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"Now go we in content/To liberty, and not to banishment."
Bella's jet-lagged, as usual, but she's totally denying it. I don't know who she thinks she's fooling, really, because we're all used to watching her valiantly drag herself around the house in Berkeley Square for the first two days after we arrive, pretending that she's fresh as a daisy and ready for anything when it's patently obvious that the only thing she's truly ready for is a solid twelve hours of catatonia.
"Dad!" The piercing shriek of a twelve-year-old girl is something I don't think I'll ever get used to. I love her; that sound, however, could whither whole forests. Why the CIA doesn't just record it and use it to torture our enemies is beyond me. They're clearly either the parents of boys, or they're not as ruthless as we've been led to believe.
"In here," I call back from my place in the library, hoping that Bella passed out somewhere and is missing all of this yelling. The sound of thumping feet along the hallway alerts me to the imminent arrival of my eldest daughter on the scene. She's beautiful, but she runs like an elephant, and I'm not so blinded by my love for her that I don't recognize that fact.
"Hi, Daddy." Viola tries to be cool as she's standing in the doorway. Do I look like an idiot? Probably, but despite this fact, I'm not one.
"What's up, V? I mean, aside from your mother, who probably couldn't sleep through your screaming."
She bows her head. "Oops. Sorry. Um, so anyway, Daddy? It's okay with you if we go shopping for an hour or two in Knightsbridge, right? We'll take a taxi, and Henry's got his phone."
I arch my eyebrow at her. "Am I supposed to take comfort in the fact that your brother has a phone? He'll leave it in the taxi right before he vanishes into Chimes to browse for sheet music and fondle guitars, stranding you on a street corner."
Viola stomps her dainty pachyderm foot at me. "Then I'll hold the phone. Come on — please say 'yes', so I don't have to wake up Mom to ask her."
This makes me laugh out loud. "You need to work on your threat skills, princess. Why do you need to go shopping? We just got here."
She looks down at the carpet and blushes a little. I've never told her that the blush she inherited from her mother is my undoing, because if she knew it, she'd be rouging herself every morning of her life. "Uh, I wanted to, um, look at some, uh, accessories."
She's twelve, I reason to myself. Twelve-year-old girls buy accessories because other twelve-year-old girls are impressed by those accessories, and not because the twelve-year-old girls want to impress, say, fourteen-year-old boys who live next door to them. With their...accessories. I fully recognize that this is a massive delusion on my part, but it keeps me sane and makes it possible for me to sleep, so I'm holding onto it tooth and nail.
"What kind of accessories are you looking for, V?"
She rolls her eyes at me. "Ugh, Dad, forget it. You wouldn't understand, anyway."
I nod, because she's right. I wouldn't understand at all, unless what she's picking is going to send a message of some kind to the boy who lives, quite literally, next door to us on the Square, at which point I will understand only too well for her happiness and continued safety.
"I'm not inflicting you and Henry, unchaperoned, on the unsuspecting citizens of Knightsbridge. Granny Liz will be here in an hour or so, and you can wait for her." I look at her over the top rim of my glasses for added stern effect. It's even-odds as to whether or not she'll accept this answer, and I can only hope she'll remember that if she shops with my mother, she won't be expected to dip into her allowance in order to pay for her purchases.
Viola flounces from the library with an irritated huff, and I'm once again left to my own devices. It's been a hectic twenty-four hours, as our travel days invariably are, because moving this family from Port Angeles to London is a bit like a military operation. We have an au pair joining us for the summer, but she's not here yet, and with Bella down, the management of the children is largely left to me for the moment. It was easier before Henry and Viola started creeping into the teen years, but I generally manage to annoy them into submission. Beatrice is only six, and she still believes everything I say, so she's a breeze. The other two question EVERYTHING, and I'm frequently shocked by how manipulative they are. Othello's Iago is Henry's personal role model. This is so bizarre, because neither Bella nor I are especially manipulative, so we've had to learn on our feet how to manage them when they're hatching a plot. It should go without saying that Bella's better at this than I am, because it should go without saying that Bella's better at almost everything than I am, with the notable and continued exception of dancing.
On cue, Henry lopes through the door. "Hey Dad," he shrugs, and flops down in the chair on the opposite side of my desk.
