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all the strings we've strung

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It’s typical, really. The way things were going so perfectly, so easily, before everything started to implode… it’s almost poetic. 

 

Things with Killian were perfect because of their no-strings-attached policy. He’s too busy with his shop to worry about a relationship, and she’s too young to worry about settling down, so the two of them have found themselves in an unbeatable friends-with-benefits routine. 

 

That is… until now, with Emma finding herself on her bathroom floor, dropping her head from the toilet seat with her hand over her belly wondering when the first day of her last period was. At three weeks late, she’s realizing that her perfect bubble is popping far too quickly. 

 

She’s bought pregnancy tests before, back in college when she was dating Neal and he somehow messed up putting the condom on which caused it to break. She’s been on birth control ever since, deciding not to take a chance like that again, but as it turns out, a few nights of missing her dose while she was too busy drinking and having sex with her friend (nothing more) can easily lead to misuse. She thought she had taken care of it, thought she had made up for the pills that she missed, but sitting here now with a positive test pinched between her finger and her thumb shows her just how wrong she was. 

 

Poor Killian, really. She feels bad for him as much as she does herself. They were both clear with each other about their desires and their plans, and kids were never in the cards for him. He never felt the need to have children, ever since he lost the woman he thought he would marry all those years ago. Plus, he’s older, and she doubts he would be too pleased with the idea of becoming a father at almost forty. 

 

Although, as much as she can think poor Killian , she has to take a moment to mourn for herself, as well. She's young, and while there are other girls her age settling down and having kids, she still feels too young at twenty-six, like she needs more time before she can truly begin to feel like an adult. Sure, she’s got her college degree and her big-girl job, but the imposter syndrome hasn’t gone away, and she was perfectly content to wait it out before she even considered a real relationship, never mind a baby. And with Killian, of all people. She’s screwed. 

 

It’s only right for her to tell him, she decides, despite how much she absolutely abhors the idea of putting the facts to words. So when she bursts through the door to his garage late that night and finds him beneath the front of a truck, she doesn’t even think twice about the safety concerns as she blurts out, “I’m pregnant; It’s yours,” until she hears the commotion of his wrench clanging to the ground, likely colliding with his head first. 

 

She hears him clearing his throat, the sound turning into a fit of coughs before he bends his knees, digging his heels into the concrete ground and pulling himself out from beneath the engine on his creeper. He reveals himself, his coveralls unzipped and the arms tied around his waist, his white, sleeveless undershirt hugging the muscles in his chest and covered in black grease, making him unfortunately irresistible despite the nature of their unexpected meeting. “What?” he breathes roughly, rubbing his soiled palms along his tight stomach, then pinching his reddened forehead with his fingers. 

 

Emma swallows thickly, staring at him boldly before shaking her head and repeating, “I’m pregnant.”

 

“Aye, I… I just…”

 

He heard her, he just can’t believe her. “It’s yours,” she tells him unhelpfully.

 

“Yes.”

 

He stands up, his knees seeming to protest as he pushes against his thighs for assistance, and if it were any other circumstance, she would make fun of his age. But now, he’s a thirty-nine-year-old father to be, and it’s too much to joke about. Taking a deep breath, she tells him, “I’m keeping it. You can do whatever you want, but just know, I don’t want you in and out of my kid’s life. You’re either in or you’re out, okay?”

 

She watches his throat bob up and down as he gulps, her frank words likely setting in the realism of their situation, and he nods. “Okay,” he says softly. 

 

With a nod and another breath, she gives him a soft smile before she turns around, though she longs to run her fingers through the thick, sweat-coated hair on his chest, and walks out the door. 

