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“Show me the photo again,” says Eames, shrugging into his coat.

Arthur flips the iPad around, waves the screen back and forth. “You’ve met her about ten times,” he says. He looks pale, though otherwise impeccably groomed, half-reclined against the headboard and dressed for the day. Arthur’s making a big fuss over not living in his pyjamas, though Eames honestly thinks that would be one of the few perks of being on bed-rest.

Eames looks at the photo again, but it’s no good. He used to be a forger, he’s an expert in faces and bodies, but he can’t seem to help it: every one of Arthur’s Mormon nieces looks exactly like the next. He gets a vague impression of shiny dark hair, dimples, brown eyes, overall loveliness — and then he looks away and loses any sense of how it all comes together into a unique face. “Ah,” he says, “it’s not like she won’t know me.” He buttons his coat and comes in close to kiss Arthur’s brow. “I have my phone.”

“I’m fine, Tristan,” says Arthur, but he tips his face up for another kiss, on the mouth this time. “I’ll be fine.”

Eames lingers.

“Oh my god, at this rate you’ll never get out the door,” says Arthur, “and I’m on pelvic rest too, don’t forget.”

“I’m reminded of the fact constantly,” says Eames, sadly, “with you in my bed every hour of the day and me not allowed to take advantage of the fact.”

“Go, you’re going to be late,” says Arthur, shoving Eames up and away. “Go!”

Eames goes.

***

He planned to go to the airport alone, with Bert at school, Lucas in preschool, and a neighbour over to watch George and Otis — but George kicked up an unholy fuss at the sight of Eames in a coat, and Eames decided it was more expedient to just plug him into his car seat and bring him along than argue. Otis was down for his afternoon nap, thank christ, so Eames considered himself lucky to escape the house with only one child.

But George is two, which means he’s a slow frustrating walker, and Eames is seven months pregnant, which means he’s not keen on carrying his toddler for any distance. They dawdle their way into the terminal building while George pauses to admire the pebbles on the pavement and every passerby’s shoes, pointing out each picture of a plane (‘Pwane! Yook, Mummy! Pwane!) whilst remaining oblivious to the actual planes nearby. By the time they make it inside, the passengers from SLC are out of the customs hall and dispersed far from the single international arrivals door. Eames despairs.

“Hi, it’s me, I’m here,” says someone nearby, and Eames turns to see Another Of Arthur’s Nieces approaching with her rolling luggage. She’s small, almost as small as Ariadne, and she’s loaded down with bags.

“Hello, Lainey,” says Eames, pretending that he recognized her immediately. He reaches out and takes the handle of her rolling luggage from her, or tries to.

“No, no,” she insists, “you’ve got — a kid. And look at you, sheesh.” Lainey — because it must be Lainey, she’s the one who’s coming — gives Eames a warm if brief embrace, and beams at him and then at George. “This is Otis?” she asks.

“I’m Hoagie,” says George, who cannot say his own name in the least.

“This is Hoagie,” repeats Eames, charmed by this new evolution of George’s pronunciation. It’s a keeper.

“Hoagie?” repeats Lainey, then gets it. “Geordie!”

“Yeah,” says George, “Hoagie.” He reaches his arms wide to demand a hug, though he has no idea who Lainey is or why he should hug her. Lainey obliges; it’s difficult to resist George. He’s their wonkiest-looking child by far, lacking Bert’s blond adorableness, Lucas’s strapping handsomeness, or Otis’s dimpled blue-eyed beauty. George is stout, and plain, and all his features are just slightly mismatched; his hair is a perpetual mess of curls, and his speech is a garbled disaster most of the time. Eames loves him best, just now.

“Well, shall we crack on?” Eames says, after pausing to attack George with a series of fond kisses and hugs, overcome with adoration. “Thanks again for coming, we can certainly use the extra hands.” After Otis was born it was another of Arthur’s nieces, whose name escapes Eames now. She’d been of some limited use, though clearly they’d caught her in her post-college and pre-marriage rebellious phase; she kept nipping off to Commercial Drive to go thrift shopping for crop tops, and they’d sent her back to Utah with a nose piercing and blue-tipped hair. Lainey is a little younger, taking a gap year before college. Eames doesn’t have high hopes of her usefulness, honestly — but Arthur’s mum insisted.

“George, will you hold my hand?” asks Lainey, reaching out.

“Yeth,” says George, taking it. He has Arthur’s long face, which is terribly solemn-looking on such a little boy.

It’s promising, so far, Eames admits. The last one, whatever her name was, cooed over the children without interacting with them any more than she could help.

***

Lainey insists on learning how to buckle George into his seat, and George helps out by giving her lisping out a series of confused orders which Eames has to translate: yes, sweetheart, Lainey will do that one next, let’s just get this buckle done up, hmm? George plays with Lainey’s swinging curtain of dark shiny hair, small curious fingers from a boy who’s not accustomed to such feminine softness. He’s besotted already.

