1: Kiss on My List

Sunlight blasted in through the canopy overhead, painting the world in a splash of vibrant, delicious color. It felt like everyone had drank a glass of yellow sunbeams and they glowed as they smiled and walked through the streets of Elmore. No, Nicole corrected herself; it wasn't sunshine, but a healhy dose of Love Potion no. 9 instead.

Just as the thought crossed her mind, a happy teenage couple passed her. She rolled her eyes at their 70s attire and roller skates. Kids trying to be retro. Unlike other young adults her age, Nicole didn't really have a soft spot or inexorable nostalgia for her childhood. Reminiscing only lead to bitter, teeth grinding thoughts of a certain teacher that took every chance to belittle her self-confidence and image. Sighing, Nicole approached her current workplace, the library, with her hands plunged in her jeans pockets.

Now wasn't the time to be so angry, or vitriol. Yet, she was; her thoughts churning and spitting acid despite herself. As she pushed open the glass door and looked at the quiet, tranquil atmosphere, she couldn't help the inner surge of despair. Nicole was a woman of action; she needed to be doing something, working on something. Perhaps, that's why she felt so tumultuous inside?

As she took her place at the front desk, Nicole groaned as she sank into the office chair. Next to her, one of her co-workers was sitting with her legs crossed and looking contented as she read a book of poetry. The other woman was a petite and curvy antlered peanut fond of wearing cowboy boots; Nicole vaguely remembered being in classes with her in middle and high school, but the woman never talked to anyone except clients. Otherwise, her nose was buried in a book.

Her other co-worker wasn't any better: he was a big and burly antlered peanut that spent the day looking irritated, showing kids where certain books were, then looking for lint specks on his desk. A few times, Nicole tried to get him to talk, and he either responded with noncommital grunts or the cold shoulder.

Gritting her teeth, Nicole fell forward onto the desk and looked longingly at the front door. Of course, nobody was there. Nobody usually came to the library until it'd been open for at least an hour. Wait, there was one person...but he was lost in his own little world, paying more attention to the process of printing photo copies than anything else.

An entire hour passed, every second feeling like an unbearable eternity as Nicole just sat there, waiting. Just like she did every day since she'd been hired here.

The doors to the Elmore Library were pushed open with a dramatic, harried flourish. Where Nicole had been absentmindedly rolling a penny around in her palm before, she looked up now, eyes wide and ears perked up.

A tall, burly chested robotic man rolled into the library. He looked upscale and sophisticated in a clean cut and pressed suit jacket. Diamond cufflinks flashed briefly, a detail only highlighting that he was wealthy, opulent. As he wandered further into the library, Nicole couldn't seem to draw her eyes away from him. She even felt her heartbeat pick up slightly.

Her subconscious mind led to her getting up and walking out from behind the desk. Unbidden, thoughts of a corporate job flashed through her mind: busywork, the possibility of moving up and getting further and better employment opportunity. The way the robot man's brass chassis shined in the flourescent light, Nicole felt like it was a quiet, inviting promise to make those subliminal wishes come to fruition.

Next thing she knew, she was standing barely three feet away from him. And now, he turned from looking studiously at books to staring at her. Studying her.

At first, their gazes were locked awkwardly, but then his gaze shifted from her eyes, scruntinizing her from feet to head and back. The sweeping gaze was something out of fiction, the kind of sleazeball move that made Nicole more likely to turn away prospective suitors. Yet, she didn't turn him down, despite the warning bells echoing in her mind.

"Hello, miss," he said in the polite, slightly charming voice she'd imagined he might have. "I'm Damien Default."

"Nicole Perkins," she replied. "You looked like you needed help finding something?"

Damien smiled, folding his arms behind his back. "I did come in here with that intention," he said. "But...I've changed my mind. I'm not so sure if what I was going to look for is the type of book I really want to look for now."

As he spoke, Nicole felt her heartbeat pick up a little. Part of her was excited while another part was rattled and nervous. It felt like Damien was using subtle entendres.

"So, how could I help you now?" she asked, a tingle running down her spine at the sparkle that zipped across Damien's glass eyes for a brief second.

"What would you recommend for me, Nicole?" he asked, putting emphasis on that he was referring to her by her first name. "From your personal favorites?"

Nicole thought for a second. As a child, she used to spend a lot of time reading in between karate lessons and being the captain of her basketball team. But, as she'd grown older, she'd lost interest in spending too much time reading for pleasure.

