It was not the homecoming that Elizabeth had expected.
Her skin had been humming for days, ever since the phone rang with the news – her husband's final tour was over at last. Excitement and relief and unbridled joy ignited every atom of her body, and a dozen times a day she caught herself singing while she cooked, or feeling the urge to dance. She was certain that Stevie would see right through her tells before Friday and know that something was up, but Henry's heart was set on giving their little girl the surprise of her life, so she called upon every ounce of deception she possessed, biting down hard every time a secret smile found its way onto her face.
She'd spent an eternity gazing up at the ceiling last night, her eyes sliding back open every time she tried to close them. Even a long soak in the tub, from which she emerged shivering and covered with goosebumps, long after the water had cooled, was not enough to tame her racing heart.
The next time she lay down in this bed, the space beside her would no longer be empty. It was too incredible to be real.
She'd been close to bursting when she went to wake Stevie that morning, but somehow she'd managed not to spoil Henry's plans, dropping their daughter off at nursery school as though it were any other day. Only today, instead of driving to Langley, she'd headed back home until it was time to leave, picking up a few groceries along the way.
Their eyes locked together like magnets the moment he stepped off the bus, and she lit up, smiling so much that it made her face hurt. Though they had weathered months of separation many times over in the last few years, these last few minutes were the very longest – it felt like several lifetimes before he could cross the hangar to join her. Her fingers needing something to grasp onto, she clasped her hands before her chest, her skin turning white at the strength of her grip.
What Elizabeth meant to do when Henry approached was to hold him tightly, resting her grateful head on his shoulder, whispering over and over just how proud of him she was.
Instead, she held his face in both hands and kissed him hungrily, her greedy lips starving for him instead of for oxygen. Henry dropped his bags on the ground to wrap both of his arms around her, seizing a fistful of her blonde hair in one hand, and it was several long minutes before an urgent need for air forced them apart, both of them laughing, giddy and breathless.
They had finally made it through Henry's military service.
Wordlessly, Henry reached into the pocket nearest his heart, retrieving a gold ring set with a single, small diamond. Gazing so deep into her eyes that she felt like she could gladly drown in his, he slid the engagement ring back onto Elizabeth's finger where it belonged. Her stomach did a little flip-flop – her hand had felt naked all these months with just her wedding band on it.
Without breaking her gaze, Elizabeth unclasped the heavy silver watch she'd been wearing while he was away, though it was far too big for her wrist. Fastening it back around Henry's own, she completed for the final time the ritual that had seen them through every separation since the summer Henry went to boot camp.
They rested their foreheads together, both pairs of eyes welling up with tears, and breathed long, matching sighs of relief. Now, everything was as it should be once more.
She couldn't wait to get him home and drag him up to bed, not letting him leave again until every inch of skin was marked and too raw to touch.
She never imagined then that what would follow would be more tears than she ever knew one almost-four-year-old's body could hold, or that she would find herself kneeling beside the kitchen table, spending long minutes tending to two badly scraped knees. Her heart had stopped for a moment when Stevie fell, but after that the injury had been forgotten, remembered only when they finally arrived home and Elizabeth caught sight of the blood drying on her legs.
Henry had set a reluctant Stevie down when they walked through the front door, but she clambered back into his lap and pulled his strong arms around her while Elizabeth worked, washing gravel from the wounds. She didn't cry, merely wincing a little at the pain.
When the ointment and band-aids were applied, and both parents had pressed dutiful kisses to each knee, Elizabeth sent Henry upstairs to change and unpack – she'd kept one eye on him the entire time she worked, and knew that he was itching to get out of his uniform and into something more comfortable.
Stevie's bottom lip started to tremble before Henry was even halfway across the room, but Elizabeth swooped in with a mountain of construction paper and a new box of crayons – their daughter could always be distracted into drawing them yet another masterpiece to hang on the fridge, prattling on as she drew.
But Stevie remained eerily quiet and ignored her art supplies entirely, barely giving Henry the time to change before she was hovering silently in the doorway of her parents' bedroom. She never let him out of her sight for the rest of the afternoon after that, watching, eagle-eyed, as he unpacked his duffle bags, and trailing after him as he marched up and down the stairs with the laundry basket, getting the first of several loads started.
