"Alright! Here we come! Close your eyes!"
She looked up from the computer screen and stretched her arms over her head. She'd been working at Mark's study for several hours now, and she was sore and exhausted. She feared that if she'd do as he'd asked, she would just drift into much needed sleep, but did as she was told anyway.
There was a soft knock on the door. "Are they closed?" asked Mark from the other side of it.
"Yes," she chuckled, and added an arm across her eyes for good measure. She heard Mark and Libby whispering, and then they ordered her with flourish to open her eyes. She blinked in shock at the sight of her daughter, dressed as Clara from The Nutcracker. Libby had become a ballet nut ever since joining a class the previous spring, and alongside Giselle and Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara seemed like a more achievable role to aspire to at her young age. And it certainly was something to see her daughter – who seemed to have grown taller pretty much overnight – blossom into a truly graceful dancer. When Libby said she wanted a ballet-related costume for Halloween that year, Mark volunteered to take charge, and she was so grateful to him because she had enough on her mind as it was. Whenever she asked him about Libby's costume he'd always given her vague replies, so eventually she decided to let him handle things. And now her daughter was the loveliest Clara she'd ever seen, down to the toy nutcracker she was holding, which Mark had unearthed from goodness knew where.
"So what do you think?" he asked, beaming, as Libby twirled to show off the volume of her pale blue skirt.
"How did you even..."
"Arianna found us scraps of tulle, and your mom helped out with the sewing. I did the makeup myself." He was obviously most proud about that bit of information.
"You look amazing, Munchkin."
"Thanks, Mom." That was another recent change in Libby, the shift from Mommy to just Mom, which, she had to admit, saddened her just a little.
"And what are you supposed to be?" she asked Mark, for underneath a dark cloak he was dressed exactly the same.
"Duh, Mo, I'm Harry Potter," he told her, lifting up his messy fringe to reveal a lightning bolt on his forehead he'd probably drawn with her eyeliner pencil. Libby had recently discovered his Harry Potter books, and once he'd ended the final book just several weeks ago, they began rereading the entire series together avidly.
"Not even a Gryffindor scarf? Really, Mark, that's like four out of ten for effort."
"I'm pretty sure Tammy stole my scarf," he said indignantly. "We'll stop at her place before meeting Benny."
"I always thought she was more of a Ravenclaw kind of girl."
"If she has my scarf, I'll kick her butt all the way to Slytherin," he backfired.
"Just when I think you can't get any dorkier, you come up with answers like this," she rolled her eyes at him fondly.
"Let's just go before Mom crushes my self-esteem even further, shall we?" he told Libby, who giggled her consent. "Don't work too hard. Get some rest, or else."
She cocked an eyebrow at his tone. "Do you think Harry Potter speaks to his wife like that?"
"If she works nonstop instead of resting as she's supposed to, you can bet your ass that he does."
"Save me some candy," she told Libby. "Don't let this Gryffindor imposture eat all of them, or else," she shot a glance at Mark, who sniggered at her echoing his own threat.
"And don't stay out too late."
"That's rich coming from the person who made us trick-or-treat until well after ten last year."
"Now that you made it clear that your memory is far more superior than mine, off you go before I kick your butt all the way to Slytherin. And if Tammy is there, you stand no chance."
"Why are we still here?" Mark asked Libby, who giggled again. Then he walked over to her and placed a kiss on her lips, then touched her chin. "Seriously. You'd better not still be here when we're back."
"Okay, okay, I promise."
Libby approached to kiss her absentmindedly, and then stopped by her newest source of interest. She leaned over the portable crib by the desk. "Bye, Annabeth, make sure Mom gets some rest, okay? Mark won't last a day in Slytherin, we can't have that."
"Really, Libby?" Mark asked looking seriously wounded as she cackled victoriously. Annabeth looked up at her older sister attentively. She wrapped her tiny fingers around Libby's outstretched finger and gurgled in delight, as if their banter was making any sense to her. Mark came behind Libby to look down at the crib, and she scooted aside slightly to allow him to lean down and kiss the baby's head. "Bye, baby. See you soon."
"Say bye to Daddy," she cooed. Soon Mark and Libby left, and the room wrapped in silence once more. She yawned, then looked at the screen, her eyes burning with effort. She saved the document she was working on, then leaned back with a sigh, suddenly restless.
It's right, that today's Halloween. It was Angel's favorite holiday.