“We’ve got you in the new addition,” Eames says as they head out of the parking garage, “which will be Bert’s room eventually, but for now we’re keeping him in his room, which is going to be the nursery for the twins. So you’ll be sharing space with a bit of baby clobber, sorry about that.”

“No, it’s fine,” says Lainey. “Does it always smell this good when it rains? It’s so dry, at home.”

Eames takes a little inhale and tastes the wet cedar, the ocean. He’s lived here so long, he doesn’t notice it most of the time. “Yes, I guess it does,” he admits. “It’s nice, hm?”

“I’m just excited to be missing out on the snow,” she says. “Gosh, it’s so beautiful.”

“If you’re moved by the sight of the traffic leaving the airport, you’ll really like Marine Drive,” says Eames. They drive on, Lainey remarking on the big houses, the green lawns, the huge trees, the narrow road. Eames tries to remember what it was like, leaving home for the first time; it seems a lifetime ago.

“So how is Uncle Arthur?” Lainey asks, as they merge onto the freeway and leave the scenic driving behind for a while. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine,” says Eames, “bored out of his mind, already.”

“I would be,” agrees Lainey. “It’s awful. Auntie Nicole had bed-rest with her last and she just spent the whole time knitting. By the time Riley was born she had seven blankets and carpal tunnel syndrome.”

“Yeah,” says Eames, “Arthur’s not much with needlecrafts. I suspect he’ll be ruling a few reddit forums by the time the baby comes, though.”

“It’s placenta praevia, right?” asks Lainey.

Eames forgets, sometimes, that all Mormon women have a nearly encyclopaedic medical knowledge of pregnancy, which is a natural consequence of being constantly surrounded by pregnant women. “Ah, yeah,” he says, “they’ve got it sorted, mostly. He’s just got to keep her baking away for another couple of months.”

“No other complications,” says Lainey, checking. “No preeclampsia or gestational diabetes?”

“No, no,” says Eames, “all’s well.” He ticks a glance over at Lainey. “Thinking of being in the medical field?” It’s a joke, of sorts; most of Arthur’s nieces are majoring in domesticity no matter what their BYU diploma says at the end.

“Yeah,” says Lainey, though. “I’m taking this year off to narrow down my college choices. I want to go to Johns Hopkins or maybe UCLA for my medical training but I’m still working out which undergraduate program is going to give me a better grounding in the life sciences, because I definitely want to do both research and clinical practice.”

Eames closes his mouth. Lainey. He’s got it, now. “Obstetrics?” he asks, carefully.

“Oh, no,” she says, “probably a surgical specialty. But, I mean, I’m interested in all the fields. And the male uterine system is so interesting. Mom said you’ve had home births? Do you think I could observe yours when the time comes if I’m still here?”

“Yeah,” says Eames, grinning, pleased. “Though there’s not much to see anymore, my labours are two or three hours at this juncture, and it’s about a half-dozen pushes to get the job done.”

“Well, I’ve never seen an uncomplicated male birth up close,” says Lainey. “We don’t get a lot of those in Utah.”

Eames casts another careful glance her way. Arthur’s family are a fascinating mix of outward familial devotion and acceptance with a raw gooey filling of secret judgement and fear-mongering. No one of them has ever said anything to Eames about Arthur’s homosexual relationship, his choice to have a man bear his children; they’ve all been polite and warm to Eames, to their children. He flatters himself, in fact, that gradually they’ve come to view Eames as a sort of exception to their only-women-are-mothers rule, softened by his ease with babies, his maternal nature. It probably caused all sorts of shock and horror when Arthur announced his own pregnancy, but they’ve heard nothing of it up here in Vancouver. On this end it’s been slightly stiff, if smiling, congratulations and offers to loan out nieces to help out now that Arthur’s restricted to bed and Eames is stuck in his third trimester with four small boys to manage alone.

“Arthur’s excited,” Eames says, though that’s hardly the best word to describe it. He wants to make Lainey clear on this point, however: Arthur’s pregnancy is wanted, that there are no true accidents in their household.

“Finally, a girl,” says Lainey. “Mom always says that Uncle Arthur can do anything he puts his mind to.”

“Truer words,” says Eames, and glances in the rear-view mirror to see George passed out in his car seat. “Oh, we are going to have a grumpy afternoon. Trial by fire, darling. I’m sorry.”

“I actually kind of like chaos,” says Lainey, and shoots a smile at Eames. “Why do you think I volunteered to come?”

***

It’s not just George who’s arse over teakettle for Lainey; Otis, Bert, and Lucas are all instantly smitten with her. Half the battles among the boys the next few days are over who gets the lion’s share of Lainey’s attention. Bert tries to wow her with his impressive grade one education, reading to her v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y about cats in hats. Lucas decides imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and wears a long brown wig nonstop, affects her little flick of hair over shoulder, her way of wrinkling her nose with disbelief when someone is being difficult. George, who is a straightforward sort of man, settles for acts of devotion; he brings her every toy he has, because sharing is the supreme sacrifice for a two-year-old. Otis doesn’t have to do a thing — one blink of his massive blue eyes, one sunny dimpled smile, and she’s utterly his, sold.

