Author's Note: This fic was directly inspired by nonadhesiveness's Ripple Effect (chapter 26), but it does not take place within the same 'verse – you don't need to read that one to understand this! (You should read it anyway, because it is one of the greatest gifts to this fandom).
Trigger warning for mental illness.
Henry finished shading in the eye that he was drawing, and then straightened up to consider his work.
Was Buttercup's face really that narrow? he wondered.
It had been far too long since he'd seen the horse, too long since they'd visited Charlottesville at all – too caught up in the stresses of Washington's daily grind to remember the things that really mattered.
Taking a deep breath to ease the regret that he could feel rising within him, he took his eyes off the sketchpad in his lap and let his head tilt back against the wall.
Employing the strategies that he'd been learning here, Henry closed his eyes and zeroed in on what he could feel –
His aching bones, stiff from sitting hunched and cross-legged on the bed for too long while he drew.
His thin grey hoodie, impossibly soft after so many years of wear. If he closed his eyes and buried his face deep enough into the fabric, the comforting smell of home still just clung to its fibres.
The brilliant sunshine absolutely flooding in through the large windows of his room.
The simple pleasure of those sunbeams streaming onto his face helped to warm and calm him, and Henry soaked up every ray of that light before taking one more deep breath, and releasing his anxieties on the exhale.
They were manageable now, not heavy like when he'd first arrived, crushing him like a vice and threatening to eat him alive.
When he opened his eyes again, they fell upon the other pictures that he'd drawn so far this week, tearing them out of the sketchpad when he was finished and taping them to the bare walls of his room – the brownstone, their first car, the quad at UVA, each of the kids several times over.
The days were structured here – mornings were for group therapy and recreational time, afternoons for individual sessions and physical activity. When Henry wasn't playing piano during his spare time these days, he could always be found sketching.
Not reading, though.
There was a Bible here, should he want to read it, and he knew that many of the other patients spent their recreational time perusing the ward's small library. But his beloved Aquinas and Aristotle and all those other great thinkers were all wrapped up in how he'd found himself here in the first place – he wanted to get things in his head sorted out a bit better first, before diving back into them.
All of the details of the night he was admitted were crystal clear in Henry's mind, but the next seventy-two hours were mostly a blur, and the days after that crammed with so much frustration and resistance. His breakthrough had finally come after hours at the piano, filling the air with the music of every angry Russian composer he knew, when he'd stormed back to his room and begun slashing away at his sketchpad, drawing two young men who deserved far better than what America gave them.
He'd been sobbing by the time he was finished, and when Dr Hughes came and sat down beside him, Henry had finally been willing to talk, the whole (redacted) story pouring out of him until he had nothing left.
That tear-stained sketch wasn't on the wall, but safely tucked away in his file.
Since then, his sketches had mostly flowed naturally, both a sign and a source of his more relaxed state of mind.
Henry was just as exhausted as he'd been for weeks or months before coming here, sleep pulling at him even now, just a few short hours after waking, but it was a different kind of tired these days.
Before, his heart would race as he lay in bed at night, plagued by anxiety and insomnia that bled into the daylight hours and left him on edge and distracted.
Now, there was a kind of satisfaction in the fatigue, a sense of accomplishment as he dragged himself heavily to bed at night and fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow. His brain was getting as much of a work-out as his body ever did in the Marines, every one of his muscles aching as they got put through their paces.
As hard as he'd been working, and as much progress as he'd made, Henry knew that there was one more sketch buried deep inside of him, and he knew that he couldn't go back home until the little boy and his hockey stick found their way onto the page.
He could feel the memory fighting its way towards the surface even now, his fingertips itching to pull the image out like a splinter so he could finally begin to heal – but that wound was old, and he simply couldn't predict what might happen when he began to poke at it. Henry was beginning to know his limits now, and so he would wait until his doctor sat before him, and it was safe to dredge it up.
His gaze returned to the sketch of Buttercup.
