I feel my stomach gurgle and blink my eyes open to see it’s very early. I hear the incessant beeping of the monitor, and look down to see that I was strapped into the device without even waking…and Bette’s gone. I must have really been out of it. I reach for the note lying next to me and sigh sadly as I pick it up, stroking the strong script that says my name as I open it to read.
I spoke with the nurse at around six am this morning. She said that you did fine through the night and you will be released today. She explained what to expect to prepare the house for your arrival, so I went home to get it ready. I hope to be back before you wake, but if I’m not, call me. I long to hear your voice and I have something I want to tell you. I’ll bring breakfast from the Planet, so don’t feel the need to risk your life eating what they offer you. I shouldn’t be much later than ten. I love you.
I smile as I set the note on the nightstand next to me and pick up my phone. It’s a little after ten. I dial her number only to hear the door open and see her tall, gorgeous form move silently to the counter to set down her load, and reach into her purse to grab her vibrating phone. The delicious smells of life and pastries and coffee follow her in, and I breathe deep of the happiness I feel because of it. She smiles radiantly and turns her head to look at me. Her face is beaming brightly, proudly atop her broad, strong shoulders and the tall fortress of her soft muscled body. For a moment she reminds me of a lighthouse, guiding me to the rocky shore safely, and I sigh with infinite contentment.
I grin back at her as I end the call and she approaches me gracefully, bringing the Planet take away bag and two large coffees with her. She sits on the edge of the bed as I raise it to a sitting position, and leans in for a soft and open kiss that grows heated but unhurried. I tangle my fingers in her hair and deepen it. She tastes like vanilla, espresso, and some exotic chemistry that is uniquely her own. She indulges my ardor before leaning back with a chuckle and mischievous gleam in her almond eyes.
My stomach gurgles again and her grin widens as she hands me a coffee. I take a long pull of the beverage with a moan and she chuckles as she reaches into the bag to retrieve our pastries. I accept one and take a bite, smiling widely as I say, “Thank you.” She smiles back at me before taking a bite of her own. It tastes divine. When you realize how tentative a hold you really have on life, everything looks brighter, more vivid. Colors, sounds, smells, tastes, they all come to the forefront, your mind’s conscious attempt to hold onto the world and reaffirm its place amongst the living. And for me, Bette is no exception.
Just watching her take a bite of her pastry, the way her full velvet lips part, exposing straight, white teeth, the way her silky, pink tongue innocently pokes out to gather the cream from the corner of her mouth, the way the thick, darkly outlined hoods of her almond eyes flutter open, exposing deep brown pools that make promises that only her smoothly muscled and femininely solid body can honor… there are so many clearly impacting emotions she inspires that I could spend years just staring at her face and be satisfied. It’s thrilling and it’s mundane, it’s erotic and it’s domestic… this life we build together will be a lasting testament, tried and true, to my love and desire for her.
The thick lashes flutter and the almond orbs lock on mine as she gazes at me speculatively. “T, are you okay?” Her smooth voice reaches my ears and I can actually feel the tiny hairs on my ear drum stand in relief, reaching out to the dulcet waves caressing it before I snap out of my stupor. I giggle with chagrin and the auburn depths sparkle with knowing mischief before turning seriously awed at the revelation of what they just found. She knows she’s desirable, but this is different. This desire speaks of passion and the conventional, love and longing, both encompassing and overshadowing carnality. It seeps from my soul and touches her own, and she wonders at it with her patented doe-eyed, childlike expression that fills me to overflowing. In essence, we look into each other and see ourselves, and it’s as incredible as it is intense and entirely new.
I stroke her face to soften the intensity of the connection. I could hold her gaze and look on her love for me for eternity, but I’m curious what it was she wanted to tell me, so I ask. “So, your note said you wanted to tell me something?”
Her smile splits her face and tears gather in her eyes. “I spoke to Ming this morning. She spoke with the doctor and they’re letting us take Angie home today.” Tears well in my own eyes as I gaze at her with disbelieving hope. She takes a napkin and wipes the corner of my eye and nods her head to confirm for my disbelieving ears. “That’s why I wanted to take care of the house. Everyone met me there and we cleaned it from top to bottom. It’s sterile. We replaced everything that we weren’t sure about with hypoallergenic products. It’s ready for you both.”
I set my food down in a rush and throw my arms around her neck kissing her with enthusiasm bordering on lunacy. I pull back and look into her eyes and we laugh together through our joyful tears. “She’s really coming home today?”
She grins again. “Believe it. Know what else?” I can’t possibly imagine it gets better and she chuckles at my incredulously raised eyebrow. “Ming said that the paperwork’s done. We can leave as soon as Angie’s ready and we talk to the doctor.” She grins knowingly. “You ready to go home?”
She chuckles at my face again and I can’t find words so I lean in and kiss her. I lean back and stroke the thick springs from her face. “Thank you.”
She grins and offers me a bite of pastry and I accept before she takes one as well. We continue this way, just enjoying the wonderful breakfast, of which we both ate two and a half pastries, before Doctor House arrives with a wheelchair and Ming carrying our daughter. “Good morning.” He smiles as he parks the wheelchair and approaches me.
Bette moves to allow the doctor access to me and takes Angelica from Ming, kissing her and cooing as she hovers to listen to my final exam. I eye them enviously and smile at the doctor. “Morning.”
He lifts my shirt and tucks it just under my breasts, checking my incision before poking around on my stomach. Everything is the same as yesterday until he asks, “Your readings last night were perfectly normal. Did you notice any other flutters?”
