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✔ Ever since she was a child, Erica Albright planned on having two husbands.

Not at the same time, of course (although that would be cool and she should definitely look into polyandry laws in the United States, just for fun. You never know what kind of weird loopholes there are until you look.) But more, like, she sees herself marrying, then divorcing, then marrying again. At least twice. "Just to be sure," she tells her mother, nodding solemnly and checking to make sure her stuffed bunny was firmly tucked in and comfortable before she went to bed.

"Okay, baby girl," says her mother, amused. "Who's first?"

Erica gives it considerable thought. "Simba!" she decides, and nestles into her pillow with a happy noise.

Later, in high school, she brings it up again, when asked to give her opinion on marriage for the school newspaper. "The first time I marry," she says, pulling loose hairs out from underneath her headband. "It will be for love. Reckless love, the kind of love that drives you out of bed in the middle of the night with a phone call. The kind of love that you could elope on, live on, feast on, and never want for anything.

"The second time I marry," she continues. "It will still be for love, but not, perhaps, for passion. I will marry a friend, for peace, for quiet, for comfort, for the feeling of coming home and growing old with someone I've loved my whole life. I'll know how to be married, and I'll be better at it. It will work."

(But she goes to a Catholic school, and since she implies that at one point, there would be a divorce, they aren't allowed to publish her. It's one of those things they tell her she has no control over, and she's still young, so she accepts it.)

And then, in the fall of 2003, her period is late.

 

✔ She doesn't notice, not for awhile. She's always been irregular, which she only knows because her mother gave her a calendar when she was thirteen, and she was supposed to put a little smiley-face sticker on the days her period started each month. She gave up the sticker habit almost immediately, because no, but it doesn't stop her from marking the day in her head every time.

So September becomes October, and when her roommate comes shuffling in and flops face-down onto her bedspread, groaning, "Erica, do you have Midol?" she suddenly realizes that she hasn't had a period since school started.

Hmm, she thinks, tucking her feet to the side and rolling up, going to fetch the bottle of Midol she keeps in her desk drawer, with her mini-stapler and her post-its. That's weird.

It's flimsy, but maybe she could write it off as stress, or maybe she skipped one because her body is trying to sync her up with the girls on her floor. She's gone this long without having one before.

Of course, last time she went this long without having a period, she wasn't having sex and therefore wasn't particularly concerned. Now, it's a different story.

 

✔ She's twenty-one, a junior at Boston University, and she wants to get a degree in aeronautical engineering because of something her high school robotics club leader mentioned, offhand, about NASA when she was sixteen.

She genuinely likes school; likes the idea of putting something into her brain that wasn't there before. Information is there to be known.

Getting the results of the pregnancy test feels a lot like getting into a car accident. There's the feeling of emotional whiplash, like her head's been wrenched on the wrong way, and the feeling that if she pinches herself, she's going to wake up, and laugh for subconsciously dreaming up something so specifically weird. It's like, if she looks around, she's going to see broken glass everywhere.

"Shit," she says, eloquent. "Shit, fuck, damn, fuck, fuck."

And then she puts the pregnancy test into a Ziploc bag, tucks the Ziploc bag into the front pocket of her backpack where she keeps her student ID card and her passport, and sits down to finish her problem set for Calc III.

 

✔ Four days later, she breaks up with her boyfriend.

She sits there in the middle of an insanely crowded bar, running her fingertip along the rim of the glass he got her, and tries to think of the best way to interject, "hey, guess what, we're going to be parents," into the conversation, which doesn't break, and doesn't break, and doesn't break, and --

And then she stops. She takes a mental step back, and she looks at him, and she realizes that this person, the one sitting across from her at this postage-stamp sized table watching her with an almost reptilian look, is not someone she wants to rely on.

Ever.

For anything.

He's nineteen, self-absorbed, and the idea that she'd be beholden to him makes her skin crawl.

In fact, wait, why does she even need to tell him? Has society (patriarchal society, thank you!) really tricked her into thinking that it's necessary that she include a man in this?

Is he necessary? Or, like, important? At all?

He isn't. She doesn't owe him this information. She can do this just fine without him.

