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From The Ashes

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The air was humid, salt-stained, and thick. Carina breathed it in greedily.

 

Her sundress fluttered around her ankles and her wide-brimmed hat provided shade from the hot Sicilian sun, but there was no escaping the heat of the day. The fishing village was much like the villages she’d frequented as a child. They’d chosen it specifically for its selection of restaurants and small shops and the hotel that sat right on the beach.

 

Every inch was like a muscle-memory.

 

The cobblestones beneath her sandaled feet. The cadence of the people around her, their voices lilting in the warm afternoon breeze. Carina knew she should feel at home.

 

But she didn’t. Her heart was breaking though she was furious for allowing it to break in the first place.

 

The pain only worsened as she squeezed the precious, small hand held so tightly in her own. She glanced down, her chest aching at the sight of Jamie, innocent and perfect, carefully eating her gelato and happy to wander the streets with Carina while Hayden took his afternoon nap back in their hotel room with Maya.

 

Carina was relieved to be wearing sunglasses because Jamie was so perceptive, so empathetic, that she would have likely noticed Carina’s teary eyes. And Carina didn’t want Jamie to know that she was sad. Because then Jamie would ask why and Carina couldn’t possibly explain that sometimes parents didn’t love their children enough. Or at all.

 

When she booked their trip to Italy, Carina had known that they would likely not see Vincenzo. As always, though, a part of her hoped he’d step up. He’d surprise her. With nonna gone, she’d lost her greatest ally in the family. So many aunts and uncles who’d been part of her life since childhood suddenly no longer picked up the phone. Nonna had always protected her and supported her, even if some of Carina’s choices had caused discomfort.

 

The family had respected nonna enough to keep their opinions to themselves. As soon as nonna died, Carina discovered that her lifestyle had been the topic of family gossip for years. And her marriage…

 

Before Maya, Carina hadn’t cared what Vincenzo thought of her romantic pursuits. He had Andrea and as long as he had Andrea, he had his normal child, the one who would follow a traditional path. Andrea would marry a woman and they would give Vincenzo grandchildren.

 

It allowed Carina an unexpected freedom.

 

But without Andrea, Vincenzo only had Carina. And in his eyes, she had failed over and over again.

 

His disapproval of her career had always hurt. She’d worked so hard, just as hard as Andrea, but he saw her work as less important than surgery. Even though she performed surgeries daily. Even though she saved lives and brought babies into the world and helped women in pain, it wasn’t good enough.

 

His disapproval of her marriage had hurt even more. When she’d call to tell him, he’d nearly ignored her, launching into a detailed explanation of the latest scandal with Italy’s Minister of Health. Eventually, he’d told her to stop being foolish. He’d asked how Maya was going to give her babies.  He told her that whatever silly paper she’d signed in America was meaningless.

 

Never mind that she had found love. Rare and real and more than most people could ever hope for. Never mind that Maya took care of her, protected her, loved her. Never mind that she was achingly happy. Vincenzo waved his hand dismissively and chose to pretend that Maya didn’t exist.

 

He waved his hand dismissively and chose to pretend that there was no heart in her chest, no air in her lungs. He chose to pretend that Maya could be erased, as if Carina could survive without Maya. As if she’d ever want to…

 

His disapproval of her children, however, was the worst pain of all.

 

She’d called him two weeks into their vacation. They were close to Rome and planning to spend a few days there, so she risked it. He’d likely turn them down, she knew, but it had been years since they’d seen each other and despite their difficult relationship, a part of Carina would always love him, would always wish for his approval.

 

The conversation had started with the usual pleasantries. He’d been excited to hear that she was working with Meredith Grey, though much of his excitement derived from his own desire to meet Ellis Grey’s daughter. He’d asked about her health and she’d asked about his, already knowing that he was relatively stable thanks to a few cousins and former colleagues who kept her informed of his wellbeing.

 

And then she’d asked if he wanted to meet his nipoti.

 

There had been a long pause on the phone. A long, drawn out breath.

 

I don’t want them.

 

He’s cleared his throat, immediately claiming that he misspoke, that his English was bad, that he was out of town, that there was no time. But she’d heard it so clearly. Before she could say anything back, Vincenzo forged ahead, another long pause, another sentence that felt like a slap.

 

Forse il ragazzo

 

Maybe the boy.

 

She did what she always did when Vincenzo lashed out at her. She walked away.

 

She’d hit “end call” before he could finish his sentence, before he could tell her that she was overly sensitive like her mother, that she was playing house, that even though Hayden had no father, he was still a DeLuca and Vincenzo had a vested interest in his grandson’s future.

 

Maya picked up the pieces. She’d pulled Carina off the floor and dried her tears. She’d kissed her over and over again, and Carina held onto her with needy hands and a shattered heart.

 

“Mama, finito,” Jamie’s little voice broke through the darkness, high and airy. It still delighted Carina to hear her speak. To listen to all of her thoughts and her ideas and her cares.

 

Carina paused, crouching down and pulling wet wipes from her purse.

 

“Was it good, amore mio?”

 

Jamie nodded, letting Carina clean her sticky hands.

 

They’d worried about how Jamie would take to Italy. She often struggled with new places and new people, and Italy was so different from anything Jamie had ever known. But much to Carina and Maya’s surprise, Jamie flourished.

 

Maybe it was the distance. Maybe it was the fact that everyone spoke Italian just like her mama. Whatever the cause, Jamie seemed more at ease, the anxiety she sometimes carried replaced by constant curiosity.

 

And the fact that Vincenzo did not want to meet Jamie, that he didn’t want her? Carina felt injured. She felt as if her father had physically harmed her.

 

Jamie was a miracle. Jamie was her miracle.

 

Carina looked at her daughter, from her Seattle Kraken’s baseball hat to the little sundress covered in butterflies.

 

“Do you know how wonderful you are?” Carina whispered, startled that she’d spoken out loud.