Elizabeth kept glancing warily at their little girl out of the corner of her eye, and she knew that Henry was thinking the same thing, shooting her increasingly disquieted glances whenever they passed on the stairs. But Elizabeth had always trusted her instincts, and this time, they were cautioning her to wait and see how this played out.
The three of them collapsed onto the couch some time later, chores out of the way, and ready for an uninterrupted evening together as a family. Only a few seconds later, Henry's stomach let out a long growl, the sound clearly audible in the quiet room.
Stevie giggled softly, the sweet sound easing a little of the weight that lay on Elizabeth's heart. She elbowed Henry in the ribs all the same, less gently than she might have, for letting her forget to feed him. "What would you like for dinner?" she asked him, but she was smirking as she spoke, already up and heading back into the kitchen.
"Pizza?" Henry called after her, and the quirk of Elizabeth's lips became a true smile. It was always pizza that he missed most whenever he was away, and always the first meal he wanted every time he returned. She had picked up several frozen ones on her grocery run that morning.
"Call your mother!" she shouted over her shoulder, sliding the tray into the oven and getting started on chopping vegetables for a salad.
Henry paced as he spoke on the telephone, Stevie by his side and underfoot the entire time – Elizabeth almost tripped over her twice on her way to set the table. Finally, Henry parked himself along one wall, and corralled Stevie to lean against him there. After telling a very thankful Mary McCord that he was home, he offered the phone to Stevie, but she shook her head, hiding her face in his jeans.
Elizabeth couldn't help but purse her lips when she saw that – their little chatterbox always liked talking on the phone, especially with Grandma.
When they sat down to dinner, Henry polished off almost an entire pizza on his own, but Stevie only picked at her slice, and licked half-heartedly at the icing when Elizabeth brought a box of doughnuts to the table for dessert.
Stevie had scooted her chair closer to Henry's before sitting down, and was now occupying his seat more than her own. Peering across the table at her, Elizabeth tried once more to puzzle out the mystery of this quiet stranger who looked like their daughter. She was tired, certainly – that much emotion was enough to tire anybody out. But there was something else too, and Elizabeth couldn't quite put her finger on it.
Henry caught her eye then, and there was worry there, but she could also see that he was rapidly losing steam, hardly able to keep his eyes open now that his stomach was full.
"Bathtime after supper," Elizabeth said quietly.
Stevie whined, the first real sound from her in ages. Routine in the McCord household meant that bathtime was always followed by storytime and then bedtime.
Elizabeth shot her a sharp look, softening slightly when she saw the very real alarm in their daughter's wide eyes. "No arguments, Stevie," she said gently. "I know it's early, but we're all tired. Daddy needs a shower too."
Stevie glanced sideways at Henry, who nodded, so she offered no further protest. She did, however, latch onto his leg when he and Elizabeth stood together at the sink to wash the dishes.
Elizabeth had set the plates on the counter, tempted to leave them for the morning, but then Henry dipped down to kiss her shoulder and picked up a dishcloth, and a smile had blossomed on her face. They'd always made a point of washing the dishes together, no matter how late it was, and she'd missed the rhythm of this familiar ritual more than she could have said.
When the last dish was dry, Elizabeth took Stevie by the listless hand and they all headed up the stairs, Henry to the master bathroom, and Elizabeth and Stevie to the little one down the hall. Stevie watched her father leave her side, the look on her face so miserable that Elizabeth couldn't help but feel relieved that Henry didn't turn to see it.
Sensing the source of some of their daughter's distress, Elizabeth left the bathroom door open, and soon the sound of the shower running in the other room reached their ears.
Elizabeth helped Stevie climb into the tub when it was full, but unlike most evenings, when their little girl would ramble on endlessly about her day, or entreat her mother to fill the water with so many toys that the bubbles were hardly visible, tonight she simply sat there, despondent and quiet, and let Elizabeth wash her.
"I spy, with my little eye, something that is … green," Elizabeth said, projecting an air of calm and normalcy that she did not feel.
But Stevie did not play along tonight. "Mommy?" she asked, her voice little more than a whisper.
"Yes, baby?" Elizabeth answered, reaching for the shampoo and pouring a little into her palm.
"If I ask really nicely, do you think Daddy will take me to the park tomorrow?"
