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***  

“This child of mine you stare at so, 
Please come closer so you will know 
Just who my child is and what I see 
when those sweet eyes stare back at me-” 

***  

Christen’s mother always had a saying-  

“You’ll never know love until you have children.”  

They had listened to her say it, time and time again. When they were younger- when they were older. When they were teenagers, sitting on the back porch under the  humid and  sweltering Georgia sun with their families, wrapped up in  dreamy conversations about everybody’s future, trying hard not to wish for it so much  in-case  the vision becomes jinxed.    

They had always wanted children.  Somehow, someway.   

Tobin recalls a picture book of memories from the back of her mind. Them sitting out by the quarry on the tailgate of her truck. Seventeen, not ready for Summer to end  

“Do you think what mom says is true?” Christen asked. “That you don’t know love until you have children?”  

“I mean,” Tobin swallowed, pulling  Christen’s  body tighter, towards her torso. “ I think it’s true for good parents, people who actually want to be parents. You know?”   

She’d had a lot of baggage inside of her as she’d said it. Thoughts of her dad filling her mind. She knew he loved her and her sisters, but she also couldn’t imagine anyone loving another person in the way her dad loved his  wife, their mother.   

There was a  strange kind of  distance there, and not just because  he was gone a lot, but something that Tobin could never quite place. Did he have children too young? Did he wish they would have had a little more time between the two of them before having to care for three children back-to-back?   

She would never question his love, but she would always question his commitment. At least until she was older.   

“I can’t imagine loving someone more than you, Chris.”   

Tobin remembers saying the words, remembers the flirty green eyes rolling at her, and the little smirk on  Christen’s   lips at Tobin’s charm that never found an off switch. She remembers the way her insides curled at it, because  really- how could she ever  love deeper?  How could  more  love take up that much space in her chest? How would she breathe , then ? The depth she felt for Christen already felt like it crushed her lungs at an alarming rate. Anything else and she would be comatose.   

The thing is- it's a different kind of love. One that she knows for Donovan , and now one that she feels for this little girl, and felt from the moment she took her first glance at her . The endless need to provide and protect, and to encourage and support and nurture. Donovan taught her that love is not singular, not jailed in the one-dimensional  aspect of romance. Love for a child is different than love for anything else. Love for a child is unexplainable. Love for a child is unconditional at worst , superhuman at best.   

She felt it the first time Donovan hugged her. Last year. Standing in  Christen’s  living room in her dress uniform before the church service, after she’d worked him off of his temper tantrum.   

Stacy-”  Tobin chokes out in a whisper to the empty air around her, calling out for  Christen’s  mom in the darkness  as her eyes fixate over the crib , “ She’s  so  beautiful . ”   

The house is still.   

Christen has been asleep since they  arrived home from the hospital   around mid-day . Cody  is in  the extra  spare  bedroom;   the rest of the gang having  re turned back to their hotels until tomorrow.  Donovan rests beside  Christen  on the bed,  needing to be close after such an eventful birthday -  despite being  given strict instructions from the adults around him not to jump or make sudden movements that would hurt his exhausted mother. He’d taken up  so much space with his outstretched limbs that Tobin figured she would drag her wired up nerves somewhere else.   

She couldn’t sleep for a more than a few hours at a time, new parent i nsomnia.   

Their hospital visit, the entire birthing process and hours afterwards, had exhausted everyone involved. After birth, they had allowed Tobin to cut the umbilical cord, handing her the clamps  and guiding her trembling hand to the correct place she had to cut.   

The nurses had wiped her down with a sterile towel, all laughing at the wails and cries that filled the hospital room. Christen and Tobin were both sobbing by the time Amaya  was placed on  Christen’s  naked chest, still crying and trying to settle into her new environment, the bright florescent lights and  the beeping monitors. Christen was trembling, sweat dripping from her skin while Tobin’s sweat stuck  to her shirt. They had gently touched over her curls, leaning closely, smiles wide and bright at the view of new life brought into the world.   

Amaya was weighed and measured, 6 pounds and 10 ounces,  19  inches long.  The nurses had swaddled her in a pink blanket, and allowed Tobin to hold her  and peak her head out of the door, where the delivery waiting area was in front of the nurse's stations and their families were waiting. No one could hold her  quite  yet, but they made sure to  gather around and stare as long as they could while Christen was being cleaned, and the single adjective was thrown around plenty from everyone present-  

Beautiful.  

“She’s so beautiful.” Tobin whispers again, somehow knowing that Stacy is looking down at the  crib too from her place in heaven.  

Little dark eyes open under the moonlight, and the pacifier starts up again with a skipped beat of the Marine’s heart.  Amaya starts to stir almost immediately, uncoordinated limbs stretching haphazardly  beneath the cotton of her onesie. Tobin’s arm reaches over almost immediately,  large hand stretching out in wonder over the whole expanse of Amaya’s tiny tummy.   

She’s so small, it’s alarming to the Marine, almost to the point of anxiety. It took her nearly three whole minutes of slow, precise, and meticulous moving just to get Amaya moved from her infant car seat inside  of the house. At the hospital, after the party was discharged and they first put her in the car seat, the Marine’s hands shook so badly that Cody forced her to let him drive the Jeep Tobin shook the whole way home.   

“Hi, sweet girl.” Tobin coos, as soft as ever. The pacifier clambers to the mattress of the crib, and the sudden loss of it gives the infant a frown.  She plucks the pacifier back in, but the little girl is still fussy, giving Tobin the internal p ermission to do what she’d been wanting to do since she tiptoed her way into the baby’s room.   

She picks her up and softly lays her down against her chest, one hand cradling the back of Amaya’s neck and head, the other  protectively cradling her back. The warmth of Tobin’s  chest , the heat radiating off of the tanned  and muscled skin stretching out beneath her sports bra, and the  rapid humming of her heartbeat lulls the infant back to sleep almost immediately.   

