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Dead Languages on Our Tongues

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“Frank?” she sounds surprised when he drops into the seat across from her, her face doing that thing its started doing more and more, freezing into a hard, brittle mask. She never used to do that, not around him at least, not since that first disaster of an introduction. “What’re you doing here?”

He shrugs, wants to laugh because he was the one that introduced her to this place, back a hundred thousand lifetimes ago when things were easy and soft with greased lens fuzziness, hazy and golden and only perfect in retrospect.

Small goddamn world, he thinks, but not really so small when their circles overlap, Venn diagrams that start to merge into a single unit. Friends and work and school and nights and weekends overlapping until they maybe might’ve just gone and made a whole child together. Laurel became a part of his life, slowly became the center of it. Still is, if he’s being anything like honest with himself. And maybe, maybe he still occupies a place in hers, even if its distant and grudging. He tells himself its still better than nothing. “Working on my apps.”

She nods, once, her jaw hard and tight before her eyes skitter away. He thinks she still can’t let herself think about that, about his confession and his plans and the future he’s working so steadily towards, the same one she’s fighting against with every breath. Time, his old cellmate used to tell him, you can do time, or time can do you, but either way, it comes out the winner in the end.

Frank’s pretty certain that’s a piece of advice Laurel needs right now, even more certain its a piece of advice she’s not gonna want to hear from him, from anyone really. Laurel’s convinced she can stop time, that or ignore it until it goes away, slow it down, cease the slowly growing swell of her, his, their, Wes’ child, stop her father’s greedy violent dealings, maybe even reverse time completely, go back to when Wes was alive, go back to when Sam was alive, go back to before she ever met him, before she ever did anything as stupid as enroll in Middleton.

He thinks maybe he ought to rent the first Superman movie for her, the old one he remembers watching with his old man as a kid, sit her down and watch Christopher Reeve accelerate around the earth, reverse time, save Lois. He can’t quite decide whether he thinks the movie’d be helpful or just upset her more, just serve as another reminder of all the things she can’t do, all the ways she’s failed, all the ways the things she wants are impossible.

“Come here often?” he asks, trying for cocky and smirking and teasing, all the things she once loved about him, all the things he knows she hates herself for loving still.

Laurel stares at him a beat too long. “Frank,” she begins, stops herself before she says anything more. Sometimes it feels like all they do is have aborted conversations, neither of them courageous enough to say they things they really want, the things they really mean.

Which isn’t to say he hasn’t tried, its just that every time he tries to bring up his feelings, bring up the future, well, he can’t fucking stand the idea of hurting her, not when all she’s doing is hurting. When he tries to tell her the things he needs to say, the confessions, the promises, the oaths of fealty and loyalty and love and all those fucking things that sound so goddamn trite when he puts them into words, she balks, or she flinches or she explodes at him, turns away and looks like she’s going to cry and all he knows is that she’s imagining Wes in his place, Wes making declarations, admissions, promises to her, to her, his, their, Wes’ child.

Frank knows when he’s not wanted, but he can’t stop himself. He’s never been able to with Laurel around; stop himself, be smart, think clearly, keep his damn mouth shut. He’s been a half in love idiot since the first time he saw her, hiding behind the curtain of her hair, behind silence and scowls and other people’s expectations. He’s wholly in love with her now, angry and hurt and vengeful and belly full of a child she barely wants, barely even acknowledges.

“I do, yeah,” she tells him after a long moment of silence, her voice a challenge, like she’s daring him to kick her out, tell her its his spot, that he had it first so he gets to keep it in what amounts to their messy, shitty divorce.

He wants to tell her she can have anything, everything he wants, wants to tell her to take it all, or better yet, that he doesn’t want to lose her at all, wants to tell her he’ll do, say, give her anything she wants to get her back, because, well, the truth is he knows he’s lost her already.

Instead he just nods. “Cool.”

Frank remembers the first time he took her here, one Sunday, he thinks, that first winter when everything was good and terrible and perfect. Laurel’d needed to get some studying done, was getting too distracted by his bare chest in the apartment, had insisted they leave so there would be less temptation. It’d been cold, sleeting and grey and windy, but he’d still insisted on bringing her to this place. The coffee was good and the music not too terrible and the hipsters kept to themselves. It’d seemed like a good fit, and maybe it was.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Laurel says then, mouth doing that other thing its been doing more and more where her frown seems to take on a life of its own. She sounds weary, resigned and again Frank watches her eyes skitter away from him like even seeing his face is more pain than she can bear. “You don’t need to say anything.”

