For the fourth time tonight, Henry's eyes flickered shut, his head lolling against the back cushions of the couch, and this time he let it rest there, surrendering to the pull of sleep. He'd tried squeezing his eyes shut tight and then opening them again, fighting so hard to stay awake, but he'd way overdone it on the pizza and chocolate cake this evening, and the sugar-rush had worn off some time ago, so now he was paying the price. It all just sat heavily in the pit of his stomach, leaving him feeling sluggish and tired, weary all the way down to his bones.
But bone-tired was the new normal for him these days, and he wasn't going to be the one to suggest breaking up the party, not when it was the first time in weeks that the whole family had gathered together for more than just the length of a meal.
Almost. Almost the whole family.
He'd moved over to the couch after dessert, groaning quietly as he sat, and wedged himself into one corner so that all four of them could fit. Stevie had been the only one to join him on the sofa, however, stunning him and wrenching at his heartstrings when she lay flat on her back and rested her head on his leg, just like she always used to do when she was little. She'd avoided his eyes – shyly, he thought, believing herself too old now for such closeness and needing it all the same – but when muscle memory still prompted him to rest his hand on her shoulder and give it a gentle squeeze, she'd reached up right away, her fingers tangling with his.
Everything about today had been one surprise like that after another. He'd fully expected Stevie to ignore her birthday entirely this year, going out for drinks with a friend if she celebrated at all – she'd suggested as much when he first raised the subject a few days ago.
It would have broken his heart, but with everything going on he would have understood, so when she'd asked at dinner last night if the three of them were free this evening, he'd been prepared to make the night absolutely anything she wanted it to be – even if it was one of those weird Paint Night things he didn't understand, but were all that she and her friends could talk about.
She'd requested instead a quiet evening at home, just the four of them together for pizza and a movie, and nobody scattering as soon as the dishes were done, no rushing back to their rooms or holing up in the office he shared with their mother.
Her request was a simple one, and a far cry from the tofu and ancient grains she'd been foisting on them for the last few years, so it had been easy to say yes. He'd had to turn away for a moment, however, blinking back tears for his little girl, missing her mother and so obviously trying to make herself feel better by recreating the nostalgic birthdays of a simpler, happier time.
Comforting her was supposed to be his job.
Eating had been more of a chore than a pleasure for all of them lately, and there was an uncomfortable moment when the pizza arrived, all of them staring at each other in a panic when they realized that they'd absent-mindedly placed their usual order for five people, rather than the four they were these days. A well-timed joke from Jason had rescued the evening, however, turning quivering lips into shaky smiles, and they'd all gamely overindulged after that, taking slice after slice and teasing each other as normally as possible when Alison ended up with tomato sauce all over her new shirt, and when Stevie failed to blow out all her candles in one breath.
Anything to make Stevie happy.
She'd popped Beauty and the Beast into the DVD player before joining Henry on the couch, confirming his suspicions about her state of mind tonight – the film had been her favourite since before she could speak, and they'd all watched it together too many times to count until she decided that she was too old and too cool for Disney. This dialogue and these songs that he still knew backwards and forwards by heart was doing nothing to help him stay awake, however, and falling asleep sitting up like this was going to absolutely wreck his back by tomorrow, but he was determined not to move from this spot, not when Stevie needed this.
The other two must have been craving the same kind of comfort, because neither of them had needed any persuading to stick around after dinner, Jason not even putting up a protest about his sister's movie selection. He was sprawled on the floor near the ottoman, paying more attention to his phone than the TV screen, and Alison was sitting at the dinner table behind them, one leg folded beneath her while she sketched away in her notebook.
Henry's heart ached, thinking of what the night should have been.
Stevie seemed satisfied, and he tried to tell himself that that was what mattered, but he couldn't truly make himself believe it, not when their rendition of Happy Birthday had felt more than a little forced, not when all of their eyes had kept wandering throughout the meal over to the head of the table, where their mother should have been sitting.
At least they were all together? At least nobody was upstairs, listening to angry music in their room or crying into their pillow? That was the lowest of low bars, and Henry knew, he knew he wasn't doing even close to enough to keep their family going – but for tonight, it was all that he could manage. He'd just have to try harder tomorrow, try to find a way to get the kids to lean on him and open up, and hope that he didn't crumble under their weight of their feelings.
