White Rabbit

by Domenika Marzione

27/March 2012

"Can I answer it?"

Alex looked down at his son, poised eagerly over the ringing telephone. Dane wasn't allowed to answer the phone without permission, although he'd quickly learned that his mother was more than willing to grant it.

"Please?"

First checking the caller ID, Alex nodded and Dane pounced.

"Hello?... Hi, Grandma!"

Alex went back to the kitchen to finish preparing lunch; Dane could tell Star that Lily wasn't home as well as he could.

It was a blustery day outside and he could hear the rattle of the kitchen window as the wind banged against it even over the sizzle of the frying pan as he made grilled cheese. Finishing the sandwich, he scooped it out of the pan and onto the cutting board so that he could slice it in half. He'd put salami in the middle and had to make sure to cut all the way through the first time lest the salami be dragged out of the warm cheese. Dane would fuss if the meat looked wedged-in. Strange child. Lily's child.

He put the sandwich on the plate with the carrot and celery sticks and took the plate over to Dane's spot at the table next to the glass of milk he'd already poured. Leaning over, he could see his son chatting cheerfully with Star. Alex could hear the conversation vaguely; Dane was relating his most recent school and hockey exploits.

Pulling open the fridge, Alex dug out the leftovers from last night. Dane hadn't been wild about the chicken - he was rarely wild about chicken with the notable exception of Chinese food; fish had a better reception - which was why Alex had capitulated on the grilled cheese request.

"Daaaaddddyyyy!"

Putting the plastic container on the counter, Alex wiped his hands on his jeans and headed into the living room where Dane was holding the phone out to him.

"Grandma wants to talk to you," Dane reported.

Alex took the phone with one hand and gestured with the other towards the kitchen. "Your lunch is ready. Don't wait for me."

Dane ran off and Alex could hear the scrape of wooden chair legs on linoleum as he put the phone to his ear.

"Hello."

"Alex!" Star's phone voice was always remarkably chipper, Alex noted, as if she could overcome the distance by sheer force of personality. "How are you doing?"

"Well," he answered, sitting down on the loveseat. "Getting back into the swing of things still. And yourself?"

"Same old story. The community garden is flowering and I'm about to start a new one near the retirement home. It'll be a bit more maintenance than the others - the old folks can't do as much of the heavy labor - but I'm looking forward to it."

Alex smiled. Star was young in spirit - she was over sixty, but still considered herself middle-aged and thought retirement homes were for 'old folks.' She looked a good five years younger than she was, at least, and it should have been a comfort to Lily, who had just found her first gray hair. But every time Alex tried to remind her of it, Lily had grumped about how her mother's youthfulness had probably come as a result of her lifestyle and she had concluded that she was prepared to buy hair dye if it meant not having to give up chocolate and coffee. Of course, Rear Admiral Beck also looked good for his age but Lily was quick to attribute that to the preservatives they stuck into Navy food.

"That's great," Alex replied. "So what can I do for you?"

It seemed silly to pretend that Star was just calling to chat.

"I wanted to bounce an idea off of you," Star began, her tone of voice suggesting that she thought it was a very good idea. "Dan told me about how your friends got the two of you a vacation and we wanted to know if you had made any plans for it yet."

The trip had been a gift from a group of friends - Bobby and Cecilia, Rogue and Joseph, Piotr and Callisto (and children), Kurt and Amanda, and Orly had signed the card - as a combination Christmas and 'welcome home' present. To Alex, however, it was also a none-too-subtle reminder that he and Lily needed some time alone together.

He and Lily did need a vacation in a way that had stopped being funny a while ago. Between working long hours at the lab and having to be the strong, sane adult at home, Lily was constantly exhausted. He wasn't much better - Frohmeyer had pronounced him caught up enough to serve as primary assistant researcher on his new geomorphology monograph (it was what he had done at the end of his graduate studies) and right now that meant hours spent fact checking in between keeping up with Dane and continuing his therapy and going down to the XSE for training sessions and all the rest of the activities that could put his life back in order.

Lily would admit that they needed a couple of days off, but she had balked at almost every effort Alex had made to procure such. Not that he'd made much of one. They had spent a long weekend at a rented house upstate, taking Dane on trails where he had seen his first deer and to a farm where he had petted his first rabbit. But that had been six weeks ago and it was terribly obvious that it hadn't been enough. Especially when Lily confessed to not remembering when the prior vacation had been - Alex was pretty sure it had been with him.
 
