Chapter 1: The Sound of Thunder
Even now, two years after Destiny, the sound of thunder made her jump.
Once upon a time, Belle had loved storms. She’d sit by a window, book in hand and divide her attention between the words and the flashes of lightning. Even now she appreciated their beauty and power, but after years in space the sheer noise made by such an ordinary thing caught her off guard.
She came awake immediately at the first crash, and as always it took a moment to remember where she was- a house, not a spaceship, with windows that reflected so many fewer stars. Beside her, Nick stirred restlessly, slinging his arm around her as he made an inquisitive noise, still not entirely awake.
“Storm.” She patted his arm, and he grumbled, rolling away from her and waking up further. They both knew what was coming next.
She smoothed the covers as he retrieved the pillows that had been knocked to the floor during the night, and they exchanged a wry look as they verified they both had clothing on. Getting into the habit of putting nightwear on after making love had been difficult, but necessary.
“Mommy?” The bedroom door creaked open as their five year old daughter slipped in. “Liam’s scared of the thunder.”
In the dim light, Belle could make out Cailyn’s hand wrapped firmly around her little brother’s- born nine months to the day after they reached Earth which had been a bit embarrassing- who still had his eyes mostly closed, clearly not the slightest bit bothered by the storm. For the first three and a half years of her life, the concept of ‘weather’ had passed Cailyn by, and even now their daughter reacted to things like rain and wind with a combination of delight and apprehension that reminded Belle of just what their little family had gone through in order to obtain this seemingly-ordinary life.
“Better climb in then,” Nick grumbled at the girl, the sheer love in his voice audible over his exhaustion and mock irritation.
Cailyn lunged for the bed, dragging Liam with her whose toddler feet could barely keep up, and they were going to have to have another talk about the importance of ‘gentle.’ By the time the next crash of thunder rang out, their babies were snuggled between them, Cailyn plastered to Nick’s side while Liam’s head wound up planted uncomfortably between her breasts.
“Typical male,” Nick smirked, flicking Cailyn’s nose when she looked up at him for an explanation.
“Takes after you,” Belle retorted, shifting the boy to a more comfortable position as he started to drool. She missed Destiny at times. Things had been- not easier, not with a baby on a ship that was barely equipped to meet adult needs- but simpler. All they’d had was each other and the quest for home. Now there were things to deal with like play-dates and home repairs and the public school system which Nick was not handling at all well.
Outside the wind was beginning to pick up, and Nick pulled the quilt up over her shoulder, reaching over Cailyn to touch her face. Belle leaned into the caress, smiling at her husband. He still worked too hard, still growled and snapped when interrupted, but he was home for dinner every single night and read to their children at bedtime.
Thunder crashed, but it was warm and quiet and safe in this cozy nest of pillows and quilts. Nothing in the world could be simpler than a family huddled together, taking shelter from a storm, and although this was nothing like any future Belle had ever envisioned for herself, she found it was all she needed.
Chapter 2: The Touch of Grass
Nick had forgotten just how loud the real world was.
They were standing on a street corner in DC, having been poked, prodded, and debriefed by medical and military personnel alike until Rush made good use of his infamously volatile temper and got them the hell out of there. They’d been back on Earth for seventeen hours, and this was the first time they’d been outside.
Cailyn was in Belle’s arms, his normally brave girl clinging to her mother in abject terror, and he realized this was the first time she’d ever been outside. Destiny held no terrors for Cailyn, she knew every inch of it that she’d been permitted to explore, but the traffic blaring past them had her in tears and burrowing into Belle’s arms like she was trying to crawl back inside her body. Nick, his arms tight around both of them, could relate. The sheer sound of it made him nauseous.
The three of them stood in the shadow of the building they’d fled, gaping at the passing cars like mental patients, as poor of a simile as that was to use where Belle was concerned. A breeze stirred Belle’s hair, blowing a few strands into his face, and Cailyn whimpered at the touch. His little girl had traveled halfway across the universe, and she was frightened of air.
Belle looked to him, her eyes wide, and Nick had no idea what they were going to do. Just looking at the cars was making him light-headed. The notion of hailing a cab and getting in one, traveling to his house or her apartment, was horrifying. That wasn’t home anymore. Home was on the other side of a stargate, the only world their daughter knew.
They’d told Cailyn stories of Earth, and neither of them had ever mentioned traffic. It hadn’t seemed important when there were things like sunlight and flowers and animals to describe, and an idea finally struck him. He kissed both of them and kept one arm around Belle, leading her along the road. The process of looking for crosswalks and waiting for breaks in traffic came back quickly, and under his arm he could feel Belle slowly relaxing as they walked.
He remembered there being a park along this road, and his memory didn’t fail him although it was a longer walk than he’d expected it to be. This wasn’t a route he’d ever taken on foot before. As they neared it, Cailyn lifted her head from Belle’s shoulder, looking around curiously, her courage making a return even as she continued to cling to her mother. Belle’s arms must have been aching, but she refused to let him take the girl, and he realized she was deriving as much comfort from the embrace as their daughter was.
They paused at the gate, the small park looking like a nature preserve after years on Destiny, and Nick prompted, “Do you know what the green is?”
“Grass,” the answer came after a moment’s thought, and they found a secluded patch of lawn to claim as their own, Belle deposited Cailyn on the ground and his hand sought hers as they watched as their daughter experienced the touch of grass for the first time.
At first she sat very still, just looking around her in wide-eyed wonder. Her chubby little hands reached out to stroke the grass, a smile dawning on her face as the blades prickled against her palm. Beside him, Belle wiped at her eyes as Cailyn started to comb her fingers through the grass, leaning so far that she toppled over. He held his breath, waiting to see what she would do, and found himself laughing as she started to roll around like an exuberant puppy.
He dropped to the ground, pulling Belle down onto his lap as they watched their little girl play, and decided that they were going to be just fine.
Chapter 3: The Scent of Autumn
Choosing somewhere to live hadn't been quite as random as opening up a map and blindly pointing, but it had been a close thing. Maine and California were both out, and for good measure they'd eliminated the entire east and west coasts. Belle wanted to live somewhere where there was weather- real weather. Cailyn had been climate-controlled her entire life, and it was time for that to change.
So, they wound up in Colorado where they occasionally got all four seasons in a single day.
It was autumn and they'd been back on Earth for nearly six months. Pretty soon they'd have to start thinking about Cailyn's fourth birthday, but when she'd broached the subject of inviting Destiny's crew to Nick, all she'd gotten was a 'You have got to be kidding me' look for her trouble. Still, he hadn't said no.
