Fortune Cookie, Anyone?
The mattress dipped again and this time, Neal was aware of Sara shifting her considerable body weight next to him.
'You okay?' he asked, groggily.
'I don't know…' she answered, sitting up and taking stock of the situation.
Her response rattled him and he mumbled something as he turned to face her in the bed.
Sara was thirty-seven weeks along in her pregnancy and had been having trouble sleeping as of late, something which frustrated her to no end and made her restless and irritable. Sometimes, she got so fidgety, she would get up in the middle of the night and walk around the apartment or make her way over to the couch so Neal could get back to sleep. Only problem was that once she settled on the soft, comfy couch, she couldn't get back up by herself and she ended up having to wake Neal so he could help her get back on her feet - which kind of defeated the purpose.
She'd been feeling a little out of sorts since the previous afternoon, dealing with increasing pressure on her huge belly and strong contractions that came and went without warning. She hadn't wanted to mention it to Neal for fear of further ratcheting up her baby daddy's already over the top mollycoddling, choosing instead to keep the new developments to herself.
At dinner, he'd pleaded with her to eat, reminding her how important it was for her to get plenty of protein for the baby. She'd merely picked at the copious meal of salmon with dill sauce, roasted potatoes and green beans he'd lovingly prepared and afterwards, she'd suggested they take a walk through the neighbourhood. Neal had been happy to oblige; Sara was feeling cooped up and needed to get some air, something he could certainly understand. The parents-to-be had ventured down three flights of stairs in order to take a ten minute walk around the block, hardly worth the effort. As always, Neal had been attentive, making sure his girlfriend didn't overexert herself and helping her back up the stairs to the third floor loft.
It had taken almost fifteen minutes to climb back up to Neal's apartment which was now, for all intents and purposes, their permanent home. They had taken it slow, climbing in increments and taking multiple breaks, Neal holding her steady as they climbed.
Although she had kept her apartment in Park Slope, Sara had only spent about five nights there since she'd first gotten pregnant; a few nights when Neal had gone undercover and once or twice when she had worked late. And yet, she was reluctant to let it go.
Over the last few days, unbeknownst to Neal, Sara had been going through some kind of existential crisis and had become riddled with self-doubt. She'd begun to think ahead to the coming weeks; the baby was coming any day now and she'd begun to wonder if she shouldn't move back to her own place and give Neal a little room to breathe. After all, lots of couples lived apart and raised children, they wouldn't be the first and this was as good a time as any to get into a routine before the baby arrived.
Although Neal had been nothing but caring and understanding, her muddled sleep cycle was messing with both of them and Neal just wasn't getting the sleep he needed to carry him through his busy days at the FBI.
As far as she could tell, they had accidentally fallen into their current living arrangement and despite his assurances, she had begun to have lingering doubts that this was what Neal really wanted. After a recovery gone bad early in her pregnancy, she'd landed herself in hospital and when she'd been released, Neal had insisted she come and stay at June's until she finished healing.
But that was months ago… and she was still living there.
They'd never really talked about their future as a couple and although Neal seemed content with the living arrangements, she couldn't help but wonder if he really was. And would he tell her if he wasn't?
Like her, he'd sacrificed an awful lot since she'd gotten pregnant. He'd gone from being an ex-con who enjoyed the good things in life to a doting father-to-be and she worried that living in such close quarters might be too much for the two of them. Maybe it was better to lead separate lives while continuing on their joint road to parenthood.
Regardless of her nagging doubts, Sara had to admit that their relationship had never been more solid; she loved Neal, of that there was no doubt, and he loved her as he'd proven time and time again over the past few months. He'd been amazing, making sure she had everything she needed, serving her hand and foot, preparing healthy meals for her and serenading the baby with his soft dulcet voice as she drifted off to sleep every night.
'Owww' Sara muttered. 'That was a strong one.'
'A strong what?' Neal asked, already fearful of the answer.
'Nothing, I'm just uncomfortable that's all' she said, sitting up in bed and rubbing her sore back.
She was suddenly wide awake and in a sharing mood, whether her boyfriend was up to talking or not. The fact that it was the middle of the night didn't deter her and Sara charged ahead, feeling the need to finally come clean about what had been on her mind.
'Neal, I've been thinking… maybe I should move back to my place. You're not getting the sleep you need and I'm always worried that I'm keeping you up nights' she said, trying to ignore the intense contractions she'd been having for the past hour or so.
'What are you talking about?' asked Neal, still not fully awake.
'I don't know... I moved in here after I was discharged from the hospital and then I just never left. But I have my own apartment and… well, when we agreed to have this baby, we never really talked about living arrangements and I don't think we should take anything for granted.'
'Okay...' he muttered, wondering where this was all coming from — and where it was headed.
'Do you think maybe we could talk about this in the morning?' he asked as he glanced at the bedside clock, realizing it was 3:30. 'I've got to be up in another couple of hours.'
