I can't believe this is the end. This was by far the most challenging chapter to write and edit if only because I knew once it was done so, too, was this particular tale. I started the story of our unusual couple in the summer of 2012, over three years ago. I never imagined it would still be going on. Like I've said before, I almost didn't post this when the idea came to me because I honestly didn't think anyone would be interested in Angela/Eric and would think I was crazy. Then once I started I thought okay, maybe I'll get fifty chapters out of this. Understatement of the decade, lol. The ideas kept coming and suddenly we're at 130 chapters. So unbelievable.
Not everything has gone according to plan (Georgia was originally going to be a boy before she started to feel like a girl. Odd to get intuition for a fictional baby, let me tell you, lol.) and if I were starting it over there are some things I'd change...hindsight and all that. But overall I'm so happy with how this has turned out and I'm beyond thrilled that so many people stuck with me through various waits and delays and came along for the ride.
To all of my readers: thank you. I can't say that enough. Thank you for all of your reviews, private messages, follows, favorites...everything. After a certain point I became afraid that Where You Least Expect It was too large and daunting for a new reader to get into and was always happily surprised to hear someone thought otherwise. Thanks for taking a chance on this instead of thinking it was nuts and simply scrolling past.
The sequel will be coming soon. (There are one or two one-shots I'm editing and thinking of posting first, but we'll see.) It will be called Good Things Come.
Ahem...now for this chapter in particular our focus will be on our four main couples. It's the last chapter, yes, but it's more hitting the pause button than stopping. Still, I wanted to give it enough of an ending just in case some of you decide not to continue on to the sequel.
Thank you for reading along and hanging in there with me for the past three and a half years.
Samantha aka "Mattiewilda" :-)
"Remind me to eventually pick a steady shift instead of agreeing to be open to all these rotating ones," Naomi said to Shawn as she made the short distance from their bathroom to the kitchen. "It was fine when I was young, but now...I need some stability in my schedule." He didn't respond, instead his focus was on his laptop. She couldn't see what he was looking at, but since he had an assignment this morning, it was easy to guess work. "Hello, earth to Shawn. This is the part of the joke where you tell me I'm not old despite being a little older than you." Still nothing. She realized he had ear buds in and was oblivious to everything else around him.
There were a couple ways she could play this, Naomi realized. She could be sneaky and scare him- though that tended to make him avoid her the rest of the day- or she could go about her business until Shawn came out of his fog. Seeing as she wanted her kiss at midnight, Naomi opted to fix something to eat and wait for her fiancé to realize she was there.
It was ultimately the blender that let Shawn know he wasn't alone in the apartment. Naomi was making her morning smoothie. "Hi."
"Aw, and here I was thinking this cloak of invisibility was working."
"How long have you been home?"
"About forty-five minutes."
"See, I'm getting better with the oblivious thing."
"You're so lucky I'm not a burglar or some masked killer."
"Please," he scoffed, "I've got moves to handle myself."
She didn't bother hiding her laughter at Shawn's comically bad karate poses. "Those moves would paralyze a thug into hysterics, I will grant you that."
"Hey, meanie." He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. "You're in a very good mood for someone who worked the graveyard shift."
"I have the next three days off after working the past six." She kissed his cheek. "What's not to be happy about? Did you get the pictures you needed?"
"Yep- Times Square, before the crowds and the Ball drops."
"That is an odd thing for a newspaper to want pictures of."
"It was so peaceful, though. There's no one out right now."
"Do you have to go back tomorrow and take pictures of the poor people who get stuck cleaning up the confetti and other crap left behind?"
"Nope, they only wanted before shots."
She moved out of his grasp and went back to the stove to check her food. "And pictures of a deserted Times Square left you so captivated you missed that I was home for nearly an hour? I'm sure it was more impressive after that blizzard when we walked down there and made snow angels in the middle of the street."
Shawn smiled, still able to see that morning in his mind so clearly. Actually, he'd just been looking at it a little while ago. That photograph in the middle of Times Square was one of his favorites. It wasn't what anyone would consider his professional best. It was slightly blurry and out of focus, taken on his phone. It had been a spontaneous shot. After being goaded into snow angels he looked to Nomi and her expression…even now he didn't know if words would do it justice. Her face was mostly covered by her scarf, but her eyes shone with such warmth and love it took his breath away. She was full of joy and life and giving it all to him.
While helping him look for an engagement ring Jack asked if there was a specific moment he knew she was it for him. Shawn's response was simply, 'Snow angels in Times Square.' He loved that his answer made sense to no one but him. Even Nomi would think it was strange. "I wasn't looking at work stuff."
"I was…I was looking at us stuff."
"Us stuff?" She brought her food and smoothie to the table and sat down.
He turned his laptop around so she could see it. "You know- pictures and things from over the years."
"Oh, wow, is that one from Ben and Ashley's wedding," she said, referencing mutual friends of theirs. "It took me forever to get you into that photo booth. Even then you only put on sunglasses, wouldn't ever wear a goofy hat for me."
