They were arguing in the front hall again. It wasn't often that Father argued with his children--not with David John, at least; Charlotte was an entirely different matter, and he and Evelyn rubbed along famously--but lately, David had taken the brunt of their fathers anger.
"It's not like it was before!" David snapped, and Evey hung back in the sitting room doorway, listening. "Its not just stupid European powers feeling as if they need to flex their imperialistic muscles; Hitler will--"
"I know," their father cut off his son. His voice was harsh, and she hated it when he got that tone to his voice. It reminded her of her grandfather, and Father was scary when he reminded her of Grandfather. "Hitler will take over the entire damned world given half a chance; do you think I hadn't noticed that myself? That doesn't mean you have to go out and single-handedly stop him!"
"I'm not going to even try to single-handedly stop him!" her brother shouted, and when she peeped around the corner she saw them standing just before the front door, fists clenched and practically nose-to-nose. Her brother was dressed to go outside, Father in his usual working clothes, and they made a striking contrast between David's fair and Father's dark looks. David John was an inch taller than his father--just an inch, but it showed, and she didn't think Papa enjoyed that very much. "But I can help!"
Father glared at David, and David gave him back glare-for-glare; they held the pose for agonizing moments, and then Father gave up. That was the only word for it--his shoulders relaxed, his entire body seemed to go limp, and he tiredly ran a hand through his hair. "You're so young," he said, with such a strange little laugh that David frowned and put a hand on his father's shoulder and Evey almost ran into the hall to hug him.
"I'm twenty-two," David said quietly, trying to catch Father's eye again. "I've finished at Cambridge--I've heard the stories about you and mother and Uncle David, you were all much younger than Charlotte or I, or even Evey, when you--"
"Don't take us as your role models," Father cut him off, giving his only son a stern look. "We practically gave your grandparents heart attacks every season we were in Egypt--"
"And they you!" David John laughed, slinging an arm around Father's shoulders. "And who better to have as a role model than you, and Mother, and Uncle David?" he added, blue eyes shining. "I-I've heard a bit, about what you managed to do back in 14; why did you never tell us? You were amazing--"
"No," Father cut him off, eyebrows coming together in one of his more formidable frowns. "We weren't amazing, we were terrified and trying to stop something awful from happening. And that is precisely why I don't want you joining the RAF, or Intelligence, or doing anything else so hare-brained!"
"Would you have me stay at home, safe?" David asked, his arm still around his father's shoulders. His voice was so quiet and conversational, his younger sister had to strain hard to overhear him. "Would you have me labeled a coward?"
Father turned his face away. "Have they given up the practice with the white feathers yet?" he inquired bitterly, and David frowned. So did Evelyn. "Never mind," Father cut him off before David could ask what he meant, and he looked at his son again. "You're going to do what you damned well please in any case, aren't you? he said. We always did."
David John somehow contrived to look both sheepish and determined, and he nodded. And then Father staggered both David and Evey by hugging his son. Mother was the physically affectionate one, always ready with caresses and kisses; Papa showed his love through his words, through looking over his children's work and correcting their mistakes, through the occasional brilliant smile that graced his features. David hugged his father back, tightly.
"I really am proud of you, my boy," Father said softly, and then he stepped back to look at David. "Just ignore the prattlings of a foolish old man."
David grinned. "You'll never be old, he said, you're invincible, Father."
Father quirked his eyebrows and clapped David John on the shoulder. David nodded to him and slipped out the front door. Father stayed a moment by the door, staring at it, and then he sighed and turned away, heading for his office on the other side of the stairs and hall. Evelyn stepped back away from the doorway so he wouldn't see her.
"We used to say that about Mother and Father," Mother said thoughtfully, and Evey turned around with a gasp. She didn't know how long her mother had been standing at the other end of the sitting room--it looked like she'd been watering the plants, since she had the watering can in her hands. "That they were invincible, I mean." She looked a trifle sad, and then she smiled at her daughter. "Haven't I taught you that its impolite to eavesdrop?"
