The police reinvestigated the case. Since Noel had been found alive, they could no longer keep Mike for murder. He was cleared of all charges, but he had to undergo a full psyche evaluation, and he was being kept for no less than three weeks. During that time, he was allowed no visitors or outside contact. It killed Zoey that he had to be locked away again after all this, but he assured her he would be fine. Unlike last time, he knew he wouldn't be there forever.
Christmas day came and went with no celebration. Mike was still undergoing his psyche evaluation, and they refused to celebrate without him, so they postponed it.
After the evaluation, it was determined that he was not a risk to himself or his family, and he was allowed to leave, though he still had to see a psychiatrist at least once a week. He was put in contact with a good psychiatrist at a price they could afford. Dawn came back and assured him that his aura was, for the most part, free of Mal's influence.
"But you still must do the mental exercises I taught you and secure the walls in your mind at least once every two weeks, and it never hurt to do it more often than that. If you do, you won't have to worry about Mal anymore."
"But what if I hit my head again? That's what released him last time."
"The mental techniques I taught you should protect against that. It takes a lot to break down the walls I set up."
Mike hugged Dawn, and she hugged him back.
"Thanks Dawn, I really appreciate all this. If it weren't for you, I never could have defeated Mal. Even if I had escaped and found Noel sooner, without your training, I couldn't have kept Mal away. He would have killed them all. I owe you a debt I can't ever repay."
Zoey hugged her next. "Thank you so much Dawn. I'm sorry I ever doubted you, I never will again. Will you come see us again soon?"
"I haven't been able to make connections with many humans, you're two of the very few people I care to be around that aren't animals. You'll be seeing me again soon, but not in the way you expect. Zoey, how are you at making wedding dresses?"
"I've never made one before, but I'd love to start. Why? Is someone you know getting married? Are you getting married?"
"That's all I needed to know. I go where the wind takes me, but you haven't seen the last of me, that I can promise you."
Mike didn't mind the psyche evaluation or the therapy or Dawn's meditation, not as long as it kept his loved ones safe. But the problem was, he wasn't sure he should go home and stay with his family. According to the psyche evaluation he wasn't a threat, but he was having trouble trusting himself. If his presence posed a threat to them, he would leave without hesitation.
Noel still struggled with nightmares and anxiety after her ordeal, and so Dawn recommended they call DJ. Although he was a phenomenal cook, he wanted to help people, and animals, by providing support and comfort, so he studied psychology and became a therapist. Zoey went to see him at his office while Mike was having his first session with his new psychiatrist, and though he was happy to take her on, he refused to let her pay him.
"I am going to pay you, whether you like it or not."
"I'm not gonna accept it. When I heard about what happened to Noel, I was really broken up over it. I'm just glad she's back and okay, she's a great kid. I know after the year you've had money's got to be tight, and with a new psychiatrist and twins, even tighter. You guys need the money more than I do."
"No buts about it, the matter is settled. Besides, us Total Drama castmates gotta look out for each other."
"DJ I have to pay you, it wouldn't be right not to. I'm not letting you treat my daughter for free."
"How about this: You guys haven't celebrated Christmas yet, right? Take the money you were going to pay me with and give Noel and your boys a Christmas to remember. It's your first together with your sons, so make it really special. And let me pop in every now and again for dinner, does that sound fair?"
Zoey relented, there was no way she could win this argument. "Thank you DJ, this is so kind of you."
She kissed him on the cheek and he smiled.
"Oh, by the way, I need a woman's opinion. Mind if I borrow yours?"
"Sure, what for?"
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little velvet box. He opened it and inside was a diamond ring. The ring was designed as vines twisting in a circle, and the diamond had emeralds on both sides to look like leaves on a white rose.
"I'm gonna ask Dawn to marry me on our next date."
"I didn't know you two were dating."
"It's not a secret, we just don't like to make a big fuss over it, and we're good at staying out of the press's spotlight. We just celebrated our three year anniversary. B's the one who got us together in the first place, he's her best friend and he decided to play matchmaker. I'm taking her to the Aurora Borealis and I'm gonna propose. So what do you think? Will she like it?"
"It's beautiful DJ, she'll love it." Zoey hugged him and said, "I'm so happy for you!"
DJ always did therapy sessions in an outdoor environment, but for Noel, since she had spent the last year hiding in the woods, he agreed to hold her sessions indoors. They became fast friends, and Noel was able to relax more after they started therapy together.
Before his psyche evaluation began, Zoey was allowed to see Mike behind bars. They were brought to an interrogation room, with Mike in handcuffs. She brought Noel along with her, and she gave them some time to talk. Zoey stayed with Noel in there with them so she wouldn't be frightened.
"Noel, are you scared of me?" he asked quietly.
She didn't answer. She had been staring at his handcuffs, but she diverted her gaze to her hands in her lap. Mike noticed and put his hands under the table.
"If you…if you want me too, I'll find another place to live. I'll leave so you don't have to be afraid anymore."