"I can't really recommend anything specific," Nicole admitted. "Though, I've always loved inspirational sports stories and action adventure."

"Sports," Damien mused over the word, chewing it like a bite of steak. "So, what's your favorite sport, Nicole?"

Damien was really beginning to unnerve Nicole. Her original intentions for approaching him were getting lost in her "get away from the creep" vibes. By now it was blatantly obvious, even to the romantically inept and naieve, that Damien really wasn't interested in looking for a book.

Nervously, Nicole cast a look over her shoulder, scouting for her single co-worker. She knew it was crooked, but Nicole knew she had to pawn Damien off somehow...In her peripheral vision, Nicole caught a glimpse of her two co-workers covertly leaving the desk. And, the woman had a very starstruck expression on her face as she looked at the man.

That was the most explicit display of emotion Nicole had ever seen on her face...

Blowing out a breath, Nicole turned back towards Damien. "I know what you're doing," she hissed.

"What am I doing?" Damien replied coyly.

"Come with me," Nicole instructed, trying to sound calm and pleasant.

"Lead the way," Damien added unnecessarily, making a dramatic gesture with his hand. Hunching her shoulders, Nicole stalked past him and started power walking through the mazes of books. She could hear Damien's wheel rolling, a soft shuffle on the puce carpeting. Soon enough, they reached the side door and Nicole pushed it open, stepping out into the sunlight.

Birds twittered in the background, creating an atmospheric disconnect with her unease. If only she could be a happy, carefree animal enjoying this sunshine drenched and beautiful day.

She turned to face Damien again, taking note of how he pulled at his shirt sleeve and scoffed at a nearby dumpster. They were in an empty alley, in-between the side wall of the library and the back of a mom and pop grocery store. As soon as he was done giving his surroundings the stink eye, Damien rounded back towards Nicole.

"Okay," Nicole huffed. "I'm not interested."

Damien smirked. "Straightforward."

"Back off," Nicole grumbled. "I told you that I'm not interested. And it is what it is. I've dealt with persistent womanizing types before, so don't think I know what tricks you have up your sleeve. Don't even try it."

"So, this is how you get with me being a casual flirt?" Damien challenged.

For some reason, Damien's comment made Nicole flashback to last night: Richard standing on the front lawn of the house they'd been sharing. Richard, shirtless and gut sloshing as he dragged his suitcases and action figures across the lawn and hefted them into the back of his mother's car.

"I need a break, Nicole," Richard gasped as his mom looked around him and glared daggers at Nicole. "I need time to figure this out. I'm not sure if I'm ready for commitment."

Coming back to reality, Nicole felt her ears flatten and her heart deflate. She'd been in love with Richard since she was a little girl. One of the pillars of her life, something she considered fact despite no scientific evidence or concrete proof, was that Richard was 'the one.' There'd been other guys that flirted with her, other guys that she'd found herself attracted to, but no matter what happened, she always found herself going back to Richard. She'd even turned down handsome, intelligent, and Mr. Perfect types simply because of some inner knowledge that she didn't want the same archetype that other girls did.

She didn't want Richard to mold him or even change him. She'd always loved Richard for exactly who he was: a naieve, childish, and imaginative soul. Nobody else understood this, because for most people, loving somebody for exactly who they were was a concept they didn't grasp or want to accept until much later on in life. Yet, even though this spiel had been exactly what had cured Nicole's self doubts and resisted wordly pressure in the past. Now, looking into Damien's blazing and curious eyes...she wasn't quite so sure that was enough.

"From the look on your face, you're obviously musing over something," Damien cut through her thoughts. "Having second thoughts?"

"No," Nicole replied flatly, eyes narrowed. "The next time I see you, if ever, I'll be applying for a job."

"There, the tables will be turned and you don't know if I'd use this as a strike against you," Damien interjected.

"Yes," Nicole acknowledged, one eyebrow raised. "But, rejection is a natural part of life. One I'm willing to accept whether I'm giving or receiving it."

With that, she turned and pulled open the door, gesturing Damien back inside.

"Thank you," he muttered as he shuffled back in. Nicole watched him leave, his broad shoulders not lowering even in the slightest. Of course he wouldn't show any signs of having a chip on his shoulder outwardly, but Nicole couldn't help wondering if he was used to rejection.