"Yeah, well, I'm not a photo booth kind of guy."
"Too bad, because we're having one at our reception."
"Since someone from the venue called a few weeks ago and asked if we would be interested. I said yes."
"They're fun. At least most people think so, Mr. Grinch."
"There's going to be kids at our wedding: Josh, Evan, Nina, Milo, and Turner's two kids. Georgia and Calum, too, but they might be too little to enjoy it. A few other guests might bring their kids, too. I don't want them bored out of their minds by toasts and dancing and having to sit still. This will be fun for them."
Shawn still wasn't convinced. "And any other big kid who decides to participate?"
"People love them. Why else would they be so popular?"
"They're mindless drones who go along with trends," he suggested.
"So, you mean to tell me if Nina grabs your hand and asks you to get into the booth and use the silly props you'll call her a mindless drone? Please, you'd instantly become her personal Mr. Potato Head."
"That's different. That's Nina. The kid has got some kid of mind trick thing going on that makes it impossible for me to say no to her."
"I'll say. The Pinkie Pie face paint from her birthday is more than enough proof of that."
"She looked at me with those eyes," he said in feeble protest before sighing. "Fine, photo booth for kids big and small."
"You won't be sorry."
"Something tells me I'm just one comical mustache away from regret." He dragged his chair over to hers'. "Uncle Mike called earlier."
"Is he still doing this New Year's Eve gathering?"
"Yeah, but…he forgot that he invited Virna."
"How the hell does he forget that?"
"We don't usually go to the trailer park to celebrate the New Year. I guess he throws her an invite every year- he knows she doesn't have any family around- and this was the first time she's accepted, if it's okay with me."
"It's unfair to put that pressure on you."
"I said it was fine. We ended at an okay place and we've talked and emailed a few times since then. Things have…they've been okay."
"What aren't you telling me?"
He picked up the bottle cap from an earlier bottle of soda and spun it on its side. "She's bringing someone."
"Oh," she exclaimed, eyes widening. "That's quite the announcement to make."
"Uncle Mike said he wanted my permission first, said she wouldn't bring the guy if it made me uncomfortable."
"What could I do, say she could come but leave her-her boyfriend…" The word sounded so foreign regarding Virna. "…leave him home?"
Naomi wanted to get on the phone and yell at Mike for putting Shawn on the spot like this. Usually he was more considerate of his nephew's feelings. "I don't know."
"Bottom line is we're meeting her boyfriend tonight."
She watched him pick up the top and spin it again. "Are you sure you're okay with this?"
"At the moment, yeah, but if that changes-"
"I'll come up with an excuse to get us out of there."
"So you worked, talked to Uncle Mike, and then started looking at pictures of us stuff? That's a lot of variety in your morning." She liked the idea he needed to see them to relax after Mike's call.
"I wasn't just looking at the pictures."
"Then what were you doing?"
"We don't have a song."
"For our first dance, we don't have a song that is ours."
"That's because getting you to sit down and pick anything is like pulling teeth."
"I have it narrowed down to two- that is if you agree with them."
"Really? Wow, this is a surprising morning. What are they?"
Shawn handed her the ear buds. "I put together two montages. Let me know which you like best. I'm going to go to the store and get some cider for when Cory and Topanga come over." For as long as he could remember he had celebrated the new year- and every other holiday in between- with his friends. This would be the first time they wouldn't be together when the clock struck midnight so Cory suggested having an early toast.
"You just get uncomfortable with mushy, romantic stuff, even if you're the one who put it together."
He squeezed her hand before vacating the table. "Maybe, but we still need the cider."
"Okay," she said, leaning up to give him a kiss. "But if you come home and find me an emotional mess you only have yourself to blame."
"So I should buy tissues, too?
Naomi playfully pushed him towards the door. "Get the hell out of here so I can marvel over how romantic you are."
"Save those honeyed words for the vows."
"Shawn, I'll play this with you right here- no headphones."
"All right, I'm going."
"Come on, Georgia, come on! Make the turn. You can do it."
Angela stood in the doorway, confused by the sight before her. Georgia was on the floor- in the corner actually- and was whining and grunting the way she did when she was frustrated. Eric was sitting a few feet behind her, a large variety of toys laid out before him, cheering her on. "Eric, what's going on? Why are you just sitting there? Get her out of the corner."
"I'm not just sitting here. I'm trying something."
She knelt down on the floor and tried to resist the urge to pick up her child the more her whines became sad, pathetic sounding cries. "You want to tell me what this plan is, because you have about .2 seconds to spit it out before I pick her up."
Eric winced at her tone, that protective Mama Bear edge to her voice that he typically wasn't on the receiving end of. "I just wanted to see if she'd be able to turn herself around or scoot backwards. We were playing and crawling around and I realized that Georgia's only crawling forward. She can't make turns or back up or even get to a sitting position because she still won't sit up by herself for very long."