Drawing him and Lady and the children was as close as Henry would ever come to attempting to draw Elizabeth, pouring his very soul into the things she loved and bringing them to life. He had tried so many times over the years to recreate her likeness, but he had learned long ago that he would never be able to capture her essence to his satisfaction.
A light tapping on his open door interrupted his thoughts.
"Hi, Henry," smiled one of the young nurses. "I have some people here who'd really like to see you, if you're feeling up for it?"
Henry was on his feet in an instant, his creaking limbs protesting at the sudden movement, his heart leaping in his chest. Tossing his reading glasses onto the bed, he made his way swiftly across the small room, a genuine smile cracking its way onto his face for the first time in forever.
Dr Hughes had told him yesterday that he was now cleared to have visitors if he wanted them. There weren't many people in the world he could fathom facing right now, but he missed Elizabeth and the kids and their hugs like oxygen, and so he'd immediately jotted down their names. With his wife's always-unpredictable schedule, he hadn't dared to hope that he'd get to see them so soon.
The elation within him spluttered like a candle when Stevie appeared in the doorway.
"Hi, Dad," she said quietly, wearing that face she'd inherited straight from Elizabeth, the frozen smile and sliver-thin irises pale as ice that said she was frightened but determined to appear brave. Jason and Alison peeked cautiously over her shoulders, not even attempting to conceal the grim line of his compressed lips or the way her nostrils flared with rapid breaths.
Shame tried to rise within him, dark and slippery like an oil slick, but Dr Hughes had worked with Henry to prepare for this moment. The fear in their eyes was normal, laying eyes on him for the first time since he went away, but he did not need to be embarrassed for his illness, any more than he would if they were visiting him as he recovered from a bout of pneumonia.
He did not need to feel guilty, because he hadn't failed them as a father. Getting treatment was the right thing to do for himself, but it was also the first step towards being able to protect his family – this was how he could show them that he was doing what he needed to do to get well.
Henry swallowed hard and held onto the back of the little couch facing the bed to steady himself.
"Hey guys," he said, meeting their gaze head-on and offering them a small smile. "I'm really glad to see you."
The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Jason's blurry form was barreling towards him, making him grunt with surprise and the impact when they collided.
Henry was still gaping when Alison joined them a moment later, tucking herself against his side. He squeezed them both tightly, his touched-starved fingers burying themselves in Jason's shirt and his daughter's long, dark hair.
Stevie was slower to approach, and Henry eyed her searchingly. Only when their eyes met did it dawn on him that the largest, brightest piece of the McCord family puzzle wasn't there to light up the room.
His chest tightened sharply, like a hand reaching straight in and twisting his heart out of place.
"Mom didn't come with you?" he asked, willing his voice not to crack.
His eldest rolled her wide eyes impatiently, still managing to get in a dig at her mother even when fear made her gaze pierce a little less intensely, made her dry voice a little less biting.
"She's downstairs," Stevie replied, gesturing vaguely in the direction from which they had come. "She said it was because the room would be too crowded, but I think she's got this stupid idea that you won't want to see her."
Henry blinked at her, bewildered. Not want to see the love of his life?
Stevie shrugged, scornful and incredulous, but even as he read the conviction in her eyes, Henry dismissed his daughter's read on the situation. If she and her siblings had been frightened to come here today, how much more must Elizabeth have suffered, having had a front-row seat for his breakdown?
She must have been so scared, he thought, feeling her anguish like a knife in his belly. What if she was too frightened to ever be with him again? In hindsight, it was surprising that she'd allowed the children to visit him alone.
His eyes prickled with tears. His throat narrowing as he fought them back, it was all Henry could do to offer his eldest a fierce shake of the head.
Stevie winced and bit her lip. "Let me give her a call, okay?" she said, patting his arm. "I'll get her to come join us."
She stepped back out into the hallway, and Henry returned his attention to his two younger children, who still clung to him as though they thought he might disappear.
"I've missed you guys so much," he murmured, before guiding them around the low couch.
Alison wedged herself comfortably in one corner, resting her head on her father's shoulder and hugging his arm, threading their fingers together. Henry inhaled deeply, drawing strength from her warmth and her calm.