Some businessmen were as successful as Damien appeared due to incredible persistence and resilience; those men were used to the word "no" and accepted it as an inevitable reality. Yet, there were some at the same level that could crumble and collapse because of that simple word, but what made them powerful was how they persevered at getting their way no matter what rather than accepting reality.

A chill ran through Nicole as she wondered which type Damien might be...

Richard had always been a lazy dreamer and escapist; no big dreams or hopes of the future, just living every day with a big, stupid grin on his face. His neverending childhood wonder complemented Nicole's opportunist world views and ambitious personality, giving her something to smile at and glean optimism from. And he gained the inspiration to draw poorly constructed, but endearing crayon sketches of the two of them holding hands and going on tandem adventures when he closed his eyes and wandered off into his mind...

An entire week had passed since Richard had "broken up" with her. Nicole was more hollow than a log, her sweetest daydreams of finally settling down and having kids with Richard someday, somehow very vague and faraway. Each day, her hopes that he'd return, telling her that he'd made up his mind and chosen to stay with her, were getting more and more strewn out. She could imagine him loked up in his room, reading comic books, and just ignoring the conflict of where they sat in their relationship.

If only she could get herself to do the same. Instead, she thought about it obsessively while she was at work. Then, she was overwhelmingly aware of how empty her bed was at night and couldn't sleep because of collapsing into angst, tears, or loud and tumultuous fits of frustration or anger.

She was so tempted to just confront Richard outright, to talk things out, but...She sighed. That'd only complicate things further. There was a good reason why he'd chosen to step out and be alone for awhile. This time, it'd been his decision rather than his overprotective mother's.

Though, here she was with a group of friends at the local bar. All of her happy and single friends were laughing loudly as they poked at half-empty glasses and whispered to each other. Some were even luring unsuspecting guys over, flirting openly and shameslessly.

Nicole looked at the rows and rows of different liquor bottles: green, olive, and maroon colored bottles. The sight made her feel slightly nauceous; she'd never been interested in drinking before now. She'd made it through high school and graduated college without getting anywhere near alcohol. A fact that she prided herself on.

Though, she hadn't been this intimidated by life since dealing with Miss Simian and her childhood tribulations. So much conflict and tension. The moment was highlighted by the radio station pouring through the bar cuing up Hall and Oates' "Kiss on My List." That's the song Richard said was ours...

Heart aching, Nicole felt a lump in her throat as she motioned at the bartender. The words "wine cooler" were pressed behind her lips, but something else entirely came out.

The bartender smiled as he turned away and Nicole could feel physical pressure from the collective surprised and wide eyed stares of her friends. Moments later, a big margrita glass filled with green liquid and a tiny umbrella swimming in it landed on the counter top in front of her. As if on cue, her friends started chanting: "Go Nicole! Go Nicole!"

Nicole stared at the green surface for a moment; it was so thick, she couldn't see her reflection. That was probably a good thing, considering she could only imagine how much reluctance and hesitation she'd find in her facial expression. Her mind was already screaming at her, screaming "NO!"

"...rejection is just a natural part of life." The words echoed, unbidden, in some unknown recess of Nicole's mind. She knew she'd said them, but she couldn't remember where.

It was enough to make the stretched cordons of her morals and self preservation snap. She grabbed the stem of the giant glass and started chugging. Green liquid spilled around her mouth, down her face. Her friends' yelling grew into a fratboy roar. It mixed with the burn of tequila hitting her tongue, singeing her throat with dragon's fire.

Green mint, peppermint. Stinging fire.

Visions of ice capped mountains in the arctic danced through Nicole's mind. She hadn't realized that her eyes were closed, but they shot back open as she slammed the now empty glass on the counter. The world had a new, fuzzy tinge to it. Her throat was still burning, but Nicole felt revived and energized. Did I just swallow a pheonix?

This new feeling, Nicole felt herself instantly addicted. Absentmindedly, Nicole was sliding dollar bills across the counter top. Everything just became brighter and more bubbly as she downed more and different drinks. Her heart was singing, soaring, just like her body. Letting go of her mind was one of the best things Nicole had ever done.

As the night wore on, Nicole found herself arm in arm with her girls as they all hit the dance floor, dancing to New Wave songs that she avoided like the plague when she was sober. Yet, here, she was singing along with the bright and ridiculous lyrics. Duran Duran pulsed through the bar and Nicole was starting to get hoarse, hiccupping and laughing the last few lines to "Hungry Like the Wolf." As the song faded, Nicole looked around. Most of her friends had segued to dark corners of the bar or were sitting with or against guys, drunkenly chatting them up in hopes of getting more drinks.