Henry was more than half-asleep, his fingertips on Stevie's shoulder almost numb, when her phone buzzed with an incoming call. She jostled his leg slightly, removing the cell from the pocket of her jeans, and he cracked one eye open in time to see her take a quick glance at the screen before swiping to decline.
"Unknown number," she shrugged, glancing up at him.
The phone buzzed again immediately, however, and Stevie growled a little at the interruption, but this time she did pick up the call.
As Henry watched, all of the colour drained instantly from his daughter's face.
"Mom?" she cried, bolting up on the couch as though she'd been struck by lightning.
Nothing – no jolt of caffeine, no cold shower, not even the most blood-curdling wail from one of the children in the middle of the night – had ever woken Henry so thoroughly from sleep, his heart galloping out of his chest.
Stevie had swung around and leapt to her feet by now, pacing agitatedly in front of the television, and Henry's brain was screaming at him to jump up and join her and figure out what was going on, but he couldn't. None of his limbs appeared to be working right, because all he could do was stare up at her.
"Mommy?" she asked again, her voice trembling and cracking. "I—" But whatever else Stevie was trying to say kept catching in her throat, and she began to sob, large tears streaming down her face.
Henry couldn't look away from his eldest daughter, couldn't even blink though his eyes were burning, but out of the corner of his eye he'd seen Jason scramble up into a seated position, seen Alison fly around the couch, screeching to a halt beside him. All three of them remained frozen in place, eyes glued to Stevie, ears straining towards her, but Mrs Potts continued to sing incongruously in the background, and they couldn't hear a single word.
Henry longed to reach out to Stevie, to wrangle the phone from her grip, to beg her to put it on speaker, or at least make somebody put the infernal movie on pause, but he couldn't do it. Somehow, his wife was on the other end of that call, and he was afraid to move, afraid to speak, afraid to even breathe, in case that could be enough to snap the tenuous connection.
Stevie was just standing there and listening now, silent but for the occasional small noise of affirmation between her tears. Then on a whisper so soft that Henry was sure it couldn't be heard over the airwaves, she ended her side of the conversation – and held the phone out before her.
Henry's racing heart clenched in his chest for a long and painful moment, and his hand jerked involuntarily upwards to take the phone from her – but it was to Jason that Stevie handed her cell, before sinking back onto the couch beside her father.
He choked back a whimper.
He'd been yearning to hear that voice again for so long, yearning to bathe in the sound of it, and all he could think now was that he had been so close, the opportunity dangling right there in front of him before being taken away again – a knife to the stomach would have hurt less than this. He wanted to glare at Stevie, wanted to rage at the injustice of it all, wanted to shake her like a piggy bank to make the other half of her conversation come tumbling out of her mouth, giving him something to cling onto.
All of those thoughts flashed through Henry's head in the split-second that it took Stevie to sit down, but as soon as she did, she pressed her right knee against his left one, and grasped one of his hands in both of hers, so tightly that all of their fingers turned white.
That reined him in, though he still needed a minute to regulate his breathing and his thoughts – gulping for air, he dug his fingernails into his thigh with his free hand.
Nothing about this was Stevie's fault. She hadn't asked for any of it, and was hurting just as much as he was – it felt like she was made entirely of glass beside him, like she might shatter if he tried to ask what her mother had said or even catch her eye, but would equally implode if he ever let go of her hand.
Henry's gaze was split, now – half on Stevie's tear-stained face beside him, and half on Jason's stricken one, his forehead pinching in exactly the same way his mother's did whenever the tears prickled her eyes before she was ready to let them come. A part of Henry wanted to shield his son from all of their gazes upon him, but a greater instinct told him that it was important for the four of them to see each other and be seen in this moment.
Still on the floor, Jason had mumbled a greeting when he first grabbed the phone from his sister, jamming his fingers into his ear to hear properly over the sound of the TV still droning on in the background. After that, though, it was all he could do to nod and nod again as he listened to the voice on the other end of the line, the furrow between his eyes deepening with every second that passed.
