A/N: More from the Afterward universe. Each section is in a different person's POV.
LJ's wedding day
Chaos was the only way in which to describe the situation at hand: eleven-year-old Mike ran up and down the stairs of the house in his best suit and tie, scouring every nook and cranny for the one shoe that eluded him. Ten-month-old Faith was also dressed, but actively trying to rid herself of the sweet yellow and white sundress she'd been put in. And three-year-old Henry remained…well, missing was the only word for it.
"Mom! I can't find it! I bet Henry took it!" Mike wailed.
"Did you look upstairs?"
"Why would it be upstairs?"
"No, not you, Mike. Michael! Did you check for Henry upstairs?" Sara shouted from the bathroom. After having gathered every piece of Mike's wardrobe (minus the missing shoe) and wrestling Faith into her first formal wear, Sara was naturally the last to get ready. She yanked a brush through her hair while listening intently for Michael to answer her. Nothing.
Dammit. Abandoning her attempt to tame her hair, she ran back downstairs in her bathrobe and tore through the entry closet for Mike's shoe. "Here. No one took it, Mike." She thrust it at him and raced back upstairs, past their bedrooms to the playroom to turn it upside-down next, looking for Henry. She called for him as she searched before running directly into Michael on the landing.
"I already looked up there."
"We're going to be so late."
He glanced at his watch. "If traffic cooperates…"
"It won't, though. HEN-RY!"
"Yeah, Mama?" He popped out from the fort under the staircase.
"Ughhh! Why didn't you answer us? You know what, don't answer that, I don't care." She gave him a once-over: he was dressed in his suit and coat, at least—he must have followed Mike's lead—shoes on his feet. His hair, well, it could use a brush. "Come with me."
"Mama, do I have to be in this wedding still?"
"Yes, you do. Your cousin LJ is counting on your help, okay?" She pulled him into her bathroom to run the brush her own hair desperately needed through his wavy locks. "And you need to look nice doing it. There."
Henry looked perfect, but frowned at his reflection in the mirror anyway. "I'm not in the right outfit."
"Sure you are. You look handsome." So handsome. A miniature Michael.
"I think, Mama, I need to be in a bear costume so people know who I am."
"A…what?" she said, as she turned him back in the direction of the stairs. "Michael?" she called. "Load them in the car?"
"'Cause I'm the ring bear, Mama."
She burst out laughing. She tried so hard not to, but oh my God… "Ring bear-er, Henry," she corrected. "You bear—bring—the ring to LJ. You don't have to be a bear."
"Oh." He seemed deeply disappointed. Good thing they cleared this up now, she supposed, before he began growling and clawing his way down the aisle. She was still laughing when she met Michael in the foyer. He had Faith on his hip and Mike gripped the car keys. She pushed Henry in their direction while he said, "What's funny?"
"Nothing," she smiled. "Get the car started, I just need five minutes."
He glanced anxiously at his watch again.
"Three minutes, tops!" She waved a hand down at her bathrobe. "I assume you'd like me dressed? Don't answer that," she added for the second time in as many minutes.
She ran back up the stairs, tugged on the dress she'd laid out for herself on the bed, yanked on her own shoes, and decided that if she pulled some of her hair up in a barrette, she could skip the whole chignon thing she'd had in mind. She flew back down the stairs and collapsed into the car. Michael pulled out of the driveway practically before she'd closed her door.
She caught her breath while Michael quizzed the boys: "What do you do first? Where do you stand? Remember when you present the rings?"
"Yes, Dad," Mike answered dutifully.
"I wanna be a bear, Dada," Henry pouted.
"What? No, Henry!" Mike said in alarm.
"A bear?" Michael asked.
"Yes, Mike, pease be a bear wif me?"
Sara ignored it all, still catching her breath, glancing in the rear-view mirror to make sure Faith wasn't still trying to work the buttons open on her dress. Once on the freeway, Michael set a hand on her knee. "By the way," he told her, glancing at her sideways, "you look beautiful."
She could still feel the sweat on the back of her neck from rushing up and down the stairs in a frenzy. She did like her dress, but it was sticking to the backs of her legs at the moment. She just smiled at him weakly.