Elizabeth smiled, finally seeing an opening now that her little girl was talking once more – it was the uncharacteristic silence that had unnerved her the most. "He'd love that, baby." It was an easy question, and she didn't even need to think about her answer. Stevie would live at the park if they'd let her, but there'd been something missing all these months, because much as she loved the swings, she'd hardly even looked at them since Henry left – that was Their Thing.
From Day One, Stevie had always been the biggest Daddy's Girl, enjoying any moment spent with her father, but she loved being pushed on the swings best of all – and nobody in the world could push her as high as Henry. It was a recurring theme in Stevie's prolific artwork as well, featuring in her drawings at least three times a week.
There was a long pause before Stevie spoke again. "Really?" she asked, her trembling voice somehow even quieter than before.
Elizabeth's smile faded as she looked up at her daughter's face, and the uncertainty she saw there flooded her veins with ice water. "Baby, do you not know how much your Daddy loves you?" she asked, struggling to keep her voice level. "You are his entire world, sweetheart! If you wanted the moon, he would find a way to give it to you."
But Stevie said nothing in response, only biting her lip and gazing down into the bathwater. Elizabeth's heart thudded, aghast – it was suddenly absolutely critical that her daughter never, ever have that look on her face again. She didn't think she could survive it.
"Stevie, listen to me, this is important," she said. Her thoughts raced, zooming through an anthology of adoring father moments, before tethering onto the perfect one from earlier that very same day. "Did you see how hungry Daddy was tonight?"
That brought a wan smile to her little girl's face. "He ate a whole pizza and three doughnuts!"
"That's right!" Elizabeth said, feigning enthusiasm to cover the aching of her heart. "And he was so tired, because he'd been traveling all day to get home to us. But when I picked him up, he wouldn't let me bring him home for a nap, he wouldn't let me get him something to eat." She'd suggested both as they pulled into the driveway, already having a pretty good idea that he would refuse. "Do you know what he said?"
The original plan had been for Elizabeth to pick Stevie up as usual, and for him to be sitting on their front steps when they returned. But she'd seen the look on Henry's face when they walked into their empty house, seen the wheels turning in his head, and so she hadn't been at all surprised when he changed his mind at the last minute. "He said, 'Can we go pick Stevie up early? I can't wait one more minute to hug my little girl.'"
For Elizabeth, that was one of countless moments showing just how eager Henry had been to return to them, how much Stevie had been on his mind. But Stevie's brow only furrowed, her thoughts and emotions plainly more muddled than ever.
They finished bathtime in silence, and then Elizabeth helped Stevie out of the tub, putting new band-aids on her knees and dressing her in her yellow Belle pyjamas when she was dry. Finally, Elizabeth moved to sit cross-legged on the floor, and encouraged Stevie to perch on her knee.
"That was a big day, huh?" Elizabeth began slowly, stroking circles on her daughter's back. "Can I try to guess how you're feeling?" She didn't like to put words into Stevie's mouth, but she knew she couldn't send her to bed like this. And anyway, the day's excitement had been a lot to handle for one little girl of not even four – she might not know what she was feeling, never mind being able to give it a name.
Stevie nodded, fiddling with the hem of her mother's shirt.
Elizabeth pulled her closer and started with something easy. "It felt like Daddy was never going to come home? I bet that makes it a little bit hard to believe that he's here now, so it's scary to stop touching him, or to let him leave the room."
"Yeah," Stevie said quietly.
Elizabeth could well understand that – it didn't feel real to her yet either. With Henry out of sight for the moment, the only evidence that today hadn't just been a wonderful dream were the sound of running water down the hall, and the reassuring weight of gold and diamonds on her left hand. She took a deep breath and forged ahead. "You missed Daddy so much that it hurt here?" she asked quietly, pressing her entire hand over her daughter's heart.
Stevie nodded vigorously, her wide eyes welling up with fresh tears. "How did you know?" she asked, her voice hoarse and full of wonder.
"Because, baby," Elizabeth said, trying to ignore the quaver in her voice, "that's how much Daddy and I love each other, and how much both of us love you. He missed you just as much as we missed him."
Stevie sniffled. "I missed him a lot," she said doubtfully.
"I know, baby," Elizabeth said. She'd pieced it together now, she thought, and the resulting picture broke her heart.