Today though was for relaxing. Cailyn had gotten over her fear of the wind as long as it didn't blow too hard, and she was currently crushing fallen leaves under her tiny feet, her giggle bringing a smile to Belle's face. The breeze carried the scent of woodsmoke and the faintest hint of snow. They'd have to build a fire that night.
It was too cold to be sitting on the ground, but Belle couldn't bring herself to move. She wanted to enjoy the freedom to do so before she got too big to get up without help. Nick would scold if he caught her, but her husband had been ensconced in the basement since two that morning. No doubt by this point he was writing on the walls again.
Cailyn had moved on from crushing leaves to examining one particular tree with a single-minded intensity she got from her father. Belle followed her gaze, seeing a squirrel perched on one of the lower branches, still far out of reach. Cailyn scrabbled at the trunk, trying to climb and ending up firmly planted on her rump in the dirt. "Oops!" Belle called cheerfully, warding off tears, and the little girl picked herself back up, her face crumpling in dismay as the squirrel ran off.
"Cat?" she asked hopefully.
Belle hid a smile. "No, that's a squirrel," she corrected, deliberately misunderstanding.
A glare greeted her comment, Cailyn taking on the aspect of a miniature thunderstorm. "We get a cat?" she said more forcefully.
One of her playmates had a pet cat, and Cailyn was fascinated. They'd been concerned she'd be afraid of animals, but she'd taken to them immediately, generally preferring them to the other children she met. Belle tried to rationalize it by reminding herself that for three and a half years she'd been surrounded by nothing but adults, but there hadn't been pets on Destiny either. After six months of socialization, she'd had to admit it to herself: Cailyn was simply her father's daughter.
"Baby first, then cat," she reminded Cailyn of the deal they'd made. The last thing she wanted was an infant, a preschooler, and a kitten in the same house. Cailyn did not play gently, and someone was bound to get hurt.
Her face lit up at the reminder that she was going to be a big sister, and she all but tackled Belle in order to place a kiss on her rounded belly. Belle hugged her tightly, feeling the warmth of her little body through her sweater before she squirmed away, rampaging through the nearest trees and squashing every leaf she saw. "I'm an ogre!"
Belle's heart clenched as she watched her daughter massacre leaves. No matter how many books told her that Cailyn's behavior was completely age-appropriate, she couldn't help but fear that Destiny had somehow scarred her for life. What if she grew up and became violent due to all the fighting she'd seen? What if she couldn't connect with her age-mates because she'd had no other children to play with? What if-?
"She'll grow out of it." Nick's voice derailed her train of thought, and she jumped, not having noticed him behind her. He proffered a travel mug, waiting until she'd taken it before sitting down beside her. "Aren't you cold?"
Belle snuggled into his side and took a sip of the white tea he'd brought her. "Not anymore."
He wrapped his arm around her, grumbling a protest when she swiped his mug out of his hand and took a long swig of his coffee. "You're not supposed to drink that."
"If it comes out with two heads, you can blame me," she retorted, handing him the mug back. He snorted, his hand straying to briefly caress the swell of her belly.
"You feeling all right?" he asked quietly, pressing a kiss to her hair.
"Yeah." She nestled closer in reassurance. Any kind of medical issue involving her or Cailyn was Nick's greatest nightmare, and even something as natural as pregnancy put him on edge. She'd never tease him about that; the scars ran too deep.
At some point Cailyn had stopped rampaging and was now crawling on the ground. As Belle watched, her daughter scooped something up with careful hands and came running, thrusting her cupped hands at her parents. "Look!"
A fuzzy brown and black caterpillar was nestled in her grip, and Cailyn's face was alight with hope. "We keep him?" The little girl pulled her hands back, cradling the caterpillar close to her chest as she carefully stroked it with one finger.
It would be good practice for the baby and later for the cat, Belle decided. "Of course we can, darling."
"You can't forget to feed him," Nick pointed out, exchanging a slightly baffled look with her, clearly no more certain of what caterpillars ate than she was. Leaves probably.
"I will!" Cailyn promised at once, practically bouncing with the excitement of having a pet.
"What are you going to name him?" Belle prompted.
Cailyn grinned. "Eli!"
"Oh God," Nick muttered under his breath, "I'm going back downstairs."
Despite his words, he stuck around to finish his coffee as Belle cooed over Eli the caterpillar, holding out a hand to help her up once Cailyn deemed her pet had been sufficiently admired. He brushed the dirt off her backside, shamelessly copping a feel until Belle giggled and swatted him away.
"Come on, my little ogre," she held a hand out to Cailyn, feeling a bit better about their daughter's temperament, "Let's find a jar for Eli."
Chapter 4: Clean Sheets
It was a nice hotel room which was as it should be. After the last years, the government owed them. All Nick cared about was the shower which he and Belle had stayed in for far longer than they should have with a toddler in the other room even if their little hellion was asleep and the bed- king size, clean sheets, and a ridiculous number of pillows.
At the moment, the three of them were huddled together in the middle of it, Cailyn asleep between him and Belle. He was clean, ensconced in fresh linens, and had both his girls in his arms; Nick had never been so comfortable in his life. Belle looked half-asleep herself and he was eager to follow her, but they had something to discuss first. "Do you want a fancy wedding?"
"Huh?" Dazed blue eyes blinked at him, and apparently she'd been more asleep than he thought.
"Wedding," he repeated, "Do you want a big wedding?"
She looked at him like he'd grown a second head, then shrugged a little and closed her eyes again, "We have a three year old."
Nick assumed that meant no which suited him fine. He'd had little enough to do with the plans for his first wedding, but he remembered stress and everything taking forever. It would be nice to do this before Cailyn started high school. Besides, who the hell would they invite? "Do you want to do it tomorrow?"
That woke her up. "What?" she squawked. Nick had to admit that the proposal hadn't exactly been romantic even by his own low standards, but she didn't have to look so appalled at the thought. Then again, agreeing to marry him at some nebulous point in the future when they returned to Earth and actually marrying him now that they were back might be two very different things.
"Maryland doesn't have a waiting period. We could do it tomorrow," he pressed on doggedly. If Belle didn't want to marry him, she could damn well tell him so. If she wanted to explore her options now that she had some, he couldn't blame her. "You know. If you still want to get married."
"Why are you in such a hurry?" she asked blankly, and at least she wasn't saying no.
