'Learn to love death's ink-black shadow as much as you love the light of dawn.' Yeah? Well, Nikolas doesn't do early mornings.
It takes a certain kind of courage to live as if favoured by the gods, ignoring the ever-present ghosts of your past--or perhaps not bravery, but arrogance. And maybe not even that. Ben genuinely believes that the past is behind them--that they deserve to enjoy the life they have created. So it's not hubris that leads him to overlook the signs that Nikolas does not share his faith, it's love. But Nikolas knows something is coming. He can't stop it; he can only decide how he will choose to face it. And without Ben's support, he is entirely alone.
Ben could pinpoint the exact moment his thoughts toward his daughter changed. It was the moment Molly Rose made Nikolas laugh.
Of course, Nikolas did occasionally find something amusing for other reasons, but usually it was in bed when only Ben was present. If he laughed at any other time, it tended to be a cynical snort of recognition that life just wasn't all that funny.
But Molly Rose made him laugh.
Nikolas went to visit Kate's parents more often than Ben did. But then Nikolas went to London more frequently. When he did, he often took the train to St Albans and sat with Jennifer and Reginald Armstrong and, of course, Molly Rose.
Ben had seen her only twice since the first great revelation of her existence, and she was now five months old. He was in London for an army reunion, and the last thing he wanted to do was waste a whole afternoon travelling out to St Albans to visit a baby. He didn't dislike the baby at all. But it was a baby. He'd almost retorted to Nikolas, "I wouldn't waste a whole afternoon to see my baby," before he remembered that Molly Rose was his. His daughter. It was so remote and so ludicrous that he couldn't take it seriously. She had been presented to him as a fait accompli from an event that would not have happened had he not been ill--suffering from amnesia, his whole world turned upside-down.
Perhaps there was a sliver of resentment for what Kate had done to him and Nikolas that was colouring his reactions to Molly Rose. Which, if there was, was beneath him and wrong, so he'd suddenly agreed that, yes, he would go with Nikolas and see her that afternoon. He'd even suggested taking a present, which made Nikolas smile. For some reason, he happened to know a very good toyshop.
They rode the train together, Ben holding the large wrapped parcel on his lap. As they passed the ugly, north London sprawl, he caught their reflection in the glass. Two women in the seat opposite them were staring openly, taking the opportunity of him apparently not being able to see them.
He supposed he and Nikolas did look...different. Both dressed as they habitually did in bespoke suits, they stood out in the increasingly dress-down world they inhabited. Both the tallest men anyone would probably ever meet, this exquisite tailoring was enhanced by model-lean length. Long cashmere overcoats on six-foot-four, one hundred and sixty pound frames said something, and it said it loudly.
Two men holding a present wrapped in pink paper with unicorns on it said something, too, he suspected. The unicorns were...fuzzy, textured. Nikolas didn't do cheap anything, and the shop had been one his ex-wife frequented for gifts for "the family", and he had asked for the present to be gift-wrapped. The wrapping paper, Ben noted, had cost twenty pounds a sheet, and it had taken four sheets to accommodate the large toy Nikolas had selected. He'd seemed to take it all in his stride, and Ben knew without a shadow of a doubt that Molly Rose had many other gifts from this shop. Nikolas liked spending money.
Nikolas was reading a newspaper, and was apparently not aware he was under scrutiny either from the young women on his left or Ben. Or perhaps he did know. He was spooky like that. Nothing passed him by. If he was conscious of being studied, he didn't seem concerned. On the surface, Nikolas was less worried about a lot of things these days, ironically just at a time when, to all intents and purposes, he should be more so. Molly Rose's mother had been killed. Her murderers had obliquely threatened other people in Nikolas's life. Nikolas had been a few hours away from drawing the danger away from Ben by leaving him.
But Ben had intervened.
Ben had broken Nikolas.
He literally saw it like this in his mind. Sometimes, in dreams, he heard a crack. He'd snapped Nikolas out of his protective shell, and for the first time, Nikolas had been raw and naked and vulnerable before him. When you've told someone that you love them enough to leave them, despite that fleeing killing you, you haven't got much carapace left to hide under.
Perhaps the honesty, the spilling out of the poison that was choking him, had given Nikolas this new, laconic lease on life. Nikolas had never been so calm and easy-going as he was lately--on the surface. Even their friends had commented to Ben that Nikolas had spoken to them politely once or twice. He'd asked them a question without them feeling like he was interrogating them. Tim claimed Nikolas had made him a cup of tea when he'd called round for Ben and been a few minutes early. Ben didn't actually believe this last fallacy, but it was indicative of the change the others reckoned they saw.
Ben, however, wasn't convinced. He not only got to see surface Nikolas, he lived with the underneath-the-water Nikolas, too. True, Ben didn't actually feel frantic paddling beneath the surface going on, but sometimes he imagined he was jarred by the ripple effect from it. Tiny things that no one else would notice. Nikolas's default setting was indolence. If he could get away with it, his perfect day would be feet up on his desk, a laptop--on which he would claim he was doing vital research--and a cigarette for sustenance. Now, this passive, serene Nikolas only appeared when he was present. Ben always got the impression that if he could come into a room ahead of himself he'd see the tail end of something else, catch Nikolas just before he sat down with his paper, just before he stretched idly and smiled at him. Quite what Nikolas would be doing just before he reverted to normal-Nikolas Ben didn't know, but something else. Something he suspected he wouldn't like.