I look to Bette who stops bouncing the baby and stares at me with furrowed brows. I close my eyes for a moment before meeting the doctor’s face again. “Actually, yesterday, I had a moment… I was upset and my heart kind of fluttered. I had to sit and catch my breath.”
He puts his stethoscope in his ears and lifts my sweater fully to listen to my heart intently. “Well everything sounds fine but undue stress needs to be kept at a minimum. You’re recovering well, but the stress of the birth and recovery took its toll. I can prescribe something to help regulate it, but you won’t be able to breastfeed.”
My eyes widen and I shake my head. “No, it’s what’s best for Angie. I’m not working. I’m sure we can keep the stress levels down.”
Bette’s smooth, controlled voice cuts in. “We will keep your stress levels down.” I look up to her and smile reassuringly as I pull my sweater back down to cover myself and raise the bed again. Her face is a mask of worry and apology as she again addresses the doctor. “What else can we do?”
He sits back as he marks the readings from the monitor on his clipboard while Ming removes the patches from my chest. “Well, diet and exercise, and I can also give you a list of helpful supplements. If you continue to have the palpitations longer than a month, we can run some tests to determine if there is long term damage.”
“Can’t you just do the tests now?” I see the coiled tension of Bette’s posture and wish I could reassure her with this, but I don’t know any more than she does.
The doctor smiles knowingly at her need to do something. “The palpitations are normal at this point, so doing tests now would have no different result.” Her jaw clenches and I can tell that this is not the end of it. This week has put the fear of loss in all of us. But, I know for certain, that if the tables were turned, I’d be just as fearful. The doctor’s voice cuts through my thoughts and I look back up to him. “Just take it easy for a few weeks and you should be good as new. If you notice any issues, we can run the tests then for a more accurate assessment. I’ll have the nurse print a list of supplements and exercises for you on your way out.” I nod my head at him and smile reassuringly at Bette. I reach my hand up and she takes it in her firm grasp.
The doctor looks at Angie with a grin. “Now… she’s been sustaining her own body temperature just fine without assistance, and she took to feeding without any issues. She’s gaining weight steadily and her lungs have performed wonderfully. They haven’t wheezed for more than three days. She’s almost seven pounds now, and I don’t see any need to keep her here.” I smile up at Bette and she returns it with a watery one of her own.
“However…” We both furrow our brows and turn back to him as he continues. “You don’t want to take her into crowded places for about five or six weeks. You can go to the store and things like that, just try to keep her out of the crowd. Make sure your friends and family are clean and wash their hands before touching her, and limit kissing to the two of you until she’s adjusted. Keep her, her things, anything she comes in contact with, clean, and keep an eye on her when you feed her. She hasn’t lapsed while here, but the extra stress of a real environment outside of the NICU can create breathing problems. Other than that, just try to keep her away from cigarette smoke and you should be fine. I have aftercare instructions here…”
He pulls some papers from the clipboard in his hands and reaches them out. Bette grabs them quickly and starts to look at them. I can’t help but smile at her. She’ll have read and probably memorized them within the hour. “If for any reason you think she’s having any issues, don’t hesitate to schedule her for a check-up with your pediatrician or bring her into the emergency room. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
He smiles but it falters when he sees our worried faces. “She should be fine; it’s just a period of adjustment she has to get through. And, you should schedule her for weekly checkups for the first few weeks anyway. Between you and your pediatrician monitoring her, I’m confident she will be happy, healthy, and fully grown in no time.” He grins at me knowingly and says, “She’ll need to eat every three hours, so you won’t get much sleep, but she’s very close to the average weight of a term baby, so it should level out soon. You’ll notice that she’ll start to eat more but less often within a week or two. You need to rest as often as possible. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you take care of yourself as well.”
His face is serious but he grins as he stands and addresses both of us both and Bette hands me our baby. I’m finally holding her and gazing at her face. I lean down and kiss the crown of her thick hair. “Did you have any questions?”
Bette turns to the doctor and places a hand on my shoulder. “Should we be supplementing Angie’s diet with anything other than breast milk?”
The doctor turns to Bette. “No. Breast milk is the very best. She just needs lots of it right now.”
“What about apnea of prematurity?”
He smiles patiently and links his fingers as he says; “Only fifteen percent of babies born at thirty-four weeks have apnea. She hasn’t had any episodes since she’s been in the NICU and her brain function is well within the reasonable margins to maintain her breathing.”
“Jaundice is common even for term babies. Her bilirubin levels were slightly higher at birth but we treated it with special lights inside the incubators. Her levels are normal now.”
The doctor smiles patiently. “She hasn’t had any problem eating, as evident by her easy weight gain.”
I reach up and squeeze Bette’s hand as she starts to ask something else. She’s just being thorough and protective, and I love her for it, but they wouldn’t release Angie if there were any issues we can’t handle… right? “You wouldn’t release her if you thought there was the slightest risk, right?”
He looks to me and smiles. “No. If there was even the slightest reason to keep her here, I would. She has done nothing but thrive. Actually, after reviewing her progress, I’m convinced that she would have been fully developed and ready for birth earlier than forty weeks, which isn’t entirely uncommon. I truly believe she’s ready to go home now and will do just fine.”
“And you’ve been thorough? You’ve looked at everything… twice, to be sure you didn’t miss anything?”
