The scream echoed down the hallway, reverberating off the windows and taking on eerie resonance as it traveled further and further from its source. Helen winced; after a beat, Will asked in all seriousness, "Is it too late to encourage them to elope?"
"I'll handle this," Helen assured him, adjusting her boutonniere. It had surprised her slightly that her oh-so-unconventional daughter had chosen a fairly traditional wedding—well, as traditional as they could get, under the circumctances. Will and Henry had been dragged kicking and screaming to be fitted for suits with waistcoats, and a small forest of scarlet amaryllis had been delivered with which to decorate the cloister and grounds. Not that it was a large gathering—there were few people in Kate's past that she cared to see again, and Ashley's life had been the Sanctuary since she was still in high school. Still, Alfredo was never going to let her live down the catering bill.
Will threw her a salute and scampered down the corridor, abandoning her to her fate. Fine. Helen braced herself and approached Ashley's bedroom, which had been helpfully bedecked by Henry with a sloppy bow of white tulle and a hand-lettered sign declaring ABSOLUTELY NO FREELANDERS BEYOND THIS POINT. There had been no follow-up scream, but when Helen knocked gently, she heard an agonized moan that was far too melodramatic to indicate genuine pain. "Shall I come back with my exam kit?" she asked anyway, and whatever Ashley muttered back was adequate permission to enter.
She found her slumped on the edge of the bed, elbows on knees, fingers sunk deep into a very expensive hairstyle. The dress still hung on the closet door—white, another surprise, but with a swooping halter neck more in keeping with Ashley's sense of style. "Is this an attack of cold feet or something more serious?" Helen asked, leaning against the door to give her some space.
"I don't know," Ashley groaned. She flopped backwards on the bed, flinging her arms over her head. "Why did we do this?"
"Because you love each other very much?" Helen prompted.
Ashley sighed, blowing a stray curl off her face in the process. "Living in sin was working out okay, though."
Helen would never admit to taking her cues from Will, but... "It's not too late to elope," she proposed. "I believe the next plane to New York leaves at five."
That provoked something between a groan and a chuckle, but it did get Ashley sitting upright under her own power. She tugged her garter back into position and looked at the dress as if it were on the other end of a firing range. "No. I'm good. I mean, I'm totally not, but, I will be. I think."
Helen laughed, and pulled Ashley's dress down from where it hung on the closet door: white, she'd never have expected white. "One thing at a time. Unless you were planning to walk down the aisle like that..."
"I've still got like an hour," Ashley protested.
"Kate has been getting ready since eight o'clock," Helen reminded her.
"Kate needed that long just to figure out how to wrap her sari." But Ashley slithered into dress, tugging at the skirt when it threatened to bunch up. Helen helped her maneuver the bodice over her heard without snagging anything in her hair. "I've got it," Ashley said, when Helen started feeling for the closures.
"Let me," Helen said firmly, and zipped her up.
Ashley looked at herself in the mirror, spreading the folds of the skirt a bit with both hands, turning from side to side like she hadn't gone through a two-month process of getting it fitted. Her verdict: "I look like a Barbie doll."
Helen laughed. "You do not. You look lovely."
"You have to say that, you're my mom," Ashley groused.
The veil was draped over the back of a chair; Helen picked it up and gently inserted the comb into Ashley's pinned-up hair. It fell over her shoulders in a cloud of white tulle and tiny golden seed beads, and Helen stepped back to admire the effect. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen Ashley dressed so formally—the one high school dance she'd attended, maybe, when she was fifteen and not quite finished growing. Even as a little girl, Helen couldn't recall her playing at domesticity or dress-up, no preschool "weddings" or "playing house." Then again, she hadn't exactly had the role models for it...
"Oh, god, don't cry," Ashley blurted, eyes widening. "Seriously, if you start I'm gonna start and you have no idea how long this eyeshadow took."
"I'm not going to cry," Helen prostested. (And if she did, she knew she could count on Will for a discreet and non-judgemental tissue.)
"You look like you're going to cry," Ashley accused.
"I'm not--" She sighed. "I was just being maudlin. Thinking of how proud I am of you, and Kate as well."
Ashley blinked for a minute, looking dumbstruck. "I, uh. Don't take this the wrong way, but...I mean...I'm getting interracial-gay-married to a mercenary who dropped out of highschool. 'Proud' is not the word most moms would use here."
Helen put her hands on Ashley's shoulders. "And when have I ever been like 'most moms'?"
"Okay, you got a point there," Ashly allowed, toying with the garnet pendent around her neck.
"I know that it's been difficult for you sometimes, being my daughter," Helen continued haltingly, "and there have been many things I couldn't give you. But in spite of everything, you have found a brave and wonderful woman, and I couldn't be happier for you."
"Oh, god, Mom." Ashley sniffled, and rubbed delicately at her nose. "I told you no crying!"
Helen winced, and cast about for a tissue. "Sorry."
"No, it's okay." This time it was Ashley that took her by the shoulders, and though her eyes still looked too bright her voice was steady. "And look, don't you ever think you screwed up my childhood, okay? 'Cause you're the one who showed me that families can be whatever we want them to be. I don't know if I'd be standing here right now without you."
Helen pulled Ashley tight, barely mindful of the veil. Where was Will with the tissues when she needed him?
On cue, there was a discreet knock on the door. "Hey, not to interrupt or anything, but Biggie's all set up in the cloister, the last of the fish...guy...things are here, and Kate threw her family out of her room like ten minutes ago. Just, whenever you're ready."
"Oh, god, so ready," Ashley muttered.
"What was that?"
Helen raised her voice. "We'll be out in a minute, Will." She wiped her own eyes very carefully and adjusted her boutonniere again. "Your wife is waiting."
Ashley beamed. "Hell yeah, she is. You ready to give me away?"
"Never," Helen assured her, and passed her the bouquet. Ashley slipped into her shoes, and linked her arm with Helen's before they stepped out into the hall.