He'd always found it funny that their inquisitive little dreamer, their artist, should see the world in black and white, persuaded only by what she saw before her eyes. Not being able to see him all this time must have allowed her imagination to run wild, but now that she could see that he was all in one piece, she was left (mostly) reassured.
Jason, meanwhile, squirmed away as soon as Henry's hug had loosened, blushing furiously as he settled in the far corner of the couch. He hugged himself with crossed arms, his brow furrowed in a way that Henry couldn't quite read.
Stevie rejoined them before he had the chance to puzzle it out.
"She'll come up after we're done," she told Henry when he looked up at her, and the vice-grip on his heart loosened a little.
With no space remaining on the couch, Stevie had to settle for wrapping her arms around her father from behind it, squeezing tight and pressing a fierce kiss to his temple. Henry could feel her heartbeat as if it were racing inside his own chest, but he didn't rush her, merely stroking the arms that encircled him, and breathing in the familiar scent of her shampoo.
When she was ready to relinquish her hold, Stevie perched atop the back cushions of the couch and rested one hand on Henry's shoulder. He reached up with his own free hand to squeeze her fingers in his.
"Are you feeling better?" Alison asked quietly, lifting her head from his shoulder.
"Ali!" Jason hissed. "Don't ask that!"
Henry raised an eyebrow at his son. "I am starting to feel better," he replied honestly. A swarm of butterflies fluttered low in his belly, but he wanted, needed to be able to talk to them about his stay here. Start slow, he reminded himself, breathing in. Start slow and feel them out. "What did Mom tell you?"
Jason glared at his sister. "Not to ask too many questions if you didn't want to talk," he muttered, crossing his arms more tightly around himself.
Henry chuckled. It felt good to laugh, to work those muscles that hadn't been used in far too long, and the laughter coupled with his joy at seeing them warmed him better than all the sunlight in the world. "It's okay," he assured them. "I'm okay to talk. I meant, what did Mom tell you guys about why I'm here?"
It was a question he'd been wondering a lot lately – how had Elizabeth explained away his absence? It was the kind of decision that they always tried to make together, but this time she'd been left behind to make that call entirely on her own. How much had she told them?
"That you were having a hard time, so you needed to go away for a while so you could start feeling like yourself again," Stevie replied, her voice unnaturally light, striving and failing for nonchalance.
Three pairs of eyes blinked back at him, troubled and distressed, and Alison's grip tightened protectively on Henry's arm. Clearly their imaginations had provided no shortage of guesses as to what Henry might have done while he was having a hard time and not feeling like himself.
Henry nodded, his heart aching for them. The truth, then – but not nearly the whole story. Not how frightened for him Elizabeth had been, nor the fact that he'd been committed against his will, after she'd needed to resort to calling 911 on him in the middle of the night.
Exactly what he'd have told them, if he'd been the one left at home.
"But what happened?" Alison pressed, nudging him.
Henry sighed deeply, closing his eyes for a moment to gather his thoughts. "Something bad happened at work, and I haven't been handling it very well," he said, when he was ready to face his children. That was as simply as he could put it. "Mom saw better than I could that I was struggling, and she arranged for me to come here so I could get help."
He saw a million questions alight like fireworks in Alison's eyes, but he held up a hand to stop her before she could ask them. "I can't talk about what happened, not with you guys." He was getting better about talking about it in therapy, and he would work towards sharing it with Elizabeth when the time was right, but right now the wound was still too raw, and he tasted bile at the back of his mouth at the thought of trying to relate it to his children.
Stevie elbowed her sister to cut her off. "Drop it, Ali," she said urgently. "He said no." Her hand on Henry's shoulder gave a protective squeeze, and he reached up once more to tangle his fingers with hers in thanks.
The room fell quiet then, Alison cowed into reluctant silence. Henry pressed a kiss to her hair to show he wasn't angry, but hecould feel tension radiating from his eldest, could see her biting her tongue to stop it from asking a question of her own. Trusting her to respect his boundaries, he tilted his head back on the couch, forcing her to meet his gaze and eyeing her knowingly until she cracked.
