"Daddy, save me! The dragon's gonna get me!"
"The winter princess is in danger! Get back, foul beast!"
Noel climbed the tall willow tree in the backyard. "The dragon got me! He's gonna cook me with his fire breath and eat me!"
Mike swung his wooden sword at the tree. "Unhand my daughter, you overgrown lizard!"
Noel jumped into her father's outstretched arms. She turned back to the tree and yelled, "No monster is a match for my dad!"
Mike slayed the "beast," and then Noel took his sword as he knelt on one knee.
"I dub thee Sir Mike, royal knight to the Winter Princess."
"It is an honor to serve you, my princess."
Zoey called from inside the house, "Okay Winter Princess, that's enough dungeons and dragons for one night, you have a busy day tomorrow."
"But Mom, we're having fun! I'm turning seven in just two weeks and the sun only set five minutes ago, can't I stay up longer?"
But Svetlana appeared and said, "She is right! You are having ze dance recital tomorrow! Hurry, get in bed so you can beat ze other little girls and show off everything Svetlana has taught you!"
"Only if I get a story first!"
Svetlana rolled her eyes. "Fine, fine, now get in bed! Your body must be in tip top shape!"
Noel obeyed and ran to her room. She quickly dressed in her pajamas, brushed her teeth, and hopped in bed just in time for Svetlana to walk in.
"Okay, Svetlana will get Mike and-"
"I want Chester to tell me a story tonight."
"But zat is Mike's job."
It was always weird when her dad would refer to himself in third person, as though he was a whole other person, but Noel didn't dwell on it much. "Just for tonight, I want it to be Chester."
"Aye, aye, aye, you are ze only person in ze vorld zat likes hearing him talk. It is very concerning." Svetlana vanished and Chester took her place.
"All right missy, ya only get one story and that's it, we'll be having none of this, 'just one more' business."
Noel nodded in agreement, and Chester launched into a tale of the old days. Zoey had warned her that Chester liked to exaggerate and to take everything he said with a grain of salt, but she was always enamored by his stories and didn't care if they were true or not.
After he finished his story, he said, "And by the way, no more climbing up those dang trees. You're gonna fall and poke your eye out!"
"But Manitoba says I should look for the tallest trees I can find and climb to the very top to see the view."
"Manitoba don't know nothin' about nothin'! Same goes for the rest, dang punks. Now go to sleep, Nova. I've learned ya enough for tonight."
"That's what I said, turn your ears on, ya whippersnapper."
He was about to leave the room when she said, "Wait! Aren't you going to give me a kiss goodnight, Daddy?"
The sound of his name brought Mike back. "Oh, how could I forget!"
He ran back over to the bed and tickled her feet, causing her to erupt in a fit of giggles, and he laughed with her. He knew he wasn't supposed to tickle her before bed because it riled her up, but he couldn't resist. He loved the sound of her laughter.
Mike let up the tickle assault and kissed her forehead. He brushed back her red curls away from her eyes and noticed her doll on the floor, the one she and Zoey had made together when she was four. It was old and ragged, but it was her favorite and she couldn't sleep without it.
"And we can't forget Marcy!" he said as he tucked the doll under the covers with her. She had named the doll after Marceline in Adventure Time, her favorite character.
"Daddy, can I always live here with you and Mama?" she asked with a yawn.
"Well of course you can, but why would you want to? There's a whole world out there to see, and all kinds of things to do. Besides, you'd just get sick of us."
"No I wouldn't! I want to be with you forever."
"Whatever you do, you'll always be my winter princess. Goodnight, Noel."
Mike turned out the light and closed the door. Putting Noel to bed was much easier now than it had been when she was a baby, because he could always count on one of his personalities to make a loud racket and wake her up again. A minute later Zoey came in and hugged and kissed her goodnight, as well.
Noel thought about Chester's story, and about how Svetlana had taught her gymnastics, dancing, and figure skating. It was weird how her father so often pretended to be different people and insisted on being called different names, and how he would say one thing as one character but do the complete opposite as another. Sometimes she wondered why this was. It was all she had ever known so it seemed normal enough to her, but she still had questions. She didn't want him to stop, no, she loved his characters. They were funny, and they each taught her things. It was just her dad's way of being silly and making her laugh. It was just a game they played, her favorite game.