He again turns to Bette. “We have kept watch on her and monitored her round the clock this last week. We’ve done multiple blood samples, including one just an hour ago.” I look down and check her over until I see the small bulge in her tiny sock. I stroke it lightly and frown. I hate that she’s had to go through this as well, but as I gaze at her round cheeks and contently sleeping face, and feel the slight but solid weight and heat of her reassuringly in my arms, a peace, a knowing calm settles over me. She’s fine, and she’s gorgeous, just like her mama. I look up to the woman in question and again marvel at their similarities.
His eyes soften with understanding as he says what any parent dreads to hear. “There are no guarantees. Things that are unexpected can happen. I can only reassure you both that we have done all we can to prepare her for this step. The rest is up to you…” He looks to Angie, “…and her.”
Bette squeezes my shoulder and I again squeeze her hand. She’s strong and protective, but really, she’s just terrified. Nothing but time and Angie’s increasing health will give her faith. I’m scared as well, but I have Bette. There’s no better in the world to love, protect, and inspire our daughter while she learns how to live and wonder. She does the same for me each and every day.
I stand carefully and Ming smiles as she brings the wheelchair over. I eye her and the contraption speculatively and she explains. “It’s hospital policy that you be wheeled from the premises. I assure you, I have an excellent driving record.” I can’t help but chuckle as I settle into the seat.
Doctor House turns to Bette. “If you have any questions…” He reaches into his lab coat pocket and hands out a card to her, “…don’t hesitate to call. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can to help. If you can’t reach me or your pediatrician, again, don’t hesitate to bring her in.”
She accepts the card with a, “Thank you.” The doctor turns to leave but Bette stops him for one last question. “I’m sorry; I do have one more question.” He sighs patiently and smiles. “I read that we should wait six weeks before we’re sexually active again…”
I raise an incredulous eyebrow at Bette and the doctor’s grin widens as he puts a hand up to stop her. “That’s a common misconception. There should be no intercourse or oral stimulation after giving birth. Most women don’t have a sex drive within the first couple of weeks, but if you find yourselves willing, petting or other stimulation that doesn’t involve penetration, not even air, inserted into her vaginal opening are just fine. Keep it topical, keep it clean, be gentle, and you’re good to go.”
How can she even want me right now? I’m not complaining, but I don’t feel like I’m very sexy at this moment. She smiles at the doctor and winks at me and I feel my heart constrict with love for her. If she can want what I saw in that mirror yesterday evening, she must be blind or brain damaged. I chuckle as something occurs to me and Bette looks to me curiously. She’s in love, therefore she’s both.
We follow the doctor out of the room and up to the nurses’ station. Ming sets my breaks and rummages behind the counter, pulling out a small packet of papers and handing them to Bette, who eyes them as she adds them to the stack already in her hands. Ming chuckles and shakes her head as she wheels me to the elevator with Bette in tow.
Bette turns to me and squats, kissing us both before saying, “I’ll go ahead and pull the car around.”
My eyes go wide as a thought occurs to me. “We don’t even have a car seat…”
She smiles knowing and I could slap myself in the forehead. Of course we do, we have Bette. I sigh contentedly and stroke her face just as the elevator doors open. I hold on to her hand until the last minute as she steps ahead of us, and I watch her retreating back in awe. She’s moving so fast you’d think she was sprinting, but the sure and fluid strides are so graceful that it appears to be a casual walk. She disappears through the doors and Ming wheels me after her.
We exit into the bright sunlight and I reach down to the bundle in my arms and make sure she’s fully covered from the new and harsh environment by her blanket. The Lexus pulls up to the loading area with a small squeal of the turning tires and Bette is already standing in front of me. Ming chuckles and Bette glares at her playfully as she opens the back door. I stand and hand Angie to Bette as I watch her place her into the orbit car seat with far exceeding care.
I open the passenger door and peer inside. Everything looks extremely clean; it almost smells new again, with a twinge of lemon. I smile as Bette checks all of the restraints for security at least three times. She finally pulls back out and hesitantly shuts the door. I stroke her arm and settle my hand in hers to reassure her.
We both look to Ming whose expression is the epitome of patient exasperation. “Xiao meimei will be fine.” Bette glares at her and she chuckles. “Just have a safe journey home.”
I smile at Ming. “Thanks for all your help Ming.” She grins and winks as she turns with the wheelchair, pointing a finger at Bette one last time. Bette laughs and thanks her as well, and she disappears inside.
We look to each other and smile brightly as we go to our doors and settle ourselves inside. I fasten my seatbelt and turn to Bette as she fastens her own. “How’d you have time to go shopping, clean the house, and detail the car all in four hours?”
She grins over at me and I don’t even know why I asked. She’s Bette Porter, that’s how. She smiles bigger when she sees me realize this and admits, “I had a little help from some friends.” I chuckle at her and turn to look at Angie. She’s still asleep but her chest is rising and falling comfortably. The car starts to move and I turn back to face the world as it comes with new clarity, new hope, and a new beginning.
We pull in front of the house and Bette is already unloading Angelica from her seat by the time I’ve shut my door. It’s as if she’s been bitten by a radioactive spider. Either that, or herbal supplements have made some pretty incredible advances in the week I’ve been asleep. She cradles Angie in her arms and smiles at me so brightly that my heart constricts as she takes my hand and we walk up the porch to our house. I follow her through the door and she steps to the side to let me enter.
The house is a whole new level of immaculate. We’ve always been tidy, but this is pretty incredible. They may have even washed the walls and I can swear there’s new polish on the wooden floor. It smells light, clean, and airy but there’s no perfume to it. Really though, none of that is really what catches my attention. There, near the sectional in the living room, is face after smiling face of friends and family as they chorus, “Surprise,” quietly.
