Chapter Twenty-Eight

They all tell you what it's like, of course. You see it in movies, in TV shows, in books, even in commercials. Sometimes it shows up in sitcoms as a "funny" moment. I couldn't recall ever seeing it in a way that would have prepared me for the way my stomach crumpled into a ball and quivered there in the center of my gut.

"Asel went into labor."

So I sat in the waiting room and tried not to think too hard. I didn't ask, but I was pretty sure Asel wouldn't want me in the delivery room with her, even though I supposedly was allowed. Instead her mother went. The nurses gave me odd looks, like, what the hell are you doing out here? But I probably wasn't the first squeamish dad to come around, so they didn't say anything about it.

My family showed up shortly after, all joking and laughing like it was a party. Could I blame them? I'd been the same way when Addy's kids were on the way. This was different though. I wanted to yell at all of them for acting like clowns at a serious time such as this.

"There's no reason to look so sour," Mom said. "She's delivering on time without any complications. Considering her, uh, background, this is a miracle." She patted my hand. "Odds are the baby will be healthy."

"Sure you aren't going to puke?" Christine asked in amusement, patting my leg.

"I'm fine," I snapped.

"Not with that attitude you aren't."

"First time nerves," Addy said, always a fucking psychologist. "You'll be alright."

"I'm already alright."

"Tell that to your reflection."

I buried my head in my hands, then decided to call Justin. I didn't know why I needed Justin here; it wasn't like he had any experience with children whatsoever. My family already thought it odd TJ wasn't here, but I still had this fear that TJ would throw in the towel the moment I asked him to share this part of my life.

Justin hadn't been doing well lately, as Thad had taken off for Alabama because of his homophobic grandmother. Now they were banned from talking to each other, which did not bode well for Justin, considering he was pretty clingy. I couldn't forget my week in France, how upset Justin had been over the fact I hadn't called him. Thad said he was coming back for college, but who knew? Either way, Justin was out a boyfriend. Maybe he wouldn't mind replacing Thad with a baby. Ha!

Justin looked as he always did in his three pounds of black eye shadow and skinny-as-hell acid-washed jeans tucked into silver cowboy boots. I wanted to hug him but didn't.

"Hey." I glanced at him, then down at my feet.

"You gonna be okay?" He put a hand on my back and bent over me.

"You know, this whole idea of mine seemed might awesome until now. I think it's finally hit me that I'm getting a fucking baby."

"Don't tell me you're getting cold feet."

"I'm fine," I muttered.

"Okay, sure." Justin leaned back and removed his hand from my back. "I think you'll be okay."

"Everyone keeps saying that."

"Because we all know you, and we know how you are with kids."

"Other people's kids."

"Lay off it, Josh," Adrien said, standing in front of me with his arms across his chest. "Stop being such a baby."

"Shut up," I shot, and Adrien snickered. What a supportive asshole.

The elevator opened again and Gran walked out. She was dressed in her pajamas, her face all scrunched up and red like she'd just woken up. But she was smiling.

"He's not doing so well, Ma," Mom told her.

"Well, why not?" She reached over and poked me in the shoulder. "He's made of strong stuff. He got that from my side of the family."

"None of you are making this any better." I shot a glare at Gran, then at Mom.

"What do you want us to do? Pat you on the back and coddle you?" Gran asked.

"I don't know."

"You call TJ?" Justin asked me softly. He seemed to be the only one with any tact, which was the usual, I guess. My family was great for parties and a drag when you needed them to be serious.

"I don't think I should." I rubbed my sweaty palms on my thighs, leaving damp streaks on my jeans. "This kid doesn't have anything to do with him."

"You know that's bullshit," Christine said, sitting on the coffee table and eating from a bag of Doritos that Adrien must have gotten her.

"Still. He seems uncomfortable enough with the idea as it is. No need to force it down his throat."

Christine snorted. "I think he should be here."

"Did I ask for your opinion?"

Christine stuck out her tongue.

Justin sat down beside me, hand on my arm. "Why are you trying to keep this from him?"

"Because he's never been totally into the idea."

"He better be soon. And if he isn't, then why do you want to keep him around?"

