The Angel,The Devil,The Nerd

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Chapter 66 - I'm fine

CHAPTER 66 - I'M FINE

ERIC'S POV

When I opened my eyes I felt something like a sharp sting beneath my ribcage, so I tried to sit up, but I felt hands keeping me from it and that voice, that heavenly voice ... "Don't move. They've just stitched you."

I looked up and saw my Natalie squeezing a pillow and better tucking it behind my back so that I could be more comfortable. I remained dazed for a few moments. I was sure I was ... well, dead. I mean, last thing I remember, I was fighting with the Armorer and he stabbed me, I dropped to my knees and lost consciousness. What happened after that?

But more than dazed, I was mesmerized by the sight of my princess. Natalie had a weird look on, though. She didn't seem mad, but was grim, not sure why. I sat up better, with her help, and asked what happened, she cracked a small very gloomy smile as she caressed my cheek, eyes watery as she explained, her voice reduced to a feeble whisper: "I almost lost you again. That's what happened."

I blinked my eyes, confused, but when those heavy drops streamed her cheeks, I forgot about everything and quite simply pulled her against me, she resisted, saying I was still weak, they'd just finished stitching me to cure the blade wound I had on my upper abdomen, which I guess is the one the Armorer kindly offered me, but I forced my bones not to complain and brought her into my arms, cuddling her silently as I apologized for having scared her. She saw everything after all. One thing is to barely be able to tell among the blur that all those hospital uniforms made when I died for two minutes, the other is witnessing the real act, the blade piercing through my flesh, me crumbling to my feet ... it must have been horrible for her.

She hid her face behind my neck, arms around my shoulders, as she let herself go to pained but silent tears, sitting beside me as I tried my best to soothe her, saying it was over now and there was nothing to worry about, she asked about other people wanting my head and I grinned, informing her that Jake and Lukas had already provided, and as for the Armorer, despite his last act, his organization was dead ... just as much as him, Natalie informed me.

What confused me wasn't him being dead, but her sounding so anxious about such news, as if he could come back to torment us even from the other world. I didn't ask just not to upset her more, so all I did was cuddle her, trying to make her forget about everything. Now that I think about it, she probably saw the enemy dying too. She'd never seen a man die.

I hugged her tighter, reminding her I love her and that now that it's everything really over, we can live our dream, she gave me a half smile, but still remained in the same position. I would have wanted to tell her something, but I had no idea what. The first time I saw a man dying in front of me I was 14, but with everything that had happened already, I wasn't that much upset.

Natalie instead ... despite everything, she's such a sweet girl, she couldn't see a mouse dying, imagine a person. When we found a little mouse in her basement once, where we'd gone officially to do laundry, as her mother had asked, she screeched more at me already going to kill it than at the rat itself. She even chastised me, because annoying and dirty or not, it was still a living being, and its life was worth it just as much as ours, so imagine her witnessing a human death. I can't help but think she'll need more therapy for this.

We remained there, me cuddling her and placing small kisses on her temple now and then, her slowly ceasing crying, but never moving. To cheer her up, I tried to propose we call Noah, he must be worried, she cracked a small smile, informing me that she'd talked to him only half an hour ago because he refused to go to sleep if he didn't talk to his papa first, so it was a good idea. She said she'd tried to convince him that I was sleeping and she couldn't wake me, but his response took her off guard: "He said: my papa would never forget to wish me good night."

I grinned, kissing her temple. "He loves you, Eric. Only yesterday mom told me he confessed he was overjoyed to finally have a father. He's told his friends about you and he's already planning to introduce you to all of them." That's so sweet. I smiled. But I knew there was an underling to her tone ... she was indirectly asking me not to disappoint our child, he'd be distraught.

So I truthfully assured her I'd do my best: "I can't promise I'll be perfect, but I'll be the best father I can."

She seemed unsure, therefore, kissing her temple, I reminded her that it was everything fine, everything was over, we could really, really live our dream life ... yet she was still disbelieving. "After all we've been through, Eric ... every time we get close to it, it slips away. It's like this dream is all too eager to run away from us."

Better adjusting her on my lap, actually letting her sit, despite her trying to wriggle away, blaming it on my wounds, I entangled our fingers together as I vowed: "But we are stronger than that, aren't we? We are meant to be together, remember? No matter how long it takes, we're gonna be together. You said that. And I'm gonna make it possible."

Natalie cracked a small smile, head still leaning on my shoulder, as she played with my fingers. "Is it really over? Are we really free to be together now?"

She asked, like a child wanting the ultimate confirm of her biggest dream coming true. I smiled, kissing her cheek as I gave her that: "It's as real as it can get. No one and nothing's gonna divide us from now on."

***

These couple of days have been weird. I don't know why. Just weird. Doctor's gonna let me out only tomorrow, and it's already too much because he claimed I needed at least a week more, but I used the father card and argued that my 4-years-old son was in Boston waiting for me to come back, it was maybe a bit mean because the doctor has recently divorced and his ex wife barely lets him see his son, but it worked, so only a few moments ago I talked to Noah and he beamed at the idea of showing me his room for the first time and he already planned to show me to all his friends. Literally show me. Like ... here he is, my father really exists.

