Two Months Later

The worst night of his life came and went. He relived those memories every day, and he knew he would for the rest of his life... That fight, the broken music box, Diana leaving, and... that feeling. The feeling when he realized that he'd never, never addressed Gabe's death. Never said goodbye. The wound was torn open again, the grief suffocated him, strangled him, and it almost pulled him under. He'd lost so much- his child, his wife, that part of his life was over.

And then Natalie had come home. She was safe. She wasn't high. She was... perfect. I still have all this, he thought.

They could make it through together.

He couldn't ever tell anyone what had happened to him that night- not the fateful night when Diana left, but the night when he'd seen inside Natalie's life. From then on he'd given all of his energy to being the kind of father she deserved. And who knew? Maybe, without that night, he would have lost her, too. Maybe she wouldn't have left him, or died, but he wouldn't understand her. He would have lost her companionship, if not her whole self.

But she was getting on, like he was. Every day was a challenge, and it hurt to wake up in the morning. He sometimes thought he was alone, but then he'd remember he still had Nat, and she was more than enough to get him through the day. He worked hard and could go a few hours at a time- sometimes even days- without having to stop and think about that night and everything that had changed since then. But on nights when she went out with Henry and Dan was left alone, he felt the echos of the grief. The new grief.

It was one week before her seventeenth birthday, and they still hadn't talked about what she was going to do. Obviously she wasn't going to have a party- though Dan might have been absent, he did notice Natalie's lack of a large group of friends. But maybe she wanted something special? It was hard to say, but he wanted to make her happy.

"Hey Nat?" he asked her one day after school. "You're turning seventeen soon... any plans? Anything special you want?"

She looked up from her schoolbooks and thought for a minute. At first she shook her head. "No, nothing special..." but then she seemed to reconsider. "Yes. Actually, can we have a family dinner? I know it sounds not special at all- but just a normal night? Just a cake, singing, and us? And no talk about anything that's, um... not here? I just want a normal birthday for once."

Dan smiled. "That sounds... great, Natalie. Just us?"

She hesitated. "Well, I kind of want to invite Henry- nobody else though. I don't want anything big. But after all that he's done-"

"That's perfect," Dan said, smiling wider. Remembering all the disastrous birthday parties in the past- mostly hers, though how could he forget Gabe's birthday celebration of last winter?- this sounded so healthy. "So... chocolate or vanilla cake?"

Sixteen Months Later

The day had finally come- he'd dreaded it ever since Diana left. It had been looming in the back of his mind, threatening him with the pain it would bring.

It was the day Natalie was leaving for school.

He was happy for her like a dad always is supposed to be- really, how could he not be? She got into Yale with scholarships- her dream school, and a wonderful one at that! But... now what would he do? He was saying goodbye to his daughter and the person who'd kept him sane for the last few years.

She'd already bid farewell to everyone before they left town- which mainly included Henry, who she'd see frequently anyway in school, so there was no really heart wrenching goodbyes. God knows how she'd been longing to turn her back on high school! This was an improvement for her, and she could only go up from where she was.

Dan couldn't wait to hear about it all. He wanted her to call and tell him everything she was doing, who she met, what her classes were like, everything. He knew she'd succeed. She'd be wonderful, bright, and most importantly, free- everything she always wanted to be. She always was, but this change of scenery was good for her.

As for how Natalie thought about this, she couldn't be more excited. They jam-packed the car with everything she'd need and began driving, Natalie reading and rereading her schedules and maps the whole time, wondering things aloud, stuttering off bits of trivia about Yale and so forth. She was a little nervous, but it was nothing to how he felt.

How could he go home to an empty house? How could he face the loneliness? He was alone. Natalie- though she'd be back, and they'd keep in touch- would never be completely his anymore. She never really was. But now she was an adult, essentially living on her own... she didn't need him anymore, except to pay the bills. What was he to do?

All too soon, they'd arrived, unpacked everything from the car, brought it into her dorm, met her roommate, RAs, found her buildings for her classes, gone to all the freshman meetings...

"Dad?" Natalie said as it grew late. "I think I'm ok. I don't know that you need to come back tomorrow."

He stilled for a minute. "What?" She doesn't need you."Oh. Oh, ok, sweetheart. As long as you're ok."

"Oh, Dad," Natalie said, hugging him. "I'm going to be ok. The question is, are you?"

He didn't answer. She gave him her best "grin-and-bear-it" face, and slapped him on the back. "You'll be fine, Dad. You're strong."

Was he?

"I love you, Natalie. Call if you need anything- anything at all- it's only a two hour drive and I'm happy to come back."

"I know, Dad- I promise I'll call. I'll call you tomorrow just because, ok?"

Finally, after goodbyes and hugs, they parted, and he returned to his car alone.

One Month Afterwards

Dan got home from work and turned on the lights to the house. The house was too big for him, he knew. He went upstairs to change out of his work clothes, and saw the familiar picture frames on the dresser. Di had taken all of the ones that were special to her, but there were a few that he wouldn't have chosen to keep there. Some of her things still lingered here and there, though she'd come long ago to retrieve them.

There were three bedrooms, one of which was occupied. Or half-occupied- it was meant for two people. He had three bathrooms- why did he need that?

He walked through the house, looking at everything. He saw the scuff on the floor from where the music box had broken, scarring the wood. He saw the rug up on the landing where Natalie had slipped and fallen down the stairs, breaking her arm. As he wandered into the basement, he found photo albums, especially the one he didn't want to see. "Gabe," the words on the front read.

He saw memorabilia from his and Di's marriage- memories that had once assured him everything would be fine, and now just enforced the fact that she was gone. He saw little signs of Natalie growing up- pictures she'd drawn in kindergarten, clay pots she'd made in middle school... The dress she wore to that dance Junior year hung in her closet.

Dan picked it off the hanger, looking at the blue fabric, the small sparkles on the skirt. She looked very nice in this dress. When he thought of Natalie going to that dance, he realized something good had come of that night. For the first time in weeks, she'd made an effort to look pretty and go do something fun, and non-threatening. It was really the beginning of her recovery.

But the memories still stung- they were everywhere.

"Out- I need to get out of here," he said to the empty house. Empty. He lived there, true, but was it his home? No. It hadn't been for a long time, and now that Natalie was gone, there was no need to stay.

He'd find a new place to live- nearby, but not too close. He'd start a new chapter of his life, and, with a little luck, heal.

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