When the children are sleeping or in school, Lainey helps Eames with the nursery, with sorting through mounds of clothes to see which are fit for hand-me-downs and which are only good for the rag bin. She sneaks boxes of surplus toys out the door and into the boot of the van, drives them to the charity shop. Lainey helps Eames with cooking and baking, takes trays of food up to Arthur.

“I think you’re the most in love with her of all of them,” says Arthur mildly as Eames wriggles into bed beside him. Arthur simultaneously looks exhausted and wide-awake; all this time lying about has wrecked his sleep cycle. He tosses his magazine aside, bored with it. “Do I need to be worried you’re going to run off with her?”

“I’m thinking about it,” Eames tells him, “but honestly I don’t think I want to be a doctor’s wife.” He squirms awkwardly until he fetches up against Arthur, throws a leg over Arthur’s thighs. “Can we talk again about how pelvic rest doesn’t mean no handjobs for daddy?”

Arthur tries to look disgusted but can’t manage it; he huffs out a smothered laugh and then gives up, lets go of the whole thing. “You’re so gross,” he says. “And it’s not fair, I can’t come.”

“Life’s not fair,” says Eames. He glides a hand up Arthur’s round middle, stops just short of groping Arthur’s new small pert breasts. Here’s another banned area. It’s torment, is what it is. “Oh, god, I hate pelvic rest.”

“We’re not having a preemie because you couldn’t resist copping a feel,” says Arthur, knocking Eames’ hand away. “Orgasm and nipple stimulation can cause contractions. Fuck off.”

“This is not the sexy speciality pornography I had hoped for at this stage of our lives,” Eames says, flopping over onto his back, which aches dully. “Our one consolation was meant to be the bizarre double-pregnant sex we would have.”

“Okay, jesus, I’ll jerk you off,” says Arthur.

“No, no,” says Eames. “You’re right, it’s not fair.”

Arthur looks over at Eames. They’ve been together far too long; Arthur can hear the insincerity in Eames’ voice a mile off.

“Fine,” says Eames, “if you insist.” He yanks at the drawstring of his pyjama bottoms and pushes them down. “Think of it like I’m coming for both of us,” he suggests.

“Coming for two,” says Arthur, taking Eames in hand, rolling his foreskin around. “Eating for three.”

“Oi,” says Eames, hurt.

“You, the baby, and Otis, I meant,” says Arthur, kissing Eames’ frown.

“Oh,” says Eames, appeased. “Yes, I suppose — oh. God. I’m going to”— and he comes easy and wet, so fast, slicking over Arthur’s knuckles. “Can we do that again, that doesn’t count,” he says, kissing Arthur back, feeling silly and happy and a little cheated.

“Yeah, sure, what else am I doing,” says Arthur, and his kisses get a little fierce, keyed up. “Eames, I miss you.”

Eames, not Tristan — always a sign that Arthur is a little lost in the moment. Eames backs away and checks, sees Arthur’s erection tenting his pants. It’s desperately unfair; Arthur, always possessed of a healthy libido, has been constantly eager since he hit his second trimester and stopping being sick every hour. “We’d better stop,” Eames says. “You might go off.”

“No, I’ve got it under control,” says Arthur, “let me just”—

—“Darling,” says Eames, moving Arthur’s hand away. “It’s alright. I’m lovely.”

“Fuck,” says Arthur, sinking into his pillow. “I hate this bed. I hate this.”

“I know,” says Eames. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why is it that you can do everything and I’m this stupid complicated mess,” says Arthur, betrayed.

“I don’t know, it’s rubbish,” Eames answers, feeling useless. He cleans up with some tissue from the nightstand, heaves himself up to dispose of it and give Arthur a moment to collect himself. When he comes back Arthur has his magazine open again. “It’s only for a while longer,” says Eames.

“I have to make it to thirty-seven,” says Arthur. “I’m only at thirty.”

“One day at a time,” says Eames, settling down next to Arthur again. “Hmm?”

“She’d better be worth it,” says Arthur. “This kid better not be wasting my fucking time.”

Eames clicks off his own lamp, draws the covers up. “She’ll be perfect,” he says. “She’ll be perfect as — as Lainey.”

“You’re not really reassuring me about not running off with my niece,” says Arthur.

“It’s more likely she’s going to run off with Otis,” says Eames. He thinks it over for a moment. “Not that it’s a terrible plan. Maybe we can send him home with her, like a party favour.”

Arthur laughs quietly, reaches over and strokes Eames’ hair. “I know it’s not your fault,” he says. “It just sucks.”

“It’ll be worth it,” Eames promises. “That much I know.”

***

Lainey’s folded herself into their morning routine, not showing the least bit of squeamishness about her gay pregnant uncle and his gay pregnant boyfriend. Eames is starting to think she’s not just a masterful actor in the Mormon mould — that she actually doesn’t secretly disapprove. Surely she couldn’t be so cheerful and lovely if she did, bringing Otis into their bedroom first thing so Eames can feed him while she gets Bert up and dressed for school.

