"Lullay my dere sonne, my sweeting.
Lullay my dere herte, myn own dere derling."
- from a 15th century English folk lullaby
In the days that followed, she could not get enough of looking at him.
Both Helen and Michael insisted that he looked like her, but she could not understand why they thought that. Helen showed her a photograph of one of Evelyn's grandsons as a newborn, but again she was not impressed with the likeness. Why did people always want babies to look like somebody else? she wondered, rapt with his uniqueness. To her, he didn't look like anybody but himself. Or...like the freshest of peaches, faintly fuzzy on top but with eyes like sky.
She held him as much as she could, marveling at how he seemed to just fit into her arms. When she wasn't holding him, Michael was, and he seemed to fit there too. "You two hold him too much," Helen informed them with mild, mostly rhetorical disapproval. For that bit of intel, she received one indulgent, affectionate smile and one blank stare.
He suckled hard on both bottle and breast, slept a lot during the day and hardly at all at night, and smiled a great deal, especially when he heard his mother's voice.
"You need to think about weaning him," Helen told her one Sunday afternoon while Luc slept upstairs on his sleeping father's chest. "I can give you something to help you dry up, but only after you stop nursing."
"I'm not going to stop until I have to."
Helen knitted in her chair, and Nikita sat on the window seat, staring out at a day gray and white with falling snow. There was a bustle in the street. The outdated box that Helen called her "telly" was already informing them constantly that Christmas was coming, even though that event was still weeks away. Bits of red and green blinked through the snowflakes from the lapels of passers-by. They meant nothing to her. It was as though the house in which the four of them were living these last days together were suspended in time and space.
"The chaps in the Group you describe," Helen said bluntly, "will not take kindly to leakage."
"I know. Let me think about it."
"My dear, you must begin to prepare yourself for what's to come. It will take all the strength you have just to get you through it, even if you're prepared."
Quietly: "My dear, leave it alone."
"Aren't you the least bit curious about what Michael said he wanted to talk with me about while you were on your way here?"
"I think you're probably going to tell me whether I am or not."
"He said he was concerned that you don't seem to be preparing yourself to give Luc up."
"'Preparing yourself' is your phrase, Helen. What did he actually say?"
"As I remember it, he said that when the time comes, it will be a great deal more difficult than even you can imagine. Something of that sort. One had the impression that he knows someone who's been through it." With lingering bitterness: "Of course it was all a sham to justify his coming here alone."
"No." Lightly: "He always tells the truth going in. It's just that he might yank it out from under you later. Not lately, though."
Helen stopped knitting and stared. "Nikita, you are in denial. Sooner or later that will catch up with you, and it could destroy you."
"Did Michael say that?"
"Actually, no. He'd been glancing about the way he does. When I said you were in denial, he looked directly at me and said, 'Not Nikita.'" Smiling a little, Nikita nodded. "At that point I sensed that he understood more than he was telling me, but just then you ...arrived on the scene. I hadn't thought more about it specifically until now."
"You were right. He always knows."
"What does he always know?"
"Me." Turning from the window, she dropped her feet to the floor, bowed her head, and ran her fingers through her hair, now as long as it had ever been. "Helen, I have one more week with the two people I love most--something I may never have again. I will not spend the best days of my life 'preparing' for the worst thing that's ever happened to me. Call that being in denial if you want to."
"What do you call it?"
"I don't know. Soaking up the sun?" In a whisper: "Soaking up my son?"
"How I wish I could do something to help you."
"Two weeks ago I maneuvered you into delivering my baby, and in return you've given me the home I've never had. So how do you define 'help'?"
Luc slept on his stomach in a blue knit suit with feet, his butt in the air, cheek to his father's burp-cloth-covered shirt, mouth open. Michael's hand rested lightly on his back; his eyes were closed, but when Nikita entered the room, they opened and sought hers. Not wanting to wake Luc, who had eaten well two hours before, she lay down next to them on the free arm Michael had stretched out toward her, and he pulled her close enough to allow her to whisper in his ear.
"When will Adam get here?"
"Sometime this evening."
"Are you sure he won't get scared? He doesn't know Jenny and Basil, does he?"
"He knows they're my friends, and that they're bringing him to see his brother."
"So he was really happy when you first told him?" She knew the answer, but she liked hearing it again.
"Yes." A pause. "My sons are the happiest people I know."
"Then he's really okay?"
"He still has nightmares."
"Don't we all." It was a simple statement of fact. When will I hurt? she wondered. When would the black hole open and refuse to close?
He turned his head and pressed his lips to her forehead. "How do you feel today?" Something in his voice....
"Really skinny. It's still an illusion, but I love it. Shall we put him to bed and, um, explore interim solutions?"
She sighed. "Mostly, I guess. But--"
"Kita, you should sleep."
"He had you up half the night."
"And you the other half, love. Family night every night." Just saying the words made her yawn. "So...time for a family nap?"
Adam was entranced.
At first Michael was insistent that when the four of them were together, Nikita should be as physically close to Luc as he and Adam were. It was only after she explained how much it meant to her to watch the other three together that he reluctantly agreed to sometimes let her sit at some distance from them as he and his sons enjoyed one another. She watched as Adam's awe turned to nose-wrinkling disgust as he learned how his brother smelled after Luc gave a particular grunt that both his parents had learned to interpret. But the disgust was short-lived, and soon Adam was happily "helping" while Luc's parents fed and changed him. When the baby cried, his brother frowned and wiggled uncomfortably; when he smiled, especially at Adam, the little boy's dark eyes glowed. "I think he likes me," he confided to Nikita one day, thrilled with discovery. "I think he loves you," she answered, and let Adam hold Luc's bottle while they fed him together.