Because if I let you look around, you'll realize how much better you can do. He could hardly tell her that. "We've been engaged for five years," he pointed out instead.
Belle raised her eyebrows as she digested that then nodded ruefully. "Good point. All right."
"All right?" he asked, reasonably sure she wasn't saying what he thought he was hearing.
"All right. Let's get married tomorrow." She yawned hugely, and he choked back a snort of laughter at the irritation in her voice. "Can I go back to sleep now?" she pleaded.
"In a second." At her confused look, Nick tilted her face up with one finger and claimed her lips. She smiled against his mouth, snuggling closer, and Cailyn grumbled in sleepy protest at being squished.
They broke apart with a laugh, and he released Belle long enough to ruffle their daughter's hair. Cailyn had slept in their bed since the day she was born, and although he and Belle had gotten very good at making love anywhere that wasn't a bed, the thought of them having their own room for a change was appealing.
No time soon though. Cailyn had been through too much upheaval in the last twenty-four hours to be expected to sleep on her own. Someday they'd have a bed to themselves and the privacy to make use of it, but for now they had each other and their daughter and clean sheets, and that was fine too.
Chapter 5: That Which We Call a Rose
“CHLOE!” Belle was suddenly holding a toddler who seemed to have considerably more than the usual number of arms and legs, and she put Cailyn down as quickly as she could without taking an elbow to the face. The girl was off and running at once, having spotted her best girlfriend halfway down the hall.
Chloe turned at the sound of her name being bellowed, her face lighting up as she scooped up Cailyn for a massive hug. “Hi, sprout!” She looked up at Nick and Belle who were making their way over to her slightly more slowly. “We were wondering what happened to the three of you.”
Apparently no one else had managed to escape the government’s clutches as quickly as they had, and Belle said a quick thank-you for her husband’s short temper. Even if they had been required to return the following day, at least they’d had a few hours of freedom before the debriefing continued. “We had things to do,” Nick told her, reaching out to take Cailyn back.
Chloe raised her eyebrows at the sight of his hand, grabbing Belle’s left wrist to find a matching gold band on her finger. “You got married!”
“This morning,” Belle admitted. They’d taken a cab to Maryland on the government’s dime and had managed to buy wedding rings, get married, and make it back to DC within two hours. Cailyn had found the car ride considerably more interesting than the brief ceremony or the fact that her father had finally made an honest woman out of her mother.
“You didn’t invite anyone?” Chloe looked hurt, and Belle immediately felt guilty. Chloe was their daughter’s best friend and one of the few members of Destiny’s crew that Nick liked, however reluctantly. She would have made a far better witness than the random strangers they’d scared up at the courthouse.
“It was kind of spur of the moment,” she said, hoping to appease the other woman.
To her surprise Chloe laughed. “Impatient, were we?” She snorted, “How long were you two engaged anyway? A decade?”
“Five years,” Nick answered, attempting to stop Cailyn from braiding his hair.
“You could have let Young do it,” she pointed out, stifling another laugh when she was immediately subjected to the patented Rush Glare from Nick, a cuter variation from Cailyn, and a helpless look from Belle. “Forget I said that.”
Belle hadn’t seen the importance of rushing when Nick brought it up the previous night, but it had been important to him for some reason and there’d been no point in arguing about it. As far as Belle was concerned, they’d been all but married practically from the start, but she had to admit that it was nice to have it official.
“Well, congratulations, Mrs. Rush,” Chloe said, pulling Belle into a hug. Belle hugged back automatically, taken aback by the address. Chloe was the first person to call her that, and somehow it hadn’t registered with her that she was Belle Rush now and no longer Belle Gold or even Belle French. She was Mrs. Rush.
That was Gloria’s name, and she snuck a look at Nick as soon as Chloe released her, wondering if he’d thought about that. He was gazing back at her, his face utterly impassive, but his eyes were warm. “You too, Doctor Rush,” Chloe said, thumping him on the shoulder before ruffling Cailyn’s hair and saying her goodbyes.
Belle barely noticed her leaving, too caught up in the way that Nick’s eyes were smiling at her. “Shall we, Mrs. Rush?” With a nod of his head, he indicated that they should get moving.
She took his arm, hugging it in both of hers as he shifted Cailyn to the side. Nick wasn’t a romantic, but if his voice was going to caress her new name like that, he didn’t need to be. “We shall, Doctor Rush.”
Chapter 6: Not Quite a Lullaby
There was something on his back.
Nick grunted and stirred, and the thing stirred too. The back of his neck felt wet and sticky, and he groaned, realizing what was on him. His son was using him as a mattress. Again.
He rolled onto his side and let Liam slide off of him onto the bed, his toddler body limp in the grip of sleep. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out how the kid kept getting out of his crib, but if this kept up, he was going to build a lid to damn well keep him inside no matter what Belle said.
Nick managed to get his eyes open enough to verify he hadn’t dumped the boy onto his face and arranged him more comfortably on the bed. The arrangement was that if he crawled into their bed without permission, whoever he woke up had to carry him back to his room. At the moment, that seemed like more trouble than it was worth. He wasn’t actually bothering anyone at the moment.
Closing his eyes, Nick had just decided to haul him back to his room in the morning when another small body collided with his head. He ground his teeth, resisted the urge to fling the cat across the room, and hoped that if he played dead it would go away. Instead, a rough tongue licked his hair, grooming him for a few strokes before the animal either got bored or decided he was filthy and started to chew on his hair.
“Enough,” he grunted, swatting it away and winding up with a small, furry, gray arse in his face for his trouble. “Dammit.” He swatted at it again, and Liam rolled over in his sleep, ending up with his head on Belle’s chest.
“Not now, Nick,” she mumbled, flinging her arm over her face, “I’m asleep.”
Worse, the cat seemed to think he was trying to play because it promptly latched onto his hand with all available claws, nipping at his fingers. “Fuck!” he snarled, sitting up to shake it off, and two sets of sleepy blue eyes blinked at him.
“What are you doing?” Belle asked calmly, as if waking up in the middle of the night to see him attempting to kill their pet was the most natural thing in the world.
Liam was more direct. “Mira!” he protested, grabbing for the cat which immediately released his hand to curl up in the boy’s lap, purring innocently.
“You,” he pointed a finger at Liam who’d started all of this, “Are going back to bed. Take that-“
“Nick…” Belle’s voice carried a clear warning that swearing would not be acceptable.
