Palo Alto. Late August.
Wally was, by now, used to the comings and goings of Artemis' family in her life, in that he was used to the effect it had on Artemis (generally: poor to terrible). That being said, their communications were usually scarce during the school year—Paula out of seriousness and Jade out of a mixture of apathy and pride—so he was surprised when Jade showed up on a Thursday and broke a perfectly good deadbolt. She was showing off, he was positive; even Wally could pick that lock of he needed to, but Jade just jammed a knife in the lock, twisted, and pushed open the door to the apartment. Artemis was at her work-study and wouldn't be home until nine, which Jade probably knew if she'd been checking her email, so he had no idea why she even bothered.
"Head up, West," Jade said, and threw a bag at his head. Wally caught it at the expense of another drinking glass (there was, he suspected, another Ikea trip in his future. They'd only moved in two weeks ago).
"Jade," he said, more concerned by the glass studding the area rug, "what brings you to our humble abode?"
"I need a favor," she said, and unfastened the unusually bulky coat she wore. "Where's your better half?"
"You know she works," Wally said. "Hey, I didn't know you'd had the baby! Congratulations!"
Jade scowled and shifted out of the sling she wore under her coat. "It isn't common knowledge, lover boy."
"Please," Wally said. "It was kind of obvious. Plus Artemis was in knots for weeks and your mom kept calling for updates, I'm not totally ignorant." Despite the scowl, Jade handed the baby over; it wasn't very old, not that Wally knew much about babies, and it had a healthy quantity of reddish hair.
"Lian Harper," Jade said, once Wally'd gotten an elbow under the baby's head. "Sixteen weeks. Red doesn't know."
"I don't play that game anymore, anyway" Wally said, but quietly; Lian was sleeping. "What do you need?"
Jade shifted a little--she still carried some extra pregnancy weight, though it wasn't particularly obvious, and she looked exhausted. "I need a week, maybe two," she said. "There's breast milk in the bag--freeze it!--but I can drop more off if you run out. Have Artemis call the usual numbers."
Even though he'd been out of the business for a few years, there were some things Wally didn't see the point in glossing over. "What's the protocol if you don't come back?" Jade was almost family, even if Wally had always hated the way she messed with Artemis' head.
Jade was already half out the door as he spoke, and she didn't pause. Wally sighed and dug out his cell.
"Mom," he said when the other line picked up, "can I draw on your expertise?"
The baby started to cry.
Artemis got off her work-study nearly an hour early, mostly because it was the first week of the term and her supervisor was distinctly not-awful.
She wasn't expecting to find Wally trying to replace the deadbolt, though when they'd moved in she'd had the notion that it was the shittiest model on the market from about fifteen years ago, but she was more surprised to see Wally trying to replace the deadbolt while wearing a baby sling complete with an actual baby. It looked suspiciously like an older version of the bay her sister had given birth to at the start of the summer.
"Hey, Babe," Wally looked up. "Done early?"
"First week," she said. "I think Loc will even pay me for the last hour. What's going on?"
"Your sister stopped by," Wally sighed, dropping a screwdriver and standing. The baby gurgled. "We're watching Lian for a week. Or two. She wasn't particularly forthcoming, but she didn't try to kill me, so, progress."
"Jade hasn't overtly hated you since Santa Prisca," Artemis said, and made grabby hands at the baby. "I haven't seen this baby since she hatched. Give."
"Babies don't hatch," Wally said, slipping out of the sling and handing over the baby. "But if that was an allusion to how your sister is, like, a dragon, I agree. You want to feed her?"
"Someone's been studying vocab," Artemis said. She held Lian out in from of her while Wally retied to baby wrap around her, casually palming her breast as he crossed the straps. "Quit copping feels, West."
"You're hot," Wally said. It wasn't the worst excuse he'd ever tendered. "There's breast milk in the kitchen. I borrowed a pack 'n play from the Nuestro Center down the street, so at least we won’t be really stereotypical and keep her in a drawer."
Artemis took a moment to scrutinize her niece. Lian was just starting to rouse and fuss, but she was so small that her baby noises sounded more like a small cat. Artemis had no clue if she’d sleep through the night. "I have an eight a.m., Babe."
Wally padded back and forth from the kitchen to the front room, listening to Artemis and the kettle coming to a boil all at once. He looked tired already, and she wondered how long he'd had Lian before she'd made it home.
"I have a free morning this week," he offered. "Can we meet for lunch and trade off around noon? I've got labs from one to five."
She crossed the room, jogging the baby a little as she did so; Wally moved all the way into the kitchen and shook the bottle he'd warmed before testing it on a wrist.