A short while later, Jason managed to utter a goodbye, and Henry understood all too clearly this time that Alison was to be next – she snatched the phone from her brother, both of her hands shaking almost too much to bring it to her ear – but being passed over didn't destroy Henry any less when it happened now for a second time.
But once more, his child's pain distracted Henry from his own – as he watched, Jason grabbed the remote and finally, finally muted the TV, before hugging his own legs and curling in on himself on the floor, his lips compressing into a thin line.
Henry's heart ached for his son. Things had been tense between the two of them ever since Jason hit middle school – Henry loved him every bit as much as he did his daughters, but for some reason he felt so much more equipped to deal with the girls in his life. If their mother were here, she would drag a protesting Jason right over into her lap, tickling him and murmuring in his ear until she could eventually coax a laugh out of him.
But of course, if their mother were here, then none of this would be happening at all, so Henry needed to try a lot harder.
Cautiously, he extended one leg, nudging his son's foot with his own and leaving it there, a solid and steady presence in a world filled with so much uncertainty. He hoped it would remind Jason of his mother doing the same thing under the dinner table, reaching out and making that connection with her little boy even when he was feeling rebellious and determined to hold onto his anger.
It took only a moment, and then Jason was shuffling closer, leaning his head against Henry's knee and letting out a great shuddering breath. His heart swelling with pride and relief, Henry ruffled his son's tousled hair for a moment before pulling back, not wanting to push his luck after they'd forged this fragile link.
In the meantime, Alison had curled up beside Henry in the corner of the couch, her face buried in his sweater, and a fistful of the material clutched in the hand that wasn't holding Stevie's phone.
She completed the trifecta.
Observing his children so closely tonight, it had never been more apparent to Henry that they each had a distinct way of dealing with their grief and fear and anger – but in all three of them, he recognized a different facet of their mother, witnessed at one time or another over the last thirty years. For Henry, seeing all those aspects in a single night like this was like being caught up in a whirlwind.
Stevie, clinging to his hand but otherwise holding him at arms-length, was the version of his wife that had emerged after Iran and Andrada and even the nuclear crisis, needing him nearby but not too near, not yet ready to fall apart in his arms until she could be sure that it was safe.
Jason, struggling alone until he could be pulled back out of himself and towards those who love him, was his wife after she had left the CIA, or even before that, when she hadn't yet decided that the possibility of a lifetime of love with a soon-to-be Marine was a chance worth taking.
But Alison? This side of his wife had always been the easiest for Henry to handle, and the one she showed him more and more often the longer they spent together, because what she needed was to cling to him as hard as she could, trusting him to be her rock. Though it tore his heart to shreds to see her in pain, he had always been up for the task for as long as it took, and so it was today – he wrapped his free arm around Alison as tight as it would go, and pressed his lips to the top of her head in a fierce kiss.
With Alison's head on his chest, and Stevie's phone sandwiched between them, he could finally hear the cadence of his wife's voice, could feel the resonance of it in his chest even if he could make out none of her actual words.
Henry thought he just about had the measure of the situation now, and he counted down the seconds remaining in his middle child's call, his heart rate increasing as he waited, praying with every fibre of his being that he was right about what would happen next.
Right on cue, Alison said goodbye – and without giving up an inch of her place on his chest, she nudged the phone towards Henry.
Thanking God for answering his prayer, he placed another kiss in Alison's hair, gentle this time, and reluctantly loosened his grip around her, just enough to take the phone.
He took a deep breath.
"Babe?" he said, his voice strangled and filled with longing.
"Henry, don't say anything," Elizabeth said at once, her words coming out all in a rush, the sound of her voice cascading over him at last almost taking his breath away. "I only earned 10 minutes of phone time, and now there's only one left, and if you start talking, I'm just going to waste it all crying."
As he'd suspected, three minutes each for Stevie, Jason, and Alison, leaving him for last – and he didn't blame her one bit. Her voice was a soothing balm on his aching soul, and even ten times those ten minutes would not have been nearly long enough to satisfy him, but he would have given up every second of his time if it meant that their three babies had to suffer a little less without their mother.
