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With the Heart Outside My Chest

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Her bare feet padded across the wood floors, moving lightly until she finally reached the bed. Jo climbed slowly onto it with the smell of fresh sheets beckoning her tired body. She sat on the bed, stretching her legs and adjusting the pillows on her back. Even though she felt drained, sleep eluded her still as an almost imperceptible flutter moved around her body.

Silence settled around the lonely bedroom, making her unusually anxious even though she was not alone. She shifted in bed again, searching for a comfortable position, and silently urged Alex to arrive home. Jo had not seen him for the better part of the day, not since she yelled at him for patients and colleagues alike to witness. The light flutter became a sudden kick, strong and deadly accurate on the ribs, as if the small life she carried within was somehow admonishing Jo for the poor treatment she gave her father.

“I know, sweetheart.” She murmured while lovingly caressing her swollen stomach. “He will be home soon”.

The perks of them working at the same hospital meant that she could see Alex as frequently as she pleased. Jo had a list of excuses, carefully designed to avoid suspicion, that would be used when the urge to see him could be felt on the tip of her fingers. His presence always had a soothing effect on her, but lately he was everywhere at once it seemed, no excuses required.

At first it was endearing, for he had always been protective of her and it was only natural that such instinct had grown when she became pregnant, up to a point where his heart was constantly exposed.

Nearly every morning had been punctuated with a long car ride, which traffic made further unbearable, with plenty of time for all the advice that Alex stubbornly prescribed to last her through the day. Eat healthy, frequently and on schedule, he would say. Hydration and rest are a priority. She did love him, more than she might ever be able to eloquently put into words, but in those moments, she tried hard to summon some semblance of patience. Then, Jo would often reach across the car to place a stream of kisses on his cheek, before a few unchecked words could leave her lips. He would smile brightly then, but that slight wrinkle of worry, which had settled on his brow ever since she told him that he was going to be a father, would not fade away.

Early on, the pocket of her lab coat started to collect an assortment of food, which would somehow find its way there every time Alex crossed her path. And he did find her on the hallways frequently, and suspiciously ‘by chance’. She even found herself once or twice grumbling under her breath in front of patients at the embarrassment of reaching inside the pocket for a pen only to pull out a cereal bar instead. Jo would often tell him, halfheartedly, how annoying it was, when in reality there was always a sense of comfort that rushed through her body at finding the little snacks, and that would always make her smile.

Yet, as time passed and as her body changed with it, his protectiveness had escalated exponentially. Jo had known for a while that it was only a matter of time before all the pent-up frustration came pouring out of her without any filter or mercy. In the past couple of months, it felt as if she was walking around with twice the shadows she was supposed to.

Today he had been right there at the gallery, looking down at the OR and reporting loud and clear through the intercom that she had been standing on her feet for far too long already. Jo had grumbled under the mask then and a faint red color had blossomed on her cheeks in embarrassment. Even Meredith, standing on the other side of the person whose life they were trying to save, had raised her eyebrows so high they nearly touched the surgical cap. There was an unmistakable smirk underneath the mask, but otherwise Meredith remained silent.

“I’m fine, Alex!” Jo all but yelled, clearly on edge. In fact, she could feel her ankles starting to swell and she was on the verge of exhaustion after a full morning of rounds and nearly six hours in surgery, but she would not give him the pleasure of being right and further enable his overprotective behavior. “We’re nearly finished here.” She said and watched him leave the gallery muttering to himself.

But the turning point came when he popped out of nowhere at the nurses’ station as she updated charts, yanked that one coffee allowed from her own thirsty lips, and exchanged it for a water bottle, bland and obviously lacking caffeine. Alex had then elaborated on the need to stay hydrated, but his voice gradually faded away as she felt herself snap.

“Enough, Alex! Stop following me around with food and water and a freaking schedule to rest.” She yelled and everything stood still around them. “I am perfectly capable of doing my job, taking care of myself and our baby, all at the same time!”

There were wide eyes across the hall from the unwilling spectators.

“I love you, truly I do, but stop micromanaging my life.” Jo grabbed the coffee back from his hand and walked away, far from the judging eyes, leaving him dumbfounded in the middle of the hall. The rest of the day had gone without incidents, she had not seen Alex again, and the pocket of her lab coat remained sadly empty.

 

The footsteps on the stairs brought her back from the memories of that long day, and Jo pressed a hand to her stomach instinctively, both of them anticipating his arrival.

“Are you still mad at me?” He asked shyly, leaning on the door frame.

Jo stared at him but quickly realized that at least he had the decency of feeling somewhat guilty with his behavior. The lines of exhaustion were firmly hatched at the corners of his eyes and they were made heavier from missing her.

“No, Alex, I’m not mad at you. Just a little annoyed.” She said with a small hint of a smile while pulling the covers on his side of the bed, urging him to join her.

He changed clothes and climbed to the bed as well. Alex sat as close as possible, pulling her towards his chest and enveloping her smaller frame with his arm. After battling with the pillows earlier, she had finally found a comfortable position as her body molded to his with uncanny easiness, and she rested her head on his shoulder.

“It was too much, huh?” He finally spoke. “I’m so sorry, Jo.”

“I love that you worry about me, about us,” Jo said as she pulled his hand and placed it above her stomach where the sudden movement was, “but please believe that I would never put our baby at risk.”

He jumped slightly forward looking alarmed at her. “I didn’t mean to make you feel like you are doing something wrong! Jo, you are already such a wonderful mother and she is not even born yet.”
“It’s just…” He went on as his body relaxed against her again. “I could not bear if anything happened to either of you. So, I worry, always.”

From the place on his shoulder she could not see his face, but from the way in which the words caught in his throat she could guess that he was trying hard not to let too much of his emotions out.

“Oh Alex, we are fine.” She whispered close to his neck and dropped a reassuring kiss behind his ear.

“I feel so powerless Jo, like an outsider all the time.” His hand never left her round belly, and underneath his hand was a steady languid movement as their daughter moved safely around the warmth of her mother’s womb. It never ceased to amaze him.

“What do you mean an outsider?” This time she moved away from Alex in order to look him directly in the eyes.

He felt slightly embarrassed for saying it out loud. “You sensed her long before I could even feel her through your skin. She knows your voice and your heartbeat is her lullaby. You are never alone now.” He said tenderly while caressing the skin of her belly. “But I can only feel her if I place my hand on your skin, and when I talk to your belly I hope that she recognizes my voice too. And I can only try to protect you both as best as I can from the outside.”

His voice was barely a whisper, but so full of tenderness that she could not help the tears that formed in the corners of her eyes.

“Alex, when she is agitated and I can’t sleep, you talk to her and she calms down immediately.” Jo started, reaching a hand to caress his cheek. “You place your hand on my belly and she moves towards you. When you arrive after a long shift and come through the door calling my name, I feel her jump as if excited that you are finally home.”

She kissed his lips delicately before going on. “Our daughter has not yet seen the first light of day and she already loves you. It makes me think that you are neither powerless, nor an outsider at all.”

He seemed quite surprised with her words, as if he had not yet realized the impact he already had on his daughter. And the amazement she saw in his face made her heart flutter.

There was a smile on his lips and his eyes were now clear as some of the fear he carried within subsided. Jo knew well enough that such kind of worry, the kind only a parent experiences, would never completely go way for as long as he lived. But for now, at least, she felt him relax further into their soft bed, cradling her body closer to him and indulging in the knowledge that they were both safely in his arms.