"How's it going, Henry?" I tentatively ask him. "You unpacked yet?" My knee-jerk reaction is to open every conversation I have with my son by just saying "Not a chance" and getting that part out of the way, but if I don't let him at least try to get around me, it's far less fun for us, and he won't ever feel as though he's accomplishing anything.
He shakes his head and stretches his ridiculously long legs out in front of him, actually putting his hands behind his neck as though he hasn't got a care in the world. "Oh, you know," he exhales. "Mostly unpacked. How are you doing?" A sudden realization appears to strike him out of the blue. "Jeez, you must be tired. You and mom do all the hard stuff." His eyes reflect the unnatural concern of a teenager for the hardships of his elders. "You look exhausted, Dad. You should really take a nap or something. You work too hard."
I try to restrain myself, but I can't help it, and I end up snorting loudly before I get a grip and resume my cool serenity. "Yes, son. I'm really very tired. Thank you for caring. But you know, with the time change and everything, I think I'll just stay up and fight my way through the jet lag."
"I really think you should crash for a while," Henry insists, trying to look worried. "Plus, I'm sure Mom would love the company. She's all curled up in your room." He leans forward and puts his hand on my forearm. "It's your vacation too, Dad. You need to learn how to relax and get away from stuff. You know, power down."
I nod my head in somber agreement, really disappointed that my kids do, in fact, believe that I'm feeble-minded. "You're right. I know you're right. But as right as you are, I'm still going to fight my way through the jet lag. And you're still going to have to wait for Granny Liz to take you to Knightsbridge."
"Suck," he mutters cryptically, abandoning his casual concern and furrowing his brow. "When is she getting here, already? I told Colin and Matt I'd be down there in twenty minutes."
"I expect she'll show up anytime now," I answer, because if I tell him that he'll have to wait for an hour, there will be more stomping, and a greater likelihood that Bella's nap will be a truncated one. Also,
"Colin's going? This clears up so many mysteries for me. Thanks," I nod at him, understanding that Viola is not entirely pure of heart when she tells me that her passion for accessories is what drives her to hunt and gather in the shopping district.
Beatrice bounces through the doorway. She is sweetness and light, and hasn't yet figured out how mean and unfair her parents are. We still rock, in her eyes. Without saying a word, she crouches down on the floor and begins to line up about a dozen different-colored plastic ponies with manes and tails in various ghastly pastel shades along the border of the Aubusson rug.
"Daddy, come here," she commands me, once the nightmare ponies have been mustered. "You need to be the boy pony, and do the voice."
If there is a boy pony in that collection, he needs some gender reassignment surgery, but I go along with it, because Beatrice has dimples and she knows how to use them. Henry rolls his eyes as I make my way over to Beatrice, and he vacates the premises because what's about to happen here is only slightly less interesting to him than watching Grampa Charlie use a level to ensure that his front hedge is plumb and uniform in height.
Beatrice and I spend some quality time deciding which of the ponies gets to marry the boy pony. There is a pony beauty-pageant-slash-dating-game, and in the end, the buttercup-yellow pony triumphs, but the rest of the girl ponies are good sports about the thing, which is how I know we've got a serious fantasy going on here.
The pony wedding reception is cut short by the timely arrival of Granny Liz, and Beatrice vanishes before my eyes to try to charm her all-too-willing Granny into a trip to Hamley's Toy Shop. Some moments later, my mother locates me in the library.
"Edward, dear," she greets me, holding me lightly by the shoulders and delivering a kiss to my left cheek. "All settled? Where's Bella?"
I explain that Bella is too smart to be conscious right now, and my mother shoos me off, telling me to join my wife and to not expect to see either her or my children until after they've all had supper. I don't even ask her if herding the kids is too much for her, because long experience has taught me that there is nothing on the planet that is too much for my mother to manage, and I'm certainly not going to try to talk her out of giving me a few hours of peace and quiet. I haven't technically been alone with Bella for at least two weeks, and even a nap with her is too good to pass up.
I give my mother the heads-up about the Colin situation. She lifts her eyebrows at me, her expression indicating that she's more than capable of appropriate and discreet counter-measures, so I back off and let her take the reins for a while.
The children remind me that they love me before they head out the door. Henry might be a Machiavellian teenager, but he's not a surly one, and he's also still somewhat miraculously not opposed to slipping me a half-hug on his way out the door. The girls almost always give me pretty kisses, and Bea lets me pick her up for a minute when I feel the need. I do my best to keep giving them reasons for that affection, but I don't push them. Maybe the fact that they think I'm feeble-minded makes them pity me a little. Whatever the cause, I'll take it. I'm not above it; I never have been where any of them are concerned.