I look to Bette who’s grinning like the cat that got the canary and raise an incredulous eyebrow at her. They all stand and come up to me, hugging me in turns and it feels so good to see them and hug them back. I hug Carmen and stare at her questioningly. “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.” I smile at her knowingly and she returns it with a sad one of her own. I stroke her arm and we all stand together in a circle as Bette pulls the blanket from Angie’s face so everyone can get their first real look at her.
Kit is the first to step up and gaze at her. “Oh… my goodness…”
Bette smiles in agreement before addresses them all seriously. “You’ve all washed your hands?” They all nod their heads and Bette’s smile turns warmly radiant as she rotates in a half circle holding the baby out partially. “This is Angelica.”
Kit says, “Hi Angelica,” in that voice that is genetically encoded into the human race for only babies and puppies, and Bette gently places Angie in Kit’s arms. Bette looks to me and smiles as she puts her arm around me, and we both watch in amazement as our friends, our family, share in the joy of new life and furthered familial ties. “Oh… oh… hi, sweetie.” Kit gazes down on her with a warm smile and a gentle rocking motion. “Oh, my goodness…”
She leans down to kiss her and Bette stops her. Kit looks at her with furrowed brows and I explain. “I’m sorry you guys, but the doctor told us before we left that only Bette and I should kiss her for the first few weeks. We don’t want to overwhelm her immune system.” I look at them all remorsefully and they smile reassuringly. Bette and I are so thankful they understand and aren’t offended that we release a sigh of relief.
Kit turns to Dana. “Want to hold her?” Dana’s face is a little nervous, but once Kit settles the baby in her arms she grins toothily down at her. Her expression goes raw with emotions she’s choking back as she turns and offers the baby to Alice, staying close together so they can both love on her. The way they lean into each other and gaze at our baby is almost startling. They’ve been together two years now, but somehow it only now seems real. Bette and I look to each other and I raise an incredulous eyebrow at her. She reaches up and strokes it, and I marvel at how much this familiar act endears her to me.
Alice turns to Carmen with a bright smile and hands Angelica to her. Carmen takes her like a pro and I smile at her. I like Carmen. She’s as real and down to earth as she is warm and sassy. I really wish Shane had stuck with her. They made a beautiful couple. I sigh. I’ll never understand Shane, not like Bette does. How hard is it to be faithful to someone that you’re in love with? I just don’t understand it. Carmen tenderly strokes Angie’s cap covered head and turns to pass her to Shane.
Shane takes Angie awkwardly. She wakes and starts to fuss until Shane finally gets the hang of it, and bounces her a little bit as a wide, silly grin splits her face. A single tear rolls down Carmen’s cheek and she reaches up to hesitantly stroke a lock of Shane’s hair from her face but pulls back and steps away, wiping the moisture from her face and sniffing once as she watches with utter joy and utter disappointment.
My heart breaks for Carmen. I understand that betrayal, the pain of it, and the knowledge that you just weren’t enough for your lover as the insecurities that will last a lifetime race through your veins to settle deeply in your heart. I regard Bette speculatively. Yes, she hurt me that deeply, but with time comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes wisdom. And when you put all of those facets together, the image isn’t perfect, but it’s whole; it’s just not the same. It is possible to fix it if both involved are willing. Will it ever be the same? No. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Absolutely not…
Shane’s goofily enthralled observation of my daughter is heart-warming enough but the wonder in her voice as she tells Angie, “You have tiny feet,” is nearly my undoing. We all chuckle quietly to ourselves as she turns and passes the now wide awake miracle to Dylan.
Dylan’s eyes are wide with nervousness and she looks like she wants to refuse, but Helena saves her by stepping up to retrieve the baby expertly. She leans in to share the moment with Dylan who starts to laugh incredulously as she looks on Angie in startled bewilderment. Helena smiles warmly at her partner as she watches her rigid posture melt into a warm puddle of mush before her eyes, and I can’t help the watery smile that lines my face with joy at this moment.
Things might have worked out very differently with Helena if she hadn’t been the kind of person that’s easy to become entranced by. Once she pulls you in, and you see how soft and caring she really is, falling in love wouldn’t be difficult. That’s why I ran from her so quickly after we started dating. Well that, and the fact that I felt pushed for more than I had in me to give. I’m glad that she’s found someone good for her, someone that completes her. No one but Bette would ever fully complete me. I think I’ve always known that.
They turn and offer the baby to Ricky who giggles girlishly at Angie and makes some very strange noises at her. She starts to fuss and we all laugh as his eyes go wide with confusion. He looks to us and has no idea what to do. Tom smiles proudly and takes her carefully his hands. “It’s nice to meet you, little one. I’m your uncle Tom.”
Ricky chuckles and mumbles, “Oh no you ain’t, white boy.” We all chuckle as Tom bounces her slightly and my tears fall freely. I feel… vindicated, vindicated, and like a part of what was missing in my life has finally snapped into place. I love everyone here and they are my family, but blood relation matters as well. No family is replaceable, blood or chosen.
Tom smiles and passes the baby to Malcolm who grins boyishly and smiles a watery smile at Angelica. I watch his face carefully and I can tell that Bette is as well. I would understand the connection that a known biological attachment would give, but blood doesn’t define familial roles. I don’t want any lines to become blurry. This is Bette’s baby as much as my own. Malcolm is her uncle and will be a huge part of her life, a strong male figure to help her along, but we are her parents. He signed the papers, but it’s a whole new world when you gaze down into that precious baby’s face.