"Boys," Michael called toward the back seat, since their bickering had escalated. "Doesn't your mother look nice?"
"You look really nice, Mom," Mike agreed.
"Yeah you do, but Mama, if I just had a kind of, you know, bear-like nose—"
At the trendy downtown hotel LJ's fiancé Marisa had chosen for their spring wedding, Michael threw the car into park at the valet stand and started unbuckling Henry and Faith as Sara tossed the attendant the keys. Lincoln came running down the drive just as Mike closed his door. "You guys are late!" The look of disbelief on his face suggested this simply didn't compute. "You can't be late!"
"We know, we're sorry!" Sara threw over her shoulder at him, taking Henry's hand and trotting with him up the walk. Mike followed, Michael cradling a squirmy Faith to his chest. "Get the bag," she called back to him, and he doubled back for the diaper bag before the car could disappear into the garage.
In the lobby, she looked around a bit wildly before someone from the wedding party—Marisa's sister, she wanted to say?—found them and said happily, "They're here!" to a trio of bridesmaids before ushering Sara, Mike and Henry into an adjacent green room of sorts. She made sure to greet Marisa and tell her how lovely she looked while Mike fretted at her: when would it start? How would he know when it was his and Henry's turn to walk down the aisle? Would she please tell Henry to stop asking about bears?
"But where's the baby?" the bridesmaid, Jennifer, who'd been bestowed the honor of holding Faith as she fulfilled her flower girl duties, asked. All the young women had wanted the job, and Jennifer looked downright put out that maybe Faith wasn't in attendance.
Sara looked around for Michael. "She's here," she assured. "She's coming." And hopefully still wearing the dress they'd wrestled her into.
He arrived just a moment later, Faith looking fussier than Sara would like, considering she was about to be thrust into a stranger's arms and expected to look adorable for a crowd of wedding attendees. She probably hadn't appreciated being yanked from the car and rushed into this strange building filled with people she didn't recognize.
Jennifer, all of twenty-two with zero baby know-how, beamed at her and tried to pull her from Michael into her arms. Predictably, Faith wailed, wrapping herself more tightly around Michael, clinging to his neck like a monkey.
"Shh, shh sweetheart," he told her. "It's alright." He attempted to pry her loose as the wedding coordinator organized the wedding party into formation. Mike cast one last anxious glance Sara's direction as he was paired with his brother and placed at the front.
"You'll do great, baby," she told him.
Henry grasped his hand happily and Mike issued a world-weary sigh.
Sara smiled, but not for long…Jennifer still tried to coax Faith away from Michael and Faith still wasn't having it. "Da, Da, Da!" she cried, her face rapidly reddening, tears marring her perfect, plump cheeks. So much for adorable.
Michael tried dutifully to extract her one last time, whispering to her in the soft tone he seemed unable to help reserving only for their daughter, then told Jennifer, "I'm sorry, it's not happening."
She looked at him like this was an unacceptable answer, but Sara knew who would win this battle of wills. In fact, with Michael and Faith on the same side, it was no contest. No way in the world would Michael force his baby girl away from him if she needed him. He announced Faith's sudden unavailability to the wedding coordinator, who clearly sided with Jennifer.
"But we must have a flower girl!"
They must? And did they really think ten-month-old Faith was going to do anything other than look cute? "She really won't be missed," Sara said firmly.
"But yes she will!" Marisa chimed in. Sara had hoped not to even bother the bride with this nonsense right before she walked down the aisle, but she looked as disappointed as Jennifer. "If she won't go to Jen, you can just hold her, alright?" she told Michael, who just stared at her.
"Go down the…aisle…with her?" he asked, startled.
Sara grinned. "Congratulations," she told him. "You've just been promoted to flower girl."
To say he looked dismayed would be an understatement. "Sara, how about you? Here, take her," he tried, but oh no. The fact that Faith was already a diehard daddy's girl worked in her favor today. Their daughter clinched her arms around him even tighter.
