Saturday has become shopping day.
Matthew and Alfred have it off school, of course, and it's Arthur's usual day off from the bookstore. Francis works every other Saturday, but not until the evening shift, so the mornings at the least are for shopping.
Every week groceries come first, and by then Arthur's nerves are usually fried, so if it's needed Francis will take the boys shopping for clothes or shoes or things after lunch.
Francis is the more patient of the two of them, and they both know it. They'd never planned on being parents. They'd only been officially together for a year and a half when Arthur had shown up at Francis' door, mussed and hollow-eyed and strangely subdued. There'd been an accident, he'd said, his sister and her husband neither one had survived. They'd left two tiny boys behind, barely a year old.
Francis hadn't even hesitated, and Matthew and Alfred had come home with Arthur the next day.
Now the boys are six, and absolute unholy terrors. Well, Alfred is, at any rate. Matthew is blessedly subdued, although Arthur worries sometimes it's because he's being over-shadowed by his more rambunctious twin.
This Saturday is shaping up to be more hellish than most.
It's been cold and rainy for a week, but yesterday all of a sudden the sun had come out and the air had warmed. It's served to make Arthur's sinuses plug, and he was hardly able to get any sleep last night because of it. And despite their sharing a bed, Francis (the bastard!) had slept like a bloody log. As miserable as he was, Arthur hadn't (quite) had the heart to deliberately wake him with his tossing and turning.
So on top of the sinus trouble, the lack of sleep has given him a headache to boot. Francis had actually had the gall to suggest Arthur stay home, but Arthur has had hangovers worse than this and he isn't about to let a little bit of a headache get in the way of their weekly plans. Matthew may be quiet but he's still only six; it takes both the adults to keep an eye on both the boys, most days.
"Dad, dad, look at this, isn't it awesome?!"
Arthur twitches and counts to five, or tries to. Before he can get to three Alfred has spun around in front of him, grabbing his hand to tug on it. "Dad, I mean it, I'll never ever ever ask for anything ever again-"
Arthur sighs, curling his fingers around Alfred's wrist to prevent him from running off again. "Alfred, that's what you said when I bought you a new football. And that new video game you wanted."
"I know," At least Alfred has the grace to look as sheepish as a six-year-old can. "But this time I really mean it-"
"No," Arthur says shortly, craning his neck to look around. Where the bloody hell is Francis? He's supposed to be helping.
Arthur finally spots him, and fights down a flash of irritation. At least he has Matthew with him, but that's about all that can be said. He's not looking at the grocery shelves, but rather at the young woman standing with him as they chat. Arthur recognizes her as one of Francis' coworkers at the restaurant, and the wife of Gilbert Beilschmidt, the unapologetic arsehole who'd first introduced Arthur to Francis. Gilbert and Eliza are both good friends, and their son Ludwig is only a little younger than Matthew and Alfred, and the two couples often trade off babysitting duties.
But friend or not, that is no excuse for Francis to be hanging around socializing when Arthur specifically sent him to get milk.
Eliza must see him coming, eyebrows lowered like storm clouds, because she puts a hand over her mouth to hide a smile and holds out her other toward her son. "Come on Ludwig, we should go see where your vatti's gotten to. Tell Matt and Al goodbye."
Ludwig doesn't say anything, but he does wave solemnly, and Matthew and Alfred wave back as Eliza turns away. Francis watches her go, and Arthur has to grit his teeth to keep from hitting him over the back of the head in front of the children. "Milk?"
"Oh!" Francis blinks, then offers Arthur a charming smile as though he can't possibly see how the delay would be an inconvenience. "Sorry, lapin, I'll go and get it now."
"Don't bother," Arthur grits out, pushing the buggy past him. His headache is pounding now (no doubt Francis would say his eyebrows are protesting his anger, or some rot like that), and all he wants to do is finish the shopping and go home so he can have a lie down.
Francis looks after him quizzically, then shrugs and takes both boys by the hands to follow. Arthur stomps his way through a couple aisles, grabbing things they need and dropping them into the buggy. All goes relatively well until he rounds the end of an aisle, Francis and the twins trailing behind, and runs into another buggy with a clatter of metal.
"Bloody fuck!" he says, much louder than he meant to. Behind him he hears Matthew gasp and Francis 'tsk', and Alfred's reproving "Dad-!" He grits his teeth again, then sighs, nodding to the poor woman whose buggy he hit and murmuring an apology. He is, after all, a gentleman. She gives him a shaky smile, then heads off in the opposite direction. Arthur watches her go, then tenses slightly when Francis lays a hand across the back of his neck.
After a minute he relaxes a little, though, letting Francis rub his fingertips along tense muscles, coaxing them to loosen at least a little. "Feels good..." he mumbles around the pounding in his head.
"Yes, and once we get home I'm going to give you a full massage." Arthur tenses again immediately, and Francis blinks, then laughs. "Arthur, I meant that entirely innocently. Unless you want more than a massage, in which case I will of course be happy to oblige-"
Arthur growls and elbows him, though only lightly. "Idiot," he pauses as something occurs to him. One of Francis' hands is still on his shoulder, and it is far too quiet. "...Where's Alfred?"
A slightly frantic ten minute search reveals Alfred in the sporting goods section, halfway up a rack of bicycles. Arthur feels his heart leap up into his throat, and runs over to snatch him down and set him on his feet again. Alfred, as always, is unphased, and points up as a shiny red-white-and-blue mountain bike.
"Dad, look, it's so awesome! Can I pleaseplease get it? I'll never ask for anything again-"
"No," Arthur snaps, making sure he has a firm hold on Alfred's arm as he tugs him along. "You and Matthew both already have perfectly decent bikes, that one is far too large for you, and in any case your papa and Matthew have already finished the shopping while I was looking for you! It's time to go."
