It’s easier than he expected, so much harder than he expected. No one knows him, no one knows he’s connected to the tiny boy with the stuttering breath, the tubes and wires and monitors snaking out of him like so many alien creatures. No one cares that he’s father to a dead, a dying child. No one gives him a second glance.
He tells himself its because the visiting hours are labyrinthine and no one’s really looking after him, but really its because Frank can just skate by unnoticed, drifting from hallway to hallway, wing to wing like a restless ghost.
Its been two days, he thinks, maybe three, since they brought in Laurel and the baby he still refuses, stubbornly and futilely, think of as his son. He’s been to see her, he couldn’t avoid that, couldn’t keep himself from her, the strange hooks she’s driven into his heart turning him into little more than a fish on the line, but so far at least he’s stayed away from her son. Frank tells himself the child two floors down is not his son, biology be damned, tries to ignore the way it sends sharp knives of grief, of regret slipping in past his ribs.
So, for two days, maybe three now, he’s drifted from wing to wing, waiting area to waiting area, trapped in a terrible purgatory, unable to bring himself to leave, but terrified of seeing the little boy he’s somehow brought to life.
Its easier that the infection singing in Laurel’s blood, the things they pump into her to combat it, have knocked her out almost completely. It means that no one asks him where he’s been, no one asks him about the little creature with the paper thin skin and the mechanical breaths. No one checks up on him, no accountability for his failures. He’s free to drift, borne by his guilt and little else, by the pitying looks all the nurses give him, like they’re waiting to give him bad news, like the baby’s inevitable short, brutal end is written already on their faces.
Its late, the kind of late where the darkness feels like a weapon, sharp and heavy and smothering, the kind of late that wraps itself in silence, thick and endless.
The lateness of the hour lets Frank fool himself into thinking that he’s alone, that the danger has passed. He realizes his mistake when someone drops into the bench beside him, huffs out a sigh heavy enough he knows there’s no escape.
“They told me you’d gone home,” Annalise says, her words casual, but, as always, a blade clutched lightly in her fingers.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Frank offers, wondering what she’d do if he got up, walked away from her. He can’t be having this conversation, any conversation with her. Not tonight, not ever. He wonders too what she’s doing there, except Annalise found Laurel, saved the baby, even if it was only a temporary reprieve, and that seems to have earned her a place beside Laurel’s bed, and worse yet, down in a glider chair next to the plastic box the baby’s been confined to, a coffin before his coffin.
Frank knows she’s been down to see him, the baby, knows she’s spent hours there, thinks maybe she offered to go down with him, yesterday or the day before, show him how everything worked, show him all the proper procedures, keep him company, cornered him as he was leaving Laurel’s room at the end of visiting hours, told him that the NICU hours went for another hour.
Frank can’t remember what excuse he made, something about a shower maybe, something about having to phone his ma or fill out insurance paperwork or needing another cup of coffee. He didn’t do any of that, just drifted from hallway to hallway, pressing floors at random on the elevator, turning left and then right and then left again until he found himself at dead ends, finds himself sinking into hard plastic waiting room chairs, training his eyes, unseeing, on the muted, flashing TVs.
“You did disappoint me,” she snaps then, and yeah, Frank thinks, there’s the blade, slicing towards the softest parts of him, so quick as to be almost painless. Except its never painless, not in the end. “I’d almost rather you’d gone home.”
“I could go,” Frank offers with a hitch to his shoulders that feels so much less than a shrug, feels more like a collapse, a long slow descent into dust, like a final, crushing defeat.
“I don’t want you to go home,” Annalise hisses and out of the corner of his eye, Frank watches her hand curl into a fist atop her thigh. He wishes she was angry, he wished she’d just lash out the way they both want her to. Frank’s so fucking numb he just wants to feel anything, anything beyond his guilt and his shame and his gnawing, unending fear. He wants someone else to tell him what a cowardly piece of shit he is, say the things they’re all thinking, the things that run through his mind on and endless, terrible loop. “And it shouldn’t be what you want either.”
“Don’t tell me what I want,” he tries to warn, hates the way his words sound exhausted, sound flat and pleading.
“You don’t know what you want,” she counters, words tearing at his skin. “Or at least I hope that’s true. I really hope you’re not here because it’s what you want.”
“How could you think this is what I want?” And now his words are a plea, because this was the last thing he wanted, to be the cause of all this, the baby’s too early entry into the world, his losing fight to survive before he was able, Laurel’s own struggle against massive blood loss and infection. This was the last goddamn thing he wanted, to be the cause of all this pain, to have hurt his child before he ever got a chance to do a single thing right, to have fucked up so spectacularly he’s not sure there’s any way back from it, any way to ever make it up. Not in the time he has left.
Frank thinks he hears the low hiss of her growl, like a blade unsheathing. “Because you’re here, and not with your son.”
He leans forward, elbows against his knees, hating the way he can feel a sob clawing its way up his throat, tries to swallow it back. He can’t be up there, can’t bring himself to leave. He doesn’t know what to do. And so he’s here, in the strange netherworld, this strange purgatory where he can’t move, can’t think, just waiting for something, anything, waiting for some salvation, damnation that never comes.
“Duty nurse says you haven’t been by him at all,” Annalise points out, voice softening and Frank watches, numbly as Annalise reaches out, settles her hand overtop his. He wants to pull his hand away, can’t quite summon the energy to do so. “Not since he was brought in.”
“Why would I be by?” Frank hadn’t quite intended for his words to sound quite so desperate, so helpless and pleading, like Annalise can give him answers, like the question is something other than rhetorical.
“Because he’s your son, Frank.”
He ought to be surprised at the lack of accusation in her voice, at how sad she sounds rather than angry, ought to startle at the resignation in her words, like Frank’s beyond hope, beyond saving. Maybe he is. He feels like he is.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Frank spits out around the building fear and loathing churning in his chest.
“Guess it doesn’t,” Annalise admits with something like a shrug, her hand leaving his, leaving him cold and sick. “Guess I thought it’d matter to you.”
“It doesn’t,” he lies. It’s the only thing that matters. He’d trade his own life for even the chance that his son would be alright, would come out of this and through to the other side, would endure anything on half a chance that he could spare the baby even a minute of pain, of struggle, would do anything, anything to take it all back, somehow reverse time and be living in a universe where the baby was still a fetus, still tucked safely into the curve of Laurel’s stomach, nestled against her heart. He’d do anything. There’s nothing he can do.
Annalise stares at him, eyes narrowed. “You don’t deserve it,” she tells him, voice curdled and full of low fury that he tries, fails, not to flinch back from. “You don’t deserve to have a living son. You don’t deserve to have me save him.”
“But I didn’t do it for you,” she continues dismissively as though Frank’s not there at all, as though he doesn’t matter at all. He doesn’t, not really. “I did it for Laurel, for myself maybe. But you, I wish to god that baby up there was Wes’ because you don’t deserve him, don’t deserve a living son. Not like this.”
“Well,” Frank chuckles darkly, wishing he could lift his eyes from his feet, wishing he could turn and face her, wishing he could disguise the sob rising from his chest. “Lucky thing that. You’ll get your wish and I’ll have a dead son too before long.”
He half thinks Annalise is going to slap him, half thinks she’ll laugh or get up and walk away. What he doesn’t expect her to do is seize his arm, just above the elbow, tug him to standing.
Frank certainly doesn’t expect her to yank him hard enough he can’t help but follow her to his feet. He knows he could resist her, knows he could stand his ground, or sit, or…he just doesn’t. He just follows wherever she leads as he has since the first moment he met her. He doesn’t use his greater weight against her, just glides to his feet at the tug of her hand against him.
And then he stumbles, the ground pitching beneath his feet and vision swimming and his head suddenly pounding and its Annalise’s arm at his elbow guiding him back to the stone bench, guiding back down to sitting, another hand at his spine directing his head between his knees.
“Jesus,” he hears her breathe. “When was the last time you ate?”
He tries to shrug but it just sets his head to pounding again, ringing and hollow, shattered with pain and nausea. “What day’s today?”
There’s another long suffering sigh from Annalise. “Its just after midnight. Monday now.”
“Monday,” he repeats, not quite able to remember the answer he’s supposed to give her. He thinks it was Thursday they brought her in. That was the night of the disaster of a party, when Simon shot himself, when Laurel decided to go to Annalise’s instead of home, when Annalise found her, found the baby in the elevator, neither of them doing much in the way of breathing, living.
It would’ve been Thursday then, he supposes. Three days ago. Well, he thinks, his son has made it three days, clung to life for three days now. That’s something he supposes, even if that’s all he gets. He might even make it to May, Frank thinks darkly, might even get to a different month on the second date that gets stamped on his tombstone, even if the year will be the same.
It sends a little note of something he decides is pride working across his chest; that his son is stubborn, that his son is a fighter. He doesn’t think it’ll matter a damn in the end, doesn’t think it’ll change his tiny boy’s certain end. They’re all dying, but his dogged little son is dying faster than all of them.
“Frank,” he hears Annalise ask, her voice echoing distantly through his pounding brain. “When was the last time you ate?”
“Thursday,” he tells her. “Thursday I think.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve had any sleep either,” she says, like she’s already certain of his answer, doesn’t even really need to ask.
“I…,” he starts, realizes he can’t actually remember.
He can practically hear Annalise rolling her eyes. “Can’t do much about that right now, but I’ll at least get some food in you.”
“What?” he asks instinctively because he’s not sure he’s capable of asking more. He doesn’t understand, doesn’t understand why Annalise is still here, in the hospital, why she’s speaking to him at all when the last time they talked she practically threatened to kill him if she ever saw him again, why she cares about him, about Laurel or the baby at all. “Why?”
He finally manages to raise his eyes, watch Annalise roll her eyes, scoff. “Because you clearly can’t do it on your own.”
“Why?” he repeats. He doesn’t understand why she’s here, why she’s bothering with him, why she hasn’t just gone home and washed her hands of the whole terrible thing, why she’s still acting like it matters, like its not just some slow, maddening tragedy.
Her fingers tighten against his bicep, almost painfully, nails digging into his skin through the soft cotton of his t-shirt.
“Because you get a chance that I never did,” she hisses, jaw tight and her eyes flashing. “And you’re an idiot if you think I’m gonna let you blow it. Not when I’m the reason you have that chance at all.”
She tugs again at his arm and again Frank follows her to his feet. Its easier this time, easier to fight against the dizziness, the exhaustion that just makes him want to drop to the ground, easier to keep himself upright, focusing on the steadying grip Annalise keeps on his body.
“What kinda chance do I have?” Frank counters, hating how ragged his voice sounds, low and rough and strung tight with tension, with the edge of tears. “Its not like it’ll matter. He’s dying Annalise.”
She stares at him for so long Frank thinks maybe time’s simply stopped, ceased to function in a way that makes sense to his exhausted, sluggish brain. And then she just turns, drags him behind her and back into the hospital, keeps her fingers tight around his bicep as they wait for the elevator, as they wander through a twisting maze of unfamiliar corridors.
He wants to ask where they’re going, where she’s taking him, but Frank isn’t sure he wants to know the answer, isn’t even really sure she’d tell him if he asked. He thinks he vaguely recognizes some of the hallways, thinks she might be taking him up to Laurel, and then he realizes it, too late to stop, too late to pull away, too late to stop Annalise’s inexorable pull over his body, too late to resist the impossible inertia that’s taken hold of his bones.
“I can’t,” he stammers, trying to stop, trying to pull away, to balk, to shrug out of her grip. Her hold on him barely tightens, but the message is clear; resistance is futile. “Annalise, I can’t.”
Annalise ignores him as if he hadn’t spoken at all, just pushes through a set of swinging doors, and then another, steers him into a low chair, her hand migrating to his shoulder as she directs his body to sit. “I don’t care what you want. Its not about you anymore Frank. And you need to start figuring that out. Fast.”
He tries to stand, push himself to his feet using the armrests, but her fingers at his shoulder are like a vice, a lead weight, like gravity and he gives up his struggle before its even begun, before he’s done more than hitched his shoulders.
“I can’t,” he tries again, knowing how useless the words are. They come out as little more than a whisper, a plea and if Annalise hears him, she does a damn good job of ignoring him. He barely hears himself, like he can’t even bring himself to speak, can’t even bear putting his thoughts into words. And maybe he can’t, maybe its better if he doesn’t try to justify himself, better if he doesn’t try to earn forgiveness for what he’s done. He certainly doesn’t deserve it, not after what he’s done, not after he killed his son, the baby’s death sentence merely delayed and not commuted.
“Drink this,” Annalise tells him, pressing a styrofoam cup into his hand. “It’ll keep you alive and awake until I’m done with you.”
The cup is warm but not hot against his hand and Frank instinctively curls his fingers around the cup, seeking whatever comfort he can, like a plant bending towards the light. And when he dutifully brings it to his lips, he finds that its coffee, strong and black and barely sweetened and he’s downed half of it before he’s taken another breath.
“Coffee,” she says as though he couldn’t already tell, as if she half suspects he’s so far gone he doesn’t even taste the liquid. “I left it up here when I went to get some air. You look like you need it more.”
He thinks about thanking her, takes another sip instead, lets the bitter coffee warm his body, lets it send a little jolt of life through his flagging bones, eyes closing as the warmth spreads across his chest, as the caffeine hits his blood.
“Finish it,” Annalise demands and he dares to glance up at her, sees her arms crossed over her chest, her face still hard and angry. He doesn’t let himself glance around though, refuses to, he can’t, he can’t.
Frank doesn’t know if he can stand it, doesn’t think he can look at any of the little plastic incubators, the boxes that seem more like undersized see through coffins, doesn’t know if he can look at any of the tiny, wire covered bodies inside, and not feel the compulsion to find him, to find his son. He’s a coward and he can’t, he doesn’t deserve to, doesn’t deserve to know his son, doesn’t even deserve to have a son, not when all he does is hurt the people he loves. He keeps his eyes fixed on the ground instead, on the space between his feet and Annalise’s, on the shiny white linoleum, forces himself not to raise his eyes as he obediently takes another sip of the coffee.
A nurse approaches, Frank can tell by the shoes, and he watches Annalise’s heels turn to her plain white sneakers.
“Here to see conejito?” the nurse asks, her tone strangely familiar, expectant, like she’s used to seeing Annalise, knows exactly why she’s here.
He can tell, even staring at her feet, that Annalise nods, can see it in the way her body shifts, the way she almost, but not quite, rocks back on her heels. It takes him that long for his exhausted brain to put the pieces together, what, or who, they’re talking about. They’re talking about the little creature that should have been his son.
Conejo; rabbit. Conejito; little rabbit. He remembers seeing the word in some bilingual children’s book he was scrolling through, deciding whether to buy it, deciding whether Laurel would appreciate him buying it or take it as some kind of accusation, take it as a too familiar gesture, edging into a space she hadn’t yet allowed him access. At the time Frank had felt like he ought to buy something for the baby, start getting ready, but it’d seemed like they had so much time, all the time in the world and he hadn’t. Had left it up there on the shelf, told himself he’d come back closer to the due date, maybe take Laurel with him, they could pick out some books, some stuffed animals together.
He hadn’t seen any baby books the couple times he’d been over to Laurel’s, hadn’t seen any supplies for the baby, a crib or onesies or diapers or toys, thought maybe, maybe in the back of her mind she was waiting for him. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t, it didn’t matter now. They have a baby and nothing for him and soon they’ll have no baby. Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was bad luck neither of them bought anything. Maybe that’s what doomed him.
Or maybe it was that Frank hurts everything he touches, destroys the things he loves the most.
Still, he thinks, he should’ve bought the fucking book about the little rabbit and maybe the one about the kittens, wonders if any of the nurses are maybe reading to him if they get thirty seconds free, if they do something, anything to comfort him, to make his short, painful, narrow life any fuller.
He tells himself it doesn’t matter though, that the baby probably can’t hear, certainly can’t understand even if he can, tells himself hearing the nurses talk about charting is probably no different from hearing a story, all muffled sounds and tone and well, what does it matter in the end.
His son is dying.
“And him?” Frank hears the nurse ask then, knowing, instinctively, that she’s talking about him.
“He’s with me,” Annalise tells her, her tone allowing for no further questions, no further conversation.
He glances up long enough to see the woman’s mouth tighten almost imperceptibly and she nods once, eyes flicking to Frank.
He thinks he sees her eyes narrow like she can see through him, dislikes whatever it is she sees. “That him then?” she asks Annalise sourly.
“We’ll see what he is,” Annalise answers dismissively, then turns back to Frank. “You done with the coffee?”
Frank stares at the styrofoam cup in his hand. He’s gone too long without sleep, he thinks, because he can barely remember how the cup got into his hand, can barely remember what’s inside it or where he is. He can’t be here, he thinks, panic clawing its way back up his throat, he can’t be here. He doesn’t deserve to be here, not here, not when he only hurts his child, not when its his fault the boy is here at all, when its his fault his son will never leave. He doesn’t deserve to be a father at all, knows that all he’s going to do is hurt the baby further. That’s all he’s good for, all he’s ever been good for. His hands were never made for comfort, for softness, they’re brutal hands, the hands of a killer, a fighter, a man more used to violence than love. He should’ve known he couldn’t be a father, should’ve known the world wouldn’t let him.
Frank could want it with everything inside himself, want it with a desperation that became a raw, nagging ache in his chest, could want to change diapers and get up for late night feedings and spend hours pushing swings and reading and rereading the same three books and throwing baseballs, footballs, basketballs and waking up at 4 a.m. to soothe nightmares, and wiping up snotty noses and suspicious green spills but none of that is anything more than a pipe dream, a stupid naïve hope.
He’d meant it when he told Laurel he was gonna be an awesome dad, had thought it, believed it with his whole heart. But he’d been stupid and deluded and naïve then, had forgotten who, what he was.
Maybe there’s a world where he’d be an awesome dad, but in this one, in this one his son was forced into the world eight weeks early, his lungs too small to draw breath and his skin as thin as paper, forced from Laurel’s body because Frank couldn’t stop himself from lashing out, from going straight to violence when confronted with a problem. He did what he did, even though he hadn’t meant to. He hit Laurel and even though it was an accident, its still his fault. And his son’s still going to die because of it. His son’s still going to die.
His hands are only good for pain, for hurt, his body only good for taking life, not making it. And he shouldn’t be here, he’s only going to make things worse, only going to speed up the inevitable death. The little plastic incubator is just a placeholder until his son is fitted for his coffin. He’s certain the baby will never feel sunlight on his face, never breathe fresh air, never feel his skin free of wires and tubes and monitors, never feel Laurel’s touch or hear her voice. And its all his fault.
Annalise seizes the cup from his fingers then , startling Frank out of his thoughts. “Well you’re done now,” she tells him, voice a clipped command. “Take off your shirt.”
“What?” he asks, feeling like he hasn’t said anything else since Annalise found him, constantly behind the eight ball, completely confused, just a little boat buffeted by tides he can’t begin to understand.
“I’m only gonna say this once Frank,” Annalise tells him sharply, taking the empty cup and balling it up in her fist. Frank half thinks she intends to throw it at him, emphasize her point. “He’s not dying. You son, he’s going to be fine. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not in a week. But he’s going to live.”
“He’s…,” Frank starts, finds himself without the words to ask all the things he wants to ask, say all the things he wants to say.
He wants to ask how she knows, how she can possibly say that the baby is going to be fine, why Annalise thinks that Frank should have anything to do with his son, not when its his fault his son’s here, in the NICU struggling to breathe, struggling, failing, to stay alive.
“He’s alive Frank,” Annalise says again, something gentling in her voice like she’s talking to a spooked animal, like she’s trying to force Frank to listen to her, tattoo her words through his skull. “For however long you get with him, he’s alive. And someday this, this will all become a bad memory. So stop thinking about what might’ve been and be a father to the son you have, not the son you wanted. Ok? Get the chance with him I never got with my son.”
“He’s dying,” he manages to say before his throat closes again, before he has to stop or it’ll all come out, every terrible confession, all the things he’s done and all the hurt he’s caused his tiny son.
“We’re all dying,” she hisses, hands tightening around the styrofoam until Frank hears is crack and buckle. “Your son got dealt a shit hand, Frank, but he’s not dead and he’s not dying any faster than the rest of us. Not anymore. And that’s cause of me. I saved him. Until the paramedics could do the rest, I saved him Frank. So you owe me. You owe me for one death and one life now. And part of owing me means getting over yourself, getting over whatever you’re feeling and being a father, putting that baby first. You understand? That means its not about you, it’ll never be about you again. Its about him.”
“Its my fault,” Frank finally chokes out with a sob, his breath suddenly stoppered like his lungs no longer work, like he’s traded places with his child, too small, too fragile to do anything at all, draw breath or pump blood or live or live or live. “Its my fault she had him so early. Its, I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be anywhere near him.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Annalise assures him before he’s even done talking. She speaks like its a fact, a certainty and Frank wants to laugh in her face, tell her its no one’s fault but his. Its always his fault. “If you’d quit wallowing in guilt for a half a second, listened to anything the doctors have been saying since they brought Laurel in, you’d know it has nothing to do with you. Not a damn thing. Someone was drugging her, did you know that? They think that’s what caused him to come early.”
“Drugging?” he repeats. He doesn’t know what he’s hearing, because it was him, it had to be him, the blow to her stomach and the early labor and their son barely clinging to life. It had to be him. There was no other possible explanation, no other possibility he’d even considered. And now, and now, Annalise is telling him he’s wrong, has had it all wrong for three days.
Annalise nods. “Whatever you think you did, Frank, your son coming early had nothing to do with it.”
“Who?” he demands, hands balling into fists, rage replacing his fear, his loathing, churning through his chest, consuming him.
“Frank,” she says sharply, causing him to raise his head, meet her eyes. He can’t ignore her, not for the life of him, something about Annalise’s tone, the way she says his name like a magic spell, cutting through everything else that overwhelms his short circuiting brain. “It doesn’t matter. Your son matters. That’s it. Its not about you anymore, the ridiculous revenge fantasy I can see you plotting. That’s not going to help him, and right now, it has to be about him. For the rest of your life it has to be about him. Is your son going to care if you go off and track down some hired goon and kill him or torture him for information, go on some quest straight out of a low budget action movie? None of that matters to him. He’s only gonna care about this, about you being here, with him. Now take off your damn shirt.”
Frank finally complies, strips off his tee, leaving him bare chested in the cold, recycled air. He still doesn’t know what’s going on, still doesn’t understand the strange demands Annalise is making of him, just knows he can’t disobey her. His mind is still reeling, still struggling to understand what she just told him.
“None of that matters,” she repeats forcefully, her words more a command than anything else. “Whether it was your fault or someone else’s, you gotta let that go. Your son’s here and you can’t take that back, can’t change that he’s here too early. But you gotta focus on him, Frank, on what he needs, on what’s best for him. Not you. Not anymore. And if you can’t do that, get out. Get out now. Before you really do hurt him.”
“I can’t promise I won’t hurt him,” Frank admits, because its true, its true. “I might. But I can promise I’ll put him first, that I won’t make it about me anymore, that anything I do, I’m gonna do for him, do what’s best for him.”
