Epilogue - Sure

The people of the Missouri State Penitentiary arrived two days after the telegram was sent. Jeff led them to the mine and showed them the back entrance, then went in himself to make sure they left no bandit behind.

Two men were killed in the collapse. The rest of the bandits were hungry and tired after being imprisoned inside the dark mine for two days, though they eventually found the food supply the women had left for them under the sacks. And they had two lanterns with enough fuel for a good few hours. The women agreed with Abed that it was better not to torture the bandits, but on the other hand - most of them didn't feel sorry for the criminals who intended to take everything from them. They compromised on food to the extent that prisoners are given, and nothing more.

Jeff relaxed only when Rogue Bill was handcuffed and put in the prison carriage. The head of the bandits managed to tell Jeff before they closed the door on him, "Nicely played, Winger, nicely played."

Stephen refused to say a word while he was incarcerated in the sheriff's office, in a kind of speech strike, and Jeff thanked the gods for that. He didn't need any more verbal quarrels.

Then, when the excitement finally died down and everyone seemed to forget they ever faced danger, Jeff was able to turn to his life and wonder: What now?

And the truth is, he wasn't sure.

Annie didn't behave any differently. Well, she started waddling due to her huge belly, but it was because of the pregnancy, not because of her love confession. He tried to catch the elusive thing, the different spark that said she loved him, but failed. She looked at him the same way, kissed him with the same warmth, cooked and cleaned and worked and it was as if nothing had changed.

But everything changed: he loved her.

He tried to talk to her about it, but every time he tried to start the conversation, he couldn't think of anything beyond "I love you." So he told her that. And she loved when he told her that, so he tried to tell her every day. But that wasn't enough. There had to be something else. He just wasn't certain what it was.

Annie was still teaching, but now walking started to weigh on her - as it did on him just a few months ago - so he accompanied her to and from school. But she also couldn't stand for long, so her teaching days were reduced to two.

But Annie couldn't be without activity for long, so she took over the women's organization — at least the part of the lists, which she was able to do while sitting at home. Abed helped, and visited regularly to pass information for Annie. And Shirley visited them to bring food for Annie - she had a hard time cooking as before. And Pierce also visited.

Jeff was polite every time, because for an unknown reason Annie was fond of the old bastard. Pierce became interested in the running of the organization, and Annie enthusiastically told him about all the things she hadn't bothered to tell Jeff: lists, names, numbers. He was a little jealous, even though it bored him to tears to hear about it. He envied that there was something she told someone else and not him.

But, well, at the end of the day Pierce donated more money, and promised not to stand idle when witnessing slander in his saloon, as Annie asked him. Jeff saw it with his own eyes, and was astonished when Pierce intervened to defend the widow Ramely, testify to her good character in a drunken conversation in the saloon. Jeff was sure that Pierce didn't even know who she was, until Pierce reminded him that Ramley was one of the main beneficiaries of the women's organization - lots of children and little money. Pierce remembered that, and Jeff had to admit that maybe, deep down deep inside, he had a heart.

But when Annie said she wanted Pierce to be the godfather of the baby... Jeff wanted to dig his heels and shout, "Over my dead body!"

Instead, he swallowed, and said: "yes, Annie."

Because he loved her.

His award was the complete delight on Annie's face and a hug crushing his neck. And he told himself that he did the right thing, because when you love a good woman, you have to do everything you can for her.

:::

Jeff looked up from the soup, realizing that five minutes had passed since he asked Annie what she was going to do the next day, and she still hadn't answered.

He found her holding the back of the chair tightly, covering her eyes with a hand, and her entire face contorted in pain. He recognized the expression.

"Annie, how long has this contraction been?"

She squeaked, "I don't know, but it feels like it's been hours. And it's still going on!"

Jeff sat, debating whether to panic or not.

This wasn't the first time she had contractions - she had them two weeks ago, and also one week ago. The first time he called the doctor, and by the time he came the contractions had passed. Dr. Baker patiently explained that sometimes there are phantom contractions while the body is preparing itself, and the actual birth is still far from coming. The second time Jeff asked Annie whether to bring the doctor, and in the end didn't go. The labor pains came and went for half an hour, then ceased.