 

Jamie giggled and took Carina’s face in her hands, her smile the smile of a child who knew without a doubt that she was loved.

 

You have two healthy, perfect babies. Jamie is thriving. Hayden has Maya’s smile. It shouldn’t be possible, but somehow, he has her smile. And Maya…

 

“Mama, should we bring gelato for Hayden and mommy?”

 

Carina turned her face and kissed Jamie’s palm before standing and taking her hand again.

 

“I think it would melt, cucciola, but maybe we can find something else to bring them? Torta?”

 

They walked towards the town square, and Carina watched Jamie the whole time. The wonder on her face. Her open fascination with the world around her. It had been a difficult few months for Jamie. Maya’s accident had shaken her and while they’d made a lot of progress with Dr. Khadem, she still had the occasional nightmare. Carina was surprised that she’d yet to ask for Maya, they’d been gone for nearly an hour.

 

“Mama?”

 

?”

 

“Is mommy gonna get ‘sploded again?”

 

Carina had no idea where Jamie had heard that Maya exploded, but she very much wanted a word with whoever put that image in her daughter’s head. Sensing that Jamie needed to talk, Carina guided her towards a nearby bench overlooking one of the numerous fountains dotting the square.

 

“Mommy is always very careful when she goes to work,” Carina said, still holding Jamie’s hand as they sat together.

 

They’d had the conversation more times than Carina could count, but Dr. Khadem encouraged them to keep answering Jamie’s questions. Italy had provided a much-needed relief from Jamie’s fears. With Maya off work during their vacation, Jamie seemed less scared, less preoccupied. At home she’d often cry when Maya left for the day. Even though they took her to the firehouse often, even though she knew all of Maya’s crew and loved going to the station, she couldn’t quite seem to accept that Maya was going to come home safely.

 

“Mama?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Mommy can’t get ‘sploded again cuz I love her.”

 

Carina pulled Jamie into her lap, wrapping her arms around her. “You are very worried, aren’t you, piccola?”

 

She watched Jamie nod, a little frown on her face. Carina was about to tell Jamie that she didn’t need to worry, she was about to find some child-friendly way of explaining once again that Maya would always try to come home, when one of the market vendors caught her eye.

 

His tent was across the square, but even from the distance she recognized the silver necklaces hanging from displays.

 

“Do you know what my nonna did when she was worried?” Carina asked, playfully scooping Jamie up like a baby and rocking her back and forth. It made Jamie laugh, the frown disappearing.

 

“My nonna liked to tell me stories about people who protected everyone she loved,” Carina continued, “And when she was worried, she’d pick one of her stories and think about it until she didn’t feel scared anymore.”

 

Carina had a feeling that Maya would have opinions about introducing Jamie to the concept of saints, which is why she was trying to keep her explanation fairly neutral.

 

“What kind of stories?” Jamie asked.

 

“Well, when I was little, she would think about San Nicola because she believed he kept children safe.”

 

“Did he?”

 

“It was just a story, amore, but it made nonna feel better to think about him when she was worried about me and Zio Andrea.”

 

Jamie seemed to take that in and Carina hoped she wasn’t confusing her.

 

Nonna had stories for lots of different people. Doctors and farmers and people who were sick,” Carina said, “but there’s also a story for firefighters.”

 

“Like Mommy!”

 

Esattamente, come la mommy. San Floriano.”

 

San Floriano,” Jamie whispered, trying out the words.

 

“My nonna would say that San Floriano takes care of firefighters like Mommy. And she would think about him very hard and it would make her feel better.”

 

“Can San Floriano come to my birthday?”

 

Carina laughed. “No, piccolina, as I said, it’s just a story. But sometimes thinking about San Floriano makes me feel like Mommy is safe. Even though it’s pretend.”

 

“Like…like ladybugs.”

 

Coccinelle?”

 

“They make my brains smile.”

 

Carina bit her lip, adoring Jamie’s strange logic. “Yes, just like ladybugs, then. Do you think you might want to try thinking about San Floriano when you get scared for Mommy?”

 

There was a short pause as Jamie seemed to consider Carina’s proposal, but then she nodded, her little fingers playing with the numerous rings on Carina’s fingers.

 

Carina stood, lifting Jamie to her hip, as they walked across the square together. Something about holding Jamie, about carrying her, helped settle the unease in her stomach. For Maya, Jamie had a way of cracking her open, of bringing forth words. For Carina, Jamie was grounding, centering. No matter what was happening in her life, Jamie brought her back to what was most important.

 

Vincenzo’s words faded. Not gone, but faded, as Carina kissed Jamie’s cheek, as she smelled the funny mixture of salt and sunscreen from Jamie’s skin and her hair. When they reached the far end of the square, Carina paused in front of a table filled with saint’s medallions. She’d never worn one herself, at least not since childhood, but she wanted Jamie to have something tangible to help her focus.

 

“Do you see all the little pictures, amore mio,” Carina pointed to the dangling necklaces, recognizing some of the familiar figures.

 

Jamie nodded, leaning slightly forward.

 

Carina kissed her cheek again. “All of nonna’s stories had a little picture that would help her think. We can get one to help us think about Mommy, bene?”

 

.”

 

“Would you like to ask for San Floriano?”

 

The salesman approached then, smiling as soon as he caught sight of Jamie. In Seattle, speaking to strangers was not something Jamie liked to do very often. But they tried to give her the opportunity to practice. Sure enough, she squirmed a little, obviously shy before finding her courage.

 

Ciao, bella, I can help you?” The salesman had obviously heard Carina speak English and likely assumed they were tourists.

 

Hai San Floriano?” Jamie asked, surprising both Carina and the salesman who threw up his hands in delight.

 

Sì! Per una ragazza così carina, certo che ce l’ho! Solo un minuto!

 

He stepped away, sorting through a display on the other side of the tent.

 

“You asked him so nicely, Tesoro,” Carina smiled, adjusting Jamie slightly.

