Loan shark," Lara says definitively, "I heard there were some shady characters hanging around her place for a while. And then Dean "got mugged" and had to be hospitalised."
"Scary," Rio deadpans.
They both nod emphatically.
"Their marriage is a total soap opera," Lara says, "the things that man gets away with. I don't understand it."
"Well, there's the kids to think about." Mom #2 sighs.
"What things?" Rio asks.
"I really shouldn't say." Lara says emphatically. There is a momentary pause and she shifts closer to him.
"I only know this because Cora Radcliffe's sister works as a nurse at the state Hospital. Dean was in a car accident a while back and she says that Beth asked how the treatments would interact with his chemotherapy." She paused for dramatic effect, "and the nurse said - I’m paraphrasing - she said, what are you talking about?"
Mom #2 gasps, "no!"
"It happened. She was convinced he had cancer."
"It's Dean Boland," Lara says viciously, "his two skills are ruining things and avoiding responsibility."
"Have you met him?" Lara asks him.
"Once or twice."
"He's awful, isn't he? We were parent supervisors together once when Beth was ill. Completely. Useless."
"She would have realised," Mom #2 interjects, "wouldn't she go with him to the doctor?"
"Maybe he asked her not to," Lara said.
"Maybe he bribed his doctor," Rio added without thinking.
Lara smiled at him like she'd found a kindred spirit. Fuck.
"According to Steve's wife - Steve and Dean are drinking buddies -" she adds for Rio's benifit, "after she left him because of that business with his secretary-"
"-she was only nineteen," Mom #2 interjects again, "can you imagine?"
"-he tried talking her out of a divorce and it massively backfired -"
"- she's had four kids! God knows what that would do your self esteem. Nineteen!"
"- then a couple weeks later, bam, there he is back home again."
Mom #2 tsks. She and Lara make disapproving noises for a couple of seconds, then Lara's kid came running up asking for a juicebox and the conversation drops while she digs through her bag. He grabs the box and runs off, screaming something incomprehensible.
"My kids are so rough!" She says, "Marcus is such a sweet little boy, I don't know how you managed that."
"You've got to spank them," Mom #2 says, "I know we're not supposed to anymore, but kids need a little discipline."
"Nah," Rio objects, "getting rough with kids ain't gonna teach them not to get rough."
Lara points to him in triumph.
"Exactly!" she says. "You've got to talk to them! Even when you feel like screaming and throwing them off the roof."
Mom #2 huffs, "I never feel like throwing my kids off the roof."
"Well," says Lara amicably, "your nanny probably does."
Emma runs past them, red faced and cackling like a little maniac. Beth is still chasing her. She's got a pinched look on her face, like maybe she's tired and would just like to sit down. She gets into it anyway, waving her arms and making monster noises whenever Emma turns back to check she's still being pursued.
They're looping large circles around the sandpit, where Marcus is shovelling away with a plastic bucket.
"Better check on my boy," Rio says, even though Marcus is clearly having the time of his life. The other parents probably don't see that, though. Marcus loves being in his own little world, his teachers’ keep pulling him in to talk about ‘anti-social behaviour’ and ‘random muttering’.
He wanders over to his kid and squats next to him.
"How you doin', pop?" He asks. Marcus grins up at him.
"I made a castle!" He says, gesturing to a fairly large clump of sand.
"Woah," Rio says, "Does it have a moat?"
Marcus goes on a very confused but enthusiastic rant about dragons. He seems to know a lot about the mythology, but also thinks they live in moat-less sky castles.
He's so absorbed in listening to his kid he barely registers Beth calling Emma, watch out, don't - and then he gets knocked over by a mass of flailing limbs.
He picks himself up as Beth runs over.
"I am so sorry," she says, scooping a crying Emma up in her arms. She's flushed and a little breathless. He knows he's staring, knows his hunger for her must be written all over his face, but he can't look away. She's like a supernova.
"Shh, baby, let me see," she soothes Emma, who lifts up a knee to show her a scrape, "don't worry darling, we'll get that all patched up."
She appologies to him quickly again, barely looking at his face like she knows what's there, and hurries off with Emma in her arms. Danny runs up and tugs at her pants, saying something he can't hear. She puts one hand on his head and guides them both to the bench where she left their bags.
"Daddy?" Marcus asks.
"Yeah?" He says, dragging his eyes away to look at his son.
"Do you like Miss Elizabeth?" He asks, shyly. Or is it slyness?
Goddamn it. He forgot that housewives aren't the only gossips.
Beth's working through a stack of papers in her office, methodical and intent. He loves watching her focus on something. She zeros in and doesn't stop until she's done. Technically he could have left about twenty minutes ago, but she hasn't called him on it.
"Why are housewives so nosey and shit?” He asks.
"They're bored," she says, without looking up.
"Did you use to be like that?”
He watches her closely. She’s frowning slightly, he can’t tell if the work is getting to her or if he’s just pissing her off as usual.
"No," she says, "I did crafts. And hung out with Ruby and Annie."
He stiffles the urge to ask her exactly what type of crafts. He doesn't know how to say it in a way that's not sarcastic and he doesn't want to shatter the temporary calm between them, not yet.
"That school is a bubble for some women," Beth says, "they're stuck with people they don't like talking about things that don't interest them, and they don't have the time or energy to go looking for people they will like, and talk about things they are interested in. So they talk about each other instead, because it's more entertaining than sandwhich preferences and favourite kids movies."
There is an extended pause.
"Lara has a PhD in marine science," she adds, "she studied Australian fresh water mollusks. I think if she knew more people interested in hearing about that she'd never gossip at all."
