The next morning, Alex woke up to the sound of voices coming from the living room. He had barely opened his eyes before this realization hit him all at once. His cheeks flushed and his pulse quickened as he rolled over, glancing at the clock on his night stand. They were up already? He was so used to being the first person awake. Not only was Ryan gone, but his guests were up before him, too. He kicked the sheets off his legs and stumbled into the bathroom.
All of his rushing around had been for nothing, though. The voices turned out to be the television. The morning news, to be exact. He wasn't quite sure how he had mistaken the familiar low drone of the 65-year-old anchor man for his guests, but that was irrelevant now. Kelsey grinned up at him from the couch, her eyes still puffy from sleep like his own. Her hair was pulled up into a clip and her legs were crossed under her protruding belly. She held one of their mugs in both hands. Jolly old St. Nick was waving from the curved porcelain surface of the cup, and this didn't surprise Alex at all. She would be the one to dig through their cabinets to find a festive mug, even though they had at least fifteen others sitting in front of the one she was holding.
"Coffee..?" Alex's eyebrows furrowed a little. He thought caffeine was bad for the baby.
"Nope. Just milk. Not even chocolate milk. These kids do their best to make me struggle through my mornings before they even come into the world." She said it lovingly though, letting one hand drop from the mug to cover her mouth as she yawned. With the same hand, she reached over and patted the cushion next to her. Alex grinned, pulling the arms of his sweatshirt down to cover his hands as he made his way over to the couch, taking a seat in the offered spot.
"I'm sorry I slept in," he offered quietly. "Usually I'm up really early." Kelsey made a 'mmh' sound against her mug, shaking her head as she swallowed her milk, waving a dismissive hand and keeping her eyes on the news report on the tv.
"Don't even worry about it. I live for these moments. No screaming, no running, no hitting, nothing to do but sit and relax. It's wonderful. Plus, I won't get many chances like this for much longer. Little monkey will be here before we know it."
Alex laughed a little, nodding to himself. The screen turned green as the weather report started; the meteorologist's bright red dress was a blinding contrast. No rain in the immediate forecast. He thought back to all the winters in Ohio when they would have already seen snow with plenty more to come in the months ahead. He hadn't seen more than a couple inches in years. He could remember his first winter in Texas, wanting to laugh at everyone bundled up in the 'cold' weather. But over the years, his body had redefined cold too, apparently. Now he fit in with the rest of them, shivering when it got anywhere near 40.
He had also gained a whole new appreciation for what it meant to prepare for winter. It used to be that pulling delicate potted plants inside and draining swimming pools were the biggest concerns. On the ranch, freezing temperatures were a big deal. Even if the crop growing season was over, the animals still had to be taken care of. Their water sources had to be properly heated, otherwise they would freeze over, and unfortunately it seemed that most of them weren't smart enough to bust through a thin layer of ice to take a drink. There was also the concern of food supplies. Two years ago, the year's hay crop was unhealthy, creating a ration that needed extremely close monitoring to make sure that they didn't run out too fast or let any of it spoil. Luckily a mid-winter deal with a supplier had helped them make it to spring without any major problems.
"Did you see Ryan leave?" Alex caught both of them off guard with his question, his voice escaping him without much thought. He pulled his eyes away from the screen, looking over at Kelsey. She didn't reply right away.
"Um.. yeah." Finally she met his eyes. "He had some things to do down at the barn, and then he said he would gather up mom and dad and bring them over."
Alex nodded, pulling his legs up to his chest on the couch and wrapping his arms around them. Kelsey laughed.
"Boy, do I miss being able to do that." She grinned, winking at him before she unfolded one leg, stretching forward to set her mug down on one of the coasters on the coffee table before pushing herself up and settling a little more in her spot on the sofa. "So how have things been?"