"Yes," Evey answered honestly, "but honestly, Mother, sometimes its the only way to find out what is going on around here."
Mother flashed her an even brighter grin, set down the watering can, and joined her daughter by the other doorway, giving her a quick hug. She kissed her mother's cheek while she had a chance. Mother always looked beautiful, and she always deserved a kiss. "It is a cursed useful habit," she admitted, an arm still around her daughter's shoulders. Evelyn wondered if Mother knew she was mirroring David John's and Father's positions from earlier. "Do you think your father is being a foolish old man?"
"No," Evey said, biting her lip. "I think he's exactly right to be worried. I'm just surprised hes being so vocal about it."
Mother laughed. "You should have seen him when he was your age," she confided. "The only emotional response I or anyone else could ever get out of him then was aggravation."
Evey smiled, because that image seemed patently absurd. Father might argue almost as much with Mother as he did with Charlotte, but he spent just as much time laughing with her and kissing her. It was hard to imagine them any other way, honestly, though she had heard those stories too--some of them, at least. Probably more than either parent would have liked to have known, but eavesdropping really was cursed useful.
Despite that, she'd never heard much about what had happened to all of them during the Great War. Neither of her siblings had been able to glean much, either, despite Uncle David's limp and David John's middle name, and the mostly-faded scars on Father's back, and that curious, remote stillness that came over Mother anytime the war was mentioned. None of them spoke about it, at least not with their children; and if they spoke about it amongst themselves, they made damned sure no one was about to eavesdrop.
Evey put her arm around her mothers waist, frowning. "I'm frightened, Mother," she said at last in a small voice, and Mother immediately tightened her own arm around her daughters shoulders. "This war--it is going to be terrible."
Mother gave her an odd look, and she instantly tried to smile, to reassure. Mother swept back her jetty black hair--while Evelyn personally wished she looked more like either of her elder siblings, both her parents always seemed rather fond of the fact that she favored Grandmother Amelia--and kissed her forehead. "It is, love," Mother sighed. "Another terrible war, and I can only hope..."
She let go of her daughter and walked back to the plants and her watering can. Evey frowned at her mothers back and tentatively asked, "Are you alright, mama?"
"Yes, sweetheart," Mother said, back still to her daughter. "Don't mind me." She laughed--or sobbed, it was a bit difficult to tell, and Evey immediately started moving toward her mother. "I think it's my turn to be a foolish old woman."
"No, no," Evelyn said, giving her mother another tight hug from behind. "You're just as invincible, Mother, just like Father."
Her mother turned around to smile at her. "How Ramses would laugh to hear you say that," she said.
Evelyn frowned at her father's ridiculous nickname, as she always did. She didn't know why everyone in the family insisted on calling him that. Once when shed asked, Mother had said, "You have to admit, he's not a bit like Uncle Walter," and Father had laughed, and neither had explained what the devil that was supposed to mean.
"Everything's changing," Evelyn said after a moment. "I wish it would all just stay the same."
"I wished that a lot too, when I was younger," Mother told her. "Now--the more things change, the more they stay the same." She sighed and turned back to her plants. "Have you checked on the kittens yet?"
Evey shook her head. "I was about to do that, before dinner."
"You'd best hurry then."
Nefret peered through the cracked-open door to her husbands study/office. He only had one desk lamp on, blackout curtains over all the windows, and he was hunched over a stack of translations, gold wire-rimmed glasses perched precariously on the edge of his nose, presenting a frowning profile to his wife.
Nefret smiled softly and slipped into the room, shutting the door behind her. At the click, Ramses looked up, abstracted scholarly frown still in place--and, oh, there was a time when her mere presence would have had him up and his hands around her throat because he thought she might be a threat. She really was glad some of those instincts had faded, at least here, in the safety of home.