Malcolm looks up and smiles at Bette before doing the one thing I think he knows he needs to make clear. “She looks just like you, Bette.” He looks back down on her and says, “You know what I’m going to like best about being your uncle, niblet? I get to get you tanked up on sweets that rot your teeth and toys that rot your mind, and then, I get to hand you to your mums to clean up my mess.” He holds the baby out to Kit and Bette lets go of the breath she’s been holding as we all chuckle. I stroke soothing circles on her back. Malcolm came through, and honestly, I expected no less from him.
He agreed to this, but I know I’d have a hard time letting go. He’s a good man. I can think of no one better to help Angelica through this life with a male perspective. I look to Malcolm and say, “Thank you.” He grins again and I look to all the joyful faces that surround us, realizing that Angelica isn’t just mine or Bette’s or even Malcolm’s anyway; she’s a bright spot for everyone, even those who didn’t know it until now, and they will all serve vital rolls that only a family can offer. After all, it takes a village.
Bette leans in close to my ear and whispers, “Looks like we have an infinite supply of babysitters.” We both chuckle at her joke and I meet her gaze just in time to see her furrow her brows and turn to stare at the baby worriedly. I consider her speculatively. What just happened?
Kit is gazing at Angelica and cooing, “Oh, Angelica. Oh, sweetie you are gonna’ have a very, very interesting life, you know that?” We all chuckle quietly. “Because we… are some very, very interesting people.” She turns to me and I take the baby gently as she puts her hand to her tiny head and says, “Okay… this is your family.” Tears well in Kit’s and my eyes, and I look up to see Bette’s gorgeous orbs shine with contentment as well. I look back down to my fussy baby and smile as I stroke her sweet, wrinkled face. Yes, baby, this is your family.
We all stand in awe of this life altering moment before Alice releases a deep sigh and her energetic personality bubbles to the surface. “TK…?” I look up into her bright face and she points toward the sectional. There are gifts, a cake, streamers, a ‘congratulations’ banner, everything that was meant for the baby shower we would have had next week had our plans gone accordingly. I raise an incredulous eyebrow at them all and look up into the smug face of my proud and gorgeous wife. “Come on! You have a ton of presents to open!” Alice’s face turns serious. “And there’s cake…” Her seriousness turns smug, “…chocolate…” She crosses her arms over her chest in a satisfied manner and I can’t help but laugh.
Angie starts fussing again and I look down to see her nuzzling me and shoving her fist in her mouth. I look up to Bette and she grins knowingly. This is the first time, and we need privacy. I… we… need to bond with her. I’m a little nervous that she’ll reject me. I look up to see everyone’s anxious and excited faces, and my tower of strength steps up for me. “We need some time you guys. The baby’s hungry and this is the first time she hasn’t used a bottle.”
Their faces turn crestfallen before the words finally sink in. There’s a chorus of drawled, “Ohhhh…,” and I chuckle at them as I turn and head for the stairs. I notice that Bette isn’t with me and turn to gaze at her questioningly. Her face melts into that wonderfully doe-eyed gaze of innocence and I just can’t seem to figure her out since yesterday. Whatever the reason for her open and effortlessly conveyed emotions, I’m so thankful for it.
We gaze at each other long moments and I raise an incredulous eyebrow at her. She finally breaks the connection when Angie fusses yet again, and quickly turns back to the group. “We’ll be back soon. Just make yourselves…” Alice has her feet tucked up under her as she leans against Dana in the middle of the sectional. Helena and Dylan are in the kitchen putting together a tray of beverages and snacks as they chat and laugh and touch each other sweetly. Carmen and Shane are stealing shy but stubborn glances at each other from opposite ends of the sectional, while Kit is sitting with her arms crossed over her chest and watching them with a smirk, Ricky mirroring her posture and rolling his eyes. Malcolm and Tom are sitting next to Alice and Dana chatting, Tom almost flirtatious. I smirk. Malcolm’s as straight as Tom is gay. “…comfortable.”
Bette turns back to me with a flummoxed expression and raises her hand in a, ‘well, never mind,’ gesture before we both chuckle and head up the stairs. We get to the nursery and she smiles at me as I settle into one of the rocking chairs. I look up at her nervously and she sweetly lends me her reassurance as she pulls the other chair closer and settles into it, leaning over me and putting her arm around my shoulders. “You’ll be fine, T…” She reaches between me and our fussing baby, and I hold her out while she lifts the sweater for me, settling it up high on my chest.
I breathe deep of Bette’s calming presence and pull the baby back in, holding her close to my nipple. She fidgets and paws at me, turning her head from side to side before locking her lips around it and taking her first pull. The sensation is… strange, but oddly familiar, and I smile as I see her jaw work furiously to drink greedily. I look up to see Bette wondering at us in awe and lean in to kiss her unawares. She grins at me and touches her lips to mine in a lingering kiss before we press our heads together and gaze at our baby.
Angie drinks for about twenty minutes before slowing down as if she’s about to fall asleep. I look to Bette who smiles and says, “Now we need to burp her and switch to the other side.” I lift Angie gently and hand her to Bette. I don’t want her to feel left out of any part of this.
Her eyes water as she looks to me questioningly. “This moment is just as much yours as it is mine. We both need to bond with her.” She gazes at me adoringly and lays Angie over her shoulder on a clean nursing pad before gently patting and stroking her back with her long slender fingers.
I watch them with adoring satisfaction, and let the comfort of this bonding moment sink deep into my heart. I’m so glad we read all of those books. This would be a nightmare if we had no clue what we were doing. Angie lets out a deep, indelicate burp and we both chuckle. Bette says, “I think she’s ready for round two.”