"Not specifics, no," he admitted. "We'd have to come up with a time that was good for Lily's work and mine, not to mention what to do with Dane..."

"That's where my idea comes in," Star interrupted. "Well, our idea really. Dan and I wanted to offer ourselves up as babysitters."

Alex hoped he hadn't sighed into the phone. Dane's presence - or the lack thereof - was a big part of why he and Lily hadn't made any definite plans. At least it was a big part of why he hadn't pushed Lily.

Alex had come to agree with Lily - he wasn't sure, either, where Dane's personality came from. As much as Alex loved his wife, he knew that Dane having spent so much time exclusively in his mother's company, he should have been a lot less social than he was. Dane was good humored and perceptive and inquisitive - occasionally frustratingly so, especially when it came to his penchant for taking things apart to see how they worked. Alex wouldn't go so far as to call Dane outgoing - he still had a tendency to be an observer in new social settings rather than an immediate participant - but he was definitely one of the more popular kids in his pre-kindergarten class.

To Alex's eternal thanks, Dane had taken to him like a long-lost parent and not like a stranger impinging on Lily's time. Dane wasn't jealous (at least not very much and really not since the beginning) and while he could be very suspicious, he wasn't of Alex. They were still learning about each other, but Dane didn't have the sort of personality to try to play one parent off the other in any but the most minor ways. There were still moments when the past mattered, when Alex could feel his own absence acutely in his son's life, such as when Dane called out for his mother when he woke up from a nightmare or hurt himself doing something. But Dane wouldn't object if Alex were the one who came to comfort him and Alex appreciated that immensely.

But all of that was with the three of them living together; Alex wasn't sure how Dane would take his parents running off for a week without him. Even if he were to be distracted by his grandparents in the interim.

"We honestly hadn't come to a decision about what to do with him," Alex said finally. "Whether we should try to get another ticket and bring him along or... I mean, you two would be our first choices for babysitters, but..."

"Alex, totally apart from my overwhelming desire to spoil my grandson rotten for a few days," Star said firmly. "I think the two of you need to spend some time together and remember that there was a 'two of you' before Dane. I speak from experience here. It took Dan and I entirely too long to remember that we had more in common than a daughter. By which point we were living on opposite coasts and said daughter was in college."

Alex smiled ruefully, aware that Star felt brave enough to say those things to him even if they both knew that she'd die before saying the same to Lily, who in turn would rather suffer than admit that her mother could offer sane relationship advice. At the same time, he knew that Star was right.

"I know," he agreed quietly, more to say something lest Star get nervous. "But... I don't know. Keeping up with Dane, catching up with him really... Lily understands."

"A little more advice from experience, if I may," Star said a little hesitantly. "With all the missing years in my time with Dan and Lily, I've always tried to focus on what happens when I'm around. I can't pretend that they haven't done a lot of their growing away from me; I never could. Sometimes that change was so big it felt like I'd turn my back for a moment and a new person would be standing there and I would have to introduce myself to them all over again. I was sure that each time, I was ending up with a smaller and smaller piece of what I'd had before..."

Alex made a noise of acknowledgement. This would have been a conversation better done in person than over the phone, although perhaps Star's bravery came precisely because there was no eye contact possible.

"I got so depressed when I thought about it in those terms - like I was losing something," she went on, a little rushed, as if she thought that he'd cut her off. "I had to stop looking at the people I loved like I owned them. I wasn't losing anything because it had never been mine to lose. And I had to look at it like it was a gift, which it was. Which it is. Dan and Lily choose to share their lives with me and I have to be thankful of that, no matter what their motivations. Love, duty, simple habit... They don't have to. Nobody has to. And so I stopped looking at what I was losing and started to appreciate what I gained. What I could learn from them and what they could learn from me. Because growth is constant and they haven't done all of it when I wasn't around, you know?"

Alex had to admit that he was a little surprised at how much sense Star was making -- and also a little guilty for that surprise. Not only because Star was making a lot of sense with respect to how he dealt with his own life, but also because he was suddenly getting a whole lot of insight into her relationship with Lily. He had always felt bad for Star, felt bad that Lily was so often resentful and impatient and unwilling to compromise with her. But he was realizing that Star didn't need his pity, which was really what it was. She probably understood her daughter a lot better that Lily would think and had found her own peace, even if that understanding didn't often bring literal peace when they were together.

"Everyone looks at Lily and sees Dan's daughter," Star went on when he didn't say anything. "His personality, his features, his interests. And that used to burn me up and the more I tried to mold her in my own image, the less she resembled me. But I learned to stop being jealous and to shed my pridefulness and it wasn't until I did that that I could see my daughter there, too. And to see that others could see that as well."