"She's not even five months old yet and she mostly army crawls. Give her time to catch up. Sitting was supposed to come first." She scooped up Georgia and held her close, rocking back and forth. "What good is pressuring her going to do? She was obviously frustrated."
"I wasn't trying to pressure her. She crawled to the corner and then had no place to go. I just wanted to see if she'd find a way out herself instead of needing me to rescue her." He frowned when he saw how Georgia was clinging to Angela and had her face buried in her neck. At least the cries had stopped. "I didn't mean to freak her out. She's a smart baby. I honestly thought she'd get the hang of it after a minute or two and want to see the toys I put out. Instead I'm just the jerk who put baby in the corner."
"Uh-oh, Georgia," she whispered, nuzzling the baby's head, "daddy's getting silly." Angela scooted closer to him. "You're not a jerk, you just…we have to remember to read her cues. I know it's frustrating. Sometimes I wish she could do more than roll over and crawl forward, but pissing her off accomplishes nothing. And just because she hasn't done something yet doesn't mean she won't learn it. Georgia's just figuring things out in her own unique timeline." She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "I'm sorry I snapped at you. She started crying and I don't know…"
"You got primal?"
She laughed quietly. "I can't explain it. When her cries are at a certain pitch something in me just goes-"
"-Attack first and ask questions later?"
"More like: attack, maim, kill, bury the body, and then ask questions."
"Wow, so you went easy on me, huh?"
"What can I say, I love you."
"Lucky for me." Eric reached out and lightly touched his daughter's hand, relieved when she squeezed his finger in return. "Sorry, kid. I'll make it up to you."
"She's a baby. There's nothing to make up for. You are an amazing daddy." She could already see the puppies, ponies, and extravagant toys filling his head. "Next time just get her out of the corner."
"Believe me she won't get a chance to realize she's trapped before I swoop in."
"That might be overkill. I think it is okay to give her a minute to see if she figures it out, but if she gets frustrated to the point of having a meltdown the whole point is lost."
"I know. Mom said enjoy this time. Georgia will grow so fast and before we know it we're going to wish she wasn't mobile we'll be so exhausted chasing her around."
"Yeah, my dad was saying similar stuff." Angela frowned a bit at the thought of her dad. Actually it was the thought of her dad with Joyce that was the real problem. She didn't understand their relationship and was trying to accept the fact she never would. "Could you help me up?"
Eric held her arm and put his other hand on her lower back as she slowly stood. "How long is your dad going to be in Washington?"
"Until Monday, after that he's coming back here for a couple more days, and then he heads back home."
He followed her to the kitchen. "Are you okay with that?"
"What do you mean?" Angela chuckled and shook her head, looking down at Georgia. "Do you have special radar, baby girl? Do you realize mama's about to eat so you want jump to the front of the line and put in your order first?"
"Do you want me to feed her?"
"That's okay. If you could put some frozen waffles in the toaster for me that would be great."
"Is that what you were going to make?"
"I was going to make an omelet."
"I can do that. Did you think I'd say no if you asked me?"
"Of course not, I guess I still need reminders that it's okay to let people do things for me."
"Yes, especially me." He started taking out the correct pans and utensils. "Do you want ham, too, or just veggies?"
"Ham, please." For a while she alternated between watching Eric cook and looking down at Georgia, who had by now fallen asleep. "Why did you ask if I'm okay with my dad going home?"
"You've enjoyed having him here, that's all I meant."
"I have. Nothing is ever going to make up for those years he shut me out and part of me is always going to be angry, but he's my dad. I've missed him so much."
"And I just…people keep telling us we need to treasure this time with Georgia because she's going to grow before we can blink. With my dad there's this voice inside my head telling me to cherish every moment we have together because he's on borrowed time."
"Did he say anything?" Eric carried their plates over to the table and sat down beside her. "Has his diagnosis changed at all?"
"No, and yes, I trust that I'm being told everything now. Aunt Trish accompanies him to every appointment and reiterates whatever dad tells me the doctor said." She reached for his hand. "I've felt like this ever since our trip to Las Vegas. I don't know if going to the doctor with him made it more real for me or what. I keep waiting for this feeling to go away, but it's not. I can't shake it."
He moved his chair closer and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
"I wish there was because I would totally let you dive in and fix this."
"Your dad knows if there's ever a situation with treatments and money…he knows it's never a question, right?"
"I made sure he knows the offer is there from both of us. I wish this was something we could throw money at and fix." Angela rested her head against his shoulders. "Do you want to hear some good news? At least right now I'm considering it good news. I reserve the right to change my mind and freak out when the date gets closer."
"What's going on?"
"I called Dania this morning. It's official: I'm working Fashion Week."
"Yay," he responded in a whispered cheer, not wanting to wake the baby. "Yay for you."
"They want me there the day after your birthday."