That's the weird part. I feel peaceful. Since ... I don't know, always. I've never been completely carefree, without a single worry. Maybe a light version of this could be that brief interval between my stepfather being arrested and him escaping to come after me. Yeah, that period was peaceful, I had everything I wanted and needed: my princess with me. And now's the same, with the most perfect addition of our lovely son.

I never even thought I could be cut to be father, but these weeks with Noah have been incredible, and I didn't even have to make an effort, it was everything natural, as if the connection between me and my son had been there before we even met. But after all, we had it even before we told him the truth, so I guess that's the thing. Natalie says neither did she think she could be mother, but as soon as our little boy landed in her arms, she felt this weird feeling inside she couldn't even explain, as if it was meant to be that way, despite everything.

When she mentioned the day she gave birth, I took the chance to have her tell me every single detail about it, she was puzzled, so I explained that I regret not being able to be there and I needed to know how did it go, be it only to feel closer, she smiled and started telling me about how Noah was an early birth, she was expecting him to pop out three weeks later at least, but he took her by surprise, literally, because she was in the middle of a briefing when the contractions started and she thought it was normal routine ... till her waters broke and they had to immediately take her to the hospital.

She told me her friend/boss Sam immediately quit everything in the middle of her talk and drove her to the hospital, well, her driver did, but Sam remained with Natalie all the time, called Jake and every friend of theirs, so that in a few hours the waiting room was filled with people pacing it while waiting for Natalie to give birth.

About that, I love this thing that she's had all those people close these years, she tells me about her friends as if they were family, and indeed she thinks of them as that. Which means I'll have to meet each and every single one of them, obviously. And because they're family, practically, I'm gonna meet three sisters and one brother (because two of them, I met already). All of them know about me and I know what Natalie told me about them, for instance, I know that what bonds all of them is having experienced tough pain in their lives, more or less intensely.

She didn't give me details, said it wouldn't be fair for her to tell her friends' secrets and I agreed, but they all suffered and they've all been amazing with her, starting from Jake and his wife, who've welcomed my Natalie in their apartment when she needed most support, then Lukas and Tara, who, being neighbors, have seen to take her mind off of painful thoughts, and finally those Mr. and Mrs. Grant also Noah told me about, who've been amazing to Natalie, helping her get acquainted with New York and everything. Well, in that, also Jake's sister helped, but mostly Sam and on cue, her husband.

I know about them for other reasons too anyway. I mean, the Grant Enterprises are very well known in the country. Lukas Grant in these years has become like a new Bill Gates, I remember we were starting high school when his company came out, it wasn't immediate success, but it was soon clear that the guy had avant-garde ideas, so in a matter of months he was already on every magazine cover and his product was in almost every house. It's weird to think that my girlfriend is friends with one like him. Well, I am too, after all we've done together in these weeks.

So the point is, Natalie has a very loving circle of friends that have never let her and Noah feel alone, they've always been there to help and I really appreciate that and, opposite to my usual, I'm pretty eager to meet them. Even though, Jake tells me his wife won't be too easy on me, I've let her friend go through too many tough periods. "Silvia's my angel, really, but ... she's not that angelic when mad and if there's something in which we're alike, it's protecting who we care about, she cares deeply for Natalie so Silvia's gonna want to make sure you don't hurt her again." He told me.

I wonder if meeting this Mrs. Watson will be such a nightmare. Well, I remember how tense I was when I first met a Miss Watson, Natalie's mother back then (now she's Mrs. Green, of course, well, Penelope Watson-Green, to be precise, because she's kept her maiden name, just like all of Natalie's friends have and like my girlfriend's gonna do, she's already hinted that), but I can't believe this Silvia's gonna be so bad ... right?

Anyway, these days I feel weird because I have absolutely no worry. Nothing. Really. All my life, I've always been worried about something, because there was always something that was going to screw up my content moment, and what happened seven years ago was the proof, but now ... these days I feel absolutely carefree. Practically, I'm starting my life anew. I even virtually have a job already.

Lukas assured me he was glad to find me something to do, I refused, saying I didn't need his charity, I could see to it, but he said he might have the right option for me ... I just need a few months of training. I don't know what he means, he didn't specify, Natalie gave him a dirty look when he was about to, but I have an idea of what that is ... if so, it'd be beyond amazing.

Now, tomorrow I'm gonna leave this damn hospital, but I'll need physiotherapy for a while anyway, I'm gonna stay at Natalie's, of course, we're all gonna live there stably, the first months for me will be of rehabilitation, as the doctor instructed me, then I can start with the training Lukas mentioned, after that, I can start working. But ... I don't need to work to buy something important. I have enough savings to do that. And I will soon, New York with all its boutiques could only be perfect. For what I know, Tiffany's is a girl's dream. But my Natalie's different, she needs something very original. And I think I know what already.

