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Family of Six

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“Morning, handsome.”

James blinked through scratchy, crusty eyes and saw Rose on her side, facing him. Her elbow was propped on her pillow, her cheek resting in her palm.

“Hi,” he murmured, his voice gruff. He hummed when she leaned down and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “How’re you feeling?”

“Great,” she said. “It barely feels like I squeezed two humans out of my vag two days ago.”

He snorted. His stomach clenched when he saw her wide, tongue-touched grin. Glancing over Rose’s shoulder, he saw their babies, Hannah and Madeline, sleeping contentedly in their bassinets.

“Wanna cuddle?” he asked. Rose nodded and wriggled into his waiting embrace. He sighed when her sleep-heated body pressed up to his; he wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Rose tilted her head up and pressed a light kiss to his jaw, then to his chin, before she strained higher to catch his lips between hers.

James exhaled through his nose and shifted so he could kiss his wife more easily. Her lips were dry and warm and felt so good skating across his. His heart thudded against his ribs as he twined his fingers through her hair to hold her in place while his other hand went to the small of her back.

The hand she wasn’t lying on lazily migrated up his torso. Her fingers skimmed his ribs, ghosted up his chest, until her palm cradled his jaw.

They snogged lazily in bed as the rest of the world faded away. There was nothing but them and the pleasure brought about by the slow, languorous motions of their mouths and the gentle caresses of their hands.

“You know you need to put the brakes on those activities for at least six weeks.”

James squeaked in surprise as he was jarred back to reality. Elizabeth smirked at them from the doorway of their recovery suite.

“I know! I wasn’t… we weren’t… I wasn’t gonna…”

Rose laughed at him; the sound soothed a tiny fraction of his mortification. She pressed a parting kiss to his cheek and patted his chest reassuringly before she sat up in bed. James followed suit, his cheeks still burning. It wasn’t as though he’d intended for the kiss to go any further; frankly, he wasn’t even close to being in the mood to go further. Perhaps it was the lingering adrenaline and endorphins from the birth of his two newest daughters, but kissing Rose these last few minutes had felt better than usual.

“How are you feeling?” Elizabeth asked, stepping fully into the room. She walked up to the two cots and smiled down at the babies within them. She stroked her fingers across their fat little cheeks, then focused on Rose.

“I’m fantastic,” Rose said, beaming.

James’s heart stuttered through a few beats as he beheld her smile. She was truly radiant. He thought she’d been glowing whilst pregnant, but this… She was more than glowing—she was shining.

He slid his hand across the mattress until he could cover her fingers with his.

“I’ve sent their cheek swabs away for testing,” Elizabeth said. “The results will come back in a couple weeks. I’ll give you a call when they do. My guess is it’s going to confirm they’re identical twins, but who knows. All newborns tend to look similar in my years of experience. Especially newborn siblings.”

They chatted for a few minutes, mostly about generic newborn care information that they already knew but appreciated nevertheless. After that, they were left alone to get dressed as Elizabeth went to retrieve the release papers.

While the suite they’d stayed in for the birth and recovery was beautiful and luxurious, James and Rose were itching to get back to the familiarity of their own home. They yearned for their own bed and a kitchen where they could make whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it.

With clean bills of health for Rose, Hannah, and Maddie, as well as a follow-up appointment scheduled, James and Rose bundled their girls up for the trip home. It had been years since he’d had to dress a floppy, fragile baby, but his hands took over immediately, remembering exactly how to position and support his baby’s body to wrestle her into the thick, fuzzy coat he’d selected for her.

“And we’re gonna put a hat on that teeny little head,” James whispered, sliding on the pale pink cap. “And then you’re going to hang out with Mummy and Maddie while Daddy goes to get the car.”

Assisted by a pair of nurses, James and Rose carried their new babies and suitcase to the main lobby of the birth center. With a parting kiss to her brow, James handed Hannah to his wife, then took their bag and walked outside.

The morning was cold and wet, and James ran through the pelting rain to their car. Damp and shivering, he put the heat on full blast and waited until it was blowing warm air so that his new babies wouldn’t be placed into a chilly car. He pulled up to the front of the building, underneath the protection of the overhang roof, and idled the car as he got out to make one last check that the car seats were appropriately installed, then to help Rose.

“Ready?” he asked, stepping forward to take a baby from her.

He cradled Hannah close to his chest, then leaned down to nuzzle his nose to her soft, fresh skin. A nurse, meanwhile, helped Rose stand and escorted them outside to their car, where they buckled the babies into their seats. The girls were dwarfed by their car seats; it looked as though both babies could fit inside one of them.

“There we are,” James cooed as he made sure all of the buckles and straps were fastened properly around Hannah while Rose did the same for Maddie. “Snug as a bug in a rug! Keeping you nice and safe. Though Daddy prays these straps will never be needed to keep you safe in the event of a car crash.”

“Way to be a downer.”

James stuck his tongue out at his wife, then brushed a kiss overtop Hannah’s knit cap and closed the door as quietly as he could. He then moved to Rose’s side of the car as she slid into the passenger’s seat.

“You gonna strap me in too?” she asked dryly.

“Could do,” he mused. He made a show of buckling her seat belt and tugging at the strap to test the security of it. 

“You nutter,” she giggled.

“But your nutter! Forever.”

“I suppose you’ll do.”

James grinned and waggled his eyebrows at Rose before closing her door and moved to the driver’s seat.

He drove his family home, taking great care to not turn corners too quickly and avoiding potholes where he could. Twenty minutes later, they pulled into the driveway behind the multipurpose vehicle they’d purchased in anticipation of hauling their entire family of six at once. Their new vehicle seated eight people, providing them plenty of room for kids and kid-related supplies.

James had barely put the car in park before Robert and Jackie came out the front door, both of them holding umbrellas.

“Thank you,” he said as he slid out of the car and under the protection of the umbrella.

“We can’t have these precious sweethearts catching a cold already,” Jackie cooed, fussing over Hannah’s cap when she saw it was lopsided and half covering the baby’s eyes.

“You can’t get a cold from merely being cold,” James said, rolling his eyes.

“Oh, shut up and get my granddaughters inside.”

He shared an exasperated look with Rose across the car as she took Maddie from her seat.

“Shh, darling,” he murmured as Hannah woke up when he picked her up. “It’s just Daddy. I know it’s cold, but it’s only for a few seconds. I promise we’ll get you inside where it’s nice and warm.”

He cuddled her close, trying to give her as much warmth as he could. Jackie centered the umbrella over Hannah, leaving half of James’s body exposed to the icy rain.

“Oh, sure, you don’t worry about me catching a cold,” he grumbled, glancing over at Rose to make sure she was doing all right. His dad had her well taken care of.

“You can’t catch a cold from being cold,” Jackie parroted sweetly.

He heard Rose laughing at them, but he ignored her and instead walked to the ajar front door. The heat was a blessing as a chill rippled up James’s spine.

“See, I told you, Han,” he said to the child in his arms. “Nice and toasty in here.”

He turned as Rose and his father stepped through the front door, kicking off their wet shoes. Rose glanced at him and frowned.

“Mum, you really couldn’t keep him any drier than that?”

“I told you your mum still has it out for me,” he said gravely.

Jackie swatted at his soaked shoulder, but looked slightly apologetic.

“Here, I’ll take her. You get changed,” she said, holding out her arms.

“Aha! This was all a ploy so you could hold my darling daughter. Next time, just ask.”

But he gave Hannah to her grandmother and departed down the hall to get into dry clothes.

The afternoon passed by quickly and easily, with both babies napping contentedly in their cots or somebody’s arms when they weren't being fed.

When it came time to collect Ainsley and Sianin from school, Robert and Jackie volunteered.

Forty-five minutes later, the front door burst open and two sets of pattering feet raced towards them.

“Mummy! Daddy!”

Sianin launched herself onto the couch and into James’s lap while Ainsley rushed to Rose’s side.

James gathered Sianin close to his chest and held her tight, breathing her in. Though he’d seen his daughters only two afternoons ago, he’d missed them dearly. As he kissed the side of her head and kept her in his lap, he had a jarring moment of realization that Sianin wasn’t his baby anymore. She was his middle child, his second-eldest.

He looked over and saw Ainsley standing between Rose’s legs, peering down into Hannah’s face. The baby was awake and staring up with dark blue eyes, trying to focus on Ainsley. His heart throbbed to see his eldest cooing down at her baby sister and being so gentle as she pressed a feather-light kiss to Hannah’s forehead before she traced her fingertips across Hannah’s face.

“Gran said there was a surprise,” Sianin prompted, drawing him back to the child in his lap.

James furrowed his brow at Jackie as she shed her coat.

“Your mummy, daddy, and sisters being home is the surprise, sweetheart,” Jackie said. “Isn’t it so nice to have them home?”

Ainsley nodded vigorously, but Sianin looked a little put-out, though she snuggled deeper into James’s arms.

Jackie and Robert made a large dinner for the family, which they’d apparently been doing for the past few days, resulting in a fridge and freezer full of meals for James and Rose so they didn’t need to worry about cooking for a while.

While Robert departed back to his own home after dinner, Jackie stayed one more night. She would catch a train to London the following morning.

The first night with the twins went better than James and Rose expected. They’d worried that each twin would wake up at different times, essentially keeping them up every hour, too. And though the babies were in James and Rose’s bedroom—where they would remain until they were sleeping through the night and didn’t need to nurse every other hour—they worried the sound of crying would bother Ainsley and Sianin. 

But the twins woke up together. Or, rather, Hannah woke them up every few hours, and they fed and changed Maddie during those times, too. Because she was still unaccustomed to nursing two newborns at once, James often aided Rose with the feedings, arranging pillows around her body so she was as comfortable and confident as possible.

“I really appreciate your help,” Rose murmured as she sat back against their headboard for the third feeding of the night. “I promise I’ll get better at juggling two of them.”

“I have no doubt,” he answered.

“I’m just nervous about dropping them right now,” Rose continued. “I’m used to having a spare hand and arm. And they’re so bloody fragile.”

“Rose, you don’t need to apologize or explain,” he said. “Since you’re the milk maid—” Rose snorted and rolled her eyes. James knew that if she’d had a free hand, she would’ve smacked him. “—it’s the least I can do to help finagle the kids around. I’m quite smitten with these two already; it’d be a shame for you to drop one.”

Rose cackled and fondly told him to shut up.

When morning came, with no dropped newborns and two slightly sleep-deprived parents, James and Rose pulled themselves out of bed to get their other two kids ready for the day.

Ainsley was in the living room, sitting on a nest of blankets and watching cartoons with Jackie as she cradled a bowl of half-eaten cereal. Sianin, on the other hand, was still dead asleep when James crept into her room.

“Sianin,” he softly crooned to the blanketed lump of his daughter.

She didn’t even stir. He crouched beside her bed and took a moment to look at this perfect little human he’d helped make. Even though her hair was a tangled mess, dried drool crusted around her mouth and chin, and pillow lines creased her cheeks, she was beautiful.

The peacefulness of the moment disappeared as he began trying to rouse her. He stroked her hair away from her face, taking care not to get his fingers caught in any of the numerous knots. Sianin let out a whining moan, tucking her face into her pillow and pulling her blankets over her head for good measure.

“Time to wake up,” he said, rubbing her back and simultaneously tugging her blankets off her head.

“Hmph,” she grumbled, cracking open one bleary eye.

He spent the next few minutes gradually waking her up, not leaving the room until she was physically out of bed and moving to the loo lest she fall back to sleep. 

They got through the morning routine quickly, glad that the presence of the twins hadn’t caused any unexpected delays. Ainsley was already dressed for school and sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with Rose and Jackie while the twins slept in the portable bassinets Rose must have moved into the kitchen.

Sianin joined them a few minutes later, drowsy and still in her pajamas. Her hair was a matted nest, but she didn’t seem to care as she clambered onto a kitchen chair, awaiting her breakfast.

“Oatmeal okay, Sian?” Rose asked, standing from the table.

“Mhm,” she said through a yawn.

“How did you two sleep?” James asked, working around Rose to put the coffee on. “Did you hear your sisters last night? Did their crying wake you?”

Ainsley and Sianin shook their heads.

The family finished up their breakfast, then Sianin and James got dressed for the day. James threw on a comfy pair of jeans and a hoodie, then knocked on Sianin’s open bedroom door. She was pulling on her jumper and hadn’t even begun to tackle her hair.

“Want me to fix your hair?” he asked as she rooted around her room for her shoes.

“Sure,” she said.

“In the mood for anything special?” he asked, finding a brush.

“Hmm… Piggy-tails?”

James smiled and sat on the floor behind his daughter to work on taming her silken locks. She sat still for him as he unknotted her hair as gently as he could; he murmured apologies when the brush caught in a snarl.

Moments like this, where it was just him and his daughter doing the most mundane of tasks, were one of James’s favorite parts of fatherhood. He knew men who would never trouble themselves with doing their daughters’ hair, and he felt sorry for them; it was such a simple, easy bonding moment between him and his child.

“How are Elena and Juliette?” James asked when he saw Sianin was clumsily writing on her forearm. 

“They’re good. They wanna know the babies’ names. How do I spell ‘Hannah’ and ‘Maddie’?”

“How would you spell them?” James prompted.

Sianin was silent for a few seconds, then said, “H-A-N-A and… er… M-A-D-E?”

“Close,” he said. “Those were good tries, though.”

He then spelled her sisters’ names for her—including the full spelling for Madeline—and watched her copy them onto her arm.

“Your handwriting is getting much better,” James said. 

He caught Sianin’s reflection in the floor-length mirror on her closed closet door; her face had lit up in a toothy grin.

“Thanks, Daddy!”

“I’m just about done,” he said, parting her hair down the middle and gathering one half into his fist. “High piggy-tails or low ones?”

“Hmm… high. Please,” she tacked on. “Ooh, and can you put a bow on them?”

“Anything for you, my darling.”

He made quick work of smoothing out her hair and fastening each side with a hairband. Now that it wasn’t one giant, frizzy knot, her hair was curling in soft ringlets.

“Pick which bows you want,” he said, pushing himself to his feet with a grunt.

She hopped up and went to the basket on her dresser. She returned a minute later with two mismatched bows. James shrugged and dutifully clipped them into her hair.

“Grab your shoes,” James said.

When they joined the rest of their family, Ainsley was ready to go. She’d finished zipping up her coat and grabbed her bag from where it was hanging on the coat rack.

Jackie’s suitcase was sitting by the front door and James heard her and Rose talking in the kitchen. She was fussing over Rose and the twins.

“I’m fine, Mum,” Rose said, an exasperated edge to her voice. “I’ve been through this more times than you have.”

“Oh, so that means you’re above needin’ a bit of help or advice?” Jackie snipped.

James winced at the sharp tone, and when he heard Rose’s groan of frustration, he stepped into the kitchen to intervene. Cheerfully, he said, “All right, time to go.”

Jackie shoulders hunched as she strode past him. He watched her exit, then turned to his wife.

“You gonna be all right while I’m out?” he asked quietly.

“Not you too. I’m fine. I know how to take care of my own children.”

James raised his hands defensively. “I wasn’t trying to imply you couldn’t. But you’re still only three days post-birth. Your body needs loads of rest. One baby is exhausting to care for, but we’ve got two.”

Rose sighed. “I know. Sorry. It’s just… Mum always makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong, y’know?”

He frowned. “What did she say?”

“Nothing. It’s… I must’ve missed a button on Maddie’s onesie, ‘cos it was all askew and twisted in the front. Mum noticed a second before I did and went right up to Maddie and started talking to her about how that must’ve been so uncomfortable but Gran’s got her and will make it all better. It’s not like I bloody well tried to button it up wrong.” Rose rubbed the heel of her hand into her forehead. “Am I overreacting?”

“I think Jackie could’ve said something different,” James replied. Then he stepped up to his wife and pressed a kiss to her cheek.

Rose caught him in a hug, and when her face was tucked into his neck, she whispered, “Why did we have to get into it right when she’s leaving?”

“I’m sorry, love,” he said, holding her tight. “Give yourself the day to cool down, then talk to your mum. Maybe tell her that you didn’t appreciate what she said. Or how she said it, if that was more the issue.”

“That’ll go over well,” Rose muttered. “She’ll just get offended again.”

James didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing and instead swayed with Rose for another minute.

“I’ve gotta go,” he said, kissing her forehead. “Need anything while I’m out?”

“Don’t think so,” she said. “I’ll let you know if I do. Thanks for taking Mum to the train station.”

“Anything for you,” he replied.

Jackie was helping Sianin fasten the buttons of her coat when he went to the front door.

“I can do it myself, Gran,” Sianin whined.

“I just figured I’d help speed up the process is all,” Jackie said, continuing to do up the buttons for Sianin.

James peeked over at Rose and saw her roll her eyes. He, too, wanted to tell Jackie that Sianin would only get better at fastening buttons if she was allowed to do it herself. But James knew that Jackie was fussing because she cared; it couldn’t be easy for her to leave behind her child and grandchildren after having spent nearly a full week with them. So he held his tongue and ushered everyone out the door.

After James dropped the girls off at school, he drove across town to the train station. Like the good son-in-law he was, he carried her suitcase for her and walked her into the station.

“Right, so we’ll see you for Sianin’s birthday in a few weeks?” James confirmed, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“If Rose still wants me to come,” Jackie grumbled.

“Of course she does,” James answered. Jackie cocked an eyebrow, so he tacked on, “And more importantly, Sianin wants you there.”

Jackie deflated a little. “It’s hard being away from you lot all the time.”

“I know,” James said softly. “But that makes the time with you even more special.”

Jackie sighed. “It’s been so nice staying with Ainsley and Sianin for these last several days. And spending time with the babies yesterday. But the next I’ll see them, they’ll be nearly a month old.”

Jackie sighed again, and for the second time that morning, James didn’t know what to say. Instead, he stepped up to her to give her a brief hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Safe travels, Jackie. Let us know when you get home.”

He handed her bags to her and watched his mother-in-law disappear into the throng of people milling about the station.

When he got home, the house was blissfully silent. The twins were asleep in their bassinets, which had been set up in the living room, and Rose was nowhere to be seen.

He poked his head into the kitchen and took note that all of the dishes had been done and the table and countertops wiped clean.

“Rose?” he asked, furrowing his brow.

“In here.”

“Where’s ‘here’?” he muttered, heading down the hall towards her voice.

He found her in the laundry room, bending over the dryer to put the clean clothes in the basket.

“Everything go all right with Mum and the kids?” Rose asked, continuing to reach into the dryer.

“Yep. Your mum was a bit sad to go, but we already knew that. What are you doing?”

Rose straightened, resting a hand on her lower back as she did so. “Laundry.”

“Yes, yes, I see that. Why? You should be resting.”

She rolled her eyes, shut the door to the dryer, then hefted the laundry basket onto her hip. “I’m not an invalid, James.”

“I know, but you literally pushed two human beings out of your body three days ago,” he said.

“I know. I was there,” she teased, grinning.

“Bloody hell,” he mumbled to himself. He stepped up to her and brushed a strand of hair away from her face before trailing tiny kisses across her cheek and temple. He used the closeness to pry the laundry basket away from her. “You’re amazing, you know that? Absolutely amazing. But just… try to rest? Please? It would make me feel better.”

“You worry too much,” she said gently. “I’m fine.”

“It’s my job to worry,” he said. “You can help sort the socks as long as you sit on the bed to do it.”

Rose shook her head in mock exasperation, but followed him into their bedroom where they worked together to fold the laundry.

They spent the rest of the day relaxing with their new babies and each other. All four of them cuddled on the couch with a romcom playing in the background. James barely paid attention to the film; he was too distracted with his babies and his wife, who he spent most of the day simply talking to.

“I’m really happy to see you doing so well,” James said when Rose decided she absolutely had to do an impromptu photoshoot of the twins and James.

She beamed behind her camera, then instructed him to adjust his grip slightly to get a better view of the twins’ faces. She took at least a hundred photographs in every pose known to man. Sitting, standing, reclining, laying down, with his shirt on and off. James assumed the latter was more for Rose than anything—still, he puffed up at the knowledge his wife thought he was sexy even after all the years they’d been together.

“All right, enough of me,” James said. “Your turn.” When Rose tried to protest, he said, “Nope, come on. Turnabout’s fair play.”

Rose grudgingly handed over her camera, and James spent the next twenty minutes giving her a photoshoot. The photos weren’t as nice as they would’ve been if a real photographer had taken them, but he tried his best, and knew Rose could touch them up and crop them to make them look much better than his amateur attempts.

They resumed the photoshoot when Ainsley and Sianin got home from school. James and Rose took turns behind the camera to document each other with their children.

“Can I take some of you and Dad?” Ainsley asked after a while.

“That’d be great,” Rose said, her face soft. “Be very careful with the camera. It’s delicate.”

Rose spent the next minute showing Ainsley how to use it, practicing on Sianin, who was making silly faces.

When Rose was certain Ainsley had the hang of it, she joined James on the couch and took one of the twins from him. James wrapped his arm around her, anchoring her to his side. Once the traditional ‘smile for the camera’ photos were done, they began making silly faces too. James had even pulled her in for a long snog, to the exaggerated disgust of their kids. Ainsley snapped the photo though, and it ended up being one of the best ones she’d taken.

“Hopefully that’s not a sign she’s going to try her hand at erotic photography when she’s older,” James murmured into Rose’s ear when they saw the series of photos of them kissing.

Rose smacked his chest but laughed loudly.

“What’s so funny?” Ainsley asked, frowning. She stepped up behind them to look at the photos. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No, no, love,” Rose assured. “These are absolutely beautiful. Your dad was just being his usual ridiculous self.”

“You did a really great job, Ainsley,” James praised, which made Ainsley flush with pride.

“I wanna try!” Sianin said, clambering onto the couch.

While Rose showed their five-year-old how to use the camera, James wrapped his arms around Ainsley and tucked her into his lap. She still fit comfortably, small as she was, despite being nine years old.

“Are you excited about being a big sister again?” he asked, absently rocking them from side to side. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah,” she said, beaming. “Do you like being a dad?”

“It’s all right, I suppose,” he said nonchalantly. He nuzzled his cheek against hers, scraping his day-old stubble across her soft, smooth skin. She squirmed in his lap, pushing his face away. He relented with a kiss to her cheek. “Being a dad is the best part of my life.”

Ainsley relaxed back into his arms, content to sit in his lap while Rose continued talking Sianin through basic functions on the camera.

“Let’s get one of Daddy and Ainsley,” Rose whispered.

“Why do you like taking pictures?” Sianin asked.

“It’s fun,” Rose answered, shrugging. “Like how you enjoy playing with your cars, I enjoy taking photos. This camera is basically an adult toy.”

James choked down a laugh, earning him a stern look from his wife, but he saw the mirth dancing in her eyes.

After first smiling at the camera, he and Ainsley turned their attention to the television; James knew Rose adored getting profile and candid shots.

Sianin spent a few more minutes taking photos before she got bored and handed the camera back to Rose. She then slid to the floor and asked Ainsley to play with her.

With their two eldest children occupied and their two youngest children asleep, James and Rose went off to sift through the photos they’d taken that day. Together, they compiled their absolute favorites, and after some minor touch-ups from Rose, she printed them out on her specialized photograph printer.

After everything was printed and dinner was in the oven, James and Rose settled at their kitchen table to update everyone’s photo albums. Barring several ultrasound photos and the hospital-issued birth photo, these were the first pictures to go in the twins’ albums.

James and Rose updated Ainsley’s and Sianin’s latest albums, as well as the family album.

“A bit saucy for a family album, innit?” James teased when she pasted in the photo Ainsley had taken of them kissing.

“Oh shut it. It’s not like we put screenshots from a sex video in here,” Rose said, flicking his arm.

“Well, now you mention it…”

Rose smacked him this time, and James giggled before he dutifully continued taping photographs of his beautiful family into the book.

Chapter Text

Despite not having had a baby in the house in nearly five years, James and Rose fell back into their old habits faster than they expected. Contrary to popular belief, they found caring for newborn twins to be relatively easy. Well, as easy as it can be when caring for any young infant. But it didn’t feel like double the amount of work—instead, it was as though the normal amount of work had simply been applied to two babies.

Though they needed tending to every couple of hours, the twins couldn’t exactly do much apart from eat, sleep, and poo. And unlike their other children, wherever James and Rose set the twins down, they were always in the same location when they returned.

While James and Rose appreciated their babies’ lack of mobility, Sianin did not.

“They’re so boring,” she grumbled as her mother temporarily abandoned the coloring book they were doing together so that she could feed the babies.

“That’s their job right now,” Rose replied, arranging the U-shaped nursing pillow to give herself and the babies better support. “They’ll get more fun when they can start interacting with you.”

“I want to play with them now.”

“I know, but they’re too little to play like you. You have to play to their level for a while, like Ainsley does for you.”

Sianin blinked up at Rose as though she’d never considered the possibility that Ainsley had to alter how she played in order to include Sianin. 

“They’ll start smiling in about a month or so,” Rose continued. “That will make it more fun.”

Sianin huffed out a disbelieving breath.

“It will,” Rose assured. “I remember when you were a baby, Ainsley would spend hours on the floor with you doing anything she could to make you smile and laugh. It’s more fun than it sounds, I promise.”

Sianin didn’t look convinced, but she set down her crayons and scooted closer to her mother. She didn’t have an open arm, otherwise Rose would have drawn Sianin into her side, but Sianin rested her head on Rose’s shoulder and peered down at the babies’ faces.

“Does that hurt?” Sianin asked, pointing to the babies latched to Rose’s breasts.

“Not usually,” Rose replied. “When their teeth grow in it’ll get uncomfortable at times. But that’s when we’ll start transitioning them to solid foods.” She stroked her fingertips across her babies’ scalps and watched them nurse. “So what do you think of your sisters?”

“They’re boring,” Sianin repeated, making Rose snort. “And loud. And messy.”

Rose frowned. “Isn’t there anything you like about them?”

Sianin reached out and traced her fingertips down Hannah’s arm until she got to her tiny hand. The baby clamped her fingers around one of Sianin’s and held on tightly.

“I dunno.” Sianin tapped her finger to make the baby’s hand bounce. “They steal you and Daddy a lot.”

“I know. They’re really little and need loads of help and attention,” Rose said, her heart aching that Sianin didn’t seem completely thrilled about having baby siblings.

“Maybe it would be better if there was only one,” Sianin suggested, and Rose couldn’t help but laugh at her daughter’s hopeful expression.

“We can’t exactly return them,” Rose chuckled.

“Can’t we just… give one away? She could get adopted.”

“‘Fraid not,” Rose answered. “Besides, how would you pick which one to give away?”

Sianin shrugged. “Close your eyes and point.”

Rose shook her head, then leaned down and pressed a kiss to Sianin’s head. “Even though you might not like them very much yet, your daddy and I already love them both as much as we love you and Ainsley.”

“Really?” she asked dubiously.

“Really really,” Rose answered. “Could you imagine your daddy or me wanting to give you or Ainsley away?”

“No.” She breathed out a sigh that was far too dramatic for a five-year-old. “I miss spending time with you and playing with you.”

“We’re spending time together now,” Rose pointed out.

“But it’s not the same.”

“Our routines are going to have to change a little bit. But change isn’t a bad thing, y’know.” Rose kissed Sianin again, wishing she could pull her baby into her lap. “Do you think Ainsley didn’t struggle with the adjustment that happened when you were born?”

“I asked Ainsley. She said she can’t remember but she always loved me and was happy to have a baby sister.”

Rose, remembering back to the many tantrums Ainsley had thrown when they were busy with the new baby, smiled. 

“I’ll tell you a secret.” She leaned in close until her lips were at Sianin’s ear. “Ainsley didn’t like having a new baby around for the first few months either.” Sianin’s eyes went wide, and Rose winked. “But now look at the two of you. You’re best friends. I hope that you have the same relationship with these two that you have with Ainsley.”

Sianin sat silently for a few minutes, resting against Rose’s arm.

“I guess they’re kind of cute,” Sianin said eventually, though her tone was reluctant.

“I think so, too,” Rose agreed.

“Their faces aren’t as smooshed anymore.”

Rose laughed. “All newborns have smooshed faces. Even you and Ainsley. Go grab a photo album so you can see.”

Sianin slid off the couch and trotted to the bookcase, collecting her and Ainsley’s baby books. She carried them back to the couch and climbed up beside Rose and opened the album across her thighs.

“See. Ainsley’s face was smooshed, too,” Rose said, looking at Ainsley’s newborn photo. In her opinion, her children were all the most beautiful newborn babies in the world, smooshed faces and all.

Sianin giggled and opened her album next.

“I was a fat baby.”

“All babies are fat,” Rose said. “That’s half their charm.”

“But look.” Sianin pointed to her height and weight measurements, then to Ainsley’s. “I’m fat.”

“You were perfectly average,” Rose said firmly. “Ainsley was a few weeks premature—a few weeks early—so it makes sense that she was smaller. And as for these two, twins tend to be smaller because there were two of them growing in my belly at once.”

“I suppose,” Sianin allowed.

She flipped through the photo albums lazily, giggling as Rose recounted various memories associated with some of the photos. Like when Ainsley was a wee toddler and went through a phase of refusing to wear clothes. Or when Sianin had colored all of her toenails with permanent marker.

Rose was relieved that Sianin hadn’t stayed disappointed that their coloring session had been put on pause, and she hoped her daughter adapted soon to the new family dynamic.

She had to admit, she hadn’t considered the notion that maybe one of her children might not want a baby sibling. It made her heart hurt, especially since she and James had tried so hard and for so long to have a baby. Was she a selfish mother for focusing on her own happiness at the arrival of the twins instead of Sianin’s? Was she a neglectful mother for not realizing how apathetic Sianin was to the presence of the babies?

Something cold twisted in her chest, and she tried to banish those negative thoughts. Surely Sianin would come around? And if not, Rose would simply have to try extra hard to make sure she spent as much baby-free time with her daughter as she could. Though she prayed it wouldn’t be like that; she wanted nothing more than for all of her children to love each other as deeply as she loved them, even if that was a high bar to set.

Rose swallowed against the sudden lump in her throat. “I love you loads, Sian.”

“I love you too, Mummy,” she answered, turning her face to kiss her mother’s shoulder.

A few minutes later, the front door opened.

“We’re back,” James called out unnecessarily.

“Why don’t you go help your dad and sister put away the shopping?” Rose suggested to Sianin.

Sianin closed the photo albums, put them away on the bookshelf, then went to the kitchen. 

Rose looked down into her youngest daughters’ faces. Maddie had finished nursing and was staring at Rose’s chest, blinking slowly as a bit of milk dribbled down her chin.

“Was that yummy?” Rose brought the baby up to her shoulder. She rubbed and patted Maddie’s back, coaxing out not only a burp, but some spit-up as well.

“Bet that feels better,” she whispered as the warm, viscous liquid rolled down her chest. Since the onesie was soiled anyway, Rose shuffled the baby so the outfit sopped up more of the sick. “Mummy will get you all cleaned up in just a minute. How about you lie down while I burp your sister, eh?”

She made quick work of getting Hannah burped—spit-up free, thankfully. With Hannah content and drifting off to sleep, Rose wiped up residual milk from the corners of her mouth and chin, then set the baby in her cot.

When she turned to take care of Maddie, Ainsley skipped into the room.

“Hiya, Mum,” she said brightly, then crouched down beside Maddie. She wrinkled her nose and said, “Ew.”

“Ew indeed,” Rose said, though the mess on the baby’s clothes was fairly mild. “Can you grab a new outfit for her?”

Ainsley sped off down the hall, returning with a long-sleeved, long-legged onesie.

“Can I do it?” Ainsley asked as Rose went to unsnap the buttons on Maddie’s soiled onesie.

“Sure,” Rose said. She gestured for Ainsley to kneel beside her. “Remember we have to be very, very gentle with her head and neck. Move slowly.”

Ainsley unfastened all of the buttons on Maddie’s onesie, then eased her sister’s arms out of the sleeves. Rose talked Ainsley through working the fabric up the baby’s torso, and how to hold the back of her head and neck while pulling off the fabric.

“Well done,” Rose praised. “Naked baby: check.”

Ainsley laughed, then rolled up the tiny onesie and dropped it to the floor.

“Let’s change her nappy while she’s naked,” Rose said, seeing the colored stripe indicating the nappy was wet. 

Rose made quick, efficient work of changing and cleaning Maddie, then set the soiled nappy to the side to supervise the rest of the dressing process.

“Next we pick her up and put her on the new outfit,” Rose instructed, hovering her hands over top of Ainsley’s just in case her nine-year-old didn’t support the baby properly. But Ainsley picked Maddie up, only looking a little awkward while doing it, and she set the baby down on the fresh outfit that Rose had opened up and splayed out on the sofa.

“Next we’re gonna guide those little arms through the sleeves,” Rose cooed, both to Maddie and to Ainsley. “Be careful to not get them stuck. She might be extremely floppy and flexible, but you can still hurt her if you move too fast or try to force her limbs through.”

After a bit of finagling, Ainsley got the baby’s arms and legs into the proper locations.

“Now we kiss that little belly.” Rose peppered kisses to Maddie’s bare torso, careful not to touch the umbilical cord stump. Apart from some flailing limbs, the baby didn’t react. “Then we zip her up and it’s all done.”

Ainsley zipped the front of the outfit closed and beamed at her mother.

“Well done, sweetheart.” Rose kissed her eldest’s temple. “Do you like helping with the babies?”

“Yeah,” Ainsley said, nodding enthusiastically. “They’re so fun!”

Rose was pleased that at least one of her children enjoyed being a big sister. Stifling a sigh, she kissed Ainsley’s head again.

“Thank you for everything you do to help, Ains.” She cradled her daughter’s jaw in her palm, tilting her head up to look into her eyes. “I really, really appreciate it.”

Ainsley’s cheeks flushed with the praise and she flashed a wide, toothy grin that looked achingly like James’s.

“Mummy, can we go back to coloring now?”

Rose looked over as Sianin walked into the room.

“‘Course,” she answered. “Give me five minutes to clean myself up, though.”

Rose stood, then picked up the soiled onesie and nappy.

“Should I move her?” Ainsley asked, nodding to the baby on the sofa.

“Nah, she’ll be okay for a few minutes,” Rose said. “Can you make sure she doesn’t roll off though? She shouldn’t be able to, but just in case.”

Ainsley nodded, then focused all of her attention on Maddie. Rose’s heart clenched to see Ainsley playing with the baby, even though the baby didn’t have much of a reaction yet.

Rose chucked the nappy in the bin and the onesie into the laundry pile, then went down the hall to her bedroom. As soon as the door closed behind her, she sat down on the edge of the bed and kneaded the heels of her hands into her forehead.

“What’s the matter?”

Rose yelped and jumped; she hadn’t realized James had been in their loo. He held up his hands in apology. She sighed. “I dunno.”

James frowned and came to sit down beside her. Before he could, though, he must have seen the baby sick caked onto her neck. “Just a sec.”

He went into the en suite, turned on the faucet, and came back with a damp flannel. He mopped up the lingering spit-up, then sat down beside her.

“Was everything all right when Ainsley and I went out?” he asked softly, wrapping his arm loosely around her waist. “Were the babies awful?”

“No, no. They were perfectly fine.” Rose leaned against her husband and was quiet for a minute. “I don’t think Sianin likes the babies.”

Her eyes burned and her nose stung at the admission.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“It’s just… she never wants to help with them. She doesn’t want to interact with them. I asked her today if she liked them, and she couldn’t find anything good to say. She even suggested we give one of the twins away.”

James’s snorted, but wrapped his arm tighter around her body.

“I’m serious, James. Did we make a mistake?” Rose whispered, a tear falling. She wiped it away impatiently. “Should we have realized ages ago that Sianin isn’t the type of kid who would do well with a younger sibling?”

“I think it’s a little early to be jumping to conclusions,” James said carefully. “We’ve been home for all of four days. You and I both know it can take quite a bit of time to get used to the new routine that comes with having a baby. Or two, in our case.”

“I know, I know,” Rose grumbled. “I just… I don’t want any of my babies to be unhappy. And Sianin seems unhappy.”

“Give her more time, love,” he said gently. “I think she’ll come around.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not just trying to make me feel better?” Rose asked.

“I always try to make you feel better,” he said. “However, I truly believe that Sianin will adjust. It might take her more time than Ainsley, is all. But if she still has her heart set on giving one of the twins up, let’s keep Maddie, eh? She’s quieter.”

Rose laughed out loud and pinched his ribs.

“You twat, you’re not supposed to have favorites!”

“I’m not picking favorites. I’m merely picking what’s best for my eardrums.” Rose could hear the grin in his voice, and just like that, most of the weight lifted from her shoulders.

Rose snuggled closer into his side and breathed him in for a few minutes. She would have gladly stayed there for hours. It was quiet in their bedroom, and he was soothing. It would have been so easy to lie back and take a nap, especially if James curled up beside her.

“I should go back out,” Rose said. “I told Sianin we’d keep coloring.”

James pressed a kiss to the top of her head and then stood up, holding out his hand for hers. She stretched her back once she was standing while James went to her dresser and rooted through the drawers. He returned with a new shirt for her.

When she donned it, he slipped his fingers loosely through hers and brought them to his lips for a kiss.

“We’re gonna be all right, Rose,” he said. “I promise. There hasn’t been a challenge yet that we haven’t overcome together.”

Rose squeezed his hand. “I think you’ve found a side gig as a motivational speaker.”

He stuck his tongue out at her, but opened the door for them to walk down the hall. Now that the barrier of the door was gone, they realized one of the babies was fussing. Not full-blown crying, but raspy whimpers that threatened oncoming wails.

“Everyone all right?” Rose asked dropping James’s hand to speed ahead of him into the living room.

Ainsley was sitting on the floor with her elbow on the couch cushion, peering down at Maddie.

“I dunno what she wants,” Ainsley said, stroking her index finger down the baby’s cheek any time she let out a noise.

“Come here, my sweetheart,” Rose cooed, lifting Maddie to her shoulder.

“Mummy, you said we’d color,” Sianin whined, coming over to tug Rose’s hand.

“In a minute, love,” she replied. 

Sianin stomped her foot and tossed her head back in an exasperated growl. “Give her to Daddy. You promised you’d color with me!”

“Sianin Noelle, do not tell me what to do. That’s disrespectful,” Rose said. “You need to be patient.”

“I’ve been patient,” Sianin groaned, flinging herself onto the couch rather dramatically and folding her arms in front of her chest.

It would have been a funny picture if not for the attitude.

“I think someone needs to go sit quietly in the laundry room for five minutes to calm down,” Rose countered. 

Sianin huffed out a breath and crossed her arms tighter around her chest. “No, I don’t.”

“I think you do. Now, Sianin,” Rose said firmly. “Go sit quietly and calm down. I’ll be in in five minutes.”

Sianin’s eyes filled with tears. Her face crumpled as she launched herself off the sofa and ran down the hall.

Rose watched her go with a low exhale.

“Shit,” she whispered to herself. She nuzzled her nose across Maddie’s scalp, but not even the scent of her baby was enough to soothe her.

“Should I talk to her?” Ainsley asked, looking down the hall after her sister.

“No,” Rose said. “Let her cool down by herself for a bit.”

James came up beside Rose and wrapped her in his arms, being careful not to smoosh Maddie between them.

“It’ll be all right. I promise,” he whispered into her ear. He softly kissed the top of her head. “Here. I’ll take her. You go take a breather, too.”

Rose sniffed against the tears in her throat and nodded, giving the still-fussing baby to James. She walked into the kitchen and got herself a drink, listening to the sounds of James cooing to Maddie.

She kept her eyes on the clock as she sipped her water. The instant five minutes had passed, she walked down the hall. Sianin had closed the door to the laundry room, so Rose eased it open and peered inside.

Sianin was sitting in the corner rather than the designated time-out bench. She’d hugged her knees to her chest and looked up with red-rimmed eyes when she heard Rose enter. The moment she saw her mother, Sianin’s face twisted and more tears leaked down her cheeks.

Rose crouched down in front of her daughter and opened her arms for a hug, if Sianin wanted. She did. Uncoiling from the floor, Sianin careened into Rose’s chest, sending Rose off balance and tumbling onto her bum.

“Breathe, Sianin,” she murmured, hugging her tightly with one arm as her other hand stroked Sianin’s hair. Her daughter trembled as she clung to her. “Breathe.”

Sianin sobbed into Rose’s neck, sending Rose’s heart splintering into a million pieces. She continued stroking Sianin’s back until the worst had passed. It took a couple minutes, but Sianin finally stopped shaking and wasn’t breathing as erratically.

“Your quiet time is over, but do you want to stay in here for a few more minutes?” Rose asked, pulling back to look at her daughter.