And that's an amazing thought.

She leaves her beer behind, untouched.

"Guess it's just you and me," she whispers, pressing a hand to her stomach. She can't feel anything yet, because there's nothing really there to feel.

"Erica?" she hears on her way out the door, and she turns, tugging her hat down further over her ears. Loose leaves skitter under her feet, their autumn colors rotted out of them. There's a line to get into the bar, but Bobby holds out a hand to stop them and frowns at her. "Are you okay?"

Bobby is 6'1" and built like 50 Cent, and at minimum wage, he does door duty for the greater Boston area bars even though he's got Intro to Flight Mechanics at eight AM Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, because he says his strength is not for hurting, and there aren't enough big people out there defending the smaller ones, and what kind of world do you got when you've got no one standing up for each other? "Do you need someone to walk you to your car?" he says now.

Erica smiles, and buttons her peacoat up to her neck with fingers that are still shaking. "I'm good, Bobby," she says. "Thank you."

 

✔ "Are you taking any form of birth control?" the tech at Planned Parenthood asks her.

"No, ma'am," Erica answers, fiddling with the strap on her backpack. "And I wasn't, either. At the time, I mean."

The tech rolls her pen between her fingers, and offers, "You mentioned you've always been irregular. Birth control can help regulate you, you know. It puts your hormones on a predictable schedule. Should you decide to start at any point in your life."

"I wish I'd known that when I was younger." She shrugs, folding one leg over the other. "I went to a Catholic high school. They prepped us for college just fine, but they didn't really teach us."

"Oh!" The tech smiles. Her scrubs are covered in puppies dressed in yellow galoshes splashing through puddles and holding up their umbrellas. "Are you in college, then?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'm studying aeronautical engineering at BU."

She "tsk"s between her teeth, tapping at her clipboard. "It's a shame about this, then," she says, with an idle gesture at Erica's midsection. She's wearing a nametag, but there isn't anything on it.

It's said so nonchalantly, that it doesn't even register in Erica's mind at first. Then she straightens up, feeling a frown pinch between her brows as it sinks in. "Wait," she says. "What do you mean?" The tech opens her mouth, a look on her face like she's trying to backpedal, but Erica's already continuing, "No. It's not a shame. I am studying aeronautical engineering at BU, and I am pregnant. The two are not mutually exclusive. A baby doesn't mean automatic withdrawal from all my courses."

The tech sits back on her stool, and holds up her hands. "Completely off the record and in no way am I asking this as a representative of Planned Parenthood or any of its sponsors, nor am I trying to persuade you either way, so please do not use this against me in a court of law," she rattles off. "But why do you want to have this baby?"

It's a fair question, so Erica looks up at the overhead lights, buzzing and fluorescent, and picks at a loose bit of skin along the bow of her mouth as she thinks.

"It's just not the way I was raised," she says finally. "Abortion, I mean."

Now that the trigger word is out there, the tech says nothing, nodding, but her eyes are the same dark blue as cornflower, and too expressive to hide what she's thinking.

"Don't," says Erica sharply, sitting forward. "Don't look at me like that. I am not brainwashed. I am not indoctrinated into an archaic belief system -- I am just as educated as you are, and I know I have a choice. I know why generations of women have fought so that I could have this choice here, today, and so I am choosing. I am exercising my right to choose, and I respect every woman who's ever made a similar choice and chose differently. I'm going to school, I'm having this baby, and that's okay, too."

"And I wish you the very best," says the tech neutrally, once this spiel comes to a close. "Honestly."

"Thank you," says Erica curtly. She relaxes her shoulders. "Um, and about prenatal vitamins..."

 

✔ The vitamins she leaves out on her desk, tucked into the space beside her shower caddy and a box of Chewy Granola Bars. She stops drinking coffee, and she stops contributing beers to their communal minifridge, which Robin makes disgruntled noises about until she realizes that Erica isn't taking any out either. She has a new calendar up, keeping track of things as they happen in weeks instead of months.

But it isn't until after midterms (twelve weeks,) when Robin steps right out of the sweatpants she's been wearing for the past three days and makes noises about partying till her liver shreds, that Erica has to sit her roommate down and tell her, "Robin, I am not going out drinking with you. I'm pregnant."