'That's just it, Neal. There never seems to be a good time to talk about it, but I've been thinking about it a lot' Sara whined.
He could sense she was growing upset and despite the urge to turn over and go back to sleep, Neal reached over and turned on the bedside lamp, looking over at his girlfriend and noticing tears threatening in her eyes.
'Sara, what's really going on here?' he asked, growing concerned.
'Nothing' she moaned. 'Just what I said, we never really made a conscious decision to live in the same place.'
She winced and he reached out to touch her arm, hoping to placate her.
'Okay,' he said, slowly. 'I'm making the conscious decision to live in the same place. Are we done, now?'
'Owwww' she let out, holding on to her stomach.
'All right, now you're scaring me. Are you having contractions?' he asked, now fully awake.
'I'm not sure, I've been having these spasms off and on since we came to bed' she admitted with a worried look.
'Why didn't you wake me?' he said a little more harshly that he'd intended.
She snorted and for a minute there, he thought she was going to burst into tears - not unheard of as of late.
'That's just it, Neal' she cried. 'You need your sleep.'
'Baby, if you're having contractions, you have to wake me up' he said softly. 'How often are they coming?'
'I've had about four or five but the last couple were pretty bad.'
'Do you think we should go to the hospital?' asked Neal, now totally focussed on taking matters in his own hands. 'Should I call Dr. Cooper, or call an ambulance?'
'No! No ambulance. Maybe you'd better call a cab' she said, struggling to sit up on the edge of the bed.
Neal seemed to realize this could be it and he stood at attention, cursing as he grabbed for a t-shirt on a nearby chair.
'Damn it! Why don't we have a car?' he asked, rhetorically, his voice panicked. 'We should have a car. This is ridiculous!'
'Neal, we live in Manhattan, we don't need a car' she reminded him as she winced in pain once more.
He watched her squirm, trying to regain his composure as he waited on the phone to be connected to the taxi company.
'Do you want some water?' he asked, holding her hand.
'OWWWW! OWWWW! That hurts' she moaned loudly. 'Help me get up.'
He ran to her side of the bed and helped her to her feet, watching helplessly as she immediately fell back on the bed.
'No, no wait a minute, wait a minute, that hurts too much.'
Neal could feel panic setting in at the thought of getting her safely down the stairs and all of a sudden, despite his best intentions to stay cool, calm and collected, he seemed to be channelling an old episode of the Dick Van Dyke show and morphing into Rob Petrie, panicking dad-to-be as he stumbled around the apartment in a panic.
'I'll get your bag' he said, tripping over his own feet as he ran into the back room.
'Neal, Neal, wait!' Sara cried out breathlessly. 'I have to pee, help me get up.'
Neal took her arm and walked her over to the bathroom, trying to keep his breathing in check. He stood next to her while she peed; after morning sickness, snoring and pregnancy flatulence, there was very little left between them in the way of modesty. He pulled her up off the toilet and supported her into the main room where he helped her slip on some track pants and an old sweater of his and helped her cram her swollen feet into those flat shoes she had learned to despise.
Sara stopped every few seconds, moaning as the contractions became more intense and Neal just grew more panicked with every passing second. He threw on the clothes he'd worn to work the day before, grabbed his jacket and was halfway out the door before he realized he was leaving the apartment without Sara.
'Come on' he urged as he helped her to her feet. 'I've got you.'
They made their way down the lengthy staircase, Sara stopping on a couple of occasions to catch her breath and by the time they got downstairs, the taxi had arrived and was waiting for them. Thankfully, the drive to the hospital was short and uneventful, the expectant parents arriving in the emergency room of Lenox Hill at just past four in the morning. Sara was ushered into an examination room and the two of them sat, hands clasped as they waited for her to be seen.
To their relief, it didn't take long for the ER doctor on duty to arrive.
'Mr. Ellis?' he said, shaking Neal's hand.
'I'm Caffrey, she's Ellis' Neal replied curtly. Frankly, he was starting to get annoyed at this.
'Sorry... Ms. Ellis, you're not in labor. As a matter of fact, you're not dilated at all. What you've been experiencing are Braxton Hicks contractions. It's just your body preparing for the main event.'
Sara looked over at Neal, relieved yet disappointed. 'If these aren't real, I'm not looking forward to the real deal' she said with a frown.
'They can be pretty strong and they fool a lot of people, especially with a first pregnancy, so don't be embarrassed. Just go home and get some rest. Your baby is doing just fine and he'll make his appearance when he's good and ready.'
'She' Neal corrected, smiling at the doctor.
'She' repeated the doctor.
Neal and Sara left the hospital as the sun came up, feeling disheartened if not somewhat reassured. They would have to wait a little longer, it seemed, before they laid eyes on their little girl. Sara insisted on going to her apartment to get a few things and Neal gave in, disappointed. He insisted on taking the cab with her out to Brooklyn to make sure she was safely inside before heading back to work.