Sianin’s face was bright red and streaked with tears and snot. Rose pulled a crumpled tissue out of her pocket and dried Sianin’s eyes, cheeks, and nose.

“Will you stay with me?” Sianin asked, her voice warbling.

“Of course,” Rose answered. “Let’s move to the bench though. The floor isn’t comfy for Mummy.”

Rose was quite proud of herself that she managed to leverage herself to her knees then to her feet all while keeping Sianin in her arms. When Rose was seated on the cushioned bench, Sianin straddled her thighs and tucked her face into the side of her mother’s neck. Rose rocked them slowly from side to side and hummed a jingle from a radio advertisement that had been stuck in her head all morning.

“I love you very, very much, Sianin.”

Sianin sniffled.

“You understand why I sent you for quiet time, yeah?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry I told you what to do and was dispectful.”

“Disrespectful,” Rose corrected gently. “I need you to learn to be more patient, okay? I’d said I would color with you, and I will. But you need to wait until I’m not busy.”

“Why couldn’t Daddy take Maddie?” Sianin asked miserably.

“Because I had her,” Rose said simply. “Sometimes passing a baby off to multiple people makes their fussing worse.”

Sianin heaved a heavy sigh, but said no more. She instead kept her face buried into Rose’s neck.

“I know you’re used to it being just you and Ainsley,” Rose said, “but now you have to share me with Hannah and Maddie, too.”

“I know.”

“Your daddy and I are trying really hard to make as much time for you and Ainsley as we can, but sometimes the babies need our attention first. Can you promise me that you’ll try really hard to be patient with me and Daddy? ‘Cos we’re still learning too.”

“Yeah.”

“Good girl,” Rose said, kissing Sianin’s hair. “Do you want to go back out to the living room and color?”

“I don’t want to color anymore,” Sianin said.

“Oh. Then what would you like to do this afternoon?”

“Can we make a cake?”

“We sure can.” Rose nudged Sianin. “Up we get.”

Sianin clambered off of Rose’s lap and rubbed her arm across her nose. Rose reached down and combed her fingers through Sianin’s hair. “We need to schedule a haircut for you, little missy.”

Rose pulled the back of Sianin’s hair up and over her head until it fell in front of her eyes. Sianin laughed and ducked out from under Rose’s hands, smoothing her hair out of her face.

“I’ll try and make an appointment for next weekend,” Rose promised. “For you, me, and Ainsley. The three of us can get out of the house for a bit and do something together. Would you like that?”

Sianin nodded vigorously, then led the way to the kitchen where James was showing a pacified Maddie the artwork taped to the fridge.

“And here we’ve got a blossoming tree that your big sister Ainsley painted a few weeks ago,” he said. “Look at all the colors. We’ve got pinks and whites and green and brown. Isn’t it so lovely? And lookie here’s one that your clever, talented, beautiful Mummy drew.”

He winked at Rose, who rolled her eyes at him. She then approached Sianin and said, “Right, let’s…”

They were interrupted by a very loud and sudden wail from the living room. James strode towards the noise and Rose made to follow. When she turned around to Sianin, she saw the five-year-old’s shoulders were hunched.

“Hey, Sian…”

Sianin spun around and flinched, her eyes widening. “I’m sorry!”

Rose frowned and ignored her wailing baby for another minute to crouch in front of her other upset child. “Hey, hey. I’m not angry. I was just going to suggest you work on getting the bowls and ingredients together while I help your daddy calm your sisters. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Sianin let out a breath and the tension left her shoulders. “Okay.”

“I’m not angry or upset with you,” Rose said, grasping Sianin’s hands in hers. “Okay?”

Sianin nodded, then moved about the kitchen.

“Er, Rose, a little help?”

“Coming,” she called out.

When she arrived in the living room, she saw Ainsley had her jumper tugged up over her nose. Rose understood why a moment later when the stench of a dirty nappy assaulted her.

“We’ve got a blow-out,” James said grimly as he picked Hannah up out of her bassinet. He gingerly held her out in front of him, keeping his arms and hands free from her bum.

“Ick,” Rose said, wincing. “Your turn to deal with that.”

“I don’t suppose I could offer a trade?” he said.

“There’s absolutely nothing in this world that would entice me to trade with you,” Rose said, giving him a sympathetic pat on the back.

James groaned in defeat, then carried a red-faced, screaming Hannah down the hall to the nursery.

“That was disgusting,” Ainsley commented from the sofa. 

“Just a bit,” Rose admitted. She then turned to Maddie, who had begun whimpering again upon being set down. “Come to Mummy, my love. Your daddy got pulled away to clean up your sister. But you can come with me and we can make a cake with your big sister, Sianin.”

“Cake?” Ainsley asked, perking up.

“Yep, Sian and I are going to make one. Want to help?”

“Yeah!” Ainsley jumped off the couch and headed toward the kitchen

“I’ll be in in a minute,” Rose said. “I’m going to grab the baby sling.”

Rose ventured down the hall and into the nursery. James had Hannah stripped naked on the changing table and was working on wiping her down.

“I chucked that onesie,” he said without looking at her. “That was never going to get white again—not enough bleach in the world.”

Rose chuckled at him, not bothering to reply as she grabbed the baby sling they’d picked up in Bora Bora a few years ago. She set Maddie down for a few seconds to start the process of wrapping it around herself, then she securely strapped the baby in, too.

“How do you make baby-wearing look sexy?”

James was facing her, holding a naked and placated Hannah, with a somewhat glazed look in his eyes. He absently ran a wipe down Hannah’s now-clean bum.

“I could make anything sexy,” Rose boasted, sticking her tongue out at him.

“Yes, you could,” he murmured.

He stepped up to her and hauled her in for a long, hard kiss that sent delicious tingles through her body. Both of her hands were free, thanks to the sling, and she used them to first cup his cheeks, then scrape her nails against his scalp. She smirked against his mouth when she felt more than heard him moan. She dragged her teeth against his full bottom lip as she broke the kiss.

“You’ll be the death of me,” he gasped, looking dazed. His dark eyes made something clench deep in her belly.

“And what a marvelous death it would be,” she said, winking. “Go on. Get her back in a nappy before she decides to poo all over you as well.”

He grimaced and muttered something that sounded like, “You sure know how to ruin a mood,” before he turned away from her and complied.

Maddie, meanwhile, was resting contentedly at Rose’s breast. Her fat cheek was cushioned to Rose’s chest and she was blinking slowly as she sucked on the side of her fist.

“Time to bake your first cake,” Rose whispered, leaning down to press a soft kiss to the top of Maddie’s head.

When she returned to the kitchen, Ainsley and Sianin were already getting to work on the cake. All of the ingredients were sitting on the counter, and Sianin was carefully scooping a teaspoon of baking powder into a large bowl. There was no recipe book in sight.

“Let’s not be too hasty,” Rose said, moving to the cabinet to retrieve the cookbook that contained the chocolate cake recipe.

“What?” Sianin asked, frowning. 

“We need to make sure we add the correct amount of all the ingredients if we want it to taste good,” Rose said.

“But I did,” she insisted.

“What have you added so far?”

“Flour, sugar, and now the baking powder,” she answered.

“How much did you add?” Rose asked.

“One and three-quarters cups of flour. Two cups of sugar. And a teaspoon and a half of baking powder.” She pointed to all of the measuring cups and spoons as she spoke. “I was gonna put the dry stuff into the bowl ‘til you came back. Was I s’posta wait?”

Rose flipped through the pages of the recipe book until she made it to the marked page of the chocolate cake recipe. With amazement, Rose saw that Sianin did in fact measure out the appropriate amounts of the ingredients.

“How did you know how much of everything to add?” Rose asked

Sianin shrugged her shoulders and began fiddling with the tab on the salt canister. “Daddy lets me measure the ingredients when we bake together. But only the dry stuff. I accidentally dropped all the eggs on the floor once and he said I needed to get a little bit bigger before I could do it all myself.”

“How much salt are you gonna add?” Rose asked, cocking her head at her child.

“A teaspoon,” she answered. “Can I?”

Rose nodded, and Sianin turned back to the bowl. The tip of her tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth as she focused intently on pouring the salt.

“Oops,” she said when a rush of salt came out and overflowed the teaspoon. “What do I do now?”

Rose stepped up to Sianin and took the heaping teaspoon from her daughter. She poured about three-quarters of the teaspoon into the bowl, then dumped the rest into the sink. “There. That’s probably about one teaspoon. Hey, Sian?”

“Yeah?”

“That’s very impressive that you remembered exactly how much of everything to add to make the cake,” Rose said. “I’m very impressed.”

A proud smile crossed her daughter’s face. “Thanks, Mummy!”

Rose supervised Sianin scooping out the remaining ingredients, double checking the recipe book but amazed that Sianin’s memory was spot-on.

“Oops, try and level that out a little bit,” Rose said when Sianin was about to dump a heaping quarter cup of cocoa into the bowl. 

“Nuh uh,” Sianin countered. “When Daddy and I make it, we do a normal half and a big quarter. It makes it extra chocolatey. Daddy says he adds a little less flour and a little extra oil to…” Sianin’s brows furrowed in concentration before she said, “To copmensate.”

“Compensate?”

“Yeah, copmensate,” Sianin repeated.

Rose didn’t try to correct her again. Instead, she said, “Let me double-check with Daddy really quick though, baby. Wait just a minute.”

Rose went into the living room, where James was curled up on the sofa and cradling a sleeping Hannah to his chest. He was reading a book aloud to her, only it was a book James had been reading for himself over the past few days instead of a children’s book.

“Our daughter is a genius,” Rose murmured into his ear. She ducked down, being careful not to crush Maddie against the back of the couch, and planted a long, smacking kiss to his cheek, then reached down and stoked the tip of her index finger against Hannah’s hand, which was clenched into a fist in James’s shirt.

“Oh? Which one?”

“Sianin. She remembered exactly how much of every ingredient to add to make a chocolate cake.”

“My clever chef,” he said proudly.

“Your clever chef is also insisting that it’s a heaping three-quarters of a cup of cocoa powder, then a bit less flour and extra oil to ‘copmensate’,” Rose said.

James’s face softened at the botched pronunciation. “She’s my clever, clever chef.”

“All right. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t trying to make this an overly-chocolatey cake.”

“Well, she is, but no worries, it’s an authorized recipe modification.”

Rose pecked another kiss to his cheek.

“Aye aye, captain,” she said. Then she glanced down at the book in his hands. “Agatha Christie? Really? That’s not exactly child-appropriate.”

“It’s not like she can understand anything,” James said. “She’s been sleeping through this riveting tale anyway. I guess people being murdered one by one on a remote island is a bit too boring for her tastes.”

“Or maybe it’s you who’s boring.”

“Rose Tyler-McCrimmon, you take that back!” he exclaimed, pouting.

She gave him a wink, then went back to the kitchen to finish the cake.

Rose was relieved that Sianin’s mood improved over the course of the afternoon, and by the time they were icing the cake, it was as though their earlier fiasco hadn’t even happened.

Chapter Text

The second week home with the babies did not go nearly as smoothly as the first—this was primarily due to the fact that all four children got sick. Exactly one week after James and Rose brought the twins home, they received a call from Sianin’s school in the early afternoon, asking them to come pick her up. When James arrived at the school’s infirmary, he found his daughter lying lethargically on a cot, her face pale except for the pink spots on her cheeks.

“Hiya, darling,” he whispered, crouching beside her. He smoothed her hair away from her face, letting the backs of his fingers linger at her forehead. She was burning up. “I hear you’re not feeling well.”

“I’m really sleepy,” Sianin mumbled, barely keeping her eyes open.

“I know. I’m gonna take you home and get you in to bed,” he said.

He planted a kiss to a rosy cheek, then stood. After signing a form, he walked back to his child and lifted her into his arms. She tucked her face into his chest and was nearly asleep by the time James deposited her into her car seat. She was completely out when they arrived home.

Rose greeted him when he walked through the front door with their daughter.

“How is she?” she asked, pressing her fingertips all across Sianin’s face.

“Very fatigued,” he answered. “I’m gonna go put her down.”

“You don’t think it’s the flu, do you?” Rose asked, her forehead crinkling with concern. “She had the shot for it. And it’s the end of flu season.”

“I don’t know, Rose,” he sighed.

“Daddy?” Sianin blinked blearily up at them.

“We’re home,” he announced. “I was just about to get you into bed.”

“Will you lay with me?” she asked, nuzzling her hot face into his neck.

“Sure thing,” he answered.

“How do you feel, sweetheart?” Rose asked.

“My head hurts,” Sianin replied, turning her head to peek at her mother. “And my cheeks hurt.”

Rose gently pressed down on Sianin’s sinuses. “Here?”

Sianin nodded, then sniffed. “My nose is getting stuffy.”

“I’ll give you some medicine to help unstuff it,” James promised.

He then moved down the hall and crawled into his and Rose’s bed with Sianin, and stayed there until it was time to pick Ainsley up from school.

By that night, Sianin had a full-blown fever and completely clogged nostrils. Her fever stabilized then broke by the next morning, but the rest of her symptoms remained the same. James and Rose concluded it was nothing more than a bad cold and sinus infection; nevertheless, they continued to monitor her closely.

Unfortunately, she’d managed to infect her older sister. Ainsley awoke with a sore throat, clogged nose, and the beginnings of a fever, prompting them to keep her home as well. The day didn’t get any better when the twins began showing signs of illness, too. They were both being fussy, but when their normally-quiet breathing morphed to raspy pants, James and Rose knew that their youngest children had succumbed to whenever infection Sianin and Ainsley had.

If they thought it was difficult watching their elder children struggle with a severe cold, it was nothing compared to the agony of watching their newborns struggle with one. James lived in a perpetual state of anxiety, worrying whether or not his babies could breathe okay or if their temperature was too high. He and Rose were glued to the internet, Googling their babies’ symptoms; they also placed several calls to their pediatrician to ensure everything was okay and were ready to take them to the hospital at a moment’s notice.

James barely slept, and he knew Rose wasn’t faring any better. They awoke at the slightest cough, sneeze, or hitch in their babies’ breath. They’d adjusted the bassinets to be at a slight incline to hopefully help their sinuses drain.

But their draining sinuses upset their fragile little bellies, and more than once, James and Rose found themselves cleaning up a new puddle of baby vomit.

“Da-aaad,” Ainsley called from the living room one morning. “Hannah and Maddie puked all over themselves.”

James took the pan of frying eggs off the burner, then walked into the living room. Both babies were, indeed, lying in a puddle of their own sick. They were on their stomachs, so there was no fear of them choking, but he picked them up and wiped their mouths, just to be certain.

“I’m gonna go finish the eggs real quick, then I’ll come and clean them up,” James said, setting the babies down on a clean patch of blanket.

“Want me to change them?” Ainsley asked.

“No, no, I’ll do it,” James said. “Besides, your breakfast is nearly done.”

“Mum lets me help,” she grumbled.

James bit back a sigh. “All right. Get them naked. But if at any moment, you think something’s wrong or if you’re having trouble getting their clothes off, give me a shout. Promise me, Ainsley.”

“Yeah, yeah, I promise,” she said. 

James went into the kitchen to finish breakfast, half-focusing on the eggs, half-listening for a shout from Ainsley, and half-asleep from the all-nighter he and Rose had pulled. He made quick work of scrambling the eggs and putting bread in the toaster, then he went to the fridge and poured a glass of orange juice for Ainsley and Sianin.

As though he’d summoned them, Ainsley and Sianin trotted into the kitchen and sat down at the table.

“Did Mum give you your meds this morning?” he asked.

They shook their heads, and he went to the cabinet. He paused, then asked, “Er… did I?”

That earned him a giggle from both daughters, and again, they shook their heads. He nodded and pulled the liquid cold medicine down from the top shelf. He poured out their dosages and stood guard as they swallowed it down with a grimace.

“Are Maddie and Hannah nice and naked?” he asked.

“Yep,” Ainsley answered.

“I got them new outfits to wear,” Sianin interjected.

“Thank you for your big help,” he praised.

He then plated their eggs and toast before going to the living room. Both babies were in only their nappies, a bit of residual vomit streaked across their necks and chins. He talked to them quietly as he cleaned them up and got them tucked away in their new onesies. He then balled up the vomited-on blanket and took it to the laundry room, putting it and a few towels into the washer.

When he returned to the living room, both babies were staring alertly up at the ceiling. He bent down to pick up one of his daughters. “Right. Now my sweet little…” James’s body went numb as he looked down at the baby in his arms. Hannah? Or Maddie? Shit. “Hey, Ains… Can you come here for a sec?”

He heard the sound of a chair scraping across the floor, then Ainsley appeared in the living room.

“Yeah?”

“Where were Hannah and Maddie when you stripped them?”

“Um. I think Hannah was to the left and Maddie to the right,” Ainsley said, cocking her head to the side.

“You think, or you know?” he snapped, his voice coming out harsher than he intended it in his building panic. He didn’t remember where the baby in his arms had been lying, so even if Ainsley was remembering correctly, that wasn’t helpful for him.

Ainsley’s face fell at his tone.

“I don’t remember,” she said quietly, dropping her gaze to her feet.

James caught himself before he could say something else. This wasn’t Ainsley’s fault.

He set the baby down on the floor next to her twin, then crouched in front of Ainsley.

“It’s okay,” he said. He cradled her cheeks in his hands and made her look at him. “I’m very sorry for getting short with you. I’m really tired is all, but that’s not an excuse. I didn’t mean to raise my voice. I’m sorry.”

Ainsley nodded, then asked, “How are we going to figure out who’s who?”

James shrugged. “I’ll figure something out. I am rather clever after all. Go back to your breakfast.”

He pressed a kiss to her forehead, then ushered her to the kitchen. He turned to his two newborns and sank to his bum as he looked between the babies. His eyes traced their chubby pink cheeks and wispy brown hair and murky blue eyes, straining to find a difference or hoping for a spark of recognition.

“All right, my darlings,” he said, absently bouncing their little feet with his fingertips. “You’re only eleven days old. How detrimental could it possibly be if I accidentally mislabel you? Of course, the best case scenario is that you’re not identical—which, at the moment, I would be shocked if you’re not—and we can go to the doctor and have them run another DNA test to let us know who is who. They should have your DNA on file somewhere, right?

“Other best case scenario: I pick correctly, and you continue your wonderful little lives as Hannah Brianne and Madeline Emily Tyler-McCrimmon.

“But honestly, the worst case scenario is that you still continue your wonderful little lives as Hannah Brianne and Madeline Emily Tyler-McCrimmon without ever knowing you were anything but who you are. Seriously. You’ll never know that you were, for eleven days, called by the opposite name. What could be the harm? I’ll make up something to tell Ainsley, and we’ll keep it a secret from Mummy. No harm, no foul, eh?”

“What are we keeping a secret from Mummy?”

James squeaked and snapped his head towards the sound of his wife’s voice. Rose was leaning against the wall at the entrance of the living room.

“Er… I don’t suppose you could pretend like you didn’t hear that sentence?” James asked sheepishly.

“Nope,” she replied, popping the ‘p’. “Come on. Spill. What secret are you and our twins colluding about to keep from me?”

James sighed and returned his attention to the twins. One of them was sucking on her fingers, while the other had snot running down her cheek. He picked up the snotty one and swiped her face with a tissue, much to her annoyance. She let out a loud, squawking wail. After a moment of cuddles and kisses, she calmed down, and James set her on the blanket.

“What’s the matter, love?” Rose asked, sitting on the floor next to him.

“Oh, not much. Just that I’m an awful father,” he lamented.

Rose frowned. “I don’t believe that for a minute.”

“Oh, you will when you’ve heard what I’ve done,” he said. He steeled himself for her reaction before he admitted, “I don’t know which twin is which.”

There was a beat of silence before Rose broke into a round of giggles.

“I’m serious, Rose!” he said, upset that she was amused by his anxiety. “I don’t know who is who!”

The hysteria in his voice sobered her. She reached out and hugged his arm, then she touched the baby nearest to her. “Maddie.” She pointed to the one closer to him. “Hannah.”

“How the hell did you know that?” he demanded, feeling both relieved and miffed at the same time.

Rose shrugged. “I just… do. And you do too.”

“I clearly bloody well don’t,” he snapped.

“James, you’re sleep deprived and got stuck in your own head,” she said soothingly, massaging her fingers through his hair for emphasis. “I have no doubt that if you would’ve calmed down a little bit, you eventually would’ve gotten them right.” She pecked a kiss to his cheek then whispered, “And you know what… they’re eleven days old. I don’t think it would have mattered if we accidentally fucked it up and switched them.”

James breathed out a chuckle through his nose, then rested his head on top of hers. “That was the secret we were going to keep from you. I was going to pick randomly which baby had which name and I’d resolved to never ever mention that maybe I’d gotten it wrong.”

Rose’s resulting laughter was interrupted by the phone ringing in the kitchen.

“Mum, Dad, phone!” Ainsley called unnecessarily.

“Yep, we hear it, love,” Rose said, pushing herself to her feet. She turned back to James and helped him up too. “You all right?”

James nodded and looked down at the babies. Now that Rose had pointed it out, of course—of course—the baby on the left was Hannah and the one on the right was Maddie. It seemed so obvious now. And yet…

“I feel like a rubbish dad for getting my own children confused with each other,” he said, watching more snot roll down Hannah’s upper lip and cheek.

“You’re not,” Rose assured him. “I promise.”

She lifted onto her toes and brushed a kiss to his stubbled jaw before going into the kitchen to take the phone call. James, meanwhile, bent down and picked Hannah up. He rubbed yet another tissue across her poor nose, which was beginning to chap and turn red from all the abuse it had been suffering over the last few days.

She squealed and arched her head away from his touch as best as her limp little body could.

“Daddy’s just helping,” he soothed. He cursed when his tissue-covered thumb snagged on a huge wad of crusted mucus, ripping it out of her nose. She screamed and began heaving great big sobs. “Oh, darling, I’m so sorry. Daddy’s so, so sorry.”

He kept repeating his apology into her ear as he cradled her close, bouncing as he walked around the living room. When she still hadn’t quieted five minutes later, Rose stepped up to him and held out her arms.

“She might be hungry,” she said. “She probably puked everything up.”

James nodded and jutted his chin to the living room. Once Rose sat down on the couch and unzipped her cardigan, he handed the baby to her. It took a few tries, but Hannah finally latched on and suckled lazily.

“Who was on the phone?” James asked, going over to where Maddie was half-asleep. She made a few noises when he picked her up, but she quieted almost instantly. He sat down beside Rose and watched the rhythmic motions of Hannah’s jaw as she nursed.

“Elizabeth,” Rose replied. “Serendipitously, the DNA results came in. Hannah and Maddie are indeed identical twins.”

“No shit,” he grumbled to Rose’s amusement.

Rose knocked her knee into his, then reclined against him.

“Are you feeling all right?” he asked. “We’re surrounded by four snotty, feverish kids. It’s only a matter of time ‘til we get infected.”

“I’m okay, I think,” she said. “Though I am utterly exhausted—part of me wishes Ainsley and Sianin could go to school so I could nap more easily.”

“They’ll probably sleep for most of the day,” he said, hoping that were true.

Rose hummed noncommittally. Then she said, “Oh, crap. The girls and I are supposed to have a hair appointment tomorrow. But I dunno if I want to take them out anywhere when they’re ill.”

“Gimme your phone, I’ll cancel it,” he said. “Want me to reschedule for next weekend? No, wait, that’s Sianin’s birthday. Er… the following weekend then? Unless you want a mid-week evening appointment?”

“I promised Sianin we’d make it a girls’ day out,” Rose answered, digging her phone out of her pocket. “Better try for the weekend after next. Thanks, love.”

“Anything for you,” he replied, making a kissy face at her before he called Rose’s preferred hairdresser and moved the appointment.

The entire family spent the day napping and generally lazing about the house. Ainsley and Sianin had no energy and the twins were uncomfortable and fussy. The sounds of their near-constant whimpering and wailing drove Sianin to tears—“They’re so loud and I’m so tired!”—so James and Rose traded off spending time with their sick babies in the living room and their sick bigger babies in their bedroom.

James made a mental note to strip his and Rose’s sheets that weekend as he lay with Ainsley and Sianin, each of them coughing and sneezing all over him and the bed. (He tried to ignore the tickle in the back of his throat… it was just early allergies, is all.) Ainsley’s and Sianin’s hot cheeks were pressed to his chest as they cuddled into his side, and he wrapped his arms around them, hugging them tight and wishing he could magic their illnesses away. 

He joined his children in a nap that did wonders for his sleep-deprivation headache. When he awoke, he saw he’d been sleeping for over three hours.

Bugger, he thought to himself, especially when he realized Ainsley and Sianin were no longer beside him. He rubbed his fingertips across his sleep-crusted eyes and stumbled into the living room, where blissful silence greeted him.

Ainsley and Sianin were snuggled up together on the couch, a blanket strewn across them. Rose sat in the rocking reclining chair, the twins curled to her chest. Her eyes were glazed and she looked like she was about to nod off.

Rose glanced over at him as he approached and gave him a weary smile.

“Feel better?” she asked, tilting her face up to accept his swift peck.

“Loads,” he replied. “You could have woken me sooner. I feel bad I left you alone for so long.”

“We were fine,” she said, then she looked down at the twins. “Weren’t we, girls? Haven’t you been so good for Mummy this afternoon?”

He brushed the backs of his fingers across both babies’ foreheads. They didn’t seem as hot anymore, but their little chests were still rapidly rising and falling as they strained to breathe.

“I hate this,” he murmured.

He didn’t remember ever having this much concern for his sick children before. Then again, he couldn’t remember one of his children getting sick this young. They weren’t even two weeks old yet; their immune system was still pathetically fragile, and with every cough and sneeze and cry of their delicate bodies, his heart broke.

“I know, love,” Rose said.

“Do you need a break?” he asked. “Want to go lie down?”

“Would you mind?” she asked.

“Yep, I definitely mind you getting a bit of rest after I took a three-hour nap in the sanctuary of our bedroom.”

“Smartarse,” she said fondly.

“Give me a minute to wee and get a snack,” he said.

When he returned, he took the twins from Rose and shooed her off down the hallway.

Finally by the weekend, the prognosis wasn’t as bleak. Sianin and Ainsley were more or less better, minus some lingering sniffles and exhaustion. The twins’ breathing had also returned to normal, and now they were just snotting all over themselves as their sinuses continued to drain.

After an exhausting morning of cleaning up yet another vomiting spell by the twins, James settled with both babies on the couch while Rose, Sianin, and Ainsley played the kids’ edition of Monopoly

“Can we watch a film?” Ainsley asked when the game was over.

“Sure,” James mumbled, half-asleep. “Pick something out.”

“Daddy, I wanna cuddle,” Sianin announced.

“Daddy’s cuddling with the babies,” Rose said. 

“No, no,” James said, slowly wriggling himself to the center cushion. “I don’t have any arms, but if you don’t mind being the point person with snuggling…”

He let the sentence dangle, and Sianin’s face lit up. She clambered onto the couch and pressed herself into James’s side, wrapping her arms around his middle as far as they could go without squishing a baby.

A moment later, Ainsley came to his other side and lay down with her cheek pillowed on his thighs.

“Everyone comfy?” he asked as Rose draped blankets around both eldest children.

“Mhm.”

Ainsley was already half-asleep, but Sianin was flipping through Netflix for something to watch. She eventually settled on an animated film they’d seen dozens of times. He could probably quote it in his sleep. At least he could use this time to rest and not think about anything.

He was proud of himself that he managed to make it twenty minutes into the movie before he felt himself begin to doze off. Rather than fight it, he secured his grip on the twins and let his head fall back. After days of caring for four sick children, James’s exhaustion caught up with him. His mind went utterly, blissfully blank as he joined his daughters in a late morning nap.

He was groggy and disoriented when he awoke some time later, but the moment he realized the warm weight of two babies was gone from his arms, he jolted upright. Before his panic could choke him, he saw both babies facing him from the safety of their cots.

“Thank God,” he muttered, having had visions of Hannah and Maddie on the floor, face-down, with their necks cocked at awkward angles.

Ainsley and Sianin were still tucked beside him, but now that his arms weren’t full of the twins, they’d more completely wrapped themselves around him. Sianin was half-straddling his lap, her head tucked in the crook of his neck and a knee hovering precariously over his groin. That was the first thing he shifted away from him, not only to save his bits from being squashed, but also because he was in desperate need of the loo and her leg pressed into his lower abdomen uncomfortably.

Sianin stirred when he scooted her to the side.

“Hey, darling,” he whispered as she blinked up at him in confusion. “You can keep sleeping, but Daddy needs to get up.”

She grunted unintelligibly and rolled away from him, resting her head on the armrest.

Ainsley’s cheek was pillowed on his thigh, and she’d reached up and was hugging his knees. He unwrapped her arm from his legs, then slowly shuffled out from under her head. He guided it onto the couch cushion, folding up a blanket to support her neck. She sighed and hugged her blanket around her shoulders, tucking her face into the soft fabric.

Despite his screaming bladder, James leaned down and pressed a kiss apiece to Ainsley’s temple, then Sianin’s, overwhelmed by how much he loved his kids.

Once he’d relieved himself, he moved to the kitchen for something to nibble and found Rose sitting at the kitchen table with her laptop and camera. She was bowed over a steaming mug, a tissue mangled in her hands.

“Rose?” he asked, setting his hands on her shoulders.

She started and glanced up at him. Her eyes were red and puffy. His heart fell.

“What’s wrong, love?” He pulled up a chair beside her and sank into it as he reached out and rested his hand on her thigh.

“Nothing,” she croaked, a trembling smile crossing her lips. “Postpartum hormones, y’know.”

He frowned. 

“Honestly,” she insisted. Then she turned away from him and pressed a few buttons on her computer. “Look at this.”

She pivoted the laptop towards him, and his breath caught in his throat. Rose must have photographed him with the girls as they napped on him. She’d forever frozen this moment in time, the stillness of having four of his favorite humans in his arms or pressed up next to him, all of them sleeping peacefully.

His throat tightened; he wanted to live forever in this photo.

“When we were trying to get pregnant, my mind would always show me visions of you holding all of our kids,” she said softly, her voice breaking. “I wanted that so badly.”

“Me too,” he croaked, remembering back to that desperate yearning that had overtaken his entire body.

“But those pictures my mind conjured up were so weak compared to the real thing,” Rose continued.

“Well, probably because you imagined only three kids,” he drawled, earning him a pinch on the side. Sobering, he admitted, “I thought I knew how this would feel. I thought I knew how utterly in love I would be. But God, this is so intense. Don’t get me wrong—I was overwhelmed when Ainsley and Sianin were born. But somehow the birth of Hannah and Maddie has exponentially increased how much I love them, too. And you, Rose.”

“I’m so happy, James,” she said, covering his hand with hers. “I’m so happy.”

She looked it, too. Despite the difficulties of these past few days and the exhaustion that painted dark smudges beneath her eyes, she hadn’t lost the radiance of joy that becoming a mum again had given to her.

He swallowed against the lump in his throat and scooted his chair as close to hers as he could. He wrapped his arms around her, crushing her to him.

“I saw those visions too,” he murmured. “When we were trying… I saw you pregnant, and nursing, and helping Ainsley and Sianin hold our baby, and crouching beside a wobbly toddler who was trying to learn to walk. I saw it all.” He let out a shuddering breath, acknowledging the heartbreak he and Rose had gone through, but then replacing it with the happiness now coursing through his veins. “It was all worth it though, yeah? If we could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“Me too,” she replied. “Though I do regret the pain we both went through and caused each other. Truly. If there was one thing I could redo, it’d be that. But Hannah and Maddie are so worth it. And I think we’re better for it, y’know? We’re stronger. Our love is stronger. I thought our communication had been great before, but now…” She let out a huge breath. “Now it’s incredible, James. We’re incredible.”

“We are, aren’t we?” he preened. He nuzzled his nose into her hair and pressed a series of kisses to it. “I’m so in love with you, Rose. I’m glad you’re my soulmate, my wife, and the mother of my kids.”

She gave him a tight squeeze but said nothing.

“What other photos did you take?” James asked, hovering his fingers over the laptop. “May I?”

Rose nodded. “‘Course.”

He pressed down on the arrow keypad and browsed the pictures Rose had imported.

“We really do make beautiful babies together,” James said, his chest puffing out as he gazed at his daughters’ faces.

“It helps that half their gene pool is from the most attractive man in the world,” Rose said, resting her cheek on his shoulder.

James blew out a breath. “Pfft. You’re the most attractive woman in the world, so that means both halves of their gene pool were comprised of the two most attractive people in the world. It was destiny it was, for them to be the most beautiful children in the world.”

Rose laughed, and James’s heart throbbed. He loved his family. He loved them more than he could possibly describe. He loved them more than his own life, a thousand times over.

“Maybe we’re a tad biased,” Rose said, a grin still splitting her face.

“Nah,” James said flippantly. “No parents are ever biased when it comes to their own kids.”

“Right,” Rose drawled.

He giggled and pressed a kiss to the top of her head and continued browsing the photographs on Rose’s computer. 

They sat together in the kitchen, basking in the silence of the house that they knew wouldn’t last, content to simply hold each other in a rare moment of stillness.

Chapter Text

The family settled into a routine almost seamlessly. Rose loved that James was able to take so much time off to help with their kids; it created one less stressor in their life, knowing that he wasn’t on a strict schedule to get to work on time.

More often than not, they were already awake and caring for the twins by the time Ainsley and Sianin needed to be up for school. Sometimes they both would get their eldest children ready in the morning, and sometimes they would trade off who did it, allowing the other to get a little more rest.

“Am I so sleep-deprived that I’ve passed the point of being tired and am now in a state of false-awakeness instead?” Rose asked one morning as she finished changing the twins.

“Probably.” The dark circles of exhaustion under James’s eyes were just as deep as hers.

“I don’t remember feeling this good after Ainsley or Sianin,” Rose said. “Babies are hard, so twins should be harder. But these two… they’re so easy.”

“Oi, don’t jinx it!” After a beat, he said, “I don’t think we can accurately compare Hannah and Maddie to Ainsley or Sianin’s infancy. Ainsley was our first, so there was a huge learning curve. Everything was brand-new and scary and we had to figure out this whole new world of parenthood. And then after Sianin was born… neither of us was in a good mental place, which did us no favors.”

“Either way, I feel amazing, James,” she said. “I’m not sad or angry or negative. And best of all, my lady bits don’t hurt anymore! Which is weird—I’d expected to be sore for longer since I pushed out two babies. But it’s like my vag is all back to normal.”

He smiled at her, the expression warming her to her very core.

“I’m very glad to hear that,” he said, stepping up to press a kiss to her cheek. “All of it.”

She turned her head and caught his lips head-on. He was still grinning, making her smile too, thus turning the kiss into more of a lip press instead. Nevertheless, she enjoyed it and draped her arms around his shoulders, holding her husband close to her. God, she loved him.

“Can I do the school run today?” she murmured, pecking short kisses across his lips.

“If you want,” he answered, trying to reciprocate her kisses.

“I do. I’d like to get out of the house for a bit.”

“Then the shower is all yours,” he said, pulling back. He gestured to their bathroom, bowing theatrically.

“You nutter,” she said, rolling her eyes.

He beamed and waggled his eyebrows, then exited their bedroom to attend to Ainsley and Sianin.

In the time it took Rose to shower and dress, James got their eldest children ready for school. They had their uniform and shoes on, and were finishing up their cereal when she stepped into the kitchen.

Rose found that she enjoyed the school run more than usual ever since the twins were born. She relished that she could be alone with Ainsley and Sianin without listening for the sounds of a distressed baby.

During the car ride, Ainsley and Sianin prattled on about school and their friends.

“William’s mums are having another baby!” Ainsley squealed.

“That’s exciting,” Rose commented, smiling at her daughter through the rearview mirror.

“Yeah! William said it’s due in August, I think,” Ainsley said. “He’s hoping for a little sister this time; his brother wants another brother.”

“Um, his mummies are both girls. How are they having a baby?” Sianin asked blankly.

“Someone else is pregnant and having the baby for them,” Ainsley answered. Then her expression turned thoughtful. “Though I suppose they could’ve used a sperm donor or something, right Mum?”

“Some people choose adoption or surrogacy instead of carrying out a pregnancy themselves,” Rose said. “It’s their own personal decision. No matter how it happens, it’s exciting that William’s family is growing, just like ours did.”

“Hope they don’t get twins,” Sianin muttered under her breath.

“Shut up, Hannah and Maddie are great!”

“Don’t tell her to shut up, Ains. She has every right to her opinion as you do.”

Sianin stuck her tongue out at her sister.

The kids stopped bickering when Rose reminded them of the party that weekend for Sianin’s birthday. They were eager to see their extended family, and Sianin was excited to have some of her friends over.

Finally, Rose parked in front of the school and stepped out with her daughters. She scooped them in for a hug and kiss, then watched them for as long as was polite before driving away and letting the lengthening queue of parents drop their kids off.

“Want a coffee?” Rose wrote on her wrist when she pulled into the car park of a nearby café.

She dawdled, collecting her purse slowly to give James enough time to see her message and reply. As she stepped into the shop and joined the short line of people, he’d written back. I just made a pot. Thanks though xoxo.

“Bummer. Next time. I’ll be home in twenty.”

“Ma’am, can I help you?”

Rose glanced up and saw she was next. “Sorry. Can I have a vanilla latte? And a blueberry muffin? Thanks.”

She got her order, then went back to her car, where she ate her muffin and drank half her latte on the drive home. 

The house was quiet when she arrived. She slipped her shoes off by the front door, then dumped her keys into the dish before heading towards the kitchen. She peered into the living room as she passed; Hannah was fast asleep in her cot. The other was empty, but when she entered the kitchen, she saw Maddie safely ensconced in her father’s arms.

Rose’s heart tripped through a few beats as she observed her husband. He was shirtless and facing away from her. She watched the muscles of his back flex as he loaded the dishwasher one-handedly. His other arm was wrapped snugly around their baby, who had her face tucked into James’s neck. His pajama bottoms were slung low on his hips, giving her a tantalizing view of the dimples at the bottom of his spine. 

“There’s a proper way and an improper way to load the dishwasher.” James’s voice was quiet and soothing as he spoke to their baby. “Because if you throw it all in, willy-nilly, you won’t fit as much in there. But if you pack everything in nice and tight, you can get through all the dirty dishes in one go. It’s like a game of Tetris.”

“Starting ‘em young with the chores, are we?” Rose asked, sauntering into the kitchen.

James straightened, turned, and then beamed.

“Well, it’s never too early to start teaching responsibility,” he said. “Maddie has been such a big helper. Haven’t you, darling? Haven’t you been Daddy’s great big helper?”

Maddie let out a snort and a sigh before settling back into his arms. James brushed a kiss to the baby’s forehead.

“How were they?” Rose asked, stepping up to James. She draped an arm around his hips and rested her cheek against his shoulder to better look at Maddie. Pathetic though it was, Rose could spend hours simply watching her beautiful baby do nothing more than sleep. Moments like this left her in awe that she and James created an entire human being together. Four entire human beings, no less.

“Wonderful,” James said. “Miss Maddie hasn’t made a peep. But I felt bad because I spent twenty minutes holding Hannah when she fussed while trying to take a poo, so after Hannah fell asleep, Maddie and I came in here to clean up from breakfast.”

Rose frowned at her sleeping daughter. She raised a hand and rubbed it up and down Maddie’s back. The baby wriggled a bit and turned her head until the opposite cheek was pressed to James’s shoulder.

“She doesn’t cry,” Rose murmured, feathering her fingers through the downy hair on Maddie’s head.

“Sure she does.”

“Not really. She whimpers a bit. But she very rarely goes into a proper wailing fit,” Rose said. “And if she does, she quiets quickly ‘cos more often than not, she just wants to be held.”

James’s brows furrowed. “Don’t most parents rejoice that their newborn is quiet?”

Rose shrugged. “I don’t want there to be anything wrong with her, is all. I mean… she looks healthy, and she’s eating and weeing and pooing. But I dunno. She’s really calm for a newborn.”

“We can bring it up at their one-month appointment,” James said. “Or we can schedule something sooner if she starts presenting worrying symptoms. You’re not worried, are you? Or have some sort of mother’s intuition that something’s wrong?”

“No, no,” Rose assured. “It’s just… odd. As I said this morning, I thought having twins would be exhausting and difficult. But really, it’s no more difficult than if we’d only had one.”

James nodded and leaned over to peck a kiss to Rose’s forehead. She reached up and cupped the back of his neck to hold him in place for a proper kiss.

But a moment later, they caught the unmistakable scent of a dirty nappy.

“I’ll change her,” Rose said, watching the baby’s face scrunch and relax.