Annie knew his thoughts as if he said them out loud. "This time I think this is it," she blurted. "They keep coming. Please call Baker…"

"Okay, okay, okay," she need not asked twice. He jumped from the chair, leaving his soup deserted on the table. He stopped, just to kiss her head. "Will you be alright, love?"

"Go! Please, go!"

He ran.

Dr. Baker brought Nurse Perry with him, and she told him to go get Shirley. At the inn, Shirley said, "you did well to call me, boy."

Back at their house, Annie's screams descended from the second floor, and Jeff wanted to pull all his hair out when he heard the pain in her voice. He was about to go upstairs, but Shirley stopped him.

"Where are you going, lad?"

"To Annie! She needs me!"

"Not right now," Shirley said. He blinked at her as another shout fell down the stairs.

"But…"

"Go heat water," Shirley told him. "That will help."

"Water!" He remembered that Annie had told him something like that, a long time ago, and nodded. "Fine. How much water?"

"As much as possible."

:::

It was the most terrible pain in the world. Annie thought she was going to die, no doubt about it. She would later recall the shouts and things she said while the pain tore through her, but at moment all she felt was a slashing orange ache. Shirley held her hand, cooing to her that she's doing great, and Dr. Baker did something between her legs, and Brita told her, "Breathe, you're fine, breathe," and ran around handing things to the Doctor.

And then it was over. The worst of the pain was over, and Annie closed her eyes and felt that something had left her body — pain, mostly, but also the fullness she carried all this time, the baby who went with her everywhere. Her body was missing something now. She heard a cry.

"Have some rest, Annie," Brita told her, even though the doctor was still messing with things that had to do with her body. "You can rest now."

After a while Shirley said in her ear, "Annie, are you awake?"

Annie blinked, breathing slowly, and opened her eyes. Shirley brought her a small pile covered with soft blankets she had sewn in the last months, and inside the package peeked a tiny, reddish face, and long lashes rested on soft cheeks. She touched the tiny nose, and saw his nose, Jeff's nose.

Shirley placed the package in her hands, and the feeling of emptiness dimmed.

"This is your daughter," Shirley said. "Healthy and strong. She was tired of the whole thing, so I let her sleep. But soon she will need to feed."

Annie held her tight, stroking her sweet cheeks, and whispered, "Call Jeff, please."

She didn't avert her eyes from the tiny creature in her arms, but heard Brita call out from the door, "Winger! Get yourself up here!"

Then there were steps on the stairs, and Jeff passed through the door and stood beside her.

"Jeffrey," Annie looked up at him, and all the pain and all the hardships she had been through up to now were worth it for the baby she held, and for that stunned expression on his face, that endless gratitude. He sat down beside her in awe. "It's a girl," Annie told him. "Do you want to hold her?"

"Can I?"

She showed him how, and he supported her head gently, staring at the tiny face, like Annie did. "She's red," he murmured.

Shirley said, "some babies are red. But it passes."

Annie whispered to him, "She's beautiful."

"Like you," he whispered back, leaning against her to kiss her forehead.

"She has your nose…"

Jeff touched the nose with a knuckle. "Maybe."

The baby opened her eyes and looked at him.

Annie sighed in front of the big gray eyes. "Oh, she's perfect…"

Shirley said, "Do you know what you want to call her?"

"Beth," Jeff murmured to the baby, half cooing to her. "After my mother."

Annie nodded. She liked the name and agreed as soon as he suggested it. She regretted not getting to know his mother.

"Oh," Shirley smiled. "It's nice."

Jeff said to the baby, "Welcome to the world, Beth. I'm your dad and this is your mom. We both love you and we'll never leave you."

:::

About a week later, the mother and baby had figured out how to breastfeed and feed, respectively, and Annie felt confident she wouldn't drop the little one during bathtime. The baby was asleep in the crib on the side of the room early in the evening, and Annie was lying on clean sheets, curled up next to Jeff. "If I won't wake up from her crying, wake me up, alright?"

"Very well, little one."

Her eyes were weary. Beth hasn't yet been able to sleep for more than two hours straight.

