“She hates me,” Gary moans. The nursery is filled with the soft grey light of half five in the morning, filtering in gently through the lilac curtains that are hanging over the window, turning the whole room muted and blurred. There’s a parade of cuddly toys lined up a bit drunkenly on the window seat, Dinosaur nearly toppling Giraffe over. Everything smells like lavender and baby powder, and it would be absolutely peaceful if Pammy wasn’t screaming like she was being tortured.
Gary wants to scream with her. She’s been awake for almost three hours now, which wouldn’t seem so long, except he thinks she’s only slept for a total of about twice that amount in the last two days, all of it in fits and starts, and hardly any of it for longer than forty–five minutes at a stretch. Gary knows. He has even timed it.
“She’s three weeks old,” Mark says, voice a bit hoarse as he struggles to be heard over Pammy's shrieks. “She can’t hate anyone.”
“She can,” Gary says, feeling a bit hysterical with exhaustion. “She’s looked into the very depths of my soul and found me lacking, Mark, I can feel it.”
Mark crosses over to the rocker that Gary is holding Pammy in, desperately trying to sway her back to sleep. The movement only seems to infuriate her more, though, every sway dislodging her and sending her into another shrieking fit, but she also shrieks when he’s still, so he’s sort of out of options. Gary feels a bit like he’s holding a tiny grenade, except one that explodes constantly instead of just the once.
Mark drops down to sit on the ottoman that’s next to the rocker, which Gary had forcefully bashed into with his shins earlier in his hurry to get to Pammy's cot when she’d started screaming.
He thinks if he’d have known she’d still be screaming three hours later—three consecutive hours of screaming, God, how is that even possible when your lungs are that small, he wonders—he might have rushed just a tiny bit more slowly.
“I think you’re giving our baby too much credit,” Mark says, rubbing a soothing circle on the knee of Gary’s sleep pants. “Pretty sure she hasn’t developed psychic abilities yet.”
“Yeah?” Gary asks him. “When do those come in?”
“With their teeth, I think,” Mark says, smiling blearily. Gary takes a small measure of comfort in knowing that Mark looks as wrung-out and exhausted as Gary feels—at least there’s a sense of camaraderie there.
“D’you want me to take her?” Mark offers gently. “The boys are with my mum and you can sleep in their bedroom, ‘s’far enough away that she won’t keep you up.” He pokes his long index finger at the baby, prodding at her hand that’s balled into a tiny fist. Gary wants to warn him off, because he suspects it will only encourage a new and different battery of high-pitched wails, if only because nearly everything seems to with her. For the most part, though, she just ignores it, carries on scrunching up her face and screaming at a steady frequency with a single–minded determination that Gary would admire at any other time. She’s tenacious, at least.
“Yes,” Gary says, but doesn’t hand her over. “No. I mean.” He closes his eyes for just a moment, one blissful instant before he forces himself to wrench them open again.
What he wants is for Pammy to fall asleep, but more than that, he wants her to fall asleep for him. It’s possibly the silliest, most embarrassing thing he’s ever thought, which is impressive, given the stiff competition, but he can’t help but suspect, deep down in the quiet, unsure part of himself, that she really, honestly might actually hate him. He hasn’t been able to get her to sleep once, now, not without Mark's help, and while he’s at the point of sleep deprivation where almost any method that might get her back to sleep is on the table—baby voodoo, hypnosis, minor feats of arcane sorcery—he thinks that if he hands her over to Mark and has to see her immediately settle, soothing in his arms in an instant, that he just might cry too.
Jude used to love being rocked up and down, his eyes would light up and he would just stop and wonder until he fell asleep. It took them almost a month to figure out Skyler liked singing, his parents’ voices soothed him into slumber and then that was that. Pammy’s been a very different story, when she finally drops off into the rare pieces of sleep she deigns to indulge in, it happens when Mark's the one holding her or fussing over her, and it’s not that Mark is a magic baby whisperer, really.
