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Caretakers

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The weeks that followed the last Shadowkin attack were some of the worst of Matteusz’s life. Charlie was a shell of himself, practically catatonic, to the point where Matteusz had to coax him to eat even the smallest amount. What was more, Matteusz found he couldn’t even look his boyfriend in the eye. There was too much brokenness there.

He slept on a cot outside Charlie’s room these days, unable to share his bed but still not wanting Charlie to be alone. Once the sound of Charlie’s ragged breathing settled into a steady rhythm, Matteusz would get up and wander the house, unable to sleep himself.

“I love you… and I’ve lost you.”

Matteusz squeezed his eyes shut. Never, kochanie, he practiced saying in his head. I will always find you, and I will always be your hope. But it felt like a lie. Matteusz had barely enough hope for himself.

“Are you going to just keep standing there blocking a pregnant woman from her desperately-needed chocolate?”

Matteusz blinked and stepped aside. “Sorry.”

“You’d better be.” Quill grabbed a large bar of chocolate off the shelf with alarming speed and ferocity and tore into the wrapping with her teeth. But before she could take a bite, she suddenly winced and her hand flew to her stomach. “Ow. What the-”

“Baby is kicking?”

Hard. Like a—what are those ridiculous birds with gangly legs that can kick a lion to death?”

“An ostrich?”

“Mhm.” Quill bit into the chocolate, then winced again. “Kicking like an ostrich trying out for the bloody Manchester United.”

Matteusz raised his eyebrows. Quill was certainly much more well-informed about human culture than Charlie, who if you asked to name a professional football team would probably have frowned and said, “Isn’t that what Ram plays?”

“Oh, Goddess,” Quill continued, eyes widening. “Lorr are shapeshifters. It could be a shapeshifter. What if it comes out and it’s an ostrich? Or something with antlers? What if it comes out looking like a fucking Rhodia? Because I swear, if it does, I’m dying on the spot.”

Matteusz laughed despite himself. Quill gave him an annoyed look, but couldn’t hide the smirk tugging at the edge of her lips. “I’m serious,” she said, then looked down at her stomach again. “You stop that. Ow.”

“Would you like me to cook for you?” Matteusz asked suddenly. When Quill gave him a quizzical look, his gaze dropped, and he started scratching the back of his neck. “My father always cooked for my mother when she was pregnant, first with me and then when she had my little sister. Was only time he would cook for us. Most of the time he’d say it was the woman’s responsibility to cook.”

“Bullshit,” Quill said.

“I know. But he also said when a woman has a baby inside her, it is a man’s responsibility to take care of her. So he would cook my mother naleśniki—is Polish food, like thin pancakes folded up in triangles, and you fill them with sugar and cheese—and then he’d bring her pillows to rest on and distract her when baby kicked too much.” Matteusz frowned a little. “Seeing him care for my mother was one of the few gentle memories I have of him. He wasn’t much of a caretaker.”

“No shit, with him kicking you out like he did.”

Matteusz shook his head. “But I am a caretaker. It is part of who I am. And I—I don’t know how to take care of Charlie. Not now…” His voice started to break. He tried to cough to cover it up, but Quill must have seen right through it, because she placed a firm hand on his shoulder.

“You don’t have to be his caretaker, Matteusz,” she said. “Charles’ whole world may have come crashing down on him, but that’s something only he can pull himself out of. Take care of him as best you can, but never define yourself by him, and never think you’re obligated to put his needs before your own.”

Matteusz blinked a few times, not sure how to respond. He had always thought of Quill as rather indifferent to him. Now, she sounded almost… protective. As if he were really part of her family. One of her own.

“Thank you,” he finally said.

“Don’t mention it,” said Quill, leaning back into her chair. “Now, these Polish pancakes—can you fill them with chocolate?”