(The Seahorse Story:) hatch
by Betty Plotnick


Trace has all sorts of ideas about what the hatching will be like. In grade school, Mrs. Magruder's class hatched chicks in a tank, under a yellow lamp, and he thinks they may have done it one year in Vacation Bible School, too. He assumes it will be sort of like that, all of them standing around watching the egg fall apart, waiting breathlessly for the babies to emerge.

It's a little like that. But everything else is different.


"What's that noise?" Justin says one morning at breakfast. Trace listens to the room, and he can hear it, a wet sound like water being run somewhere else in the house, only in a rhythm. It's like tiny, quick waves. Very faint. "It's coming from the eggs."

It's really just coming from one egg, the red one. Trace goes upstairs to knock on the door of Lynn's room. "If they make little, like, slurpy noises, does that mean anything?"

She smiles at him and takes his hand. "They're licking through the inner membrane. They're hatching, hon."


It seems to be hard work, hatching. The child inside works constantly against its shell, and then has to rest for a while. Trace can see tiny raised spots, fingers poking outward, scratching at the shell, and he can barely remember to breathe. All he can think is, They want out. They want to come out.

The second egg is slower. It's only beginning to make licking noises, while the shell of the first egg is so translucent that Trace can see the outline of a small hand clearly through it. That's all right, though. It takes time. Everybody needs to just take as much time as they need.


They put the eggs on Justin's king-sized bed, where they can roll as much as they want and never come close to the edge. Justin kneels by the bed, at eye-level to the eggs and watching them intensely. Lynn sits in a chair, with her hand on his shoulder. Trace paces a lot, and sometimes leans against the wall with his arms folded, tucked in tightly so nobody can see his hands shake.

It's taking forever, hours. Justin makes a sound low in his throat, a whirring, crooning noise, and he puts his cheek on the mattress and keeps watching.

Lynn pulls Trace out of the room with her, ostensibly to help her make coffee, but he doesn't really believe that. "I've been trying to figure out how to tell you this," she says while Trace pours beans into the grinder. "I just don't want you to -- well, I want you to know what to expect."

Trace thinks he may be a step ahead of her. He's been reading a lot, books on pregnancy and the brain, maternal instincts and evolution. He doesn't understand every single word, but he has an idea of why human babies are like they are, and he has an idea of why these can't be like that. To hatch themselves, they have to be a lot more mobile than human newborns, who are born still helpless because of the size of their brains. The eggs have incubated longer than nine months. Trace doesn't exactly know what all this means, but he's not expecting what Lynn probably thinks he's expecting.

"They'll be mostly blind," she says. Trace shrugs; his books say that human babies can't see much except light and sharp, primary colors for quite a while either. "They'll be used to Justin's scent, so they'll probably go to him. The hatching is stressful, and they probably won't like anything that doesn't smell like Justin very much for a little while. They know they'll be safe with him, but everything else is scary. Do you understand what I'm saying, hon?"

"Stay away from them?" Trace guesses. The grinder is extremely loud, and Trace's nerves are on edge already. The buzz makes his head hurt.

"Just for a few hours. Let them adjust. It takes a lot of adrenaline for them to do this, and they'll be tired out soon. That's the best time for you to try bonding with them, when they're sleepy."


Lynn puts her hands on his back and pets him fondly. "Hatchlings are so beautiful, honey. They're just different, that's all."

Trace can't help smiling slightly. Who's more used to that than him?


When the first egg hatches -- hatches, it happens, it happens for real, and the egg looks like a broken balloon, discarded and forgotten on the bed -- Trace expects Justin to pick the baby up, but he doesn't. "C'mon," he says, his voice low. "Come on, baby girl, come here."

Its head moves, glossy, blank blue eyes scanning past Trace. Its nose twitches, and it reaches toward Justin. He reaches back, his hand halfway between them, and the child puts its hand on the bedspread and pulls itself forward a little, toward him.

Trace presses himself flat against the wall. God. It's -- so strange. It isn't round and soft and baby-like at all; it looks too thin, its proportions more adult than infant, like one of those antique china dolls that are dressed like babies but don't look it. And the way it moves, grasping Justin's bedspread and pulling itself slowly closer and closer to him--

She. The way she moves. Trace can feel his heart hammering, and he never imagined this would happen. That he would be half afraid of what hatched out of his lovely fire-opal egg, his favorite one.