Luckily by now my family had moved onto other topics so that Justin and I had some semblance of privacy.

"Because . . ." I plucked at my jeans, feeling heat rush to my face. "I like him." Understatement.

"Are you going to choose between your kid or your man?"

"I don't want to."

Justin's eyebrows lowered. "But you have to, Josh. If TJ can't handle this . . . then that's too bad for him."

"Too bad for me too."

"Yeah, well, whatever." Justin rolled his eyes. "He'll lose someone totally fucking awesome because he can't handle a bit of responsibility. Okay, a lot of responsibility."

"But what if—I don't know. What if Thad were gonna have a kid? Would you stick around?"

Justin winced, though he tried to hide it. We hadn't talked much about Thad lately. "Yeah, I would. I guess." He shrugged. "I'd have to think about it. I'm bad with kids."

"You're fine."

"Is TJ good with kids?"

"He says he's not, but Hayden and Sabrina seem to like him. We haven't hung out around many other kids."

"Look." At this, Justin took my hand and squeezed it. "Sonya deserves a dad who is going to be completely there for her. No half-assing, right?"

"Of course not."

"And if you're always worried about upsetting TJ's delicate sensibilities, then half-assing is inevitable. Just ask him to come and face this with you. If he can't handle it, then you'll finally know for sure."

Justin had a point, and he was far more experienced with men than I'd ever been. I knew he was right, but I didn't want him to be. I loved Sonya more than anything, but I also loved TJ. I wanted to be able to keep both, find a happy medium. While it was perfectly possible TJ would stick around even if asked to be fully responsible, it was also possible he'd ditch the whole operation.

At least I'd still have Sonya. Who would he have?

Oh right, a bunch of sexy single women and the life of an independent man with no responsibilities.

Ha.

"Just call him, see what he says," Justin said.

Damn it. He could still be so persuasive with just a look. It was hard to say no to those muddy gray eyes, hidden as they were by make-up.

I took my phone and moved into a more secluded area to make the call.

TJ answered as if he'd just woken up. Which he probably had. It was late.

"Hey," he muttered. "What's up?"

"I'm in the hospital. Asel's having her—our baby."

"Right now?"

"Yeah."

"Wait, when did this start?"

"Uh . . ." I looked at my wristwatch. "About an hour ago?"

"And you didn't call?"

I was a little stunned. "Uh, I just . . . . I mean, you don't have to come if you don't want to . . ."

"Shit, 'course I'm coming. Where you at?"

So I told him and hung up, still in a daze. I went back to the waiting room and sat beside Justin.

"So? How'd it go?"

I nodded. "He's coming."

Justin smiled. "Good."

Forty-five minutes later, TJ showed up.

"All these morons are driving me crazy," I muttered after greeting him at the elevator. My family protested to being called "morons", so TJ put his arm around me.

"I'll take this guy off your hands for a bit," he said, then steered me back to the elevator.

"Where are we going?"

"Cafeteria. Gonna get you something to drink."

"I'm fine."

"I'm the one lookin' at you, and I say you're not." The arm wrapped around my shoulders squeezed me. "You excited?"

"That and terrified."

"Don't worry about it. You'll do great."

"Yeah? How do you know?"

TJ kissed my cheek moments before the elevator door opened. He dropped his arm and led me forward. I hoped he knew where he was going, because I didn't. I didn't work at this hospital.

"Can't believe you didn't call me the second you knew," TJ said after handing me a bottle of soda from the vending machine.

I didn't say anything, only tugged at the cap with a grunt. When it opened, I took a swig and looked away.

"Josh?"

"I just wasn't sure if you'd, like . . ." I sighed heavily, frustrated this wasn't easier. "I don't know. You've never been gung-ho about this kid stuff, alright? I didn't want to push it on you."

"Takin' care of this kid is all you're gonna be doing for the next eighteen years," TJ said. "If I'm not prepared to deal with it, not callin' me ain't gonna help."