There's another weird thing, though. Natalie. These days she's been strange, when we're together she's always the same, yes, but I can feel something troubles her, when I ask she assures me that everything's fine, yet she goes out and talks to a couple by the vending machine, well, she's done that a couple of times, and those two give me an odd sensation ... I'm pretty sure they're feds. Why would they want to talk to Natalie, though? I could understand if they questioned me, but I haven't even seen them, while they've talked to her a couple of times already. Weird. And sort of worrying.

That's why, ignoring my wounds and her cautions, I stood up, sadly, having to use the wheelchair if I didn't want to go jumping through the hall. I hate this situation, but luckily it's gonna be over soon. It's just that my bones had been close to healing, but the last battle brought them back to square one, so now I need the wheelchair again. Ugh.

Trying to disguise among the crowd of hospital uniforms and patients, I made my way towards the vending machine, but paying attention to remain enough hidden for Natalie and her friends in a suit not to see me. I don't like going all stalker on my girlfriend, but she's being evasive and there's clearly something worrying her, so I need to know. Besides, after all the years of watching her from afar, this is nothing.

Once I was close enough, I took advantage of them being far enough to hide behind the vending machine and be able to hear: there were two stranger voices, male and female, asking questions Natalie was responding to. I couldn't hear too well, so I had to get closer and finally I made it: "I understand the experience has left a mark on you, Miss Watson, but be patient, the quicker we get over the procedure, the sooner we'll leave you alone, alright?"

The woman asked in a gentle tone. Leaning in, I could see Natalie nodding. She looked pale. Wary. Even scared. Why? Those were feds, I could smell FBI from miles away, but why were they questioning my girlfriend? To ask about me? Why would they? I'm not even registered as that John Riley that doesn't quite have a sterling record, I'm here with my real name, because Eric Rivers' enemies are all gone while John Riley has quite a line of people wanting his head, so it was safer this way.

The feds went on, asked her about her intentions "that night" and if she acted out of instinct or planned it and so on ... but what? What did she do? And when?

It dawned on me when the woman concluded: "Alright, Miss Watson, we can consider the case closed, I think. You acted out of self defense."

"Wanda, she ..."

"It was self defense, Carl. How do you call her shooting someone that was killing her boyfriend?"

Oh. Fuck.

***

"You okay?" Natalie asked as we finally stepped out of the hospital. I nodded absentmindedly. I've been thinking about what I eavesdropped since yesterday, haven't told her anything not to upset her, but I wonder if she'll ever confess. As a matter of fact, she saved my life. If I got it right, she killed the Armorer to save me. She gave away part of her soul to save me.

Damn, I'm only a cancer for her. Ever since I entered her life, I fucked it up. First all that pain, now this ... Natalie is so pure hearted, taking a life must have crushed her. And she hasn't uttered a word about it. We never mention that night because I don't want her to reminisce, I didn't want to remind her she witnessed somebody dying, now especially, I don't want to remind her she's killed someone. To save me, yes, but still, she killed.

"Eric, are you alright?" Natalie asked me once more as we came to a stop, her hands on my shoulders as she leaned in. I took the chance to tilt my head back and look into her eyes. There was contentment, yes, but also guilt. A lot of sense of guilt swimming in those hazels.

"I could ask the same to you." I pointed out, and those irises widened for a moment. She pulled back, clearing her throat nervously, muttering that she didn't know what was I talking about, she was fine, we could finally go home ... it was everything perfect. There was even a welcoming party at home for us. Well, I think for her, but she says us.

Either way, she claimed everything was perfectly fine, so I had to admit: "I saw you talking to the feds yesterday." She'd just restarted pushing the wheelchair towards the cab that was waiting for us, she stopped for a moment, but then restarted walking like nothing, not even replying, so I stepped on gas, asking what did they want, she said they only wanted to make sure of her statements for the case of the Armorer, which I can believe is true, but not entirely.

Not wanting to press her further, I only nodded and we stepped in the cab. The ride to the airport was silent, only when we sat on a bench, me having abandoned the wheelchair already outside the hospital, finding it too annoying, Natalie decided to talk.

We were comfortably cuddling, her head on my shoulder, hands entangled, when she spoke lowly: " You don't need to worry about me. I'm fine." I didn't reply immediately, just inhaled deeply as I played with her hair a little, so she took the chance to go on, hand on my chest, as if to check the beat of my heart while she spoke: "You probably overheard, so ... I don't need to tell you what happened."

"Talking might help." She looked up at me and I sighed, pressing her against me in protection. I wonder if it'll ever end. In one way or another I see to hurt her. She always ends up losing and it's always my fault. But ... leaving would be worse. I've told her and told her that I'm not good for her, but she didn't want to listen seven years ago, imagine now. After all we've been through and now that we have a son even. I wouldn't leave her for anything in the world anyway.