"That's right," Justin breathes. Its tiny hand stretches out again, touching Justin's fingers. Justin glances up; he smiles triumphantly, and Trace shivers. It doesn't look like Justin.

He. He doesn't look like Justin.

Justin picks the baby up. It's just a little shorter than the bone of Justin's arm that runs from his elbow to his wrist. He cradles it against him, rubbing away the bits of sticky, red membrane that still cling to the baby's skin. Their nostrils flare, Justin's and the child's, as they size each other up by scent, and then Justin ducks his head and licks its forehead clean. Trace backs up and hits his funny-bone on the doorframe.


It's another hour and a half before the second egg is finished hatching. It seems to struggle harder than the first one did, and when it breaks through the shell its hand gets hung up, two small fingers outside and the others still caught inside.

Trace moves to help, to widen the hole with his thumb so that maybe it can get its hand all the way out. Justin leans across the bed and grabs his wrist. "Don't touch it," he snaps.

"I was -- I was just trying-- "

Justin's daughter, cradled in the crook of his other arm, blinks beautiful blue eyes and stares at an empty corner, still sniffing the air. "They'll fight with each other, if one comes out smelling weird," Justin says, and Trace doesn't ask how he knows. Suddenly, Justin looks like something that knows.

Someone. Who knows.


JC knocks delicately on the bathroom door before opening it a crack. He always does that, as if there's much privacy left for him and Lance to intrude on. Lance smiles into the mirror. He's got nothing JC hasn't seen, and anyway, he's just tying his tie.

"Do you think you could cancel this dinner?"

"I guess I could. It's the producer, and I hate to, but I could. Is there some reason I should?" He looks over at JC and sees that he's wearing shoes, a clear indication that he plans to go somewhere. JC never wears shoes if he can help it.

"That was Trace on the phone. He says Justin's -- the eggs have hatched, if we want to come over and see the babies."

Lance stops tying. He keeps staring at himself in the mirror. "Oh," he says quietly. "Oh. Yeah, I'll -- I'll cancel. Thanks."

"Hey, I'm sure it would be okay. I mean, we could go over tomorrow, if you need to do this dinner. Or if you just...want to make sure you're ready or whatever."

Lance shakes himself out of his daze. "No, of course I'm ready. Did he say what they were?"

"Girls. Both of them." Lance smiles a little at that. A god-daughter, a niece, and now this. There are a lot of little girls in his life. "So...congratulations."

"It's not. I didn't really have much to do with it, you know."

"Whose fault is that?" JC sounds angry. He's been angry for a while, but not at Lance. When Lance doesn't say anything, JC sighs and says, "Where are the presents?"

"Oh. Closet across from the far bathroom."

Lance changes into clothes that will blend in better at Justin's house, and he ends up just sitting there on the bed. JC comes back a minute later and sits on Lance's lap, and Lance's fingers work up into the back of JC's hair while JC leans his forehead against Lance's temple. "Are you ready for this?" Lance asks.

JC's hand wraps around Lance's waist and squeezes. "No, but not the way you think I'm not ready."

Lance grins and kisses his cheek. "How come you always think you know what's on my mind?"

JC bites his ear. "Because I just know. I also know you need to talk to Justin."

"No, you think I need to talk to Justin. Justin and I have gotten this far without talking about it, and we're doing just fine." The closest they came was the morning Justin called to tell him that one of the eggs had died the afternoon before. I thought you would want to know, Justin said, faint emphasis on you, and Lance thanked him, more than anything else relieved that he wasn't expected to spend the rest of his life playing along with this stupid game, pretending he had no more reason to care about Justin's children than any other old friend might have.

When they agreed not to bring up their one drunk and reckless night together in London ever again, Lance didn't think this had been part of the deal. Bait and switch, he thinks. That's what it was.

"They're your daughters," JC says. Lance wraps his fingers around JC's wrist, noticing all over again how thin JC is. My daughters, he thinks. They've been Justin's eggs for so long that Lance doesn't know what to do with this, with a transition to my and daughters.