Tears leak out from the corners of her eyes as she looks around the room, trying to figure out where to go and what to do now that she’s  averted the cris i s of Amaya crying and waking up everyone in the house. The rocking chair is full of baby bags,  she can’t return to the bedroom in fear of waking Chris or Donovan up... which leaves her no other option but the upstairs living room couch.   

“Just you and me tonight  then ,  huh   ‘Maya ? ” Tobin whispers , softly padding barefoot into the living room. She slowly leans back onto the couch, keeping Amaya steady and secure as she goes, until her back rests on the cushion and her  head rests on the throw pillow.   

Her tears have dried onto her cheeks  by the time they get settled , and she watches beneath the moonlight shining through the windows at the head full of dark curls and the lon g, thick eyelashes- the pacifier moving in a cadence and taking up the baby’s entire mouth.   

The love in her chest has expanded, pressing deep against her ribcage with a burn.   

Tobin smiles.   

 

An hour  later, Tobin wakes to soft little cries growing louder by the second . Amaya’s pacifier is strewn aside on her sports bra, and her eyes widen when she notices that the little girl is fussing and moving her head around, mouth trying to latch onto the skin of Tobin’s chest  beneath her collarbone.   

She blinks the sleep from her eyes, before they widen in realization at what the infant is searching for.  Something that Tobin can’t quite provide for her.   

“Hungry. Got it.” Tobin mumbles, already leaning up and noticing that her own stomach growls.  When’s the last time I had food?   

The morning light is moving in through the  windows now, and she does a mental tally that Amaya is eating about once every three hours, remembering that Christen had woken up in the middle of the night to feed her when Tobin was still trying to find sleep in their bed. She  moves in through their bedroom, making it in just enough time to catch  Christen’s  cellphone alarm and turn it off.   

“Goodmorning, pretty girl.” The Marine kisses the top of  Christen’s  head after the younger woman blinked open her eyes. “This one is hungry again . ”   

Christen rolls her shoulders and begins to lean up, startled that Tobin was already awake and standing over her, she looks to the side to find Donovan above the sheets and on  his stomach, his head flat on the mattress below the pillow, limbs stretched out like a starfish with a spot of drool beneath his open mouth.   

So that’s why she’s not in bed.   

Christen smiles. There’s pain in her cervix, as to be expected, but she considers that just about nothing in this world could genuinely bring her down at this point.   

“Goodmorning,” She yawns, stretching her limbs fully now. “ God  I’m so happy to be home.”  

The Marine smiles at the corner of her mouth. “How are you feeling?”   

Christen reaches for the clasp of her nursing bra and pulls it down, her chest growing tight as the fussy newborn is gently placed in her arm s . Tobin leans in carefully, both parents  now  watching as Amaya struggles for a second to latch on. The Marine looks with such longing in her face as she softly  guides her fingers to Amaya’s mouth, helping the newborn to latch onto  Christen’s  nipple by using her finger as a guide. The feeling makes  Christen’s  eyes widen, just like  it has each time Amaya has breastfed in the past  twenty-four hours or so  

“I’m okay.” She quips. “Ask me that again when her teeth start to grow.”   

Laughter bubbles out of Tobin’s mouth from her chest, honey eyes casting upwards from her bent over position to meet the forest irises that are staring at her.  She notices that Tobin seems exhausted, but stunningly beautiful, just as she always is and always will be.   

“I love you. Will you get some rest now and let dad take over?”  Christen asks.   

Tobin leans into the space between them. Morning breath be damned.   

“Only if you kiss me first.”   

 

Though the times are not always so easy.   

They struggle, as fully expected , as any parents with  newborns do.  

Through the weeks, their lives change inexplicably. For the better, of course, despite random moments and the marring of stress that comes with abrupt changes of routine. The routine is actually the hardest part, given that both of them crave that ounce of stability . Christen craves it naturally, complements of her type- A  personality, and Tobin craves it because it keeps  Christen’s  stress levels down.   

Their number one priority aside from the incessant desire to make sure Amaya has everything she needs at all times- is Donovan.   

It’s a priority to make sure that he gets quality time with them both separate and apart, despite Amaya’s hectic schedule of eating, pooping, crying, and sleeping.  Christen gets a little more energized and a little less sore every day, helped by the fact that she experienced no major tears or strains during birth, so each day it’s becoming easier to sit with Donovan at the table and color or  follow him outside into the backyard to p l ay on the new swing set that Jeff and Cindy bought and installed. During this time, Tobin spends quality time with Amaya and Cody. Laying on the floor on the newborns  cushioned blanket for play time, taking naps on the couch as Cody watches television, or simply changing a diaper and training herself to get better at it.   

For the first week, they spent time with Donovan together while the grandparents spent time with the newborn, sometimes Megan and Kelley would tag along with them and sometimes  the friends would stay back and chill with the baby. It was hectic, it was chaotic and loud at times, but it made the parents happy to know that Amaya and Donovan had so many friends and family around to watch over them and help them through the transition, especially considering that she wante d everyone to have as much quality time together as possible before most of them had to return back to Georgia. Back to their old hometown. Back to the  friends they left behind  and continue to miss daily  

Most of the stress is subdued with open communication and honesty.  It’s typically small things.  Things like- what temperature to boil  the baby’s bottles, nipples, and pacifiers in to sterilize  them, who should hold Amaya and who sho uld give the sponge bath, why Tobin thought it was a good idea to play video games loudly in the living room when Christen had a splitting headache.   

It’s the little things. Most times. Though sometimes it’s not.   

Christen  is fully aware by day five  that Tobin isn’t sleeping very much, and when she does sleep- it's never in  their  bed but always  in some proximity to the baby , and  the younger woman i s able to keep her tongue held about it for  nearly  two days  after noticing-  before her dad points it out.   