"You would really do that?"
"Anything to keep you safe."
"Where would you go?"
"I don't know. I'd find a place somewhere."
"Would you ever come home to visit?"
"Only if you wanted me to."
"You'd be all alone, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, I would, but don't worry about me."
"Would you be happy like that?"
No, he could never be happy alone. He needed his family more than he needed air. But if he told her that, it would make her feel guilty about sending him away, and he didn't want her to feel any guilt over this, so he said, "I suppose I could be."
Noel was silent for a few minutes, deep in thought. "Daddy, you told the story of Little Red Riding Hood wrong."
This was random and unexpected, but he went along with it. "I did?"
She nodded. "The huntsman and the wolf were the same person. The huntsman would transform into the wolf and do terrible things, like try to eat Little Red and her grandmother. But the huntsman didn't let the wolf control him, because he couldn't let him hurt the ones he loved. He defeated the wolf and saved everyone. The wolf was horrible and evil, but it didn't make the huntsman any less of a good person. The huntsman had a good heart, even with the wolf inside him."
"I like that story," said Mike, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
"Me too. I don't think I would be happy if you weren't with us. I don't think you're a freak, Daddy, and I don't want you to go. I'm scared, but I don't want you to go away. Please don't go away."
"We'll see, nothing's been decided yet."
"Noel, could you step outside?" asked Zoey. "I need to talk to Daddy alone for a minute."
Noel left the room without a word. Mike was relieved that Noel wanted him to stay, but that didn't mean it was a good idea. He had already decided the best option would be for him to go, but he was leaving it up to Zoey.
"What do you think, Zoey? Do you want me to come home, or do you think I should leave?"
"I haven't decided yet, I need time to think about it. I need to be sure that whatever decision I come to, it will be the right one, for you, for me, and for the kids. I'll tell you my decision after your psyche evaluation is over, but Mike, even if I decide you should go, do not think for one second it's because I hold this against you. It would be for our protection, not because I can't forgive you. I would still want you to be a part of our lives, I wouldn't let you be completely alone. But whatever I choose, I'll still love you, okay?"
"Okay. And Zoey, I trust you'll make the best decision, no matter what it is."
Zoey asked her closest friends what they believed she should do, and she spent a lot time alone deciding what she thought she should do. She also had a serious discussion with Noel about how she felt about it, because since she was Mal's biggest victim, it wouldn't be right to not include her on this. Her opinion had the greatest impact on her decision. By the time Mike was released, she had made her final decision.
After he was released, he and Zoey went to their room to talk about her decision. It was long after the kids were put to bed. Now it was time for Zoey to choose if Mike would be staying or leaving.
"Do you think you should go?" asked Zoey. "Truly?"
He nodded. "If you want me to leave, then I will. If you think you and the kids would be safer without me, then I'll go. Last time I considered leaving, it was without talking to you or considering your feelings, and that was selfish and unfair to you. We need to make this decision together. If you think I should go, I'll be sure to pay child support. If you want a divorce…" His voice hitched and it was very difficult to talk. "Then I'll sign the papers. You won't be tied to me anymore, you can be free. If you think I shouldn't be in the picture, I don't want you to feel any guilt over it, because I know that whatever decision you come to will be the right one. If I go, I promise you I'll be okay. I don't want you to worry about me, I'll still see my psychiatrist and I'll take my medication. I'll find a job somewhere and an apartment and I'll take care of myself, and I'll be fine. I don't want to go, but I have to do what's best for you and the kids. All I ask is that you let me visit them every now and again, but only if they want to see me."
"Dawn said Mal can't come back this time. Do you believe her?" she asked.
He nodded his head again slowly. "I'm still… I'm still so scared of him. Nothing my parents ever did to me was as bad as what Mal has put me through. He took everything from me; the fact that I've gotten my family back doesn't change that. I'll always be scared him, but I won't let him have the power like I did before. I'm going to get my life back, even if it means being on my own. I'm going to make sure he's gone for good this time, but I still think I should leave, just in case I… in case I fail again."
Zoey was quiet for a long while, and Mike was dreading her answer. He felt his eyes sting with tears, but he refused to cry. He couldn't cry on her shoulder on this night like he had on other nights, he needed to be strong now, for himself and for Zoey.
Finally, she spoke, slowly and quietly. "I want you to stay. I'd rather have you here with us than anywhere else, and Noel feels the same way, she wants you here. She needs more time to recover, but she doesn't want you to go.
"I believe you've got Mal under control now, I truly do. I have faith in you, I always did and I always will. I've talked to Gwen and Cameron, and they agree. I'm scared too, but I love you more than I fear Mal. Things will never be the same, he changed everything. He almost destroyed everything, and it's going to take a long time for us all to heal, but we can fix this mess he made and move on. I'm not about to let him win by sending you away. I love you Mike, and I want to start rebuilding what we lost."