"It doesn't matter," he says. He feels leaden and tired. He's never seen them. He barely saw the eggs. He's been avoiding Justin for months. Nothing in Justin's life could possibly belong to Lance; even the group is a ghost of itself, neither Justin's passion nor Lance's anymore, although JC insists that will change when they're all in the studio again, all together again. "I don't understand why you of all people don't realize. Sleeping with Justin one time a year ago doesn't make me anyone's father."

JC pulls him down to the bed, and they blink into each other's eyes, knees bumping and fingers tangling. "Do you want to talk about my family?" Lance shrugs; as well as he knows JC, as close as they are, he's never felt like it's all right to ask. He knew JC for two and a half years and had slept with him four times before he even knew JC was adopted at all. He knows that JC went looking almost three years ago for his birth parents, and that he wrote to some relative. That's all he knows. That's all JC told him, and Lance doesn't ask.

JC fingers his hair and lets his hand stroke as faint as a beam of light down Lance's face. "They dated for several years -- three or four, I think -- and she thought he'd marry her if she got pregnant. He didn't, but he promised to help out. He left before I was born. She was almost nineteen and she worked in a Dunkin Donuts. I think she tried, you know? But she was tired and worried, and she wanted to leave DC. She knew someone in California who said he'd give her a catering job for better money, and she went to San Francisco. She left me with her mother, and when she had saved up some money and found a decent apartment, I was supposed to come to California, too. She called and wrote for a few months; the catering job fell through, but she was looking for something else. Then she just stopped calling. My grandmother took care of me for a while, until she had a heart attack. Nobody could find either one of my parents then, so I went into the system. I had a couple of foster homes that I don't remember, and then Mom and Dad."

"And they're your real parents. The ones who take care of you."

"Sure, but in a way all those people -- my birth parents, my real parents, my grandmother -- in a way they're all just the same. They decided whether they wanted to take care of me or not. And, you know? That's fine. I don't care if somebody doesn't want to be my father or my mother, I really don't care. I'd rather have the ones who do want to, anyway. So I'm not -- I've talked to my birth mother, and I'm not angry at her or anything like that, I'm really not. She just doesn't mean all that much to me. But that was her choice. If I could meet my grandmother, though? I'd want to do that, if she was still alive. She was there for me as long as she could be, just like Mom and Dad have been. Do you see what I'm saying?"

"No." Yes. Maybe. His daughters live a mile and a half away from where he's lying right now in JC's arms. Lance thinks he doesn't know much, or all of this would make more sense to him.

"You should get to choose. Justin doesn't have any right to tell you that you don't get to be the father, just because he's a control freak and he wants to do everything himself. If you don't want to be that to them, you don't have to, that's okay. But I think you do. And you're letting Justin take it away from you without even fighting-- "

Lance usually tries to avoid fighting with Justin. He's stubborn as fuck, and he knows exactly how to destabilize everything around him and keep it that way until the fight is over and he's won. When he was younger, Lance thought he was a brat, but now that Justin is a grown man, Lance thinks that's just how he is. A fighter. "I can't," he says. "It's fine, it's all right. You know Justin's schedule; he'll be begging us to help take care of them anyway, it's not like we'll never see them. We'll be the fun uncles who let them mess up the house. It's all right." He's had all the practice in the world, Briahna and Leighton and Bev's pack of daughters. He's good with girls. He's good at being the uncle.

He never expected to have children, anyway. Nothing's changed.


Lynn is right; they're easier to like when they're sleepy. Awake, they whine and nuzzle at Justin, who whines and nuzzles back, and strike out at each other with curled little fingers, scratching and pinching lightly. Justin lets them. He says they're getting used to each other.

When their eyes begin to drift shut, their hands flailing more aimlessly now, Justin bundles them up in sunny yellow blankets and sits at the head of his bed with his knees pulled up, letting them relax against his chest. They're easy to tell apart: the oldest has a cloud of soft, dark hair where the youngest has none at all. Instead, she has a faint stripe of scales down her spine, spring green and a hint of dusty, sunset rose. Justin is concerned, and then amazed when Lynn laughs and tells him that he was born with a row of scales just like that, except blue. Lynn says she'll shed them within the month.

"You never told me that," Justin says, slightly accusatory.

Lynn ruffles his hair and looks down at him, her eyes serious and a little sad. "You never let me, baby. You didn't like to hear about things like that when you were younger."