Eames is a bit fuzzy-headed still, reaching for Otis blindly, murmuring a confused thanks. “Bert needs to wear a jumper,” he says, “it’s supposed to be cold today.”

“Got it,” says Lainey, still in pyjamas herself. “Hoagie’s asleep, I snuck Otis out of the room without waking him.”

“God bless you,” says Eames unthinkingly.

Lainey just laughs and leaves the room.

Eames gets Otis settled on the bed between him and Arthur, who is still asleep. Otis scrabbles at Eames’ t-shirt, impatient and unhelpful, blonde hair mussed and cheeks pink with sleep. Eames good-naturedly pushes him aside and yanks his shirt off over his head.

This is more ritual than sustenance, nowadays. Otis settles in contentedly like Eames’ breast is the one-year-old version of hitting the snooze button a few times.

Eames keeps thinking he’ll start weaning Otis soon, had better start if he’s going to have any kind of break before the baby. George was easy; though he’d clung onto Eames for the first few weeks after Otis’ birth, he’d soon decided that nursing was a baby’s game, and lost interest. Otis is a true mummy’s boy and shows no such qualms. Even the turn of Eames’ milk back towards watery colostrum a couple of months back didn’t deter him. He’s got a good latch, anyway, and doesn’t bite. Eames strokes his little curly head, lets Otis’s long toddler body curl around the bulge of belly, and communes quietly with his littlest son for a few sweet minutes.

“What does it feel like,” asks Arthur, who must have roused at some point, who is now blinking awake and watching keenly.

Eames looks up at him, surprised. For all the times they’ve lain like this with a baby between them, Arthur’s never asked about it except in the context of sex — and then it wasn’t really acceptable to give an answer beyond, it feels nice, I like your mouth. Which is true enough, but not quite the thing Arthur wants to know, now.

“Tingling, when it lets down,” says Eames, after a moment of thought. “Heavy. It’s nice when he latches on and it releases the pressure, sort of.”

“It doesn’t hurt,” says Arthur, reaching out to stroke Eames’ free breast.

“It hurt with Bert at first, remember?” Eames says. “And sometimes a bad latch — Lucas had me raw near the end, god, you know I had you putting cream on my tits, it was a nightmare. And blocked ducts aren’t a delight. But no, like this, it doesn’t hurt. It’s just — lovely. Knowing your baby needs you, and you’re a comfort to him.”

“I don’t know how you keep it straight in your head,” says Arthur. “I can’t think about anyone sucking on me without it being a sex thing.”

“It feels different,” says Eames. “It’s a function instead of an indulgence. You’ll see.”

“I want you to keep feeding Otis,” says Arthur, even as Otis falls back with open mouth, dozing lightly. He’s red-lipped, blissful, milk-drunk.

“I think he’s done for the moment,” says Eames, stating the obvious.

“No, I mean,” says Arthur, “don’t wean him.”

Eames doesn’t get it for a long early-morning minute, and then he does, with a sick clench of his gut. “Darling,” he says, “you’re going to be fine. You’ll feed her yourself.”

Arthur exhales quietly, tired and exasperated and scared. “Just — don’t wean him. Keep your supply up.” He glares at Eames, lifting his head off the pillow a little to show his determination. “I’m doing everything I can on my end, here, but I’d feel better if there was — a back-up plan.”

Eames meets Arthur’s gaze steadily, careful to show none of the fear that’s surging through him. Arthur’s just taking point. It’s what Arthur does. “I won’t wean him,” Eames promises, in a neutral tone. “But if we’re going this route, you’re going to feed my baby too, when the time comes. I won’t be the only one responsible for three at once.”

“Sure,” says Arthur, “yeah, whatever.”

There’s a soft knock at the door. “Come in,” says Eames, pushing away Arthur’s attempts at covering Eames up. Otis doesn’t need to be smothered by the duvet for the sake of Lainey’s modesty. They’re just tits.

“Sorry,” she says, entering, “just — Bert really wants a certain green sweater and I can’t find it anywhere.”

Eames sits up and pulls his shirt back on, a little pleased by the fact that Lainey’s not blushing or averting her eyes, entirely casual about the sight of Eames’s body at this point. “It’s in the hamper,” he says, “he can wear the brown one with the robots.”

“I don’t want the brown one with the robots,” wails Bert, piling into the room behind Lainey, clad in only his little Hulk underpants. “Mum!”

“Good lord, is that my great big grade one boy making that sound?” Eames says, appalled. “Here, come up here and snuggle with Daddy and Otis while I find another jumper for you to wear.” Bert, starved for time with Arthur, doesn’t hesitate for a second. “Careful of Daddy,” Eames warns him, “be gentle, he’s not in wrestling form these days.”

“I know,” says Bert, blissfully slumped against Arthur already. “I don’t feel good,” he says, clearly lighting upon the idea at this very moment. “I think I have blah-centaur-radio too.”