Cheerful Duran Duran faded into a softer, more mellow tune where a singer Nicole had never heard before started crooning about falling in love. Low, sultry tones from a trumpet played as an unexpected figure slid up out of the shadows: Damien Default.

Damien extended a hand to her and asked, "Want to dance, lovely lady?"

Nicole stared into the distance for a long beat before smiling drukenly and taking his hand. She smiled and looked up at him through half-lidded eyes. "Hiya, Casanova! Take me to Wonderland..."

Damien shamelessly pulled her close, barely leaving an inch or two between them. They swayed back and forth, not even trying to match the rhythym of the song. He seemed to bob and swerve back and forth sporadically and his breath stank of whiskey. The smell enticed and allured Nicole in the strangest way. She found herself leaning in closer to Damien, nostrils flaring as she sniffed.

"Are we in Wonderland, yet?" Nicole asked with a giddy grin.

"The music took me to Wonderland," Damien replied, smiling. "Didn't it take you, too? Sweep you away on wings and wind of wandering wonderful wonder?"

"What a way with words!" Nicole chirped, falling into a spastic giggle fit. "Yes, yes, take me away on an autumn aerial aeronautic adventure. To aesthetically amazing aceology. Accoy me, like your namesake, Damien boy!"

"Clever girl," Damien cooed, reaching up and cupping Nicole's cheek in his palm. "I want to cut in on the w-words and have a dance with your tongue."

"Whaaaaat?" Nicole just looked at him with wide, bright eyes.

"Tongue tango," Damien emphasized, coming in closer.

"I don't know how to tango..." Nicole slurred, smiling dopily. "Never had the time to learn...So busy..."

"Let me teach you," Damien urged in a low, sultry tone of voice. He strategically moved his hand to the small of her back, gently pushing her in closer. In reply, Nicole wrapped her arms around him and leaned in, pressing her muzzle against his cold, mechanical lips. The kiss was sloppy and wet, like diving into a cold and unpleasant swimming pool. Damien's metaphor had been pretty literal: his tongue had already sneaked past her lips. It swiveled like a toilet brush, side to side, over the top of her mouth. Eagerly, Nicole tried to return the reckless fervor, but just couldn't match Damien.

They were liplocked for close to twenty minutes, hands all up and down the other's backs. Fireworks sparked and rolled in Nicole's subconscious. Damien was a virtual dynamo. She could only imagine what he'd been like in high school; he'd probably had lots of previous practice and experience with how vigorous and talented he was here.

At some point, they stopped. Still holding on to Damien, Nicole was trilling and rolling with laughter. Flopping about, she landed against Damien's chest and looked up at him with round, full moon eyes.

"W-where have you been all my life...?" she muttered. "Richard never romanced me like that. I want more. More, more, more..."

"Arpa never lets me romance her," Damien complained to no one in particular. "She'd rather be uptight and high society snooty."

"She sounds boooooring," Nicole mooed.

"I work so hard all day," Damien continued, tears sparkling at the edges of his eyes. "I'm the breadwinner. The moneymaker. It's so unfair."

"Preach it!" Nicole whooped.

"If I want a little nookie every now and then...is that so wrong?" Damien cried theatrically. "I even build up to it. Damn it, woman. Other men don't have that kind of patience."

"Richard won't even do chores!" Nicole echoed. "Just when I think men and women are equal, I fall for a man that takes me for granted then takes an eternity to figure out what I've known forever. Get your head out of the clouds and show me the attention that you do in your daydreams!"

"What a prude!"

"Screw them!" Nicole declared with a hiccup. "Let's go do what those losers won't do!"

"I like that idea, New Arpa..."

Nicole felt like she'd just won in a ferocious debacle with sleep paralysis as her eyelids slid open. She blinked a few times, her head spinning and throbbing painfully. It took an entire two minutes for Nicole to find some kind of grounding. Why did her head hurt so much...?

As she came to, Nicole suddenly became very aware of someone's arms wrapped around her. Her eyes widened, brain swimming with the vague notion that she'd been having an incredibly unnerving dream about her relationship with Richard. It'd been so real.

Smiling softly, Nicole reached down to push him away, but...his arms were cold and mechanical...?