"I know." I bit my lip and shoved my hands in my pants. "I'm not in a good mindset right now. I asked Mom to bring me another shirt cuz I sweated through my last one. I'm a wreck. I don't even know what the fuck I'm doing. Goddamnit, TJ, who thought I should be a father? I'm not even—"

"Hey." TJ reached forward and squeezed the back of my neck. "Don't do this, okay? You're gonna be a great dad. From what I've heard about Asel, you'll be the best option anyway."

"The least disatrous option isn't the best option. It's not exactly saying much, claiming I can parent better than a meth addict."

"You told me that whole family is fucked up. And look at your family. You're probably gonna raise your kid the same way your parents raised you. And you aren't that fucked up, right?"

I chuckled. "Depends on who you ask."

"I think you're pretty damn lucky. Lotta kids would kill to have what you got. Your family's not worried and I'm not worried. No one is. Cuz we all know you can do this, better than most people can."

I was finally starting to break, because tears rose in my eyes. I fought them back, but my throat was still so clogged I couldn't speak. So I just nodded and stared at the floor. TJ hugged me then, which was just what I'd needed. I shoved my face into his shoulder and clenched my eyes shut, refusing to cave to the pressure. I could do this. I would do this, because this was the only way out for Sonya. None of the Shalamovs wanted her. And dear God, I wanted her more than anything in the world right now.

"What if she ends up fucked up or something?" I whispered into TJ's shoulder. "It'll be my fault."

"There's such a thing as bad genes."

"TJ, that's an awful thing to say."

"Well, I mean, look at me an' my brother." He pulled back. "The worst thing Joey's ever done in his life was steal a pack of crayons when he was four. Same upbringing, different people, me an' him."

"Yeah, but there are other factors as well. Your dad dying at thirteen's one of them."

"Or I was just born to be a shithead." He smiled a little, pushing a hand through my hair.

We went back to the waiting room, this time mostly in silence. Finally a doctor poked her head through the door. I didn't even notice until she called out, "Joshua Moreau?"

I leapt up so fast I got dizzy. "Yes?"

She smiled. Oh God, she smiled. That meant everything was alright. Oh God, oh shit . . .

"Congratulations on your new daughter. She's healthy at seven-and-a-half pounds, with a powerful set of lungs."

"Must—must have gotten that from me," I said automatically, my voice somehow still working despite the pile-up happening inside my ribs.
"Mother's fine too. She's awake but tired. If you come with me, we can take you to see her."

"Asel?"

The doctor smiled again. "No, your daughter."

"Oh. Right! Um . . . yeah. Yeah, that sounds . . . um, good." I turned to look at my family. "Are they allowed to see her too?"

"We'd prefer no more than three of you at a time, but yes, family is allowed for a short moment."

I numbly followed the doctor, wondering if I might pass out and hoping I wouldn't. This time my nervousness wasn't dread though, just pure excitement, so thick I could barely breathe.

Asel and her mother were in the room, though Mrs. Shalamov stood and left with a short nod after our appearance. Asel looked frail under the fluorescent lights, her hair wet with sweat. But she gave me a stiff smile upon entrance, so I wasn't worried.

A soft grunting came from my right. I turned to the nurse, and even though she was hardly anything right now, even though she was red and fleshy and barely human, something in my swelled so quickly and so forcefully that I was tearing up before I even knew why. My well of thoughts ran dry. All I could do was extend my arms. The nurse smiled at me and held her out to me, this small bundle of a girl who I named Sonya. This was her.

"God," I gasped as I held her. She seemed too small to be alive, her eyes clenched shut, her scalp covered in a thin coat of wet, dark hair. Mom and Dad peered over my shoulder, both grinning, their hands on my shoulders.

It was almost too much. I had come to love TJ over a span of three months and even that seemed a bit overwhelming at times. Catching a glimpse of his smile, wilting under his touch. But this was all that love in a single moment. It crowded into my brain, kicking and shoving everything else back, like a pugnacious SWAT team. It made it difficult to breathe or even think. I could only accept it, let it consume me, even if it made me cry and gasp for air.

Sonya. My Sonya.

There was nothing else to say.

####

Asel called me several days later, but I was asleep, so my voicemail answered.