Gary is trying very, very hard to be logical about it and not take it personally. It’s just that it’s half five in the morning, and he’s not slept for years at this point, so it’s a bit hard for him to stay objective and rational about the whole thing.
“I can keep her,” he insists. He shifts her from one arm to the other, which produces a temporary upswing in the volume of her crying, and uses his newly freed arm to drag a hand heavily over his face, like he can forcibly claw his exhaustion away.
Mark frowns, the line between his eyebrows furrowing deeply. “You’ve been with her for three hours,” he starts.
“So what’s another hour?” Gary asks wearily. “Or two, or three, or seven hundred?” He thinks if there’s a baby that can keep itself awake for eight hundred straight hours just by sheer force of will, it’d be this one.
“You can keep her as long as it takes me to bring you tea,” Mark says, hoisting himself up from the ottoman with only a bit of a stumble. “Then you’re going to sleep.”
“I’ll sleep when she sleeps,” Gary insists as Mark walks out of the nursery. That’s what how it had always been with the boys—sleep when the baby sleeps. Only they hadn’t had experience on what to do when your baby turns out to be genetically wired to never need sleep, or possibly a cyborg. Gary feels vaguely betrayed.
Out in the hall, Gary hears Mark catch his foot at the top of the stairs, tripping with a thump and then a quiet mumbled obscenity.
“Okay, baby,” he says to Pammy, not bothering to pitch his voice over her cries. “Let’s make a deal. You go to sleep for me so Papa doesn’t think I’m a failure, and when you’re seventeen I promise I’ll buy you a car. A diamond encrusted car.” He considers. “With loads of diamonds in the boot,” he adds.
Her tiny sweet face stares up at him, and even as she contorts in it fury, he can’t help but think she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. She’d been a bit squishy and red when she’d been born, looking vaguely like a wrinkled old man, but at nearly a month she’s starting to look more like an actual baby than an oversized prune. Even then, anyway, she’d been the most beautiful prune in the world.
She shows no signs of considering his offer, though, crying just as steadily as she’d been, and Gary sighs, tucking her in closer to his chest. He reminds himself that it’s impossible for a baby to actually cry forever, and that eventually, she’ll stop. She has to. Eventually.
In the meantime, if he cries just a bit with her, well—it’s not like anyone can hear over her wails, anyway.
By the time Mark turns up again, balancing two mismatched mugs of tea in his hands and looking nearly as dazed as Gary feels, Pammy has stopped screaming, but she’s definitely not asleep either. She’s squirming in his arms like she wants nothing more to topple off his lap and brain herself, which is almost worse than the shrieking—Gary is having visions of her succeeding in his sleep–deprived state, and just the thought makes something cold and awful clutch in his stomach.
“Go to bed,” Mark tells him softly. He sets the tea down on the table next to Pammy's crib and then takes her gently from Gary's arms. He wants to protest, but he feels like he’s lost the ability to string words together, so he just nods and lets Mark take her, slumping back against the rocker once she’s secured on Mark's hip.
“Tell Papa he’s being silly,” Mark murmurs in her ear. “He needs to sleep.”
“She needs to sleep,” Gary protests. “We all need to sleep.”
“Okay,” Mark says steadily. “You start, then.”
Gary sighs, but he stands woozily after a moment and lets Mark shoo him out of the nursery. He glances back once he’s out into the hall, frowning at the way Pammy's starting to cry again—not the bone–shattering wails, yet, but he’s sure she’s working herself up to it. He’s torn between wanting to stay and try to help—even if he hasn’t any idea how he might manage that—and just sort of collapsing into a puddle in the hall.
“Go to bed,” Mark instructs. He turns back into the nursery, trying to put a bounce in his step as he moves to shut the door, but then pauses. “Oh, hang on.”
Gary takes a step back in, ready to take Pammy back, but Mark just leans awkwardly to pick up one of the mugs of tea from the side table and hand it to Gary, using it shuffle him back out into the hall. He smiles crookedly at Gary, dark circles smudged under his eyes, and then shuts the door in Gary's face.