"Nobody wants to be some kind of freak," Justin says, and smiles down at his daughters adoringly. He doesn't think they're freaks. He thinks they're perfect.

Trace isn't too sure where he fits in now. In this house, isn't he the freak?

"Trace," Lynn says, in the firm tone of voice she used to use when she complained that he was distracting Justin from his homework. "You two better get some clothes on them if you're already inviting people over."

He's not sure he wants to touch either one of them, or even Justin, and that's a fun change of pace. But he can't think of an excuse, so he walks over to the bed and takes one of the babies out of Justin's arms. The older one, the one that used to be his beautiful autumn-tinted egg. She squirms in his arms, amazingly light. One tiny hand waves in the air in front of her, and Trace tucks her under one arm like he's holding a football, the way the books say you should. She forces her blind eyes open, blinking heavily as if she knows she's supposed to be seeing something this way and can't figure out why she's not. Her nostrils flare over and over, trying to place this strange new smell.

Those eyes are Justin's. The nose, too, Trace thinks. He brushes the back of her wrist with a finger, touching cool, satiny skin. She jerks her arm away and waves it wildly for a moment, then settles down. She opens her mouth and makes a few sounds, like she's trying to work up a good cry, but she doesn't quite seem to get there and she gives up on that, too. "Hi," Trace says quietly, and she jerks at the sound of his voice. "Hi, baby. Big day, huh? Hi. I'm Trace."

She blinks over and over, slow and expressionless, like a lizard. It's cute, though. Trace kind of likes it. It's like Lynn said, she's different, but so what? She'd make a freaky, fucked-up baby, but she's a hatchling, and beautiful. Kind of a duckling-swan sort of deal.

He hasn't seen it in any book, but Trace lifts her up and holds her against him so that her heart is lined up with his. Her head droops forward onto his shoulder and she makes fitful little sounds but doesn't struggle against him. She feel relaxed, peaceful. His chest feels like an egg, like his heart is scratching and lapping at it, trying to shove through. He wants to say he loves her, but he's a little bit embarrassed to, so he just holds her, twisting slightly from side to side and whispering, "Hi there, little girl," against her soft, soft hair.


Lance picks Chris up from the airport first thing the next morning, leaving Justin's house while everyone else is still asleep. He offers to stay the extra two hours until Paul's plane comes in and drive him, too, but Lynn laughs and says, "I know you'd wait, honey, but Chris? You better just bring him on. Paul can rent a car."

Chris springs at him and hugs him like everything's good, and Lance isn't sure if that means he knows or he doesn't know -- well, he's just not sure how much Chris knows. He used to think Justin told Chris everything, but it doesn't seem like that's the case anymore, if it ever really was. "That kid!" Chris crows. "That fucking kid! Isn't this the greatest thing? That freaky fucking kid!"

"You know I'm the father, right?" Lance blurts out. Okay, he's not supposed to, they agreed not to say anything, but. Bait and switch, it wasn't fair. It wasn't fair, and Chris isn't just Justin's friend, after all.

He didn't know. He stares at Lance, eyes unnaturally round. "You and-- When was this?" he finally manages shrilly.

"You wanna keep your mouth shut until we're in private?" Lance snipes, conveniently glossing over the fact that he's the one who just announced himself somebody's father in fucking LAX. He reassures himself that his voice doesn't carry the way Chris' does, so it's not as bad when he does it.

"You and J?" Chris says when they're in the car. Lance is paying the short-term parking fee, and he shoots his most evil glare at Chris, but the toll guy doesn't hear or care, and Chris is well past caring himself right now. "What the fuck is that about?"

"I don't know," Lance groans. "It just happened. Look, it was before I got back together with JC, okay?"

But Chris is too sharp, in his own flaky way, to miss a trick like that. "Couldn't have been much before. You were all fucking over each other at my birthday party, and that was -- well, you were in London when? The week before that?"