Mimi's voice resounded around the room as if she was right there with her. The words, sad and haunting, brought her years back, making her tear up in a different way that just mere fatigue. In her mind's eye the scene unfolded like one of Mark's old films, the day their family started to unravel as they said their final goodbye to Angel. Pain came rushing back as if it happened yesterday. The wounds never healed, no matter how far she had attempted to go. In the time that elapsed between then and now she'd come to realize that geographic distance meant very little when you carried the wounds deep inside your heart.
She wasn't sure what brought the day of Angel's funeral to mind, other than the fact hormones were still raging in her system, inevitably making her an emotional wreck. But Halloween was her favorite holiday, too. She was a bit miffed to be left behind rather than going trick-or-treating with everyone, but she'd been up most of the previous night with Annabeth, who was also still nursing, and work was piling up even though she was officially still on maternity leave. She leaned over the edge of the crib to check on the baby. Her daughter looked back at her, tiny and perfect and not sleepy in the slightest. It never ceased to amaze her, how such a small, helpless person could bring so much joy into people's lives. She remembered feeling the exact same way while holding Libby several hours after she was born.
And yet, already, they couldn't have been more different. Up until that point in her life, Libby's birth was the hardest thing she'd ever done, and yet her arrival was swift, after merely an hour of labor, much to the midwife's surprise. Annabeth was a whole different story. Nearly five months after the fact, the whole ordeal was still a blur, but Mark often joked now that their newborn's dramatic arrival was a sure sign she would take after her. Annabeth was practically born at the theater. She wasn't even supposed to be working by then, but the production she was managing was nominated for several Tony Awards. Needless to say, she missed the actual event. It was on Tony night, mid-rehearsal, mere hours before the ceremony, that her water broke. When Arianna rushed to the hospital right at the end of it, she was still in labor.
So their lives turned hectic yet again, just as their family settled into some sort of routine. As always, her work was her anchor, even in the challenging time of handling Libby's ballet schedule and tending to newborn Annabeth. Her superiors urged her to take her time, but she learned she couldn't possibly stay away. She trusted Arianna implicitly, but pretty soon random phone calls just to check on her turned into lengthy emails to their colleagues, and while she hadn't returned to the office or attended meetings yet, she was running shop on long distance. Despite being constantly emotional and sleep deprived, she felt strangely grounded. And throughout all this, Mark was nothing but supportive, not that she'd expected anything less.
Annabeth's soft fuss was becoming more urgent, pulling her out of her silent reverie. She leaned over the crib to scoop the baby in her arms. "What's wrong, sweetheart?" she murmured softly as she began to pace around the room while gently rocking her, until her weeping gradually settled into a fuss. "That's better," she cooed, pressing her lips to the baby's head. She ran a finger along her tiny cheek, still rosy with the effort of crying. A few tears were still visible at the corners of her eyes. The onesie she was wearing was a gift from Benny; cows and moons printed on soft pink flannel. To carry on with the family tradition, he'd joked.
"Now there's a sight I've never dreamt of seeing."
She started, and held the baby closer against her as she looked up. She blinked, but he was still standing there not two feet away from her. She hadn't seen Collins since the day at the cemetery, and now there he was, beaming at her.
"You've made this," he told her, his voice a mix of awe and pride, and she could feel tears prickling her eyes because it was the exact same thing she wanted to tell him, tell all of them, the day Libby was born.
"I know, right?"
"Let me look at her," he asked her, and she handed him the baby without hesitation, momentarily unaware of the improbability of it all. "No, don't. I don't want to drop her; Mark will never forgive me," he joked, and she held back a sob as his baritone laugh all but exploded around her. She lowered Annabeth slightly, allowing him a better view of her. "She looks like you."
"No, she doesn't," she protested softly. "She looks like Mark."
"She looks like both of you. A perfect blend. You just don't see it yet." He stared at the baby a little longer; he looked almost transfixed. And she was watching him closely, wondering what his message was this time, and when he would disappear, as he was bound to. But he didn't seem in any hurry to leave. He leaned over and pressed his lips to the baby's forehead. "You'll be whatever, whoever you'll want to be," he told her. "We got your back, baby girl."
Annabeth opened her eyes and looked straight up at Collins. She got the strangest feeling that her daughter understood each and every word. And whether or not this was all in her head, she couldn't care less. It was closure of sorts, or the closest she could ever come to one.
"I'm not going to see you again, am I?"