When it appeared as though Maddie was finished, Rose took her from James, being careful not to squish the baby’s bum and smear around whatever happened to be inside the nappy.

She got the baby cleaned and changed in minutes, then after a few cuddles and kisses and proclamations of her undying love, Rose walked back to the living room and set the baby in her bassinet. She draped a blanket over her daughter, then checked on her other baby. After popping the fallen dummy back into Hannah’s mouth, she joined James in the kitchen.

He was standing at the sink, staring out the window as he finished up his coffee.

Rose stepped up behind him and wrapped her arms around his middle, tucking her face into his back. He dropped a hand and covered hers, stroking the curve of her wrist with his thumb. 

First kissing the mole centered between his shoulder blades, Rose trailed her lips in long, slow lines across the planes of his back.

“I approve of your decision to not wear a shirt,” she mumbled into his skin. Her mouth hopped from freckle to freckle, dotting each one with a kiss. “You should go shirtless more often.”

“I aim to please.” He gulped down the remainder of his coffee then set the mug in the sink before spinning in her arms. Rose dropped her arms from around him, but stayed close in his personal space. “Though really, I was just about to hop in the shower when Hannah started crying.”

“You should’ve said you were trying to impress me,” Rose said dryly.

“Why should I have to do that? I know how impressive I am. And so do you.” He waggled his eyebrows at her.

Rose rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t help but sneak a peek at him. His broad chest. His subtly-sculpted shoulders and pecs. His undefined yet firm abdomen. The way his hip bones jutted up from beneath the waistband of his pajama bottoms. He was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen.

James noticed her wandering gaze and had an insufferably smug smirk on his face.

“Well,” Rose drawled, “I suppose you’re perfectly adequate.”

Perfectly adequate, my arse.”

“Your arse is also perfectly adequate,” Rose said, reaching down to pinch it lightly.

He squeaked and jumped.

“What’s gotten into you this morning?” James asked, his eyes wide. “Not that I’m complaining. Far from it.”

“I told you. You look sexy without a shirt on.”

His Adam’s apple bobbed for a second and his eyes darted down to her mouth. She reached out and rested her hands at his waist, caressing her thumbs across his hipbones, then trailed her fingertips up his ribs until her hands rested on his chest. His heart thumped solidly beneath her palm. Goosebumps prickled across his skin and puckered his nipples.

He, meanwhile, placed his hands at her lower back and kept them there. His pupils were slightly dilated and his tongue darted out to moisten his lips. The overhead lights shone invitingly against his bottom lip, and she bit hers in response. His gaze dropped to her mouth.

“Rose,” he croaked. The rawness of his voice sent a shiver down her spine.

“Just admiring the view.” She slid her hands farther up his chest until she could grip the tops of his shoulders, then she tugged him down.

His breath escaped him in a sigh when their lips met. It was a soft, sweet thing, but nevertheless, it sent butterflies through Rose’s stomach. She cradled James’s cheek in her hand; the muscles of his jaw flexed ever so slightly as his mouth parted and closed with the familiar catch-and-release rhythm of his kisses.

When her tongue darted out to trace across his bottom lip, his mouth fell open in invitation. He hummed when she slid her tongue against his, then curled it to flick against the roof of his mouth and the backs of his teeth.

He allowed her to control the kiss, to set and keep the pace. She kept one hand to James’s face and let the other skate down his chest and belly to brush curiously against the front of his pajama bottoms. He was half hard and his hips twitched minutely. Reading his cue, she opened her palm and rested it against his burgeoning erection.

“Want me to…?” she asked, caressing her thumb absently against him through his pajama bottoms.

“Only if you want to,” he replied, slightly breathless. “If not, I can take care of it in the shower.”

“And deprive me of the opportunity to touch my husband? Don’t you dare.”

He snorted out a laugh, but it died on a groan when she wrapped her hand around his clothed erection. She coupled gentle squeezes with nips to his bottom lip, gradually working him up until he was fully hard. His erection poked his pajama bottoms out cartoonishly, and Rose smiled to herself as she readjusted him. She guided his cock to point up at his belly, and she slipped his trousers down an inch, just low enough that the head barely peeked out of the waistband.

She circled her fingertip across the bright red tip of him, watching a bead of moisture well up then drip down, soaking into the fabric of the waistband.

“Having fun?” he rasped.

“Of course.” She grinned at him.

“Bed- bedroom?”

“Not necessary. We’re alone. Last I looked, two-week-old babies are fairly sedentary, so there’s no fear of them walking in on us. And they have no idea what sex is—or anything, for that matter—so you don’t need to concern yourself with being quiet. Well, unless you wake them up. Would be a shame if we had to stop in the middle of this, eh?”

James rolled his eyes at her and arched his hips impatiently into her hand, which was still tracing tiny circles around the head of his erection just to coax more beads of moisture from the tip.

“Please?” he asked. “Can you touch me? Properly?”

She nodded and made one final teasing circle before tugging his pajama bottoms down his slim hips, freeing his erection.

“Been forever since we fooled around in the middle of the house,” James said, watching her wrap her hand around his length and give him a slow pump. His eyes were dark and ravenous; the expression made Rose lament that she couldn’t join in the activity they were about to partake in.

“It’s got kind of a naughty feel to it,” Rose agreed. She slid her hand up his cock, then brushed her thumb across the tip of him. She worked the slippery wetness down his erection until the bite of dry friction was nonexistent.

“Feels good,” James murmured, thrusting lightly into her hand but making no indication for her to hurry up. 

“Good. I like making you feel good. I haven’t gotten to touch you since the babies were born—I’ve missed it.”

“Me either,” he whispered. “Wait. I meant me. I haven’t touched myself since they’ve been born either. Obviously I can’t touch you yet.”

“Seriously? You haven’t had a wank in over two weeks?”

“Haven’t had much time lately. Or been in the mood, really.”

“So… what? The last time was when you and I fooled around a bit after you gave me a foot massage?”

“Mhm.” James sucked in a sharp breath when Rose gave him a long, slow squeeze on the upstroke. “God, Rose.”

She bit her lip around a smile, but kept up the steady rhythm of her hand.

“I love you,” she said, stepping closer to catch his lips in a kiss.

His mouth was frenzied against hers, belying how worked up he was. His lips tugged and pulled at hers, restlessly moving between her lower and upper lip. His tongue eventually came into play, gliding against hers too quickly to have much finesse to it.

Rose sped up her hand for a few strokes before slowing back down. A low, whining groan rumbled from his throat.

Rose.”

“James,” she parroted.

“Tease,” he huffed.

“Tell me you’re not enjoying this.”

“I’m very much enjoying this. I always enjoy it. Feels so fucking good, love.”

His use of profanity sent delightful tingles through her. Rose pecked a kiss to his lips before she trailed her mouth down his jaw. She scraped her teeth across it, then licked it, enjoying the scratch of his day-old stubble against her tongue.

For several long minutes, she kept up the torturous rhythm of her hand, alternating between long, languorous strokes and short, quick ones. She delighted in the hitch of his breath that always accompanied the change in tempo.

Her other hand was busy touching any other part of him she could reach. It meandered up and down his chest, her fingernails scraping through the fine hairs on his chest and belly. She paid attention to his nipples, flicking and pinching and scratching at them to pull delicious grunts from him.

When she’d given his upper body a thorough tease, she let her hand wander further south. He grumbled when her hand didn’t join its partner on his cock, but rather it dipped lower to trace his inner thigh. His legs were tense and trembling as she traced the seam where his thigh joined his hip. He exhaled raggedly when her hand finally skated across the underside of his cock to cradle his balls in her palm.

“Fuck,” he panted as she massaged them gently. When she once again slowed the motion of her hand on his erection, he rasped, “Please. Please, Rose.”

Rose nodded and pressed a hard, quick kiss to the corner of his mouth. He was too far gone to reciprocate.

“Just a sec,” she said, releasing him with both hands.

His cock bobbed and twitched. James let out a pathetic whimper and wrenched open his eyes; they were dark and glazed over. Rose grabbed a dish towel that had been tossed haphazardly onto the counter, then returned to her husband.

His eyes fluttered shut again when she took him in hand and built him back up. His hips undulated with her rhythm, so Rose adjusted her motions to work with him, pumping him harder and faster with every stroke. This time she didn’t slow her hand.

“Rose,” he gasped urgently, “I’m gonna… I’m… oh, fuck…” 

Goosebumps prickled out across Rose’s skin, fifteen and a half years of experience having conditioned her that her pleasure would come with his. Her gut tightened deliciously as he started to moan, first deeply then higher-pitched as his face pinched into an expression of pure rapture. His hands shot out to grab the edge of the sink for balance, and his head tipped back as he sucked in a sharp breath.

Positioning the towel at the head of his flushed cock, Rose pumped him with purpose. She rotated her wrist on the upstroke as she counted down in her head.

Three… two… one… 

James let out a cry of relief that weakened Rose’s knees as he spurted messily into the towel. She worked him through it, timing her squeezing upstroke with each pulse of his cock, delighting in his grunts and heavy breathing.

Must have been a good one, Rose thought as he continued throbbing in her hand, his hips jerking forward every few seconds. He was beautiful as he stood there, face blank, mouth hanging open as panting moans escaped him. A dull ache of desire coiled low in Rose’s belly, but she pushed it aside.

“Oh, God,” he croaked when he was finally spent.

She could feel him softening and stroked him one last time. He sighed, his hips jumping, then she released him. 

“I take it that was good?” Rose teased, knowing damn well it was.

When he eventually opened his eyes, they had a dazed, sleepy look about them, and he grinned.

Rose returned the expression, then folded up the soiled towel, discreetly wiped her hands clean, and set it on the counter. She stepped up to James and pulled his pajama bottoms up his hips, careful not to snag his softening cock.

She enveloped him in a hug, one that he eagerly reciprocated. He tucked his face into her neck and inhaled deeply, holding her so tightly it sent warmth thudding through her with every heartbeat; she loved their post-coital cuddles and this one was no different, no matter that they were standing.

“Thank you,” he whispered. He brought his hand up to comb his fingers through her hair, then he cradled the back of her head as his lips descended on hers. The kiss was reverent and knee-wobblingly gentle. “I love you.” He kissed her again. “That was incredible. If not orgasming in over two weeks makes it feel like that, I should abstain more often.”

“Only for the next few weeks. Once I’m cleared for sex, you’d better not hold out on me, mister.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he murmured, swaying them lightly. “When you’re ready to make love, I’m going to repay that delightful orgasm tenfold.”

“I don’t think you could possibly make me come ten times,” Rose said dryly.

“Is that a challenge?”

Rose rolled her eyes. “As much as I love when you make me come multiple times, I think I would pass out if you made it to ten. Or at the very least have some uncomfortable chafing.”

“Our record is seven,” James said. “Surely it’s not that unfeasible to get you to ten.”

“That record was before we had kids,” Rose reminded. “We literally spent hours and hours in bed.”

“If my memory serves me correctly—which it does, ‘cos I’m brilliant—it was in the kitchen, on the couch, against a wall, then in bed,” he said, pulling back to smile down at her.

“Is that supposed to impress me?”

“Are you not impressed?” He pouted. “If you’d like, I could regale you with the exact number of orgasms you’ve had. You, Rose Tyler-McCrimmon, have had…” His tongue pressed distractingly to the backs of his teeth as he thought. “…Four-thousand nine-hundred and fourteen orgasms with yours truly.”

Rose blinked, her attention finally broken away from his tongue. “What, seriously?”

James winked roguishly at her, exuding a haughty air for a few extended seconds, before a sheepish smile stole over his face. “Nah, I just did some quick guesstimating. We’ve been sexually active for fifteen years and eight months. If you assume we make love three times a week—which is quite low for some weeks, but then there were others where we didn’t at all so it probably evens out—and that you orgasm at least twice whenever we have sex—again, this is quite low for some sessions—then that gets us to four-thousand nine-hundred and fourteen. And that’s a very conservative estimate. I’m sure we must have crossed the threshold of five-thousand by now.”

Rose cackled and lifted up onto her tiptoes to press a kiss to her husband’s lips.

“Oh, you absolute utter nutter!”

He hummed happily. “I’m your absolute utter nutter.”

“D’you know what?” she asked conspiratorially. His eyes twinkled as he awaited her response. “That quick mental maths you just did is much more impressive than if you’d actually been keeping count all these years.”

He grinned at her, then hauled her in for another kiss.

oOoOo

Later that night, Rose lounged in Ainsley’s bed beside her daughter while James sat at the foot of the bed, absently playing with Rose’s feet. They tried to make sure Ainsley read aloud to them each night, and while usually they traded off the job, sometimes they both wanted to listen to the story. That was the case this night, as they were part way through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and James and Rose enjoyed the opportunity for a reread of the series.

James sat back against the wall and massaged his thumbs into Rose’s instep as he listened to Ainsley narrate Harry and Ron’s misadventure into the Whomping Willow.

Ainsley was a good reader. Her vocabulary was strong and she had an excellent grasp on the grammar and fluidity of language, but tonight her voice was a little flat and she kept tripping over her words.

James caught Rose’s eye and saw she’d noticed too. When the chapter came to an end, before he could say anything, Ainsley asked, “Can we stop there tonight?”

“Of course, darling,” James said. “Is anything the matter?”

“I guess I’m just not in the mood to read.”

“Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?” Rose asked, moving to wrap her arm around Ainsley’s shoulders.

“Why would something be bothering me?” she snapped, flinching away from Rose.

James was taken aback, and judging from Rose’s slackened jaw, so was she. Before he could reprimand his daughter for her behavior, Ainsley mumbled, “Sorry.”

“You can always talk to me,” Rose said, wringing her hands in her lap as though she didn’t know what to do with them. “Or to your dad.”

“I know,” Ainsley said.

James bit his lip and tentatively rested his hand on the blanket covering Ainsley’s foot. She didn’t pull away. “Is it about the twins?”

Ainsley wrinkled her nose. “What? No. Why?”

“Well, it’s been you and Sianin for a long time, and now there are two babies in the house,” James said carefully. “It’s a lot to adjust to. Mum and I won’t be upset if you’re upset about them.”

“No, they’re fine,” Ainsley said firmly. “I love having them here.”

James’s shoulders relaxed and he squeezed her foot. “Do you want me and Mum to leave you alone for the night?”

Ainsley glanced over at Rose, then at James, and shook her head. “Can I have a hug?”

“Of course, love,” Rose said, tugging Ainsley in for the hug their daughter had rejected mere moments ago. “I’m sorry you’re feeling out of sorts tonight. Is there anything we can do?”

She shrugged and nestled closer to Rose’s chest. James was at a loss, so he continued petting Ainsley’s feet through the blankets.

“Can I ask you something?” Ainsley’s voice was muffled by Rose’s shirt.

“Always.”

“Did you… I mean… This might sound stupid,” Ainsley admitted.

“Impossible,” James assured her. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

“Yes, there is,” Ainsley said dryly, cracking a small smile. It slipped as she said, “When you realized you were soulmated, did you feel… trapped?”

James squinted at his wife. Her expression mirrored his.

“What do you mean?” James asked.

“Like… one day you were going about your business, then the next, the universe decided you were suddenly matched with another human being and tied to them. Forever. Was that… scary? Overwhelming?”

James’s brain worked fast to try and figure out where her question was coming from. For as long as she’d understood the concept of soulmates, Ainsley had longed for one of her own. Had she been soulmated and now felt differently about it? 

“For me, it was an exciting day to realize the universe had given me a forever friend,” Rose said, her voice slow and cautious as she, too, tried to figure out what had prompted their daughter’s question.

“Same,” James agreed.

“Yeah, but later, when the excitement had worn off. Did it feel like your choice had been taken from you? Like… you have a soulmate. And you’re stuck with them. You had no input whatsoever about who you’d fall in love with and marry and have kids with.”

“I guess a little bit,” Rose answered, and James thought all of the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. Before his panic could thoroughly suffocate him, Rose continued, “Though my main fear was actually a bit of the opposite. I was worried that my soulmate wouldn’t want to be stuck with me for eternity.”

The air had returned to James’s lungs, though his chest was still a bit tight. He reached over and squeezed Rose’s foot. She flashed him a small smile before returning her attention to Ainsley.

“Being soulmated didn’t necessarily take away my decision to fall in love, though,” Rose said. “I was five when I realized I was soulmated. I knew what love was, but I didn’t truly understand the scale of it. Your dad and I started out as friends, then as we got older, our feelings evolved. Do you know what platonic love is?”

“Love between friends?” Ainsley asked.

“Exactly. Our love started platonically, then grew into romantic love when we were older because that’s what we both wanted. But there are some soulmates who remain best friends, and that works for them.”

“For my part, I was a hopeless romantic,” James admitted, earning him a giggle from his daughter. “But you must understand, I had soulmated parents who were very much in love, and I decided at a young age that that’s what I wanted as well. When I met your mother, she became my best friend overnight. I loved her deeply and knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Our love grew as we did.”

“Where are these questions coming from? Have you… been soulmated?” Rose asked carefully.

Ainsley sighed heavily. “No. But my friend Teddy is. Just today, it happened. And he was acting all dramatic and unhappy, whining about being stuck with a girl his whole life. He was being kind of stupid about it all, and talked about his soulmate really rudely. But it got me wondering if other people were upset when they found out they were soulmated.”

“I’m sure some people feel like their choice is being taken away from them, while others are happy about it,” James said.

“It’s not fair,” Ainsley lamented. “That Teddy has a soulmate but doesn’t want one.”

“I know,” Rose said, kissing the top of Ainsley’s head. 

They all became quiet for a minute, until Ainsley asked, “Do you ever get bored? I mean, you’ve been together for decades.”

“Oi, you make us sound ancient,” James whined.

Ainsley laughed. “I just meant that you know everything about each other. Doesn’t it get boring?”

“Well, we have four kids to spice up our lives.”

“Gee, thanks,” Rose muttered.

James cringed as he realized how that sounded. “I didn’t mean it like that. Obviously if we didn’t have kids, I’d still be as in love with your mum as ever.”

“Why don’t you do date nights anymore?” Ainsley asked curiously.

James frowned.

“I could sometimes hear you in the living room watching a film or having dinner or something,” Ainsley explained. Then her cheeks turned pink. “Or… erm… later, in your room.”

James’s face went hot.

“Or Sianin and I would have a sleepover at Grandad’s house so you could go out. But you haven’t done that in ages.”

“The twins have us pretty busy right now,” Rose said. “We’re tired at night, so we don’t usually do anything fancy. But remember, your dad is on paternity leave so we get to spend the entire day together.”

“Oh. So you and Dad are… okay?” Ainsley asked, glancing between the two of them.

“We’re wonderful,” James promised. “Would you like us to snog right now as proof?”

Rose kicked him half-heartedly as Ainsley shrieked, “Ew! No!” James giggled. “Well. Rather that than overhearing you in your bedroom.”

Once again, James’s cheeks flamed.

“I haven’t heard… erm…  that in a while either,” Ainsley said awkwardly. “Not that I’m complaining. But… just…”

“Sweetheart, why are you so concerned about me and your dad?” Rose asked, her voice impossibly soft and tinged with sadness. “Have we done or said something…?”

Ainsley shrugged and strangled the corner of her blanket between her hands. “My friend’s parents are getting divorced. She’s really upset about it ‘cos she didn’t know anything was wrong between her mum and dad.”

“Sometimes mums and dads are better apart than they are together,” Rose said gently, giving Ainsley a tight squeeze. “A spouse or romantic partner should make you into the best version of yourself you can possibly be. Your dad brings out the best in me, and he makes me want to be better. He makes me the happiest I’ve ever been.

“But sometimes all of that just… stops. And it’s nobody’s fault. But it’s good for people to recognize that the situation they’re in isn’t healthy anymore, and it’s best if they go their separate ways.”

“Can a divorce happen between soulmated people?” Ainsley asked, glancing between her parents.

“I’m sure there are cases of it,” James answered. Ainsley deflated and he hastened to add, “But that’s not gonna happen between me and your mum.”

“How can you be sure?” she pressed.

“I… well…” James floundered for a response that wasn’t “because I know”. 

Rose, seeing him struggling, touched Ainsley’s cheek to get her attention. “I suppose nobody can say anything with absolute certainty. However, I can promise you right now that I have absolutely no intention of leaving your dad, and I have a very difficult time imagining ever wanting to. I fall more in love with him every day and love that I’m married to him.”

“The same for me,” James said, his voice a little hoarse. His heart ached at the thought of him and Rose not being together. He couldn’t even fathom it. He was one-hundred percent certain that he and Rose would be together forever, in this life and in whatever came after. “I’m sorry your friend is going through that hardship. And that it’s made you nervous.”

“I wasn’t really nervous,” Ainsley said quickly, but the vulnerability that had been splayed across her face minutes ago contradicted her statement. James merely nodded though.

“Are you feeling better?” Rose asked, smoothing Ainsley’s hair away from her face.

“Yeah,” she said, nestling down into her pillow.

“Thank you for talking with me and Dad.”

“Thanks for listening,” Ainsley said, then she heaved a sigh that sounded too big to come from her tiny body. “I still feel a bit funny inside.”

“Illness funny or weird funny?” Rose asked, unconsciously pressing her fingers to Ainsley’s cheeks and forehead.

“Weird funny. Like… I feel sad but I dunno why. ‘Cos I’m not sad, I don’t think.”

“As you get older and have more experiences, you’ll start to feel more emotions that you might not know what to do with,” Rose said. “It’s perfectly normal, but may be overwhelming sometimes. Can you try to promise me you’ll come talk with me or your dad, or even your gran or grandad, if things get overwhelming? No matter how silly you think it is?”

“I promise,” Ainsley said, flashing a small smile.

“Good girl,” Rose said. “Do you think you can sleep now?”

Ainsley nodded, and James scooted off the bed before helping Rose slip off.

“I love you so, so much,” Rose whispered to her daughter. She peppered a series of kisses across Ainsley’s face, covering her forehead and cheeks and chin and nose. “Goodnight Ainsley.”

“Night Mum.”

James stepped forward when Rose backed away.

“Nighty night, darling,” he said, leaning down to brush a kiss to his daughter’s cheek. He smoothed out her blankets and fussed with them, making sure there were no folds or lumps as he tucked them around her shoulders. “Gonna bundle you in nice and tight.”

James grinned at his laughing child as he tucked the blankets under Ainsley’s body, cocooning her snugly. He then pressed a smacking kiss to her forehead.

“G’night Daddy,” she said, her eyes bright.

“Sweet dreams.”

He and Rose backed out of her room, flicking the lights off and shutting the door behind them.

“Well that was… unexpected,” James groaned when they plopped down on the couch together.

“She is nine,” Rose said pointedly. “Pretty soon she’ll be starting puberty and dealing with all these new and weird hormones and emotions and…”

“Don’t remind me. That’s not supposed to happen. She’s my baby girl.”

Rose patted his chest comfortingly. They were silent for a few moments before she said, her voice teasing, “So… our kids are the only reason you haven’t gotten bored of me.”

It took James a moment, but he finally remembered the context of her quip. “I really am sorry about that,” he said, grimacing. He scrubbed his hand across the back of his neck. “I didn’t mean it how it came out.”

“I know,” Rose assured. “It’s funny, is all.” She snuggled in to his side, and he hugged her close, her warmth soothing. “What do you think we’d do if we didn’t have kids to keep you entertained?”

“Have more sex,” he deadpanned.

“Even more than we already have?” Rose snorted. “Blimey, I dunno if that’s even possible.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’d manage.” He stroked his fingers up and down the length of her arm. “What do you think we’d do if we didn’t have kids?”

“Probably travel a bit more.” James felt a little guilty that she actually gave a real answer while he provides a blasé one. “I mean, we already travel quite a lot, but it’s very strictly planned to either make sure the places we go are kid-friendly, or to arrange for child care so you and I can go somewhere.” Rose paused for a moment before she admitted, “I kind of miss the spontaneity that came with not having kids.”

“I do, too,” he agreed. “Though I think the presence of the kids makes me cherish the alone time I have with you even more. It’d get a bit dull spending every waking minute together, wouldn’t it?”

“Charming,” Rose drawled, flicking the back of his head.

“Do you understand what I mean, though?” he asked, worried that perhaps he was alone in his feelings and was instead digging himself into a hole.

Rose stared at him, letting him simmer in his uncertainty for a few long seconds before she winked at him and leaned up to kiss him swiftly.

“Yeah, I understand,” she said. “For the record, I agree. I adore our children and I would never, ever wish them out of my life, but they give me a greater appreciation for moments like this.” She gestured vaguely around the living room. “I love spending time with you and the kids, but I also love when it’s just us.”

“So… now that it’s just the two of us, what are we gonna do?” James purred into her ear.

“I was actually considering getting ready for bed,” Rose admitted, smiling sheepishly.

James burst out laughing, and he squeezed his arm around her shoulders.

“It’s not that I’m ready to sleep, but I’m tired and want to lie down and get settled in for the night.”

“Sounds good to me,” he said.

Together, they locked up the house and carried the twins from the bassinets in the living room to the bassinets in their bedroom.

“Want to play a game?” Rose asked after they’d gone through their nighttime routine and were lounging in bed. “Like Word Association or something?”

“Sure.” Word Association was one of their favorite pillow talk games to play. One of them would start with a random word, then the other would say the first word that popped into their head that was somehow associated with the original word. The game was over if one of them couldn’t come up with a word within a couple seconds, or if a word was reused. “You start.”

“Bed,” Rose said.

“Pillow.”

“Head.”

“Blowjob.”

“How the hell…?” Rose giggled.

“Y’know… giving head,” he replied, waggling his eyebrows. “Go on. You next.”

Rose rolled her eyes. “Cuddle.” She rolled into his arms as she said the word, and he hugged her close.

“Warm,” he murmured, burrowing himself into her soft heat.

“Summer.”

“Beach.”

“Sand.”

“Arse.” He let his hand wander down her back until he cupped her bum.

“Seriously?” Rose laughed, swatting his hand.

“Seriously! Sand gets everywhere, Rose,” he said gravely, though he kept his hand where it was.

She pressed a kiss to his chest. “Sex.”

“Kiss.” He ducked down to catch her lips in a long kiss, his tongue darting out to swipe against hers.

“Wet,” she rasped.

He smirked. “Arousal.”

“Handsome.”

“Beautiful,” he whispered, nudging his nose against hers before he kissed her again.

She twined her fingers through his hair, keeping him where he was as she returned his kiss.

“Flattery,” she mumbled against his mouth before scraping her teeth against his bottom lip. He hummed into the kiss and nearly forgot about the game entirely until she said, “Your turn.”

“Love,” he breathed, hoping he picked something associated with the word she’d given. Frankly, he had forgotten what she’d said.

“Lust,” she said, scratching her fingernails across his scalp.

Hot tingles broke out across his skin and he shuddered, barely swallowing down a moan. His lips moved hungrily against hers, chasing the pleasurable sensations that came with snogging his wife.

“Your turn,” Rose prompted yet again.

James could hardly think straight, especially as she kept teasing her fingers through his hair. “Sex.”

“Ha!” Rose popped her lips away from his, leaving him dazed and disoriented. A victorious grin was on her face; she looked far too clear-headed for his liking. “I already used that word. I win!”

“I think you cheated,” he pouted, though he really wished she would keep kissing him.

“I think someone’s a sore loser,” Rose said, her tongue poking out as she beamed.

“I demand a rematch.” James rolled until his body was pressed up to hers. He crushed his mouth to hers, delighting in her surprised hiss. He chased her tongue back into her mouth, stroking and teasing it as his hands wandered up and down the length of her spine.

“Tongue,” he said against her mouth.

“T-teeth,” she sighed as he nibbled his way across her jaw and down her neck.

“Bite,” he answered, giving her a quick nip as he spoke.

She whimpered and arched her head back to give him better access. “Suck.”

“As you wish,” he responded, latching his mouth to the side of her neck.

“N-no, that was my word,” Rose said. She whined when he popped his mouth away from her skin. “Though you can keep doing that, if you’d like.”

He grinned, and said, “Cock,” before attaching his mouth to her once more. Maybe it was cheating, but he let his lips and teeth wander down to the sensitive join where her neck met her shoulder. She shuddered in his arms and let out a breathy gasp.

“Your turn,” he whispered between kisses. “Unless you’d like to concede the game?”

“Stiffy,” she said.

“Stubborn woman,” he muttered. “Rub.”

“Grind.”

“Thrust.”

“Moan.”

“Groan,” he purred into her ear. His brain was close to short-circuiting with the love and pleasure coursing through his body. He knew they would need to stop the game before he became too aroused; it was torture knowing he couldn’t roll on top of Rose and make love with her. But nevertheless, he was enjoying this bit of teasing, despite the heavy ache throbbing between his legs.

They made it through a few more words, each one raunchier than the last, before Rose placed her hand on his chest and said, “I want to stop now.”

It was as though a bucket of ice water had been thrown on him. He scooted away immediately.

“Are you all right? I’m sorry, I…”

“I’m fine,” Rose assured. He cheeks were flushed and her pupils were blown wide. “It was getting too intense, though.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be. I was enjoying that very much.” Rose reached over to rest her hand on his chest. “But we can’t go any further, and if we’d kept up the game, I would’ve forgotten why we couldn’t go any further.”

James nodded and reached up to twine his fingers with hers. He pressed a kiss to her knuckles and held her hand, neither of them speaking.

“Are you all right?” Rose asked. “Need to go take care of yourself or anything? Or want me to give you a hand?”

“You gave me a hand this morning. Two hands, actually.” He winked roguishly at her, making he grin.

“I don’t mind doing it again,” she said sincerely. “Honestly.”

“I know. And thank you, but I’ll be fine.” And he was. Already, his erection had flagged and would be completely gone in a few minutes.

“That was really fun,” Rose admitted.

“Yeah, it was,” he said. “Can we have a cuddle? Or are you too worked up still?”

In reply, Rose took her hand from him and rolled onto her side, facing away from him. She then reached back to draw him in as he curved his body around hers. They wiggled around for a few moments, getting settled. When her bum brushed across the front of his pants, she teased, “You sure you don’t need a private moment?”

“Quite sure,” he said, rolling his eyes even though she couldn’t see. “It was going down ‘til you started grinding.”

Unintentionally grinding,” she corrected.

“You comfy?” he asked, tucking his face into her neck.

“Mhm… wanna bet a baby will start crying in thirty seconds?”

“Don’t jinx it,” he whined, pinching her side.

Rose giggled quietly in the darkness. James gave her middle a squeeze and burrowed closer into her warmth.

The twins did not, in fact, begin crying thirty seconds later. Or even thirty minutes later. By that time, Rose had already fallen asleep and was snoring into her pillow, and James had stopped listening for the beginnings of a cry. He instead listened to the sounds of his home: Rose’s breathing. The twins’ occasional snuffling grunts and coos. The flushing of a toilet down the hall.

He strained his ears and heard shuffling footfalls. The footsteps were getting closer, before they disappeared altogether.

Must’ve been Ainsley, he thought to himself. Her room was the closest to theirs.

But then he heard the sound of little voices. Frowning, he disentangled himself from Rose and slipped out of bed. He exited his bedroom and crept towards Ainsley’s room, where the door was ajar.

He could hear his two eldest children speaking quietly, and when he knocked at the door, their voices went silent.

“Everything all right?” he asked.

Sianin was in Ainsley’s bed, facing the wall with the blankets pulled up to her ears. Ainsley peered at her little sister, then to him.

“She wee’d the bed,” Ainsley said.

“Ainsley!” Sianin cried.

“What? Daddy would’ve realized tomorrow morning anyway.”

Sianin sniffled and pulled the blankets higher up her face.

“Are you all right, Sianin?” James asked, stepping to the foot of the bed. He wished Ainsley’s bed wasn’t pushed against the wall so he could crouch down in front of her.

“It was an accident,” Sianin whimpered, her voice muffled.

“I know,” he said soothingly. “Did you put on clean jammies?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to sleep with Ainsley tonight?” James asked, hoping his eldest didn’t mind.

“Yeah.”

“Okay then,” he said. “Goodnight, darling.”

She mumbled something he couldn’t catch, then poked her hand out of the blankets to pull Ainsley down beside her. Ainsley rolled her eyes but was smiling fondly at her little sister.

“This all right?” he asked.

“Mhm,” Ainsley replied, yawning. She curled up behind Sianin and draped an arm around her waist.

James thought his heart might melt into his toes at the picture of his children cuddling together.

“Goodnight, my darlings,” he whispered. “I love you lots.”

“G’night. Love you,” Ainsley said sleepily, while Sianin just grunted.

He stepped out of the room and with a heavy exhale, went to Sianin’s room to clean up. He chucked her sheets and soiled clothes into the wash, then cleaned up her mattress. He was just putting the cleaning supplies away when he caught sight of movement from the corner of his eye.

“Everything all right?” Rose asked, her eyes bleary.

“Yep. Sianin wet the bed is all, but I’ve got it sorted,” James said.

Rose frowned. “She hasn’t done that in… God, I dunno how long.”

“I know,” James said. “It wasn’t too bad, though. She must’ve woken up part way through. Her bedding’s in the wash now, and she’s sleeping with Ainsley tonight.”

Rose nodded and yawned again. “Anything I can help with?”

He shook his head. “I was about to come back to bed. Were the twins up?”

“Just got done feeding them.”

She held out her hand for his. Hand in hand, they walked down the corridor towards their room. Rose tugged him to a stop so she could poke her head into Ainsley’s room.

The girls were in the same position he’d left them in, with Sianin facing the wall and the blankets tugged up nearly over her head, and Ainsley spooned up behind her.

“Oh,” Rose cooed, pressing her hand to her chest.

He smiled, then reached out to shut Ainsley’s door.

“I wonder what could’ve caused Sianin’s accident,” Rose mused as they crawled into bed.

“Dunno,” he said, curling up against Rose.

“I hope it’s a one-off. Maybe she forgot to wee before bed. Or drank more water than usual. Or had a scary dream. Or…” 

“Or a dream where she really had to wee.”

Rose snorted. “Or that.”

“She’s probably fine,” James said with a contented sigh.

“Mhm,” Rose agreed, turning her body into his. She flung a leg over one of his and wrapped her arm around his waist, nuzzling her face into his chest.

“Goodnight, Rose,” he whispered, kissing the top of her head.

She muttered something unintelligible, and he nearly laughed; she sounded just like Sianin had.

Like mother, like daughter.

He breathed in deeply and kissed her again before closing his eyes and attempting sleep.

Chapter Text

Robert walked into the house, immediately spotting the almost-birthday girl. 

“Happy Birthday, Sianin my darling,” he said, crouching down for a hug. She bolted into his open arms and he stood with her.

“It’s not actually my birthday yet, Grandad,” she said matter-of-factly.

“It’s not?” he asked, his jaw dropping.

Sianin giggled as she shook her head. “Nope! It’s not ‘til tomorrow.”

“Oh…” Robert glanced down at the small pile of packages in the bag he’d been carrying. “I guess I can’t give you your presents yet, then?”

“No, no,” Sianin said hastily, looking panicked. “The party’s my pretend birthday, so we’re still doing cake and presents and everything.”

Robert laughed and blew a raspberry into her neck, making her shriek and squirm in his arms. After giving her a final squeeze and a kiss, he set Sianin on her feet and turned to greet his other granddaughter. He couldn’t quite pick Ainsley up anymore, but he gave her a great big hug that lifted her off her toes for a few seconds.

“Mum’s in the kitchen,” she announced. “And Dad went out to get more ice cream.”

Robert stepped into the kitchen and saw Rose at the counter chopping vegetables.

“Hi Dad!” she said, grinning. “I’d give you a hug, but, well…” She brandished the knife in her hand.

“I’ll get one later,” he said. “Do you need some help?”

“Nah, I think I’ve got it covered.”

“Lookie what Elena and Juliette drew me!”

Sianin skipped into the kitchen, waving her right arm. He saw a bunch of little doodles, including a birthday cake with six candles and three stick figures in pointy party hats. He remembered the days when James would proudly show him and Vera the drawings Rose had made for him, especially on holidays.

“That’s lovely,” Rose said.

“I wish they could come to my party,” Sianin sighed, tracing her fingertip over the ink on her arm.

“Soon, darling,” Robert soothed.

“Nuh uh! I have to wait ‘til I’m eighteen, but that’s ages away!” Sianin whined, slumping dramatically across the table.

“It’ll be here before you know it,” Rose said sympathetically. “And it’ll be well worth the wait.”

“Your first meeting with your soulmates is going to be utterly magical and spectacular,” Robert chimed in. “It’ll be one of the best days of your life, and you’ll look back and realize that the wait wasn’t as long as you’d thought.”

Sianin made a small noise of disbelief. “What was your first meeting like, Grandad?”

“It was… incredible,” he said softly, his chest aching with a combination of sorrow, longing, and joy as the memory conjured itself in his mind.

“I’m leaving as soon as I’m eighteen. I can’t stand to be in this house a moment longer,” he’d written onto his arms one night. His father had, once again, taken Robert’s entire paycheck from his job at the butcher’s for not only rent, but more liquor too.

“I’m so sorry about your dad,” Vera replied. And after a beat, she wrote, “Where would you go?”

“I don’t care. Anywhere. I’ll hide out in the shop after it closes. I’ll go to a group home. I’ll live in a goddamned park if I have to.”

“Don’t do that! It’s January for God’s sake! You’d freeze to death!”

“I can’t stay in this house anymore, Vee.”

She was quiet for a long time. Long enough that Robert brushed his teeth and crawled into bed for the night. He kept his bedside lamp on for a few minutes longer, hoping she hadn’t fallen asleep already.

Finally, she wrote back. “Well… if you want… my house has got plenty of spare rooms. My parents said they wouldn’t mind (that’s where I was just now).”

Her words came slowly, as though she was nervous to say them.

His heart lifted, but he tried to quash the hope.

“We can’t meet yet, darling,” he said, wishing so badly they could. “You know that.”

“I know. But…” There was a long pause. “What difference would ten months make? No one would report you or anything. And if they did, they’d have me to reckon with. Just think about it? Please?”

Robert told her that he would, even though a larger piece of him told him it was probably impossible.

As his eighteenth birthday grew nearer and nearer, Robert started to seriously consider Vera’s offer. A recent winter snowstorm made him rethink some of his previous ideas. However, she hadn’t brought it up again, which made him nervous that she regretted her invitation. 

Then one night his father gave him a split lip for not forking over the entirety of his latest paycheck. His father had hit him before, but mostly uncoordinated swats or a tightly-gripped arm. Never hard enough to draw blood or a bruise. Then again, Robert had never withheld money from his father before. Robert had begun working longer hours, squirreling away the extra money for when he could finally meet Vera. But his father had somehow found out and confronted him about it.

Robert had gone to bed without dinner and his money, near tears with anger, frustration, and helplessness.

“Hey, Vee?”

“Yeah, love?”

Her quick reply made his tears spill over. He wiped them away when they rolled into his raw lip.

“I was wondering…” He couldn’t bring himself to get the words out. He felt pathetic.

“Wondering?” she coaxed.

“What you said about your house having plenty of spare rooms. Is that… Could I…”

He started and crossed out several sentences before Vera said, “You are more than welcome to come stay with me and my mum and dad. More than welcome.” She underlined those words heavily. “You’re family. Have been for as long as we’ve been soulmated. My parents already consider you to be their son.”

His tears started up again in earnest, and all he managed to say was, “Thank you.”

Barely a week later, Robert found himself on the train headed to Scotland. He’d packed the barest of essentials: clothing, mostly, as well as a few books and all of the letters he and Vera had exchanged over the years. His entire life—the last eighteen years—fit in one medium-sized suitcase and a backpack. Looking at how little he had made Robert feel hollow inside.

The train ride took forever. He tried to distract himself with a book, but couldn’t silence his racing thoughts. His father had been furious when he realized his son was leaving. Robert had hoped to be out of the house before he had woken up. Alas, his father stumbled into the kitchen as Robert was writing a brief note telling him he was leaving and never returning.

His father had shouted at him and lunged for him, but was too hungover to properly do any damage. Robert grabbed his suitcase and used it to push his father to the side, then he left the house behind without ever looking back.

Robert knew his father’s fury wasn’t due to any emotional attachment; it was simply because a source of income was gone. Robert had learned ages ago not to expect an ounce of love or affection from his father. The only thing he did learn was what kind of father he himself wanted to be, if he and Vera were lucky enough to have children one day. He would be the sort of father his children could come to without hesitation, without fear, and know that they would be loved endlessly and eternally, no matter what.

Ignoring the lingering guilt of leaving his father behind, Robert had walked all the way to the train station. He’d bought a ticket with the small amount of money he’d managed to hide from his father. Finally free, Robert was now on his way to meet the woman he’d loved his whole life.