She hands her back to me and we settle in together again as she latches on to my other breast with gusto. “This is a lot easier than I thought it would be.”
I can hear the warm smile in Bette’s close voice as her warm breath tickles my ear. “She certainly seems to have no problem eating.” I feel her warm lips touch my temple before she rests her forehead there. Another twenty minutes pass too quickly and this time sleep takes her. I smile down at her and again pass her to Bette to burp. “Thank you for including me, T.”
I look into her watery eyes and stroke her face. “You’re essential.” She laughs through the tears that fall and my heart beams with radiant joy. Angelica burps again and we both laugh. I stroke her tiny back. “Do you think she needs to be changed?”
She pats her bottom gently. “Couldn’t hurt.” She passes Angie to me and I kiss her serene face as we both stand and head to the changing station. I place her on the soft surface and her eyes flutter with dreams. I can’t help but wonder at her thoughts. Does she have any conception of the love she is freely given? I caress her wondrous face as Bette pulls apart the snaps between her legs. The diaper is most definitely soiled, so I lean down and grab the hypoallergenic wipes, powder, and a fresh diaper.
Bette sets to work cleaning her thoroughly and we both laugh as Angie kicks her legs in her sleep. “She’s more and more like you every minute.”
Bette glares at me and I chuckle. “I don’t kick my legs when you…” She smirks when she finally catches on. “You’re wicked, T. Absolutely wicked.” I cover my mouth and chuckle again as she douses the baby’s bottom half in powder and curses under her breath. “Fucking cap was open all the way…”
She gets the new diaper in place, snaps the tiny onesie together, and wipes off the excess powder. I lean down and kiss Angie’s sleeping face again before picking her up, careful not to disturb her. Bette and I gaze at each other. Do we put her down? I don’t want to leave her side. I can see the same emotions written clearly on Bette’s face, and neither of us makes a move in either direction. Bette finally walks over to the portable baby monitors, switching them on and testing them.
I feel as though I’m rooted to the floor as she turns to me. “I don’t want to either, T, but just like I didn’t want to leave you alone in the room for a few minutes…”
I sigh and finish her sentence. “If we don’t get used to it now, it will only get harder.” I walk to the crib where Bette is waiting and somehow manage to place her on her back on the firm mattress inside. Tears gather in my eyes as I pull my hands away and I look up to see Bette gazing at her with the same reluctant expression. She breathes deeply and a determined strength washes over her countenance as she settles the large bear in the far corner at the very end. She can’t cuddle with it yet, but hopefully its smell will amount for some comfort while she dreams.
After a long moment Bette finally takes my hand in her own, and leads us both from the room. We leave the door ajar and stop to listen carefully on the monitor. There’s only the sound of delicate breathing, but it’s reassuring. Bette looks to me and her strength is waning so I give some of it back as I smile reassuringly and tug her with me down the stairs. Everyone’s relaxed and waiting in the living room and we join them with an almost sad smile.
Bette and I sit close together next to Alice and Dana with a sigh, and we both stare at the monitor, the little tufts of measured breath our only reassurance. Alice pipes in, “Did you guys need to do this another time? We just thought you could use it all now since little miss impatient up there is just like Bette.”
I chuckle at this and Bette glares at me. I reach up and stroke her face. So far Angie’s just like her. There’s no denying it. I know it, and she knows it. Her scowl melts into a warm smile as she picks up a bag and sets it in my lap with a playful huff, grabbing a package for herself.
Before we know it, forty-five minutes of laughter and finger foods pass, and so far we’ve received everything one could possibly need for taking care of Angie: diapers, a breast pump, clothes, toys, books, stuffed animals, and even the start on a college fund from Helena. I think that impressed Bette the most. All of this was interspersed with Bette listening carefully to the monitor and smiling reassurances at me. I can’t help but wonder if this transition is going to be harder on us than the baby.
Once everything is opened, tons of pictures have been taken, all the food nearly gone, and everyone thanked accordingly, Bette stands, hands me the monitor, and smirks with a satisfied gleam in her eyes as she walks away without a word. She’s only gone for a moment before returning with the stroller part of the car seat still strapped in the back of the Lexus, and I smile brilliantly at her. She’s probably already managed to read the manual cover to cover. “Bette, it’s beautiful.”
She smirks again as she disappears into the back, and this time returns with a playpen still in the box. “We can set it up later, but I thought it would be nice for when we’re down here.”
I smile gratefully at her but she’s just getting more and smugger with each trip into the back of the house. This time, she has a baby swing still in the box. I lean back and hold the monitor to my ear, reassured by the soft sounds and meet her gaze to reassure her. She smiles again and says, “One more.” She disappears again and comes back with two books in her hands and huge smile on her face.
She sits next to me and trades them to me for the monitor. I look down at the vintage style art on the glossy surfaces and stroke them as tears gather in my eyes. “Monkeys Go on Strike and Aardvark Makes Pasta.”
I smile a watery smile at her and she mirrors my expression as she clears her throat. “I uh… I hope you don’t feel awkward…”
I push the disheveled curls from her eyes and kiss her tenderly before quietly saying, “He’d have wanted Angie to have his books.”
Tears fall quietly from our eyes and the room is deathly quiet except for the electronically amplified breathing of the little girl above us as I turn to see there’s not a dry eye in the house. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to be such an intense gift.”
