A/N - Hey! The 5,000-odd words which follow this paragraph are brought to you by the overwhelming generosity of Susie (mujisan), who bid on me and won me during the recent Support Stacie author's auction. It is ENTIRELY due to her that you're seeing more TPAP, so if you like this story, I advise you to put her on your holiday shopping list. She likes diamonds and high-tech gadgetry.

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Will You, Nil You

"What on earth are you doing, Edward?"

Bella's looking at me as though I have lost my mind, and the expression on her face makes me laugh, even though I have no idea what's confusing her. "What?"

"We need to leave right this second if we have any hope in hell of getting to the theatre on time, and you're still puttering around in your skivvies. Did you hit your head on the shower door or something?"

We've got the whole Bella orchestra in full swing at the moment: her left foot is tapping, her arms are flapping, her eyes are flashing, her teeth are gnashing. I'm ordinarily a punctual person because my mother made it plain to me at a very early age that keeping someone waiting for you was the height of rude and selfish behavior. And whatever we'll be tonight, it most definitely won't be late, because when I reflect upon my life as I lay on my deathbed, playing Petruchio opposite this woman's Katharina is definitely going to be one of the highlights.

"Did you or did you not once tell me I should wander around in boxers all day?"

She rolls her eyes at me. "Suit yourself, you literal picker of nits. I'll be in the car." Bella turns to exit our bedroom, but stops at the door. "Not really, though. Please put some clothes on," she grumbles without facing me.

I chuckle and grab some khakis and a t-shirt. "This is an interesting situation in which we find ourselves. You spend our time before the play telling me to put clothes on, and I spent our time during the play tearing them off of you. It's like a bizarre Bell Curve of nudity we've got going on." As I say the words, "Bell" and "Curve" jump out at me in a slightly different way, and I wonder whether or not I'd burn in hell for being a little late just this once. I've got my pants in my hands and one leg poised to enter them as I drift off into a pleasant little mini-reverie.

"Ed. Ward," Bella huffs at me, separating the syllables of my name to indicate that she's trying to be really serious now, even though I'm pretty sure she just wants to laugh. She's turned back to face me, goggling at me as I execute this bizarre karate crane maneuver over my waiting pant leg. "I'm leaving in sixty seconds. Sixty. Starting...now." And she disappears from the doorway.

Of course, we get to the theatre fully ten minutes before our call time. In my opinion, those ten minutes might have been spent in a far more productive fashion, but I know from previous experience that post-show coitus with Bella is well worth the wait, so I'm not going to complain. Bella rushes in and immediately latches onto Alice, who is naturally in costume and apparently raring to go. The two women look at each other without saying a word, and Alice just shakes her head.

"Really? What happened? I thought they were going to talk last night," Bella says with a frown.

"She won't tell anyone what went down last night, but he told Jasper that they just went out for a few drinks and ended up in bed again," Alice reports. "Now she's barricaded herself in the bathroom and she won't let any of us in there."

"God, this is so junior high," Bella mutters, striding over to the bathroom door and giving it a few sharp raps with her knuckles. "Jessica? Jess, can you hear me? Open up, Jess - it's Bella and Alice. Come on, let us in."

We hear some muffled wailing in response, and Bella just shakes her head, knocking on the door again. "Don't make me get the keys, Jess. I'll do it. Open the door this instant."

Jasper strolls up and parks himself next to me. "Hey," he nods. "Some fun, right? Why aren't you in costume yet?" Bella takes a moment from her ad hoc psychiatrist duties to shoot me a meaningful glare, and I grab Jasper's shoulder to indicate that I'm headed toward our dressing room. He obligingly follows me, and I toss on my dark green velvet doublet. "Man, I hate the hose," Jasper complains, stretching the offending item away from his calf in an irritated fashion. I agree. Hose are not my thing, despite the fact that Bella seems to feel I have the legs for them. "Just do what I do - I pretend they're some kind of medieval wetsuit, and after the play, we're doing something super manly like surfing."

"Renaissance, not medieval," Jasper corrects me as he turns to give me a private moment with my own pair of limb-strangling gamwear. "The only Renaissance guy I can picture surfing would maybe be pre-flab Henry VIII."

"No, come on. Surely Sir Francis Bacon would hang ten," I laugh as I struggle to hitch the tights up to my waist. "Or Sir Francis Drake. Hell, any of the Francises. Francisi? Francisae?"