"Dania said it could end up being eight or nine days depending on if I'm needed to cover the men's fashion and accessory shows."
"I'll bring Georgia up whenever you miss her. Or if you want us there the whole time, that's fine with me, too. I've still got some paternity leave left."
"Give me time to think about that. I'm trying to get used to the idea of leaving my baby behind for at least a week. And you, too."
Angela leaned up for a kiss. "Leaving the both of you will be tough. So much so I'm starting to wonder if this really is good news."
"Will it make you happy?"
"One I'm actually there in the middle of it and working? I think so."
"Then it's good, no, great. You'll be so great the writing world will be begging you to come back and give them more."
"One gig at a time, okay?"
"It's my turn!" Evan raced to the front porch and reached the mail box just before Nina.
"Is not! You checked it last time. Mommy, daddy!"
Jack sighed and shifted a sleeping Milo in his arms at the same time he tried to keep the diaper bag balanced on his shoulder. "Guys, don't run." They had just come from the doctor's office and everyone- he and Rachel included- had fevers and ear infections. He and Milo somehow ended up with double ear infections.
"Hey, knock it off," Rachel admonished, bringing up the rear with Calum in his car seat. "Evan, you got the mail yesterday. Today is Nina's turn. Give it to her so she can bring it in."
"No, I wanna take it out of the box."
"What difference does it make, honey?"
"I want my full turn," Nina insisted.
She rolled her eyes, but was too tired to argue about it. "Fine. Evan, put the mail back in the mailbox so she can take it out."
Evan quickly looked over the mail, one letter in particular catching his eye. "But-"
"Now, Evan. Come on, it's raining. We're already sick. We need to get inside."
He turned away just long enough to stuff the envelope into the pocket of his hoodie. "If you're going to be a baby about it," he said to his sister with an over-exaggerated sigh. "There, get the mail."
"I'm not a baby!"
Rachel unlocked the door and ushered everyone in. "I want both of you to get into pajamas because-"
"But we didn't even eat lunch yet, mommy." Nina dropped the mail in its usual spot- a bowl on the coffee table. "You're not making us go to bed, are you?"
She hoped they would feel like naps soon or, at the very least, some quiet time. "No, no bed, but we are going to take it easy for the rest of today and tonight."
"Are you and daddy putting on jammies, too?"
"Yes. Now scoot. "
"I'm just going to put him in our bed," Jack said, nodding to Milo. "Nina's very loud right now. Putting him in his crib almost guarantees she wakes him in ten minutes."
"Good call. He is the sickest, you both are."
"I don't suppose this means you'll handle everything while I sleep this off?"
"Sorry." She took Calum out of his car seat and placed him in the crib. "After everyone is fed and medicated you can sneak away for a nap."
Rachel laughed at his brief answer, but knew Jack was really just trying to remain upright. He was not good at being sick. "This is one thing we think about when we decided to have kids."
"We have to still parent and be adults no matter how we're feeling."
"Yeah, it's a screwy system."
"Mommy, help! I'm stuck in my pajamas!"
He chuckled and lay down on the bed, careful not to disturb Milo. "Sorry. I'm just going to close my eyes for a minute and listen for the little guys here."
"Dad, where's my Spiderman shirt?"
She held open the bedroom door with a smirk on her face. "Batter up, Hunter."
Jack walked into Evan's room and went immediately to the dresser. "You know the pajamas are in your third drawer. That's where we tell you to put them anyway so they don't get lost. Ugh, come on," he tossed a T-shirt towards the laundry basket. "Did you forget that the dirty clothes go in your basket, not back in the drawer? How many times do we have to remind you? This is dirty from yesterday."
"Sorry," he answered in a quiet voice. "It was an accident."
"Ta-da!" He held up the desired items of clothing. "Spiderman." He tossed them to Evan, but the boy made no move to catch them. Instead they hit his chest before landing on the floor. "What's wrong," he asked when they weren't picked up. "Are you getting dizzy when you bend over like I do? The ear infection can do that."
"Then what is it?"
"I'm sorry I messed up the clothes and got you mad. I can help you the next time you or mom do laundry."
"What are you- I didn't…" He sighed and sat down on the twin-sized bed. "Evan, I'm not mad at you."
"You sounded mad."
"I'm just grumpy because I'm sick. It always puts me in a bad mood because all I want to do is sleep. I'm sorry if I scared you. I need to be better about paying attention to what I'm saying and how I'm saying it."
Evan picked up the pajamas and sat down beside Jack. "No one likes being sick. I did find one good thing about it."
"When your ears are all stuffed up Nina is much quieter."
Jack simply smiled, afraid if he laughed it would turn into a cough. "Be nice to your sister."
"But, dad, she-"
"I know but she's still your sister and would we want her any other way?"
"I guess it would be weird if Nina didn't act like Nina."
