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Passing-bells

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Curled up on the sofa against George's side, his fingers combing lightly through her hair, Nina watches the telly. Through the static a heavily pregnant woman she's probably meant to recognise chirps about baby names to the host, whose defining features are hair gel and a bad tan.

As far as she's concerned, if one more person asks her about baby names - just one more person - she's ripping their throat out.

And she won't even need a full moon to do it.

She flexes her fingers. The ridiculous turquoise polish that Annie insisted was perfect is chipping. Under its gloss her nails have thickened, become yellowed and opaque, and the edges are so sharp they shred cloth.

And by cloth, she means clothes, and loo roll, and towels, and skin.

(Basically - admit it - they're claws, and an amateur manicure with No7 Stay Perfect isn't going to disguise anything. Although, it is her colour.)

It's not just her hands, either. Her slippers are now open-toed, after the fourth pair of fluffy bunnies were shredded. Open-toed reminds her of her mother, so her mood gets worse every time she looks down. Well, it did - now she can't actually see her feet without advanced planning and a warm up.

Five months going on nine. They stopped seeing the obstetrician weeks ago. George panicked and told the hospital she'd gone to Southern Mongolia with the circus, so now she can't even answer the phone in case it's Simon-from-the-hospital, double-checking her beloved boyfriend's flawless web of lies. She hasn't left the house in a week.

And what she's going to do when the baby's ready to pop, she has no idea. George and Annie have been reading books and making plans; she just hopes that there isn't a full moon. Her own mother was monstrous, yes, true, but at least she never actually ate her young.

She scrapes a little more of the varnish off, revealing long, thin crescents of gnarling underneath. George is convinced these changes must be about protection for the mother and baby; he claims it's a sign evolution has accounted for their survival, and if it's done that then surely - surely, he says, half pleading and all false confidence - it must have the rest of that stuff covered.

As quick as she's been to snap lately, as much as she wants to snarl and bite, she hasn't had the heart to remind him what he already knows: that evolution doesn't have a damn thing do with any of this.

That's there's an obvious answer why they can't find anyone like her, or why Mothercare doesn't have a line of romper suits that come in small, medium and waggy-tailed.

That there's a reason they call it a fucking curse.

She can't do that to him. Just can't. (Yet.)

While she's been distracted with her nails, George has changed the channel and now there's something Classical playing softly. She didn't know he liked that sort of thing, but it's all right. Calming, actually. She rolls her eyes up at him suspiciously, but he's staring determinedly at the screen.

Sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the only other chair, leaning against Tom's legs, Annie is watching intently as well. Any moment now there's going to be another interesting fact, probably about babies and Mozart and, God, if Nina has to hear one more of those...

It's almost as bad as-

Can of Coke hanging from his fingers, Tom leans forward and nods to Nina's swollen belly. "So've you got a name for it, yet?" he asks.

George's arms tighten around her, impeding her lunge. "Don't hurt him! He brings you pickles! And blood lust can't be good for the baby."

"The baby has to learn sooner or later, George," she snarls, but lets him pull her back, just in case.

(Her emotions may have been playing Russian roulette lately, but her love for the child inside her has become uncomplicated, unwavering and fierce. She's beginning to suspect that one pure thing, untainted by history and quiet terror, is the wolf.

She's grateful.)

Tom shrinks away, and then looks nervously between them. "What's that about, then?"

Nina has no idea why this particular question that sets her off (yes, she does), there are hundreds more invasive, but these are her friends and she forces the wolf back under her skin, bit-by-bit.

Bite-by-bite. She smiles to herself and sees Annie’s eyes briefly widen.

She’s aware – Christ, everyone's aware – that this isn't normal. Hormonal is one thing, but now she's scaring people.

And she likes it.

"Everyone keeps asking," George explains, relaxing his hold enough that he can resume stroking her hair. "Granted, ‘everyone' is the postman and the lady who came to read the meter," he admits, over-truthfully. "Oh, and that nun."

When she tenses warningly, he hurries on. "Which is more than enough, because it's entirely reasonable to have boundaries."

"Right," Tom agrees automatically. "Boundaries. I can get some more pickles, if you like? It's easy. They never watch us stacking the shelves."

"I haven't asked about names," Annie says, skating over Tom's admission of petty theft.