 

True to his word, it only took one minute, but he returned with a silver medallion on a chain. Carina looked at the image – a Roman centurion holding a spear in one hand and a cup of water in the other. She wasn’t sure if Maya would approve, but something about the necklace spoke to her.

 

Jamie took the offered necklace and stared at it intently.

 

“That’s San Floriano,” Carina explained, “and when you get scared for mommy, you can look at him and think about mommy’s helmet and her jacket and how fast she can run. And how much she loves you and will always come home to you.”

 

A slow smile appeared on Jamie’s face and though she didn’t say anything, she tipped her head down, snuggling against Carina’s shoulder just like she had as a baby.

 

Signore?” Carina called, pulling the man’s attention from another customer.

 

She paused and then made her decision.

 

Due, per favore.”

 

~*~

 

“Are we Catholic now?”

 

Carina rolled her eyes at Maya’s question, tightening her grip on the blanket around her shoulders, but refusing to turn around, choosing instead to remains seated on their small, private balcony overlooking the sea.

 

“I’ve always been Catholic,” she said, sipping her glass of wine, praying her wife would choose to let it go so they could have an enjoyable evening.

 

“That’s not what I mean.”

 

There was a shuffling behind her and then Maya appeared, a Peroni in one hand, a baby monitor in the other. She took the chair next to Carina, leaning back, though she seemed pensive even in profile.

 

“I don’t want her thinking there’s some magical man in the sky who’s keeping me safe,” Maya said, low and terse. She was angry, Carina could tell, and Maya’s anger was infectious.

 

Because Carina felt that Maya was overreacting. That she had no right to be angry in the first place.

 

“Which is why I told her it was just a story, that it wasn’t real,” Carina tried to explain.

 

“But the necklace too? Should we get her a crucifix next?”

 

Non farlo!” Carina raised her finger in warning. She did not consider herself devout in the least, nor did she have any desire to attend church, but the symbols had meant something to her nonna and out of respect, she didn’t want to hear any mocking.

 

“We shouldn’t sugar coat things, Carina. We need to be honest with her.”

 

“Ah, you want to tell our four-year-old that every time you walk out the door you may not come home? Too much sugar?”

 

“You always do this.”

 

Maya sounded dejected, which made Carina finally look at her. She was frowning, clearly frustrated, and if not for their sleeping children close by, Carina would’ve stood up and stormed away. She did not feel like having this fight. Or any fight.

 

“What do you mean?” Carina asked, trying to keep her voice quiet though it was difficult.

 

“Anytime I get hurt on the job, you act like I did it on purpose. Like it was my fault.”

 

“Maya…”

 

“Don’t deny it, Carina. Do you think I want to get hurt? Do you think I liked having my arm in a cast for six weeks? A gas line blew up. An illegally placed gas line. My probie almost died, he’s barely out of the academy and he’ll never work as a firefighter again. So I’m sorry that it scared you and I’m sorry that it upset Jamie, you know I am, but I didn’t walk into an explosion, okay? I feel shitty enough that she’s having nightmares and now you want to bring God into it?”

 

“Maya that’s not wh…”

 

“What do you want me to do? I’m sorry my job is so traumatizing, but you knew this when you married me. You knew this when we decided to adopt Jamie and when we got pregnant with Hayden. You knew all of this…”

 

Carina set her glass down and bit back a sharp reply. Emotions were heightened. Jamie’s nightmares had them both worried and Vincenzo’s rejection had Carina feeling unstable and now they were taking out their feelings in the only safe space they had left. Each other.

 

With a deep breath, Carina looked at Maya’s face, softening when she realized that her wife was deeply upset.

 

Bambina, this is not about God or…or religion, okay? It’s a transitional object. Just like the firefighter bear she takes with her from home to daycare. It’s no different and if it makes her feel better, what could be so wrong?” Carina asked, knowing she’d side-stepped Maya’s remark about blame.

 

About where she directed her anger when Maya was injured.

 

Maya crossed her arms. “And what about the next time?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The next time I’m hurt.”

 

“Don’t say that! Why do you say these things like…boom out in the universe…Maya, non posso crederti!”

 

“See!” Maya thrust out her hands, “it is about God! Or religion or whatever. Out in the universe? My job is inherently dangerous. I’m just talking statistics here, Carina.”

 

“Well, I don’t like your statistics!”

 

“Be realistic then! I’ve told Jamie about my gear. I’ve shown her all the safety features of the engine and the ladder. She just has to get used to it even though apparently you can’t seem to do that either.”

 

“You can’t know how I feel, Maya…” Carina began, her voice wavering.

 

“I feel pretty shitty about it too, Carina! Do you think I want to leave you? Or the babies? I…O’Neill’s arm was torn off. It felt like holding hamburger meat. And then instead of support or…or empathy…you act like I want to get hurt or…or I don’t know…like I enjoy calling my probie’s mother to tell her he’s having all that remains of his freaking  arm sawed off in an OR.”

 

Maya’s eyes were so wide, her cheeks red, but Carina couldn’t seem to stop herself from arguing back, from defending herself, even though a voice in her head was screaming at her to stop.

 

“I’m sorry you feel like I’m not being supportive, Maya, I really am. I am proud of you, I’m proud of your job, I…I want you to do this job, I would never ask you to give it up, I wouldn’t want you to. But you cannot know what it feels like to face losing you every single day. You cannot know what it does to me to see you hurt…”

 

“Yes I can!” Maya’s yell was so vicious that Carina flinched, leaning back in her chair. She watched as Maya’s eyes drifted from her face to her neck. Below her jaw. Over her pulse point where a thin, nearly invisible scar remained.

 

Before Carina could say another word, Maya stood up and left, knocking over her beer bottle and the baby monitor as she did.

 

There was movement in the bedroom, and then Carina heard the shower come on and breathed a sigh of relief.

 

She needed a minute. She allowed herself one, solitary tear, before looking out at the sea, trying to let the sound of the waves calm her racing heart. The sun had long since set, leaving the world in darkness, illuminated only by the stars and fairy lights strewn on small boats and homes along the shore.

