25 September 2017

Allie & Natalie's Weekend At Neal's



After visiting their mom in prison, the girls spend the weekend with their father.  There's a lot of emotions happening, which means that they definitely won't be able to keep themselves out of trouble.  Good luck, Neal!

Allie & Natalie's Weekend at Neal's
by Lenore and Breanna




Natalie's forehead stuck to the frigid window in the backseat of Peter’s car as scream-y music filled her ears, trying to distract her mind from the racing thoughts. They were headed to Danbury Federal Correction Institution where her mom, Alex, had finally been transferred to serve her sentence for whatever it was she'd done wrong. Natalie definitely wasn't feeling up for the visit, she really wanted nothing to do with her mom, but Peter and Elizabeth had thought it would be a good idea for the girls to go anyway.
By her side, Allie was excited and a little nervous. Despite rarely voicing it, she missed her mother quite a lot, even though her foster parents, father, and dog best friend kept her pretty distracted. But the idea of going to a jail gave her the jitters.  And what if her mommy didn't want to see her?  Fidgeting in her seat, she whined, "Are we there yet?"
"Almost," Elizabeth promised.
Natalie turned the volume of her music up until she saw road signs warning drivers of hitchhikers, and Peter eyeing her in the rear view mirror.  That could only mean that he was ready to have another of his famous family meetings.

"What’s it gonna be like? Can I hug Mommy when I see her?" Allie was asking as Natalie tugged out her earphones to appease her foster dad.
"Yes, you'll get to hug her, but there are rules that are very important that you both need to remember," Peter said as he turned off the highway. He began reciting them slowly, asking questions to make sure both girls understood.
"Don't worry, Peter. It'll be okay. You'll be there to remind me if I forget something,” Allie said, flashing him an innocent smile. She couldn’t stop fidgeting and squirming in her car seat, the butterflies in her tummy multiplying and making her heart beat faster and faster.  Jails were probably the most frightening thing that Allie could think of, so she was glad that Peter and El would be around to make sure nothing bad happened.
The car halted at a redlight and Peter glanced at his wife, then back at the girls. "Actually, El and I are going to let you two go in to spend the time with your mom alone. But we'll both be outside whenever you finish."
"Oh,” Allie said softly.  "Okay.... well Natty will be there!”  She gripped her sister’s arm and gave a panic-stricken grin. At least their foster parents would be close by… that meant everything would be okay, right?  Not wanting to think about it anymore, Allie changed the subject. “I hope Mommy likes the picture I made her!"

"I'm sure she'll love it," Elizabeth replied, smiling at the six year old. She’d been quiet almost the entire ride, feeling a little anxious for the girls as she wondered how this visit would affect them.  Natalie had been doing well at school and was almost coming out of her shell, having totally warmed up to Peter by this point.  El’s relationship with the preteen was still a little rocky, but at least she wasn’t stealing anymore or lying to them.  Allie had also been doing really well lately.  After the zoo incident, she hadn’t even had a bad day in school.  She was starting to thrive in the structured environment and rarely even spoke of her mother.  Would this visit bring up too many negative emotions?  Would the girls be able to handle it?
"No cell phones," Peter told Natalie, snapping Elizabeth out of her thoughts.  She looked up to see that they’d arrived to the parking lot, and Peter had turned the car off.

“But…!”

“I didn’t make the rules,” he reminded the preteen, holding out his hand.  Natalie grumbled a bit but gave him her phone anyway, and Elizabeth put it away in the glovebox.

"I really don't wanna be here," Natalie admitted to her foster dad as they walked inside.
"I know,” he empathized.  “But we're here now, so you might as well go in and say hello.”  Peter put an arm around her shoulder to ease her worries, looking back at his wife who was carrying Allie.  The little girl also looked uneasy.  Like Elizabeth, he was concerned about how this visit would affect their behavior.  However, it was his duty to allow them this opportunity to spend time with their mom, and afterwards, they could decide themselves how often they wanted to do this.
Peter opened the door for his family and instructed them to sit in the waiting area while he signed-in and grabbed a slip of paper, just like at the DMV.  Now they just had to endure the boredom of listening for their number.
Allie clung tightly to Elizabeth.  "Where's Mommy?"
"She's inside," El answered.  

The four of them sat in the blue plastic chairs, Natalie reading the graffiti on the chair in front of her while Allie asked their foster mom a million questions.  Growing more and more bored, Allie finally convinced Elizabeth to sing silly songs with her.

"I wish I had my phone," Natalie muttered.
"There is more to life than your phone," Peter told her.
"It's just boring," she said, kicking her feet and accidentally bumping the woman in front of her.  "Sorry," she said.  She looked at Peter.  "How long is this going to take?"

Peter sighed.  "I don't know.”  Whoever invented prison waiting rooms certainly didn't have children in mind.
It felt like forever, but within 30 minutes the family was ushered inside.  El was still holding Allie, but set her down when they went through the metal detectors.  The little girl was slightly intimidated by the large devices that that kept making noises, but managed to walk through without incident. "Can I see Mommy now?" she asked. "I don't think I can wait any longer."
As if someone had heard the little girl, the door on the other side of the room opened, and a guard came out with Alex.  El smiled and pointed so that Allie could see and her eyes went wide with excitement. "MOMMY!!!!!" she squealed and sprinted towards Alex, all rules suddenly forgotten.  Nobody cared, though.  It was kind of a sad sight anyway, having such a young girl in a federal prison to visit her mom.  
Alex cried tears of joy as she picked her little girl up.  "Allie!  I've missed you!" she said, smothering her in hugs and kisses.

"I drew you a picture!  Lizbeth said you can put it on your wall and this way you'll think of me lots and lots!"
"I love it!" Alex gushed.  "Thank you!  It's beautiful."  She looked over at her oldest daughter now, who was still standing near her foster parents.  "Hi Natalie,” she said, beckoning her forth.
Natalie nodded in acknowledgement, frozen in place.  Peter gave her a supportive squeeze on the shoulder, nudging her a bit.  "Hi Alex,” she began, feeling a rush of emotion at the familiarity of her mother’s voice.  They locked eyes for a moment and Natalie inched forward, finally seating herself in front of her mom.  
"Mommy you should meet Sachmo. He's my doggy friend and is bigger than me and sleeps in my bed!" Allie told her excitedly, not even paying attention that Peter and El had backed out of the room. "We play lots and his favorite games are ball and tag!"
"So your foster parents are nice?" she wanted to know.
"Uh-huh!" Allie nodded. "I love Lizbeth. We baked cookies and she reads me stories! Peter's.... okay.... I’d rather be with Daddy. Daddy teaches me magic!"
Alex blinked.  "Daddy?" she asked, laughing.  "And who would that be?"  Last time she'd heard from Neal, he was in prison, and she had no idea the deal he'd worked out with the FBI.
"You don't know?" Allie asked looking surprised. "Everyone calls him Neal. He’s lots of fun!"
Alex went from amused to concerned as she eyed the oldest.  "What’s she talking about?"