“-Creature with you.” When the boy didn’t move, Nick dragged himself out of bed, picking up the cat in one hand and the toddler in the other. He bit back a curse as the cat nipped at his fingers again and walked the ten steps to Liam’s room, depositing child and cat both in the crib. Tomorrow he’d build a lid for it. Or put a deadbolt on the bedroom door. Or both.
“Milk?” Liam asked hopefully, standing up in the crib, and this was not a fight he was going to win. He flipped on the hall light to make his way downstairs to the kitchen, having learned his lesson about walking around the house in the dark the hard way. Stepping barefoot on a lego now ranked slightly above amateur heart surgery on his list of things to avoid.
He poured two cups and headed back upstairs, handing one off to Cailyn who was leaning in her bedroom door, trying to see what all the fuss was about. “Thank you, Daddy,” she said sweetly, playing the part of the perfect angel that she wasn’t and that he fell for every time.
Careful not to spill Liam’s cup, he bent to kiss the top of her head and escorted her back to bed, tucking her in properly. “Can I have a story?”
“You had your story,” he reminded her, thumping her on the nose with one finger. Belle had rules about that. No games, stories, or songs after official bedtime was over. Cailyn pouted, her bottom lip quivering, and he shamelessly passed the buck. “Mommy’s rules.”
The lip quiver stopped, and Nick considered himself lucky to have escaped with his life as he shut the door behind him. By the time he made it back to Liam’s room, the toddler was already asleep, cat wrapped around his head, and he downed the milk himself to save himself a return trip to the kitchen.
“Everything all right?” Belle asked sleepily as he climbed in beside her, and now he was wide awake.
“Your children will be the death of me,” he grumbled, reaching out yank her against him. If he had to be awake, so did she.
“My children are sweet and good,” Belle informed him, her hands sliding over his back. “Your children are hellions.”
It was entirely possible that she had a point, but he wasn’t about to admit it. Belle was snuggling into him and stroking that spot on his neck that drove him mad, and insomnia definitely had its perks. She could have the last word. This time.
Chapter 7: Circle of Life
Nick dragged himself up the basement stairs, having to blink at the kitchen clock several times before he was able to make sense of the time: four in the morning. His stomach rumbled hopefully, but at this point even the thought of microwaving whatever Belle had made herself and Cailyn for dinner seemed like too much trouble.
He double-checked the front door to verify that it was locked and the security system was active, then headed for the next flight of stairs, ignoring the temptation to collapse on the couch. He’d been up to his neck in work for the last week, barely seeing his girls. The least he could do was sleep beside Belle like a proper husband.
Instead he continued his rounds, ducking into Cailyn’s room to be certain his little hellion was safe, straightening her covers out and tucking them more tightly around her so she’d be warm on this late fall night. Next, he checked the terrarium. The caterpillar had the equivalent of an bug mansion, a ten gallon aquarium all to itself with a heat lamp and elaborate landscaping.
It took him a moment to find it, curled up in one corner, and when he finally located the thing, it seemed smaller than he remembered it being. Cursing under his breath, Nick stuck his hand into the terrarium, coming up with a stiff little body that was all that remained of his daughter’s beloved pet.
He carried it into the hall, shutting the door behind him, so Cailyn wouldn’t hear him as he examined the tiny body in better light, shaking it a bit just in case he was wrong. ”Eli?” Nothing he did got a response. “Shit.”
This could be a teachable moment, a chance to educate Cailyn on the fact that nothing lasted forever. Then again, she already knew that. She’d lost the only home she’d ever known and every friend she’d ever had in his need to get them as far from Destiny’s crew as they could get. In a matter of months, she’d be losing her status as an only child and be forced to share him and Belle with the new baby. Now she’d lost her pet too.
Muttering to himself, he made his way back downstairs, grabbing a flashlight and barely remembering to deactivate the alarm before heading outside, the blast of cold air doing much to wake him up as he headed for the copse of trees near the house where the original Eli had been found. He didn’t know how long caterpillars hung around; considering the weather, they might all be dead or hibernating or turning into butterflies or whatever caterpillars did when they weren’t living in little girls’ bedrooms. Still, he had to try.
It took him forty minutes, but he finally found a replacement, the wooly little thing attempting to crawl away from him as he grabbed for it. Nick considered the feistiness a good sign and hauled it back inside, shivering violently as he stepped into the warmth. Wearing a coat would- perhaps- have been a good idea.
He carted his prize upstairs, informing it in a whisper, “Your name is Eli. Don’t die.” Cailyn hadn’t moved in the intervening time, and he tucked the new Eli into the terrarium with a sigh of relief, hoping she hadn’t taught the original any tricks that this one would be expected to know.
Abandoning his clothes on the bedroom floor, he crawled into bed and wrapped himself around Belle, craving her warmth. She yelped at his touch, and he tugged her closer, nuzzling his frozen nose against her neck. “You’re freezing,” she exclaimed, keeping her voice low so as not to wake Cailyn, “What were you doing?”
“We needed a new Eli,” he told her, his hand straying to the swell of her belly to splay possessively over the baby.
“Again?” she sighed, subsiding into his arms, and the heat of her body was warming him nicely, “That’s the third one.”
He snickered, “You’ve been replacing them too?”
“I didn’t have the heart to tell her. She was so excited about showing Eli his namesake.” The birthday party was in less than two weeks, and he hoped this Eli would last that long. He didn’t like their chances of continuing to get away with making replacements.
“We should get her something sturdier,” he reflected, wondering what else they could put in the terrarium that would have a longer shelf life, “A turtle or something.”
“Turtles don’t have fur,” Belle yawned, grumbling under her breath as the baby kicked at his palm.
“Gerbil?” he suggested, her yawn proving contagious.
“A gerbil is not a cat.” She snuggled back into his embrace, and he tightened his hold on her, the nonsensical conversation doing much to coax him toward sleep.
“We did promise,” he reminded her, and she elbowed him in the ribs.
“Fine, but you’re cleaning the litter box.”
Chapter 8: Happy Holidays
New Year’s Eve
Cailyn had begged to be allowed to stay up to say goodbye to the old year, Liam adding his own voice to her pleas, eager to do whatever his big sister was doing. Permission granted, they’d started a Candyland tournament that Daddy had won handily, mostly because he cheated, before ending up piled together on the couch as Belle told a story about the early days of Destiny, and Nick supplied sarcastic commentary that flew over both children’s heads.