“I woke up in the middle of the night last night  and peaked  into the baby’s room to  check in on her . Did you know  Tobin  was sleeping in the rocking chair?” He whispers it across the table that morning, even though Tobin had finally drug herself into the bed once Christen was waking up ,  as was likely still snoring .  

Christen sighs from behind her mug, still waiting for the day when she’s no longer limited to decaf. “Yes , she wakes me up through the night when it’s time to feed  her  and finally comes to bed in the morning  when I get up .”   

Her dad looks at her expectantly,  a silent question behind his eyes of  why?  A   bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrow  lifted  in a motion for her to continue  with  the explanation.   

Christen shrugs, “I think she’s worried that we won’t hear the baby monitor, so she thinks it’s safer if she’s next to  her through the night  to make sure she can wake up ,  if she needs to  eat or her diaper needs changing .”   

“Has she  even  tried sleeping in the bed and using the monitor?” He asks, and the little understanding smile on his face makes Christen think that he finds her actions endearing.   

Christen, however, does not. She’s cold. She misses Tobin. She misses intimacy, and warmth, and  waking up to the smell of her life partner.  

So, resolutely, she shakes her head, and then the thought of it happening again tonight makes her so irritated that she grits her teeth.  “I’m going to talk to her about it tonight. ”   

“Take it easy on her.” Cody says, smile still present, “It’s her first time with a newborn. Remember how you were.”   

They are lightyears beyond the space where Christen holds grudges over Tobin for that fact, but it still stings some  tucked away part of her- deep in her mind in a place that no longer hurts her when she’s reminded of it, but not far away enough that she will ever be able to rid herself of the thoughts that come with acknowledging Tobin’s ab senc e during those years.  The younger woman will always remember that darkness.   

She pushes her breakfast plate away from her, eyes flicking to Donovan where he sits in his pajamas on the couch, eating his food and watching the morning cartoons. She lowers her voice, “It  shouldn’t be her first time.” She whispers. “But it is, and that’s okay.  It  j ust  has to change.”    

Later that night,  once Amaya is fed and put down in her crib, and Donovan is snoring from his bedroom, t hey turn down the covers and crawl into bed after their teeth are brushed .   Christen pretends to go to sleep like usual- however, she waits. It takes about thirty minutes for  slight movement to come from the other side , and she knows that Tobin is taking her route of escape. The younger woman reaches behind her, hands searching in the air for Tobin’s body until she’s able to latch onto her forearm , fingers splaying over the warm flexing muscle she finds there.   

“Don’t.” Christen whispers.   

There’s silence, a momentary pause in the  still of the moonlight,   and then the Marine speaks. “I was just going to check on her.”   

“She’s fine.” The younger woman speaks up, getting moisture back into her dry mouth  and blinking her eyes in the darkness “The baby monitor is turned all the way  up;  dad is right across the hall from her room. She’s sleeping.”   

She can feel the energy of Tobin wanting to resist, and it makes her turn towards the tension, eyes soft and needy as she takes in the Marine’s figure, leaning up out of the bed with the covers pulled down a cross her waist, as if she was about to swing her leg over the edge of the bed. She’s wearing a cut off t-shirt with no bra, and Christen can scarcely make out the blue moonlight as it stretches across the swell of her breast from the side, and the jaw that is clenched  harshly from her face, painting sharp lines against the dip of her cheek. She aches to be held so much that her chest clenches.   

“I’ll only be gone for a second, Chris.”   

“No, you’ll be gone all night until you finally come to bed when I get up.”   

“I-” She hears Tobin swallow. “I just want to make sure she’s okay.”  

Christen sighs, barely audible. “Okay, let’s talk.”   

The younger woman sits up, reaching over to turn on the low-wattage lamp, allowing it t o replace the moonlight with a barely-there orange glow. When Tobin notices the tears in Christens eyes, her own eyes widen  

“I gave birth over a week ago. I’ve been sore,  I’ve been healing,  I’ve been exhausted both physically and emotionally, and you haven’t held me through the night even once since we got home . I haven’t woken up next to you once, and it’s really starting to bother me.”   

Tobin gapes at the abrupt admission, but Christen doesn’t give her a chance to speak.  “Donovan was much less calm through the night than Amaya is, when he was a newborn, and I managed that by myself. She’s sleeping fine. She cries loud enough when she’s hungry to wake me up, and I sle ep heavier than you  now . We can manage this together, sleeping in our own bed. Together.”   

Stillness fills the air between them, and Christen has to swallow her tears again in order to scoot closer, pressing her forehead to Tobin’s shoulder just to feel her skin. “ I need you .” She whispers, deploying her last blatant piece of honesty in order to keep the Marine next to her. “ I ne ed to feel close to you.”   

Okay.” Tobin whispers, fully disarmed by the tears in  Christen’s  green eyes and the  bits of sadness she finds there. “I’m here.”   

Christen presses her head closer to the Marine’s neck when strong hands come up to run through her curls.  “I’m  so  sorry, I didn’t know you were feeling like this babe.”   

She kisses the Marine’s collarbone, feeling the warm skin beneath her lips, just above the dip of her shirt.  “It’s okay,” She whispers into the skin, “Just stay.”   

Tobin sighs as Christen makes her way across the collarbone . She reaches up for the Marine’s jaw, turning until their faces are  closer and facing one another , where Tobin’s mouth can open to receive her kiss.  Her left hand runs over the muscled forearm until it can slide along a muscled bicep, sque ezing and pressing the hard skin in a needy and craving way as she sucks the Marine’s bottom lip into her mouth, thankful for cut-off t-shirts and the warm tongue that comes out to slide along her own. Tobin groans,  deep yet girly, and it causes  Christen’s  fingers to twitch and press into those biceps.   

“Chris .” Tobin whines, “You know we can’t.” She mumbles into the younger woman’s mouth. “It’s still too early.”   