I mean, I'd leave only if she asked me to. At this point, I've learnt that I was selfish and I should have acted differently, maybe not give her a chance to choose, because I know she would have been foolish enough to follow me, but maybe I should have been honest upfront, I shouldn't have hidden her my past, I should have told her everything since the beginning, and before leaving, I should have taken the time to have a heart-to-heart conversation with her.

Although, let's be honest, one, I had no time for that, with Robert hunting me down, it was take it or leave it, either I stayed and risked Natalie's and our friends' lives along with mine, or I left and risk on my own. I just thought it was safer. Mostly, I thought: I die, no one's gonna miss me, if they will, they'll move on sooner or later, but they'll be safe. If I stay, the chances are, we all wind up dead. And I can't ruin their lives.

Besides ... I wouldn't have been able to leave if Natalie had been there. I couldn't say goodbye because I didn't have it in me. I knew I'd pick the selfish route and stay, endangering them all, just because I couldn't have said no to those eyes. I'd pictured the scene, with me telling her I had to leave, her eyes getting watery as she tried to be strong while asking why ... I knew I wouldn't be able to part from her.

So I made the coward choice. I just left without a word. The same I did four years ago. I had to leave that hotel room because otherwise it wouldn't have been safe for her, yes, but ... truth be told, a big part of reason was because I knew I couldn't look into those eyes and tell her I had to leave again. I didn't have the strength. I resorted to leaving her a vocal message, but only because in that moment I was as weak as ever ... I was crying.

Yes, crying. I've never cried in my entire life, even as a child I soon learnt I couldn't, actually, the more I cried, the more I risked being beaten, so I just shut up, hence, the only time I ever cried was that morning. When I left my Natalie in that bed, forever. Well, it was supposed to be forever. That's why it hurt so bad. I nearly broke my hand by punching a wall in a dead end, but then I just crawled to the floor and cried like a baby. Because even I couldn't take it anymore. After all those years of pain, now that.

I cried because my heart was bleeding. I cried because I had to leave my life once again and once for all. I cried because I wouldn't see my princess again and there was no miracle coming our way. No other choice. Once more, staying would mean endangering her. Once more, I had to remind myself of how wrong I was years ago when I gave in to selfishness and decided to make her fall for me. I'd resisted years, swallowing the hurt because I knew that if she ever even only cared about me, I'd only cause her pain, and she deserved much more than the tears I could offer her.

I have never regretted one single moment with her, but I've always known that every moment of bliss would double the pain. I've always known I'd hurt her. If I had resisted, if I had forced myself to keep going without even crossing her path, she would have been fine. I just had to keep my own pain inside. But the thing is, at that point, it was too much. After all those years of hiding, I needed her more than air, even only a few moments with her could suffice. That's why the Math lessons. Those moments alone were my refill to endure a whole life without her.

But ... I never thought we'd get where we did. That day when she bumped into me coming from Math, with her perfect test in hand, grinning like a Cheshire cat, clearly on cloud nine ... it was already hard enough to keep my mask, but when she hugged me, I just lost sight of everything.

Out of the blue I had her arms around my torso, I could feel her so close, so warm, I could smell her peculiar scent ... I didn't even see myself hugging her back, but I did, I was only able to retain myself enough not to squeeze her too tightly, frightening her, which is why I let it last only a few moments, then I pulled back, but she looked up at me with those hazel eyes, that light shining in them ...

I had to feel her, I thought caressing her cheek would suffice, it already had my heart racing, actually, I think that when she had her head against my chest she could feel the fast beating, because my own heart was trying to escape to its cage and go to her, so I had to feel her soft skin, I thought that caressing her cheek would suffice, but my system became greedier and greedier, a hug wasn't enough, a caress wasn't enough ... I wanted more and more, the most I could get. Hence, I took the chance when she averted her gaze to glance at the kids at the end of the hall, and I pressed my lips on her. I only pressed them. Nothing more. I just needed contact.

But ... my heart decided it wasn't enough either. She caught nothing, but inside I was burning with desire. Not just physical either. I mean, it's not like I only wanted something specific from her, no, the desire I felt was for her everything, I needed to touch her, feel her ... and I wouldn't be able to stop, so I pulled back abruptly, my heart burning, my insides churning, even my head spinning.

Thinking about it cold, I chastised myself, because knowing her, she'd be mulling over it for a while, but, truth be told, I was glad, especially because, don't ask me how, but I could feel on her lips that that was her very first kiss. I could feel I was the very first boy to ever kiss her and for how selfish that was, I was glad. I only fled because I couldn't give in, it'd hurt her, me, both of us. Actually, I was even surprised she didn't push me away.

The point is, I've always known it was very selfish of me, but I couldn't help it. She'd been gripping my heart so tightly, after so many years it was getting unbearable, not even reminding myself that I couldn't get close to her sufficed anymore. My lovesick heart needed relief, and at that point, let's be honest, flings didn't work anymore either.

Well, to be honest, I didn't seek them either. I had those moments alone with her Natalie and I couldn't even fathom being with another girl. I mean, for how hyper I came back home after an afternoon spent so close to her, I couldn't make myself use another girl as double. I tried, can't say I didn't.