"When you look at me, do you see me, or Mal? I don't want you to see him when you look at me. If you see him in my eyes, if you think of him when you look at me, then I can't stay with you, not in good conscience. I won't make you have to live with Mal."
"For a long time, I did see Mal whenever I looked at you, and I had trouble seeing the real you. Even after you brought Noel home, it was like I could still see his ghost in your eyes. I'm sorry to say this, but I'll always see pieces of him in you. Maybe that will change someday, but for now, it's the truth."
Mike lowered his head in shame, but Zoey put a finger under his chin and tilted his face back up to meet hers.
"But that doesn't mean I can't see you. In this case, a few rotten apples don't spoil the whole bunch. When we kiss…"
Zoey pulled him in for a long, deep kiss. Mike tried to resist kissing her back, he felt guilty touching her in any way, but he couldn't stop himself. It had been so long since he had kissed her, and he kissed her like there was no tomorrow. It felt like he had been drowning, and finally he could breathe again. He felt more alive in this moment than he had in months.
"I'm only kissing you," she whispered in his ear. "When I look in your eyes…"
Zoey put her hands on his cheeks and looked deeply into his eyes. Mike had almost forgotten how beautiful her eyes were. "I see only yours. When I feel your touch…"
She took his hand and cupped her cheek with it. For so long, he'd felt only cold, he couldn't feel any warmth. Her hand over his sent warmth spreading throughout his whole body. "I only feel your touch, no one else's."
She put her hand over his heart, and put his hand over hers. "I only love one man, and that's you. Your love is all I feel. Mal does not define you, he does not dominate you. You will always be Mike to me, and you will always be mine. This is your life, not his. He lost, and you won. We are going to make it through this, I promise you."
"Do you really think we can get it back? Just because I've been acquitted doesn't mean people will trust me."
"We'll move somewhere far away from here and get a fresh start. I'll become a teacher at a new school, and Noel will make new friends. You'll get a job at another studio or a theater, and you'll be a great actor. Maybe we could move closer to Gwen and Trent so we can see them more often. Of course, we'll have to stay close enough for you to keep seeing your psychiatrist, and for Noel to see DJ, but there's no way we're staying where we are now. We might drag Cameron along with us."
"We can't leave and expect everything to be perfect somewhere else."
"It's not going to get any better here. We'll find a place where no one knows us and there won't be anyone judging us or whispering behind our backs. We'll get as far from here as we need to, I'd move to Australia if it meant staying with you. Manitoba wouldn't complain."
"A fresh start does sound nice. I need a chance to start over and get things right this time."
"We'll find a new home, and maybe a little happiness, too."
Mike let out a sigh of relief as Zoey wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tight. He had been so sure she would send him away, but she was letting him stay. He had spent his nights during the psyche evaluation imagining life on his own, away from Zoey and his children. He would have always had a smile on for them whenever he was allowed to see them, but he would never be able to heal all alone, he was nothing without his family. But now he didn't have to consider it anymore, because he wasn't leaving. Mal was wrong, the hero did have a home to return to.
He held onto her on the bed, her arms around his neck and his around her waist. They laid down and closed their eyes in silence for a long while, savoring the feeling of being together again after so much time apart. They didn't let go until one of the twins started crying from their room. Zoey disentangled herself and got up to go check on him.
"Zoey, let me," said Mike.
"Are you sure? It's probably just a dirty diaper."
"I missed out on the first four months of their lives, I have some serious catching up to do, and that includes changing diapers."
"Then get in there, superdad."
Mike went into the boy's room and found Jack crying. As usual, his crying woke up Riley and he joined in on the wailing.
He changed their diapers, but by now they were wide awake, and still crying. It was understandable; they were used to Mommy consoling them in the middle of the night, but instead they were being held by a strange man. It was going to take a while for them to get used to their father.
"Aw, look at the little koala bears. They'll make great sidekicks. Gonna be pretty hard to beat Joey, though."
"Can Svetlana be holding zem, Mike? She vants to hold ze cute babies!"
"We're trying to get them to sleep, not start a circus, Twinkletoes," said Chester.
"Later, Svetlana," Mike promised. Then, to the boys, he whispered, "It's okay Jack, it's okay Riley, don't cry. Are you scared? It is pretty dark in here, isn't it? You guys should have a nightlight. Tomorrow I'll ask Noel if she'd be willing to donate her old one, she hasn't used it in years. But you don't have to be scared, you're safe with me. Yes, there are monsters out there, and they are terrifying, but I promise that I won't ever let them hurt you. I won't ever let anything happen to you, or your mommy and sister. Nothing will hurt any of you ever again."
Jack and Riley finally began to calm down, and their crying stopped. Mike couldn't bring himself to put them back in the crib, and so he stood there in their room, cuddling them long after they went back to sleep. Zoey peeked in to see what was taking Mike so long and saw him snuggling them close. She smiled to herself and silently went back to their room and left them alone.