"You must seriously give Bella a headache on a daily basis," Jasper snickers. "Are you done here? Let's go see if the girls have managed to get that freak out of the bathroom. Jesus Christ, we chose our women wisely. Of the two of us, I'm much more likely to lock myself in a bathroom than Alice would be. And I'd never, ever lock myself in a bathroom, so there ya go."

We wander back over to the bathroom. Alice is standing guard at the moment, clearly frustrated by Jessica's continued refusal to exit the lavatory and end the crisis. I ask Alice if Bella's given up, and she shakes her head and tells me that Bella's gone to scramble into her costume and grab the keys from Seth to see if they can speed up the pace of this emotional breakdown before Banner catches wind and dumps Jessica for one of the understudies. Why they bother protecting her is anyone's guess, as she's been more trouble than she's worth over the past six weeks of rehearsal.

"I wish Angela wasn't eight months pregnant," Alice sighs. Jasper raises his eyebrows and Alice immediately clarifies. "No - I'm happy she and Ben are expecting. Really, thrilled for them. It's just...this would have been SO much easier if Angela was playing the Widow."

"I can hear you," Jessica wails from behind the locked door, and Alice opens her eyes wide in horror. "Oh, Jess, I'm sorry! I didn't mean it like that, I swear." Even though she did, and we all know it.

Bella reappears, dangling keys from her index finger and wearing a determined expression and another bust-crushing dream of a corset. Jasper and I step aside as she gives the doorknob a final, threatening rattle, then twists a key in the lock and turns the knob. "Go away!" Jessica howls, her sobs gaining strength and purpose once more. "I don't want to talk to either one of you!"

Alice turns to us before heading into the lion's washroom. "Go find Mike and talk some sense into him," she hisses, then follows Bella into the belly of the bellowing beast.

"You spoke to him earlier, right? What's going on there?" I ask Jasper as we cross over to the stage-left wing in search of Mike.

"I don't really know, to be honest with you. I think he really cares about her, but his head's just not in any definite place about anything."

We find Mike hanging out in a corner, absently tossing an orange back and forth between his hands and gripping it like a baseball. He looks at us as though we're some kind of inquisitorial squad, so we play it cool. "Hey," he says lamely, eying us with suspicion.

"Hey Mike," I smile. "Wanna talk about what's going on? Jessica seems a little upset with you."

"You're on her side," he accuses me. I hold my hands up in front of me to show that I'm unarmed and not guilty of anything. "I'm not on anyone's side, I swear. I just came here to do a play tonight, and it'd be nice if everyone who rehearsed with me was actually onstage at some point or another."

Mike exhales in frustration. "I don't know what her problem is. She keeps pushing me and pushing me and pushing me about where this relationship is headed, you know? I mean, I'm having a good time. Why does that have to change? Why does everything always have to change?"

Jasper and I just look at each other and shrug. "Because it does," we answer in stereo, like a chorus of commitment. "Listen, Mike," Jasper says. "One way or another, you should probably be making a decision about this. It's all good unless someone wants to step things up, and I think it's pretty clear that she's there. If you're not, and you don't plan on getting there in the foreseeable future, you need to do the right thing and just walk away. It's not fair."

I have a teensy moment in which I can absolutely see Jessica turning into Lily Taylor in Say Anything, sitting on a dumpy couch with an acoustic guitar, determined to sing all 65 songs she wrote about Mike. This won't end well if he chooses to go that route. Also, I'm finding it more than slightly hilarious that I am now in a position to be offering sage counsel on affairs of the heart. I hope I do it with as much style as Emmett does, but I seriously doubt that I do.

"So, what do you want?" Jasper's trying to be sensitive about the thing, but I know he's as hopelessly bored as I am. We're totally smug and have no patience for this shilly-shallying.

"I want...I want a date every Saturday night. I don't want to have to think about this crap all the time. I like home-cooked meals and a predictable warm body in the bed and cold beer in the fridge. I like not talking about stuff. I just want to take a nap on the couch and wake up and have a sandwich instead of playing detective for an hour trying to figure out what I've done to piss her off this time."

"Son, you don't want a woman - you want a maid and a man with a vagina," Jasper laughs.

"Not helpful," I scowl at Jasper, even though I was thinking the exact same thing. "Mike, they're going to want to talk. Most of the time, they're going to be right. Accept this, or die alone under a pile of take-out cartons."

"I don't want to break up with her. I love her, but I'm not ready to settle down," Mike scowls.