"Something like that," Lance mumbles. The details don't matter to Lance; the point is that he was single on October 12, single in point of fact right up until October 15. He knows he's damn lucky that the details don't matter to JC, either, but with Chris he's pushing his luck. Chris talks a good game, but one of the reasons that he's more on a wavelength with Justin than any of the rest of them is that Justin and Chris both take their casual sex very seriously. There's no way Chris will understand, even if he tries to, even if he pretends to. He won't understand how Lance could have slept with Justin if he knew he was really still in love with JC. Lance doesn't know what the fuck Chris does with himself when he feels lonely and confused and like maybe he's fucked up one too many times with the best thing that ever happened to him, but he's fairly sure Chris doesn't get wasted and nail the prettiest thing in the room, probably especially not when the prettiest thing in the room is a sexually confused virgin, and an old friend on top of that. So, whatever, Lance is a big gay slut. Quelle suprise. Can they talk about something else now?

"So, they're girls," he says.

"Trace told me. Are they still fucking around about names?"

"No, they've picked. The older one is Lauralynn, and the -- little one -- " He'd almost said the scaly one, and he really has to train himself out of even thinking that before he says it in front of Justin and gets decked, "is Janelle."

"Oh my God, that's so white trash," Chris says gleefully. "I love it."

"Justin wanted to name her Janet." He waits dutifully for Chris' snort of laughter and then says, archly serious, "You know, for luck. Because that's how the band got its big break."

"Ah," Chris says.

"Ah. But Lynn talked him out of it. There's apparently some cosmic rule about not naming your children after anyone you've slept with unless you are currently married to that person."

"Good rule," Chris says.

"So. Janelle. She's, uh-- " Lance doesn't know whether to warn him about the scales or not. Chris will probably think they're cool. "She's sweet. She's kind of the shy one." Lance likes Janelle. She makes very little noise, unlike her sister, and when you talk to her, she seems better at focusing in your direction. He thinks she's smart. She has a runny nose, but he assumes that's not a permanent thing. Hopefully. She has green eyes, the same color as her scales.

A part of Lance keeps worrying that Chris will come back to last October, will yell at Lance for playing too many games, for his bad habit of dealing with all his feelings by drinking and screwing around when he doesn't have JC to rein him in, for knowing that Justin isn't the fuck- and-run type, but fucking and running anyway. Chris doesn't bring up any of those things. By the time they get to Justin's house, Lance thinks maybe he was hoping somebody would yell at him for those things.

Chris greets Justin by slamming up against him and wrapping his arms around Justin's ribs, while Justin laughs and tries to squirm away, saying, "God, you loser, come on."

"How's the wife and kids?" Chris asks, and then giggles crazily. "See, that's what I'm going to say now every time I see you. How's the wife and kids?"

Justin rolls his eyes as he manages to dislodge Chris. "Everybody's fine," he says. "You want some coffeecake?"


Trace sleeps in. He doesn't know what time it is when he wakes up, but it doesn't matter, really. The whole house is on newborns' schedules now, and day and night mean a lot less than hungry and crying. They're not even twenty-four hours old yet, and Trace understands that perfectly well.

He checks in the nursery. Lynn and Lance are both in there with the sleeping babies, talking about diaper rash. "Hi," Trace says, and they both stop talking to look at him. "Is Justin asleep?"

"He's downstairs," Lance says flatly. "But I wouldn't go down there if I were you. Anyone with any sense would stay out of it."

Out of what? Trace almost asks, but it seems like it might be more confusing to hear about it than just to go see.

He can hear them talking before he's halfway down the stairs -- not yelling, quite, but it's not diaper rash this time. He stands on the third step up, just outside the kitchen door. He's not eavesdropping; they could see him just fine, if they looked.

"You don't get to play the woman's-right-to-choose card," JC says. "You weren't pregnant. They didn't need you, anybody could have taken care of them. You left them with Trace while you toured-- "

"To be fair," Chris says quietly, "he didn't leave them anywhere."

JC ignores him. "There's no reason you couldn't have left them with us at least part of the time. With Lance."

"Oh, fuck you," Justin says. "You don't understand, you don't understand any of this. They're my children, I'm not going to just kennel them while I go-- "

"Your children? They didn't have to be any more your children than they are Lance's, except that you had to have it that way, and it's not fair to Lance, and it's not fair to them, either. They deserve to have their father in their lives. And besides, me and Lance are not a kennel."

"Okay, fine. You make it sound like I'm keeping them prisoner or something, though. Lance is upstairs with them right now. Hell, he can come see them whenever he wants. Any of you can."