"Yeah, he came back 'round," Natalie answered.

Alex was surprised to hear that.  "And he came looking for you?"
"I tried to take his wallet," Allie piped up. "But he caught me."
"You tried to take his wallet??  Allie!" Alex scolded.
"Yeah, that's what we had to do to survive," Natalie said bitterly.  "After you were arrested, for basically the same thing."
"That was different," Alex told Natalie. "I was trying to give you everything."
Allie shrugged. "I don't play that game anymore. Daddy doesn't like it. My butt hurt forever after last time.”
"Good, you shouldn't play it, it's dangerous."
Allie babbled away for awhile before growing quiet as she snuggled into her mother a little more.
Alex finally had a moment and eyed Natalie. "Did you remember to get the ‘presents’ I left you?"  It was the one thing Alex had always advised her oldest daughter:  if the cops ever come, get everything from the safe in the loose floorboard.  Don’t forget to get the presents, Alex would always tell Natalie.
"Present?!" Allie piped.
Natalie ignored her little sister.  "Yes, I got them, and they’re safe."
Alex smiled. "I'm glad you remembered."
"Why didn't I get a present?" Allie demanded. "I like presents!"
"Allie!" Natalie and Alex scolded at the same time.  Natalie continued, "I already gave it to you.  Remember? The art set and coloring books and stuff?"
Allie shrunk a little. "I forgot...." she said softly, pressing herself into her mother even more.
Natalie shook her head. Sometimes she wanted to tell her sister that it wasn't always all about her.
"I'm glad that you have it safe," Alex said, squeezing her little one and watching one last magic trick of Allie's before they were told visiting time was over.  
A breath of relief flowed from Natalie when she saw Peter and El again.  At last she was finally free from the stress of talking to her bio mom!  But Allie wasn’t quite as happy.  She clung to her mother, protesting, "I don't wanna go! I'm not done yet!"
Alex stooped to Allie's level, looking her directly in the eyes.  "You're okay, Allie.  I will see you again soon, I promise."
Natalie grabbed her hand.  "Come onnnn," she groaned.
"NO!" Allie exclaimed tearfully, tightening her grip on her mother's shirt. She struggled to get her other hand away from her sister. "Mommy, I'm not ready to go! I don't wanna!"
The little girl was surprised when her foster mom appeared suddenly, taking her hand from Natalie and speaking to Allie in a sweet voice.  "Remember we have to go to Daddy's house tonight? And we'll come back to visit Mommy soon."  Elizabeth smiled, tucking a lock of Allie's hair behind her ear.
A few tears streamed down Allie’s face and she frowned, but glanced up at her foster mom. "Promise Lizbeth?"
"Promise," El said, looking at Alex, who also promised they'd see each other again soon.  Her mom gave Allie one last long hug before she was escorted away by the guard.
Allie was crying pretty hard when Elizabeth scooped her up and carried her back out to where Peter stood in the waiting area. “I hate saying goodbye,” Allie muttered, burying her face in Elizabeth’s chest.

“I know, Sweetheart,” she replied.  

Noticing the glum expressions on the girls’ faces, Peter said, “I think a Happy Meal is in order.”
*****
“C’mon, Natty!  We can’t let the bad guys catch us!” Allie shrieked, bolting through the tunnels and jumping into the ball pit.  

Her big sister followed, diving in after the little girl and giggling.  Natalie was too tall to be allowed in the McDonald’s playplace, and considered herself too old to play pretend, but there was no one her age around and she really needed the distraction from thinking about her mom.  Nothing else was really working… Even texting her sorta-boyfriend, Justin, hadn’t been helpful!

They played together for about an hour before their father appeared in the doorway, greeting Elizabeth and Peter.  Allie was the first to see him and dashed forward shouting, “Daddy!!”

Natty had actually been so distracted that she’d forgotten her foster parents were going out of town for the weekend and they’d be staying overnight with their dad for the first time ever.  Ughh, first Alex, now him… can’t I catch a break? the preteen groaned to herself. Now I’ll be stuck doing what Allie wants all weekend, because everything with Neal always revolves around Allie.  If only he’d realize that she’s got him wrapped around her finger!
"Hey little monkey!" Neal said, catching the six year old as she jumped into his arms. He glanced in Natty’s direction, then looked at Peter and El, asking, "What's up with her?"
"It’s been a long day…” El admitted.
"Mommy liked my picture," Allie piped up as she snuggled into him.

Peter handed Neal the girls’ overnight bags and said, “good luck,” clapping him on the back.

As the three walked to his house, Neal wondered what he was getting himself into.  Sure he’d watched the girls before, but never for such an extended period of time, and rarely was he alone with both of them together.  Allie had taken to him quite easily, and he was able to figure out how to sway her to act as he wanted.  But the oldest was a bigger challenge.  He still hadn’t figured out how to connect with Natalie.
Looking down at her, he decided to try to start building a rapport.  "What do you want to do this weekend?  Any ideas?"
Allie peered at her father from where she sat perched on his shoulders.  She hadn’t realized he was talking to Natty -- why would he be talking to her?  So she answered casually.  "Can we play games an’ go to the park an’ eat popcorn an’ chocolate?  An’ watch cartoons an’ read stories?"
"He was asking me!" Natalie snarled, glaring up at her sister. "Why do you always have to make everything about you?"
Allie’s lower lip trembled as she sniffled and tried to hold back her tears.  Why’s Natty being so mean to me?  What’d I do to her?
Noticing the tension, Neal interrupted their dispute.  "So... what do you want to do Natalie?"
"We could go see a movie, or go to an art museum," she said, more out of wanting to annoy Allie rather than actually wanting to do those things -- her little sister didn't have the attention span for such low-stimulation, indoor activities.
Neal nodded. "We could maybe do one or both of those," he replied, impressed that she wanted to go to an art museum. Potential bonding activity?

They didn’t have more time to explore possibilities for the weekend because they’d reached Neal’s home, and a redheaded woman was standing in front of the door as if she’d been waiting for him.

"Who's that?" Natalie wanted to know.
"She’s a friend from work.  To what do I owe this pleasure, Sarah?" Neal said with a smile that suggested she was more than just a colleague. He set Allie down for a moment to make introductions.

The woman greeted each of the girls with a handshake.  "It’s so nice to meet you both.  I’ve heard many good things about you."

Natalie eyed her warily.  “I’m sure you have.”

Allie said nothing, just hid a little behind her dad and latched onto him.