 

Carina hated fighting with Maya. She hated how untethered it made her feel, how much it took her back to her childhood, to her parents shouting at each other. But this was not the same. She and Maya were not Vincenzo and Lucia.

 

Because Vincenzo and Lucia’s fights were based in hate. And Maya and Carina’s fights came from a place of love so deep that sometimes it tumbled out all wrong before they could catch it.

 

Carina picked up Maya’s discarded bottle and the baby monitor, taking one last look out at the water before stepping inside. She closed the sliding door and locked it, pausing as she listened to the shower, wondering…

 

Maya needed space. She’d learned that through the most difficult trial and error, so Carina decided to leave her wife to seethe. If only for a little while.

 

She walked into the small kitchen, leaving her glass and Maya’s bottle in the sink. The front door was locked and everything else seemed to be in order, which meant Carina could either go back to her own bedroom or check on her babies.

 

Jamie and Hayden shared the second bedroom, Jamie on a cot, Hayden in a crib. A nightlight provided enough illumination for Carina to see her sleeping children, for her to check on them, to chase off any monsters lurking in the shadows.

 

They stilled something within her, whatever flutters of despair or anger that existed temporarily ceased their movements.

 

She crouched next to Jamie’s bed, studying her face, studying the way she slept so soundly with her dino stuffy tucked beneath her arm. The San Floriano medallion was on a nearby table sitting atop a stack of books and crayons. Jamie was still small for her age, she would likely always be small, and Carina adjusted her blankets, wishing she could protect her baby from the cruel outside world forever. From nightmares. From ignorance.

 

With a light kiss to Jamie’s forehead, Carina stood and turned towards the crib.

 

In many ways, Hayden was the embodiment of her dream come true. She’d always wanted to experience pregnancy, to carry a child. It wasn’t necessarily about biology, Jamie had made her a mother in every way that mattered. But Carina had dedicated her life to ushering babies into the world, to caring for people with uteruses, all while hoping to experience pregnancy someday.

 

Seeing her own features in her son’s face was still shocking. She could see shades of Andrea. And nonna. Because Hayden had nonna’s eyes though his were blue and hers had been brown. Carina had nonna’s eyes too. She reached into the crib, running her fingers through his curls, studying his tiny body. Her little boy. Her piccolo.

 

Nothing could ever replace Andrea or her mama. Nor would she want her children to shoulder that burden. But they had healed her in ways she did not know was possible. They’d lessened the sting.

 

As she stood up, she took in the room, the small space filled with even smaller people who comprised her entire universe. They both shown so brightly, they both consumed her with such love that there was no way her body could possibly contain it all.

 

She never judged patients who had easy pregnancies, who got pregnancy without thought, without effort. Nature was nature and sometimes it worked that way. Their children were no less special or wanted.

 

But her children…

 

She’d worked for them, she’d struggled and sacrificed and prayed for them. Three rounds of IVF to conceive Hayden. And Jamie…

 

Holding her tiny body close as she struggled to breathe, as her heart beat too quickly, as the lights of the NICU kept them all from sleep.

 

Holding her tiny body close as evil snuck into their midst and tried to tear them apart, tried to take her away.

 

Carina stood in the middle of the room, she stood in the middle of her greatest joy, her greatest pain too, and knew there was only one thing missing.

 

Her wife. Her Maya. They’d built this hand in hand, brick by brick. Maya who’d so fiercely protected Jamie, who still so fiercely protected Jamie and always would. Maya who’d attended every ultrasound, every embryo transfer, who’d held her for eighteen hours as she struggled to bring Hayden into the world.

 

Who’d cut the cord with teary eyes and a blinding smile.

 

This room. These children. They wouldn’t exist without Maya.

 

With one last indulgent look, Carina turned and left.

 

The shower was no longer running, but the door was closed, the sink on, and Carina debated what to do. She knew Maya needed space, but she also found herself needing to be close to her wife. Even though they were fighting. Even though Maya drove her insane sometimes, she still wanted to see her.

 

She lightly knocked, holding her breath because she didn’t know if Maya would lash out or let her in. When the doorknob turned, Carina raised her eyebrows in surprise, though she felt relief too.

 

Maya was standing by the sink, toothbrush in hand, still wrapped in a towel. She eyed Carina and then wiped her mouth before setting the toothbrush down.

 

“I’ll be done in a minute,” she said, hollow, but Carina shook her head.

 

“It’s okay. I don’t…”

 

Maya brushed by her, clearly uninterested in speaking, so Carina took a chance, catching Maya’s hand before she was out of reach. They stood silently, locked together, Carina waiting for Maya’s reaction.

 

“I don’t want to go to bed angry,” Carina whispered, “that’s what my parents did every night, and, Maya, I can’t do that. I don’t want anyone to sleep on the couch or…please, Bambina…”

 

There was a sharp exhale as Maya’s shoulders sagged, a release of tension. It gave Carina encouragement to keep speaking. She circled Maya, standing in front of her, still holding her hand.

 

“The necklace isn’t about God or magic people in the sky,” Carina said, not missing the tightening of Maya’s jaw, “it’s about you.”

 

Maya finally looked up. “What do you mean?”

 

“I told Jamie that when she looks at San Floriano, she can think about you. Because you make her feel safe, Maya. The necklace is just a way to help her focus, to help her remember everything you have told her about your helmet and your truck. I don’t want her believing things that aren’t true either, but she doesn’t need to because she has you, Bambina, you are her San Floriano.”

 

Carina took one step closer, hoping that Maya understood what she was trying to say. She raised her free hand to Maya’s face, tracing her cheekbone with her thumb.

 

“Your job terrifies me. It always has. But I believe in you too, Maya. I believe that you do everything in your power to come home to me every single day. I would never ask you to change…it’s a part of you, a part of you that I love. And I’m sorry if you feel I’m unsupportive. Sometimes I get so scared it comes out as anger. I always want to be there for you,” Carina said softly, wishing Maya would look at her.