“Tetchy cervix, hmm?” says Eames while Lainey cracks up. “Daddy can tell you how much fun he’s having lazing around day in, day out.”

“My service is very sore,” says Bert, wincing and rubbing his belly. “Daddy, can we watch Netflix?”

“No,” says Arthur, and knocks his knuckles lightly on the top of Bert’s head. “Go to school. Your head sounds hollow, you need to fill it up.”

Eames leaves them arguing good-naturedly — Arthur’s stubbornness has met its match in their eldest-born — and sets off in search of a non-brown non-green jumper for this cold November day.

***

They’re paying Lainey; they insisted. It’s not much — Lainey’s mum insisted — but it’s enough to give her some pocket money and save a little for college, too. “You need to get out of this madhouse,” says Eames at the end of Lainey’s second week. It’s after bedtime and they’re folding laundry, piles of small shirts and sweatpants and underwear on the table between them.

They’ve made a point of giving Lainey evenings off, but she hasn’t made any attempt to strike out into the city on her own, even given full use of Arthur’s little commuter car. “Go shopping tomorrow,” says Eames. “The SkyTrain takes you straight to Metrotown, it’s got loads of stuff you wouldn’t see at home, you won’t need to worry about parking or navigating. Or you can go downtown to Robson Street, just turn round if there’s an E in front of Hastings on a street sign.”

“I’m okay,” says Lainey, stacking Otis’s sleepers to one side. “I really am.”

“There’s an LDS church in Burnaby,” Eames says, though he was hoping not to play this card. “We can ring them up and see when their young women’s groups are meeting.”

“Oh my god, no,” says Lainey, and then drops the shirt she’s folding to clap a hand over her mouth. “Please don’t tell my mother I said that,” she says, half-laughing at her own slip. “Uncle Tristan, I’m not — exactly”—

—“Sweetheart,” says Eames, “you will have noticed that we’re not the model LDS family, here. We don’t frown on your choices, hmm? So long as you don’t wind up wandering down East Hastings by Christmas, you can do as you please. And we’ve got no quarrel with a little cursing round here. Bert’s learned every swear word he knows from his darling dad.”

Lainey laughs on cue, but she doesn’t relax. She’s clearly not as comforted as Eames would hope by his explicit permission to be herself in their home. She takes a moment to fold a few more items, then blurts it out: “Grandma cries about you and Arthur and the babies not being with us in the celestial kingdom, and I think it’s stupid.” The words come out in a rush, and she rolls her eyes quickly afterwards to signal the triviality of this confession. Suddenly she seems very much eighteen years old, brilliant future cardiac surgeon or no. “When I go home they’re going to ask all sorts of questions. They really think that if you guys just prayed about it hard enough, you’d realize,” and she clamps down on the rest. Her next few motions are fierce, angry. “It’s like the dark ages. I just — I want you to know I’m not like that.”

Eames hesitates, then decides he can’t risk silence in this case. “Don’t say that to Arthur, about your grandmother,” he tells her, trying not to sound stern. She’s trying to show him how liberal she is, he guesses, but really she’s showcasing her naivety. Eames knows Arthur’s made his peace with the strained relationship he’s constructed between his little family and his extended relations in Utah — but Eames also knows that it’s a wound that’s never healed over, quite. Family fractures don’t knit like broken bones do, not ever.

“I wouldn’t,” she says, wide-eyed and earnest. “Uncle Tristan, I swear, I wouldn’t.”

“Okay, then,” says Eames. He folds three more pairs of socks and then looks up at her again. “So we need to find you some young heathens to play with, hm?”

“I’m not piercing my nose like Kensie did,” says Lainey, all disdain and sophistication. “It got infected. It was really gross.” She pulls another bundle of clothes towards her and starts working a pair of jeans free. “I like being with you guys. I like being here.”

“Regardless,” says Eames, “my conscience won’t hear of a teenager away from home spending her whole life changing nappies and playing Red Rover. I’ve got everything under control, we can spare you for a night or two.”

Lainey folds in silence for a few minutes, and then says, “Well, there’s a movie I wanted to see. But I feel like a loser going alone.”

“Our sitter down the road is sixteen,” Eames says, “could you suffer the company of someone so young?”

“I think I could,” agrees Lainey, dimpling. “Thanks, Uncle Tristan.”

***

They have their own movie night when Lainey goes out the next evening; the whole family piles onto the bed with Arthur to watch Up. Eames snuggles Otis during the scary bits, and Arthur takes Bert. (George is fascinated by movies, scary bits and all, and Lucas is a bloodthirsty pirate who only properly pays attention when there is danger-music playing.)

After the movie ends, Eames takes the boys through the bedtime rituals of bath, teeth-cleaning, pyjamas, and then it’s back onto the bed with Arthur for story-time. Lucas and George go off to their respective beds but Bert exercises his oldest-child privileges and stays behind to watch the Muppets with Arthur. Otis needs one last feeding before bed, per Arthur’s directions and long habit, so Eames takes him off to the nursery.