Jeff said, "I have a question, if you don't mind me asking."

"You can ask me anything," Annie murmured.

"Fine, but promise not to hit me."

Annie promised with her eyes closed. "On my honor."

"Why do you want Pierce to be Beth's godfather?"

"Oh, Jeff," Annie murmured. "He's sweet. You should've seen him when I came with the class to meet him. You can see he regrets not having grandchildren."

"Oh," he said, and didn't say more.

Annie was rather sleepy, but it was a fraught "oh," with no follow up. She demanded an explanation: "What's 'oh'?"

"Nothing," Jeff murmured. "Go to sleep, little one."

He was masking something. She was sure. And she didn't like it. She has had no reason to worry about him since they defeated the bandits. He was considerate, caring. Enveloped her with love, massaged her back as much as she liked, and did above and beyond for her. If he could, he would've carried her in his hands everywhere. But something was odd. He was… like a doll.

And she won't have him tell her to "go to sleep little one" in such a tone.

"What do you mean, go to sleep?"

"You're tired," Jeff said. "You didn't sleep properly this week…"

"Do you think I can't do without sleep?"

"No, of course you can, but Beth requires a lot of energy..."

"Now you blame your daughter? What is she guilty of?"

"Nothing! She's not guilty of anything! What are we arguing about?!"

"I don't know! But I'll lose it if you don't tell me what it is!"

"You started this fight!"

"You told me 'oh' and then said it was nothing!"

"What the hell are you talking about?!"

Annie blinked a couple of times and managed to remember what they were discussing before. She sat up and stabbed his chest with her index finger. "We talked about Pierce! Then you said 'oh'. Like you disagree. But you didn't say anything else."

"I didn't know that was the meaning of 'oh'! From now on I promise to avoid that word!"

Alright, she managed to upset him, and that's what she was trying to do, but she was still not sure why.

"No," Annie said in a thoughtful tone. "That's not what I meant. I want you to tell me what you think of Pierce."

Jeff exhaled and rubbed his eyes. "We have to talk about it?"

"Yes! Why not?"

"Because I don't want to argue with you!"

"Why not? Why won't you argue with me? What's so terrible about that?"

"I love you!" He shouted. "I don't want to upset you!"

Annie smiled.

Jeff hissed, "I don't understand why you're laughing at me."

Annie shook her head. "You have to admit yelling at someone 'I love you!' is a little funny."

He was too annoyed to see the humor in the situation, but Annie found the thing that had been bothering her about Jeff's doll behavior.

"Jeff, just because you love me doesn't mean you have to agree with me, or do only what I want. I love you too - what am I supposed to do? Ignore your desires?"

Jeff opened his mouth to answer, thought about what he was going to say, and closed quickly.

"What did you mean to say?" Annie pressed. "Please, I promise I won't be angry."

"You will be, though."

"Well, then I promise to forgive you quickly."

Jeff sighed. "Usually we do what you want, Annie. Your desires become my desires, even if they were opposite at first…"

"Oh, Jeff," Annie sighed, and warm waves washed over her as she realized what he was going through for her, this perfect, stubborn, foolish man. "Did I take over our decisions again?" She touched his shoulder gently now, a touch of reconciliation. How much was in him that she wasn't yet aware of.

"I don't mind," Jeff murmured. "I love you."

"Stop," Annie said. "I love that you say it, but it shouldn't make your desires disappear. I want you to tell me when your will is opposite to mine. Don't let me take over our choices. You are my second half - not a quarter, nor a fifth. Half. And our opinions should be heard equally."

"But…" Jeff tried to start another sentence, changed his mind, then changed again. "But something has to be different. It was that way before I realized it. We can't stay the same."

"What do you mean?"

"Annie…" Jeff sighed. "You know I never loved a woman before. I don't know what I'm doing. Shouldn't it be different?"

"Did you think that after we confessed to each other, things should be different from what it was before?"

"Yes! It must be! ...Isn't it?"

"Yes and no," Annie touched his cheek. "You know, we both showed each other our feelings long before we said them. No wonder people guessed I loved you, and told me that you loved me too. We acted like a couple in love, not because we pretended."

Jeff looked into her eyes, but he seemed lost.

