“I’m sorry—can you hold him for a minute, please?” and the baby is in Elliot’s arms before he can summon a response. “Thank you.” The baby’s mother immediately hurries away.
“Absolutely,” he says to no one, staring at the thing. “Thank you for this opportunity, I am the man for the job!”
The baby regards Elliot with an expression Elliot chooses to interpret as deep offence, maybe some light loathing. It doesn’t cry yet, however: it contents itself with a whine. Then it looks at Elliot, and Elliot looks back.
According to Elliot’s sources, the baby is named Edwin. Edwin is nine months old. Edwin has a runny nose and is wearing pajamas with feet on them, from Elliot’s world. Edwin is clean—for now.
People keep referring to Edwin as “little Eddie,” or “little angel,” but Elliot only just met the guy, and he doesn’t feel like he and Edwin are on intimate enough terms yet for Elliot to be calling him by diminutive nicknames. And whether or not he is an angel remains to be seen.
He is little, however, compared to other humans. Elliot’s hand can span Edwin’s back. Elliot could probably throw him if he wanted. About the size of a small Christmas goose. Not that Elliot’s ever had a goose for Christmas. Eventually everyone else around him goes in the way of Edwin’s mother and Elliot is alone in the clearing with this baby.
Edwin’s hair is in directionless tufts. He is quiet, pensive, and, Elliot suspects, judgmental. “You don’t trust me,” Elliot tells Edwin, “and I don’t trust you.” Just to get that out of the way. Hopefully Edwin will find Elliot’s frankness refreshing.
Edwin fists his tiny, sticky hands in Elliot’s shirt and whimpers, looking distressed. It becomes clear after some time that Elliot may be in possession of this infant for longer than “a minute,” so he cannot stand there indefinitely. He chooses to sit with him instead.
“Okay,” Elliot tells the baby, settling uncomfortably under a nearby tree. “You probably won’t be kidnapped,” he says. He is trying to explain the status quo and align Edwin’s expectations. Edwin doesn’t seem comforted by this, but Elliot hasn’t finished yet. “You probably won’t go on fire or be robbed,” he continues. “If we are set upon by a warg I cannot help you.”
Edwin squirms, twisting like he is trying to escape from Elliot and crawl into the woods to die.
“Better not go over there,” says Elliot, adjusting Edwin so he’s a little more trapped against Elliot’s person. Edwin finally makes an unhappy sound. “Me too,” Elliot says. “But you can’t. You’ve been placed in my temporary custody, and if you disappear, I’ll be held personally—and probably financially—responsible. And that warg is probably just waiting for my supervision to lapse.”
Edwin says a nonsense sound.
“I know,” Elliot says. “You are a baby.”
The baby locates Elliot’s pen in his shirt pocket and brandishes it with a deliberate movement. “Oh,” he says.
“Yes,” Elliot answers. “Pen. You’ll only find these with me and Luke. Because I gave some to Luke.” Edwin coos, which Elliot decides is probably a reaction to Luke’s name. He wouldn’t be the first to have an irrationally positive response to the concept of Luke Sunborn. “I know,” Elliot commiserates. “Only he doesn’t use them, he just has them because they’re mine. Oh please don’t eat that.”
The baby disregards Elliot’s directive and puts the pen in his mouth.
“I don’t like that,” Elliot decides. “I want this to stop.”
The baby carefully places the pen, slick with spit, on Elliot’s collarbone.
“I am in hell,” Elliot says, wincing. “I’m in baby hell.”
Then Edwin touches Elliot’s face. He gropes Elliot’s chin, prods at his mouth, takes gentle hold of his nose.
“Er,” says Elliot.
Nonplussed and placid, Elliot settles and stares while the baby examines him, squeezes his cheekbone, tries to poke out his eye. This is rude. Elliot nudges with his fingertips at the baby’s face too, just to give him a taste of his own medicine.
Edwin grunts, winces, and then laughs. Baby laughs are messy, like Edwin hasn’t quite worked out how to do it yet. Like it sort of popped out of him for lack of a better exit strategy. “See how you like it,” says Elliot, nudging harder. The baby takes hold of several of Elliot’s fingers and urges the hand away. “All right,” Elliot concedes. “You win. This time.”