"Wow, this is hard," Elizabeth continued, only just managing to keep the tears at bay – he heard them choke her up, listened as she cleared her throat. "I love you so much, and I miss you so much it hurts," she said, punctuating every third word with the strongest curse word she knew.
"I know it's been hard that I've kept you in the dark all this time," she went on, "and I'm so sorry for that, but I swear I've been working hard. I can't stand for you to think that I've put you guys through all of this for nothing, because I haven't."
She paused, and for a moment Henry feared that the signal had been lost, but her voice came back to him, softer this time. "Don't tell the kids, but I've been – scared of coming home," she admitted, speaking quickly now, but he could feel her hesitate on that one word before rushing on. "Scared of how things might to be when I get back, scared that they won't be the same as before – that we won't be the same. But that's what I've been focusing on with Dr Sherman this week, because there is nothing, nothing more important to me than the life I have with you and our babies."
"So," Elizabeth said, the word suddenly charged with meaning, the very air around him crackling with it. "Fly or fall?"
His heart stopped at the familiar phrase.
"This is me choosing fly," she went on, "and trusting that you'll be flying right there beside me. Because you have always been by my side, Henry. I know it's not going to be easy, but I have faith that we can make it – we'll hold each other up when one of us falters along the way."
This time when she paused, he could hear the shuddering sigh, the relief that came with finally getting the words out. "If I can get some more phone time tomorrow, I'll try to call again after your class, just you and me this time, okay? And I'd really like to see you this weekend, if you're free to come for a visit?"
She cursed again, and he could see her looking at the clock, could hear the tears creeping into her voice as their minute together came to an end. "I have to go, Babe, I'm so sorry! I love you. I love you. I love you."
The call disconnected, and Henry let the phone fall away from his ear, dazedly cradling it in his lap until Stevie reached over and pressed the red button. Mechanically, he handed the cell back to her, his eye drifting from one child to the next – Alison leaning back to see his face but still clutching his shirt in her fist, Stevie by his side, Jason on the floor, all of them with tears welling up in their eyes or glistening on their cheeks.
Henry was not crying – it felt like a tornado had just whipped through the room, leaving a deafening silence in its wake, and he let out a shuddering breath now that it was over. He hadn't cried in all the weeks since he'd left his wife at that facility, but he could feel a giant wave approaching now, all the fear and pain and joy that had always been part of loving and being loved by Elizabeth. He sucked in breath after breath as he tried to ride through it without her here by his side.
Stevie was the one to break the silence, her hand in his now melting, warm and soft like butter. "She sounded—" but she broke off as quickly as she had begun, anxiously seeking out Henry's gaze with her own. He saw optimism flickering in her eyes like the candles on her birthday cake, cautious for now, but ready to flare right up into a wildfire if he could confirm what she thought she'd heard, if he told her now that it was safe to hope.
"She sounded good," Henry agreed gruffly, tears gathering in his throat. "She's starting to sound like Mom again."
At his words, the three children threw their arms around whatever part of him they could reach, and Henry did cry then, releasing the tears that had been dammed up inside of him for far too long, his own feelings tamped down so he could remain strong for the three of them.
Fly or fall, fly or fall? He could still hear Elizabeth's voice in his heart, that familiar phrase that had caused him so much pain in recent weeks, wondering what she was talking about in her therapy, wondering how deep she was willing to dig. He had the answer now, and it was all the way, anything for their family – This is me choosing fly.
Not feeling quite so tired and heavy now – all he could really feel in this moment was his heart, filled to overflowing – Henry tightened his hold around the children. He couldn't wait to see his wife again, couldn't wait for her to come home – but he would wait for as long as it took, and in the meantime, he had a job of his own to do. No more of this worrying and suffering alone for any of them, now that the lines of communication had been forged anew, the floodgates flung open again.
He'd make waffles for them on the weekend, and see if Alison wanted to kick around a soccer ball once he was finished his marking. If he could sneak away soon, maybe he'd even see about digging up the Laffy String that he'd purchased this morning, out of habit more than desire.
He knew that he could hold his family together until Elizabeth's return.