"And this?" Neal asked, pointing to the expensive-looking bottle of wine in Sarah’s arms.
"This is a thank you for last night,” Sarah answered, blushing and giving a goofy smile.
The preteen’s eyebrows raised with suspicion.  "What’d you do last night?"
"We worked on a very important case," Neal answered, opening the door and pausing for everyone to enter ahead of him. Allie stayed behind with her big puppy eyes and he stooped down to her level. "What's the matter, Alliecat?"
"I don't like her.  She seems very fishy.  I can feel it in my tummy,” Allie said, resting a hand on her belly.
Neal ruffled her hair.  "Give it time, once you get to know her you'll see Sarah’s a great person." When she wasn't convinced he added, "I think I have some ice cream in the freezer for a little monkey I know..."
"I love ice cream!" Allie smiled. "And did you get chocolate sauce?!"  Without waiting for an answer (because she knew he had), the little girl took her father’s hand and led him inside, only to walk into the middle of a stand off in the living room between Natalie and Sarah.
"What are you doing here?" Natalie was sneering. "This is Allie’s time with her dad.  She’s more important than you are, so you should leave." The preteen was suddenly protective of her sister again, which was really her way of denying her own feelings.  Somewhere deep inside, she really felt a little jealous that everyone else was taking up the time she was supposed to spend with her parents.
"I just stopped by to say hello," Sarah replied. "I'm not trying to take time from anyone so relax.  I’ll be gone in a few minutes."
Allie pressed herself into Neal possessively.  "He's MY Daddy an’ you can’t have him!”  

"Natty, how about you make a bowl of ice cream for you and Allie?" Neal said, placing the wine bottle on the dining room table.  There was no use in arguing with them; distractions were best.
“Yeahhh!” Allie chirped and ran to the fridge to get the chocolate sauce. The preteen continued scowling at the adults for a few minutes, then followed her sister to the kitchen.  "Make sure it's a lot!" Allie demanded.
"I will, I will," her big sister promised, gathering the supplies and filling up the bowls as high as she could.
Neal took Sarah to the doorway and apologized about Natalie. "It's a rough time for them both," he admitted and grabbed Sarah's hand, looking her deep in the eyes and smiling. If only they could have some alone time...
Sarah nodded in understanding. "It’ll take time for them to warm up, but I know it will all work out."
Interrupting their moment was Allie, who had climbed onto a chair and spotted the wine.  She reached for it, wanting to touch and admire the shiny red and gold bottle.  "Oooh. Pretty! I like juice!"
Neal happened to glance over just in time to see his little one reach for it and hurried over to snatch it away. "This is for adults only, Alliecat. Hands off."  To reaffirm his point he placed it in a high cabinet, out of the little girl's reach.
"I just wanted to see it. It's pretty." But she was quickly distracted by the painting that hung over his head on the wall.  “You liked the present!” Allie gushed.  

The couple looked back as well, and Neal chuckled.  “Of course I liked it, Monkey.”  He was glad that he’d thought to put it out before Allie arrived, knowing her close attention to detail.  But also, he wished she hadn’t pointed it out with Sarah there.

Natty put the bowl of ice cream in front of Allie, distracting her again and giving Neal the opportunity to get back to his girlfriend/colleague.  “Now where were we?” he asked with a simple caress of her cheek.  

Instead of waiting for her big sister to squirt on the chocolate, Allie snatched up the brown plastic bottle, squeezing it tight to drown her ice cream in the liquid.  When it was about to overflow, she finally set it down and licked her sticky, chocolatey fingers.
Natalie repeated the process, and the girls ate in silence, only glancing over at their father and the intruder every so often.  Since Neal was still busy with the woman, Natalie decided to give themselves seconds, with even more chocolate syrup (in fact, they emptied the bottle).
"When is she gonna leave?" Natalie muttered to her little sister.
"She's hogging Daddy, he's supposed to be playin’ with us!" Allie glared in the direction of the adults and a light bulb went off. "Oooh, I know..." she chirped, eyes mischievous.

Natalie watched as her little sister hopped down from her seat and hurried into the next room, gooey hands out in front of her as if she were a zombie.  When she reached Sarah, she shoved her firmly, announcing, "Time to go lady!  It's our time with Daddy, not yours!"
A shriek echoed through the apartment and Neal lightly scolded his little one, pulling her away from his friend.  "Allie, don't be rude," he said, then squatted to her level.  "Sarah's about to leave, so I want you to apologize to her and go wash your hands, then we can watch cartoons and paint if you want.  I even have a surprise for you!"
"I like surprises," Allie told him, as if he didn't know this already. "But Daddy I'm not sure I'm sorry. I don't want her here. It's mine and Natty's time and that lady's bein’ a hog."  She glared towards the bathroom, where Sarah was trying to scrub the brown stains off her white pants.
"I know monkey, but we have alllll weekend together, and you know we have to be nice to people... being nice equals more presents, right?"
"Really? More presents?" Allie's eyes went wide. Maybe she still wasn't sorry but if it meant more presents....
"I meant in general. But you'll only get yours if you apologize and wash up."
Allie frowned a little, unimpressed. "I guess I can do that...." she sighed dramatically and allowed her dad to push her towards the bathroom. Her apology was insincere, but Sarah understood.  

"I'll walk you down," Neal told his colleague, turning to Natalie.  "Can you clean up?  When I get back we'll do something fun."
Natalie rolled her eyes at him.  "Whatever," she said, throwing the dishes together and letting them crash in the sink.  Neal paused to study her for a moment, but let it go.  She would be fine.
When their dad was out the door, Allie’s sugar rush kicked in.  She hopped up onto the couch, jumping around on it and shouting, "Let's play Natty!!!! Let's play!!!!"
"I was ordered to do the dishes," Natalie sulked, running water in the chocolatey bowls.  She had this sudden urge to get back at her father, angry with him for deserting her for so many years, angry with him for leaving her alone with Alex, and not stopping Alex from getting arrested, and not stopping himself from getting arrested!  All of these damn criminals in her life, yet they expected her to be the perfect angel.
Lost in her thoughts, Natalie sprayed the bowls in such a manner that water splashed all over her and she screamed, then giggled.  Pulling out the hose, she pointed the nozzle in Allie's direction.  "Water fight!!"
Allie came running. "Wait! I need water too!"  She opened the fridge to find a bottle of water, then struggled to crack the seal. "Natty it won't open!"

“Too bad,” Natalie responded, giving an evil laugh and squeezing the handle on the nozzle so that it sprayed Allie’s face with cold water.
The little girl squealed and finally popped off the cap, flinging water in Natalie’s face and causing her to shriek, even though she’d been expecting it.  Natalie pointed the sink hose back at her sister, and the two of them fought like that for a few minutes until there was no bottled water left and they were giggling so hard their tummies hurt.

