Chapter 1: Part 1
June, Year 6
Penny felt like she’d just gotten back to sleep when the knock sounded on her door. In a practised move she hooked her right heel over the edge of the mattress and rolled herself over while throwing back the covers to get out of bed. Sleeping on her back or stomach had been impossible for months and these days she needed a long bolster-like pillow to cuddle up to for tummy support as well. On her feet, she wrapped herself in her dressing gown and tied it as she went to the door. She opened the door without bothering to turn on the light.
“Hi,” said Kath, bag beside her and dressing gown clad too, “It’s time. Help me get to the clinic?”
“Of course,” Penny pulled her door closed behind her but didn’t bother making sure the lock snicked. At least down here, Sanctity provided all the security she needed, or could get. “How often are the contractions?”
“I’m not sure,” Kath confessed as Penny picked up the bag, “I’ve only had one real one – I thought I was having contractions when I came to your door and then, suddenly I’m on my hands and knees on the floor doing my panting. That was a real contraction. When I could get up, I knocked on the door.”
The two girls began to walk across the pod common area to the hallway, Penny ready to support her friend when the next contraction came. “Uh, wasn’t Uberto going to stay the night?”
“He was,” Kath sighed, “but I couldn’t get comfortable with my lower back and sent him home so I wouldn’t keep him awake twisting and turning all night. Hindsight is a fine thing; I must already have been working through the preliminaries.”
“So, who will we send to get him?” Penny was working out in her head which of their neighbours was most likely to be home.
“With Kept and sleep-over, half the pod is empty,” commented Kath.
“Probably,” Penny stopped at one of the two doors nearest the exit and knocked. There was noise from inside that might have been words, the light showed under the door and it was opened by a dark haired, olive skinned boy, scabbed and abraded about the face and with a fresh black eye. “Abed, again?” Penny sighed, “Why didn’t you come to see me when you came home, or go to the clinic?
“It’ll get better,” he said brusquely. “It’s time isn’t it? Need help?”
“Can you go ask Uberto to meet us at the clinic?” requested Kath. “Please.”
“Sure,” he ducked his head as much as nodded. “Do you need me to carry you there first?”
“Thanks,” Kath smiled, “but walking is good for me and I should be able to make it. I shouldn’t have sent him home tonight.”
“I’ll go,” brusque again, “need some clothes first though.” He closed the door on them again.
“Lets get going then,” gently urged Penny, “if we’re lucky there might not be another contraction before we get there.”
The next contraction was seven minutes after the first, according to Kath’s watch. Then they ran into Ofir. He stood in front of them and looked both girls up and down as if picking out a favourite sweet. “All dressed for bed and ready to move in with me? How eager.” He leered and felt in his pockets, “What have I got I can use for a pair of collars?”
“Bugger off,” retorted Penny. “You can be an ass and keep us here if you want, Ofir, but Kath’s in labour and if you do that, you’ll have to deliver the baby. Trust me, it’ll be worse than changing a nappy.”
“Nappy?” He looked blank.
“You call them diapers.” Penny glared at him, Kath put a steadying hand on her friend’s shoulder and Ofir’s expression changed to one of uncertain dismay. “Do you want to do it here or on your bed? You’ll need clean everything afterwards, of course.”
Ofir broke eye contact and loped off in the direction of his room, muttering something as he went.
“Good riddance,” Kath said quietly, “but what were you going to do if that didn’t work?”
“Abatu the t-word I can say on a portion of his anatomy that seems central to men’s views of themselves,” Penny grinned. “They’re not my best words, but it should have been as painful as kicking him there and nothing Caitrin couldn’t fix.”
“Let’s get on to the clinic,” urged Kath, “where there are people who know more about delivering babies than we do and in case Ofir decides to come back.”
“Yes, lets,” agreed Penny, adding as they walked, “mind you, if what they say about second stage labour is true, I’ll let you deal with him.”
Kath laughed ruefully, “I won’t be that far along for hours yet – if he turns up at that stage, Caitrin’ll annihilate him for me. Unless, of course,” she looked at her Crew-mate speculatively, “he’s there because someone’s done something to him. Some people keep warning me to be careful because you’re cy’Fridmar...”