After the train ride, he hailed a taxi to Vera’s home. If his calculations were correct, the drive would use up the last of his money, leaving him penniless and homeless to meet his soulmate.

“A great start,” he scoffed to himself.

He gave the driver the address and slouched in the back seat as he was driven out of the city to a small neighboring town. Even then, they bypassed the town until they were in a wooded area. He grew nervous that maybe he’d gotten the address wrong. But he’d been sending letters to her for years, and she’d always gotten them.

The driver made an abrupt turn that had Robert clinging to the seat to keep from toppling. The car wound through trees on a narrow, bumpy road before turning onto a long dirt road. The dirt road was actually a driveway that opened up to a huge old manor house.

Robert’s eyes widened as he took in the beautiful home with the pristine white wrap-around porch and the wide expanse of grass around it. There was a tree line beyond the house, stretching out farther than Robert could see. His stomach lurched and his heart hammered. This was where Vera lived? It was like a castle.

Self-consciousness burned like acid in the back of his throat, and he was painfully aware of his tattered, ill-fitting clothes and unkempt hair and dusty shoes.

The taxi pulled to a stop. Robert fought against the impulse to tell the driver he’d gotten the wrong address and to take him back to the train station. But he couldn’t afford another taxi ride into the city. Or a new train ticket.

A flash of movement caught his eye, and Robert saw a girl with dark brown hair jump off the front porch, not bothering with the steps as she ran towards him. His stomach unknotted and he fumbled for the door handle.

“Robert! Robert!”

She had the most beautiful voice in the world. It made his knees tremble, and he was sure he was about to fall face-first into the frozen ground.

“Robert!” she shouted again. Her face was split into a wide grin. She was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

“Vera,” he breathed. He forced his legs to stay steady as he took a few steps towards her. His stride grew longer and longer until he was running too.

She flung her arms wide and he followed suit half a second before their bodies slammed together. The breath left his lungs in a gasp, and he heard her make a similar noise. Then he was being held and squeezed by the person he loved most in the world.

“You’re here!” she cried.

She pulled back from their embrace, tears streaming down her cheeks. It was an automatic response for him to lift his hands to cradle her cheeks, swiping at her tears with his thumbs. He didn’t realize he was crying too until she copied his movements.

“Hi!” she giggled, beaming at him.

“Hi,” he whispered, leaning forward to rest his forehead against hers. He caught a whiff of her shampoo. She smelled amazing.

“I can’t believe it’s you,” she said, running her fingers through his hair, then down his cheek, before resting her palm against his chest. “You’re here. Oh! Happy Birthday!”

She lifted onto her toes and pecked a kiss to his cheek, then rocked back onto her heels, her cheeks pink.

“This is the best birthday I’ve ever had,” he told her honestly, his eyes flickering across her face, memorizing every detail. She was more lovely than his imagination had been able to conjure; he didn’t think he would ever grow tired of looking at her.

Robert was then aware that the taxi was pulling off down the driveway.

“My things,” he protested, turning, but he saw a middle-aged man and woman holding his suitcase and backpack. “I… I didn’t pay him.”

“We’ve got it,” Vera’s mother said gently, stepping up to him. “Our birthday gift to you.”

She set his backpack on the ground and opened her arms in an invitation for a hug, one that he stepped in to. He held himself somewhat stiffly for a second—wasn’t it awkward to hug a virtual stranger?—but the hug felt so nice that he couldn’t help but relax into it.

“We’re so happy to see you,” she whispered into his ear, then she kissed his cheek.

She released him, and he turned to Vera’s father. Despite his enormous size—he stood at least half a foot taller than Robert’s six feet—his face was kind and there were laugh lines around his mouth and eyes.

Robert stuck out his hand to shake his, but was instead pulled into another hug, to his surprise.

“Welcome,” Vera’s father said, giving him a firm squeeze. He pulled away and ruffled Robert’s hair.

His cheeks burned with an odd mixture of pleasure and embarrassment. 

Vera skipped up beside him and hugged his arm to her chest, then twined her fingers through his.

“Are you hungry?” Vera’s mother asked. “Nobody’s eaten lunch yet. Let’s go inside and out of this cold. C’mon my dears.”

Vera’s parents picked up his bags and began walking hand-in-hand towards the house. Before he could follow them, Vera gave his hand a squeeze and tugged at his arm. He looked down at her and couldn’t help but smile. He was finally with his soulmate. She returned the expression, then reached up and rested her palm on his cheek.

“I love you,” she said softly.

He thought his heart might collapse in on itself, and he was slightly mortified to feel tears welling in his throat. Swallowing them away, he covered her hand with his and turned his head to the side to press a long kiss to her palm. He took her hand off his face and brought her knuckles to his lips.

“I love you, too,” he murmured into her skin. “So very much.”

Her face was beautifully pink, and he couldn’t resist kissing her fingers again. He then tucked her small hand into his and followed the people that would become his new family into the house.

“Awww.” Sianin’s dreamy coo brought Robert out of his own head and back to the kitchen.

Of course, Robert had skimmed over the details of his father and had expanded upon the details of Vera, but he stayed as close to the truth as he could.

“That sounds lovely,” Rose breathed, misty-eyed. Robert realized with a start this was the first he’d told Rose about his first meeting with Vera.

“It was,” he said simply.

Robert stuck his hand into his pocket for his wallet. When he withdrew it, he opened it up and took a small faded photograph from within. The photo was of a lanky, messy-haired boy with his arm around a petite brown-haired girl. They were both beaming.

“Look at this,” Robert said, sliding the photo across the table so his granddaughter could see. “That’s the day we met.”

“Oh!” Rose clasped her hands to her chest and smiled down at the picture.

“You look like Daddy,” Sianin observed.

“No, your daddy looks like him,” Rose corrected. When Sianin frowned in confusion, she clarified, “A child looks like their parent, not the other way ‘round, since the parent made the child.”

Sianin ignored her mother and instead looked down at the photo again. “She’s very pretty. She looks like Ainsley.” Sianin then glanced sidelong at Rose. “Er… I mean, Ainsley looks like her.”

“She was the prettiest girl I’d ever met… apart from my beautiful little granddaughters.”

He lifted up Sianin’s party hat and ruffled his fingers through her hair. She squealed and ducked out of his touch, but he caught her around the waist and peppered kisses across her neck and cheeks just to hear her laugh again.

“I love you,” he whispered to her.

“Love you too, Grandad,” she said, breathless and beaming.

The front door then opened, and James called out, “I’m back! And some guests have arrived. Sian, your mate Emma is here.”

Sianin scurried out from Robert’s arms and darted to the front of the house. He watched her go with a fond smile.

He picked up the photograph of him and Vera and tucked it safely into his wallet behind James and Rose’s latest family Christmas photo. He made a mental note to ask Rose if she had any family photos that included the twins, and if he could get a copy.

“Meeting before she turned eighteen… how scandalous.” Rose stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth as she smirked at him.

Robert rolled his eyes. “You know how big the manor house is… I had my own bedroom, and she had hers.”

“And how long did it take before you started sharing?” Rose teased knowingly.

“Longer than it took you and James,” Robert replied sweetly, laughing at the deep blush staining her cheeks and neck. “You know, I never did thank you.”

Rose frowned. “For what?”

“Being there for James when he needed you the most. And me.”

“Dad…” Her voice was soft as she approached him. She rested her hands on his cheeks and said, “You will never need to thank me for that. For either of you. I love you and James so much. I didn’t hesitate. You both needed me, so I went.”

He smiled at her.

“I love you,” he said, taking her hands off his cheeks to kiss the backs of her knuckles.

“I love you, too.” After a beat, she said, “By the way, your dad was an absolute wanker and you deserved so much better.”

“Yeah, he was,” Robert agreed. He hadn’t spared his father a single thought over the last fifty years except the day he was notified his father had passed away. He didn’t bother going to the funeral, and Vera hadn’t pressed it. “But he doesn’t matter. He was my past. I found a new home, a new life, in Vera. Then also in James. And now with you and my granddaughters, too. My life is so full, and I wouldn’t change anything.”

“Not anything,” Rose mumbled, her eyes going sad.

A familiar ache wrapped itself around Robert’s heart.

“I still miss her,” Rose confessed.

“I do too, darling.” He took Rose into his arms and rocked her from side to side. “But I still wouldn’t change anything. Even if it meant having her back, I wouldn’t erase a second of the time I’ve had with you and my grandchildren.”

Rose squeezed him tightly, then let him go to return to the vegetable chopping.

The guests began arriving in a steady trickle, with James and Sianin greeting everyone while Rose finished up the work in the kitchen. When she was able to join the party, she saw everyone was split into groups. Sianin was playing on the floor with the five friends she’d been allowed to invite, while the adults—their family members, mostly—cooed at the two sleeping bundles in James and Jackie’s arms.

“Oh, Rose, they’re simply beautiful!”

“They’re adorable!”

“Wow, you’re looking amazing, Rose!”

Rose dutifully smiled and accepted everyone’s compliments, shooting James a wink whenever anyone congratulated her on their beautiful babies. It was a running joke between them that she got all of the praise for making their children, as though they’d magicked themselves into being rather than have any contribution from him.

Ainsley was the lone misfit of the party. She was too old to play with Sianin and her friends, but too young to be fully integrated in the adults’ conversations. As a result, she hopped between groups and often hovered by the twins, helping whoever happened to be holding them.

“No Sylvia today?”

Rose looked over at her husband’s voice, not realizing new guests had arrived.

Donna, Lee—who was holding little Joshua—and Wilf stepped into the foyer. Rose went over to greet them with a hug and kiss apiece, including a raspberry for Joshua.

“Mum was indisposed,” Donna said, giving Rose a meaningful look.

“Everyone’s in the living room,” Rose said. “The pizza should be here soon, but there are nibbles to pick at in the meantime. Drinks are in the kitchen; Donna, want to lend me a hand?”

Donna gladly followed Rose into the kitchen and away from prying ears.

“Indisposed, eh?” Rose asked when they were alone.

Donna went to a bottle of wine, pouring some into a paper cup.

“We sort of… had a falling out,” Donna admitted once she drained half the cup in one go. Rose stayed silent, letting Donna gather her thoughts and continue her story, if she wanted. “Lee and I decided we want another baby.”

“That’s exciting!”

“Thanks. Mum didn’t think so. Joshua’s a little bit… behind the other kids his age,” Donna admitted, her cheeks turning pink. “Developmentally. The doctors said it’s nothing to be too concerned about yet. But he’s nearly two and hasn’t started walking yet. And because he isn’t walking, we can’t even think about preparing to toilet train him.”

“He’ll get there,” Rose assured. “And toilet training is a long way off. He’s not even two yet.”

“That what I’ve been saying, but Mum thinks Lee and I are doing Joshua a disservice by trying to have another baby when we’re… what did she say?” Donna frowned and stared off into the distance while she tried to remember. “Oh! When we’re neglecting the child we already have.”

Rose gasped, a combination of sympathy and anger bubbling up within her. “Oh, Donna.”

“Yeah. So now of course I’m worrying that maybe Mum’s right, and that we should try to get Joshua the help he needs before our lives are thrown into chaos from a new baby.”

“But you said the doctors weren’t concerned, so what help does he need?” Rose asked, puzzled.

“Exactly! I dunno, Rose. This is all so hard. I’m terrified I’m not doing the right thing for my child. But what more can Lee or I do? We have him in nursery, so he gets socialized with other kids his age and is with professional childcare experts. And when we come home, it’s not like we ignore him or anything. We play with him, we read to him, we try and get him to want to walk, but he absolutely refuses. He screams his little head off and starts crying for us to pick him up. Or he just happily crawls everywhere.”

Donna sighed and scrubbed her fist into her forehead. Rose stepped up and wrapped Donna in a loose hug.

“I love Joshua so much,” Donna whispered. “God, I love him more than I’ve ever loved anyone. But I just… want another baby before I get too old.”

Rose nodded, understanding all too well what the other woman was going through.

“Needless to say, Mum and I had it out.” Donna shook her head in dismay. “I told her if she wasn’t going to accept and support her grandson as he was, then she wasn’t going to have the privilege of seeing him at all. I’m not going to let her stand around and talk down about him where he can hear her. He might only be a little boy, but I’m sure he can understand more than we realize.”

“Good for you,” Rose murmured, rubbing a hand up and down Donna’s back. “I’m sorry about your mum though.”

“And I feel awful for putting Gramps in the middle of it. I feel like I’ve made him choose between his daughter and his granddaughter.”

Rose gave her a comforting squeeze, and once Donna had composed herself, they joined the party.

Their house was loud, hectic, and full of people—the twins handled it well though, considering this was their first time around so many other people. Rose and James ran themselves ragged, making sure that not only were their babies satisfied, but that all of their guests were attended to, especially Sianin and her friends. They appeared to be content to stay as a group and play together. 

The family all tripped over themselves to have a turn with the twins. Rose hadn’t needed to change a nappy or comfort a crying infant all afternoon. Her mother and James’s dad in particular seemed to self-appoint themselves as the babies’ caretakers, and were often disappearing into the nursery with one of the twins.

“Hey Dad? We’re doing the cake soon.” Rose leaned up against the door frame of the nursery and found her father-in-law sitting in the rocking chair, bottle-feeding one of the babies. Hannah, she thought, but she couldn’t quite see her daughter’s face well enough to distinguish.

“I hope you don’t mind?” he said sheepishly. “James gave me a bottle out of the fridge.”

“It’s fine,” Rose assured. Because she breastfed, it was rare for somebody other than her to feed the babies. She knew Robert enjoyed the task though.

The sight of her nursing daughter made her breasts become tender. She would have to sneak away and pump soon. “I was just saying, we were about ready to do the cake. Did you want us to wait for you?”

“Nah, it’s all right,” he said. “I’ll join you when she’s done.”

Rose nodded and moved back to the kitchen, where she found James sticking six candles into the chocolate cake before sampling a bit of the peanut butter icing.

“I’m sure it doesn’t taste that different from when you made it last night,” Rose drawled, smacking at his hand.

“Well, you never know,” he said innocently. “A good scientist always performs an experiment to test that his hypothesis is still valid.”

“Uh huh,” Rose said dubiously. “Last I checked, scientists weren’t supposed to go around licking the science.”

“Oh… well… ehm…” James floundered for a few moments before turning away from her for the matches. “Is Dad coming? I set him up with Hannah and a bottle a few minutes ago.”

“He said to go on without him,” Rose answered. “After this, I’m gonna need to go pump unless I want my tits to start leaking all over the place.”

“Just not on the cake,” James said, pulling it away from her.

She swatted him halfheartedly, then went into the living room to let everyone know the cake was coming out in a minute. When she returned to the kitchen, James was touching a lit match to the last candle. The flame had burnt close to his fingers, and he hissed as he quickly blew it out and dropped the smoking match into the sink.

“Ready?” she asked, grabbing her camera off the kitchen island.

“As I’ll ever be,” he said, picking up the pan.

Rose guided him out into the living room, flicking the lights off as she did so. Sianin looked up excitedly at her and James as they approached and began to sing. As they sang, Sianin looked around the room at her family and friends before she stared into the flickering candles on the cake that James set on the coffee table in front of her.

Rose loved getting this shot, when the candles reflected in her child’s eyes and cast shadows across her face. If it wasn’t such a hazard, she would love to have fire in all of the photoshoots she did.

She took as many photos as she could of Sianin’s face scrunching up as she thought of a wish, then of her cheeks puffing up as she blew out her candles. The room broke into applause as she extinguished them all in one breath.

Sianin carefully pulled the candles out of the cake and licked off the crumbs and icing clinging to the waxy surface.

“We’ll all get some cake and ice cream, then we’ll do presents,” Rose said, carrying the cake back into the kitchen.

“You can go pump, I’ve got this,” James said, making a shooing motion with his hands.

Rose skipped up to him and pecked a kiss to his cheek in thanks.

When she returned, her breasts feeling much more comfortable, Sianin ripped through the multitude of gifts everyone brought for her. As soon as all the gifts were opened, she and her friends took over half the toys out of the packaging and began playing with them.

Rose sat back on the couch with a piece of cake and her camera. She took shots of all of the family as everyone began to wind down from the excitement of the party. The parents of Sianin’s friends would be arriving soon to pick up their kids, and hopefully that would entice the rest of the family to leave too. Being a party host was utterly exhausting and Rose was ready to have her house to herself again.

“Rose! Rose, come look! Quick!”

Rose lowered the camera from where she was about to catch a photo of Sianin and Ainsley. She turned towards her husband. He was sitting on the sofa with Maddie lying in the cradle of his thighs.

“She smiled at me,” he said. “I swear it. She actually, properly smiled at me!”

“Oh, don’t be stupid,” Jackie scoffed, even as she walked towards him. “She’s too little to smile.”

Rose rolled her eyes at her mother and had to bite her tongue to keep from reprimanding her in front of the other guests. She instead snapped a quick photo of James holding Maddie before she went to stand behind him. She draped her arms around his shoulders and looked down at their three-week-old baby who, as much as she didn’t want to admit her mother was right, probably hadn’t actually smiled at James.

“Do you want to smile for Mummy? Do you want to smile for Mummy? Or are you gonna be shy? No need to be shy, my darling, not with those beautiful big dimple-wimples and those lovely pink wittle gummy-wummies. Want to flash Daddy your gummy-wummies? Eh?”

Rose smiled fondly at her husband as he dissolved into his rarely-used baby babble. But then, as James started talking about her “big blue eyesie-wisies”, the baby’s lips quirked up and her eyes scrunched as she grinned.

“Oh!”

“Look at that beautiful wittle smile!” James crooned. “Maddie-Waddie has a beautiful wittle smile-wile, doesn’t she?”

Rose brought her camera up and, heedless of trying to get the perfect shot, began snapping photos at random, hoping that at least one would turn out well.

“Anybody would smile at your daddy’s silly voice,” Rose cooed. “Wouldn’t they? He sounds so funny, doesn’t he?”

“Yes he does,” James sang. “Yes he does!”

A crowd had formed a semi-circle around them, hoping to get a glimpse of Maddie’s first smiles. Everyone began making silly faces and speaking gibberish to try to be the next person to make a three-week-old baby miraculously smile; all they managed to do, however, was overstimulate her and send her into a whimpering fit.

oOoOo

Once all the partygoers had departed for the evening, the James and Rose collapsed in an exhausted heap on the couch. Everyone and everything was quiet. The twins had fallen asleep, and Sianin disappeared into her room with Ainsley to play with her new toys.

“We should clean up,” James mumbled, even as he rested his head on the back of the couch and closed his eyes.

“Mhm,” Rose agreed, sitting in a similar position. “In a moment, though.”

“Maybe two moments,” James replied.

They each dozed for the next hour, and when they awoke, they were groggy but somewhat refreshed. They used their rejuvenated energy to clean up the worst of the mess from the party.

They weren’t particularly hungry when dinnertime rolled around, but knew they ought to eat something more substantial than the snacks and birthday cake they’d eaten that afternoon.

“Ainsley, Sianin, are you hungry?” James called out as he moved down the hall. “We’ve got some leftover pizza.”

He leaned against the door frame of Sianin’s room; his daughters were playing with the multi-tiered toy car ramp that Jackie had brought as a gift.

“Girls, are you hungry?”

“A little,” Ainsley said, looking up at him. Sianin continued playing with her toy.

“Well, food’s in the kitchen,” he said, thumbing behind him.

When he returned, Rose was sprinkling cheese on top of her salad as she nibbled on a slice of cold pizza. He scooped out his own salad and stole a bite of Rose’s pizza, earning him a smack on the shoulder.

A few minutes later, Ainsley skipped into the kitchen alone.

“Sianin not hungry?” Rose asked.

“She’s angry with you,” Ainsley said before putting a piece of pizza in the microwave.

James paused with his fork half way to his mouth; a bit of salad dressing dripped onto the table.

“What do you mean?” Rose asked.

“Sianin’s angry with you,” Ainsley repeated unhelpfully.

James looked over at Rose, who seemed just as puzzled as he was.

“Why is she angry?” Rose asked.

Ainsley shrugged. “Nobody paid attention to her at her party.”

“Sure they did,” James argued.

“Not according to her,” Ainsley replied, popping open the microwave door a second before it would have beeped.

James was utterly confused. Sianin looked like she’d had fun at her party; she played with her friends the entire afternoon.

He and Rose moved at the same time, setting down their forks and pushing away from the table to walk down the hall to Sianin’s bedroom. Their almost-six-year-old was sitting on the floor exactly how James had left her ten minutes ago.

The toy she was playing with had five car ramps that all circled around each other, and Sianin was using them to cause a massive pile-up in the center where all the ramps ended. James thought the various ramps were to race the cars against each other; leave it to his daughter to prefer making them all crash.

They knocked on her open bedroom door right as she made an explosion sound with her mouth.

Sianin looked up at them briefly, then returned her attention to her toy, resolutely ignoring them. For good measure, she even scooted further around, turning her back completely to them.

“What are you playing with, darling?” James asked softly.

“Cars,” she answered shortly.

“Looks like fun.”

“Yup.”

“Can Mummy and I join you?”

“No.”

James clenched his hands into fists, his nails biting into his palms. How had they not noticed before that Sianin was upset?

“Why not, love?” Rose asked, stepping into the room.

She crouched in front of Sianin while James sat on the bed behind his wife. Sianin shrugged.

“Are you angry with us?” James asked quietly.

Sianin shrugged again.

“What’s the matter, darling?”

Many long seconds passed before she grumbled, “I hate the babies. They’re stupid and take up all the attention. It was my birthday party but everyone only wanted to see them.”

James’s chest caved in on itself, snatching the air from his lungs. “This is the first anyone has seen the twins. It was exciting for them.”

Sianin continued on as if he hadn’t spoken. “And when I blew out my candles, Grandad wasn’t even there. Then everyone went to go see Maddie smile. How is smiling that big a deal anyway? Everyone smiles.”

“That was her first smile, love.” Rose’s voice shook slightly. “There’s only one first smile.”

“What about a sixth birthday party?” Sianin shouted. “I only turn six once but no one cares ‘cos the babies are here instead!”

“That’s not true…”

“It is true. Everyone wanted to be with the babies instead of me.”

“We’re sorry, darling. Truly. But your sisters are very little and…”

“You’re making excuses!” she screamed, angry tears beginning to leak down her cheeks. She swiped at her face and said, “I don’t want you here. Leave me alone!”

James froze on the bed, not knowing what to do. He wanted to stay and comfort his child, but he was the reason his child needed comforting.

“Sianin, we’re so sorry…”

“Go away,” she wailed. “Go away!”

Rose stood up and tugged James to his feet. Together they exited Sianin’s bedroom, and after they made it a few steps down the hall, they heard her door slam shut, making them both flinch.

“Shit,” Rose whimpered, digging the heels of her hands into her eyes. “Shit!”

“What a mess,” James agreed, rubbing his hand up and down Rose’s arm. “We’ll let her cool off, then talk to her again.”

When they walked back into the kitchen, Ainsley was just finishing up her pizza.

“Told you she was angry.”

“Yes, thank you Ainsley,” James snapped.

Ainsley held up her hands defensively, then pushed back from the table to put her plate in the full sink.

“Can you help me load the dishwasher?” James asked.

“Don’t you want to finish eating?” Ainsley asked.

“Not very hungry. I ate too much at the party,” he lied. In truth, his appetite had been obliterated upon seeing Sianin’s distress. He dumped his salad into the trash and together, he and Ainsley filled the dishwasher to capacity then hand-washed the rest.

The evening passed slowly, with Ainsley and Rose reading on the couch and James pretending to read while his brain whirred frantically to figure out how to fix things with Sianin. Sure, a lot of the family had spent time with the twins, but they’d also spent time with Sianin, hadn’t they? And besides, Sianin had been with her friends for most of the party.

Unless she’d been with her friends so much because everyone’s attention was elsewhere.

Bugger, he said to himself.

James got through nearly fifty pages of his book without absorbing a single word, but finally it was time to get the girls ready for bed. Sianin was still in her room but playing with a different toy when he went to summon her.

“Sianin, bath time.”

“No. I don’t want to,” she said.

“Well, you have to,” he countered. “Come on.”

“I’ll do it myself,” she said, grudgingly getting to her feet. “Without you.”

“You can’t be in the bathtub by yourself,” he said. “It’s not safe.”

Sianin huffed out an annoyed breath, pushed past him, and marched to the loo.

“I’m gonna do it!” she said when he turned on the water out of habit.

“Sorry,” he said, turning it off.

He gestured for her to go ahead and turn on the tap and adjust the temperature however she wanted it. It took her much, much longer than it would have taken him, and he cringed as she stuck her hand under the stream when she had the dial set all the way to hot.

She yelped and yanked her hand away, then turned the tap to make it cold.

In the end, the bathtub was filled with water that was only tepid at best, but Sianin didn’t say a word as she stripped and lowered herself into the tub.

It was one of the most torturous bath times James had ever been a part of. Sianin was utterly silent and efficient in her movements, and she snapped at him whenever he tried to assist her.

“I’m trying to help,” he said defensively, setting down the shampoo bottle he’d been trying to hand to her. “Don’t be angry with me for that.”

Finally, Sianin finished bathing herself and stood up out of the now-cold water and drained the tub. Goosebumps prickled across her skin and she began shivering lightly as she pulled a towel around her body. Rather than dry herself off, Sianin hugged her towel tighter, a frown etched into her face.

“A bit chilly?” he asked gently.

She didn’t say anything.

“Do you want a warm Daddy hug?” he asked, opening his arms.

Sianin sniffed. “I can do it myself.”

“Of course you can,” he said. “But there’s no harm in getting a bit of help, too. Daddy will always be here to help his little girl, no matter what.”

Sianin glowered at the floor for a long minute before she stepped into his open arms. Her body was damp, but he pulled her close anyway. As soon as she was ensconced in his embrace, a violent shudder rippled through her body.

“My bath was cold,” she muttered sadly.

“I know,” he said. “You’ll get better at figuring out the right temperature.”

He held her in his arms for a few minutes, trying to warm her up. When her shivering subsided, he let her step away to dry herself off then change into pajamas. After she brushed her teeth, he followed her to her bedroom and dried her hair, but when he grabbed a book off the shelf, Sianin shook her head.

“I don’t want a bedtime story tonight,” she said, tucking herself further into her blankets.

“No?” he asked, his heart falling.

“No.”

“Okay,” he sighed. “If you change your mind, or want to talk, Mummy and I are always here for you.” He set the books back and stepped up to her. He kissed her forehead and whispered, “I love you, Sianin.”

“G’night,” she said, and she turned away from him.

James exited the room, pulling the door shut behind him. With a heavy exhale, he walked to Ainsley’s ajar bedroom door, and saw her sitting up in bed, reading.

“Did Mum read aloud with you?” he asked wearily, digging his forefinger into his eyes.

“Yeah,” she said. “Only a couple pages though ‘cos Hannah started crying.”

James stepped into the room. “Let’s finish out the chapter, eh?”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to,” Ainsley said.

“I want to.” And he did. Bedtime stories were one of his favorite parts of the night, and it killed him that one of his children hadn’t wanted one that night.

Ainsley scooted to the far edge of her mattress, giving him plenty of space to sit beside her.

“Is Sianin okay?” Ainsley asked, feathering her fingers through the pages of the book.

“She will be. She’s just a little upset tonight,” he answered. “Can you do me a really big favor? If she comes to you and wants to talk, can you listen? Or if she wants to sleep with you, can you let her? Let me and Mum know if it becomes a problem, but at least for the next couple of nights?”

Ainsley nodded, and he flashed her a small smile. “Thank you. Now, what’s going on with Harry and his mates?”

He lounged with his eldest as she read about the trio’s adventures with the Polyjuice potion. When she finished, he tucked her in, kissed her forehead, then turned off the lights. He pulled her door shut behind him, then made his way back to the living room.

Rose was sitting with the twins on the couch.

“That was the worst bedtime in the history of bedtimes,” he announced dramatically as he plopped into the seat beside her.

Rose pursed her lips in sympathy. “Hopefully Sian’s in a better mood tomorrow.”

“Yeah. God, I’m knackered. The party was exhausting enough, now our kid hates us.”

“I don’t think she hates us, James,” Rose said. “She’s just… upset.”

He grunted in reply. “Have we done something wrong? Did we not prepare her enough for having baby siblings?”

“I don’t know,” Rose admitted. “Let’s try not to worry about it too much now. There’s nothing we can do. Tomorrow, we’ll talk to her and see how we can help her adjust better.”

“Yeah. I wish we could’ve ended the day on better terms. This was supposed to be her day, after all. It was supposed to be fun.”

Rose didn’t say anything. She instead rested her head on his shoulder.

James pressed a kiss to her hair and stroked his fingers absently up and down one of the twins’ backs.

“Want her?” Rose asked.

“Please.” He slipped his hands beneath his baby’s tiny body and took her into his arms.

While his heart still hurt for Sianin, holding another of his daughters helped soothe the ache. The feel of her warm, solid body released a cocktail of hormones that loosened his taut muscles and attenuated his anxiety.

He brushed his lips across the top of her head, inhaling her fresh baby scent as he did so.

“Love you loads, my darling girl,” he murmured, kissing her again. “Which one are you, eh? Daddy promises he’ll get better at determining it.”

“You’ve got Mads.”

“How do you do that so easily?” he huffed.

“Well, I was the one who changed them into new outfits, and I knew Maddie was in purple while Hannah was in black,” Rose teased, knocking her shoulder into his.

James stuck his tongue out at her, but pressed a kiss to her temple.

“I love you, Rose.”

“I love you, too. We’ll get through this, James. I promise. We’ll figure it out.”

He nuzzled his cheek into her hair, taking comfort from her presence as they both lapsed into silence.

Chapter Text

Later that night, after he had fallen into a fitful sleep, James stirred at a quiet voice calling his name and a small hand shaking his arm.

“Daddy?”

He grunted and opened his eyes, blinking against the darkness until Sianin’s face came into focus. His foggy brain immediately cleared. “Yes, darling?”

“Can I sleep with you and Mummy?” she whispered.

“The twins are in here,” he said.

“Oh.”

Her eyes glistened with tears and he cursed himself for his phrasing.

“I merely meant that you might hear them crying throughout the night. I know that sometimes bothers you. But you can still sleep here if you want. C’mere.” He patted the edge of the mattress. “Want to be sandwiched between me and Mummy?”

“Uh huh.” Sianin clambered onto the bed, then crawled over him until she was at the center of the mattress.

Her movements woke Rose, who turned towards them.

“Sianin?” she asked sleepily, squinting.

“Daddy said I could sleep in here.”

“‘Course you can. Is everything all right, sweetheart?”

James tucked the blankets under Sianin’s chin, then he slid his pillow closer to the middle of the bed for her. He brushed her silky hair away from her face, then continued to stroke it just because he could. After her disastrous bedtime a few hours earlier, he wasn’t going to question why his daughter wanted to be with him and Rose.

The room was silent for a few long seconds, and right when he was certain Sianin wasn’t going to answer her mother’s question, she asked, “Do you still love me like you used to?”

His hand froze mid-stroke. The question shattered his heart into a million pieces, the shrapnel shredding through his stomach and chest until his whole body ached with despair and devastation.

She can’t possibly think… 

His head swam as he and Rose moved at the same time to pull their daughter into their arms, resulting in a tangle of limbs as they squished Sianin between them.

“Of course we still love you, darling,” he rasped, trying to resist the impulse to yank Sianin out of Rose’s arms so he could give her a proper hug. “We never stopped. Never.

At the same time, Rose said, “We love you so, so much Sianin. So much.”

Sianin sniffled in the dark and turned into Rose’s chest, clinging to her mother. James tried not to be offended.

“Daddy and I love you so very incredibly much,” Rose murmured into Sianin’s hair. “I can’t begin to tell you how much we love you. The feeling is too great to be put into words. There is no five-year-old on the planet more loved than you are by us.”

“Why did you want new babies then?” she asked, her voice muffled by Rose’s chest. “Were Ainsley and me not good enough?”

“That’s not it at all, Sianin,” James said, wanting to pull her into his arms and squeeze her tightly. He thought that if he could only hold her close enough, she’d be able to feel the very beating of his heart and realize that it beat for her. “Just because Mummy and I had more babies doesn’t mean we were in any way dissatisfied with you or Ainsley. Far, far from it. We love you and Ainsley more than anything in the universe. Nobody could ever replace either of you in our lives.”

“But the babies…”

“They’re not a replacement. They’re an addition.”

Sianin continued sniffling into Rose’s shirt. James was helpless to do anything; Rose had folded Sianin so completely into herself that he couldn’t easily touch any part of his daughter. He settled for resting his hand on her arm and rubbing it with his thumb.

“I’m so sorry you thought you were being replaced,” he whispered. He wondered how long she’d thought that. Was it a more recent feeling? Since they’d brought the twins home? Or had it been ever since they’d announced Rose’s pregnancy? He prayed she hadn’t felt like this for the last seven months. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“I want things to be like they were before,” Sianin whimpered. James envied Rose and the way their daughter burrowed into her for comfort.

“I know,” Rose said, rocking her gently. “But we can’t go back to that. We need to try to move forward as best we can. It’s all right to be sad for what you lost; you knew one way of life and that’s gone now. And it’s absolutely okay to be sad about that.”

Sianin cried harder into Rose’s chest, and James wanted to snap to Rose that she wasn’t helping. But he stayed quiet; the last thing they needed was to start an argument in front of their distraught child. And maybe it was best if Sianin cried it out, long and hard, even if it killed him to watch.

When Sianin’s sobs dissipated, Rose said, “It’s okay to take as long as you need to be sad and to adjust to the new phase of our family. But try not to only see the negatives, yeah? That’s not a healthy way to look at the world. Hannah and Maddie are a permanent part of our family, and being upset or angry won’t change that.”

Sianin gulped down several lungfuls of air and sniffled thickly. “The babies aren’t what you said they’d be.”

James reached behind him for a handful of tissues, which he passed to Rose.

“How so?” Rose asked, wiping Sianin’s eyes and nose.

“Everyone said they’d be fun. That they’d be friends I could play with. But they’re not.”

“It will take a bit of time to play with them the way you want to,” Rose said.

“You should’ve said that.”

“You’re right. We’re sorry,” Rose said, kissing the top of Sianin’s head. “What should we have said instead? Hmm… that they’d come out looking like pink-faced dough blobs? And are about as squishy as a dough blob, too?”

Sianin giggled a bit. It was a thin, watery sound, but it was a giggle nonetheless.

“Or… they’d be loud little poo machines?” Rose mused.

Sianin giggled again. She was quiet for a moment, then she asked, “Does Ainsley still love me like before?”

“Of course she does,” Rose said.

“She spends lots of time with the babies now,” Sianin said sadly.

“I know. She likes helping with them and playing with them.”

“But they don’t play,” Sianin argued.

“They can be interacted with,” Rose said. “Now that Maddie is smiling, it’s more fun to be with her. Hannah will get there, too. Maybe you can join in with Ainsley when she plays with the twins?”

Sianin didn’t answer. Instead, she asked, “Can I stay in here all night?”

“For as long as you’d like,” Rose said, kissing her daughter’s forehead. She then caught James’s eye and murmured to Sianin, “Can you go give Daddy a good cuddle? I have to wee.”

Sianin rolled over and crashed into James’s chest. He didn’t know whether Rose actually needed the toilet or if she was just letting him have a turn at holding their daughter, but he appreciated it nevertheless. He had to stop himself from squeezing Sianin as hard as he wanted to, and instead clutched her to his chest and pivoted so he was on his back and her head was pillowed in the crook of his shoulder. She wrapped an arm around his middle and draped a leg over his thigh, hugging him tight.

“I love you,” he whispered into Sianin’s hair, kissing the top of her head. “I love you more than you’ll ever know, Sianin.”

“Love you, too,” she said, tangling her fists into his sleep shirt. “Will you tell me a story?”

“Absolutely,” he said. He bought himself a few seconds to think as he fussed with the sheets, tucking her in. When they were settled, he began to speak. “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little princess named Shannon…”

“That’s almost like my name.”

“Shush, it’s Shannon, not Sianin.”

Sianin laughed and nestled further into his arms. He couldn’t resist kissing the top of her head again.

“Anyways, once upon a time, there was a beautiful little princess named Shannon who was beloved by her entire kingdom, but by none more than her parents. Princess Shannon loved doing everything by herself, because she was a big girl princess. And she loved helping to clean the castle—she helped the maids with the washing up, she helped the butler prepare meals, she helped the stable boys take care of the horses.”

“Sounds like a lot of work being a princess,” Sianin mumbled, burrowing her face into his chest.

“She enjoyed the chores.”

“No one enjoys chores, Daddy,” Sianin rebutted.

“Princess Shannon did,” James argued. “D’you want to hear the rest of the story or not?”

“I guess,” she said through a yawn.

“Princess Shannon was such a big helper around the castle, but her parents didn’t realize all she did because they were so used to the chores simply being done. Well, Princess Shannon felt very sad about this because her parents didn’t seem to recognize anything she did. So she decided she was never going to leave her room ever again.

“However, when she did that, the castle started falling apart. And not just ‘cos she wasn’t helping with the cleaning. But because the magic of the castle was…”

“The castle’s magic?”

“Yep. The magic of the castle was tied to the magic within Princess Shannon. And because Princess Shannon felt sad and lonely, the castle reflected that. It turned dark and rainy; all the trees lost their leaves as though it were wintertime instead of the height of summer. The windows weren’t sparkly anymore, and the golden halls and gem-encrusted thrones were dull, tarnished, and cracked.

“The king and queen thought a powerful curse had been set over the castle, and they were so worried about their Princess Shannon. When they got to Princess Shannon’s room, they saw that the door had turned to solid iron and nobody could get in.

“Princess Shannon didn’t even realize what was happening to the castle since she’d been in her room the whole time. Her magic and the castle’s magic managed to slow the passage of time. Time was moving slower inside her bedroom than it was in the rest of the castle. So while only a few hours passed for Princess Shannon, a few days had passed for her mummy and daddy.

“She couldn’t hear her mummy and daddy calling for her, nor could she hear any of the locksmiths’ attempts to break down the door. After a while, Princess Shannon decided she didn’t want to be alone in her room anymore. So she stood up, pushed open the door, and saw her mummy and her daddy in the corridor. They’d been beside themselves with worry and were so happy to see her and so relieved that she was safe. Queen Mummy plucked Princess Shannon up into her arms, then King Daddy plucked up his queen and his princess into his arms.”

“King Daddy must be very strong,” Sianin commented.

“The strongest,” James agreed. “The king and queen apologized to their princess, and promised never to take her for granted ever again. They joined the princess as she helped around the castle because they realized the castle looked its best when everyone helps out. And they liked spending all that extra time with their beautiful little princess, too.”

“What kind of magic powers did Princess Shannon have?” Sianin asked, her voice thick with impending sleep.

“That’ll be tomorrow’s bedtime story,” James replied, already apologizing to his future self. “Get some sleep now, darling.”

Sianin splayed out all of her limbs and somehow managed to take up nearly every inch of their king-sized bed.

Rose had returned from the loo a while ago but was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner, nursing the twins.

“A princess who enjoys doing chores, eh?” Rose teased when she was certain Sianin was asleep.

“Figured it was worth a try,” he said, sticking his tongue out at her. “Are you okay over there? Need a hand?”

“Nah, you’ve got your hands full. I thought I’d feed them before they woke up. Maybe we’ll get a few uninterrupted hours,” Rose answered. 

James hummed, then turned back to Sianin. She looked peaceful; all traces of her prior anguish were gone. He brushed his fingers through her hair as he watched her sleep. His heart ached with love for his child, and with sorrow that she’d doubted how loved she was.

“You okay?” Rose asked quietly.

“Not really,” he admitted.

“Me either,” she said.

She stood with the twins and put them in their bassinets before slipping into bed, carefully scooting Sianin to the middle of the mattress.

“She’ll be okay,” Rose said, but it sounded as though she were convincing herself rather than stating a fact.

“Yeah, she will be,” James said, kissing Sianin’s soft hair.

The night went as well as could be expected. The twins woke up every couple of hours, wanting to be changed or fed. Sianin woke to their crying each time, burying her face into James’s chest and whining that they were being loud.

“They’ll quiet down soon,” James soothed. “Close your eyes and sleep, darling.”

Since he was busy trying to get Sianin back to sleep, Rose was left to attend to the twins by herself. James felt guilty every time Rose slipped out of bed; he’d find some way to make it up to her.

Sianin’s mood returned to normal the next morning; she went about her day as though nothing in the world was wrong. It might have helped that it was her actual birthday, too. 

As per usual, the family went out for dinner at a restaurant of Sianin’s choosing. Of course she picked a fast-food chain, but she was ecstatic about it, and that was all James and Rose cared about.