All those long months filled with dark nights by herself in that big empty bed, the loneliness sometimes made it hard to imagine that Henry could possibly be longing for his return as fervently as she was. But the fresh light of a new day always brought clarity – all around her, she saw the pieces of the life they had built together, a life he would never willingly give up. And every time she heard his voice or saw his face again, she knew with absolutely certainty that her husband loved her more today than the last time they were together, and infinitely more than the first time he'd said the words. There were many things in the world worth doubting, but never the love that Henry had for both of his girls.
They had learned by now, through farewells and reunions too numerous to count, that the days and weeks that followed would be a period of adjustment, that they couldn't just pick up right where they'd left off. But that knowledge was built on a foundation of nearly seven years together. Stevie adored her father, but he'd been away from home for much of the last two years, and she was too young to remember the two before that. They kept in touch by letter, and Elizabeth did her very best to keep him present for her by looking at pictures and telling her stories, but how was Stevie supposed to know? She could probably barely recall speaking to Henry, only remembering what she'd been told, so no wonder she had clammed right up on them, not knowing what to say to him, thinking that she needed to be on her very best behaviour. In some ways, it was a miracle that she'd run to him so easily.
"I know," she repeated throatily. "And I know that it's probably hard to remember, but I promise: from the moment you were born, there was nobody in the world more important than you, for me or for Daddy. He never wanted to leave you, okay?"
A gentle tapping on the open door interrupted them before Stevie could respond. "Knock, knock," said Henry. "Everything okay in here?"
Elizabeth and Stevie both looked up at the sound, but the vision that greeted her eyes made Elizabeth almost forget that their daughter was there at all.
Henry was wearing faded plaid pyjama bottoms and a threadbare charcoal grey t-shirt, his skin still damp and radiating heat and shower gel that Elizabeth hadn't known she'd been missing until he used it again.
Elizabeth's mouth actually watered at the sight of him.
In her mind, she was already shoving Henry against the bathroom door, her hands wandering up his arms, his muscles more defined than she remembered them, and devouring every inch of skin she could reach.
"Babe?" he asked, his voice jolting her back to reality.
With difficulty, Elizabeth wrenched her eyes away from her husband, but not before she caught the way his were smoldering back at her, letting her know that he was aching just as much to get her alone.
She cleared her throat. "Stevie and I were just talking about how we're both feeling pretty overwhelmed to have you home again," she said, unconsciously tightening her arms around her daughter.
By the time she'd composed herself enough to glance back up at Henry, his expression had changed, but she recognized this one too – he'd told her often enough how much he loved seeing how far she'd go to protect their little girl, even allowing her vulnerable side to show through, adopting Stevie's feelings as her own, so that their baby never had to bear the weight of them alone.
"What's 'overwhelmed'?" Stevie asked softly, nudging her. Elizabeth's heart gave a giant leap in her chest, but she schooled her face so as not to overreact – there was her inquisitive girl!
"It means … it means that we're happy and excited and relieved that Daddy is home, but those feelings are so big that they might make us cry, even though they're good feelings," Elizabeth explained.
"You cried too?" Stevie asked in surprise.
"Mommy and I both cried when she picked me up," Henry replied easily, sliding down to lean against the tub. "And being overwhelmed can also mean that even though we're happy, a part of us might be a little scared or nervous at the same time, and that's a lot of feelings for one person. Sometimes we might not even know the right word to describe how we're feeling."
"Thank you for telling us how you're feeling, Stevie," Henry said seriously. "It's so important, and so brave, because it makes it easier for us to help you."
"Having Daddy home is going to take some getting used to for all of us, baby," said Elizabeth. "It's okay to feel overwhelmed."
"It's even okay if you don't remember everything," added Henry, and Elizabeth's heart melted in her chest – once she'd been able to stop drooling, she'd seen in her husband's eyes that he'd heard that part of her conversation with Stevie. She couldn't help but feel relief that he hadn't heard it all, because that would have broken his heart even worse than it had hers, but he'd heard enough to put two and two together the same way she had in the end. A part of her had worried that he would be upset at the idea of Stevie not remembering him, when he treasured every memory he had of her. She should have known her beloved husband better than that. "Now that I'm back, we can make new memories together!"
"And both of us will help you remember the important things," Elizabeth continued.