“I have no wish to waste my time on Ofir,” Penny was firm. “Aside from him being 4th Cohort while I’m 6th and presumably difficult for me to get the best of, I would find him distinctly less annoying if his delusions of competency were matched by his ability. In the long term, I expect Bowen to be far more dangerous.”
Chapter 2: Fruition 2
Two contractions and an encounter with Ofir, who declined to be involved in childbirth and voted with his feet, after they’d left their pod they reached the stairs. As they started up, Bowen rounded the landing, baseball cap on backwards, humming to himself in a pleased manner and wearing a black tee shirt with Mountain climbing at night on the front in purple-tinted fuchsia. He stopped and surveyed them.
“This is for Kath, right?” He bounced down the stairs and stopped in front of them. “How about I take the bag? Otherwise you’ll both be in labour by the time you get to the clinic.” He took the overnight bag from Penny and asked, “Do you need any more help? Should I carry you or something?”
“Thank you,” Kath smiled, “but I really am good to walk. What are you doing out at this time of night?”
“You’d both be happier not knowing that.” It wasn’t quite a flippant reply, but Penny caught a glimpse of a pleased grin, almost a smirk as he turned around. The back of the tee shirt said, in the same writing, Sheep do it better. The rest of the walk to the clinic was probably made easier by Bowen’s help, not only did he carry the bag but he proved a better leaning post and support during contractions than Penny.
“I’m sorry,” gasped Kath after the first one in his company, “I shouldn’t be doing this to you.”
“Nonsense,” a serious grin accompanied Bowen’s response, “I have done it before and it’s good practice. After all, I should be doing this at least once more for my own kid, but I think I’ll have to make sure its mother lives in the same suite as me. Seems an easier option.”
In the clinic the nurse whisked Kath off to an examination room with an anxious Uberto, who’d been about to come looking for them, in tow. As Bowen was putting down the bag and about to go, Dr Caitrin led Abed back out into the reception area. “I’ve told you before,” she was saying, “come and see me as soon as possible when these things happen, you don’t have to tough it out.”
“As long as I won’t say I belong to them, they have to let me go in the end,” he shrugged. “By the end of next year, everyone who knew my brothers will have left here. If I can survive one year, I can survive two.”
“That’s as may be,” Dr Caitrin said severely, “but it’s a bad habit to get into, neglecting even minor injuries.” She looked at the two students already in the waiting room, “And you two are here because?”
“We helped Kath get here.” Penny explained. “Uberto and Abed were here already so you’re probably expecting her. The nurse took them along there.” Penny pointed in the direction they’d gone.
“Very well then, the three of you should go get some sleep, it’s late enough to be early and you have classes later today. Bowen,” he looked surprised to be singled out, “you seem to be the closest thing to a responsible adult in your merry marching society, make sure these other two get home and get to bed, thank you.”
“Yes’m.” His response seemed the only appropriate answer but Penny caught a speculative half glance in her direction from Bowen and sighed to herself. Bowen’s health and confidence had improved over the course of the year and now it looked like his hormones were really beginning to kick in. Cy’ree or not, fridge rights or not, it looked like Bowen might not be a safe ally for too much longer.
“If you want to come and see how Kath is doing,” added Dr Caitrin, “it’s her first baby, so I’d suggest about lunchtime tomorrow. Now, scoot you lot, I’ve got more than one baby arriving tonight!”
The walk back to Penny and Abed’s pod was completely uneventful, it seemed the rest of the school was asleep. Abed disappeared into his room with only a muttered, “Good night.” He started pulling his shirt off before the door closed behind him and both the others could see the scars across his back that hadn’t been there before Christmas.
“I worry about him,” Penny confided to Bowen as they crossed the common area to her room, “I hope he isn’t learning how to behave from whoever’s beating him up.”
“He’s like you, a late starter,” Bowen considered, “and he’s been tough enough to hold out against being Kept all this time. I think he’s right about that. From what I heard, his brothers were pretty awful, full stop. His life really might not be worth living if one of their former Kept got their collar around his throat.”
“The problem with the Law is that there are no policemen,” Penny said bitterly. “Which means that within those limits, might can make right. I think the trick is to learn how to deal with the people who take that road without becoming one of them.”