“What’s best for him is not running away,” she tells him, edge creeping into her voice. “What’s best is never going to be running away, abandoning him. You understand?”
Frank nods. He does, he gets it. There’s a hundred thousand reasons his kid could be up here, attached to wires and sensors that monitor every breath, every twitch, every hiccuping stutter of his heart. But it doesn’t matter, because the end result is that he’s here. And they all gotta move forward from it, all gotta deal with a baby two months too soon. They gotta make the best of a bad situation and Frank’s gotta be the best father he can be to his son, here, now, make up for cutting and running for three days, make up for the roiling guilt he still feels because who knows if what he did had an impact on Laurel’s premature labor.
The past is the past and he’s gotta move on and deal with the present, with being a father to the son he has, instead of spending his time wishing for a different life, a different world, a different son. He needs to be a father to this baby, motherless until Laurel heals, gathers her strength again, fatherless until Frank gets his head out of his ass, starts making up for all his hundred thousand screwups, puts his focus squarely on being the best father he can be to the child he has, stops worrying about what might’ve been, what things could be like in some other, different universe.
“Yeah. I understand.”
Annalise watches him through narrowed eyes, assessing, judging, looking for all the world like she’s weighing him, weighing whether he’s telling the truth, whether he’s capable of being who, what he needs to be for his son. Finally though she purses her lips, nods, and it feels to Frank like a judge banging his gavel, has the feel of finality, of a judgement being issued.
“Lean back then,” she orders. “Arms out.”
Frank obliges again, setting his arms carefully against the arm rests as the nurse suddenly returns to his line of sight, something, something bundled in her arms, he thinks its his t-shirt at first, until he sees it move, until he sees the wires and tubes and... Oh, he thinks, all he can think then.
Frank knows nothing until the moment the tiny bundle is placed against his chest, until he feels the barely perceptible weight of the baby against his skin, arms instinctively coming up, cupping the arching little back, curling against the body barely bigger than his palm.
Nothing matters until the doctor or the nurse or whoever, it doesn’t matter either way, until they lay a tiny bundle against his chest, lay the baby against his chest, his baby, his and Laurel’s and his arms come up to hold him, to cradle him and there’s nothing else in the universe, just this tiny creature with flailing arms and still shut eyes, pale and fragile and his, his, this creature who lived inside Laurel and is suddenly here, suddenly real and tangible and in his arms, his. He cannot believe the baby is here and real, not some strange fiction, some strange imagining, but real and he’s here, his child. Suddenly there is something that belongs to him, fully totally his, his and no one else’s and Laurel’s, Laurel’s too, of course, but his, something they made, created, crafted out of nothing and he’s here, he’s real and pressing tightly against Frank’s chest and he can feel the flutter of the baby’s heartbeat, real now, feel the pump of his blood, the tiny movements of his body, here now, and not strange distant flutterings within Laurel’s body.
He thinks he should be crying, sobbing because its only been seven months and its only just beginning and there’s a tiny, positively minuscule dark haired creature cradled against his chest, no longer inside Laurel’s body but here and real and he simply can’t look away, can’t tear his eyes away from the baby’s tiny body; tiny lips pursed into a frown, tiny still closed eyes and tiny tapered fingers curving into fists and tiny, fragile ears and tiny chirping cries, wrinkled and pale and too small and ugly and perfect, so perfect Frank can’t begin to understand it, can’t begin to put it into words.
He can’t look away, never wants to look away, wants to devote the rest of his life to just staring, transfixed at this creature, this creature that was part of Laurel, part of him and distinct and now, abruptly, its own creature, fully and totally, nothing like any other person that’s ever existed or will ever exist. Frank wants to memorize him, this baby, wants to memorize every inch of his skin, every cry and laugh and gesture, every movement of his body.
He doesn’t know why he ever thought he could stay away.
“Oh,” he whispers again as the baby snuffles against his skin, burrows further against his chest, seeking out the warmth of his body, the steady sounding of his heart. “Oh, its you.”
His thumb tracks over wisps of soft dark hair peeking out from beneath the little blue hospital cap, over skin softer than anything he thinks he’s ever felt and nothing matters, nothing beyond the two of them, beyond his little son and his fluttering heartbeat, the quiet exhales of his breath.
You’re not too small, Frank thinks, realizes he’s said it out loud, whispered it against his son’s hairline. “You’re not too small,” Frank whispers again, knows suddenly and startlingly that its true. The baby is small, but he’s strong, he’s tough, he can feel it in the way his fingers fist against Frank’s collarbones, the way his breath is steady despite the tubes snaking past his lips, despite the wires taped to his skin. He’s not too small, Frank thinks, he’s not too small and he’s not gonna die, Frank knows it with a certainty he’s not sure he’s ever felt before, a certainty like perfect, total calm, like suddenly finding himself in the eye of a hurricane, wind and rain suddenly ceasing, leaving him with nothing but blue skies and stillness. “You’re perfect, you’re everything.”
The baby makes a little mewling noise, back arching even further until he brings his knees up against Frank’s chest, tucking himself into a tight little ball, Frank’s hands tightening even further against his skin, their hearts beating against each other, anchors or counterweights or…
The baby cracks his eyes, for the first time maybe and Frank stares, just stares at the blue of his son’s eyes, wide and exhausted and deep, their gazes locked. The baby’s eyes struggle open, fix on Frank’s face, bright and blue and edged with sleep. He knows, knows he’s not really focusing on him, not really able to track his face, not yet, but Frank doesn’t care, because god, he thinks, his son is beautiful and his and perfect.
“Hi,” Frank breathes, reaches out, strokes a finger along the soft span of his cheek, across the downy softness of his dark hair.
He speaks around the hard lump in his throat, against the sob that threatens to choke his breath, thumb tracking slowly between his son’s shoulder blades, barely more than an inch or two separating the sharp points of the bones. “Hi little man.”
He tries the unfamiliar word out, slow and clumsy on his tongue. “Hi conejito,” thinks he sees some spark of recognition in his son’s face, knows he’s imagining it. Frank tells himself that he’s going back to that bookstore, someday, someday when he can tear himself away from his little son, going back and buying that book about the rabbit and the one about the cats and the duckling and…
He’s going to come back, read all those books to the baby, never going to leave him again, not while he’s still here, in this too bright, too sterile place, not until he’s safe at home, in the crib Frank knows he’s gonna need to buy, swaddled in the diapers he needs to order and wrapped in the blanket he needs to tell his mom she needs to finish, break the news to her that she doesn’t have anything like another six weeks to finish the blanket or the hat or the socks, or to find the little stuffed dog Frank had as a kid that his ma swears is tucked away somewhere in a box in the attic. Its all needed now, and Frank, Frank’s gonna make sure his son never wants for anything, that he’s never alone again, not unless he has to be, not unless they drag Frank away, not unless that’s what his son wants, and Frank knows now, certain, that his son will live to see a day when he wants his old man the hell away from him, will be able to make that desire clear in no uncertain terms.
But for now, for now he’s tiny and burrowing against Frank’s chest, seeking out his body heat, seeking out his heartbeat, wants nothing more than his father’s arms surrounding him. And that’s simple and that’s easy and for a thin, soft moment, Frank’s done everything right, Frank’s the perfect dad.
The baby blinks, slowly and Frank’s heart fills to bursting, can’t let himself look away, wants to memorize every line and curve of his little son’s face, wants to carve his image against his heart.
“I’ve been waiting to meet you for so long,” he tells the baby, thinks as he speaks that he’s already met him, already knows him, may know him better than he knows himself, learned him when he was inside Laurel, a part of her, growing slowly, slowly and yet faster than he can ever hope to conceive, learned his son already and knows him, deeply, fully and yet, knows nothing about him yet, will spend his entire life learning him. Frank never wants to stop learning about him, stop memorizing him, stop falling deeper and deeper in love with him, like his heart might never be full again.
“I love you,” he whispers to him then, leaning close and breathing him in, his lips ghosting over him, over the softness of his skin. “I love you so much. I’ll love you forever. You’re perfect.”
“I love you,” Frank continues, tears sliding down his cheeks and onto his chest, onto his little son’s pale, soft skin. “I’ll never stop loving you. Not for anything. And I’m sorry if I let you down, if you had to be alone for a little bit. I’m so fucking sorry. I got scared, you scared me. I didn’t expect you quite so soon. I’ll make it up to you if you want. Get you a puppy or something when you’re older, let you get an ugly tattoo. Not that I’m tryna buy your affection, just…just I’m never gonna let you down again, ok, kid? I mean it. You can hold me to that.”
“I’m your old man by the way,” he murmurs, pressing a feather light kiss to the crown of the baby’s head, lips tracking the blue wool hat, another quick brush of his lips against his son’s near translucent skin, just beside his cheek. “Sorry about that. I know it was probably the last thing you were hoping for. But I’ll try an’ do my best, try to do right by you. You an’ your ma.”
His heart stutters then, trips, throat tightening. His son, he thinks, his son. And that makes him a father. He’s a father now, his father, for the rest of his life he’s a father. He’s a father to this small, perfect boy, forever. He can barely understand what that means, can barely understand how that’s even possible, but he is, he is. Frank’s his, he’s Frank’s.
He feels hollowed out, like everything in his body is gone, stripped clean and raw like a jack o lantern of a person, empty. And yet and yet, he feels full, full to bursting, heart overflowing with love and awe and something that might be a little like grace, might be a little like holiness, absolution.
His son’s little eyes blink closed, face scrunching and his nose crinkling and Frank’s heart squeezes tight because he is beautiful and new and every movement, every gesture is a mystery, a revelation, a language he’s learning to decode. There is a whole new world to his son Frank must uncover now, can’t wait to uncover.
The baby’s lips press together, small and full and Frank thinks, for a heart stopping moment, that he has Laurel’s mouth, that their son has inherited that from Laurel, the wide span of his mouth, the sharpness of his jaw. He aches, desperately, with a hunger he’s not sure he can sate, to see what else this little person has of Laurel, her hands, her ears, her laugh, what threads of connection already exist between them. He wants to spend the rest of his life discovering the things that are similar, the things that are different between them, between Laurel and their son, discovering the things that are fully, wholly his own, inherited from neither of his parents, but lovely and distinct and purely his own.
“We need to get you a name, huh,” he murmurs, slipping his index finger against the curve of his son’s hand, watching as the baby instinctively tightens his grip around Frank’s digit, curling his tiny fingers around Frank’s skin. “Can’t just keep calling you little rabbit till kindergarten. I’ll talk to your ma, see if she’s got any ideas.”
And oh, Laurel, he thinks, Laurel, his son’s mother, the woman he’s hopelessly, endlessly in love with, stuck three floors up and a wing away, fighting some strange infection that keeps her away from their child, too risky, both of them too sick to see the other. He wonders if he can fish out his phone without jostling the baby, wonders if he can get any pictures that capture the strange, familiar curve of his lips, wonders if Laurel will be able to see her own face in their baby’s, in his mouth, the shape of his nose, his ears, the curve of his cheek or the blue grey of his eyes.
He wonders if he could ask Annalise, ask a nurse for pictures, for videos, something he can take back to Laurel, let her see the wonder that is their son, the perfect little creature they never meant to create. He’ll ask, he tells himself, he will, but in a second, in a minute, not yet. He can’t tear his eyes away from the baby just yet, not when he’s still learning him, still memorizing every line and curve and angle.
“What should we name you, huh, little man?” he asks again, wonders faintly if its all an intellectual exercise, if Laurel had some idea already that she never shared with him. Its certainly possible, certainly certain, his son could easily already have a name. Except he doesn’t think so, not yet at least, because Annalise would’ve told him, he knows she would’ve. “We could be boring, name you Frank, Jr., but I don’t think your mom’d be too into having Frank and Frankie. But what about something like Nick? Luke? Don’t like monosyllabic names, huh? What about Gabriel? David? Enzo? Luigi? Good Italian name instead of all the Spanish ones your ma’s gonna want?”
The baby makes a little noise, halfway between a cry and a snuffling sigh, burrows his cheek against Frank’s neck, his chest, his hand around Frank’s finger tightening even further, drawing Frank’s hand closer to his tiny body.
“Don’t like any of those I guess,” Frank chuckles. “We’ll ask your ma then, she’ll come up with something good. She always does. She’s way smarter than me. You’ve probably figured that out already. She wishes she could be here, your ma, you probably know that too. She’s just gotta get better, like you, get stronger. And then you two can gang up on me all you want.”
His fingers trace the shell of the baby’s ear, the curve of his jaw, watching as his little brow crinkles and furrows and yeah, Frank thinks, that’s Laurel again, the crease between her eyebrows recreated in miniature on their new little son.
“You’re gonna be the death of me, aren’t you conejito?” he asks rhetorically because he’s already lost, already hopelessly lost to this little boy, already hopelessly enthralled to his whims and wishes. There’s no one else who matters, just Laurel and this little boy, the twin centers of his universe, the stars around which he orbits. “Already got me wrapped around your finger.”
“That’s alright,” he assures the baby, certain his son doesn’t care in the least, thumb moving across the thin plastic tube snaking across the arch of his cheek, winding into his nostril and held in place with thin strips of tape. Feeding tube, Frank thinks distantly, the knowledge somehow creeping into his brain by something like instinct or osmosis, the thicker tube going into both nostrils the breathing tube. He’s surprised by how little he minds it, the tubes and wires and monitors and tape, how little it scares him, worries him, how little it diminishes the depthless things he feels for his son. They’re all temporary, they’ll be gone before he knows it and it’ll just be his son left behind, bigger, stronger, a little boy instead of this strange creature, half skin and half machine. He has to believe they’re temporary.
He doesn’t know what might come after, what might be uncovered once his son is free of the electrodes and tubes and wires, chronic breathing problems or blindness or cognitive impairment, all possibilities, all things Frank’s willing to face if it gives him his son, breathing and whole. He’ll figure out OT and experimental treatments and IEPs, he’ll specialize in special education law, do whatever it takes to give his son the best life with whatever hand he’s been dealt. Frank doesn’t care, he loves his son just as he is, however he is. His little boy is perfect, because his little boy’s a fighter, he beat the odds, survived. The only thing for Frank to do is embrace exactly who his son is, who his son will become. “I don’t mind. You’re worth it. Little banged up right now, but you’ll be good as new before you know it. Ditch all these wires and stuff, start raising hell.”
“Nah, not your style I guess,” Frank grins, finger still tracing the curve of his cheek, the outline of his chin, hoping, faintly he doesn’t inherit Frank’s. The baby scowls, nose crinkling, giving a little crooked yawn against Frank’s chest, breath warm and huffing, cheek tracking against Frank’s chest like he’s trying to listen to his heart, trying to burrow beneath his skin, like even the baby knows, instinctively he’s arrived too early, too small, too young, too fragile to be facing the harshness of the world. “You’re gonna be serious, like your mom. I can tell already.”
“Gotta put up with me tho,” he warns the baby, like his three day old son has a preference about who holds him, about who’s hands support him and who’s heartbeat he hears, about who’s chest he gets pressed against. He probably does though, Frank thinks, tries to push that thought away as his chest tightens painfully and sharply, the baby’d probably prefer Laurel, always, prefer the familiar drumming of her heart, the rush of her breath, the soft sounds of her voice. He probably misses Laurel, grieves her loss, ripped suddenly away from her without anything like warning. “At least till your mom makes it down to see you. Well, Annalise too. I guess she’s your godmom or something, Annalise. She’s been with you this whole time, while I was busy being an idiot. I bet she doesn’t talk quite so much, huh? Bet you wish you had all that quiet back?”
“Too bad, you’re stuck with me. Rest of my damn life, you’re stuck with me. But I’m good for some things, I promise. I’m a better cook than your mom. That’s half of how I got her to give me a second glance you know, my meatballs and sauce. That’s not a euphemism, ok, smart ass. And I’ll teach you to play guitar if you want, teach you all about sports, though I guess your ma can do that too. But she likes the Red Sox, ok, and that’s just wrong. You’ll figure that out soon too. See, you live in Philly, that’s where we are, ok? And we’re all pretty crazy about sports here, and we’re tough, same kinda tough you are. And the Sox, man, they’re just...did I put you to sleep kid?”
Frank shifts a little, cranes his neck to watch his son’s face, slack and relaxed in sleep, his lips barely parted around the plastic tubing, little fingers still curled around Frank’s, still holding on tightly like he can’t quite bear to let Frank go, like he worries his father will leave him again, will walk away and never return.
“I’m not going anywhere ok?” Frank tells him, thumb catching at the ridges of the baby’s tiny knuckles, the back of his hand, barely larger than the pad of Frank’s thumb. He just tightens his grip over Frank’s finger, once and then again as Frank huffs out a low chuckle at his stubborn, dogged son. At least, Frank thinks, he comes by it honestly, the stubbornness coming from both him and Laurel, the stubbornness probably what’s got the baby this far, kept him alive, kept him fighting when all logic and sense suggested that it was too early, too soon. “Not going anywhere. Not for anything. So you can just sleep, alright, my little man, just sleep, focus on getting better so you can ditch these wires, ditch the toaster, blow this popsicle stand. That’s the only thing you need to be worried about right now. Let me figure out everything else. Me an your mom. We’re pretty smart, the two of us. I know you don’t believe it, but its true.”
Frank lets his words drift off, fingers still tracking across the narrow span of the baby’s back, tracing the curve of his spine, feeling the rapid rise and fall of his chest as he breathes in, feeling the quick cadences of his exhales against Frank’s skin, feeling the rushing pump of blood and the tattoo of his heart, all the things he never thought he’d get to feel, all the things he feared would betray his tiny child, would become fractures beneath his son’s flesh, fractures and fissures and widening, gaping holes, consuming the baby until there was nothing left of him but bones and skin and terrible stillness.
But he’s alive, and he’s breathing and someday, someday soon he’ll breathe on his own and they’ll strip the wires from his skin, one by one, slip the tubes from his body and someday, someday years from now, this will all seem like a distant nightmare, barely remembered. And Frank knows, knows in his bones, like certainty, like faith, that just like a nightmare, he’ll eventually wake up, that it doesn’t really have any power over him, this strange, dark dream. Someday he’ll look at his son, racing down a soccer field or pouring over a book about bugs or struggling to stay awake in the backseat, and he’ll think, distantly, back to this moment and there’ll be a little flash of panic, yeah, a little ache like fear, but that’s all it will be, just an ancient echo of pain, just a ghost that has no real power to hurt him.
It’ll be a memory and nothing more, a story he and Laurel tell their son when he asks, a story just like anything else, like the story of their meeting or their son’s first birthday, because there will be a first birthday, and a second and fifty more after that, or the story of the scar on the inside of Frank’s knee from when he crashed his bike when he was seven.
And there’ll be other memories of his son, too many to count, memories of first steps and first words and toothless baby grins and breathless laughter and worried late night fevers and scraped knees and broken arms and moments just like this, his son curled against his chest, boneless and breathing softly, hands curling into Frank’s collarbones. There will be many more nights like this, Frank knows, so many he’ll lose count, and this, this will be the first, but it won’t be the last, won’t be the only night with his son.
And Frank doesn’t need words, not really, not anymore, and so he lets them fade, lets the silence take hold. He doesn’t need to use words as a signal, as a placeholder or a crutch, doesn’t need his voice to makes his presence known, reassure himself, reassure the baby of his continued presence. He’s not going anywhere. When his son wakes again, Frank knows he’ll still be sitting here, in the uncomfortable glider chair, one hand against the span of his still nameless son’s back, his slow, steady heartbeat sounding in the baby’s ears. He doesn’t need to talk, doesn’t need to do anything to broadcast himself, his presence. The baby will know, feel the heat of his skin and his exhales and the press of his palm. The baby will know and somehow, even if its through sheer force of will, through blind faith and luck and hope, somehow he’ll draw strength from it.
And when the baby wakes again Frank will be there, like air, like gravity, a constant, a certainty. When his son wakes again, and he will, because that’s certain too, he’ll wake in his father’s arms.
This has somehow turned into a six-shot? You’re welcome, i suppose
“Mornin’,” Frank says, flashing Laurel a grin he hopes is casual, encouraging, that he hopes disguises the things like terror, like deep, nagging worry that still ripple and flash beneath his skin. “I ran into the duty nurse on the way up, says she thinks the doc’ll spring you free today.”
He approaches her bed, leans down to ghost a kiss across her cheek, pressing a cup of contraband coffee into her hand as he does, grin stretching wide and crooked even as their lips meet.
Laurel hums, though there’s a little tick to her eyebrows as though his words catch her off guard. “Yeah?” she asks, her voice carefully, studiously neutral, though Frank can swear he hears a little tremble of something like pleading hope in her voice. Its been six days now, six days since they brought her and the baby in, both of them much closer to death than anything else, six days since the first of two blood transfusions and the infection that burned through her in the days following. Six days, nearly a week now and she hasn’t been able to see her son in person, hold him, confined to her hospital bed and separated from the baby.
He’s tried, now that he’s finally gotten his head out of his ass, tried to make up for it, tried to bring her pictures and videos and anecdotes about their tiny son, tried to share with her her the hours he’s spent with the baby, share their son with her.
But its not the same, he knows its not. A picture’s worth a thousand words, but nothing compared to being able to hold their son, feel the strength in his tiny body, watch the rise and fall of his chest, hear the quiet rush of his exhales, his still chirping cries. Frank’s tried his best to give her what he can, give her as much of the baby as he can while they’re stuck on opposite sides of the hospital, but he knows its not enough.
But maybe today will be different, maybe Laurel will finally get to hold the baby, released from her hospital room and allowed down into the NICU, allowed to hold their son in her arms.
“That’s what she said,” he says, still trying for a casual shrug, not letting himself hope too much either. He can’t let himself hope for anything yet, not for Laurel, not for their son. It had looked like the infection was clearing up, Laurel was feeling better, no longer practically delirious and shot through with pain, but her blood work had come back the day before, made it clear the infection was still holding on, trying to rally. It had looked like their son would be losing the ventilator, get downgraded to just some supplemental oxygen, but well, his breathing had worsened overnight and so on the machine he remained. And then there’s the elephant in the room, the one Frank can’t really bear to think about, the long term prognosis on his tiny perfect son.
The doctors keep reminding him they don’t know quite how perfect he’s going to seem when he’s five and still struggling with basic speech, when he’s two and has to wear the nebulizer every other day from September to April. Hope is a dangerous thing here, Frank knows, has tried so hard not to even give it a beachhead in his mind, everything still so uncertain. The one thing Frank knows, the one thing he is certain of is that no matter what, no matter who his son turns out to be, he’ll always, always be perfect. Nothing can change that. “Gotta wait for Dr. Z to give the final word I guess.”
“She have any inside insight into the odds of that happening?” Laurel asks, still with that little hiccup of something like hope, like longing.
“Seemed to think they were pretty good,” Frank offers, watching the small, soft smile that spreads across Laurel’s lips, watches the way she tries to stifle it behind the rim of the coffee cup like she can’t quite let herself hope, can’t quite let herself believe today will be different from any other day that’s come before it since their son was born.