 

~~~~

 

She hasn’t seen him in two weeks, and it’s not because she’s avoiding him. 

 

It’s just that he hasn’t reached out to her, and she doesn’t want to push him in either direction. She meant what she said to him that night, when she blurted out the news of her pregnancy without ceremony and told him that the choice was his, whether he’s to be involved or not. He’s her friend, has always been her friend over anything else, and as her friend, she wants to make sure that he isn’t forced into this. If fatherhood is too much realism for him, she respects that. This has never been something that he’s wanted. But she won’t lie and say that she doesn’t miss him dearly. 

 

Ruby squeals when she sees the tiny bean on the screen that will soon become Emma’s son or daughter. Emma cries. Ruby says something about becoming either an aunt or an uncle, depending on the sex of the baby, and Emma laughs through her tears as she realizes that she’s going to be a mother . She’s never had a mother; how can she be one? 

 

When she gets home, the pictures of her baby tucked safely away in her wallet, she’s shocked to see Killian leaning heavily against the door to her apartment, slumped on the floor, his legs extended and his ankles crossed, his position reminiscent of how he lies in bed after a particularly exhausting round of mind-numbing sex. It’s what she misses about him, the ease of just lying around afterwards, not worrying about how her hair looked or how badly her makeup had smudged as she would lie by his side in complete contentment. 

 

“Hey,” she breathes when she sees him. She wonders if she looks different to him since the last time he saw her; if her belly has grown or if her face looks swollen to anyone but her. 

 

“Hi,” he responds softly. He struggles to stand again, his knees the only thing that gives away his age aside from the silver streaks through his dark hair. 

 

“You okay?” she wonders as she realizes it’s the middle of the day and he isn’t at work. 

 

“Are you?”

 

“I’m good, I’m just coming from the doctor.” 

 

“Oh?” 

 

“Yeah,” she smiles, thinking twice and stopping herself from reaching for the prints. She clears her throat. 

 

“Emma,” he says as he kicks the ground. “I’m sorry.”

 

She breathes in deeply, a small, sad smile pulling at her lips as she looks down at her boots and nods. She’d had a feeling this was coming, his sad announcement that he’s made up his mind. She doesn’t blame him one bit for not wanting to be in the baby’s life, but she can’t fault him for being big enough to tell her in person. “It’s okay,” she says softly and truthfully. She had given him the choice, and he’s made one. She can’t hold that against him. “I appreciate you coming here to tell me.”

 

“You do?”

 

“Of course,” she nods. And, because she isn’t quite ready to see him go, she asks, “Do you want to come in?”

 

She’s confused by how confused he looks, his head cocking to the left and his brow lifting dramatically, but he nods. “Are you sure you want me to?” And of course she is. If she’s going to lose him, she wants to say goodbye, maybe yell at him for it. 

 

“Sure.”

 

She offers him a beer and he shakes his head. 

 

“Swan,” he starts, his voice as soft as usual. “I’m sorry for showing up here. I know I’m likely pushing you too far by doing this, and I hate to make you uncomfortable.”

 

“You’re not, Killian; I’m fine. I’m glad… I mean, I’m happy to see you.”

 

“Aye?”

 

“I’ve missed you,” she whispers, her eyes downcast as she stares at her hands as they fold before her on the kitchen table. 

 

“I have, too, love. I just wanted to give you space.” 

 

Her confusion stays as she struggles to comprehend how he could think that space is what she would need if he were leaving. She’s trying to be an adult, here, now that she’s a mother, but she’s selfishly angry with him. Wouldn’t a clean break have been easier? Why would he want to drag this out?

 

“Why?”

 

He’s not in his coveralls like he normally is this time of day. He’s not greasy or sweaty, his Henley clean and fresh, and it makes her realize that he must not have gone to the garage at all. She’s been gone all morning although she took the day off of work; she grabbed breakfast with Ruby before her first ultrasound, which took much longer than she expected. She wonders how long he’s been outside her door, waiting. 

 

“Because I figured that’s what you wanted. And then I started to realize, if we're to be parents, we’d best start actually acting like bloody adults.”

 

With a snort, she shakes her head and jokes, “you first, old man.”

 

“Aye,” he laughs. He reaches across the small table and takes her hands in his, squeezing them until she looks up at him and meets his genuine gaze. “I’m here, Emma.”

 

“You mean…”

 

“You said it’s mine,” he says quietly, his voice nearly a whisper, though it’s as rough as usual, deep and rumbling in his throat. 

 

“Yes.”

 

“And ever since… I mean, you're having a baby, Swan. Our baby.” 

 

She smiles, a soft laugh escaping her throat, and she realizes that he must have had a similar moment to the one she had, and he hasn’t even seen the baby yet, so she reaches for her bag and digs for her wallet, passing the prints across the table to him and watching his eyes grow wide. 

 

“Ten weeks,” she says. “I’m due in June.”

 

“Is it… can you tell…”

 

“I won’t know the sex until around eighteen weeks.”

 

“Aye.” His eyes are glowing as he stares at the black and white blob. He clears his throat and says, “it’s perfect.”

 

“It’s a lima bean,” she laughs brightly. “But yeah, they said it’s growing the way it’s supposed to so far.” He nods, his soft smile growing as he traces the tip of his finger along the outline of the baby, and if she wasn’t so hormonal, she wouldn’t be tempted to burst into tears at the sight. “Look, I know this thing we had was no-strings; I know that was the whole point. And this is a really long string.”

 

“It is, I know. But…” he shrugs. “It is what it is. And I’m happy.”

 

She nods, because she is too. But she isn’t so bold as to assume that this wasn’t a massive blow to him. Two weeks ago, before she told him about her pregnancy- their pregnancy- she knew him inside and out. He never wanted kids, never wanted to settle down, never wanted to get married. She’s not about to fool herself into thinking that anything is going to change between them. They’ve always been best friends first, ever since Robin introduced them a few short years ago, and that’s not going to change. She’s not going to risk their friendship with hopes of something more. 

 

“Me too,” she finally says. “I think we’ll be okay.”

 

“Aye.”

 

~~~~

 

“Judith.”

 

“Quiet.”

 

“Janice.”

 

Shh.

 

“Hmm… Eunice.”

 

Swan .” 

 

“We can’t name her Swan Swan-Jones, Jones. Don’t be ridiculous.”

 

“Well, we certainly aren’t calling her Judith, you barmy thing.”

 

She rolls her eyes, tugging on his hair just slightly, and says, “stop saying barmy.”

 

“Your mother is driving me absolutely mad, Lovey.”

 

“Get used to it, you old fart.”

 

He snorts, and it’s a sound that makes the grin spread across her face almost painfully, their daughter kicking and punching away at the sound of her father’s laughter. They can’t decide on a name, mostly because Emma can’t take anything seriously lately. She knows it’s because she’s scared, and it’s easier to deflect, but she also knows that she doesn’t have to be scared. Not with her daughter’s father resting his head on her thigh, staring up at her bump with his hand dancing along it. She has names in her mind that she would seriously consider using, but she’s scared that by naming their baby, it makes it real. And when it’s real, it’s something she can lose. 

 

So she makes jokes, and tells him that she likes the name Gertrude, and grins when he laughs and calls their daughter Lovey and kisses her belly. 