When the door closes behind them, the house is magically silent. It is bliss, pure bliss, and also creepy as hell. What to do with all of this silence? Nature abhors a vacuum, and so the only answer that makes sense to me is that I need to be making some noise to fill the void. I don't want to wake up Bella just yet; I need to give her at least another half-hour. At a loss, I stroll into the sitting room and debate my options between the television and the stereo. Everything on the television is too gaudy for me, so in the end, I flip on the stereo. BBC 4 is airing a gardening programme, and BBC 3 makes me wonder whether they are assembling their playlists for people who have simply given up on life, and who are now merely lounging around in parlors across the city, waiting for death to claim them.
"I'm not that old," I inform the stereo, as though it's trying to convince me otherwise, and I defiantly tune in NME, which offers me David Bowie's sad tale of a lost astronaut. I am soon air-guitaring to a song that debuted more than a decade before I was born, and believing that this makes me hip. The flawed thinking sucks all the fun out of the act, so I turn off the stereo and decide that I can sneak into bed with Bella now.
This house isn't quite as comfortable as our place in Port Angeles; the rooms here are smaller, and the staircase is narrower, and there are no pen-marked lines keeping track of how tall Bea is getting etched into the doorway of the kitchen. On the plus side, Rufus, the ludicrously large Leonberger dog who occupies fully three-quarters of any room he enters, hasn't joined us over here for the summer, so I'm not forced to battle him for space on the couch or the bed. I just have to battle Bella. It's still my favorite war of all time.
She's curled into a ball on her side of the bed, just as Henry said she was. Her shoes are off, but she's still dressed in yoga pants and her favorite blue t-shirt. On it is printed the following Groucho Marx quote: "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana". I don't like it when she wears this outside the house, because it takes a few minutes for people to get the joke, and while they're trying to figure it out, they're also staring at her breasts, which is a privilege I like to reserve exclusively for myself.
I kick off my sneakers and slide in behind her, trying at once to let her sleep, and to offer her an attractive option to sleep if she's so inclined. Two weeks is a long time for us; despite the fact that we've got three big children and one big dog and two busy careers, we're very skilled in the art of covert carnality, and we don't usually go more than a few days without employing those skills.
"Mmmmhmmm," Bella mumbles, letting me know that she's awake enough to realize I've joined her. I cozy up against her and curl my arm around her waist, loving that she's developed a handy little ledge of hip to cushion my forearm.
"Sleep," I whisper into her ear. 'Or wake up and play with me,' the less noble bits of me add hopefully.
She's quiet for a moment before she turns around to face me. "The door's wide open. Where is everybody? Did you lock them in the basement or something? That's brilliant, and evil. I'm surprised we've never done it before."
"My mother," I answer in explanation. "I was so disturbed by the quiet that I air-guitared to Bowie before I came up here to bother you." I love that I can confess these things to her. I need to be reasonably serious in my professional life, but Bella lets me be a goofball on a regular basis.
Bella yawns and nods. "Of course you did. God, I'm so tired. I don't remember the last time I was this tired. I just want to sleep, and sleep, and sleep. Did we forget to pack my energy?"
The spot on her neck calls to me, and I greet it with my lips. "You know you're always knocked out when we get here. I'm just glad you decided to sleep it off for once. I hate watching you try to fight your way through it."
"I seriously didn't have a choice. I came up here to unpack the third suitcase, and just passed out. I must be getting old."
It's true that Bella is no longer in her twenties. She's got a few wrinkles now, and her shape has changed a little. She started dyeing her hair to hide a few grays about five years ago. And I realize I'm biased, but I'd put this early-forties version up against the late-twenties version of her and call this one even sexier, because this one is nicer to herself and has no problem at all telling the world what she wants from it.
"Come on - let's sprain something together," I laugh at her. I'm older, too. I've got some gray hair as well, and my stomach is developing a disturbing habit of refusing to deflate after a decent meal. I have to run harder than I did before to get rid of that.
We shift around until my top leg is between her legs, and this is still so amazing to me. My hands feel right wherever I put them on her; her hands feel right on me. Everything lines up. Everything was made to be together. We belong like this.
