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But I'm Strong

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“It’s fine. I just can’t have any sudden moves.” Charlotte sits back in the passenger seat of Serena’s sedan, her first day without wearing the Canadian collar that her husband had bought her earlier in the week. Her head slowly turns to look at Serena, a pleased smile on her face, “see?”

 

“Well, as long as you feel comfortable.” Serena stops at a sign, looking both ways before pushing her foot gently on the accelerator again, “you’ve taken great care of your wound, so...I have no doubt you wouldn’t now.”

 

“I’ll forgo the covering tomorrow at home, I just don’t want to...freak anyone out today.” Charlie looks forward again, placing a hand on the side of her belly when she feels a Braxton Hicks contraction, “my app says that he’s the size of a pineapple today...but I wonder if he might also have spikes.”

 

“Never heard of any spiked newborns yet, but you might be the first.” Serena smiles to herself, “never know.”

 

Charlie exhales slowly with a soft moan. However, she does her best not to draw too much attention to her own discomfort. The last thing Charlotte wants is for any one of her parents to worry about her, especially with what happened earlier in the week. Make small talk. “I thought John was going to want to name the baby as a junior, or...I guess it would be a third because John’s a junior, but...he was very not into that. Thankfully.”

 

Thankfully is right.” Serena focuses on the road ahead, “not that John isn’t a perfectly normal name, it is rather boring and old fashioned.” She rests the elbow of her arm against the middle console, “what do you want his name to be?”

 

“I have a short list, but...if I tell it to you now, it’s just going to ruin the surprise, isn’t it?” Charlotte smiles a little, “did you have a suggestion?”

 

“No, not at all.” Serena shakes her head, “I didn’t even have any ideas when my own daughter was named.” She exhales a soft chuckle, “no, my mother named her, but...it suited my Ellie.” Serena finds herself growing silent before clearing her throat. “Mum was religious, it means ‘God is my light’.”

 

Charlie reaches a hand over, placing it on Serena’s forearm as it rests on the center console, “it’s a beautiful name.” She nods, “it’s also Jason’s daughter’s middle name, isn’t it?” Noticing Serena’s subtle nod, Charlotte continues, “I thought I remembered Mum saying something about it not long after she was born.”

 

Serena nods a bit stronger, “it was...very kind of him.” She clears her throat, relieved when they pull up to the hospital and she quickly finds a parking spot in the car park. Serena quickly paints a smile on her own face, knowing she can’t continue on this thought path if she’s going to be productive today, “shall we?”

 

Charlotte does her best to get out of the car, groaning softly once she manages to stand. She leads the two of them with a waddle, standing in front of the lift, “this hospital is actually not bad. Modern...and constantly revamping.”

 

“Well, we are in London. When tourists are hurt, one wouldn’t want them to encounter a slightly run-down or visually overworked facility.” Serena reasons, glancing around to take in the appearance of the hospital entryway, “only bad thing about it is that other facilities on the outskirts of the country, the ones that are not frequented by tourists, may not receive the required funding because it’s all going to places like this.”

 

“Very true.” Charlie inhales and exhales slowly, finally stepping onto the lift once the doors open. She stands toward the back of the elevator and raises her head once other people start to file in. Charlie can feel her heart begin to race, and she closes her eyes to try to block out the crowd. She feels the need to push through these people, the need to get out .

 

Serena’s eyes absently begin to scan the faces of the others in the lift, looking for the source of a gasping, ragged breath that she can hear, worried she may have to step in to help. It takes her a moment to realize it’s coming from no one other than her step daughter. Taking Charlotte’s hand tenderly, Serena leans over to mutter in her ear, “how many extra bolts do you expect the cot to have left in the baby’s room after John and your mother have finished?”

 

“H-hopefully none.” Charlotte keeps her eyes closed, but gives an amused smile as her voice wavers, “he was...a-adamant that the nursery was s-something built as a family, not just f-furniture chosen and th-thoughtlessly d-delivered.” Her words stutter as she does her best to regain her own composure, luckily feeling her heartbeat starting to return to normal with Serena’s touch.

 

“And what colors have you chosen?” Serena continues, trying to take her mind off the matter at hand.