"Fine." Alex paused, thinking for a moment before he continued. "A little busy. But fine. Ryan has been working with Mike a lot, trying to smooth out the all the details on the new barn." For months, the Hosford family had been finalizing the plans that took a year and a half to work up on a brand new barn twice the size of their old one, with fancy upgrades and lots of other new things - including a heated watering system for each stall to prevent freezing. Alex had nodded through countless dinners where Ryan explained it all to him, but he still wasn't exactly sure about every little detail. All he knew was that it was very expensive. Kelsey nodded, and then her eyes lit up.
"Oh, and what about school? Aren't you glad that you're done?!"
Alex grinned, nodding too. His stomach twisted with nerves and excitement as the thought of finally being done with his degree. Graduation was in just a few days.
"Yeah," he confessed. "It feels weird."
"I'm so glad we get to be here for everything. I would have walked if I had to."
"Kelsey, it takes you a couple hours to get here by car.." They both laughed.
"Okay, so I wouldn't have walked. But still, you get what I mean. I'm so happy for you."
After starting college with no set plans, Alex had decided that a degree in business was the way to go. His mother had pushed for nursing, saying that it would make everyone proud. He wondered if she had meant only the people around him, or if she also meant his father. That's what brought his parents together in the first place, after all. Elizabeth had been a young nurse trying to make a good impression at her first real job. Before long, the young doctor with beautiful blue eyes and a cute smile had her falling fast.
But he knew a career in healthcare just wasn't for him. Especially one in a hospital. His mother worked more often than not, taking long shifts with very little time left over for anything else. It suited her well, but that wasn't the way he wanted to spend the rest of his life. He had never honestly considered business as an option either, but he finally decided that it was the perfect plan. Mike was still uneasy with him being around the barn and helping out. Part of him knew the real reason, but he also noticed when Mike and Ryan needed to talk about business and he was politely uninvited from the meeting. So he figured that the easiest way to prove himself was to go to school with the main purpose of helping out and running the ranch however he could.
"Mommy?" The two looked over at Caroline, rubbing the sleep out of her eye with her small fist. Her old stuffed frog was in the other hand, dangling by her side with one of his front legs dragging the ground.
"Hey, sweetie." Kelsey made a little room for her daughter to climb onto the couch between her and Alex. Caroline snuggled into the crook of her mother's arm, looking at the tv screen with hooded eyes. Kelsey smoothed out her hair, getting it out of her eyes and behind her ears. Alex grinned. Like mother like daughter. He glanced at the clock above the tv, then back at Kelsey.
"Did you want me to make breakfast?"
At the mention of food preparation, as if a beacon had gone off, the front door opened with a click and Anne peeked in.
"Gramma!" Caroline wiggled her way off of the couch, running over to her in such a rush that she dropped her frog. Kelsey picked it up and set it on the coffee table, pushing herself onto her feet, ignoring Alex's offer to help.
"Caroline!" Anne reached down to pick her up and hugged her close. "Oh, I've missed you. You're so big! Kelsey, what have you been feeding this girl?"
"Well mom, I think we're still seeing the effects of your Thanksgiving meal at work. We finally got hungry again, so we decided to come back." Anne laughed and opened her free arm to hug her daughter. Alex took the opportunity to make his way into the kitchen to figure out what to do about breakfast.
It turned out that Alex didn't have to worry about breakfast after all. As usual, Anne had it covered, but this time she decided that it was best to leave the hard work to someone else. This was a rare treat to herself to celebrate seeing her family, no doubt. After an hour and a half of wrangling two little girls out of their pajamas and into new outfits, they finally made it into the car and over to one of the few restaurants open for a late breakfast. Alex had attempted to help, but after finding himself lost in a tornado of pink and ribbons he had decided to leave that job up to the experts.
He looked over at Cassidy sitting next to him in the booth. She was just barely tall enough to sit on her behind and see over the edge of the table, but she adamantly refused the booster seat they offered her because, as she so loudly clarified to everyone around her, those are for babies. Instead, she sat up on her knees. Across the table, Caroline was sitting in Anne's lap, which seemed to be the only option since Kelsey's lap had long since disappeared. She picked up a piece of pancake with her small fingers and took a bite, humming a tune to herself quietly.