"He's not just any of us. Don't you see that's exactly the problem? Not only does he not have any legal rights-- "

"This is not a joint adoption, you can fucking forget that. I'm sorry, that's not going to happen."

"Don't you even care how Lance feels about all this? How easy do you think it is for him, up there pretending Trace is the father and he's just some friend of the family, instead of the other way around?"

"Fuck you!" Justin roars at him. "You don't know shit about my family!"

"First rule of Fight Club," Chris says, "is that you don't talk about Fight Club. Second rule is, let's not savage anybody who's not in the room, okay?"

That seems sort of like a cue, so Trace raps on the doorframe so that they all turn to look at him, startled. "Would you keep it down?" he says. "You're going to wake up the girls."

He hears Justin saying his name helplessly, but he just goes back up the stairs. Lance has the right idea, staying out of this, staying close to the hatchlings instead.


They must get everything worked out. Lance and JC stay for most of the rest of the day, and Justin asks about JC's press schedule. He's been trying to do things in Los Angeles just for this, so he'd be in town when the eggs hatch; Trace knows JC is a sweet person, understands that he's just defensive when it comes to the guy he loves, which is natural. His album drops in a couple of weeks, though, and he can't put the junket off any longer. Justin hugs him when he and Lance leave. Chris is staying a while longer.

Trace and Justin put the girls to bed together, in the bassinet where they incubated on the heating pad. They paw briefly at each other, then sniff each other's skin, and finally roll together like puppies and go to sleep. All that scratching really must have helped them get used to each other.

Justin bends down over them, smoothing Lauralynn's hair. "Goodnight, princesses," he coos. "Love you, love you."

"Love you," Trace murmurs in echo.

He can't help it. Justin stands up, brushing close to Trace, hunched over just enough to make him Trace's height. He can't help it. The way Justin smells, so close to him, the way he moves, his big hands on the tiny blanket that covers his tiny children. He can't help it, can't stop this time. He leans in and kisses Justin.

Not a real kiss. It's not sexy, or even romantic, nothing that you'd want in a movie. Trace is too nervous for that. He just presses his lips against Justin's, clumsy and stubborn. He doesn't move away, even though Justin goes stiff with shock and stays woodenly still where he stands, even though Justin doesn't kiss back, or even raise his hands to touch Trace. Trace doesn't move away, because this might be the only time he ever gets to do this. He'll apologize, and Justin will say it's okay, and they'll never talk about this again, and Trace will never have even this, this rough half-kiss where it's not Trace who's being kissed at all.

He breaks off, finally, when it hurts more than it feels good, and he mumbles, "Sorry, J."

"No problem," Justin says vaguely, an automatic polite response to I'm sorry.

Trace goes to bed in his room next door.


He feeds spoonfuls of creamed corn and mashed fish mixed together to Janelle, her carseat on the kitchen table because they seem to eat more easily while they're reclined instead of sitting straight up. Chris is carrying on about how probably in the old days Justin would have had to chew food for them, maybe even regurgitate it for them like birds, and then he goes on about birds and dinosaurs and makes it sound pretty scientific, except for the fact that Trace suspects he got it all from Jurassic Park.

Justin is feeding Lauralynn, stretched out on the floor with his shoulders propped against the wall and Lauralynn lying against his chest while Justin reaches around her to guide the spoon into her mouth. It looks hard on his back, but Trace tries not to rag on him.

"That's your daddy," he says under his breath to Janelle. "He needs us to take care of him, not that he'll ever admit it. No, he won't, and he doesn't listen, either, does he, baby girl? Well, who needs him, huh?"

Trace is focused on his job, oblivious, until he hears Justin whisper in his ear, scaring the hell out of him. "Yeah, who needs him?" Justin breathes, amused, and he laughs softly. Trace is going to bitch at him for sneaking up on people, but then Justin brushes his cheek with a kiss, so soft and quick that Trace is remembering it almost before he feels it. Trace's hands jump, and it's all he can do to catch the jar of food before he dumps it on the baby.

Justin laughs at him again and steps away, holding his daughter easily in one arm, wiping absently at a crust of creamed corn stuck to his tattoo.

Trace laughs, too. They're staring at each other, stupid and smiling and lost in each other's eyes, while Chris goes on and on about pterodactyls.

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