When their laughs died down, Allie said, “Natty I'm thirsty, I want juice.”
"Okay, sure," Natalie said.  Neal had put the wine bottle on the top shelf, but Natty was tall and reached it easily.  Then she found the corkscrew and jammed it inside, remembering her mom’s parties.  Alex used to have guests over frequently, and when Natalie turned eleven she’d help out with serving in exchange for being allowed to have a small glass of wine herself.  One of the things Alex had taught her was how to twist the corkscrew down, then POP! the cork would come out easily.  As she did it now she smiled, proud that she hadn’t lost her touch.  Then she took a drink from the bottle and passed it to Allie.
Allie looked surprised at how much work it took to open the juice bottle, but eagerly took the heavy glass in her hands and sniffed the contents. Closing one eye and glancing inside as if it were a telescope she asked, "What kinda juice is this Natty?"

"Adult juice.”

Satisfied with that answer, the little girl tilted the bottle up, red droplets hitting her tongue.  She scrunched her nose up in disgust.  “It’s not that tasty!”  But she took another sip anyway.

"Don't drink too much!  It'll make you feel bad."  Natalie spoke from experience: once she had found a 6-pack of fruity alcoholic drinks in the fridge, then spent half the night with her face in the toilet.

"Juice can't make you sick, Natty. Don't be silly!" Allie laughed and drank a little more when her sister wasn't watching.
Natalie turned back just in time to see what the bratty kid was up to.  "Hey!  I said be careful!  This is a special kind of juice."  She reached to take the bottle back from her sister, but Allie jerked it away.
"I'm thirsty. I like juice. You know that."  Annoyed that Natalie was trying to boss her around, she took another sip, though not as much this time as the room was starting to get a little warm and her tummy gurgled.  
"Grrrrrr… Allie!  Stop!" Natalie yelled, snatching the bottle from the little girl’s hands, this time successful.  She held it up high where Allie couldn't reach.  "Ha, ha, now you can't get it!"
Allie whined and jumped for it. "Natty give it back! You can't hog it all!"
"It's adult juice!!" Natalie shouted, then drank some more.
"You're not an adult!" Allie shouted back. "I want some too!"  Peering around the room, she found the closest object, an apple, and hurled it at her sister.
"HEY!  What the fuck!" Natalie said, pushing Allie now, though she knew better than to be too rough with her sister.  "You almost made me drop it!"
"Then give me some!" Allie screeched, stomping a foot. "And don't you shove me Natty! I know how to bite!"
"Yeah, well I have teeth, too."
"You can't bite me!  Big kids don't bite people!" She then shoved her sister hard, trying to knock her over.  "Give. Me. The. Juice!”  
Natalie could feel her angry emotions on the surface again, threatening to explode on Allie.  She thrusted the little girl away again and roared, "I can bite you if I wanna!  And my teeth are bigger than yours!"
"Don't be so mean! No wonder Daddy loves me more! You're nasty Natty!"
Allie’s words punched the preteen in the stomach to where she couldn’t breathe.  Her impulsive side wanted to throw the wine bottle to the ground and tackle her sister, but she knew that physical pain would be temporary… it wouldn’t really hurt Allie.  No, what would really hurt her was turning their dad against her.  So Natalie buried her impulses and smirked, then half-tossed the wine bottle to her little sister.  "Fine, take it."
It almost fell to the floor, but Allie managed to wrap her little fingers around it, gulping some more down.  She was starting to get dizzy but shook it off. "Yer...Yer a...a bitch!"  she slurred, and was about to take another drink, but felt a sharp pain in her belly so strong that she dropped the wine bottle to the floor, shattering it into thousands of teeny pieces.
At the same moment, Neal re-entered the apartment, seeing the crash in slow motion.  "What the hell?!"  The oldest daughter looked back with a half smile at her dad until she realized that she was the one he was mad at.  "Natalie, what is wrong with you!  How could you let your sister drink?"  
Her cheeks flustered with rage.  "She's the one who wanted it!  She fought me for it!”

Neal was going to continue the tongue lashing, but Allie murmured, "I don't feel so well," and a chocolatey, red waterfall of vomit spilled from her mouth.
"Oh Allie..." he groaned, reaching for a towel while yelling at Natalie, "I trusted you to behave for five minutes!  I can’t believe you’d let her get into my wine!"  He didn’t even mention the mess of water on the floor.
Before Natalie could answer, Allie threw up a second time and began crying, unable to move because of the dizziness.
"Shhh Alliecat, don't cry.  You're going to be okay," Neal said and gave her the towel to wipe her mouth.

"My tummy hurts," Allie whined through tears. "And my head is spinning in circles...."  She placed a hand on her head, trying to stop the dizziness.
Natalie couldn't believe it. Allie had been caught red handed, yet wasn't the one in trouble! How the hell was that fair? Her blood started to boil.
"How much did she drink?”
"I dunno, she wouldn't let me have it!" Natalie yelled.
Neal didn't grace her with a response.  "C'mon, Alliecat, let's get you cleaned up and then you can lie down.  You'll feel better."  He glared at Natalie as he lifted the six year old and helped her to the bathroom, hoping that she could hold any further puke for when there was a toilet.
Once inside, Allie allowed her dad to wash her face and put her in pajamas.  "Daddy my tummy's not happy," she whimpered. "Natty said the juice would make me sick.... but I always drink juice."
Neal felt his stomach drop -- so Natalie had tried to warn the little monkey?  Of course she did.. Natalie cared so much for her sister!  How could he have ever doubted her?  He'd have to apologize after getting Allie in bed.  

"Allie, your tummy isn't happy because like I told you earlier, that is for adults only -- not kids.  But you're going to be fine.  Most of it's out of your system now, you just need water and a bed."
"But we were gonna watch cartoons and paint! I can't play with you if I'm sleeping!"  She wanted her presents, too, but felt too crummy to mention it.
"That was before you and your sister got into the wine," he told her.  "We’ll play tomorrow.  But tonight you have to go to bed.  That's final."  Before she could say anything he pulled her out of the bathroom towards the guest room, listening to her whine and cry the entire way.
"But I'm not sleepy.  I wanna snuggle!" Allie pleaded, arriving to the bedroom and noticing two sock monkeys on the queen-sized bed: one purple and the other green.  Allie knew the purple was hers, so she picked it up and hugged it tightly.
Slipping off his shoes Neal said, "C'mon, I'll lay down with you."
Even though she didn’t want to, the six year old crawled up onto the bed and waited for her dad to join her, then snuggled into him, seeking comfort. "I'm sorry I broke your juice bottle...."
"Me too," he admitted.  "It was pretty expensive and a gift from my friend."
Allie sniffled and closed her eyes, happy that the room had finally stopped spinning.  She almost asked her dad to make Natty come to bed, too, but before she had the chance, she drifted off.