Robin's mouth works like a fish. And then she scrambles up onto the bed to get into Erica's personal space.

"But --" she goes, barely coherent. "But -- but you broke up with -- Erica, what other super-sexy computer nerds have you been sleeping with that I don't know about?"

It's a joke, she knows, and later, Erica will blame it on the fluxing hormones, same as she did with that poor lab tech from Planned Parenthood. She turns her head so slowly she swears she can hear it creak, and fixes Robin with a long, uncomprehending look.

"Why is that the first thing out of your mouth?" she asks, narrowing her eyes.

"Um," says Robin.

"Why couldn't you ask me, 'oh, really, Erica, that's big news, how are you feeling?' or 'when are you due?' Did you really just -- I am not a character in an ABC drama, okay, my plot does not revolve around who could possibly father my offspring. I am worth more than the last guy who stuck his dick in me. I think I deserve that much."

"Okay," says Robin, very timidly. "Um, if you really want to know, I honestly thought you were taking prenatal vitamins for your hair. I mean, it looks fantastic. Can I pet it? And hug you, maybe?"

Erica's anger goes out of her as fast as it came, and she laughs, opening her arms so Robin could fling herself into them.

"Oh my god!" she says instantly, pulling away and settling back onto her haunches on Erica's bedspread so she can put a hand flat to Erica's stomach. "Your belly is, like, hard as a rock!"

Erica grins. "I'm not far enough along to show, but my skin is going tight because the walls of my uterus are thickening up."

Robin stares at her for a beat, and then catches a gleeful squeaking noise behind her teeth. "That is so cool," she gushes, and rocks forward for another hug.

 

✔ She goes in for check-ups regularly; Planned Parenthood is the only thing close to campus that she can afford, and there's a late-night clinic once a week for people like Erica who don't really have any other free time during the day. Bobby offers to drive her, and doesn't bat an eyelash when she leaves him in the lobby, where they've got a demo video on loop about how to properly apply a condom.

When she returns, he's deep in conversation with the girl behind the desk, who keeps on tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear, almost shy.

"Sorry about making you wait," Erica says, touching Bobby's shoulder to get his attention. "Just let me schedule my next appointment and we can go."

Bobby straightens up, smiling at her. "Nah, don't worry about it. I've been educating myself; I didn't realize Planned Parenthood offered all these services, it's kind of crazy. Cool crazy," he amends, at Erica's bemused look.

The receptionist lifts her eyes from her computer screen, looking back and forth between them. She has clean, shiny hair and big, brown eyes and her nametag says her name is Alice.

"We could always use the help," she offers. "If you guys have any time to volunteer."

 

✔ Alice, it turns out, just changed her major to pre-med with a concentration in cardiology (or possibly obstetrics, it depends on the day,) and she plans to transfer to Georgetown after spring semester.

"Not soon enough," she goes, rolling her eyes expressively. She's a lot less shy once you get to know her. "One just does not simply transfer out of Harvard, oh no."

She lets Erica do her Flight Mechanics homework behind the desk, and will occasionally roll by in her chair and offer her a new pamphlet, all of which are titled "What to Expect When You're Expecting (Abridged)" and "Common Things To Remember While Gestating Alien Spawn," which is how Erica learns all sorts of interesting trivia about swelling ankles, food cravings, morning sickness, and other things that haven't really bothered her.

"If I hadn't seen the ultrasound, I'd think my body was playing a particularly cruel trick on me," she tells Alice, folding back the pamphlet that's telling her only bout 45% of morning sickness actually happens in the morning.

"Or it just doesn't notice that it's growing spawn and hasn't sent the signal to the rest of your body," Alice responds dryly.

Erica wraps her arms around the back of her chair, and gives her a curious look. "Do you ever plan on having children?"

"Who, me? No," says Alice, without looking up, like Erica had asked her nothing more complicated than her preference on cereals.

And that's okay, too.