She awoke at three in the morning with two small bodies resting on top of her and turned her head to kiss Nick’s throat before snuggling back against his shoulder, “Happy New Year, Nick.”
A faint snore answered her.
Cailyn refused to be dissuaded from her choice of Valentine’s Day cards, opting for the box of neon cartoon horses despite his compelling argument in favor of the Doctor Who themed set. As he paid for the hideous things, he became aware that his hellions were being suspiciously quiet and looked down, seeing Cailyn methodically stuffing her brother’s mouth with pieces of bubblegum that she wasn’t bothering to unwrap first after taking them off the shelf.
“And six packs of Bubble Yum,” he informed the cashier, holding his hand in front of Liam’s mouth. “Spit.”
He winced as a luridly colored blob landed in his palm, but at least now he knew what he was getting Belle for Valentine’s Day: a babysitter.
Later, Belle would wonder if he’d done it on purpose to get out of ever having to help again, but the morning of she’d her hands full comforting two children who were convinced that the Easter bunny had forgotten them since they couldn’t find a single egg. It took them the better part of the day to muster up the two baskets and a handful of eggs hidden in pockets of coats hanging in the attic, behind bookcases that no two year old could or should move, and in the freezer.
The Easter bunny himself had the nerve to look hurt when she smacked him upside the head after he emerged from his basement lair. “What? You said hide them.”
They were still finding rather moldy eggs in November.
Out of the four of them, the only one who’d been born anywhere near American soil was Liam, but he was also the one keenest on explosions, so they opted to get in on the act anyway. Even Nick had to admit that the display was rather impressive, and Cailyn and Liam cheered every boom with tremendous enthusiasm.
It was less fun after they’d spent the night in the emergency room. Handing a sparkler to an eighteen month old had not been one of his better ideas.
“The kids will love it.”
“There is no fucking way I’m wearing that.”
“Do you want to see mine?”
The picture of the gunslinger, his saloon girl, and their two little ponies occupied a place of honor on the mantel for the next ten years.
Belle had been expecting a stampede into the kitchen once the parade ended at noon, and when no one had shown up to demand food by half-past, she went looking for them, finding them still plastered to the television. “What are you watching?”
Two pleading faces immediately turned to her, and she had just enough time to register the parade of dogs trotting around a show ring when the begging started.
“What about Mira?” she asked, pointing to the cat who was currently lounging in Liam’s lap.
“She’s not a dog,” Cailyn informed her, and she couldn’t argue with that logic.
After having torn through their presents and consumed their own weight in cookies, both Cailyn and Liam were passed out under the tree. Belle was snuggled next to him on the couch, sipping a glass of mulled wine. She’d seemed pleased with the locket the children had picked out for her with some guidance from him, but his own present had left him a bit disquieted.
The telescope was incredibly high-end, and he probably had Belle’s first husband to thank for that, but that wasn’t what was bothering him. Rather it was what Cailyn had said when he unwrapped it, “Maybe if we look, we can see Destiny!”
“Does she want to go back?” he asked abruptly, breaking the comfortable silence.
“Do you?” Belle asked, following his train of thought effortlessly, “It was home for a long time.”
“Yeah, but…” he wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence. They’d wanted to return to Earth, hadn’t they? From the moment Belle told him she was pregnant, all he’d wanted was to have her safely back on Earth.
“She misses her friends,” Belle sighed, and he could hear the unspoken words. Cailyn wasn’t the only one who’d left friends behind when they’d settled in Colorado, and email could only do so much.
“Don’t Scott and Chloe have a kid now?” He was vaguely proud of himself for remembering that. “We should visit.”
Belle nearly dropped her wine glass and put it down hastily as she turned to him. “Really?” At his nod, she all but clapped her hands, and she hadn’t looked this excited when she unwrapped the first editions he’d bought her. “Thank you!”
She landed in his lap, her mouth soft and warm against his, and seeing her this happy was the best present he could receive.
Chapter 9: The Algebra of Chocolate
"Daddy! Daddy, look!" Cailyn crashed down the basement steps, jumping the last two to land directly in front of him as Nick came to see what the commotion was about. "I'm a ga-nome!"
"Gnome," he corrected her pronunciation automatically before exclaiming over the flowers and mushrooms Belle had appliquéd to her jumper and her tall, curving red hat. Clearly his wife had won the Halloween war this year; Cailyn had argued strenuously that she should be an ogre. "You're a lovely gnome, sweetheart."
"Liam's a dinosaur, but a ga-nome is better," she informed him, "I'm going to get all the candy."
Privately, Nick thought the dinosaur would probably eat the gnome, but he didn't argue. Liam didn't stand a chance against his big sister, and he knew it. "How many houses are we going to trick or treat this year?" he asked. Last year, they'd done their neighborhood and the neighborhoods belonging to several school friends before time ran out. Cailyn had been most displeased. He'd had no idea a four year old could have so much stamina.
"All of them," she said very clearly as though she was afraid he'd gone deaf, and an idea struck him.
"Come here then, gnome." He dragged a chair over in front of a blank section of whiteboard and lifted her onto it so she could see. Cailyn watched as he drew a rough map of their neighborhood and the surrounding areas, the houses in blue and the streets in red which made it look like they'd suffered a zombie attack, but it would serve the purpose.
"Let's say it takes us two minutes to trick or treat each house," he started, writing a two in black. He followed it with an X. "And X is the number of houses."
"H," Cailyn corrected him.
At his quizzical look, she explained, "House starts with H. So the houses should be H."
Nick erased the X and replaced it with an H. "And H is the houses. And we have a hundred and twenty minutes to trick or treat." He drew an equal sign and the minutes on the other side. "So, we divide..."
By the time Belle came looking for them, there were sixty pairs of linked paperclips scattered over his table as they worked on the concept of long division, and he and Cailyn were debating the best route to take in order to ensure they were able to reach all sixty houses in the two hour window. The promise of chocolate, he'd discovered, was an excellent motivator.
He didn't even argue when Belle handed him his costume. As far as he was concerned, he'd make a fine ringmaster, and Belle's tight little tiger outfit was all the motivation he needed to put on the tailcoat.
Chapter 10: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
Belle straightened Liam's antlers and applied one last dab of eyeliner to his nose, nodding in satisfaction. With his brown sweatsuit, black gloves and socks, plush antlers, and black nose, he made quite a fetching little reindeer. "Break a leg!" she exclaimed, and he hugged her, some of the eyeliner rubbing off on her skirt. Licking her thumb, she wiped the smudge off his face and headed back down the hall, sticking her head into another classroom to check on Cailyn whose makeup she'd finished earlier.