"Does Mom know what happened at work?" she asked quietly.
"She does," Henry promised, his heart lifting to be able to give her a truthful answer that would help. "Mom knows about all of it."
Stevie nodded, and he could see her breathe easier at the knowledge that he wasn't bearing the weight of his problems alone. She leaned down to press a kiss to his forehead.
Henry's own mood was buoyed only until he turned his attention back to his only son. "Jason?" he asked softly, frowning. At some point while they'd been talking, Jason had pulled his legs up onto the couch, and was now hugging his knees to his chest. "You've been pretty quiet over there. Is there anything you want to ask me about?"
Trembling with the effort of holding himself still, Jason hardly dared to look up and meet Henry's gaze. "You mean it's not my fault?" he asked, his voice cracking.
Henry's heart stopped.
"What?" he asked, faintly and aghast. Feeling like all the air had been sucked out of the room, it was the only word he could manage.
"I skipped school, and you took away my Xbox, and I said I hated you, and then the next morning you were gone," he rambled, hiccupping for breath. "I thought—"
"Jason Thomas McCord, no," Henry swore vehemently, adrenaline surging through his veins, oxygen flooding back into his lungs. "You did not cause this. Mom and I hate arguing with you, but we know it's normal for kids to push boundaries with their parents."
"Please, I need you to hear this," Henry insisted, his heart twisting painfully in his chest. "What happened after you guys went to bed was always going to happen that night. It had nothing to do with how any of you were behaving – I already needed to come here. This was not your fault. Do you understand?"
Jason let out a sob at these words, and Henry untangled himself from Alison just in time to catch his son as he flung himself across the couch and into his father's arms. Henry squeezed him as tightly as he could, and Jason sobbed harder.
A passing nurse conducting her rounds of the ward poked her head into the room at the commotion, but Henry brushed aside her concern with a wave, stroking Jason's hair and kissing the crown of his head.
He knew how to do this.
"Oh, Jason," he sighed, when the boy's tears finally slowed. "Have you been keeping this bottled up all this time? You can't do that, Buddy. You have to let us know when you're worried or upset so we can help you."
Jason drew back to shoot his father an incredulous glare. He could feel a matching burn from the girls, both of them glowering at him from either side.
"I mean it," Henry said, firmly and certainly. "I know how that sounds, given where we are right now. But if I can't pass along the lessons I'm learning in here, then what was any of it for? Come to me or Mom or your sisters, or somebody else you trust, but do not let it eat you alive. Promise me?"
All three children nodded, and Jason leaned back in for another hug.
"I hate fighting with you too," he murmured into Henry's hoodie. "Maybe when you come home, we can do something together – we could go jogging sometimes?"
"I'd really like that," Henry replied, squeezing tight and soaking in this rare moment of closeness with his son. "I love you so much, Jason."
Jason squeezed back, and then tried to pull away, but Henry wasn't finished with him yet. "I'm not letting you go until you say it back," he said, grinning, already reaching for the spot where he knew his son was most ticklish.
"I love you, I love you," Jason laughed, squirming to avoid his father's fingers.
"Move, Noodle, it's my turn," Stevie said, nudging her sister.
"Don't call me that!" Alison protested, but she made way for Stevie all the same, moving to sit on the coffee table in front of them, where she could still press her knees against Henry's.
Stevie hugged her father the way she always had – tightly, like he was her hero, the most important person in her world. Getting to hold her properly in his arms at last, he could feel the remainder of her nervous energy melting away, and he knew without looking that her eyes had finally darkened back to their normal colour.
"I love you so much," she whispered softly in his ear. "I'm really glad Mom got you to come here."
"Me too," he murmured. "I promise I'm doing everything I can to get well enough to come home, but seeing the three of you is the best medicine yet."
"Do you want to do anything while we're here?" Alison asked him. "We could play cards, or go for a walk, or…"
Henry smiled, the warmth and love suffusing his chest leaving no room for anxiety now.
"Tell me about your week," he said simply. "More than anything, I've really just missed all of your noise."