Edwin gets bored with Elliot’s face and begins examining his clothing.
“I’m sure she will be coming back,” Elliot tells him. Edwin’s downy baby hair has drooped down his little forehead, so Elliot tries to brush it carefully to one side. “You’re not like me,” he adds. The baby turns his head to avoid the grooming and begins messing around with the strings on Elliot’s hoodie. “I think I am an outlier,” Elliot continues. “She will come back to collect you and things will be right again…”
“Hum,” the baby says, and reaches up. For a second Elliot thinks he’s going to start messing around with Elliot’s face again, but instead he cranes up and pats Elliot’s hair.
“Ah… yes,” Elliot agrees. The baby pushes at it, and then tugs softly. “No,” Elliot decides. Edwin takes a fistful. “No,” says Elliot again, “I don’t think—ow. Ow—”
Edwin starts to complain when Elliot pries his hand out of his hair. He comes away with his face screwed up in dismay and his little sticky hand clutching several curly, ginger hairs.
“I hated that,” Elliot tells him. Edwin sobs. “I get that. You are a baby and you reach for large, brightly coloured objects.” Edwin is still fussing. “But listen to me, baby: it hurt! Where is your sense of empathy? Where is your respect? Where is your mother?” He looks helplessly around. They are still alone, and Edwin is still beginning to cry. “I don’t know what to do. What am I supposed to do if you’re angry with me? I—” The baby pauses to rub ineptly at his face with the backs of his fat little wrists. “Are you… tired?” tries Elliot. “You are frustrated. I don’t know what to do about this. Are you—ummm…” Edwin is beginning to cry again, outright, so Elliot chooses a different tactic. He thinks back to the last time he got upset in front of Luke. It’s generally a good policy when dealing with other people: What Would Luke Do? Elliot hugs the baby. Maybe if he is squeezing him, he won’t be able to get in a deep enough breath to really start wailing. Then he rubs his back awkwardly. “I, um… understand your concerns,” he offers. “I, too, have been tired. And enjoyed hair pulling. And, um… been left behind by a mother. But… yours will come back! Probably.”
Edwin wails anyway, but it’s only a couple times, and then, to Elliot’s complete shock, he throws his head down and mashes his face against Elliot’s chest. Drool and snot seep into his t-shirt. And then Edwin hits him. One flimsy, pointless baby palm connecting with his chest. It is very rude.
“Baby hell,” Elliot says again, looking up at the trees.
Edwin gets over the heartbreak of being disallowed from rendering Elliot bald comparatively quickly. Elliot does not remember what, if anything, authority figures did to entertain him when he was an infant; however, the opposite of crying is laughter, and Elliot does not want a reprisal of the crying. If Edwin’s mother returned and found Elliot having upset Edwin, what would she think? What would she do? And it might reflect poorly on Luke. Not that the idiot needs any help with his reputation.
Elliot tries to tell Edwin a joke. “Knock knock,” he says. Edwin makes a strange noise and hits Elliot again. He’s no longer angry, which means he’s just abusing Elliot because he knows he is allowed to. Or maybe it hasn’t occurred to him that hitting Elliot means Elliot is being hit. “Why did the chicken cross over to hit Elliot?” Elliot asks him. Edwin flops over, once again trying to run away with a warg circus.
Elliot hauls Edwin back upright in his lap. But Edwin tries to leave again. Elliot lifts Edwin and uncrosses his legs, which were falling asleep anyway. He leans back against the tree trunk, crooks his knees, and sits Edwin on his stomach, hanging on to his little forearms.
This seems to reset the interaction. Edwin stays. Elliot has clearly underestimated this baby. In a moment of directionless inspiration, he claps Edwin’s hands together. At least if Edwin is clapping he cannot beat the shit out of Elliot or abandon civilization.
After a little of this, Edwin begins to smile a little. He looks back and forth between their hands and Elliot’s face with growing delight. “Hey hey, we’re the Monkees,” Elliot sings uncomfortably, making Edwin clap along, and feeling very stupid. But, laughing excitedly, Edwin finally gets with the program and yanks his hands free. He begins clapping, stiff-fingered, of his own volition. He has no rhythm whatsoever.