It was one of the first afternoons, as soon as I'd pulled off Natalie's driveway Dana sent me a text, telling me she had the house free till late night, I even looked back before deciding for the yes, thinking that I needed to get off in some way. After all, understand me, I was still a horny teenage boy, and it's not like my love for Natalie was platonic. A whole afternoon spent so close to her normally forced me to either cold showers or solo moments, if you know what I mean.

Now that day I decided that maybe Dana could relieve my hyper senses, but no matter how I tried, no matter how aroused we both were, how we practically ripped our clothes off, when it came to the actual act, I couldn't make myself. I kept seeing Natalie, well, that wasn't really new, I mean I kept picturing her looking at me disappointed, as if I was cheating on her ... in the end, I made Dana mad and left without a word.

As far as I can remember, Natalie has always been under my skin, I felt her deep inside my heart and it hurt, can't deny it. I forced myself to ignore her or pretend to ignore her all those years, but it hurt. And when I finally got to be close to her I didn't have it in me to throw away the chance. And look to what it brought.

We were happy, yes, we were beyond happy, we lived six weeks of pure bliss. But the pain I've caused her. All these years. And now this ... she's lost part of herself for me and won't say anything not to worry me.

Anyway, Natalie leaned her head back on my shoulder as she sighed, repeating that she was fine. Because our plane was called, I didn't inquire further, we just took our things and headed to the gate. I guess I should do what she did for me and wait till she feels like talking.

***

"Come on, it's not like they're gonna go all Spanish Inquisition on you." Natalie teased me as she squeezed my hand. I gave her a dirty look but she only grinned and came to wrap her arms around me and kissed my cheek, assuring me her friends were all nice people. I don't doubt that, I just can't help but feel nervous.

As you may have noticed, we were in front of her apartment, about to come in. Inside, we'd find all of her friends, Boston and New York ones together plus their kids, waiting for us. Mostly, it's about them welcoming her back and meeting me. That's why I feel nervous. It's like a family reunion and it's awkward. Lucky thing I know at least two of the people in there. Well, four counting Noah and Penelope.

Our flight was quiet, we only cuddled, bantering now and then, but overall leaving out every delicate issue. Like I said, I'll wait till she feels like talking. She was patient with me, why shouldn't I be with her? So now the issue was this welcoming party and all of her friends waiting at the other side of the door.

"You sure? Because they apparently know all my misdeeds." I teased and she rolled her eyes, mocking me for being so worried about a little get together after all I've been through. This should be nothing for me, she said, I'm used to worse, and yet I was nervous. Oh, well. Taking a deep breath, I nodded for her to open the door. It's now or never, I guess.

We heard a childish ruckus at the very moment the door cracked open and we'd just stepped foot inside that we were both tackled by a blonde little boy that clung to our legs. Noah, of course. He was beaming. As if we'd come back after years of absence. It's nice anyway. To be welcomed home like this, I mean. I've never felt this. I've never had anyone waiting for me to come back. Except for Natalie, that is.

I barely had time to get acquainted with the apartment, just took a glimpse of the crowd of people in the living room, that Noah was already grabbing my hand dragging me to his room, Natalie protested I was still recovering, I needed peace, besides there were people waiting to meet me, but Noah whined that he wanted to show his room to his papa, because he'd made changes and he hoped I liked them.

I complied with a smile, not really seeing a reason to contradict him, so the first thing I really saw was his bedroom: there was Kung Fu Panda everywhere. From the bedding, to a mural on his wardrobe, stickers here and there. Noah pointed out that, to welcome me, he'd cleaned up his room just today with the help of his grandma, so that's why I didn't see toys scattered everywhere.

I complimented with him for the decorations and he giggled, but he was soon distracted, just as a light brown-haired little girl in a reddish dress, a stuffed tiger in her arm, entered, calling his name. I swear, I could see my son blushing as she asked him why did he leave. He calmly explained that he was showing his room to his papa, though I could see he was a little wary, as I've never seen him. Ah, so young and so smitten already. I wonder how will he be in ten years. When this cute little girl because a pretty teenager catching the eyes of boys. I wonder if Noah will be as jealous as his father.

The girl's eyes landed on me and she tilted her head to the side, watching me carefully with her chocolate brown eyes. She had puffy cheeks and a very expressive face, I could read her emotions clearly.

"This is your daddy?" She asked, presumably Noah and he eagerly confirmed, which made me grin.

Though I couldn't help but play a little as I, kneeling to her level to better look at her face, asked: "Let me guess, you must be Arya. Noah told me everything about you."

She grinned from ear to ear, asking for a confirm, so I nodded, informing her that her friend had talked mostly about her. Noah tried to contradict me, saying he also talked about Kung Fu Panda and things like that, and I agreed, but reminded him that, mostly, he kept mentioning his Arya. I chuckled when he gave me a dirty look, then I stood up when Natalie entered, reminding me of the people that wanted to meet me, so I followed her into the living room, leaving Noah with his friend. I wonder if this love will last.