"Hey, Josh. Uh, I'm just calling to tell you good luck with everything. I know you and Sonya will work out great. I kinda miss her, but you know, it's better this way. I . . . I gotta go. Like, tonight. I'm sorry we didn't get to talk more, but you'll probably be real busy with Sonya now, so . . . goodbye, I guess."

I tried calling her back the next morning. No answer.

Asel had vanished again.

I tried to burp Sonya and cradle my phone between my shoulder and ear as I called Duncan. He picked up on the third ring.

"Yeah?"

"Has Asel talked to you? She called me late last night, sounded a little off. I can't get a hold of her. You know where she is?"
"I don't know."

He hardly sounded invested. That kind of pissed me off, as I was frightened for Asel. She hadn't sounded right. Not exactly high, but shaky. I'd been cursing myself all morning for not being there when she called. I was terrified she'd done something stupid. If only I'd been there to talk her out of it . . .

"Duncan, look. You may not care, but I do. Can you please try to get a hold of her? I'm worried."

"Josh, if she won't pick up for you she is not picking up for anybody."

"I'm going to call your parents, see if they know where she is."

"Sure, you do that."

So I did. Sonya let out a little hiccup and whined, as if thinking about crying. I really hoped she wouldn't. She'd cried through most of this week, and I was starting to crash. Luckily I'd taken two weeks off so that I could get her situated at home.

"Sorry to bother you at work, Mr. Shalamov, but I got a weird message from Asel and I was wondering if you happened to know where—"

"She left."

"What?"

"Her room was empty this morning. She must have left late last night."

"Wait, wait, she's gone?"

"Yes."

"Do you have any idea where she went?"

"No."

"Maybe you should file a police report—"

"She's much too old for me to be sending the cops out after her now."

I frowned. What the hell? "I think something's wrong. She didn't sound right when she called me last night."

"She called you last night?"

"She left a message because I was asleep." Shit. I hadn't felt quite this guilty in a long time. "The police should probably know. Maybe they can find her."

"She is an adult. And from what I've seen, she left by her own free will. The cops won't do anything."

"But—"

"I'm sorry, Josh, but I have work. Perhaps I will call you back later."

He hung up. The phone slipped out from between my neck and shoulder and clattered to the floor.

"Fuck," I hissed, then chided myself for swearing. No more of that until she was at least fifteen or so. It was hard to hold her and bend down at the same time, but I managed.

I spent several hours wondering if I should call the police. But I wasn't a relative, nor was I actually the biological father of her child (though of course, the police wouldn't know that). Mr. Shalamov made it seem as if this had happened before. And it probably had. But did they have to stop caring? She was their daughter, drug addict or no. If Sonya ever got addicted to meth (God forbid), I'd never stop caring. I'd have the police on her ass so fast . . .

Mr. Shalamov was right about one thing though. She was an adult who had seemingly left on her own free will. What could we do? I was scared of what would happen. I was also scared that I seemed to be the only one who cared.

####

"Daddy?" she asks. "Did I ever have a mommy?"

I hesitate, but I decide she needs to know the truth. "Yes, you did."

"What happened to her?"

"She had to go."

"But why?"

"Because she was sick, sweetheart."

"Where is she now?"

I put my face in her hair, breathe in deep. My sweet baby girl. "She's not here anymore. She passed away."

"So she's gone forever?"

"Yes."

"But why?"

I close my eyes and try not to think too hard, try not to imagine how Asel must have felt before she took her own life. Try not to think of how much pain she must have been in.

How alone she'd been.

"Because she wasn't happy."

####

With one last signature, it was done. Darrell and Lydia were ours.

We went out for pizza to celebrate. Justin decided to come with, his first time meeting the kids. Lydia found him interesting, asking several times if he was a girl. He'd deflected a similar inquiry from Sonya, so he was ready to answer this one. However, Sonya answered for him.

"Duh, he's a boy!" she exclaimed, looking somewhat indignant, as if Lydia were stupid to even ask. "Even I know that."

"Sonya, don't be mean. It's just a harmless question."

"He just wears lotsa make-up. He teaches me how to put on make-up, don't you Uncle Justin?"