I turn to Bette and gaze at her adoringly. “It’s thoughtful and meaningful… and I love you for it.” I swallow hard and there are sniffles all around. “It honors his memory, keeps him close.” I think on my son for a moment and though it hurts, it’s good to think of him. He never got a chance, not really, and no amount of new babies will replace him. But this will keep him alive. I address our friends to end the mourning. It will never truly be over, but it can share space with the joy of this day. “Thank you all so much for the wonderful gifts, and mostly, for just being here, being a part of our family.”
Everyone releases a heavy breath and scrubs at their faces, finding the heart to smile with me. I look up to Bette to see her stroking the glossy book covers and grab her hand, pulling it to my mouth to kiss it reverently. I love seeing all of her, knowing what she feels, seeing how vulnerable she is. Of everything she’s given me, that is by far the most precious gift I could receive.
Alice leans forward and says, “Well, I think it’s time to have some cake.” There’s a chorus of agreement as Helena starts to cut the triple tier, professional cake that looks like a set of three cute baby building blocks stacked on top of each other, and place pieces on the matching paper plates on the coffee table. Dana sets a plastic fork on each and starts passing them around.
Once everyone is again laughing and talking and eating, I take a bite of my own piece and look back to Bette still open and raw with painful remembrance. I love seeing into her so readily, but right now, she needs her armor. She has so much to work through, we both do. An idea occurs to me and I smile at her. She meets my eyes and furrows her brows. I take a forkful of my cake and put it to her mouth. She opens and I place a bite inside. We’ve had more calories today than we normally consume in a week, and I chuckle as I watch her close her eyes and let out a soft moan.
This is one thing that most people don’t know about her and she’d never admit, but when she’s very sad or stressed and she can’t drink it away, she has a stash of candy bars. I’ve found a few in strange places around the house in my time with her. I smile as I pull the fork back and take another bite for myself. I feed her most of the cake. I already have some work to do to regain my pre-baby body. I know Bette loves me, she’s proven it, but I’m still self-conscious about it.
A fussing sound calls out through the baby monitor and both Bette and I quickly get to our feet. Everyone stands and starts to pick up the mess of paper and food, and we both thank them as we make our way up the stairs.
We stop to wash our hands in the bathroom before heading to the nursery where Bette picks Angie up as I check her over from her mama’s arms. She’s fine. Her diaper’s still clean, her temperature feels normal, and she’s breathing. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. She starts to nuzzle and shuffle her head against Bette’s breast. Bette meets my gaze, smiling a gorgeous, heart constricting smile before looking back down to the baby. “Are you hungry again, babycakes?”
We make our way quickly to the rocking chairs, and settle in to start feeding her. She latches right onto me and sucks noisily, and both Bette and I laugh. We revel in our family together for long minutes when there’s a quiet knock at the door. Kit pokes her head in and smiles as Bette motions for her to enter. She walks in and gazes down at our daughter with a loving grin as she says, “Everything’s cleaned up and your new stuff has been set on the table. We weren’t sure where you wanted it.”
Bette strokes the baby’s head before looking up. “That’s great. Thank you for picking up.”
Kit smiles adoringly again. “Oh, my goodness… she can eat.” We all chuckle and she strokes the baby’s smooth arm. “She’s so beautiful.” Angie opens her eyes and Kit gasps, staring at us in shock. We smile at her knowingly and she starts to recover. “Well, I’m going to shoo everyone away. You both look like you need some rest. Oh, and Tom’s staying with Malcolm tonight. Something about a guys’ night.” Bette and I look to each other and I raise an incredulous eyebrow at her. She winks at me and we all chuckle until Angie’s eyes start to flutter closed. I hand Angie to Bette who sets her up to her shoulder. “Will you be at the Planet tomorrow before work?”
I look to Bette as she considers this question. “Well, I need to talk to Leo tomorrow. I want to stay home until both of these two are fully in the clear. There’s a little issue I need to talk to Leo about. Once that’s done, I think we’ll just stay here with the baby. We aren’t supposed to have her around large crowds.”
Kit nods her head in understanding before her eyes light up. “Well, I can set you guys up with a private area out of the mess of people if you like. We’ll even make sure it’s properly sterilized.”
“Kit, you don’t need to go through all of that trouble…” She gives Bette a disapproving look and Bette smiles. “I just don’t think we should try it yet. I don’t want to risk her health. We’ll see how she’s doing this week after her first check-up. Then we might try it.”
Kit strokes the baby’s back. “I wouldn’t want that either. If you think that’s best, at least let me bring you something and come visit her.” We both smile at her and nod our agreement. Angie lets out a crude burp and Kit chuckles as Bette hands her back to me. I start feeding on the other side and Kit stands. “Okay, you two. We’ll clear out now. I’ll see you tomorrow, but not too early.”
I smile at Kit. “Thank everyone for us?”
She nods as she walks to the door and says, “Call if you need anything.”
“Bye Kit.” The door shuts behind her and I look down to see Angie is starting to fall asleep. Bette smiles as she takes her from my arms to burp her one last time. I stroke her tiny foot and she kicks me off as a tiny but crude noise fills the room and we smile at each other as we again settle her in her crib. Bette takes my hand and the monitor and we head into the master bedroom where we undress and have another shower together in comfortable silence.
We start to dress and I ask, “What issue did you need to talk to Leo about?”
She pulls her tank over her head and frowns. “While you were in the hospital, I got the monthly statement for the gallery. The monthly numbers don’t add up. I need to talk to him so we can find the discrepancy.”
