For most of her adult life, Elizabeth had been completely disinterested in having children. Oh, if her birth control had failed or something else were to happen, she likely would have had the baby, and every once in a while she would see old friends with their children and wonder if maybe she was kidding herself, but mostly she was happy with her job and her husband and didn't feel the need to add anyone or anything into their lives.
She certainly would never have guessed that was all going to change in a period of hours. It did, though, the first time she saw Neal. He was already fever-bright, but she'd thought it was just his skin being chapped from the wind. Eliot loped behind him, like some kind of guardian wolf-creature, and Elizabeth had been wondering what the hell she'd done in a past life to deserve nine waifs camping out in her work place storage room.
She'd shared tea with them as a way to have something to do with her hands, and because it was calming for her. She hadn't expected Eliot's tentative choice of flavors, or the way Neal seemed to huddle into the warmth of the mug when he thought wasn't being watched. She hadn't expected the dull pain in her chest at his sharp charm and evident exhaustion.
She couldn't remember what flavor she'd had that day, but she knew, without question, it was the best cup of tea she'd ever sipped in her life.
It was two in the morning on a day where one of her regular clients had sent her on a wild goose chase for a piece he wanted, when Elizabeth heard the creak of the stairs. That wasn't, in and of itself, unusual. The kids from the bedroom would often go and get a glass of water or milk, or even just sneak down to check that the others were still there.
The sound of a second pair of feet on the stairs made her listen a little more attentively, but the kids from upstairs traveled in packs as a general rule. Then the whispering started, and that was weird. The kids never made noise at night where they thought Peter and she might hear it. Unable to sleep in any case, she rolled out of bed. Peter made a questioning noise, but she patted his shoulder. It was probably nothing.
Ryan was at the bottom of the stairs with the flashlight they'd put in the kid's bedroom, just in case the nightlight went out or they needed it for any reason. He startled when she shut the door softly behind her, and she said, "It's all right."
"No," Brendon disagreed, appearing from behind the couch. "No, they're missing."
Bob, who was also poking around the room, remained silent. Her heart beating just a bit faster, Elizabeth checked across the hall. Spencer, Mikey and Gee were awake and speaking softly. Calmly, she asked, "Has anyone checked outside?"
Brendon and Ryan shook their heads and made for the back door, at which point the boys in the room came out to help with the search. When it was clear that Eliot, Parker and Neal were nowhere to be found, Elizabeth woke Peter. Each of them took a car and three kids apiece, going to every possible location they could think of, while checking in with each other by phone every hour.
At seven, when the sun was coming up, they headed back, Peter putting in a call to Harvey. Once home, Elizabeth stood her kitchen for a long minute, unsure of what to do. Every surface had a memory of Eliot, every hidey hole one of Parker, and everything felt like it had been touched by Neal.
She glanced over to where Ryan was shivering in Spencer's hold. Right. "Bob, sweetie, could you go turn up the heat a bit? I'm going to make tea."
Brendon started getting out the cups.
Bringing Eliot home from the hospital while having to leave Neal there made Elizabeth feel brittle on the inside, like one wrong touch might cause her to shatter. She had a hard time driving, finding that she wanted to keep her eyes on Eliot more than the road. He was in the back, Parker in his lap. They'd both tried to get her to put on a seatbelt, but it wasn't going to happen, and Elizabeth couldn't find it in herself to blame Parker.
Gee and Mikey were still at the hospital with Peter. Bob was in the car, since it had been impossible to get him away from Parker, as though he'd taken over for Eliot in Eliot's absence. Ryan, Spencer and Brendon had been dropped off at home an hour earlier by Sara, when she'd taken Ezra home.
When they arrived, the three were sitting on the front step, even though it was really too chilly for that sort of thing. Elizabeth herded them all inside and insisted on warm showers for everyone. She took one as well, half to give herself some space to think and half to set a good example. As soon as everyone was clean, warm, dry, and in pajamas, Elizabeth set the kettle to heating.
All of the kids who were at home were sitting around the table, sharing a jar of peanut butter and a bag of celery. Elizabeth gently put a hand atop Eliot's head, calming herself with the feel of his hair, the warmth of his scalp. She asked, "Chamomile okay for everyone?"
Bob, who hadn't really slept since Neal and Eliot had disappeared, quietly said, "Valerian?"
"Of course," she told him. "Anyone else?"
Ryan and Brendon both raised their hands, while Spencer and Parker shook their heads. Eliot stayed still under her fingers, but chamomile was one of his favorites. Elizabeth nodded. "All right."
Spencer padded in to help her a few minutes later. She kissed his temple by way of thanks and hugged him a bit when he leaned into the touch. She murmured, "We're good, kiddo. Everything's going to be okay."
She wasn't sure if she was saying the words for him or for herself. Spencer shuddered a little, but said, "Yeah. Yeah, I know."