"Right. You change and when you're done…" He was about to get up and leave when he noticed something sticking out of Evan's pocket. "What's this," he asked, pulling out what ended up being an envelope. He looked it over and saw it was addressed to The Hunter Family. "Is this mail?"
"Why are you hiding mail? Who is it from?"
"I think it's from my old mom."
Jack's expression softened. "What makes you say that?"
Evan took the envelope and pointed to the return address. "I don't know what this whole word is, but I know r-e-h-a-b is where she always talked about whenever she took drugs again. Police told her she had to go and the rest of our old family, too. They said if she went she would get better. But they lied. That place never made her better no matter how many times she went."
"Rehab," he said quietly. "Your mom is in a rehabilitation center."
"She's my old mom! Rachel is my mom now."
"Evan, sweetie," Rachel called out from the doorway, "It's okay." She had been on her way back from Nina's room when she overheard their conversation.
"Is it all right if I open the letter?"
"I don't care."
Jack scanned the letter as efficiently as his fever addled brain allowed. It was a pretty general. There was only one thing that stuck out. "Evan, has she sent other letters?" There was a mumbled response he couldn't quite understand. "Did she?" Jack watched silently as he went to his toy box and pulled out one of his remote control trucks. He brought it over and opened the trunk, showing the crumpled envelopes that were stuffed inside. There were four in total. None of them were opened either. "Why were you hiding these?"
"I don't know."
Rachel walked into the room and sat beside her husband. "You must've had a reason."
"I don't know," he repeated, looking everywhere but at Jack and Rachel.
She could see that he wasn't going to talk now. His face was flushed and his eyes glassy, things she'd like to blame on the illness sweeping the house but in Evan those were signs that he was either really angry or trying not to cry. Sometimes both. "Do you want us to go now and give you some privacy?" Evan nodded. "Okay." She took the letters from Jack and placed them back into the trunk of the monster truck. "We'll just leave those there to keep them safe for whenever you're ready to talk about them." She patted Jack's leg before standing. "Come on."
He wanted to argue with her, wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on right now, but knew from past experience that Evan couldn't be made to talk. He wasn't like Nina that way. "Do you want your door closed, pal?"
"You can come out for lunch whenever you're ready, no rush. We'll tell Nina you're sleeping so she won't bother you."
"You know me and surprises. I don't like the unpredictable. Can't you tell me anything?"
She knew he wasn't going to quit until she gave him something. It was hard to complain when she was the exact same way. They were people who had come to thrive on structure, routine, and complete control of their environments. "What would Dr. Kelly say to do right now?"
She had him there. "She'd tell me to trust you. Trust that you know me and us enough to not pick something I'll hate."
Topanga stopped walking and stood in front of him. "Can you do that?"
"I'm going to try very hard."
She gave him a quick kiss before they resumed walking. "That's all I ask."
A few minutes later they stopped in front of the old building that had been their home until a couple weeks ago. "This is our first time back since the move," he noted. "I miss it a little bit, which I know is strange to say since I spent so long wanting to move out, but-"
"Maybe it's the neighbors you miss?"
"That's probably it. I mean, we're ringing the bell to be let into Shawn's. That's just wrong! We've always been one door away."
Topanga ran her hand down his arm. "I know, honey. I wonder if the people who moved into our apartment are here."
"You mean home?"
"It's weird thinking about it as someone else's home. It was ours' first."
"Yeah, but why do you want to know if they're home?"
"I'm just curious."
He pressed on the buzzer for Shawn's apartment again. "You're just angling to see how they decorated, aren't you?"
"You have to be careful with that kind of space. It doesn't take much to overwhelm it. There is a very specific flow to the apartment."
"Okay, Topanga, whatever you say."
"I hope they left the bedroom blue. It gave off such a peaceful aura."
"Honey, you've got to let them find their own aura." Just when he was starting to think Shawn and Naomi ditched them, the door opened. "It's about time, Shawnie. Did you forget we were coming over?"
"Uh- Nomi and I, we just…we lost track of time. That's all." He rubbed his hands together. "Let's get inside. My New Year's resolution is not to freeze to death with you guys on the stoop."
"Lost track of time," Cory called out as he followed his wife and friend. "How do you-ugh. Don't think for one minute that I don't know what that means, mister!"
"Oh, my goodness," Topanga said as she took out the earbuds and reached for the box of tissues, "Shawn picked this?"
"It was all him."
"This is just…wow. I know he has it him in to be sentimental, I've seen it, but he hides it so well."
"Don't tell him I played it for you, just in case he's not ready to let everyone in on his mushy side." Naomi handed over a couple more tissues. "Stop crying."
"But it's just so beautiful."
"Are we ready to do this toast?" Shawn froze the minute he saw Topanga crying. "Nomi, you weren't supposed to tell anyone."
"I didn't tell her. She just happened to see the montages you made."
He was more amused than angry. "You still broke your promise."