“What am I supposed to not be saying?” he asks, honestly confused.

She gestures vaguely to the cup in front of her, offers him a weary, resigned smile that never quite reaches her eyes. “I swear this is my first cup. I read somewhere that was fine. Probably better than all the drinking I did before…”

She trails off, like she can’t quite decide where before ends and after begins, where the demarcation occurs. Frank gets it, he does, because anything she uses seems somehow cheapened, false. Wes, the fire, the baby, they all occurred in such rapid succession that they all blend together, a slow motion car crash of horror. Or no, more like a car crash followed by cancer followed by a fire. Except that’s shitty too, because then he winds up comparing the baby to cancer. Which its not. Its something good, something better than good, its awe inspiring and terrifying and startlingly perfect. But even so, they all blur together into a terrible surrealist nightmare, but they’re each their own distinct event, their own distinct earthquake, shifting the landscape of Laurel’s mind beyond recognition.

“Its ok,” he assures her, doesn’t know why he imagines she cares. Except, maybe, he hopes, she does. Because he’s the father or could be the father or she still has some lingering affection for him she can’t quite snuff out, still hopes for something from him, with him. Maybe up to and including the baby he longs to know. “I know you’re gonna do what’s best for him.”

“It’s just,” she starts, trails off, gives him a small, stiff sag of her shoulders as she exhales a long, slow beat. “I miss coffee. So fucking much.”

He grins at her curse, can’t help himself. “Yeah, this place’d make a craven addict outta anyone.”

She glances at him, smiles thinly, tentatively, like she’s forgotten how to, like she’s fallen out of practice. She probably has, all her smiles since the fire have been more like grimaces, like snarls. This time there’s something that almost approaches laughter skirting the edge of her words. “I told myself I was going to just get a cup, sit here and smell it and, I dunno, imagine the taste of coffee. Then I promised myself I’d only drink half.”

She shrugs again, meets his eyes like she’s daring him to say something, to challenge her or berate her or accuse her of being a shitty mother, like she expects him to come at her with all the things she fears most, reject her and judge her and throw all her failures in her face. Frank wishes he could convince her she’s perfect, their child’s perfect, that nothing she ever does will make him hate her, make him love her less, that he knows with a strange, unwavering certainty that her son will love her, because she’s perfect and she’s gonna be a fucking amazing mom and because everything she does is for him, has been for him since the second she was made aware of his existence.

“What’d you get?” he asks instead of giving Laurel what she wants, asking her just how much of the extra large size coffee she has left. He doesn’t care, not really. Hell, if being nearly blown up hasn’t hurt the kid, he’s pretty sure one cup of coffee won’t either.

“Macchiato,” she tells him, eyeing the cup like its going to betray her somehow. Except then she picks it up, takes a long, slow swallow. Frank watches her throat bob, watches her free hand drift to the swell of her belly, resting on her growing bump like she’s trying to check in, reassure the little life inside her, reassure herself that he’s still there, still ok. “I didn’t want to get something I liked. Thought it would be too tempting.”

“If you want,” he tells her, seizing the opportunities as they fall in his lap, too good to pass up. “Lemme buy you something you do like. Chuck this and drink what you want. I’ll get a small one for you, promise.”

“Frank.”

Again his name, again said like he ought to read her meaning, read her intentions just from her tone, her cadence. Every time she says his name its like a warning now, a bright red fucking neon sign that screams stop. Every time she says his name it sounds like it hurts, like it dredges up a hundred thousand painful memories that leave her on the verge of tears.

It didn’t used to be this way. Once her lips used to curl around his name, smirking and sharp, her eyes deadly, or she used to gasp it, moan it out, or laugh through the single syllable of his name. Once Laurel did a lot of things. Frank tries to convince himself its not his fault.

He runs a hand through his beard, feeling like an idiot, always, because he pushes too hard, asks too much from her of the things they both know she can’t give him. Not right now, maybe not ever again. “Sorry,” he murmurs, getting to his feet. “I’ll catch you around then.”

“Frank,” she whispers it this time, full of apology and sorrow and longing, reaches out and stops him with a hand against his wrist. He forces himself not to take her hand, tangle their fingers together. Too much, he knows, too soon. “You don’t have to. Sit down, ok. Work on your applications.”