 

~~~~

 

“So, when is he proposing?”

 

Emma nearly did a spit take, the chocolate milk she ordered as a treat nearly coming up her nose as she tries to relax herself in response to Ruby’s question. “Excuse me?”

 

“Killian, your friend turned lover turned baby daddy. When is he gonna pop the question?”

 

“He’s not proposing , Ruby, Jesus. We’re co-parenting.”

 

Right,” she laughs, shaking her head as she focuses on her salad once more. “Sorry, I forgot about your terminal case of denial.”

 

“Ruby!” 

 

“If you try to tell me right now that you and Killian are not dating, there is a zero percent chance that I’ll believe you. I mean, just the way he looks at you alone… It’s nauseating, honestly.” 

 

Emma sighs, rubbing the tips of her fingers against her temples in an attempt to ease the headache that’s forming. “We aren’t dating,” she says softly. 

 

“Then what are you doing? Living together, sleeping together, raising a kid together…” 

 

All of those things are true, for the most part. It’s not like Emma has officially moved into Killian’s house, but he owns his home while she rents, so it makes more sense to set up the nursery at his place. Plus, it’s closer to her office. And most of her stuff is there, anyway. 

 

And it’s not like they ever stopped sleeping together. With pregnancy has come an increased level of libido for Emma, and she hasn’t been shy about taking advantage of the close quarters with her baby daddy to slake her arousal. But it’s not like they’ve talked about it. It’s just that nothing has changed with the exception of the baby taking up more and more space in her belly as the weeks go by. 

 

But this wasn’t how things were supposed to be for them. It was supposed to be easy; no strings attached. The baby they’ve created has turned out to be a pretty long string.

 

~~~~

 

His fingers are calloused yet soft as they trail up her arm, lighting tiny fires upon her skin as he grazes it with featherlight touches, barely making contact. The sun has only just risen, the baby getting bigger and stronger as she kicks her mother from the inside, waking Emma rudely and far too early, but when she opens her eyes, she smiles. 

 

“Morning,” he says, his voice deep and gravelly with sleep. 

 

“You’re up early,” she remarks, melting into his touch easily and without even thinking about it. 

 

“Can’t ever seem to sleep any later than sunrise,” he agrees lowly, his voice quiet in her ear as he moves his hand down to her belly. His fingers gently tickle across her skin beneath where her shirt has ridden up, slinking from the bottom of her ever-growing bump and up to cup her breast as she sighs and lets her head fall back into his shoulder. “And it seemed like you were having a rather pleasant dream without me.”

 

“What?” she asks, her eyes snapping open again as she moves to turn and face him. She’s met with his shit-eating grin and a waggle to his brows. 

 

“You were moaning, grinding into me… it was extremely erotic.” 

 

With a laugh, she shakes her head, letting him roll her onto her back as he rests between her thighs, careful not to squish the bump between them. With only fifteen weeks to go, she’s getting bigger and bigger, and she often worries that she’ll have to replace him with a special pillow. With a grin, she stares up at him, biting her bottom lip between her teeth and blushing at the way he stares at her. “You’re full of it,” she accuses, but given what she remembers about her dream, she knows that’s a lie. 

 

“You’re glowing,” he says softly, surprising her when he doesn’t say something equally as cheeky. It makes her heart skip a beat, her blush deepening as she blinks a few times up at him, unsure of how to respond. She can’t answer him with words, because none come to her mind, so she leans up to him and kisses him. 

 

And this kiss is… different. It’s still deep, it still makes her spine tingle, it still makes her pulse burn through her veins, just like always, but this kiss is different. Her fingers grip his hair, pulling him closer to her, and it feels right.  

 

She would deepen it, too. She would take this to the next level, would roll him over and show him that it feels different, but they’re interrupted by the sound of Killian’s front door opening and slamming shut as he stiffens above her, his eyes widening. “Who…” 

 

“Stay here,” he commands as he gets up, reaching for his boxer briefs and pulling them on quickly as he hurries for the door. Of course, though, she doesn’t listen, creeping across the giant bed that they share these days and quietly letting her feet hit the floor, more heavily than she’s used to. She sneaks across the room, tiptoeing uselessly as the floorboards creak beneath her added weight, until she can lean her ear towards the door and listen for sounds of trouble. 

 

-didn’t know you were coming,” she hears Killian say, and if she knows anything about him, she knows that he’s irritated and probably clenching his jaw. 

 

“I figured I’d surprise you, little brother.”

 

“Perhaps you mean younger brother. And perhaps you could have called.” 

 

“Are you… are you busy? Have I interrupted something? Is that why you’re half naked?” 

 

She figures now might be a good time for her to burst through the door and really give Killian a run for his money, but chooses instead to stay put, wondering what his response to his brother could be. She knew he had a brother, of course; he told her when he opened up to her about his mother passing away a few months before the baby. It was one of the first times that they really connected on a deeper level, giving her the chance to open her heart to him and tell him about her parents, as well. She just didn’t expect his brother to make the trip across the ocean without so much as a heads up. 

 

Maybe biting the bullet and letting him know that he’s about to be an uncle is for the best. 

 

“I am a bit indisposed at the moment, yes,” Killian says from the other room, and she can hear his brother laughing in response. 

 

“A woman, then? Killian, honestly, how long will it take for you to move on from Milah? It’s been years of these quick and meaningless affairs.” 

 

“Meaningless,” Killian scoffs as her heart sinks into her stomach. “ As if you would know anything about it.” 

 

“How could I? You’ve been practically missing since our mother died. I haven’t seen you since the funeral; how am I to know anything about your love life?”

 

“Did you show up here unannounced and uninvited for a reason other than insulting me? ” 

 

She realizes that they’ve moved, likely to the kitchen, based on the way his voice becomes muffled, and she thinks she’s being smart when she presses her ear harder into the door to try and hear more clearly. But when she does, she also realizes that the door was never fully latched, and the heavy wood slams into its place in the frame with a loud, resounding crash. 