"Yeah, but you shouldn't wear it until you're at least sixteen," he said with a chuckle. "Because you don't need it."

"Then why do you wear it?"

"I like it."

"So do I."

"Make-up's for older people."

"I'm the oldest!" Sonya said, gesturing to Darrell and Lydia.

"You'll never win, Justin. Just give up now."

Justin laughed.

After pizza, the kids headed for the ball pit once again. I asked TJ to get a box for the pizza, then turned to Justin.

"You doing okay?" I asked. "I mean, with you and Thad?"

"Longest year of my life," he muttered, arms crossed over his chest. "But I manage somehow."

"So you don't need a shoulder to cry on?"

"Ha, no." He jerked his head toward the ball pit. "Cute kids. I like the quiet one. What's his name again?"

"Darrell."

"Ah, right. I like kids who don't talk." Then he laughed again.

"Darrell's been warming up to us. He talks to us now. TJ and I, at least. Not my parents, but we'll have to work on it. He'll never be a social creature, but right now we just want to work on this selective mutism thing he's got going on. We're trying to get him into therapy as well as helping him interact with others. Boy Scouts maybe? Something to get him around other kids."

"He signed up for school?"

"Starts on Monday."

"Wow. So it's all done and official."

"Yeah."

Justin reached over and squeezed my shoulder. "I'm happy for you, Josh. You're good at this fathering thing."

"People keep telling me that, but I've got all these bratty kids."

Justin laughed again. "One bratty kid. I reserve judgment on the other two until further notice."

Justin left shortly afterward. We got ice cream, then went home in the dark. All three children were ready to nod off when we pulled into the driveway, full of food as they were. We were able to nudge them into action, then followed them all up the stairs. It was like herding sheep, except these sheep could complain and talk back. So far Sonya was the only one who did that, but I wouldn't put it past Lydia if given a few more months to settle in. I didn't know about Darrell though. He had yet to raise his voice past a whisper. Luckily he'd recently started talking in front of TJ, which was the moment we decided it was time to sign the papers and get it over with. We weren't going back on it now.

Most nights we tried to read to the kids, even though it took much longer with three. We split up the labor, one reading to the girls and one reading to Darrell. Tonight Sonya asked that we both read to her. None of us had the energy to argue. So we sat down on either side of her and pulled out a book. Lydia cralwed over and squished in as well, not much caring for the words as her fingers explored the pictures. Sonya kept nudging Lydia's hands away so that she could follow the words as we read them.

"The end," I said, closing the book with a clap. "Okay, lights out for you two."

"Can we read one more?" Sonya asked.

"Nope, it's late." When she whined, I poked her leg. "Come on, come on, get your legs under the covers."

"Can I get a hug?" she asked, extending her arms. I glanced at TJ, who chuckled and shook his head.

"Alright, just one." I leaned down and squeezed her tight, turning to plant a big kiss on her cheek. She giggled.

"One more!"

"Alright, one more." So I hugged her again.

"One from TJ too," she ordered.

"I wanna hug!" Lydia demanded, pulling at my pant leg. I reached down and picked her up, carrying her over to her bed before dropping her rather roughly onto her mattress. She squealed when I pretended to tackle her, pinning her to the mattress for a few seconds before pulling off and grinning down at her.

"Josh, am I gonna stay here now?" she asked.

"Do you want to stay?"

She thought about it a moment, looking unsure. "I like it here."

"And we like you." I patted her leg. "More than anything."

"So am I gonna have to leave?"

I kissed her on the forehead. "No, you don't have to leave. We're stuck with each other for a long, long time."

I stood back to allow TJ his goodnight hug. She kissed him on the cheek, which surprised and delighted both of us. He tucked her in as firmly as he could without suffocating her, and then we moved onto Darrell.

Darrell was still hard to figure out at times. Sometimes I worried about saying something that might destroy our delicate bond, but God, seeing him smile was at the top of the list of things that made my day. He was also the easiest child I'd ever met, practically taking care of himself. He was perfectly content by himself, coloring or reading picture books or playing with his newly bought action figures. I couldn't help but worry about it, even though I knew there was nothing wrong with his seclusion. I was just so used to Sonya's demands for attention.