Nina glares out at her from under the folds of her dressing gown collar; there's a definite question lurking in there somewhere.

"And, wait, it's not an it." George objects, catching up. He pauses, then, "I mean," he says slowly and clearly, "he or she is not an it.”

He bends his head; Nina shrugs against him and feels his grin. "Ana, if it - if she's a girl."

Annie's eyes widen again, this time with delight. "That's my name!"

Her smile falters as a thought strikes her. "That's a bit weird, though. It's like when my cousin was called after our Uncle Frank, because everyone thought he was dead, except actually he'd just moved to Milton Keynes. And then there were two Franks and Uncle Frank said it was like someone walking over his grave.

"But then he died, so everything worked out all right in the end, really. Well, not for Uncle Frank. Obviously. But you know what I mean."

"Not - not as such." George shakes his head, probably trying to find due North in the maze of Annie's thought process. "In fairness, though, you are dead," he points out.

She looks hurt. "Thanks, then."

"No! I mean, it's not like she'd be walking over your grave without -- because you have a grave, so it's not weird. And we'll make sure she doesn't walk on it, because that would be very rude."

Nina runs her palm over the swell of her stomach, a silent apology for the complete bloody insanity he or she (it) will be born into.

"Anyway, it's not Annie," she says. "It's Ana - one 'n' - for my gran. But I thought you could share."

Annie manages to look disappointed, pleased and relieved all at once. "What if she's a boy?"

George stiffens, the barely repressed enthusiasm fading. "We haven't decided," he says quietly.

Tom leans back uncertainly; he can't see the undercurrents, but he can feel them tugging. "Anthony's a good name," he offers into the silence. "Or Michael."

"All due respect," Nina says crisply, "but we're not naming our son after McNair."

"All right, I'm just saying." Tom strikes out wildly for inspiration. "Will. Harry. Brad. Leonardo. The Situation."

"Leonardo's nice," Annie says, after a thoughtful pause. "Except all the other kids would make fun of him. And you should probably stop reading the magazines in the checkout line."

"Nina should stop sending me out there, then," Tom grumbles. "Ox-blood, coal and ice cream - that's not right. The bloke behind the counter's starting to give me funny looks."

(Thomas is a nice name. Tom. Tommy. Her mind flinches back as if burned; definitely not Tommy.)

George stiffens, probably feeling guilty again, even though Nina's told him she understands a hundred times. It's getting repetitive.

"Sorry," he mumbles. "I know the three a.m. ice cream run is my job. It's just with... we need to pay the rent and it's there's only the one income now, so things are a bit... it's really very kind of you to help out."

"'s all right." Tom shifts uncomfortably. "Someone's got to do it, haven't they?"

"Owen," George says, hesitantly. "We were thinking about Owen. Maybe."

"What, like Michael Owen?" Tom's nose wrinkles, as if he's trying hard not to hold the name against them.

"Like Wilfred Owen." George sounds appalled. "He was a poet in the First World War. Honestly, I ask you - what are they even teaching in schools now?"

"Couldn't tell you," Tom says cheerfully, letting the insult to his education slide; he's probably just happy he hasn't unknowingly been associating with Man-U supporters all this time. "It's a good name, though. Owen."

Nina shakes her head. "Not Owen," she says.

(Not Owen, or Wilfred, or Siegfried, or Tommy. Not any of them. Their child won't be a war poem.)

-o-

Later, when Annie's pottering around in the kitchen and Tom's gone to work and the Requiem is just static, George presses his lips to her forehead and tightens his hold to a hug. His breath is warm on her skin; he doesn't say a word.

"We're not calling him Owen," she murmurs quietly, but firmly. "I'm not having that. Every time I looked at him, I'd think about -"

"Is that such a bad thing?" George is just as quiet as he interrupts; she tries to hear - wants to hear – a challenge, but there's only the question. "You never saw the best of him, and-"

"Shut up for a minute, all right?" She cranes her head up enough that she can see his expression; that he can see hers. "Every time I looked at him," she repeats, "I'd think about how I was a total coward."

He stares back almost stupidly. "Wait. What?"

"John," she says. "If the baby's a boy, we'll call him John. After a good man, who died in the war."

(Not Mitchell. Never, never, Mitchell. John.)

"You're sure?"

She lowers her head and pushes at him until she's comfortable again; she doesn't answer.