"Like what?" Stevie asked.
Elizabeth considered her answer. There would be plenty of things, both positive and negative, that Stevie would be able to remember or relearn just fine on her own. It was little things Elizabeth wanted to help with, things that would make the transition to living with Henry again easier. "Like … do you remember that Daddy brushes hair even more gently than Mommy does?"
Stevie shook her head, but after pondering for a moment, she stood and reached for the comb on the counter, handing it to her father and settling herself in his lap. Henry shut his eyes, inhaling the scent of her shampoo with a small smile on his face, before getting to work on the tangles.
As Elizabeth watched, she could see Stevie's brow furrowing, but not as it had before, when her feelings had been so conflicted – this time, Elizabeth could tell that her little girl's mind was hard at work, so she let her puzzle it out to the end.
"Daddy braided my hair?" she asked, twisting around to look at Henry.
"That's right!" he smiled. "I braided your hair for your birthday last year! That was a long time ago, I'm surprised you can remember that far back!"
After promising Stevie to do her hair up in braids the next morning, Henry was soon finished, and Elizabeth knew what she needed to do next. "Would you like to sleep in Mommy and Daddy's bed with us tonight, sweetheart?" she asked, her heart just a little heavy.
She had been so looking forward to welcoming her husband home properly, but if she was honest with herself, Elizabeth knew that they had been building toward this moment ever since Stevie had caught sight of Henry from across the playground, and had only grown more certain as the afternoon wore on. The eager nod and obvious relief on Stevie's face told Elizabeth that her reluctant sacrifice was the right call, but still she shot an apologetic look Henry's way. He shook his head back at her – he would have done the same thing a hundred times over.
"Why don't you choose a book for us to read before bed?" Henry suggested.
"Actually, I can think of something she might like even better," Elizabeth interjected. Henry tilted his head quizzically. "Something you put on top of the dresser when you were unpacking earlier?" she elaborated meaningfully, watching as understanding dawned in her husband's eyes.
After Henry helped Stevie brush her teeth and Elizabeth changed into a tank top and shorts, the three of them settled into bed together, leaning against the headboard, one parent on either side of their daughter. It was then that Henry produced a very familiar looking envelope, and Stevie's tired eyes went wide, a smile of pure joy stretching from ear to ear.
Never before had Henry been home to see the way their little girl's eyes lit up every time one of his letters arrived, but it was an expression that Elizabeth knew only too well. To say that receiving mail from Henry was the highlight of their week was an understatement – sometimes, Elizabeth felt that it was the only thing keeping them going without him. She and Stevie wrote to him every week without fail, always tucking in her latest drawing, showing him what his girls were up to – but in her pictures, Henry was always there with them, front and centre. Stevie treasured every single letter she got back in response, pinning them onto a huge bulletin board in her bedroom.
It was just what she needed tonight.
Before Elizabeth's very eyes, aided by this calming and familiar bedtime ritual, the two Henries began to merge back together at last – the father Stevie had missed but never saw, and the one who was here but she couldn't remember.
Stevie hugged Henry's arm with one of her own, resting her head against it, and gripped onto her mother's shirt with her other. Elizabeth half-thought that she might revert back to sucking her thumb if she'd had another hand free.
Henry cleared his throat, and opened the letter he'd written just a few days ago and hadn't yet had the chance to mail. "Dear Stevie and Elizabeth," he began. "Thank you for your last letter – it's always so good to hear from my girls. I love—"
But even though he'd barely started, Henry's voice cracked, and he pinched his lips together tightly. Before Stevie had the chance to notice anything amiss, Elizabeth slid the letter gently from Henry's hands, wrapping her other arm around both of them, her fingers coming up to stroke the short hair at the nape of his neck.
"I love the drawing you sent me of the three of us working in the garden," read Elizabeth, picking up where Henry had left off, and swallowing the lump that was forming in her throat. Henry's letters always make her choke up too, but she'd had years of practice in holding it back.
I looked at it every night before I fell asleep, so now I can see it perfectly in my mind, and I'm returning it to you, to keep safe with the others for me until I get back.