Laurel hums again, takes a slow sip of her coffee. “Guess we really gotta buckle down and settle on a name then, huh? Running out of excuses to delay.”
Frank chuckles under his breath, because yeah, its been six days and they still haven’t settled on a name for the baby, still haven’t figured out the one perfect name for him. First it was cause neither of them had thought about it much, the baby making his appearance so early, so unexpectedly that he and Laurel had barely gotten beyond the idea that he’d be a boy.
And then, well, it hadn’t felt right to name the little boy without Laurel having seen him, held him, gotten a feel for who he was, what kind of creature he’d be. So they’ve waited. And their son’s remained nameless, subjected to half a dozen increasingly terrible nicknames from Frank.
“I was scrolling through Wikipedia last night after little man fell asleep, there’s apparently a tradition in China, I think, where parents wait like a year or something to name their kid. They use nicknames till then. We could always do that,” he suggests with a crooked little grin, dropping into the chair beside her bed, laughing as Laurel catches his fingers with her own, twines them together. “Keep calling him little man and conejito and nino till then.”
“Not sure daycare’s really gonna support that,” Laurel points out, though her lips curl into the shadow of a smile. “Plus, this is like the easiest thing we’re gonna have to do as parents. You really wanna fail at that?”
“Any more ideas since last night?” he asks, knowing there won’t be. They’ve been working for three days now, rejecting names, adding them to an ever-growing list of maybes, never quite settling on anything they really like, anything they think really fits their tiny dark haired son.
“Think I rejected a couple actually. Narrowed it down to five or six,” she offers. “Still wanna meet him first though. Before we decide for sure.”
“I can promise you he’s not a Tomas,” Frank tells her again, as he’s told her every time they’ve had this discussion. Laurel may like the name, but Frank knows its not the name for their son. Not this son at least. Maybe there’ll be another, someday, but not the tiny boy with the wide blue eyes three floors down. “You’ll see when you meet him.”
Laurel sighs, rolls her eyes, and Frank knows she’s keeping the name on her list anyway. “Ok, so we’re down to Marco, Mateo, Diego, Daniel, Gabriel. Rafael. Maybe Luca. Alejandro.”
“That’s not five,” Frank laughs, thumb smoothing over the back of her knuckles.
“Guess not,” she laughs, taking another sip of her coffee then passing the cup to Frank in offering. “We’ll get there though. Sometime before kindergarten.”
“How bout sometime before we have to get ‘little man’ written on his birthday cake,” Frank counters, taking his own sip of the rapidly cooling coffee.
“I’m really hoping it happens before he gets discharged.”
And that gives them a few weeks, Frank thinks, at least according to the doctors, a few weeks for them to figure out a name for the baby. Even that seems like too much, everyone, his family, Laurel’s friends all asking about the baby, all asking first if he’s alright, if he’s healthy and then asking what he and Laurel’ve named him. Its thrown them off when Frank has to tell them that there’s no name yet, as if he and Laurel should’ve had something on deck, ready to go when the baby arrived.
He wants to scream at then that they hadn’t really expected their son so soon, had planned on having at least a few extra weeks to narrow things down, settle on something. He wants to scream that it doesn’t make them failures as parents, not yet at least, not when they have so many other things to worry about, the ventilator the baby still seems to need, still not breathing quite enough or deeply enough to keep himself alive on his own, the way he persistently forgets to keep breathing, apnea alarms screaming nearly every time he falls asleep, heart rate monitors sometimes chirping out shrill warnings that sound far too cheery for what they are.
Frank wants to tell them all there’s so many more, so many bigger things he and Laurel have had to focus on in the last week that a name for their son, well, it’s the easiest thing but its also the hardest. Its final, and it’s a declaration, it means they’re certain the baby will be ok, that he’s going to come out the other side, means they’re planning a life for him, that they’re committed to being his parents.
Frank’s all in, he knows that, is certain of it. But its scary nonetheless, knowing he’s a parent now, knowing he’s responsible, or will be soon, for the tiny boy who is his son. It’s a big fucking deal, a big fucking responsibility. And yeah, once they decide on a name, he thinks that might be it, might be no going back from that, they’re opening themselves up to whatever comes next for the baby, all the countless potential disasters.
And well, he’s ready for them, ready to bring his son home, ready to throw himself into parenting, into a life with Laurel and the baby, as much as she’s willing to let him. Its just that they need the perfect name, can’t screw up their first, most basic task as parents. He’s just not so sure they haven’t already screwed up by letting it take so long.
There’s a knock on the door then and before either of them can react, the door’s swinging open and the doctor is striding inside. That’s something Frank doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to, how little privacy there is in a hospital, how doctors and nurses and specialists flit in and out without any concern about the time, about who else is in the room, what they’re talking about, what the patient might be doing or what they might want. He hopes he’ll never get used to it, the little spike of anger, confusion when someone bursts in in the middle of a conversation, the low burn of resentment when he’s reminded that Laurel, that his son are still in the hospital, that they’re not a family, not really, not yet, that he can’t be alone with his child, can’t be the one to care for him, fully and totally, nurses and specialists swooping in and treating him like a burden, like a useless fool, when he’s reminded that he and Laurel are never alone, can’t really start working on any strange, tentative steps forward, can’t really start building anything, a family or a working co-parenting relationship or fuck, any kinda trust because they’re always about five minutes away from an intrusion.
He just wants to go home, start being a father, start building a family with Laurel and their baby, start figuring out the new contours of their life. He wants Laurel and his son to be better, whole and strong. He wants to figure out where he and Laurel stand, how they’re going to work out the shape of their lives.
He’s already put down first month, last month and a deposit on a two bedroom place down in Passyunk, figured he’d offer Laurel and the baby the spare room if she balked at the idea of sharing a bed with him, figured he’d at least offer his new place as a home for them as well, knows she can’t take their son back to Wes’ old apartment, knows she’s subletting her old place and can’t get it back till June, that she really has nowhere else to go, knows that he loves her down to every last space inside his heart, knows he wants her to be a full, whole part of his life, not just the mother of his child, not just a distant specter he sees at pickups and drop offs. He wants them to be a family, all three of them, together. And he wants it in the little row house he’s rented for probably more than his savings can afford, at least for now, wants it probably more than is sensible given that he’s not really sure what it is that Laurel wants.
Because he also knows Laurel’s wealthy enough, even without anything her father’s hands have touched, to buy a penthouse overlooking Rittenhouse if she wants, doesn’t need him, not for anything. Maybe to her he’s already done his part, knocked her up and given her a son and now he can fuck right off except for every other weekend and alternating holidays and the times when she’s really horny and her hand just isn’t doing the things his tongue can do. He has no idea what she wants, and well, that makes everything worse because Frank’s not even sure what his place is, where he fits into his son’s life, Laurel’s life.
He’s just kept showing up, in the NICU, in her room, shown up every day and spent alternating two hour periods with each of them, drifting back and forth. No one’s ever kicked him out of the NICU, not yet, and Laurel’s never demanded he leave her room, but it still feels a little like he’s walking on ground he knows is unstable, trying to pick a safe way through to the other side.
Frank wonders sometimes if maybe Laurel’s just waiting until she’s healthy enough to go down, see the baby before she revokes any rights or privileges he may currently hold, waiting until she can hold the baby herself, see him for herself, his serious blue eyes and the downward cast of his mouth in person before she decides she has no use for Frank, for the dozens of photos and videos he takes for her, for the hours he spends cradling the baby against his chest.
Maybe when she doesn’t need him anymore she’ll decide she doesn’t want him around at all.
“Frank?” someone is asking then, Laurel, his sluggish brain eventually tells him.
“Yeah?” he answers automatically, mind still elsewhere, still a million miles away and three floors down with his little son.
“We going or what?”
“What?” he echoes.
“Down to see him,” she says, prompting, expectant and maybe he ought to have been listening because he’s clearly missed something, something important. “I wanna, I dunno, I don’t wanna wait anymore.”
“You got the all clear?” Frank asks, stomach flipping with something like anticipation, like his own roiling eagerness. He can’t help, can’t hide the grin that stretches across his face, slanted and wide. He can’t wait for Laurel to meet her son, can’t wait to see him in her arms, can’t hide his desire or the low, nagging ache in his chest to see his family whole, finally, see the love Laurel has for their child.
She nods, her smile small and closed lipped but something shining in her eyes that Frank thinks might be the edge of tears. “Got the go ahead.”
“Wow,” he breathes. He’d figured that was what the doctor had told her, figured Laurel’s blood work had come back negative for any trace of the infection, but well, when he actually hears it, it still steals his breath, still catches him off guard, tilting the gravity beneath his feet. “Wow. That’s, congratulations.”
Laurel rolls her eyes, her grin going slanted, but he catches the nervous tremble to it, the way it almost falters when she meets his eyes. “Congratulations?” she teases. “That’s the best you can do?”
“Sorry,” he shrugs, catching her hand between both of his. “Don’t really know the appropriate reaction here. Aside from telling you I’m ready whenever you are. If you want me to come with.”
“Course I want you to come with me,” Laurel tells him with another rolls of her eyes before it slips into something like a scowl, cutting ugly lines into the skin around her mouth. “You’re his dad, Frank, you’re…I want you to feel like you’re a part of his life, ok. I don’t want you to feel left out or shunted to the side or like you’re not important. You are. To him and to me.”
“Laurel…” he starts, isn’t quite sure what he should say, how he should say it. “We’re gonna figure it out, you and me and him, we’re gonna figure out how to be his parents, how that’s gonna look. Its gonna take a minute and that’s ok.”
“I don’t want to have to figure anything out,” Laurel tells him with a vehemence that catches him off guard, her hand slipping from between his and balling into a fist. “I don’t want it to be a negotiation. I don’t want it to be like it was with my parents after my mom’s breakdown.”
“Ok,” he agrees. It’s that simple, its that easy. Whatever she wants he’ll give her, however she wants to operate their coparenting relationship, he’ll go along with it. He just wants to be a part of his son’s life, as much as she’ll let him, as long as he can be a father to his little son. He just wants to matter. “Then it won’t be. You an’ me have always figured things out, always made it work. We don’t need to split time with him, treat him like a football. Whatever happens, you know both of us’ll do what’s best for him, put him first.”
“Yeah,” Laurel agrees, her smile small and hopeful. “We will.”
“Plus,” he offers, trying and failing to hide his smirk. “Lets not get ahead of ourselves, yeah? He hasn’t even kicked the oxygen yet.”
“And I haven’t even met him yet,” she points out, scowling harshly. He can hear, somewhere in her voice, a vein of doubt, of sorrow and a low burning anger. Frank’s not an idiot, he knows how much it hurts her to be here, to be kept from her son when he needs her most, how it makes her feel like a failure as a mother. She hasn’t said anything but he knows how Laurel blames herself for what happened, for the baby coming early, for not realizing the drugs that had been pumping into her bloodstream, for everything that was a culmination of Laurel’s dogged quest for vengeance against her father. He knows she blames herself now, thinks that its punishment, hates that she’s being kept from the baby when he’s tiny and new and fragile, when he’s struggling for breath, for life. He knows it because he knows her, fully, totally, almost as well as he knows himself. He knows her and he loves her, always, no matter what. He just doesn’t know what to do to reassure Laurel that nothing, nothing is her fault, and that she’s doing all she can for their son, doing all she can to put him first. “Seems weird to be making plans about someone I don’t even know.”
“You know him,” Frank assures her, or tries to assure her, certain he fails. He’s not sure its something he can tell her, have her believe him, not until she gets down there, sees their son with her own eyes, feels the spark off recognition when she’s reunited with the child who grew beneath her skin, against her heart, who’s movements and moods and presence she slowly learned. “Course you know him. You know him better than I do. You’ve known him seven months, I haven’t even had seven days.”
“Its not the same,” Laurel tells him, her scowl deepening and a hard edge creeping across her eyes. He wants to tell her to stop, that she doesn’t need to do it, distance herself, wall off her heart from her son. He wants to tell her that she can’t do that, not if she ever wants to be the mother their child deserves, be a better mother than her own was. Frank wants to tell her the secret he’s learned in the last three days, the secret no one ever told him, the secret he wouldn’t’ve bothered believing if they had. She can’t love their child, not fully, not the way he deserves without that bone chilling terror, without an almost constant sense of panic. Laurel can’t love her son without opening herself up to all the terrible things that could happen, that might’ve already happened, can’t love him without fearing what the future could hold, without the distant panic that she could someday, somehow, lose the thing she loves most. “Its not the same Frank and you know it. He’s here and real and…”
“And he wasn’t real before?” Frank asks with a grin, one eyebrow raising in something like a teasing challenge.
“You know what I mean,” she growls because its easier to be upset, be angry than to feel all the things he knows she’s trying not to feel, guilt and sorrow and fear. He gets it, tried out anger first himself. It was only when confronted with the baby that it vanished, that he realized how useless it was to resist the things he felt for his boy.
He shrugs, grin going crooked, trying to reassure her, assuage her fears. “I don’t actually. Because you’ll know him, trust me. Soon as you see him, you’ll know. Its like, I dunno, meeting someone in person you’ve only spoken to on the phone, or, I dunno, over email. Can finally put a face to the name, y’know, but its not like you’re meeting someone new, some stranger. He moves around same way he did when he was inside you, all flailing limbs like he’s tryna dance but can’t really figure out how he’s supposed to move. Got that from me, I guess. You know, that thing he’d do where he’s kick out with his right foot, punch with his left. He’s still doing that Laurel, even out here in the world.”
She makes a strangled noise and Frank reaches out, catches at her fingers, tangles them with his own, watches as she blinks back tears, tries to swallow back the sob that rises in her throat. He can see it in the tightness of her jaw, the way she swallows thickly, eyes darting away from him as she tries to hold back the things she feels.
“He looks just like you, you know,” he tells her softly, thumb tracking across the arc of her cheekbone, catching at her tears. “Got your mouth, your eyes. Think he’s got your hands too. Might have my ears though.”
“Your ears?” she asks, laugh trembling.
He nods. “They’re pretty great ears. He’s not a stranger Laurel, I promise. You’re gonna know him, I guarantee it. He’s still the same baby, still wriggles around early in the morning, still gets real still and just listens if you play him Celia Cruz, doesn’t really seem to like the Stones. Little heathen.”
“Look,” he tells her, rather than debating his infant’s musical tastes, rather than going down a rabbit hole that doesn’t get Laurel to a place where she’s ready, eager to meet their child. That’s what counts, remembering that she knows their son, that she grew him inside her body and learned him and nothing, nothing that’s happened in the past week has changed that, she’s never failed him, not once. “You’re gonna get down there and you’re gonna see him and its not gonna be weird or hard or awkward, you’re just gonna be meeting someone you haven’t seen in a while.”
Laurel’s still looking at him like he’s crazy but at least she’s looking at him, willing to meet his eyes now and even as his thumb traces her knuckles she doesn’t pull away.
“You know the first thing I said to him?” Frank asks. He’s not sure why he’s telling her except he wants her to understand, wants her to stop shielding her heart, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the inevitable tragedy. Things can go bad, things can go well, but she can’t be waiting around for disaster, can’t allow herself to parent from a place of paranoia. That can’t possibly work out for any of them, him or Laurel or their son. “They put him on my chest and I looked down at him and just thought ‘oh, its you.’ It wasn’t a shock or a surprise, of course he was my kid.”
“It won’t be like that,” Laurel tells him, teeth worrying at her bottom lip, chapped and raw from days of the same nagging worry and fear. “I know it won’t. When he was inside me I knew him but now he’s out and…he’s different now and I’ve missed so much and I failed him when it counted and he’s not the same as he was. He’s had to go through all that without me and…and how are we gonna recognize each other when everything’s different now?”
“He’ll recognize you because he knows you, you know him. Because you protected him and kept him safe and he knows you. He does. You’re his ma, Laurel, of course he knows you,” he hopes she hears him, hope she realizes just how much he means his words, down to the bottom of his heart. There’s not a damn thing she can do that will make their son stop loving her, that will make him doubt the things Frank knows she feels for the baby. “Plus, I’ve been telling him all about you. How you’re smart and beautiful and stubborn and watchful and how much you love him.”
“Don’t hype me up too much,” she tells him and he thinks she’s trying to make a joke despite the note of caution, of warning running through her voice.
“Not hyping anything,” Frank promises. “Not a damn thing. Just telling him the truth about his ma. How awesome you are. I had to be careful, you know. He’ll see for himself soon enough, can’t have little man thinking I’m a liar.”
“You are a liar,” she laughs now, genuine and soft and teasing, tightening her fingers around his. “The best kind though, the straight faced kind.”
“Gonna make a great lawyer someday?” he asks, leaning forward and kissing her, softly, just because he can, the chuckle on his lips somehow contagious, so that when he pulls away they’re both laughing. That’s another strange thing about the baby, Frank thinks, that its made them start acting like a couple again, a family.
They suddenly find themselves with a kid and after six months of avoiding each other, hurting each other, hurting themselves and denying that anything existed between them besides fierce, lingering lust for much of that time, well, its weird how the baby can suddenly make Laurel look at him like someone she might want a future with where nothing he said, none of his declarations had found a chink in her iron armor. The two of them find themselves with an accidental child and Laurel starts talking to him again, really talking, not hiding her feelings behind silence and steel, remembering that once there was a time when she might’ve loved him back if she’d given herself the chance.
“Gonna make some kinda lawyer at least,” she offers and if Frank didn’t know better he’d think she was smirking at him.
“I’ll take that compliment,” he tells her. “Backhanded though it may be. Now lets get down, see the kid.”
“Thank you,” she tells him, voice like a sigh, like relief, still blinking back tears from her eyes. “For everything Frank, really. I couldn’t do this without you.”
“Yeah you could,” he tells her, and not because he thinks he should but because its true. She can do anything, he’s known that since the moment he met her. He’s never doubted her. She’s always been the strongest person he knows, even before this, even before she became the mother of his child. “Of course you could. You’re the strongest person I know. But I’m glad you don’t have to. I’m glad you trust me enough to be a part of your life, his life.”
“I’m not doing you a favor,” Laurel tells him forcefully and he worries for a second he’s said something wrong, angered her or hurt her somehow, like he’s strayed to a place he shouldn’t’ve gone, some minefield he wasn’t aware existed, not included on any map. “I’m doing it for him, for me. Because its better for all of us if you’re his dad.”
He nods, extends his hand to her. “Got it. Now, lets get you down to the kid. See if we can get him a name by the end of the day.”
Laurel takes his hand, lets him offer her support as she swings her legs over the edge of the bed, shuffles to the edge. “Your mom texted me last night,” she says casually, smoothing the hospital gown down over her knees. “After you went down to see the baby. Hand me those leggings?”
He fishes the pair of black leggings off the edge of the armrest of the chair next to his, hands them to Laurel. He thinks Michaela brought them a few days ago, told Laurel she should put them on, help herself feel human and less like she was stuck in the hospital. He needs to remember to thank her, thank Annalise, wonders how he can make it up to both of them, the things they’ve done. He’ll spend the rest of his life trying to repay the two of them, thank them for the things they’ve done for his son, for Laurel. Oliver too, and even Doucheface and Hairgel, even Bon. All of them, their strange, fractured family. “My ma texted you?”
She nods, hissing as her feet hit the icy floor, takes the balled up leggings from his hands. “Had a couple of name suggestions. She seemed very insistent on Lorenzo by the way.”
“Lorenzo?” Frank echoes. “After my uncle? The one she hated?”
Laurel makes a little dismissive motion with one hand, the other slipping an ankle into the leg of the leggings. “I guess? Is there another Lorenzo?”
Now its Frank’s turn to shrug in confusion, watching as Laurel slips her other leg into the material, pulls them up to her knees, drawing a breath in sharply as something, some long unused muscles catch with pain, set her teeth on edge. “I don’t think so. She say why Lorenzo was so important to her?”
“She didn’t,” Laurel says cautiously. “I texted back that we hadn’t decided on anything, but that she might wanna take it up with you too. So, try and be diplomatic if she brings it up with you too.”
Frank nods, watching Laurel shimmy the leggings up her hips, over the curve of her backside, still scowling with discomfort that never quite becomes pain. He tries not to grin, tries not to smirk and gloat because suddenly, suddenly they’re a team again, Frank and Laurel against the world. Well, Frank and Laurel and as yet unnamed male infant. The three of them an instant, unbreakable team. If he knew this was all it took to get him and Laurel back to a place where they were allies, where she could trust him again, rely on him, well, he’d’ve knocked her up a long time ago. “Good plan. We can agree its not going on the list though right?”
“Right,” she nods. “We agreed. Has to work in Italian, Spanish and English.”
“Right,” he echoes, grinning emphatically, taking the hands she reaches out to him, fingers against her elbows as he helps her to stand, balance. “Not like my buddy Rodrigo Nakamura.”
Laurel laughs lightly, fingertips trailing across his bare forearms, soft and intimate and he’s so, so fucking glad he didn’t make a joke about the baby being trilingual, didn’t stray into that place of dashed hopes and brutal reality. He had the day before, talking with Annalise down in the NICU, made some joke about having to flip a coin to decide what language to teach the kid first when he saw Annalise’s face, the sudden frozen scowl she couldn’t help contain.
It’d taken him a long, long second for his brain to catch up with his words, to the guarded caution on the woman’s face, stomach dropping out when it all finally clicked into place. Annalise hadn’t had to say it, had held back, and for that Frank knows he’ll be eternally grateful, that she saw his realization on his face, chose to be kind and left the truth of it unsaid.
Because there’s no guarantee his kid’ll get much of anywhere with English, let alone Spanish or Italian. Two months too early and without oxygen for no one’s quite sure how long and with lungs that don’t quite work, that sometimes forget to work at all and drugs that got pumped into his system that’ve only just been entirely flushed out and there’s no telling what kinda damage has been done to his perfect, tiny son, what kind of future he’ll be able to carve out for himself because of all that.
Maybe everything will be fine, there won’t be any neurological or physical damage, maybe in five years no one will even be able to guess that he was born at twenty nine weeks, be mainstreamed for kindergarten and be reading at a first grade level and have a knack for complicated math problems and a passion for playing shortstop. Or maybe he’ll have half a dozen words under his belt, if that, maybe he’ll be blind or close to it, maybe he won’t be able to curl his fingers around a pencil let alone a baseball, maybe even the idea of numbers will be too much for him.
Frank doesn’t know, can’t know, even though he tells himself it doesn’t matter, even though he knows, in his bones, he’ll love his son anyway, in whatever shape that takes. He has a son, a living, breathing son, and that’s what matters. His boy is perfect whoever he turns out to be. He just can’t shake the plans he’d been making quite as easily as he thinks he ought, can’t quite hit cancel on all the things he’d imagined doing, teaching, sharing with his boy. He hopes he still gets to do those things, teach his son to read and ride a bike and teach him the names of constellations and the fingerwork for guitar chords and and the secret of his mom’s sauce and how to spot the difference between curveballs and fastballs and splitters, he’s just not sure that’s what the future has in store for the two of them.