"In our first week together, before the war... there were so many times I thought 'I love you', and I was holding myself back not to say it. Instead, I kissed you. Instead… I held you." She held the sides of his face in her palms, stroking the dents and curves, the smooth sections, the wrinkles on the sides of his eyes, the stubble. She rested her forehead on his, and closed her eyes tightly.

As she pulled away his eyes were hazy, remembering.

"Do you remember that?"

"I do," Jeff murmured. "I liked it very much."

"For me it was instead of telling you the words. And you were so overprotective, that even Brita remarked that it was unhealthy. But if you protected me because you loved me… then it makes sense."

"So we didn't have to change at all?" Jeff grabbed her wrists, which were still framing his face.

"We have changed," Annie said, "the words are between us and around us. And around Beth. I don't have to wonder, I don't have to worry that I might lose you if I say something wrong. And I hope… I hope you too can feel that certainty."

"Certainty," Jeff repeated. "Yes. I didn't understand it, but I think I do now. I was so scared I would lose you to another man that I kept pushing you away from me… but once you told me you loved me... I realized that this was it. There will be no other man for you, will there?"

"Not as long as you live, and long after that," Annie assured him. She leaned over to kiss him on the lips, and took his hand, putting it over her heart, just above the curve of her breast. "The King of my heart. My tall, dark lover. I want you to feel as confident as I do."

"Fine." He smiled.

"Do you agree with me because you have to?"

He thought about it. "No. I do think like you."

"So please, tell me the truth when you think differently from me."

He was still lying down and she was looking down at him from her sitting position. Jeff said slowly, "I don't want Pierce to be Beth's godfather."

"Why?"

"Hey! You said I could tell you what I think-"

"I didn't say I wouldn't argue. Please, explain to me why."

His gaze was serious. "She's our first daughter. And Pierce has just started to learn how to be a tolerable person. I want her to have a godparent that I can entrust her to them, if I need to. Someone I appreciate. Like Shirley, for example."

"Shirley?"

"Yes. You know what I think of her…"

It was Shirley who made him betray the bandits all these years ago, Shirley he liked, Shirley who made him change his mind and leave the crime life in favor of the life in a quiet and boring little town.

Shirley, her first friend in town, who stood by her side on the ups and downs.

"Alright," Annie said. "Shirley."

"Yes?" Jeff raised his eyebrows. "Really?"

"Yes. I'm with you. Shirley is a woman who deserves more appreciation than she receives. Her heart is in the right place, and so is her brain. I'd love her to be Beth's godmother."

She lay down and cuddled with him again, hugging him contentedly and closing her eyes. Shirley was a good choice. She was pleased with the course of events.

"Speaking of which," Jeff said, "why did I have to boil so much hot water at the birth?"

Annie hummed in thought. "That's what's bothering you?"

"That's the only thing I was allowed to do. What was the purpose?"

"It relieves the pain," Annie yawned. "Brita and Shirley dipped towels in the water and put it on my stomach and under my back. It also helps clean up all the fluids. And it's used for the baby's first bath."

"Oh," Jeff said.

"Are you satisfied now?"

"Not really."

Annie smiled - he quickly implemented her lecture. "It's hard to please you, isn't it?"

"I didn't like the fact that everyone was with you except me."

"Not everyone…"

"Next time I want to be with you in the room," he continued.

She debated it for a few minutes. She asked him to voice his wishes, and that's what he did. "Next time?"

"Yes. With our next boy. Or girl."

She beamed. "Alright. Next time… We'll do it your way."

:::

About a week after the bandits interrupted the wedding with such rudeness, Brita found out she wasn't pregnant, and she and Troy decided to postpone the wedding. Annie thought it was a shame to postpone after everything they went through together, but Jeff of course supported the decision.

When Beth was a month old, Brita came to show Annie the ring on her finger - they got married in a small wedding with a few guests. They wanted to be married and be done with it.

Annie wished she could've been there with them, but Brita was glittering with bliss. Troy was good for her. And the ring was beautiful.

