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comes out that way

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She is very, very small, and her skin looks raw and impossibly fragile. Arthur has to force down some deep impulse towards rejection, dismay; this is not the daughter he’s been imagining for years, not the one he’s been determinedly holding inside for months. This is some unfinished creature. This can’t be —

And she’s got so much plastic on her, the sickly yellow plastic of medical IVs and tubing. She’s got shiny tape over her upper lip and cheeks. Faint pale eyelashes, eyebrows. She breathes rabbit-quick, and her ribcage is like a miniature open clamshell, all too evident. Her feet are froggy and thin. The tracery of vein and artery stands out against her under the warming light.

“Breathe, darling,” says Eames, and it’s not until he closes his warm familiar hand around the back of Arthur’s neck that Arthur knows Eames means him. Arthur catches an inhale and realizes it’s the first he’s taken in some time. Pants shallowly to catch up. “She’s strong.”

No, she’s not, what are you, an idiot, Arthur wants to say, but can’t. He fears it would dissolve into embarrassing gasps and sobs, which is weird when he mostly feels detached from this excruciatingly small person. He’s still oddly certain this isn’t his baby splayed out in the isolette, nearly buried in the folds of her preemie diaper.

Maybe that will make it easier when she slips out of this world; it seems like she must, any second. Her breathing is so fast.

She is so, so small.

“Okay, mom,” says a NICU nurse, coming in close, “are we ready for kangaroo time?”

Arthur will never be ready, but Eames is unknotting Arthur’s gown at the nape and spreading it open, making room at the front. “My hands are cold,” says Arthur.

“That’s okay, we have warmed blankets, you’ll be snug in a second,” says the nurse, irritatingly confident. She opens the isolette while another nurse pulls Arthur’s gown down at the neckline. The first nurse scoops the baby up with sure gloved hands, knuckling the tubing around until she can lift the whole mess clear, up, and — “Ready, mom? Here she is.” Arthur scrambles to gather her close, grip shifting through the warm blanket, and oh — skin to skin. Arthur’s got her right against him, nestled impossibly tiny on his chest. He can feel her squirm, the kick of leg that he’s grown to know from the other side of his skin. Her little feeble whuffle of breath and the wing of her delicate ear like the softest fold of silk pressed into him.

“Oh my god,” he exhales, terrified.

Eames strokes the wisps of hair topping her head, beaming stupidly. He blinks a few times — Eames, who always teased Arthur for getting choked up at this sight from the other angle — and then he pulls his hand back and strokes Arthur’s hair instead. “Look at our beautiful girl, hmm?”

Arthur doesn’t have words, not any, so he just strokes his hands over her little baby form, buries himself in every wriggle and squeak. She is warm, and awake, and she seems enlivened by his skin touching hers. Arthur has no idea how she can know he’s her mother when he doubts it himself. He’s wracked with guilt, with fear, and then he’s knocked flat by tenderness and love and fierce mind-altering devotion; it goes in waves like that for long minutes.

“Right, Little Miss Eames, we need to take your vitals again,” says the nurse when she comes back and reclaims the baby. Arthur lets her go as casually as he can, not wanting to cause a fuss; he abruptly wonders if he is expected to cause a fuss, and the guilt circles around again. “How did it go, mom?” asks the nurse, oblivious.

“It went brilliantly,” says Eames. “God, darling, look at your gown, you’re soaked. We need to get the pump.”

Arthur glances down; he’d felt the let-down, absently, hadn’t bothered to pay attention when he started leaking more with every little sound from the baby. Now there are two widening dark circles on his hospital gown. Arthur should be embarrassed but he’s actually a little delighted. Until this moment pumping has just been another medical necessity, keeping his supply coming, supplementing the bottles of milky colostrum Eames has provided for tube-feedings in the NICU in the three days since the c-section.

“You can go change,” says the nurse, unbothered as nurses always are about bodily fluids. “We’ll just check her sats and make sure she gets settled again.”

“No,” says Arthur, clearing his throat. “I want to stay with her.”

Eames heaves himself up from his chair, ponderous and huge with eight weeks yet to go. “I’ll bring the pump here,” he says, “and a clean gown.” He ruffles Arthur’s hair and leaves the NICU, and Arthur sits and watches the nurse laying the baby back down in her isolette. In a moment she seems satisfied that kangaroo time hasn’t pushed the baby’s vitals too low, and she goes off to another small patient. Arthur leans forward, careless of the pull on his stitches, and looks at the baby very closely. Her pink-red skin, her navy slitted eyes, her puffing chest. Her knobby fetal knees and her knuckles like beads of opalescent pearl. She’s raw, incomplete; she looks like it hurts just to be alive and in the world, but she kicks her heels against the floor of her plastic crib and regards Arthur with puffy eyes and uncurls her fists for him to admire her creased palms.

“Hello, Josephine,” says Arthur, “I think you’re the bravest little person in the world. If anyone can do this, you can. And I’m not just saying that because I’m your mother.”