He’ll adjust his expectations, same way he would’ve if his kid’d hated baseball or preferred the piano or had dyslexia and took a little bit longer to grasp reading. He’ll adjust and it won’t stop him from loving his son, but Frank knows it might take a little bit of time to grieve the loss of the things that were not quite fantasy, never quite reality. And that’s ok too, he supposes, because his son will be perfect no matter who he turns out to be, how he turns out to be.
And so what if he doesn’t learn to speak Italian or Spanish or even English, so what if that’s not something in the cards for him, so what if maybe he’ll struggle with some thing that other kids, other parents take for granted. His son is still amazing, still beat greater odds than Frank knows he himself will ever face, still fought a battle just to be here, breathing.
But yeah, it still hurts, the not knowing, the uncertainty of his son’s future, the arc of his life.
“Still think we didn’t have to reject Rodrigo because of it,” Laurel points out, hint of a smile pulling at the corner of her mouth, taking a small, shuffling step forward, still using Frank to balance, and then another, hands clasped around his forearms, tight enough he can tell she’s still concerned about falling. He likes that she can rely on him, trusts herself to rely on him. Its not much, but he thinks its something.
“Nah,” he tells her, taking a quick step backward as Laurel continues to press forward, shifting his body so that they’re side by side, so that he keeps his hold at her elbow, steadying her. “Not cause of that. Rodrigo Nakamura was a jerk. That’s why.”
She laughs, faltering a bit as the laughter throws off her balance.
“You ok?” Frank asks, knowing, even as he speaks, she’s going to swear she is.
Laurel nods, though her jaw remains tight and her body tense like its warding off pain, like she’s not too sure of her own limbs.
“You’re like an astronaut or something,” he tells her gently. He thinks maybe he shouldn’t’ve said anything, shouldn’t’ve pointed out her weakness. He regrets his words before they’re even out of his mouth. Laurel always hated that, showing weakness, probably hates it even more now, now that her body feels like it betrayed her, their son born too soon, torn from her traitorous body, now that the infection that raged through her has hollowed her bones, withered her muscles, now that every step feels shaky and unsure. He thinks maybe he should’ve kept his damn mouth shut about the things both of them are already certain of, should’ve been kind and not said anything that hinted at any weakness.
Except, well, except she’s not weak at all, there’s nothing weak about Laurel. There never has been. She’s underestimated, because she’s small, because she’s quiet and watchful, but she’s never been weak. Never. And certainly not now. Not when she’s been through more than Frank thinks he’d ever be able to bear, not when she’s never tried to cut and run, shrink away from the terrifying uncertainty of their son’s first few days. She’s never tried to blame herself, blame him, never asked that the doctors wait to tell her anything, always demanded the truth instead of gentle sugar coating about his condition. There’s nothing weak about her, Frank’s not even sure she knows what it means.
“How their balance gets all thrown off by gravity when they get back to earth. You’re all thrown off being upright again,” he continues, though he still gentles his voice, still wants to make it clear he knows her strength, her determination even when all her body seems intent on doing is betraying her.
“I have an excuse too,” she grumbles, though Frank breathes a sigh of relief when there’s no hint of a sharp edge behind her words. “I delivered a whole human into the world, maybe a bit early, but that’s just a technicality. And then got something that makes MRSA look like a fun weekend at the shore.”
“You did,” he agrees, noticing the slow creep of her weight against his body, the way she leans more and more against him, the way her pace has already slowed and they’ve barely made it beyond her room and out into the hall. “You want a chair to go down?”
She sighs, more like a growl. “I probably should, shouldn’t I?”
“You should do whatever you want,” Frank tells her gently, though he braces himself as even more of her weight sags against his side. “No one’s gonna hold it against you if you use the chair.”
He hears the unsaid ‘I might’ that undercuts her words, heavy in the sidelong glance she throws his way, the scowl that cuts across her lips.
“Hey,” he tells her softly, free hand tracing the curve of her wrist until she huffs out something like a laugh, like soft chastisement. “As you so eloquently pointed out, you delivered a whole human less than a week ago. And then immediately got taken down by some kinda infection out of a body horror movie. So yeah, Laurel, no one should hold much of anything against you right now. You’re allowed to let your body take its time to heal, ok. That’s what conejito is doing, right. That’s what you gotta do too.”
“Ok,” Laurel tells him rolling her eyes, her smile crooked and reluctant but a smile all the same. “Get the damn chair Frank.”
“Good,” he laughs, following as Laurel slowly steers them towards one of the uncomfortable chairs beside the nurse’s station, steadying her as she sinks down into the chair. “Cause one of the kid’s nurses told me yesterday that its policy for you come down in the chair. I wasn’t sure I was gonna be able to talk you into it.”
“I’m halfway into telling you to forget it,” she quips, but he can tell from her tired smile that she’s joking more than anything.
He watches too, as he takes his hand from the crook of her elbow, that her hand trembles as it drops to the arm of the chair, that she wraps her fingers tightly around the plastic until the shaking subsides.
He grabs a wheelchair from the nurses station with only minimal interrogation about what he needs it for, a bit more in the way of congratulations for Laurel’s first step towards discharge, her first steps towards truly becoming her son’s mother.
“Ready to do this?” he asks her, hand against her shoulder, thumb smoothing across the sharpness of her bones.
She turns to glance up at him. “Frank,” she tells him, voice like steel. “Take me to see my son. Please.”
He does, he can’t do anything else.
So he pushes the chair down the corridors, through now familiar hallways and past nurses he thinks he’s starting to know after six days. Laurel’s quiet, her hands folded in her lap and her eyes fixed ahead of her like she’s scanning the walls for signs of their son, signs that they’re getting close. He pauses at the elevator, hits the down button and that’s when she finally speaks.
“Frank,” she begins, voice strangled, turning around to look at him, eyes shot through with fear, the pupils blown wide. “Frank, wait. Please.”
“Hey,” he tells her softly, hand migrating back against her shoulder, trying to settle her. “I toldja, its gonna be fine. Little man isn’t gonna hold it against you, I promise.”
But his words don’t even seen to have reached her because Laurel is still looking around, wild with panic, fingers catching at his like she can grab his attention, make him understand. “No, not that. Not. I can’t, please Frank, I can’t. Please.”
And maybe he’s an idiot, maybe he’s a selfish bastard, self involved and pathetic and ignorant because its only when the elevator arrives and the doors open with a cheery little bing that it dawns on him what the real problem is. Or rather, it’s the gasp, high and terrified that Laurel lets slip past her lips that makes Frank realize it has nothing to do with their son, not really, her breathless panic and everything to do with how they have to get to him.
“Oh shit,” he whispers, backing the wheelchair away from the doors as quick as he can. He can’t move fast enough, can’t do anything to stop the furious tremble shaking her shoulders, her hands, making her eyes well with tears. She looks small and young and terrified and broken and he can’t do anything to take it back. “Oh shit, Laurel, I’m…I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t. I’m sorry.”
She doesn’t say anything until they’re a dozen feet away from the elevator bank, until she has her back to the doors. Laurel takes a long, shuddering breath, hands balling into fists and her eyes fixed somewhere by his shoes. “I’d like to take the stairs I think,” she tells him softly, her voice flat and distant, like she’s trying to hold herself back, keep herself from screaming or crying or turning around and heading back to her room.
He should’ve thought, should’ve thought damnit about what it would be like for her, having to get on an elevator again after everything that happened, about how terrifying it must’ve been, not only to be stuck, but everything that came after. He can see it plain as day, Laurel trying to stay calm when the car shuddered to a halt, trying to dial for help, trying to get the car moving again, can see the slowly dawning horror on her face as she realized she was bleeding, that the baby was coming and there was no help, that she was alone, that she’d have to face whatever happened alone, her pain, her fear, the baby and the blood and the terrible silence.
Frank wishes he could’ve been there with her, wishes he could’ve held her and told her that they’d figure out a way free, figure out a way off the elevator, figure out a way to get their tiny child to safety, could’ve held her hand and braced her against the pain and been scared together. He wished she hadn’t been alone, not to face all that, the prospect of her son’s death, too soon and too new, her own bloody, lonely death. He wishes so many things were different. But mostly he wishes they hadn’t had to be alone, Laurel and his son, the two people he loves most in the world, wishes they’d never have to go a moment without him.
“Stairs?” he asks her, voice too rough, too clumsy and thoughtless. “Its three flights.”
Laurel takes in another long, shuddering breath, blinks rapidly as her eyes stray from his, stray back to her feet. Her hands are fisted in the material of her hospital gown, still trembling. He’s not sure she’ll ever stop trembling, not sure she’ll ever stop shaking with fear, with lingering pain.
But then she swipes a her fingers across the sharp angle of her cheekbones, banishes the tears from the swell of her cheeks, all weakness fleeing when she looks up and meets his gaze, her eyes clear.
They’re broken, the two of them, and their tiny, fragile son, broken and hurting and fractured. But they’re healing too, or trying. They’re trying to knit themselves back together and maybe someday they’ll succeed. But until then, they’ll lean on each other, draw strength from each other and someday maybe they’ll be able to stand on their own.
Frank offers Laurel his hands, helping her rise to her feet and out of the chair, his fingers steady against her elbows, taking her weight against his body, bracing them both upright. He helps her take a short, shuffling step forward, then a few more with increased steadiness, increased confidence. Laurel still uses him like a crutch, relies on his grip on her skin to take her weight, her steps tentative and faltering. But she continues on, continues to put one foot in front of the other, make her way down the hallway, down the stairs towards their son, refusing to give up and turn around and go back to her room just because it might be hard, might be tedious and slow and painful. She’ll never give up and as long as she wants him, as long as she or their son need him, neither will Frank.
“We’ll go slow then,” he tells her, pushing open the door to the stairwell. “However long it takes us.”
In which Laurel finally meets the kid
Leave a lil somethin’ if you would... :)
Laurel makes it down two of the three flights before he knows even attempting the third is a bad, doomed idea. Her body’s not used to being upright, not used to the exertion and instead of remembering how muscles work, how joints flex, getting stronger and more assured as she goes along, he can tell that now Laurel is just hemorrhaging energy, control over her limbs.
She’s exhausted and its rapidly becoming an exponential decay. Soon she’ll have nothing left. He doesn’t think she’ll make it down the last flight, and if she does, he’s not sure at what cost.
The whole purpose of her leaving the bed was to get down to the NICU, see her son. It’ll all be worthless if she passes out from exhaustion before she’s even met him.
“You ok?” he asks, for what feels like the hundredth time, but he knows is probably only the fifth or sixth. He’s thought it a hundred times, casting quick glances over at Laurel as he watches the clench of her jaw, the way her hands move over the stair rail, watches her breathing and the paleness of her skin, assessing the way her fingers tighten or relax against his arm, how much of her weight she’s leaning against him.
He can feel the moment her foot misses the next stair, begins to slip out from under her, feels the rest of her start to buckle.
Frank catches her, one arm still at her elbow, the other wrapping tightly around her middle so that he can pull her back against his chest, keep her upright until she regains her footing.
“No,” she tells him, voice more like a sigh than anything else, though he can hear something at the edge of her voice, a slight hitch to her breath that makes the answer seem more like a sob than anything else. “I…can we take another break? Please?”
Frank just nods, lets her turn, lean her whole body against the wall, head thrown back and her breathing rough and shallow.
He keeps his hand in place, one at her waist, one against her arm. He wants to bury his face against the crook of her neck, wants to sob, because it shouldn’t be this hard, it should never be this hard.
They should have the baby in the room with them, should’ve had him with them six days ago, or in eight weeks, he supposes, shouldn’t’ve had to traverse three floors and half a mile to see him, shouldn’t have to stop every three steps so that Laurel can gather what’s left of her strength to keep moving. He just wants his family together, just wants his family to be whole.
He’s tired of fighting for the things he loves.
“Is it more than ten stairs?” she asks finally, and he didn’t realize her eyes were closed until she cracks them again, heavy with exhaustion.
“Yeah,” he answers honestly. No point in sugar coating it, she’s not gonna make it down, not even if it was only ten stairs.
“Ok,” she breathes, but they both know its not ok. They both know she can’t take another five, let alone ten steps.
“I could carry you,” Frank offers, the question slipping past his lips a lot more bluntly than he intended. He’d meant to somehow finesse the offer, the only real solution really, make Laurel half think it was her own idea or the only idea left available to them. He doesn’t know what he intended, and it doesn’t matter now. He just knows her, knows that she won’t readily surrender herself to him, won’t allow her weakness to be exposed. She’s been so used to fighting, so used to being alone, relying on no one but herself that Frank is half sure she’s simply going to reject the offer automatically. Just another thing her father fucked up. Because, well, when you have to figure your own way out of a kidnapping that’s gone hopelessly fucked up, well, Frank supposes it might be hard to trust other people down the line. Not in any way that matters. So he’d intended, fuzzily, to at least present the option as something that might’ve been her idea, her choice and then the words came out. Wrong as always. Because he knows Laurel, knows her down in the marrow of his bones, and then he fucks everything up anyway. “Down the last flight. I could, if you wanted.”
Her eyes open a little wider at that, breath catching in her throat. “Carry me?”
Frank shrugs, tries to act like its one of many options they have, just another suggestion in a long line of many instead of the only choice left to them that doesn’t involve simply exiting on this floor, propping Laurel up in a chair for an hour or two until she thinks she can make it back to her room or down to the baby. They don’t have much choice when the elevator is out of the question.
He thinks, idly, that it’s a damn good thing the place he rented was the row house in Passyunk and not that high rise in Washington Square. It was on the twelfth floor, he thinks, no way Laurel and the baby would be coming to visit him, let alone live with him on the twelfth floor. Thank God for small twists of fate.
Laurel’s not looking at him like he’s crazy at least and Frank tries to grin, tries to project an air of confidence about his plan, its chances of success. He’s carried her plenty of times before, to the bed or the couch or braced her body agains the wall while they fucked. He’s never carried her down a flight of stairs, but he knows he can, he’s certain he can. He has to. It’s the only way she sees their son today. It’s the only way.
Frank thinks that maybe he’d do anything for her, for him, anything. They’re his family, no matter what happens, no matter what that family winds up looking like, the outcome of his and Laurel’s long, slow dance around each other. He thinks he’ll never stop loving either one of them.
“You’d carry me?” she repeats then, only a little incredulous.
“Yeah,” he shrugs again, like its nothing, like it’s the simplest thing in the world. Maybe it is. “Get you downstairs, find another chair, get you in to see little man. If we’re quick enough he might still be half awake.”
Her eyes widen at that and a smile spreads across her face, lonely and longing in equal measure, like she’s holding the image of the baby she’s never seen in her mind, like she’s imagining what he will look like, feel like in her arms. Frank wants to tell her it’ll be nothing like she’s imagining, better and worse and perfect all the same. He thinks she’ll know soon enough, thinks she’ll have to learn it for herself.
“What’ll we do about getting back?” she asks him slowly, reluctantly, like she’s already doubting the possibility of his suggestion working. “After?”
Frank flashes her a quick, crooked grin. “Gonna hope you’ve fallen asleep by then,” he teases. “Sneak you up in the elevator before you’re awake to notice.”
He holds his breath waiting for Laurel’s reaction, not entirely sure she’ll recognize that he’s joking. But then she grins thinly, rolls her eyes at him. “Well, what I don’t know doesn’t hurt me I suppose.”
“So?” he asks, watching as she pushes herself off of the wall and straightens, her shoulders suddenly squared, her jaw proud and her eyes cold and haughty. Frank watches her close herself off, building walls around her heart, letting ice settle in her veins, making herself cold and unfeeling and turning her skin into stone. He hopes she does it only so that she can make it down the last set of stairs, make it too their son without cracking, caving, hopes she can thaw before then. He thinks it will only hurt her, hurt the baby if she can’t, thinks that for everything they did to get to the baby, none of it will be worth it if all she tries to do is keep herself from loving him, from feeling anything at all. She thinks nothing matter if she doesn’t let herself feel everything, the love, yeah, but the terror too, has to open herself to all of it if Laurel intends to be the mother their son deserves. “Gonna trust me not to drop you?”
“I trust you with my kid,” she tells him, something softening in her eyes, her lips quirking. “Course I trust you.”
“Good,” he tells her, thumb tracking over the soft skin at the inside of her elbow, the curving hinge of her arm. He tries to ignore the fact that she doesn’t really have much choice, that there’s not really anyone else; Annalise and Michaela and Oliver all have lives, they can’t spend hours sitting in the NICU with the baby curled against their skin even though they’ve been trying, stopping by when they can. And there’s no way in hell she’s gonna let her dad, her brother anywhere near the baby, not while Laurel still has breath in her lungs. The only family she has left is Frank, Frank and the little boy with the paper thin skin and the wires marring every inch of skin, the little boy sleeping not a hundred yards away “I trust you too. With my kid, with everything.”
She huffs a little, embarrassed, Frank thinks and glances away. He presses a kiss to the edge of her mouth, hears the sharp intake of her breath, the echoing little sigh of her exhale. And then he reaches down, arm beneath her knees and one bracing against her shoulders, scoops her up into his arms.
“Could’ve warned me Frank,” she says, laughter rippling across her words as she throws an arm around his shoulders, settles in against his chest.
“Thought I did,” he chuckles, hitching her in his arms and beginning the slow descent down the stairs. He tries not to think about how she feels lighter than he remembers, her bones more prominent beneath her skin. Frank tells himself it only seems that way because she’s lost ten, a dozen, twenty pounds along with the baby, tells himself he’s used to the extra roundness to her stomach, her hips, her breasts, tells himself its only that and nothing more. It doesn’t feel true.
She feels small and frail in his arms, too light, feels like she’s fading into nothing, growing smaller and smaller until there’s nothing left of her, a star collapsing in on itself, a victim of her own gravity. She’s always been small, always been thin and edged but this, this is something different. It feels like she’s lost all weight, all permanence, feels like she’s turning into a ghost before his eyes, reduced to nothing more than skin and bones and hollow, haunted eyes. He needs Laurel to get better, needs his son to get better, needs both of them whole and unbroken.
He doesn’t need her to be the same girl he fell in love with, doesn’t expect her to be, he knows she’s not that girl, not anymore, not after Sam and Rebecca and the Hapstalls and Wes and the fire, not after her father’s terrible greed, not after the baby. She can’t be the same girl he met eighteen months ago, silent and watchful and whip-quick and almost impossibly, violently idealistic and he doesn’t want her to be. He’s in love with her still, doesn’t think he’ll ever stop loving her, whoever she becomes.
Frank just hopes she can say the same about him.
He goes slowly, makes sure of his footing before he hazards another step, careful not to jostle Laurel too much, careful not to let himself think about how intimate it is to hold her in his arms. He knows it doesn’t mean anything, but it feels right, feels like the only thing’s that been right since he got the call that Annalise had found Laurel and the baby, that they were on the way to the hospital. Its always been right with Laurel, even when it was hard, impossible, it was always, always right.
And when they make it down to the landing, when Frank sets her on her feet again, slowly, steadying her still shaky limbs, it doesn’t feel anything like a victory, doesn’t feel anything like an ending. He keeps her upright as they go out the firedoor, until he can commandeer another wheelchair, letting her sink down heavily into the chair.
“All good?” he asks when Laurel catches his fingers, squeezes and doesn’t let go, tugs him close enough she can lean against the arc of his hip, like she’s still relying on his body to remain upright.
“All good,” she replies, though her eyes slip halfway closed and her breath is still jarringly unsteady. Frank wishes he could lie to himself, pretend it had anything at all to do with his proximity to her. Once that might’ve been true.
Its only a short distance, Frank can see the bright red NICU sign up ahead, thinks Laurel must spot it too, because she brings her hand up, seeking out his skin, wrapping her fingers around his forearm. He takes his hand from the arm of the wheelchair, lets Laurel tangle her fingers with his. He can feel the clamminess of her hands, can feel the tremble in her skin, though it takes him a long minute to decide whether its from exhaustion or nerves.
Nerves he can handle, nerves he can do something about.
He still can’t decide until he sees her free hand come up, swipe hurriedly against her face as Frank bats at the automatic door panel, trying to dash away the tears from her eyes, trying to keep him from noticing. He wants to tell her its ok to cry, that its scary and overwhelming and too much for any human body to handle, the love and the fear and the awe. He wants to tell her that he knows he’s going to cry, he thinks he’s cried every time he sees his son. He’s not sad, he’s not scared, not really, not anymore. Not beyond the baseline terror that undercuts every moment of every day for the last six days since he became a father.
Now he cries because he has a son and he still doesn’t really understand how that’s possible, how he can love something so much after so little time, how the little wrinkled creature attached to half a dozen monitors can be his and Laurel’s and still his own new, profound creature, how the universe has even allowed him to happen, all the strange random chances and coincidences and choices somehow coalescing until this child, this exact child, was formed. Its too much for anyone’s mind to process and Frank just winds up sobbing when he’s faced with the enormity of it.
He wants to tell her she’s allowed to feel whatever she feels, that no one in the NICU is gonna judge her for crying too much or too little or not at all, because the NICU is a profoundly strange place where nothing really makes sense and no one is anything, really, like the people they are in the real world, all the parts of its visitors distilled down to their most basic elements. He wants to tell her she can cry if she wants, except he knows Laurel’s spent most of her life pretending not to feel at all, trying to close herself off so that no one can hurt her more. He wants to tell her that nothing she does to protect herself will have a damn bit of impact against their tiny son. But he hold his tongue, because its no longer about him. Not really.
One of the nurses spots them as they approach the NICU nurses station, eyes flicking from Frank to Laurel and back again.
“He finally spring you loose?” she asks, directing the question to Laurel, who shoots Frank an inquiring glance.
“Doctors finally sprung me loose,” she corrects, caution behind her voice. “It was about time.”
The nurse, Margot, Frank thinks, laughs and springs to her feet. “Well, we’re all glad to have you. Laurel, right?”
Laurel nods, the suspicion beginning to fade, Frank can tell even without seeing her face.
“I’d normally ask who’s mom you were, but little man’s still nameless I understand,” she continues, giving Frank a look that seems to imply he should get out of the way. Its confirmed when he steps back and Margot seizes the handles of the wheelchair, pushing Laurel forward with practiced ease. He wilts under the force of her gaze, always feels a little like all the nurses think he’s a bumbling, stupid idiot, failed already at his most basic parental tasks, naming his son, giving him an identity, keeping him safe and secure and whole. He hopes that maybe with Laurel around they can start making up that ground.
“We’re hoping to fix that today,” Laurel tells her sheepishly, glancing up at Frank with a smile that threatens to spark along her lips, like they’re sharing in the failure, like it’s the two of them against the world, a team of the two of them and their tiny son.
“Good,” Margot nods. “I know you probably want to meet him first, before deciding on something. But having a name definitely makes our job easier. We were going to name him ourselves until Frank here overheard and shut that idea down.”