Neal had planned to go talk to Natalie after Allie fell asleep, but putting in long hours at work the last couple of days had him more exhausted than normal.  He didn't even hear Allie's light snoring when he dozed off himself, deep into dreamland where he hopefully wouldn't have to deal with vomit and bratty preteens.
*****

While her dad had been locked in the bathroom with his favorite child, Natalie made a split second decision:  It’s time to leave.  She didn’t even know where she’d go when she threw her phone on the table and walked out the door (no need to have anyone tracking her), but she knew she had to get away from Neal’s house.  All he cares about is Allie.  All anyone ever cares about is Allie.

It was time for Natalie to dig into the stash from Alex’s safe, and then make a break for it.  Not only did she have a bag of valuable jewelry and a huge wad of cash she’d saved, she also had a new identity for herself (and Allie and Alex, but those wouldn’t be useful).  Her mom had shown her the forged passports ages ago, just in case Natalie needed to make a quick escape.  Fortunately she’d never had to use it for anything… until now.  With the money, new identity, and a “letter” from her “mom,” Natalie would be able to get a plane ticket to almost anywhere.  Then she could live off the jewelry in luxury for a bit… and if she ever needed extra cash, she was a pretty good thief.  

A pit in her stomach grew thinking of it, and what Peter would say if he heard her thoughts in that moment.  He’d certainly be disappointed.  But it wouldn’t matter, because he probably favored her little sister, too, and wouldn’t even notice she was gone.
Natalie finally arrived at her subway stop and kept a low profile as she crept through the neighborhood, trying to push away any guilty feelings that arose.  When she turned the corner of her street, she blended into the background as much as possible as she checked to see if Peter’s car was parked nearby, just in case they hadn’t left for their weekend trip yet.  But the parking spot was empty, as expected, and she breathed a sigh of relief.  This was becoming too easy!
The spare key was hidden in one of the potted plants hanging by the doorway, so Natalie retrieved it and went inside, punching in the numbers of the alarm system.  She wouldn’t admit it, but part of her had wished Peter was still home, so he could stop her from leaving and remind her that she really was wanted in his household.  Even as she dug through the loose floorboard and packed her backpack full of clothes, she felt a few tears slipping down her cheeks, warning her that life alone would be hell.  And she would miss Allie so much, even if the kid was a pain in the ass sometimes.
Stop crying, she muttered to herself.  You have to do this, you have to go.  Nobody wants you here.  

She counted up the money and eyed each of the jewels to mentally calculate the value, then threw the backpack over her shoulder.  All left now writing Peter a note.  And maybe another for Allie.  
But did leaving a note really make her any different than her dad when he left?

****
Neal awoke about an hour after having dozed off, confused for a moment about why he was in the guest room, until he saw the little monkey next to him, twisted up in the shape of a pretzel.  He smiled and kissed her on the forehead -- how she slept like that, he had no idea!  As he stretched out, the realization hit him that he’d never had the chance to talk with Natalie, but now they should both be calm enough to have a rational discussion.  And he could apologize.

He slipped out of the bed and patted to the living room, groaning when he saw there was still a mess in the kitchen. Maybe Natalie was mad at him, but couldn’t she at least cover the vomit with a towel?  

Where is she anyway?
“Natty?” he called, checking the bathroom and closet, then the balcony.  No luck.  “Natalie!  This isn’t funny!”  

When his annoyance and impatience became too much, Neal decided to call the preteen.  A buzz could be heard from the dining room table, and as he turned to face it, his anger turned to panic. “Natalie, where are you?” he said into the voicemail, turning the phone off and pacing.

“Okay, Neal, focus,” he said aloud.  “If I was Natty, where would I be?”  He racked his brain for a few minutes, debating potential destinations when it clicked.  "Peter!  She would go to Peter's!"
There was no time to figure out what to do with Allie, so he just threw the little girl over his shoulder and raced outside, hailing the first cab he could find.  He rattled off Peter’s address and strapped his youngest in, she still fast asleep.
The spare key wasn’t in it’s normal hiding spot, and the front door was left unlocked, a sure sign that Natalie was inside.  A low crying could be heard coming from the dining room, and Neal gently threw Allie on the couch and inched forward in the dark.

"Natalie?"

The preteen didn’t say anything at first, just sniffled and pulled her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around them.  She glanced up at her father, streetlight illuminating his face.  “What do you want?” she half-sneered, though she was kind of glad that he cared enough to come.
"I was worried sick about you," he said, sitting at her side and pushing the wet hair out of her face. Her glistening blue eyes scowled at him, but he dared ask, “Why did you leave?”
"Why do you think?  You're always giving Allie attention and making me do all the work.  She's obviously your favorite.  Why even bother dealing with me anymore?"
Neal blinked.  That news kind of shocked him!  He’d known Natalie was upset that he blamed her for Allie’s drinking, but had no idea the issue was so substantial.  She rarely even acknowledged his existence, and pushed him away every chance she had… but then felt like he didn’t give her enough attention?  It didn’t make sense!  

Clearing his throat, Neal said, "I’m sorry for making you feel that way.  I didn’t realize you wanted the attention, or even cared.”  He looked away from her for a moment, beginning to feel emotional and not wanting her to see.  “I want us to have a relationship, Natty. But I’ll be honest with you, sometimes it’s easier to focus on your sister because she's still little and doesn't see me as a bad guy yet.”  He paused and looked back in her eyes with a smile. “And we both know how she gets when the attention is shifted away from her. It's not pretty!”

Natalie gave a soft giggle and wiped her tears away, still hugging onto her knees.  It was one of the first times she had a moment like this with her father… at least the first in a long time!  

Neal continued: “I'm genuinely sorry if I've made you feel like I don't care.  Because I do care, and very much."
There was a moment of silence as the two sat there, half-staring each other down, half-staring into space, deep in thought.  Finally, Natalie spoke.  “I wish I could live alone, then no one could make me do anything I don’t want.  I could take care of myself just fine… I’ve been doing it long enough already.”  
Neal ignored her bitterness, and shook his head. "Growing up is overrated, Natty.  You should just enjoy being a kid… it’s the best years of your life."
“Ha!  I don't even know how to be a kid like Allie.  Maybe that's why nobody likes me," she grumbled.
"What are you talking about?  Everyone here likes you!  Peter and El always talk about how great you are with Allie, and I happen to know you just might be Peter's favorite. And for your information I’ve always loved you, Natalie.  Just because I was an idiot and left doesn't mean I ever stopped loving you or thinking about you."
Natalie looked into her dad’s eyes, trying to read whether or not he was being sincere.  His eyes were glossy, tears threatening to spill at any moment even though he pretended to be tough in front of her.  All this time she’d been keeping herself at a distance, having built a wall between the two of them for fear that he might leave like last time.  But in this moment the wall crumpled, and she couldn’t help it.  She needed her dad!  She needed his attention as much as Allie did!  So she pushed herself up and threw her arms around Neal’s neck, latching onto him tightly, then crawled up into his lap (like a monkey).  
The longer they sat like that, the more Natty felt like she was in one of those cheesy family tv shows, until she finally said, "okay okay, enough with the mushy-ness.”
Neal chuckled softly. "Shall we head back? You still have a present waiting for you."
"Yeah... just let me go unpack."  She reached for the heavy backpack then jogged back upstairs to re-hide her stash, dumping everything else on the bed.  She could put that up later.
They went back home and it took almost no time for Natalie to doze off -- what a long day it’d been!  