After Noel was put to bed, Zoey and Mike went to shower together. The hot water and the closeness helped Mike relax and sleep better throughout the night. They held each other close as steam fogged up the mirror. Zoey ran her fingers through his hair as Mike kissed her lips, down to her neck and collarbone, down to her arms. They felt all their cares melt away, at least for the moment.
After the hot water ran out, they reluctantly got out and went to bed. Zoey put on her pajamas and Mike put on his pajama pants, but not the shirt. He didn't have to put his shirt back on because Vito showed no signs of appearing. Removing his shirt still triggered him, but he didn't come out in the bedroom anymore, which was a blessing. Zoey didn't mind sleeping with Mike with his shirt on, but being able to admire his abs without it getting in the way was much better.
Once under the covers, Zoey laid on Mike's chest and rubbed circles over his heart. He put his arms around her and played with her hair and rubbed her back. It was in these moments when Mike felt truly relaxed. He should have been able to forget all his worries and think only of Zoey, but he had a lot on his mind tonight.
Zoey asked, "Why have the other personalities been coming out so much lately? They're supposed to have one Saturday a month, but they're stealing time with Noel away from you. I know they still like to come out randomly, but it's been happening a lot more lately than usual."
"You know how they get this time of year, they're excited about Christmas and Noel's birthday. I've actually been letting them out more recently so they can get it out of their system, so I can have her birthday and Christmas to myself."
"Mostly to yourself. They'll want to give her their presents themselves, no way are they letting you do it."
"They should go back to the normal schedule after the holidays are over."
He paused, then asked, "Do you think Noel likes them more than me?"
"Why would you think that?"
"She asked Chester to tell her a story tonight, instead of me."
"You have to remember that she thinks you're just acting, she didn't know she was denying you your time."
"The others are really cool, cooler than me. More fun, too. They've taught her all kinds of great stuff, and what have I done?"
"Well, let's see," said Zoey. "You taught her to swim, right?"
"But Vito taught her to surf."
"You taught her to fish."
"Manitoba broke a wild stallion and taught her to ride it."
"You tell her stories."
"So does Chester, just like tonight. And Svetlana is training her to be an Olympic champion and a dancing prodigy. I feel useless."
"It's not a contest."
"It is to them. And what good am I as a father if my daughter likes my alternate personalities more than me?"
"But there are things you can do that the others can't. You're the best dancer of the bunch, as much as Vito tries to deny it. And you're the best singer. I don't know why the others can't sing as well, you share the same set of vocal chords. Svetlana's opera is okay, Vito's beatboxing is all right I guess, Manitoba's folk songs on the guitar are nice, and then there's whatever Chester does, but you've got the best voice, without a doubt."
"I'm not done. You also draw beautifully. None of the others are interested in drawing, except Manitoba, but he only draws maps. Noel learned how to draw and paint from you.
"You're the real artist, especially when it comes to making and designing clothes."
"That's not the point. Remember, not a contest. And you're musical, too. You taught Noel a little on the piano."
"I can barely play."
"You know enough to learn to play her favorite songs, and that means a lot to her. You write songs for me, and though they may not be on Mozart's level, they still mean the world to me. And your stories are her favorites, even the ones she's heard a million times. You have a way of telling stories that makes them feel magical. You have the biggest, brightest imagination, none of the others have that.
"And you might not have noticed this, but Noel confides in you more than the others. She doesn't know the others are alternate personalities and not you, but she's most comfortable talking to you about her problems and other things anyway. She trusts you the most, even more than me, and that speaks volumes. But most importantly, you're her daddy, and she's a daddy's girl through and through. The others are not her daddy. If anything, they're her wacky uncles and aunt. Daddy comes first, so don't you go selling yourself short, mister. You're not Superman, but she loves you more than you realize."
"I wonder what it's like, growing up with a dad like me."
"I'll tell you what it's not: boring."
"She said she wants to stay with us forever, if only that wish could come true."
"I know what you mean. But Mike, when are you going to tell her the truth about your personalities?"
Mike sighed and held her tighter. "What if it scares her? It scares almost everyone else."
"It's never scared her before, why should it now?"