 

The home he owns is beautiful and sturdy, but it’s also old and small, and the sound of his bedroom door slamming shut on its own is suspicious as it echoes through the tiny space. She doesn’t hear anything for a moment, her ears seeming to grow twice their size as she tries to take in any indication that either of them have heard her, although she knows it’s impossible for them not to have. 

 

She’s here, then? ” she hears his brother ask, his voice growing louder until she hears his footsteps. “If she’s staying the night, she must be something special, aye? ” His words are almost kind, like an acceptance that she’s here for a reason, but his tone is sharp and sarcastic and it hurts. 

 

It’s in this moment that she truly panics, when she looks down at herself and realizes that she might as well be naked, the only thing covering her Killian’s large white t-shirt. Her nipples poke through it almost as sharply as her belly does, and the size of her bump means that it can barely cover anything else. She should have put her underwear back on last night. 

 

“Liam, stop ,” Killian calls as Emma leaps across the room and into the bed, hiding herself beneath the covers because there’s simply nothing left for her to do. 

 

The door swings open and Emma pretends to be stirred from a restful slumber, rising quickly in bed and bringing the quilt with her to cover her modesty. Behind the door is a man well in his forties, perhaps even his fifties, his hair curly and silver and his face decorated with lines that match Killians, although they’re deeper. 

 

“You are the most self-righteous arse I've ever met,” Killian accuses, placing his hand on his brother’s shoulder and pulling him out of the bedroom. “How dare you?” 

 

“Brother,” Liam starts, Emma having finally learned his name. She knew it, Killian must have said it at one point, but she had forgotten until now. 

 

“Don’t bother,” Killian interrupts. “I don’t want to hear about how your high standards aren’t being met, or about how I’m making horrible life decisions, or about how much better my life could be if I’d just listen to you. I’m happy, and I don’t need your input.” 

 

“Are you a father, Killian?” Liam asks softly, his voice changing and his face seeming to fall, but not from sadness. It’s almost as if he’s dazed, so shocked that he can’t make any other facial expression. 

 

Killian looks at her, his face soft and apologetic, and he never once looks away from her as he whispers, “Yes, I am.” 

 

And although he’s whispering, he says it with such fierce conviction, and she realizes that, although they’ve spoken of their baby before, it’s the first time she’s heard himself use his newest title. He’s a father. They’re parents . And he looks so proud. 

 

“Killian,” Liam says, his mouth still hanging open in shock. 

 

“I’m sorry,” he nearly whispers to her, stepping past his brother and into the room, back towards his big bed before he takes a seat on the edge beside her. “You alright?” he asks, his hand landing on her knee atop the blankets. 

 

“Yeah,” she says through a grin. She can’t stop smiling at him as she reaches up to smooth the deep set line between his brows. “You’re a father,” she whispers. 

 

“Aye,” he laughs. He whispers back, “and you’re a mother.”

 

And her grin grows, because he’s her best friend and he’s so happy and he’s the father of her child. 

 

“Can we talk, brother?” Liam asks, interrupting their moment together. It was almost funny; just moments ago, she almost felt like she wasn’t even in the room. Now, it’s like Liam isn’t. 

 

The man looks like an even more tortured and serious version of his brother, and Emma’s almost nervous for Killian as she watches him step to the closet for a shirt and sweats, the gray ones that hang nice and low on his hips and make her blush. He tells her to take her time getting up, that he’ll start a pot of decaf for her while he makes Liam’s tea, and that he’ll meet her in the kitchen whenever she’s ready. She can read his meaning easily: they never talked about this. They never talked about extended family and how they might impact their co-parenting relationship. 

 

Emma doesn’t have a family to butt in and give opinions on how they raise their daughter. Killian’s family has gotten smaller, something that she struggles to consider a thing that brought them closer together, but he still has his older brother. He’s always seemed to idolize Liam, considering him someone who helped to raise him and make him into the man he is today, and she’s glad for it because she adores the person he’s become. But she never really thought about how his family would impact how they raise their child. 

 

Emma is younger than Killian, that much is plainly obvious. If she had to guess, she would say that Liam is almost twice her age, and she can only assume that her youth may be something of a problem for Killian’s family. 

 

She heads to the bathroom to pee (again) and brush her teeth, and when she steps out, she notes that the door isn’t nearly as noisy as the one in the bedroom. And while she was feeling good about their interaction at first based on Liam’s soft smile at his brother, she now knows how he truly feels about her. 

 

She looks like a bloody teenager, mate,” she hears from him, confirming her thoughts from moments ago. “ Haven’t you told her you haven’t got any money? ” 

 

You absolute bloody ponce ,” Killian responds. She hears a commotion and would guess that his hand has collided with the side of his brother’s head. “ How dare you come in here uninvited and insult the mother of my child.” 

 

His voice is so venomous-- she’s never heard him so angry. She’s never felt quite this type of anger before, herself, the type that comes with her motives being questioned behind her back. With her character being challenged without her even there to defend herself. It brings her right back to the way she felt her whole childhood: like her presence is a burden and her motivation behind each and every act is somehow calculated and malicious and sinister. Like the things she does are for her own gain, and she could never consider the feelings of others. 

 

Liam thinks she got herself knocked up on purpose so that she could tie Killian down, when in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. All she’s ever wanted was for someone to accept her. She has that now, Killian giving her a child who can bring her joy and love and acceptance. 