 

✔ On average, genitalia form on a fetus at around the twenty-week marker. The first time Erica goes in for an ultrasound to determine the sex of the baby she's carrying, it doesn't work because the umbilical cord is wrapped between its legs. She's a bit put out, because she drank all that fluid and goddamn, she needed to pee like a racehorse, and she's nowhere closer to finally being able to stop referring to her baby as "it" in her head.

The second time she goes in, the ultrasound tech presses the probe into her uncomfortably full bladder and says, "Congratulations, Ms. Albright. You're going to have a girl."

They give her a couple extra copies of the print-out when she leaves, assuming that she has people she's going to want to send them to. She hold on to one (Robin insists on taking the other for nefarious purposes -- Erica thinks it might include a scrapbook) and finally, she works up the courage to stick it in a manilla envelope and postmark it to her mother.

She includes a post-it that says, Mom, meet Emily :)

Emily, at this point, is just a black-and-white alien-looking blob with enormous eyeballs and toes, which makes Erica feel silly getting as emotional as she does, because -- because her baby has eyeballs.

Erica still hasn't really mastered vectoring in quadrants, but her body can make brand new eyeballs for a little person. How cool is that?

She forgets about it once it's in the mail, because finals are nigh, and she has to find temporary living arrangements over Christmas break because the dorms want everybody out. Usually Robin lets her couch-surf in exchange for keeping mum on how many Christmas decorations she actually owns, but this year Robin's spending Christmas with her boyfriend, a CS nerd named Stuart Singer with an almost desperate need to impress. She likes Stuart, but not enough to third wheel with them all the way back to Portland.

About two weeks later, she's sitting at her desk with her laptop open, her grades up and an IM window open with Bobby so they can discuss what even was going on with that Flight Mechanics final, when her phone rings.

She picks up, and a mechanized voice tells her she's accepting a call from the Tricounty Penitentiary. "Hi, Mom."

"Baby girl," says her mother's voice, at once close and warm and worried. "How ... all you all right?"

Just like that, the tension Erica didn't even know she had just drains out of her shoulders, and she shade her eyes with her hand. "I'm fine, Mom," she says, only a little unsteadily. "I'm ... we're good. Me and Emily, we're all right. We can do this."

"I know you can," says Ms. Albright instantly. "And ... I know babies aren't cheap. You were an extraordinarily well-behaved child, but you were never cheap. So ... the money --"

"I'm rationing it carefully," Erica answers. "I want the bulk of it there for you when you get out."

"That's not what I meant, I was going to tell you you should take it, and stick most of it in a money market account for a college fund. I don't need it, why would I want it wasted on fixing up an old ruin like me. Listen, you remember our neighbor, the guy who practiced his golf swing a lot, so we always found golfballs in our bird bath? Well, I know he's an accountant, so he'll probably help you set up some kind of monthly stipend to make the money last, between the -- between Em -- Emily and your college expenses. Here, I think I have his number here, hold on ..."

 

✔ When school reconvenes at the beginning of January , Erica is noticeably starting to stretch the waistlines of her jeans. She borrows Robin's shirts to sleep in, because Robin has a collection of XLs from places like Seaman's Cove Bar and Grill in Pascagoula, and Elk Grove Volleyball Championships, and she won't mind if Erica sweats out the neckline. She never got morning sickness, but fuck the night sweats.

"Are you sure you should be doing this?" Divya asks her perplexedly one morning, watching her lace up her tennis shoes. "I mean, you're --"

She looks up at him. In the pre-dawn gloom, his eyes look thin and shadowy, his mouth pulled down in the corners with concern. Twice a week, she and Divya go jogging together before sunrise as part of Boston's Take Back the Dark initiative, which partners up two at-risk people to make them smaller targets for violence. Divya has no problem taking things into his own hands, and while she's 90% sure he told her his ancestors came from the foothills of western Bhutan (like, three generations ago, before Bhutan was even an official independent country,) he's had bottles thrown at his head by rambunctious pledges of the Phoenix Club and chased down with cries of, "go home to your wives, Muslim!"

(He snorted, loudly, when she asked him if he reported them. "Of course I did," he said dryly. "I dragged their asses across the concrete. I hear the Phoenix Club is really interested in diversity these days.")