The two of them set the teas to steeping properly and carried them out on trays, as well as honey and agave. A calm silence, easier than the one before, descended over them as they all sipped at their mugs. Bob broke the silence with, "Could we maybe all sleep down here tonight?"
Elizabeth understood: she didn't want any of them out of her sight, either. "How 'bout we set up my room so we can all sleep in there?"
That way, Eliot could be in a bed, which Elizabeth much preferred at this moment. Brendon said, "I'll go get the blankets."
Once the house had quieted down—Elizabeth didn't believe for a second everyone was asleep, but they were at least in their rooms—she went down to the kitchen, where Peter was sipping at a beer. He said, "I put the hot water on for you."
She'd been doing all right until that moment, really she had. Given the circumstances, she would even use the term phenomenal. Something in the every-day kindness of Peter's actions broke the shell she'd erected to keep things in place, and before she even knew what had happened, she was crying.
"Hon," Peter said, his voice panicked. He always panicked when she cried.
She shook her head. "I'm fine. Just tired."
Peter made a disbelieving sound and crossed the room to pull her against him. She went willingly, listening to the steady thump of his heart, taking in heat from him. When she had gotten the worst of it out, she pulled away slowly. The water was beginning to whistle. She turned the heat off, but didn't make a move to pour herself any or to choose a flavor.
Instead she turned around and leaned against the counter. "I kinda think maybe Neal isn't the only person in this house who should be getting counseling."
"I'm not sure there's anybody in this house who shouldn't be," Peter said calmly, even though she knew he was, at best, wary of the psychological branch of medicine.
"Because I know, I really know, that it's not us that's made him think we'll get rid of him as soon as a convenient opportunity comes up, but I've been feeling like I somehow make my kid feel unloved." She rubbed a hand over her face. "And what if it's not just Neal? What if Gee thinks he's gotta get out in a couple of months and take Mikey with him? What if Eliot, who probably already is eighteen, just disappears one day? Again?"
She made herself breathe slowly, trying to regain some calm. She had woken with nightmares of losing the kids every few nights since the abduction. Peter said, "We'll find him, like we did last time."
"Neal found the police last time."
"We know two FBI agents, about a quarter of the cops in the city, one of the five richest guys in the world, and a man with ties to the justice department. We'll find him." Peter's voice had more determination than certainty in it.
"I never got parents who were overprotective, I thought it was just handicapping the kids, but I swear, if I could home school every one of them and never have them leave the house for the rest of their lives, I might consider it."
"Pretty sure that train has left the station, hon."
"I don't know what to do," she admitted. "How to make this right for them."
Peter moved past her and poured some water into a mug he'd swiped on his way over. "Jasmine all right?"
"Mm," she answered, distractedly. He put the steeper in the mug and handed it to her. She curled her fingers around it and held on, as if keeping the cup from falling could somehow be the answer to her problem.
"I don't know, either, El," Peter said softly. "But I know we don't hurt them and we listen when they talk. And I know we're doing our best. If you wanna see someone, talk this out with a professional, you should. But for the moment, I think all we can do is keep on as we've been going and hope for the best."
She took a sip. "Doesn't that scare you?"
"Scare? No. Terrify? Yes."
She laughed a little in into the rim of her cup, not in amusement so much as empathy. "Well, at least I'm not alone."
"Never," Peter said. He kissed her forehead and murmured, "Finish your tea and come to bed."
Elizabeth and Peter signed on as guarantors for Mikey, Gee and Neal's apartment on a Monday in August. Eliot, who'd been working as a sous chef at a Korean grill for the past year after finishing high school, came home that night at around two, after his shift. Usually, he would drink some water, maybe grab a snack, and then head straight to bed. Elizabeth almost always woke momentarily when he came in, then drifted off again.
When she didn't drift directly off that night, she got up and padded downstairs to join him. He smelled of spice and sizzling oils. She dropped a kiss on his cheek. "Hey, sweets."
"I wake you up?" Eliot asked, his face full of apology.
"Nah, I think I've been restless. Up for some oolong?"
Eliot smiled a little. "The new stuff?"
"Mm." Elizabeth often ordered special teas just for the two of them, as they were more adventurous than the others. She heated the water while Eliot set up the steeping pot. As they were waiting, she asked, "You hear the news?"
Eliot nodded. "Parker texted."
Elizabeth winced. It was no secret Parker was pissed the three were moving out. Eliot shook his head. "She'll get over it."
Elizabeth was pretty sure that meant Eliot would talk her down. If not, it was a problem for later. "How about you?"
Eliot flinched, but covered it quickly enough she thought he probably figured she hadn't seen. He asked, "Me?"
Elizabeth snorted. "Yes, Mr. Nothing Bothers Me."
Eliot shrugged. "We couldn't all stay here forever."
She knew it was the truth, but it was still hard to face. "I suppose." Then, "Are you wanting some place of your own?"