 

All I’m saying, brother, is--”

 

“I don’t need to hear what you’re saying. I love her and I love our child; your input doesn’t matter to me. If you’re so put out by my life choices, then you should just leave now.” 

 

She smiles, despite the words that Killian doles out to his brother, because she knows what he means. She loves him, too, in a way. He’s always been a close friend of hers, even before they started their arrangement-gone-wrong, and now that they’re expecting, she’s felt that love for him grow more and more. It’s a different kind of love, she’s realized. Something deeper than just friendship. 

 

Clearing her throat, she steps out of the bathroom noisily and heads for the kitchen, standing tall and proudly displaying her bump to the baby’s uncle in hopes that he realizes that she, or at the very least, her child, is here to stay. “Thank you, Liam,” she says. “You’ve reminded me what it feels like to have someone doubt me. It’s just gonna make me fight that much harder for the life I want my baby to have.” 

 

Liam clears his throat, obviously aware that he was overheard, and stands from his seat. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I didn’t mean for you to hear that. Or… I didn’t mean to offend you. I simply want what’s best for my little brother.” 

 

“Your little brother is actually a full grown adult who can make his own choices,” she says with a roll to her eyes. She’s always been a pretty blunt person, but with the addition of all of the hormones that come with her pregnancy, she’s found herself unable to hold back any amount of sass. “I know he doesn’t have any money because I’ve known him for years. This pregnancy wasn’t planned, but that doesn’t mean it’s a mistake. We’re playing with the cards we’ve been dealt and if that’s not good enough for you, then you can take Killian’s advice and leave.” 

 

“Liam,” Killian says more diplomatically, “I think you just need some time to come to terms with the fact that this is where my life has taken me. It’s not what you wanted for me, but it’s reality, and that’s something you need to accept sooner rather than later if you want to be in your niece’s life.” 

 

He leaves after that, respectfully and thoughtfully in a way that she can tell means that he’s rethinking each and every malicious word he said to his brother. He knows that she heard everything, each accusation of her being some gold-digging trophy intent on stealing his brother’s money perfectly capable of relaying his thoughts to her. She knows he regrets it, but she doesn’t care. She wants him to regret his words, their meaning, she wants him to take them back. She wants him to realize just how wrong he is. She’s not here with Killian because she wants something from him-- she wants to raise her child with him. She wants to co-parent with him. She wants to make decisions with him and gag at poopy diapers with him and struggle through their daughter’s teenage years with him. She isn’t here because she feels like she has to be. They’ve created a life together, and she wants to live that life out with him. 