 

“I wanted green accents.” Charlie swallows, “g-gender neutral, grays, golds. Doesn’t really m-matter though.” Her eyes stay closed, but she isn’t sure how much longer she’s going to be able to continue, “a-are we close? Sixth floor.”

 

“Next stop.” Serena reassures, “did you see the room after John and Marcus finished painting?”

 

“Wouldn’t let me.” Charlotte starts to smile a little again, “he said f-fumes, but I kn-know he’s up to s-something.” 

 

Serena leads Charlotte from the lift once the metal doors slide open to the sixth floor, muttering apologies to other people on the lift as she pushes past. Finding the closest empty chair, Serena delicately leads her step-daughter over to the piece of furniture, helping her sit before crouching in front of the young woman, “okay, darling, you can open your eyes now.”

 

Charlie hesitates for a second before slowly opening her large brown eyes, her jaw tightening in a subtle tremble. She exhales through a small part of her lips as she focuses on Serena in front of her, “thanks.”

 

“You did great in there, Charlotte.” Serena offers her a smile, “I am so proud.”

 

Shaking her head a little, Charlie just blinks slowly, “no reason to-”

 

“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the Wolfe club and delicious Serena Campbell...or is it Wolfe now as well?” Fleur nears her old friend and patient, but furrows her brow when Serena doesn’t open her arms to give an eager hug. “Something happen?” She touches Charlotte’s shoulder, able to feel the young woman’s instinctual muscle tensing. Fleur pulls her hand away, still observing.

 

“Everything is fine.” Serena glances up at Fleur, hoping her old friend can pick up on her wordless inference that they’d need to speak in private. 

 

“Right, well, how about we get you set up in a room, Charlie? One of the nurses can work on your vitals and help you get comfortable.” Fleur watches the young woman, watching her leg bounce anxiously against the floor with her toes. “Might even give you a sample of our most excellent vintage of...oh, what is it called...oxygen. I hear it has a light and airy bouquet.”

 

Charlotte smiles a little, relieved by the woman’s good natured humor. “I r-really am okay.”

 

“Yep, sounds like it.” Fleur motions one of the nurses over, giving them instructions to get her patient settled in one of the exam rooms, “while you’re doing all of that, I’ll have a quick catch up with Serena and-”

 

Serena stands, feeling Charlotte grip her hand ever so slightly tighter, a hand she hasn’t released since the elevator, “I don’t think that would be the best idea, actually. For the moment, at least.” She reaches her free hand, tucking a piece of Charlotte’s wispy hair behind her ear. “I simply advise you to read the latest addition to your patient’s file...should help explain a thing or two.”  Serena notices Fleur’s confused nod before the woman slowly moves away from them.

 

Once they enter the room and the nurse excuses herself to gather required supplies, Charlotte slowly turns her head to look over to Serena, her voice is low and thoughtful as she slowly releases Serena’s hand, “you didn’t need to do that.” The slight stuttering is gone now that they’re alone instead of a busy hospital corridor, her breathing is slowly starting to calm on its own as well.

 

“Do what?” Serena starts to remove her well worn coat, placing it onto the seat against the wall before moving back over to the wheelchair in the room to help her stepdaughter remove her jacket as well.

 

“With Ms. Fanshawe. She’s your friend.” Charlie shakes her head to Serena, signalling that she can take off her own jacket, before carefully standing from the wheelchair. Seeing Serena’s curious expression, Charlotte continues, “You brushed her off.”

 

“I did nothing of the sort. I’ll be more than happy to speak with her when she returns.” Serena shakes her head, placing Charlie’s jacket with her own once the young woman hands it to her. She averts her gaze during the act, knowing that once she meets Charlotte’s gaze, the same one she sees when she looks at her wife, she isn’t going to be able to maintain her collected charade anymore.

 

Charlie watches her, unimpressed with her answer, “she was excited to see you and-”

 

“Because your safety is more important to me than socializing.” Serena answers honestly, “I’ve had moments of anxiety in my life, as many do, but never a panic attack.” She bites her lip, moving to the cupboards in the room, knowing one would contain a blanket to provide Charlotte with modesty as she prepares for her exam.