"Where did you get so good at this?" He was good at it; Artemis had seen him with kids a thousand times, and while she always felt awkward, Wally remained steady regardless of age group.
He handed off the bottle and watched Artemis nudge Lian with a curled finger until the baby rooted and took the nipple. "I have a couple cousins in Nebraska," he said, "but mostly I picked it up? I called my mom earlier for help."
"Not that," Artemis said, moving for a chair--she still hadn't dropped her bag, and even though Lian was tucked inside the sling, her arm ached at the angle. "You're good with kids."
"I like kids," he said, dragging a chair next to hers and leaning into Artemis' space, the better to see the baby.
"I never know what to do," Artemis said. It felt like a confession, an despite all they'd been through, it hurt to tell him.
"I'd burp her after this ounce," Wally said. "I gave her too much earlier and she threw up down my sleeve."
Wally sighed and pressed his head against her shoulder until Artemis could remember how to relax against him. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe it's all those times I saw my dad with the nursery kids at church. Or all those times the world almost ended."
"You'll be a good dad one day," she said, and avoided looking at him while she dislodged the nipple from Lian's mouth and set her against her shoulder.
"Left field," Wally grinned, and she wanted to kiss him.
"This baby is the biggest cockblock," Artemis grumbled.
"The things you say with that beautiful mouth," Wally said. He helped her up and, with a minimum of fussing with diapers and spit-up rags, they bundled Lian into the pack 'n play on Wally's side of the bed.
Lian didn’t sleep through the night, it turned out; but when she woke at one and again at four, Wally was the one who got up with her.
Their more cheerful neighbors—a pair of lesbian doctoral candidates—showed up the next morning, ostensibly to deliver vegan cookies (delicious) but mostly to look at the baby. Wally blamed himself, really; he’d worn Lian in the sling on his way to the mailboxes, and Anna did most of her fieldwork at the Nuestro Center.
"Oh god," Anna said, bouncing Lian against her chest. "You two are amazing. I mean, Tori and I both on our dissertation year and I think a kid would destroy my thesis. This baby is perfect, look at her cheeks!"
"We're only sitting," Wally pointed out. "Lian's Artemis' niece, and they don't have much family, so we've got her for a couple weeks. It's no big."
Tori, somewhat more skeptical, raised an eyebrow. "West, you cannot deny this child. She’s the most beautiful mixed-race child I’ve seen in ages, and my sister has little Nigerian-Chinese babies."
"I'm not denying anyone," he groused around a mouthful of cookie. "Anna, I will need this recipe, Artemis has a thing about dairy."
"Bananas and oatmeal, it's divine," Anna said. "I have the recipe literally tattooed on my instep. But Tori's right, this little pumpkin looks exactly like a composite of you and your s.o."
"My girlfriend's niece," he said again. "I'm almost twenty-one, no way we can have kids yet. Artemis' mom would kill me, if none of our friends got to it first."
"It's so cute when heterosexual couples are afraid of commitment," Tori said.
"Sweetie," Anna said, as Lian hiccuped and fell asleep against her chest.
"I appreciate the cookies and the help with the baby," Wally said, staying calm only with monumental effort. "I need to meet Artemis for lunch and hand off Lian before my labs."
Tori shrugged and leaned over to help Anna off the couch; it took a little finagling to resettle Lian without waking her.
After they'd headed downstairs, Wally practiced breathing in and out for a moment before checked the knot on the baby sling and grabbed his ID. It bothered him when people assumed he wasn't serious about Artemis, because he'd been in love with her since he was sixteen. They had way too much history to have that kind of stuff thrown at them: Anna and Tori were great neighbors and excellent GAs—he'd had Anna's section of non-western literature theory the previous year—but they had no clue what they were talking about. Wally was committed, domesticated, whatever all those stupid jokes said about relationships, and he didn’t care who knew it.
Despite the added stresses of navigating a new class schedule, running three lab sections, Artemis’ work-study, and a baby, the week passed with surprisingly few incidents, possibly because Lian might not have been sleeping through the night, but she was an incredibly good-natured baby. Wally did have to bring her to a late seminar on Wednesday, but Lian had napped through it; his professor caught him at the end of lecture and quizzed him on the homework and his life choices.
“Sorry,” Wally said, ruffling Lian’s hair and mentally calculating her next feeding. “I’m babysitting my girlfriend’s niece, it was kind of a surprise. I won’t be bringing the bay to class next week, don’t worry.”