With a small strained noise, Nicole rolled over and her eyes widened when she found Damien next to her, still asleep. He was smiling contentedly, an innocent cherub while he was lost in the vacuum of his mind. All Nicole could do was stare for a long moment, pupils continuously shrinking and getting

tinier. She barely knew this man, yet his actions, despite how few and planned they'd been, spoke volumes about how he went about doing things.

She couldn't bear to spend one more nanosecond so close to this satanic creature. Fear and panic gripped at her insides and wound them into a huge knot as she scrambled, arms and legs flailing, to escape his embrace. To escape the sheets, the bed.

She fell to the carpet, next to a nearby vent, gasping at her sudden lack of breath. Cold air blew out, making her realize that she was stark naked. For what felt like an eternity, all Nicole could do was look down at herself, the implications tumbling one after the other. Tears collected at the edges of her eyes and her lips wobbled. All her life, she'd condemned alcohol for what it could make people do, even criticized and felt no empathy for people when they partook in it and experienced the consequences. And now, just in the course of one single night, she'd broken both her credibility and all of her rules.

Her knees wobbled as she stood up. It felt like a substantial chunk had been taken away from her. Part of her heart was missing; the way her soul ached only chimed in remorselessly with the full body ache and sickness that rolled through her. Feebly, she reached out and lifted the bedsheets: what she saw only confirmed her suspicions...

On the inside, Nicole was screaming so loud that the universe could hear her. She was biting down on her lip, hard, as she collected various discarded clothing items. Each and every one she picked up only made her want to vomit that much more, but she forced herself to keep her cool regardless. The final straw laid with the last clothing item: her bra, which was wrapped around one of Damien's hands.

The breath deflated from her lungs as she relived her current horror one more time. She decided, with a ton of reluctance balancing on her head, to just leave the bra where it was.

Once she was completely dressed, she didn't run, but she didn't take a second look as she stalked across the tiny hotel room and closed the door behind her. One disgruntled thought followed another as she exited the hotel.

Time flew by at an unsoliticited pace, that the next thing Nicole knew, she was exiting a cab in front of her tiny rented house. She raced through the front doors, into the bathroom, peeled off her clothes and stumbled into the shower. Desperately, Nicole turned up the water to the highest setting that she could and waited, cringing, for the coming on-slot. The water hit like a brutal hailstorm; she felt every drop, pounding, stinging.

Howling in pain, she reached out and cranked up the heat. As she stood there, she could swear that she was being run over and submerged by lava. The next two minutes were a physical trial from hell: all Nicole was aware of was how much pain she was in and how loud she was screaming. It was endless, the worst shock she could experience. Soon enough, she found that she just couldn't take anymore. She didn't even turn off the water, just extricated herself from it with herculean effort.

She emerged and fell to the floor, her instincts getting her to brace herself on hands and knees. The impact caused a brief ache in her hands and knees, but evaporated into the stinging pain she was already experiencing. Breathing hard, Nicole crawled over to the toilet and finally, vomited. She spent- she didn't know how long- hunched over the bowl. So much of her seemed to come spilling out through her mouth: her regret, guilt, every overwhelming feeling and frustration she'd experienced not just since last night, but all of this nightmarish week...

Suddenly, she crumpled, folding in on herself on the floor. The only sound was the roar of the water in the background. Drained and exhausted, Nicole just lay there and closed her eyes, furrowing her brows. After a long moment, she forced herself to get back up, stopped the water before the tub could overflow and blew out a breath.

Might as well get all of the day's drama and shock value over in one burst. Nicole started focusing on her breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth...

She approached the cabinet and opened it, biting her lip again. Guilt bubbled to the forefront of her mind as she looked at the pregnancy test kit she'd planted there. Realization hit her: Maybe she'd known what was pushing Richard back the entire time. They'd only technically started dating for six months or so. Even if they'd known they'd get together eventually, it'd taken awhile for Richard to accept the idea of just dating, let alone anything else.

In through the nose, out through the mouth...

Nicole opened the kit with shaking fingers, then followed the instructions.

In through the nose, out through the mouth...

Looking at the results, all of the pain that Nicole had been feeling seemed to dance away. Her brain started floating, becoming fuzzy at the edges until she could barely think, barely concentrate. On an internal level, she knew that this should be the worst part, the one thing that scared her above and beyond anything else that could have happened.