I settle my own tank around my waist but it won’t go down all the way and I sigh. “How much of a discrepancy?” Bette comes up to me and pulls the tank off of me and helps me into one of her own with a warm smile. It’s much looser, it’s hers, and I smile at her in thanks.
“Around ten thousand.” She settles the top for me and I eye her curiously. Something’s wrong with this picture and her expression mirrors my own as she meets my eyes.
“Have you checked the quarterly statements?” She shakes her head before walking back over to her dresser. “Maybe we should before we talk to anyone, Bette. I hate to say it, but I don’t trust Leo. He seems… suave… or slick to me, greasy even.” She chuckles as she pulls her underwear on.
I do the same and watch her as she pulls a loose pair of drawstrings up around her waist. She seems to be considering my words, and once she’s finished she meets my eyes and sighs. “I don’t think that’s a bad idea. Tomorrow morning after we wash and feed Angie, we can go over them together. I don’t want to mess with it right now, but that’s a large sum of money to have missing all at once. I don’t think it can wait.”
I smile at her and reach down to rummage for my most loose fitting pajama pants as she sets the baby monitor on the nightstand. She confirms the soft sounds of gentle slumber and releases an anxious sigh. “We can balance both, babe.” The pants aren’t here and I sigh as I hear a chuckle. I look up to glare at Bette who grabs some pants from her drawer and hands me a pair. I smile gratefully through my chagrin and sigh as I pull the comfortable pants on. It sucks being in this in-between place. The maternity clothes are too loose, but the normal stuff is too tight. I look up into her eyes and stroke the damp curls from her forehead. “Thank you for staying with us until things settle down. It means a lot to me.”
She puts her arms around me and I tuck my head under her chin. “I don’t think I could leave you both, not right now. I think we need to play it safe. I need to be here, to protect you, and I can’t do that from my office.” I smile as she sighs. “I can manage things from here though.”
I close my eyes and let the strength and comfort pouring off of her envelop me, just like her strong arms are. And I’m thankful that she feels the need to be here, to protect us. “We can handle things from here.” I feel a gentle kiss to the crown of my head and run my hands up her strong back. Her body is like hardened steel, cushioned in crushed velvet and covered in silk, the dichotomy of it as reassuring as it is arousing.
I didn’t mean for my touch to be arousing, or to lean back and turn a sweet innocent kiss into a snapping, crackling fire, but it happened, and I’m not exactly sorry about it as a flood of warmth settles low in my hips. Her satin tongue strokes smoothly against my own and I whimper as her arms tighten around me, locking me to her with gentle firmness.
I pull my hands down from her solid shoulders and reach in front to caress her breasts through the thin fabric covering them. She breaks the kiss panting heavily and rests her forehead to mine. I watch in aroused awe as the muscles and tendons of her neck stand out against her bronzed skin, and lean down to place wet, open kisses along her strong collar and the soft swells of her breasts.
Her hands tangle in my hair and she lifts my face, kissing me roughly and feverishly as we start a stumbling crawl to the bed. She lays me down and crawls up over me, pushing my tank up and skimming her teeth and lips up my torso. I get self-conscious as she reaches my paunch. She meets my eyes and strokes the area reverently. “I love your body even more now.” She looks down and follows the path of her hand with her eyes. “Every part of you is beautiful, especially now. It’s robust, fuller, and sexier.” She smiles sexily, almost ferally, and I feel my heart constrict. “But what it means…” She meets my watery eyes again and leans up over me to whisper, “…what it stands for is…well, I think I know what Stendahl meant when he said, ‘my head thrown back, I let my gaze dwell on the ceiling. I underwent the most profound experience of ecstasy I had ever encountered.’” Her eyes grow glassy with unadulterated and exposed emotion. “Be proud of how beautiful you are right now, because there is nothing more erotic and beautiful than you wearing motherhood.”
I raise an incredulous eyebrow as the tears fall freely from my eyes and reach up to crush her mouth hard against my own. I want to crawl inside of her, to shelter in her love and desire for me. Her ardor matches my own as she delicately caresses my breast, leaning back and saying, “Is this okay?”
The touch is soft and gentle, and it soothes the tender and engorged skin with the heat of her long feminine fingers and palm. I smile at her. “That feels good… just be gentle… they’re tender.” She smiles at me as she starts to kiss them sweetly, the touch so soft that I can barely feel it. Her caress is light and reverently delicate and I sigh as it stokes the fire burning low in my belly, whimpering at the sweet torture of how delicately she touches me.
I feel a warm, wet swell of moisture gather and drip thickly across my breast, and look down to see the clear, white milk gather around her supportive hand. She looks to the area as well before meeting my eyes as she leans down and strokes her satin tongue across the wet trail it left. I close my eyes at the strangely erotic intensity of the moment, and the fire in my stomach reaches catastrophic heights.
I can feel the tightening muscles inside twinge with soreness, but I just don’t care. I can’t help but beg her in a breathless whimper, “Bette… please… please, touch me.” I want her, I need her. It’s like she’s everywhere but it’s not enough. I need more of her. I reach down and thrust my fingers inside her pants and underwear, past the small thatch of thick curls, and delve them easily through the silken folds I find there. “You’re so wet…” The muscles in her shoulders tense and clench as her legs part a little more. “I just want to fuck you…”
She’s breaking heavily as she reaches down and undoes the drawstrings of my pants quickly, shoving her hand inside and freezing as we hear the baby start to fuss and cry on the monitor. She drops her forehead to my collarbone and we both catch our breath before standing. I pull the tank back down and we both wash our hands at the sink in the bathroom before going to tend to our daughter.