Her daughter was standing in a corner of the classroom and declaiming her lines at the top of her voice, her hair glittering under the florescent lights. For her role as Sparkle the Elf, Belle had gone through most of a can of glitter hairspray to get the effect just right. Catching Cailyn's eye, she gave her a thumbs up, and the little girl waved happily, not missing a beat.
Satisfied her two little stars were as ready as they'd ever be, Belle made her way to the auditorium, finding her husband slouched in the dead center of the front row. He'd placed his jacket over the seat beside him and looked ready to defend it to the death, but that didn't appear to be necessary. For some reason, none of the other parents seemed to want to sit next to Doctor Rush.
Belle took her seat and kissed him on the cheek, pleased to get at least a small smile out of him. He'd grumbled endlessly about having to come to the school pageant, but he'd been the first one ready to go, and the video camera was already set up on its tripod and aimed at the stage.
"How long is this thing?" he muttered to her.
"Hour, hour and a half," she predicted. "They're going in order by grade, so Liam's first."
The only reply she got to that was a grunt, so she amused herself by looking around the room for the parents of Liam and Cailyn's school friends, none of whom approached them, although everyone returned her waves. Soon enough the lights dimmed and the curtain opened, fifteen five year olds all clad in brown sweats and antlers spilling onto the stage.
"That fucking teacher has him in the back," Nick snarled into her ear as the children mimed playing games.
"He might just be confused," she pointed out. The jumble of five year olds looked less like organized stage blocking and more like... well, a jumble of confused five year olds.
"She put him in the back," Nick snapped, not at all appeased, "This is payback for me correcting her spelling on Parents' Night."
On stage the children were counting off, the eight who'd been chosen as the named reindeer prancing in a circle while the others cheered. "He doesn't even get a name? He's just a random reindeer? The bitch did this on purpose."
"Nick!" she shushed him, holding her hand over the camera's mic. If he didn't keep his voice down, they weren't going to be able to show this to anyone.
"Can I play?" a plaintive reindeer with a red clown nose asked on stage, and all of the other reindeer chorused, "NO!" more or less in unison.
"The board-licker is Rudolph? What the fuck is this?" Belle put her hand on his knee and gave a warning squeeze. Ever since the open house when Nick caught one of the other kindergartners licking the white board, he'd been making noises about transferring the kids to a more selective school. "I bet his parents bribed her."
"Can we please just watch the show?" she hissed. No wonder no one ever wanted to sit near them. Nick subsided, still muttering under his breath as fog spilled over the stage, and Belle applauded the special effect.
In the end, the board-licker saved the day, much to Nick's disgust, and the children managed a rousing chorus of the title song before jumping off the stage and flooding the audience despite their teacher's frantic exhortations to come backstage.
"Did you see me?" Liam asked in excitement as he climbed into Nick's lap.
"Barely," he muttered, and Belle shot him a look.
"You were wonderful, darling," she assured him, and he beamed, removing his antlers and shoving the headband onto Nick's head instead. Her husband didn't argue, just adjusted them so they fit more comfortably, and Belle melted as he snuggled Liam a little closer.
They suffered through a medley of carols and The Hanukkah Song from the first graders, then the second graders had a go at 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. Nick nearly laughed himself sick at the mother who planted herself in the middle of the aisle to act out the role of Mama for her inaudible daughter to follow.
Finally the curtain closed and it was time for Scenes from Santa's Workshop. At least that was the idea. Instead, the curtain remained closed and the hideous scraping sound of wood dragging on wood was clear even over the piped in Christmas music. "What the hell is taking so long? Are they just now building the set?"
With the antlers on his head, he looked more adorable than intimidating as he glared at the closed curtain, and Belle hid a smile behind her hand. The scraping continued, getting louder and more tortured, and Liam piped up, "Maybe they need help."
"Don't you dare," she told him, when Nick looked like he was seriously considering going backstage to offer his 'assistance.'
"I fixed an Ancient spaceship; I think I can put a set together," he said drily, shifting Liam on his lap and looking at his watch. "I'll give them three more minutes."
Fortunately they managed to get it finished in two and a half minutes, and the curtain opened to unveil a crude series of flats painted to look like Santa's Workshop with a line of elves in front of them, all banging rhythmically with little wooden hammers. Cailyn, of course, was front and center.
"Did the kids paint those?" Nick leaned over to ask her.
"Cailyn said Missy's dad did them," she answered, and he snorted.
"What, with his elbows? Should have let the kids do them. They could hardly have done worse." Privately, she agreed, but she settled for giving him a disapproving look as the elves broke formation. The plot, when it began, was actually kind of cute. It involved the elves trying to come up with an idea for a present they could give to Santa Claus and was written entirely in rhyme. Some of the charm was lost in translation though. They were sitting in the front row, and she had to strain her ears to hear most of the dialogue.
Then it was Cailyn's turn. "NO MATTER WHAT WE HAVE TO PAY, SANTA MUST HAVE A GIFT ON CHRISTMAS DAY." Hearing her was not a problem. People in other buildings could probably hear her.
"Yay!" Liam yelled, smacking his hands together as his big sister finished her line. Nick bounced his leg to jostle him, beaming proudly at his little star.
The elves argued for a bit about what to give Santa, then Cailyn, who'd worked her way upstage so the every other back was turned to the audience, every eye focused on her, solved the problem, "SANTA DOESN'T NEED A HAT, BOOT OR GLOVE. ALL SANTA NEEDS IS OUR LOVE."
"Yay!" Liam shouted louder as the elves produced a card saying "We love you, Santa," and Cailyn grinned in triumph as the curtain closed.
"At least one teacher has some sense," Nick said complacently. "She's a natural."
A moment later, Cailyn came tearing out from backstage, glitter hanging in the air behind her. "Beautiful job, sweetheart!" Belle praised as she scooped the little girl onto her lap.
"You were the best one," Nick told her, and Liam gave her a standing ovation, his feet planted on Nick's thighs. "Can we go now?"
"There's still two more skits," Belle reminded him, and he shot her an exasperated look, indicating that they already had both of their children. "We can't just leave. It would be rude."
Behind the curtain, the scraping sounds were back, and the program told her that next on the list was the fourth graders performing a bare-bones version of the Nutcracker. Cailyn yawned, slumping back against her, and Belle blinked the glitter out of her eyes as Nick leaned down to whisper something to Liam.
