Four Times Elizabeth Steps Up for Henry McCord.
"I'm sorry about Maureen," he murmurs. He writes the apology on every inch of his face, and carries it in his hands when he cups her face. And if Elizabeth Adams needed a reminder of how good he is, how kind, well - this is it.
She holds onto his wrists, anchoring herself to him. "No," she says, "nothing to be sorry for." She says it because it will make him feel better. Maureen had been perfectly awful - and so had his father, for that matter - and they both know it. But Elizabeth has dealt with worse, and she can brush it off. She's tougher than Henry thinks she is.
"We can leave whenever you want." He's giving her an out, but it's not the one she wants to take.
She thinks she loves him, but she just doesn't know…
She doesn't know where she stands.
What she's come to realize, very simply, is that they come from different worlds. Surrounded by his family, by the ones who have loved him the most and longest, Elizabeth can see now that Henry McCord has never wanted for affection in his life. He doesn't know loss the way she does. It's why he gives his love so easily, and why he thinks he can take hers without question. It doesn't even occur to him that perhaps Elizabeth's love is not free to take.
He's built a home in his family, and if she were a meaner girl, she might resent him for it - she's had to build her home in places. She's thought - recently, daringly - that maybe one day, she could build a home in him. But if his family won't accept her, what is there left to discuss? Family is everything. If they don't like her, don't want her, then she cannot build a home here.
She'd lost her own family in one fell swoop. After everything that that's put her through, she could never ask Henry to choose her over his family.
But she'd be lying if she said she didn't want this. She wants to be part of them so bad. She wants to belong to people again.
Elizabeth clasps Henry's hand in her own. "I don't want to leave," she assures him finally, resolutely. "Your family is lovely." And despite everything, she means it. The McCords are loud, and raucous, and aggressive. They are everything she longs for, even when a third of them have made it clear that she is unwelcome to share it.
"Are you sure?"
She can dial back the rich girl act. She can be less of what they loathe. She hadn't realized… not until Maureen had pointed it out. And she doesn't have to mention Houghton, or Buttercup, or anything else that will incite further judgement from Patrick McCord.
Elizabeth nods, and musters her brightest smile. She tugs on his hand. "Come on," she says. "I'm sure your mom could use some help cleaning up."
Henry won't have to choose. She'll win over the McCords if it's the last thing she does.
He'd had to leave before they really got a chance to enjoy their newlywed status, and returns to a family.
For Elizabeth, it's been the scariest thing, caring for an infant alone. She wants her mother to be here to give her advice. She wants her father to rock his granddaughter to sleep. She wants Will to wrap himself around his niece's tiny, perfect fingers.
But Will is in Syria and her parents are dead. And it's hard to do this alone.
Henry's mother had stayed with her for the first couple months to help, and it had been life-saving. The woman was an absolute saint, but it didn't do much to dull the ache in Elizabeth's chest. She wants her mom to be here too, to share in this. And most of all she wants Henry to be here. He's missing so much.
But he's here now, and whole, thank God, and she supposes she can't ask for much more than that. And he stares at his tiny daughter like she's the most precious, most fragile thing on earth and Elizabeth's heart swells with so much love for them both that she could actually burst. He's going to be the most perfect father, she can already feel it.
But he keeps pulling back, and she's sensed it from the minute he stepped foot off the aircraft. He's scared.
They make love while Stevie naps. And in between he watches Elizabeth as she feeds and burps their daughter; changes her diapers, her clothes; rocks her to sleep. She's got it down to a science (mostly), and he wants to watch and learn before he jumps in and screws it all up. At least, that's what he tells her.
And now it's late at night and they're in bed, side by side in the dark, and he's cradling Stevie delicately in his arms, frozen stiff as if he's afraid to move the wrong way. Elizabeth lies on her side, watching the two loves of her life. She's struggling to keep her eyes open, but she doesn't want to miss this moment.
"She's perfect," Henry breathes wondrously, not for the first time today.
"She's ours," Elizabeth replies. She can hardly believe it, either. She drops a tender kiss on the crown of Stevie's head, and one on Henry's elbow. And despite her best efforts, she dozes off nestled against his thigh.
She wakes up when Stevie cries in the middle of the night, and Henry is still in the same position; it doesn't look like he's put her down at all. Elizabeth takes their daughter, feeds and burps her, and then urges Henry to lay her down and get some rest.
"No, I… I want to hold her a little while longer," he murmurs, and she relents, falling back to sleep next to them.
Stevie wakes again in the morning - and Elizabeth with her - and Henry is still in the same position.
"Babe, did you sleep at all?" she asks. "You must be exhausted."
"No," he says, and his voice sounds hoarse. He bounces Stevie gently as Elizabeth adjusts herself for another feeding.
"Is something wrong?"
Henry hands over their daughter. He's quiet for a moment, watching as Stevie latches on, and mutters, "I shouldn't have gone away. I've already missed so much of her. Of you." His heart is breaking in his voice, and Elizabeth will do anything to make it better.
"We have a lifetime," she says, which is true. She doesn't think that that's everything that's bothering him, though.
"And what if I mess this up? She deserves better." He's panicking a little; must have been hurtling down this rabbit hole all night.
"She deserves you. You're going to be wonderful, Henry, I already know it."
When Stevie finishes, Elizabeth drapes a rag over Henry's shoulder and gives him their daughter. He hesitates, but holds Stevie against him gently and burps her. And as he's adjusting her in his arms again, Stevie looks up at him with big, clear eyes. He stares right back, hopelessly captivated.