“No, leave him,” says Arthur, when Eames comes back alone, and makes some motion to retrieve sleeping Bert from the bed.

“He kicks like a mule,” says Eames.

“I don’t care,” says Arthur. “I’m getting kicked constantly anyway. At least this kind I can see coming.”

Eames sits on Arthur’s side of the bed and lays his palm over Arthur’s belly. The baby’s doing her usual late evening gymnastics routine. Eames prods her back and gets a knee to the palm for his trouble. “All’s well,” Eames says, giving her a little fond rub. It’s still odd to think that this is his child, inside Arthur. He doesn’t know what to make of that idea, feeling so oddly separated from the process of gestation. “Thirty-one weeks. One day at a time.”

On the telly, Kermit goes mad for their guest star. Eames kisses Arthur’s mouth chastely, and Arthur smiles, goes back to scratching Bert’s back, bared where Arthur tugged his pyjama top up. “And how’s yours coming along?”

“Asleep for the moment, I think,” Eames says, frowning to remember if he’s felt a kick in the last few hours. He shifts further up the bed and leans his belly into Arthur’s, warm and taut and weird. “Say hello to your sister, Cowboy.”

Arthur’s baby boots Eames’ baby on cue, and they break apart laughing for a second. “Cowboy might be a cowgirl,” he says, as usual. Arthur wanted to know, and found out as early as he could that he was carrying a girl. Eames decided to have another surprise as they had with Otis and George. The nickname of one sexual encounter works as well as another for a foetal name, anyway; and at least ‘Cowboy’ isn’t likely to stick like ‘Otis’ had. “You don’t call him Cowboy in front of Lainey, do you?” Arthur asks, frowning.

“Of course I do,” Eames says. “It’s an adorable nickname and no one needs to know it’s because you got me this way with me riding”—

—“Shut up, Bert’s right here,” Arthur whispers, glaring.

—“Riding high on a sense of accomplishment,” Eames revises. “Oh, hullo, here he goes.” Cowboy’s been roused by the kicks from Arthur’s side, and suddenly Eames’ middle is alive with a ripple of kicks and twitches. They both just sit and grin stupidly for a bit as their small companions have their first sibling tussle.

“This is so weird,” Arthur says, after they’ve both settled down again. “Cowboy, tell your sister to move her power outlet up the wall a little.”

“Cowboy would never be so silly as to offer opinions on interior design to a child of yours,” Eames says. “Sorry, darling, she likes her placenta exactly where it is, and she doesn’t care what you think.”

“It’s pronounced blah-centaur, not placenta,” Arthur says mildly, ruffling Bert’s hair. He utters a sigh. “Thirty-one.”

“One day at a time,” Eames says yet again, before heaving himself and Cowboy up. He heads over to his side of the bed. “Let’s watch Die Hard.”

“Yeah,” says Arthur, grinning. “Okay.”

***

Lainey hits it off with their sitter, a tall exuberant girl named Mary. They like the same bands and the same actors and they’re both obsessed with a certain terrible reality programme on the telly. Mary’s always struck Eames as eminently sensible and possessed of a level head, but then he’s never seen her paired up with another teenage girl. She and Lainey giggle constantly and shout at each other about everything, and when they’re not together they’re texting. They’re both bright lovely thoughtful girls, but you’d hardly know it from the way they carry on.

“God, what if that’s our future,” says Eames, escaping the shrieking over the latest episode of the girls’ show. “I’ve reconciled myself to spending a fortune on trainers and hoodies but I never imagined this level of hysteria over baking.”

Arthur’s typing away at his laptop; he’s been e-commuting since he’s been on leave. He looks up now, though, and tilts his head to catch the muffled noises of fitful laughter. “I feel like the more you try to explain your position,” he says, “the more you’re going to sound like a sexist butthole.”

Eames pulls a face, but of course Arthur’s right. “You can’t deny that we are both somewhat amateur in the area of the female mind,” he says, coming over to stroke Arthur’s hair.

“Lucas has trained us a little,” Arthur reminds him. He goes back to his work, but tilts his head into the stroking. “That’s nice.”

Eames goes on carding his fingers through Arthur’s hair, because it’s slippery-soft and starting to curl gently because it’s been a while since Arthur got out of the house for a haircut. The pregnancy hormones have made his always-lovely hair even thicker than usual. Eames scratches Arthur’s scalp and rubs strands of hair between his fingertips and generally loses himself in the simple pleasure of making Arthur feel nice.

“Okay, stop,” says Arthur.

“Why?” says Eames, stopping.

Arthur shifts his laptop off his belly and reaches under it to adjust himself, by way of reply.

“From a little head-scratching?” Eames says, amazed and a little proud. “You’re like a bloody teenager.”

“I keep thinking of all the ways we’re going to fuck when I’m done pelvic rest,” says Arthur ruefully, “but then I remember that we’ll be too busy with our half-dozen children, and we’ll probably never have sex again.”