Frank shrugs, throws what almost feels like a conspiratorial look at Laurel. “Sorry,” he tells the nurse as he tries not laugh, tries not to roll his eyes to get Laurel to laugh along with him. “Wanted to give Laurel veto power, since we’re the ones gonna have to use the name for the next fifty years. Though if you all have a suggestion, be our guests. We’ve still got a half dozen names we’re toying with, what’s one more on the list?”
“I can’t remember what we settled on,” Margot tells them breezily, reaching out to slap at the door to the NICU, triggering the auto-open and sliding the chair forward into the strange, enclosed world. “But if you’re looking for suggestions, we have a dozen nurses who’ll be all too willing to help you out. We probably see more babies getting named than just about anyone.”
“We might take you up on it,” Laurel admits, chuckling. “Get someone to act as a tiebreaker for us.”
And then they all go silent, go still, because they arrive at the baby’s incubator, his last name at least written in cheerful block letters on the side of the plastic sides.
“Is this?” Laurel starts, falters, her voice choked and small. Her eyes swing up to Frank, wide and imploring and soft, swing back to the incubator, to the tiny form inside, surrounded by wires and tubes and beeping, whirring, hissing machines. “Is that him?”
“Yeah,” Frank breathes softly as Laurel reaches out, grasps at his hand in both of hers. “That’s him.”
He hears the shaky intake of her breath again, the way she clutches at his hand as though she’s worried he’ll vanish, that she’ll vanish, that the baby will vanish before her eyes and she needs something to tether her back to earth if that happens, ground her. “Can I?” she whispers, eyes searching Frank’s with a wild desperation. “Can I hold him?”
“Course,” Margot answers for him, stepping around the two of them and cracking open the incubator. “You wanna take a seat in one of the rockers while I get him?”
“It’ll be more comfortable,” Frank adds softly, voice low and close to her ear. “Two of you can take a nap together all morning.”
She cracks half a smile, just the corner of her mouth tugging. “You really think I’m gonna be able to sleep so soon after meeting him?”
“No,” he agrees. “But you could if you wanted to. We have all the time in the world now.”
“No we don’t,” she corrects fiercely, her eyes flashing, sharp and deadly. “I’ve already missed a week. I don’t want to miss another second with him. Not yet.”
“And you won’t now,” he promises, even though its not a promise at all, not one he can keep. He reaches out his free hand, waits until she gasps his hands, wraps her fingers around his wrists and lets Frank tug her to her feet, lets him rest his hands against her hips as he steadies her, helps guide her to the little rocking chair that’s been set up next to the baby’s crib.
He’s just helped settle her into the chair when Margot’s hands emerge from the incubator, one enveloping the baby’s lower half, his legs and back surrounded by her palm, the other cradling his head and neck. But still, despite her hold on his body, the wires trailing from his skin, Frank can still see the baby’s limbs flail, kick out against the ear, still hear his high, disgruntled cries as she lifts him, jars him from his position on his back.
He hears the breath Laurel sucks in and then doesn’t let out, her eyes wide and transfixed on the baby’s tiny form. She exhales only when Margot settles the baby against her chest, a sob slipping past her lips as her arms come up to surround their son, press him closer against her skin.
“He’s bigger than I expected,” Laurel says, her voice flat and strangely distant, eyes flicking to Frank. They’re full of fear, he thinks, big and wide and the same blue as his son’s, her teeth sinking into her lower lip and flicking to the baby like she’s terrified she’ll hurt him, drop him somehow. He can see the shields slamming down in front of her eyes, the distance she’s putting between herself and the baby, trying to keep herself, her heart safe. He wants to scream at her to stop, that she doesn’t need to protect herself from their child, but he can’t quite bring himself to speak. “I, I dunno what I expected, but he’s...he’s so much bigger than I thought he’d be. He felt giant inside me, but…”
“That’s a good thing, right?” Frank points out gently, not sure what he was expecting from her, not sure she’s expecting this tentative, hesitant doubt and caution and fear. “That he’s not so tiny.”
She nods slowly, still staring at the tiny creature in her arms. “I can’t believe he was inside me once. I don’t…it doesn’t feel like he’s mine.”
“Course he is,” he assures her, fighting against the clenching around his heart, a tight little fist of panic and pain, his greatest fears coming to pass. In his darkest moments he’d worried that maybe Laurel wouldn’t be able to love their child, couldn’t open her heart to her son, the fear of losing him, the trauma of his birth closing her heart to the boy so she could protect herself from more pain, more fear, more loss. “Look at him, Laurel. Take a look at his eyes, the way he moves, watch how he listens to your voice. He knows you, even if you’re not sure you know him anymore.”
“He’s just,” she shrugs, frown deep and her eyes cold. “He’s just like any other baby. He doesn’t seem like mine.”
“Talk to him, Laurel, ok,” Frank urges, voice strained and tight and just on the edge of pleading, begging her. He knows, he knows if she just talks to him, just focuses on the baby and not on all the things she’s scared of, all the things that have gone, could go wrong, he knows she’ll forget about everything else, knows she’ll be able to let everything go and just love their child. He knows because it was true for him, when he was terrified that he would lose his son, hurt him, let him down, all it took to make those fears meaningless was having his son in his arms. All it took was seeing his unexpectedly familiar form, new and old all at once, feeling the weight of him against his chest and just talking to the baby, just knowing he was there and real and breathing. He knows it’ll be the same for Laurel, it has to be. “Just talk to him. Please. I promise it’ll be easy. Don’t worry about how you think it should be, just talk to him.”
She gives him a mulish look, lips twisting into a dubious scowl, but smoothes her thumb along the baby’s back, tracking between his shoulder blades. “So I’m your mom, I guess,” she murmurs. “And I guess you’re my kid. You sure about that? You sure you want me?”
Their son lets out a little chirping noise, half yawn and half angry cry, nuzzling his face against Laurel’s chest, her collarbone, seeking out the heat of her skin, the morse code beating of her heart.
She lets out a surprised huff of a laugh, watches raptly as the boy settles, eyes opening and then slowly slipping closed again. His arm hitches out, fingers going to his ear, unconsciously curling around the shell of it and tugging at the appendage. “Huh,” she continues, still sounding uncertain and cautious, still sounding wary like she’s seconds from bolting. “Maybe you are mine after all. You used to do that all the time on the ultrasound, didn’t you?”
Frank wouldn’t know, she only ever gave him one of them, reluctantly at best, only let him see the printout in those final weeks, only let him have the copy that she hadn’t wanted to keep herself. He’s not resentful of it, not really, not in anything but a mute, formless way, the same way he’ll resent not having nine months to prepare for the baby, not be able to take him home for weeks and weeks, a useless, directionless resentment that just makes him mad at the world, at fate, that makes him catch himself before he lets that anger go too far, because, well, at the end of the day, he has his son, he has Laurel, and that’s all that matters. At the end of the day, he wouldn’t change a damn thing.
But that means he never got to see the baby tugging on his ear, hitching his fingers against the shell, never got more than Laurel’s idle allusions to it once or twice, talking about it like Frank ought to have known, like he knew what she was talking about, their son’s strange self-soothing gesture, tugging at his ear instead of sucking his thumb. Frank had resolved to ask her for ultrasound evidence of it and then promptly ran out of time, the baby seeming to decide that he’d rather just show Frank the habit in person.
He’s seen the movement since then, noticed the baby doing it once or twice, awed and shocked and thrown that Laurel was right, that he can see the gesture live and in technicolor, that the little creature who had lived inside her, the roiling thing inside her stomach that sometimes kicked against his palm was the same creature that curled against his chest, the same tiny, fragile creature that sought comfort from Frank’s heartbeat, in the warmth of his skin and the steadiness of his breath. He’s seen his son tug on his ear, and now, now she sees it too, because its real, their son is real and whole and theirs, still, always, theirs.
“Hi,” she whispers then, so soft Frank can barely hear her, fingers trailing along the baby’s spine, then up, across his cheek. Her words still have an edge of distance to them, like she’s trying to hold herself back, hold her emotions at bay, like she’s restraining herself from hoping, from feeling, just in case the outcome’s bad. “Hi there little one. You’re bigger than I expected. Your dad says you’re not, but what does he know. I was the one that carried you, so I know how big you were. And I dunno what I was expecting, but you’re a lot bigger. That’s a good thing, you needa get bigger and stronger so they can get you off all these machines. Get you home with us. Where you belong. Me and your dad.”
Frank tries not to read too much into it, tries not to let himself hope too much for things he’s sure can’t ever be, tries not to let himself think of the three of them, together, as a family, not just cobbled together with hopelessness and longing and grief. He wants to be with them, always, but he’s pretty sure that’s not at all what Laurel wants, not any of the things she has planned for herself, for the baby.
“I thought you’d be tiny, like a doll or something,” she continues, glancing up at Frank, a question in her eyes. Am I doing this right, he knows she’s asking, is this how its supposed to be? He doesn’t reply, just grins and hitches his shoulders and settles into the empty wheelchair beside the rocker. She’s doing perfectly, he wants to but doesn’t tell her, certain he’ll scare her off. He knows Laurel, knows that sometimes all she wants is silence, all she wants is the space to sort through the tangle of her own mind, make her own conclusions. He thinks this is probably one of those times, when she just needs the time to examine herself, the baby, let herself lower her walls enough that she can let their son inside.
“I dunno,” she continues on, giving him her own helpless shrug, like she’s not sure what she’s doing, not sure what good her words are doing, for either of them, Laurel or the baby. Except he knows its not true, can hear the softening in her voice, the easing, can hear the tight knot of emotion threatening the edge of her words, threatening to shatter across the distance she’s maintained, threatening to tear through her reserves, her defenses. “He showed me pictures of you, your dad. So I should’ve known, but I guess I didn’t. We can blame the drugs, huh? They had me on some good shit. Sorry. Good stuff. And, uh, drugs are bad. Mostly. Unless you need them for pain or depression or…look, we can talk about this shi…stuff when you’re older, yeah? Hugs not drugs for now, ok? Does that work for you? Cool.”
Frank lets out a snort of laughter before he can help himself and though he can see Laurel glance up, try to stifle her own laugh, it slips out, light and soft, like she’s trying not to startle, jostle the their son too much in the effort. She gives him a wry shrug, even as she continues on, like she can’t stop now, can’t stop talking to their sleeping son, not until she’s said all the things she needs to say to him, all the things she’s kept bottled up for six days now, for the six months since she found out about him, scared and confused and angry and lost, all the things she didn’t know how to say, didn’t know how to let herself feel for the child that grew inside her.
“You look more like him too, you know,” she tells the baby, tucking her head close to her chest so she can run her lips over his hat covered head, against the soft curve of his cheek. Frank pretends he didn’t see, not sure if Laurel even moved consciously or if she’s reduced herself to operating on instinct alone. He’s never known her to be anything but deliberate, but well, she’s exhausted and he knows all too well how overwhelming their son can be. He doesn’t want to bring it up. He’s tired of fighting for answers to questions that don’t really matter, tired of parsing and analyzing and overthinking. He just wants to be, here, with Laurel and their son, with his family. “Your dad. Couldn’t see it in the pictures he gave me, you just looked kinda tiny and wrinkled, like an alien, like my abuelo. But you look like him now. That’s a good thing, by the way. In case you were wondering. He’s got pretty good hair. Pretty good smile too. Hopefully you’ll get that from him when you get a bit bigger, learn how to really charm the ladies. Or the guys. Whoever you wanna charm.”
She hums softly, hitches the baby closer against her chest so that his head rests firmly against the space above her heart, her palm spread along the tiny expanse of his back. “We don’t care as long as you’re happy ok,” she tells him, like a promise or a vow, heavy with meaning, with certainty. “We promise, ok? You’ve been through so much already, there was so much we couldn’t protect you from that I promise, we won’t care what you do as long as you’re happy. I mean, no serial killing, no hard drugs, no, I dunno, men’s rights activism, but be happy ok? Just, just be happy. That’s all I want for you. I’m gonna do everything to make it possible, your dad too. I just want you to have a happy life.”
And then Frank hears the unmistakable sound of a sob, choked and broken and when his eyes swing to Laurel’s face its crumpled in grief, tears slipping down her cheeks and tight with pain. “Fuck,” she whispers, eyes closed tight, a few stray tears escaping from behind her lashes, tracking across the sharp edge of her cheekbones. “Fuck, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. You’ll never know how sorry I am. I failed you, not just letting you come so early, I failed you from the start. I don’t know how to make up for that, I’m not sure I ever will, or that I can, or that I should even want to. All I know is that I let you down, and I’m so, so sorry I did that. I should’ve protected you.”
Frank watches her hands, still pressed against her son’s back, tighten, almost imperceptibly, against his skin, like she’s trying not to let her hands curl into fists, like she’s trying not to press the baby down beneath her skin, let him slip inside her body again, retreat back to where he belongs, nestled safe inside her, protected and still innocent of the world.
“It was my job,” she hisses, her teeth slipping harshly into the skin of her lower lip, hard enough Frank’s sure she’ll break the skin, sure he’ll see the telltale stain of blood. “It was the only thing you needed me to do, and I just, I didn’t care, I pretended it wasn’t important, that you weren’t important. But you are, god, you’re the most important thing in the world. Nothing else matters. And I was so fucking stupid that I couldn’t realize it, that I didn’t want to realize it. I thought, I dunno, I thought revenge would make things better, would make me stop being so fucking angry all the time, so fucking sad all the time. I thought…I don’t know what I thought.”
“And you’re here and you’re fine, you’re gonna be fine, and…and you so easily might not’ve been. You could be…,” Laurel falters then, trails off as a sob claws its way up from her chest and for a long, long moment there’s only silence between the three of them, only the beeping and hissing and humming of equipment shattering the stillness, reminding all of them just how true Laurel’s words are. The baby so easily could be something else, the outcome so much worse. Frank doesn’t believe in miracles, knows Laurel doesn’t either, but well, he’s not sure what else it could be. “And I just…I really hope you’ll forgive me for being such a fucking idiot. I really hope you’ll give me the chance to make it up to you, to deserve you. I’m sorry that you got stuck with me as a mom, but I’ll try to do better, I promise, I’ll try to put you first every single second. Ok?”
“And you better hold me too it, ok?” she tells the baby with a wet, hiccuping laugh. “If I ever fuck up again, gotta call me on it. Your dad won’t, he’s too nice, so its gotta be you, mijo. You gotta make sure I’m the best mom for you, ok.”
And then she stops, jaw clamping shut tight, muscles jumping with tension and her eyes wild and shocked. “Mijo, mijo, mijo,” she repeats softly then, fingertips tracing over her son’s knuckles, the gentle curve of his ear, letting out a faltering little laugh as the baby scowls fiercely, twitches away from her touch. “Guess we can’t ever really escape our parents, huh? But I can’t think of calling you anything else. You’re my son, what else am I supposed to nickname you, right? I know your dad’s been calling you conejito but its like that’s who you’ve been in my mind this whole time, mijo, I just haven’t been able to admit it. To myself, out loud. To you too I guess. But that’s who you are, huh. My son. Mi hijo.”
“You look like him, mijo. Your dad. He scowls just like that. Early in the morning before he’s gotten coffee. Or when I put my bare feet against his, try to hog the blankets. Looks just like it when he’s sleepy and disgruntled. Good thing he’s cute huh, good thing I like him.”
“Hey now,” Frank dares to cut in then, fixing her with a smile he knows is full of longing, full of desperate, worshipful affection. He just can’t help it, just can’t help the things he feels for her, for their son. He tries to keep his tone light, teasing, tries to keep the heavy pounding of his heart, the hopeless directionless love he has for her, for the baby. “He looks more like you than me. Little furrow at his forehead. ’S all you Laurel. ‘S not me.”
“I’m never sleepy and disgruntled,” she counters, her smile slow and soft and heavy with affection, glancing over at him and reaching out, extending her hand to Frank, grin spreading as he takes her fingers, threads them tight with his. He thinks, haltingly, fuzzily, heart pounding in his ears, that they’re a family, really, finally, the three of them together, a unit, fierce and unbreakable, a family of choice and fate and luck. Its not just Frank and Laurel, Frank and the baby, Laurel and the baby, its finally feels like it’s the three of them, together, finally whole again, stronger together than they ever could be on their own.
And her smile is slow and soft and heavy with affection and its like suddenly the clouds part, the world coming into sharp, bright focus and the broken pieces of his heart slipping back into place, finally whole again, finally made whole by the woman he loves, the son he loves, more than life, more than sense, more than anything. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
When regular angst just isnt enough
He’s asleep when it happens.
One moment he’s unconscious, sprawled out as best he can in one of the uncomfortable hospital chairs, limbs loose and kicked out and the next he’s shooting upright at the blaring scream of an alarm. He’s gotten used to the buzzing and shrieking of alarms since the baby was born, gotten accustomed to their piercing chirps, can mostly even overlook them. But somehow, this startles him awake, jerking upright with his heart slamming against his rib cage.
Frank looks around, confused and startled, before awareness comes to him in fits and starts, suddenly dawning on him that he’s in the NICU, still, where he expected himself to be, but there’s no baby in his arms, now slight weight against his chest, no soft breath tickling his skin.
His eyes dart around, wide and frightened, until he spies Laurel.
His breath has a moment where it settles, eases, all the tension skimming out of him because their son is in her arms, pressed against her skin and he’s safe, he’s safe and everything is still perfect. And then he glances up, sees her face, sees the look of stricken, frozen shock that cuts across her mouth, sees the sharp, primal terror in her eyes and his own fear doubles in his chest.
The sound of the alarms suddenly return to sharp, terrible focus and Laurel is rising to her feet, crying out unintelligible words, their son cradled in her arms, limp and already turning pale and lifeless, the monitors that usually beep a slow comforting rhythm now screaming out a sharp, unending tone.
Her eyes are all whites, wide and darting, directionless, with fear and Frank takes a long, halting step towards her, towards the baby, not sure what he can do but knowing he must, he must go to them, he must do something to halt this terrible nightmare.
Someone steps in front of him just as he reaches for her, for the baby, steps in front of him and says something low and muffled and sharp to Laurel, sends her taking a jerking, halting step backwards, her hands crossed over her stomach and her fingers curling into her skin, sharp claws catching at her skin, her face still frozen in stricken grief.
“What’s happening?” he hears her ask, voice small and timid and high, pleading, the baby, he realizes belatedly no longer in her arms but in the arms of the second person, the nurse, the doctor and it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter at all as long as they fix this, fix Frank’s son. “What’s happening? Please?”
The second person ignores her but another steps in, takes Laurel by the shoulder, takes Frank by the elbow and steers them away from the baby, away from the blaring alarms, tries to usher them out past the swinging doors, out of the NICU. He wants to stop, wants to resist, wants to fight off the hands and go to his child, breathe life and strength back into the baby, wants to pull Laurel’s body against his own, breathe in the scent of her, cling to her until he can summon the strength to demand answers, to face what it all means.
“What’s going on?” Frank demands, planting his feet before the nurse can lead him away. His voice is low and threatening and he sees the nurse gulp, take a step back. He has just enough sense left in him to feel bad, to feel guilty before he takes a step forward, squaring his shoulders, forcing himself to tower over the shorter woman, forcing himself to use his greater height, his greater weight, forcing himself to use his terror and his anger and his guilt. “She’s asking a question and I think you should fucking answer her. What the hell’s going on with our son.”
“You…you really need to, to leave,” the nurse stammers out, eyes flicking carefully around the room, trying to find some way to deescalate the situation, to get Frank the hell out of the NICU. He feels Laurel’s hands, tugging at his arm but he can’t stop, he won’t stop. They both deserve answers, they need to know what’s happening. Laurel was kept in the dark for too long before, left wondering what was happening to their son and he won’t let anyone do that to her. Not again.
“I’ll leave when you give us a goddamn answer,” Frank snaps, his own eyes tracking over the nurse’s head towards where a crowd of people are huddled around his son. He can’t see a goddamn thing, can’t figure out what’s going on other than watching a doctor burst in, a second doctor, Frank thinks, face tight with tension. “What’s going on? What’s wrong with him?”
He’s trying not to raise his voice, trying to remain as calm as he can, but he knows an edge of desperation is creeping into his voice, turning his question into more of a shouted demand. He can’t stop, can’t help himself. He needs to know, needs to know if their son is going to be ok, if there’s anything he can do. He needs to know if its all crashing down around his ears, every last futile fucking hope he allowed himself to have.
“I can’t answer any questions in here,” the nurse is trying to tell him, still trying to usher him from the unit. “You have to wait outside while they work on him.”
“Just fucking answer me,” Frank snaps. “Just fucking tell me what’s wrong.”
He’s about to take another step closer to the nurse, about to simply brush past her and push his way into the crowd of doctors and nurses and his tiny, dying son, demand answers, find answers himself if no one will tell him. Except then one of the doctors raises his head, meets Frank’s eyes. And he stops. His hands stop whatever they were doing and he stops barking orders and he just stops, watches Frank.
And Frank crumbles.
Because if the doctor’s watching Frank, he isn’t saving Frank’s son and he can’t, he can’t do that. He can’t cost his son any time, any chance of making it through whatever medical disaster is happening right now. And Frank wants to know, wants to know with every atom in his body what’s happening, why his son stopped breathing, if he’s gonna be ok, but he can’t, he can’t do that at the expense of his son’s health, his life. He can’t cost his baby any more, he can’t cost Laurel anymore. He made a promise to them, both of them, that he’d put them first. And that means always, through everything. That means shutting up and sitting down and living with uncertainty, with terror and panic and a hopeless, formless anger.
Nothing else he does can help his son. Frank’s useless, powerless and maybe he needs to just accept it, whatever’s happening, recognize that anything he does will simply make things worse.
So he goes, shoulders sagging, turns and goes and lets himself be lead from the NICU and out into the hall, down into the low, uncomfortable chairs lining the hallway.
He takes Laurel’s hand then, blindly, his arm surrounding her thin shoulders, curling himself into her side. It can’t be happening like this, he thinks, it can’t. Their son was fine, he was growing and eating and gaining weight, his lungs were developing, he was learning to maintain his own temperature, set a steady heart rate. This can’t be happening.
He was going to live, Frank had convinced himself, convinced Laurel their son was going to be ok. He was fine an hour ago when he and Laurel traded off the baby, when he placed the sleeping boy against her chest. There was nothing wrong. And now, and now…Frank stares at their joined hands, tries not to hear the things like sobs that rise from his own chest, hiccuping and fitful, tries not to hear the quick, harsh sounds of Laurel’s breath beside him, the high keening sound of her grief.
“Its,” the nurse begins, trails off and Frank catches the hurried glance she throws back towards the NICU, the nervous tremble in her voice. “Its under control. The doctors are working on him. He just…he just. His heart rate dropped but…”
She trails off again, right at the point where Frank imagines in another world, in another life she tells them its going to be fine. Its not. It was fine, until five minutes ago everything was fine, or as close to fine as its been since their son slipped into the too harsh world. And now its not. And now their son, their nameless speck of a son could be dying. Could already be dead.
“Why can’t we be in there?” Frank finds himself asking, his voice steadier, more forceful than he’d imagined he could make it sound, angry and demanding instead of fearful somehow, some way. “If…if something’s happening, I want to be there with him. I don’t want him to be alone.”