A few moments later, a wail rent the air, "No! No-no-no-NOOOOOOOOO!" Liam bellowed, his little face contorted with rage, and Belle nearly jumped out of her skin.
"What did-?" she started, only to be cut off by another howl.
Nick shrugged, adjusting his grip on the boy as he stood up with him. Perplexed, Belle grabbed the tripod with one hand and Cailyn with the other, following him out of the auditorium, conscious of every eye on them. The second the cold outside air hit them, Liam stopped yelling like someone had flipped a switch. "What happened?"
"Candy!" Liam demanded, yanking on Nick's hair as they walked towards the car.
"As soon as we get home," he promised, and the boy subsided, content.
"I want candy too!" Cailyn insisted.
"I think we can arrange that," Nick promised, and Belle's jaw dropped.
"Did you just bribe our son to throw a tantrum?" she asked in disbelief.
Nick grinned at her. "What? It worked."
"Oh gods..." she muttered, rubbing her eyes as she collapsed into the passenger seat. Nick could buckle the kids in himself. "I can't believe you did that."
"Yes, you can," he contradicted.
"Yes, I can," she agreed. At least it had just been a bribe and he hadn't threatened to shave Mira or do some other horrible thing to get the desired effect. "You're a terrible influence on my children."
"I thought that was what you liked about me," he pointed out, putting his hand on her leg just higher than was child-appropriate.
"And on me," she concluded, her stomach warming at the mischievous look in his eyes.
"Hold that thought until later," he prompted, his voice dropping enticingly as he slid his hand up a little higher and squeezed again. "And don't put the camera away."
The last words were for her ears only, and she blushed brightly, relieved that Cailyn and Liam seemed distracted by looking for Christmas lights. It wasn't fair that he could be so sexy while wearing a pair of plush antlers. He was a terrible influence.
She wouldn't have him any other way.
Chapter 11: Here Comes Santa Claus
Nick headed for the basement, wondering how it was possible that he could be this tired before midnight. On Destiny, he’d stayed up for days on end working, and all he’d done today was play with his children, yet he felt like he’d been hit by a bus. It didn’t seem right that entertaining a two year old and a six year old should be more difficult than repairing an Ancient spaceship.
Cailyn and Liam were finally in bed, although it had taken the better part of three hours to get them to stay there. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, cookies and coffee had been left for Santa Claus, and Belle was in the kitchen doing something to the turkey as Eli peeled potatoes. That left him to retrieve the gifts from their hiding spot in his basement workshop and get them under the tree before the kids woke up again.
Opting to start with the stockings and work his way clockwise around the room, he grabbed the bags containing the tiny presents, kissed Belle, ignored Eli’s gagging noise, walked into the living room, and dropped kicked the bags behind the couch. “You’re supposed to be in bed.”
Cailyn was sitting on the couch, small feet stuck straight out in front of her as Liam crawled over her to pet Mira. “You have to put the fire out so Santa doesn’t get burned.”
“The elves do that,” he reminded her of the cartoon they’d watched two nights ago showing how elves prepared each house for Santa’s arrival.
The unamused glare his daughter gave him looked embarrassingly familiar. “That’s just a show, Daddy.”
Swallowing a laugh, Nick tried again, “Why are you down here?”
“Wanna see Santa!” Liam announced, pulling a long-suffering Mira into his lap for a cuddle.
“You already saw Santa,” he reminded them. “You sat on his lap. We have pictures.”
“I want to ask him a question,” Cailyn informed him, her eyes intent on the fireplace.
“What question?” Somehow Nick was certain that he’d regret asking.
Cailyn heaved a sigh, clearly fed-up with her obtuse father. “It’s a question for Santa.”
Apparently her question was classified information, so he tried a different approach. “Santa won’t come if you’re not in bed.”
“We’ll turn the lights out,” she said complacently, clearly having thought this out. “He won’t know until he’s down here.”
Next to her Liam was already yawning, and Nick made a decision. Shoving them back into bed meant he’d just have to hang out in the hall and catch them again when they got back out. If he promised they could stay up and wait for Santa, all he had to do was wait for them to fall asleep and then put them back down, knowing they’d stay there this time. “All right,” he said loudly enough to be sure Belle could hear what was going on so she didn’t show up with more presents. “Let’s sit up and wait for Santa.”
He sat down between them, an arm around each. Liam promptly cuddled into his side, and Cailyn drummed her feet against the sofa cushion. “Do you think the Great Ack ever comes with him when he brings the toys?”
Nick had been concerned that the creepy Claymation show would give them nightmares, but Cailyn had been fascinated. “You can ask him when he shows up,” he yawned.
A few minutes later, he noticed that Belle and Eli were standing over them. “We’re waiting for Santa,” he explained, “Cailyn wants to ask him something.” He attempted to communicate his plan using solely his eyebrows, and Belle seemed to get it.
“Good idea,” she said, joining him on the sofa and pulling Liam into her lap so she could lean against him.
Eli ruffled Cailyn’s hair, “Tell him I said hi.”
“Okay, Uncle Eli!” Eli headed upstairs to the guest room, and Nick took a moment to envy him. Liam’s eyes were already mostly closed though, and it shouldn’t be much longer before they could tuck the kids in and finish the Santa job before tucking themselves into bed.
“That’s pretty,” Belle murmured, gazing at the fire, and he glanced down at her, admiring the golden glow the firelight imparted to her skin.
“Very pretty,” he agreed, and Belle blushed when she noticed he was looking at her instead of the fire. Unable to resist, he stole a kiss, breaking away only when he heard his daughter’s exasperated sigh.
“Can we have pizza tomorrow?” Cailyn requested.
“We’re having a turkey. It’s Christmas,” Belle reminded her.
“Can we have a turkey and pizza?” their daughter negotiated, and he snickered to himself, resting his head against the back of the sofa to rest his eyes as Belle attempted to dissuade her.
The next thing he knew a shrill “Daddy!” had him jolting off the couch, pivoting on his heel to face his stricken daughter. Morning light was pouring through the windows, and he bit back a curse as he saw a disheveled Belle attempting to extricate herself from a clinging Liam. It was Christmas morning; they’d both fallen asleep, and Santa hadn’t come.
Groping for an explanation, he started, “Maybe his sleigh broke down, and he’s running late-” but Cailyn wasn’t listening to a word.