"Why shouldn't I?" she asks, standing and starting her hamstring stretches. "I'm still capable of doing all the things I was before. I just now happen to be doing them while gestating a small human being, because I'm excellent at multi-tasking like that."

Divya's teeth flash. Simultaneously, they switch to stretching out the other leg. "That's not what I meant," he goes, droll. "I know you are more than what goes on in your womb. I just meant, running isn't going to, like, hurt?"

"Not yet!" she says cheerfully, and takes off.

 

✔ On one of the rare free Friday nights she has, while she's out with Bobby and her friends from her high school robotics club, running her fingers along the stem of the wine glass they got her before she walked in there leading with her stomach and they freaked out on her, her ex-boyfriend comes up to her table.

She holds the line of her winter coat out, careful to not turn all the way around in her chair, but he's not looking. His eyes never stray from her face.

(Once upon a time, she'd liked that about him.)

"Is there a problem, Erica?" Bobby asks, with that quiet, menacing calm of his.

"No," she says, not looking away from her ex; he looks like a child, standing there, and she supposes she wishes him the best with his ... whatever it is (video game, maybe?) but how important could it be, really? "No problem."

 

✔ She volunteers at Planned Parenthood as frequently as she can schedule, because she likes the atmosphere and the Rosie the Riveter can-do attitude of the employees, and eventually, Alice's boss just throws up her hands and says, "Erica, would you like to be a part-time employee?"

"I'm not --" Erica starts, because undergraduate studies in aeronautical engineering does not a health professional make.

"I'm talking filing insurance claims, managing hate mail, fetching lemonade for the Bible-thumpers when they set up protests outside. Just what you're doing now, but with pay."

"That would be ... amazing." She tries hard to make sure the hearts aren't literally coming right out of her eyes, but it's a near thing. Standing in the doorway, Alice punches the air in delight, and as soon as her boss leaves, she flings her arms around Erica, squeezing her hard in congratulations. It puts a lot of pressure on her broadening abdomen, but that's okay.

Sometimes (and these are her favorites,) she'll get to talk to girls in situations like her own: pregnant before they meant to be, and not sure what to do. She lets them put a hand to her belly so that they can feel Emily turn over restlessly; some of them look astonished and delighted when Emily kicks and they can feel the outline of her heel through Erica's skin, and some of them look severely creeped out. She doesn't mind -- it is pretty weird, and sometimes it's really uncomfortable, especially when Emily likes to use her bladder as a pillow.

Some of them will abort: that's within their rights as a woman, too, to rid their body of a parasite, no different than a tapeworm. Some of them will bring their boyfriends to the next check-up because they have faith they can make a family; small, young, nervous faces, determined to make the best of what they have, and confident they can do it together. Some of them tell her they don't want the fathers anywhere nearby. Some of them will leave school. Some of them will keep their babies and raise them. Some of them, she'll refer to greater metro area adoption agencies. Each one, no matter the choice, she will take their hands and tell them that it's okay, there's nothing to be ashamed of, they live in a country where the law respects their decision.

It's not just girls they get at the clinic, either. Alice gets this boy who comes in once -- he's barely even fifteen, asking for contraceptives and advice on how to make sex good and safe for his girlfriend.

"You shouldn't be worried if you're not doing perfectly the first couple times," Alice is reassuring him when Erica slips into the room to put more paper in the printer. "That's what they're there for. Communicate with her. If she's not impressed, stop, ask what she wants. It'll get good, even better if you talk about it, and don't worry, you're not the only one who's completely lost. Everyone is when they're just starting out.

"Hey, Erica," she adds, and Erica pauses, one hand on the door. "How about your ex?"

She snorts. "Please," she goes, and sees the kid's eyes do the familiar startled flick down to her stomach. She's twenty-nine weeks. "I tied him to the headboard and didn't let him up until he could do it right," and the kid flushes crimson. "Alice?"

Alice makes a so-so gesture. "Mine must have talked to yours for pointers, because he tried. Of course, it was also a quick hook-up in the men's restroom, so."

Erica grins. "You are my favorite classy lady."

Alice stands and bobs into a curtsy, and the kid relaxes enough to smile.

