Aidan hadn’t officially moved out of the Sullivan community, but he certainly spent most of his waking hours managing his clubs and bars. Though he owned them, Ciaran had managed them, so now it was his responsibility. He called me from one every night. I tried to encourage him to speak to his fathers again, but he was strong-willed, and I eventually stopped pushing him. When he was ready, he would reconcile with them.
Grieving had given me time to ignore the changes beginning to happen to my body, but as the sadness ebbed away, first season nausea appeared. I wasted more than I actually consumed, constantly in the bathroom throwing up and dry heaving through the second month. My growth spurt hit near the end of the season, and with it bipolarity: instances near torpor spiking into frenzy as I fed from my symbionts and needed to be pulled away and tied down to stop attacking anyone around, often the other symbionts or Wright. It was an awful feeling to not be in control of my needs and my cravings, to not be sure if I would actually hurt one of my symbionts.
I began to settle into pregnancy in the second season. The nausea still came and went, but I had reached my adult height, so I was no longer bipolar. I was more aware that there was something inside of me. My womb was filling out, and I would look down at it like it was an alien attachment to me. I started talking to it when everyone was asleep and rub my growing belly to get used to the feeling. My breasts grew, though not by much. It shouldn’t have been strange to me, since I had been with Marta during her pregnancies and knew it would happen, but having an actual chest made me self-conscious. I bought my first bras, some with flaps for future breastfeeding, and had to learn how to use them. I had to get my mothers or Marta to help me, because any of my symbionts’ touches aroused me to the point of losing focus. I was sensitive to all of my senses. Lights were too bright, sound was too loud, scents were noxious.
At the end of the second season, I had a fully developed baby squirming around inside of me, pressing against my flesh and responding to my voice. The Gordons came to visit, as well as the Leontyevs, the Braithwaites, and the Sullivans, taking pictures home for their symbionts. Aidan visited more frequently and spoke to our child so it would know his voice.
I awoke to him perched with paint and an easel at my desk one evening during my final season. His white face and chest were splattered with paint, his long red hair pulled back with a rubber band. He didn’t look at me, but he smiled as I started to push myself up.
“Hold still, little mate, I’m almost finished.” I relaxed again and waited patiently for him to set his brushes down. When he turned the easel, I sat up to see his portrayal of me sleeping just as I had been. I smiled at how life-like the painting seemed, like it should have been turning and looking at me as I was it, a mirror image instead of a portrait.
“You’re very talented.”
“And you’re very beautiful.” Aidan stood and scrubbed himself clean with a damp cloth as he crossed the room. “I could paint you all night.” He peeled off his pants, climbed beneath the sheets, and gently pushed me down again to lie against him. “But I know of other things I could do to you all night as well.” I chuckled as he rubbed my belly and kissed my shoulder. My breath caught as his hand roamed lower and settled between my thighs. He kissed my neck as I hummed with pleasure at his caresses. “Are your symbionts afraid to touch you now?”
“Clint isn’t.” Aidan laughed. “I don’t think there is anything that turns him off. McKenzie, actually, isn’t either. She has spent many nights with me lately.” McKenzie had been Ciaran’s symbiont. The thought quieted both Aidan and me, but I spoke up. “Your fathers were here last week.”
“I know…They stopped by your place before they went to the airport.” He and Ciaran had named their Philadelphia club The Ruby. “They lectured me on my behavior, and then we got into a fight about the hypocrisy in that.”
“At least you spoke to them.” He hadn’t since the Council of the Goddess.
“…I know I can’t stay away from them forever, but they don’t have the right to tell me when I should come back, when I should stop being angry. Had it not been for them, Ciaran would still be here. Kean would still be here…” Aidan sighed. “I didn’t come here to talk about them.”
I had managed to forget where Aidan had set his fingers until he moved them, and my body instantly tingled with arousal. I let him continue for a few minutes before I rested my hand on his. “Promise me something.”
“Yes, little mate.”
“If this baby is a boy, you will reconcile with your fathers before his 60th birthday.”
Aidan chuckled and kissed my shoulder. He slid his hand away to pull my right leg up onto his, entered me slowly. “I promise, my love.”