*****
The bacon-y air drifted through the apartment, stirring Natalie awake seconds before her little sister pounced on top of her.

“Natty!!  Get up!!  Breakfast tiiiiiiime!” Allie chirped, shaking her big sister as she bounced on her chest.

"It's too early," Natalie groaned and tried to roll over so Allie would fall off her.

“Daddy made bacon an’ eggs an’ pancakes an’ I helped him squeeze the orange juice!  C’monnnn!!”
There was a soft knock as Neal poked his head inside.  "Natalie, breakfast is ready, do you want to eat now or later?"

Sighing, Natalie peeled her eyes open, first seeing her little sister on top of her, arm wrapped around her purple sock monkey.  Then she eyed Neal, who actually had on an apron.  “Can I have coffee?"

“One cup,” he said.
Allie jumped off her sister, now running towards their dad. "I want coffee, too!” she exclaimed, though she had no idea what it was.  “Can we eat now?  I'm starved!  My tummy won’t stop growling!”
 
The mood was light as the three ate, talking and laughing like they were a real family. Allie babbled about magic and her hopes to win a prize at school for getting all good grades in conduct for the month, and Natalie chattered about her art class and sorta-boyfriend.  Their father listened intently, asking questions, and paying careful attention to not favor Allie too much.  Everything was great until Neal cleaned up the dishes and sat down in front of the girls, giving them a serious look. "We need to talk about last night."
Of course they’d known the talk was coming, but they still felt butterflies in their tummies when Neal said it out loud.  Allie frowned, remembering how much her bum had hurt after the last talk she’d had with her dad. "I already said sorry," she reminded him.
"I know, monkey, but you also know there are consequences when you don't follow the rules. I don't want to start off our weekend with a punishment, but also I think it's important to get it out of the way."
Natalie looked down at the floor, hoping that her dad would be angrier with Allie.  Maybe the less she spoke, the more Allie would dig herself into a hole?

"I want you to tell me the truth," Neal said, eyeing each of the girls. "What happened?"
Together they told the story of the previous night’s events, all about the water fight (which explained the abundance of empty plastic bottles strewn about in the kitchen), Allie asking for the “juice” and Natty giving it to her, and finally Natalie’s attempts to stop her.

“I didn’t know it’d make me sick,” Allie finally said, lip quivering and tears brimming her puppy eyes in hopes it’d get her out of trouble.
"That's why I told you not to touch it, Alliecat," Neal said gently. "When I tell you not to do something, it's not because I want to be mean, it's because I'm trying to keep you safe."
"Well how was I supposed to know?  Peter says no all the time,” the six year old countered, trying hard to change the subject.  She didn’t like being in trouble with her daddy.
"Peter’s also trying to keep you safe, and you know it, Allie," he said firmly.
Allie made a sour face. "I don't think so."
Neal heaved a sigh, knowing he was fighting a never-ending battle, but wishfully tried a different approach anyway. "Both of you girls need to learn how to follow rules a little better -- I understand it can be annoying and not fun, but until you're an adult, you have to trust that we're looking out for your best interest."
The preteen couldn't help but scoff at that remark. Even after their moment the night before, and Neal allowing her to have coffee, she just didn't buy that adults genuinely cared about them. Natalie’s view on the world was that people are usually selfish and only use kids as a way to get what they want for themselves.  Nothing Neal could say would change her mind.

Allie shook her head. "Mommy let us do what we wanted, and we had lots of fun!"
"And you saw where Mommy is now," Neal reminded. "That's what happens if you don't follow rules." He had mixed feelings about this conversation but knew it was in his girls' best interest to be more obedient than he'd been. Even if he was a proponent of free thinking and rule bending, he didn't want to see his little ones end up in the same kind of trouble as he and Alex. So he expressed this to them both, then asked if they had anything to say for themselves about what they’d done wrong.
"I'm sorry,” Allie said, and Natalie agreed.  Then Allie frowned a little. "But I'm not going to jail like Mommy."
"Me either," Natalie promised. "We would be smart enough by then to not get caught."
Neal sighed.  "That's not the point and you know it.  I can't have you disobeying and breaking rules, and putting yourselves in danger. You're both going to be punished and that's final."
"No we're not!" Allie protested. "We're gonna forget about it and move on!"  