 

Charlotte furrows her brow, “But...that wasn’t-”

 

“It was textbook.” Serena carries a found blanket over to the exam table, only then lifting her eyeline to that of the younger woman, “do you need help with your trousers?” Once receiving the young woman’s negative headshake, Serena unfolds the blanket, holding it at waist height for Charlie to wrap around herself when she’s ready.

 

The question causes Charlie to exhale a soft chuckle, “I don’t believe so, but thank you for your offer.” She sighs softly, “you know, I had ulterior motives for inviting you today...besides seeing if Mum’s jealousy was warranted.” The comment earns Charlotte an amused scowl from Serena, “I’ll have a better idea when she comes back.”

 

“What are your ulterior motives?” Serena finally asks, picking up Charlotte’s trousers and pants from the floor once the young woman pulls the blanket around her waist. She hears the soft rapt at the door, signaling Fleur’s return. Serena begins to gingerly, and absently, fold Charlotte’s trousers.

 

Fleur pushes the room to the examination room open, looking between the women, then focusing her eyes on her patient, “well, you have certainly been through it this week.”

 

“Something like that.” Charlie replies quietly, hoping the doctor doesn’t ask too many questions about the ordeal.

 

Serena places the trousers and pants with the rest of their belongings, finally accepting a hug from Fleur when the woman approaches her with open arms. “She certainly is a trooper.” There’s a quick peck on the cheek between the friends and a warm smile.

 

Charlotte understands her mother’s jealousy, but can tell Serena means all her affection to be platonic with Ms. Fanshawe. There’s another soft knock at the door before the nurse from before opens it and slowly wheels in a trolly containing a portable ultrasound machine. “That’s me...the super trooper.” She replies dryly, “could we um...get this show on the road? This isn’t exactly-”

 

“You don’t enjoy laying around, nude from the waist down, covered in only a sheet?” Fleur starts to smirk as she takes a few steps closer to her patient, taking notice of the young woman’s uncomfortable, anxious gaze. She places a hand on her upper arm, “just lay back, Charlie. Feet in stirrups. You know the drill.”

 

The drill sets Charlotte on edge a bit. She’s noticed things affecting her differently since the attack earlier in the week, though she doesn’t want them to. It’s as if she has no control over her emotions with some things. Though, whether that’s the trauma or the hormones is anyone’s guess. Charlotte does as she’s told, allowing Serena and the nurse to help her.

 

She doesn’t remember much about the exam. Almost zoning out for most of it, Charlie would hear Serena occasionally answering questions for her.

 

“What?” Serena’s head snaps to look at Fleur, her voice is low and filled with concern.

 

“Oh, relax.” Fleur sighs, her hand gently moving within her patient’s nether regions, “she’s only a centimeter dilated and not at all effaced.” She shakes her head, sitting up a little to look at Charlotte’s face as the young woman stares at the ceiling, “Charlie.”

 

It takes her a moment to realize her name is being said, Charlotte swallows, “yeah?”

 

“Serena said you’ve been having contractions. Have they been regular at all?” Fleur is gentle with her questioning, not wanting to alarm the young woman in the slightest, “Braxton Hicks are completely normal now, but are also irregular and cause just mild discomfort instead of anything...sharp or painful.”

 

“They aren’t regular. He um...” Charlie thinks about it for a moment, “he usually waits until I’m eating or trying to sleep or...attempting to +be remotely productive before he starts up.”

 

Fleur nods, mumbling, “sounds like a man.” The comment garners an amused smirk from her patient, “if they start to feel normal, you need to come into hospital. You’re a centimeter dilated, but I really don’t think you’re in active labor or anything to be concerned about. Some women will just walk about being a centimeter dilated up until their due date without even realizing it.” Fleur explains gently, “if you’re able to assess yourself, or have someone assist, and you move past three centimeters, come into hospital. Something tells me once you move to that point, everything will move quickly for you.”

 

“And what do you attribute that assumption to besides intuition?” Serena raises an eyebrow, holding Charlotte’s hand throughout the exam as she looks at her friend.