Sometimes, returning to the house, he heard music so loud that it would have been impossible to think at all if he'd been inside. It clicked off whenever he came in and then the silence was all the more telling.
He couldn't explain any of this for whenever he'd brought it up with Tim, his friend had come back with evidence of the new Nikolas--just how chilled out he was.
So Ben was aware of a certain dichotomy between the Nikolas he lived with in plain sight and the one he suspected lurked behind the mask. It wasn't as blatant a separation as when he'd first known Nikolas, when he'd discovered he was actually a different man entirely. It was much more subtle than that.
* * *
Ben put a finger to Nikolas's reflection in the train window. Ironically, in the mirror image, Nikolas actually was who he said he was...the twin, the right-handed Mikkelsen, the flip side of Aleksey. Ben scrunched up his face. Perhaps he should ask the reflection what was wrong. He was more--
Ben blinked and turned to Nikolas, who was filling something in on a crossword. "You're thinking too loudly."
Ben huffed then murmured in Danish, "You have admirers."
"I suspect it is you they are enjoying."
Ben doubted this. If he were a woman, he'd be staring at Nikolas. Nik was looking particularly fine this morning.
They'd made love only two hours ago. That was something that never changed between them--the need overwhelming them as they'd dressed, a fastening of a cufflink switching to holding a wrist, seeing a strong, muscular arm, and that leading to shirts being flung aside and a joining of their bodies--but Ben wanted him again. He shifted the present discretely on his lap and Nikolas snorted.
"It's those kinds of thoughts that have led you to carrying a baby gift. The irony is delightful."
"That's your only advantage as far as I can see. You can't get--what's the word in Danish for having a baby?"
Nikolas glanced up from his paper. "You regret her?"
Ben shrugged. They pulled in at the station and any further discussion was lost to the disembarking.
* * *
The laugh happened when they were left alone with Molly Rose for a few moments while Jennifer Armstrong went to fetch a tray of tea.
Sitting in the large, elegant sitting room, the baby had been placed upon a play mat. The new gift--a wooden horse on wheels which could be ridden or pushed and came with its own genuine leather saddle, blanket, and grooming equipment--was in the middle of the room. As Jennifer had pointed out, oh so politely, in another year or so Molly would probably enjoy it. Ben was pretty sure Nikolas didn't care. He'd wanted to buy her a horse, so he had.
Freed from her grandmother's supervision, Molly Rose suddenly appeared to think the same as Nikolas. She fell to one side, pushed onto her hands and knees and crawled toward the gift. When she reached it, she pulled herself up, holding onto the handle. She looked at Nikolas and grinned, and he chuckled at her expression.
Ben was astounded.
His daughter had made Nikolas laugh.
Maybe it was triumph that his present had been right after all--Ben couldn't help but notice tension between the grandmother and Nikolas. He could understand it. It would only take a word from him and Molly Rose would be with them. He was her father, and he was more than able to employ someone to care for her. Jennifer must have seen this only too clearly, and also realised the influence Nikolas would have on this decision. It wasn't Ben who visited, after all. What she thought about him and Nikolas was less obvious. Ben sensed she was confused. She must suspect they were lovers. She was the product of her upbringing, though, and Ben felt fairly sure she could not work out where Molly Rose fitted into it at all. How could a man like him father a child?
Molly Rose couldn't walk yet, even with the support of the new gift, but she stood boldly, her extremely rare green eyes the same shape and colour as his, the same dark lashes, the same appearance of having been smeared with kohl, the same jet black hair, although hers was curly and his tousled (he'd had this argument between curls and artful tousle with Nikolas only that morning as he'd tried to sort his newly regrown locks after the sex). She'd balanced on her weirdly shaped baby feet and beamed at her own brilliance--and Nikolas had laughed back.
Molly Rose amused Nikolas.
This was something Ben needed to think seriously about.
He spent his waking days, and had done for almost eleven years, thinking about Nikolas and wanting to make life better for him. He loved him. Sure, he nagged him almost to death and made his life hell, too, but that was his job--he loved him. This--she--gave Nik genuine, unfettered delight.
That little human being suspiciously wearing a dress he'd also seen in the shop they'd just visited--all hand-smocked (and what the fuck did that mean?), so he'd been told, and embroidered with little roses and costing just shy of a thousand pounds--was his. A sliver of him jettisoned without thought but grown. A miniature, female version of him.
"You like her!"
Nikolas glanced over, his mind still clearly on the great triumph he was witnessing in the middle of the room. "Who?"
Ben motioned toward Molly Rose. He didn't like saying her name. He felt daft. He hadn't even told anyone outside his closest friends Tim and Squeezy that he had a daughter, and even to them he termed her the squirt. "Molly."
Nikolas seemed puzzled. "What's not to like?"
Ben copied the frown unconsciously. "But she's just a..." He wrinkled his nose. "Baby."
Their profound conversation was interrupted by Jennifer bringing in the tea, which she placed upon a table well out of the small crawler's reach. She considered Molly Rose who was wobbling a little and then sat suddenly, bouncing slightly on the padding of her nappy.
Jennifer didn't seem as happy with Nikolas's horse as her granddaughter.