She tried to get up and walk away, but Neal’s words stopped her before she got far.  "I guess we won't be able to do anything fun this weekend.”
"But you said you had a surprise! What about the surprise?! And why can't we do anything fun!?"
Neal pulled the little girl closer to him, looking her in the eyes.  "Allie, rule breaking is not tolerated. You could've gotten hurt! What if you'd had more to drink and ended up in the hospital? What if when you dropped the bottle you'd gotten glass in your feet?" He looked at Natalie before she could interject. "And don't think I've forgotten about your late night adventure by yourself to Peter's house. If I remember correctly, it hasn't been very long since you were punished for going off on the subway alone with your sister." He looked back at Allie. "The way I see it, you have two options: accept the spanking as consequences, or no surprises and no fun for the weekend."
"But I like surprises," Allie whimpered as a couple of tears leaked out.  She looked back at Natalie who was blushing, a little upset that Neal hadn’t forgiven her for sneaking out.
When a few excruciatingly silent seconds passed, Neal asked, "Well? What's it going to be?" He wore a serious expression, body tense as he hoped the girls wouldn't make this any more difficult than it already was.
Natalie was the first to speak. "I guess a spanking is better than being grounded," she said, glancing in Allie’s direction. "At least it'll be over sooner? And anyway, I have the feeling Peter would spank us anyway... maybe now he doesn't have to find out?" she hoped, eyebrows raised as she looked back at Neal now.
"It depends on your behavior the rest of the weekend," Neal replied. "But maybe I won’t have to give him any details if you behave."
Allie tackled her dad in a hug, burying her face in his chest as her tiny frame shook from her sobs.  She hated that her dad was mad at her, and hated having to choose between two equally bad punishments.  If she picked a spanking her bum would hurt soooo much!  But if not, she’d be stuck staying inside all day, bored out of her mind.
Neal’s patting her on the back snapped Allie out of her thoughts. "What'll it be, Monkey? Your sister has already decided." He pulled her back for a moment so he could look in her eyes. "Afterwards, we'll go do something fun, promise."
Allie took a few shuddering breaths.  "A...a...spanking," she choked out through the tears. "You're not gonna use the ruler, are you?"  She peered at him through her bangs, chewing on her lower lip in worry.
"Unfortunately, little monkey, when you put yourself in danger like that, I will use the ruler."
More tears started streaming down Allie’s face. "But I don't like the ruler Daddy! It hurts too much!"  Her hands moved to cover her bottom.
"And it hurts me when you disobey important rules that almost get you badly hurt. And it also hurts when you steal my things."
"But I didn't steal it, Daddy! I promised I wouldn't steal again!"
Neal grabbed a hold of Allie’s hands to help her calm down a little and pay attention to his words.  "When you take something that isn't yours, without permission, even if Natalie gives it to you," he added, eyeing the oldest, "it counts as stealing. I specifically told you not to touch it because it was for adults only. Natalie shouldn't have given it to you but when she did, what should you have done?" He picked Allie up and sat her on his lap, eyes focused on hers to keep her attention.
"I shoulda not touched it?  Or I shoulda made her put it back?"
"Exactly."
Allie nodded.  “I can do that, I'll remember for next time."
He gave her a moment to let it sink in, then helped her over his lap, resting a hand on her pajama-clad bottom. "Why are you getting this spanking, Alliecat?" he asked, landing the first flurry of mild swats.
Allie yelped with each one like she always did. "I drank your adult juice! I'm sorry!" She squirmed some and kicked a little, hands threatening to reach back.
Neal’s hand clapped against her bottom again and again, then moved to her sit spots for a minute before pausing briefly to say, "You have plenty of time to do adult things when you're grown-up.  For now, it is your responsibility to listen to Peter, Elizabeth and me, okay?"
"Okay!" Allie cried, taking his stopping as an excuse to try and squirm off his lap.  Before she had the chance, Neal had an arm around her waist and her colorful My Little Pony pajamas at her knees, then planted harder swats in the middle of her bottom.
“And no more taking things that aren’t yours,” he reminded her as her bottom turned a darker shade of pink and her kicks increased, causing her pjs to fall to her ankles.

“Owwww please... Daddy!” she cried.  
Natalie looked on, squirming herself as she didn't like seeing her sister in so much pain, but also because she knew she was next, and it wasn’t going to be fun.
"No more! No more!"  Allie was squealing when she threw her hand back to try and prevent the spanking from continuing.
Neal caught her wrist and said, "We're not finished yet."  He tugged her panties down while holding her tight, then threw a leg over her kicks and began spanking her sit spots firmly.  Her bottom bounced with each blow, and he could feel the warmth radiating from her backside when he stopped suddenly.  "Natalie, bring me the wooden ruler from my desk," he ordered.  
The preteen just stared at him, frozen in place.
"The ruler, Natalie," Neal prompted with a sterner voice.
"Nooooooo!" Allie wailed, trying to kick her legs and squirm away. "Daddy I'll be good! I'll be good!"
He gave a quick pop to Allie's reddened bottom and said, "Enough with the squirming."  He looked back up to Natalie who shuffled over to his desk with dread.

"You don't really hafta use this," Natalie whined.  If he used this ruler on her sister, he'd probably also use it on her, which she really didn't want to happen.
"Yes I do," Neal replied evenly. "You both could have been seriously hurt last night and I’ve had enough of you endangering yourselves."
As Natalie handed their dad the ruler, Allie bawled loudly, still trying to squirm free. "No! No! Noooo!"
Neal knew that the way to get through to the little girl wasn't by using more force, but rather comforting her, so he let go of her hands and rubbed her back.  "We're almost finished Allie.  Take a deep breath and calm down and it'll be over before you know it."
Allie did as told, relaxing a little when she realized he was giving her time to calm down. Her shaky breaths became more steady with each deep breath, and her panic subsided.  Within seconds, her tense body finally allowed itself to lay limply over his lap.  Though she still cried, she felt a little better and not as scared.  He was her daddy… he wouldn’t really hurt her.  

When Neal noticed that his little monkey was calm enough for him to proceed, he reached for her hand again and lifted the ruler, popping it lightly on Allie’s backside. He didn't spank hard, but gave stingy, quick blows, peppering her entire bottom.  "Are you learning your lesson?" he wanted to know.
"Yesssssss!" Allie shrieked, squirming and kicking as best as she could, despite being locked into position.
He held onto her tightly, her cries tugging on his heart strings.  "Don't EVER do something like this again," he scolded.
"I'll be good!" Allie wailed. "I'll be good! Dad-dyyyy!"
He finally ended with a few solid swats to her sit spots, then placed the ruler on the table.  "It's okay, Alliecat, it's all over now."  She lay there crying, little body shaking with each heart wrenching sob.
Neal eased her pajamas back up, then picked the little monkey up and wrapped his arms around her.  "I'm sorryyyyyy!" she wailed as she buried herself into him.
He kissed the top of her head and rocked her gently, smoothing her hair before reminding her, "I love you Alliecat and I just want you to be safe."

"Love you, too, Daddy," Allie murmured.

Natalie looked on, wondering why she hadn't escaped while she'd had the chance. She really didn't want to be punished like her sister just had, even though she could kind of understand why their dad was upset.  But that didn’t ease her nerves any!  And when Allie’s tears finally subsided and Neal planted a wet kiss her forehead, Natalie’s stomach tightened in anxiety.  It was almost her turn.
He lifted Allie and said, "Okay little monkey, go get dressed and after I finish with Natty we'll go to the park."
"And we'll still get the other surprise?" Allie asked before jumping up from his lap.

Neal chuckled softly. "Yes there's still a surprise coming."
The little girl hopped in excitement and scurried away, giving the oldest daughter and her dad some privacy, which Natalie wasn’t too thrilled about.  She was squirming in her seat as she eyed the ruler. Being older than her sister, a harsher punishment was probably in store and she was not looking forward to it one bit, especially since Allie's had been pretty hard. Lately Natalie had gotten off fairly lightly with Peter, but she felt like Neal wouldn’t be so easy to fool ‘cause he didn't like her as much (which Natty still believed regardless of the moment they'd shared the night before).

“C’mon, Natty, let’s get this over with.”