"I certainly can," Alex said with a touch of amusement. Lily's stubbornness came from Star, he was sure. It was perhaps more natural to assume that Lily's force of personality came from her father and his military background, but the truth of it was that Rear Admiral Beck was a lot more flexible than either Star or Lily, a lot more accommodating and accepting.

"So I'm making a little bit of sense?" Star asked curiously.

"A lot of sense," Alex agreed. "A lot if important sense. Thank you."

"I don't want to make it sound like I'm ordering you around or telling you how it has to be or anything like that. It's just... I want someone to learn from my experience."

Left unsaid was the fact that Lily wasn't going to be the one to do it, at least not willingly.

Alex was racking his brain for something suitable to say in reply when Dane came running out of the kitchen, carrot sticks coming out of his mouth like fangs.

"Dane, don't run around like that," Alex told him, even as he smiled at his son, who was mugging outrageously at him. Dane had probably been saving them, waiting for his father to come into the kitchen so that he could show off.

Dane took the carrot sticks out of his mouth. "Tell Grandma I'm a vampire."

"Dane is a vampire," Alex dutifully reported, a little relieved at the forced change in topic. "Pictures at eleven."

"Picture!" Dane's eyes lit up. "Take a picture of me to send to Grandma."

"Finish your lunch and then we'll talk," Alex told him. He could hear Star chuckling as Dane ran back into the kitchen.

After thanking Star again, Alex said his goodbyes. Back in the kitchen, Dane was finishing the last of his sandwich and playing percussion with his celery as Alex went back to preparing his own lunch. He'd talk to Lily about their vacation when she came home.


"So?" Orly asked as she sat down, not even bothering to say hello.

Lily smiled. "It was good."

A week on St. Croix with lots of sun, sand, and sex and where the only reading material had been pulp novels that bore neither technical jargon nor a vocabulary fit for primary school. Alex had done all of the planning - including going behind her back to get Tom to clear out her calendar so that taking time off wouldn't affect the rest of the office.

"As if the glowing tan at the end of a dreary New York winter wasn't proof of that," Orly muttered good-naturedly and then gestured with her hand in silent exhortation to elaborate as the waiter approached bearing menus. Lily held her tongue until he could finish announcing the specials for the meal.

Sunday brunch at the Upper East Side bistro they had chosen was bustling - as far as the Upper East Side would allow itself to bustle. This was the old money part of upper Manhattan, the place where the Astors and Carnegies had had their townhouses, where women past a certain age didn't leave the house without a hat and before that age dressed exactly out of the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. It was a lifestyle that neither she or Orly had aspired to, Lily knew, but now that they were in their thirties, it had a certain appeal that it hadn't had ten years before.

"It was..." Lily trailed off, trying to come up with the best way to explain how good a week alone with Alex had been. "Necessary, that's the first thing. Not only for me, but for us."

"Which was the point," Orly retorted, thanking the waiter who brought the insulated carafe of coffee and the frosted pitcher of orange juice.

"We did a lot of talking," Lily went on, sipping at the juice. Fresh-squeezed. Her mother had always refused to purchase juice at the grocery, preferring to make it herself with the juicer that Lily was pretty sure had been part of her parents' bridal registry. It had seemed just another one of her mother's eccentricities at the time, but Lily did miss it now that she had no time - and no space in her kitchen - to do it herself. "About all of the things that we were too scared to talk about here and could always find excuses not to push ourselves to do it anyway."

"No hiding behind Dane or work or school, huh?" Orly asked rhetorically, pouring cream into her coffee. Lily made a face and Orly made one right back. "Did you talk about past, present, or future? Or all of the above?"

"All of the above," Lily replied with a smile. "Mostly the present and the future, though. The past... Alex wants to straighten that out by himself before he tries to explain it to me, I guess. He knows I'm worried about him and it, but he asked me to trust him in this and I will. I have to."

Orly just nodded. There was nothing else to say to that. Out of respect for Alex, Lily hadn't ever talked about the details of his recovery, not that Orly would ever pry. Not that Lily herself understood. Alex had been improving ever since that terrifying day at the XSE headquarters and Lily knew that it had as much to do with his getting back into academia as it did with her own seeming acceptance that he wasn't going to be able to stay 'retired.' It wasn't paranoia or fear that made Alex want to maintain his level of training, but a new dedication born of his experiences that he had been afraid to admit it either to himself or to anyone else. In truth, Lily had been uneasy about it, but she had had much of her disquiet eased by Logan, of all people. He had basically said that he didn't think of Alex's continuing to work on his combat skills as a change in personality, more an acceleration of the old one - Logan hadn't thought that the 'old' Alex would have been able to stay away from the XSE forever, either. It just would have taken longer to draw him back, probably a tragedy that he would have felt sure that he could have prevented. It had taken Lily a good couple of days before she could admit that Logan had been right.