"Not necessarily," Topanga said, wiping her eyes. "For all you know I could've been nosy and saw the laptop and the headphones and took it upon myself to investigate. Either way my client walks by way of technicality."
"Don't be all lawyer-y today."
"Aw, what's wrong, Shawn? Is the corporate, commercial world infringing on your holiday?" Naomi wrapped her arms around him. "That's okay, Charlie Brown got through it and you can, too."
"How about we have two minutes to get on with this toast or I'm telling Cory all your plans tonight?"
He checked his watch before saying, "one minute and forty-eight seconds," and going to the living room.
"Finally," Cory exclaimed when he saw everyone coming into the room. "I was just about to see what was taking so long." He accepted a flute of cider from Naomi. "Thanks."
When no one spoke, she decided to start. "This has been quite a year."
"That's the understatement of the century. I don't even know where to begin."
"I can't believe we're finally getting you married, Shawnie. I thought you'd keep Naomi waiting forever."
All Topanga could do was laugh. Of course his first thought when attempting to summarize the year would be about his best friend. The changes in their relationship- from marriage counseling to moving- were second, perhaps a distant second at that. Even his delayed enthusiasm over becoming an uncle couldn't compete. "Oh, Cory."
"Nothing." She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Absolutely nothing."
Jack and Rachel looked up and saw Evan standing on the other side of the table. They hadn't even heard him come into the room. "What's up? Are you feeling better?" He shrugged. "You missed lunch. Do you want some soup?"
"No, thank you." He put the letters down. "Here."
Rachel picked up the envelopes, noticing that they were now opened. "Do you want to talk about this?"
"If you want to."
"What does your old mom have to say?" While Calum has been legally theirs' since he was two days old, things were more complicated with Evan, Nina, and Milo since they came to them from foster care. They were still waiting for a court date to finalize things. And until the adoptions were official she was hesitant to refer to Kara as being the kids' former mom, but given the way Evan reacts otherwise, she decided to follow his lead.
"I couldn't read a lot of her writing, but she said she is working hard at getting better and that she hopes we had a nice Christmas. She says the snow is pretty to look at, but too cold."
"It is cold. Maybe next year we'll go to New York for Christmas so you can see it in person," Jack suggested. "You can see the huge tree in Rockefeller Center and Shawn and I can teach you and Nina to ice skate."
"Are we still going to be living with you next Christmas or are we going back?"
"What do you mean, going back where?"
"Whenever my old mom went away to get better, we always had to go live with her again when she came back."
"Is that why you hid the letters," Rachel asked. Things were suddenly making more sense to her. "You thought if we never saw the letters then we wouldn't know she was getting help and trying to get better?"
"I don't want to go back. She never stays better."
She knelt down in front of him. "You aren't going anywhere. I promise. Everyone- even your mom- agrees that this is the best place for you, your brothers, and sister. And I know it's hard for you to understand right now, but she does want the best for you guys."
"Really. The only thing we're waiting on is getting a court date to make everything official but sometimes those just take a while."
"Will court be soon?"
"We certainly hope so." She gave him a quick hug. "But you can stop worrying. Jack and I wouldn't let you guys go for anything. This is where you belong."
"Can I have my soup? I'm hungry."
Rachel laughed and threw her arms around him again. She had been bracing for another tough question. But soup was easy. Soup they could take care of now. "Absolutely. How about that soup, dad?"
Jack was already at the stove reheating the pot. "You got it."
Eric had Georgia lifted high above his head and was swaying her back and forth while making airplane noises. "Captain Georgia has been cleared for landing. Over." He lay back on the couch and slowly brought her down to rest on his chest. Her smiles and laughter were exactly what he needed after their misadventure in crawling this morning. "Hi, what do you think you're doing, huh?" She had her tiny hands on his cheeks and was patting and pinching his cheeks, babbling in her own baby language the entire time. "I happen to agree with you, Vacation Daddy is better. Who needs shaving?"
"Does the person you plan on kissing at midnight get a vote?" Angela almost hated to interrupt. She could've stayed hidden away and watched this sweet scene all night. Sometimes she still couldn't believe she got to have the two of them in her life. No matter what else was going on- stressing out over her dad or career concerns- she had them to center her. Eric and Georgia brought her peace and unconditional love on a level she didn't think was possible. Whether it was fate or some sort of cosmic fluke they were hers' and for that she was grateful.
"You did and you got outvoted. Majority rules," he said, never taking his eyes off the baby. "Mama's just being silly, right, Georgia?" He winced at her high pitched squeals. "We've got to work on controlling those high notes."
"Because that's the only thing stopping her world tour?"
"It's certainly not helping. Ouch, and what is with this nose obsession? It's disgusting."
"She's curious." Angela took a seat beside them on the couch and momentarily wondered when Eric changed into the tuxedo T-shirt. "My dad called."
He sat up and looked at her. "And?"
"And nothing. He just wanted to say Happy New Year. He's going to dinner and then a concert."