She looked up at him, begging tears not to fall.  Be brave, be brave, be brave, she pep talked herself and reluctantly eased towards her father.
"I won't have you running off, especially so late at night," Neal told her. "I don't want to lose you again Natalie. Once was bad enough."
"But last time it was you who ran off..." She chewed on her fingernail, hoping he wouldn't punish her more harshly for speaking her mind.
"And I learned my lesson the hard way," Neal replied. "Believe me it wasn't fun. I'm not running off anywhere without you again unless I have no choice or it's to keep you safe."
"Promise?" she asked, even though she wasn't totally sure she'd believe him anyway.
"I promise," Neal said firmly. "I'm not losing you again if I can help it "
Natalie smiled. "I'm sorry for leaving, and for getting the wine for Allie... I was just mad."
"I understand you were mad, but you can't do stuff like that," Neal told her. "It's dangerous and both of you could have ended up seriously hurt or in the hospital."
"I think I'll be fine just going to Peter's house. I'm not a baby like Allie." She glanced in the direction of the guest room where her sister was changing clothes, wondering if she was going to come in during the spanking. That would be awkward.
"I get that you're older but it's still not safe for you to be out alone at night," Neal stated. "Believe me, I’ve seen the shit that could happen, the creeps who could take advantage of you."
"Yeah, and I could kick their asses," Natalie said, smirking.  Seeing the look on Neal's face made her straighten up again, though.  "Sorry, I mean, okay, I'll do better."
"You better," Neal told her. "Or you'll keep ending up over someone's lap for spankings.”
Natty subconsciously covered her bottom, but didn't struggle as her dad pulled her forward, finally easing the bigger girl over his lap, and pulling down her pjs and panties. "What did you do wrong, Natalie?"
"Give Allie the wine and leave by myself.." she whimpered, trying to brace herself for the punishment.
When the first sharp smacks descended upon her bare bum, Natalie kicked a little, surprised that it was harder than she'd expected.  Apparently Peter had gone really easy on her the last couple of times she'd been spanked, or Neal was spanking harder than normal.
“How could you think it’d be a good idea to give alcohol to a six year old?” Neal asked as he landed hard smacks to the center of her bottom, working his way down to her sit spots and upper thighs.
"Owwwww... I dunno… I’m sorry!”  Her legs kicked with each thwack!, and she struggled to maintain her composure.  “Nealllll! not so harddd," she begged.  Natalie knew she was taking this spanking as bad if not worse than her little sister -- he had to be spanking her harder though!
"It's as hard as it needs to be," Neal replied.  He kept up the assault to her backside, turning her thighs a bright pink and not missing an inch of her bottom.

Natalie squirmed, not quite as much as her little sister, and covered her mouth with her hands so that she wouldn’t cry out too loud.  Her bottom was on fire, and he hadn't even picked up the ruler yet!
When he was satisfied with her bottom’s shade of red, Neal paused the spanking.  "I also don't want you taking off like that ever again, Natalie. If you do, I can promise the next spanking will be much worse."  He picked the ruler up and rested it against her backside for a moment, then brought it down to the center of her bottom with a loud CRACK!
This time she couldn't help it and she squealed, reaching her hand back.  "Please no!" she begged.
Neal took hold of her hand and moved it out of the way. "I will not have either of my girls doing something so dangerous," he stated as he landed the ruler to her sit spots.
"Owww!" she howled, trying to break her hand free from her father's grip, knowing it was useless.
Neal landed the third one to her upper thighs, then resumed spanking her whole bottom with the ruler.  By this point, Natalie had given up on fighting and was sobbing hard, muttering apologies and promises to behave.  Tears streamed down her cheeks, hair matted to her face.  Her dad landed two last extra hard smacks - one to her sit spots and one to her upper thighs, then tossed the ruler aside and released her hand.
The preteen just lay there limply sobbing, and it wasn't just because the spanking hurt. All the emotions she'd been trying to hide were finally surfacing.  Sure, she'd gotten a good cry the night before, but it hadn't left her feeling so vulnerable and raw.  
She didn't wait for him to help her up, and did like Allie (again!).  Natalie was much bigger than her baby sister, so her knees jabbed into Neal's thigh and kind of hurt a little (small price to pay), but then she threw her arms around his neck, still sobbing and apologizing and kind of happy to have her dad back, even if deep down she didn't trust he'd actually stay true to his word.  Neal hugged her tightly, assuring her she was forgiven and that all was well again. He kissed the side of her head, so glad to have both his girls back.
When their father/daughter moment was over, Natalie scurried to the guest room, still rubbing her bum.  Allie was laying on the bed coloring and looked up at her sister, happy that Daddy would finally be fun again and not mean!
"Let's not get Dad angry anymore this weekend," Natalie told her sister as she got dressed. "I prefer whatever he has planned over anymore spankings."
"I'm gonna be super good," Allie replied. "I don't like when Daddy makes my bum hurt."
"Me either!"  
When they were both dressed and ready they went back to the living room where Neal stood, hiding something behind him.
"What's that?" Natalie asked curiously.
"Is it our surprise?" Allie asked, trying to peek behind him to see what he was hiding.
Neal smiled and moved out of the way, revealing a wire cage with a white creature.  The girls inched closer and Allie squealed with delight.  "A bunny!!!!"
He stopped the little girl before she reached inside.  "Let me take him out for you,” he said and grabbed the fluffy fellow for her.  "Be gentle," he reminded, cradling the bunny in front of his girls.
The two girls brushed their new pet’s fur, eyes and mouth wide with excitement. "What should we name him?" Natalie asked, though a little disappointed with the surprise since it was clearly more for Allie.
“How about... Trixie!” Allie squealed, giggling.  “I can’t wait to take him for show n tell! An’ do magic… an’ teach him tricks!”

After a moment, Neal asked the little girl, “Do you want to hold him?”

“OF COURSE!” she shouted, holding out her arms.  Neal gently eased the pet down and Allie held Trixie close, almost squeezing the mess out of her.

He left her there for just a second as he reached inside the closet for the next surprise that Natalie totally wouldn’t be expecting -- the exact skateboard she’d begged Peter to get her.  Before revealing her over $100 gift, he looked back at his oldest daughter, watching as she faked surprise over the rabbit.  It was sweet that she tried, even if she was failing miserably.

“Natty,” he said, prying her attention away from the new pet.

She glanced at her father, face brightening in real excitement when she saw the Deathwish Lizard King Death Toons skateboard, with its Oscar the Grouch artwork design, custom wheels and sparkly grip tape.  “You got this for me?” she asked, rushing towards him.

“You’ve been doing a great job at school, and I want you to keep up the good work.”

The preteen took her new skateboard in hand and tackled Neal in a hug.  “Thanks…” she said.  “For real.  This means a lot... Dad.”  She blushed as the word fell from her mouth, but for once it felt appropriate.

“C’mon, let’s go test it out at the park.”  He ruffled her hair and gathered Allie, and they left together, one big happy family.

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