The next morning, Zoey found him sitting in the rocking chair with both boys in his arms, and they were all sound asleep. The boys clutched onto his shirt with their tiny fists, and Mike was smiling as he cradled them in his sleep. She wiped away a tear of joy; it had been so long since she'd seen him sleeping this peacefully. Mike finally got to be with his boys, and her boys finally got their daddy back.
One night, Noel was talking to Alejito on the phone. She had already spoken to her other friends, most of them the children of her parent's friends from Total Drama, but she had been looking forward to talking to him the most. Normally they didn't call and instead wrote letters or e-mails, but she was glad to talk to him after so long. He was telling her about all that had been going on lately.
"So I called Harold and tricked him into teaching me how to hack into the school's computer system. I fixed my grade."
"Alejito, that's cheating."
"I earned that A! That teacher had no right giving me a B, just because I used the word variety three times in one essay."
"That doesn't matter, you shouldn't cheat."
"Besides, Mama and Papi think I'm weird for not doing this kind of thing more often. They're not mad about it, they just think I'm a late-bloomer. At least I didn't release a jar of spiders in the principal's car, Angelica beat me to that."
"I like you better when you're being nice and sweet."
"All right, I won't cheat anymore. But that grade stays the way it is."
"What was it like, Noel? Being out there all by yourself?"
She had been trying to avoid this question with everyone, but he did sound genuinely concerned, and she trusted him. "Very cold, very dark, very lonely, and terrifying. There were times I was sure I would freeze to death, but I'm okay now."
"Are you mad at your padre?"
"No, I know now it wasn't really him. It wasn't his fault."
"He's a fr-"
"You promised you wouldn't use that word anymore. If you talk that way about my family, I can't be your friend."
"Okay, lo siento. I won't do it again, but aren't you scared of him?"
"I love my dad, and he loves me. He's not crazy, he's not a freak, he's just different, that's all."
"If you say so."
"I do say so. I am a little afraid, but not as much as I was before. I'm just glad to be back home."
"I am too, I missed you, Chica. I thought I'd never see you again. I can't stand any of the people here, they're all incompetentes. You're my only real friend."
"I'm glad you're my friend, Alejito. You're the best one I've got."
"I wish you could have been at camp last year, they put in a tire swing over the lake, it's fantástico! Will you be coming to summer camp this year?"
"Of course, I love that place. And I'll be first in line to try out that swing."
"I got the new Yiruma CD for my birthday, I'll bring it so you can listen to it."
"There's a new one?"
"You missed a lot, Chica. We'll make it up, though."
"We'll start at camp."
"Don't tip our canoe over this time."
"Don't say mean things."
"We'll see. Goodnight, Noel."
She hung up the phone and went up the stairs to her room. On her way, she passed her parent's room, and saw her father having one of his "bad days," as Zoey called them in front of her. He was shaking on the bed all alone, one arm around his knees and the other clutching his head. He was taking shallow, gasping breaths, and he was murmuring things to himself, but she couldn't understand him. The room around him was a mess; the sheets were torn off and pillows were thrown everywhere, as were books, CDs, clothes, and other valuables. The only thing that appeared to be broken was the mirror, and she could see that Mike's left hand was bleeding.
Even though Noel was back and he was out of the asylum, his anxiety attacks were still worse than they had been before all this started. They hadn't been happening as frequently, but it was still more often than Noel was used to.
It would take a long time for him to work through this and recover, but Zoey was already hard at work helping him by his side. Noel had watched her mother try to console him during his fits before. When they happened, she would either ask Noel to leave or ask her to come closer, it all depended on the signals she was getting from Mike. This time though, Zoey was busy with Riley because he had a fever and was throwing up, and she couldn't be in two places at once.
Noel now understood that these "bad days" were anxiety attacks caused by his condition. Before, she had just thought he was sick, and he usually got better soon, but she wasn't sure what she should do now. She had seen Zoey coax him into taking medication during his fits before, but she had no idea what to give him. Was this one of those times she was supposed to stay, or go? And did she dare go in, when it could be Mal doing this to him? What if Mal escaped again, and tried to kill her like before? Noel took a step back, and her breathing and heartbeat quickened. She wanted to run, she almost took off right there. She had to get away, before he could hurt her again.
But she couldn't leave her daddy like that, suffering all alone. She had Zoey's love and compassion, she couldn't just leave and forget this was happening. She tentatively took a step inside.
He didn't answer. She took another step, then another, until she was on the bed beside him. She hadn't touched him once since he'd saved her from falling, and he hadn't tried to touch her, either. She hadn't been running or hiding from him, but she had been keeping her distance, just in case. She hadn't made eye contact with him very much, either. She was scared to touch him, as though it might trigger and unleash Mal once again. But she had to be brave, she wouldn't let herself be a coward, so she swallowed her fears and hesitantly put a hand on his shoulder. He jerked away harshly, and she was sorely tempted to leave, but something inside her told her to try again.