 

“Intuition.” Fleur replies anyway, finally starting to remove her gloves and tossing them in the bin. She nods for the nurse to help Charlotte lower her legs from the stirrups and adjusts the head of the exam table to lie slightly flatter. Fleur reaches into her pocket, producing measuring tape, “we’re nearly finished. Just need to do some measuring and give you a scan.”

 

Charlotte begins to zone out again, but is only brought back to her senses when she hears the fetus’ thumping heartbeat, causing her to slowly turn her head to look at the monitor. She smiles softly as she feels him move as they attempt to get pictures for the sonogram, “Seems like he’s camera shy.”

 

“It does seem that way.” Fleur nods, “I am noticing that he seems to be breech. Sometimes they’ll work it out themselves to turn around, but I just want you to know that.”

 

“I’m just glad he isn’t sideways anymore. That was just...painful.” Charlie exhales, “I didn’t expect him to be complicated until he was born.”

 

“Well, he is related to your mother.” Fleur teases, earning a raised eyebrow from Serena, “just a friendly jab.”

 

“I bet it was.” Serena shakes her head, letting go of her stepdaughter’s hand to gather the young woman’s pants and trousers once the sonogram pictures are printed out and placed on Charlotte’s chest. There’s a round of ‘goodbye’ and ‘see you soon’ before it’s just the two of them again. “Faring okay?” Serena holds the articles of clothing draped over her arm.

 

Charlie swallows, holding the sonogram pictures above her eyes, “no, not really.” She answers honestly, licking her lips, “I...I always thought about things that...I’d do differently if I had children, compared to my parents, my mother. Ever since I was young.” Charlotte feels the head of the bed move up to sitting, realizing Serena is pushing the operational button, “but it was always an ‘if’ and never a ‘when’...because I wasn’t so sure I even wanted children. I didn’t want to...fuck them up.”

 

A smile creeps to the corner of Serena’s mouth before she warily helps Charlotte turn her body for her legs to dangle over the side of the table, “I don’t know of anyone who ventures into parenthood not planning to try their hardest.”

 

Trying isn’t good enough though.” Charlotte starts to watch Serena as the woman slowly aids with her pants and trousers. “John is going to be an amazing father, but...I know I’m not going to be a very good mother.”

 

“I wouldn’t be so sure. You’ve been terrific with Tala.” Serena glides the pants up as far as she can while adjusting the blanket to still give Charlotte her modesty, “you started off unsure and worried about your capabilities in caring for her, but you’ve turned it around.”

 

“A niece and one’s own child are two different things.” Charlotte continues, placing the sonogram on the table before cautiously getting up to pull her pants up the rest of the way and removing the blanket, making things a bit easier for them both, “I might love her like my own and tend to her the same way, but...she isn’t mine.”

 

“I know.” Serena nods, feeling the same way with Jason, “but it doesn’t negate the strides you’ve made with your own motherly instincts. Progress you’ve made with those who look to you for care and affection.”

 

The room grows silent, an unspoken understanding between the women. 

 

“Before Ms. Fanshawe came in, I was starting to say that I’m allowed to have three people in the room when I give birth. John and Mum are...obvious choices, but I was wondering if you’d be willing to be my third.” Charlotte bites her lip as she adjusts her trousers once Serena helps her pull them up.

 

“W-what about your father or John’s mother even?” Serena turns away to retrieve their overcoats, “I wouldn’t want you to regret-”

 

“Serena, we’ve...we’ve had quite the year.” Charlotte smiles to herself as she continues to watch her stepmother, “I really don’t think I could have gotten through it all without your support.” She shakes her head a little, “and I know it’s hard for you to deal with, I can tell, but...know that it’s appreciated from the bottom of my heart.” Charlie’s tongue darts out to lick her lips, “and if you aren’t comfortable being my third, I’d...be disappointed, but I’d understand. The last thing I want is for-”

 

“I’d be honored.” Serena clears her throat, finally looking Charlotte in the eye, “as long as you’re certain.”

 

Charlie nods slightly, moving closer to the woman. She wraps her arms around Serena in an embrace, being mindful of her own tender neck, closing her eyes when she feels Serena hug her in return, “thank you.”