“Come here, let me kiss that pout,” murmurs Eames, somewhere between panic and amusement, and he tips Arthur’s head up and nips at his lower lip. Arthur doesn’t resist at all, just sighs his mouth open and reaches up, spends a little while groping Eames’ chest. “Wait, stop,” says Eames, pulling back, “let’s not, darling.”

Arthur is a bit wild-eyed but he doesn’t argue this time, just sighing and letting Eames go. “It’s such a waste, you look so fuckable right now.”

I do?” says Eames. “You’re one to talk, with your lithe little — everything.”

“Little,” repeats Arthur, “there is nothing little about any part of me.” He slumps back into his pillow. “Do you think it would be terrible if I came down to dinner tonight? I just — I can’t do this one more evening. I’ll stay on the couch, I’ll stay put.”

Eames pushes Arthur’s hair back out of his eyes and thumbs his eyebrow. The bed looks mightily inviting to Eames’ eyes, mid-afternoon nap calling out to him and his tired swollen ankles, his heavy kicking belly. It’s difficult to remember that it’s Arthur’s prison cell these days. “Only if you let Mary help you down the stairs,” he bargains. “I’d do it but that would be a bit of the blind leading the blind. Besides, I’m not sure we can both walk side-by-side in the stairwell right now.”

Arthur’s jaw flickers. “Yes,” he says, “she can — fine. I just want to see the living room. I want to see the front yard.”

“Thirty-two,” says Eames. “You’re doing brilliantly.”

***

Between Lainey, Mary, and their part-time nanny Andrea, it’s not that Eames lacks for helping hands. The boys enthusiastically adore all their various caregivers, there’s no quarrel there. But there’s also no denying that they are all missing Arthur’s presence down on the main floor of the house. Lucas doesn’t have his usual outlet for rough-housing, Bert doesn’t trust Eames to help him add single-digit numbers for his grade one maths, George denies Eames’ attempts to keep him in time-out because for whatever reason, George has never quite recognized Eames’ authority in this area. And Otis, though far too little to articulate any of his troubles, is clingier by the day. Eames spends half his life with Otis strapped to his back as a counter-balance to his great and expanding belly. He aches with the strain of it but it’s far better than tripping constantly because Otis is hanging off his trouser leg.

It’s an event, then, when Arthur comes down the stairs with Mary holding his elbow (which he is irritably pretending he doesn’t need). Eames is prepared, has the children corralled so they don’t fly at Arthur. Arthur gains the safety of the living room couch, gets properly settled there with his feet up and a pillow under his head, and then Eames unleashes the beasts — albeit with many reminders to be careful, be gentle, one at a time, please.

“I’m not sick,” Arthur says. He’s trying to sound grumpy but he can’t manage it, too chuffed to be in a new room after more than two weeks wearing out the floorboards between their bedroom and their en-suite loo. “I won’t break.” Lucas takes him at his word and clambers right atop him. “Oof, oh jesus, buddy. Easy, don’t step on me.”

“Wookath, dat’th my daddy,” says George, put out. “Mine.”

“Now, now, Hoagie,” says Eames, “he’s everyone’s daddy, we must share. It’s Wookiee’s turn first.”

George has an utter meltdown, entirely out of character and out of proportion with the situation. Otis kicks off out of sympathy, howling in Eames’ ear from his position on Eames’ back. Bert covers his ears and starts shouting at full volume about how the babies are too noisy. Lucas only burrows closer to Arthur, and his obvious smugness makes everything worse in a second swift chain reaction.

Arthur looks absolutely delighted, the sad bedridden nutter.

“George, help mummy with setting the table, please,” says Eames. “Bert, go get your book and you can read to Daddy and Lucas. Otis, do get a grip, my love.”

Eventually they all settle down and for the first time in ages, Eames feels a little bit normal. Otis signs ‘down, down’ frantically and spends an hour running around getting into everything like an eighteen-month-old should. Eames feels weirdly light, if off-kilter, and it seems like the simplest thing in the world to cook dinner with only a seven-month belly to tote around, with Arthur laughing his deep throaty laugh and helping Bert with his homework and calling out for Mary or Lainey to stop Otis from pulling the lamp off the end-table.

“Not hungry?” Eames asks Arthur when they’re all gathered around the living room and eating off their plates in their laps or kneeling at the coffee table.

“Nah,” says Arthur. He’s got George stretched out next to him, George’s little hand playing over Arthur’s belly as his sister kicks his palm.

“You should eat something,” says Eames, because Arthur’s appetite hasn’t been very good, and Eames never runs out of worries.

“I’m fine,” says Arthur, “hey, I think that’s her foot, what do you think?” and George scrunches up his face and says, “No, Daddy, dat’th her blankie.”