Christen ignores her for a moment, pressing their mouths back together where it’s hot and wet and heavy, where nipping teeth and throaty moans make her eyebrows crease in  near pain. She brings her hands up to clench and grasp at the  shirt around Tobin’s shoulders, sliding downwards, pulling upwards at the hem  until Tobin lifts her arms and the material is discarded to the floor.   

Tobin inhales sharply against  Christen’s  lips as the cold room air hits her nipples, struggling for words when she feels th e younger woman’s mouth leave her own, trailing along her jaw and neck, teeth nipping at the jawbone before nipping at the earlobe,  surfacing  chills.   

“It’s too early for me  to be taken care of .” Christen whispers, pulling back to press her hand at the Marine’s sternum. “Is it too early for you  to be taken care of ?”   

The Marine’s eyes darken, like the desire for intimacy and closeness has transferred from  Christen’s  mind to her own, and she  feels  it. The realization that it’s been nearly a whole month since she’s been touched. She feels it  suddenly, sharp and  excruciating The want- the ache.   

“Lay back.” She’s guided by a soft voice , feeling Christen adjust to hover over her once her head hits the pillow again, a firm thigh between her legs, likely feeling how hard she is beneath her thin  athletic shorts. Christen smiles as she feels it, body alight, mouth trailing in wet kisses and  a soothing  tongue down the Marine’s neck, biting gently  against the base of her neck over her heartbeat.   

Tobin’s eyes close at the feeling of a warm mouth closing around her nipple, worries all but forgotten about  as the mouth begins to trail lower and lower When she orgasms, so powerful that it shakes her knees and forces her head  to jerk  back  against the pillow , guided  to the edge  by the heat of  Christen’s  mouth and hands, she can’t help but let her  eyes feel with sudden tears at the feeling. They’d made life together. They were engaged. Their daughter and son were sleeping soundly down the hall, two soul s that would fill their lives with joy and laughter until they take their last breaths. Christen  presses open mouthed kisses to Tobin’s shaved pelvis, mouth following the vein that runs along her sharp hipbone and abdomen, hands smoothing across her shaved  thighs until her short nails scratch along Tobin’s abs. She’s overly sensitive and slightly overwhelmed. With love, with joy, with safety and security, which causes her body to shake  as hands worship along her skin.   

“You’re so  gorgeous .” Christen whispers, tongue dipping into the Marine’s navel, teeth nipping at her muscled stomach , traveling upwards and upwards until she can press her mouth back to her naked breast, and finally back against the d ip of her neck.  “I missed the way you taste.”   

God.  Tobin groans, tucking her nose into the soft skin of  Christen’s  jaw. Her hands slide up along the backside of  Christen’s  ass, over the flesh and muscle and onto the soft expanse of her back, kneading lightly.  The younger woman’s body had adjusted well in response to birth, she had the slightest touch of loose skin beneath her navel,  which Tobin found the most beautiful.   

She closes her eyes and breathes in  Christen’s  sweat, her perfume, the natural smell of her skin and her moisturizer.  The Marine wraps her up tightly, protectively, securing their intimacy in a place where it is no longer missing but at the forefront now, tucked away between them and cherished. She whispers a pologies in  Christen’s  ear  for not being there through the night , tears threatening to spill over from both reverence and guilt, secured with promises to be the first thing the younger woman sees when she opens her e yes in the morning, and the morning’s after that as well.   

 

Cindy and Jeff come in through the door two days before they have to go back home , dragging groceries from a list that Cindy had snapped a picture of off the refrigerator, figuring  they could grab the groceries on the way in this morning and do one last errand for the family.  She laughed as she gathered the items in the Whole Foods aisle, Jeff pushing the cart next to her and asking what was so funny. It was the items on  the list that had caused her to laugh, seeing how Christen has shaped their family diet into one that’s so healthy, with foods that Cindy recalls trying to force Tobin to try as a teenager . Kale, spinach, mushrooms, quinoa,  a handful of odd little peppers that Cindy had never heard of before, carrot and echinacea juice.   

They step into the living room and notice Cody getting abruptly out of the reclining chair, rushing quickly and quietly over to them and grabbing a few bags from their hands. The TV is muted, and the  older couple has to look over the couch and onto the floor to understand why.   

Oh  my Lord, that’s precious.” Cindy coos, setting the paper grocery bags down on the  white  counter top.  “Look, Jeff.” She swats her husband on the chest.   

Tobin rests on her back on the living room carpet, in the space between the couch and the far  stone wall where the fireplace rests.  She’s got her arms up, hands tucked beneath her head while  Donovan is next to her, his head tucked into the crook of her armpit, his sweat - pant covered leg throw n over her waist.  Christen rests a few feet from them on the couch , curled up on her side with her hand gently clasped around Amaya’s rock-a- roo  seat. All four of them are out ,  and the only sound coming through the living room is the machine-like whirring from Amaya’s chair as it rocks si de-to-side, up-and-down, keeping her asleep.   

“They’ve been out for only a few minutes. I cooked a big breakfast and it put them right back to sleep after they ate, it seems.”   

Cody is smiling, and Jeff makes his way over to his new granddaughter, wanting to hold her in the  spare  moment  before   all the women  in his life are  crowding  around her little body  and asking for their turn .  

“They won’t be sleeping for long.” Cindy pipes up, already putting away the groceries in the cupboards and refrigerator  with Cody  as quietly as  they  can.  “Megan texted me about an hour ago and said she and Kelley would be up here by 10:30.”   

When the house is full,  Amaya is passed around from person-to-person, each getting about ten to fifteen minutes of baby-time before the next person is making grabby - hands at her. It doesn’t bother Christen or Tobin, all of them comfort able with the baby being watched over. She’s a very happy baby, very quiet  until she’s laughing or crying , completely opposite from how Donovan was and they  all take quick  notice of it. She smiles and squirms when Megan makes faces at her, coos and sighs when she’s finished feeding and her tummy is full, and whines when her diaper is full.  They all know her infant-like quirks will begin to develop within the coming weeks,  like how Donovan had a fascination with throwing his pacifier as far as he could just to make people pick it up,  but they’re grateful that she’s managed to be a happy-go-lucky little one thus far.   