By the time Gary reaches the guest room on the opposite side of the house, the sun’s starting to rise, just peeking in through the window.
He sets his tea down and collapses face first onto the rumpled bed—Mark'd napped there yesterday afternoon while Gary's given Pammy a bath—and strains for a moment, trying to tune his ears to any tiny infant–produced shrieks. He doesn’t hear any, though, and before he can decide if he’s sore about that or not, he’s asleep on top of the duvet.
Sometime later, he jolts awake when the bed shifts next to him.
“‘S’just me,” Mark mumbles in his ear, sliding in next to Gary. He wriggles around a bit like a fish out of water, trying to pry the duvet cover out from underneath Gary's useless body and rearranging it on top of them. Gary thinks about moving to make it easier, but he’s not sure he can; his limbs are all leaden with fatigue.
“She sleep?” he asks nonsensically, one eye drifting shut.
“Mm,” Mark says, which Gary's assumes is a confirmation. “Took forever, though.” He thunks something onto the bed between them—the receiver to her baby monitor, Gary realises—and then squirms closer. He’s lost his shirt somewhere along the way, and his skin is a bit chilly against the heat of Gary's back, even through his thin shirt. “Spit up on me, too,” he says.
“But then she fell asleep?” Gary asks again, trying to keep his tone minimally despairing. It’s a good thing, he reminds himself. It’s good that Pammy's finally asleep, and it’s idiotic to feel put out that it wasn’t him that got her to do it.
He must do a poor job of it, though, because Mark leans over to loom in his face.
“Hey,” Mark says, peering at Gary determinedly before scooting them around so he can fit himself under Gary's arm. “I bet she’ll sleep for you tomorrow,” he says quietly into Gary's neck. “Or, today, I guess.”
Something twists in Gary's chest, and he’s not sure if it’s the way Mark sounds like he means it so earnestly, or that Gary can’t help but suspect he’s wrong, no matter how genuine his optimism.
Still. Mark's right, sometimes. More often than he isn’t, actually. He was right about moving here, to London, and to this house—their house—in particular. He was right about Gary looking like a twat when he tried to grow bangs. He was right about how it was time to think about starting their family, which Gary will never regret, not even if Pammy never sleeps another wink in her life. Maybe Mark's right about this as well.
“You think so?” Gary asks through a yawn.
“Definitely,” Mark nods, slipping a cold hand just under the waistband of Gary sleep pants to rest on his hip. Mark's nearly asleep himself, but he sounds sure of it, and just for a moment, before he drifts off as well, Gary lets himself believe it.
She doesn’t, but there’s a moment that afternoon when she’s weeping in Mark's arm as they walk her around the kitchen, and Mark pauses beside the oven to lean over her and kiss Gary softly on the edge of his mouth, and for an instant it feels a bit less personal—a bit more bearable, cradled between the two of them.
“Oh,” Marge exclaims, pressing a hand over her mouth. “She’s so lovely.”
Gary rearranges Pammy in his lap so she’s angled a bit better towards the computer screen. “Mum,” he says. “You’ve seen her before.”
“Well, she’s still lovely,” she says, blinking hard. Gary rolls his eyes, but smiles anyway.
He wonders if Pammy knows her Nanna is watching, and that’s why she’s on her best behaviour now. She’s not asleep, of course, but she’s not wailing either, apparently content to gaze around with an almost startling alertness and drool messily on Gary's shirt. He’ll take that, he thinks—a little drool is infinitely easier to deal with than another barrage of shrieks.
“Yeah,” he agrees, taking one of her tiny hands and wiggling it so it looks like she’s waving at Marge. He can’t help but grin a bit stupidly at the image of it parroted back on the screen, her little waving hand, even when she wrenches it out of his grasp with surprising force. Pammy's just so small, is the thing, sat on his lap and leaning against his chest in her striped baby-grow—tiny and fragile, and unquestionably the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. “She is, a bit, isn’t she?”