The only sign she wasn’t quite okay was her new habit of sleeping with them. They would put her to sleep in her own bed, but inevitably, she would always venture into their room in the middle of the night. She also began struggling with wetting the bed—that was often the impetus for her wandering into their room.

Sianin was mortified and upset by her nighttime accidents, even though James and Rose assured her many times over that it was okay and they weren’t angry or upset with her. But they’d taken to putting a protective plastic covering on Sianin’s bed to help keep the mess from saturating into her mattress. Thankfully, she’d never wet their bed when she slept with them.

Because of their new bedmate, the amount of restful sleep James and Rose obtained decreased exponentially; not only because they would get up to take care of Sianin’s bedding, if needed, but also because they were hyper-aware of the small body beside them, and were concerned whether their child was comfortable. Not to mention Sianin tended to sleep at odd angles which pushed them to the far edges of the mattress. 

The additional loss of sleep was a sore hit when they were already losing sleep due to nighttime newborn care, but it never crossed their minds to refuse Sianin entry into bed with them.

“Do you think something’s really wrong?” James asked the weekend after Sianin’s birthday as he once more put Sianin’s soiled bedsheets into the washer.

“I don’t know,” Rose sighed. “I’ve been reading these parenting blogs and everyone says it’s normal for kids to regress a little bit after the birth of a new baby.”

“It breaks my heart.”

“Mine too. I don’t know if we can do anything though. If we kick her out of our room, we might make her worse.” Rose shook her head. “Maybe our girls’ day out will be good for her.”

“I’m sure it will. It’ll be good for you, if nothing else. You haven’t had much time to spend out with just Ainsley and Sianin.”

“Neither have you,” Rose countered. “You’ll have to schedule a daddy-daughter day with them soon.”

Rose and their eldest children had haircut appointments later in the morning, then manicures in the early afternoon.

That left James to spend a bit of quality time with the twins. He spent the morning tidying the house while the babies slept, and when they woke up, he got them fed and changed before bundling them up for their very first trip to the supermarket.

“Daddy is gonna show you two all the ins and outs of grocery shopping,” James said as he hefted the dual-baby carrier into a trolley. He fussed with it for a moment to make sure it was secure.

“The key is to have a list,” he continued, pulling a small piece of paper from his pocket and wiggling it in front of his sleeping babies’ faces. “Because if you don’t, you’ll end up buying things you don’t need and forgetting everything you do need. You also should never go when you’re hungry; you’ll buy out the entire store and your bank account will be quite sad. Vice versa, you shouldn’t go when you’ve just eaten a huge meal and are stuffed; you’ll not want to buy anything and you’ll have an empty fridge in two days’ time.”

James checked his list, then began heading through the aisles with a purpose.

“It’s also a good idea to get the not-cold foodstuffs first,” he explained, picking up a box of oatmeal and cereal. “You don’t want the ice cream to melt whilst you’re doing the rest of your shopping.”

He continued to talk mindlessly at his babies throughout the shopping trip. He was interrupted several times by other people cooing down at the twins. He was always glad to show off his beautiful children, but he didn’t want to prolong their trip and risk one of them waking up cranky.

He was finally getting to the cold section when Hannah woke up.

“Hello, my sweet girl,” he said down to her. She was blinking groggily up at him as though she had no idea where she was or who she was with. He recognized that look and began unfastening her restraints a second before her face crumpled and she let out a distressed wail. Maddie stayed blessedly asleep.

“You’re okay.” He brought the baby to his chest and brushed kisses to her scalp. “You’re okay, my Hannah-banana. Ooh, bananas. Gotta get some of those now that your mummy isn’t getting sick from the smell of them. We’re at the supermarket. It’s where we buy food, because the rest of the Earthly population doesn’t have Mummy’s breasts to feed them. Er. That came out weird. But you have no idea what I’m even saying, do you?”

Hannah continued crying into his chest. He unbuttoned the bottom of her onesie, but her nappy was still dry and a quick sniff test told him she hadn’t pooed. She shouldn’t be hungry, as he had fed her right before they left the house. But she was utterly inconsolable; her little face was red and actual tears were leaking down her cheeks. The sight of them twisted something deep in his heart.

“Oh, darling.” He rocked his torso in an attempt to soothe her. “It’s okay. It’s okay. We’re almost done here. I’ll bet you’re a tad overwhelmed, eh? You went to sleep safe and sound in Mummy’s arms, and now you’re in a whole new scary place. But Daddy’s right here. Daddy’s got you. We’re in the supermarket getting a bit of food for our Mother’s Day cookout tomorrow. Daddy’s got everything on his list except the eggs and the milk. Bear with Daddy for five more minutes and we’ll go home, my darling girl.”

James fumbled to keep his grip on his furious baby while he pushed the trolley towards the refrigerated section. He grabbed a jug of milk at random, pausing long enough to check that it hadn’t passed its expiration date. Then he went to the eggs, picking up the first carton his fingers touched without checking if any were cracked. At this point, a couple of cracked eggs would be worth getting out of the supermarket as quickly as possible.

He made his way to the self-checkout and blessedly found one that was open.

“Almost done,” he whispered, nuzzling his baby’s wispy hair. “Daddy is trying his very, very best. I know you’re not happy, Han. I know. It’s so hard being you, isn’t it? The world is so big and scary, and you’re stuck with your old dad instead of Mummy. We’ll get home soon, my love. Can’t you please calm down, eh? Please?”

His ears were beginning to hurt from having a screaming baby right next to them.

“She might be wet.”

James continued scanning his groceries until a hand touched his arm. He glanced over and saw an upper-middle-aged woman smiling sympathetically at him.

“I said, she might be wet,” the woman repeated, nodding to Hannah. “You should check her nappy. They need changing every few hours.”

James blinked.

“I know,” he said slowly, frowning at the woman. “I’ve already checked that, but thanks.”

James loaded his bagged items into his trolley, and the woman followed.

“You’re not holding her right,” the woman said. “You should try cradling her up against your chest with her legs and arms tucked up into her body. Babies that young usually like that position. Here, let me show you. I know it can be hard for some dads to get the hang of it. My husband was a bit useless, honestly.”

The woman laughed like there was some joke that James wasn’t privy to, then she extended her hands towards the baby.

“Excuse me, don’t touch my daughter,” James growled, pivoting so that his body was between this stranger and Hannah. His sharp movement made Hannah let out a shriek, and by now, he wanted to join her.

“I’m only trying to help,” the woman said, looking startled.

“I’m sure you meant well and all,” James snapped, “but she is my daughter. I can handle my own child, thanks very much. Just because your husband was bloody rubbish when it came to child care doesn’t mean all men are. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get her home.”

James turned his back to the wide-eyed woman and ignored her spluttered apologies and indignations. He paid for the groceries as quickly as he could, suddenly all too aware of the eyes on him. It seemed that everyone in the store was looking at him either with pity or annoyance.

“It’s not like I’m asking her to scream her little head off,” James grumbled under his breath, pushing the trolley out to his car. His hands shook as he settled Hannah and Maddie into their car seats. Maddie was now awake and looking as though she was contemplating crying as well. “Oh, please, Maddie, shush. You’re fine, darling. Your sister is having a bad day, but you’re okay. Right? Yes? My sweet, quiet girl?”

“It’s rubbish gettin’ stuck babysittin’ one, and ‘ere you’ve got two? Rotten luck, mate.”

James turned and saw a man helping a toddler out of a car.

“Good luck with ‘em,” the man said, giving him a salute.

“It’s not babysitting when they’re your own kids,” James hissed even though the man had walked away and couldn’t hear him. “Bloody fucking hell.” He cringed. “Oops, I’m sorry, girls. Daddy shouldn’t use that language. Though you’re only a month old and have no idea what I’m saying. But still. It’s bad practice. That man and the lady in the shop really got under my skin, you see. Daddy’s really frustrated right now.”

James sucked in a deep breath and held it for a minute, listening to his crying child and feeling as though he could start sobbing any minute now too. He shut the car door, muffling the sounds of Hannah’s distress as he loaded the groceries into the boot.

The drive home was torture. Both babies were wailing at the tops of their lungs, giving James a splitting headache.

“’Course you choose now to realize you can scream too,” James snapped bitterly to Maddie, glaring at her through the rear mirror. As soon as the words left his mouth, he felt terrible. He shouldn’t get angry with his children.

His cheeks flamed with shame, and he mumbled, “Sorry, Maddie. I’m sorry. That was wrong of me to say. I’m so sorry you’re in distress too.”

Nothing seemed to soothe his babies, no matter what he said or how gently he spoke. He made a great effort to keep his voice calm and low, yet still they wailed.

Eventually, about two minutes from home, Maddie quieted down again, but Hannah was still going strong. He kept her in her car seat as he ferried the groceries into the house. He unloaded all of the cold items into the fridge and freezer, but left the room-temperature things for later.

He then came out and fetched Maddie from her car seat. She gave him a bright smile as he unfastened all of her straps, and he couldn’t help but smile back, despite Hannah screaming in the next seat.

“I love you loads, Maddie,” he murmured to her as he took her into his arms.

He settled her into the cot in the living room, then went out for his other baby. He tried not to feel like a horrible father at the dread that unfurled through him at the idea of bringing Hannah into the quiet house.

“You can’t leave your baby in the car,” he muttered to himself. “You can’t leave your baby in the car. You can’t leave your baby in the car. You can’t leave your baby in the car…”

He continued the pep talk as he opened the car door and pulled Hannah out of her seat. He tried to support her head and neck even though all she evidently wanted to do was wriggle madly from side to side.

“Hannah, please,” he begged, his frustration nearly choking him. “Please, sweetheart, I don’t know what’s wrong. Daddy has no idea what you want. Are you hungry? You shouldn’t be, but let’s try some milk, eh?”

He hurriedly warmed up a bottle, then spent the next fifteen minutes coaxing Hannah into trying to nurse. She suckled on and off, but only got through a third of the bottle before refusing to take any more.

“What’s wrong, Han?” he whispered, walking all around the house with his wailing baby. “What’s the matter? You’re not hungry. Your nappy is clean. Are you ill? Are you not feeling well? Is maybe your little tummy hurting? ‘Cos I’ve got to admit, I’m at a loss. I don’t know what else to do for you, sweetheart. I’m trying so hard.”

James continued walking and talking, wishing that Rose was there with him and resenting that she wasn’t. As soon as he thought that, he was consumed with crippling guilt and remorse. Rose deserved to have a day out with their other two children, and Ainsley and Sianin deserved a day alone with their mum. There was no reason he shouldn’t be able to handle his own babies.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said again through the lump in his throat, making yet another circuit through the house.

It took nearly an hour before Hannah cried herself out. At that point, James himself was in the middle of a crying episode. He had set Hannah on a blanket he’d laid out on the living room floor as he succumbed to his anger and frustration. Unable to deal with his crying child for a moment longer, he shut himself into his and Rose’s bedroom—the door barely muffled Hannah’s shrieks—just as his own tears started. He collapsed onto his bed and smothered his cries and curses into his pillow as he pleaded with the universe for his baby to go to sleep.

He wasn’t sure how long it had been before he realized the house was silent. His ears rang in the silence, and he was so, so tempted to stay in his bedroom and fall asleep. But he dragged himself up and into the living room to make sure Hannah hadn’t somehow suffocated herself and that was the reason she was being quiet. But no, she was still alive and breathing, fast asleep with tears and snot streaked across her face. He didn’t dare wipe it away for fear that it would wake her again. Instead, he held his breath and draped a blanket over his child. She stayed asleep.

Maddie was contentedly sleeping in her own bassinet, looking positively angelic in comparison to the hell Hannah had put him through over the last hour and a half. 

James swiped at his own runny nose and swollen eyes as he collapsed in an exhausted heap on the couch, overstimulated and overwhelmed, with a pounding headache pulsing behind his eyes.

He must have fallen asleep, because the next he knew, the front door was being wrenched open and the pattering of tiny feet entered the house.

“Hi Daddy!”

Sianin and Ainsley made a beeline for him, and he shook off the vestiges of sleep to admire their new haircuts—they’d each gotten about an inch lopped off—and their perfectly painted nails.

“You are the most beautiful girls in the entire universe!” he proclaimed, giving them each a smacking kiss on the cheek. “You’re making me feel like an ugly old toad.”

“You’re the handsomest Daddy in the whole wide universe,” Sianin said with a definitive nod.

That declaration erased a fraction of his former bad mood. He leaned forward and scooped her into his arms, hugging her tight.

“Thanks, Sian,” he said, giving her another kiss before releasing her.

“Took a kip instead of putting away the groceries?”

James looked over at Rose. Her tone was teasing, but it sparked his irritation nevertheless.

“Got a bit worn out when Hannah went on a marathon cry,” he said thinly.

Rose’s brows furrowed.

“She didn’t like her first trip to the supermarket,” he said, rubbing his fingers into his tired eyes.

“Uh oh.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m a bit knackered.”

Rose stepped up behind him and rubbed her fingers through his hair. Goosebumps broke out across his scalp, making him moan and melt back against the couch.

“Can you do this for the next century?” he mumbled, letting his eyes slip shut.

“I’ll do this ‘til a child interrupts us,” Rose said instead.

“Good enough.” He hummed as she continued her massage. She knew the places to apply pressure, and he could have wept with the relief her fingers brought. Within ten minutes, she’d unknotted most of his tense muscles and had put a dent in his headache.

“I love you,” she whispered in his ear before she kissed his temple.

“Mmm.”

“Sorry Hannah was bad for you. How was Mads?”

“Perfect,” he replied. “Got a bit worked up on the car ride home, but soothed herself to sleep again. Hannah, on the other hand, decided to cry into my ear for at least an hour after we got home.”

Rose made a sound of sympathy as she began her massage anew.

“Did you have a nice day?” he asked.

“Yeah, I did. Though I feel a bit guilty about that now.”

He reached up and fumbled for her hand. He tilted his head back and forced open his eyes. “Don’t. I’m glad you had a good day.”

She pecked a quick kiss to his forehead.

“Are you hungry?” Rose asked.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“Just after four.”

He jolted upright. “Four?! Shit. The twins haven’t eaten since this morning. Shit!”

“I’ll get them,” she said, patting his shoulder. “Relax. It’s okay.”

“I’ve bloody starved them,” he grumbled.

“They would’ve let you know if you did that,” Rose said gently.

She pressed another kiss to his forehead, then came around to gather the twins.

“Get Maddie to latch first,” he said anxiously. “I gave Hannah a little bit from a bottle during her meltdown, but Mads hasn’t had anything all day.”

Rose nodded in acknowledgement and dutifully picked Maddie up out of her cot. She was awake and flashed a grin at her mother upon being picked up.

“Hello my sweetie,” Rose cooed. Maddie nuzzled into Rose’s chest, rooting for her mother’s breast. “I know you’re hungry. You were so good for Daddy today, weren’t you?”

James forced his aching limbs to move off the couch and gather up Hannah. She stayed dead asleep.

Rose sat on the sofa and got Maddie latched, then she accepted Hannah. It took a few tries before Hannah woke up enough to nurse lazily.

“God, that’s better,” Rose groaned. “My boobs were so full.”

James didn’t answer. He just sat down beside her and carefully draped his arm around Rose’s shoulders and rested his head against the top of hers.

“Your hair looks nice,” he commented when he smelled the salon shampoo.

“You didn’t notice a difference, did you?” she asked wryly.

“I did!” he protested. “It’s… shorter.”

“That’s usually the result of a hair cut. Otherwise it’s some sort of witchcraft.” She let him squirm for a second before saying, “I just got a trim. I’ve been thinking of letting it grow out a little? I dunno. Though I do need to get my roots touched up next time.”

James pulled back a fraction and saw that her roots were indeed beginning to darken.

“Why do you dye your hair?” he asked.

Rose shrugged. “Been doin’ it for so long I guess I see myself as a blonde, even if it does come out of a bottle. It’s not nearly as trashy as it was when I was a teen.”

“It wasn’t trashy,” he argued.

“I bought the cheapest bleaching product,” Rose said with a chuckle. “It’s okay. I know it was trashy.”

“I thought you were beautiful, no matter what,” he said, kissing her temple.

“You’re sweet.”

“S’why you married me.”

“Yep, that’s the only reason,” she said, rolling her eyes.

He snorted and tucked his cheek into her hair.

“Did you get your nails done?” he asked.

“Mhm.” She managed to rotate her hand from where it was propping Maddie. Her nails were a lovely shade of pastel green with little white flowers painted in the center.

“Very springy,” he said.

“‘Tis the season and all. I was gonna get our toes done, but I didn’t think the girls would sit well for that. Their feet are a bit too ticklish.”

“Good idea,” James said. He reached out and stroked his fingertips across the planes of Hannah’s face. She was half-asleep as she nursed from Rose’s breast; the constant start-stop rhythm of her feeding created quite a mess of milk around her chin and neck. “She looks like a precious little angel. You never would’ve thought she spent the afternoon deafening the entire country.”

“Sorry she was so bad for you.”

James shook off her apology. “It wouldn’t have been as bad had not this older woman made me feel like an incompetent father.”

Rose frowned. “What happened?”

“Just someone trying to help but not actually helping,” he sighed. “Hannah started her fit in the middle of the supermarket, so I tried to hold her to calm her down. Evidently I looked like I was struggling, ‘cos this lady approached me and tried giving me all this advice, including how I was holding her wrong.”

Rose gasped. “No she didn’t!”

“Indeed she did.”

“What a cun… What an arsehole!”

“I was already feeling a bit self-conscious, and that didn’t help,” James admitted. “I honestly had a bit of a cry earlier. I was overwhelmed.”

“Oh, James.” Rose leaned against him, pressing her cheek into his shoulder in a pseudo-hug. “Don’t mind anyone else. You are the best father a kid could ask for. You definitely do not hold our children wrong, and you are more than capable of handling yourself with our kids. I wouldn’t hesitate to leave you alone with all four of them.”

“Well, let’s not be hasty,” James said. 

“Of course, I wouldn’t want to leave you at the mercy of four kids,” Rose amended. “But you know what I mean.”

“I do. And thanks, love.”

“Anytime.”

James looked around the living room, finally aware of how quiet the house was. “We seem to be missing two kids.”

“I think they’re coloring in Ainsley’s room,” Rose said. “Making Mother’s Day cards. Only it’s a surprise, so we’ve got to pretend I don’t know anything.”

“Ahh, ‘course,” he said, nodding. “It’s not like it’s an annual holiday.”

“Nope. I’m in for the surprise of my life tomorrow,” she dead-panned.

James chuckled and pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

Chapter Text

James awoke in the middle of the night to a small child shuffling over him. He grunted and scooted closer to the edge to give Sianin a bit more room to sleep in their bed.

“Ow!”

He forced open his eyes and saw Sianin straddling his stomach, shaking her hand.

“You rolled over on my wrist!”

“Sorry, darling,” he murmured, reaching out blindly for her hand. “Let Daddy see.”

Never mind that he couldn’t see anything in the dark, he prodded her fingers and wrist bone. Nothing felt amiss and she didn’t flinch or hiss, so he figured it was an arbitrary injury. Nevertheless, he pressed a kiss to her arm.

“All better,” he said. “Lie down now. It’s time to sleep.”

“I want my own bed,” Sianin said, continuing to clamber off of him. It was then he realized she wasn’t climbing into his and Rose’s bed, she was climbing out of it.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Nighty night.”

“Want me to tuck you in?”

“Nope. Nighty night,” she said again, continuing her climb. Her knee dug hard into his stomach, making him yelp.

“Oops! Sorry!” She swiftly knelt on the mattress edge beside him. A moment later, her lips pressed to his stomach. “All better.”

“Thanks,” he wheezed. “G’night.”

A thud sounded as Sianin jumped to the floor, then she walked out of the room.

“You all right?” Rose’s hand touched his chest. “She didn’t knee you in the ball…”

“Nope, the stomach,” he assured. “This is good progress, eh? Going back to her bed.”

“Definitely,” Rose said, wiggling close to him. She tucked her head into his shoulder and wrapped her arm around his middle. He raised her arm to wrap around his chest instead; his stomach was still a little tender.

“Is it weird that I miss her now?”

“A little bit,” Rose said. “But it’s okay. I kind of miss her too. Hopefully she’ll get better at staying in her own bed overnight.”

“Mmm,” he hummed, already half asleep.

When he next awoke, it was to pale yellow light peeking through their curtains and the sound of Rose speaking quietly. She was in the rocking chair with both twins in her arms, nursing them.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” he croaked through a dry mouth.

She beamed at him. “Thanks.”

He sat up in bed and flicked on the lamp, then scrabbled for his phone. It was half past six in the morning. He opened up the camera app and snapped a couple of photos of Rose feeding their babies.

“Do you have a breastfeeding fetish you’ve never told me about?” Rose drawled, smirking.

James rolled his eyes. “You look beautiful, and I want to capture these moments forever. You’re always taking photos of me and the kids, but I want to make sure you’re represented too. In fifty years, I don’t want the girls to look back at old pictures and wonder why their mum isn’t in any of them.”

Rose’s face softened. “Thanks, love. Though I’m not sure they’d appreciate always seeing me with my tits out.”

“Oh, shut up. They’re the most magnificent pair of breasts in the world.”

“I think you’re a tad biased.”

“Nope. The pinnacle of impartiality, me.” He grinned when Rose cackled. “Besides, you can’t really see them. The twins’ heads are blocking everything.”

He leaned against his pillows and rubbed the sleep from his face.

“I can take the girls out for a bit this morning, if you’d like,” James said. “Give you more of a lie-in. I’ve got an errand to run anyway.”

“I wonder what that errand could possibly be,” Rose mused, as though he didn’t get her a small bouquet of flowers every Mother’s Day.

“No idea. Nothing at all related to the day, I assure you. Nope. Just a common Sunday errand.”

“You’re a rubbish liar,” Rose teased.

They continued talking until they heard their kids moving around.

“Want me to take the twins out, too?” James said, standing up and stretching.

“Nah, they’ll be okay with me,” Rose answered. “You spent enough alone time with them yesterday. Thanks though.”

James stepped over to the rocking chair and kissed her swiftly before he went into the bathroom to shower. When he got out of the shower, he heard small voices in their bedroom. He wrapped a towel around his waist then stepped into their room.

Ainsley and Sianin were cuddling with Rose in bed. Ainsley was cradling Maddie in her arms, while Hannah rested on top of Rose’s chest. Sianin was tucked into her mother’s side, her head nestled in the crook of Rose’s shoulder.

“Morning, Dad,” Ainsley chirped.

“Morning,” he said. He walked over to his bedside table for his phone, then moved to the foot of the bed. “Smile, everyone.”

His entire family beamed at him as he took a couple of shots.

“Right, I’m gonna go out for a couple errands,” he said. “Ainsley, Sianin, I could use your help.”

“Where are we going?” Sianin asked.

He saw Rose smirking playfully at him. “Oh, nowhere important. I need to pick up a few things and want company. Go on, get dressed. We can get breakfast sandwiches while we’re out.”

“From McDonald’s?” Sianin asked excitedly.

“I was thinking that little coffee shop that’s close to your school,” he said instead.

Though Sianin deflated a little bit, she was still excited to be getting what she considered a “fancy breakfast”. She wriggled off the bed and trotted to her room. 

Ainsley still had her arms full.

“You can give her to me,” James said, holding out his hands. He picked up the baby and held her in the crook of his arm. Ainsley slid off the bed and went to her room. “Good morning my darling Maddie-Waddie. Good morning!”

Maddie beamed at him, gurgling happily in his arms. Her little hands flailed in the air, and he bent down as though to nibble on them. When he caught her fingers lightly between his lips, she cooed loudly and her smile grew wider. He grinned.

“Unless you want to go to the flower shop in just a towel, you might want to get dressed.” Rose was looking at him tenderly, her phone in her hands.

“Oi, you’re not supposed to know that,” he whined.

“Oops. I meant that unless you want to go to the coffee shop in just a towel, you might want to get dressed,” she amended, a twinkle in her eye.

“That’s more like it,” he said, nodding.

He cuddled Maddie for a few more minutes before reluctantly handing her to Rose.

“I can’t wait ‘til Hannah smiles,” he said, stroking Hannah’s chubby cheek. 

“Me too,” Rose said.

James coaxed one more smile from Maddie before he dropped his loosening towel—earning a wolf-whistle from his wife—and began pulling on clothes.

“Do you need anything while I’m out?” he asked as he laced up his Chucks.

“Nope. Though would you like to give me an indulgent gift before you go?”

James peered at her curiously, his head cocked.

“Stand up and give us a twirl?”

James glanced down at himself then shot Rose a wicked grin. He’d chosen a pair of trousers at random—a set of black skinny jeans that he remembered now were one of Rose’s favorite on him.

“As my lady wishes,” he said, getting to his feet.

Theatrically, he held his arms up and out to lift his shirt hem, exposing a sliver of skin at his belly. He then spun in a slow circle, gyrating his hips. When he had completed his rotation, he was pleased by the pink flush on her cheeks and the delighted smile on her face.

“Does my wife approve of my outfit?” he asked innocently.

“I guess it’s all right,” she said, her voice low.

James winked at her, then came up to her bedside. Predicting his actions, Rose angled her head up as he ducked down to press a kiss to her lips. She inhaled sharply through her nose then released a soft moan when he laved his tongue across her bottom lip, then sucked it into his mouth.

They snogged lazily for a few minutes, long enough that James had lowered himself to perch on the edge of the bed to avoid a crick in his neck. When he eventually pulled them out of the kiss, it took a few seconds to catch his breath.

“Blimey,” Rose murmured, her chest heaving. Her pupils were blown wide and her lips were deliciously red and glistening.

“Yeah, blimey,” he parroted dumbly.

“Thanks for indulging me,” she said.

“Anytime.” He sighed and nudged his nose against hers before he kissed her tenderly. “I should go.”

“Yeah, you should,” Rose said, kissing him back just as gently.

“On second thought, maybe I’ll stay in here all morning. I’ll put the twins in the nursery, tell Ainsley and Sianin they’re on their own for breakfast, then I’ll return and lock the door.”

“As tempting as that sounds,” Rose said, still giving him small, sweet kisses, “you promised them a fancy breakfast. And I’ll be utterly heartbroken and distraught if I don’t get my Mother’s Day bouquet.”

“Well, I can’t have you heartbroken and distraught,” James said, even as he made no move to stand up. He heaved a great breath, then planted one final kiss to her lips. “You have no idea how much I want to stay in here with you.”

“I know. Though it’s not like we could really do anything anyway,” she said as though consoling herself.

“Oh, there’s plenty we could do. I dunno about you, but snogging my soulmate is one of my favorite pastimes.” Rose giggled at him, and he beamed. “Love you, Rose.”

“Love you, James. Now go. Go on.”

He gave her a lazy salute, then left the bedroom to take his eldest children out.

Their first stop was the coffee shop, because James needed the caffeine and Sianin was moaning that she was starving. They sat down at one of the tables and ate their breakfast sandwiches slowly, making idle conversation as they did so.

“Next stop: flower shop for Mother’s Day flowers,” James said when he got the kids buckled into the car after breakfast.

He’d placed his order in advance, so the bouquet was ready to go when he got there. It was a simple arrangement with vibrant shades of purple and yellow blended together.

The girls also wanted to get flowers for their mother, so he told them to work together to pick something out. It was not the prettiest bouquet James had ever seen—they’d tried to make it as colorful as possible, no matter if the colors or flower shapes and sizes matched—but he knew Rose would absolutely love it, and the girls were rather proud of themselves for their creation.

When they got home, they sprinted into the house, shouting for their mother.

“We’ve got a surprise for you!”

“You do?” Rose asked from the couch.

“You have to close your eyes,” Sianin said.

With a small smile tugging her lips, Rose dutifully closed her eyes while James carried in the flowers. The girls went to retrieve the cards they just remembered they’d made.

“Smells wonderful in here,” she said.

“They got a wee bit excited with their flower arrangement.”

Rose grinned, but wiped it off when she heard her daughters returning down the hallway.

“You didn’t peek, did you?” Sianin asked accusingly.

“Nope,” Rose said.

At the same time James assured, “I made sure she didn’t.”

“I wanna hold it,” Sianin whispered.

“No, I do!”

“Let’s set it on the table,” James recommended.

“What could it possibly be?” Rose asked. “Can I look yet?”

“No!” Ainsley and Sianin said frantically.

James swallowed his laughter and set his daughters’ bouquet on the coffee table, then he went to put his in the kitchen with a warning to Rose not to open her eyes until he got back. When he returned, he opened his phone’s camera and took a picture of Rose sitting on the couch with her eyes closed, a gaudy flower arrangement in front of her.

“On three?” James suggested.

“Yeah. One… two… three!” The girls counted down together, and as soon as Rose’s eyes popped open, they shouted, “Happy Mother’s Day!”

“Oh! How beautiful!” she gasped, and by her earnest expression, she meant it. “Did you pick these out all by yourself?”

“Yep!” Sianin said proudly. “Do you love it?”

“I love it very much,” she said, bringing the flowers to her nose for a sniff even though their aroma had filled the living room. Then she set them on the table and opened her arms to scoop her eldest children in for a hug. “Thank you both.”

“We made you cards,” Ainsley said when Rose released them.

She and Sianin thrust their cards into Rose’s face.

“One at a time,” James chastised gently.

Rose opened up Ainsley’s first, then Sianin’s. Her eyes grew a bit misty as she read the sentiments in each card.

“Thank you,” she said, blinking away the moisture. “I’m going to keep these cards forever and ever.”

She pressed more kisses to her daughters’ faces.

“You’ve got another surprise in the kitchen,” James said, beckoning her with a tilt of the head.

She pushed herself to her feet and followed him. Her second bouquet was sitting on the kitchen island with two cards propped up beside it.

“They’re beautiful, James,” she said, stepping up to smell the flowers. “Thank you very much.”

“You’re very welcome,” he said, pressing a kiss to her temple.

He then directed her attention to the first of two cards. This one was store-bought and filled with traditional sappy well-wishes. James had scribbled his own sentiments inside the card as well.

She thanked him with a kiss, then accepted the second card. It was hand-made, and she recognized James’s handwriting. On the front, he’d written, “Happy Mummy’s Day to the best Mummy on the planet!”

Inside were two sets of teeny tiny handprints and the words “We’re too little to tell you ourselves, so Daddy translated. We love you to the moon and beyond! Forever yours, Hannah and Madeline.”

He had attempted a simple sketch of the moon and a rocket ship. Inside the rocket were tiny stick figures she assumed were supposed to be Hannah and Maddie.

Rose’s eyes welled with tears as she smiled down at the card “the twins” made.

“James,” she rasped. “Thank you.”

“Thank you for being the best mum in the universe,” James said, wrapping his arm around her waist to press a kiss to her temple. “I couldn’t imagine raising children with anyone but you. You make parenthood an absolute joy, and you make it as easy as it can possibly be. And I will forever be grateful to you for giving me four wonderful, perfect little girls.”

Rose buried her face into his chest as she clung to him.

“You helped a bit,” she mumbled into his shirt.

“Only with the fun part,” he said, nuzzling his nose into her hair. “Thank you for our beautiful children, Rose.”

More tears slipped down her cheeks. “God, I’m a mess.”

“Blame the hormones,” he suggested, hugging her tight. “Love you.”

“Love you,” she replied, tilting her head to look at him. “Thank you, James. You’re so sweet.”

“Sweet’s my middle name.” He brushed her tears away with his thumbs.

Rose giggled, then pressed a long kiss to his mouth. He hummed and angled his head to the side, intent on deepening the kiss, but Sianin walked in.

“Aren’t you supposed to have private alone time in your bedroom?”

Rose breathed out a laugh through her nose, then buried her face in James’s shoulder. He chuckled too.

“We weren’t having private alone time,” James said. “We were kissing.”

“Isn’t that what you do during private alone time?”

“Among other things,” he answered vaguely.

Rose groaned and pinched James’s side, already anticipating Sianin’s next words.

“Like what?”

“They have sex, Sianin.”

James let out a strangled sound as Ainsley skipped into the kitchen. Rose’s cheeks went hot.

Evidently Ainsley was taking the liberty to explain the birds and the bees to her little sister. “Dad’s penis goes in Mum’s vagina.”

Sianin cocked her head and looked between her parents, a slight look of disgust wrinkling her nose. “Why?”

“It’s… fun,” James said weakly, but Sianin raised her eyebrows in disbelief. He cleared his throat. “Sex is something adults who are in love do. It’s not an activity for children. But it’s something your mum and I like to do together.”

“Why do only adults do sex?” she asked.

“Children’s bodies aren’t big enough for it yet,” Rose said. “You’ve still got a lot of growing to do before then.”

“Like how kids can’t possess alcohol,” Sianin said matter-of-factly.

Process,” James corrected, beaming. “Well… or possess, but I assumed you meant process? Anyhoo, you’re exactly right. Kid bodies and adult bodies are very different, so there are things adults can do that kids can’t. Make sense?”

“I suppose,” Sianin said. “When’s Gran and Grandad coming?”

“‘Round lunchtime,” Rose said. “Let’s clean up the house a little bit before they get here.”

“But it’s just Gran and Grandad,” Sianin said. “They’re not special people.”

Rose bit her lip to stifle her laughter. “The house still needs cleaned. Especially since we’re grilling outside—the patio furniture needs to be wiped down so we can sit there.”

After a few more grudging remarks, Sianin dutifully followed her parent’s instructions to tidy up.

James worked outside to clear off the girls’ playset, which had gathered a bit of dirt and grime over the winter months. Rose, Ainsley, and Sianin worked on cleaning the patio furniture.

Just as they finished up, a ring at the doorbell heralded Jackie’s arrival. Ainsley and Sianin rushed to the door to let their grandmother into the house and accept her hugs and kisses. James followed, ducking down to press a kiss to her cheek.

“Happy Mother’s Day, Jackie,” he said, giving her a squeeze. “Girls, did you wish Gran a happy Mother’s Day?”

“Happy Mother’s Day,” Ainsley chirped acquiescently.

“She’s not my mother,” Sianin said blankly.

James couldn’t help but laugh. “She might not be your mum, but she is a mum, and Mother’s Day is for all mums.”

Sianin tilted her head to consider him. “Oh. Happy Mother’s Day, Gran.”

“Thank you, sweetheart,” Jackie replied, a grin still lingering on her face.

Robert joined them soon after, and the family went outside to enjoy the unseasonably warm day. The adults settled at the patio table with a bottle of wine—and tea for Rose—while the kids played in the back garden. The babies napped contentedly inside. Rose set up a baby monitor in the living room with the twins, and had the receiver with her on the patio.

“Is Sianin doing any better?” Robert asked as he watched his granddaughter sprint around the yard, chasing Ainsley. “She seems like she is.”

“What’s wrong with Sianin?” Jackie asked, frowning.

“She’s had a bit of trouble adjusting to the twins,” Rose said. “She came to us the other weekend in tears because she thought we didn’t love her anymore, and that the twins were a replacement for her and Ainsley.”

“Oh, poor pet,” Jackie murmured.

“Yeah. She’s been sleeping with me and James since her birthday party. And has wet the bed a couple times this week,” Rose admitted. “Her mood is back to normal, and she even tries to interact with the twins whenever Ainsley plays with them. But she’s still sleeping with us, so something is still bothering her.”

“Though she did leave us in the middle of the night last night to go back to her own bed,” James chimed in.

“That’s encouraging,” Robert said. “Give her a bit more time. She’ll outgrow this phase.”

“It’s just heartbreaking to know she’s insecure about it at all,” Rose said. “I don’t know what else to do for her.”

“You’re doing everything you can,” Robert soothed. “She’ll adjust. She’s a resilient kid.”

“Hope so,” James said, watching his children playing together.

Ainsley noticed his gaze and called out. “Hey, Dad? When are we eating?”

“Are you hungry?” he asked. Both of his children nodded. “I’ll start the grill now.” He turned his attention to the rest of the family. “Are you lot hungry yet?”

“Not entirely, but maybe by the time the food’s ready,” Jackie answered. “Go ahead and get it cooking.”

He nodded and went into the kitchen to season the hamburger meat and form them into patties. He took them and the sausages outside, where Rose had already fired up the grill.

“Thanks, love,” he said, setting the platter of raw meat to the side while the grill heated up.

A few minutes later, he had all of the meat on the grill and was monitoring it carefully after a bit of dripping grease caused a flare-up.

A pair of familiar arms wrapped around him as he tended the food. He hummed and smiled to himself, enjoying the hug. When everything was flipped and sizzling, he lowered the lid of the grill and turned towards his wife.

“A kiss for the chef,” Rose said with a smile that made his insides flipflop.

She rocked up onto her toes and brushed a soft kiss to one corner of his mouth, then the other, and then the cleft between his lower lip and chin.

“Your aim is very poor this afternoon,” he murmured.

“Hmm, wanna show me how it’s done?”

“With pleasure…” He threaded his fingers through her hair and angled her head to the side before pressing his lips to hers. She sighed into the kiss, returning the gentle pressure and bringing her arms up to wrap loosely around his shoulders.

“There are young children here.”

James ignored his mother-in-law to continue leisurely kissing his wife. She smiled into his mouth then started easing them out of the kiss.

“That’s how you kiss the chef,” he whispered, grinning.

“I’ll tuck that lesson away for later,” she said with a wink.

“About time, you bleedin’ teenagers,” Jackie grumbled.

Rose rolled her eyes, stepping out of his arms.

“It was just a kiss, Mum,” Rose huffed.

James sat down at the patio table beside his father and poured himself a glass of wine.

“That was certainly not just a kiss,” Jackie said. “That was a snog.”

“So it’s illegal for me to snog my husband in my own house?” Rose shot back. James gripped her hand and gave it a small squeeze. She returned the gesture and slumped in her chair. “James and I don’t want the kids to think there’s anything bad or dirty about showing affection. We want them to know it’s perfectly normal and healthy to kiss and hug and cuddle someone they love.”

“Mummy and Daddy kiss all the time.”

Rose hadn’t realized her daughter had intruded upon the conversation.

“We kiss you all the time!” James tugged Sianin into his lap and blew kisses and raspberries into her neck. She squirmed and squealed in his lap, laughing until she was breathless.

Rose smiled at her husband and child. She loved that James was an affectionate father, unafraid and unashamed to let his children know how loved they were.

“Daddy, stop!”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, pulling back. “One more kiss to the forehead?”

Sianin nodded and tilted her face to him, accepting his brief peck. She then settled in his arms, seemingly content to stay there.

“Daddy, you like kissing Mummy a lot,” Sianin stated.

Rose bit her lip around a grin.

“Yes, I do,” James said simply. “I love your mummy very, very much and it’s one of the ways I show her that.”

“Will Elena, Juliette, and me kiss?” Sianin asked, angling her head to look at him.

“Perhaps, if you all want to kiss,” James said, brushing away a tendril of hair that had fallen into her eyes. “That’s the important part, that you all want to be kissing. You never kiss anyone without their permission.”

“Even if they’re your soulmate?”

“Even if they’re your soulmate,” James said firmly. “If Mummy ever tells me she doesn’t want a kiss, I don’t kiss her. And vice versa. If I don’t want a kiss, she doesn’t kiss me. It’s as simple as that. Do you understand?”

“Yep,” Sianin said, leaning into his chest.

“Good girl,” he said, kissing the top of her head.

“And you don’t do sex if Mummy doesn’t want it,” Sianin said, nodding to herself.

Robert and Jackie nearly choked on their drinks. The sound drew Sianin’s attention to them, and she said candidly, “Mummy and Daddy like to do sex. That’s when Daddy puts his penis in Mummy’s vagina. They say it’s fun but it doesn’t sound fun—it sounds like it would hurt.”

Rose thought her face might melt off and James’s cheeks, ears, and neck were bright red. Jackie and Robert were beaming at Sianin and looking as though they would burst out laughing any minute.

“But you don’t do it if Mummy doesn’t want to. And Mummy, you don’t do sex with Daddy if he doesn’t want to. Right?”

“That’s right, baby,” Rose answered. “That’s one of the most important parts of a relationship. Will you remember that always for me?”

“I’ll remember,” Sianin promised.

“Why don’t you go play with Ainsley,” James murmured, easing Sianin off his lap. “The food will be done in a few minutes.”

She slid to her feet and happily trotted to her big sister, who was swinging on their swing set.

Rose caught James’s eye and saw he was still beet-red. Now that Sianin was no longer there, Jackie and Robert let their laughter out.

“Not a word,” Rose growled at her mother.

“I thought you wanted your kids to know it was perfectly normal for people in love to kiss and hug and show their love,” Jackie said innocently.

“Shut up,” Rose grumbled, rubbing her palms across her face.

