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Playing House -- the mega-fic! [Jan. 30th, 2010|08:53 am]
CoX Fan Art and Fan Fiction

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[incineratrix]
Playing House


Chapter One


“I can’t thank you enough for doing this, and on such short notice.”

“Oh, gosh, really, no, I’m glad to,” Ammy said.

Collette Pearce swept her auburn hair back from her face, pinned it up, and turned from the foyer mirror with an anxious, questioning look in her blue eyes. “You’re sure your parents don’t mind?”

“Not at all. Honest.”

“It’s just … with Arthur away on his school trip, Lance out of the country, and Michael …” Collette took a deep, steadying breath. She pressed her palms together in front of her face and exhaled against her laced fingers. More to herself, or maybe more to her semi-estranged maybe-ex sorta-husband, she added in a whisper, “If this is a false alarm … oh please it’s a false alarm …”

“We’ll be fine.” Ammy bounced the baby girl tucked into the crook of her elbow. “Won’t we, Gwen? We’ll be totally fine.”

Gwen gabbled and grinned toothlessly around the drool-covered little fist she had curled in her mouth. Her onesie was white with a polka-dot puppy picture on the front, one bootie was about to fall off a chubby pink baby-foot, and the big round eyes that gazed at everything with such fresh wonder were that indeterminate shade somewhere between brown and blue.

She had a few wisps of hair so gossamer-fine you couldn’t even tell yet whether they’d go blondish or auburnish, but was otherwise still pretty much bald. Her mother didn’t go strident about making sure people knew the baby was a girl and stick those bow-adorned garter belt lacy scrunchies around her head or pack her into a lot of pink frillies. Ammy was glad. Those babies always looked so uncomfortable.

“I should only be gone two or three nights.” Collette crouched and did a fast final check of the bags waiting by the door. She was lithe, petite, and wearing a forest-green corduroy wrap-skirt and blazer over what appeared to be a snug black full-body catsuit and absolute awesome killer black boots. “I’ll call you when I can, as soon as I know for sure.”

For a lady who had given birth not that many months ago, she sure had bounced back fast. Her figure was as trim and slim now as ever, not counting the extra bustiness that went along with a new baby.

No wonder she was in perfect shape again already though, Ammy supposed. Healthy living and fitness were big in this family. The rules might be a bit more lenient here than in Haven, where Arthur’s dad was the seriously strict disciplinarian, but even so!

“As long as you need, it’s fine, really,” Ammy said. “Go help Mr. Pearce, and don’t worry about anything here. I got it covered.”

Gwen gabbled again, hopefully in agreement. It sounded like a happy gabble, anyway. Not a squalling, protesting “No, Mommy, don’t leave me!” gabble. Ammy had only babysat her twice before this, but so far they got along great.

And, of course, she would cut her own arm off before she let anything happen to Arthur’s baby sister.

“You have my cell number, the emergency numbers, the codes to the alarm system --” Collette said.

“Uh-huh.”

“I left a message for Arthur on his phone, so he may call from the lodge --”

“Okay.”

“Everything in the kitchen is organized and labeled --”

“I know.” Which also meant for the next few days she’d be eating healthy too; junk food was not often found in the fridge and cupboards of the penthouse apartment that took up the entire top floor of the Kirby Building. Lots of fresh, lots of organic, and when Collette Pearce said ‘organized and labeled,’ she meant it.

“I wrote the baby’s daily schedule --”

“On the white board by the computer,” Ammy said, nodding.

“The instructions for the media center and remotes are on the --”

“Shelf above the entertainment console.”

“And I showed you how to access the panic room --”

“Off the master bedroom, two weeks’ worth of food and water, forty-eight hours’ auxiliary oxygen supply if it has to be entirely sealed.”

Collette paused, still crouching by her luggage, and glanced up at Ammy. Mixed with the anxiety and intent focus was a quick glint of amusement. “You’re taking all this better than a lot of babysitters might.”

One of the bags held clothes and toiletries, like anybody would pack for a weekend trip. The other bag, though …

“Well, um …” Ammy fidgeted, and in her arms, Gwen wriggled and gurgled and blew a spit-bubble.

The other bag was crammed with equipment. A stun-gun. A folding grapnel with a bundle of lightweight cable attached. A lock-release device. Canister grenades – smoke, sleep gas, flashbang. Nightvision goggles. Electronics-sweeping sensors.

“Well, um, indeed. And I know you’ve got your own resources to draw on if push comes to shove.”

“Yes, Mrs. Pearce.”

“Ameliaaaa …” she said with a tone of not-this-again warning.

“Collette, sorry.”

“There is one thing you should know.” Collette stood, faced her, chin raised and eyes resolute.

Ammy’s own eyes widened with wary apprehension. “Um … what?”

“You’re not the only one with your share of secrets. I wasn’t always simply a security consultant.”

“I, um, kinda figured?” Ammy nodded toward the one bag, the one loaded with gadgets. Not mentioning that she was hardly surprised either, what with Arthur being who he was, and Mr. Pearce being who he was, and –

“Did you ever hear,” Collette asked, “of Noirenard?”

The click in her brain was so loud she was sure it must be audible. Her jaw fell open and her eyes got even wider.

“That’d be a ‘yes,’ then?” Arthur’s mom said, dryly.

“Uh-huh.” Bobbling her head like a goof.