"She thinks it's all an act, once she knows it's because I have a mental disorder, she won't ever look at me the same way again. I'm used to being rejected, it doesn't bother me so much anymore. But if my own daughter were to reject me… I don't know what I would do. I couldn't bear it."
"Give her a chance to prove herself. Noel is sweet and kind, and tough as nails, too. She can handle this."
"I wish we lived in a perfect world where I wouldn't ever have to tell her."
"But we don't, so you'll have to tell her, and the sooner the better. One reason is that you and your personalities set down different rules, and so her moral code is a bit skewed. You'll tell her she can't stay up late on a school night, but then Manitoba will come in hours later and wake her up to go nighttime exploring. The lack of consistency in what's allowed has got to be very confusing for her.
"But more importantly, she needs to know because she's getting old enough to ask the tough questions. I can already tell she's starting to get suspicious that something is up. We have a very weird family, Mike, it's not normal in any way, and she needs to understand why. Pretty soon she'll start to realize that our way of life isn't typical and she'll wonder why, and she might go looking for answers in the wrong places. The last thing we need is for her to find out about MPD from someone who has no idea what they're talking about."
"But she's so young, can't we give her a few more years of blissful ignorance?"
"She's smart, and kids can handle more than most adults give them credit for. If you want, I can tell her."
"No, no it needs to be me. I'm just dreading it because I won't ever be the same to her. She'll finally realize that daddy isn't the knight in shining armor she believed him to be."
"The mark of a great hero is his flaw. You'll still be the same as you were before, she'll just understand better why you are the way you are. You'll still be her knight in shining armor, but with a chink in your armor."
"I'll tell her soon, I promise. Just give me a few days to prepare. I don't want to screw this up and say the wrong thing and freak her out."
"Everything will be fine, don't worry about it."
"You always say that."
"I've been right so far, haven't I?"
Mike kissed her, and she kissed him back. They turned off the lights and went to sleep.
"Svetlana is so excited! My little ballerina, on ze stage!"
"Svetlana, let Mike have a turn so he can watch Noel perform."
"No way, hose."
"It's José," she muttered, but accepted defeat. There was no way Svetlana was going to give up the reins during a dance recital.
Noel and the other girls her age came out in their white tutus. Noel had been cast as the lead in the dance, and so she was doing more moves than the other girls. But Zoey had watched her practice her routine several times, and she was doing more complex moves that weren't in the program.
"Svetlana," Zoey whispered. "Did you tell Noel to do all those extra dance moves?"
"Of course, she must stand out like star. Ze dance was too amateurish for her, zis is more befitting her skill."
"She was already in the lead, she didn't need extra moves. This could throw off the entire show and mess everyone up. And it'll just make the other girls feel bad."
"Not everyone can be ze champion."
"And you're just giving her a big head."
Svetlana turned to look at Zoey in confusion. "How could Svetlana be enlarging her skull?"
They watched the rest of the dance and joined in the standing ovation. Zoey had to admit that Svetlana was a great teacher, even if she was potentially making her daughter into a showoff. It was bad enough that Mike spoiled her (but if she was being honest, she did too). Noel performed dances with ease that tripped up older girls. She was always very impressed with her skill, and maybe just the teensiest bit jealous, too.
After the recital ended, Zoey and Svetlana had to search through the crowd for Noel. Noel spotted them first and ran over to them.
"Mom! Did you see me, did you see what I did? Was I amazing?"
"You were spectacular, sweetheart! You stole the whole show, but next time, talk to your instructor before adding moves to the dance, okay?"
Noel giggled as Svetlana mimicked Zoey behind her back. Zoey caught on fast and turned on Svetlana, but she assumed an innocent expression before she could be caught.
"All right, you've had your fun. Mike, return to planet earth, please."
Mike took back control and Zoey said, "Noel did so well in her performance, didn't she Mike?"
He was disoriented for just a second, but then he picked her up and tossed her up into the air. Zoey had innumerable pictures of Noel in midair. She let out a squeal of laughter as he caught her.
"You were awesome!" Mike agreed.
Suddenly, Noel's dance instructor came out of nowhere. Zoey assumed she was here to berate Noel for going freestyle.