He doesn’t press further, just sinks back down into the seat, boots up his laptop. He throws her a crooked smirk while it loads. “I’m gonna grab something, try not to let anyone steal my shit.”

She rolls her eyes but signals that she’ll watch his things, a grin beginning to tug at her the corner of her lips. Its that ghost of a smile that makes him return not only with his coffee but with a Thai Tea donut for Laurel. He can’t forget her, her favorite things, her strange little quirks and her bad habits. They might as well have been tattooed against his skin.

Laurel refuses to look up when he comes back, not even when he slides the plate with the donut across the table to her, just keeps chewing on the end of her highlighter, typing out a couple of lines in her notes, slowly flipping the pages and pretending that Frank doesn’t exist, that the donut certainly doesn’t exist. And Frank, well, he can’t concentrate on anything else, doesn’t think he’s been able to concentrate on anything else since the moment he met her.

She still keeps her free hand on her rounded stomach, fingers stroking idly over the swell, a strange, secret conversation taking place through touch and silence. He finds himself both envious and awed at the profound things taking place beneath her skin.

“Where’re you thinking about applying?” she asks suddenly, her eyes narrowed at his inattention.

“Uh, I haven’t given it a lot of thought actually,” he admits around a cough designed to disguise from what had distracted him. “Just figured I’d stay around here.”

“Makes sense,” she agrees with a short nod, and Frank watches her eyes flick to the donut, flick back to his face, her expression unreadable. At least she’s acknowledged it, he supposes. That’s a start. “You’ve got a whole life here already. Your giant insane family, all your friends. Even if you’re still crashing in Bonnie’s spare room.”

Its not about that, he wants to tell her. He doesn’t care about any of that; his ma who’d probably fake a heart attack if he tried to leave the city limits, his old man who’s starting to slow down, need his help more and more, his siblings and his nieces and nephews and all the things he doesn’t wanna miss with them, none of it matters, not a single damn part of it. He’s staying in Philly for her, for the kid. They’re his only reasons. If she up and moved back to Miami, went to stay with her mom down in Mexico, he’d follow her. He wouldn’t have a single second of hesitation about the decision. He’s doing it for her; law school, everything, every single goddamn thing, down to the breaths he takes, its all for her, all for her son. Nothing else matters.

“You’re here too,” he points out with a shrug instead of all the other things he wants to say. He can’t tell her any of those things, not again, not yet. Frank knows he’d only scare her off. She’ll hear them when she’s ready to hear them. Not before.

“An the kid.”

“Frank…”

He shrugs again, like he’s shrugging off her warning. “Its true though. You two factor in just as much as anything else.”

Laurel ignores his words, takes another sip of coffee. He’d half guessed she would. She doesn’t believe him, not yet. And that’s ok. He’s a patient man, after all, spent ten years in a cell barely bigger than Bonnie’s guest bathroom with nothing to occupy his time other than TV and cards and an outdated, shabby library and what he could trade for.

He can do time or time can do him. So he’ll wait and do what he can, whatever Laurel will let him and maybe, someday, she’ll stop doubting him, maybe someday he’ll prove himself to her by deed as well as word. Maybe someday he’ll get to be a father to their child and a partner to her, maybe someday she’ll remember she loved him, once, could love him again if she let herself.

“So Middleton, Temple,” she pauses, watching his reaction curiously as she tests each school out. “You thought about Penn any? With a 170 you might have a shot.”

He laughs, tries not to let any bitterness seep in. “Not sure Penn’s gonna be impressed much by my decade old correspondence course BA in English.”

“You need a killer essay then,” she tells him flatly. “Spin things into an admission. Turn that strength into a weakness or whatever the admissions counselors are always saying.”

“You write about Mexico?” he asks, hoping, even as he says it, that the joke doesn’t fall flat. Once, once he was allowed to talk about Mexico, the things that happened to her there, ask about the details, some of them, and sometimes she would answer. Once he was allowed to learn the shape of her scars. Sometimes he was even allowed to joke about it, the hurt blanketing her skin fading enough to withstand attention, withstand being touched and examined. He’s not sure he still has that right anymore.

Her answering smile is small, tight, but its there and its genuine and Frank’s certain that’s something, certain it has to mean something. “No,” she replies, only the faint hint of an edge to her voice. “But maybe if I had, Harvard would’ve taken me.”