I shrug my shoulders. "Then I hope you're ready to be single. Can you just be civil tonight? If Banner finds out what's going on here, he'll call one of the understudies in and that's just adding insult to injury for Jessica."

He shrugs his shoulders at me. "I can if she can." I think that's the best we're going to get out of him, so I nod at him and Jasper and I take off.

Fifteen minutes later, we're toasting Shakespeare and slamming down our ritual shots of Springbank. Banner looks around at the cast and lowers his eyebrows in something of a threatening nature. "Can we try to get through this without any arrests? I just want a problem-free, happy show. You'll give me that, right?"

Jessica's cleaned up her face and is dressed as The Widow. She sniffles, shoots a murderous glance at Mike, and says nothing. Banner notices this and is immediately on alert. "What? What? Don't start, you two. Whatever you need to sort out, sort it out after final bows. I'm not having it tonight. This is a happy play. A play about love and marriage and funny stuff. Throw punches on your own time."

Everything starts off normally enough. Alice's Bianca is glittering around the stage like a pretty little butterfly, charming all the men of Padua, while Bella snarls and snaps at everyone, her expression one of zero tolerance and downright loathing. It's really very hot and I'm extremely glad I've plotted our post-show route to the after-party with a thoughtful eye toward taking gross advantage of her in a secure and indoor location. Mike, who is playing Hortensio, moons after Bianca along with the rest of the men in town (except for me, because I'm very busy planning to tame my shrew and am all "will you, nil you, I will marry you" with her). Jessica stands in the background for all of the assembled company scenes in Padua, alternating her expression between heartbreaking sadness and pure, undiluted fury. She trips Mike - not once, but twice - as he tries to cross downstage right.

"Knock it off," he hisses at her.

"Break a leg," she hisses back. "No - really - I hope you break a leg. I'm done with you." She storms off stage-left in the middle of my arrival for Petruchio's wedding to Katharina, heedless of the fact that there is actually a play going on around her. Bella briefly borrows Katharina's annoyance and claims it as her own, gesturing at me to keep the dialogue coming.

Were it better, I should rush in thus.
But where is Kate? where is my lovely bride?
How does my father? Gentles, methinks you frown:
And wherefore gaze this goodly company,
As if they saw some wondrous monument,
Some comet or unusual prodigy?

Yeah, they're looking at me as though I'd just arrived from outer space, because the wedding costume is insane, full-stop. I'm three parts hobo, one part shepherd. I have no idea what Lorraine was thinking when she patched together this abomination. I suspect Alice "helped" her with the concept, although Alice vehemently denies any involvement. The worst part is that none of it covers the hose.

Before you know it, I'm dragging poor Kate away from the wedding feast and to my - well, our - home, where I spend our honeymoon denying her sleep and food and clothing. I know Bella is fully aware of how much fun this part is for me, because in our real lives, I am completely hopeless and would happily book a flight on that Russian space-shuttle-for-hire if she woke up one morning and expressed a fleeting desire for a jar of moon dust. I think the fact that she'd never in a million years ask me to do more for her than maybe pick up some milk on my way home is the reason why I'm so compliant. Regardless, these scenes are a blast because Petruchio keeps saying "no" to her on everything. I mean, he's doing it for a reason, but still - for me, this is sort of very kinky and illicit. It feels so wrong, but it's also a complete blast.

Backstage, Jessica is now totally ignoring Mike. I picture her field of vision, and imagine that there's a blank space where he's standing, like he's activated some kind of douchebag cloaking device. We're all doing our best to stay out of it, because it's very boring and because anything we do is just likely to make it worse anyway.

"It shall be what o'clock I say it is!"

I say, as we wrap up Act IV, Scene iii. Hortensio's been hanging out at the house with Petruchio and Kate, taking "taming lessons" from me. We exit the stage and Mike mutters, "Yeah. See, why doesn't it work like that in real life?"

"If you're doing it right in real life, you actually want to make each other happy instead of bossing each other around," Bella snaps. "I'd give Edward just about anything he'd care to ask me for and not think twice about it, because I know that he'd never ask me for something if he didn't really need it."

"Can I borrow a kidney?" I joke.

"You know it's four to six weeks without sex for me after the surgery," she retorts with a smile. "Still want one?"

"No thanks, I'm good. I'll just put an ad on Craigslist or something," I say, shuddering at the thought of a drought like that.