Now, just as I entered the living room, I found all eyes on me. Natalie quickly introduced me to everyone, though I already knew them from what she told me. After a few moments of awkward silent they all went back to their talks, but I could feel their eyes on me. After all, it's not like there were that many people and I was the center of attention for obvious reasons.

When I felt someone patting on my shoulder I turned to my left, being greeted by Jake's big grin as he expressed how glad he was to finally see me outside the hospital. I smiled, agreeing, but a moment later a brown-haired woman, probably 30, joined us, and I understood the reason for her severe gaze when Jake introduced us: "Eric, this is my wife, Silvia. Be careful, she's all angel only till she feels like it". Said that, he patted on my back as he cowered, after having received a mild glare from the woman, though he justified it saying he was going to check up on the kids.

Silvia stood there in front of me, arms crossed, perusing me from tip to toe, and when other two women joined her, I kind of regretted letting Natalie leave my side. The other two introduced themselves as Tara and Samantha, but that's just about all they said, seeing as they joined Silvia in perusing me as well. I felt like I was in the middle of three evil witches waiting to eat me alive, I swear.

They let me remain there nervous for a few moments, till they finally decided to smile and they all nodded, I would have expected in sync. The first to talk was Silvia, she told me she was glad to finally meet me, and the other two nodded, but she was also a little mad at me for all I'd let Natalie go through. No preambles, huh? Straight to the point. I guess Jake's right. His wife isn't one to play with. Natalie tells me it ought to be this way, because, for his sister's admission too, to handle one like Jake, it takes a woman with Silvia's nerve only. Even though, she has her own issues.

All in all, the three women asked me all sorts of questions, but never mentioning my past or my troubles, I guess for a matter of tact. They all struck me as pretty strong women you wouldn't want to make mad, and I bet they keep their men in check all too easily. Especially Silvia.

Once the third grade was finally over, I got to walk around and meet the other guests, the new ones to me being only Tara's husband, Jake's sister with her husband, Jamie's and Penelope's husbands. Everybody was kind, I'll admit, though mostly, what I sought in them was the certainty of their affection towards my Natalie, which was absolutely of iron in everyone.

Once we went to dinner Noah was eager to introduce me to his other friends also and that too, I could see that those kids were attached to my son. I guess I make a very poor addition to this nice group, but they all welcomed me gladly. This new life that awaits me seems to be a whole of a lot better than I ever imagined after all. Despite that issue we ought to solve soon.

***

The first week in New York was great, despite that issue we still haven't solved. Natalie keeps acting like nothing, but I can see she's troubled, and yet she won't talk. Not with me anyway. Because tonight we were having dinner with the Grants, and while I remained in the living room with Sam, talking about frilly things, the kids were playing, the moment I stood up to use the restroom, when I came back I noticed Lukas and Natalie on the balcony, talking deeply about something big, judging by how serious they both were.

Part of me wanted to eavesdrop this time too, but it wouldn't have been fair. She'll tell me when she feels like talking. She waited years for me to speak up, I can do the same, can I? Even though, here it's different. I didn't really need to vent out, it was just a matter of telling her the whole truth, while she ... these sort of things ought to be faced as soon as possible, not to risk falling into a spiral of sense of guilt. I know something about it, believe me.

But, I'll wait. After all, despite everything, we're fine. She works all day so Noah and I remain alone, she said she'd thought about signing up to the nursery school, because their neighbor, who normally babysits him, is getting old and Noah can be rather lively sometimes, so the old woman can't always keep up with him, Sam proposed she just leaves him with Arianna and their babysitter, and for this new school year Natalie was about to do just that ... hadn't I happened, she says. "And what better babysitter than his own papa?", she says. So yeah, practically, this week I've been doing just that.

Though we paid a visit or two to her at her workplace and we have lunch together with Sam and Lukas practically every day, well, almost, because, much to his wife's disappointment, he skips lunch easily, with the excuse of work. And that Sam was telling me, asking if I knew of something that maybe troubled him, but I assured her it was nothing, he just had a tough deal to conclude, nothing more than that. I know this because we frequent the Grants every day and when the women start babbling about their things, Lukas and I see to tune them out, so we talk about his business or how am I finding New York and things like that.

Only yesterday he told me the training I was supposed to do before getting the job: it's what I figured, he meant training to become pilot. Under Natalie's suggestion, he got me a place in that pilot academy I'd wanted to enroll for seven years ago. Well, it was fairly easy. I mean, he bought the academy just two years ago, because it was failing. He laughed it off, saying he mostly bought it because his son seemed to be developing my same dream about flying, so he thought that giving him contact with such world would help him make up his mind.

Either way, I'm gonna need a week or two more to recover and then I can start with the courses. It shouldn't be too hard, he says, the courses are all in the afternoon and three times per week, and I might be able to take Noah with me, otherwise, I can just leave him at their place before going, Arianna would be delighted, Lukas said. The kids do like to spend much time together.

