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Welcome to Charming, the year is now 1893. It’s time to join us and immerse yourself in scandal and drama interlaced with magic both light and dark.

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The first patented espresso machine was in 1884 by Angelo Moriondo. — Fallin
They hadn't been thieves before, at least. Noble had not been a murderer before either. Now he was one. Did thieving make a difference, at this point?
but the system is done for

you try your best but it hurts your chest
Between the hard set of her mouth and the tone of her voice when she said Merlin's sake Alfred could not help but feel defensive, as though in an instant the whole tone of this conversation had changed from two tired people trying to find a common exit route to an argument. He just barely stopped himself from rebutting maybe I do — not in the same way he loved Zelda, of course, but there were different ways a person could love someone and Jo had a place there in his heart and his mind and his memories, and it frustrated him that Zelda didn't understand that — that she insisted on feeling threatened by this. He realized then why he hadn't said I'm not in love with her any of the times he'd thought it (or some variation) in the past few minutes; the words were less for Zelda and more to remind himself of what the narrative was, so that when Zelda eventually brought it up he was cognizant enough to bite his tongue.

He might love Jo — for some definition of the word love — but splitting those particular hairs would do him no favors in this conversation. Alfred rocked on his feet and let out a short huff of air. "You're not. You're not. A fifth wheel. You couldn't be," he said, because this was easier to respond to definitively than the second comment. "My whole world revolves around you, Zel."

MJ made the most Alfredy of sets and then two years later she made it EVEN BETTER
Zelda reached up to play with the bottom of her hair. She knew that Alfred loved her; of course he did. He'd changed his life for her. "I know, but —" she exhaled. She hated feeling vulnerable, and she didn't think she would ever get used to it. "— she's an adventurer, and I'm not, and I'm never going to be." It had always felt like Jo and Alfred were on the other side of a wall, and Zelda could stand on her toes and try to look over, but she could never understand all of it, and she could never quite get it.

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Alfred's brow softened as her tone did. He couldn't argue anything she'd said; she was right, and this did seem to finally be getting to the heart of things.

"You don't have to be," he reassured her. "I wouldn't love you any more if you were. I couldn't love you any more than I already do."

MJ made the most Alfredy of sets and then two years later she made it EVEN BETTER
Zelda smiled faintly at her husband. "I love you too," she said. Loving him had never been the hard part. "You can be friends with her again," she said finally — she had not yet decided if she would regret it. "But — it can't be the same. I need there to be boundaries."

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She was smiling again; they were getting through this.

"Anything you want," he agreed readily. He edged closer to Zelda and reached to take one of her hands. "Just say the word."

MJ made the most Alfredy of sets and then two years later she made it EVEN BETTER
She hadn't expected Alfred to agree so readily. Zelda considered for a moment, and squeezed Alfred's hand. She could ask for anything. What would make this feel alright? The affect was a slideshow of embarrassing moments playing through her mind. What would have prevented those?

Alfred, in her garden, calling up to her, because he'd gotten too drunk with Jo. That one was easy.

"I don't want you two getting — completely drunk with each other," she said.

Alfred's cheeks glowing with enchanted attraction over a luncheon.

"If you travel together, or if you're in the same place when you're traveling — you have to tell me." Zelda wasn't sure she liked that at all, but she wasn't going to veto it outright.

A screaming match in Alfred's old flat, and the feeling that she was trespassing in a conversation when it should have been hers. Zelda looked up, and met Alfred's eyes. "You're not Ilona's father," she said, "And I don't want you acting like you are."

And then she was done, and she sighed. She just wasn't sure Alfred would accept this.

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The squeeze of his hand felt encouraging, so he was inclined to be optimistic when she took a breath and started. His immediate thought on the first condition was that there was a great deal of leeway built into the word completely — but he oughtn't to be going into this already thinking of loopholes, and honestly Zelda was right on this. He'd gotten drunk that winter and sent Jo a letter he didn't remember the contents of, and she'd written back about tattoos and I miss you, too; clearly the two of them drinking together wouldn't have been a good idea. (Clearly him being drunk around her wouldn't have been a good idea — perhaps Jo could hold her liquor or her words better than he could). So the first condition wasn't exactly easy, but it was also something he could agree to in good faith, because Zelda was right.

The second condition was just easy. Alfred traveled on such a predictable cadence, since he'd started work at the Sanditon, so it wasn't as though it was likely to come up often. If he did run into Jo or make any plans to meet up with her while he was abroad, telling Zelda about it was a pretty low bar to clear. He'd done that this winter, even though everything had been stilted and awkward; he could keep Zelda in the loop on their out-of-country interactions without much hassle. He wasn't sure what it implied that Zelda thought this merited becoming a codified rule, though — what, exactly, did she think was likely to happen if he was interacting with Jo abroad that wouldn't have happened here in England?

The last condition was the one that brought him up short. He wasn't Ilona's father — Ilona, presumably, being the name of Jo's daughter; he still had never been told. Zelda didn't need to tell him this, but she'd felt the need to say it. Alfred's brow furrowed. "What do you mean by that?" he asked, with a frown. "Acting like...?"