"Hmm" he says. "You like to hear about that?"
She looks up at him then, a smile playing at the corner of her lips. He mentally awards himself two points - one for distracting her and one for making her look like that.
"Hell no," she says, "I listen for five minutes every three years or so and that's about all I can take."
"Why don't you take a break from that?" He gestures to the piles of documents.
"To do what?" She snipes, "dish about other PTA members?"
He looks her up and down. She's deliberately not looking at him now, but he can tell she feels the heat of his gaze on her. Her entire body stills for a moment.
"You could get on the desk," he says.
She collects herself quickly and gives him one of her Looks - the 'stop trying to put me off balance' look mixed in with a bit of 'let's keep things proffesional' and 'I'm turned on and I hate you for it'. Beth can pack a lot of meaning into a single expression.
She goes back to the paperwork. He waits for a moment, then leans back in his chair and kicks the leg of her desk, just hard enough to jostle her slightly.
She looks up and drops her pen, indignation all over her face.
"Did you want something?"
He grins and opens his mouth, but she holds up a hand to shush him.
"Don't answer that," she says, "don't you have somewhere else to be?"
He shrugs. Keeps grinning at her.
She squints her eyes at him and picks her pen back up, turning her gaze back to her desk.
"I wanna hear about Australian fresh water mollusks," he says, "what can you tell me?"
She laughs suddenly. It surprises him, a real genuine laugh like she does when she's with her kids or Annie and Ruby. He savours the moment. It feels like passing a milestone.
"Get out," she tells him. She tries to look stern, but her tone is amused, "I have work to do."
He leaves her smiling to herself, tapping her pen against the desk in an off-beat rythm.
He strums it out against the steering wheel of his car, thinking about her mouth tipping upwards at the corners and her fingers curled loosely around the pen.
Marcus and Emma are friends now. Apparently.
He can't imagine how it will go down when Marcus tells her he wants to get their parents together so that Miss Elizabeth with be his third Mom and Emma will be his sister. Seeing as how Emma's parents are still married.
It has its ups though - like when Emma invited Marcus to play after school and Rio got to watch Dean struggle for a reason to say no while Lara hovered over his shoulder smiling sweetly at Dean like she’s waiting for him to say something.
Or when he dropped by early to pick Marcus up and the kids insisted on staying until the promised 5:30 pm.
"You be Ariel," Marcus tells Beth while he and Emma pile cushions on top of cushions. They're either building a fort or a collapsing wall.
"Is Ariel a part of this game?" Beth asks him. She's kicked off her shoes and has one hand over her eyes, leaning back into the couch. He leans into the doorway, watching her unwind slowly, the days tension seeping out of her shoulders. He realises he's never seen her unwind all the way.
Except once. But that has hardly been relaxing.
"Shiny hair," Marcus tell her, as if this answers the question.
"I think it's time to go home, bub," Rio says.
Beth glances at him. He smiles.
"Yeah," Dean says, from where he's glowering in the corner.
Beth's eyes widen as she stares at Rio. Ah, yes, her 'I'm tired please don't escalate this situation' look. With perhaps a bit of 'my husband is a dickhead and I should divorce his ass and fuck you in the bed I used to share with him'. But that might be wishful thinking on Rio's part.
"You can stay for dinner!" Emma says. She turns to Dean and whines, "please, dad? Marcus was telling me about dragons!"
"Dragons don't live in castles," he snaps.
Marcus looks crushed. Rio clenches his jaw.
"You're thinking of unicorns," Beth replies. The Passive Housewife facade is back in full force, but there's an undercurrent of energy in her words, something in her posture that indicates trouble.
"Unicorns live in the forest," Emma says, "Dragons live in castles."
"Silly Daddy got them confused," Beth agrees breezily, getting up off the couch and putting her shoes back on. "Did you start dinner yet, hon?"
Dean did a double take and glanced back at the kitchen warily.
"I thought since you got home early today ..." He trailed off.
"I've been watching the kids all afternoon," she reminds him.
"So have I!" He says, as if watching football and until Rio arrived and then standing in the corner glaring at him with his arms folded is the same as active parenting.
"Dad can cook!" Marcus says. "He cooks so good! He used to be a top chef!"
Beth and Dean both look slightly thrown by this revelation while Emma bounces up and down excitedly.
"Please! Please! Please!" Emma squeels, "you let Kenny have his friend over for dinner on Monday night even though he had homework and I don't have homework and -"
"Of course they can stay for dinner," Beth interupts as Emma's decibles climb to terrifying levels.
"Not tonight, Emma," Dean says at the same time, "it's been a real busy day, and your mother hasn't started dinner yet."
Beth stares at her husband for a long moment, then she leads him out of the room and comes back ten minutes later.
(She's looking for all the world like she didn't just cut off her husband's dick and feed it to him. With slight undertones of 'I definitely did just do that'.)
"Dean is cooking," she says sweetly, "you're welcome to join us."
The children's shrieks of joy are deafening.
Dean can’t cook for shit. The kids can barely contain their dismay, except Marcus and Emma who are talking so much they barely notice what they’re putting in their mouths. Beth keeps pausing to stare at them, her eyes lighting up. The image of Beth chasing Emma around the park while the other kids play together hits him hard, and he grins at her across the table. She grins back. Dean gets up noisily and heads for the kitchen.
“You’re not allowed to leave the table until you’re finished!” Danny yells. Beth shushes him.
Emma and Marcus hug for five minutes before he finally gets his kid packed away into the car. Beth waves at him from the house. He waves back.