...And yet, as Nicole stared at the positive result, she'd known that she'd find exactly this soon enough. Just...

In through the nose, out through the mouth...

It was barely a day since Nicole's life had pretty much changed forever. Brows furrowed and face contorted into a mix between worry and frustration, she could only stare at the tiny, one-floor pink clapboard house; Richard had lived here with his mom since the two of them had first moved to Elmore so many years ago.

She placed a hand on her stomach. This was the last situation she wanted to come back here with. After today, Richard was probably never going to talk to her again. But...She sighed. She'd rather resolve the break between them and tie up loose ends before figuring out what to do next.

There was one positive, though, Nicole mused as she walked up to the front door with shaking knees. At least Richard's overbearing, overprotective mother wasn't here...

Just as Nicole was about to knock, Richard pulled open the door. He was shirtless and in a pair of boxer briefs covered with cartoon characters, eyes watering and accented by dark purple raccoon shadows. Just staring at him, Nicole could swear he was the physical embodiment of how she'd been feeling all week. Apparently, this had been affecting him as much as it had her, if not more so.

The long, dramatic staring broke as Richard erupted with sobs, falling forward and enveloping Nicole in a giant embrace. "Oh, Nicole..." he cried. "I'm so, so sorry!"

Nicole started sobbing too, the tears rushing like a waterfall as she hugged him back. They both started screaming hysterical apologies as each other, clinging to the other like a life raft. After awhile, Richard let go and, more gently, took Nicole's wrist and pulled her into the house, shutting the door between the two of them. He looked guilty as he led her further inside the house.

The living room was small, the walls covered with faded floral patterned wall paper; Nicole vaguely remembered the wall being baby blue. Her eyes widened when she noticed the floor; it was littered with empty ice cream cartons. There were comic books tossed about everywhere, slightly crumpled and torn, and, to her utter horror, some had been ripped to tiny, tiny pieces.

Mouth slightly agape, Nicole stared at Richard. "Your comic books..."

Richard just stared at the floor. "Nicole," he admitted. "You're the only girl that's ever liked me for me. And well, you're the only girl I could love." He shrugged. "I know that's cheesy and probably not what you want to hear, but...that's the best way I can describe my feelings."

"That's exactly all I'd ever want to hear from you..." Nicole whispered, ears drawn back and staring guiltily at the floor.

"Nicole," Richard started again. "I've been thinking a lot. More than I like to. And I realized that when we have problems with each other, I should just talk to you about it. Not just go running home to Mom." Richard sniffed. "I know you could do a lot better than me. And I've taken it for granted that of all the perfect, physically fit, better suited guys out there...that you chose me. That you've stood up for me and been there every time I needed you. You're more than I..." He got choked up for a second, shuddering as he tried to hold back tears. "You're more than I could ever ask for...or even deserve in a woman!"

The entire time he spoke, Nicole felt like Cupid had nocked an arrow and shot it through her heart to join each and every one that had been embedded there since she'd been a little girl. Now, she looked up at Richard, smiling and crying, watching as diamond tears collected at the edges of the rotund rabbit man's eyes. All she could do was shake. She hadn't been expecting this; she wasn't even sure what she'd expected would happen. Throughout her entire life, she'd never expect Richard to be so mature and express himself like he was now.

All she knew was, she couldn't bear the thought of losing him forever because of what had happened last night. How could she let herself fall so far? For the very first time, Nicole was the one in the relationship that'd made a horrible mistake. But, unlike Richard's flubs which could usually be very easily resolved, her mistake was life-changing. One that needed immediate decision as to what she should do. The clock was ticking.

Nicole forced herself to look directly at Richard, knowing that her facial expression probably, already, told the entire story.

"Richard, if we're building up to getting back together...I..." Nicole shuddered again and took a deep, long breath. "There's something you need to know."

Rubbing her fingers together nervously, Nicole stepped closer towards Richard until there was only a foot in-between them. "I..." Looking into his eyes, his big and trusting eyes, Nicole just couldn't say it while looking directly at him. So, she looked down at the floor instead and clenched her fists. "I completely fell to pieces without you, Richard. I ended up resorting to...alcohol to make myself feel better."

"I ate a bunch of ice cream," Richard interjected gently. "That's the kid version of alcohol..."

"It's not that simple," Nicole cried, her voice breaking. "When I was drunk, I met somebody at the bar and..." She took a step back and looked up at Richard. "I'm pregnant with another man's baby, Richard!"