She ran to the bathroom and found bandages, and she took a washcloth and dampened it with warm water. She brought out a trash bin and went back to the bed. She sat down beside him and held his hand, and this time he didn't flinch or pull away. She took the broken pieces of glass out of the skin on his hand and dropped them in the trash bin one by one. Once she was sure she had removed them all, she gently washed the blood off. The cuts weren't so bad, the blood had made it seem worse than it was. She carefully bandaged his hand to stop the bleeding the same way Zoey had bandaged her knee when she had crashed her bike the first time.
Once she had finished treating his wound, she put her arms around him and held on tight to soothe him. She didn't let go until his breathing returned to normal and he stopped shaking.
"Noel, what's going on?" he asked her blearily, once he had come back to himself. He noticed his bandaged hand and looked at it like he had never seen it before.
"It was like you were having a nightmare, but you weren't asleep. I tried to do what Mama does, I think I did it right. Are you okay now?"
"Yes but, I'm the parent here," he said, disgusted with himself. "I'm supposed to be taking care of you, not the other way around. I hurt you so much, you're scarred and I can't fix it. If only I could help you, if only I could make you feel happy and safe again. You deserve better than this, you deserve a better father than me. I'm so sorry, forgive me. Please forgive me."
His body shook with uncontrollable sobs. All the guilt and anguish he had been trying to keep hidden in front of Zoey and Noel spilled over, and he couldn't contain it any longer. He hadn't cried this hard since they had first told him they believed Noel to be dead. He would never be able to earn her trust or forgiveness, she would always fear him, and he hated himself because of it.
Noel didn't want him to think she hated him for this, for his disorder and for what had happened to her. She wanted to show him she didn't mind, that she wanted to help because she loved him. She wanted him to know that, even though she could never forgive Mal, she had already forgiven him.
"That's why, darling, it's incredible," she sang softly, barely above a whisper. "That someone so unforgettable..."
"Thinks that I am, unforgettable too," he finished for her as silent tears streamed down his face.
She moved to sit in his lap and put her arms around him, and she rested her head on his chest.
"I love you Daddy, and I forgive you."
He could feel the beating of her heart as she closed her eyes. He no longer worried if she was just an illusion. She was real, and she was right there with him.
"I love you too."
He kissed her hair and held her close, and rocked her back and forth. He couldn't believe that she was letting him hold her, he thought she never would again. It was something he would never take for granted again.
She didn't realize it, but she had just given him the greatest gift anyone could ever give him. He was finally able to believe that she had forgiven him, that he was forgivable. That maybe he could forgive himself.
That night, Noel had no nightmares for the first time in ages.
It was the beginning of February before they celebrated Christmas, and even though seeing ads everywhere for Valentine's Day didn't really put one in the Christmas spirit, it didn't put a damper on their festivities. Although, they did get weird looks from the neighbors when they hung up Christmas lights on the house when everyone else was busy buying Valentine's Day cards. Zoey said they could get away with it since the twins wouldn't know the difference. Unlike last year's Christmas, which had been full of grief and misery, this Christmas was a time for joy and reunion and celebration.
Mike and Noel went out the week before to the store to buy presents and food and anything else they would need for Christmas. Manitoba cut down a pine tree in the forest, and they spent all day decorating it. Zoey took Mike and Noel's unopened gifts from last year, dusted them off, and put them under the tree. She hadn't opened Mike's gift to her the year before either, and so she would open it with her new ones.
Noel woke up early like she did every year on this special day and ran to wake up her parents. She took Riley and Jack out of their crib and and brought them downstairs to the living room and gave them each a present.
Zoey put on a CD of their favorite Christmas songs and, still in their pajamas, they went to the living room to open gifts. The lights on the tree shone brightly, and there was even a light snow outside.
Every year, the other personalities insisted on getting Noel gifts of their own, and this year was no exception. She was a little uneasy around them after finding out that they weren't really just characters her father played, but at least they weren't Mal. She'd never stopped liking them, and maybe she could grow to love them separately from Mike. At least, that was what they silently hoped for.
"Here's your gift, don't go losing it. That cost me five dollars, can you believe it? The prices are so high nowadays, people should be rioting in the street!"
"Thanks Chester!" Noel hugged him and opened his gift. It was a simple, but elegant, bead necklace. "It's very pretty," she said as she put it around her neck. She gave him a second hug, tighter this time than before, and he patted her on the back.
Noel's uneasiness was beginning to fade. She wasn't unsettled when Svetlana took over. It had never bothered her before, and she decided that it wasn't going to bother her now.
"Here you go! Open it, open it!" she said eagerly.
Noel tore into the paper. It was a new leotard for gymnastics, and it was turquoise, her favorite color.
"Thanks! I was needing a new one."
Svetlana embraced her tightly. "Even zough you haven't gotten to be practicing in so long, you vill still be champion, maybe even better zan Svetlana."
"Oh, no one could be better than you, Svetlana."
It was Manitoba's turn next. "This one's gonna be your favorite, Joey."