"Have fun. Remember to smile," Sara told him, patting his cheek. She wished her boys luck, and went in search of her seat in the adjacent flower garden where the ceremony would take place. They sat her right next to Linc in the front row, and when she finally settled in her white folding chair, she was apparently still grinning.
"What? Everything okay?" he hissed. "Where's Michael?"
She turned to regard him. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen Lincoln looking frazzled. "It's going to go great," she told him, squeezing his arm. "Try to enjoy it." She smiled at LJ, standing at the altar in his tux, hands clasped behind his back, and he grinned back at her. She gave him a discreet thumbs up.
The organ music began, and all heads turned up the aisle to watch Mike and Henry make their way down with the rings. Sara supposed she was hopelessly biased, but they looked so handsome and charming, she felt tears threaten, watching them. The crowd seemed to agree with her general sentiment; a murmur of appreciative awws went up around her. The best man and maid of honor followed the boys, then the bridesmaids (Jennifer still looked disappointed), and then, just before the bride, Michael, cradling Faith on his hip, who, now that she felt secure in his arms, had loosened her death grip to offer wide, happy smiles in every direction. She'd been given a little basket of rose petals to hold, which she gamely dumped in one fail swoop.
What Sara had thought would be entertaining was instead heart-stoppingly sweet. The tears she'd kept at bay upon seeing her sons walk down the aisle in their suits spilled at the sight of her husband holding their daughter, Faith's white-and-yellow sundress standing out brightly against his blue dress shirt. The wedding-goers who'd appreciated Mike and Henry lost their minds now, everyone cooing and smiling at this duo. Faith seemed to decide her petal basket duties entirely too exhausting halfway down the aisle. She rested her cheek against her father's chest with a little sigh, ducking her face into the crook of his arm, and Sara thought her heart may actually break with love and gratitude and contentment.
"Hey, I thought we were supposed to enjoy this," Lincoln whispered to her, elbowing her lightly, but when she glanced at him, he looked misty-eyed, too. "But dammit, that's pretty adorable," he muttered.
When he reached the altar with the bridesmaids, Michael set a hand on LJ's shoulder and squeezed it lightly with a quick smile of encouragement, then extracted himself and Faith to sink into the seat next to Sara. Happy now, Faith lifted her head to offer her mother a beaming smile, too. Sara kissed her cheek, breathing in the smell of her baby shampoo and Michael's cologne.
In the receiving line, LJ's new wife smiled at Faith and chucked her under the chin. "Did no one tell you that you're not supposed to outshine the bride?" she told her.
Sara laughed. "I'm sorry about all that, Marisa, truly." But she needn't have worried. Marisa had eyes only for LJ, anyway. "No, no, it was perfect," she answered while looking at her new husband. "Everything was just right."
During the reception near the garden, Mike sat at their assigned table, visibly relieved his ring bearing duties were behind him, while his brother went MIA again. Sara spied him at the other end of the patio, systematically snatching the delicate, prettily-wrapped chocolate truffles off each table.
"Uncle Linc said day were for everyone!" he insisted, when Michael caught red-handed. "Aren't I an everyone, Dada?"
"You're a thief," Mike contributed, though Sara noticed he accepted the chocolate Henry pressed into his waiting palm. "I'm an everyone, too," he smiled, popping it into his mouth. Somehow, Mike got away with this, while the rest of the truffles were pried out of Henry's grubby hands by Michael. Sara marveled at this. Not many years ago, not many at all, Mike would never have dared to even playfully cross his father, still feeling his way along as he navigated a new relationship with him. How she loved knowing he felt secure enough to relish the chocolate melting now in his mouth.
Small things like these, no one else noticed, Sara felt sure. Her family looked just like everyone else's at this wedding, though admittedly, she liked to think, her children were more adorable than most. But this beautiful boy in his suit? He'd been born to a mother in mourning, in a foreign country of sea and sand. And his brother, with the chocolate ringing his mouth? He'd been a second chance personified, who had nearly cost Sara everything. And the baby, so cheerily gumming her father's best suit coat as a third tooth came in? Probably should never have existed, had reason trumped fate and love and hope.