Jeff runs his thumb over her hairline, smiling at how someone had put a little pink headband around the base of her curls.  They had dressed her in a little Nike onesie, pink and yellow and orange tie-dye, with the little Nike  swoosh  printed in patterns all over.   She has a head full of curly hair, dark  brown just like  Christen s , a little darker than Donovan’s.  Her eyes are still darker, and probably will be for a while, if she’s anything like her brother. It took some months before  they noticed the change in Donovan’s eyes from dark to brown.  She resembles her brother, full cheeks, button nose, tiny small hears. Though some features are different, resembling Christen,  like her smaller eye shape and thinner lips, her longer  legs  and small er body ,   less stocky than Donovan was as a baby . The family genes run strong in both  children;  it  appears.   

Amaya opens her eyes, sleepy and blinking as she takes in her grandfather, and her little tiny fingers wrap around Jeff’s p inkie finger, gripping hard. He smiles and coos at her, watching as her face contorts from comfortable and relaxed to straining and serious.   

“Uh oh.” Jeff mumbles, playfully looking at her with mock-shock.   

She grunts, and it doesn’t take much longer for anyone around them to realize what was happening. Jeff leans in to smell closer, just to make sure, and his eyebrows shoot high on his head. “Yep, that’s exactly what I thought you were doing.”   

“I’ve got it.” Christen pulls herself off the couch with a yawn, one hand reaching to unclasp Amaya’s chair buckle as her socked-foot nudges Tobin’s side  

“Huh?” Tobin cranes her neck to the side, eyes squinting from being woken up as she looks at Christen and then down at Donovan. She inhales deepl y as she stretches out, then she smells it, face screwing up almost immediately. “Oh, that’s a bad one.”   

“Oh yeah,” Christen winces, unzipping the back of Amaya’s onesie to find that the diaper didn’t contain much, just as the little girl starts to cry  and squirm in her mommy’s arms. Christen zips her back up and slowly turns her back around, holding their faces close together and kissing Amaya’s nose as she walks towards the stairs.   

“You poop  so much.  How do you poop so much?  

 

Eventually, their party must return back to some semblance of normal.  They develop a routine that complements Amaya’s moods and feeding schedules well, and Donovan adjusts into the most helpful roll of big brother  that they could have wished for ,  helping Christen by entertaining her on  the  play mat and fetching her burping cloth and diapers when they ask for it.   Tobin’s parents leave a day before Megan does, with Kelley deciding at  last minute that she was going to rent an  Airbnb   in downtown  and forfeit her plane ticket home . She had taken a liking to Portland during the week she spent with them, enjoying the difference in temperature and humidity, the energy of the city and the younger population.  She has nothing to do, she says, which spurs on a conversation about her future one afternoon that leaves both Marine’s feeling happy and giddy inside.   

“Why don’t you stay here?” Tobin nudges her. They’re outside on the back deck, looking out across the mountains around them  

“Stay here?” Kelley asks her, looking over and picking at the handle of her mug. “Like find a job here?”   

Tobin nods, and an idea switches on like a lightening bulb in her brain. “Dude, why don’t you work for us? We have a lot of positions we’re still hiring for at the farm. I mean, I’m not going back to work fo r a while but you could get started without me.”   

Kelley’s eyebrows furrow, deep in thought and consideration over the proposition. “Could I do something outside? I don’t want to be behind a desk.”   

“Damn,” Tobin smirks, jokingly. “I was hoping you’d be cool with a receptionist job.”   

“Fuck off, T.” Kelley laughs and rolls her eyes, stretching her legs out.   

“No seriously though,” The older Marine smiles at her closest friend. “There’s tons of stuff you could do , jobs that wouldn’t stress you out- since I know that’s what you’re looking for . Lead maintenance, lead grounds keeping , security . It’s a lot more land to cover than back home, so we need al l the help we can get. ”   

Kelley’s silent, so Tobin continues. “And look, it doesn’t even have to be a for-sure thing. You could just give it a test run, see if you like the city and job. I wouldn’t be mad if you ever wanted to  go back home, Kel.”   

The younger Marine nods, a half-hearted grin at the corner of her mouth. “Could you pay me enough to get a house like yours?” She laughs, looking around at the beautiful home  and space.   

“I’d pay you well. I pay everyone well.”   

Kelley nods, and the older Marine can tell that she’s seriously considering it.  “I might actually take you up on that offer.” She says quietly, “Nothing’s really holding me back from it, you know? I don’t want to live in a small town forever.”   

Tobin reaches over for her best  friends'  shoulder, squeezing gently, letting her know she understands, that she’s with her.   

“And hey,” Kelley smiles, “I’m proud of you both. Amaya’s  a real blessing, you know?   And  you’re doing this whole mom thing  really  well.”   

So,  the freckled Marine stays when everyone else goes home, and Tobin takes a day to drive her up to meet Sonnet at the headquarter office so Kelley  can talk about their options. She had meant to stay for a few hours and drag Kelley from place to pla ce , making sure she was comfortable or needed anything- so it was curious to her when Kelley blurte d out after an hour that she was fine if Tobin wanted to go back home to her family. Tobin’s eyebrow had quirked, immediately picking up on the fact that Kel ley’s offer had less to do with her worry about Tobin  being  needed back home and more to do with the way she and Sonnet had hit it off so well. She nodded to her friend, shrugging before letting her go, and she’d laughed to herself as she sat in her Jeep at how  life works out  in the weirdest ways.   

So. .. I  think Kelley likes Sonnet.” Tobin told Christen after being in the house for a few minutes, still in hilarious disbelief as she rocks Amaya  back and forth  in her arms , allowing Christen to move their laundry from the washing machine to the dryer.   