“We missed him!” she wailed, “I didn’t get to ask my question!”
Perplexed, Nick turned around, blinking in disbelief at the sight that met his eyes. The stockings were filled to the bursting point, a pile of gaily wrapped presents spilling out from under the tree, the tag on the closest reading “To Nick from Santa.” The cookies and coffee had been decimated.
Closing his eyes, he heaved a sigh of relief. Thank God for Eli. “We can send him an email,” he suggested, and that seemed to satisfy her as she scrambled off the couch for the presents.
“We have to wait for Eli,” Belle reminded her, and he picked her up to give her a better view of the tree.
“Uncle Eli!” she bellowed, nearly blowing out his eardrum. “It’s Christmas!”
“Are we under attack?” Eli mumbled, stumbling bleary-eyed down the stairs. “Oh.”
“I’ll make coffee,” Belle yawned, handing Liam to Eli, and Nick put down his squirming daughter.
Catching Eli’s eyes, he mouthed a silent but emphatic, “Thank you.”
Eli blinked at him in bewilderment. “For what?”
Jerking his head at the tree and stockings, Nick tried to convey his gratitude for Eli saving Christmas without words. It was Christmas; he could allow himself one show of sentiment.
Eli just looked perplexed, and he put Liam down to join his sister. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you’re welcome.” Stumbling toward the kitchen he called to Belle, “Is the coffee ready yet?”
Nick stared after him in disbelief. He was putting him on. There was no way Eli wasn’t putting him on. Turning back, he watched his son and daughter dig through the presents. The wrapping paper on a few of them didn’t look the slightest bit familiar.
Mind racing, Nick tried to come up with an explanation. A benevolent Ascended Ancient? They had no physical form though, and the present Cailyn was currently shaking was clearly very corporeal. “You think too much,” Belle complained as she pressed a mug of coffee into his hand.
“But-” he protested, looking from the tree to Eli to her and back again.
“It’s Christmas. Give it a rest,” she suggested, and he lifted the mug to his lips. The kids were happy; the whole family was together, and Christmas morning was saved.
“You’re right,” he agreed, leaning down to kiss her, “Merry Christmas.”
Belle snickered, her eyes twinkling up at him. “You’re not going to argue? Best present ever.”
“Smart ass,” he grumbled, claiming another kiss that went on until Eli pushed past them.
“Can we unwrap the presents before you two start unwrapping each other?” he asked plaintively, “It’s Christmas.”
Beneath the tree, Liam had gotten his hair stuck in the string of lights, and Cailyn was helping him get it untangled by ripping out a handful of his hair. Looking a little higher, he saw Mira staring back at him from a tree branch at eye level, and Eli looked like he was on the verge of falling back to sleep on the floor. Belle rested her head on his shoulder, giggling helplessly, and he shook his head. “God bless us every one.”
Chapter 12: The Taste of Oranges
Earth food quickly proved to be a trial to the female members of the Rush family. Nick had immediately set to work eating his way through the animal kingdom, and Belle could still picture the look on his face when he'd gotten his first steak after Destiny. She was reasonably sure he'd never looked at her with such lust. Cailyn, on the other hand, was suspicious of the variety, and for the first two weeks she would eat nothing but oatmeal before she discovered the wonder of baked goods.
Of the three of them, Belle was having the hardest time adjusting. Everything she ate seemed to upset her stomach. Only oranges tasted good to her, and she craved them incessantly. After two months, she was starting to get more than a little tired of her limited diet, wishing her digestive system would hurry up and adjust. She'd daydreamed about freshly baked bread and gooey cheese for years, and now it didn't even smell good to her.
Even making Cailyn's french toast make her stomach roil, and she managed to hold on only long enough to plunk the plate down in front of her hungry daughter before having to make a dash to the bathroom, leaning miserably over the toilet. This was ridiculous. It had been two months, and she should be adjusting better than this, not getting worse. She hadn't felt this bad since she'd had morning sickness.
Her suspicion didn't make her feel any better, but at least it gave her something to think about while she threw up her orange juice, and she packed Cailyn into the car as soon as she was done eating for a little shopping trip. This called for further investigation.
That afternoon found her sitting on the couch with her suspicions confirmed and watching Cailyn play with her vast collection of stuffed animals. At the moment, Colonel Bear, a gift from Young, was giving orders to a group comprised of three pastel ponies, a floppy dog, and the rabbit Chloe had made her out of Destiny's bedding. Cailyn was dealing well with all the changes of the past months, but adding a new sibling to the mix might be one straw too many.
"What?" It was a testament to how distracted she was that she hadn't even heard Nick come home until he sat down next to her on the couch. Cailyn tackled his knees in greeting before going back to her game, and Belle kissed his cheek in apology.
"Sorry," she tried to smile, and he gave her a look that clearly said he wouldn't be put off.
"What's wrong?" he asked again, and she sighed. She'd been so concerned about Cailyn's reaction that she hadn't had time to worry about what Nick would say.
"I have to tell you something, and you can't swear," she led off with a glance at Cailyn.
To her surprise, Nick went white. "What?" he rasped, looking like a man facing a firing squad.
"I'm pregnant," she confessed. Nick nodded, still looking dreadful and apparently waiting for her to say something more. Belle wasn't sure what he was expecting. She'd thought her bombshell was shock enough. "That's it."
"That's it?" he repeated, sitting back a little as he processed her words, some of the color returning to his face. As she watched, he broke out in a grin, and he leaned forward to kiss her. "Why would I swear?"
"We didn't exactly plan this," she pointed out, and he gave a careless shrug before he stole another kiss, pressing his hand to her stomach.
"We didn't plan Cailyn either, and we like her," he dismissed.
Belle couldn't help but laugh, his words giving her some perspective. She brushed her lips against his before looking at Cailyn who was still playing, oblivious to her parents' discussion. "You think she'll be okay with this?"
"She gets someone she can play with and boss around. She'll love it," Nick pronounced.
Feeling better about things, she snuggled into his side. "What did you think I was going to say?" she asked as he wrapped his arm around her, remembering how ghastly he'd looked when she told him she had news.
"Figured you met some young stud and were leaving me," he said, toying with a curl of her hair.
Snickering, she smacked his arm. "No, seriously."
He gave the curl a tug. "I am."
Not sure whether to laugh, cry, or smack him again, Belle snuggled closer to her husband. "You're stuck with me."
He pulled her into his lap, burying his face in her hair as he splayed his hand over her flat stomach. "Good."