“By George,” Elliot says, and then quietly claps his own hands. Occasionally Edwin slaps his hands against Elliot’s stomach, and Elliot gently slaps Edwin’s shoulders, and Edwin shrieks with excitement and returns to clapping. It is a terrible game, one with no rules, and Elliot thinks Edwin is cheating; but Elliot decides there are worse ways he could be spending his time, and they clap together for long enough that Edwin’s tears dry and he does not try to escape again.
Elliot does not remember falling asleep. But he wakes to the baby being pulled from him, and instinctively, he jolts and clutches protectively at him. “Hey,” says the kidnapper, amused, “it’s all right.”
Elliot blinks, perplexed, around. Warm, blond, handsome, stupid. It’s Luke. “Oh,” says Elliot, much more stupidly. After a moment of staring at Luke, a longer moment than is reasonable, Elliot lets him lift the baby from his arms. Elliot realizes Edwin was fast asleep, there on his chest, when he grunts unhappily and lays his head on Luke’s shoulder.
“Sorry,” Luke says to Elliot. “I didn’t mean to, um… startle you.”
Why is he looking at Elliot like that? That stupid smile on his face? After all this time, can he not stop making fun of Elliot for two seconds? Elliot is not unaware that Edwin has left him a snotty, drooly mess that is squinting with sleep. He grimaces and pulls his damp shirt away from his chest. “Is, um… where's… is his mother?”
“She’s fine,” Luke says, still smiling. “She’ll be over soon, I think.”
“Wh’s the time?”
“Not late. It’s only been an hour or so.” The baby is now lifting its head, also grimacing. He is upright in Luke’s arms, looking around. His head is fluffed up weird on one side.
“Oh,” sighs Elliot, touching it pointlessly. “I tried,” he explains to Luke. “I really did. I tried to keep it smoothed. Will she be angry?”
“That her child’s hair got messy sleeping in your arms?” Luke asks, entertained. He absently rubs Edwin's back. “I think she’ll get over it.”
“Okay, ha ha,” grouches Elliot, sitting up and stretching. “Elliot’s a drowsy moron with spit all over him. Get it out of your system.”
“Elliot,” says Luke pityingly. Edwin is starting to fuss, and Luke bounces him gently in his arms. “Hey,” Luke says to him, soft and sweet. “Hey, Eddie. You quite sleepy?” Edwin looks miserably at Luke, and then touches his face. Then he braces his little palms on Luke’s chest and twists around to look at Elliot, confused and gloating, probably.
“I know,” Elliot says to him. “What a complex day for Edwin. But congratulations.” He honestly doesn’t blame him. Luke is warm and he smells good. Elliot likes to be held by him also. This is a relatable situation. Both Edwin and Luke are looking at him now, and he begins to feel inexplicably nervous. “What?” he demands indignantly.
“Nothing,” says Luke, bouncing Edwin again.
Edwin flops dangerously over in Luke’s arms, then, making a terrible noise and reaching out to Elliot. His hands clench and unclench in the air. Elliot stares, and his heart thumps hard. He looks up at Luke, and Luke just looks even more pleased. Then he hands the baby back over to Elliot.
Elliot clumsily accepts him, dismayed. “Are you sure?” he asks Edwin. Stood on Elliot’s stomach—it is not comfortable—Edwin continues fussing for a moment, and then accustoms himself to having, for the millionth time in his short life, gotten what he wanted. “I mean—are you absolutely positive?” But he looks at Elliot, and then claps one tiny hand onto his face. “Ah!”
Luke laughs outright.
“Are you sure?” Elliot asks Luke. Edwin touches his forehead. “What is going on? Is this a test?” Luke just laughs some more, and then drops down beside him, resting one shoulder against the tree. “I don’t know about this,” Elliot continues to protest, and he is affirmed when Edwin tugs at Elliot’s ear and begins to slowly lift one leg, as if trying to climb him. “No, I know about that and it’s bad.” He readjusts the baby, who complains about it, and Luke just laughs and laughs and sighs happily.