"What's wrong?" Michael asked, and she looked up to see him watching her carefully over the top of Faith's downy head.
"Nothing," she smiled. "Absolutely nothing."
Michael and Sara's wedding day
It was a Friday night during his senior year of high school, and what was Mike doing? Sitting on his living room couch with his family, watching his parents get married. Oh, he didn't mind: it was almost eleven-year-old Henry who was fidgeting, impatient to get this trip down memory lane over with so he could go back to his FIFA game. The video played out in grainy charm before them on their flatscreen TV, Dad— God, he looked young—in a tan suit standing by the ocean, Mom still off-screen.
Dad's business partner Fernando had tracked down the disk (that's what Dad called it, a disk…he'd had to special order a DVD player to watch it) in time for their anniversary this year. "The guy I had hired to film it, I finally found him," he'd told Mom, who'd—honest to God—started sobbing when he told her. She'd just leaned on Fernando's arm and cried. Mike had never seen her lose it like that, not in a long time, anyway.
She watched with them now, her hand on her chin, leaning forward to see the screen, eight-year-old Faith hanging on her. When her about-to-get-married self appeared on screen, Mike smiled. She looked as young as Dad, in her elegant dress, her hair loose. Mike watched on-screen Mom tuck a strand of it behind her ear, just as she did all the time still. It struck him as somewhat amazing.
But Faith said, "Wait, how come you're not in a wedding dress, like a normal bride?" She sounded disappointed.
Mom chuckled. "Dad and I didn't exactly subscribe to 'normal'," she said. Next to her, Dad's eyes crinkled at the corners the way they did when he smiled, and he reached out and took Mom's hand without looking away from the screen. He did that on the video, too, holding both of hers in his.
"Who's that guy?" Faith wanted to know, pointing at the minister.
Mom kind of shrugged. "Just someone we found," she said. "A justice of the peace, I guess."
"You don't know?" Faith looked increasingly disappointed by this wedding by the second.
"We didn't care," Dad said, still smiling.
"Oh." She went mercifully quiet for a moment, then added, "Where are all the people? The audience?"
"Uh, we had a few friends there," Dad told her. "Fernando. Uncle Linc. LJ. A couple others."
"Faith, be quiet," Mike said, because honestly! She was old enough to understand Mom and Dad wanted to watch this without her commentary. Of course, he supposed they got what they deserved, inviting her into the living room with them. "You look really pretty, Mom," he said, to steer the conversation back to what mattered.
"Thank you, baby," she told him. Leaning into him so his siblings couldn't hear, she added, "You were there too, you know."
He did know, he guessed. He could do the math. But… "Mom," he replied, with a sigh. "I don't need to think about that."
"It's not why we got married," she told him swiftly. "We were going to get married anyway."
"Hmm?" Dad said, on the other side of him.
"Nothing," Mom and Mike both replied simultaneously. Sometimes it was like that, still just Mom and Mike in sync.
The wedding ceremony finished—it was pretty short, really; Faith let out another labored sigh—and then the video cut to a party on a pier or something. Dad had a beer in-hand, Mom said something in his ear, and he smiled, and then she was dancing, and… "That's it," Dad said, standing in front of the TV to extract the CD from the machine.
"Are you sure?" Mike asked, because it seemed like the reception part had just started.
"I'm sure," Dad said definitively, before sending a weighted look toward Mom. It was his, 'tell-me-you're-okay-and-that-you-forgive-me' look, which Mom returned with, 'I'm-okay-are-you-okay?', a sort of shorthand which Mike sometimes got caught in the crosshairs of. Their silent communication glided gracefully over his brother and sister's heads like it always did, and lucky them, right? But Mike felt it squarely in his chest. He knew it wasn't meant for him, that Dad didn't intend for him to suffer under the weight of it, but Mike did, just the same. He always had, ever since Dad returned to them almost 12 years ago. He supposed it just couldn't be helped.
"Can I play my game now?" Henry asked, once the TV screen had turned to snow.
Mom yanked herself out of whatever line of thought had gripped her and Dad. "Um, sure baby." She glanced at her watch. "But only 20 minutes." She smiled at Mike, and added, "Thank you for watching with us," like she really meant it.