Christen looks up from putting a dryer sheet in with the load, green eyes wide as she shuts the machines doo r and starts it. “Really?” She whisper-yells. “She  like-likes  her?”   

They laugh at the same time , mischievously.   

“I guess? I don’t know, it was weird.” Tobin shrugs. “I was supposed to be with them  for a few hours  but she told me she was fine, that  Em  could show her around.”   

Well,”  Christen shakes her head in disbelief, “Now  that  is an interesting pair.”   

Tobin scoffs, nodding her head  and capturing her bottom lip with her teeth . “ You’re telling me.”  

 

Cody stays with them and helps until the end of June, until they’ve fully adjusted and  are feeling more confident each and every day that they’ve got the full hang of it.  Christen experiences a few days of sadness before he flies back home, something that  she  tries to hide, despite Tobin seeing it in the way she hugs her dad more often, in the way she  asks him a few times if he’s positive that he can’t stay any longer. Just a few more weeks. Just a few more days.  Just a few more hours.  

He had already agreed to stay at least another week after Tobin starts back at work, just to help out around the house until the Marine gets back home around three. She was working on shorter hours  than usual, but Cody still wanted to make sure that Christen had all that she needed in the mornings and throughout the day while Tobin was at work. That had gone smoothly, and they had been thankful, but now it  was time for him to go back home. They loaded up the car with the kids and drove him to the airport, Tobin sitting in the back between the car - seat and the booster seat  so that Christen could be close to her dad. It was fully starting to sink in that they wouldn’t see him again until Thanksgiving, which the plans were already made for, and that longing was responsible for the few sh ed tears on  Christen’s  face as they drove back home from the airport drop off.  

Amaya’s a little over one month old  now , and Donovan is sure to point out each new change taking place in his little sister. How she’s starting to lift her  curly  head up, and lift  up only slightly off of the ground  with her forearms. He enjoys that she’s responding well to their different faces, and reaching out for things that are held in front of her, and laughing at his antics w hen he dangles certain toys in her line of vision. She’s feeding about six times per day, and both Tobin and Christen are figuring out the differences in her cries- whether she’s hungry or needs a diaper change    

Tobin and Christen have started working out again, with Christen going for quick mile to tw o- mile  jogs  in the early morning before Tobin gets  up  for work. She’ll  get back home around the time that Tobin’s alarm is going off, leaning over to wake the sleeping Marine up with salty kisses, swerving away from grabbing hands that chase her in a fit of laughter into the bathroom  where they shower and brush their teeth. Sometimes, Christen does light yoga instead of running, and those are the mornings that Tobin  really  appreciates, waking up to see  beautiful dark skin stretched for miles beneath tight spandex and sleep-shirts, the way Christen always winks at her, teasing her, making her wish that it was time for them to exert themselves in the mornings  in d ifferent ways.  Ways that involve less clothing, and more pleasure.   

Tobin works out at the  small  employee gym that they  built  on the property for the ground s- men and women, and any other employees that felt like driving out. U sually she does this on her lunch break, or she’ll leave the office an hour early just to get some lifting done. Like  Christen’s   meditation, the working out fits into her routine in a way that gives her   time to herself in order to work through any frustrations that may pile up during the day.   

Returning to the farm wasn’t hard, but there were definite differences to how her dad ran a company and how she ran a company, so it was nice to be back in order to get things moving in the way that she preferred to do  things , and she knows that her employees agree as well. On T uesday’s and Thursdays, she sits in for three-hour video conferences with the team from Georgia, checking in on how things are going back home and approving requests for orders of things they need.  She’s looking forward to flying down for Thanksgiving to check in with everyone at the home sight, and there’s always a  bittersweet feeling that pulls in her chest when she ends the video conferences with the  those   she’d worked with for so many months prior to the move.  

They sit together through  Amaya’s   second  Hepatitus  B vaccination, which was traumatic for them equally, but especially for Christen. Tobin had been there for the first vaccination, after birth, whereas Christen had been asleep and exhausted. Now that Christen is fully awa ke for this one and able to hear the little girl scream when the shot goes in- she's mortified, and she squeezes Tobin’s hand harder than she had when giving birth, tears leaking down her cheek s as the nurse immediately coos over the baby and g ives her a little Band-Aid. They have the largest round of vaccinations next month, and Christen has to take a large deep breath when the realizes that they’ll have to sit through this ag ain  in four-short weeks.   

To get  Christen’s  mind off of it, Tobin suggests that they go for a walk as a family around their neighborhood and to the cul-de-sac’s park. It’s a warm  Friday afternoon in June , the clouds scarce and the temperature sitting in the mid 80's.   

The doctor had given them permission to start getting her out in public, little moments at a time and never around other people. Her immune system w as still developing, and they wouldn’t be able to expose her to the public for another two to three weeks. Walks, however, were allowed.   

So ,  they strap Amaya into the expensive stroller. Tobin teaches Donovan which clasps to fasten to make sure she was secure , and t hey pull the dark sun visor  far enough over  her  that the light can’t hit her directly   before getting Donovan ready in a pair of shorts and a tank top.   

Tobin grabs a few bottles of water and a few noise making toys for Amaya, packing them into a bookbag that she slings over her shoulders  before grabbing a  kid-sized  soccer ball for Donovan.   

“Ready?”  T he Marine asks when Donovan pulls himself off of the floor from tying his shoes, turning back to watch Christen gather her wild curls into a  tight high ponytail.   

Christen smiles brightly and nods, leaning down to double check that Amaya was happy and  healthy, smiling wider when she realizes that the girl  was wide awake and moving a chain of toy keys frantically up and down.   

“Donovan  made sure she had a toy.” Tobin grins.   

“Yeah, I didn’t want her to get bored while we walk.” He comments off-handedly, already walking towards  the front door.   

Christen quirks an eyebrow at Tobin, both looking at one another in adoration  at Donovan’s thoughtfulness  before Christen notices the small soccer ball  in the Marine’s arms.   