“I was wondering if you had brought me a member of the next generation,” Miller said kindly. “You were only mildly disruptive, Mr. West, so I’ll let this pass.”
“I’m more of a ‘babies after marriage’ kind of guy,” Wally said. “But thanks. See you next week.”
He decided not to relay this information to Artemis when they met for dinner—she was cooking, but she was also cooking with the remnants from the farmer’s market she’d hit that morning, so it was bound to be a little haphazard. Wally was pretty sure half their professors thought the two of them were juggling parenthood and college, but Jade was hypothetically due back the following day, so he wasn’t concerned. It was honestly kind of nice: usually the first few weeks of classes involved a lot of terrible parties with all of the friends he’d forgotten to Skype over the summer, but with Lian in their care, he and Artemis had spent more time at home, quietly adjusting to their new, shared space. He didn’t bother hiding the grin on his face as he climbed the stairs to their unit and let himself in. Lian drooled against him, but made her little waking-up noises that indicated he’d better get a bottle ready soon.
“Babe,” he called as he walked in, and Artemis called out to him from the kitchen.
“Hey! So I’m making tacos, because Anna dropped off a batch of tortillas while you were in class, and I think we have squash, and, oh, protein—Wally!” She laughed as he wrapped his arms around her and dipped her. “Hello,” she began again, her hands coming up to his chest, framing the baby. “How are you.” She kissed him soundly, with what Wally liked to think of as intent, until Lian really did wake up and start crying.
“Okay, I’ll feed you,” Wally crooned. “Babe, I think we have chicken thighs in the freezer, my mom took me to Costco last week.”
“Mmm,” Artemis said. “That’ll work.”
He fed Lian and changed her while Artemis sliced squash and peppers and talked about how her adviser was already on her case to write a thesis for the comparative literature program. Wally had dim memories of his parents doing things like this—his mom cooking while his dad played games with him before dinner—and wondered if babies were always this easy, or if he and Artemis just had a knack for teamwork.
It was nearly eight when they finally ate, and after dinner Artemis lay on the couch with the baby on her chest, reading some treatise on Vietnamese folk poems. Wally thought she looked happy, or comfortable, or pleased, and wished he didn’t have a problem set due the next morning, or he might have started something.
Artemis was good at reading his silences, scarce as they were, and she looked up from her textbook, slotting a finger between the pages to mark her spot.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, her voice all low and dark with something Wally, who had never cared much for words, could not name. “And it’s a terrible idea.”
“Just thinking about you, Babe,” Wally said, but he was awful at not telling her how he felt.
“Liar,” she laughed. “Wally, we are way too young to be parents. This week has been surprisingly great, but we get to give her back at the end of it, and, god willing, we get to sleep through the night again.”
“I know,” he said, and gave up on the problem set in order to sit beside her; she lay her head on his knee and looked up at him, all fathomless and beautiful, even with baby spit-up on her shoulder. “I don’t want to have kids right now, that’s crazy. But I want them one day, and I want them with you. It’s the you—the Artemis Crock—that’s the really important part.”
“You’re such a softy,” she said.
“I’m old-fashioned,” he corrected. “And I know it’s corny, but I love my parents. They did a good job with me. I always thought I’d try and live up to the standard.”
She looked away from him for a long moment, and traced the curve of Lian’s face with her free hand. “It’s funny how much she does look like the two of us.”
“Yeah, but she has zero personality right now,” Wally said. “I think babies require repeated exposure to really imprint.”
“Pretty sure you just made that up,” Artemis said, but the haunted look she got whenever they talked about parents went away.
Jade came eventually, a few hours after they’d put Lian to bed. Wally was a little irritated, honestly, because he’d stayed up so late with the problem set that he and Artemis had decided to just watch TV until Lian woke up for her next feeding, and that had ended with Artemis on top of him, pressing as close as she could with her stupid leggings still on—she needed to never wear pants again, he was putting that in the house rules—when Jade broke a window this time, which destroyed the mood entirely.
“Hey, sis,” she crooned, sweeping glass out of her way. “Came to pick up my things.” She giggled, and Wally had to hide his face out of mortification and frustration.
“Jade,” Artemis growled, and got up, which didn’t really help Wally too much.
“Hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“You’re fine,” Wally said, strangled. “We’re great. I’ll get the baby.”
“You’re leaving tonight?” Artemis had gotten that look, the look she got around kids with shitty homes—there was a reason Wally did most of the donation runs to the Nuestro Center—and her tone wasn’t promising anything good for, he was sure, the rest of the windows. So much for their deposit.