Mike felt something painful prod him in the chest again. It sort of pinned him there, on the couch, like a hapless insect. "Of course, Mom," he told her. He wondered, just briefly, if her thoughts were on her other wedding, the one Mike could remember, if just barely: Mom in yet another non-wedding dress, Jacob in suit and tie, no tux. Another small, quiet affair. Mike had been, what? Four? Far younger than Faith. He glanced at his sister, now practicing cartwheels across the living room floor. Without a doubt, Faith would have disapproved of that wedding, too. Mike didn't mention it, because Mom didn't, and on all things Jacob, even now, with him gone from this world, Mike (and Dad) let Mom take the lead. So he just grabbed the second game console controller so he could kick Henry's little butt in FIFA and said, "I loved seeing how it all began, Mom."
Her smile warmed him as Henry happily settled in next to him on the couch.
Faith's wedding day
Michael thought he had prepared himself for this moment, but now that it was upon him, it was clear: nope, no way, not even close. His girl in a wedding dress—and God, what a dress…white satin, train, veil, the whole nine yards—was a sight he now decided had been impossible to fully appreciate until upon him. Tears instantly pricked the backs of his eyelids as he watched her walk to join him at the top of the aisle, despite Michael willing them back vigorously …no, no, no. He was happy today. More importantly, Faith was happy today.
So, clearly, was James, standing at the altar waiting for them, practically bouncing on balls of his feet. Michael knew he'd waited a long time for this day, had waited very patiently, truth be told, through grad school commitments and career decisions for both of them, but all the same, he could damn well cool his heels. He'd have Faith in his arms when Michael was good and ready.
"Okay?" he whispered to her as she reached him, because she'd smiled shakily, grasping his arm a bit too hard. He was instantly reminded of the baby girl she'd been at LJ's wedding, and the way she'd clung to him and not let go. How Michael wished he could now cling to that time, hold that little girl again, be the only man she wanted. Except, not really, of course. He knew she needed James now. He knew he was a good man. A man maybe even almost deserving of her.
"I'm okay," she told him nervously.
"Are you sure? Because I could call this whole thing off. Just say the word."
"Dad!" she laughed. "No."
"Okay, then." He smiled at her as he took her arm and turned them toward the aisle they needed to walk down. "That's good, because I was bluffing. Calling it off would be really, really expensive."
She laughed again. "Either way, it's expensive, Dad," she reminded him.
"But this way, my girl is happy," he told her, and he suspected she glimpsed the tears in his eyes, because she teared up, too.
"Don't make me mess up my makeup," she told him gruffly.
Was there ever a more beautiful bride? Michael thought this a valid question, and he asked it of himself earnestly. He could not fathom one, unless maybe, it had been Sara. But this dress…Faith may have her mother beat with this dress. They started down the aisle arm in arm, and clearly, James agreed on all counts: he smiled at Faith so hard, Michael wondered that he could feel his face at all by the time they reached him. He did what he was supposed to do, as father of the bride: he lifted her veil and kissed his daughter's cheek and maybe he squeezed her hands a little too tightly before he released them, but he knew Faith would forgive him. He'd loved her so thoroughly for 24 years. Was he supposed to give her up in a heartbeat? "You're still coming to dinner next week," he whispered to them both. "Right after the honeymoon."
Faith smiled again and James nodded obediently, and Michael figured that would have to do. He found his seat next to Sara and did his best not to sob through the remainder of the ceremony.
Henry rose from the long wedding party table at the front of the room and silenced their gathered family and friends with a few carefully executed clinks of his fork to his champagne glass. Michael watched him effectively command the room with admiration. Yes, he and Henry looked a lot alike, but Sara didn't get enough credit for the poise their second-born possessed, the way he could so effortlessly win people over. It was all her; she just didn't know it.
"As the best man, I'm told I'm supposed to say something nice about these two," he began, waving his fork in the direction of his sister and James. Out of the corner of his eye, Michael caught Sara rub anxiously at her temples.