"And so," she said, looking at him ruefully and leaning against the door, "we have become our parents."
He huffed softly and ran a distracted hand through his hair. Nefret came to him and leant against him, and he put his arm around her waist. She dropped a kiss on his forehead, and he took her face in his other hand before she could raise it again, giving her a more thorough kiss on the mouth. He tasted of resignation, and Nefret kissed him back, fiercely.
"He will be safe," she said when they broke apart, and she took his face in both her hands, holding his gaze. "Do you hear me, Ramses? He will be."
Her husband looked at her sadly, so sadly that it almost broke her heart, and she willed the tears away. "Nefret, you can't--"
"Yes, I can," she cut him off, moving restlessly away to sit down in the stuffed chair across from him. "I would know."
Ramses looked uncomfortable, the way he always did when that particular subject came up. She found it ridiculous of him, but she thought she could understand why, since he had always hated things like that, the way Father had hated psychology or Mother had hated physical weakness. She smiled at the thought of them; she always smiled when she remembered them, and Ramses looked at her questioningly.
"You've said it so many times before," Nefret said, sitting forward in the chair and resting her elbows on the desk. "Reap what ye sow. This is exactly what Mother and Father went through, isn't it?"
It was Ramses' turn to look wry, and he slipped his glasses off and dropped them on the desk. The glasses were still a relatively new addition, and he refused to admit even to himself how much they irritated him. How Selim had laughed when he'd seen Ramses wearing them, and then he had compounded the offense by stating that it was a good thing Daoud was no longer in this world because it would have been heartbreaking to have to revise one of his most favored sayings about the Brother of Demons. But Nefret secretly adored how they looked on him. She thought she might tell him that, one day, just to see his reaction. But tonight was not that day.
"It's worse, though," Ramses said abruptly, staring down at the translation in front of him. Nefret frowned at him, and he refused to look up and meet her eye. "I got a phone call the other day; that's why I went to town today. Six want me."
Nefret froze. Then she straightened in her chair, some fight-or-flight reflex making her want to do--something, she had no idea what. Through long years of practice, she managed to keep her voice level when she said, "I hope you told them to go to hell."
Ramses looked up at her, finally. She tensed again. "Don't you dare," she breathed, "Walter Peabody Emerson, so help me--"
"They want me to work with their cryptographers," her husband cut her off. "Office work, Nefret, using my linguistic skills and my knowledge of ancient Egyptian, nothing more. They think they can devise some kind of code out of the hieroglyphics. I wouldn't even leave the country; I probably wouldn't leave London."
Nefret laughed bitterly. "Oh, yes, and London is so safe these days! If you do this, Ramses, I will enlist as a doctor and make them send me overseas."
"Who's to say they wont request you anyway?" Ramses said, and when Nefret glared at him again he threw up his hands placatingly. "I didn't give them an answer, Nefret. I knew I had to talk it over with you first--and yes, I didn't mention it earlier because I knew what your reaction would be." He ran both his hands through his hair. "And then that damned fight tonight with David John..." When he looked up again, Nefret noticed the black smudges under his eyes, the lines around his mouth. She reached across the desk and took his hand. "I don't know what to do," he told her, helplessly.
She was probably going to start crying any second now, but she didn't really give a damn. She squeezed his hand and then reached up to brush away the lock of hair that always fell into his eyes. His temples were going gray, and she knew there was as much silver as strawberry in her blonde hair these days, and some days she simply found this whole growing-old business utterly ridiculous. Particularly days like this, when she still felt twenty-five, or fifteen, the emotions so strong they threatened to overwhelm her.
Nefret stood up and prowled Ramses study. She paused by the radio and turned it on, twisting the knob until she found music, something slow but jazzy, mournful saxophone and dour oboe; something that wasn't the latest reports about the war effort. She turned around and held out her hand. "Dance with me."
Ramses sat back in his chair and looked at his wife. "Dance with me," she insisted. "Please, Ramses. It's been so long since we danced."