Lily blinked and Orly frowned. Apparently she had been asked a question. "Sorry?"

"I asked if you were going to be okay waiting," Orly repeated, her exasperation only for show. Orly always seemed to know her so well that they used to joke that Orly could carry on their entire conversation by herself and that Lily's actual participation was just a courtesy. "Patience has never been your virtue."

Lily shrugged. "What choice do I have?"

"That's not the point," Orly replied, this time frowning genuinely. "Although maybe it is. You've become very much a creature of willpower over the past few years."

The waiter returned with plates laden with goodies rarely indulged in and both Lily and Orly sniffed appreciatively at bacon and ham and eggs with the yolks still in them.

"That's something else we talked about," Lily said as she delicately moved a couple of her wild berry pancakes over to Orly's plate as Orly returned the favor with the banana nut waffles. "Me losing some of my... bulldozerness."

Orly coughed and laughed. "Sure. Like that's going to happen."

"I hope it does, Or," Lily sighed, not bothering to hide her disappointment that her best friend thought it a laughable notion. "I don't want to be the Little Engine That Could anymore."

"You didn't ever want to be," Orly reminded her, pausing to savor her bacon. "But that's just your coping mechanism. I've known you for eighteen years, Lily. That's how you deal. Someone tells you 'no' and your first reaction is 'damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.' It's the rationale behind pretty much every decision you've ever made in your life. With the notable exception of anything Alex, which is why I was willing to share my best friend with him."

Lily swallowed and then smiled. Orly had never been shy about giving her opinion of her boyfriends and Lily still remembered that the first time she told their undergraduate friend Ahn about Alex, she had added "and Orly doesn't hate him."

"So what did Alex have to say about a possible version of you that runs on decaf?" Orly asked, waving the waiter away who tried to refill her coffee cup.

"He's having credulity issues," Lily admitted wryly. "But we decided that we can both be works in progress."

"Mmm," Orly mused. "Well, he's cute in his blind optimism and if you're going along with it..."

They finished brunch talking about other things. Orly was just starting to date a co-worker after months of trying to talk herself out of it by chanting 'no dipping your quill in the company ink' and things were progressing slowly but well. Ahn was pregnant again and Orly muttered about having to keep Baby Gap on retainer what with her youngest sister married to the devout Catholic and following the 'be fruitful and multiply' commandment "a little too enthusiastically."

Eventually, they paid the check and left to stroll down Madison Avenue and window-shop. Their aspirations to the gentry didn't go quite so far as to spend $400 on a wool shawl they both liked and they eventually walked a block west and headed back uptown on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park.

A nanny walked by them, calling in a Jamaican accent after two little girls running ahead of her, both of whom were groomed immaculately with their dresses hidden by matching Burberry coats and their hair kept in place by matching tams, the nanny half-begging and half-ordering that they not scuff their shoes.

"We talked about kids," Lily said quietly after the nanny and her charges were reunited.

"As in Dane or as in additions to Dane?" Orly asked curiously.

"As in additions," Lily answered, surprised at the embarrassed tone in her voice. Judging from the look on Orly's face, she was surprised as well, although probably not for the same reason.

"It was part of a very weird conversation," she went on, smiling wryly. "We had never really had the Baby Conversation before Alex disappeared. Well, we had never had it successfully. If he wasn't being theoretical enough or if he sounded like he had been thinking about it in great detail, I'd freak out and Alex... he wasn't sure, either. Except he wasn't sure 'when' and I wasn't sure 'if' and then..."

"And then everything became a moot point and you've got a son who is turning five," Orly finished, heading into the park. It was the way home for Lily, but Orly needed to be on the East Side to get home via Grand Central, but she followed along after Orly silently indicated that she'd just double back later on her own. "Is this not discussing locks on barn doors after the cows are gone?"

"Yes and no," Lily replied as she deftly avoided a careening rollerblader. "I mean, yeah, I've pretty much solved the 'if' question and all that..." she snorted self-mockingly.

"But?"