As I sat with Sam, TV being faintly heard in the background, just as the kids playing, well, Richie and Sophia could be heard fighting, Noah and Arianna were quiet, as usual. It seems like that little girl has an incredible quieting influence on my son, every time she's around he's a perfect gentleman, though it also has to do, apparently, with Lukas joking that he won't let Noah marry his Arianna if he doesn't behave properly. I guess my son took it literally. But anyway, as I sat with Sam, I couldn't help but glance towards the balcony now and then, Lukas and Natalie still deeply immersed in their conversation.

"You can't seriously be jealous of him too." Sam scoffed, poking my arm, so I turned to her, furrowing my eyebrows together as I crossed my arms.

"I'm jealous of every single male being that gets to be with her." I retorted, a bit childishly maybe, in fact Sam chuckled.

"Oh, so even of Noah? Gosh, you remind me of Lukas the first months after the kids were born! He was always so cranky, complained about me having completely forgotten about my husband and-"

"Well, it's true that women tend to do that." I only grinned crookedly when she sent me a glare. It's been a week and I've already gotten well acquainted with all of Natalie's friends, who have become my friends as well, and Sam, being the only one of the trio living in New York, is the one that keeps an eye on me for the other two, making sure I treat their friend right and don't misbehave. You know, that might be a little bit of asphyxiating, I mean, I've got all these people ready to jump down my throat at the very first mistake I make ... but it's good.

After all, it's because they care deeply for Natalie and they've seen her at her worst, as what I've come to jokingly call the Witches Trio put it. So they tend to be very protective over her, just as their husbands do, but, as Silvia says, the men seem to have welcomed me more eagerly because of some male solidarity, I argued we don't have such thing, but she says her husband seems to have taken a liking to me, especially because we have much in common, which is true, Jake and I share a deeper vein of darkness we've faced that the other guys couldn't even fathom. The two Lukases don't know what does it mean to face real demons, especially when they're yours. Even though, Natalie gave me a hint about something that Grant had to face for his wife.

After she quit glaring, Sam crossed her arms over her chest, still clearly irked. What was it that Lukas said? Oh, right. "Never contradict her, she's pregnant, and she tends to get a little cranky when pregnant". Yeesh, I wonder if Natalie would be the same. I wonder if we should wait to give Noah a sibling or not. We will, I guess, but he seems happy this way, after all, he's got his friends, especially Arianna. Well, we've got time to think about that, I guess.

Even though, I gotta admit I do think of when will we ... you know. We haven't this week, if you're wondering. With a four-years-old whining and insisting to sleep with us is a bit difficult, but I guess it's fair. After four years, the first time ought to be special, right? Besides, every time I try to make a move, Natalie reminds me of my wounds, which means that, according to her, no doing the nasty till I've healed. Yay. Yeah, ok, it's not really romantic to be so eager, but it's been four years too since last time. And ... my personal last time was like ... three months ago, no, wait, four, yes, four months ago. So yeah, I'm on short a little.

Anyway, Sam focused on the TV, but found the time to remind me that there was no reason to be jealous of Lukas or Jake or whoever of the group, because they all see her as a little sister, I said I know, but Sam scoffed that I still am jealous, so I justified that I can't help it, I'm just jealous of her in general, I've always been. Even in high school, before we got together, she never noticed, but sometimes there were boys ogling her ... not really fairly I scared them all off. Yeah, yeah, I know, I was selfish. But one thing was my own brother, the other were those stupid kids that only sought a good lay. Even though, it's not like I was so willing to throw Natalie in Kyle's arms, knowing him as I did for being such a double-faced idiot.

It's weird, though. Kyle and I spent years loathing each other and then in a few weeks we became best friends. And we're determined not to break our brotherhood again. Well, he made me promise that, and I was glad, yes, but it was also dad's severe gaze on me to convince me. Either way, because we've lost seven years, they made me promise to get together twice per month at least. We three only, that is. Though next time is in two weeks and I'll most probably have Noah tagging along because he insisted, playing the guilt card, saying that now that he has a real uncle he wants more time with him, not to mention his grandpa.

That kid's gonna be a master in manipulating people, I swear. Well, maybe it's me too to feel guilty. I've missed his first years so I gotta make up. Natalie is more strict, she doesn't get easily fooled by his puppy look as much as I do, I guess because she's well used to it. Dad said I had Noah's talent at his age, so yeah, that's something else he's taken from me apparently, even though, I don't recall being that manipulative.

Then again, my girlfriend tells me that, the first time she saw me, I was an adorable little boy, but growing up I became a sneaky and manipulative bad boy, so that leaves a mark. I protest that that was just a mask, and she knows that, but she just laughs it off, kisses me and tells me that the evil ogre attitude was a mask, I've always been persuasive of my own. She means in a specific way, of course. And with her.