"He'll do fine," he whispered to her.
"Just think of a fun memory you share, and talk about that, I was advised," Henry continued for the crowd. "Think of the first time you met. But the trouble is," Henry paused for dramatic effect, "the first thing I did the day I met James here was punch him in the face."
Laughter. Some knowing, some a bit surprised, tinged with entertained shock.
"Don't worry about it," James interjected with a sweep of his hand from his seat at the top of the table with Faith.
"What's that?" Henry called.
"I said, don't worry about it. It really didn't hurt. Like, at all."
"Yeah well, somehow, from there, he grew on me," Henry continued. "I told my sister, I said, 'Hey Faith, you should really give this James dude another look, he's a good guy, no matter what you keep saying about him'—"
"That's not—" Faith chimed in, but Henry just talked over her.
"Who's giving the speech here? Anyway, because I give such good advice, we're standing here today, celebrating—"
"That's not how it happened and you know it," Faith laughed. Someone grabbed her a microphone. "Don't even try," she said into the mic that was thrust into her hands.
Henry smiled at her, clearly enjoying squaring off with her in this toast battle. But then he sobered. Michael watched his entire countenance downshift. "But that's just the thing," he told her. "I won't ever not try. You're my little sister, and I will always punch a guy's lights out for you." He flashed her another grin, lightening the mood again just like that.
"I didn't ask you to—"
"No, no, you're welcome."
They both laughed, James echoing them.
"No, but seriously," Henry continued, "I had the privilege of getting to know James because Faith introduced us, and it didn't take me long to recognize a first-rate person when I saw one." James tried to start to say something, but Faith laid a hand on his arm to silence him and he let Henry continue. "I feel incredibly lucky, because now I have two brothers" —he shot a nod in Mike's direction, seated next to Michael— "who are immeasurably intelligent, talented, and most importantly, upstanding in all the ways that matter."
"I mean, with these two guys by my side, I really have no excuse to be chump, right?"
The murmurs gave way to laughter again.
"And Faith." She glanced at him in surprise. Clearly, she'd thought his speech over. "I mean, where to even begin?" She made a face at him, thinking he was about to tease her again, but Henry looked at her for a long time, just holding his mic and standing there, obviously needing to gather himself. This made Michael need to gather himself. "You're kind of a masterpiece, you know that?" Henry finally choked out. Faith shook her head, also starting to cry. He cleared his throat roughly into his mic. "Plus, you're the strongest, most stubborn, most quietly persistent person I've ever known." He spun on his heel to glance back to Michael's table. "And I know Mom." Laughter. "So, uh…" He had to stop again. "So good luck with that, James, because you're gonna need it."
He sat down to a mixed bag of both chuckles and awws.
Michael just had to get through the father-daughter dance, and he'll have made it through this heart-wrenchingly wonderful event. But Faith certainly wasn't making it easy to keep it together, smiling at him with such appreciative joy as the music began. "Thank you, Dad," she told him as he took her in his arms. "Everything is perfect."
She was perfect, and James was pretty okay, too, and that's what made this whole celebration such a lovely success. No check, no matter how many zeros Michael wrote on the amount line, could have made this evening what it was. "This is all you and James, sweetheart," he told her, moving her around the dance floor. She was light on her feet; it wasn't hard to make this dance look easy. "Everyone's here for you." He caught her eye as she spun around and made sure to hold it. "I'm here for you, forever. I don't care if you get married five times."
She smiled, but a little breathlessly. They were both good dancers, and they'd decided to make this fun. "Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that," she told him.
"You know what I mean."
"I do, Dad." She turned in his arms one more time, and the hand he caught in his was manicured and slender and poised, but still reminded him of the baby's who'd caught snatches of his shirt in her little fists and the five-year-old's whose mittened grip had tightened on his own as he'd tried to teach her to ice skate at Millennial Park and the ten-year-old's who'd still wanted to hold his hand during a scary part at the movies. He brought her hand to his lips to kiss her knuckles as the song ended and their friends and family applauded. He actually planned to never let go, not really, and he could only hope that she'd continue to reach out for him when she needed him.