Alfred's face falls, half running as he tries to keep up with Arthur, but he doesn't protest. Arthur feels like a cad and sighs, slowing his steps so the boy could keep up. "...How about this, once we get to the registers you may pick out one candy bar as a treat. Will that suffice?"
Alfred's beaming smile manages to alleviate his headache a little, at least until his renewed cheer overflows and he begins chattering unstoppably about what he and Matthew are going to do that afternoon, why they should get a dog (god forbid) and something about slime in the bathroom. Arthur stops listening once it's revealed the 'slime' is a pool of Francis' hair mousse.
By the time they catch up with Francis and Matthew at the registers, Arthur is less than thrilled to see Francis chatting up yet another of their mutual friends, Antonio. (He's Arthur's ex-boyfriend, actually, and now the bastard is married to Gilbert's cousin Elrica and they'd all decided their social circle isn't allowed to intermarry anymore than it already has.) Thankfully, Antonio doesn't seem to have either of his own young sons with him; that would have been far too much for Arthur.
As it is, he shoos Alfred forward to choose his sweet, watches him debate and then finally pick a large chocolate bar. He puts it in the buggy with their other groceries, and as Arthur watches he tries to sneak another off the shelf. Arthur frowns sharply and clears his throat; Alfred starts and quickly puts the extra candy back, trying for an innocent smile.
Arthur just glares and leans against the end of the conveyer, partially to try and block the energetic boy in and partially to hold himself up. He wishes Francis would stop socializing and just get on with the checking out already, Arthur really wants some tea and sleep before his head explodes.
There's a tug at the hem of his shirt, and Arthur feels his fragile hold on his temper slipping.
"Put that down!" he snaps, sharper than even he'd meant to as he brushes off the tugging hand impatiently and rounds on his heel to glare down at Alfred. "I've already bloody told you, boy, that you are allowed one-"
Except it isn't Alfred standing behind him.
Alfred is, in fact, a good two yards away putting things from the buggy onto the check-out conveyer, since Francis is still half-chatting with Antonio. And Matthew is staring at Arthur with a heartbreaking betrayed look on his face, a maple lollypop clutched in one small fist.
Everything goes still.
Alfred stops chattering and stares at Arthur with wide, shocked eyes. Francis' head whips around and his eyes narrow sharply, absently waving over his shoulder at Antonio as the Spaniard awkwardly edges away from the developing scene.
Matthew's eyes fill with tears, and when they spill over Francis brushes none too gently by Arthur and scoops Matthew up into his arms. He turns back to the poor register girl, deftly extracting the lolly from Matthew's hand and setting it with their other purchases. Matthew buries his face in Francis' shoulder, and Francis pets his hair and back and murmurs soothingly in French. Both of them continue to ignore Arthur.
For his part, Arthur feels like he's just been punched in the stomach, all the anger draining out of him all at once and leaving a horrible sick feeling behind. Matthew. How could he ever have been so careless as to yell at darling, well-behaved Matthew? There is no excuse for that, so Arthur says nothing, just firmly takes hold of Alfred's collar before he can wander off.
The car ride is silent all the way home, save for Matthew's quiet sniffles. Francis has to drive; Arthur's hands are still shaking too badly. The silence in the front seats is frosty, and in the back Alfred pats his brother's hand and glares at the back of Arthur's head. When they finally reach the house, Francis tells the boys to go play in their room while he and Arthur put away the groceries. They make it nearly to the last bag before Arthur finally manages "I'm an arse of a father. I'd make a much better uncle."
Francis just raises an eyebrow and offers the maple lolly that started this whole mess.
It's just then that Alfred comes into the kitchen, looking bored. "Matt's hiding," he says casually, ignoring the pointed and alarmed looks his guardians exchange. "He's in the closet and says no one should bother looking for him because he's not going to come out except maybe at bedtime."
Arthur avoids looking at Francis as he takes the lolly. "I'll just go see to that, shall I?"
Sure enough, he finds Matthew upstairs in the twins' closet, wrapped up in his Senators blanket and nearly hidden behind the giant stuffed bear Arthur had won for him at the carnival last spring. "Matthew, lad?"
A sniffle. Arthur's heart sinks, and he sighs, sitting down on the floor outside the closet. "Matthew, I..." Why is it so much harder to apologize when he knows he's genuinely been an arse?
Another sniffle, and then a very soft, very meek, "Do you hate me?"
Arthur's eyes widen in shock. "What?! Matt, no, of course not! Come here."
Matthew peeps out from behind his bear, then creeps out to climb into Arthur's lap. Arthur offers him the lolly, watching the way his eyes light up in joy. "Matthew, I... I love you very much, and I'm so sorry for yelling at you earlier." Matthew is clearly more interested in the candy than his words at this point, but Arthur hopes some of it is getting through.
"Sometimes... sometimes adults can be wrong too, but I want you to always remember that no matter what happens, no matter what you or Al or your papa and I do, we... I will always love you."
Matthew tilts his head back to look up at him, then reaches up to pat Arthur's cheek with sticky fingers. Arthur turns his head enough to kiss his palm, tasting maple sweetness when he licks his lips.
And Matthew smiles.
"I love you too, daddy."
Arthur's heart melts. Things will never be perfect. Later this evening once the boys are in bed, he'll have to find a way to apologize to Francis too. Alfred will inevitably drag his twin into trouble in the future, and Matthew will likely go along with it, and they'll both have to be punished. Francis and Arthur will likely always squabble like they're no more than six themselves. But somehow, for what it's worth, they're a family.
And that, that's everything they need.