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“It’s a boy.”

She thinks Tim cuts the cord.

Monitors beep. Voices are hushed. The light in the room is dim except for the blinding one that’s trained on her. She wishes they’d turn it off now. There’s nothing to see here anymore, all the attention focused on the slippery little wriggler who emerged from her body just moments ago.

She feels numb. Detached.

Then there’s a sharp pull between her legs and she sucks a breath in quickly through her teeth.

“Sorry, love.” The nurse looks up at her apologetically. “You’ve got a bit of a tear. We’re going to get you all stitched up just as soon as we can.”

She can hear the crying. It’s so much louder and more visceral than she’d imagined an infant capable of. How amazing that with the very first breath of air they can produce such volume and emotion.

“It’s a boy,” Tim says. His tone is that of pride. He sounds far away.

“Is he alright?” she asks. Her voice has gone a bit husky from the effort of the labour. She hadn’t remembered screaming or crying or really making much noise at all, but perhaps the pain had blocked it out.

Speaking of pain, at that moment she feels that horrible squeezing sensation in her abdomen again. It’s strong, stopping her breath and paralyzing her brain. She can feel it in every part of her body.

“Breathe, Mrs. Howell.” There’s a nurse by her bedside, squeezing her shoulder.

She tries, forces air in, counts to four, forces it out. Then she stops. It’s too difficult. It’s too much effort.

“Again,” the nurse says firmly.

She does, this time whimpering on the exhale.

“It’ll pass. Just keep breathing.”

It does pass eventually. Maybe it was only a minute but time has lost all meaning. She puts a hand to her forehead. It’s cold and tacky with drying sweat.

“Why am I still contracting?” she croaks. “It’s not— god, is it fucking twins?”

The nurses shushes her. If she weren’t so worn out she’d have a thing or two to say about it. She just pushed a bowling ball out, she’ll curse as much as she bloody well pleases.

“It’s the placenta,” the nurse says. “You have to deliver that too.”

She curses under her breath.

She curses herself for being stupid enough to agree that Tim didn’t have to wear a condom that night. People never get pregnant the first time anyway, right?

She curses Tim for convincing her that natural birth was the best way. If she’d gotten an epidural she wouldn’t have to be feeling the pain of her torn fanny or vindictively contracting uterus.

She curses her child, her… son. Christ, she has a son. A son.

The contractions start again. She forces herself to breathe through it.

“It’s a good pain,” the nurse says. “It’s a constructive pain. Keep breathing, Mrs. Howell.”

She wants to punch that nurse square in the mouth.

When she stops contracting she says, “My name’s not Howell. We’re not married.” Her voice is not overly kind.

“Oh.” The nurse looks uncomfortable. “My apologies.”

She lays her head back on her pillow. She doesn’t speak again or open her eyes until the bloody placenta is out. She doesn’t care that the nurse is judging her for delivering a bastard.

Everything hurts. She just wants to sleep.

The baby is still crying.

“Is he alright?” she asks weakly.

“He’s fine, love.” A reassuring squeeze to her shoulder. “He’s a big lad. Strong and healthy.”

She nods. That’s good, at least.

Somewhere in the fog of shock, she hears a nurse say, “Do you want to hold him, Daddy?”

Something defiant rears itself up in her. Something indignant. It chases away the pain and exhaustion and indifference and leaves her burning. That man has another thing coming if he thinks she's going to lie here torn and spent and let him hold the fruits of her labour before she does.

“No,” she says firmly. “I want to hold him.”

“Love,” a nurse closer to her says gently, “We’ve still got a lot—”

“I want to hold my son.” She sits up. “Give him to me.”

She can tell immediately that no one dares argue. The nurse holding the baby walks over to the side of the bed and leans down to hand over the squirming little bundle. He’s wrapped up in a blue blanket with only his red little face free of the swaddle.

He looks like he’s been through hell. She supposes that he has. They both have. The thing she just went through to get him here - he went through it too. At least she knew what the hell was happening. He had no idea. He still doesn’t. He was just minding his own business, floating away in a warm dark place where everything was quiet and safe. He’s been ripped from the only home he’s ever known, squeezed relentlessly for hours and hours only to be thrust into cold harsh reality, where strange creatures are putting their hands on him and rubbing him down with towels and pulling at his limbs.

She’s overcome with sympathy. Surely that’s why she feels moisture on her cheeks now. She’s helping him mourn the loss of a time when nothing was asked of him. He was truly free and now he isn’t and that feels almost unspeakably unfair to her.

She pulls the blanket open and his arms reach free of their cloth prison. His tiny little hands grasp at the air like they’re looking for something.

The magnitude of his helplessness slams into her like a truck. This is her son. She is his mother. A sob wracks her chest from out of nowhere.

He opens his eyes. They’re dark, so dark they look black. He looks at her and she looks at him and she knows in an instant that nothing will ever matter as much as keeping him safe. It doesn’t matter that she wasn’t ready for him. It doesn’t matter that she’s still not sure how she’s going to do any of this. This tiny little creature is hers to protect. Hers to love.

And she loves him so much already, in a way she’s never loved anything or anyone before. It’s painful, the ferocity of it. It’s something so deeply beyond her control that all she can do is cradle him and let it burrow down into the core of who she is. She loves him more than life itself and it’s fucking terrifying.

He sneezes. She cries harder. It makes her feel a bit unhinged, the way the tears keep coming like she’s got absolutely no control over her own body. She holds him up closer to her face and his tiny little fist brushes her cheek. He coos. He’s perfect.

She kisses his little nose, his cheeks, his forehead. She nuzzles her nose against the soft fuzz of his black hair and breathes in the scent of him. It’s like nothing she’s ever smelled. How can this little creature who only just emerged from the inside of her smell so heavenly?

She strokes his head, feels her finger dip over the soft spot in his skull. Everything about him defies logic. She made this. She grew this little boy. She grew a human being who will grow up to have thoughts and opinions and a life all his own. And it’s her job to get him there.

“Hello little angel,” she says softly. “I’m your mum. Happy birthday.”

Life comes back into focus eventually. She remembers that there are other people in the room, that she’s still in a tremendous amount of pain, that she’s exhausted beyond belief. Tim is stood beside the bed, just watching. She doesn’t say anything to him, not yet. She’s not ready to share this feeling with anyone else.

She lies back against the flat hospital pillow and lays her son skin to skin against her chest. He’s soft and warm and solid over her heart.

A nurse walks over and gives her a smile. “What’s his name?”

She closes her eyes. “His name is Daniel.”