Robert, meanwhile, patted James on the shoulder and said, “Kids are curious little creatures and don’t quite understand the concept of propriety. She has no idea she’s embarrassing you. But for what it’s worth, you managed to teach her a valuable lesson from it.”

“I know,” James said. “For as much as Rose and I are trying to teach the girls that what we do together is healthy and natural, it’s still awkward.”

“Oh, I know. But every parent on the planet goes through this same thing,” Robert soothed. “Do you think it didn’t embarrass your mum and me when you learned what sex was? Or whenever you accidentally interrupted something.”

“Thankfully we’ve rarely had that,” Rose said.

“You’ll want to make sure Sianin isn’t co-sleeping with you before you get back to shaggin’,” Jackie advised.

“Oh, really?” James snarked. “Nah, I figured we’d scoot her to the foot of the bed whilst Rose and I make loud and passionate love right in front of her.”

“James,” Rose chastised, touching his forearm.

“Sorry, Jackie,” he mumbled. He stood up suddenly and thumbed behind him. “Burgers. I’m gonna… burgers.”

Rose watched him go with confusion, wondering what that was all about. Robert went with James.

“What’s up with himself, then?” Jackie asked.

“I dunno,” Rose said honestly.

“He’s not put out that you can’t have sex yet, is he?”

“Of course not,” Rose scoffed. “He’s brilliant about that. I’ll talk to him. Sorry, Mum. I think it just upset him to remember that Sianin’s struggling so much.”

“She’ll come around. Though why didn’t you tell me she was having a hard time?”

Rose shrugged. “Dunno. Didn’t think about it.”

“You didn’t think to tell your own mother that your child is having issues?” Jackie asked dubiously.

Agitation prickled under Rose’s skin at her mother’s tone, but she attempted to push it down.

“We’re handling it, Mum,” she said tightly.

Jackie harrumphed and leaned back in her seat, obviously disagreeing but not saying anything. Instead, she said, “Do you think this is it for you and James?”

“What?”

“Having kids,” Jackie clarified. “What with Sianin’s inability to adjust and everything.”

“She isn’t unable to adjust,” Rose spluttered. “She’s taking more time, is all.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t want to put her through this again is what I meant,” Jackie said. “And besides, four’s a good number.”

Rose ground her teeth together, her fury rising. Her and James’s family planning was nobody’s business but theirs, and how dare her mother use Sianin as an excuse.

“I popped two babies out of my body last month,” Rose gritted out, “and you want to know if we’re planning to have any more?”

“You don’t have to get snippy with me, I was just asking a question,” Jackie said defensively.

“What does it matter if we have more children or not? Besides, we tried for four years, Mum,” Rose said, her voice hard. “Four years! James and I are doing so well now, but it was hard for us. Can’t you let us enjoy the two little girls we just had?”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Jackie said, her voice brittle.

“Then what did you mean?”

“I was only trying to make conversation!” 

“There are a million different things we could’ve had a conversation about,” Rose said, throwing her hands up in exasperation.

“Rose?”

James was frowning at her as he carried a steaming plate of hamburgers to the patio table.

“I’m gonna check on the twins,” she muttered, pushing away from the table.

She breezed into the house and went to the cots in the living room. Both twins were awake. Hannah was chewing on her fingers and Maddie was stretching her arms and legs in whatever direction she could flail them.

“Hello, my beautiful girls,” she whispered. Inexplicably, tears burned in her throat. She didn’t know why she’d gotten so worked up at her mother, but that only made her more upset. “Mummy loves you so very much.”

Maddie beamed at her mother, cooing softly. Hannah was still suckling her fist.

“My beautiful, beautiful girls,” Rose said, tracing her fingertip across Maddie’s cheek, then Hannah’s. “You’re probably a bit hungry, eh? Shall we have some lunch?”

“Rose?” James squatted beside her and rested his hand at her lower back. “Are you all right?”

“I dunno. I dunno what’s wrong with me.” She trailed off, and he stayed quiet, letting her think. “It seems like Mum and I are getting into it every time we talk.”

“What were the two of you talking about?” he asked. “I couldn’t really catch the thread of conversation.”

“It’s stupid,” Rose said, rubbing the heel of her hand into her eyes. “She asked if we were done having kids or not.”

“The twins just got here,” he said, frowning.

“That’s what I said, too,” Rose said. “Then she was using Sianin to defend herself… about how Sianin’s struggling so much and surely we wouldn’t want to put her through all of this again. She said she didn’t mean anything by it. I dunno why I’m even so upset. Which is just pissing me off even more.”

James frowned sympathetically and wrapped his arm loosely around her waist. She rested her head on his shoulder.

“I guess it feels like she’s always trying to stick her nose in my life,” Rose said. “And I know she’s my mum and everything, but it makes me feel like she doesn’t approve of anything I do as a mother, or how we’re raising our family.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, pressing a kiss to her temple.

“Why do we keep getting into little arguments any time she comes ‘round?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry,” he repeated.

“Is it me? Am I being a total arse? Completely overreacting about everything?”

“You very seldom overreact,” he said. “I believe that if something is bothering you, it’s real. I don’t know what that something is, whether it’s something Jackie is doing or saying, or whether you’re struggling with something else. But I’m here to listen whenever you need to vent.”

Rose tucked her head under his chin. “I want my mum to enjoy the time she spends with us. And I want to enjoy it too. But lately all she seems to do is pick a fight.”

“I know, love. I know.”

Rose was silent for a moment, then asked, “Are you all right? You got a bit testy with Mum too.”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. I apologized to her, too. I was uncomfortable, is all. Then your mum feeling like she needed to tell us to wait until Sianin wasn’t wanting to sleep in our bed before resuming sex… what does she think, we’ll get it on with anyone in the room? Or that we’d lock our struggling child out of our room so we could shag?”

“I know,” Rose said gently. “But now you understand what I’m talking about. Why does my mum have a way of making everything she says feel like she’s judging?”

James exhaled heavily. “I dunno. Maybe we’re both a pair of nutters who are overreacting.”

“At least we’re each other’s nutters,” Rose said, bumping her shoulder into his.

“Forever,” he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice. He brushed a kiss to the top of her head then said, “Come. There are a few more burger patties I can grill up. Don’t want you eating a cold burger on Mother’s Day.”

“I need to feed the twins,” Rose said.

“Then I’ll wait ‘til you come out to cook them,” he said.

With a parting kiss to the side of her head, James stood and returned to the rest of the family outside.

Sianin’s plate was nearly empty, and she was currently ripping up a square of cheese and eating it. Ainsley was eating at a more reasonable pace, though she’d still inhaled her food.

“You two act as though I never feed you,” he whined dramatically, plopping into his seat beside Sianin. She beamed at him through lips smeared with melted cheese and ketchup. He picked up his napkin and wiped at her chin. “Shall we at least act like we have table manners?”

Sianin giggled and stuck her tongue out at him. “Can I have another burger?”

“Another one?” he asked dubiously. Sianin nodded. “How about you let your food settle a tiny little bit. If you still want more in a half hour, I’ll get you more.”

Sianin huffed but sat back into her seat, nibbling on some crisps.

When Rose had been inside for fifteen minutes, James leapt from his seat to grill up the remaining hamburgers so that when she joined them several minutes later, it was to a piping hot burger dripping with melted cheese and sandwiched on a buttery, toasted bun.

Rose gave her mother a tight-lipped smile and asked, “Want a baby?”

“Please,” Jackie said, just as stiffly.

Rose handed Hannah to Jackie, then turned to Robert. “Want Maddie?”

At his eager nod, she deposited the other baby into his arms.

Rose sat down in her seat beside her mother, and James swept up to her side carrying a plate of food. Setting the plate down with a flourish, he took her hand in his and pressed a long kiss to the back of her hand.

“For you, milady,” he purred.

She beamed at him, relief and gratitude crossing her face as she gave his hand a squeeze.

He pulled his chair closer to her and draped his arm lazily along the back of her chair, absently caressing the nape of her neck with his fingertips.

The remainder of the afternoon passed much better than James thought it would. The thin layer of tension vibrating between Rose and her mother was often broken by one of the girls. Jackie threw all of her attention to her granddaughters, playing with them as much as she could until it was time for her to go home.

James saw Rose talking to Jackie as they walked to the front door, where a cab was waiting to take Jackie to the train station. He considered it a victory that neither woman raised their voice, but Rose appeared irked when she returned.

“All right?” he asked quietly.

Rose sighed. “She gave a sort of backhanded apology for upsetting me. But she continued to defend herself, so that sort of negated the point of an apology.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, tugging her into his side.

“Thanks. I’m sorry too.” She buried her face into his chest, and after a long moment, she confessed, “I wish my mum could be like your dad. And I’m a horrible daughter for saying that, but it’s true. Why can’t she be supportive and happy with my family?”

James squeezed her tight and pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, not knowing what else he could say.

Robert stayed long enough to help James clean up from their barbecue. He refused to let Rose help on account of it being Mother’s Day.

“Is Rose all right?” Robert asked as he and James put the leftover food into containers.

“Noticed that, did you?” James asked dryly. After a beat, he admitted, “She and her mother have been butting heads recently. I’m trying to stay neutral, but I mean… my wife is upset. I dunno how much longer I can stay out of it.”

“Part of the reason Jackie’s upset is that she doesn’t get to see the girls as often as she’d like,” Robert supplied. At James’s blank stare, he explained, “We were chatting a bit when you and Rose went inside. She misses you and Rose and the kids. I don’t think it helps knowing I come ‘round so often.”

“You’d think she would want to make the most of the time she’s here then, instead of wasting it by bickering with Rose,” James said.

“One would think. But then again, rational thought sort of goes out the window when one is upset.”

James grimaced. “I dunno what to do.”

“Not sure there’s much to do. Be patient with Jackie. And maybe try to find other ways for her to see the girls. Phone calls and video chats and things, perhaps.”

“Perhaps,” James agreed, and he and Robert finished up the rest of the cleaning up in silence.

James was glad when the girls’ bedtime rolled around. He loved spending time with his family, but he was eager for some peace. He felt a little guilty about it, but he couldn’t deny that bedtime was a relief; it gave him time to be alone with his wife, without the distraction of chores, errands, or childcare. But as exhausting as it was to care for not one newborn, but two—and a nine- and six-year-old—he wouldn’t trade anything about his life. 

“Penny for ‘em.” Rose knocked her leg against his as she settled on the sofa beside him with a large bowl of ice cream to watch a rom-com they’d found on the television.

“Just thinking about the kids,” he replied. After a beat, he said, “I love being a dad.”

“Well, that’s good,” Rose drawled, but her eyes were soft. “Bit too late to change your mind.”

He flicked her arm half-heartedly.

She blew a raspberry at him, then tucked herself closer to him. He draped his arm around her shoulders, enjoying the touch. 

“But seriously, Rose. I love being a dad. My heart is so full with love and joy. Our daughters are my greatest accomplishment. I can’t fathom my life without them in it.”

“You big softie,” Rose said, grinning at him.

“Oi, I resent that,” he whined. “I am very tough and masculine, thank you very much.”

Rose broke out into peals of laughter, then leaned up to kiss him. Her lips were cold and tasted like chocolate.

“Gonna share that?” he hummed into the kiss, brushing a strand of her hair behind her ear.

“That was the plan. S’why I scooped out so much.”

With a parting kiss to her lips, he pulled back and they spent the next hour and a half watching a film and trading off bites of ice cream.

They were both pleasantly drowsy when they rose from the couch to go to bed. They went through the typical nighttime checks, ensuring the house was properly locked up, before peeking in on their kids.

Sianin’s door was wide open and their six-year-old wasn’t in bed. They frowned at each other, then moved to Ainsley’s room. Their eldest was alone in her bed.

“Guess we’ve got a bedmate waiting for us.”

“This is earlier than usual,” Rose said worriedly. “I’d thought… I’d hoped… since she left us last night…” 

James nodded and closed Ainsley’s door, then moved to their own bedroom. Sianin was sprawled across the head of their bed, her body somehow touching all of their pillows. An iPad lay on the mattress in front of her. She was asleep, but the video she’d been watching was still playing.

Rose took the tablet and shut it off, then they each went through their nighttime routine as quietly as they could. James finished before Rose, and he did a quick check on the twins before stepping to the bed.

“Sianin,” he crooned, rubbing his hand up and down her arm.

She stirred and opened her eyes slowly. She blinked up at him for a few seconds, as though not quite understanding where she was, before she smiled sleepily at him.

“I couldn’t sleep. I came in here but you and Mummy weren’t in bed.”

“Scoot over, darling,” James said. “I don’t fancy using your bum as a pillow tonight.”

Sianin huffed out a laugh, then she pivoted until she was in the center of the mattress. James crawled in beside her, and as soon as he was laying down, she shuffled closer to him and wrapped her entire body around his torso.

“Love you, Daddy,” she whispered into his neck.

“Love you, too, Sian,” he responded, kissing the top of her head.

The bed dipped a minute later and Sianin turned to gaze at her mother. 

“Love you, Mummy,” she said, reaching out a hand.

Rose took it and planted a kiss to Sianin’s palm. “Love you, too, baby.”

“Come cuddle,” she requested, tugging at Rose’s hand.

James met Rose half way, wriggling his way to the center of the bed with Sianin still wrapped around him. Rose pressed her front flush with Sianin’s back and draped her arm over James’s hips.

“Sianin sandwich,” she announced, blowing a raspberry into their daughter’s neck.

She squirmed and giggled.

“Time to sleep, now,” Rose said. “Sweet dreams, my sweet girl.”

Sianin heaved out a big breath, her body relaxing into James. A minute later, she was out cold.

James and Rose remained twined together, enjoying their cuddle, when they were interrupted by a knock so quiet they barely heard it. At first, James had thought it was the house creaking, but then Rose focused on something behind his shoulder as her brows knit together.

“Ainsley? Is everything all right?” She rolled away from James and Sianin as Ainsley walked up to Rose’s bedside. She bent down and whispered something in her mother’s ear. “Of course, sweetheart.”

Rose got out of bed, and before James could ask, Ainsley slipped under the covers.

“You okay?” James asked.

A small, quick dip of her head was her only reply. After a beat, she mumbled, “You said to come to you if I ever felt weird.”

“Are you feeling weird?” Rose asked, sliding into bed behind Ainsley and locking her into a cuddle.

Ainsley hugged her mother’s arm to her chest, then absently began spinning Rose’s wedding band round and round. “My stomach and chest hurt. Not like I’m sick. But inside. Like I’m sad.”

“Why are you sad?” Rose asked.

Ainsley shrugged and stared intently at Rose’s wedding band. “I feel lonely. You’re so busy with Hannah and Maddie. And with Sianin since she’s having a hard time. And I feel so bad for her, I do. And I feel awful for feeling the way I do, ‘cos she’s having such a bad time of it. But it’s… it’s like… it’s like I’m just… here. Living here, but going about the day by myself.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Rose squeezed her eyes shut and clutched Ainsley to her chest. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Ainsley said quickly.

“No, it’s not,” James croaked. “Ains…”

“Really, it’s fine,” she said firmly. “I honestly haven’t felt like this before. But tonight, for some reason, I’m feeling sad and alone. I heard you in here with Sianin, and I guess I felt a little left out.”

“Thank you for coming to us,” Rose murmured. “We’re so sorry. We’re learning how to juggle two new babies with you and Sianin, and we let you slip through the cracks.”

“I think you’re doing brilliant,” Ainsley said.

Obviously not, James scoffed to himself.

“Like I said, I feel a bit daft,” Ainsley admitted, finally turning her head to look at Rose. “You, Sianin, and I had a great day out yesterday.” She looked at James. “And this morning, with breakfast and the flowers. It was nice.”

“We’ll try to plan more days out,” James said. “Individually, too, if you’d like. We can try to make a weekly library date or something, just you and me, or you and your mum.”

Ainsley smiled shyly. “I’d like that.”

“Then it’s done,” James proclaimed, reaching over to cup his daughter’s cheek. “I love you so much, Ainsley. So much.”

“I know,” she said, holding his hand to her face. “Love you, too.”

“You’re an amazing girl,” Rose said, petting Ainsley’s sleek hair. “Your dad and I got so lucky with you. We’ll try to be better for you, Ains.”

Ainsley didn’t answer, but melted into her mother’s embrace.

“Ainsley?” Sianin rubbed her fist into her eyes and looked back at her big sister. “What’re you doin’ here?”

“We’re all having a sleepover in Mummy’s and Daddy’s bed,” James said.

“Oh. Cool.” Sianin let out a grunt and tucked her face into James’s chest, asleep in seconds.

Ainsley’s eyes were likewise closed, and a few minutes later, they heard her breathing even out. Rose didn’t cease stroking Ainsley’s hair.

James reached out and covered her hand with his. She squeezed it hard and met his gaze—he was sure the anguish and frustration on her face was reflected in his.

“We’ll get better at this,” James whispered. “It’s just a bit of growing pains.”

“Growing pains suck,” Rose muttered.

James shot her half a smile, then gave her hand a final squeeze before pulling away. He wrapped Sianin into a hug and nuzzled his chin against the top of her head, closing his eyes and falling into a fitful sleep.

Chapter Text

As promised, James and Rose made arrangements to take Ainsley out for some one-on-one time. Consumed with lingering guilt that their daughter felt alone in the family, they asked Robert to stay at home with Sianin and the twins for a few hours so they could both spend the evening out with their eldest child.

“I wanna come!” Sianin whined as they prepared to leave after dinner.

“I know you do, but this is an outing just for me, Mummy, and Ainsley,” James said patiently. As Rose and Ainsley made their way to the car, he crouched down in front of his six-year-old. “You know how you’re feeling a bit upset because Mummy and I are a little bit busier now that the twins are here?” Sianin gave a brief, grudging nod. “Well, Ainsley feels a little like that too. She’s bit sad like you.”

“But I wanna come. If we’re both sad, then why can’t we both go out with you and Mummy? It’s not fair.”

James was impressed with his child’s reasoning skills. The pout she was wearing nearly broke his resolve; but the memory of Ainsley’s nervous explanation of her anxieties and loneliness bolstered him. 

He kissed Sianin’s forehead. “We’ll make plans to go out alone with you, too. Eh? But it’s Ainsley’s turn tonight.”

Sianin grumbled a bit more, but eventually said, “You promise?”

“Cross my heart,” he said gravely, making an ‘X’ across his chest, before he copied the letter onto Sianin’s chest.

She huffed out a sigh but kissed her father goodbye and went to pester her grandfather.

“We’ll be back by bedtime,” he called out, then joined Rose and Ainsley in the car.

Their first trip was to an ice cream shop, where they bought the largest sundae and all shared it. James and Rose scooted their chairs beside Ainsley’s, crowding around one half of the small, circular table, passing the spoon between them as they made absent conversation.

Their next stop was to the library. They went to the one a little further out of town—it had a much larger selection, and Ainsley’s library card worked there too.

The moment they stepped through the doors, Ainsley bolted for the Young Adult section; they soon lost her amidst the shelves.

“Notice how it’s supposed to be a family outing, and she goes and leaves us behind,” James whined half-heartedly, mostly to make Rose laugh. It had the intended effect—she chuckled and bumped her hip into his as she threaded her fingers through his.

“I wish we could do this more often,” Rose said, strolling casually through the labyrinthine bookshelves and perusing a few titles. “But I feel bad for always calling on Dad to babysit.”

“Oh, you know he loves it,” James said.

“I know. It’s not so bad for now, since the twins are just babies. But when they’re toddlers, it might be harder for him to keep up. He’s not getting any younger.”

Her words stopped him short, twisting something sharp in his chest. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Catching the bite in his words, Rose stopped and face him. Her brows knitted together. “Nothing. I didn’t…”

“My dad’s fine,” James gritted out. “He’s in perfect health and condition.”

“I know that,” Rose said patiently.

“The twins’ll be toddlers in only a couple years. It’s not like he’s gonna deteriorate that quickly.”

“James, I know,” Rose said, her voice soft. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m sorry I upset you.”

Her thumb brushed against the back of his. The movement drew his attention to their hands, where he’d been squeezing until their knuckles went white. He released her fingers.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Sorry, I… He’s seventy, Rose. I know he’s in perfect health but still. Seventy.”

“I know.” She reached up and cradled his cheeks, making him look at her. “I’m sorry I said that. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

James tilted his head into her touch before pressing a kiss to her palm.

“Let’s find Ainsley before she decides she’s moving in,” James said wanly.

Rose scanned his face for a moment, but nodded. She tucked his hand in hers again and hugged his arm to her chest. As they patrolled the aisles searching for their daughter, he felt Rose’s gaze flick to him every now and then.

“I’m fine, Rose,” he said after the dozenth time. “I’m not upset with you.”

“I feel bad,” she admitted. “I spoke carelessly.”

“But you had no ill intent. I forgive you.” He ducked down and kissed her forehead. “Seriously.”

Ainsley interrupted them a moment later. “Is this one all right for me?”

They had a rule that if she wanted to read a book above her age bracket, they needed to check if it would be suitable for her. She was pretty good about censoring her own material—they’d rarely had to reject any of her book choices.

“Let’s see,” James said. He took the book from her, and as Rose Googled it, he idly flipped through the pages, on the lookout for too much gore, violence, or sex. Nothing in particular caught his eye, so he peered over Rose’s shoulder to skim the book blogging site she tended to use to get feedback on a particular book.

“Seems all right,” Rose said, glancing up at him.

He handed the book back to Ainsley, who beamed and tucked it under her arm before disappearing amidst the shelves again.

“I love that she loves to read.” Rose smiled at their daughter’s back.

“Me too. If only we could get Sianin as excited about it.” Whereas Ainsley had learned to read by age four and often took over her bedtime stories, Sianin still preferred being read to and rarely took initiative to read by herself. They would soon need to enforce Sianin reading aloud to them for at least a few minutes every day.

“She’ll get there,” Rose said, patting his arm. “And if not, that’s all right too. She’ll find something else she’s passionate about.”

They found Ainsley in one of the many cushioned chairs by the wall of windows. She sat sideways, her back against one armrest and her knees draped over the other. A small pile of books was on the floor beside her, and she was engrossed in the book she’d asked them to vet.

She jumped when Rose rested a hand on her shoulder, not having heard them approach.

“I know this is a safe, public space,” Rose said, “but you really should stay more aware of your surroundings.”

Ainsley smiled sheepishly.

“Good thing we’re not here to lure you into the back of our van,” James teased. A middle-aged woman glared sharply at him, and his face flushed. “I’m her father, don’t worry.”

The woman appraised them for a moment before turning back to her magazine.

Ainsley was biting her lip to smother her laughter; Rose had a similar expression on her face.

“Oh, shut up,” he said, knocking his hip into Rose’s and tugging gently on a lock of Ainsley’s hair. “Are you ready to go, darling?”

“Can’t we stay a little while longer?” Ainsley asked. “It’s so calm here. Besides, I need you to okay those for me.”

She pointed to the stack of books on the floor. So James and Rose sat by Ainsley’s sofa, perusing the books slowly to give their daughter a bit more time. When they finally couldn’t justify dawdling any longer, Rose said, “When you reach a good stopping point, we’ll leave.”

“The end of the book does not count as a good stopping point,” James amended.

Ainsley poked her tongue out at him. Five minutes later, she stuffed a bookmark into the pages and moved to the front desk to check out her little stack.

When they returned home, Hannah and Maddie were asleep on a blanket in the living room, their fine hair damp from a recent bath. Sianin’s hair was likewise wet, and she was curled with Robert on the couch, watching television.

James couldn’t help but observe his father for a moment. He didn’t look his age at all: his hair was more gray than white, and his skin, while lined with wrinkles, was fairly taut rather than loose and saggy. His body was strong, his eyes bright with intelligence and life. James couldn’t imagine his father ever being a hunched, weak old man.

Rose must’ve caught on to his silent observations—and the reason for them—for she gave his hand a small squeeze.

Robert stayed long enough to put Sianin to bed per the six-year-old’s request. Sianin had hugged and kissed her parents before tugging her grandad to her bedroom to tuck her in and read to her.

“Thanks for tonight,” Ainsley said, skipping up to kiss her parents on the cheek. “It was a lot of fun.”

“You’re very welcome,” James replied. “You know, your bedtime isn’t for another half hour.”

“I know. I’m gonna sit in bed and read for a bit.”

“You can do that in the living room, if you’d prefer,” Rose said. “You can always use nighttime for a bit of one-on-one time with me and your dad.”

Ainsley cocked her head to the side, as though she’d never considered that. “Oh. Yeah, I guess I could. But I really want to keep reading. Maybe tomorrow. Can we forgo reading aloud tonight?”

“Just for tonight,” James said.

“How long will I have to read aloud to you?” Ainsley asked curiously. “Like… will I be seventeen and you guy’s’ll be squeezed onto my bed as I read to you?”

James laughed. “No, probably not that long.” He then stuck his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “I haven’t really thought about it. Are you getting sick of it?”

Ainsley’s eyes widened. “No! Not at all. I was just wondering.”

“Then probably until you officially get sick of it,” Rose concluded. “God knows you read enough on your own as it is.”

Ainsley smiled and with a parting kiss, departed to her room.

James and Rose retired to the sofa, with Rose giving the twins their nightly feeding and James working on a Sudoku puzzle booklet beside her.

“Why don’t you skip the easy and medium puzzles?” Rose asked when he’d breezed through the first ten pages of the puzzle book in the time it took the twins to nurse. “Start on the hard levels?”

James shrugged. “Seems a waste to not do the earlier puzzles. Besides, sometimes a tricky medium sneaks in there and stumps me for a bit.”

“One of these days I’ll buy you a book that contains only hard ones,” Rose said as she shifted Hannah to one shoulder.

It was past Ainsley’s official bedtime by the time both babies were asleep. While Rose put the babies into the bassinets in her and James’s bedroom, James went to check that their eldest had put her book away and settled down for the night.

“She was already asleep,” James announced when he and Rose settled onto the sofa again.

“Brilliant,” Rose said, tucking herself into his side.

He hummed and opened an arm for her, enjoying the warmth of her smaller body against his.

“How can we manage going out one-on-one with all of our kids?” James mused, tipping his head back to rest against the sofa.

“Well, if it’s just one of us going, the other stays behind with all the other kids,” Rose answered. 

“Yes, yes, I surmised as much,” he said. “But if we wanted to do something like this again with Ainsley? Obviously, we probably can’t do it frequently, but every couple of weeks?”

“We can keep asking Dad,” Rose said. “Or look into having a proper babysitter. When I start working again, we’ll probably need one. At least for a couple hours when the kids get home from school.”

That caught James’s attention. “Do you want to start working again?”

“I told you ages ago I’d hoped to open my own photography studio someday,” Rose reminded. “That’s way off in the future, but something to keep in the back of our heads. I love being a stay at home mum, but I miss my art. And the thing about running my own studio, I can keep my own hours and take on the projects I want to do. There’s loads of flexibility there.”

James nodded and brushed a kiss to the top of her head. It wasn’t as though he’d forgotten about Rose’s dream of opening her own studio, but it had been well over a year since she’d last brought it up—he assumed she’d abandoned that particular dream.

“Well, whenever you decide to start, we’ll talk logistics,” James said.

Rose hummed wordlessly and turned her body into his. She slipped her hand underneath his jumper to rest at the skin just above the waistband of his jeans, and she caressed the sensitive skin with her thumb while she pressed a kiss to the underside of his jaw.

“Love you,” she murmured.

“Love you, too,” he breathed.

“Head back.”

Following the command mindlessly, he groaned softly when she planted long, open mouthed kisses to his neck and jaw. Her lips, tongue, and teeth traversed his neck, and when she got to his Adam’s apple, her weight shifted.

“Scoot over a bit,” Rose ordered, her voice husky, and James couldn’t help but obey.

He wriggled over a few inches, far enough for her knees to be planted on either side of his hips as she straddled him.

“This is nice,” he squeaked out, his voice higher than he wished. He cleared his throat.

“Indeed,” Rose agreed, before she ducked down to continue laving her attention across his neck.

“What... What’s this for?” he asked, his eyes fluttering shut.

“Has it been so long that you’ve forgotten what foreplay is?” she teased.

His eyes snapped open. “But… you… we…” It had only been a month since she’d given birth. As much as he ached to make love with her, they couldn’t. Not yet.

She sat back on his lap and he smothered his whine of protest. “Is this all right?”

“Of course,” he said, swallowing against a dry mouth.

“Then can I continue please?” she asked, quirking up an eyebrow. “It has been two weeks since I’ve touched my husband. Remember?”

James’s brain flashed back to that morning in the kitchen, and the throbbing pressure at the front of his trousers pulsed sharply. He nodded dumbly.

She beamed at him, then took his hands—which were fisted uselessly at his sides—and placed them on her bum.

“No boobs for a while, unfortunately,” she lamented.

“I… is this all right?” he rasped, rubbing his thumbs across the soft fabric stretched taut across her bum.

“I put them there, didn't I?” she drawled.

“I just meant…”

His body screamed at him to pull her further into his lap, but he needed to know what she wanted before he took any liberties.

“Let’s see where this goes, eh?” she suggested. “Try not to think too hard if you can help it.”

“Oh, you know me,” he said with a shrug.

“I do,” she agreed. “But I really, really want to snog you.”

Rose leaned down and skimmed the tip of her nose down his, hovering her lips a hair's breadth from his. Her breath puffed tantalizingly against his mouth; he chased the sensation until their lips met.

She exhaled through her nose as she tilted her head to the side, deepening the kiss. Her hands went to his hair while his moved from her bum to her hips to her back, repeating the circuit again and again as he lost himself in Rose.

She was everywhere—there was nothing in the world but him and her and their heated kisses. Their lips pulled and yielded; their tongues danced; their teeth scraped and nipped; their fingers wandered and traced and teased.

Heat boiled in his stomach the longer they kissed, and he longed to carry her to their bedroom to make love thoroughly to her.

“Arms up,” Rose commanded, popping her lips away from his.

“Hmm?”

“Arms. Up,” she repeated, tugging at the hem of his shirt.

He scrambled to work with her, but soon his shirt was on the floor, hers following a few seconds later.

“Don’t touch the tits,” she warned, keeping her bra on as a reminder.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

Rose wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing their naked fronts together. James shivered and clutched her tighter, latching his mouth to her collarbone. She moaned and tipped her head back, fisting her hands in his hair to keep his mouth where it was. 

He gladly paid attention to her neck, focusing on the place where her neck met her shoulder. That had always been sensitive for Rose and was his go-to erogenous zone for her, especially now that her breasts were out of commission while the twins were nursing.

“James,” she whimpered, her hips working clumsily against him.

He was completely hard and throbbing in his pants, and he bit her neck harder than he intended to when she rubbed against his erection. Rose’s resulting guttural, garbled cry made his apology die on his tongue. Instead, he began sucking harder. He was fairly certain that there was going to be a mark there tomorrow.

“T-touch me,” she gasped, circling her hips against him.

He nodded and slipped a hand down the front of her pajama bottoms. He groaned when his fingers were immediately met with her slippery wetness.

“Tell me to stop if anything’s wrong,” he said.

“Just… not inside,” she said.

James nodded and gently slid his fingers against her; Rose tightened her grip in his hair and hummed low in her throat. He worked his lips and tongue across her throat to give attention to the other side of her neck.

He kept his pace slow and steady, trying to draw out her pleasure for as long as he could. But inevitably she grew impatient and started to grind herself faster into his touch. He arched his hips in time with her rhythm, straining to get friction against his erection. He was on edge but not quite close enough to tip over into pleasure.

But still he kept up with her rhythm, stroking her and kissing her and mumbling filthy nonsense into her skin. He shuddered with need as the sounds of her moans grew more urgent, before she tensed above him. Her body bowed back as she clapped a hand over her mouth to smother her cries of pleasure. He’d nearly forgotten they were on the couch where their kids could not only over-hear them but walk in on them.

He continued his ministrations against her as she panted harshly.

“God, James.” She tugged his face away from her collarbone to crash their mouths together. He hissed into her lips as his arousal snapped sharply into focus. Before he could plead with her, she murmured, “Your turn.”

Rose’s fingers went to the front of his jeans, fumbling with his button and zip. He was so hard and so worked up that even that slight bit of pressure was enough to send him careening towards the abyss.

“Rose,” he panted urgently. His cock throbbed. “Rose, I… I’m… oh, shit.”

Rose covered his lips with hers, smothering his expletives as she stopped trying to get into his jeans and instead rubbed him through the fabric. Whispering words of encouragement that he didn’t need, Rose wrapped her fingers around him as best she could, giving him unbelievable friction that felt so, so good.

James stiffened and grunted against her lips as he released helplessly, embarrassingly, into his pants. His pulse roared in his ears as pleasure surged through him, making his skin sing. Rose stroked firmly through his jeans and pants, prolonging his pleasure as his cock gave a few final, feeble twitches.

Eventually his vision cleared and he popped his lips away from Rose’s to gulp down lungfuls of much-needed fresh air. She still had her hand on his softening cock, not stroking, merely holding. It felt wonderful, but soon the mortification took over.

“Well… that didn’t last long,” he muttered, rubbing a finger into his eyes.

“Did you enjoy it?” Rose asked, pressing lazy kisses to his jaw.

“Very much so,” he said, his body thrumming with the aftershocks of pleasure.

“Then that’s all that matters,” she said simply, tucking her cheek against his shoulder, seemingly content to stay in his lap. He was happy with the arrangement, and he wrapped his arms around her waist, hugging her close.

“Did you enjoy it?” he asked after a moment.

“You couldn’t tell?” she drawled.

He shrugged. “It’s always nice to have confirmation, y’know. Positive reinforcement and all.”

“In that case, I enjoyed it very, very much. Though I fear it’s going to make these next couple weeks impossible to wait through. I want to drag you to our room and make love with you ‘til dawn.”

He hummed in agreement and nuzzled closer to her. “It’ll go by faster than we think. For now, this is more than enough.”

They sat on the couch for many long minutes, basking in the glorious afterglow. James’s mind was blissfully blank of anything that wasn’t Rose, and he held her tighter, enjoying the press of her body against his.

After a few minutes, James began squirming uncomfortably against the cold wet patch at the front of his boxers. 

“Ants in your pants?” Rose asked, her voice thick as though she’d been dozing against his shoulder.

“Something a little more microscopic,” he replied with a grimace.

“Don’t insult yourself like that,” she said, picking her head up to wink at him. Her cheek was pink from being smooshed into his shoulder and her eyes were bleary with sleep.

“Oh, shut up,” he said, pinching her bum. “You knew what I meant.”

Rose stuck her tongue out at him, then slowly clambered off his lap. When she was standing, she held out a hand to pull him up. He stood on shaky legs then glanced down at the front of his jeans. Despite the cooling wetness he felt, there was no outward evidence of the mess in his boxers.

“I’ve always enjoyed making you lose it in your pants,” Rose admitted, bending down to pick up their discarded shirts.

James stared at her in surprise. This was the first he was ever hearing of this.

She shrugged. “It turns me on to know you were so turned on that you couldn’t even wait to be properly naked.”

“And here I was thinking it was a sign that my stamina had gone to shit,” James mused.

Rose snorted. “If the past is any indication, I could work you up again for another round in about twenty minutes or so. My husband’s a bit of a stud.” She winked.

James’s cheeks heated with pride at her compliment.

She bit her lip, then confessed, “And… and it was the first way I’d ever made you come, when we were first exploring our intimacy. I’m probably being weirdly sentimental, but…” She trailed off with a shrug.

His heart squeezed with love for her. He wrapped her in a hug and pressed a long kiss to her cheek.

“I love you.”

She hummed and wrapped her arms tightly around his waist. They stood there for a minute, simply holding each other. When they finally broke apart, Rose sighed, “I wish we could have a naked cuddle.”

James bobbed his head in a nod. So did he. Cuddling Rose after a round of lovemaking was one of his favorite post-coital rituals. But with Sianin creeping into bed with them…

“We’ll figure something out,” he promised.

He took her hand in hers and guided her through the house to do their normal nighttime checks: the doors were locked, the lights were off, and both kids were asleep in their beds.

They rushed through their bedtime routine, eager to get back to their cuddle. James put on a fresh pair of boxers and forewent a shirt, while Rose put on a pair of boy shorts and a vest top.

“Not entirely naked, but close enough,” she said as she wriggled into bed beside him.

They tangled together in the middle of the mattress, and James groaned as he held her tight.

“God, this feels great,” Rose said.

He rumbled out an agreement, then he pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “I love you.” He kissed her temple. “I love you.” He kissed the skin beneath her ear. “I love you.”

He continued his mantra as he pressed kisses to every inch of skin he could reach. Rose hitched her leg over his hip and used it to drape herself closer, to James’s enjoyment. The beginnings of renewed arousal bubbled deep inside him and he knew Rose felt the evidence of it.

“Mr. Impressive,” she whispered, rolling her hips slowly against him.

He exhaled raggedly. “You make me feel like a teenager again.”

“Good. It’s only fair since you make me feel like one, too.”

Though there was very little intent behind it, Rose kept her hips pressed firmly to his, nestling his partial erection against her. James enjoyed the pressure, too; it felt nice, especially when he or Rose shifted their hips a little bit.

“Do you want to do something with this?” Rose mumbled when he let out a quiet, involuntary groan.

“Nah, it’ll be fine,” he answered, breathless. “I’m not even properly hard. It just… God, it feels so good, love.”

“I’m glad. It feels really nice for me, too. Can we stay like this forever?”

“Absolutely.”

She tilted her head up, and he ducked his head down, knowing what she wanted. Their lips met in a gentle kiss. Their mouths parted and met again and again, sharing dozens of little kisses that conveyed all of the love and comfort and happiness they felt.

But all too soon, the sound of whimpers invaded the quiet, intense intimacy they created.

“If we pull the sheets over our head, they’ll stop, right?” James asked, tucking his face into the curtain of her hair.

“Definitely,” she replied, fumbling with their blankets to haul them up over their shoulders and heads.

James giggled in the stuffy darkness; Rose echoed the noise. Unfortunately, the soft cries grew louder and more insistent.

“You’re all right, baby,” Rose cooed. “You’re all right. Sleep. Just sleep. Daddy and I are right here.”

Silence greeted them, then a quieter whimper.

“Sleep, baby girl,” Rose coaxed. “Just sleep.”

“It’s bedtime, darling,” James crooned. “Time for dreaming about all the pleasant little things in your pleasant little life.”

The baby let out a whine and a few coos before she quieted down.

“I can’t believe that worked,” Rose said into the darkness.

“Bet you anything that was Maddie.”

“Not taking that bet,” Rose snorted.

James pulled the sheet off their heads and draped it over their shoulders as they resumed their cuddle. Rose rested her hands at the small of his back, tucking her fingers beneath the waistband of his boxers while he drew long, broad lines up and down her spine.

“D’you ever get hit out of the blue by how much you love me?” Rose slurred, sounding half-asleep.

“All the time.”

“Good,” she murmured. “‘Cos that’s happening to me right now. I love you so much, James.”

James beamed into her shoulder and pressed a kiss to her neck, making her shiver. He did it again to see if he could make her moan. She did, and then retaliated by rubbing herself firmly against his partial erection.

He scraped his day-old stubble across her neck, delighting in the full-body shudder she let out. She tightened her grip around him, one of her hands flying to the back of his neck to hold him where he was.

“Like that, do you?” he purred, repeating the motion.

“Wanker.”

She fisted his hair in her hand, and pleasure sparked across his scalp when she began to massage her fingers through his hair.

They continued their teasing touches for many long minutes, playing a game of trying to pull a reaction from the other until it was no longer a game. Their lower halves tangled together restlessly, unconsciously writhing and thrusting together until Rose buried her face into the crook of his neck and ground herself hard against him.

Shit,” she squeaked. Her back bowed and her hips jumped clumsily through her release.

James muffled his moan into his pillow. “K-Keep moving like that. Please, Rose. Oh, God.

He had become more aroused than he’d thought, and listening to Rose panting and grunting in his ear hurtled him toward an edge he hadn’t realized he was at. His balls drew up close to his body and he inhaled sharply as his pleasure mounted.

“Come for me,” Rose whispered, her hot breath tickling his ear.

He shuddered and grabbed her hips, arching against her once… twice…

Rose,” he rasped as his cock spurted messily into his pants for the second time that night. He didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything but the love and pleasure that threatened to drown him. But what a marvelous death it was. La petite mort indeed.

When his head stopped spinning, he opened his eyes to see Rose grinning guiltily up at him. He smiled stupidly at her in return, then started giggling. She echoed the sound, and soon they were laughing madly into each other’s shoulders, trying to keep quiet enough to not wake a baby.

“I can’t believe we did that,” Rose gasped. 

“I can’t believe I ruined two sets of boxers in one night.”

“That was amazing,” she sighed, nuzzling close to him. “My God, I’ve missed this. To hell with having more babies if it means I can’t make love with you for six weeks afterward.”