“Harvard’s a bunch of idiots for not taking you,” he says vehemently, even though he’s pretty sure he’ll be forever grateful to Harvard for rejecting her, grateful that she would up at Middleton, wound up in Annalise’s Crim class, wound up in his life. “They woulda been lucky to have you.”

“Nah,” she says, smile tightening until it takes on all the qualities of a frozen scream. “I think they dodged a real bullet with me.”

“An you still think an essay about how I spent a decade inside’s really gonna sell me to a bunch of stuck of Ivies?” he asks, because really, that’s his fear, his deepest, darkest fear, that no matter what he’s done, no matter what he ever does, he’ll always be defined by that one stupid fucking thing, by one stupid fucking accident when he was eleven, always be damned by one stupid fucking choice he made before he ever made it to middle school. Frank doesn’t think he’s ever gonna stop worrying, ever stop looking over his shoulder, worrying that it makes him a bad person, worrying that it’ll always damn him.

He’s certain that it means he’ll never make it anywhere, never become anything more than the violent Fishtown kid who tried to kill his dad.

“Sure,” Laurel offers, playing with the lip of her mug, tapping the edge of her pen against the ceramic edge. She drums her pen thoughtfully, like she’s already writing his essay in her head, head cocked to the side, watching him. “Its an easy spin, y’know. You spent a dime inside, saw the worst parts of the fucked up justice system. You got medicated and shipped of to SHU and you fought all the assholes who came after a skinny white kid just because it was easy. You made the best of your time there despite that. You got your GED and got your BA and learned to play the guitar and rewire a house. And you got out, eventually, and went to work for a defense attorney and yeah, things were still fucked up and terrible. But, now you’re going to law school yourself and you’re not gonna be like Annalise. You’re gonna be better than her, take all the shit you’ve seen and use it to be the zealous fucking advocate Middleton’s always telling us to be.”

“And that,” she continues, settling back against the booth, assured and confident, her hand trailing back to rest against her stomach, tugging Frank’s attention with her. “That’s your essay.”

“Huh,” he huffs in surprise, beyond impressed with her. Its not true, not entirely, not even partly. But it’s a damn good essay all the same. It might be the hook he’ll need because he definitely can’t try to hide the goddamn ball about where he spent his teens, can’t try to bury that elephant under the rug, so he needs some way to spin it, turn his weakness into a strength and all that. “That’s yeah, that’s good. Thanks.”

“I know its good,” she tells him shortly, still with that same unfaltering certainty, her smile going edged and sharp like she’s daring him to doubt her, challenge her. “It’ll grab you a few extra points if you drop Annalise’s name too. The administration is still salty about how epically she flamed out. And you know Penn and Middleton share gossip.”

“Sure it won’t lose me a couple points instead?” he asks, because he’s pretty sure Annalise’s blackballing extends to him too, probably would extend to Laurel and the rest of the Scooby gang if anyone could figure out a way to easily expel them without courting a shitton of bad press. They’re the real victims after all. “Given that I worked for her for a decade?”

“Definitely not,” she assures him, pressing her hand for a moment against the side of her protruding stomach, like maybe she’s pressing against the baby’s foot or something, acting as counter pressure to his kicks. Frank wants to slip his hand against the same space, wants to feel the answering press of a tiny foot, a tiny fist, against his skin. He wants that connection with the child that feels like his already, biology be damned. He shakes off the thought; it’s a hopeless, futile desire after all.

Laurel might let him touch her, but not her stomach, nothing so intimate as that, nothing that obviously allows him a space in her child’s life. “They think we’re all victims of her abuse and manipulations. I expect them to fall all over themselves to let you in.”

“Well, no matter what, it makes for a better essay than telling them I’m only going to law school cause it’s just about the only thing I’m halfway good at and I need to make some cash fast cause my girl’s knocked up and babies are expensive,” he says with a shrug, hoping its clear he’s not joking, not really. He meant it when he told her he’d be there for her, whatever she needed, meant it when he told her he’d do anything for her, for the baby, wanted to take care of them. He just wants them to be a family, just wants to make a life with her, the kind he had allowed himself to imagine back before he fucked everything up. He’ll take anything she’s willing to give him, will beg for any scraps she’ll throw him.