If this is all it takes to brighten Luke’s mood, then Elliot will hold all the confusing children in the country. He will look absurd deliberately and be soaked through with spit every day for Luke. How vile. “Elliot,” Luke says incandescently. “You have thoroughly charmed this baby.”
“Yes, he wants to scalp me,” says Elliot, hauling Edwin away from his hair.
“I mean you’re really good with him.”
Elliot is offended by the inaccuracy of this statement. He tries to get Luke to understand exactly how wrong he is. “He tried to get away from me and be raised by wargs,” he tells Luke. “He cried and only stopped when I made him clap to a Monkees song.”
“You sang him a song?” Luke is utterly thrilled. “About monkeys?”
“No. A song by the Monkees. The satirical but accidentally successful band?” They’ve been over this. Elliot’s Monkees t-shirt is Luke’s second least favourite.
“And you played patty cake with him?” Luke only seems to become happier as he processes this information. Elliot is perplexed, but Edwin responds to Luke’s joy and twists around to plop onto his behind on Elliot’s stomach. Sitting there sideways, he can absorb the sight of Luke in all his striking, winged glory. Luke takes Edwin’s hands, and Edwin worms them free. Then he reaches for Luke’s hand again.
“What is—oh! Patty cake!” Elliot just feels like a moron now. “I forgot about patty cake. Why didn’t I start with rhymes? I forgot they existed…”
“Patty cake, patty cake,” Luke says, clapping with the baby, “bake all night.” Elliot narrows his eyes. “Baking us cakes until daylight—”
“I don’t think those are the words,” Elliot interrupts. “No, that’s wrong. It goes baker’s man…”
Luke continues clapping with Edwin, despite no longer performing the poem. “Who is the baker’s man? Is the baker married?”
“Well, I certainly don’t know.” Elliot seems to be asked to interpret poetry for Luke a lot. He should stop reading him poetry. He won’t, though. “I didn’t write it! You’ll have to take it up with Mother Goose.”
“Mother who?” Luke exclaims, eyes wide and eyebrows up. Elliot just buries his face in his hands for a moment. He can’t do that for long, however, because he wants to hold Edwin in place. Edwin is warm and heavy and Elliot has grown to enjoy it; and besides, his draw to the wargs seemed strong. When it becomes clear Elliot won’t elaborate, Luke says, “You now,” indicating by raising his chin toward Elliot that it is Elliot’s turn.
Elliot feels quite put on the spot. “Oh, no,” he says. “You don’t want me reciting children’s rhymes. I don't want me reciting children's rhymes. And Edwin deserves better!"
“I want to hear the rest,” Luke says. They are still clapping, and the baby is starting to laugh in short, excited exhales.
Elliot bites his lips together. Then he says, “Roll it.” Edwin looks up at him. “Pat it. Mark it with an E…” Luke looks like this is his favourite day. Twenty years of blessed Sunborn life has led to this moment. “Put it in the oven for Edwin and me.”
Edwin kicks his feet and rocks like a desk toy and beams at Elliot, all gums and no comprehension. Clearly this is the version with which he is familiarized. He hits Elliot again, twice, this time with his left hand.
“Oh,” Elliot says, grabbing at it. “He’s ambidextrous as well as violent.”
And Luke looks at Elliot with a thrill and intensity that Elliot still isn’t used to.
They sit there for a while longer, Elliot trying to recall nursery rhymes and Luke watching him and the baby like he never wants to stop. The amount of pure bliss Luke derives from the experience is enough to make Elliot a little more relaxed, and he transitions into a few of the songs.
They’re just in the middle of comparing their differing lyrics to Baa Baa Black Sheep (Luke's version is largely centered on complimenting the sheep) when Edwin’s mother returns. “I’m sorry,” she says, plucking Edwin gently from Elliot’s arms. Elliot is astonished by how chilly and empty he feels. “For leaving him with you.”
“It’s all right,” Luke says when Elliot just stares, still confused.
“Was he very bad?” she asks, putting Edwin on her hip. She doesn't seem fazed by his sticking-out hair.
“No,” says Elliot, frowning.
She looks surprised. “Really? You’re sure?” Elliot nods. “Usually when I leave him with somebody he cries the whole time. He takes their things and throws them. He’s broken my sister’s glasses a couple times, he's quite high maintenance...”