James grinned and kissed her deeply. She groaned against his lips and when they popped apart, she chastised, “You’re gonna make me all hot and bothered for a third round!”

“Problem with that?” he asked sweetly.

Rose smacked his shoulder lightly, but hauled him in for another kiss.

Their kisses, though heated at first, cooled to sweet, soothing little presses of lips on lips. They became drowsy in their afterglow, drowsy enough that neither of them could quite manage to get out of bed to clean up again.

They fell into a deep sleep, still twined together. 

When James awoke the next morning to gray light streaming through the window, he was surprised that he and Rose were alone. He peeked behind himself, then over Rose’s shoulder, but no, Sianin wasn’t in bed with them.

He carefully extracted the arm that was beneath Rose’s neck. It was utterly numb. He flexed his hand to get the blood flowing again, and hissed as pins and needles set in.

“All right?” Rose opened her eyes, blinking blearily at him. “What time is it?”

James squinted at the clock on the wall. “Nearly six.”

“Six?” Rose repeated dumbly, then she pushed away from him and scrambled out of bed.

Frowning, James sat up and rubbed at his eyes. When he saw her making a beeline for the bassinets, he realized the babies hadn’t woken in the middle of the night. A band of anxiety squeezed his chest, but loosened when he saw Rose’s shoulder’s slump in relief.

“I hate the first time they sleep through the night,” she grumbled, kneading the heel of her hand into her forehead. “It always scares me half to death.”

“Me too,” James said. “I assume they’re not dead?”

Rose stuck her tongue out at him, then reached into the cots to pick up the babies before settling into the rocking chair to nurse them.

“I’m gonna shower,” James said, realizing with a grimace he was still in his soiled boxers from the night before.

“M’kay,” Rose said, rocking gently as the twins nursed. “Love you.”

“Love you,” he replied. He strolled up beside her to press a kiss to her upturned face, then to the loo for a shower.

oOoOo

James walked Maddie around the car to where Rose was strapping Hannah into the twin pram. He placed the baby next to her sister, then locked the car once Rose had the baby bag out of the back.

Rose wrapped her arm loosely around his waist as he began pushing the pram towards the hospital.

“I’ll get them checked in, you can go sit,” Rose said, pushing him towards a row of empty seats in the waiting area.

James nodded and saved a seat for Rose while she signed in.

“How precious!”

James turned and saw a heavily-pregnant woman toddling towards him.

“How old are they?” the woman asked, peering into the buggy while making cooing noises.

“A month,” he answered.

“They’re adorable,” she sighed, rubbing her belly.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling genuinely. His babies really were adorable. He reached in and played with Maddie’s foot, bopping it up and down. It resulted in a huge grin—not that he was trying to show off his baby…

“Oh! She’s smiling already?” the woman gasped, grinning down at Maddie.

“Yep,” he said, puffing up slightly as though he himself were responsible for his baby smiling so young.

“She’s beautiful,” the woman said, clasping her hands in front of her chest. “Are they identical?”

“Yep,” he said, nodding. Then he jerked his head at her huge stomach. “When are you due?”

“Last weekend,” she said with a grimace. “I’m hoping they’ll induce me soon. Or just cut him out. I’m tired of being pregnant. He’s my fourth. Bit of an uh-oh baby, but my husband and I are excited nevertheless.”

“These are our third and fourth as well,” James said.

“Are you here by yourself?” the woman asked sympathetically.

“No, my wife’s right over there.” He pointed to Rose, who at that moment caught his eye and beamed at him. He smiled and waved.

“Wow, she looks amazing!” the woman said. “I’m so jealous. And after giving birth to twins, no less! Wow.”

“Yeah, she’s incredible,” James said proudly.

A name was called by a far-off voice, and the woman looked away.

“Oh, that’s me. It was nice meeting you!”

“You too,” he said politely. “Good luck with your little one.”

“Thanks!” she said brightly, then she cooed one more time at the twins before waddling away.

“Make a new best friend, did you?”

Rose elbowed him lightly as she plopped down beside him.

“Pfft, no one can replace you as my best friend,” he said, elbowing her back. “She wanted to see the twins. They are the world’s cutest babies, after all.”

“Oh, really?” Rose drawled.

“Absolutely. No competition. I know all parents think their child is the cutest, but really, ours are the cutest children.”

Rose laughed at him and patted his arm reassuringly before she hugged it to her chest and rested her cheek on his shoulder to wait for the twins to be called back. They spent the next few minutes talking quietly to each other, debating what to make for dinner, their weekend plans, and a hypothetical discussion about what their lives might be like if they’d grown up in a different time period.

James was just describing how sexy she would look in a Victorian ball gown—making Rose’s cheeks and neck redden—when a nurse called their name.

“Later,” he purred into her ear before standing.

Following the nurse, he pushed the pram down the hall and into a sterile-smelling room that had farm animal wallpaper prints. The nurse efficiently gathered the twins’ measurements before leaving them alone, saying Elizabeth would soon be in to see them.

“Getting back to what I was saying, I think you would look positively irresistible in a ball gown. Especially if it pushed up your cleavage.”

“But back then, cleavage wasn’t that big of a deal,” Rose argued. “Now if I showed you my ankles…”

“Rose Tyler-McCrimmon, I’m scandalized!” he gasped theatrically, slapping a hand over his heart. “How dare you tease your poor, sexually-frustrated soulmate! He would have been doing everything he could to try and keep your virtue and innocence intact, and there you are, practically naked! An ankle! My goodness.”

Rose cackled out a laugh, which made him break into peals of giggles.

“It sounds like everyone is doing well in here.”

Their laughter cut off abruptly as Elizabeth stepped into the room. They hadn’t heard her knock.

“Yeah, we’re great,” Rose answered, her cheeks pink from her happiness.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Elizabeth said warmly. Then she stepped up to the baby buggy and cooed, “And how are you two sweethearts doing?” She returned her attention to James and Rose. “Can you lift them out for me?”

James and Rose each retrieved a twin, and, one at a time, Elizabeth performed the usual tests and checks.

“Are there any questions or concerns you have?”

“Actually, yeah,” Rose said. “Maddie doesn’t cry as much as Hannah. She whimpers a bit, but she very rarely goes into a wailing fit. Maddie seems… lethargic. She sleeps way more than Hannah does. It’s got me and James a little worried, because if it weren’t for Hannah making a fuss whenever she wanted something, we wouldn’t know that Maddie wanted anything.”

Elizabeth glanced over at the baby in Rose’s arms. Maddie was sucking contentedly on her dummy, safe and warm in her mother’s embrace. Elizabeth watched the baby quietly for a few minutes, poking and prodding every now and then. The baby flashed small smiles here and there, making Elizabeth beam right back.

“She appears to be a perfectly normal, perfectly healthy one-month-old baby,” Elizabeth said with a small shrug. “There could be a couple different explanations for her apparent lethargy. Firstly, she might simply be an easy, content baby. Secondly, Hannah might be beating her to the punch with crying for her needs. If Maddie weren’t a twin, she might be vocal, but has no need to when her sister cries before she gets uncomfortable.

“Thirdly, and I don’t think this is the case, there might be a legitimate medical problem. Visibly, she looks as healthy as any one-month-old baby. She’s not showing any signs that has me concerned that something is wrong, but keep an eye on her. If she’s still showing concerning behaviors in a couple months, we’ll run some metabolic activity tests on her. And obviously bring her in straight away if she develops new symptoms.”

Rose nodded, and reached over to run her fingertip across Maddie’s hand. Maddie flexed her fingers, and Rose let the baby clamp onto her finger.

“Any other problems?” Elizabeth asked.

Rose looked over at James, then back to Elizabeth. “Our six-year-old, Sianin, still doesn’t seem adjusted to the twins. She doesn’t really interact with them, unless her big sister is. She struggles to find nice things to say about them. I want her to bond with the babies, but I don’t want to force them on her if they’re truly making her so upset.”

Elizabeth frowned pensively for a moment. “Is she aggressive with them? Hitting them? Throwing things at them?”

“Oh, God no!” Rose said, horrified. “No, nothing like that. She’s extremely gentle with them, but it’s like she just… tolerates them being in the house rather than accepting that they’re a part of the family.”

Elizabeth relaxed. “Good. That’s good. As much as you might not like to hear it, this is a normal reaction to a child getting a younger sibling. Let alone two younger siblings. Sianin has been the baby of the family her whole life, but that position has now been usurped from her. She doesn’t need to love the twins, she just needs to tolerate them. And it seems like she does. The love will come in its own time, in its own way.”

She rooted around in the file folder on the desk before pulling out a pamphlet. “But if you become truly worried about Sianin, here is an excellent child psychologist service you can take her to. There are several people there who specialize in treating children and family matters. I honestly don’t think there is anything to be concerned about, but it’s ultimately your call. If Sianin’s behavior begins to deteriorate or if you’re concerned she’s going to hurt the twins or if you simply have a gut feeling, make her an appointment. But the best thing you can do it be there for her. Be patient and supportive. Let her help with the babies when she wants to, but don’t chastise her when she doesn’t. And be sure to praise her when she interacts positively with them.”

James took the pamphlet from Elizabeth, skimming the details on the front of it before he tucked it inside the baby bag.

“Well, we’ve discussed the twins and Sianin. How’s your eldest?”

“Ainsley’s great,” James and Rose said together.

“She wants to help all the time,” James said proudly.

“That’s wonderful,” Elizabeth said. “And you? How are you doing, Rose? Any emotional difficulties? You had a bit of trouble after Sianin’s birth, as I recall. And with how long you were trying to conceive, it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed or sad or…”

“No,” Rose interrupted. “No, I feel absolutely fantastic. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Elizabeth smiled warmly. “That’s excellent to hear. And physically? Do you still have postpartum bleeding?”

“Nope, that’s been done for… what, a week?” Rose turned to look at James for confirmation, and he nodded. “Yeah, I feel perfectly normal.”

“As great as that is to hear, remember you might not be fully healed internally yet,” Elizabeth said, “so you need to refrain from sexual intercourse for another couple of weeks.”

Unbidden, James’s cheeks heated at the very frank decree over their sex life, and at the memory of what they’d done together on the couch and in bed a few nights ago. He caught Rose’s gaze out of the corner of his eye and saw her cheeks had pinkened a bit too.

Noticing their somewhat guilty expressions, Elizabeth frowned deeply at them.

“You are abstaining from sex, right?” she asked flatly, pinning them both with a hard stare that made James want to dissolve on the spot. 

“Yeah,” Rose said quickly. “’Course we are. Er. Well. We’re abstaining from, er, intercourse, that is.”

“What activity have you partaken in, exactly?”

“There hasn’t been any penetration,” Rose mumbled. She glanced over at James apologetically. “Not even… fingers. Just a bit of…er, grinding. Rubbing.”

James was actually going to die. His cheeks were hot enough to fry an egg, and he would give anything to be able to teleport home.

Elizabeth’s stern expression relaxed a degree. “That’s acceptable. Birth leaves a raw, gaping wound inside the woman, as you both well enough know, and it’s not good for any external objects that might be carrying bacteria to be introduced. It takes four to eight weeks for that wound to heal.”

“If it’s four, I’m good to go, yeah?” Rose asked.

Elizabeth grinned to herself. “In theory. Since you seem so eager, I’ll schedule an appointment for you to possibly give you the green light to resume your sexual activities as normal.”

Again, James thought he might die of mortification, but a larger part of him was relieved that the end was in sight. He was dying to make love with his wife properly again.

Rose reached over for his hand. Sorry, she mouthed sheepishly.

He smiled and squeezed her fingers.

“I’ve got a slot next Thursday morning,” Elizabeth said. “It isn’t quite six weeks since you gave birth, but…”

“I’ll take it,” she said. “Thanks so much.”

“Right, so that leaves you, James.”

He frowned.

“Any issues on your end?” Elizabeth asked. “Emotionally? Physically? Are you back at work yet?”

“Nope,” he said, shaking his head. “On all counts, no. I feel fantastic. I’m incredibly happy. And I’m fortunate enough to not have to go back to work for another couple of months. Everything’s brilliant.”

“Excellent,” Elizabeth said. “Very excellent. Right. I’ve done everything I need to do. These two little beauties are perfectly healthy and on-track developmentally. Are there any final questions you have for me?”

When James and Rose shook their heads, Elizabeth walked them back to the front office. Elizabeth’s services regarding baby checkups only went out to the first month; after that, they would need to see a pediatrician. The doctor that James and Rose took Ainsley and Sianin to was a sister hospital to the birth center, so it was a very simple matter of sending all of the records to the new hospital, adding to the existing Tyler-McCrimmon file.

With a confirmation of Rose’s six-week exam and the proof of the twins’ records transfer, James and Rose walked back to their car. When the twins were buckled in, Rose said, “I’m sorry that got a little awkward... with Elizabeth asking about our sex life.”

“No worries,” he said, even as he felt the lingering embarrassment. “As awkward as it might have been, it’s an important thing to check with your doctor about. I’d rather be told we need to wait longer to have sex because your body isn’t ready for it, than to go ahead and shag anyway and possibly risk an infection or pain for you.”

“You are probably one of the only blokes on the planet who is so sweet about the six-week post-birth sex wait,” Rose said, skipping up to him to kiss his cheek.

“You really lucked out with me,” he preened.

“Aaaand you’ve ruined the moment,” Rose said, pinching his waist.

He stuck his tongue out, then they slid into the car and he drove them home.

Chapter Text

Even though they only had another week and a half until Rose was potentially cleared for sex again, time seemed to mock them and moved slower than usual.

It wasn’t helping that they felt perfectly normal and were desperate to resume all normal activities with each other. What would begin as a simple chaste kiss would rapidly dissolve into snogging and heavy make-out sessions, leaving them both aching and frustrated for more.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Rose pleaded when James absolutely refused to cheat and partake in actual intercourse.

“You could get an infection that festers and gets worse and worse until you finally have to have all of your lady bits scooped out, which then creates more problems and pain and infection and then you die and I have all this guilt and depression hanging over me for the rest of my long and lonely life.”

He was only partially exaggerating.

Rose rolled her eyes and swatted his chest. “That’s a tad dramatic, don’t you think?”

“Maybe. But please Rose. I don’t want to accidentally hurt you or cause you to get an infection. We can wait another four days.”

“I don’t think I can. I will literally die right here in your arms and it’ll be all your fault. Go ahead and fester in that guilt for the rest of your long and lonely life.”

James chuckled. “Now who’s being dramatic?”

“Certainly not me,” Rose said sweetly. She sighed heavily. “Fine. No actual penetration. But can we keep going as we were before I go and take care of it myself?”

“With pleasure,” James growled, pulling her in for a hard kiss.

While they tried not to combust from sexual frustration—honestly, it was ridiculous how frustrated they were, considering they were getting each other off in other ways—Sianin continued to make very slow progress in adjusting to life with the twins.

James and Rose lowered their expectations, realizing they were wanting Sianin to be as positive about the twins as Ainsley was. Instead, they tried to balance baby-free and baby-busy time with Sianin. They would ask her if it was okay that they were holding a baby when Sianin wanted to cuddle up on the couch and read or watch a movie. They were pleased when she began saying ‘yes’ more than she said ‘no’. And on one memorable occasion that they made sure to document thoroughly, Sianin actually said yes when asked if she wanted to hold a baby.

“You’re doing so well, sweetheart!” Rose praised as she snapped photo after photo of her daughter holding Hannah in her lap. Sianin was tucked in James’s lap as well, and while he had his hands at the ready, Sianin was supporting the brunt of the baby’s weight.

Sianin beamed proudly at her parents, then down at Hannah. She took one of her hands away from where it was wrapped around the baby’s lower half and poked Hannah’s fat cheek.

“Squishy,” Sianin said, grinning. “Squishy, squishy, squishy.”

James stifled his laughter and in turn poked one of Sianin’s cheeks, making her giggle.

“You’re squishy too,” he said. “Not as squishy, though.”

Sianin prodded Hannah’s other cheek, and just when she pressed down, Hannah’s cheeks lifted with her mouth as she smiled at them all.

“Oh!” Rose gasped. “Look!”

“She’s smiling!” Sianin said. 

“You made your baby sister smile for the first time,” James said warmly.

“She’s cuter when she smiles,” Sianin said, tracing her fingertip along Hannah’s upper and lower lips. The baby squirmed and smiled again.

James, beaming with pride, looked up at Rose and saw tears brimming in her eyes as she grinned at her family. James pecked a kiss to Sianin’s hair.

“Ooh, is she smiling?” Ainsley rushed over to them and plopped onto the couch beside James.

“Yep! I made her smile first,” Sianin said smugly.

“Cool! Can I hold her?”

“When your sister’s done,” James said.

“I think I’m done. My arms are starting to hurt,” Sianin admitted.

“Yeah, that happens,” James reassured. “Even my arms get tired if I hold them for too long.”

After snapping one more photo of her family, Rose set her camera to the side and helped make the baby transfer from Sianin to Ainsley.

That moment seemed to be a turning point for Sianin, albeit a small one. She still craved individual attention from her parents, but as long as the twins were being quiet and smiley, she would play with them if someone else was playing with them. She had yet to seek them out on her own, but James and Rose considered it progress that she at least was joining in.

Her nighttime wanderings in and out of their bed declined as time went on. While she found her way into their room most nights, she didn’t stay as long as she used to; very rarely did she sleep with them for the entire night. Her problem of wetting the bed seemed to be all but non-existent too. They were pleased that their child finally seemed to be moving in a positive direction.

Despite the night she’d crawled into bed with them, Ainsley seemed to be perfectly content with their new additions to the family. She frequently helped with the babies, and was happy to hold one of them as often as she could, and she delighted in doing anything she could to make Maddie and now Hannah smile.

“You really love being a big sister, don’t you?” Rose asked, a little awed by how wonderful Ainsley was with the babies. She and her eldest were curled up on the couch, each of them cradling a baby, while James put Sianin to bed.

“Of course,” Ainsley said. “What’s not to love about it?”

“Well, lots of things. Just look at Sianin.”

Ainsley wrinkled her nose. “Sianin needs to get over herself.”

“Ainsley,” Rose warned, glad that Sianin wasn’t around to hear her big sister say that.

Her cheeks pinkened, and she muttered, “Sorry. But still. She’s being such a baby about it. Why can’t she see how amazing Hannah and Maddie are?”

“She was the baby of the family for nearly six years,” Rose countered. “And the presence of two newborns has made me and your dad divide our attention between four kids instead of two. And your attention on her has lessened as well.”

Ainsley looked startled. 

“Sianin adores you, Ains,” Rose said.

“I adore her, too,” Ainsley said. “But now I also adore Hannah and Maddie.”

“Well, it might seem to her like you don’t love her as much now,” Rose said with a small shrug.

“That’s ridiculous,” Ainsley argued.

“That’s a six-year-old’s logic,” Rose said simply.

Ainsley went silent and leaned down to press a kiss to Hannah’s scalp. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Rose said.

“Why’d you and Dad wait so long to have more babies? Surely Sianin wouldn’t be having as much trouble if she were younger when a new baby arrived?”

An ache crumpled Rose’s chest, but she forced it away. “We didn’t intend to. But sometimes a baby takes a while to make.”

“Oh. So… you and Dad were trying for a long time?”

“You were…” Rose pressed her tongue against the backs of her teeth as she counted back. “...four or five, I think, when your father and I decided we were ready for another baby.”

Ainsley looked stunned. “Why’d it take so long? That’s four years! And you and Dad… well…” Her cheeks turned scarlet before she blurted, “You have sex a lot! So why’d it take so long?”

Rose couldn’t help but laugh to dispel her embarrassment and lingering hurt of precisely how long it had taken to get pregnant. If only it had happened sooner, maybe Sianin wouldn’t be struggling as much…

She resolutely blocked out that thought. There was nothing she could do about it now.

“I don’t know,” Rose said quietly, reaching over to smooth Ainsley’s hair behind her ear, then to stroke the back of Hannah’s hand. “The important thing is that it happened, and your dad and I were blessed with two healthy baby girls.”

Ainsley nodded and when Hannah made a whimpering grunting noise, Ainsley kissed her temple and bounced the baby gently. Rose thought her heart might beat out of her chest with how much love she felt for her children. To channel some of it, she hugged Maddie tightly and pecked a line of kisses across the sleeping baby’s scalp. Maddie’s fists flailed, then settled, clenching Rose’s jumper tightly in her fat little fingers.

When Rose returned her attention to Ainsley, she saw the thoughts churning away in her eldest daughter’s mind and patiently waited for Ainsley to speak. It took nearly a full minute, but Ainsley finally whispered, “Did it upset you and Dad that it took four years?”

“Yes,” Rose answered honestly and simply.

Ainsley nodded to herself. “So that’s why…”

Rose’s breath caught in her throat. “That’s why what?”

“I thought something was wrong,” Ainsley said more to herself than to her mother. She glanced up at Rose. “You and Dad were a bit sad. And then you weren’t anymore.”

Rose’s mouth was dry. She and James had tried so hard to keep their disappointment contained. It had worked all too well, considering they unintentionally broke each other’s heart. But she’d thought they’d hidden it from their children. She’d always known Ainsley was a perceptive child, but didn’t realize just how sensitive her daughter was until now.

“I… I’m sorry you picked up on that,” Rose murmured.

“But that was still a while before you got pregnant,” Ainsley said, a question in her eyes.

“Your dad and I realized we were focusing on what we didn’t have rather than what we did have,” Rose said.

Ainsley rested her head in the crook of Rose’s shoulder, beside where Maddie’s head lay. Ainsley kissed her mother’s neck, then Maddie’s head. “I’m glad you got pregnant.”

Rose pressed a kiss to her eldest’s hair. “Me too.”

“Do you and Dad want any more kids?” Ainsley asked.

“Not sure,” Rose admitted. “It’s something your dad and I will discuss in the future.”

“So you’re definitely not trying right now.” The sentence was more of a statement than a question.

“Well, we can’t quite be, erm, intimate right now,” Rose said, her cheeks heating.

Ainsley started and looked up at Rose. “Really? Why?”

“Giving birth is sort of a complicated process for a woman’s body,” Rose explained. “It’s not good for a woman to have sex for about six or so weeks after giving birth.”

“Oh… but… I’ve heard…” Ainsley trailed off a little awkwardly, then cleared her throat. “Or is it… just Dad?”

“Just Dad what?”

Rose jumped at James’s voice directly behind them. Ainsley said nothing, so Rose responded, “We’re just having a bit of girl talk.”

“Oh, then by all means, don’t let me interrupt,” he said, moving into the kitchen.

When the tap started running as he began the dishes, Ainsley said, “So…?”

Rose groaned to herself, hoping Ainsley would have dropped the subject. After considering for a few seconds, Rose said, “There are certain things we can do together that isn’t full-on sex.”

“Oh. Really?”

“Mhm,” Rose said vaguely. “One day, when you decide you’d like to be intimate with someone, we can further discuss this subject, yeah?”

Ainsley wisely recognized the closing of the conversation, and she rested her head into the crook of Rose’s neck.

oOoOo

Finally, the morning of Rose’s six-week check-up arrived, leaving them giddy and excited.

“I swear, if she says I’m not ready to have sex, I’m going to break down and cry right there on the exam table,” Rose said after she ushered their two eldest children towards the car.

“I might break down and cry too,” James said. He pecked a swift kiss to her mouth. “Good luck. Drive safe. Let me know the verdict. I’ll see you when you get home.”

While Rose dropped their two oldest children off at school, he bundled up their two youngest children in their car seats and drove the short distance to his father’s house.

“You two are going to spend the morning with Grandad!” James cooed. “‘Cos Mummy and Daddy want some private alone time, and you babies have a knack for wanting something at the most inconvenient time. That’s not a slight against you girls; babies and children everywhere have no concept of timing. But today, Mummy and Daddy want to spend a long period of uninterrupted time together, you see. Well, you won’t see, which is the point.

“Grandad is very excited to see you,” James continued, drumming his thumbs absently on the wheel. “He loves you so so much. You girls are so loved by everyone. Aren’t you lucky, to have so many people who love you?”

He pulled into the driveway of his dad’s house and continued talking nonsense at his babies as he unbuckled their tiny bodies from their seats.

“Hey, mate!”

James turned his head towards his father’s voice and gave a small nod in greeting, as his hands were full with Hannah.

“Here we go,” James whispered, transferring his baby to his dad. “Grandad’s got you.”

He then turned and took Maddie out of her seat. He followed his dad inside.

“I’ve opened up the windows. I thought the fresh air was nice.” James hummed in agreement; he’d always loved the smell of fresh spring air. “But if they get too cold, I’ve got extra clothes for them. Grandad’s got you beautiful girls covered, eh? Grandad’s gonna take such good care of you while Mummy and Daddy are away. He won’t let those precious handsies or feetsies get cold, no he won’t.”

James smiled as his dad babbled at his babies.

“Right, I’ll be off,” James announced, and he leaned down to press a feather-light kiss to his babies’ foreheads. “You’ll be the sweetest of angels for your grandad, won’t you, my precious darlings?”

He cooed down at both babies until they each smiled at him, making him beam in return.

“Oh! Hannah’s smiling too?” Robert gasped. “What a clever, clever girl!”

“Yeah, she just started the other day,” James said, unable to resist leaning in for another kiss. “Are you all set here? Rose and I will have our phones. Call us if you need us.”

“We’ll be fine,” Robert assured. “Go on. Have fun!”

While he hadn’t told his dad why he and Rose wanted a babysitter for the day, James’s ears burned a little.

“Yep. See you later,” he said. He blew a kiss to his girls then left his father’s house and drove home.

Rose wouldn’t be home for at least another hour yet, so James busied himself by cleaning the house. No matter how often they vacuumed, their carpet was always covered in crumbs. When everything was vacuumed, he washed the kitchen floor, which was always sticky. He thought about cleaning the bathrooms, but didn’t particularly want to smell like bleach when Rose got home.

Instead, he pulled a page from his dad’s book and flung open all of the windows, letting the fresh air into the house. Throughout the month of March, the weather had been unseasonably chilly and damp. It seemed like it was finally turning around though—today was the first day Ainsley and Sianin hadn’t needed to wear their thick winter coats to school.

James then moved to the kitchen and rooted through the fridge for a snack while also wondering what they could make for dinner later. As he munched on an apple, he began marinating chicken with teriyaki and soy sauce.

As he chucked the core into the trash, a smudge of blue on his wrist caught his eye.

The lady bits are fully healed! Our shag session is officially on!

James chuckled and wiped his sticky hands before replying. “Woohoo! The twins are spending the day with my dad, which means we have the house to ourselves.”

Excellent. Y’know, I always read about those couples who scheduled shagging sessions and I thought it was ridiculous. Yet here we are.

“With four kids, I imagine we’ll have to set up a schedule,” he joked.

Just as long as we still have some moments of spontaneity sprinkled in there.

Oh, I nearly forgot! I may or may not have picked up a surprise for you while I was out the other day… 

“Oh?” he asked, his throat going dry.

Mhm. You can see it when I get home. Which will be in about twenty minutes. I’m in the car now. See you soon xoxo.

James’s imagination started going into overdrive as he wondered what she might have for him. Well, he knew what she probably had for him—there was only one thing it ever was when she said she had a surprise for him during the type of conversation they were currently having. Lingerie. But the specifics were a mystery to him. Shape, style, color, fit… 

The beginnings of desire coiled in his belly as he waited impatiently for Rose to get home. To keep his mind occupied so he wouldn’t lose himself to his fantasies and thus be far too worked up when Rose arrived, James re-alphabetized their books and movies. They were already more or less organized, but the girls—particularly Sianin—didn’t quite take proper care to put the films and books back exactly how they’d been before.

He’d finished the bookshelf and was contemplating re-ordering everything by a different parameter when he heard the sound of an engine cutting off outside their house. He glanced out the front window and saw Rose getting out of her car. He sprang to his feet and moved to greet her at the door, not caring if he was acting like an over-excited dog.

“Hi!” he said with a grin when the door swung open.

“Hiya. Ooh, smells like spring.”

“I opened up the windows,” James said. “It’s a beautiful day out. First we’ve seen the sun in a while, eh?”

“D’you really want to talk about the weather?” Rose asked, cocking her head at him.

“Well, what else is there to talk about?” James asked, nonchalantly stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“Hmm, you’re right,” Rose said with a wink, and she turned away from him to set her keys in the dish and toe off her shoes by the door. “Though I suppose we could talk about what to have for dinner.”

“I’ve got some chicken marinating in the fridge,” he answered with a shrug.

“Pity. I guess we’ll just sit in silence for the rest of the day?”

“Or we could discuss… dessert.”

James finally stepped forward and into Rose’s personal space. She sucked in a sharp breath and tilted her head back to look up at him.

“And what would you want for dessert?” she breathed, her pupils dilating.

“Something soft.” He braced his hands on her hips, gripping them tightly to keep his hands from ducking under her jumper. “Something sweet.” He leaned in until they were nose to nose and their breaths mingled in the same space. “Something sinful.”

Rose let out a small noise that nearly broke his resolve. But he kept his hands at her waist and his lips a millimeter away from hers, basking in the growing tension.

“S-so a chocolate cake?”

James laughed, but the sound died in his throat as Rose reached up and fisted her hands in his shirt before closing the distance between them. Their teeth clacked together as their mouths met in a hard, wet kiss that made his knees go weak.

“Cheeky bastard,” she growled against his mouth.

“You love it.”

“Cocky bastard,” she amended.

“Emphasis on the cock,” he purred.

“Keep that up and I won’t show you what I got for you,” she said, though there was no bite in her tone. It was hard to make threats when breathless.

“Oh, I’m sure I could convince you otherwise.” James moved his hands to her bum and he shifted slightly until one of his legs was between hers. He pulled her closer, pressing his hip and thigh tightly against her. She let out a choked moan, her fingers tightening in his shirt. “I can be very persuasive.”

He rocked his hips torturously slowly, even as his growing erection begged for harder, faster contact. But his own denial was well worth the pitiful whimpers coming from Rose. His movements were deliberate as he guided her into a slow grind against his thigh, keeping a vice grip on her arse and hips to keep the pace steady.

“James,” she breathed.

He didn’t reply. Instead, he leaned down to plant feather-light kisses across her neck. She shuddered in his arms; goosebumps prickled across her skin, and he laved his tongue across a patch of them at her neck.

“Please,” she groaned, arching her hips against him. He scooted back a few inches to compensate. “Goddammit, James!”

“Still wanting to keep my surprise to yourself?” he asked.

“Since you’re being a twat, yes,” she grumbled.

He snorted. “Let’s compromise, shall we?”

He slipped his hands under the waistband of her jeans and knickers to cup her arse in his palms. Her knickers felt soft and delicate against the back of his hand. He tried to ignore the impulse to touch them directly to get a better idea what they were made of and how they contoured to her body. Instead, he held her arse firmly and guided her hips into a grind that was still slow, but gave direct pressure where she wanted it.

She let out a strangled noise from deep in her throat as she worked with his rhythm. He felt himself hardening further in his pants the longer Rose worked herself against him. Just before he was about to sneak a hand out of her jeans to adjust himself, Rose’s trembling fingers moved to the front of his trousers. She unbuttoned the front and carefully pulled the zipper down, which provided him instant relief.

“Thanks,” he whispered into her neck.

“Can’t have my favorite part of you getting all pinched and damaged,” she drawled.

“Pfft. Now, I said this was a compromise. I’ve done something for you…”

“And I did something for you,” she countered, reaching into the front of his jeans but not his boxers to angle his cock upwards so it could throb to full hardness, unimpeded.

“So I suppose we’re at a stalemate?” he mused, even as he ached to press his erection into her hand.

Rose made a noise of agreement. “Guess we’ll stand here like this forever.”

“Hmm, I think my dad might have a thing or two to say about that when he drops the babies off this afternoon.”

“Damn. We’ll just have to get on with it then,” she lamented.

“You make it sound like such a chore,” he said with a pout.

“It’s a bunch of work, keeping my husband satisfied.”

James rolled his eyes even though she couldn’t see. “But worth it.”

He moved his hand suddenly around to the front of her knickers so that when she rocked her hips, he replaced the solid length of his thigh with his fingers. She cried out half in surprise and half in pleasure when he allowed his middle finger to glide through her slippery wetness.

“James,” she gasped.

“Hmm?”

“I’m already close,” she admitted.

“Perfect,” he said into her ear.

He’d nearly forgotten he was teasing her neck, but when he felt her shiver, he licked a line down her neck as far as he could without getting a mouthful of her fuzzy jumper. As his fingers worked at her clit, his teeth nipped and scraped her neck. He wasn’t quite able to reach the sensitive patch where her neck joined her shoulder, not without moving the collar of her jumper, but both hands were busy and he didn’t want to move them.

So he made do, kissing and licking and biting at her skin while one hand kneaded her arse and the other stimulated her swollen clit.

“James!” she whined urgently.

“Come for me,” he growled, scraping his teeth across her neck as his finger circled faster and faster.

She groaned and trembled in his arms, her hips working clumsily against his hand. A few seconds later, she stiffened against him and arched her neck as a high moan escaped her throat. He kissed the column of her neck as her clit pulsed rhythmically against his fingertips.

His cock was throbbing with need, and it took every ounce of restrained to not rut against her hip and join her in her pleasure.

Rose slumped bonelessly into his chest, panting for breath as he skimmed his fingers around the outer ridge of her clit. She hummed appreciatively and tucked her face into his shoulder.

“Surely that’s worth me seeing your surprise,” he said, his voice gravelly. 

Rose giggled into his shirt and moved her face to peer up at him. Her cheeks and neck were flushed. She leaned away from him just far enough to lift the hem of her jumper up her body and over her head. She chucked the fabric to the floor, leaving her naked from the waist up except for a lacy midnight blue bra. If he could even call it a bra. The cups only went half-way up her breasts, barely covering her nipples. The band beneath her breasts looked incredibly sturdy, though, giving her the support she needed while also managing to look sexy.

“You’re beautiful,” he croaked. He reached out and skated his fingertips across the tops of her breasts, then between the valley of them. He took grab care not to touch them too directly, lest he want to get sprayed with milk.

“D’you like it?”

“I love it,” he said, his eyes raking across her body. “You’re beautiful.”

She beamed at him. “My tummy’s still very flabby. But y’know what? It did an amazing job at growing two little babies, so who gives a fuck?”

James chuckled and he stepped up to her. He ran his fingertips up and down her belly. Though nearly six weeks had passed since she’d given birth, her stomach remained a bit rounded and saggy and was striped with deep red stretch marks. “It did an incredible job. In all, it made four beautiful little babies. I love your clever, flabby tummy.”

“Git,” she said warmly, pinching him.

“Your git,” he said. “So does it come with bottoms, or are you naked under those jeans?”

“Eager to see more?” Rose crooned.

“Absolutely. Or do I need to give you another orgasm before you remove your trousers?”

“Now there’s an idea,” Rose said. “Like strip poker… but with orgasms. But alas, I really want to feel more of you and these jeans are getting in the way.”

“Let’s move to the bedroom,” James suggested, pressing a kiss to her shoulder before stepping back.

He winced when his erection rubbed against his pants as he walked, but soon they were in the comfort of their room and made quick work of getting naked. He spared a moment of appreciation for her knickers before he tugged them off of her and threw them to the floor. Her bra stayed on, both because it made her breasts look fantastic and as a reminder for him not to touch them.

He laid her back on their bed and kissed his way across every inch of her body, even up and down her arms and legs to her fingers and toes, making her squirm and laugh. He eventually settled between her thighs where he lavished attention to her swollen clit, licking and sucking and rubbing every aching, needing part of her.

When he went to slip his fingers into her and finish her off, she reached down and grabbed his wrist.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, peering up at her.

“Nothing. I want you in me, is all. Not your fingers. You. Please?”

He could never refuse her. With a parting kiss to her clit that made her whimper and shudder, he crawled up her body and settled his erection against her curls. He ground their lower halves together lazily while she fumbled to open a condom foil.

They got him sheathed and lubed in record time, then he slid slowly into her. Her muscles clenched him tightly, choking a moan out of him. He trembled above her as he kept himself still. He leaned down and caught her lips in a frantic kiss, their lips and tongues tugging and pulling and pushing.

“You can move,” she panted against his mouth. “Slowly.”

He nodded and squeezed his eyes shut as he kept kissing her, then he carefully retracted his hips before easing himself back into her. He did this a dozen times before her nails bit into his shoulders and she hiked her legs higher up his back, allowing him to slip in deeper.

“God,” he gritted out, arching his hips hard against her on his next inward thrust.

She let out a squeaking cry, hugging him tighter when he did it again.

“Good, so good,” she babbled. “James, move.”

“Yes ma’am,” he panted, finally picking up the pace. It felt so good to make love with his wife again like this. They’d had to suspend the missionary position when her stomach grew too big, but now he relished being able to lay atop her with her arms and legs clamped around him. She held him tight, cradling his entire body into her own. The love and security he felt made his stomach swoop and clench in warning. “Not gonna last, love. S-sorry.”

“S’okay. Me either. Just keep moving like that and don’t you dare stop,” she ordered, lifting her hips into his to meet his rhythm. “Don’t stop, James. Don’t stop. Love you, love this, love you.”

Her speech dissolved into mindless chatter as she spurred him on. She was doing too good of a job, though, because sooner than he would have liked, the building pressure in his gut plummeted and burst outward.

He barely managed to grunt out a garbled warning before he arched his hips, seating himself as deeply as he could go as his release shattered through him. Pleasure prickled across his skin as he gasped and moaned his way through wordless syllables.

“That’s it,” she groaned, “that’s it, right there right there right there…”

Her hand moved from his shoulder to the place where they were joined, rubbing herself to completion a few seconds later. Her back bowed off the bed as she cried out a mixture of curses and his name. She wrapped a hand around the nape of his neck, clumsily guiding him in for a kiss that ended up being their cheeks pressed together.

James kept his hips moving for her, drawing out her pleasure as well as his own. He panted raggedly, his heart racing, his vision spotty, and his brain unable to comprehend anything except the rush of endorphins and love coursing through his body.

When the pulsing of her muscles around his cock ceased, he settled his weight on top of her. He kept his upper body supported with his forearms, not wanting to smash her breasts, but he let his lower body press against hers fully.

“Oh, James,” she sighed, humming out a breath.

“That was incredible,” he whispered, peppering kisses across her neck and jaw. “So incredible.”

“Can we do it again?” she asked, her words slightly slurred in her post-orgasmic bliss.

“In a little bit,” he promised. He pecked a kiss to her lips then said, “Gonna dispose of the condom.”

She whined in protest when he drew back, slipping out of her in the process. He took the condom off of his softening cock, knotted the top, and dropped it blindly beside the bed. He heard it thwack into the rubbish bin.

“Nice shot,” Rose said, turning on her side to face him.

She opened her arms for him, and he immediately nestled in for a hug. He slipped a leg between hers, pulling her flush against him. His fingers painted long lines up and down her spine as he buried his face in the crook of her shoulder.

“What do you want for your birthday?” James whispered.

“Another orgasm like that.”

He giggled into her skin, and pressed a kiss to her neck. “I can do that. But materially? What do you want?”

“I’ve got everything I want,” Rose said.

“Ro-ooose,” he whined.

“Ja-aaames,” she parroted.

“You’re so unhelpful,” he grumbled.

“You know what I like,” Rose said with a shrug. “But you don’t need to buy anything. Spending time with you and the kids is gift enough.”

“Would’ve thought scheduling a sleepover for the kids would’ve been a better gift,” James teased.

“Or that,” Rose said. “I love the kids, but it’s nice to get a break from them.”

“Tell you what. I’ll see if Ainsley and Sianin can have a sleepover with one of their friends, and if Dad can take the twins. You and I can have a quiet night in for your birthday.”

“Sounds good,” Rose said. “Now, if you’re done blabbering, someone promised me another fantastic shag today.”

“I never said it’d be fantastic,” he said. “You’ve set the bar way too high now. What if it’s rubbish?”

“Oh, shut up. You’ve never been a rubbish shag,” Rose said, halfheartedly swatting his bum.

“Now you’ve jinxed it,” he whined, even as a grin was threatening to split his face in two.

“Fine. If it’s rubbish, you’ll have to redo it and shag me a third time to try to redeem yourself,” Rose drawled, tracing random patterns across his arse. “Sound like a plan?”

“Sounds like a plan,” he agreed, catching her lips in a kiss.

Their second round of lovemaking was not, in fact, rubbish. However, they partook in a third round, just in case.

oOoOo

James spent the next few days coordinating sleepovers for his children. Ainsley was the easiest—she would be staying with her best friend, William. It was common for her and William to spend nights at each other’s house, even during the week.