The restaurant was decked out for the holidays. Even with the large amount of Christmas spirit packed into his own home, it seemed like this place had Alex topped. The twinkling of the multi-colored lights on the tree in the far corner caught his eye first thing. He turned a little in the booth to observe the front windows that were covered in shades of white, red, and green glass paint. He read the sprawling bold letters of "Merry Christmas!" that were printed over a smiling snowman and wrapped presents. He guessed the snowflakes of different shapes and sizes displayed on the windows were probably the only ones he would get to see this season.
"So what time is your appointment again? I can barely sit still from all the excitement." Anne had control over many things in her life, but when it came to her grandchildren it was something completely different. Kelsey pulled her phone out of her bag to check.
"In about two hours. But I really don't see why you're so excited. I sent you pictures from my last ultrasound. And the one before that. And the one before that." Alex thought about the fuzzy black and gray pictures plastered all over Anne's fridge, which were held up by an assortment of random magnets. To be perfectly honest, it wasn't until the last set of images that he had actually been able to tell the baby's head from its butt.
"I know, I know. But it's still just such an experience! And it's so different when you actually get to be there. You're coming too, right Alex?" Anne and Kelsey both turned their attention to him, which took him by surprise.
"Oh. Uh. Yeah? I mean, if I'm invited." He knew Kelsey had an appointment planned, but he hadn't been aware that they wanted him to go along with them.
"Of course you're invited. Plus, this time it won't look quite so much like an alien." Kelsey smiled and gave him a wink.
As soon as they arrived at the office, Alex started to wonder why he had agreed to this. The small waiting area was full of women in various stages of pregnancy, although some didn't appear to be pregnant at all. He thought briefly to when Kelsey had found out about being pregnant with Cassidy. She didn't look pregnant, and it had taken a while before all of their phones started flooding with "bump" pictures.
One of the women had a boy with her who looked a little younger than Cassidy. They became fast friends as they started playing with some toys that were collected in a basket close to a bookshelf packed with pamphlet displays and a box of tissues. The woman smiled briefly at his son's new playmate's family before returning to the book she was reading. Caroline was in Anne's lap again, playing with her stuffed frog. Alex shifted in his seat and met eyes with the only other guy in the room, who gave him a look that was a mix of empathy and boredom from his position next to his wife. He noted that Brian had conveniently found a reason to miss this appointment.
After many minutes of carefully observing each picture on the wall across from his seat, Alex felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He momentarily hoped it was a call from his mom or someone else so he could have an excuse to get up and go outside, but it was only a text from Ryan.
"Where are you?" it read. Alex thought for a moment. He had forgotten to tell Ryan his plans. But to be fair, he only signed on for breakfast.
"Stuck in a room full of women with big bellies." Alex felt some of the fog lift from around him now that he had something to focus on. It only took a minute for his phone to buzz again.
"Wow, I'm sorry I'm missing that. Try to not have too much fun without me. See you soon." Alex grinned to himself as he put his phone back into his pocket.
A few more minutes later, their crew had moved back into a new room with low lighting and more places to sit than what seemed necessary. Another basket of toys called the attention of the sisters. They really had everything planned out in this place. Alex sat in one of the chairs next to Anne while Kelsey climbed up onto the exam table and leaned back against the flat pillow.
"So you're 37 weeks now, correct?" The technician pressed some keys on a keyboard and looked at the screen above it. She was short with long black hair; a collection of solid metal bracelets slid up and down her lithe wrist as she typed.
"37 weeks and two days." Kelsey nodded as she spoke, and Anne managed to emit one of the quietest squeals Alex had ever heard. He was still unsure what made all of this so exciting, but it made him feel happy to see the women he cared about so thrilled, regardless. Kelsey tossed her scarf over one shoulder and pulled her shirt up so the tech could squeeze some gel out onto her belly. After that, it was only moments before Anne let out a gasp, and Alex turned his attention to the wall across from where he was sitting. There, on a projector screen, was a moving picture of Kelsey's baby.