It's obviously driving Mike nuts that Jessica won't even look at him. "This is ridiculous!" he fumes. "Why is this so important to her? Jesus, it's not like I go out looking for anyone else. I'm home every night, with her. I don't want to be with anyone else. I love her. I haven't been with anyone else since we got together last year. Why does she need some piece of paper?"

"Because she does. But maybe you're not asking the right question. Maybe you should be asking yourself why you don't need one. Maybe you should picture what it would be like to see her with someone else - someone who's not as scared of growing up as you are."

That little speech is so not Bella's style. She must still be channeling Kate. I love feisty Bella, particularly when what she's saying actually makes me seem wise and mature. Honestly, I don't think I ever really had a choice as to whether or not I was going to spend the rest of my life with her. The minute I saw her, it was a done deal on my end. It's not as though I went through any kind of painful deliberation on the subject.

The three of us head back onstage to journey back to Padua. I'm telling Kate how brightly the moon shines today, and she's still correcting me, telling me that what's making my neck sweat is the sun and not the moon. Oh really, Kate? Must I starve her for another week before she gets the point?

Now, by my mother's son, and that's myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father's house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross'd and cross'd; nothing but cross'd!

Hortensio just wants to get home, so he begs Kate to agree with me no matter what I say, and she remembers that she likes to eat and wear clothes and sleep on a real bed. I suspect she also secretly enjoys the fact that I don't put up with any of that contrary nonsense.

Then, God be bless'd, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katharina.

And just like that, we're happy. Petruchio might be the boss around here, but he's only the boss because Kate says he is. It's impossible to tell anymore who is really driving this bus, and it doesn't really matter because I get to kiss her at the end of the next scene. In fact, she begs me to kiss her, in the middle of the street. It's awesome.

Finally, we're at the last scene. Jessica sweeps back onstage to harass Petruchio and Kate. She's not crying anymore. Instead, she looks mulish but calm, and she delivers her lines without a trace of irony, even though she and Hortensio are married and the feast we're currently attending is in part to celebrate that marriage.

The Widow and Kate start arguing, with Jessica telling Bella that I'm a poor sap who married a irreclaimable harpy. Kate immediately jumps all over her and Hortensio and I start making side bets about which of our women is going to snatch the other's wig off in this fight, but of course here comes newly-married Bianca to drag our wives out of the Jello pit and offstage to calm down. Spoil-sport.

Alice, Jessica, and Bella leave the stage, and now it's just all the men of Padua out here, with Mike, Jasper, and me talking about the women we married.

Of course, because we're men and this is as close to a bar as we're likely to get in Renaissance Italy, we have to start betting on something - hey, there's no pool table and all the girls have left the room, taking with them all the decent distractions a town like Padua can offer a guy. When they start making fun of me for marrying 'the veriest shrew of all', I bet Mike and Jasper that Kate will come to me before either of their wives even considers answering their summons. They think I'm drunk, or high, so they slap their money on the table and call for their wives.

Of course, Kate's the only one who comes when she's called, and I laugh and count my money. Kate and I are like John Cusack and Annette Benning in The Grifters with this game now. I win, she wins, we win - because we work together.

Bella goes back offstage to get Jessica and Alice, and the three of them trip back out to join us so I can show these amateurs how it's done. I'm right in the middle of ordering Kate to tell the other women about the duty they owe their husbands when Mike stands up and interrupts me.

"Okay!" he shouts, apropos of absolutely nothing. He looks like he's shivering, and I briefly wonder whether or not he's developed a mental condition sometime between the road to Padua and now. The doctor in me feels as though I should check on him even though we're in the middle of a scene and the play is less than five minutes from being over. As a compromise, I try to gently force him back into his seat by pushing down on his shoulder, so that if there's a seizure on his horizon, he doesn't injure himself. He ignores me and plants himself squarely on his feet, practically snorting like a bull.

Bella starts up her dialogue again, meaning to tell Jessica to 'unknit that threatening unkind brow', but Mike cuts her off, too.

"Let's do it," he practically yells at Jessica. For a brief minute, I'm sure we're all picturing them "doing it". I see Banner in the stage-right wings, and the blissful expression he's been wearing for the past four acts disappears, only to be replaced by an interesting combination of surprise, distress, and a slight hint of nervous breakdown.

"What the HELL is your problem?" Jessica's beside herself, and she actually makes a move to attack Mike, but Bella and Alice cotton on pretty quickly and hold her back by her arms.