 

✔ The first fine spring day of April, she takes her avionics reading and a blanket and settles down underneath a tree in the bowl, looking up occasionally to see the wind stirring the buds on the branches overhead and the grass trying to come back through the mud. She's using her housing application form as a bookmark: BU provides on-campus housing for young families, which she appreciates.

(It doesn't stop Robin from whining about having to resort to lottery for a roommate next year. Stuart gets this shy look every time she starts, because he has an apartment and he needs a roommate and seriously, they're ridiculous.)

She doesn't really walk anymore so much as she waddles, as the ligaments in her pelvis soften in preparation for childbirth. Her feet, too, have flattened out like silly putty -- she went from size 6 1/2 to borrowing Robin's 8s -- but unlike the new wide walk of hers, that's permanent.

Her belly makes a good prop for her textbook. Her earbuds are in, and in the gap between songs, a shadow falls over her.

She looks up, startled.

"Divya!" she goes, smiling warmly. She puts her textbook to the side and gestures for him to join her on the blanket. "What are you doing here?"

He remains standing, hands in the pockets of his slacks. "You're Mark Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend," he says. It's not a question.

Erica blinks, feeling the smile slip sideways off her face. "Yes," she answers, leaning back against the tree trunk and folding her arms.

His eyes drop deliberately to her stomach.

There's a long pause.

"He called me a bitch on the Internet, Div," she says quietly, and spreads one protective hand over the top of her stomach, where Emily rests, quiescent. "Because I told him an uncomfortable truth, I got punished for it. Why would I want him anywhere near my child?"

The corner of Divya's mouth twitches into a smirk. "Fair enough, I'm all for that," he says. And, "If I told you I have a way to make him pay, what would you say?"

"That I don't need it," she answers. The only thing of worth her ex-boyfriend ever gave her was his sperm, and even then, he didn't do it on purpose. "But thank you."

He nods, and then folds his legs down, settling next to her. "What are you reading?" he asks, nudging her shoulder with his.

 

✔ Contractions are worse than menstrual cramps. They're worse than the leg cramps she gets when she's slept in the wrong position or pushed herself too hard while jogging. They're worse than the feeling of trying to throw up on an empty stomach; a great, unearthly wrenching feeling, like her hips and gut and groin and back have been unceremoniously torn out of place.

When she checks into the maternity ward at the closest hospital shortly after her water breaks, they tuck her into a small room out of the way and leave her to walk it off, since the majority of labor is pretty boring.

Well, boring for everybody else, since it's just hours of Erica alternating between incredible pain and the intense, animalistic urge to squat, which she doesn't think is very boring. She shuffles back and forth, always within arm's reach of the bed railing or the wall, repeating facts over and over in her head, You're Erica Albright. Your mother's name is Emily Terese Albright. Your daughter's name is Emily Belle Albright, over and over until it becomes a mantra she uses to keep track of her contractions. She just wishes her body would hurry up and dilate enough that they can give her the painkillers.

(She really, really wants her mom to be here.)

She doesn't wind up screaming, though; that part always gets greatly exaggerated in movies, since it's meant to horrify.

She's too busy pushing to have energy to waste on screaming.

 

✔ There's some kind of blurring mess with a blanket, a long piece of wire synching through the umbilical cord, some nurses muttering over a scale, and then a pale, freckled nurse in mint-green scrubs kneels on the edge of her bed, filling Erica's seeking, demanding arms with her daughter.

She's tiny and crying furiously; her eyelids are as translucent as dragonfly wings, her eyes moving restlessly underneath them, unable to open fully. They wrapped her up in a felt blanket that smells vaguely of the plastic wrap it came in, pink stitching along the edges and patterned with small, smiling ducks. Her waving palms are the size of quarters.

Erica catches one and presses a kiss to the ends of her fingers, murmuring, "Hello, hello, Emily."

Emily is unimpressed, and cries harder.

Forgetting everything else, Erica holds her tiny baby close to her heart and she thinks, I'm a mom. I'm a mom now, I did this, I created this. Erica Albright is a mother. She's going to be an astronaut and she's a mother and nobody's going to shame her for it, ever, and it swells inside her heart until she thinks her ribs are going to splinter like twigs under the pressure of it.