"You ready for bed?" I asked, poking my head in the door. Darrell nodded enthusiastically. He jumped up and crawled onto his bed, bringing a book with him. He shifted to accommodate both TJ and myself, as we barely fit on the bed.

Sonya liked to point to every other word we read and loudly proclaim she knew what it meant. Darell had a very different method, in that he wanted to try to read all of it while we helped. He was a better reader than Sonya even, who was almost a year older. TJ at least, was convinced he was going to be valedictorian one day. He has the self-discipline for it, TJ said, which was true. I just didn't want him thinking that he had to do it all by himself, mature beyond his yeas as he was.

"Alright, kiddo," I said after we finished the book. "Bedtime."

"Josh?" he asked as I tucked him in.

"Hmm?"

"Bethany said . . . she said that Lydia and me are here to stay."

"That's true."

"Oh." He looked slightly unnerved by this. "Can—can we still go see her and Aunt Lou-Anne?" Aunt Lou-Anne being Ms. Kensington.

"Any time you want. Or they can come out here. You can talk on the phone too if you're feeling homesick."

"Am I starting a new school too?"

"Yup."

He seemed terrified by the prospect. I grasped his shoulder.

"Darrell, don't worry, alright? You're in Sonya's grade. She'll take care of you. She'll show you around and introduce you and you can sit with her in class. The kids and teachers are very nice."

"I don't like school," he whispered, pulling the sheets up to his mouth.

"Why not?"

He bit his lip. "I don't like to talk and they make me talk."

I sighed. How to say this lightly? "It's okay if you don't like to talk, Darrell, but sometimes you have to."

"I can't though. Whenever I try I—I can't."

"Then we'll work on that, alright? We'll help you talk when you want to. I know you get very nervous, but look at you now. You talk to TJ and me."

"Cuz—cuz I know you now."

"And eventually you'll know your teacher. She's a very nice lady, I've already told her about you. She'll make sure you feel comfortable and safe. She won't ask you to talk if you can't, but she'll want you to talk, because of all the interesting and neat things you say." I gave him an encouraging smile. "We're all willing to help you with this. Don't worry. And if school makes you mad or sad, just tell TJ and me. We'll figure it out together."

He didn't seem convinced. "I wish I could stay home."

"We wish that too, but we've got work and kids have to go to school. Them's the rules, kid. I know you'll be fine, cuz you're a tough cookie." I punched him lightly in the arm and he giggled. Before departing, I bent over and planted a firm kiss on the top of his head. "You'll be fine, Darrell. Don't worry about it."

"Goodnight," Darrell whispered as TJ gave him a noogie.

"Night."

Darrell settled deeper under his covers while TJ flicked on his night light and I switched off the overhead lamp. Together, TJ and I left the room, throwing affectionate glances over our shoulders, knowing Lydia and Darrell were a success story in the making.

####

"When you're a certain age, people ask you what you want to be when you grow up," I say, "Do you know when you've finally grown up? Do you ever stop wishing for some final goal? Do you know when you've reached it? Because right now, I think I've gotten pretty damn close, even though I never said I wanted to be this as a child."

"I don't think you ever change your mind," Justin replies. "I just think life changes you."

The End

#####

A/N: Not a typo. XD This is really the end. I said two chapters, but after this one I couldn't think of anything else that needed to be said.

Thank you to all of those who read and reviewed. It meant a lot to me. :3 As always, I will post Reflections/Confessions/Send in the Clown thingies on my Deviantart profile, maybe even a few one-shots if I get in the mood. I'm not planning any more spin-offs of these guys, but I said that last time with Reflections, so you never know. XD I do think I will post another slash story that is tentatively called "The Duke's Prisoner", which is totally different than my usual stuff, considering it's a fantasy world (sort of). So you can look out for that. Or read Freckles and Pigtails, which hasn't seemed to have gained much popularity of late. Butch straight girls aren't as well loved as girly gay boys, I guess. XD OH WELL.

If anyone is interested in being a beta for any of my slash stories, you are entirely welcome to it, as they all need to be edited and cut. I am also willing to be a beta if any of you are up for it.