"I honestly don't think you need to. You're going to be just fine." But there was sadness in his voice now, as if he too knew it was the last time. "Get some sleep, Mo."
Before she managed to thank him or tell him how much she loved him, he was gone.
He was in a strange mood when he and Libby left the apartment, then stopped by at Tammy's (who actually did have his scarf – the nerve of her) on their way to meet Benny and the boys. It wasn't until they arrived at Benny's that he allowed his smile to fade, the need to pretend for Libby's sake waning at the sight of his old friend wearing a similar expression.
"I used to love Halloween before," said Benny, the two of them trailing behind the kids, some time later. "For the first few years it hardly bothered me. Then the kids were born, and now whenever Halloween arrives, outside it's all fun and games, but inside I'm all... meh."
"I know exactly what you mean." Even last year, which was by far the best Halloween he'd ever had (it couldn't be anything less with Maureen around), the loss of their friends seemed more poignant, lurking behind every corner. Roger's voice, his almost rhetorical question, How could we lose Angel?
"But it's not fair on them, you know?" said Benny, looking ahead. He nodded. This was exactly why he immediately volunteered to go with Libby tonight when it was becoming evident Maureen wouldn't be able to. There was no way they would be skipping trick-or-treating, despite the sadness the day inevitably brought. Now that he was a father, Maureen's determination to bring Christmas to her daughter wherever they went, which had so impressed him when they first met, was more than just quaint. It was necessity. Who were they without tradition?
"I mean it's up to us to carry on the torch. Their childhood shouldn't be affected by our grim past."
He smiled bitterly at Benny's words. "Sounds like something Collins would have said."
"Well, he's always been much smarter than the rest of us."
They spent the rest of the evening speaking about their dead friends and times long gone but not forgotten. There was a huge Christmas feast planned at Benny and Alison's place that year. Joanne and her family were invited. It was going to be awkward and fun and a moment to be cherished all at the same time, he suspected. There's only us. He remembered thinking that when Maureen appeared in his gallery all those months ago. But apparently it wasn't completely true. Friendship was thicker than blood, it appeared. As much as he dreaded it, he also had to secretly admit he couldn't wait to meet Joanne again.
"What was it like?" Libby asked him later. They were walking home in the emptying streets, a blonde Harry Potter and a ballerina in a light blue dress side by side.
"When your friend died."
Maureen had told him once how Libby had always been inquisitive as a child, asking all the right questions, which were naturally the toughest ones to answer. It seemed that phased hadn't exactly ceased. He didn't even realize she'd overheard his conversation with Benny. Guess she was more observant he'd given her credit for; well, like mother, like daughter.
"It was… hard. He was our first friend who died." He inwardly asked April for forgiveness. As much as he was all for not shying away from explaining grim issues like death and disease to kids, he placed his limit on suicide. At least for the time being. "It was sad. For the longest time it was hard to just get up and pick up the pieces. And my best friend was leaving town at about the same time; that was hard as well."
"And he died too, didn't he?"
"Yeah. A few years ago."
She said nothing for a moment, as if taking this in. "Do you miss them?"
"Every day," he found himself reply, even though he hadn't quite realized it until he said it. "But that's sort of how life works, you know. And though I hope you'll never know what it was like, you probably will. Though hopefully it's going to be a while before you do."
"Were you angry at Mom when she left?"
"I was, yeah." He was almost embarrassed to admit it now. "Our friends thought I was acting ridiculous. You know, I probably was. But at the end of the day, if she hasn't left she wouldn't have had you, and knowing you has changed my life in the best way possible." For a second he feared he'd said too much. Maybe he shouldn't have been so open with her about that dark time following Collins' death. He knew Maureen had told her about her best friend who died on the same day she was born, but he wasn't sure if it wasn't too much for her young mind to comprehend. But then she reached for his hand and smiled at him, and he was able to breathe more easily at her wordless reassurance.
"Next time you go to the cemetery, can I come with you?"
"Sure, I guess, if Mom says it's okay." He was Libby's dad in any way but DNA, but he still felt Maureen should make the final call on this. He didn't think she would frown upon the request. She too was all for speaking out about the darkest aspects of life.
They walked the rest of the way in silence, and his thoughts drifted from his friends to how similar he and Libby had become. It was actually his mother who'd made the observation, shockingly enough, the first time she met Libby properly. Up until then he and Maureen had met his mother on various occasions, and while she and Maureen seemed to be getting along somewhat, he was reluctant to bring Libby into this until he was sure it was safe. His nephews' birthday had given them an opportunity. With his mother and Maureen on certain speaking terms, it seemed wrong to shy away from another family gathering. Maureen was visibly pregnant by then and both he and Cindy reasoned it should be a distraction enough for their mother.
