Their marriage bed comes twined with laughter, something that Benedick thinks he would have found unnerving had he known about it beforehand. Then again, there is little he would not have found unnerving about sharing a bed with Beatrice; any pleasing benefits he could have imagined very quickly cancelled out by the reflection that she would at least have slept with a sharpened knife beneath her pillow, and very possibly played a warrior queen of old and strangled him with her hair.
He mentions this to her one day, and she typically laughs about it, head tipped back into her pillow, eyes screwed merrily shut. Benedick has seen Beatrice laugh a lot over their years of acquaintance – indeed, there were some years when she seemed to be doing little but sinking her teeth into his pride and amusing herself through the endeavour – but never in the way she does now, easy and content and without any of the barbs of bitterness behind it. It astonishes him that he did not notice it before; but then there was much that he did not notice, or perhaps would not allow himself to notice.
“Oh, Benedick,” she says, soft and fond, “I would have been far more cunning than that. Why be blamed for my own widowhood when I could play the innocent victim and poison you slowly?”
Her mouth is a delighted curve that belongs to him now and yet does not belong to him, and sometimes Benedick wonders what it would be like to marry someone who did not know all of his flaws already. Perhaps he could have got himself a wife who thought him wonderful, witty, brave, everything a gentleman should be – one who had not seen him at his ugliest, his worst, his youngest. Then again, was that not what Claudio found in Hero – and their innocence faded quickly and brutally enough. He will inevitably disappoint Beatrice, because he knows enough about husbands and wives to know that marriages are not always made up solely of kicking at each other’s bare feet beneath blankets and teasing one another between mouthfuls of grapes, but at least when he does it will not be a surprise, it will not be the disaster that others find it.
“You were very ready with that answer,” he tells Beatrice, wrapping a lock of her hair absent-mindedly around his finger.
“Well,” Beatrice says, grin bright and wicked, “you seem to think I have not considered it.”
“But you are not enacting it?”
Beatrice flutters her eyelashes at him in an attempt at guilelessness that they both know her too well to ever really believe in. “I suppose you shall have to wait and find out, my dear.”
There is an expression that Beatrice wears for Claudio and no other; one that lists around her mouth and eyes, a sort of happy despair: as though she would choose another husband for her cousin, even now, and yet could never do so, because this is the one who has made it his life’s duty to ensure that Hero never lacks for smiles. He is an excellent husband – he certainly puts Benedick to shame – and an affectionate one, and Beatrice treats him with every bit of the respect and love that her cousin deserves; but still, something tight lingers behind her eyes, just enough for Benedick to see.
He remembers the first time he met Claudio, laughing at one of his jokes, eyes quick beneath blooming lashes, and firing off a sharp remark of his own in return. The response was what caught Benedick’s attention more than anything else; he had long ago learned that a witticism could achieve what a steady application of fists could not, and while he did not shirk his soldier’s duties, he nevertheless was known throughout the garrisons for his prowess with words rather than the sword. He could have had his share of friends who laughed at every last one of his jokes and allowed him all the indulgence that he wanted, but Benedick had found that he didn’t want sycophants in the same way he didn’t want most women. It was easy to win them with a handful of quips and a wink or two, a graceful gesture of fingers – the routine was interestingly similar for both men and women, he’d found – but they proved to be a hollow victory, ashy fruit, and he found himself afterwards reaching for something that he could not name, but which was not there.
Benedick understands himself better now, he thinks, with Beatrice filling his days with more of their merry war than he could ever have imagined wanting, but back then he either did not know or would not know, preferring instead to allow his reputation to do the work for him. One whisper of Benedick, slayer of women, did more to convince his comrades than any demonstrations on his part could; rumours filled in the blanks his behaviour left behind.
So there was Claudio, who was callow and inexperienced, but capable of teasing as well as being teased, his wits so blunt compared to Benedick’s that he never had to worry about a single one of the poniards finding a hit. Perhaps he did not then know himself the way he has come to, but he was aware that there were some things he did not want touched, did not even want discovered. He was in no danger from Claudio on that score, while Don Pedro’s expressions remained unchanging, as though he held all the keys to the world but would only turn them at his own discretion.
A friendship formed in the heat of war and carried, still warm, home, should maybe have been his priority when Hero and Claudio’s attempted marriage fell apart with such brutal swiftness, though when he thinks it over – for they never discuss it, not ever, not any of them – he was personally unquestioningly on Beatrice’s side, and no one else thought to question it either. While he is still mocked mercilessly for his decision to give up his determined bachelorhood, no one at any point seems to be surprised that it was Beatrice that he chose.
There is a possibility that what Benedick thought he was hiding so well was in fact obvious to everyone but him.
Beatrice laughs in her sleep sometimes, rolling over on a chuckle and drifting back into slumber. Her face is softer in sleep, younger and more vulnerable, but Benedick finds that she isn’t his without that wicked glint in her eyes, without the sharpness and brightness that animates her features. She looks younger in her sleep, something which clenches in his gut when he considers it; she looks too much like the girl he knew, whose ribbons he wound around his fingers and whose smiles he didn’t know he wanted until they weren’t directed at him anymore.
Awake in bed, hair spread across the pillows and fingers cupping his face, Beatrice is glowing and gleeful, impossible to look away from.
“And you always said that you did not want to share a bed with men and their beards,” Benedick teases.
“Oh, dearest, you are not men,” Beatrice says, rolling her eyes, pressing a kiss to his mouth. “And this is hardly a beard.”
That much, at least, is true; one or two days’ growth that he has allowed to flourish because he likes it when Beatrice loses her patience and straddles his lap with a razor and a look of concentration that he cannot help but trust, though previously the idea of Beatrice with anything sharp near his throat would have been cause to send him running. It’s strange, the way that love can transform things that you were afraid of into things that you cherish.
“Besides,” Beatrice adds, lips curling with smug familiarity, “sharing a bed with you and your pitiful excuse for a beard is merely me doing my duty to womankind.”
“Protecting them from me?”Benedick muses.
“Someone had to make the sacrifice,” Beatrice agrees, and he thinks of the girl he left behind, and the boy who left her. It is possible that they wasted years missing one another, but it is equally possible that they both needed to learn before they could settle into a marriage that could content them both.
Don Pedro didn’t believe him the last time he suggested that theory either, but Benedick was never as quick a learner as he pretended to be, the first with the punchline, the last to hear the blow behind the words.
“I think it might have been me,” Benedick says, and hears something in his voice that might be surprise.
Something soft and warm flickers in Beatrice’s eyes, and Benedick once vowed aloud to love her forever and could not keep it; the second time he made that vow he kept it safe within his own breast and it shows no signs of flagging yet; he is not sure it could even if it wanted to, not anymore.