One evening Michael spread a blanket on the sitting room floor and lay down with a wakeful Luc prone on his chest and a delighted Adam carrying on a largely one-sided conversation with both of them. There was a stamp of enforced maturity on him now, and once or twice Nikita thought she saw shadows in his eyes. But he was talking much more than he had when she last saw him, and this particular evening he was full of non-stop chatter. Trying to deal with her own encroaching shadows, Nikita lay on the couch, her head elevated on two pillows so that she could see all three of the others. Only half following what Adam was saying, she heard the phrase "...come to see us?", followed by a quiet, barely-audible answer from Michael. From where she lay, Nikita could see Adam's face light up as his dancing eyes went from his father's face to hers.
"Daddy and me can keep him?" he asked incredulously. Feeling her world begin to shatter, she tried to smile back.
"If you want to," she managed to say.
"Cool!" He got up, padded across to her in his stocking feet, laid his head on her chest, and hugged her. "Thank you!"
"I'm all right, love." She hugged the child back, trying to force the words out: You're welcome. It was what he was expecting to hear, she knew. You're welcome. So simple. Just say it. You're welcome, Adam. But saying it was beyond her. "I know you'll take good...." But she could not say that either. In fact, she couldn't say anything more.
Then Michael was there, leaning over them, Luc in his arms and tears in his eyes. "Adam, Luc needs to have a bottle, and you need to get ready for bed. Come with me." Nikita closed her eyes again; she felt Adam sit up and move away from her and her baby laid ever so gently in her arms.
"Thank you," she whispered, and felt a beloved hand brush a stray lock of hair back from her forehead. As they left her, she could hear Adam talking excitedly all the way up the stairs.
Luc was not hungry; he had had a bottle less than an hour before. But she held his cheek against her breast until he slept, her fingers lightly tracing his features, stroking his other cheek, and feeling the softness of the fuzz that now covered the top of his head.
The following day, another infant came into the house in secret, and his eager adoptive parents came into it through the front door, in full view of whomever might be watching.
Helen had selected the parents, and Michael had selected the child--born a week ago to two M15 operatives, neither of whom wanted to keep him. When, a few days before, he brought a copy of the baby's impeccable medical history for her approval, Helen had asked quietly, "Do I have your word that these records are genuine?"
"You have my word."
"And you won't...yank that out from under me at some future date?" Having said everything he had to say, Michael now said nothing. "Very well." Frowning but resigned: "Let the games begin."
The games began and ended on a frigid evening sliced with sleet. It was also the night before Michael would take his sons home.
He and Nikita were not present at the exchange, but watched the happy couple carry their new son to the car--as they were no doubt also being watched from some nearby window or doorway. Luc was asleep, safe in his bassinet near the bed, which had been pushed against the wall to make room. But as the car drove away, Nikita came to the brink. "I'm losing it." she whispered. "I'm gonna lose it now, Michael. When I can't see him or touch him, it'll be like he's dead." It was all she could do to keep from screaming the last word.
"I know," he whispered, lifted her onto the bed and lay down beside her. They were used to the mattress by now, curling up together in its sagging middle. Once she started, she could not stop crying--as though to make up for all the tears she hadn't shed yet. The pit yawned and would not close, and the only thing that kept her from falling into it was that Michael had been where she was now and survived.
Luc chose that night to be a model baby, sleeping peacefully for a little over six hours. Once they realized they needn't check every ten minutes to be sure he was still breathing, his parents began to rediscover one another at their leisure.
"Is this sick or what?" Nikita murmured. Even as she wept, her body still responded to the beloved touch as it always had. Her tears still flowed, and there was an occasional small sob. And yet she was almost smiling.
"What," he affirmed softly, kissing first one breast and then the other. It was another last time--the last time for who knew how long--and yet the only urgency they felt was that of keeping as close together as they could. Pleasure came and went, and still they curled together, touching in every way possible, until eventually they slept.
At five in the morning she fed Luc for the last time while Michael packed and dressed. When he went to wake Adam, she sat cross-legged on the bed, still in her nightgown, rocking back and forth as her son slept against her shoulder. Her tears still flowed as though there were no end to them, but she made no sound, only rocking back and forth on the edge of the pit.
She heard Michael come up the stairs, and she knew that Adam must be having breakfast in the kitchen with Helen, as had been agreed the previous evening. He came to the bedroom door, and something shattered in her soul.
Frantic, she pulled her legs under her and inched backwards on the bed toward the wall, Luc still warm against her shoulder. There were no tears now. Her eyes felt as though they were stretched wide as she crouched with her back to the wall, trying to stay out of Michael's shadow as it moved across the bed toward her. Strands of hair fell over her eyes, but she could not let go of Luc long enough to push them back. As the shadow fell across her, she rasped, "Take him. Just take him!" But how could he take him when she couldn't let go?
Then the shadow disappeared.
She had been looking down, soaking up her son. Now she looked up, still through her hair, and saw Michael kneeling next to the bed, a supplicant at the altar of love, his arms outstretched toward her and Luc.
"Why can't you just take him?" she whispered, and wondered if he could hear her; the whisper didn't seem to want to come out of her throat.
"Because you'd never forgive me, and you'd never forget."
Still tearless, she stretched out her legs, hooking her heels over the edge of the mattress and pulling herself toward him. Part of her mind saw the faded bruises on her bare feet as though they were new--one on the top of each instep, and four on its under side where Michael had gripped and held her rather than leave her feeling trapped and helpless as she bore their child.
Then she was on her knees too, laying her son in his father's arms. The left arm pulled Luc against his chest, and the right gathered her against him until they were cheek to cheek, her arm around his waist, both of them looking down at the baby, who slept on in the whistling void.
"Hold him too much," she whispered, dry-eyed. But when he nodded, she felt a wetness in the stubble on his cheek.
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