He’s scared her, he can tell the instant the words leave his mouth. Her eyes go cold and hard and she stiffens, squares her shoulders like she’s bracing for an attack. “I don’t need money,” she points out, jaw clenched. “I’ve got more money than I know what to do with. I’m not gonna send Domestic Relations after you for support. Even if you are the father.”

“I didn’t think you would,” he assures her quickly, trying to course correct, trying to figure out some way to get her to relax, understand what he wants, what he’s offering. He just wants to be there for her, for the baby, however he can, whatever way she’ll let him. If all she’ll let him offer is money, diapers and wipes and a car seat, then that’s what he’ll take, that’s what he’ll give her until she lets him offer more. “I just, I wanna take care of you. Not cause you need me, you don’t. I know that. But cause you want me to. Cause I want that with you, ok? I’m not gonna stop wanting that. No matter what.”

She goes hard and still for a long moment, her face carefully neutral and Frank worries that he’s made a huge mistake, pushed her too far, admitted too much. He needs to go slow, he knows, can’t overwhelm her with the things he wants, the things he feels. Too much and she’ll fight or flee or freeze even further. He just has to be patient, wait for what he hopes will be the thaw, wait for her to start believing him again. But then she sighs, just a long, slow exhale and she sounds so fucking small, so fucking tired and defeated and sad. “I know.”

“I hope you do,” he counters, certain she doesn’t know, certain she’s just hearing the words, at best, not understanding what he means, the full extent of the things he means. But he’s certain he can’t push her either. He just has to keep being honest, offering everything she’s willing to take from him and just a little more. “Whatever you want from me, Laurel. I mean that.

You need me to grab diapers for him or babysit him while you’re busy with class or I dunno, do man things, teach him how to piss with the seat up and tell the difference between a curveball and a fastball and make a mean pesto to impress a girl. Or a guy, whoever. Whatever you want from me.”

Laurel stutters out a laugh, her eyes widening like she’s shocked, like she wasn’t sure she was capable of laughter anymore, like the sound catches her by surprise. “You know my dad’s a minority owner of a baseball team, right? He’s not gonna need help figuring out a curve from a fastball.”

Frank scoffs, raises his eyebrows for her, arch and teasing. “Your dad doesn’t know a damn thing about baseball other than that it’ll get him some good press and make him some cash.”

Again Laurel barks out a sharp laugh, again she looks half stunned at the sound, that Frank’s brought it out in her. “That’s true,” she allows, a shadow of a smile slipping across her face, tentative and fierce. “But luckily I know plenty about baseball.”

He grins, too wide, too crooked. He can’t help himself, heart pounding at the rare sight of her smile. “Yeah, but you’re a Sox fan. Gotta teach the kid to support the right team.”

“The Phillies?” she scoffs, though there’s not much heat behind the expression. He thinks she might even be trying to tease him “The right team would be one that’s had a winning record sometime in the last five years.”

“Fine, fine,” he tells her. “Well both lay out our cases, let the kid decide who he wants to support.”

“No,” she cuts in quickly, lips curling into a smile and now he knows, knows she’s teasing him. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“Can he at least have the Phils as his NL team?” he asks, realizing, belatedly, how nice this feels, how normal, how comfortable. It feels right. It would be easy to pretend, easy to imagine they meant to do this, have a child together, that they’re just like any other couple, negotiating the small things like sports allegiances and nursery colors and sleep training because they’ve already sorted out the big things, names and daycare and holidays and what the grandparents are gonna be called because they meant to have a child, didn’t just stumble into accidental parenthood. He can pretend though, for the next few seconds until reality intrudes, Frank can pretend they’re just two soon to be parents anticipating the kind of parents they’ll be, imagining who their child will be, strange secret hopes only the other can understand. He wants that, with her, but he’ll settle for this.

“As long as he understands the NL’s trash,” Laurel deadpans.

He shakes his head, smirks around the rim of his mug. “Someone’s gonna have to teach that kid that the DH is one step up from cheating.”

She hums, though her scowl is soft, teasing. “You’re making a lot of assumptions about a lot of things right now Frank,” she warns.

He nods, doesn’t try to hide it. “I’m certain of a lot of things too. I’ll be certain for both of us.”

Laurel hums again, turns back to her textbook for a minute, five, ten, an hour, though he catches her eyeing him as he types, something thoughtful, considering to the cast of her mouth.