It was the wrong thing to ask. She knew as soon as she said it that it would be taken incorrectly, even if she'd just meant to offer him an option at what the others had. He busied himself pouring the water and asked softly, "Is that what you'd like?"
Elizabeth found herself laughing, but it felt more like a sob. "What I want? Eliot, baby, one of these days you're going to have kids or adopt them or maybe just have a sibling with kids, and you are going to understand how very much I would give to keep you all right here, in my grasp." She reached over and brought her cup to her lips, blowing over the surface. "But that's not fair to you. You've all grown up so well, and it would be unforgivably selfish to hold you here to make myself happy."
Eliot sipped at his tea. "It'd…be okay, with me, if you were selfish."
"My therapist tells me I should encourage independence in all of you," Elizabeth told him, unable to hide the glum feeling the idea instilled in her.
Eliot's smile was little more than a flash of an expression, but he said, "Well, managing it in a third of us isn't so bad for one year, yeah?"
Elizabeth's answering smile was more than a little conspiratorial. "Not so bad at all. I mean, there's always next year."
Eliot, who, somewhere along the line had actually taken to being fed regularly and grown solid, if not particularly large, leaned against her, a steady press of his side next to hers. Quietly, he murmured, "Thanks, mom."
The kids didn't regularly call her mom, but it never failed to make her heart hurt just right when they did. She wrapped her arm around him and pulled him in closer. When she was finally ready to let go, the tea was cold. He didn't say anything, just popped both mugs into the microwave.
With Brendon attending Berklee College of Music, and Spencer and Ryan having moved with him, deciding to attend University of Massachussetts at Boston, Elizabeth didn't get to have all the kids in town very often. Parker had moved in with Vin, who'd gone up to school in New Hampshire for a pre-vet program the year before, and although Eliot and Ezra technically had a separate place, it was in the same building, and the four of them spent more time together than not.
Mikey'd gotten a scholarship to do his masters in social work at Rutgers, so Gee had found a job in graphic design nearby and Neal had garnered a position in development for an organization that helped homeless kids in the area so the three of them could continue to be together.
Bob had signed up for the army after high school, unsure of what he wanted to do and feeling like he might do some good protecting other people. He was planning on getting a degree in criminal justice when he finished his commitment, pursuing a career in law enforcement. Buck and Chris already had recommendation letters written for the academy.
When Bob managed to get the holiday off, Brendon, Ryan and Spencer announced they were going to bus down for Thanksgiving. Eliot and Parker immediately found a way to do so as well, and Neal said, "Yeah, count us in."
It had been a few years since Elizabeth had cleared the time to make Thanksgiving dinner, usually busy prepping to make sales on the day following. She didn't even blink before delegating most of the work to Evan, one of John's friends from Air Force ROTC who'd been her right hand man since he'd apprenticed for her his freshman year of college.
After the last of the kids had moved out, Peter and she had discussed getting a smaller house again, but every time they looked they found something wrong with everything. In the end they'd had to admit they weren't ready to not have room for whenever the kids came home. As such, Elizabeth found herself enjoying the preparations for everyone's arrival.
She ordered everyone's favorite things from three different bakeries they'd all frequented, and put together a menu that was part traditional Thanksgiving, and three parts special foods for each of the kids. By the time everyone began arriving Wednesday evening, she was pleasantly tired from how perfect she'd tried to make everything.
Bob arrived first, dressed in fatigues and with his head shaved. He looked so grown-up Elizabeth had the strange urge to bawl. Instead she hugged him tightly and said, "Bet you have to fight off the girls when you go into town, huh?"
Peter also crushed Bob to him, whispering things that were probably about how proud they both were. Eliot, Parker and Vin showed up less than half-an-hour later. Vin stayed long enough to say hello, but then made his apologies and went to go spend time with Chris and Mary. The three of them, as well as Ezra, Buck and Sara, would come over for the holiday, but for tonight, it would be just the nine Elizabeth had walked in to find in her storage room, cold and sick and desperate.
By the time the last six arrived, Elizabeth had already heated the water. It wasn't terribly cold outside, but it was November and there was a bite in the air. She hated the thought of any of them being even slightly chilled.
Neal slipped into the kitchen and said, "I thought this might come in useful."
She looked over at where he was unpacking a few canisters of loose leaf tea. She reached out and squeezed his arm. The others piled in, one and two at a time, and picked out flavors. When everyone—even Peter, who generally preferred coffee—had a mug, they settled at the table, a little bit tighter than when they'd been younger, but with enough space.
Elizabeth took a sip and said, "Welcome home, everyone."
Quietly, Ryan said, "It's good to be back."
Ryan spoke way more than he had when he'd first come to them, but he still wasn't chatty, and when he chose to speak, it was because something needed to be said. Brendon and Spencer grinned in agreement, and quite a few of the others raised their mugs in a mock toast. Elizabeth curled her hands around her mug and let the warmth of the moment sink into her very skin.