"At least he's keeping busy."
"I suppose that's one word for it. He did say his friends were gushing over pictures of Georgia and how adorable she is."
"Naturally," Eric bragged with a smile. "Since she looks so much like me, does that mean I'm adorable, too?"
"Sure. I may be biased, but I've always been a sucker for a guy in a tuxedo tee. Why did you change, by the way?"
"It's New Year's Eve."
She leaned forward for a kiss but her goal was halted by the squirms and shrieks of her daughter. "What do you think you're doing, little miss?" She tickled the baby's belly. "You got some daddy time in already. It's mama's turn."
"I don't think I'm the one she's territorial over." He handed her off to Angela when she flung herself forward. "You're the one she doesn't want to share."
She stood Georgia on her lap and grimaced when the little hands went right for her face. "Strange girl. Daddy's so much more fun that mama."
"Maybe, but she loves you a little more."
"Eric that's not-"
He held up his hand. "It's okay. I'm good with it. Right now you're the center of her world, of our world. It's a popularity contest I can't win."
She snuck in a kiss between baby hands. "Let's call it a tie for first."
"No, really, I'm fine. I'll just win her over to my side later," he teased.
"That could work. I've got now and you can take the Terrible Twos."
"Wait, what kind of deal is that?"
Topanga pushed the skinny red straw around her glass and watched Cory stare out the window at the crowds of people several floors below. Neither one of them had said anything in a while. "You're not having a good time, are you?"
"What makes you think that? Of course I am. This has been fun. Dinner, dancing, and a perfect view without having to deal with the cold and all the drunken idiots that are out- what's to complain about?"
"You seem distracted."
"Well yeah, two guys down there were crowd surfing and then collided. And then the one tried to start a fight while they were still on top of the people," he explained in animated fashion. "I was watching the police bust it up."
"Oh, that does sound interesting." She peered outside, but the excitement had died down. "I'm sure there will be another drunken brawl later. I'll catch that."
"Why did you think I wasn't having fun?"
"You weren't saying anything. Cory, I love you, but keeping quiet has never been your forte."
"Do you want to know what I was thinking about before I saw the drunk crowd surfers?"
"I was thinking about our first year in the city. You and Eric dragged Shawn and me out to watch the ball drop."
"That's right. We wanted to get out and have fun and you guys were a couple of moody misers. Shawn was depressed and hadn't started therapy yet and you were homesick for Philadelphia."
"We ended up having a pretty good time even if we did lose Eric and not see him again for a day and a half." He shook his head. "We never did get a straight answer out of him about where he was."
"I don't think I want to know."
"That's probably for the best. Can I ask you something now?"
"What made you put this together? I would've been just as happy relaxing at home or staying around Philadelphia."
"I know, but I wanted to do something special." Topanga reached across the table and held his hands. "This year has been such a roller coaster. When it first started I thought it was going to be one of the worst of our lives. We were so miserable but we couldn't bring ourselves to admit it. Then we got over ourselves and put our egos aside and really got to work on our marriage. It's been a bumpy road and while I think we'd both agree this isn't the best year we've ever had, it might be the most rewarding. We proved that we'll still do whatever it takes to be together."
"We're Cory and Topanga," he said, squeezing her hand. "Anything less than together is unacceptable."
"I love you, Cory."
"I love you, too." He looked around when music filled the air and it was apparent the live band was back from their break. "Are we in danger of losing this primo seating if we get up for a while?"
"No, they're reserved."
"Good." Cory got out of his chair and pulled his wife to her feet. "Dance with me?"
"I'd love to."
"Hello, Virna." She plastered a polite smile on her face. "Are you enjoying the party?"
"Oh, it's nice, but I was hoping you knew where Shawn disappeared to."
Naomi looked around. She had been engaged in conversation with one of Uncle Mike's daughters about the wedding and was unaware Shawn slipped out. "The last time I saw him he was talking to Mike and your boyfriend. They were all laughing and smiling."
"I know, but Reuben said one minute Shawn was fine and then the next he seemed to be looking for an excuse to get out of the conversation." Virna pulled at the collar of her sweater. "I wanted to see if he was okay."
"I'm sure he is, but why don't you let me find him?"
She squeezed the younger woman's arm. "That would probably be smart."
"Don't worry," Naomi said, opening the door to exit the doublewide, "I'm sure he's fine."
"Hey, you. I don't think you're supposed to be starting fires out here."
Shawn gave her a small smile before tossing in a few more sticks. "How did you find me?"
"It's nearly midnight. Where else would you be but a vacant plot?"
He moved over so she could sit beside him on the log. "Our trailer used to be right here."
"Dad and I used to put lawn chairs on the roof and watch movies that showed at the drive-thru. He said it wasn't stealing because they were the ones dumb enough to not put up a building around the movie screen."
"That's interesting logic."
"He'd park his truck over there and you see that ditch?"
She looked to where he was pointing. "Uh-huh."