“You have to stay out here,” the nurse tells him calmly, gently. “While he’s being worked on. Once they stabilize him you’ll be allowed back in.”
Frank wants to ask if that’s a promise, that the baby’s going to be stabilized, going to be ok but he can’t bring himself to ask, can’t bring himself to hear an answer that’s no. “What happened, what went wrong?”
“The doctor will be able to explain better in a few minutes,” the nurse tells him, still with that same infuriatingly calm tone, like she knows Frank can’t understand, like she’s worried he’s going to snap. He is, damnit, he’s going to snap if they don’t give him answers, tell him why his son’s heart rate dropped, what that means, whether he’s alright.
“Is he ok?” Frank asks, trying a different tactic, rephrasing the question until he gets some kind of answer, some kind of response. He’s never going to stop this cross examination, not until he gets the answer he wants, there’s no opposing counsel to shout that the question’s been asked and answered, that he’s badgering the witness, that his demands aren’t relevant. He’s just going to keep asking until she tells him what he needs to know, until she tells him if his son’s alive.
“Like I said,” the woman repeats, a muscle ticking in her jaw, tense and nervous in equal measure. “The doctor will be able to explain it better in a few minutes.”
“Tell me,” he says, an edge creeping into his words, a desperation he didn’t want to let himself feel. He didn’t want his words to come out like a command, didn’t want his words to come out as a plea, thinks he’s failed at both. “Please. Just tell me what’s wrong with my son.”
“You really do need to wait for the doctor…” the nurse starts, her eyes jumping over his head, back into the NICU and she throws him a stiff forced smile, retreating hastily back into the unit as Frank imagines he still hears the shrill blare of alarms, the muffled tones of the doctors as they work, work on saving his son.
“I don’t know what happened,” Laurel says suddenly from beside him, her voice a distant whisper. “He was fine. I thought he was fine and then…and then everything started going crazy.”
“Its ok,” Frank finds himself saying, working his lips and tongue around the lie. “You heard the nurse, the doctors’ll get everything sorted.”
“What if they don’t?” she demands, fingers tightening around his. Laurel’s always been pragmatic, more pragmatic than him, sometimes ruthlessly so. He should’ve known he couldn’t just spout some platitudes about it all working out and think that would do anything, would do anything more than convince her, one again and for the hundredth time, that Frank is a liar. She stares, blankly at the wall opposite them, white and stark and harsh, stares at it fiercely like some answer will appear, give her guidance, give her hope. Her voice catches, trembles and shakes, her whole body vibrating with the tension of keeping her fear, her rising grief at bay. “What if they don’t Frank? He wasn’t breathing, I…I think he stopped breathing. What if…”
“He’s gonna fight,” Frank promises her, the only thing he can promise her. It’s the only thing he knows is true, the only thing he’s certain of. He doesn’t know if the baby’s alive, if he’s gonna be alright. But he knows his son is going to fight. He’s fought for a week now, a little more. He’s never stopped, Frank’s son. And he knows, if there’s any chance of it, any strength left in his little boy, he’s going to fight. Frank’s just gotta convince himself, convince Laurel its true, somehow make it so with the force of his conviction. “He’s a fighter, you know he is. He wouldn’t’ve made it this far if he wasn’t.”
Laurel’s fingers begin to tremble against his, quick terrible flutters that shake her shoulders, rattle her teeth in her jaw, her free hand still wrapped tight around her middle, her shoulders collapsing inward, making herself small and safe. “I promised him,” she whispers. “I promised I wasn’t going anywhere. I…”
“Its ok,” he assures her, his own voice tight around his sob. Frank swore, both of them did, that they’d never leave their son alone again, never leave him alone, scared and hurting and doubting his place, doubting their love for him. Frank promised too, promised he wouldn’t run and now, now, its not what happened but it looks like it did. The baby only knows that Frank, that Laurel, his mom and dad, the two constants in his life, the people that hold him and whisper to him and keep him safe are gone. That’s all he knows, that the people who made him promises didn’t keep them when he needed it the most, when things went to shit. The first time he’s tested and Frank’s already letting his son down. “Its ok, I promise. He knows you meant it, he knows you’ll be with him as soon as you can. As soon as he’s stable again.”
He’s gotta be strong for Laurel, Frank tells himself, gotta pretend that it’s going to be ok, that nothing is wrong, not really. He knows its not true, he hasn’t ever been kicked out before, not even when the baby stopped breathing, tripped his apnea monitor because he forgot inhale comes after exhale. They’ve always let Frank stay, never had that edge of wild eyed panic before. He knows its serious, knows there’s nothing they can do but wait and hope they’re given another chance to let their son down, to make it up to him.
“What if its too late?”
“He’s gonna fight,” Frank tells her again because he can’t lie to Laurel, not ever, not even when it would be kind, be merciful. “He’s gonna fight and the doctors are too and if there’s any way, any chance…”
His voice cracks, trails off and for a long moment all he can do is hold Laurel tighter, cling to her hand and try to swallow back the rising tide of fear and grief that surges up through his skin. He clings to her like a lifeline. If the worst happens, if things go from bad to worse to whatever comes after worse, a place his mind can’t even begin to slink towards, Laurel will be all he has, all that’s left for him. “And if it…he knows we love him. He knows it. No matter what, ok. He knows it.”
“He was fine,” she says again, circling back to the last thing she knew before the world splintered apart. Her words stumble and trip and fracture apart, broken and searching for an answer, for a pattern or sense to emerge from the shards. “He was getting better. They were…they were saying he might go home in a week or two. He gained a like seventy grams. How…what happened?”
“I don’t know,” Frank whispers back, thumb tracking over her knuckles. Everything was fine, everything was great. Even the doctors were full of optimism, stopped talking in possibilities, in potentialities, started talking with something like certainty, a matter of whens not of ifs. How could everything have gone so suddenly, horribly wrong. How could they all have missed the bombs lurking beneath his son’s skin, buried in his heart. How could they miss that nothing was ok, that it was all an illusion, a cruel, terrible joke. “But they’ll figure it out, they’re gonna do everything they can. We just gotta trust them.”
“I was,” Laurel begins before a sob rips through her chest, her breath harsh and broken. She looks younger, smaller than Frank’s ever seen her, looks nothing like the Laurel he knows, always thinking, anticipating, always ready for whatever happens next. She looks like she doesn’t have any backup plans, any counter measures. She looks like she just wants it to be over, her eyes sunken and haunted with grief, her cheekbones, her jawline sharp and stark with shining tears. “I was letting myself hope. I bought a onesie for him last night online. The smallest size they had. I thought maybe he could wear it home. It said, god, it said ‘If you think I’m cute, wait till you see my dad.’ I thought I could surprise you. My tia asked if she could knit him a blanket and I…I let myself say yes, goddamnit, I thought about him at two or three dragging the blanket around everywhere, needing it to fall asleep, thought about it getting threadbare and worn and maybe him giving it a silly nickname and having to make sure he brought it to and from daycare everyday. I…I never should’ve done that. Because its all bullshit isn’t it? Its never gonna happen.”
“We don’t,” he starts, has to stop until he regains his voice. Its so, so had to talk about things he doesn’t know, about things he hopes become more than furtive longings. His son is eight days old and he’s the most important thing in Frank’s life and he barely even knows him. He can’t lose him, not yet, not when he only just met him, only just began learning who his son is, who he could be, not when he’s only just beginning to learn the mysteries, the universes that rest beneath his skin. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen. And until we do, you can’t write him off, you can’t count him out, ok? Please babe. He’s our kid, yours and mine, and that means he’s more stubborn than anything, it means he’s got more determination than sense. Don’t, don’t count him out ok? Not yet.”
Laurel presses her face against his neck, buries herself against his skin as she laughs around a sob. “I didn’t want him to have to fight,” she whispers like a confession, tattoos the words against his skin. “I didn’t want everything to be a struggle for him. I wanted, I wanted better for him than what we had. And if he had to fight, god, I thought, I thought we could help, we could…I don’t want to be anything like my father, Frank.”
“You’re not,” he promises her, because he can promise her this. This at least he knows is true, even if he’s sure about anything else. His fingers brush through her hair, slipping the soft strands behind her ear, thumb running over the sharp arc of her cheekbone, catching the tears that slip from her lashes. “You’re nothing like him. You know that. Your old man woulda never camped out in the hospital with you, I know he didn’t. I know he visited for an hour an then went off to a board meeting. You’re not like him, Laurel, you’ll never be anything like him. You’re doing everything you can for him. An you’re such a good mom.”
“What if I’m not? What if I’m not a mom anymore?”
“You’re always his ma,” he growls, hands tightening into fists because he can’t entertain the possibility that it could be true, that Laurel could stop being their son’s mother, that there might not be a baby at all after this ends. He can’t think about it, can’t let his mind drift to that dark, hopeless place. His son will always be his son, whatever happens. Frank’s been forever changed by his tiny son, he’ll never not be a father, never not be his son’s dad, it doesn’t matter what comes after, what happens to either one of them. “No matter what happens. He’s always your son and you’re always his ma.”
“I can’t loose him,” she gasps like the words have been ripped from her throat, a confession she never wanted to admit to, a weakness she never wanted. “I can’t Frank, I won’t survive it.”
He knows it, knows its true, as good as true, as close enough to true as to make no difference. He knows losing their son will shatter her, will destroy her in a way that kidnapping and murder and lies and far, far too many brushes with death never came close to acheiving. Laurel’s strong enough to withstand anything, to take on any burden and keep moving, keep fighting. But this, this will be too much to recover from. Laurel’s survived by being hard and strong, by shielding her heart, by turning herself to stone, by caring only until it hurts, until its too much for her wounded heart.
And the baby has ruined that, torn down every place inside she pretended was strong, found his way to the soft, secret heart of her, the weakest most wonderful parts of her heart. She’s been strong only by caring when it was easy, by forcing herself to be cold and guarded when emotion is too much, by falling out of love as easily as she gave up her heart in the first place. But there is no stopping their son, no chance that she can stop loving him, no stopping the depthless, endless, boundless selfless love. If something happens, something worse to their son, Frank knows she has the strength to survive, he’s just not sure he wants to see that Laurel, broken and torn apart, not sure he wants to live in a world where he never sees again the softness of the smile she reserves for their son alone, the way she has eyes only for him when he’s settled in her arms.
Its that simple, he doesn’t want to live in a world without his son, for himself, sure, but for Laurel as well, for all the things the two of them will be losing, all the things they’d only just allowed themselves to imagine were possible.
“You will though,” he tells her, lips brushing across her cheeks, her jawline. She won’t be the same if the worst happens, won’t be the woman he loves, strong and fierce and beautiful, but she’ll survive, limping and wounded. Laurel will survive anything, even this. “It’ll be hard, hardest thing you ever do, but if you have to, you will. I know you will. You’ll do it for him.”
She sucks in a long, trembling breath. “I didn’t know how much I wanted him until…until I thought I was gonna lose him. I can’t lose him. We can’t lose him.”
“We’re always gonna have him, no matter what happens,” Frank promises, echoing the things Annalise had said to him when he was terrified and running and a pathetic coward. He’s a father forever, whether his son lives a day or a week or eighty years. He’s always a father, the baby always his son. Laurel will always be his mother. Nothing that happens can ever change that, no matter how long they’re given with him. “He’s always ours, we’re always his.”
“We didn’t even name him,” she whispers, hands clenching into a fist and her nails driving sharp into her palm. “We didn’t even fucking name him Frank. And…and he might…he might. Without a name.”
She lets out a keening sob, eyes squeezed shut and there’s nothing Frank can do, not a damn thing but draw her body closer to his, his lips pressing softly against her hairline. “We love him,” he tells her, tells her the only things he can, the only comfort he can give her. He knows its not enough, it’ll never be enough. Not when they might lose their son. She’s right, they hadn’t even managed to settle on a name, hadn’t even been able to give him that. And now, now he might die without one. How’re they expected to name a dead child, if it comes to that. How’re they gonna name him after this. “That’s what matters. Not a name. What matters is we love him. And that he knows it.”
Laurel suddenly pulls away from him, pulls back, her eyes swinging over Frank’s shoulder, swinging to the door of the NICU. Frank follows her eyes, turns and watches scrub clad nurse pad out and into the hallway, approach them with slow cautious steps. Laurel’s fingers tighten around his, clinging tightly to his hand, still trembling with fear and confusion and grief, her breath coming in quick, harsh gasps. He watches as her eyes shut tight, watches as she braces herself for whatever’s coming.
“What’s the word, doc?” Frank calls out before the nurse can approach them, tries to make his voice light, casual, tries to keep it from shaking, from letting the fear slip through. “All good?”
“Pneumothorax,” the nurse tells them carefully one she gets closer, settles herself down next to Frank in one of the chairs. “Collapsed lung. The machines should’ve caught signs of it before he stopped breathing. They didn’t obviously.”
“Obviously,” he echoes, trying not to snarl, bone weary relief flooding through him only to be replaced by harsh, blinding rage. His son could’ve died, his son was dying, his lungs not filling with air, his brain, his body not getting the oxygen needed to keep himself alive. How could everything have gone so wrong, here, in the NICU, with more machines and sensors and alarms than Frank can count, with doctors watching, monitoring every breath his son takes. How could there have been no warning.
“Is he ok?” Laurel cuts in breathlessly, her free hand clenching at his thigh, nails digging into his skin, anxiety and terror clear in every movement, every breath. “Is he…did you…is he ok?”
The nurse offers them both a smile that Frank thinks tries to be reassuring, falling pathetic and flat and more like a grimace than anything else. “He’s been stabilized. The doctor inserted a chest tube. He’s been sedated but you can go back in and see him if you want.”
Laurel’s nodding beside him, swiping furiously at her cheeks, at the tear stains along her jaw. She clenches her teeth and glares at the nurse like its her fault, her hand still clinging tight to Frank’s. “Is it going to happen again?”
“It could,” she admits. “Its one of the risks associated with being on the ventilator. But it’s a rare complication. And we’ll be continuing to monitor your son closely.”
“But he’s ok,” Frank cuts in, eyes darting from the nurse and back to Laurel. “It didn’t, it didn’t set him back or…or make anything worse?”
“He’ll probably be pretty sluggish the next few days,” the nurse admits. “Both from the pneumothorax and the sedation, but there shouldn’t be any long term damage. Two, three days he should be back on track.”
“We can…we can see him?” Laurel asks. “Can we still hold him?”
“We’ll have to see if its possible without jostling the chest tube,” the other woman says crisply, rising to her feet. “But otherwise it shouldn’t be a problem. If you want to see him.”
“Yes,” he and Laurel both reply instantly, fingers catching at each other, clinging like lifelines, tripping over each other’s skin like their words overlap, crash against each other. And then he starts laughing, a low, rumbling chuckle he can’t keep within his chest. After all that, after all that fear and certainty, after countless minutes of fearing the worst, certain that everything they’d gained all the little victories were going to mean nothing in the face of hopeless, helpless defeat. After all that, their son is safe, whole. Two steps back, yeah, but he’s made a million tiny ones forward.
Laurel gives him a look, tender and searching before she huffs out her own shaky laugh, rolls her eyes at him. “Its not funny,” she tells him, though there’s no heat behind her words.
“Its not,” he agrees, because no, its not funny that their son nearly died, again, that all the best medical technology and staff in the world couldn’t notice that air was slowly leaking into the baby’s chest until he stopped breathing, that not even being in Laurel’s arms, her careful, doting attention, could prevent their son’s second brush with death. Its not funny that he might’ve survived his too early birth, his underdeveloped lungs and his heart that stubbornly refused to beat and the clumsy medical care Annalise tried her hardest to provide that finally got him gasping into the night, might’ve survived all that only to slip away in the hospital. Its not fucking funny, but he’s not sure what else he can do if not laugh about it.
Cry, very possibly, or destroy something, someone, his own fists having the best chance of getting split open against the sterile white walls. But he’s done enough fucking crying since his son was born, feels like all he’s done is cry, helpless and overwhelmed, and it seems wrong to cry over something that’s turned out as best as can be hoped for, seems wrong not to appreciate the reprieve the baby’s been given. And he knows if he smashes his hands against anything, even just the walls, scrape his knuckles raw, he’s going to get escorted out of the hospital, possibly get himself banned. And that’s the last goddamn thing he needs, getting banned from Jefferson and prevented from seeing his baby, prevented from fulfilling the single, measly promise he’s made to his boy, that he’ll never leave him.
Laurel grasps his hand harder then, tugs him from his thoughts, tugs him to his feet. “Don’t do that Frank,” she tells him lowly, turning his body slightly so that he’s angled away from the nurse and towards her, only her, so that its just the two of them. “Don’t focus on that. He’s here and he’s ok.”
She’s right of course, she’s always right. All that matters, the only thing that matters is that their son’s ok.
He’s still angry though, still angry and terrified and lost. He’s not sure those feelings will ever go away. Not until the day he dies. That rage, that fear, that confusion, it only eases when he sees his son, the tight fist around his heart only unclenches when Laurel leads him back to the incubator, to their son.
He doesn’t look any different, Frank thinks, a little paler than he’s used to, and he’s got an ugly clear tube poking out from just below his ribs, his eyes shut tight and his brow furrowed in something that hovers just between anger and pain. Its not as jarring as he thought it was gonna be, the chest tube, just another bit of hardware stuck beneath the baby’s skin, no worse than any of the other tubes and wires and monitors that Frank’s not sure he can imagine his son without.
He knows the baby will lose them eventually, shed the tubes and alarms and eventually look like every other baby, pink and new, but he can’t really imagine that future, not quite yet. It seems more like a distant pipe dream than something that’ll come before too long.
Laurel takes the baby’s hand, lets him curl his fingers around her index finger, responding to her touch even in sleep. Her other hand she passes across his chest, careful not to drift too close to the wires and sensors pressed against his rib cage, to the new tube jutting out of his side.
“You scared us back there,” she whispers to him, hand drifting up to brush against his cheek. “We weren’t sure what’d happened to you. Please don’t scare us like that again, mijo. Please.”
Frank can hear the grief in her voice, the tears even if she blinks them away before they fall. “Once you get outta here, you’re gonna have all time time in the world to break bones and jump off the back of the couch and scare us half to death. You don’t have to fit it all in right now. You’ve got plenty of time to make us worry, ok? Please don’t scare us again. Not so soon after we thought we lost you.”
“Yeah,” Frank adds, coming up beside Laurel, one hand circling her waist, the other tickling at the ball of one tiny foot, chuckling as the baby kicks out at the touch. “Your ma’s right. We know how tough you are, don’t gotta do anything more to convince us. Just sleep and hang with us and get stronger so you can come home with us, see the wider world. Put on some clothes. I know they’re kinda lame but your mom got you a pretty slick onesie. An’ I know you’ve met Nonna but Nonno’s pretty cool too and he really wants to meet you, pretend he’s the one that introduces you to the Phillies. An’ you’ve got all your cousins who’re itching to see you.”
“I know this place is all you know,” Laurel adds as her fingertips curl around the baby’s ears, as she takes Frank’s hand in hers, slots their fingers. “Apart from that goddamn elevator. So I get why you might wanna just stay here. The only other place you’ve seen so far has been shit. But we promise you, the rest of the world is awesome. And you’re gonna love it. We can’t wait to show it to you.”
“Wait, so how’re we doing this again?” Frank asks incredulously, throwing Laurel a look he hopes settles somewhere between confused and skeptical, thinks it lands solidly in bewildered.
“I was thinking like peremptory challenges,” Laurel tells him, setting a styrofoam cup of coffee on the little shelf behind his head, hopefully in a spot where he can connect his fingers with it without jostling the baby too much.
They’re not supposed to have food, drink in the NICU, they both know that, but they both know well enough that no one’s really gonna say much, not as long as they don’t do anything stupid, spill anything or leave any trash behind. They haven’t so far, and he and Laurel are in the unit enough that the nurses now mostly treat them as part of the scenery, omnipresent, when they’re with their son.
“Thanks,” he offers her a tired smile as she settles across from him in her own chair, sagging back against the slats of the the chair and her legs kicking out so that her ankle brushes his. They’ve been surviving on vending machine coffee and lukewarm cafeteria food for ten days now, or, well, Laurel’s only at day four, but sometimes it feels to Frank like he’ll never stop feeling tired, never shake his bone deep weariness, the ever present worry churning in his chest.
He knows it’s the caffeine, knows it’s the stress of having a child in the NICU, but his days and nights in the hospital are starting to feel like reality, like his real life, and not some strange interlude before the rest of his future can begin.
Laurel’s smile echoes his own, sloppy and worn, before she hides it behind the lip of her cup. “We’ve got like ten names, or I guess we get to eleven,” she says, continuing her explanation. “Make it an odd number, and we take turns striking them out. Then I guess we’re left with the one we both hate least.”
Frank chuckles, tries to hold himself still and steady so that he doesn’t jostle the baby too much. He’s asleep, at least for now, but Frank’s begun to learn his habits, his patterns and he knows the baby will wake if Frank moves too much, if he hears Laurel’s voice at more than a soft whisper but doesn’t feel her skin against his. His whole life has been spent in the NICU and their son can ignore alarms and the banter of nurses but he still wakes at the sound of his mother’s voice. Frank can’t begin to understand it, the strange connection between Laurel and the baby, but he loves it, worships it, finds his throat tightening with wonder every time the baby cracks his eyes, turns his head, searching out for Laurel.
Once it hurt, the thought that their son felt that keen, sharp loss of those first few days without Laurel, seeking the only familiar, comforting thing that had existed in his world, before. That everything else in his world, all the bright, painful things, all the screaming alarms and fluorescent lights and hands that touched him with brusque professionalism had his tiny son aching with need and abandonment, aching for the constant of Laurel’s voice, her touch, her body. But the baby still does it, still turns to his mother like a plant seeking the sun, and Frank’s had to adjust, realize that it might be less loss and more love, more curiosity and hunger than anything else.
“You know everyone’s gonna make fun of us if we do it that way,” Frank warns, though there’s not really any heat behind his words, more like an echo of his earlier chuckle. “Two eventual lawyers turning naming into jury selection.”
She shrugs, takes another sip of coffee. “We could do a point system,” she proposes, fingers of her free hand drumming along the armrest of her rocker. “But then we’re running the risk of a tie, or of the eventual winner being one that you love and I mostly hate. Or vice versa.”
“Thus peremptory challenges,” Frank finishes for her, his own fingers tracking idle patters along the minuscule expanse of their son’s back. He knows it’s a self soothing gesture, knows it doesn’t do anything, mean anything to the baby, but it helps Frank, reminds him that his son is alive, is strong and getting stronger every day, can feel his touch, respond to it. It helps him pretend that he matters, that his son get something from his presence, that even asleep the baby will know that Frank’s there, still, will always be there.
Laurel nods, smirk slipping across her face. “Thusly and therefore.”
“Alright,” Frank agrees, because they’ve had ten days now and still haven’t been able to come up with a name for their son and they’re starting to run out of anything they like, all the names sounding terrible after so much attention and consideration. “So we doing nine or eleven names?”