Later, after Eames has got the boys squared away with Lainey and Mary’s help, after Arthur’s declared his intention to stay on the sofa overnight and Lainey’s gone off to walk Mary home and probably spend another few hours giggling with her — after all that, Eames comes back down to the living room ready to watch telly with Arthur and go on pretending that their lives are back to normal. He settles down in an armchair with a grunt and makes himself comfortable, pleased and full of good food and enjoying the quiet after a long scream-filled day.

“I’m having contractions,” says Arthur.

“Ha,” says Eames.

“No,” says Arthur, and now Eames abruptly hears the fine tension in Arthur’s voice, “I really am. I think — we might need to call the doctor.”

“It’s only thirty-two,” says Eames, startled out of usefulness. “There are five to go.”

“And yet,” says Arthur, shifting and pulling a grimace. “Can you get the phone? I’ll call.” Eames fumbles for the phone and tosses it to Arthur, who dials and then hesitates before hitting the button to place the call. “I shouldn’t have come downstairs,” he says.

“It would have happened anyway,” says Eames, because that’s the only acceptable response. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because there’s no way of knowing. “It’s alright, darling, I’m sure it’ll ease up. We’ll keep you here long as we can.”

***

They manage to keep Arthur at home for two more days under close watch. But on the third day, he goes to an obstetrical appointment, and from there he’s admitted to hospital. The baby’s fine, Arthur’s fine — only his contractions keep coming, slow and weak and spread out, but determined and steady. There are drugs that can help, the doctor says, and it’s best to have Arthur close so they can keep an eye on the baby’s condition, do a quick c-section if the situation changes.

Eames hates hospitals, hates the sterility of them and the formality, but he sees how Arthur calms when surrounded by beeps and charts and technology. Eames holds Arthur’s hand and doesn’t voice his unease. Eames smiles and agrees that this is good, this is better, and goes home to their children so he can tell them that Daddy is fine.

Lainey finds Eames in the nursery, pumping. “Sorry,” he says, feeling weirdly caught out. “Otis didn’t want to nurse much but I need to keep my supply going, I promised Arthur I’d,” and he trails off. Lainey leans against the doorframe, looking narrow and miserable and young. “He’ll be all right, Lainey love,” Eames says, making his voice sound hearty, sure. “Hmm?”

She shakes her head. “What do you do instead of praying? I mean, if you don’t pray.”

Eames looks at her, her angular wrists and her dark eyes, and for a weird moment he’s looking at Arthur as a teenager, and yet she seems to be Bert ten years from now, and over all that she’s just Lainey: smart determined giggly Lainey — and Eames’ heart lurches with a confusing mixture of tenderness and protectiveness and flattening fear. “I don’t pray, no,” he says, “and I honestly don’t believe in all that nonsense about putting forward the things you want and expecting the universe to answer in kind.”

“So,” she says, “you just — hang out? With all this stuff inside.”

“You distract yourself,” Eames says, motioning down at the pump and over at sleeping Otis. “And you remember that everything is okay in this moment, and it will be okay again no matter what happens.”

Lainey meets his gaze. “Do you mind if I pray, though?”

Eames shakes his head, feels a little awful for calling it nonsense if she calls it comfort. “Of course not,” he says. “Please do as you like.”

For an awkward moment he’s afraid she meant — here, now, beside Eames and his mooing breast pump, his sleeping baby — but then Lainey retreats and goes downstairs to her room.

***

The bed is empty without Arthur in it. Eames has grown too used to Arthur here, a fixture. He sprawls wide and tries to luxuriate in the space but it’s hopeless. He can’t sleep. Finally he clicks on the light and grabs his phone off the nightstand.

u awake he asks Arthur.

A moment later, there’s an incoming video chat from Arthur’s iPad.

“Oh, thank god,” says Eames upon seeing Arthur’s face. “I didn’t wake you?”

“Can’t sleep,” says Arthur, “and every time I do they’re in here taking my pulse and blood pressure.”

Eames props his phone up on his belly and drinks Arthur in. He’s still too thin, paler than Eames has known him to be. “I can’t sleep either,” he says, “this is rubbish. I miss you. Cowboy misses you.”

“You can say that you’re worried,” says Arthur. “Tristan. It’s okay.”

Eames holds out for three breaths and then sighs. “I’m worried sick.”

“Me too,” says Arthur.

They lean into each other’s silence for a long minute. Cowboy stretches and kicks. Arthur’s fetal monitor pings melodiously.

“Hey,” says Arthur, “it’s midnight, though. Thirty-three. I got to thirty-three.”

“Well done, you,” Eames says.

“I might not make it to thirty-four,” Arthur says, very quietly. “I don’t think I can.”

“That’s okay,” answers Eames. “Thirty-three is damn good. That’s still a top mark.”

“No, it’s not,” Arthur says, “but it’ll have to do.”

Eames laughs in spite of everything, because here’s an Arthur who’s learned to compromise, to live with a little uncertainty — who’d have dreamed it? “You’re going to be a brilliant mum.”

“And if I’m not,” Arthur says, “I have a really good back-up plan.” His grin is sudden and sunny, a little smug, a little crazed with exhaustion.