"It was really hot one summer and of course we couldn't afford a pool, so Chet dug that ditch and filled it with water."
"Wouldn't that be muddy?"
"Oh, it was a mess," he said with a laugh. "Virna got so mad and he tried to spin it by saying he was giving her a fancy spa experience with mud baths."
"You came out here to reminisce about movies and mud baths? Shawn, you can do that inside where it's warm."
"No, it's not that." He tossed some more sticks on the fire. "It was weird seeing Virna with another guy, especially here."
"I'm not volunteering to run the woman's fan club anytime soon but she did check with you first."
"I know and he's a nice guy and the kicker is I think dad would really like him, although he'd definitely make fun of his name-"
"I did not!"
"Virna introduced you and you said you loved his sandwich."
"His name is Reuben. The joke writes itself. If he's going to blame someone he should blame his parents. But it's- he's not-"
"He's not Chet?"
Shawn got up and paced around the fire. "Everything is just all jumbled in my head right now." He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at Naomi. "I'm sorry."
"I've ruined another perfectly nice occasion by dragging up my past."
"You haven't ruined anything." She checked the time on her phone and saw it wasn't too much longer until midnight. "Come here."
"Come sit next to me. I think I can fix this."
Shawn was skeptical, but did what she asked. She continued to look through her phone. "If you're looking for the video of your sister's dachshund with its head in the peanut butter jar you can stop. Yes, it's funny, but I've seen it a million times."
"Not that. Just give me a minute." Naomi found what she was looking for and pulled headphones out of her pocket and plugged them in. She handed him one. "Here."
"Okay, okay," he said with a sigh, putting it in his ear. "Why do I only get one?"
"Because I'm using the other one." She moved closer and rested her head on his shoulder. "Just relax and listen."
"Is this some kind of motivational self-help podcast or-" He stopped talking when the music started. Shawn knew the song from the very first note. His instantly flashed back to the montages he made for Nomi this morning to help her song selection. "Not fair using this against me." He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her temple. "Thanks, Nomi." He closed his eyes and tried to replace the memories of his past with all of his hopes and dreams for their future.
She snuggled closer. "Anytime."
"Jack, wake up."
"What?" He sat up from his slouched position on the couch and looked to his wife. "Alright, stop poking my ribs. I'm awake."
"We fell asleep."
"You woke me up to tell me that? You've either had too much NyQuil or not enough."
"The ball's going to drop soon. Should we wake the kids?"
He looked at the mass of pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals on the floor. There was the occasional limb sticking out, enough to let him know the kids were still there. "Are you insane? They're sick and sleeping. Why would you want to mess with that?"
"They were so excited about being able to stay up until midnight, at least East Coast midnight." The plan had been to be awake and watch the festivities on TV. Then they brought their pillows and blankets to the living room to watch a movie and were asleep within twenty minutes. "They'll be upset in the morning." She checked on Calum in his Moses basket before lying back down, her head resting on Jack's leg.
"Tivo exists for a reason."
"I guess you're right," she said through a yawn. "I don't think we'll make it until midnight either. Should we kiss now?"
"We're sick." He closed his eyes. "I'll owe you one."
"Okay. Hey, Jack?"
"Best year ever."
He reached for her hand. "Definitely."
"We are five minutes away from dropping the ball and welcoming another new year, ladies and gentlemen, so stay tuned!"
Angela shook her head, watching as Georgia played with a couple of toys in her lap. "How are you still awake, kid?"
"She figured we were going to have some fun tonight: party hats, noise makers, champagne-"
"All things a baby loves."
"I guess we've got ourselves a party animal."
She ran her hand along the baby's back. "It's so crazy, isn't it?"
"Look at everything that has happened to us. It's insane. Two years ago at this time I was living in Sydney, determined to make that work. Last year we were just starting our relationship and had no idea that this sneaky little one was already on her way." She winced when one of the toys connected with her face. "Ouch."
Eric took the toy, a move that made Georgia shriek in protest. "You have to be nice to mama. No hitting her in the face."
"I'm sure she didn't do it on purpose. Anyway, back to my point, now this year we're here: sitting on our couch, in our very own home with our daughter who is not quite so sneaky anymore." The baby made some more noise. "No, you're not, little miss. You're the opposite of sneaky. You are the bull in the china shop."
He took the baby from Angela. "You get that from me, Georgia, sorry about that." He sat her in his lap and let her play with one of the noise makers.
"Two minutes away from welcoming another year, folks!"
"Should I put her in the bouncy seat so we can kiss without her putting herself in the middle?"
Angela laughed. "No, she's pretty happy."
"I know what you were saying though. It is nuts when you actually stop and think about it what happened this year. It just makes me wonder one thing."
She glanced at the TV when the crowd started the countdown. "What's that?"
"How on earth can we top this?"
Angela cupped his cheek in her hand and kissed him. "I don't know, but I can't wait to find out."