“Nine?” Laurel asks, leaving a space open for Frank to demand more. He won’t and she probably knows it, they’re both tired, both just want it to be over and done with, want to give their child a name and move on. Hell, he thinks they could probably just pick any name out of a hat at this point and it’d both be simultaneously perfect and horrible.
“But how’re we gonna decide on the nine?” he asks. “Go off the unofficial list we have right now, make a new list? We each suggest four and then a wild card?”
“Whatever gets little man a name faster,” Laurel replies, setting her coffee cup down beside her chair with only a little wince of pain. She’s healing and the baby’s healing and some day they’ll be out of the hospital, some day they’ll be strong and this will all feel like a strange and distant dream. It just seems like that day never quite gets any closer. “Whatever you want.”
“Yeah, lets try a wildcard,” he grins. “I’m sure I can pull up a name randomizer on my phone, get something weird like Barbarian or Aphrodite.”
“Barbarian,” Laurel asks with a skeptical raise of her eyebrows.
“It’s a badass name,” he argues. “Nobody’d mess with a Barbarian on the playground.”
“True,” she admits, biting her lower lip to keep from grinning. “But what if he wants to be president? Barbarian Delfino has a great ring if he’s gonna be a stuntman, but I can’t see him on the ballot in 2060.”
“Delfino huh?” Frank asks around the heavy lump of something that tightens against his throat. He hadn’t dared to hope, not yet, not ever, hadn’t allowed himself to think that maybe Laurel would give him Frank’s name, hadn’t imagined she’d allow him that much of a space in the baby’s life, something permanent, something true. He figured he’d have to earn his way into anything she allowed him, have to prove he meant it before she really trusted him with the baby, trusted him to be a father in more than biology. He knows what she’s said, knows she wants him involved, wants their son to know him, but that doesn’t shake the doubt Frank has, doesn’t shake the feeling that its all going to vanish before his eyes, that Laurel’s going to wake up and realize how worthless he is, how he’s the last person who should be her son’s father.
And now, and now she’s giving the baby his name. She can’t take that back, can’t realize in a week or a month or a year that he’s not worth it, that he’s really a pathetic piece of shit, that the only thing of value he had to give their son was his DNA and he should really just fuck right off. She can’t erase him quite so easily if the baby has his name.
It means she wants him around, wants him to know the baby and the baby to know him, that the past week hasn’t been some sick, ridiculous joke. He still needs to prove himself, he knows, will be proving himself to her, to their son for the rest of his life, but it means maybe, maybe she’s starting to trust him, believe him again, maybe it means he’s doing something right.
Laurel looks up, sharply, holds his eyes. “Don’t sound so surprised, Frank,” she tells him, an edge to her voice he can’t ignore. “You’re his dad.”
“I know,” he agrees, swallowing hard against the hard choking thing pressed against his windpipe that tastes a little like hope.
“But it would be easier for you, wouldn’t it, if he had your name. Less confusion.”
She makes a noise like a scoff, rough and angry, in the back of her throat. “I don’t care about easy. None of this has been easy.”
“All the more reason it should be now,” he counters.
“You know what,” she tells him, turning sharply away, her eyes fixing on something in the direction of the exit, her voice suddenly too flat, too controlled and he knows he screwed up, knows he’s done something pathetically wrong, he just can’t figure out what. “You know what, just forget it. I’ll give him my name. I knew it was a bad idea. I knew I shouldn’t’ve let myself think…it doesn’t matter.”
“Wait, Laurel,” he tells her, trying to keep his voice soft, trying to keep himself from shaking, to do anything that wakes the baby up, but he can’t. He’s fucked up, he’s fucked up and he’s said the wrong thing, again, and he’s doubting her when all he really needs to do is just trust her, trust that she’s a good mom, a great mom and she’s thought things through, thought them out and trust that she’s the Laurel she’s always been, that she never acts rashly, impulsively, that she knows her own mind, that she never does anything she doesn’t mean with her whole heart. “I’m sorry. I…I was an idiot. I want him to have my name, if that’s what you want too. I don’t…I was trying to be, I dunno, noble maybe, let him have your name. But I know, I do, that you wouldn’t offer if it wasn’t what you wanted.”
Her eyes flick back to his, just for a moment, then down to the floor, the endless inches of space between their bodies. “Ok,” she tells him, something about her tone still guarded, still distant, her fingers curling too tight around the armrest and her shoulders too stiff.
“Its me,” he presses on, trying to shift his weight so he can sit up, sit forward. He can’t, the baby against his chest makes it nearly impossible to move without waking him. All he wants to do is take Laurel’s hand but he can’t, he can’t shift or lean forward or take her hand, the baby prevents that and so he has to choose and he chooses his son, every time, even though it feels like his blood cries out for Laurel. “Its me being an idiot, ok. Me doubting whether I’m good enough, whether I deserve to have you trust me at all. But I…I want him to have my name, ok, and I’m gonna spend every day trying to deserve that. Trying to make sure it’s a name he can be proud of. Ok?”
She nods, a little stiff, a little reserved, but a nod all the same. A nod is good, a nod means they’re communicating, even if its in fits and starts. A nod means they’re moving forward. “You’ve gotta talk to me Frank,” she tells him fiercely. “You can’t, you can’t assume I know what you’re thinking. Especially now that we have him, we can’t keep each other in the dark.”
“You just, you just surprised me is all,” he tells her, trying to be deliberate about his words, trying to make sure she knows how flat footed she caught him, breathless and shocked. “I figured you’d want him to be a Castillo. Figured it make things easier on you, y’know, with the hospital and daycare and doctors and school and stuff.”
“I don’t care about what’s easy,” she cuts in vehemently, her eyes finally lifting to glare at him. “I don’t care about any of that. I want to do what’s best for him, not what’s easy for us.”
“I know,” he promises. “I know. And I was doing the same thing and we tripped over our own feet. So you talk to me, I talk to you and we’ll both decide what’s best for him. Together. Like we’re gonna do with his name.”
“His first name,” Laurel points out, a crooked grin teasing at the corners of her mouth. “Because we just epically screwed up his last.”
“Nah,” he assures her, eyes going to the baby before he can help himself, smiling down at his little sleeping son, the furrow still frozen between his brows, completely oblivious to the drama surrounding his name. He doesn’t care, all the boy knows is that he’s warm and safe and loved, all he knows is the soft tones of his parents’s voices, the drumbeat of Frank’s heart and the slow catch of his fingers. His son doesn’t care what they name him, doesn’t even care that he has a name at all. He cares about this, about the three of them. “Didn’t screw it up. Only had some brief hiccups.”
“Well, we got half his name at least. Or a third, I guess,” Laurel points out, her own smile fond and soft as she watches Frank and their son. “Two more names and we’ll be set.”
“So,” he asks. “We’ve got Mateo, Luca, Roman, Diego, Marco…. What else?” he ticks the names off, fingers drumming against the baby’s narrow back.
“Gabriel, Rafael, Alejandro, Benjamin,” Laurel adds, ticking off the rest of the names on their unofficial list. They’d narrowed the list to ten originally. Laurel had still insisted Tomas be kept on, but well, he guesses she’s finally accepted that the baby isn’t a Tomas. That or she realized he was gonna use a challenge on the name, figured she should strike it out herself and save them all the effort. “Which gets us to nine. Wanna get the first peremptory challenge?”
“Marco I think,” he decides, watching the baby’s face, suddenly certain that no, his son’s not a Marco any more than he is a Tomas. He’s too serious to be a Tomas, too quiet, too much like Laurel. He thinks maybe the same applies to Marco.
“Ok,” Laurel nods, only a little flinch as he makes his challenge. Its scary, he thinks, scary that they’re finally being forced to pick, to choose a name for their son, something that must be perfect, must be permanent and they can’t, they can’t screw it up. He knows how much she liked Marco, but well, he doesn’t think their son is a Marco anymore than he is a Tomas. “Diego. I love it, but it barely works in English.”
In short order they’ve struck through Gabriel, Luca and Alejandro, all names they liked, loved even, all names that will have to wait for some other unlikely child. “How are we picking his middle name?” Frank asks then. “Use the runner up or do we gotta do this with another list of middle names?”
Laurel laughs under her breath, grabs her coffee cup so she can disguise her grin. She can’t disguise the little points of color that appear on the sharp arch of her cheeks, the little flush of pleasure. “We’ll use the two runners up? See which sounds best with the name we choose?”
“I like everything that’s left,” he tells her honestly. All four are good names, names that work in every language he and Laurel care about. “As long as they sound good together, I’m on board with any of the four left.”
“Benjamin’s probably the most Anglo,” she muses. “Roman might be the most Italian. Do we care about things like that?”
“Not really,” Frank admits. He doesn’t care about the origin of the name, doesn’t care if its Spanish or Italian or English, doesn’t care if she makes up a name as long as it works in all three languages, as long as it sounds good, fits the baby. “As long as we really stick to it being Ro-mahn and not Ro-mun. You know everyone’s gonna pronounce it like Roman gladiator.”
“Keep it to a potential middle name instead?” Laurel asks like she already knows his answer, already knows he’s going to agree. He watches her teeth worry her lower lip, suddenly lost in thought. “Fewer people butchering it?”
He nods, watching the baby’s face as he does, feeling almost like he needs to confirm that the baby isn’t really a Roman in disguise, like they’ve somehow missed who he is and what he is. “We can do that. Roman as a middle name. So what sounds best with it?”
“Rafael Roman Delfino has a pretty good ring to it,” Laurel muses. “Not sure Mateo can compete.”
“It does,” he agrees. “What about Benjamin Roman?”
Laurel hums, her own eyes darting to the baby. “I like it too. So which one are we going with? Is he a Rafa or a Ben?”
“Rafael Delfino sounds good on its own,” he offers, with a little shrug, a little hitch of his shoulders, not letting himself get too hopeful in case Laurel hates the way it sounds. He thinks, suddenly and startlingly, that yeah, he could see his son as a Rafael, thinks maybe it’s the right name. Rafaels are thoughtful and kind and a little quiet, he can’t think of any serial killers named Rafael, can’t recall any douchey students Annalise took on as interns. He thinks maybe the baby might be more a Rafael than a Benjamin. “You think that’s who he is?”
“I think that it’d be a lot easier if babies were like puppies,” she tells him. “You go to the shelter, the dog’s already got a name. It’d be great if someone’d just tell us, oh, yeah, his name’s Derrick.”
“Derrick?” he echoes, because their kid is definitely not a Derrick.
“You know what I mean,” Laurel tells him with a little roll of her eyes, a little rumbling chuckle.
“I do,” Frank admits. “But babies aren’t dogs. An’ we’re so close. Rafael or Benjamin?”
The corner of her mouth twists in thought, her eyes fixed on the baby’s face.
“Rafael,” she decides finally, no trace of anything like doubt, like hesitation in his voice. “Rafael Roman.”
“Ok,” he nods. “Rafael Roman Delfino.”
Her smile is soft and heavy and slanted, watching as Frank presses a kiss against the baby’s temple, breathes his name out against his skin. “Well, at least he doesn’t seem to hate it.”
“Give him a decade,” Frank chuckles, wondering, distantly, where they’ll be in ten years, wondering if they’ll be together, finally, if there’ll be other kids, if they’ll have managed to maintain a good coparenting relationship or if they’ll hate each other, passing snide messages back and forth through Rafael and curbside at exchanges. He wonders if they’ll look back on this moment as the highpoint of a terrible, fractured relationship or as the start of something good and solid, something strong.
He’s certain he’s gonna love Laurel until his last breath, certain that even if she hates him she’ll pretend she won’t, pretend for the baby. He hopes its true, hopes that no matter what they can be allies for their son, the three of them against doctors and teachers and coaches and whoever else stands in their way.
“I’ll take anything,” Laurel admits carefully, teeth continuing to pull at her lip, tugging it raw. “I don’t care if he spends half his life hating me. I think I’ll just be glad he’s here to do it.”
“Yeah,” Frank breathes out, because its true. He doesn’t care who, what his son becomes as long as he’s here, as long as he’s alive, Frank’s son. He’d be fine with the baby hating him as long as he’s around to do it. He wonders if that feeling will ever change, that bone weary directionless gratitude that his son’s alive and not in a box beneath the earth. He wonders if he’ll ever stop thinking of it as anything more than a miracle.
He thinks probably he’ll need to or otherwise he’ll never be able to tell the baby no, never enforce anything approaching discipline and his little boy will wind up spoiled and coddled, the type of kid that learns a harsh lesson the first time he goes to school. And yet, Frank can’t find it in himself to mind that much. He deserves it, Frank thinks, his son deserves the world.
He’s fairly certain that ‘no’ is going to wind up being a word his son is wholly unfamiliar with.
“Who do we tell?” he asks then with a little sheepish smirk. “About the name? To make it official or whatever?”
“I’m not really sure,” Laurel admits, face flushing again and her lips pulling into a grin he almost misses. “I bet if we grab a nurse they’ll let us know who to tell. Get the paperwork filled out or something.”
“Its so weird,” Frank muses, waiting until the baby shifts in his sleep, kicks out his legs, one of his arms, fingers curling against Frank’s chest before speaking again. “That we have to fill out forms to prove he exists. That he’s not a person yet, not to anyone but us.”
“He is to the nurses,” Laurel says, gesturing vaguely towards the closest nurse, charting, Frank thinks, outside another little plastic incubator. Her words have an edge that might be a challenge, except her eyes are clear and sparking with something that might be teasing. “He may not have a name on paper, but you hear them talk about guapo often enough you’d think that was his name.”
“Its not too late,” he points out with a crooked grin. “Still have time to change our minds.”
Laurel snorts. “That’s like naming your kid Hot Stuff.”
Frank shrugs. “Plenty of people name their kid Bella, same idea, right? I mean no one thinks of it, but that’s what Linda means too, isn’t it?”
“You just want us to eventually wind up with Barbarian, don’t you?” she asks, rolling her eyes and taking a slow, smirking sip of coffee.
“Was it that obvious?” he asks, remembering, distantly, his own coffee, perched on the shelf above him. He struggles for a moment, shoulder twisting as he tries not to move his chest in any way that would wake the baby, until his fingers collide with the cup, bring it down so that he can take a sip of the now lukewarm liquid.
Laurel’s grin hitches into a frown so suddenly Frank wonders what he’s said, what he can do to fix things. “Sometimes you act like I don’t know you at all,” she tells him, scowling. “I know you Frank. You gotta stop pretending that I don’t, convincing yourself that you’re the only one that gives a shit here. I know I didn’t make it easy, not for the last year. But you didn’t either.”
“I know, but…” he starts until she cuts him off sharply, her every word a warning against speaking more.
“But you came back, expected me to just, what, fall back into…fall back in love with you?” she demands, tripping over her words like there’s so much she can’t bring herself to say, that she’s swallowing down more than she’s admitting. He can hear the choking threat of tears in her voice, watches her blink them away furiously, wishes he could reach out, wrap her in his arms. He can’t, even if the baby wasn’t lying against his skin, he knows she wouldn’t allow it, knows this is a battle they’re going to have to fight on opposite sides of some great divide. “You acted like you hadn’t left, hadn’t lied to me for a year, for our entire relationship and then abandoned me like I didn’t matter. You acted like everything was fine, like it should go back to normal and then, and then you resented me when I wouldn’t, when I couldn’t go back to normal, start trusting you again. You can’t pretend you didn’t know how much leaving would hurt me Frank, you can’t. Not if you ever really loved me.”
“I do love you,” he gasps out. It’s the truth, it’s always been the truth. But the truth is he’s hurt her as well, and the truth is that he knew he would. He knew how much leaving would hurt her, he knew how it would dig up all the terrible hurts that whisper in the back of her mind, always telling her how little she matters, always reminding her that she’ll be left alone. The truth is he loved her and he still hurt her, still made the choice to hurt her. And he’s not sure a choice like that, a hurt like that can really be love at all. Not in a way that counts. That’s the truth too. “I’ve always loved you. You gotta know that.”
“Then why don’t you act like it?” Laurel hisses, though Frank thinks he can hear, deep beneath the anger, a curling river of hurt, an ache in her voice like a plea. “Why’d you leave me? Why do you get to play the martyr, the guy who waits. I waited, I waited for months for you. And you still think I’m the bad guy for not falling all over myself the minute you show back up, that you’re making some huge sacrifice, telling me you’ll finally fucking be around, wait as long as I need. I needed that from you a year ago, Frank. Not now. It might be too late now.”
“I fucked up Laurel,” he confesses, wishing he could run away again, have any conversation other than this one. He knows its one they need to have, because he cuts and runs when things get hard, leaves her holding the bag, leaves Laurel to deal with the fallout on her own. And Laurel, Laurel’s been abandoned, left alone her whole life, lied to again and again by people telling her they loved her, telling her she mattered only to vanish when she needed them most. They find each other’s weakest points like heat seeking missiles, the man who runs as soon as things get tough, the woman who gets left behind.
He knows how much it took for her to trust him that first time, knows she acted against every instinct, the things that screamed at her to keep herself safe, not to let herself feel anything for him, for anyone. He knows how carefully she guarded her feelings, herself, tried so hard to make sure that she never had to feel the things she’d felt in that Chihuahuan warehouse, knowing there was no rescue coming, no salvation because money was more important to her father than his child. Frank knows how completely he betrayed that trust, just another in a long line of people who didn’t really love her when it mattered, who only hurt her instead, her father, yeah, but her mother too, her mind fracturing and cracking and leaving Laurel with only a shell of the woman she loved.
“You know I fucked up, I keep fucking up. I fucked up and I was selfish and I thought it was better for you if I left because I’m an idiot. I am. I’m never gonna do something so stupid again. And I don’t resent you, I swear. Everything that happens, its my fault, I know that. But I love you, I love our son, and I’m gonna do whatever it takes so that we can be a family.”
“Then why’d you leave him?” she demands, voice like ice. “Why’d you run away again? From him?”
Her voice cracks as she speaks of the baby, their son, not a thawing of her words but the sharp, terrible crack of ice fracturing as it collides, buckles under the heavy weight of itself. Frank watches her arms wrap around her middle, unconsciously trying to shield the child that no longer lives inside her, trying to protect him and keep him safe, even from Frank.
“I panicked,” he admits, hating how his own hands tighten around the baby, press him against Frank’s skin. “I didn’t, I couldn’t be responsible for another child dying. And I ran. And I’m sorry. I’m always gonna be sorry about it.”
“You shouldn’t’ve run,” she tells him sharply, a catch to her voice making him want to get up and place the baby against her skin, return him to where he belongs most. “You shouldn’t’ve left him. Its…its fine if you don’t love me, I get it, I do. But him, how could you leave him Frank?”
“I’m never gonna be able to justify myself,” he admits, trying to catch her eyes, hold them, try to impress on her just how much he means it, just how much he knows he has to do to earn any kind of trust back. From both of them. “I know that. It was unforgivable. You couldn’t be there for him and all he had was me and I shoulda stepped up, I shoulda been his old man. And I wasn’t. And that’s gonna haunt me for the rest of my life. An I’m gonna spend every second of the rest of it tryna make up for it, tryna make the right choices. For him and for you. I can’t fix what I did, Laurel, but if you let me I’m gonna spend every moment I get as a father trying to be better, tryna deserve him. And you, if you’ll let me. An I really, really hope you’ll let me. For both of you.”
“Its not that easy,” she whispers, her shoulders hunched, her entire body curling in, collapsing around her arms, still folded over her stomach, around the baby she knows she must protect, the baby that’s no longer sheltered inside her but instead lies curled into Frank’s chest. “It can’t be that easy.”
“Its not gonna be easy,” he tells her. “But I’m gonna do it anyway. Cause its worth it. I just need you to give me a chance. If I screw up again, you can tell me to walk, tell me I can’t ever see him again, cut me outta his life. I wouldn’t blame you. But give me a chance ok, let me prove it.”
“You had a chance,” she counters viciously, swiping angrily at the tears staining her cheeks. She always knew exactly how to hurt him, exactly where his weakest points were, never hesitated to slide past the gaps in his armor. Time hasn’t changed a thing. “You had a chance and you ran away.”
“I know, I know,” he repeats around a hiccuping sob. “But I won’t. Not again. I won’t. I swear to you, to him.”
“How can I trust that?” Laurel demands her own voice breaking. “How can I trust you?”
“You can’t,” he admits. “I know you can’t. But let me prove it, let me earn it. Please.”
“Please don’t let me down Frank,” she begs him. “Don’t let him down. Please.”
“I won’t,” he swears vehemently. “I won’t. I know what I’d be losing. I’d never do that to either of you.”
“Its so easy to believe you,” she tells him. “And I wanna believe you. But I don’t, I can’t. Not after everything you’ve done, all the times you’ve run away.”
“So where does that leave us?” he asks, stomach sinking. He thinks he’s gonna be sick. If he loses his son, loses Laurel he doesn’t think there’s anything left for him. If she gives him a chance, he can earn his way back, he knows it. But if she shuts the door, cuts him out of their lives, forever, he’s not sure where that leaves him, what he can do to survive it. “Where does that leave me?”
“Proving yourself every damn day,” she replies, voice clipped and rough like she’s only barely able to get the words out. “Proving yourself so that he never doubts you. I can’t forget what you did Frank, and I don’t think I should. But prove to both of us that it’ll never happen again. Or I swear to god, you’ll never see him again. You’ve had your chances.”
“I won’t,” he repeats, feeling maybe like he has to repeat it until both of them believe it. He thinks he believes it, thinks he’s a better man than he was a week ago, a better man than he was before he became a father. He thinks, but he doesn’t know.
Not yet. He hasn’t proven himself yet. “I won’t take off when things get hard. It was worse, Laurel, you have no idea how much worse it was before I saw him, when I was just imagining how horrible it was and how it was all my fault and how much the baby was suffering. And then I got my head out of my ass and it was still terrible and he was still too damn tiny and hooked up to every machine on earth, keeping him alive, but it was better. Because I was there, and he was there and we were together. It wasn’t as painful or terrifying. For either of us, I hope.”
“Remember that then,” she tells him sharply, even as the edge of a smile threatens the corner of her mouth, even as the sharp clench of her jaw softens, eases. “And remember this when you want to run again. How he falls asleep best with you here, how his heartbeat slows, how he breathes better. How alone he is without you. How much your son loves you. How much he needs you. Put him first and don’t run, you understand?”
He nods even as his lips brush the curve of the baby’s cheek, whisper against the tiny tips of his ears. “Yeah,” he tells her, tells him, Laurel and his son. “I understand.”
He understands, he does. Finally. He finally gets that its not about him, not anymore, not about his wants or needs or desires. Or well, it is. Because what he wants, needs, desires is Rafael, is Laurel, Frank’s son and his son’s mother, the two loves of his life, the twin suns around which his life orbits. The only thing that matters is his family, the baby in his arms and the woman across from him, the only thing that matters is making sure they’re safe, happy, loved. All Frank wants is right here, and there’ll never be a reason to run again unless it’s the two of them he’s running towards.