 

~~~~

 

She’s going to murder Killian Jones. 

 

“I’m going to murder you, Killian Jones,” she says to him frankly, her teeth clenched. “ I want onion rings.” 

 

“I know that, love,” he says softly in consolation, squeezing her hand. “But you can’t have any right now. You’re likely to make yourself sick if you do.” 

 

“I don’t care if I get sick! I want what I want!”

 

“Aye, darling,” he responds diplomatically, leaning across the bed to press a soft kiss to her forehead. “I hear you. And as soon as little Judith is here, you can have all the onion rings you’d like.” 

 

She hates him. “I hate you.” 

 

“No you don’t,” he grins. “I’ve given you the gift of motherhood.” 

 

Her eyes narrow as she glares at him, another wave of excruciating pain washing over her with violence that reminds her that the worst is yet to come. “You’re right,” she’s able to grit out through the painful contraction, apparently a sign that she isn’t ready, “this is entirely your fault.” 

 

“I’ll happily take the blame, my love.” 

 

“If you love me, you’ll get me some fucking onion rings.” 

 

“I do love you,” he says as he kisses her knuckles once her fist is loosened, “And I'm not getting you any onion rings.” 

 

“Please,” she practically cries, staring him in the eyes and feeling her own starting to water. “I need them so bad.” 

 

Emma ,” he laughs. 

 

“You’re not taking my suffering seriously at all!” 

 

“Alright,” he says softly, sighing as he adjusts in his uncomfortable chair (he had complained about the hard cushion and she had thrown her water bottle at him). “I'm sorry. Here, let me order some for delivery, alright?” 

 

“Finally, you ass,” she says, throwing her head back against the pillow in exasperation. “And if you ever call my child Judith again, I'll rip your balls off.” 

 

“Do you not recall suggesting the name?” he asks, tapping away on his phone in what had better be the UberEats app, lest he want to forgo any chance he has of ever conceiving another child. 

 

“You’re a demon,” she accuses just as another wave of agony strikes. She’s close to being able to get the epidural she so desperately wants, it’s just a matter of ensuring that she’s dilated enough. She’s done her research and understands the science well enough, but right now, she doesn’t give a damn about the science and just wants the stuff that can make this pain bearable. She groans loudly, sitting up in her hard mattress and leaning forward in hopes of easing the contraction, and as she does, Killian's hand moves carefully to her lower back, rubbing soothing circles into her bare skin where her gown has opened up. “Fuck,” she says when it starts to fade. 

 

“They’re getting closer together,” he nearly whispers, his lips pressing softly to her temple and refusing to leave. “You're almost there.” 

 

She works to catch her breath, then looks up at him, into his bright shimmering eyes, and says, “I hope you don’t expect me to have any more of your kids.” 

 

He meets her words with a tender smile, his palm resting on her cheek as she allows herself to sink into the warmth of it. “I wouldn’t dream of expecting you to do anything you don’t want to do, darling.”

 

“Good,” she breathes as another one sets in, this one coming on much too quickly. She lets out a sound that’s somewhere between a groan and a whimper, the deep, throbbing ache almost too much for her to bear. “Although,” she tries, but the pain takes over and she has to wait for it to pass before she can finish her thought. “Maybe our kid will be cute.” 

 

“She most certainly will.” 

 

“But she has a head the size of Utah and I'm not ready to do this again any time soon.” 

 

His hand never leaves her lower back, his lips content to maintain their position on either her temple or her hair, and she feels good, despite the agony his damn kid is putting her through. Although it’s nearly too much, she already knows how much she loves this child that they’ve made together, and if the opportunity should arise to have a second, she isn’t sure she would turn it down. 

 

That is, until another contraction rolls around and she thinks she might die. 

 

After a lot of sweat and swearing and crying, Emma squeezing Killian’s hand until he likely develops arthritis, she hears a wail, one that stops all heartbreak and pain and sadness and anything else bad that’s ever happened to her. A sound that makes her heart stop, one that gives her chills, one that makes her sob as her daughter is placed on her chest. 

 

She cries almost as loudly as her baby does, the nurse’s hands wiping away blood with a towel and exposing the baby’s perfect round cheeks and button nose. And she opens her eyes when she stops crying, once she’s wrapped in a blanket and nestled into Emma’s breasts to fight off the cold, and Emma cries again. “Look,” she whimpers to Killian, although she can’t look away from their daughter. 

 

He doesn’t say anything, his cheek pressed to her temple as he stares as longingly as Emma does. She takes just a second to look away from the baby, taking in the sight of Killian crying over the birth of his only child, then turns back to gaze into her eyes as well as she can through her own blurry tears. 

 

She’s absolutely stunning, her blue eyes matching Killian’s perfectly. Her head is covered with soft, golden curls that she hopes don’t fall out in a few weeks. Her lips are puffy, her brows knotted together as she whimpers and takes in her new surroundings, and she looks just like her father when he’s deep in thought. Emma lifts one hand and uses her thumb to smooth out the line between her daughter’s brows, just as she does to Killian. 

 

And although she’s content to say that their child’s eyes match her father’s, Killian disagrees when he whispers tearfully, “She has my mother’s eyes.” 

 

They take her baby away from her briefly, their need to clean and weigh and measure her understandable but entirely unacceptable. She watches Killian watching them, watches as he gazes on tensely, his need to protect his child taking over like an instinct he never knew he had. They work on Emma as well, but she doesn’t care or even notice as she watches Killian quickly morphing into the best father this world has ever seen. 

 

Her hair is cleaned, and Emma realizes that it’s not as blonde as she thought, the faint copper tint seeming to be there to stay at least for the time being. Her father’s tears haven’t stopped falling by the time he carries her back to Emma, his cheeks wet and his eyes rimmed with bright red as he takes in the existence of his child. “Look, Swan,” he says as he places her back on Emma’s chest. “She’s got my mother’s hair, as well.” 

 

“She’s perfect,” she whispers as she gazes into her eyes once more, laughing as they slip closed, her new life either far too exhausting or far too boring. Looking up at Killian and meeting his eyes, she says again, “She’s perfect.” 

 

He leans in and kisses her, the fire between their skin burning hot and low as he molds his lips to hers, and it feels different again. It’s not just passion that lights them from within, it’s something more. It’s more-- bigger and deeper and heavier. When he whispers that he loves her, something that he’s told her dozens of times in a way that she knew was to relay to her how much their friendship means to him, it feels different still. And when she kisses him back, she thinks she can understand the things that he’s feeling. 

 

The way she loves him has grown, she realizes. As she holds their daughter, the one who looks like his late mother, and as her eyes meet his, she feels it just like she thinks he does. She doesn’t think, though she knows she’s high on too many hormones and chemicals to be held responsible for what she says, and tells him, “I love you,” in a longing whisper. 

 

“I love you, too, darling,” he returns gently, content to let their baby sleep and keeping his voice low. “So much. Look at what you’ve given us.” 

 

It’s as if he isn’t sure where to put his hands, one of his arms wrapped around Emma’s shoulders and cradling the baby’s head along with her and the other dancing from the baby’s cheek to Emma’s and back again. He grins and laughs breathily and cries all at once, and it’s almost too much to take it, too much to watch him navigating the first few moments of parenthood, though it’s enough to settle her nerves at the sudden and massive changes in her life. 

 

She’s a mother, for real, now. She has a baby, a daughter, someone to love and care for and raise as her own. She gets to show this child the love that she never received, and she gets to do so with the man she loves more than she ever thought she could. 

 

She’s always loved Killian. He’s been her friend for years, ever since their mutual friend introduced them. Robin brought his slightly older friend to the bar one night, and the rest has been history. Sure, he’s older than her, and she was only twenty-four when they met to his thirty-seven, but it’s never bothered either of them. He’s always seemed somehow both older and younger than he actually is, his old soul combining with his youthful physique perfectly. They fell into bed together so easily and so naturally that neither of them so much as blinked when it happened. Sure, it was meant to be a friends-with-benefits arrangement and nothing more, but that idea went out the window nearly two years after their arrangement began when Emma found herself pregnant. 

 

And now, she’s had nine months to let her love for him flourish and grow and expand in all of the ways that it possibly could have. She’s had the opportunity to practically live with him, to spend nearly every waking moment with him, to make parenting decisions with him. They’ve talked about daycare and preschool and when Emma might go back to work. They’ve talked about finances and how they plan to support their child together. They’ve talked about college funds and retirement plans. They’ve talked about traveling to England together now that Liam’s gotten his head out of his ass. And now, their child is here, and she looks like her grandmother, and Emma wants nothing more than to give her the opportunity to get to know where she comes from. 

 

She loves Killian, more than she ever thought she could. What started as no-strings-attached has spun into an endless web of love and parenthood and commitment. She can’t imagine spending any part of her life with anyone other than him. 

 

“I love you,” she finally whispers as she realizes how noisy her thoughts must be. He presses his lips back to her temple, letting them linger as he breathes in deeply. “For real.” 

 

“For real?” he asks lowly. Her baby is solid against her chest, her heartbeat settling in an even rhythm as she finally feels herself coming back down to earth, the exhaustion of labor catching up to her as the adrenaline starts to fade away. 

 

“Yeah,” she whispers tiredly. He shifts slightly, letting her lean against him without her needing to ask, and she smiles. “Like, really a lot.” 

 

With another kiss to her salty skin, he whispers back, “You know I love you, too, right? For real.” 

 

“You mean it?” 

 

“Aye, Swan, I promise.” 

 

“Do you wanna hold her?” she asks, and she’ll maintain to the day she dies that it wasn’t because she was too tired, it was simply because she wanted to be fair to him. 

 

“Of course I do,” he whispers, and he kisses her cheek one more time, making her grin and blush as he takes the tiny bundle, just under eight pounds, from her arms. “Look at you,” he whispers to their child, who fusses as she’s removed from her mother’s arms. “You are absolutely perfect.” 

 

“Told ya.” 

 

“You did,” he agrees. Before her eyes slip shut, she catches his dimpled grin, his forefinger lightly stroking his daughter’s copper hair across her forehead. “You were right, as always.” 

 

When she wakes, she’ll be able to relay to him how she truly feels, but for now, labor has exhausted her, and she falls asleep easily, the knowledge that her baby is safe in Killian’s arms settling her into a slumber filled with dreams of the most beautiful child she has or will ever encounter. 

 