Noel was really excited for Manitoba's gift. He never got her anything normal. He'd once given her a shrunken head, and she still had it in her room.
"A chameleon!" she said. "This is even better than a dog!"
She hugged Manitoba and he said, "Later, I want you to tell me all about your adventure last year, okay?"
Last was Vito. He handed her his gift and said, "I'll have to teach you to use this, but since you're pretty good at surfing, this should be no prob."
Noel opened the gift. "A skateboard? Awesome! Thanks Vito!"
"It's my old one, it means a lot to me, so you'd better take care of it, brat."
She hugged him and he hesitantly hugged her back. "I'm uh, I'm glad you're back, kid. You're the coolest brat I know. Now let go, you're embarrassing me."
Noel let him go, and Mike came back. She opened her gifts from Mike and Zoey; a new doll, a new bike, and a new radio for her room.
"Thank you Mom, thanks Daddy!" she said as she hugged them both.
After Noel had finished opening her gifts, it was the twins' turn. Since they were too young to open their gifts themselves, the others had to do it for them. Mike's alters didn't seem to understand the limitations of five month olds, either that or they were just looking far ahead into the future, and so their gifts wouldn't be suitable until later on when they were older. But, it's the thought that counts.
Chester got them toy guns, Svetlana got them legos, Vito gave them tools for fixing cars, and Manitoba got them each a rattlesnake. Zoey put her foot down and made him promise to release the snakes the next day far away from the house.
Mike held Riley and Zoey held Jack as they helped them open their gifts.
"Look Riley, a racecar!" said Mike. He showed him how to drive it on the couch and made the noises, and Riley laughed and clapped his hands.
"Wow, a dinosaur!" said Zoey. Jack squealed and grabbed it.
"Here's my gift!" said Noel. She unwrapped her brother's gifts for them. She and Zoey had made them both a teddy bear. They hadn't had much time to get them done and so they weren't up to their usual standards, but the boys didn't care. They hugged their bears with love.
Mike and Zoey exchanged their gifts last. Zoey gave Mike a new watch and made him a new scrapbook; she made him one every year with their favorite pictures taken from that year. He loved these so much; she would always write cute little love notes by each picture and things she loved about him and their family. He knew to expect them, but he cherished them more than anything else she could give him. When he opened it, he found that it was empty.
"Where are the pictures?" asked Mike. His brows knit in confusion.
"We haven't taken them yet." Zoey held up a camera and snapped a picture of him with Jack and Riley in his arms. "This will be the first."
Mike gave Zoey her gift next, a gold locket. He gave her one every year; the scrapbook and the locket were a tradition. They both treasured their collections. Each locket had a different design; this one was shaped like a heart. She opened it up and it too was empty.
"I guess we had the same idea. It didn't seem right to put in a picture without the twins."
"I'm going to spend a fortune on film this year," said Zoey. She gave Mike a kiss, but kept it short for Noel's sake. She'd give him more later. Mike put the locket on around her neck and fastened it.
"You're so beautiful Zoey, I don't think I tell you that enough."
"You don't know how much I missed you, Mike. You and Noel both left gaping holes in my heart, but now I'm whole again."
Every year, the alters also bought Zoey a little something. They always claimed Mike made them do it, but he insisted that was untrue. This year, they bought her a snow globe with a little nativity scene inside that played Oh Holy Night. Personally, Zoey would be okay with it if they bought her a gumball; just the very fact that they cared enough to give her a gift at all meant a lot to her. She always made sure to get them a little something in return.
After all the gifts had been unwrapped, Zoey and Noel went to the kitchen to cook breakfast while Mike played with the twins. They were having more fun with the wrapping paper than any of their new toys.
Just as Manitoba had been about to take control so he could let the twins look at the snakes while Zoey wasn't looking, there was a knock at the door.
"I'll get it!" called Mike.
When he answered the door, he came face to face with Cameron, who was wearing a fuzzy green sweater with little snowmen on it. In his arms, he carried several gifts. Cameron looked at him like a deer in the headlights, but he made himself speak.
He cleared his throat awkwardly and said, "Look, I heard what happened, that you found Noel and you were discharged. Zoey told me you guys were celebrating Christmas today, and so I brought some gifts. I won't come in or bother you, but could you pass these out for me? Some of them are kinda heavy."
Mike took the gifts from him and set them down inside. He then lifted Cameron off the ground in a tight hug.
"I am so sorry for what I said to you, it was completely out of line and uncalled for. You didn't do anything wrong, you didn't deserve it, and I knew it, I just didn't care. Thank you for taking care of Zoey and the twins when I couldn't, and for sticking by us even after I acted like such a jerk. I'm a rotten friend, but you're the best friend anyone could ever ask for. If it weren't for you, I probably would have left Zoey before Noel was born, I would have missed out on her whole life if it wasn't for you. Cam, you saved me. Can you ever forgive me?"