He was watching Libby like a hawk that day, but in one moment where his attention was otherwise diverted, it was Maureen who noticed what was going on. "Look," she told him suddenly, and they were both watching in shock, literally pinching each other, as across the room, his mother was engaged in an animated conversation with Libby. For the first time in probably forever, even Maureen was speechless.
Later that day, when he finally had a moment alone with his mother, he didn't even have to prompt the subject. "I know she's not yours. But she's like you. Your spitting image when you were her age, all subdued and wise beyond her years." In her case, and especially under the circumstances, it was the greatest compliment. And it always filled him with pride when he'd uncovered another similarity, as if it somehow meant he'd done what was expected of him.
They arrived home and tiptoed inside the apartment. His eyes went straight to his study, searching for light coming from inside, having his scowl at the ready, but the apartment was quiet and dark, apart for one lamp by the entrance. Libby pointed towards the sofa, where Maureen lay curled, fast asleep, with the baby's crib next to her. He held a finger to his lips, and Libby nodded before disappearing down the hall in her room.
He checked on the baby first. She was fast asleep on her back with her arms stretched above her head, in that strange pose only infants seemed comfortable in. He placed the jar of candy on the coffee table next to Maureen, wrapped in the Gryffindor scarf he had retrieved from Tammy's place. He smiled as their earlier banter came to mind. Then he took off his cloak and gently wrapped it around her like a blanket, resisting the urge to place a kiss on her cheek, reluctant to wake her in case she'd just fallen asleep. Then he rolled the crib as quietly as he could away from her side and down the hallway.
He made sure the baby was settled and was doing his best to erase the scar he'd drawn on his forehead when there was a soft knock on the door and Libby pocked her head inside. Her dark hair was down, her costume gone; he didn't even get a chance to check on her and see if she needed help. "Night, Mark."
He couldn't honestly say he wasn't a bit miffed about her calling him by his name. She'd reverted back to that at about the same time she'd stopped calling Maureen Mommy. "Good night, sweetheart. Want me to tuck you in?"
"I'm good," she said, seven going on seventeen. If he squinted, he could still see in her the child he'd encountered in Macy's, determined to reach for a doll twice her size. She hesitated for a second before walking in and giving him a hug. "Thanks for today."
He was momentarily taken aback by this burst of emotion. He knew better than question it. "Any time, Libby."
She slowly pulled away, then leaned over the crib. "Night, Annabeth, see you in the morning."
Soon Libby was gone, and he crawled into bed. The sheets were freezing cold, and it was a while before he managed to get comfortable. Just as he felt himself slip into slumber, the door creaked open. Thinking it would be Libby again, he turned to face the door, but it was Maureen, squinting towards him in the dark.
"You're up," he said.
"You're home," she replied, walking over to the bed. He shivered as he swept the covers back for her to slip next to him. She hummed contentedly as he wrapped himself around her, and leaned into his embrace. "Safe from the horrors of Slytherin, I see."
"Indeed. I'm glad to see you actually listened to me."
"Don't get used to it," she said through a yawn, tucking her cold feet further between his now warm ones.
"Go back to sleep. I'll get her when she wakes up." He knew she was too tired to argue for she just nodded and closed her eyes. He kissed her cheek and settled more comfortably against her. But she seemed restless. "What's wrong?"
"I can't get my brain to shut up now."
"Want me to tell you a bedtime story?"
She turned to lay on her back facing him, her hazel eyes glinting in the dark. "Didn't we have this conversation before?"
"Feels like ages ago."
She nodded and closed her eyes, wordlessly saying it was ridiculous to waste another second to wakefulness, when Annabeth might wake them any moment now. But even with her eyes closed, he could sense her waiting. From a very early stage of their relationship, he hadn't denied her anything, and no matter how much they'd been through, how completely their lives had altered since, he sure wasn't going to start now. And if she wanted a bedtime story, that was what she was going to get.
Granted, he wasn't the best storyteller when it came to putting ideas into words. Those came much more easily with photos, with his scripts and films. But tonight, with their history hovering about and the memory of their friends still so present, he knew just the story he would tell her.
"Last night, I had a dream…"