“Hey,” he begins, standing up from the rocker and slipping his hand along the curve of Laurel’s shoulder. He’s a ball of nervous energy, wound tight and sharp and vibrating with something he decides is less worry and more anticipation.
She glances up, eyes soft and sleepy for long beats until her gaze rearranges itself into a question. She shifts slightly to better look at him, hands still cradling Rafa against her chest.
“Hey buddy,” he whispers before he can help himself, his other hand letting a finger curl into the baby’s palm, thumb brushing over his knuckles as Rafael tightens his grip into a fist around Frank’s hand. “Gonna need to steal your mom for a second. That ok?”
Rafa just blinks sleepily, watches Frank with an expression that’s all Laurel, sharp with unasked questions, soft and watchful.
He turns his attention back to Laurel, finds the same expression on her face, eyebrows drawn in and that damn furrow appearing between her brows. He’s pretty sure his clumsy efforts have already failed. Laurel’s already suspicious, already confused. And when she’s suspicious or confused, she reacts with caution. He’s so fucked.
“What’s going on?” she asks him slowly.
“Just needa steal you for a minute,” he tells her vaguely, trying not to look too nervous, too shifty, but he’s pretty sure the tentative shuffling of his feet and his less than illuminating words are setting off a couple of alarm bells in her head. He usually loves her quiet caution, her watchfulness, but right now, well, he’d pay quite a bit of money for Laurel to just go along with something instead of analyzing his words, his tone, the shifts of his gaze. “I forgot about it till now, but one of the nurses said we gotta sign some more things. Something about the apnea alarm for when he comes home.”
“I thought we already signed those,” Laurel says, and yeah, there’s the caution he was expecting, the doubt. Her mouth curls into a frown and he watches as her hands press tighter against the baby’s skin. At least, he thinks, she doesn’t shake off his touch.
“More of em I guess,” he tries for stupid and bumbling, tries for overwhelmed and exhausted. She’ll still be suspicious, Frank thinks, but at least she might just come with him to put an end to whatever confusions going on. “He’s lucky he’s so cute or I’d vote we just leave him here.”
Laurel sighs, bites the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning. “No you wouldn’t,” she finally tells him. “But alright. He’ll be asleep in five minutes and we can duck out, sign more of our lives away to copays.”
And true to her word, five minutes later the baby’s asleep and Laurel’s slipping him back into his incubator, trailing after Frank and out into the hall.
Except the next hiccup comes immediately after that when she tries to turn down towards the nurse’s station. Damnit, Frank thinks, shoulda thought of that. Still, he can improvise.
“Lets get some coffee first,” he suggests, catching at her wrist and giving her a gentle tug towards the vending machines and the waiting area. “I’m gonna need something before I can make sense of any paperwork.”
“I wish it wasn’t more trouble than its worth to Grubhub coffee,” she laughs, slipping her hand into his and following. “Its like four times as expensive and they make you walk all the way to the front entrance to pick it up. Still though, it’d almost be worth it.”
“I see you’ve done some research,” he teases, knocking his shoulder into hers. He tells himself its another means of distracting Laurel, knows that’s nowhere near true. He does it because he wants to be close to her, always, wants to have long inches of her skin pressed against his own, wants to feel the thrum of her pulse and the shift of her muscles, wants to try and decipher her thoughts from her body.
“May have done some late night research when I couldn’t stand the crap from the cafeteria anymore,” she admits then pulls up short, freezing as her fingers tighten around Frank’s. “Frank? What’s this?”
She’s glancing around, not wild or panicked, but slowly, cautiously, like she’s trying to work out what she’s seeing, like she’s trying to figure out Frank’s intentions.
“I promised you a baby shower, didn’t I?” he points out casually, gesturing at the crowd that’s only beginning to notice him and Laurel, turning to watch them and rising from their seats and coming over with open arms. He tries not to let his hands shake, tries not to let her notice the uncertainty in his voice. He knows how little she likes surprises, likes being caught off guard, but well, he thinks this might be something she needs.
They haven’t had much chance to really feel like parents, aside from the constant worry, the sleepless nights. They’ve been caring for Rafael surrounded by a team of doctors and nurses. They may change diapers, but its always with an extra set of hands to help with the sensors and wires. Laurel may be pumping but Rafa’s still at least a week away from kicking the feeding tube, actually being fed by a breast or a bottle. Laurel hasn’t even left the hospital after her discharge, just turning right around and heading back inside to the baby. Frank’s only left to grab them both a change of clothes, and they’ve been showering in one of the oncall rooms after the late night nurse was kind enough to tell them about it. They haven’t really felt like parents, not really, and he thinks this might help. It won’t fix everything because they’re still in the hospital, Rafael’s still on all his machines, but it’ll help, he thinks, at least a little. “It’s a little late I guess, but then Rafa was a little early. So. Baby shower.”
He doesn’t have a chance to hear her reply before his mom is wrapping Laurel in a crushing hug, his sister and a couple of cousins close behind.
“Oh honey,” his mom is saying, one hand going softly to her cheek. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you, but I really love the name Rafael. And Rafael Roman, such a good name for him. I was telling Donnie, just last night, how well that name fits him. You couldn’ta picked a better one.”
“It’s a good strong name,” his dad adds, rolling up beside them and clapping Frank on the arm, tugging Laurel down for a hug. “You did good, ok, darlin’. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“His name?” Laurel asks, still a little shocked, though a crooked smile darts across her lips, one eyebrow arched like she’s certain she’s being teased.
“Nah,” Frank’s dad tells her. “The name too. But that’s not what I meant.”
“Oh,” Laurel huffs out, almost like a laugh, her breath shaky before she turns back to Frank, cheeks coloring at the praise and her eyes bright. “So. A baby shower?”
“Yeah,” he tells her, shrugging again sheepishly, feeling like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t’ve. He thinks maybe its too soon, they’re only just beginning to trust that Rafael will be ok, will make it off of the oxygen, the apnea monitor, might someday make it out of the incubator and home with them, might someday make it out into the world. It might’ve been too soon to throw Laurel, to throw himself around a dozen people, ragged and exhausted and their feelings scraped raw, no longer capable of keeping things below the surface, not now that everything so immediate, so precious with Rafael. Maybe he should’ve waited a week, maybe he should’ve talked to Laurel first, given her a warning about what he was planning. But he didn’t, and he’s still not sure he made the right choice. “We haven’t done much traditional baby stuff, but I figured we could do this at least. Move Sunday dinner over here, maybe let Rafa meet some more of his family. Plus, can’t hurt to throw in some gifts, huh?”
She laughs, swipes at her cheeks with are suddenly wet with tears. “As long as someone thought to buy diapers in bulk.”
“Dunno about that,” he admits, even though her reminded both his brothers that yes, tiny Eagles gear was great, but diapers were considerably more useful. “But I bet we’re gonna get some really great onesies.”
She laughs again, kisses his jaw. “You only say that cause they’re gonna be humblebrags about you.”
“Hey,” he tells her, fingers catching at her waist, drawing her body close against his chest. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
He tries to direct her to one of the couches in the waiting area, but Laurel stops him before they’ve gone more than a few feet. “Thank you for this,” she whispers, close enough he’s certain no one else can hear. “This is…this is good.”
“C’mon,” he says, flashing her a crooked grin. “Lets get some meatballs and chicken parm. After more ‘n a week of hospital food, we deserve some home cooking.”
“We do,” she agrees, letting him hand her a paper plate, letting him steer her towards the aluminum buffet pans of pasta and chicken that his mom brought over. “But should I warn the nurses they’re gonna have some visitors before that? They ought to know your entire family is gonna be tracking through, wanting to see Raf.”
“Already did,” he assures her, ignoring the burn of warmth in his chest when she looks up, startled, a smile breaking across her lips like a sunrise, the burn of warmth and pride that he could anticipate her thoughts, already addressed them. “You really think my mom didn’t already ask how many nurses were gonna be on duty, how much extra she needed to make so they could all get some?”
“We really should do something to thank them,” Laurel muses. “Something else I mean. Feeding them doesn’t even come close to thanking them for everything.”
“I don’t think there’s anything that can,” Frank confesses. How do you thank someone for saving your kid’s life? For doing it twice, three times, four? For doing their job, yeah, but so much more than that. For caring about his and Laurel’s son, giving him nicknames and bringing in a little knit blanket with a teddy bear stitched into it and offering to grab coffee, grab sandwiches for them every time one of the nurses goes on break. He doesn’t think there’s any way he can thank them for all they’ve done, for Rafael, for him and Laurel, doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to repay them. “But food might be a start.”
“Spoken like a true Italian,” she teases with a tiny smirk, dishing up a heap of spaghetti onto her plate, passing the serving spoon over to him.
“Spoken like my mother’s son,” he corrects, giving her a quick grin as he spears a couple of meatballs, adds them to her plate. He wonders idly if the baby will take after Laurel, will be like him when it comes to food. There’s so many things they don’t know about their son yet, so many mysteries waiting to be discovered. They know him, they’re beginning to learn him, but there’re so many things left to learn, to uncover. He doesn’t ever want to stop being surprised by Raf, doesn’t ever want to be complacent about his son.
She huffs out a low laugh. “That’s true too.”
“Leave room for cake,” he warns as she dishes up some of the chicken parm.
“There’s a cake?” she asks in surprise, shooting him a long, fierce glance, though he watches the tiny smile quirk at the corner of her mouth, the way she glances away, blinking rapidly.
“Course there’s cake,” he tells her. “What kinda baby shower’d this be without a cake?”
“I didn’t know that was a requirement.”
“Well then you obviously don’t know the first thing about baby showers,” he teases, keeping his voice just light enough he thinks she’ll take it for the joke it is, keep from thinking about all the reasons why she doesn’t know a damn thing about baby showers or babies, is fumbling her way blindly through the first tentative steps of motherhood, praying desperately everything turns out alright. “But that’s what today’s for. To fix all that.”
“Thank you,” she says again, two spots of color appearing high on her cheeks, almost like she’s embarrassed by how pleased, how thankful she is.
“Hey,” he tries to reassure her. He didn’t do it for her, not entirely. He wanted to throw a baby shower just as much for his family, let them meet his son, finally. He threw it for Rafa too, and himself, wanting to try and feel normal, wanting to feel like something in the universe can be normal, even while his son still struggles for every breath. “I’m gonna be honest here. I organized this mostly cause we need gear something fierce.”
“I don’t care why Frank,” she tells him, still flashing that hesitant smile like she thinks she ought to remain expressionless, stony faced but simply can’t. “I’m just glad you did.”
They sink down into the waiting room couches, knees and thighs and elbows knocking in a way Frank thinks would be uncomfortable if it were anyone but Laurel, watch the rest of his family clamber around the pans of food, bickering and laughing. He keeps glancing at Laurel out of the corner of his eye, watching her expression, watching her eyes. He doesn’t know what he’s expecting, he wouldn’t’ve organized dinner if he didn’t think it would be good, didn’t think it would be a success, but sometimes he never knows with Laurel, can never quite anticipate the things that will set her face turning to stone, her jaw tight and set.
Especially now, especially when he knows at least half of her brain and most of her heart is still back there in the NICU, still thinking about, worrying about Rafa. Especially now when Laurel probably hasn’t grabbed more than four or five hours of sleep a night since the baby was born, hasn’t slept in a real bed since the hospital released her. Its not like he’s doing any better, but, well, he’s used to his family at least, knows how to deal with all the ways they can be too loud and overwhelming and inquisitive. Laurel’s so used to guarding her feelings that Rafael and the things she feels for him and the magnitude of the last two weeks, well, he’s not sure how many defenses she has left against the entire Delfino experience. But this at least, this seems she’s handling, enjoying even. Possibly because no one’s tried interrogating her yet.
“Someone should go sit with him,” Laurel says softly, setting her fork down and going to rest her plate against the coffee table. “He’s…he’s not used to being alone and we’re all out here and…someone should go in and sit with him.”
Frank gives her a crooked, reassuring grin. “Way ahead of you babe,” he tells her gently, pressing the paper plate back into her lap. “My dad headed that way as soon as we came out. He’s already reserved the next hour. Wants to go through at least the first two Rocky movies with Raf.”
“Really?” Laurel asks, eyebrow quirking and the corner of her mouth threatening to break into a grin, the ghost of a smile that he’s been mourning for months, suddenly back from the dead. “Rocky?”
Frank shrugs casually, though he can’t help the way his smirk widens. “What can I say. That’s what he told me. Needed to recount the classic underdog story to someone who he knows would appreciate it.”
“That’s,” Laurel starts around a chuckle. “That’s surprisingly poetic.”
“So,” Frank begins, teasing, resting his plate on his knees so he can slide his thumb across the curve of her knee once and then again. “That mean we can reconsider his middle name? Maybe change it from Roman to Rocky? Wouldn’t even have to return any monogrammed stuff.”
“We have monogrammed stuff?”
“That’s your takeaway from this?” he asks incredulously, watching a grin spread wide across her lips, hating and loving in equal measure how it still causes his heart to beat a little faster, how it still sends a little spark of relief burning across his chest when he sees her smile like that, wide and open and free of the hard, tired lines that sometimes curl along the edges of her mouth.
“Considering how long it took us to settle on a name, I think the ship has sailed on take backs,” she points out.
“But Rocky,” he continues on. “Its almost as good as Barbarian. Probably better in Philly. He’ll be the most popular kid on the playground.”
Laurel rolls her eyes, goes to say something he knows will be sarcastic, but then his mother approaches, settles into the chair next to their couch.
“You two holding up ok?” she asks giving the two of them a once over, shrewd and assessing.
He watches Laurel’s throat bob, nerves, he thinks, rather than trying to swallow back some emotion. She’s getting more comfortable with his family, his mom, learning to trust that there’s no blame for anything that’s happened, that they love Rafi, love her without reservation because Frank loves them, but its still hard for her, Frank knows that too. Its hard for her to trust anyone that professes their love for her, hard to trust anything that comes without strings, without conditions. Its harder for her to trust in family, in the things family means to Frank, to his parents and siblings and cousins and their kids because its so foreign to her, so unlike everything she’s ever known. She’s learning, but he can still see the caution, the calculation behind her eyes, in the clench of her jaw.
“Well as can be,” Frank answers for her, giving his ma a noncommittal shrug. They’re doing ok, Rafael’s doing ok, though he thinks ok can mean a hundred thousand things. And in this case it means sleeplessness and a persistent, nagging fear that startles him awake, captures his breath and holds it ransom for far too long, means far, far more questions than answers, an uncertainty that months, years might not answer for them.
“I’m proud of you,” she tells them then, turning from Frank to Laurel so its clear she’s addressing them both. “Both of you. How well you’ve been handling Raf coming early, being so sick. You two, nah, you three’ve been such a good team and I just wanna let you know how proud I am of both of you. Being such good parents. Despite everything.”
“I,” Laurel begins and now he knows her convulsive swallow is emotion more than anything else. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” his mom says instead. “For giving Frankie a chance. An giving me such a perfect grandson.”
“Thank you all for doing this,” Laurel says, grinning sheepishly at continuing the thanks. “For cooking and getting everyone together. And, and for wanting to.”
“Course I wanted to,” she says with a dismissive laugh. “You’re family.”
He knows its gonna take more than that, more than his mom’s assurances that Laurel has a place in their sprawling, chaotic family before she really believes it, believes that its not just her connection to Frank, to the baby that secures her a spot among the Delfino clan, but that she has her own space, not just a familial plus one, but her own worth and her own importance among them. He knows it’ll take more that his mom’s words, than this makeshift baby shower, it’ll take years more than months, take countless tentative steps forward that are followed by three or four back, take Laurel learning to trust herself, her own heart, trust her worth and her place in the world, in the family she’s fighting for and carving out for herself.
And yeah, he kind of expects it, but he still has to fight off the claws that hook into his chest when he sees Laurel scowl, sees her eyes dart away from his mom, dart down to her lap, sees her fingers fist against her thigh. She doesn’t trust them, not Frank, not his mom, not the rest of his family. Not yet. She’s starting to, starting to trust Frank again, slowly, with every time she startles awake at the shriek of one of the baby’s alarms, finds Frank still there, in the chair across from her, startling awake himself, every time he tells her he’s going to the vending machine for coffee, comes back with two cups, comes back at all. Someday there’ll only be a little flare of doubt, a worry she can dismiss with a crooked smile and a roll of her eyes.
His mom hums slightly, watching Laurel carefully before her eyes swing to Frank. “I made garlic bread,” she says casually, fixing Frank with a long, piercing look. “You should go grab some Frankie.”
Its an obvious brush off, an obvious hint to make himself scarce for a few minutes but even so, he throws Laurel a quick glance to make sure its ok, make sure she’s ok with being left alone with his ma.
She gives him a little nod, a little shrug and so he stands, goes. He’s been beside Laurel for going on ten days now, barely drifting more than a few feet away, the two of them planets orbiting their sun of a son, never straying too far or for too long. It feels strange to leave her, even if its only to go to the other side of the waiting area, be close enough to see her, but too far to speak, too far to touch. It feels strange and wrong and he itches to get back to her, be able to take her hand in his and reassure himself that she’s real and fine. Its even stranger to be on his own, apart from Laurel and the baby both.
He grabs a couple of slices of garlic bread, lingers for a moment with his brother and his oldest niece, shows them pictures of the baby, asks his niece about fifth grade, tries to give Laurel and his mom a few minutes together because clearly that’s what his ma intended, though he keeps Laurel in the corner of his vision, always aware of her, making sure everything is fine, everything is good.
It must be because even though he sees both of them swiping tears from their cheeks, both Laurel and his ma are smiling and Laurel lets his mom take her hand, doesn’t stiffen, doesn’t flinch away at the touch.
“He’s so tiny,” his niece comments then, tearing Frank’s attention away. She’s peering intensely at Frank’s phone, at the rolls of pictures he’s taken of Raf, corner of her tongue sticking out between her teeth. “Drew was twice as big when he was born.”
“He probably was,” Frank’s brother Nick agrees, giving Frank a look like he’s asking permission to handle the explanation. “But baby Rafi was born really, really early. He didn’t have enough time to get big before he was born.”
His niece nods seriously. “Mom says he’s really sick too. That’s why I can’t see him yet. She says kids aren’t allowed to see him. Cause we’re too germy.”
“He is really sick,” Frank confirms, making a note to thank his sister in law for explaining everything to his niece already, though he has to bite his lip, avoid meeting his brother’s eyes so he can avoid laughing. “Because he’s so small. He doesn’t have any fat on him to keep warm, and his lungs are still growing so its hard to breathe. But he’s getting better. And once he’s out of the hospital we’ll take him over to Nonno and Nonna’s and you can see him then. Might be able to hold him if you wash your hands real well and promise to sit really, really still.”
“I promise,” she agrees instantly, practically bouncing on his toes. “I’ll be really, really good.”
“I know,” he assures her. “I know what a good cousin you are.”
His niece grins at him proudly, shoots Frank’s brother a superior look, smug and smirking as Frank heads back to Laurel and his ma, ruffling his niece’s hair, clapping his brother on the back as he goes.
Laurel has something clutched lightly in her hands when he gets back to them, something small held against her chest, cradled there almost like she cradles the baby. There are still tears shining against her lashes.
“What’d I miss?” he asks lightly as he sits down beside her, leaning softly against her side.
“You mom found something,” Laurel says, offering him whatever she has bundled against her chest. “She said you asked her for it.”
It takes him a moment to recognize it, even after he takes the soft material into his hands. “Gio,” Frank laughs as he finally recognizes the furry stuffed bear, brown and threadbare with age. “Ma promised she’d find him.”
He swings his eyes to his mom, tears them away from the little stuffed dog so he can mouth his thanks, laughing as she waves him off.
“You sure you want little man tearing him up?” Laurel asks softly, her arms still crossed over her middle though she angles her knees close to his body, the two of them a unit, always. “He seems pretty delicate.”
“Course,” Frank assures her, turning the stuffed dog over on his knees, checking over the worn patches in his fur. Its been years since he’s seen the little stuffed dog, but he still remembers every worn patch, every place where the fur was matted and burred. He loved the dog once, loves it still, hope Rafael comes to feel the same way. He hopes his son never needs a stuffed animal, a talisman to feel safe, to feel whole like Frank did, but if he does, well, Frank wants to make sure Rafa doesn’t want for anything, that he always feels secure, feels protected, even if that protection comes from a ratty stuffed dog.
“Doesn’t do anything to have him tucked away in a box somewhere. I’d rather see Raf get some use out of him. If he loves Gio as much as I did as a kid. Even if it means he gets a little more raggedy.”
“Frankie slept with that thing every night till he was eight or nine,” his mom says with a fond, wistful smile. “Couldn’t fall asleep without it.”
Frank tries, fails not to blush, ducks his head so maybe Laurel won’t notice. “Hey,” he argues, not embarrassed, not really, but filled with a sudden, almost violent wish that they were alone. He doesn’t mind Laurel knowing about his childhood, the good parts and the bad and the parts and the parts he’s pretty sure he’ll never really heal from, but he wants to be able to take the time, the care to explain it to her, why he hopes, in every space inside his heart, for better for his son, for a life Frank never got to have, why he wants his old stuffed dog to be Rafael’s protector in the same way he was once Frank’s. He wants Laurel and only Laurel to learn his hopes, his dreams for their tiny son, wants to be able to take his time in explaining the way his own past informs the things he most wants for his son’s future, wants to be able to learn from her as well.
It feels to Frank as though they’ve had so little time together, so much of it taken up by the immediacy of survival, of trying to get past each oncoming crisis, simply live to see another moment with their son. He wants to find long, slow moments with Laurel, uncomplicated by nagging, endless worry, wants to start untangling all the things they want, all the things they hope for, the people they want to be, the person they want their son to be, the kind of life they want to build, together, now that they’ve been given a second chance. He wants to share some things with her and her alone, not with the nurses that have started the feel like family, the doctors that still feel like distant strangers, with his parents or siblings and the countless other people who can’t understand him, not the way Laurel can.
He wants to craft a life, a future with her, carve it out and make a space for it, fight for it and Laurel and their son. He doesn’t want to share this with anyone else. “Gio was really great at keeping monsters away. Never got eaten by one while I had him around.”
Laurel grins, lets her thumb circle his wrist, softly tickling at the thin skin there. “Then it really is a good thing Angie found him. Raf’s got enough to worry about without having to think about monsters under the bed.”
Frank nods around a shaky breath, words tumbling out of him, both a confession and a prayer. “That’s what…that’s what I want. For him to have the bear and be able to look at it if he’s scared and think, hey, it kept my dad safe, it’ll keep me safe too. Let him know he’s gonna be ok.”
“He is gonna be ok,” Laurel tell him fiercely, fingers finding his, tangling together. “He is.”
“You’re right,” Frank nods, knowing she’s not speaking about nightmares, about monsters under the bed or the things created by darkness and shadow and the heavy stillness of a room. She’s talking about so much more. “He is gonna be ok,” he repeats, smoothing his thumb across her knuckles, across the small, delicate bones of her wrist.
And he is. They are. They will be.