"This is my problem," Mike yells back. "This situation is my problem. I just want things to be good again. If you want to get married - if that's what it's going to take - then let's do it. Let's get married. Okay? Can you stop being pissed off at me now?"

Nobody knows where to look, and I'm pretty sure the audience is hopelessly confused because The Widow and Hortensio are already married in the play. I think that maybe the next time we tackle Shakespeare, we should provide them with some sort of libretto so they can follow along with all of the unintentional drama we seem to tote onstage with us.

Jessica's staring at Mike as though she's not sure whether she should laugh or murder him. "You want me to marry you because you want to end an argument? Screw you, Mike. Just screw you. I deserve better than that."

Mike steps around me to walk over to her, and the conscientious spot ops train a follow spot on him either because they're afraid Banner will rip them a new one of they don't, or because they remember what happened last year and want to make sure they've got an appropriate lighting schematic for chaos.

"I'm not asking you to marry me to end an argument. I'm asking you to marry me because it's what you seem to want, and I just want to go back to being happy and not fighting about something this stupid. If this is what you need to prove I love you, then here it is."

"Oh my God," Jessica squeals, and Mike starts grinning, but that doesn't last very long, because the next words out of her mouth are "You are an IDIOT."

"What? What the hell, Jess?"

She's absolutely furious, and her face is almost purple. It's really not a good look for her, and I have no idea why she's so ticked off, but thank God, I don't have to know. For once, I'm not in the middle of the Nutcracker Ballet. I can just watch it like everyone else. I look over at Bella and she just tilts her head at me and smiles. This reminds me that we were almost done with the play and I was really looking forward to our post-show activities, so now I'm annoyed that Mike and Jessica can't get their shit together in a timely fashion.

"This is not the way any woman wants a proposal to happen," Jessica fumes. "Zero romance. Zero planning. Zero ring, for God's sake."

Mike's had about all he can take, so he grabs her by the shoulders. "I'll get you a ring tomorrow. I'll get you twenty rings if you want them. I just want to be with you, and I thought you'd want to know that as soon as possible."

"Hey, Jess," Alice says in an encouraging fashion. "That's not bad. Seriously, that's probably about as good as it's going to get."

Jessica shoots Alice a look which I'm pretty certain would kill a lesser soul, but Alice just grins in friendly understanding. "He loves you. You love him. Say 'yes' or forfeit your right to bitch about it anymore. Either way, we need to finish this scene."

Mike raises his eyebrows. He's still got Jessica by the shoulders, but he takes one hand and puts it under her chin to get her to look up at him. "Come on, honey. Don't make me beg, okay? We'll figure everything out when we don't have three hundred people watching us."

"Say yes!" someone in the audience screeches. "Shut up, mom," Jessica snarls. Then she turns her eyes back up to Mike's. "Okay," she mutters. "Here's what we're going to do. We're going to pretend this proposal didn't happen. You'll take me out to dinner on Monday and do it then. With a ring. On your knee, like a normal person."

"I can live with that," Mike nods. "So, we're good?"

"Can you please shut the fuck up now?" Banner's stage whisper is probably slightly louder than he thinks it is. Jessica nods and gives Mike a weak smile, and he kisses her before moving back to his seat.

Nobody seems to remember where we left off before the Jessica & Mike show started. I look around to see if anyone's got a clue, and Banner offers up another ridiculously loud stage whisper as a prompt:

"unknit that threatening unkind brow", he hisses at Bella, who jumps right back into the scene and tells these women that their men work hard for the money and they should make the home a happy, peaceful, argument-free zone.

'Why, there's a wench!' Petruchio says, grabbing Kate around the waist. 'Come on, and kiss me, Kate.'

I plant one on Bella, thrilled that we're a minute away from final bows at last.

Come, Kate, we'll to bed.
We three are married, but you two are sped. 'Twas I won the wager, though you hit the white;
And, being a winner, God give you good night!

Bella and I walk offstage with our arms wrapped around each other and wait for Jasper and Mike to say their final two lines.

"Thanks for proposing to me in my college cafeteria in front of my ex-boyfriend," Bella smiles. "It was perfect."

"Thanks for saying 'yes'," I smile back. "Although this would have made a good story, too. I'm kind of sad I didn't think of it first."

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A/N - There is one more outtake to come, and that one is courtesy of AccioBourbon, who answered my plea to put her moolah up for the second-place bid. These women are amazing to me. Susie, this one's all you, darling. Love you madly -