"Hello Ms. Carter. About Noel's dance, you won't have to worry-"
Ms. Carter interrupted her and said, "Congratulations!"
"Noel told me the good news! You're having another baby."
Mike and Zoey both just stared at the woman for a while, then at each other, then back at her until the situation became awkward.
"Um, we're not expecting," said Zoey.
"You're not? But Noel said-"
"Noel, have you been spreading rumors about us having a baby?" asked Mike.
"It's not a rumor, it's true," said Noel, as if this settled everything.
"What makes you think so?" asked Zoey.
Noel just shrugged.
"Um, I think we'll be going home now," said Zoey.
"Yeah um, it was nice seeing you Ms. Carter," said Mike.
Mike carried Noel out of the school with Zoey by his side.
Once they were in the car, Zoey began to scold Noel. "Sweetheart, you can't go making up stories and spreading them around. Now everyone is going to think I'm pregnant when I'm not."
"I didn't make it up, I just know."
Neither parent knew what to say to that. To avoid an awkward silence, Zoey turned up the radio and put it on the Christmas station, and they sang along to the carols. Mike normally didn't sing along to the radio, but he loved singing Christmas songs.
They had just got through singing Grandma Got Run-over by a Reindeer when Mike said, "There are a lot of weird Christmas songs out there."
"I know," said Zoey. "Even weirder that we sing along to all of them."
"I didn't really have Christmas as a kid, not until Jack and Holly took me in. I love to sing along to the radio during Christmas to make up for lost time, even when they're playing the strangest of songs. Is it weird that I like Christmas so much?"
Zoey thought of the Christmas lights he put on the house the week after Halloween. It was hard to say who was more excited for Christmas, him or Noel. "Whoever said you have to stop getting excited at Christmas when you grow up was a grumpy old curmudgeon and a moron. Besides, I won't be married to a Scrooge. You don't want a Grinch for a daddy, do you Noel?"
"Don't be a Grinch, Daddy."
"Okay, you talked me out of it."
Just then, another song came on the radio:
"I want a hippopotamus for Christmas,
Only a hippopotamus will do.
Don't want a doll, no dinky Tinker Toy,
I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy."
Zoey and Mike burst into laughter and sang along, and Noel tried to keep up.
That night, after he had put Noel to bed, Zoey was brushing her hair while Mike took his anxiety and depression medication.
Zoey told him, "I have a doctor's appointment scheduled for the day after tomorrow, I could have him check, just in case."
"But you've been on birth control, there's no way you could be pregnant."
"Birth control isn't a hundred percent effective. Accidents happen."
"Noel probably made up the story to try to tell us she wants a little brother or sister," said Mike. "If she's right, you definitely need to break out the tarot cards. But do you want another baby?"
"Actually, I was going to broach the topic sooner or later. I was an only child growing up and I was really lonely, and I don't want her to go through the same thing. I know we decided to wait a while before having another baby to make sure we could make it work with your alters, but I think we've waited long enough. Do you want another baby?"
"I've been thinking about it a lot lately and… yeah, I really do," said Mike as he came to sit by her on the bed. "We've got that empty room full of junk, we could clean it out and turn it into a nursery." Mike started getting more and more animated the more he thought about it. "We still have Noel's old baby toys in the attic, and her old baby clothes, too, right?"
"Mike, I don't think you let me throw out anything of hers," Zoey laughed. "Half the attic is filled with her baby stuff. We probably won't even have to shop for anything new."
"Noel would be such a great big sister, and I'd get to be a daddy again. Zoey, let's go look through the attic, see what we've got!"
"Mike, we don't even know if I'm pregnant yet," she said with a smile. His enthusiasm was always contagious. "If I'm not pregnant, we'll start trying again. Who knows, maybe we'll get a little Mike junior this time."
"I would love another baby girl, but I hope it's a boy. Either way though, as long as it's healthy, I'll be happy. But what if it is a boy? That would be awesome."
Zoey held his hands and said, "You're so cute when you're excited."
Her lips felt like rose petals as she kissed him, soft and delicate. He kissed her back and smiled.
"What did I ever do to deserve you, Zoey?" he asked.
"You didn't do anything to deserve my heart, I gave it to you because I love you, and I will never love anyone else the way I love you. Nothing will ever change that."