:::

In any case, Annie was too busy with her own affairs to interfere in the lives of young couples - too many sleepless nights with a baby girl. Annie slept at every opportunity, so she hardly saw her friends, unless they visited her at just the right time. At least she kept seeing Jeff, who spent a lot more time at home.

After the birth Jeff reduced the hours he worked as a sheriff, and let Troy take over for him more, so he could be more at home.

He couldn't sit idly by in the sheriff's office, when he could sit with the baby lying on his thighs and make faces until Beth gargled and giggled, then he would send Annie a look full of pride that he had managed to get that sound out of her. Annie would almost cry at moments like this, hurrying to wipe away the tears and look away so as not to worry him.

Jeff liked watching her while she breastfeed, caressing the black down that covered Beth's little head. He especially liked sitting with Annie between his legs and holding both of them while she did it. She asked him why he loved it so much, and he replied, "I can hold you both at once, and the view from here encompasses everything I would like to see."

The pregnancy made her particularly slow, because only two days later did she realize what he meant: Beth's face - and her breasts. She slapped his chest when she realized this, but Jeff just laughed and told her that A., he didn't understand why she was surprised, and B., if she didn't want to hear the truth, she shouldn't have asked for it explicitly.

She couldn't stay mad with him.

:::

Beth wore the sweetest dress in the known world, fringed in light blues, and Annie told her, "Who is the beauty of the ball? You! You're going to be the most beautiful girl at the party! No one will be able to take their eyes off you!"

Beth smiled at her with an open mouth and babbled, grabbing her legs in her chubby hands. She was five months old, was able to roll over and crawl, and will soon start walking. In the meantime, a short dress was necessary so that it wouldn't get tangled between her knees while crawling.

Jeff said from the door, "I'm sorry to say that Beth, but your mother is lying." He was in front of Annie a few steps, grabbed her hand and kissed the back of it, and his eyes caught hers, before descending down her body. "Your mother will be the most beautiful woman at the party."

Annie blushed with pleasure, but she knew what she was doing when she ordered the red velvet for the home-coming party. She said to the seamstress, "That's what I want," and put her finger on a drawing of a summer dress with short, puffy sleeves, shoulders revealing, and a full skirt. It's been a while since she's felt pretty, and there have been too many times she's missed the opportunity to leave Jeff speechless. And this was the perfect opportunity: a party in honor of the men returning home. The war ended in an agreement, the United States won, and the Greendale men finally returned to town, filling the hole they created when they left. The Greendale ladies didn't have to conjure many ideas before deciding to organize a late summer party.

"Thank you, my lord," Annie smiled down at Jeff, who was still lingering over her hands which were covered in short white gloves. He said, slowly straightening to his full height, "I think you expected that I would say something like that?"

"Definitely not!" Annie protested, then smiled cheekily, "I expected you to be so mesmerized that it would render you speechless."

He laughed, and grabbed her face between his hands, leaned to kiss her lips slowly, lengthening the kiss as if there wasn't a party they were supposed to make an appearance at.

Annie grabbed the sides of his shoulders, sighing as his tongue made a slow journey into her mouth. Hmmm...

Her mind stopped functioning, and the complete freedom from thoughts was liberating.

"Woaaa!" Beth said.

Jeff gave Annie one last peck on the lips, and walked away. "Beth is offended that we don't include her."

Annie licked her lip, still tasting him, and dozens of possible answers came to mind. She compromised on, "We'll have to move her to the guest room at some point."

"At some point?" Jeff raised an eyebrow and his smile was all knowing and smug.

"Soon."

"When?" He checked as he took Beth in his arms and offered Annie his elbow. She took it after making sure they took everything they needed for Beth.

"Very soon."

:::

The weather was pleasant, warm with a cool breeze, and children and adults walked around the town square in their best finery.

Sadly, Jeff lost Annie as soon as they got there, when Miss Dart took her to talk to the women, leaving Beth with him. "It's just you and me, honey," Jeff told the toddler who was looking around her with great interest, saying a wrinkled forehead, "bagagaba-ba." He agreed. The girl was clearly as clever as her mother.

Abed saw him and waved. Jeff approached him and Rachel, and Abed presented him with a black-bound book with red lettering that read, The Swashbuckler Frontiersman - Alexander Duman.