“How you coming with that?” Bowen asked.
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “Ask me again in three years?”
“Two, I plan to be long gone and out of here in three years,” Bowen perforce stopped outside the door when she opened it and stepped inside. “Let me enter to tuck you in?” He waggled his eyebrows at her.
“No thank you, Bowen.” She smiled. “You’re an aries, a ram, and they have harems, otherwise known as flocks. I don’t think I’d share well and I wouldn’t like to give you the wrong idea, so no.”
“Pity, you don’t know what you’re missing and I can do cuddly plushy toy pretty well.” A thought occurred to him. “Are you still seeing himself,” he pointed at her belly, “On the quiet?”
“No.” She sighed and leaned against the doorframe, “At the time I wouldn’t have minded if something had developed there, but since we had it off, he’s had two boyfriends and a girlfriend, semi concurrently, that I know of. I may,” she added very precisely, “have been misinformed as to how many children he already had. At least I got what I asked for out of our deal.” She smiled self deprecatingly at Bowen, “Good night, I’ll see you in class.” With that she stepped back and closed the door. Bowen, presumably, went off to his own bed.
Penny was back at the clinic at the beginning of lunch and was allowed to visit, all the exciting things having happened. In Kath’s room she leaned over the cot and admired the small, red faced, dark haired and utterly gorgeous creature inside it. “She’s beautiful,” Penny admired. “What’s her name?”
“Uberto says Melody,” Kath was sitting upright in the bed, watching her every move around the baby with an eagle eye.
“Melody’s good,” agreed Penny, “not way out there, like some of us. Aelgifu, Shahin, Penstemon... No, Melody’ll be good for the school playground.”
“I thought so too,” the new mother agreed. “Now come sit beside me and tell me why you’ve been crying.”
“Does it still show?” Penny looked annoyed.
“Only if you really look – your eyes are still a bit red.” Kath patted the mattress beside her, “What was wrong?”
Penny perched on the edge of the bed. “It was all so silly.” She sighed. “They called me up to the office before classes to tell me what arrangements they’d made for me in the holidays. After all, I don’t have anywhere to go and I can’t go roaming around the country side in the condition I’ll be in by then.” Kath nodded in agreement. “And I just burst into tears when they told me I’d be staying with someone. Which was really embarrassing because the person was there so I could meet them. It was just this endless sobbing water works and I couldn’t stop. I had to tell them I didn’t know why I was crying: except I really, really didn’t want to give up my room and have nowhere of my own. Then Lady Maureen, who is who I was supposed to stay with, took me to see Dr Mendosa – the Director’s secretary must have phoned while we were on our way. Then Dr Mendosa scolded me for not coming and seeing her about altered brain chemistry months ago. I didn’t know I had altered brain chemistry,” she looked at her friend almost pleadingly. “Why would I think I had altered brain chemistry? But now they’re looking into ‘other arrangements’ where I can keep my own Sanctity, but Lady Maureen was really nice and she probably thinks I was rude. Professor Fridmar might be going to be cross with me as well, and I was going to have a nice visit with you and Melody, but now...I’ve just gone on about me,” She pulled out her handkerchief and blew her nose, then looked at Kath, “Are Uberto and Dr Caitrin going to be cross with me too?”
“No,” said Kath firmly. “You haven’t upset me and you haven’t woken the baby. If this is part of your Change then Professor Fridmar won’t be cross with you and if Lady Maureen is as nice as you think she is, then she won’t be either. What you need,” she warmed to a favourite topic, “is someone to snuggle with. I will bet,” she went on, “that Bowen offered to join you last night and you turned him down.” She went on straight over Penny’s attempted interjection, “I know what you think about Bowen, but it would have been good for you. And it might have gotten what’s-his-face to pay you some attention. I know you had some sort of deal, but he gets to walk around with an ego swelling as big as your belly, enjoying himself with the current fling while you just sit around and gestate. He could at least carry your books between classes.”
“Current flings, not fling,” Penny corrected, “and as I told Bowen last night, I don’t think I’d share well. Now, if we’ve both got everything off our chests, can we please talk about your gorgeous little girl before I get kicked out so you can have lunch?”