I wish I could have helped you with the garden this year, but I know that the flowers you and Mommy planted will be beautiful. I miss being home in the springtime most of all – it's so hot here all the time, so hot that it's hard to sleep. I keep imagining the two of you, leaving the windows open at night to let in the breeze, and listening to the sound of the rain, and I can't wait to be back there with you. Every night when I'm saying my prayers, I pray most of all that I'll be able to come home soon, because this time it's going to be for good, and we'll finally be able to start the next chapter of our lives together.
I miss my girls so much, but I know you're keeping your promise to be good and look after each other, and that's the one thing that makes all of this just a little bit easier. I love you, and I'll be home as soon as I can.
Elizabeth exhaled slowly when she was finished, before turning to look at her little family. Henry's eyes were closed, while he pressed a kiss to the top of their daughter's head.
"I kept my promise, Daddy," Stevie mumbled drowsily into his arm, struggling to stay awake against the pull of exhaustion.
"I know you did, sweetheart," replied Henry, easing Stevie's pliant body down the bed, and pressing a reverent kiss to her cheek when her head hit the pillow. "You've been such a good girl, I love you so much."
"Love you too," she tried to say, but couldn't finish the sentence before trailing off sleepily.
"I love you, Stevie," Elizabeth murmured in echo, resting her forehead against her daughter's and rubbing their noses together, a gesture which Stevie returned by instinct, both sets of lips curving upwards in a small smile. "Time to sleep now."
As Henry reached over to turn off the lights, Elizabeth turned onto her side, cradling Stevie's little body in the hollow of her own, and draping one arm loosely over her waist. When she opened her eyes again, Henry would be the very first thing she saw. For now, though, their deep sleeper was out like a light before Henry had even rolled back toward them, even without listening to music to help her get there.
Elizabeth waited for Henry to follow their daughter straight off to dreamland, but after he pulled the covers up over them, he surprised her by lying on his side, head propped up on one hand. He said nothing, just watching Stevie sleep. Though his eyes were heavy, he was mesmerized and visibly soothed by the peaceful look on their little girl's face, and the rise and fall of her chest with deep, even breaths.
A soft breeze entered the room then, the curtains whispering in the wind. It wasn't raining like Henry had wished for in his letter, but to Elizabeth it still felt like a sign. They slept with the windows open for as much of the year as possible, but on cooler nights like tonight, she had missed having his warm body to snuggle up to.
"Thank you," Elizabeth murmured.
Henry tore his gaze away from Stevie to look up at her, a lazy smile on his face. "What for?" he asked.
"For coming home to us. To me," she replied, blinking back tears as the emotions of the day caught up with her at last.
Henry leaned across their daughter, seizing Elizabeth's lips in a kiss so long and deep that it made her toes curl, pulling back only when his tugging hand that had come up to tangle in her hair made Elizabeth mewl, and caused Stevie to stir restlessly between them.
"I will always come home to you," he whispered urgently, his hand still in her hair, before returning to his own pillow, Stevie's fist now gripping his shirt. "I'm sorry tonight is not what you were hoping for," he added.
Elizabeth shook her head, smiling gently. "We have all the time in the world now, but tonight Stevie needed this. Maybe we both did."
A shadow crossed Henry's face. "Do you think we were wrong to surprise her?" he asked with trepidation, finally giving voice to the question that he'd been asking her with his eyes for hours, ever since sitting down on that park bench. "I've never seen her like this before."
Once again, Elizabeth shook her head. The day had been one long rollercoaster of emotions, a ride with which she knew she and Henry could cope, but she hated the pain that it had caused their daughter. Looking down at Stevie now, though – every inch of her was relaxed, free not just from this afternoon's anxiety, but from the tension that she'd carried with her ever since Henry was deployed. Elizabeth had forgotten what her little girl looked like when that wasn't there, and she couldn't bring herself to regret anything that took it away.
"It's better that she got it out," Elizabeth said, so sure that Henry began to breathe easier. "We'll keep an eye on her, but I think she's going to be just fine. She's a tough kid."
"Like her mother," Henry agreed, his eyes gleaming with pride.
Elizabeth blushed, and offered him a small smile.