Just like Nicole had expected, Richard was shellshocked, blinking like a nocturnal animal wandering out into the bright, searing sunlight of day. For a long beat, he was silent and still as stone. And Nicole just stared back at him guiltily, brows furrowed and teeth gritted. Her heart was beating so hard and felt so burdened, so strained, that Nicole wondered if the pressure would just kill her.

No, scratch that. Just the moment itself, how it was an anxious pendulum stuck in space, was slowly killing her. She wanted to cry, but restrained herself, feeling like it'd be inappropriate right now. Yet, she did anyway. As if she hadn't been falling to pieces enough, it started up yet again, her eyes a pair of leaking faucets.

Unexpected, Richard reached out and grabbed her, pulling her to him. He folded his arms around her more gently, more gingerly than before and she leaned into his chest, her eyes squeezed shut. Neither one said a thing; Nicole continued to hold on to Richard and he reached up and tenderly started stroking her head, in the spot between her ears.

Just from the way he held her, Nicole realized that she was encountering a different man. This was a side of Richard she'd never seen before, and it spoke volumes. So many volumes.

A small smile broke out on her face.

Nicole was approximately four months along now. Four months...

Brows furrowed, she looked down at her bulging belly, taking notice for the thousandth time that her inner belly button was now an outie. Such a benign and ridiculous detail to take inventory of, but ever since Richard started pointing it out every time he came around, she found herself just as obsessed.

Smiling softly, she turned her head and looked at Richard's slumbering form next to her. He was rolled up in the sheets and blankets, creating a makeshift cocoon for himself.

As if sensing her staring at him, Richard woke up and started smiling back. "Hey Nicole." He struggled with the sheets for a few moments, then he extended his large pink paw towards Nicole's pregnant belly; he patted it with a small, slightly childish smile on his face. "Hey, little baby girl or boy. I can't wait to find out which one you are!"

Smile growing, Nicole reached out and placed her own hand over Richard's paw. Looking up at him, she was surprised for the umpteenth time by the glowing, accepting smile stretched across his face. Somehow, even though he was fully aware that the baby wasn't his biologically, Richard was still falling in love with it just as much as Nicole was. In some ways, it almost seemed like he was more excited by the current situation than she was...

The two of them got up out of bed, got prepared for the day, and in no time, were walking briskly through the city streets towards the hospital.

Nicole squeezed Richard's hand, her other hand thumbing the inside of the pocket of the windbreaker she was wearing. On the way there, they passed a park and Nicole couldn't help noticing the children playing there. All of them were so happy, excited, and carefree. The sun was shining, bathing them in light and joy. Even more of a sign, a colorful and vibrant butterfly ascended from a nearby bush and fluttered close to them.

Richard chuckled lightheartedly as it fluttered, just a few millimeters from Nicole's face. She gasped and smiled, studying the delicate design on the wings: It was a Northern Brown Argus bearing fuzzy black wings fringed with white, orange spots along the edges. If Nicole remembered her high school science class correctly, the Argus was a very rare sight.

Her smile only grew as she watched it flutter and fly away, disappearing into the bright light of the oncoming day.

Today was just an ongoing kaleidoscope. Nicole was barely paying attention to anything, her mind shifting between waking up to Richard and the sight of the butterfly. It felt like both of those moments were incredibly symbolic, a visual reflection of her inner monologuing thoughts.

Soon enough, she was sitting with Richard in a hospital room, looking at him and smiling eagerly as they clasped hands, waiting. She found herself absentmindedly touching her stomach again, Richard's hand crawling around and latticing his big fingers through her own. In that moment, everything became so startlingly clear. It was a strange revelation, but one that Nicole found herself relishing and cherishing with every fiber of her being: Despite how this child had come to her, Richard was going to be its' true father. This would be their first child together and, Nicole squeezed Richard's hand, this child would have the happiest life they could provide.

That was when the doctor entered the room, carrying a clipboard and wearing a smile. He handed Nicole and Richard a sonogram: it showed a faint outline of a tiny cylindrical shape, a tiny antenna protruding from what appeared to be the head. Nicole gasped in wonder as she lightly touched the transparency.

"It's a boy," the doctor announced.

As he said it, a single tear fell from Nicole's eye and hit the transparency. Soon, I'll be able to truly welcome you to the world...Nicole mused.