“I could help you,” she offers suddenly, chewing nervously on the end of her pen. “With your essay. If you wanted. Read it over or edit it or, or whatever you need.”

“Yeah?” he asks, not quite daring to hope.

“Sure,” she tells him, like its nothing, like she’s not offering to help him get closer to his goals, closer to being able to take care of her, of the baby, be the father her son deserves. He expected her to resist, to mock him or doubt him or tell him that he’s an intruder in her child’s life, in her life, that he’s no longer welcome. He half expected her to tell him she didn’t need any goddamn help, certainly not from him. But instead she just shrugs, offers him a small smile. “Show me what you’ve got. You’ll be a shoe-in for Middleton. I might even get you into an Ivy.”

“Kid can have two Ivy parents then,” Frank quips, not really sure he’s joking because their kid’s gonna be a damn genius. He knows it.

“You don’t have to go to an Ivy, you know,” Laurel tells him softly, hand sliding across the curving dome of her stomach. “You’re good enough for him no matter where you go to school.”

“I know,” he answers honestly, corner of his mouth turning up as he tries to smile, tries not to let his worries overwhelm him.

“But that doesn’t mean I don’t wanna be the best I can be for him. For you too.”

“You’ve always been enough for me Frank,” she confesses, voice soft but cut through with the fierce vehemence he’d once grown used to hearing in her voice. “I never wanted you to be anyone else.”

Its true of course, she never wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, some slick, polished pretty boy like most of the Middleton students, like most of the men she’d known back in her father’s circle in Florida. She’d liked, maybe even loved him for the man that he was, jagged, crooked edges and all.

“It was never about you not being enough.”

“I know,” he assures her. He never felt good enough for her, still doesn’t, if he’s being honest. Thus the reason for all this, trying to deserve her, deserve the baby he may have helped create. “Doesn’t mean I didn’t sometimes feel that way.”

“I can’t help you I with that,” Laurel says with a little shake of her head, both brutally honest and kind in the way that only she can be. “I can’t make you feel like you deserve something you’ve already earned. But I will look over your essay. I mean it, just email me when you’re ready to put some eyes on it.”

He nods. “I will,” he promises, finds he really means it.

They retreat into silence again, save for the idle staccato tapping of Laurel’s pen against her teeth, the edge of her mug, the rough wood tabletop, the clicking of Frank’s keys as he types, a strange lack of rhythm that somehow becomes melodic. Frank looks up only when the tapping stops, shocked and not shocked at all to see Laurel carefully tearing a piece from the forgotten donut, bringing it to her lips before going back to the donut, tearing another piece free.

Silence settles over them, soft and easy and familiar, the kind of lazy silence that they used to fall into, back before, late in the evening or on Saturday afternoons, the kind of silence weightier than any words, where words didn’t even matter. In his memories of that perfect, disastrous year, Laurel would be studying Civ Pro or Evidence, trying to ignore when Frank would steal her highlighters, humming along when he plucked out something she recognized on his guitar, her feet sprawled across his lap as his hands idly mapped his way across the thin skin of her ankle. Frank wants to go back to that past so badly he aches with it.

Except he can’t go back. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe he shouldn’t want to. They’re honest with each other now at least, even if they’re bruised and hurting and can’t always be kind, even if sometimes can’t find the words to say the things that keep them from each other, can’t find the magic spells to breach the divide. It might be better this way, even waiting for Laurel to trust him again, to realize he’s nothing like her father, because if they make it through this, he knows they’ll make it through anything.

And they will, Frank’s certain of it, he just doesn’t know how long it’ll take. He can do time or time can do him, but he knows that he’ll wait for her as long as it takes, knows that eventually she’ll realize what he feels for her doesn’t come with conditions or qualifications, that he’s not going to love her son any less if it turns out he’s not Frank’s. He’s just gotta be patient, take the little, easy, moments as they come, the ones where she relaxes, fractionally, smiles a little wider, and hope that they come with slowly growing frequency.

“You really wanna babysit though?” she asks then, lips working around a mouthful of dough, tongue flicking out to catch at a bit of sticky glaze stuck to the corner of her mouth. His eyes fix on her lips, on her little pink tongue, breath catching in his throat heavy enough he barely hears her words. Almost, except he doesn’t think he couldn’t’ve missed her words if he tried.