 

“You are supportive,” Maya’s voice was low, “I’m sorry…you are more than supportive, I…I’m sorry I yelled, I shouldn’t have done that…”

 

“It’s okay. We’re okay,” Carina dipped her head, finding Maya’s lips, needing to feel her. She let go of her hand, only to reach between them for Maya’s towel, her fingers coasting along Maya’s collarbone, as she sighed into their kiss.

 

Carina knew that sex couldn’t fix everything, that they’d need to talk more and probably argue a little more too, but touching Maya felt like healing. She wasn’t avoiding the conversation, she wasn’t ending the argument with sex, she just needed to feel her wife, to feel the woman she loved.

 

She pulled at the towel, never moving away from Maya as she reached down to cup her breast, moaning at the soft weight of it in her hand. All the frustration and all the fear melted away, as she moved closer, tilting her head, wanting more, wanting everything, wanting…

 

Maya pushed against Carina’s chest and took a step back, her breathing ragged.

 

“Stop,” she said, picking up her towel from the floor. She held it awkwardly against her chest, hiding herself.

 

Carina was so startled by the sudden shift in mood that she didn’t follow Maya as she circled the bed and sat down, her naked back pale in the low-light.

 

“Maya, are you…”

 

“No point. We’re just going to get interrupted,” Maya didn’t turn, she sat still, but Carina could tell that her body was full of tension.

 

As she sat down next to Maya, Carina chided herself for misreading the situation. Obviously Maya was more upset than she’d realized, although she hadn’t seemed angry. She’d leaned into their kiss, she’d whimpered when Carina touched her. Usually, Carina thought she was excellent at reading the complex woman beside her, but now Maya seemed like a book in a foreign language. And it had been so long since Carina had struggled to read it.  

 

They sat side by side in painful silence, staring out the balcony doors, but the sea was nothing but darkness. Carina shivered, pulling her sweater tightly around her body.

 

“She’s only four and I’ve already messed her up,” Maya said, still holding the towel to her chest.

 

Carina turned her face, staring at Maya’s profile.

 

Bambina, no tha…”

 

“I miss you, okay? I know it makes me a terrible mother and I love our kids, you know I love our kids, but I don’t want a quickie in the shower, I don’t want a quickie anywhere. I feel like I miss you all the time and ever since that stupid accident…”

 

Maya trailed off, clearly agitated, but then she balled one hand into a fist and hit her lap, her frustration bubbling over.

 

“I’ve seen horrible things,” she huffed, “I’ve had bad calls, I’ve…I’ve seen parents lose their children and I’ve heard people screaming and burns, god, I’ve seen and smelled so much burned skin…but…I just can’t get O’Neill out of my head. And it’s driving me insane, like…I start thinking about what it felt like to hold his arm…the stump…I…ugh…I’m being ridiculous! I watched Captain Herrera die and…and Miller… but for some reason…that stupid gas line…”

 

Carina opened her mouth to speak and then closed it, overwhelmed by the flood of information Maya had just unleashed. She knew her wife had a tendency to think about ten things at the same time, her mind moving so quickly that she left one thought for another before finishing the first one. But there was so much to unpack, so much that needed addressing, that Carina forced herself to pause and really think about what Maya had said.

 

She started with the obvious.

 

“You’re a wonderful mother, you know that, right?” She asked, wishing she could wrap her arm around Maya’s shoulders and bring her close. She couldn’t. Not yet.

 

Maya huffed again and closed her eyes.

 

“You didn’t mess her up, Maya,” Carina continued, “she’s a child and children get scared. But you were right before, she needs to learn to live with it because her mommy is a firefighter. I have…I try to…but just because she’s scared doesn’t mean you hurt her.”

 

Something in Maya’s face twitched, something that let Carina know she’d hit the nail on the head.

 

“O’Neill wasn’t your fault,” she said softly, trying not to ignite Maya’s anger.

 

Maya raised her head suddenly, her nostrils flared. “Of course it is. I’m the captain, it’s my job to get them all home safely. All of them. Every time. It happened under my watch, so it is my fault.”

 

“You said yourself – it was an accident, totally unpredictable.”

 

“It doesn’t matter…”

 

“But it does, Bambina. And you saved his life. Without the tourniquet...” Carina trailed off with a sigh, unsure if she was making the situation better or worse.

 

“His mother came to see me when I was in the hospital.”

 

Carina furrowed her brow. She’d assumed Maya had spoken to her on the phone, but in retrospect, Maya spent most of the time O’Neill was in surgery getting CT scans and X Rays.

 

“She asked me if I had children…” Maya’s voice wavered, but Carina could see her fighting back emotion.

 

Maya was naked and shivering, the towel doing little to warm her, and despite knowing it was a risk, Carina decided that she couldn’t stand watching her wife struggle, cold and vulnerable. She stood, only to grab a discarded blanket from a nearby chair, and then returned, wrapping the material around Maya’s shoulders. Maya immediately pulled it tightly around herself and Carina took her acceptance of the blanket as a good sign.

 

She crouched down in front of Maya, carefully setting her hands on Maya’s knees.

 

“Do you remember I told you about the stillbirth from last month?” Carina asked, the memory causing a tightening in her chest.

 

Maya nodded, one of her hands darting out from the blanket to lie on top of Carina’s.

 

“The mama asked me that too. As she was being discharged, she stopped and asked if I had babies of my own. Somehow our bambini make everything easier and everything harder all at the same time,” Carina said.

 

Her words were met with a sharp exhale, almost as if Maya had been concerned that she was the only one who struggled with the balance, with the need to compartmentalize. They were both good at doing their jobs with single-minded focus. But it was hard to look at a grieving mother and not allow what if to float in now. It was hard to look at a mother whose child was forever altered and not think of little hands and arms and legs, perfect and delicate.