While his girlfriend and her sister glared at each other and made unhelpful comments about their respective life choices—Wally was suddenly grateful he was an only child—he put together Lian’s bag. If he’d learned one thing this week, it was that it was impossible to wrangle a baby and pack a bag at the same time.
It was just as well Jade had come when she had, because they were down to about twelve ounces of frozen breast milk. She must have planned her trip in advance, because Lian ate a lot.
By the time he’d gotten the baby up, whatever cloud had been in the front room had dissipated and Jade was lying upside-down on the couch while Artemis swept up broken glass. Wally didn’t get it, but at least they seemed friendly now.
“She’s still asleep,” he said. “Probably’ll wake up—”
“I’m familiar with my own daughter’s feeding schedule,” Jade said. She looked, if possible, even more tired than she’d been when she’d dropped Lian off. “She’ll wake when she’s hungry.”
“Gotcha,” he said. “You need the sling back, or—”
“Keep it,” Jade waved him off. “I have several, they’re very useful, Mom keeps sending them to my safe houses. How was she?”
It didn’t really seem like a question that needed answering, but Wally did his best as he handed Lian back to her mother. “She was great. Any time you need a sitter, just—could you call, instead of breaking stuff?”
“She seems to think she’s doing us a favor, Babe,” Artemis said.
“It’s amazing how much updating these apartments could use,” Jade said, archly. “Why, the glass in your windows is so old a tiny pebble could crack it to pieces. Think of what energy-efficient glass could do for your utility bills.”
“Spoken like someone who’s never paid utility bills,” Artemis sighed.
“No, actually, she has a point.”
“Anyway,” Artemis continued over him, “say ‘hi’ to Mom for me, and tell Roy—”
“Oh, I’m not speaking to that hot mess,” Jade said. “Don’t look at me like that, Artemis, I have the situation…in line, if not under control.”
“You two are good together.”
“How nice of you to lie to me. It’s adorable that you’re still so bad at it, sis.” Jade adjusted the baby in her arms and scrubbed one hand over her face.
“Thank you for watching Lian.”
“Any time,” Wally said, and meant it.
“I’m sure,” Jade said. She smiled, though, and gave Artemis a swift, one-armed embrace before leaving through the front door. It was entirely surreal.
Later still—it was a good thing Wally had never needed much sleep, even when he used his super-speed regularly, and Artemis was pretty good once she’d had about a gallon of coffee—after they’d folded up the pack ‘n play and tidied the rest of the glass from the floor, after they’d crawled into their bed, Artemis shifted and turned until Wally rolled over onto his side and curled around her. She clung to him, battling with an odd, aching sense of loss; for a minute she considered climbing back on top of him and finishing what they’d started on the couch, but even the promise of coffee in the morning couldn’t change the fact that it was already almost three. Wally wouldn’t have complained, Artemis knew—but she had a notion that sex probably wouldn’t help her problem.
“Babe?” Wally asked, slow and groggy. “Babe, you okay? Artemis, are you crying?”
She was, a little. She rolled toward him and settled against the long line of his body, twisting their legs together and pressing her face into his t-shirt. “Sorry,” she said.
“Don’t even,” he said. “Babe, it’s gonna be okay.”
“I don’t even want a baby,” Artemis said. “Lian was great, she was easy and sweet and I loved seeing you with her, and I shouldn’t be sad she went home.”
“Oh, hey,” Wally said. The sleep had gone out of his voice. “Babe, I know. I know.”
“I’m probably just hormonal,” she sniffed.
“Take notes, M’gann will want a report next time you see her,” Wally said. “I loved having Lian here, too. It was nice. It was better than nice.” He kissed the top of her head, and Artemis felt absolved despite herself.
“Maybe someday,” she said. “We could have something real.”
“You’re the realest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Wally said. “But I know what you mean. You and me. It’s a date.”
“You never remember dates.”
“Thank god we live together or I’d forget you entirely,” Wally said dryly. “Days of the week, I can do. Calendar dates are a little tough.”
She sniffed. “I still love you.”
“I love you too,” Wally told her, serious as he’d ever been. “And one day we’ll really have the life you wanted—a home, kids, a kick-ass career as—what do you do with a comparative literature degree?—whatever you want. I promise.”
“Thank you,” she said, carefully, feeling how soft the moment had become. Wally had, for years, treated her heart like the most precious object he’d ever have the honor of keeping.
“For you, everything,” he told her. “Please go to sleep.”
Even though Artemis hated being told what to do, she moved back onto her stomach, keeping one hand on that spot below his ribs, and counted his slow heartbeats until she fell asleep.