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How Darwinian

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The shrieking sounds like it's coming from the direction of dairy case, more or less. It sirens up and down intermittently, and it's pitched a little higher every time. Arthur grimaces, grits his teeth. Tightens his grip on the case of oranges he's lifting into the cart, and says, "God, I fucking hate fucking kids."

Eames' eyebrows pop up, amused. "Well, don't look now," he says in a confidential tone, sounding like the criminal Eames of yesteryear, "but I think we have four of them surrounding us."

Arthur, unlike the criminal Arthur of yesteryear, doesn't bother being circumspect as he casts a glance around and takes a quick habitual inventory: Bert the blond sheepdog is leading the way as usual, wandering a few feet ahead and running curious fingers over the price signs under the seedless grapes; Lucas is happy as he always is so long as Bert doesn't try to boss him around, twirling in his torn Snow White dress and living out some private martial-arts-princess fantasy; George is sacked out on his back in the main body of the cart, face squashed against a pack of juice boxes and one knee bent over a ten-pound bag of potatoes; and Otis, of course, is strapped to Eames' front, kicking fat legs and drooling copiously.

"Yeah, but," Arthur says, "our kids are under our control."

Eames' mouth twists. "I can't say I share your optimism."

"Well," says Arthur, still struggling to put words on it, "they're not screaming, are they?"

Eames nods, grabs two bunches of bananas, gently wiggles them in next to George's belly. "We've had our share of dairy case shrieking fits," he says. "What you mean to say is that you hate children that aren't your children."

Arthur opens his mouth to protest, then shuts it, reconsidering. "Our kids are cute enough to make up for the screaming."

"Behold the power of genetics," intones Eames, popping Otis' pacifier back into his wet pink Arthur-looking mouth. "Narcissist."

This much Arthur doesn't deny. Eames has caught him preening in front of their master bath vanity a few too many times. He ticks his head to the side, silently granting Eames the point, and holds up two heads of lettuce. "We've run out of room. I'm going to have to move George or get a second cart."

"I knew we should have brought the stroller," Eames says, but Arthur just shrugs and sets the lettuce aside, reaches into the cart and peels George up from the metal grid. He's heavy with sleep but it's nothing compared to Lucas in the same state; Arthur's got daddy-pipes, nowadays, like the proverbial strong man lifting a calf every day of its life. He gets George settled across him in a one-armed fireman's carry, retrieves the lettuce, and moves towards the carrots with George's hot sweaty cheek smushed into the side of his neck. He pretends not to notice the old ladies giving him fond 'good-father' looks of approval.

Narcissist or no, Arthur's perfectly aware that Eames is far more deserving of all the parenting awards. Arthur is, as he's always been, a good point man; he follows Eames' lead, gets his back, takes his cues. Eames is the natural, the brains of the operation.

Case in point: Bert sprints up to the cart with a bag of banana chips hanging from his fist, an open pleading expression on his face, dark eyes wide, dimples beseeching. Arthur's instinct is to nod, let Bert drop the bag into the cart — banana chips hardly seem like an indulgence too far, and besides, Bert is fucking adorable. "We've got some at home," says Eames, "and I said you can pick out one treat, darling. You already chose the candied almonds."

Bert flops up against the side of the cart, pathetic. "Mum," he says, overcome with the unfairness of it all, "Muuuuum."

"Bert," Eames says, deeply unsympathetic, "Beeeeeert."

"What if this was George's treat?" Bert bargains.

Arthur makes a quick detour away from the conversation to retrieve Lucas, who's two steps away from being run over by some teenagers pushing a cart too fast, not paying attention. When he comes back with Lucas' yellow satin sleeve pinched between his fingers, the negotiation has progressed.

"Well, could I have them uh-stead of the almonds?" asks Bert, like it's just occurred to him, like Eames hasn't been steering him that way all along.

Eames presses his lips together, pretending to think this over. He glances at Arthur, like he's consulting him. Arthur plays along, first frowning and then giving a single brief nod. They've done this a dozen times before, and in situations much more fraught than this one. There are no assault rifles on the line, no cases of contraband somnacin. It’s a bag of banana chips. “Alright," Eames concedes. "Run and put the almonds back, then."

"You're diabolical," Arthur tells Eames once Bert's out of earshot.

"I have no idea what you mean, darling," Eames says, all bland smiles and picking over avocados.

"Doo doo doo!" trumpets Lucas, twisting obliviously in Arthur's one-handed grasp, doing battle with some invisible foe, kirtling up his skirts to better deliver a series of kicks to the air in front of him.

The teens passing by look at him and roll their eyes, snicker. "Ugh," says the girl with the raccoon-thick eyeliner, "I fucking hate kids."

"You wanna watch your mouth," Arthur snaps off, not really making it a request. The youths look satisfyingly terrified as they rush off towards the other end of the produce section.

"Mm," says Eames, piloting them towards the bakery department, "I do like it when you come over all papa bear."

"Tell me something I don't know," Arthur says, but he doesn't bother hiding his grin when Eames pauses and nips in close to grant Arthur's reward: two quick grocery-store-appropriate mouth-closed kisses, and one somewhat less fit-for-public-consumption squeeze of Arthur's ass. Eames’ skill with sleight-of-hand is as undiminished as his talent for negotiation.

"What if," says Bert, breathlessly reappearing, "what if I got two bags of banana chips and one was for sharing at kindergarten.”