He stood up and took her waist. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and they moved to the slow music. It was barely dancing--not a waltz, something from their youth; nor a jitterbug, something from their children's youth--but she had her arms around her husband and she could feel his heart beating under the old flannel shirt he liked to wear when working at home, and when the tears finally did come, she could rest her head on his chest, and he could smooth a hand through her hair and kiss her forehead and softly say, "Shhh, darling. Its alright, well sort it out somehow...shhh, sweetheart."
Nefret sniffled. "You're a lot better at this then you used to be," she told him, and he laughed, one of his soft, low laughs in the back of his throat that not even David or his parents had ever heard. He tipped her chin up with a finger and kissed her, slowly and methodically, and she pressed herself closer.
They broke the kiss eventually, and Nefret rested her head on Ramses chest again. "They're all going to get involved in this war somehow," she whispered. "David John as a pilot, Charla as a nurse, Evey probably doing something outlandish. They're going to be scattered to every corner of the earth, sworn not to tell us a damned thing about what they're doing, and we shall be left here in dreary old England under bombardment from Hitler--"
"You're far too gloomy tonight, Nefret," Ramses told her, enfolding her in his arms and giving up all pretense of movement. "Not even Hitler can keep the bombing up forever, and I don't think Churchill will let us English give in to him. And considering how poorly David and I could do hiding our missions from Mother and Father--and you, for that matter--I don't doubt that we shall be able to persuade, coerce, and/or coax the pertinent information out of our own children. We will work through this, and cope, somehow."
"Of course we will," Nefret sighed, breaking away from him when the music ended and a news report began, so she could turn the radio off. She turned back to look at Ramses, not knowing whether she wanted to laugh or cry. "They're just so young," she admitted.
Ramses laughed again and sat down in a nearby chair, pulling Nefret into his lap. "So I told David John today," he said, "I don't think he appreciated hearing it very much." He paused, and then went on, "I was just thinking this morning about holding him while riding horseback, leaving Selim's house after an afternoon of playing. I thoroughly despise now that hes an inch taller than me."
Nefret giggled and rested her head in the crook between his head and shoulder. "Mother used to say that she didn't quite know how she managed to raise either you or I into adulthood, but she thought she'd done a creditable enough job by the end of it. Presumably with a little of Father's help," she added, dimpling up at Ramses, and he grinned at her before kissing the tip of her nose.
"I suppose we've done a creditable enough job too," he responded, taking her hand and playing with her fingers.
"Mmm," Nefret said, nuzzling his neck. "I suppose."
"I don't know if it helps or not, having gone through the last war," Ramses said thoughtfully, "knowing what they could be getting themselves into. Are we any more prepared than Mother and Father were? Or is it just going to be more hellish, knowing what we do?"
Nefret sat up to look at her husband. "We have to get them through this," she said. "We have to get all of us through this. I know Lia's already frantic, and David--"
"David is about to go off his head with worry," Ramses agreed wryly. He squeezed Nefret's hand and helped her slide off his lap so he could stand up and turn off the desk lamp. He put his arm around her shoulders and walked with her up the stairs to their room. "You're right, of course. We have to get everyone through this."
"I wish Mother were here," Nefret said, halfway up the flight of stairs.
She couldn't see her husbands face, but she could hear the sad smile in his voice. "And Father," he agreed.
"Oh, well, it's probably for the best," Nefret said practically. "Father would only want to get himself involved as well, and Mother would find some way to occupy herself in the war effort--"
"And, yes, no doubt there would be another dead body," Ramses said, acerbic. "We won't solve all our problems tonight."
"We haven't solved any of them," Nefret pointed out.
He squeezed her shoulders. "But we can meet what comes with strength and fortitude," he said softly.
"And love," Nefret added, just as quietly.
Ramses stopped in front of their bedroom door and turned to hug his wife. "And love," he agreed.
They went to bed.