“Sure,” Frank tells her, hand carding through his beard, certain there’s more to her words, more meaning than the casual question she’s posing to him, certain it means more. “Course. Anytime you need, I mean it. When you’re in class, Sunday mornings, 3:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. I’m here for you, for both of you.”

“So that’s it?” she asks, eyes suddenly flashing, sharp and accusing. “Whatever I need, whenever I ask? You’ll come running like a dog? What if you’re sick, or out with a girl? What if I call you on your mom’s birthday? Or the night before your first final?”

Frank shrugs, places both his hands palm up against the slick wood of the table, imploring. He just wants her to understand. “If I’m sick, then I come over sick and try not to infect you. Let the kid laugh at me when I sneeze everywhere. An’ I hope I’ll have already snagged an invite for the kid to my ma’s party. He can steal the spotlight, stick his hands all over the cake, wrap my ma around his little finger. You call the night before a final, I’ll bring my notes, hope little man likes hearing bedtime stories about intentional infliction of emotional distress and attractive nuisances.”

“That’s it?” she demands again, jaw clenched hard and angry. “Its that easy for you?”

“Yeah,” he tells her, because it is, its really just that easy. Its always been that easy with Laurel, its never even been a choice. “I love you, I love him. And its just that easy.”

Laurel drums the nails of her left hand against the ceramic edge of her mug, teeth worrying her lower lip as she watches him for long, silent moments. Finally though, she speaks. “Ok,” she says, shoulders squaring like she’s summoning strength into her body, like she’s made some kind of decision about him and now just needs to break it to him. Frank hopes it doesn’t hurt too much. “Ok, what’re you doing next Thursday?”

“Whatever you want me to,” he answers simply. “I wanna be wherever you need me to be, wanna do whatever you ask me to do.”

“I’ve uh, I’ve got an appointment next Thursday,” she stammers out. “For him. At 2:00. If you wanted to come. They might, they might do an ultrasound. If you care about that.”

He nods slowly, tries not to let his grin spread too wide, too eager. He just lets her words sink in, the full weight of them, that she’s letting her in, cracking the door back into her life, back into the baby’s life, his son by choice if maybe not by blood. Its not much, but its something.

“2:00,” he repeats, tasting the words on his tongue, liking their feeling, liking the shy grin that darts across Laurel’s face even more, the way she smiles, deeply and distantly, as her hand curves over the swell of their child. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Ok,” she nods then, like she’s punctuating Frank’s words, his decision. “Ok good. Now help me up. Between the coffee and a baby occupying space my bladder needed, I’ve gotta find the bathroom.”

He laughs, probably louder than he should. It just feels really fucking good to have Laurel joke about something, the baby especially, to see her cunning smile. It feels like maybe, for once, things are heading away from disaster.

He gets up out of his chair, offers her a hand, helps Laurel kind of shimmy to her feet. He doesn’t know what exactly about the baby prevents her from easily standing, but it seems like a lot more damn effort than it ought to be. For about the millionth time, he finds himself in awe of her, at the things her mind and her body can do.

She’s creating a whole human inside her, a human that is gonna have favorite foods and jokes and will call her mom and might, someday, call him dad. And she’s doing that even when the child growing inside her is squashing her organs and making his own weird adjustments to her spine and hips and well, if he wasn’t in awe of Laurel already, Frank knows he is now, knows he can’t not be in awe of her.

She pitches forward as he helps her stand, balance strange and uncertain, and before Frank can think of all the reasons it’s a bad idea, his hand goes to her waist, trying to steady her. Except, well, she doesn’t really have a waist anymore, just the soft swell of the child inside her. And that’s where his hand settles, against the curve of her belly.

And of course Laurel startles and stiffens and Frank’s mumbling out some apology he doesn’t really mean, sheepish and stumbling and trying to take his hand away while making sure Laurel won’t lose her balance again, when he feels it.

A pressure, a nudge against his palm, somehow both distant and close. It takes him far longer than it ought for him to realize it’s coming from beneath Laurel’s skin, that the nudging against his hand is the baby, her baby, his baby, their baby. He’s sure of it now. Biology be damned, the child taking shape inside her is his son, its as simple and certain as that.