The tech moved her tool across Kelsey's belly in a seemingly random pattern for a few seconds, but Alex quickly realized that she was trying to get a better view as various parts of the baby came in and out of focus. Once the picture was still again, Alex felt his heart squeeze a little harder in his chest when he saw the baby move its tiny arms up toward its head, then kick one leg out only to pull it in closer. Anne reached over to take his hand without saying anything, but he couldn't manage to tear his eyes away from what he was seeing to look at her. Yes, working in the medical field would have been a bad decision if everything he saw like this set him in a trance.
"Well, it looks like you have a very active little one in there." The tech tapped some keys and suddenly the picture changed from gray and fuzzy to an odd amber color with a much clearer image.
"Oh Kels, she's so adorable!" Anne gushed over the new 3D image of the baby's plump face. Alex instantly recognized the similarities between the features of the baby and the features on Cassidy and Caroline's faces. Kelsey sighed from the table.
"You don't know that it's a girl. I told you I'm not finding out with this one. I want to have a surprise this time."
"I know that, but I'm positive that it's a girl and I'm sticking to it." Anne nodded matter-of-factly and Kelsey laughed a little, trying to not shake her belly too much. She turned her head to look at Alex and said something, but it fell on deaf ears. Alex felt his cheeks get warm when he recognized his name being said and turned to look at Kelsey.
"Sorry, what?" He swallowed and realized he had been holding Anne's hand a little tighter than he thought.
"I asked what you think it is. My vote is on a boy this time."
"Oh. I'm not sure. I'll say boy too then." Anne scoffed playfully at his answer, but he looked back at the screen just fast enough to catch one more glimpse of the baby before the picture was gone and the gel was being wiped off Kelsey's belly.
Once they arrived back home, Alex was glad to have some space to breathe after being packed into tiny spaces with so many people for so long. Plus, on the ride home from the appointment, a certain little blonde someone had stunk up her diaper and was in need of a serious change. Despite the groaning from her audience, Caroline had only laughed with delight. Anne ushered her daughter and granddaughters into her home so they could show off the new pictures to Mike, waving goodbye to Alex with a promise of seeing him later on.
When Alex opened his own front door, Cricket came bounding in from the kitchen. The familiar smell of the barn wafted in after her. He rubbed the top of her head and down the back of her neck and took a few steps toward the kitchen before Ryan appeared in the entryway, leaning his shoulder against the wall.
"So did you see it?" he asked, the corner of his lips turning up in a grin.
"Yeah. It was.. crazy." Alex spoke softly, reflecting on what he had seen. Ryan hummed in acknowledgment and stepped closer to him, kissing the top of his head.
"She knows how to grow 'em, apparently. Are you hungry?" Ryan turned to go back into the kitchen and Alex followed him, reaching out to hook a finger into one of Ryan's belt loops as he did. Ryan turned back some to wrap his arm around Alex's shoulders and walked him over to the table where he had been eating a sandwich.
"It was so weird. The little arms and legs moving around and stuff." Alex sat down as he thought to himself aloud, and Ryan raised his eyebrows slightly and nodded, taking a bite of his food. Alex was silent long enough for Ryan to chew and swallow before he replied.
"Yep. And it'll be here soon, too. I'm not sure I can imagine having three kids under the age of five, but they seem to have it handled." Ryan took another bite and Alex looked up at him.
"I'm not sure I can imagine having three at all." He paused when Ryan met his gaze. "Can you?"
"Sure, I guess. I always saw myself having kids. I never thought about how many though."
Alex nodded, looking down at Cricket who had come over to rest her head on his knee. He scratched behind her ear and reached over with his other hand to grab a chip from Ryan's plate.
A/N: Hey everyone. It's been a while, huh? I've been sitting on this chapter for a few years (really) and I decided I need to post it while I'm able to. I can't make any promises that I'll be able to update again soon or regularly. It will all depend on what I feel like I can do. But I hope you all enjoy the update, and I hope all of my faithful LiS readers/reviewers are doing well. Thinking of you all makes my bad days better, no matter how much time has passed.