"You've had to shoulder most of the load in the last few years," Henry murmured, his hand coming to rest on Elizabeth's hip, and he squeezed, both of them plainly wanting more. "And I'm so proud of the person Stevie has become, almost entirely because of you. But you don't have to do it all anymore. I know I'll be in school in the fall, but it's time for me to pull my weight around here. After everything you've done for this family, it's your turn to focus on yourself now, whether that means going for a promotion at work, or—"
"Actually," Elizabeth said, biting her lip thoughtfully, "Helping you with your grad school application has made me a bit jealous. I've been thinking I might like to work towards a Master's degree too, even just part-time. I miss it."
"Do it," said Henry firmly. "We can make it work."
Elizabeth nodded, though it was just the beginnings of an idea for now – she wasn't going to make a decision about that tonight. As she watched, she saw Henry valiantly try to fight off sleep. He was exhausted, but he still had one more question for her.
"Apparently we have a McCord family motto that I didn't know about?" he grinned, though the question in her husband's eyes was a real one.
Elizabeth nodded, toying with the sleeve of Stevie's pyjamas, but she didn't let herself break his gaze. She'd seen the look of awe on his face when they were sitting on that park bench, and she'd been waiting for him to bring that one up. "I want to make sure that Stevie doesn't turn out like me," she said softly.
"I'm pretty thrilled with the way you turned out," Henry retorted, his eyes flashing indignantly on her behalf.
"Well, then, I want our kids to be better," she insisted. "I don't want them ever to struggle with their feelings the way I did – the way I still do, sometimes. I never want them to feel like they can't come to us with them."
"You are an incredible woman, Elizabeth McCord," Henry murmured, blinking at her in wonder. There was a pause then, in which Elizabeth thought her husband might have fallen asleep propped up, but then he opened his eyes again. "Wait – did you say kids, plural?"
Elizabeth offered him a crooked smile. "I thought, maybe now that you're home, we can start thinking about baby number 2?"
Henry could only dip down to kiss her again, before lying down properly at last, gathering both of his girls closer. "I think I needed this, too," he said, his voice already rough with sleep. "I love you both so much. It'll be a lot easier to sleep tonight with both of you where I can see you."
Just for a moment, Elizabeth saw what Henry was seeing, and knew that he loved the sight of both of their heads on the same pillow, not knowing where one golden head ended and the other began. She saw that he was struggling to keep his eyes open, and she could easily have drifted off as well, but there was just one thing left to say. "It'd make Stevie's day tomorrow if you took her to the park," she mumbled drowsily.
"Still the swings?" Henry asked, yawning.
"Nobody pushes as high as Daddy," she nodded. "So. You're going to thoroughly tire her out, and then when she goes down for a nap, you are going to be all mine."
"Sounds nice," he slurred.
He was fading fast now but still fighting it, so Elizabeth reached out to stroke her husband's face. "I love you, Henry," she said softly. "Close your eyes now. We'll be here when you wake up."
Henry didn't have the energy to say it back, just squeezing her arm.
When Elizabeth woke again, in the grey light of the early dawn, she saw that Stevie had migrated across the bed in her sleep, now sprawling inelegantly across Henry's chest, her face tucked into his neck. Elizabeth half-wondered if Henry could breathe properly beneath her weight, wondered how to go about moving her daughter without waking both of them, but his arms held Stevie firmly in place, and the look of absolute contentment on Henry's face made her reconsider. Moving closer, Elizabeth pressed her face into Henry's shoulder, and fell back asleep.
When she woke for the second time, sunlight was streaming into the room, and the warmth from the other side of the bed had faded, but Elizabeth was not worried. It had been the peals of contagious giggles from downstairs that had woken her, followed by a not-at-all-menacing growl that only drove the sweet sounds of Stevie's laughter louder. When the aroma of strawberry pancakes reached Elizabeth's nose and made her mouth water, she closed her eyes, imagining the scene in her mind – little hands caked with flour; mouths stained scarlet with the fresh, red fruit; a half-hearted attempt to escape the lumbering Tickle Monster who had taken over their kitchen.
When a delighted squeal told her that Stevie had been captured, pancake batter painting the tip of her nose, Elizabeth threw off her blanket, not even taking the time to search for her housecoat or her slippers – she couldn't wait to get downstairs and throw herself into the fray.
Mother's Day might not officially be until tomorrow, but Elizabeth was pretty sure she was getting spoiled all weekend long. She didn't need flowers or chocolate or breakfast in bed.
Having her family back together again was the only gift she'd ever needed.