She tucks her nose against Emily's skull, breathing in deep.

"Erica, you have visitors," says a nurse, peeking in from the hallway and breaking her out of her spell.

"I do?" she goes blankly, shifting up on her pillows and blinking. She has a niggling awareness that her hair is frayed out of its braid and her clothes are sticking to her with sweat, but the next moment, she forgets about it, because Robin bounds into the room. Her whole face lights up at the sight of Emily, nestled in Erica's arms, and she catches an excited noise behind her teeth.

Crossing over to the bed, she rummages around in her purse and produces a small, knit beanie cap.

"It's green," she announces, "because it's my favorite color and not because I'm trying to make a comment about gender roles or trying to impose any on your offspring so early in her fabulous life."

"Oh, Robin," says Erica with great affection.

Between the two of them, they manage to pull the beanie down around Emily's head, very, very carefully. She dislikes it, of course, and vocalizes it with a high wail, which makes them giggle helplessly. Robin didn't come alone: her boyfriend, Stuart Singer, is standing at the foot of the bed with an overnight bag from Erica's dorm. He smiles shyly at Emily when Erica offers her to him, making some messy nest of his arms that she settles her baby into.

Alice hooks her chin over Stuart's shoulder, cooing, "You are the grossest, most wrinkly thing I have ever laid eyes on," and when Stuart lifts his eyebrows, she amends, "and I adore you. Completely."

With Robin, Stuart, Alice, Bobby, and Divya all crowded around, Erica's room is as full as it can possibly get. Divya's carrying flowers with the price sticker still on, which he sets by Erica's feet when Alice awkwardly and unceremoniously passes Emily to him. Uncertain, he bounces, which startles her into hiccuping -- Divya's face does something inexplicably soft.

Divya then hands Emily to Bobby; she is so small and he is so big that he can cradle her in his hand, holding her head up with his fingers as her heels beat confusedly at the veins in his wrist.

"Hey, baby girl," he murmurs, and strokes Emily's cheek with his thumb in a soft, wondering gesture. "Welcome to your family."

 

✔ Erica thinks, inexplicably, of what she'd told her mother as a child; that she would settle in with friends the second time she got married, and then she would be really, truly happy, surrounded by people she loved and trusted. Here she is.

(She didn't even have to get married first.)

"Are you crying?" Alice asks her, voice swinging from amused to worried.

"Shh," goes Erica vehemently, catching Alice's reaching hand and squeezing it, hard. "It's just the bonding hormones. Don't judge me, but I love you guys so much right now."

"Oh, god, don't start." Robin flails her arms around. "Or you're going to get me crying too and we'll all be useless. Erica!" she flings herself onto the bed in order to wrap her arms around Erica's neck, and everybody laughs, gathered close and warm.

And that's okay, too.

 

✖ Gretchen arches an eyebrow; a single, imperious flicker of an expression.

"Why would you even need to depose her?" Mark Zuckerberg asks, with a tight, controlled kind of fury in his voice. It's the most incensed she's seen him since they started -- leveling the allegations against him, being face-to-face with her client for the first time since the dilution, and all it had earned them was his most practiced, disdainful look. This seems like apoplectic rage in comparison.

Beside her, Eduardo goes completely still.

There's something ... he had told her, hesitant, a month or two into compiling his lawsuit, and Gretchen had settled back, folding her hands. You have to be patient and wait for the strongest evidence; nobody gives it up willingly. The only person he felt he had to prove anything to. He went up to her in this bar, and -- it might be nothing -- but she didn't stand up. It's ... She refused to stand up.

You want me to look into it?

Yes.

Emily Belle Albright. She lives in Florida and she'll be three in May. She has her father's hair and a heartbreaking smile, and her mother had told Gretchen, quite firmly and with great dignity, that she'll answer questions but she wants nothing to do with Zuckerberg himself, no matter his millions, and that's the kind of strength Eduardo Saverin doesn't have.

Gretchen spreads her hands. "That's really for us to decide," she says coolly, and Zuckerberg's lip curls.

 

 

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fin