'Remember we're having dinner over at Peter and Elizabeth's tonight' he reminded her as he prepared to leave.
'They're calling for lousy weather' she said. 'I'll take a cab from work and meet you there.'
Neal hesitated, unwilling to leave. 'Sara, why don't we just grab a coffee and talk…' He said as Sara's face hardened.
'We will, Neal… later, okay? I need to… I'm going to lie down for an hour and then, I'll head over to the office.'
'I hate leaving you like this' Neal said as she scoffed.
'You heard what the doctor said, I'm not even dilated, I'm fine' Sara countered.
'You'll call if you need me' Neal asked, hesitant to leave her.
She smiled and ran her hand down his cheek. 'I promise.'
'I love you' Neal said, surprised to find his voice was shaky.
He gave his girlfriend a kiss goodbye and watched her turn away before getting back in the cab and driving away, feeling totally dejected.
Peter spotted Neal arriving in the bullpen looking less than well put together. He ventured out of his office and signalled Neal to come on up and watched as his CI trudged up the stairs and into his office.
'Well, well, what do we have here? You look like you slept in those clothes' Peter said, taking pleasure in teasing him.
Neal gave him an eye roll. 'I might as well have' he complained. 'I got about three hours sleep last night.'
'Sara?' Peter asked, frowning.
Neal settled in the chair across from Peter's desk and stretched his legs. 'Yeah, she was having contractions and we ended up in the emergency room in the middle of the night. We just got out of there now' he said, looking glum.
'Is she all right?' Peter asked, suddenly concerned.
'Yeah, it's just Braxton Hicks contractions' Neal replied.
'Braxton what?' Peter asked, totally mystified.
'Seriously, Peter?' Neal muttered, raising an eyebrow. 'If you're going to be our daughter's godfather, you really have to get with the program. Braxton Hicks… they're contractions that pregnant women get towards the end of their pregnancy but they're not actual labor — yet.'
'Oh' Peter said sheepishly. 'Why don't you take the morning off and spend it with Sara?' he offered.
'She's over at her place' Neal replied, looking upset and anxious.
'How come?' Peter asked.
'I don't know...' Neal muttered. 'She's got it in her head somehow that I'm feeling trapped and that we fell into living together without giving it enough thought.'
'And...?' said Peter, urging Neal to continue.
'Well, she's right, I didn't give it much thought but not for the reason she thinks, just because I didn't have to. I've known all along I want us to live together - ever since I brought her home from the hospital seven months ago. I just never said – 'Hey Sara, let's make this permanent.'
'Why don't you just say it now?' said Peter, in a no-nonsense tone of voice.
'I tried to but she's not really in her right mind right now - hormones raging… She thinks I'm feeling obligated to keep up this arrangement and she thinks we should settle into a permanent routine before the baby comes - with her living at her place and me staying at mine.'
Neal leaned in closer to his handler, emphasizing the point he was making. 'Peter, we're going to be a family and I want to be with her and the baby all the time, not just some of the time. I want us to live in the same place.'
'How much of a commitment are you prepared to make, Neal?' Peter asked, searching the ex-con's face for a reaction.
'You mean... the big one?' Neal asked, his eyes narrowing.
'Yeah, are you anywhere near that?' Peter asked, studying his partner's face.
Neal grew quiet, his face relaxing as he spoke. 'I've been thinking about it a lot lately. I keep walking by Perrywinkles and looking at the rings in the window' he admitted.
'What? Are you thinking of robbing the place?' Peter asked wryly.
'Very funny, Peter' said Neal, giving him a dirty look. 'I've actually spotted one Sara would really love.'
'So, what's holding you back?'
'I don't know… last night's conversation for one thing. Maybe she's not ready to make a commitment.'
Peter shook his head; Neal was a mess of contradictions and he could never quite figure him out.
'Well, you two better get on the same page and fast, my goddaughter is coming in a few weeks and I don't want her dealing with any emotional turmoil' he said, to Neal's surprise.
'Yeah, you're right, we need to sit down and work this out. I need to know if Sara sees a future for us' Neal said, nodding.
A shadow crossed his face as he continued. 'Maybe it's my damn past coming back to bite me in the ass; maybe she doesn't want to be saddled permanently with an ex-con...' he mused.
'That's not the impression I get' Peter replied reassuringly. 'If anyone knows about your past transgressions and learned to see past them, it's —'
'You' interrupted Neal, smiling devilishly.
'...and Sara' added Peter. 'She knows you through and through and she still hasn't run for the hills. You know, she's actually harbouring a mini ex-con and she seems to be very happy about it.'
As always, Peter's level headed reasoning had a calming effect on his CI and Neal stared ahead, thinking of what Peter had just said. He got to his feet, newly energized and looked down at Peter, a smile appearing on his lips.
'You know if your offer is still open, maybe I will take the day off' he said.
Peter returned the smile. 'Be my guest.'