There’s another little nudge, sharper and more insistent this time, like he’s waiting for a response. And Frank ought to take his hand away, knows he should, because he’s pretty certain Laurel doesn’t want him touching her, definitely doesn’t want him getting any ideas about who he is to her son, his place in her life. Certainly she doesn’t want this, his hand against her stomach as he feels the movements of the child inside her. Its too much, its too intimate, its letting him too close to the child that so far, she’s kept staunchly to herself. Its too close to the vision of the family he wants to build with her, the family she doesn’t want with him, not yet. He wants to move away, its just that he can’t move, can’t tear himself away from her, from the staccato ripples of pressure against his hand.

“Is that?” he lets himself ask, hating how tight and choked his voice sounds, hating how he feels like maybe he’s on the verge of tears. It’s a weakness he can’t let himself feel, not when he’s not anything to this baby, not yet anyway. “Is that him?”

He glances up in time to see Laurel’s tight nod, see the tears shining in her eyes, catching at her lashes. He knows he’s fucked up, knows he should’ve taken his hand away the second he’d felt the baby’s kick, should’ve torn himself away like he’d been burned. He tries to salvage something, anything from the fucked up disaster of a day, tries to apologize and beg her forgiveness.

Except then she catches his wrist, fingers tight across his skin, presses his hand back against the curve of her stomach, applying just a hint of pressure.

And then, again, comes the answering kick, sharper this time, insistent.

“Oh my god,” Frank blurts, knowing how stupid, how trite it sounds, laughing and maybe crying too and that’s his son, a tiny little almost human nestled against Laurel’s heart, but real and alive and his and hers and theirs, doesn’t matter if Frank helped create him or not. “Laurel, that’s…that’s him.”

Laurel lets out a watery laugh, moves Frank’s hand a little higher, up the where the swell of her curves tight against her chest, presses his fingers once again into her skin. “Watch this,” she tells him, her voice soft and awed.

Another kick follows her words, another of the muted roilings beneath her skin darting against the press of his hand, following his movements. “Has that? Has he ever done that before?”

Frank doesn’t want to hope, but he can’t help himself, can’t help but want to think that what she’s offered him is special, that what she’s let him witness isn’t for anyone else.

She shakes her head, eyes lowering and fixing on the place where their hands join over her curving belly, over the shifting movements of their child. “I don’t make it a habit of letting people touch my belly Frank,” she says with a snort that almost seems affectionate, eyes still wet with tears. “And I’ve only been able to feel him kicking for a few days now. On the outside I mean. Its weird, I felt him fluttering around for a month now, thought I was going crazy at first.”

Frank laughs again, the feeling of it tumbling out of his chest before he can help himself. Its crazy, it doesn’t make any sense how he can feel the baby kicking against his hand, how there’s a child inside her, still growing, not even a fully realized human yet, the size of a cantaloupe or something now, but still responding to his touch, his words, his existence. Its nothing that ought to matter, not really, but its bigger than anything he’s ever felt before.

“That’s,” he stumbles out, feeling another kick against his palm. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever felt. You’re the coolest thing in the world, kid. Your ma too I guess. For making you happen.”

Laurel snorts, but there’s a new affection in the sound, he thinks, something still a little wary but warm, something accepting, like sinking down into cool water. “Thanks Frank.”

“Yeah,” he says, directing his words now to the child inside her, watching Laurel’s eyes to make sure he’s not pushing too far, intruding anywhere she doesn’t want him to stray, taking too many liberties with the things she’s allowed him. “That’s…I’m Frank. I’ve been around a bit, but we’ve never properly been introduced. I’m, uh, I guess I’m a friend of your ma’s. I’m gonna try to be cool, but I know you’re gonna think I’m super lame.”

“You’re not lame,” Laurel tells him softly, her fingers still over his. “You’re…you’re gonna be really good to him.”

“I am,” he tells her, certain. And they’re standing in the middle of a coffee shop, his hand pressed against her stomach and he’s certain everyone thinks they’re insane, laughing like fools and crying and not moving and he doesn’t give a damn because he’s never been so certain of anything in his life. “I’m gonna do everything I can to deserve him. Deserve you.”

And she doesn’t nod, she doesn’t tell him she knows, doesn’t even tell him she hopes so. Laurel just curls her fingers around his, takes his other hand in hers, letting their fingers thread together and smiles up at him, small and sad and still radiant and he loves her more than he thinks he ever has before.

“Talk to him some more,” she tells him, her voice an unshakeable command and a plea and a prayer and the slow, trickling melting of something long frozen. “Please.”

And so he does.

He’s never been able to resist her, knows there’s no chance now he’ll be able to resist her son.