Jeff raised an eyebrow. "That's... a mouthful."

Abed said, "I didn't like the name either, but the publisher said people need to know right away whether there will be swashbuckling or not. And we have swashbuckling."

Rachel said, "We couldn't write our real names, no one would buy it. I am a woman, and Abed's brown. So we compromised on the initials of our names: Abed - Alexander, Duncan - Duman."

Abed said, "I will bring the book to your house later. So you don't have to carry it." He glanced at Beth, who Jeff was holding in one hand quite easily.

Jeff noticed the look and said, "Do you want to hold her?"

Abed was fascinated by the little girl, and he took her eagerly. Jeff took advantage of the fact that Rachel and Abed's favorite new game was trying to make Beth say long words, and he left her in their faithful hands, and went in search of Annie.

Couples began to fill the dance floor - his old pal Duncan and his wife Florence, Vicki and her husband Neil, even Nicole James danced with her husband. He sometimes saw her in the street, waving hesitantly at Annie from across the road. They weren't friends, but Annie truly forgave her, and Nicole seemed to have made a real effort to change. If Annie had been able to give her a second chance, Jeff would too.

Shirley danced with the mayor - after a few months in town her husband left again for his business, and both seemed satisfied with the state of affairs. According to Annie, they loved each other, but got used to being far away, so it was easier for them.

Jeff didn't identify with them. He wanted to be as close to her as possible, especially now that everyone were dancing - he wanted to pull her to dance with him before anyone else could lay their hands on her, especially the way she looked today: wearing the fitted red dress over her alabaster skin, a dress that showed no one could steal her "town's beauty" title. The dress also showed almost too much cleavage to his liking, but he accepted the fact that it was a battle he would never win in. His wife was magnificent, and it was impossible to hide it.

He passed Troy dancing with Brita. His lieutenant spun her too fast, and she had to stop and pant, her hand on her back. The town's nurse was now part of the town just as much as the town's teacher, and Jeff was forced to admit that she had improved, somewhat. At the very least, he seemed to be the only one who complained. "Troy, I need a break!" She exclaimed, raising her hand in the air.

Troy came next to Jeff. "Boss!" He patted his shoulder. "Aren't you dancing?"

"I'm thinking about it," Jeff shrugged. "But I can't find the lady!"

"I think I saw her- by the way, I heard your lieutenant from the army came to town!"

"What?" For a moment he didn't remember, and then the war returned to him in an avalanche. The dreams with the smoke didn't go away completely, but when Beth filled his thoughts during the day, she also snuck into his dreams at night and filled them with light. "Stephenson? Rick?"

"Exactly!" Troy said. "I heard he's looking for you!"

He didn't even know that the man had survived the war. It was hard to get news about specific people, unless they were the generals themselves. Oddly enough, he wanted to see him.

He found Stephenson, and at the same time he found Annie.

He recognized the tall man, his hair golden in the setting sun, his white smile shining. His former lieutenant saw Annie, called her name, then ran to her and hugged her tightly.

Jeff stood and stared at Stephenson crushing Annie in her scandalous red dress, and Annie laughed and hugged him back.

Jeff waited to see black.

He waited for the sharp pain that would grip his stomach on one side, and turn it through itself to the other side.

He waited for jealousy, for self-hatred, for mocking thoughts about everything he wasn't and never could be.

He breathed and thought, Annie loves me. And Rick has already proven that he isn't man enough to invest in a good woman. And I am, after all... a good man.

He approached them and said aloud, "Stephenson, this is my wife. Annie, this is my loyal lieutenant, who replaced me after I was injured."

Annie chuckled as Rick let go of her and lowered her to the ground, and she walked away from him, stood next to Jeff and naturally linked her arm with his. "I already know Rick! But I haven't seen you in years, commander."

Stephenson shook Jeff's hand. "I'm not the commander. This is the commander right here," he pointed to Jeff. "I learned a lot from him. He's a man who knows how to wage war, I tell you."

"Then you must be sorry he was injured and forced to leave you." Her hand on Jeff's arm pressed lightly. "But I'm not sorry. He came back to me." She smiled up at Jeff.