"We're in this together, babe; you, me, and Stevie" Elizabeth assures him. They'll mess up for sure, but she has a clear picture of the future and it's all going to be okay because all three of them are in it. "Good and bad, I'm all in." She grabs Stevie's little foot and wiggles it. "We're all in." As if in agreement, Stevie reaches out and grabs for her father's face.
Baghdad Station Chief. It's a huge promotion, an even bigger honor. She'd been so excited to tell Henry, had been looking forward to it all day but his reaction isn't quite what she'd been hoping for.
"Station Chief? Babe, that's an enormous job," he says, but not like he's excited. Not like he's proud. She knows he's already running through the logistics of it in his head; how it will affect the household, the kids, him. She's already thought of all that, but they both have a responsibility to make the world a safer place for their children, too, and a responsibility to their country. And right now, she has an opportunity to be even more valuable to this country than she could have ever dreamed - how can she turn away from that? How can she say no?
Henry has already had his chance to serve; now it's her turn. How can he deny her this?
"It's not like I'm going into the field -" she tries, but he cuts her off.
"I will go to great lengths to explain that to Stevie and Alison; Jason won't even remember you if you go -" He's using their kids as his offensive, tossing them into the middle of their argument like little grenades; like if he hurts her enough with them he'll get his way.
"You need to stop!" she snaps, and he walks away in a huff.
She knows they're not supposed to, but they go to bed angry.
They barely speak to each other all morning, but Henry finally braves her in the kitchen and says everything he wants to say to her like it's the final word. When she tells him that her alternative is to quit - and she doesn't want to; she loves that job and he knows it - he merely sighs, and it makes her chest tighten. He doesn't care.
"It's a year," she pleads softly, "I'll be back."
They fell into a starry-eyed kind of love in college; storybook. Henry used to look at her like she hung entire constellations in the sky just for him. They're older now, and their marriage is built on stronger stuff than stars, but he still looks at her that way, after all these years.
And right now he's looking at her like he thinks she's going to rip them all down from his sky.
"If you go to Baghdad, I don't know what it's going to look like when you come back," he murmurs. He leaves, and leaves her breathless.
She stands frozen in place for a long time, hardly daring to believe what's just been said. He's going to make her choose. She's poured twenty years of her life into her career, has loved it loyally, and he's going to make her quit.
She's mulling this over, leaned back against the sink defeatedly, when a musical little call disrupts her out of her reverie.
Alison comes running into the kitchen, stomping muddy little boots over the floor, hiding her hands behind her back conspicuously.
"Noodle, what did we say about wearing those shoes in the house?!" But before she can chastise her youngest daughter any further, Alison thrusts her hand out, a bundle of dandelions clutched in her tiny fist.
She kneels down. "Are those for me, baby?" She pulls Ali close and kisses her on the forehead.
"Uh-huh." How can she stay mad at this little one? Ali snuggles closer into her embrace. Her clothes are slightly damp from the outside, and she smells peaty, but Elizabeth doesn't care. Alison is the most affectionate of their children, and Elizabeth hopes she'll never outgrow this cuddly phase.
But she could, in a year. Less, even. It all hits Elizabeth at once. Can she really justify missing all of her family to do a job overseas that may not (and if she's being honest, probably would not) even change the course of this war?
Henry appears in the doorway again, and over the top of Ali's head she meets his eyes. He looks sorry, and so is she. Of course she's going to choose her family. She has to.
She learned that lesson a long time ago.
Dmitri does not fly back with them from Vartius. There are other steps before he may step foot on American soil once again.
Secretly, shamefully, Elizabeth is glad not to have to share a plane with this boy for whose suffering she is gravely responsible. She'd negotiated away his freedom like a chess piece, and she will feel that weight around her neck for the rest of her life. She's done what she can to atone. It's not enough - it could never be enough - but it's all she has to offer. She hopes it will be enough for Henry.
Uncharitably, she can't help but think of all the things that this boy, whom she doesn't even know, has taken from her. He's turned her whole marriage upside down. Her husband looks through her, these days, more often than he looks at her. Her husband barely speaks to her.
And even now.
Henry doesn't speak the whole flight home. They sit next to each other, but they could just as easily be on opposite ends of the plane for all the distance that still remains between them. Her hands shake in her lap, a combination of exhaustion and stress and uncertainty and low blood sugar, and he must notice, but he doesn't say anything and he doesn't touch her.
She's done what she can, but she still feels dirty, guilty, in her skin.
And he still won't look at her.
Then they're home and getting ready to turn in for the night and it's still so damn quiet and she's had enough.
"So you're still not talking to me?" she rasps, splitting the silence.
He sighs. "I don't know what you're talking about."
He stops what he's doing, but his back is turned to her and she can't see his face, can't see where they stand. "I need some time, okay?" he says softly, and she suddenly finds it hard to breathe.
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means that I need some time."
"Time away from… you mean leaving…?"
"Of course not." His voice is harsh; he sounds almost offended, and it eases the tightness in her chest a little. Only a little.
She blows out a trembling breath. "Henry… I have done everything I can think of… everything in my power… to make things right between us. There is nothing else for me to give you. So please…" Her eyes burn with the desperation of her plea and her gathering tears. If he turns her away now, she doesn't know what she'll do.
And they're worlds away from the young man and woman (just kids, really) they were when they'd promised each other a lifetime, but she still knows him, she must, because he comes around and wraps her in his embrace, holding on tight. He isn't going to leave her hanging after everything.
"I love you, Elizabeth," he murmurs into her hair, and she could almost collapse in relief. "And I'll never forget what you did. I just need time to work through it."
She'll give him that. She'll give him everything.
She holds on tight. "Okay," she whispers. "Okay."
Thanks for reading!