He put him back down, and he replied, "I know you didn't mean it, and really, who could blame you? Of course I forgive you, what are buddies for?"
Mike was so relieved that Cameron wasn't angry with him, even though he had every right to be.
"You want to come inside and spend Christmas with us? Unless you're too busy."
"I was kind of hoping you'd invite me in, why else would I be wearing this sweater?"
Cameron followed Mike inside, and he immediately went to see the twins, who were more comfortable with him than their own father. Mike didn't mind much, he knew he'd be able to win them over eventually.
"Uncle Cameron!" said Noel as she ran out of the kitchen. She ran over and hugged him.
"Hey Noel, it's so great to have you back. Did you get shorter?" he asked teasingly.
"I'm almost taller than you now." Her time hiding in the woods had left her almost as thin as Mike, but she had managed to grow a few inches in that time.
"Oh, like that's a challenge."
Zoey was taking dozens of pictures of everyone, but she had Cameron take just one. Mike and Zoey each held a twin on the couch, and Noel put her arms around their shoulders. They all smiled and Cameron snapped the picture.
"That one's going in my locket," said Zoey.
"I love our family," said Mike as he tickled Riley's foot and made him giggle.
The day before they had made Christmas cookies, and after breakfast Zoey, Mike, Cameron, and Noel decorated them. Or they tried to, at least. They ended up decorating each other with the icing, instead. It started when Noel wiped icing on Mike's nose, and Zoey joined in and smeared some on his forehead. He laughed and fought back and rubbed icing on them as they assaulted him with sugary goodness. It was all in self-defense.
"There's more icing on us then there is on the cookies," said Mike once they had calmed down. "There's less on Jack and Riley, and they're the messiest things I've ever seen."
Zoey grabbed him and kissed him, and she giggled as she licked the icing off his lips. "Delicious."
They cleaned up the mess and changed out of their pajamas. Mike and Zoey both dressed up nicely, and Noel put on a white dress. It was the only one that she and Zoey had made that still fit her, since she had outgrown all the others. It didn't conceal the scars on her arms and legs or her collarbone, though.
"Are you sure you don't want to wear something to cover up your scars?" asked Zoey as she braided her hair in front of the mirror. She was putting her curls in a waterfall braid.
"I wanted to at first, but I've been thinking about it, and I don't think I want to cover them anymore." Ever since Noel had returned, she only wore clothes that concealed her scars, and she avoided mirrors. "I've spent enough time hiding, I don't want to hide anymore."
"You're so brave and strong, Noel. I really admire you, you know?"
"Do you think they make me look ugly?" asked Noel.
"Scars are ugly things, but not when they're worn with pride. You're a survivor, and you're no less beautiful than you were before."
"But will they make Daddy feel bad?"
"They might, but he'll respect your decision. He admires your courage too, and we're both so proud of you."
Once her hair was done, Noel went downstairs and twirled in her dress for Mike. He winced at her scars, but then he smiled. "You just get more and more beautiful every day. You really do look like a winter princess."
They were expecting Mike's parents later, and while they waited they watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Mike and Noel's favorite Christmas special. Noel sat in Zoey's lap and Jack and Riley sat in Mike's. Mike and Zoey held hands and snuck in a kiss every now and again.
After the special ended, Jack and Holly came over for Christmas dinner. Zoey's did as well, but only long enough to kiss their daughter on the cheek and give the children their gifts. They were still uneasy around Mike.
As Holly hugged Zoey, she whispered in her ear, "Thank you for not abandoning him, or sending him away."
"I could never abandon him."
"He already looks so much healthier. I mean, he's still all skin and bone, but he doesn't look like a skeleton anymore. The shadows under his eyes are almost completely gone too, and there's light in them again."
Zoey had cut his hair so it was no longer framing his face, but she left enough so that it would spike the way she liked. He was also clean-shaven, he almost looked just like his old self again.
"You don't know how precious you are to me and Jack. You can get him back in control of his mind better than we ever could, and you make him so happy. Anyone else would have left, but you stayed right there with him all the way through. You have a heart of gold."
"I don't know about that, but thank you."
Noel hugged her grandparents and showed them her presents.
"Wow! A chameleon?" said Jack. "All I got was a lousy new laptop. You really scored this year, pookie."
"I think I'll call her Sapphire, because the first color she changed to was purple."
Zoey prepared a turkey, and Jack brought over the side dishes. He had always been the cook at their house, cooking was his passion.
The table was too small for so many people, but they managed to squeeze in enough chairs for everyone. Mike sat between his mother and Noel, but he sat across from Zoey. Before they ate, Cameron stood up and said, "I just want to say how happy I am to have you all as my friends. You never know what you have until it's gone, and we almost lost Mike and Noel for good. I propose a toast to them, because they stood up to Mal and triumphed, and now we have them back."
"Here, here!" said the others as they raised their glasses. Mike and Noel smiled and blushed.
Food was passed around the table until everyone's plates were filled. The food was all cooked just right, nothing was over or underdone.