“And where’s Mark?” his mum asks.
“Coming!” Mark shouts from the hall before Gary can answer. He stumbles in after a moment, a black t-shirt halfway over his head as he comes around the desk. “Sorry, mum,” he apologises as his head appears, leaning over so he can see the screen properly and wave at her. He drops a kiss on Pammy's head as he does, and it makes something clench in Gary's chest even if it’s nothing particularly new. “Someone spit up her lunch all over me shirt.”
Pammy makes a small noise like puh, possibly in agreement.
“Yeah,” Mark agrees. “You.”
“She’s taking her bottle alright?” Marge asks.
“Like a champ,” Gary says. “Just won’t sleep a bloody wink.”
Mark frowns a bit—he’s got a weird thing about using inappropriate language in front of the baby. ‘Watch that awful mouth Gary Barlow,’ which Gary finds endearing, albeit a bit pointless, since she scarcely has any idea what they’re saying.
“Well,” Marge says sympathetically. “She’s still young. That’s normal enough.”
“Yeah,” Gary agrees—because he does know that, theoretically at least. Her physician says Pammy is likely just an unfortunate combination of colicky and stubborn, so rationally Gary knows she’s not, broken. It’s just that rationality loses a lot of its heft when you’ve been up for eighteen hours in a row.
“‘S’just hard to watch,” Mark murmurs. “Screams until she exhausts herself so much she has to sleep, mostly.”
“Poor loves,” Marge says. “All three of you, I mean.”
“‘S’alright,” Gary insists. “She’s not like, ill or anything, so that’s what matters.” It is. That’s the whole—that’s the only thing that matters, he thinks firmly. Pammy's all right, and she’ll grow out of her crying, and someday she’ll be a sullen teenager that sleeps half the day locked in her bedroom. The rest is just peripheral. He can deal with not sleeping for the next fifteen years, if he has to. That’s been his job, since eight years ago.
“Still,” Marge says softly. “It’ll be even more exhausting on all of you when the boys come back home.” She says all of them, but she aims it mostly at Gary, which he notices, but can’t muster the energy to deal with. He suspects Mark's spoken to Marge on his own—plenty, probably—about how Pammy won’t sleep for Gary, and how he’s mostly failing to not take it personally.
Mark's always had a dreadfully big mouth like that.
He ignores it, though, because Pammy's wriggling in his arms a bit more insistently now. He rearranges her a bit, and tries to get her to look into the camera, wiggling his fingers near the lens. “Look, miss,” he says. “Say 'ello to Nana.”
She burbles a bit more, whacking Gary in the chest with one tiny fist a few times before her face squashes up into something like a frown. Gary knows that look—she’s either about to wail or poo.
He feels relieved in a way he’d never imagined he might when he realise it’s poo rather than an oncoming jag of crying.
“Eurgh,” Mark says, wrinkling his nose. “That’s foul, puddy cat. Here, give her over,” he instructs, holding out his hands. “I’ll sort her out.”
“Wave bye-bye,” Gary instructs Pammy as he hands her to Mark. She mostly just goggles at him, and then Mark, who scrunches up his face at her before kissing her nose.
“Bye, darling girl,” Marge waves from the monitor. “And you, Mark.”
“Bye, mum,” Mark calls, already toting Pammy out towards her nursery and presumably a fresh nappy.
Gary settles back heavily into the chair once they’re gone, smiling tiredly at his mum.
“I can’t wait to meet her, and see the boys again,” Marge says softly, blinking conspicuously.
“You’ll be here soon,” he says. “Mum, don’t cry, I get plenty of that already.”
“Oh, I know. Just ignore me,” she laughs wetly, waving a hand. “How are you?”
“Happy,” he says immediately. “So happy, mum.”
She smiles. “And exhausted?”
He groans, leaning back until the chair nearly tips over. “You’ve got no bloody idea.”
“I might have a bit of one, duck,” Marge corrects with a smile.