The twins were the next easiest—his father was more than happy to keep the babies overnight.

But for Sianin… Either the parents of her friends had plans for the night of the twenty-seventh of April, or they didn’t permit their children to have sleepovers on a school night.

James had nearly resigned himself to the fact that he would either see if his father would mind keeping Sianin as well as the twins, or that Sianin would be spending the night with him and Rose. It wouldn’t change his plans too much—apart from the fantastic birthday sex he’d promised Rose—but he had hoped to get a night alone with Rose. They hadn’t had one since the twins were born.

Miraculously though, one of William’s mothers offered to host Sianin as well.

“It’s no trouble at all,” she told James. “William gets along well with her, too. And she’s about the same age as our other boy; they can entertain each other. I know my wife won’t mind keeping Sianin, too.”

James profusely thanked her over the days leading up to Rose’s birthday night, and again that evening when William’s mother texted him saying that all the kids were picked up and they were going out for pizza.

“And remember, if Sianin wants to come home at any point during the night, please call us. I’ll be by to collect her and bring her home, no matter the hour.” James had warned William’s mothers that Sianin had been struggling lately, and that she frequently found her way into their room at night. While she claimed to be really excited for the sleepover, he didn’t know whether her excitement would last all night long.

Nevertheless, with all of their children gone from the house, James and Rose settled in for an evening of relaxation and birthday celebration. They’d had to take a rain check on Rose’s gift of birthday sex thanks to the arrival of her period, but regardless, they enjoyed a date night at home without the distraction or interruption of kids.

James made dinner and dessert, and they enjoyed a small glass of wine apiece before switching to sparkling water. After dessert, James presented Rose with a wrapped package. In it was a brand-new silk kimono in a shade of indigo so dark it was nearly black, but was iridescently purple when it caught the light just right.

“Oh, this is gorgeous,” Rose breathed, and a prickle of pride swelled through him.

“There’s more,” he said, reaching out to rub the soft, sleek fabric between his fingers.

Rose pawed through the bottom of the box and found an assortment of all of her favorite soaps, lotions, and oils, as well as a packet of homemade coupons for things like “please let me have an hour away from the kids” and “free body massage from your favorite masseur (your husband!)”.

“You trying to tell me something?” Rose drawled when she took a look at the anti-wrinkle face mask.

James rolled his eyes. “Shut up. You already use these. And you know I know that you use them.”

Rose pecked a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you very much for my at-home spa treatments. Can I cash in this foot massage tonight?”

“Absolutely. I won’t even charge you a coupon since it’s your birthday.”

“How generous of you. Let me wee first and get set up with the pump, then you can start.”

“So needy.”

While waiting for Rose to return, he loaded and started the dishwasher, then began rooting through her box of lotions and oils. He selected a few options for her and opened them up to sniff as he waited.

“Ready!” Rose chimed, skipping down the hall with the milk pump in hand. She stripped off her top and plopped down on the sofa, wiggling her toes at him.

“What scent?” he asked, moving to the floor.

“Surprise me,” she said. “And get back up here. You don’t need to kneel; you’ll kill your knees.”

She pivoted on the couch so her back was up against one of the armrests, and she gestured to the opposite side. He settled himself on the couch opposite her and spread a towel under her feet to contain any dripping oil. He rolled her trouser legs up her calves then poured a bit of oil into his palm and began his massage.

“Mmm. Jasmine?”

“Yep,” he said, working the oil into the bottoms of her feet. “Lie back and relax.”

She did, closing her eyes and letting him pamper her. She looked a little ridiculous, sitting topless on their couch with a breast pump attached to herself, but his heart did a somersault in his chest and he fell in love with her all over again.

He massaged her feet until she was finished pumping. He then took the bagged milk, scribbled the date on the front, and put them in the fridge. When he returned to the living room, Rose had her bra back on but not her shirt.

“Can we do a topless cuddle?” she asked sheepishly.

“Of course. Always. Are you all right?” Rose usually asked for naked cuddles after they’d had sex, or when she was feeling low and wanted a deeper connection with him. He hoped she wasn’t feeling sad.

“With the house empty, I want to take advantage of naked time,” she explained. “And with summer just ‘round the corner, I want to take advantage of cuddle time before we’re too hot and sweaty to want to touch each other.”

“Unless I’ve made you hot and sweaty for an entirely different reason,” he replied, winking.

She rolled her eyes. “Get over here.”

James grinned and tugged his jumper over his head. He sat beside her, sighing at the press of skin.

“It’s silly, but I miss the girls,” Rose murmured, mindlessly stroking her fingers around his belly button. “The house is too quiet.”

“Well, if you’d like, I can start shouting at the top of my lungs about how I made a really big poo today,” he answered.

Rose snorted and pinched his stomach. “Parenthood is so weird, isn’t it? When the girls are at home, I wish I could get time away from them. And when they’re gone, I wish they were here.”

“I feel the same,” he said. “But I am very, very grateful to get some one-on-one time with you.”

“Do you ever wonder about married life if we weren’t soulmates?” Rose asked.

“What d’you mean?”

“Like… let’s say we weren’t soulmates, and we grew up apart and met other people and got married and had kids. Do you think we’d be as happy with that spouse as we are with each other?”

James was silent for a moment. He couldn’t imagine being married to anybody but Rose. He couldn’t imagine any other children than Ainsley, Sianin, Hannah, and Maddie. When he tried to conjure up an alternate-reality wife, she ended up looking, sounding, and acting like Rose again.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I would like to think so. I hope that I would have married someone who makes me deliriously happy every day, who wasn’t only my spouse, but also my best friend. But it’s hard to think about. You’re my literal soulmate. You accept me with all of my faults and flaws; you make me want to be the very best version of myself that I can be, because you deserve the absolute best out of a life partner.”

Rose snuggled deeper into his embrace, and pressed a kiss to the hollow of his throat.

“Your turn,” he prodded. “Do you envision your alternate self with a sexy hunk of a man that makes you the happiest you’ve ever been?”

“I’ve already got that,” she said, giving him a squeeze.

His heart soared with happiness. “And you say I’m a smooth talker. Look at you and your sleek, silky words.”

Rose giggled. “I’ve got another hypothetical: let’s say we weren’t soulmates, yet we somehow managed to find each other and get married and whatnot. Do you think our relationship would be what it is now?”

“Ooh. Hmm…” James absently rubbed the tip of his nose from side to side through her hair. “I think it would be fairly similar. Though maybe with more moments of shoddy communication than we already sometimes have. We’ve been working on communication since we were kids, and we still occasionally mess up. And since we’ve known each other for so long, we basically know everything about each other, which makes the trust we have much deeper than if there were things that were a mystery about us.”

“Yeah. That’s what I think, too,” Rose said.

“Where is all of this philosophizing coming from tonight?”

“Oh, just thinking. Our life is incredible, and it’s amazing that we’re sitting here right now surrounded by the life we have. For example, literally none of this would exist as it is if ten years ago, we decided we weren’t quite ready to become parents yet. We might have four kids by now, but they wouldn’t be the kids we currently have. They might’ve been all boys. We might not live in this exact house. We might’ve moved up to Scotland the moment we got pregnant the first time. Or the second. We probably wouldn’t have twins. It’s so incredible that the stars aligned so many different times to give us the life we have.”

“That’s deep,” James said, even as a lump built in his throat. He periodically found himself thinking about the utter miracle that was his family. “You sound like me. I’ve been rubbing off on you too much.”

“I love all the ways you rub off on me,” she said, her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth as she grinned. “I guess I’m feeling a little pensive tonight. A good kind of pensive. I’m appreciating all of the wonderful things in my life and loving that I get to experience it all with you.”

James took her chin gently between his thumb and forefinger, tilting her face up. He nuzzled his nose against hers for a moment before pressing a series of long, soft kisses to her mouth.

“I’m very glad we’re soulmates,” she murmured between kisses.

“Me too, my love. Me too.”

Chapter Text

“My tummy hurts,” Sianin whined over breakfast one morning in mid-May. She pushed her fried egg around her plate with her fork, pulverizing it with the tines and resulting in a goopy yellow mess.

“Where does your tummy hurt?” James asked, reaching over to dip his toast into the broken yolk.

She circled her hand vaguely in front of her stomach. Very helpful, he thought with a sigh.

“Do you feel like you might throw up?” James asked. She shook her head. “Do you need to poo?”

Again, she shook her head. He pressed the backs of his fingers to her forehead. She wasn’t warm, but her lack of appetite indicated she wasn’t faking it.

“Do you think you can make it through school?” he asked, standing to take her plate.

“I guess,” Sianin said. 

“If you’re really feeling poorly, go to the infirmary and we’ll pick you up.”

“Who’s feeling poorly?” Rose stepped into the kitchen, a twin in each crook of her arms. James stepped forward to take one from his wife, allowing Rose a free hand.

“My tummy hurts,” Sianin said.

“She doesn’t feel warm,” James said, absently bouncing the baby he was holding. “But she didn’t eat much of her breakfast.”

After a brief examination, Rose agreed with James’s conclusion for Sianin to attempt the school day. She and James hovered near their phones though, waiting for a call from the school telling them to come get Sianin. But no such call came. However, when James went to pick the kids up from school, it was clear that Sianin still wasn’t feeling well. 

He found his daughters on a bench, Sianin half-bent over and hugging her middle while Ainsley rubbed her back.

“Tummy still hurting?” he asked, crouching in front of her. She nodded. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Let’s go home; I’ll give you something to help your tummy.”

He watched Sianin carefully as she walked to the car; her steps were slow and shuffling, and there was a slight hunch to her shoulders, as though she couldn’t bring herself to stand up straight.

When he helped her into her car seat, she grabbed his hands and said, “Daddy, don’t strap me in too tight.”

“All right,” he said. He kept the buckles as loose as was safe. He kissed her forehead, testing her temperature and giving her comfort at the same time. Her skin felt a little warm. “Love you, Sian.”

Sianin was quiet for the drive home, not contributing to the conversation and only giving a brief account of her day. Her silence unnerved him, and his heart broke for his daughter.

When he got home, Rose ambushed Sianin at the front door, asking about how she was feeling and how her stomach was all day. She answered her mother’s questions succinctly, then went right over to the couch and laid down.

Ainsley followed her sister and crouched by her head, talking softly. A moment later, Ainsley patted Sianin’s cheek then went down the hall.

“I’m going to get paracetamol,” James announced to no one in particular.

Rose followed him to their room. “What do you think it is?”

“Not sure,” he admitted, hating the answer. He couldn’t help Sianin if he didn’t know what was ailing her. “I think she’s starting a slight fever though. Hopefully that will help burn off whatever bug she’s got.”

“Could it be constipation?” Rose asked.

“I don’t know.” He found the liquid paracetamol and went back to Sianin. She was standing beside the couch with her jeans off. Ainsley was handing her a pair of stretchy cotton trousers to slip on instead.

“I’ve got medicine for you, darling,” James said, shaking the bottle. “Take a bit of this, then you can lie down again.”

Sianin dutifully swallowed the dose James gave her, flushing it down with a glass of water Rose handed to her.

“Are you hungry?” Rose asked, brushing Sianin’s hair out of her eyes.

“No.”

“Did you eat any lunch?”

“A little.”

“Do you think you can try a bit of soup if Mummy makes some?”

Sianin shrugged.

“Well, it will take a little bit to make it,” Rose said. “We’ll see how you feel when it’s ready. Just rest, love.”

“Want Daddy to sit with you?” James asked. When she nodded, he slid onto the couch beside her. Instead of laying down, she curled up against him with her head on his chest and her knees pulled up. He absently stroked her hair, hating that she was sick. “Are you sure you don’t need a poo?”

“No, that hurts.”

“What do you mean, ‘that hurts’?” he asked, alarmed.

“When I try to push… it makes my tummy hurt worse.”

“Have you gone poo today?” he asked.

“A little bit,” she answered. “I don’t wanna talk anymore. I wanna sleep.”

“Okay, darling. You can sleep.”

The evening passed quietly, with Sianin dozing against James’s chest for most of it. She swallowed down a few bites of broth when it was done, but she eventually pushed it away, saying she didn’t want any more.

Her fever gradually built, and by the time James and Rose put her to bed, her face was burning up. They wanted to keep Sianin in bed with them, but she resolutely refused—the irony of her not wanting to share their bed after months of co-sleeping was not lost on them.

“I don’t wanna hear the babies all night,” Sianin said.

They couldn’t exactly argue with that. So they tucked her into her bed after giving her another dose of medicine, both to help her fever and to help her sleep.

“Please come to me and Mummy tonight if you need to. If you throw up or start feeling worse. Promise me, Sian.”

“I promise,” she mumbled, tugging her blankets up to her neck.

James didn’t sleep well that night. He awoke at the smallest of sounds, sure it was Sianin coming to get him and Rose. And any sleep he did manage to find was interrupted by dreams that he was awake and fretting over Sianin.

The twins woke up twice during the night, and after tending to their babies, James and Rose peeked into Sianin’s room to check on her. She was asleep each time they looked, but she was always in a different position.

“I think we’ll need to take her to the doctor,” Rose said when they curled up in bed together at nearly four in the morning. “She’s getting worse.”

“I know,” he said, rubbing his hand up and down her arm.

“I don’t know what it could possibly be,” Rose said, frustration straining her voice. “It’s not food-borne, ‘cos none of the rest of us are ill. And we haven’t gotten a notice that a stomach bug is going ‘round the school.”

“Unless she’s the start of it.” James pressed a kiss to the top of Rose’s head. “We’ll take her to hospital tomorrow morning, first thing.”

Rose remained in James’s arms for the rest of the night, and judging by her fidgeting and occasional sigh, she wasn’t sleeping either.

It was a relief when they heard Ainsley get into the shower a few hours later. At least they didn’t need to pretend to be sleeping any longer.

They went immediately to Sianin’s room, but she was dead asleep. Deciding to let her rest for as long as possible, they closed her bedroom door and got ready for the morning.

“Aren’t you going to get Sianin up?” Ainsley asked as she slurped down her yogurt and fruit.

“We’re keeping her home today,” James said.

Ainsley frowned. “She still doesn’t feel well? Are you taking her to the doctor?”

James nodded, then moved down the hall to wake Sianin. He and Rose had agreed he would take Sianin along when he dropped Ainsley off for school, then he would go with Sianin to the hospital.

Sianin was curled onto her side with her blankets twisted around her hips and her stuffed dragon hugged in a death grip. Her cheeks were flushed pink and her hair was a little damp with sweat. His heart squeezed.

“Rise and shine, darling,” he murmured, crouching beside her bed. He pressed the backs of his fingers to her forehead. She was burning up, worse than she was the night before. “Sianin, sweetheart.”

Sianin moaned and turned her head out of his touch. Her eyes fluttered open, then her entire face crumpled as she let out a sob. 

“My belly hurts. It really, really hurts now!”

James’s heart began to race at his child’s distress.  “Show me where. Let Daddy see.”

He brushed her hair away from her clammy forehead as she rolled to her back. She hovered her fingertips over top her belly button.

James pressed down where she indicated, and when he palpated the right side of her lower abdomen, she cried out and slapped his hand away.

“That hurts! Don’t touch!”

Dread unfurled through his gut as a niggling suspicion clawed at his mind.

“I’m taking you to the hospital,” he said, forcing his voice to remain calm. “The doctor’s gonna make you feel better. Can you get up for Daddy?”

Sianin sat up, then her face went white and sweat popped across her forehead before she vomited all over the floor.

“I’m sorry,” she whimpered, crying.

“It was an accident,” he said rubbing her back gently as she retched again. “Let’s go wee, then we’re gonna go to the doctor. Can you stand?”

Sianin slowly eased onto her feet. She looked wobbly, so James went with her to the loo. When she was finished, he guided her back to her bedroom.

“I’m gonna get Mummy. You wait here. I’ll be right back.”

James smoothed a hand down her hair and kissed the top of her head. Then he turned down the hall and to the kitchen. Rose was sitting at the table with Ainsley.

“Rose,” he said, interrupting whatever Ainsley was talking about. “Can I borrow you for a sec?”

Rose must’ve read the urgency in his face, because she jumped to her feet. James went to the sink and grabbed a roll of paper towels, then bent to the cupboard beneath and grabbed carpet cleaner.

“Did Sianin throw up?” Ainsley asked.

“‘Fraid so,” he answered. “Finish up your breakfast, then Mummy will take you to school.”

Rose frowned at him, but followed him down the hall.

“Something’s very wrong with Sianin,” he said once they were out of earshot of Ainsley. “She threw up, and her belly hurts to touch. God, I think it might be her appendix. That’s on the right side of the stomach, right?”

As they approached Sianin’s bedroom, they heard muffled sobbing coming from the bathroom instead. Their six-year-old was kneeling a few paces in front of the toilet beside a small puddle of vomit. Tissues and toilet paper were tossed on top of the mess, as though Sianin had attempted to clean it up.

“I didn’t make it,” she hiccupped, rubbing at her streaming nose.

“It’s all right, baby,” Rose cooed, dropping beside their daughter. “Daddy’s gonna get you some fresh clothes, then he’s gonna go with you to see a doctor so your tummy will feel better.”

“It hurts, Mummy!” Sianin wailed, tears and snot streaked on her face. “I don’t feel good!”

“I know,” Rose murmured, pulling Sianin into her arms. She met James’s eyes, then cocked her head to the door.

He turned on his heel and went to Sianin’s room. He quickly cleaned up the worst of the mess Sianin had made, hoping Rose wouldn’t mind cleaning more thoroughly later. He then went to her dresser and grabbed soft leggings, a loose shirt, socks, and comfy slip-on shoes.

When he returned, Sianin was sitting on the lip of the tub in only her pants as Rose gently touched her stomach. She was running her fingers along Sianin’s skin and inspecting it closely, as though she could physically peer inside of their daughter and find what was hurting her.

“Not there!” Sianin cried, catching Rose’s hand as it meandered to her lower abdomen. “Please, Mummy, don’t touch it.”

“I got clean clothes, darling,” he interrupted. “Let’s get you dressed and we’ll go.”

“I’ll help her,” Rose said. “You get dressed.”

He realized he was in his sleep clothes of boxers and a t-shirt. He turned away from his family and went to his and Rose’s room. He grabbed clean clothes from his closet, not even caring what they were. He dressed in record time and slipped on his shoes before going back to Rose and Sianin.

“Let’s go, darling,” he said, hefting her into his arms.

“Wait. Can I bring Elliot?”

“Of course,” James said.

“I’ll grab him,” Rose said.

As James moved to the front of the house, Ainsley appeared.

“Is Sianin okay?” she asked, her brow pinching when she saw her sister curled up in their father’s arms.

“Her tummy is just really hurting,” James assured her. “So I’m gonna take her to the doctor and get it all fixed.”

“I threw up,” Sianin croaked, turning her head to look at her sister.

Ainsley reached up and rubbed her hand up and down Sianin’s arm. A moment later, Rose breezed down the hall with Sianin’s stuffed dragon in her hands.

“Here we go,” Rose said, handing it to her daughter. “Feel better, my love.” She brushed a kiss to Sianin’s forehead. Then she kissed James’s cheek. When she rocked back onto her heels, her face was solemn. “Let me know when you know anything.”

“I will,” he said, bending down to peck a kiss to her lips. 

Then he turned and went to the car. He buckled Sianin in as carefully as he could, then he drove them to the hospital.

He could have praised all of the gods that ever existed in the entirety of human history that there was hardly anybody waiting to be seen. He got his daughter checked in, then he sat with her in his lap in a hard-backed wooden chair.

As they waited, James pulled out his phone and they played Sianin’s favorite game: dots and boxes. Thankfully there were no more vomiting episodes, but it was clear his daughter felt miserable. Her entire body felt hot and soon he was sweating in the jumper he’d donned despite it being a warm spring day. Nevertheless, he kept his arms around his little girl, holding her close.

“Y’know, your mum and I used to play this when we were kids,” he said, trying to keep her distracted. “It was one of our favorites. But we didn’t have fancy schmancy phone apps. We had to continuously draw and wash the game board off our arms.”

That made Sianin smile a little. “Me, Elena, and Juliette do that with Pictionary. Daddy?”

“Yes darling?”

“My hair is annoying me.”

Indeed, her fringe kept falling into her eyes.

“Want me to braid it back?”

She nodded, and gingerly spun on his lap until her back was facing him. He fluffed her hair out away from her sweaty face and neck, then gathered tendrils of the fine strands between his fingers to weave into a simple French braid.

“You have such beautiful hair,” he murmured to her as he fastened the end of the braid with a hairband he found in his pocket.

“Thanks, Daddy,” she said, running her fingers overtop the braid to feel the ripples and bumps. “You should grow your hair out so I can braid it.”

“Grow my hair out?” he repeated incredulously. “I don’t think I’d look good with long hair, eh? But you can braid my fringe if you’d like.”

Sianin turned in his lap until her knees straddled his thighs. With her tongue poking out of the side of her mouth, she mussed his hair to get it to fall forward over his forehead. He ducked his head so she could reach more easily, then sat motionlessly while Sianin played with his fringe.

When four little braids were standing out of the top of his head, Sianin’s name was finally called. James stood with Sianin on his hip and walked her towards the nurse that had summoned them.

The nurse efficiently gathered Sianin’s height, weight, and temperature—she was running a fever of nearly 39C—and took detailed notes of her symptoms. Sianin remained folded up in James’s lap for as much of the process as she could.

When it came time for the physical examination, James could do nothing but watch as Sianin cried on the exam table while the physician poked and prodded her stomach.

“You’re doing great, Sian,” he encouraged, holding her hand. “Squeeze as hard as you need to. The doctor’s nearly finished. You’re doing so well.”

Next came a blood draw. James helped hold his daughter still as the nurse pricked her arm, and he forced Sianin to keep her eyes on him instead of the needle and vial of blood they were taking.

While the nurse left with Sianin’s blood sample, the doctor came back with an ultrasound machine.

“The doctor’s gonna use this to see inside your tummy,” James explained. “Do you remember the pictures of the twins that Mummy and I showed you while they were in Mummy’s belly? A machine just like this is what took those pictures.”

“It’s completely painless,” the doctor chimed in. “I’m gonna squirt a little bit of jelly onto your belly, then I’ll scan you with my magic wand.”

Sianin eventually reclined on the exam table and let the doctor scan her abdomen with the probe. The doctor was as gentle as possible throughout the scan, but James saw the discomfort on his child’s face.

Even though James already suspected the diagnosis, it didn’t make it any easier to hear it confirmed from the doctor’s lips.

“She has appendicitis. This means she has an infection that has inflamed her appendix.” The doctor rotated the ultrasound monitor towards James. She traced her finger across the screen as she talked about Sianin’s prognosis: her appendix was blocked and swollen and if they didn’t remove it soon, it could burst and cause infection to her entire abdominal cavity.

“When can she get in for surgery?” James asked faintly. “How serious is this?”

“I want to get her rehydrated and started on a course of antibiotics,” the doctor said, “but I would like to get her in for surgery today, if possible. The sooner the better with this kind of thing.”

“Daddy?”

James looked down at Sianin, who was pale-faced and close to tears. He forced his face to relax, then he smiled at her. He rested his hand atop one of hers and said, “Your pesky little appendix has a small injury. So the doctors are going to go inside of you to fix it right up. That will make you feel loads better.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “It’s nothing to be scared about, Sian. You’re going to be all right.”

Sianin didn’t look particularly convinced, but she didn’t make too much of a fuss when she was transferred to a different room and hooked up to an IV line to replenish her fluids.

“We’ve got her on antibiotics and pain medicine,” the nurse murmured to James. “And we’ve also given her a small dose of an anti-anxiety medication. It should help her to relax. We will let you know as soon as we can get a surgeon scheduled.”

“Thanks,” James said, scrubbing his palms across his face. When he pulled his hands away, he saw writing on his wrist.

How is she?

Has she seen a doctor yet?

Hello?

Are you still waiting?

James, what’s going on?

For God’s sake, answer your bloody phone or write me back!

“Bugger,” he mumbled.

When the nurse left the room, James pulled a pen from the nearby desk. He tugged his phone out of his pocket before sitting by Sianin’s bedside. There were several texts from Rose waiting for him, demanding an update. He set the phone on his thigh, electing to use their soulmark.

“She’s got appendicitis. Going to need surgery,” James wrote. “They’re giving her fluids to rehydrate her. Not sure when the surgery is yet. Possibly later today.”

Barely fifteen seconds later, his phone lit up with Rose’s name and a photograph of the two of them, but he ignored it. Instead, he wrote, “I will give you a call, I promise. But please make sure you’re calm. Sianin’s nervous enough as it is and I’m here in the room with her.”

The phone call ended. A moment later, Rose wrote back, You arse. Let me talk to my daughter.

“I will. But please, love—”

I am bloody calm, so answer my goddamn call!

He exhaled slowly, and the next time his phone lit up, he answered it.

“Don’t you ever ignore me again,” Rose growled the second he accepted the call. “Not when it’s about one of our kids. I’ve been worried sick, James!”

“Hello to you, too,” he said cheerfully.

“Is that Mummy?” Sianin whispered, shaking his arm to get his attention.

“Yep, wanna talk to her?” he asked, already putting his phone on speaker.

“Hi Mummy!”

“Hi baby,” Rose replied softly, all traces of her agitation with James gone. “Daddy tells me your appendix is what’s making your tummy hurt.”

“Yeah. It’s infected,” Sianin said, sighing gravely. “The doctor said I hafta have surgery to get it taken out.”

“Wow. How are you feeling?”

“My tummy hurts still,” she answered. “But not as much. It reeeeeally hurt when the doctor was pushing on it. I didn’t like that. But Daddy told me to squeeze his hand really really hard.”

“Nearly bruised my knuckles,” James interjected playfully just to hear Sianin giggle.

“Good,” Rose muttered, and he frowned at his phone.

“The doctor put a needle in my arm,” Sianin said, not having heard her mother’s jab at her father. “It feels weird and hurts when I touch it.”

“Don’t touch it,” Rose and James said at the same time.

“Do you want Mummy to come wait with you before your surgery?” Rose asked.

“Yeah, I’m so bored,” Sianin moaned. “They have TV here but no good channels.”

“I’ll bring along a game,” Rose promised.

“Can you also bring an overnight bag?” James asked. “Change of clothes for me and Sianin. Shampoo and things.”

“Er…?”

“They said she’ll probably be staying the night,” James said. “I’d rather not wear these manky old clothes tomorrow, too. Obviously I’m staying with her.”

“Obviously?” Rose repeated, her voice sharp.

James clenched his jaw.

“Me and Daddy are gonna have a sleepover in the hospital!”

“Sounds like fun,” Rose said. “Daddy and I need to have a private chat. I’ll talk to you later, sweetheart.”

“Okay Mummy. Don’t forget to bring a game,” Sianin said.

“I’ll remember. Love you.” Rose made a kissing noise through the phone, and Sianin echoed it.

James groaned internally as he switched the phone off of speaker mode. He pressed it into his chest and said, “I’m going to be right outside the door, Sian. Okay? I’ll be back in a minute.”

Sianin nodded, and he exited the room. He put his phone to his ear and said, “Right, where were we?”

“You were being a twat,” Rose snapped.

“Rose, come on. Be reasonable…”

“Why is it automatically assumed that you will stay with Sianin?” Rose asked.

“Well for starters, I’m already here,” James said.

“That’s bullshit,” Rose spat. “I can be at the hospital in twenty minutes.”

“Someone needs to stay with our other three children tonight,” James answered.

“You could come home after Sianin’s surgery,” Rose said.

James bit back a growl. God, she’s stubborn. “You’ve got to be there to nurse the twins, Rose.”

“Excuse me, the last I looked, you were more than capable of feeding our babies.”

“All right, fine! Come stay with Sianin. Pump in the hospital room every couple of hours. Be my guest. Oh, but good luck finding a place to keep the milk cold, unless you want to let it go to waste. And I guess I’ll be switching the twins over to formula when I’ve gone through the small supply of milk in our fridge!”

There was silence on the other end of the line, and James exhaled raggedly, his exasperation gone. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re right,” she said, her voice quiet. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m being unreasonable.”

“You’re worried about Sianin,” he said gently. “That’s understandable. But Rose…” He scrubbed his hand along the nape of his neck. “You’ve made me feel like you don’t trust me to be here with Sianin.”

“No, James, I… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that. Of course I trust you with her. Of course I do. I just… I want to be there with her, too. My baby.”

“I know.”

“But you’re right,” she said. “It makes more sense for you to stay with her.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Come wait with us before the surgery. We’re just sitting in her room watching TV. Sian would love the company, and you promised her a game.”

“I’ll bring an overnight bag for you,” Rose said. “I’m going to drop the twins off with your dad, then I’ll be there.”

“Thanks.” He rubbed a finger into his tired eyes, then murmured, “I’m very sorry I didn’t give you updates like I said I would.”

Rose was quiet for a few seconds, long enough that James thought their connection cut out, when she finally said, “Two hours of silence from you, James. Two hours. Do you know how scared I was?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to worry you. I was focusing on Sianin and, well…”

“Forgot about me?” Rose teased weakly.

“Maybe a little bit,” he admitted sheepishly. “Really, though. I’m so sorry, Rose.”

“I want to be furious with you,” she said, letting out a noise that he couldn’t distinguish between a laugh and a sob. “God, I want to be so furious with you. But how can I be when I know you were singly focused on our daughter?”

James didn’t know what to say, so he just said, “I’m sorry. I love you very much, Rose.”

“Love you, too,” she replied. “Right, I’m gonna get ready to go.”

“I’ll let Sianin know you’re…” James trailed off when he saw the doctor walking towards him. “Rose, I gotta go. Doctor’s here. I’ll call you back when I get a free moment. Love you. Bye.”

He disconnected the call and stuffed his phone into his pocket. “Has she been scheduled for surgery?”

“Yes, in a half hour,” the doctor said. “There was a sudden last-minute opening.”

“A half hour?” James repeated dumbly. “Is she ready for surgery that soon? Is the surgeon ready?”

“Has Sianin eaten this morning?” When James shook his head, the doctor said, “Then she’s fine. Shall we?”

James opened the door, guiding the doctor into Sianin’s room. She beamed at her father, but the expression slipped when she saw the doctor.

“Hiya, darling,” James said, walking up to sit on the edge of her bed. Sianin shuffled closer to him. “Looks like the doctors are ready to take care of that appendix for you.”

“In a few minutes, you and your dad are going to be moved to a new room, where we’ll give you something to help you fall asleep,” the doctor said gently, standing at the foot of Sianin’s bed. “And as soon as you’re asleep, we’re going to take you back and get that nasty little appendix out.”

“What if I wake up?” Sianin asked, clinging to James’s hand.

“The doctors are very good at their job,” James told her, rubbing his thumb across the back of her hand. “You won’t wake up during the surgery. You’ll be sleeping deeper than you’ve ever slept before.”

“Promise?” she asked solemnly.

“Cross my heart,” he said, making an ‘X’ over his chest, then hers.

“When we’ve finished getting your appendix out, we’re going to take you to a new room where your dad can join you again.”

“No, Daddy, I want you to stay,” Sianin pleaded, turning her big brown eyes on him. They were welling with tears, and his heart fractured. “The whole time. Please? Please can’t you stay with me?”

“I’m gonna be with you whilst they put you to sleep, and I promise—I promise—I’ll be there when you wake up,” he whispered, swiping his thumb across her fallen tears. “You’ll be so deeply asleep, you won’t even miss me.”

“I don’t want you to go,” Sianin hiccupped.

“I know, darling.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and tucked Sianin into his side. “I know.”

“I’ll be back in a couple minutes,” the doctor said, before she left the room.

“You’re being very brave, Sianin,” James said as he continued to hold his trembling child.

“I don’t feel brave,” she said, burying her face into his chest.

“Well, you are. Being brave isn’t not being scared. It’s okay to be scared. But you’re not letting the fear win out,” he said, leaning down to plant kisses across the top of her head.

They sat in relative silence for a while before the doctor came back, along with a team of nurses. James kissed the crown of Sianin’s head and slid off her bed.

“Daddy!” she cried, reaching for him. “No, you promised!”

“I’m right here,” he said soothingly. “But the doctors need to wheel you into a new room, and they don’t want to be pushing my weight around. I’m gonna walk.”

“You’re coming with me, right?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “No one on this planet could stop me.”

Sianin relaxed back into the mattress, and James followed the nurses as they pushed Sianin down a long corridor and into a sterile-smelling white room. The nurses left, and in walked a second physician.

“Hello, Sianin. I’m the anesthesiologist,” he announced.

“He’s the man who is gonna give you something to help you fall asleep,” James explained to his daughter.

“Hi,” she said meekly.

“We’ve got this cool mask for you to put on,” the doctor said, wheeling over a cart and showing her the gas mask.

Sianin’s glanced at it, then at James. He smiled reassuringly and stepped closer to her.

“When you put this on, a magic gas is gonna come out of it,” he said. “You’ll be asleep in no time.”

“You’ll stay ‘til I’m sleeping?” she verified to her father.

James nodded.

And be here when I wake up?”

He nodded again. “Mummy will be here by then, too.”

“With a game?”

“With a game,” he said, even though he knew Sianin wouldn’t be up for a game after coming out of surgery.

Sianin looked up at the doctor.

“Ready?” he asked.

When she nodded, the doctor slipped the mask over Sianin’s nose and mouth. James smiled at her reassuringly when he saw panic rising in her eyes.

“Can you tell me about your friend there?” the anesthesiologist said, gesturing to her stuffed dragon.

Sianin clenched her fist around its neck and said, “He’s a dragon. His name’s Elliot. My gran got him for me when she and I went to…”

Her voice suddenly died off and her eyes rolled back slightly before her eyelids slipped shut. 

James exhaled raggedly, and he pressed a kiss to Sianin’s forehead.

“We will get you the moment she’s out of surgery,” the doctor promised, then with that, they handed Elliot to him and wheeled his baby out of the room.

“If you come with me, I’ll show you where you can wait.”

He turned mechanically towards the voice, and saw a nurse standing at the doorway. He followed her to a room with a bunch of chairs, where he was then given a pager. He took the pager and walked outside into the warm spring day to call Rose.

He ran his fingers through his hair and hissed when they snagged in the row of short braids Sianin had made at his fringe. They’d loosened over the course of the morning, and were now a row of snarled tangles. He teased them free as the phone rang at his ear.

“Hey, everything okay?” she asked. “It’s been a while. I just dropped the twins off and am on my way to the hospital. How is she?”

“They’ve taken her back for surgery,” he said, absently running his thumb across Elliot’s sequined wings.

“They’ve what? Already? But… but I thought they didn’t have a time for her yet.”

“Something opened up,” he answered. “They just took her back. Our baby… our baby’s getting surgery.”

Rose was quiet for a few long seconds. “She’ll be fine, James. It’s a routine procedure.”

“She’s having one of her internal organs taken out!”

“At least it’s not an important one,” Rose joked weakly. James managed a small snort. “I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can. I’ve got a bag packed for you.”

“Thanks. A game too? Sianin made me double check. I don’t think she’ll be well enough to play anything, but I promised her I’d ask you.”

“A game too. I love you. I’ll be there soon.”

“Love you.” He disconnected the call, then strolled back into the hospital to wait.

Nearly a half hour after Sianin was taken into surgery, he heard his name being called out. Rose was walking straight towards him. He stood on stiff legs and opened his arms for her. They held each other tightly for a long minute, then they sat down on the uncomfortable chairs to wait.

“How long did they say it’d be?” Rose asked, chewing her thumb cuticle.

“Hour and a half, thereabouts,” James replied, pulling her hand away from her mouth and twining their fingers together instead.

“And how long’s it been?”

“Twenty-eight minutes.”

Rose sighed and rested her head on his shoulder, keeping silent vigil.

Another half hour passed. Then an hour. An hour and fifteen minutes…

Finally, just as James was about to go to reception and ask for any available updates on their daughter, his pager blinked. He and Rose strode to the front desk, where a doctor was waiting for them.

“We’ve successfully removed Sianin’s appendix,” she announced with a comforting smile. “There were no other signs of trauma or infection. All in all, it was a very routine procedure.”

“Will this have any effects on the rest of her life?” James asked the doctor. “Like when someone has their gallbladder removed they can’t really eat greasy foods and such.”

“She didn’t get her gallbladder out, James,” Rose said tightly.

“I was just drawing a comparison,” he hissed back. “Excuse me for wanting information about my daughter’s health.”

“What, and I don’t?”

“There shouldn’t be any lasting effects,” the doctor interrupted, glancing between them warily. “Really, the appendix is one of the most vestigial organs in the body. She should make a full recovery and never once miss her appendix. I’ll give you some information packets to read. I can take you to her now; she’s in a recovery room and sleeping off the rest of the anesthesia.”

“Yes please,” they said in unison. 

James threaded his fingers through Rose’s as they followed the surgeon through the long, endless corridors of the hospital. They eventually reached a room that had Sianin’s name scribbled on a whiteboard on the door.

It was eerie to see Sianin asleep in a hospital bed. It made her look too small. She was pale, and her head looked like it was propped at an awkward angle. Rose breezed past him to sit at Sianin’s head, where she gently adjusted the pillows. 

James came up and stuck their daughter’s stuffed dragon at her side. He pulled up a chair next to Rose, and he reached for Sianin’s hand, which was lying limply on the bed.

“Her hair looks nice,” Rose murmured. “I assume that was you?”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you. I didn’t mean to make you feel silly about your questions. I’m glad you asked.”

“I’m sorry too,” he said softly. “We’ve both been out of sorts with each other today.”

“We should’ve been comforting each other today, not bickering.” Rose scooted her chair closer to his. She rested her free hand on his thigh and her cheek on his shoulder.

“This is a first for us. First time our child has needed any type of surgery, let alone emergency surgery. We’re stressed,” he said, kissing her temple.

“I know. But I’m still sorry.”

They both descended into silence as they waited for their baby to wake up. 

It took Sianin about twenty minutes to wake up from the anesthesia, and when she did, she wasn’t entirely cognizant. She woke up for a minute, then drifted back to sleep for another five. This pattern went on for a while, frightening James and Rose even though they were assured by the nurses that this was a common reaction to anesthesia.

Finally, she opened her eyes and remained conscious for more than a few minutes.

“Mummy?” Sianin slurred, blinking slowly. She moved to rub at her eyes, but paused when she got a look at the back of her hand, where a needle was stuck. “There’s something in my hand.”

“It’s just there to give you medicine,” Rose soothed. “How are you feeling, baby?”

“Tired,” she said.

“Does your tummy hurt?” Rose asked.

Sianin shook her head, then furrowed her brows. “I can’t feel my tummy.” She tugged her blankets down and her hospital gown up to look at her stomach, as though to verify she still, in fact, had one. She poked it for good measure.

“The doctors gave you some medicine to numb you,” James explained. “Let us know if it starts to hurt again.”

Sianin nodded, her eyes fixed on the gauze covering the incision. She then looked at her mother with a sleepy smile on her face. “I got surgery, Mummy.”

Rose smiled. “I heard.”

“They took my appendix out,” she said.

“I heard that, too.”

“What did they do with it?”

“Chucked it into the rubbish bin out back,” James said with a quick wink. Sianin’s eyes widened, and he chuckled. “Nah, doctors have a special sort of rubbish bin that they put body parts into.”

“That’s neat,” Sianin said, yawning. “When can I go home?” 

“Probably tomorrow,” James answered. “The doctors want to keep you overnight to make sure everything’s all right before they let you go.”

“You’ll stay, right Daddy? You promised.”

“I did,” he said, nodding. “And I will. I’ll stay with you for as long as the doctor wants to keep you here.”

Sianin looked at Rose. “Will you stay, Mummy?”

Rose pursed her lips. “I need to go home and take care of your sisters.”

Sianin bobbed her head in acceptance. When she next blinked, her eyes rolled back a little bit.

“Are you still sleepy?” Rose asked, stroking Sianin’s cheek.

Their daughter nearly purred and tilted her head into her mother’s touch. Rose continued her ministrations, and Sianin melted into the mattress. Five minutes later, she was asleep again.

Rose’s happy demeanor evaporated as her shoulders slumped.

“Hey,” James said, taking Rose’s free hand. “She’s fine.”

“I know. I just… I hate that she got so sick. We should’ve taken her to the doctor sooner.”

“We would’ve received the same diagnosis,” James said gently, even as his own guilt threatened to swallow him. He’d sent Sianin to school while she was suffering with an infected appendix. “She would’ve needed surgery regardless.”

Rose cracked a small smile, one that James returned. “Will you ever stop being logical?”

“Nope!” he said, beaming manically. “It’s one of the things you love best about me.”

Rose chuckled quietly and threaded their fingers together, lapsing back into silence as they watched over their sleeping child.