Things start to get a little heated. After so many years together, we're now able to take the express train to pleasure if we want to, but I'm not in any rush, and neither is she, so we get a little creative and sweaty. I'm just about to sink myself into her when she rears back and jumps away from me, stumbling half-naked toward the bathroom.
It takes me a minute to process that she's not trying to get me to chase her in there for the sake of a little kink, and I jump up to follow her, trying not to freak out. She's hovering over the commode and dry-heaving, so I rush over there to hold her forehead and pat her back. The image makes no sense at all to me for a few ticks, because I've only seen Bella throw up on three occasions the whole time I've known her. She doesn't get stomach bugs, even when the kids are sick. She doesn't throw up unless...
"No, no, no," she chants when she's finished heaving. I flush the toilet and pull her back onto her feet so we can wash her face off. "I can't be."
This is an unexpected development. "Well, the 'Doctor' in front of your name is less qualified to make that diagnosis than the 'Doctor' in front of my name, but let's agree that all signs point to 'gravid'."
"I thought I was just hitting menopause a little early," she moans, resting her forehead in the palm of her hand. "What are we going to do?"
I'm not sure how to answer this question. It's a tricky moment. I lead her out of the bathroom and back to bed, where she pulls on her panties and curls up against the pillows. I settle myself next to her and just stroke her arm for a little while. I'm not going to say anything; I've been a husband for far too long not to know that this is one of those times when whatever I say will be the wrong thing, and it's better if I just keep my trap shut until I know which way the wind blows.
"I'll be in my sixties when this baby graduates from college," she murmurs after a few minutes. "I just got tenure, and I have two new courses in development, not to mention the research for the articles."
Still afraid to say anything, I just nod in agreement. All of what she's said is perfectly true.
"A baby," she continues. "Bea just got settled into school, and it'll only be a few years before Henry and V are off to college. We could finally travel a little, maybe let Bea stay with your folks or mine while we just take off for a month."
I DeNiro-face her. DeNiro-face is the best equivocal response in the world. He's not saying 'I agree', and he's not saying 'you're crazy'. He's just letting you know that you've made a point without sharing how he feels about the point you've made. He's a genius. He's about to either rip your head off or buy you a drink, and you have no idea which way it's going to go.
"Am I even capable of being a good mother to a baby at this point?"
Okay, that one needs an answer from me. "You're a great mother. The best ever. Of course you'd be fantastic," I tell her as I kiss around her face and hold her close to me.
"A baby," she says again. "Edward, I don't know. Can we really do this again?"
And that makes me laugh. "Clearly, we can. We did. The only question is whether or not you want to." Laughter stops, and I'm holding my breath.
Bella purses her lips in thought. "It might not take. There might be...problems. At my age, that happens a lot."
I can't deny it, but speculation is useless. "A lot of women your age also have perfectly healthy babies. Every day. And the quality of care you'd receive would probably border on the obscene."
Brown eyes finally find mine, and they hold me hostage, as they always do. "What are you thinking about all of this?"
Doesn't she know? She has to know, but maybe she needs to hear it, anyway. "I'm thinking that we'll just make it work. I'm thinking that more of us could never be a bad thing, unless it makes you unhappy. I'm thinking that we'll have to share one home office instead of having two, or find another house that's as great as the house we've got, only a little bigger." I tickle her stomach. "I'm thinking that the dog is going to chew the hell out of a whole bunch of new soft plastic toys when we're not quick enough to pick them off the floor."
This earns me the most awesome kiss. "We're crazy. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. But if it's real, then I guess...we just make room for this. Room, and time, right?"
The love we end up making after this conversation isn't as creative as the love we started making before our little trip to the bathroom, but it's sweet, and slow, and full of us, and that's always spectacular. She falls asleep again, this time smiling, and I wait in a quiet house that won't be quiet for very much longer.
And I think about the thing I didn't tell her I was thinking about. I think about the number "four". If I could slap God's hand in victory, I totally would.
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A/N - This outtake belongs to the peerless AccioBourbon, who waited months and months for me to gather the inspiration for it, and never ONCE complained that I was taking too long. There are roughly three or four other started and abandoned outtakes, but this one felt right. Oh, Jan. I'm so grateful that you're my friend. Thank you a thousand times. Everyone who reads this and enjoys it should be thanking her too, and then running over to read her fantastic stories.