~~~~

 

“I don’t think she’s latching.”

 

“No shit.”

 

“Swan,” he chuckles.

 

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I forgot you’re an expert in breastfeeding. Please, do go on, man who doesn’t have lactating nipples.”

 

“Emma,” he starts, his tone slightly warning as her temper heightens. “You’re exhausted.”

 

“Of course I’m exhausted, genius,” she snaps, rolling her eyes as she tries once more to get her darling daughter to latch rather than fussing. 

 

“Then let me help.”

 

“Right,” she laughs, shaking her head, unamused. “Any excuse to cop a feel, right?”

 

Emma,” he says more firmly, sitting beside her and placing his hand around her shoulder and the other beneath the baby, carefully helping her to support her weight. “Lovey, time for breakfast, come on now,” he says to his daughter, who looks up at him longingly, her eyes sad and tearful before she quite literally immediately latches onto Emma’s breast and goes to town. 

 

“Fucking fantastic,” Emma complained, throwing her head back. “She’s ten hours old and she already refuses to listen to anyone but her damn father.”

 

“Language,” he says as he kisses her temple gently. 

 

“Shut up.”

 

He kisses her cheek this time. 

 

“She’ll need a name, darling.”

 

Emma sighs, letting her head fall against his shoulder as he brushes her matted hair off of her forehead. She doesn’t even want to think about what she looks like after a full day of working on pushing a human out of her. “I know,” she concedes, staring down at their daughter and smiling. “She’s just so perfect; I don’t think there’s any name out there that will do her justice.”

 

“Not Judith then?” he jokes. “Or have I just put my balls on the line for asking?” 

 

She laughs softly, reaching to kiss his jaw, and shakes her head. “No, you can keep those if they make more perfect babies.”

 

More babies, love? After you threatened my life for doing this to you?” 

 

“I’m not gonna apologize for the things I said to you while I was delivering your child,” she says seriously, although he laughs. She looks down at her daughter again, taking in her closed, puffy eyes and the adorable way her hand escapes her swaddle to hold Emma’s breast in place, and smiles. When she runs her fingers lightly over the baby’s forehead, brushing through the copper curls, she opens her eyes and stares up at her mother, and Emma feels tears springing to her eyes. 

 

“Alice,” she whispers, still staring, still taking in the stunning blue eyes that look just like Killian’s. The ones that look just like his mother’s. 

 

“What?”

 

Emma looks into his eyes now, taken by their likeness, and smiles. “Her name… I was thinking… Alice?”

 

She thought she’d seen the last of his tears once he finally got ahold of himself earlier, but she’s pleased to know that that isn’t true as his eyes fill again. “You’re sure?” he asks emotionally. 

 

“You said it yourself; she has your mother’s eyes and her hair. Doesn’t it seem right for her to have her name as well?” He smiles, blinking a tear away as he shakes his head. “Unless you’re not--”

 

“It’s perfect. Emma, it’s perfect.” 

 

“Yeah?” she grins. 

 

“Alice,” he whispers down at the baby, who’s eyes open again and stare into his own as if in response. “Is that you, Lovey? Are you my little Alice?”

 

“Alice Judith Swan-Jones,” she laughs. 

 

“Oh, I suppose it’s only funny when you make the joke?”

 

“Yes,” she grins, leaning up to kiss him in a way that's so natural, his arm that was around her shoulder moving so that his hand can run soothingly along her arm. “Are you sure you’re okay with naming her after your mom?”

 

He smiled, his nose bumping hers again and his forehead pressing to her own. “I love it, Swan. It’s a beautiful idea.”

 

“Good,” she whispers. 

 

There’s a soft knock on the door, Liam seeming to startle as he realizes that Emma is feeding the baby, his fear evident at seeing her mostly bare breast, making Emma chuckle. 