 

Carina dipped her head down to kiss Maya’s knuckles.

 

“You know you can talk to me about this anytime,” she whispered, finally sitting back.

 

Maya frowned. “Can I? Because it scares you. Obviously, it scares you and I don’t want to make it worse.”

 

“I think it’s worse when we don’t talk about it, Bambina.”

 

Two hands took hold of Carina’s face, strong, but somehow gentle whenever they touched her. Carina leaned in, relieved to be close to Maya again, relieved to be able to read her once more.

 

“I miss you too and if I’m being honest, it makes me feel good to know that you miss me like that,” Carina said, letting her fingers drift up Maya’s thighs. She was purposefully holding back, wanting to respect Maya’s boundaries.

 

Maya looked up, confused. “What do you mean?”

 

“You saw me give birth, you even helped me shower after, it was not sexy, and I think part of me was worried you wouldn’t want me like that anymore.”

 

Maya’s confusion remained. She looked like Carina had just insisted that the earth was flat.

 

“Watching you give birth to Hayden was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Maya whispered, a sentiment she’d shared before, but it felt good to hear it said out loud again in this fragile place between them.

 

“Wanting me doesn’t make you a bad mother,” Carina said, “the fact that we still want each other is a good thing.”

 

“I want you all the time, Carina. You always say that I make you feel safe…”

 

Carina circled her hands around Maya’s wrists, trying to be supportive. She knew talking about feelings wasn’t always easy for Maya. Sometimes it took weeks for the vulnerable secrets she carried to spill out, but all Carina could do was be there when they did and help her understand that vulnerability wasn’t weakness. It was strength.

 

“You make me feel safe,” Maya turned her face away, the eye contact too much, “and…having sex with you makes me feel, well…it makes me feel a lot of things, but it’s like…it’s like my head goes quiet and it’s just us and nothing else…”

 

Every instinct was telling Carina to kiss her wife. To rear up on her knees and push her down on the bed. But Maya had to guide them forward, which left Carina with only words though she desperately wanted to touch.

 

“Let’s be better about taking time for ourselves,” Carina said, pleased Maya turned to look at her, “we can schedule date nights or your mom could take them so we can stay home together. I don’t want this feeling to fester, I don’t want us to start feeling disconnected…”

 

“Is that how you feel? Disconnected?”

 

There was no anger in the questions, just worry.

 

“No, amore mio, never,” Carina whispered.

 

And then Maya leaned forward and kissed her. Carina melted into it, rocking forward on her knees, using Maya’s thighs to brace herself. She was surprised when Maya curled one hand into her sweater, pulling her towards her, before lying back on the bed. There was an awkward shuffled of bodies as Maya used her elbows to push herself away from the edge and Carina crawled onto her side, lying heavily against Maya.

 

It was Maya who tossed the blanket and towel, leaving herself totally naked. Carina wasn’t sure what to make of it. Minutes ago she had angrily refused sex and now she seemed much more interested, though Carina wasn’t about to make the first move.

 

“You can touch me,” Maya said, weaving her fingers into Carina’s hair. Carina propped herself up on one arm, studying Maya’s face.

 

“Do you want me to touch you?”

 

Maya nodded and Carina slowly reached for her, resting her hand first on Maya’s abdomen.

 

She leaned down just enough to kiss Maya’s shoulder before lazily dragging her fingers over Maya’s skin, aimless, a soft touch to bring comfort and whatever else Maya needed. She watched the tension leave Maya’s body, she watched the anger clear from her brow and the set of her jaw.

 

“Can you take off your sweater?” Maya asked, her eyes closed even as she plucked at Carina’s sleeve.

 

Carina sat up just enough to obey Maya’s wish. She stripped, removing her bra and her shorts too, and then eagerly joined Maya again, needing the warmth of her body.

 

In her haste, she forgot what she was wearing and when the silver medallion brushed Maya’s chest, Maya opened her eyes, glancing down. Carina froze, watching Maya brush her thumb over the necklace’s pendent and then look up, questioning.

 

“The thought of losing you…” Carina said, her throat closing with emotion, “I can’t bear it, Maya. And I know you think it’s silly, or…or harmful, but…you’re my San Floriano too. I need you close, even when you’re far away, I need you with me.”

 

Maya pulled gently on the chain, bringing Carina’s face closer, close enough that she could lick her bottom lip, lick inside, kiss her in a way that told Carina they were okay, that they were safe. That nothing had been broken or lost.

 

The warmth of Maya’s mouth made Carina hungry and she pulled back frustrated, understanding all too well her wife’s earlier confession.

 

“I wish we had time,” Carina said, a sentiment too often repeated as of late, and Maya nodded, her fingers drifting up and down Carina’s arm.

 

It was true that they could be interrupted any minute, but they had the baby monitor set to its highest volume and the door was firmly closed. They didn’t have hours, but Carina wasn’t about to waste the moments they did have together.

 

Carina dipped her head, nuzzling against Maya’s chest before licking the nipple closest to her, circling her tongue. She closed her lips around it, sucking, knowing it was indulgent even though the slight movement of Maya’s hips made it clear that her wife likely had no complaints. She hovered over Maya, moving to her other breast, sucking again, as the medallion dragged across Maya’s skin. She felt fingers in her hair, pulling just enough to make her moan against Maya.

 

“What would you want to do…if we had more time?” Maya’s question stilled Carina, who raised herself on her elbow again. She found herself looking at dark eyes and a blushing face.

 

Carina rolled, just enough to trap Maya’s thigh between her legs, the solid muscle already felt too good against her. She wondered if Maya would notice how wet she was, she’d left her panties on so Maya could see. She wanted her to see…

 

“I want you to make a mess of me,” Carina whispered into Maya’s ear, nipping her ear lobe and stifling a sigh as Maya’s pelvis rolled. Maya turned just enough to reach Carina’s hip with one hand. She held on tightly, encouraging Carina to grind down on her thigh, to set a rhythm.