“Well—all right, yeah,” he allows.
“And she still won’t sleep for you?” Marge asks him gently.
He tries to smile, but he knows it doesn’t quite come off. “Not yet,” he manages. What he wants to do is flop face-first onto the desk and beg his mummy to fix it, to tell him the perfect solution to sort this out, preferably immediately, but—but that’s not how it works, he supposes. He’s got his three kids now, and she might hate him, but he’s the one who has to sort it out now. So he just tries to smile at his mum and hope it comes off as reassuring.
“It’s nothing to do with you, love,” she starts carefully, resting her chin on one of her hands. “It’s just—“
“I know, mum,” he says, cutting her off. “I know it’s nothing, all right, just a fluke, and Mark has told me about a million times, and I know it’ll get better eventually. I know.” He does. That doesn’t mean he can quite make himself believe it, but that’s another thing entirely.
“Just don’t take it to heart,” Marge tells him. “Babies are nonsense little things, you know it. They don’t start to make sense for quite a bit.”
Gary can’t help but smile at that.
“Anyway, it sounds like she spits up on Mark much more, so you’ve got that, at least.”
He laughs at that, because—it’s true, actually, now that he thinks about it. She’s spit-uppy as it is, but Mark does get it worse than Gary does. Half his shirts seem stained already.
“Thanks,” he tells Marge. “That does, weirdly, make me feel better.”
Out in the corridor, he hears Pammy start to shout, and then the low murmur of Mark’s voice, a bit pleading, like he can rationalise her into being quiet.
“Better go,” Gary tells his mum.
“I love you mum,” she tells him firmly. “Get some rest if you can, and see that Mark does too. And I’ll be there soon.”
“Counting down the days,” he says, swallowing hard. “Pammy is too.”
Marge smiles at him for a long moment. “Speak again soon, my darling.”
“Speak again soon,” he repeats. She disconnects, and then he’s alone in the office, staring at an empty grey box on the screen.
Down the hall, Pammy shrieks, and he lets himself sit in the empty room for just moment before pushing himself up and shuffling off to find the rest of his exhausted, vom-covered army members.
In the end, when it happens, he’s so tired it escapes his notice entirely. One moment he’s lying on the sofa in the warm lounge with the windows open while Pammy whimpers on his chest, a muted television show he can’t make sense of on the telly, and then suddenly he’s being woken by a gentle prod to his bicep.
“Hm?” he asks nonsensically, trying to blink the fuzziness away from his eyes. He doesn’t remember falling asleep, which is disorienting, and he’s groggy and a bit overwarm. Mark’s crouched next to the edge of the sofa, peering at him with an alarmingly tearful expression.
“Shh,” Mark says, gesturing at Gary’s torso vaguely. “Look. You’ve done it.”
“What?” Gary asks. His brain feels a bit like mush. He tries to shift around, a bit, but he realizes in the next moment why he’s so warm—there’s Pammy, pinning him down, dead asleep on his chest.
“Oh,” he says, freezing. He’s immediately afraid that if he moves too quickly—at all, perhaps—he’ll dislodge Pammy, make her wake and cry and then this won’t count and God, she’s sleeping, she’s sleeping for him, and he really fucking wants it to count.
“I didn’t mean to,” he whispers a bit dumbly, holding himself as still as he can. He hadn’t—she’d been fussy after lunch, and he’d walked her around the house about twenty times until they were both a bit sweaty in the summer heat, and finally flopped them both onto the sofa out of fatigue. He hadn’t meant to doze off, and he certainly hadn’t expected her to either.
“You did, though,” Mark beams, his eyes blooming and going wide.
Gary gazes down at Pammy, his eyes going a bit crossed as he does. She’s tiny and still, sprawled chest to chest with him—he’d pitched his own shirt on the floor before lying down, covered in spit-up as it was, and she’d been in just a nappy since her bath that morning. The baby books that he had read when Jude was born all said that skin to skin contact is important, anyway, although he’s not sure that’s precisely what he’d been thinking about when they’d collapsed down in a heap together.