"But now we're trying to make sure that any decision we make is for the right reasons and we have no baseline to test it against," she went on as they climbed the incline and waited for the cyclists and runners to pass so that they could cross the drive. "It's not like we can be sure that having another kid isn't some vague way of making it up to Alex that he missed out on Dane's early years or anything like that because we had always planned on having two. Because we didn't plan. We planned nothing. And we have to think about how will Dane react because he's going to react. Neither of us want him to think that he was the accident or the trial run or the last beta version before we did it the way we wanted to. I don't want it to come down to it being either Alex or Dane feeling like they're getting the short end of the stick. And I'm not sure how to proceed so as best to avoid that."

"Well," Orly began after a thoughtful pause. "Skimming past your paranoia about Dane feeling slighted because, let's face it, you're an only child and know not of what you speak. I wouldn't trade my spot as first-born for anything. My little sisters were like having pets. At least until they got annoying and started to talk..."

Lily smiled. Orly was the eldest of four girls.

"But let's start with the easy question," Orly went on. "What do you want. Not thinking like Dane's mom or Alex's wife but as you, the person who used to swear up and down that there was no way in hell that you were going to contribute to the global overpopulation of bloody morons. I mean, we all knew that you were basing your opinions on parenthood on your own maternal issues, but... what do you want to do? Especially as you are going to be the one puking your guts out for a few months until you start bitching about how fat you're getting.. And remind me that I am going to have to talk to Alex about this because I'll be damned if I'm going to sit through another nine months of you checking your figure every six hours and whining about your hips."

Lily made a face at both Orly's sarcasm as well as her honest question. She had thought about it a little bit. A very little bit. Because every time she tried to think along those lines, she felt selfish because how could she exclude either Alex or Dane from her thoughts?

"I think I do want another one," she finally said. "Because I sorta know what I'm doing now and half of the stress was self-inflicted and I've got more people to yell at me this time. Stop laughing, Orly! And hell, if I could handle being a single working mother with an alpha-level electrokinetic baby and Dane still turned out to be such an awesome little person... I want to do this with Alex, not for him. Not like a debt that has to be paid back, but so that I can share that 'look what we did' pride with every milestone instead of just feeling heartache that Alex isn't around to see it. And Dane is going to be a terrific big brother."

"Another baby is going to require lifestyle changes," Orly went on even as she nodded, pausing slightly before a fork in the path before heading towards the left. Lily smiled inwardly. It was totally Orly to assume that she and Alex had looked past the practical parts of their decision. "Unless it's a boy, you're going to be pressed for space in your apartment - or else you're going to have to give up your office and turn it into a bedroom and you guys had to move the last time because that wasn't feasible. And then there's work - Alex may be cool with the househusband thing, but you can't keep pulling eighty-hour weeks. Do you think you can stay at the labs at forty or fifty hours?"

"I know," Lily sighed. "And baby or not I'm kind of thinking that the lab isn't where I want to be for the next thirty years. I love what I'm doing, but I don't love everything else that goes with it. Every month it seems like I'm more a bureaucrat and less of a scientist and that's not what I ever wanted to do with my life, cutting edge field or not."

"Chronography isn't exactly rife with career alternatives," Orly pointed out as they skirted a toddler laughing at being chased by a leashed poodle wearing a sweater and booties. "And you are not cut out to join the XSE."

"Ugh," Lily grunted, shuddering in revulsion. "No, it's bad enough Alex is so involved, even if it's what he needs. Actually, I sort of miss teaching - not the half-wits at City, but when I give talks at colleges now and I have intelligent questions asked and... I miss the thrill of imparting knowledge. It happened far too rarely at City, but I'm in a position to pick a job where I have a better chance at the light bulb going on and it not being fifteen watts. Ye Olde Alma Mater seems to be vaguely interested and not in that 'we just want you to apply so that we can say that we have a woman candidate' kind of way."

"Joe Perotelli has been waiting for you to be ripe enough to teach there for fifteen years," Orly cackled loudly enough to scare a squirrel watching them from a park bench. "It was like an academic version of 'Lolita' with him just watching you and waiting for the moment when he could approach you. He was Humbert Humbert!"

"Orly!"

"What?" she asked defiantly. "How often do grad students at one university help out professors from undergrad at another university? The man has been cultivating you like a farmer with a prize turnip."

Lily was laughing too hard to reply and had to take deep breaths before she could speak. "You are my best friend and I love you but you can be so damned weird sometimes, you know that?"

"I call 'em as I see 'em," Orly sniffed, still defiant.   

"I am not a turnip."




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