“You brought a soccer ball?”   

“Yeah, I didn’t want him to get bored.” Tobin winks.   

 

Tobin catches  Christen’s  eye as  a few times as they settle at the park away from the other family that’s playing.  She watches her  fiancé  as she passes the soccer ball to Donovan  back and forth, watching the way Chri sten watches her back in the moments that she’s not occupied with keeping Amaya  entertained. There’s the sense of connection they feel in that moment between them, meant just for them and no one else, during the seconds where they feel the love for each other being heightened and illuminated  by their little family. It stirs something in Tobin, how appreciative she is for Christen, how she’ll spend the rest of her life loving her and appreciating her for growing and nurturin g  their family single-handedly , as the strongest woman Tobin has ever met in all of her years.   

It settles low in her tummy and warms her chest, her brain releasing heaps of serotonin and dopamine,  reminding her to look around at the people she loves and send a little gratitude to God for the life she’s able to live.   

Later that night, though they’ve communicated about it before, how excited they are to finally make love again -  it’s the first night  that they both aren’t dog tired  after a busy day  since Christen has been fully healed and capable of sex .  Tobin hopes that something will come out of  it, she’s been aching for weeks to be intimate again, and aching for months to be  fully  intimate again.   

The kids are sound asleep, Donovan having passed out an hour ago ,  Amaya full of milk  to the brim  and sleeping in her crib  with a small smile on her face Tobin was still fighting the urge to check on her constantly, always looking over at the baby monitor screen to watch the little girl sleeping in her dark room, always on alert for the slightest little  noise or cry. It seems to get easier every day, especially since Christen moved the monitor from her bedside table to Tobin’s,  but she still worries.   

Tobin turns on her side from her spot - on top of the covers, watching through the opened bathroom door as Christen strips naked for her shower  before bed . She curses herself for showering once already  this morning wanting to get in with her  yet  knowing that it will dry her skin  and hair  out immensely, and knowing that she would be worried that no one could quickly get to Amaya  or Donovan  if something went wrong  and one of them were needed  

She wets her lips and props her head up on her hands,  watching as the green-eyed woman peels off her  thin underwear  and unclasps her nursing bra, turning her head to look at Tobin as she pulls the straps from around her  waist.   

“So sexy.” Tobin smiles at her warmly, and receives the bra directly to the face as Christen laughs and starts the shower water be fore getting in . The glass door allows Tobin to  watch as she bathes, studying her carefully. Considerately. Appreciating the woman’s hips and strong, powerful legs. She feels herself begin to harden beneath her  sweatpants, having to avert her eyes to the ceiling and wait for Christen to get out, to see if she’s even in the mood for such a thing tonight.   

After ten or so minutes, the shower cuts off, though she still doesn’t look over, too afraid of getting turned on again in-case they decide to just go to sleep.  She focuses on the patterns along the ceiling that dance in the moonlight, contrasted by the warm yellow light pouring in from one of the mood-lights in the bathroom. She listens as Christen goes through her routine. Brushing  her  teeth. Rubbing  lotion on her legs. (She definitely can’t watch that.) Before finally, the light is turned off and everything is dark again.   

When she looks over, she finds Christen leaned against the door, fully naked, hair partially dried and tucked over to one shoulder.  There’s a shy smile on the younger woman’s thin lips, and the moonlight has turned her eyes grey. Tobin feels nervous, all of a sudden, like it’s the first time they’re doing this. Despite the room being cold, her palms are as clammy as ever, and she can feel hot blood in her cheeks among other areas, unable to cast her eyes away from the beautiful woman now that she’s landed there-  trapped. Like a spell. Like a siren in the sea.   

Can we try, tonight?”  Christen whispers. And the emotion and  bashfulness, the modesty, puts a knot in the Marine’s throat.   

“Of course.” Tobin whispers. “Anything.”   

Christen casts her eyes down to the floor, yet approaches the bed in a few small steps, taking Tobin’s hand in her own immediately and running her thumb  along the inside of Tobin’s palm.  The Marine takes her hand and guides it to her mouth, kissing the base of her thumb and the pads of each fingers before moving to the inside of her wrist where her pulse lies.   

Christen chills with the air as Tobin moves her mouth to her naked stomach,  closing her eyelids as she feels the opened mouth kisses left across her stomach and navel. She moves her hand out of Tobin’s grasp and to the  planes of the Marine’s broad shoulders, grabbing the muscles and following the lines as they flex when Tobin leans up.   

The kissing ascends, and Christen grows wetter, a feeling that she hasn’t forgotten, but fully revels in these days. Happy to be in a space where something can actually be done about it.  Tobin tongues at the base of her breast, licking up and around the nipple but not closing her mouth around it fully, biting lightly into the side of  the  swell.  She presses her nails into the Marine’s strong shoulders at the feeling, as Tobin wraps a hand around the base of her knee and guides her leg up.   

She’d expected to straddle the Marine, and is pleasantly surprised when Tobin leans back down and  puts her mouth along her inner thigh, trailing upwards to her pelvis before descending on her fully.   

Fuck,”  Christen curses and throws her head back, as a tongue slides against her clit  with little warning . She takes a handful of hair under her palm and squeezes , guiding the woman despite knowing that Tobin, before anyone else, knows her way around  and doesn’t really need the assistance  

She cries out as quietly as she can when Tobin circles her tongue and flicks , building her up brick by brick just to make her walls collapse. Her core is burning,  and  though she’s scared -  she needs it.   

“Baby-” Christen mumbles, sounding broken, “Use your fingers-”   

“Are you sure?” Tobin pulls back and looks at her curiously, “Will you tell me immediately if it’s uncomfortable?”   

Christen nods, already pressing on the back of Tobin’s head to draw her nearer, and she jerks at the feeling of cool and strong fingers beginning to slide along her  labia , cir cling her entrance and preparing them both to slip in. She prepares herself to wince, just to find out she doesn’t need to, because the pressure of a single finger, and then two fingers inside of her, arrives with no pain.   