"Of course, it was hard to say goodbye to our commander," Rick nodded. "But I actually came to bring you my Medal of Merit."

"Your medal?"

"The commanders gave me a medal for daring and initiative in hard times. I told them that the medal is yours, that the squad is yours, that you built it from scratch and all its successes are yours..."

Jeff felt warm, deep in his chest, and didn't know what to say.

"I couldn't persuade them to send you a medal, so I brought you mine instead. I already have one, and this one is more yours than mine anyway. You have brought great honor and saved many people, and your squad will never forget it."

Rick stood up straight, and saluted.

Annie's grin was vast and bright as he glanced at her. Jeff didn't need a medal, neither from the government nor from Rick. The pride in Annie's eyes was worth more to him than anything. "Thank you," Jeff said, combining his fingers with Annie's. "But if you'll excuse me, I was hoping to steal my wife for a dance or two."

Stephenson nodded. "Of course, as you wish. The medal will be waiting for you. And I would like to talk more later, with both of you, to reminisce. I'll be in town for a few days. Can we meet?"

Annie nodded. "Of course…"

Jeff spun her a few times on the way to the dance floor, made her laugh in a quick dance. Then he pulled her close for a slow dance where he could hold her waist and enjoy the soft touch of her hands on his shoulders. She smiled at him, beaming like the sun, and looking like one of the candied apples the kids enjoyed licking. He identified with them too much at the moment.

"Annie, I reckon we can afford a nanny."

"Are you sure?"

"Start looking. I want you to stop being tired all the time."

"I want it too…"

"So we agree?"

"Yes, this time yes," she smiled her secretive smile at him, and he thought he knew the secret.

He leaned over and said in her ear in a low, warm voice, "I love you…"

She pulled away from him and her eyes were big and blue, begging him to kiss her, but after dozens of kisses that no one wanted to see, he finally learned to hold back: it would wait for another time. He did the nearest substitute, and kissed her knuckles.

"So a nanny?" He asked smoothly.

Annie nodded, her expression still stunned, her mouth open. It was very hard not to kiss her. "Yes," she said in a trembling voice. "And the guest room."

:::

When Beth was one year old Jeff dared to tell Annie he wanted at least three children, and they embarked on further attempts that yielded, after a year and a half, twin boys. The birth was harder than the first, and Annie needed more time to recover from it, but the twins were sturdy and healthy and started crawling quickly. This time, Jeff and Annie agreed together that Pierce would be the godfather.

They bought a bigger house on the edge of town, close to the lake. Beth loved to read and the boys enjoyed wrestling in the mud - and to the displeasure of their parents, they also dragged Beth to fight with them and soil her dresses. The only reason everything was forgiven was that the boys also enjoyed it when Beth read to them from her books. So in the end, the balance was maintained.

Jeff invited Annie to dance every summer, every year, no matter where they were and what the event was - whether at another wedding, or at their house, around the dining room table and to the laughter of the children.

And there were more quarrels, struggles, adventures and surprises along the way, but in the end, they were together.

And that was the most important thing.

:::

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AN: this has been a blast. I left the ending a bit open, to leave room for more adventures (like in the book "Shades of Milk and Honey"), but right now I have no plans to continue this fic.

I hope you liked everyone's ending point, and found closure at least with our main heroes. Not everyone got a perfect ending, but I think they all got a fitting one.

Musings about writing: It's funny how a premise of a story is so different from the end result. No one expects the story to have the themes it has in its final form, not even the writer.

My premise was: "what if J+A lived in a different era when their age difference means nothing?" and that's where it all started.

One aspect I was surprised about was how the people of American Frontier were affected by constant conflict and wars, which I identified with as an Israeli citizen. I know how these things affect the people living through them - the inevitable loss everyone experiences, the questioning, patriotism and pride of the army, and the life that goes on despite the war. The people of young USA had to deal with all of it, and it made me feel we're similar, no matter where we live...

Thank you so much, to all of you. You gave me reassurance when I lost my faith in myself: I learned that even if my writing isn't perfect, it's still worth writing - someone will read, someone will feel better because of it.

Have a lovely autumn/winter/whatever season it is where you are,

DFTBA