 

With her free hand, Maya lightly closed her fingers around Carina’s throat, squeezing just enough to make Carina gasp.

 

“Take off your panties,” Maya said, her eyes drifting down Carina’s body, watching as she slid the soaked blue material down her legs and returned to her previous position. She was embarrassingly slick, the sight of Maya’s body enough to turn her on, her sorrow over their argument and her relief over their shared amends spurring her forward. When Maya grabbed the panties, Carina raised an eyebrow, huffing from exertion as she continued to thrust her hips, the friction mounting.

 

Without a word, Maya brought the panties to her nose, and Carina nearly fell over, her arms shaking as she cried out as quietly as she could. Maya set the ruined fabric down and then cupped Carina’s breast, thumbing her nipple, those blue eyes intense and unrelenting.

 

“Would you let me suck them? Hard?” Maya punctuated her question with a hard squeeze and Carina gasped again, unsure how they went from fighting to dirty talk so quickly, but not wanting it to stop. Ever.

 

Maya had a talent.

 

But then, so did she.

 

“I would,” Carina nodded, stilling her movements. She balanced herself on one arm, lying heavily against Maya’s side, and let her fingers scorch a path between Maya’s breasts. She dragged them down, below Maya’s navel, biting her lip at the feel of soft trimmed hair against her fingertips, only stopping when she brushed Maya’s clit.

 

The reaction was immediate. Maya exhaled through her nose, a silenced whine muffled from the back of her throat, everything Carina needed to know.

 

Carina circled Maya’s clit, watching Maya’s face carefully. “Would you let me touch you here?” 

 

There was a sharp nod, so Carina dipped her fingers lower, teasing.

 

“And here?” Carina asked, stroking Maya’s entrance. She thought about giving Maya relief, about slipping inside and feeling her tight heat, but she hesitated, wanting something else more.

 

Maya narrowed her eyes, clearly about to say something sarcastic when Carina moved her fingers again, lower, and the cocky smirk disappeared, replaced with an open mouth and surprised inhale.

 

“And what about here, Bambina?” Carina used her middle fingers to circle Maya’s asshole, overwhelmed when Maya arched against her, her thigh hard between Carina’s legs.

 

“I…” Maya tried to speak, but couldn’t, so Carina brushed her lips over Maya’s mouth.

 

“Touch yourself,” she whispered, her tongue licking against Maya’s.

 

She glanced down Maya’s body, watching as Maya set her hand against her clit and started rubbing in hard, purposeful movements. With her legs spread open, Maya looked positively wanton, and the sight of her inspired Carina to start moving her own hips again.

 

They needed to stay quiet, but it was so hard when Maya was gasping for air, with each circle of Carina’s finger against her she opened her mouth and closed her eyes, the veins in her neck bulging as she neared her orgasm. The angle was awkward, but Carina pushed her finger inside just a little, not wanting to fully penetrate her, but enough that Maya released a low fuck, her free hand landing on Carina’s back, where she scratched her with blunt nails.

 

Carina raised her wrist, her thumb finding the slick heat between Maya’s legs and she pushed inside, a shallow thrust that she so wished could have been more. She wanted to fuck her wife, she wanted to wear a strap and fill Maya in every way she could, though judging by the way Maya’s legs twitched, by the strangled cry, by her sharp fingers, Maya didn’t need much more.

 

“Do you know how beautiful you are like this?” Carina licked the shell of Maya’s ear, ignoring the cramp in her forearm because Maya’s flushed chest and hard nipples made every second worth the dull ache.

 

“Carina…”

 

Maya fluttered around her thumb, her own hand speeding up its movements, rubbing her clit, and Carina nuzzled her forehead against Maya’s temple as she guided her forward, leaving soft kisses against her cheek, her shoulder, and then…

 

The arm around her back tightened its hold as Maya thrust her hips up, and Carina felt herself clench hard as silk coated her hand, when she felt Maya’s release against her fingers, against her palm. Maya smiled as she came, smiled as she struggled under Carina, as she made a mess of herself that left Carina feeling dazed.

 

She barely waited for Maya to finish before pulling away and grabbing Maya’s biceps, flipping her onto her stomach. Maya let out a surprised giggle, but she was still barely aware of her surroundings as Carina held her down and straddled her. She brushed herself against Maya’s ass, slick and hot and so swollen that it was an almost painful sensation as she forced herself down, grinding, desperate for her own climax.

 

Maya gasped for air beneath her, but Carina was seeing stars, her own arousal coating Maya’s skin, leaving wet streaks that felt like a claim. Her orgasm was fast, so strong that she came with a harsh pull of muscle. She rubbed herself against Maya again, the curve of her body guiding Carina towards a trigger release that robbed her of breath and sight.

 

Minutes later she opened her eyes, finding herself sprawled on top of Maya, panting heavily as Maya did the same.

 

“Hey,” Maya’s voice sounded like gravel and Carina immediately rolled to her side, releasing Maya from the mattress.

 

“Hi,” Carina answered back, watching Maya slowly turn onto her side too. They pulled at each other, arms tangled, chest to chest, and Maya was kissing her again, still needy, still warm.

 

Strong hands cupped her face and when Maya leaned back, her eyes were closed, her expression troubled.

 

“I miss you, Carina,” she said, “you’re right here and I miss you.”

 

Carina hitched her thigh over Maya’s hip, holding her so tightly, but somehow still not tightly enough.

 

“I miss you, cuore mio,” Carina confessed, “I’m scared you’re going to disappear.”

 

There was a fluttering against her chest and Carina belatedly realized that Maya had snuck a hand between them, her fingers once more holding the San Floriano medallion.

 

“Never,” she whispered, her heartbeat so strong that Carina felt it against her own chest.

 

As if it was her heart too.

 

As if its beat kept her alive.

 

Which it was.

 

Which it did.

 

~*~

 

Pale light filled the cabin though Maya could not be sure of the time.