Elliot just shakes his head, mystified. “No, he was lovely,” Luke says contentedly. “Elliot sang to him.” Elliot scowls at him. Smirking back, Luke adds, “I think he did pull Elliot’s hair once.”
“Only once?” she says. “Hm… Maybe…” She brightens a little. “Er… I think we will be here for a few more days... And we may visit the Sunborns again. Would it be all right if you minded him again sometime?”
“All right,” says Elliot. There is too much information being thrown at him, both externally and internally. “I could try.”
She smiles at him. Elliot, surprised by an encouraging interaction, smiles back. “Um, thank you!” And she goes away, Edwin peering with some concern over her shoulder at Elliot. Elliot stares back until Edwin and his mother disappear into the house and Elliot cannot see them anymore.
Then he looks back at Luke, to find Luke already looking at him. “Who knew?” Luke asks.
Elliot glares suspiciously. “Who knew what?”
“That you have such a knack for babies,” shrugs Luke.
“I don’t,” insists Elliot. “I have no knack. There is no knack! He was just tired, that’s all.”
“Usually tired babies get grouchy, I think,” Luke says.
“Yes. I used to watch my little second cousins. They scream about it. It’s a whole big mess.”
“Well,” says Elliot. “I got lucky.”
Luke does not accept this version of events. “He loved you,” he says.
“He loved making a mockery of me.”
“I love you.”
“You love watching me be made a mockery of. Me. Of—by—” Then Elliot stops. “Wait. What?” Luke just looks at him like he feels sorry for Elliot. “You—seriously?”
“I liked seeing you with him,” Luke says, looking down at his lap, where he is fidgeting with a leaf. “It was… sweet.”
Elliot is speechless. He can’t believe how often Luke renders him speechless. Of course, Elliot seems to often bring about the crabby, sarcastic, scholarly side of Luke no one else believes exists, so maybe they match each other. He clears his throat. “Um, I can’t bear your children, Luke.”
“Really?” asks Luke flatly. “I'm beside myself. Whyever not?”
“Only making sure you knew that,” says Elliot, flushing. “No matter how much I love you, it is not physically possible. And I’m too young! And I will have to insist that I only got lucky. I—I simply don’t have the temperament.” Elliot doesn’t know the first thing about parenting. He did not once see an example of it until he met Rachel Sunborn; and even then, he doesn’t see her very often. Michael Sunborn appreciates Elliot, but thinks he makes no sense, both as a person and as a fixture in Luke’s life. Elliot would need extensive training and direct supervision. And maybe, he thinks, for all his stress and good intentions, it won’t be possible. What are the odds of two people so unsuited to parenthood reproducing? Surely genetics aren't avoidable. Perhaps he was doomed by design, damned from the start, and it's inevitable that he will turn out like his parents no matter what. That thought frightens him and he does not want to confront it.
But of course Luke has not considered the idea of Elliot being remotely like his parents or to blame for their choices. He doesn't delve into Elliot's dark history or speculate about a troubling future. Luke only sees Elliot as he is now. Elliot wants to be seen. Luke chuckles softly and hands Elliot his leaf. It’s not a good leaf. It’s not crackly enough to be fun to smash, just enough that it drops bits of rubbish-leaf on Elliot’s shirt. But he accepts it all the same; and he accepts Luke’s hand when Luke reaches for Elliot’s. “I don’t think it’s about temperament,” Luke tells him thoughtfully. “I think it’s about choosing. Isn’t that what you told me? Possibilities.”
Elliot hangs on to Luke’s hand like Luke alone could keep him anchored to the surface of the earth. “Yes,” he says. “But I can do a career. And I can do loving someone… I don’t think I could—”
“A kid is a someone,” says Luke. Elliot had, idiotically, never thought of it that way. Like choosing someone, and loving someone, could overcome being a bad person. It seems overly simplistic, and Elliot does not trust things which are overly simplistic.
Elliot ruminates on this however. They sit there in silence, contemplating the holding of violent babies and the exchange of subpar leaves. “I think I liked him,” Elliot finally admits, very quietly. Quiet enough that it’s illegal to acknowledge out loud.
And Luke is nothing if not obedient of the law.