 

“Brother,” Killian starts, “we weren’t expecting you.” 

 

She feels him go rigid at her side, and it doesn’t surprise her. Liam had apologized quickly after the incident in which he challenged Emma’s intentions with his brother, something she assumed was partially because he had gone home and had a talk with his wife, who seems like a fiery goddess Emma can’t wait to meet. Elsa had actually called Emma, introducing herself and congratulating her on her pregnancy before giving her some tips after having two large-headed Jones children. 

 

Still, despite his apology, Emma’s still as surprised as Killian seems to be to see him and his wife at their door. 

 

“Sorry to interrupt,” he says, Emma taking in the sight of Elsa sweetly covering her mouth in what she assumes is shock at how beautiful her child is. Emma also realizes that the Jones brothers seem to have a type as she takes in Elsa’s long blonde hair. “We just came to congratulate you two.”

 

“You came across the Atlantic when you could’ve called?” Killian chuckles, but she can tell that he isn’t upset as he stands and claps his brother on the back happily, then kisses his sister-in-law on the cheek. “Thank you.”

 

“This must be the newest member of the family,” Elsa said excitedly as Emma carefully and clumsily removed the baby from her breast while also trying to keep herself somewhat decent. “Welcome, little one, and congratulations, momma.” 

 

“Thank you,” Emma says as she carefully leans in for a one-armed hug. 

 

“She’s so beautiful,” Elsa exclaimes softly. “Liam, look at your niece.”

 

Emma recognizes a look on Liam’s face as he steps towards the bed, taking in the image of her daughter and finding her features stunningly familiar. “Killian,” he starts, his mouth agape when Alice opens her eyes up at him. 

 

“Brother, meet Alice.”

 

Liam stares at Killian, a happy and shocked look on his face as his mouth hangs open. “Alice?”

 

“Aye,” Killian smiles. “Our daughter,” he says as he gazes at Emma in awe. 

 

“Beautiful,” Liam whispers, and Emma nearly cries. 

 

They got off on the wrong foot, mostly because Liam was a complete asshole, but now, she’s happy that he’s here as he takes her baby and cradles her gently, showing her a love that Emma knows Alice will only ever be able to get from her only uncle. 

 

~~~~ 

 

The first week of Alice being home is more difficult than Emma had expected, the lack of sleep catching up to her as she cries while her baby does, unsure of how to comfort her daughter. It’s supposed to be the first thing she learned as a mother, but her baby is crying for something other than food or a change or exhaustion, and Emma doesn’t know what it is. 

 

Of course, Killian is there to comfort her, holding either Alice or her when either of them cry inconsolably, his patience impossible as he stands by her side. They eventually learn Alice’s quirks and her needs, making it easier for them to console her when she seems inconsolable, and Emma becomes struck with the realization that she would be nothing if not for her partnership with her baby’s father. 

 

She isn’t sure how to tell him this, how to convey to him what it means to have him here, so she simply collapses into bed beside him once Alice is asleep and says, “Thank you.” 

 

“For what, love?” 

 

“I’m just happy you’re here. And that you didn’t listen to me when I gave you an out all those months ago.”

 

He chuckles softly, letting her fall against his chest as his hands run along her aching back. “I’d hate myself if I did.”

 

“Good.” He laughs again and kisses the crown of her head, squeezing her against him. “Seriously, though, I know this isn’t exactly… conventional.”

 

“Meaning what?”

 

“I mean… we started a friends with benefits thing and two years later we live together and have a kid… It’s not exactly what we intended.” 

 

“No, it’s not,” he agrees, “but it is perfect. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

 

“No?” 

 

“No,” he agrees. “Well…”

 

“What?”

 

He smiles as she sits up, pressing to his chest so she can look at him. “Remember in the hospital, when you were all lit up with baby-having drugs?”

 

“Excuse me?” she laughs, although she agrees. 

 

“And you told me you love me? For real?

 

She rolls her eyes, dropping her head back down, though her heart starts racing beneath his palm. “I was basically high, Killian.”

 

“I know. And if the time should ever come when you feel that way when you haven’t just had a baby, I’d want you to know that I feel the same way.”

 

She sits up again, unable to speak as she stares into his eyes that match their daughter’s, realization stirring beneath her skin. “You mean…?”

 

“I mean I love you,” he tells her. “You’re my best friend, and I’ve always loved you, but now that we’re here… I love you, Emma. And if you’re not ready, or if you don’t feel the same, that’s alright, I’ll always be here, but I just want you to know--”

 

She cuts him off with her lips against his, deepening the kiss immediately as her hands cupping his jaw and holding him close, refusing to let him go. His own hands slid along her waist, cupping her ass gently before moving up to her neck, tangling his fingers in her hair. “You love me?” she asks breathlessly. 

 

“Irrevocably.”

 

“Shut up,” she laughs, shaking her head as she grins before drawing him back to her for another impassioned kiss. Then, breaking apart, she says, “This means you’re stuck with me, you know.”

 

“Aye,” he agrees, “a fact with which I’ve come to terms, as difficult as you are to be around--”

 

She doesn’t let him finish, somewhat upset that she only just gave birth because it means she can’t jump his bones like she wants to. Either way, though, it doesn’t matter. What they have now is more than sex. It isn’t simple like she wanted it to be, and it isn’t meaningless like she thought she wanted it to be. It’s perfect, it’s everything. 

 

As she considers the strings they’ve spun in their no-strings-attached relationship, she grins, content to continue spinning them for the rest of her days, so long as she has her family by her side.