 

She looked out the window, watching the sky, as the rest of the passengers slept. Carina was in the aisle seat with Jamie next to her and they had both curled in on each other, Jamie’s head in Carina’s lap, Carina’s arms around Jamie’s body.

 

The clouds looked like pink cotton candy, like she could touch them and they would stick to her fingers. It was an old thought. It was an old experience too. Flying in the early morning, alone though surrounded by people.

 

She felt a tiny nose nuzzle her chest and looked down, smiling softly as Hayden squirmed himself awake. His blue PJs had once belonged to Jamie and it hurt Maya’s heart in the best way to see her son wearing them now.

 

“Hey, Bam Bam,” she whispered, her lips coasting over the top of his head. She knew Carina pretended to dislike the nickname, a butchery of bambino, but Maya thought it suited Hayden.

 

He pushed himself up, his eyes adjusting to the light as he looked towards the window, reaching out with one tiny hand to point.

 

“What do you see?” Maya asked, smoothing his dark curls. In profile the resemblance to Carina was even more pronounced. His nose and chin. The eyes.

 

The eyes were going to be a problem because he could ask for anything and Maya would be helpless to resist. Just like his mama.

 

“Are those clouds, Bam Bam?”

 

Maya was happy he was awake. It made her feel less lonely, less like she could drift away into the past where she would sit and think about lying down in the soft oblivious stretching out for miles. Instead, she focused on her son. On his curious little face, on the way his eyes appeared lighter in the morning, on his hair, his hair that was the same shade as Carina’s.

 

There was more movement beside her and Maya was surprised to find Jamie sitting up, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand.

 

“Hi, Baby T,” Maya said, adjusting so Jamie could crawl into her lap. It was a tight squeeze, holding Hayden and holding Jamie too, but Maya held on tightly, letting her babies anchor her to the present.

 

“Mommy the clouds are pink,” Jamie pressed her hand to the window. Hayden mimicked his sister, his little hand waving in the air.

 

“They are. Pretty, hey?”

 

Jamie nodded. “Are we home now?”

 

They were eight hours into a ten-hour flight between Frankfurt and Seattle, but technically, they were closer to home than they’d been the last time Jamie was awake.

 

“About two hours left,” Maya said, kissing the top of Jamie’s head, “are you hungry?”

 

Before Jamie could answer, Hayden sniffled, his little noises a sure indication that he wanted to eat. There was a grumble from the aisle seat and then Carina was up, taking Hayden from Maya.

 

Buongiorno,” she said, kissing Hayden’s forehead, cooing as he fussed against her. She draped a blanket over her shoulder and chest and raised her shirt, tucking Hayden close.

 

Jamie seemed happy to stay in Maya’s lap and Maya was more than content with the arrangement, the quiet and the soft sounds of Hayden suckling lulling them all into a tired peace. It was only when the flight attended came by with Jamie’s breakfast that Maya reluctantly let her daughter move. She missed her warmth the instant she crawled back into her seat.

 

Maya helped Jamie open her tray and laughed when the little girl frowned.

 

Mama, dove sono i biscotti?” She asked, turning to Carina who shrugged.

 

Non lo so, Tesoro.”

 

Maya loved hearing Jamie and Carina speak Italian to each other. It had been her dream since Jamie was still a preemie in the NICU. Her Italian girls.

 

“Mommy pancake,” Jamie announced without warning, holding up a forkful of syrup drenched food that Maya barely caught in her mouth before it fell into her lap.

 

She laughed with her mouth full, catching Carina biting her lip.

 

“Thanks, Jamie, you’re so good at sharing,” Maya said, handing Jamie her juicebox.

 

“Mommy can we go jump in the clouds after breakfast?”

 

Jamie’s question startled her, but Maya forced herself to remain neutral, choosing instead to run her fingers lightly through Jamie’s hair.

 

“We’d fall right through, baby,” she said.

 

Jamie considered her answer for a moment. “No we wouldn’t cuz you would catch me.”

 

She spoke as if she was telling Maya that the sky was blue, as if she was speaking a truth universally accepted. It made Maya swallow hard. She could see the silver glint of Jamie’s San Floriano necklace tucked inside her little t-shirt and she remembered Carina’s words…

 

You are her San Floriano

 

Maya kissed Jamie’s temple, but didn’t say more, and soon enough, Jamie grew tired of her meal and fell asleep again, this time with her head in Maya’s lap, the jetlag already taking its toll.

 

Bambina could you…” Carina held Hayden towards her, and Maya quickly grabbed him, letting her wife adjust her shirt again. With Hayden against her shoulder, Maya lightly pat his back, listening for little burps, again surrounded by her children.

 

The clouds beckoned her. They were beautiful and strange, a siren’s song forever in her ears.

 

She knew what it was to want nothingness, to step out and away, to lie down and disappear. The girl who had once looked out and wished for an end could not have foreseen the woman she would turn into.

 

The woman who was deserving of love and rest. Who was deserving of the babies in her arms, though fully accepting that truth was still a work in progress.

 

Familiar fingers caressed her cheek and Maya turned her face away from the clouds, towards Carina. Towards her universe.

 

Her chest felt tight, though she did not cry, but there was so much…

 

“Are you okay, amore mio?” Carina stroked her thumb over Maya’s cheekbone, her eyes wide and kind.

 

The clouds were behind her. Out of sight. There but no longer needed.

 

Maya nodded, a smile spreading across her lips as she felt her children breathing against her, as she felt her wife’s love radiating outward, wrapping her in its warmth.

 

“We’re almost there,” Maya said.

 

Carina tilted her head, tucking a strand of hair behind Maya’s ear.

 

She smiled one of her strange, secret smiles, and Maya wondered how she’d survived before that smile entered her life. Before those eyes and that nose and that freckle.

 

When Carina spoke again, her voice was soft and so sweet.

 

It was music. It was oxygen. It was everything.

 

“No, Bambina,” she whispered, her thumb brushing Maya’s lips, “we’re already home.”

 

*fin*