"Mike, you need to eat more. I've seen thicker pencils," said Holly.
"Mom, I've already cleaned one plate, if I eat much more I'm going to pop."
Holly laughed and kissed his cheek.
Baby Jack threw his bottle at Jack Sr.'s head from his highchair. He giggled when he hit his target.
"Sorry, Jack!" said Zoey. "He can't even crawl yet and he still finds ways of getting into trouble."
"He's just trying to get rid of the competition, there can be only one Jack in the family," replied Jack Sr.
"Hey Daddy, do you think we could ride our bikes tomorrow?" Noel whispered in Mike's ear. "I want to try out my new one."
"Only if you think you can keep up," Mike replied.
"In your dreams," Noel replied. "And will you dance with me tonight? Just to try out my new radio, of course. I might even let you dance with Mom, but I don't know if I'm up to sharing."
Mike grinned from ear to ear. "How could I say no to that?"
"Zoey, did I ever tell you about the year Manitoba brought in a bear for Christmas? Mike was just fourteen at the time," said Jack.
"I don't think I've heard that one," replied Zoey.
"You think rattlesnakes are bad, try waking up on Christmas morning and finding a ten foot bear sitting in the living room!"
"Jack, it was just a baby, don't exaggerate," said Holly as she playfully swatted him.
"Okay, maybe it was just a cub, but there was still a bear in my house! And if there's a cub around, you know mama bear isn't too far away. Mike was back in control by then but it wasn't hard to figure out which personality was responsible. Mike, did Manitoba ever give you an explanation for that?"
"He just likes bears and he thought it would be a great gift, that's all he had to say," said Mike with a broad smile. "Bears and anything else that can eat him."
"Couldn't have put it better myself. Luckily, he hadn't eaten any of the presents or the food, but he was about to. I carried him outside and called the forest service."
"Manitoba was really offended and upset that you would give his gift away like that after all the work he put into catching it and bringing it home."
"I guess I would be too, he probably had to wrestle the mother. Anyway, after I called the forest service, Holly said we should keep him."
"That was a joke, and Tony was a sweetheart anyway. He wouldn't hurt a fly."
"Tony?" said Cameron.
"That's what we named him," said Mike.
"We named him after Iron Man," said Jack.
"No we didn't," said Holly.
"Iron Man's name is Tony Stark, we named the cub after him."
"We didn't name him after a superhero."
"Come on Mike, back me up here. Tell your mother we named the bear after Tony Stark."
"Sorry Dad, but we really didn't," said Mike. "I never even made that connection."
"You too? I'm really the only one who thought he was named after Tony Stark?"
"I don't know where you got that idea honey, but that bear was not named after an Avenger."
"Then why in the world did we name him Tony?" asked Jack.
"He just looked like a Tony," said Mike with a shrug.
"My whole life has been a lie," said Jack as he shook his head. "Next you'll be telling me that the stray cat that comes to our house every once in a while isn't named after Zelda from the video game."
"Nope, sorry Dad."
"Are you serious?"
"When she meows it sounds like she's saying Zelda," said Holly.
"I cannot believe I am related to you people," said Jack. "Well, at least I know Jackie here is named after me. Good lord, you people are going to put me in the nuthouse."
"It's okay honey, we love you anyway," said Holly as she patted his shoulder.
"Now I really want to meet Tony," said Noel.
"We had him taken back to the forest by a park ranger, just go on a hike and look for a bear who looks like a Tony, you can't miss him," said Jack.
"Hey Dad, tell some more," said Mike. "Tell us about when Svetlana did her gymnastics routine on the roller coaster at the amusement park."
"Oh boy, you want to talk about giving an old man a heart attack…"
Jack told several more stories about things Mike's alters had done when he was younger that were bad when they happened but made for amusing stories now. Mike laughed right along with everyone else at each one, his alters had done some pretty ridiculous stuff in the past. He wasn't embarrassed by his past anymore, now that he was surrounded by people who didn't care about the weird stuff his alters did and loved him for who he was.
Between the jokes and the laughter and the chatter, it was hard to understand what anyone was really saying. But after being alone for so long, Mike loved every moment of it. He wished it could always be like this, fun and happy and carefree with friends and family. He still had a long road ahead of him, but for now, he was able to forget last year and pretend it had never happened.
The other personalities wanted to come out, but they contained themselves and let Mike have the rest of the day to himself. There was no trace of Mal in his mind, but he was always wary, always ready in case he did come back someday.
For now though, the wolf was nowhere to be found. Little Red and the Huntsman had finally found the light after being alone in the dark for so long, and they would never let anyone take that from them ever again. They had found peace and happiness once more.
Author's Note: The last chapter raised some questions about Mal, and I'll be answering them in my next fic, Before and After. It goes into Mike's past, before he was adopted when he was living with his biological parents, and after he was adopted by Jack and Holly. Thanks for all the reviews, you guys are the best :)