MJ made the most Alfredy of sets and then two years later she made it EVEN BETTER
Zelda frowned. Having to articulate this made her uncomfortable, especially because she had a sense that she wasn't just advocating for herself on this condition, but also for Orion. He deserved a father, and that meant that he deserved Alfred's attention when Alfred was in the country. And Ilona — wasn't Zelda's child.

"I don't know if Ilona's father is — around," Zelda said. Jo had appeared out of nowhere with a baby. Maybe the father was in the picture now, but that didn't mean he was reliable. And even if he was reliable now, he might not always be around. Jo left people. That was why she'd had the whole falling out with Alfred in the first place, if Zelda ignored her own role — and while Jo probably wouldn't leave her daughter, she still may leave a man.

"And if he's not, I don't want you to — parent her."

[Image: xXXD462.png]
Alfred still wasn't sure he entirely understood what Zelda was trying to say, but she'd said enough now that he could make assumptions about what she meant, and he wasn't sure how to feel about it. "I haven't even met her yet," he pointed out, as if to preemptively defend himself against any accusations of parenting, but that didn't really address what Zelda was saying. Even if it had, it might still have been a mistake to say it — preemptively defending himself implied there was something to be defensive about, and he wasn't Ilona's father.

But he could see this getting sticky somewhere down the line, because he knew how Jo could be sometimes. He didn't think that she would purposefully be a bad mother, of course, but if she didn't always do what was best for herself then it could be assumed that she might make poor decisions in other areas too, in the heat of the moment. When they'd been friends and Jo had started veering off the rails, he'd tried to gently nudge her back on track — she'd done the same for him, when he was cursed and maybe-dying and definitely mentally spiraling in his flat. If the same sort of thing happened moving forward, of course he would want to help where he could; even more so because the stakes were higher now that she had a child relying on her. It was conceivable that what he thought of as helping Jo, Zelda might view as parenting Jo's daughter, in certain situations. So what was he meant to do — not help?

"She comes from a big family, too, y'know. It's not like she'd need me for that," he tried out, but it was a thin excuse and immediately felt it. It was true, technically, but no matter what sort of support system Jo had or could have had, the reason she might need his help particularly was obvious — she had a tendency to cut people off, when things were tough.

MJ made the most Alfredy of sets and then two years later she made it EVEN BETTER
Zelda looked at Alfred, her expression a little flat. "So it should be easy," she said, "For you to keep from acting like her father." She'd expected some pushback from Alfred, but it was irksome to have it be on this. It should be easy, to avoid parenting a child you weren't related to, a child with a large family and a mother whose survival instincts were unmatched — but Alfred wanted wiggle room. And maybe that was why it mattered to Zelda.

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Zelda was getting irritated, and Alfred didn't know what to say. This seemed like such a stupid point to get hung up on, but he didn't want to blindly promise something he couldn't deliver on later down the line, in the service of smoothing over her irritation now. Obviously, that was a recipe for everything blowing up in their faces, later — but this felt ridiculous precisely because he couldn't imagine it blowing up later, or even being a point of contention. Zelda and Jo's relationship had certainly soured near the end, but Zelda didn't hate Jo. They'd been friends once, before he'd been in the picture. These days Zelda might not like Jo, might not trust her — perhaps might not trust him around her — but she did not hate her, and she certainly had no reason to hate Jo's daughter. If something happened in the future where Ilona needed help, of course they would help, without hesitation. Of course Zelda could never resent him for wanting to help. So what was she actually trying to say, with this ultimatum about not parenting?

"I still don't know what you mean by that," he retorted. He noted his tone (argumentative) and took a short breath before continuing, in an attempt to change it: "I'm not trying to be stubborn. I'm taking this seriously, alright? And I don't want to agree to something that 'should be easy' and then fight about it again in a few months because we're not talking about the same things. Like — what is it you don't want me to do? What are you worried about?"

MJ made the most Alfredy of sets and then two years later she made it EVEN BETTER
Zelda huffed out a breath. It wouldn't help anyone to snap at him, because his follow-up was more measured, so she took a few seconds to think through her next words before she spoke. "The way you are with Charity, and with Orion, that's — different from the way you are when you teach children to sail," she said, deliberately trying to make her tone more measured. "The children who are in your family need to be — you need to choose them. Does that make more sense?"

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Alfred wasn't sure he could say that it made more sense, at least in that he felt no more capable of drawing up a concrete list of dos and don'ts than he had been a few moments ago, but at least understand why she was having trouble putting it into words. He thought he had the sense of what she was getting at now... at any rate, her words had impacted him: choose them.

He chewed his lower lip, then nodded. After a beat he closed the distance between the pair of them and then tentatively reached out to drape his arm around her shoulders. "Love you," he murmured.

MJ made the most Alfredy of sets and then two years later she made it EVEN BETTER
Relief hit her, and Zelda leaned into her husband, draping her own arm around his waist. "I love you too," she said, and added, "I missed you." Just because it was going to happen every year didn't make his absence any easier.

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"Missed you too," he said, and nuzzled his head into her hair. "Missed you every day."

MJ made the most Alfredy of sets and then two years later she made it EVEN BETTER

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