Anyway, Sam pointed out that now she understood why do we men get so along, all four of us are very jealous of our women and would do anything for them. At that, Sam cracked a tiny bitter smile as she lost herself in some reminiscence for a few moments, till I called her back to reality, asking if she was okay and she nodded, justifying that she'd just recalled something that Lukas had done for her. I don't know what that is, but it must have been big. I know they've been through tough times but I don't know details. Just like I don't know every detail of Jake's past. We all tell our things but leave out pieces that only the girls know. I mean, only Silvia knows everything about what Jake has been through, just like only he knows her share of painful past, same goes for the Grants.

You know, it's weird to be catapulted in such a big family all of a sudden. But they've all welcomed me gladly, sure, the Witches Trio still keep an eye on me, not that trustful, but their husbands and I have instantly clicked. Must because we're all so similar, the women say. Especially Jake and I. It will sound cheesy, but childish me has always wanted a big brother to look up to and ... well, Jake might be just that.

I do have a brother, yes, but Kyle and have the same age, so it's not the same, while Jake is what I can't help but picture myself in ten years. It's weird, but I get this feeling that he's kind of an older me. Not physically, because for that, I just gotta look at my father and I'll know how will I look like by 47, but in general. Jake agrees anyway. Though we don't tell the girls because it's too cheesy and we wouldn't see the end of their teasing. All in all, I like that they're all a big family and while it's weird, I also like that they're so gladly letting me in. It's odd, but nice.

Now, I glanced towards the balcony once more and ... Natalie was in Lukas' arms as he soothed her. I tried to remind myself that they're only friends and he was acting as a brother comforting his little sister, nothing more than that, but still ...

Noticing my line of sight, Sam lightly punched my arm, scolding me for even only doubting they could just so freely go behind our backs and cheat on us. In the open even. When we're sitting here, with the kids playing in the other room. I know they wouldn't cheat on us, but I can't help it. "It's not that I don't trust Lukas or Natalie, it's just that I ... I'm jealous. Can't help it."

Sam grinned, confirming she understood what I meant, she trusts her husband blindly, but she does see how women gawk at him, especially his secretary, who's been working for him since ten years and since ten years she's never quit trying to seduce him, but he couldn't care less. Sam knows this because there's a friend of hers that still works there and she recounts her of how this Amanda has been taking advantage of the boss' wife having quit the job, to try it more openly with him, I mean, this friend of Sam's says she often sees this Amanda rubbing him and you know, all those tricks women use, but he never budges, barely even notices her. Well, it doesn't surprise me. After seven years, he's still completely smitten with his wife.

Sam's grin soon disappeared as she brought a hand to her belly bump as she squinted her eyes in pain. I asked if she was okay and she nodded, justifying it as routine cramps, then adding she couldn't wait to see the end of this. The kid should pop out in three months more or less. Not really knowing what to do, I waited there for her cramps to end, not sure if I should call Lukas or a doctor or anything, you could say I'm not exactly great with handling others' physical pain.

I can endure mine easily, but I have no idea what to do when it comes to other people, which makes me think I wouldn't be great support throughout a pregnancy. My brother, he's great, but it's his job too, I mean, he's on his way to be a surgeon. Same goes for the other Lukas, who's a fresh oncologist, but me ... no idea. I think I wouldn't even know how to comfort Noah if he scraped his knee.

Anyway, I remained there awkwardly till we heard voices from the other room and the twins came running and yelling, complaining about each other. Wheezing, Sam tried to shut them up, Sophia did, but her brother kept complaining, at least till he heard the ever so booming voice of his father coming back to the living room and asking what was the matter. I took advantage of their family moment to reach Natalie on the balcony anyway.

She was standing there, bracing herself as if she felt cold, it was September night breeze after all, so I swiftly went to wrap my own arms around her to warm her, to which she smiled faintly, sinking in my arms. We could faintly hear Lukas scolding his son for something, but we focused on our moment.

"Where's Noah?" Natalie asked me.

"With Arianna. We haven't heard them, so I guess they fell asleep." I replied.

"Good, so he won't whine when we take him home."

I cracked a small smile as I kissed the back of her ear. "Did I ever tell you you're so sexy in all severe mother mode?" I teased in an alluring tone.

She smirked. "Don't tempt me, Rivers."

I better pressed her against me, slowly starting to nibble my way from her neck to her earlobe as I spoke: "You know, we could let Noah sleep and have some privacy ..."

She let go to my caresses and nibbling for a while, even letting out tiny moans, till she pulled back, arguing that my wounds aren't healed yet. I sighed, pointing out that I'm perfectly fine, but she didn't want to hear reasons, so I sighed once more and played a little dirty: "Ok, then. Wanna tell me what's troubling you instead? You told Lukas, why not me?"

She frowned. "Did you eavesdrop?"

I rolled my eyes. "No, but I could see you guys were pretty serious and he comforted you, so it's that. She remained silent for a moment, but in the end she sank in my arms and sighed, admitting that there was something she needed to tell me. But not now. Maybe Noah could remain with his Arya if he liked after all. 


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