Her little chest is rising and falling in soft breaths, her mouth mushed open where it’s pressed against Gary in a soft little O, and suddenly Gary thinks he might be the one who cries.
“Marko,” he says instead, swallowing as hard as he dares without jostling her too much. “Look at her.”
“I know,” Mark whispers quietly. “Good job, Papa.”
They stay there like that for a long while, Mark still crouched low and sniffling occasionally. Gary thinks he never wants to move, not ever, just stay right here with his husband and his little stubborn daughter who’s finally asleep for him, God. Especially because this might be a fluke, and once he moves and wakes her, she might never go down for him again. But eventually his legs start to cramp, and he realises she’ll have to go into her cot eventually.
“Alright,” he murmurs, steeling himself.
She doesn’t wake as he sits up, though, not even when he repositions her just underneath his chin. Gary can scarcely believe it—it’s not until they’re in the hall outside her nursery that she opens her green eyes, peering up at him sleepily.
“Hi, miss,” he whispers, setting her softly down against the mattress. “It’s alright, go back to sleep.”
He assumes she won’t, that she’ll open her mouth to wail, and he’s alright with that, because this one victory is enough for now—he’s done it.
Miraculously, though, she just yawns, resettles herself with one fist up against her cheek, and shuts her eyes again.
He stands there for a long while, frozen, watching her sleep, almost unable to believe it. After a bit, he feels Mark’s hand on his bare waist.
He doesn’t say anything, just nods his head towards the corridor, and Gary follows him a bit dazedly.
“Look at you Barlow, taming our wild little screamer” Mark says as they shuffle down the hall to their bedroom. It’s instinct, at this point, to lie down when she’s asleep, although Gary isn’t even sure he’s tired anymore—he rather wants to stay awake, now, and relive his accomplishment several times, in great detail.
“Thought for sure she’d scream like a banshee as soon as we moved her,” Mark continues, nudging Gary down into their bed. He follows a second later, curling up against Gary’s side like a question mark and clinging to his torso like a creeper vine.
“Dunno,” Gary says, unable to keep himself from grinning a bit stupidly at the ceiling. Ordinarily he’d be more than happy to take credit for something he’s done when Mark can’t control the boys even if he’s not quite sure how he managed, but he can’t quite get himself to do it this time, still a bit disbelieving he’d managed it at all.
“You’re like, the baby whisperer,” Mark murmurs against his neck, twining one hand in the hair at the nape of Gary’s neck.
“Marko,” Gary says, still smiling. “I got Pammy to sleep once, c’mon.” He can’t help but preen a bit, though.
“Anyway, you know what this means?” Mark insists.
“Means that maybe we can sleep for more than three hours in a row once in a while?” Gary asks.
“No,” Mark says. “Well, I mean, yeah, but you know what we can do then?”
Gary blinks. “Not die from sleep deprivation?”
Mark huffs a laugh into Gary’s neck, but then licks a stripe up to the hinge of his jaw, biting down just beneath Gary’s ear.
“We can actually have sex again,” he announces happily. “Since we’ll be so well rested.”
Gary snorts. “You’re spoiling a lovely parenting milestone, you monster.”
Mark just shrugs happily. “I can be pleased she’s asleep and that I might get to touch your monster again soon at the same time, all right?”
“I suppose,” Gary allows, and then adds, “you slag.”
Mark just gloms onto him harder. “I love you,” he says. “And I love our three kids, and I love that she’s asleep because of you, and we’re going to nap, and then I’m going to—.”
“Yeah, all right,” Gary agrees. He’s not confident that Pammy will stay out long enough for all of those things, honestly, but it’s a nice story to hear, anyway.
“Knew you could do it,” Mark says, quieter, as his eyes drift shut.
Gary manages to stay awake for a full thirty seconds to enjoy the mixture of pride and relief coursing through him before he’s asleep again.