The Marine curls her fingers softly, hand flexing inside and out as her eyes track  Christen’s  face for any signs of  discomfort . She’s so turned on that she has to draw herself out of her  sweatpants just to alleviate pressure, though her only focus and concern is bringing the younger woman to release as best as she possibly can, allowing her fingers to speed up and curl a little harder when she finds that Christen is okay.   

When she  cums ,   Christen  nearly cries at the sensation of release, clenching tightly around Tobin’s fingers in a way that draws a soft groan from the Marine.  Suddenly the fingers are withdrawn from her with  gentle care, and she’s being lifted and placed on her back against the mattress, their mouths connecting with urgency and filling the room with the sounds of their kiss.   

Tobin is slow and meticulous with it, on high alert for any slight wince, any sign of discomfort or displeasure, and Christen digs her nails into her scalp and lower  back when she softly pushes inside. The Marine is panting at the contact, teeth clenched and eyes squeezed shut, reminding herself over and over that she couldn’t cum yet- that she  had to let this last as long as possible- that she had to pull out  when it hits her The younger woman’s eyes roll with the cadence of her hips, biting into the skin of Tobin’s shoulder, holding onto her tightly as they make love for the first time again in months.   

When their eyes lock, moisture gathered at the base of both pairs of eyelids, they both smile despite their panting, reminding one another through the motions and the pleasure that  this  is where they belong, that  this  is what they get to enjoy forever - for the rest of their lives, as their kids grow older and the grey hairs accumulate, through the highs and lows of a near lifetime spent in cohabitation with one’s  best friend. As sure as the sun rises and sets. As sure as the  world turns around the sun , and the moon around the world, and the solar system around the galaxy . As sure as the promise th ey make to find each other ’s soul  in the next life, as they made in the life  they’d lived  before to  find the soul that fits in this one, no matter form or shape that it takes.   

I couldn’t imagine loving someone more than you-   

Tobin whispers it  again  to her now, into the skin of her chest, and she means it like she meant it then  at seventeen Teary eyed. Whole.  Patient and kind. Not envious. Not boastful. Never proud.   

Once  they finish, they lie resting. Chests heaving from the exertion as sweat sticks to their bodies. Tobin gathers  the shirt that Christen had thrown off of her from the foot of the bed, using it to wipe across  Christen’s  stomach, getting her clean. She throws it towards the dirty clothes bin, hoping that it landed inside yet not caring enoug h to look. She settles back against  Christen’s  side, slowing her breathing and listening for the younger woman’s rapid heartbeat , feeling soft fingers trail upwards and downwards across the skin of her back.   

“I couldn’t imagine loving someone more than you either.” Christen whispers to her forehead with a butterfly kiss.   

 

At seventeen, if someone would have told  Christen that she would wake up, after love being made to her all night, to the sound of her son running  through the halls and  into the  bed room before jumping on the bed  to snuggle up to her , and  an older  Tobin  Heath  trailing behind h im into the room  with their daught er  asleep in her arms- she  probably  would have believed it .   However,  she wouldn’t be able to imagine at that moment the multitudes of life  experiences  that she would have to go through in order to  fully  appreciate  how it would feel to be  as  happy  in this moment  

At seventeen, she wouldn’t take it for granted, but she would have painted a picture much different from the truth. She would say that they probably married after college, or possibly even during it. S he’d not  be able to  picture  or define  the hardship, the struggle, the pain of what reality would actually be like  for either of them She’d not be able to comprehend how much  life is fleeting-  

Life is fleeting.   

It truly is . A nd death  before rebirth  is the only absolute. In the grand scheme of things.   

And at thirty, the knowledge she has gained would mean that, given the option,  she wouldn’t change a single thing of their past. She wouldn’t wish for the hardships to not exist. She wouldn’t change the heartbreak, or the isolation, or any of it- really.  She wouldn’t dissuade Tobin from joining the military, or chase after her harder on the hardest day of her life. She wouldn’t turn away from her first mar riage, or the pain that it brought. She would tell herself to experience everything as it should be,  as is was,  without a single thing altered.   

She  might  tell herself at seventeen to hold Tobin a little  tighter as they laid on the couch , to ignore the stupid little fights they had.   She  might  tell herself at seventeen  to not bicker with her mother, or worry so much about the future. But none of it would be altered  in retrospect.     

Because all of it is so fleeting, from one moment to the next, and the thing that matters most is how we respond to the present, how we occupy space, how compassionate and forgiving we a re in times where we feel like doing anything but. The impermanence grants us the ability to appreciate the current, however hard or joyful that may be- to learn from it, to accept it, to  be still and take it in.   

It grants her the feeling, at thirty, of a love so concrete that it becomes, for that moment and the rest of time, more absolute than  death, even. And she regrets nothing.  And she would change  nothing.   

 

Tobin kneels on the bed next to her with Amaya in her arms, wondering why Christen has such a look of deep concentration and appreciation on her face, after just being j arred awake by an energized six-year-old belly flopping onto their mattress and snuggling up to her side.  She wonders if Christen will always have this look on her face the morning after they have sex, from now on, and she looks at the green-eyed woman curiously.   

“Feeling alright, babe?” Tobin asks her, meeting her eyes as Christen looks around them and sighs happily. Dazed, almost. Amaya stirs from her spot against the Marine’s chest, likely starving after only being fed a few hours ago, after waking them up for more milk  in the middle of the night  

“Just love you guys, is all.” Christen answers dreamily, her hand massaging through Donovan’s curls as she smiles.   

He pops his head up from the crook of his mother’s arm, looking at the women around him in a hung ry pout before finally settling his gaze on Christen.   He pats her leg over the covers  and tugs on her hand-  

“Toe-bin said we could make pancakes when you  get   up . I’m  starving .  Can you get up  now? ”