My mothers told me about the discomfort of the last two months. They told me that I would be bed-ridden, hungry, and feverish. I suppose that if they had told me what the pain would be, however, that labor would take anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks, I would never have mated. I sincerely believed for years after that the only reason an Ina woman went into labor after thirteen months was because her back broke under the pressure. The contractions were never gradual. When the first compressed my lower back as I stood to stretch my legs, I fainted.
The second was a searing wave of long, endless pain flowing down into my upper thighs, and I awoke screaming. Hands were all over me, pulling me out from halfway beneath my bed, and I felt like that movement intensified the crushing of my spine and hips. I didn’t think I could scream harder, but I did.
“Stop touching me,” I half-growled, half-cried.
“Let her go,” my mother-Shori said calmly from somewhere. The hands moved away, so she knelt beside me and cupped my face. I opened my eyes to see her. “Ruby, we have to get you back into bed.”
“No, please,” I whimpered. My whole body trembled as the contraction subsided. I didn’t want to feel that again. “Don’t let them move me, Momma.”
Her face was sympathetic, but her voice wasn’t. “I’m sorry, Ruby.”
She stood, and Clint and Dale hoisted me into the air. I screamed again at the pain of gravity trying to tear my pelvis into pieces. They placed me gently on my side in my bed, now layered with large towels. Moving made the waves of pain more frequent. When I didn’t move, they only came every half an hour. Unfortunately, my mothers didn’t let me stay in the same position and after four hours had my symbionts rotate me carefully onto my knees. My mother-Stacia palmed my hips and pressed my back down into an arch, my knees on either side of my cramping womb. At least in this position I could bury my face into my pillows to muffle my screams. I understood that this was why, when my mothers birthed my younger brothers and sister, our fathers would take my older siblings and me away with them. The screaming would have terrified us. Stacia rubbed my lower back as Momma pulled my hair up into a bun, then dabbed my neck and shoulders with a hand towel filled with ice. Then, my symbionts rotated me onto my other side, and the whole cycle began again.
“Ruby, you have to try to sleep for a little bit,” Stacia said to me softly, stroking my sweaty cheek as a contraction subsided. “This is going to be long, and it’s going to be hard. You have to sleep, or you’ll get sick.”
“Please stay with me,” I breathed.
She nodded and took my hands. “I’ll be here. Your mother-Shori will go sleep while you do, and she’ll be with you in the morning.”
Sleeping was difficult, as the contractions continued on the half hour, but my mother-Stacia stayed to wipe my face and pat my neck with ice. After four hours, she woke me so my symbionts could rotate me onto my knees again. Stacia grabbed my arm before I could scratch at them for doing so, and when they put me on my knees, I screamed through the pain until I fell back to sleep. They left me in that position until I awoke of my own accord, my thighs sore and my knees numb. It was daytime then, and Wright was there instead of my symbionts to rotate me. He held me close to his body as he lifted me and rolled me onto my other side, then stayed against me as I balled up in pain, patting my leg and shushing me as Momma wiped my face. I fed from Camille and slept for a little longer. I endured the next four days of my body slowly trying to force my baby out of me in this manner. I slept each night, fed each morning, and awoke on the fifth morning to soaked towels beneath me. Now that my water had broken, I could expect to deliver within 48 hours. There was no more sleeping as the contractions came first every fifteen minutes, then every five. I had to stay on my knees during these last grueling hours, my mothers taking turns massaging my womb to help coax the baby down during each agonizing wave of pain, then pushing me to sit on my heels between each. The time came to push just before midnight on the sixth day.
“Ruby, the head is coming,” Stacia said calmly, her fingers probing inside of me to guide my baby. “You have to start pushing now.”
I wasn’t sure how, but my body seemed to know, so I let it happen as I screamed at the pain. I felt the baby then, being worked more and more into my mother-Stacia’s hands as Momma rubbed my lower back, encouraging me to keep pushing and breathing. They had me rest for a few seconds before they urged me to push again.
Then, there was the shrill cry of my first child, and all of the pressure on my body was gone. “It’s a boy,” Stacia said, but I had already felt the unfamiliar sting of tears in my eyes, and the drops splattered against my wrists before I fell into a deep sleep.