And she should have known … good gosh it had been right there in front of her ever since … BlackFox, Noirenard … jeez, Ammy, what would Mom say, a girl as smart as you, for God’s sake Amelia Jane …

Oh-em-gee Mid-Knight had married Noirenard.

Who, well, hadn’t exactly been what people would consider a hero, much, either … cat burglar, jewel thief …

Okay, what was it with guys and villainesses? Seriously? Were bad girls that irresistibly sexy?

She blinked a few times. Looked at Collette again. Decided that was a stupid question.

“Are you all right?” Collette tapped her on the arm.

Noirenard had just … outed herself to … to … not even to just the babysitter, not even to a friend of her son’s … because she knew, too, she knew about Ammy …

Wow, spinny headrush.

“Yeah, um, yeah, fine,” she said, and bounced Gwen some more.

“Good.” She checked the time, nodded to herself, and calmed with a visible, meditative centering kind of thing. “I have to get going.”

“Say bye-bye to Mommy, Gwen.” Ammy lifted the little hand that wasn’t crammed in a drooly baby-mouth and waved it up and down. “Bye-bye.”

Gwen made a rude wet blatting noise around her fist. Collette laughed, leaned in close and kissed the top of that wispy-haired head, and squeeze-pinch-tickled the bare pink foot that the bootie had fallen off of.

“You be a good girl for Amelia, and I’ll be back soon.”

**

Chapter Two


Fourteen hours.

Arthur Pearce tried not to groan out loud.

Fourteen hours since he’d wakened to his alarm, gotten up, gotten dressed, finished packing, said goodbye to his mother and sister, and headed out.

Headed out for what was supposed to be a fun four-day event. A prestigious academic conference, which maybe wouldn’t sound like fun to a lot of people, but it was also being held at Wolfstone Lake, an exclusive resort lodge in the mountains.

In between the seminars, lectures and presentations, the attendees would be enjoying hiking, rock-climbing, boating, all manner of outdoor activities. And, of course, socializing with other top-tier students from New England’s best private schools and prep schools.

Some of them had been chosen for excellence in the sciences, some for prize-winning essays or literary pieces selected from among thousands of submissions, for artistic honors. The conference would see them recognized for their achievements – a banquet and pompous ceremony, certificates, plaques – and was also the sort of thing that looked very, very good on resumes and university applications.

Excelsior Academy was well-represented this time. Arthur and twenty-six of his classmates made the list. A school record. His paper, “The Heroic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Epics and Sagas,” was a finalist for the Drout Award, one of the most coveted prizes for students of history and literature. It was a high honor, and it also meant a chance to meet Professor Drout himself … who was the preeminent expert on Chaucer and Tolkien and Beowulf, a veritable pop-culture celeb to medieval-history geeks.

Even Mr. Pearce, Arthur’s own father and something of a history geek in his way, had looked proud, pleased, and possibly a little jealous when he found out about that.

So, Arthur and his twenty-six classmates had boarded their bus in the wee small hours that morning, ready for the drive out to Wolfstone Lake.

Some of the Excelsior kids, at hearing the word ‘bus,’ had been offended, envisioning hideous rattletrap old yellow school buses with ancient dark-green vinyl seats like alligator hide, the splits mended with fraying duct tape. The driver would be some hairy, obese wretch, breath redolent of cheap cigars and cheaper booze, greasy fast-food bags crumpled under the pedals.

Instead, of course, they got a deluxe tour bus. Climate-controlled, nicely upholstered seats, DVD players, headphones, tinted windows, onboard bathroom, the works. The driver was a solid-looking blonde in her forties, who wore a grey uniform complete with cap. Their luggage got stowed in the underside compartment, box lunches had already been arranged, and …

And that was the last time anything had gone right for the whole entire day.

Construction delays. Traffic diverted around accidents. A passing thundershower that blasted down an approximate ocean’s worth of rain in a span of minutes, sluicing the road awash to a depth of five inches standing water, slowing them to a careful crawl. A wiper blade broke so that its sweep back and forth turned into judder-judder-judder-skrueeeeeee, judder-judder-judder-skrueeeeeee.

One of the guys had stupidly packed his inhaler in his suitcase, so when he had an asthma attack, they had to stop the bus so the driver could get out – still in the rain – and dig through the compartment. One of the girls got sick, carsick, or something in the lunch disagreed with her, or a case of nerves because she was scheduled to recite her Young American Poet’s Award nominee poem in front of a panel of judges, and she spent most of an hour in the tiny bathroom puking her guts out.

Another of the guys spilled ginger ale into his laptop and by the way he screamed you’d have thought he spilled hungry piranhas down his pants. Probably, the way some people were attached to their electronics, he would have rather had the piranhas. Another of the girls left her purse at a rest stop and threw such an imperious queen diva fit when she realized it seven or eight miles further on that the driver caved in and went back.

But finally, finally, their bus got to Wolfstone Lake Lodge. Better late than never. More than ready for the welcoming-party barbecue and picnic they’d been promised. More than ready to be off the bus, out of the seats, able to stretch and move around freely.

Except …

Arthur and his fellow Excelsior students could tell right away that things here weren’t going much better than they had on the bus. From the other attendees, all out milling around the grounds in gossiping confusion, they quickly gathered the details.

A windstorm the previous night had toppled several trees, leaving the lodge without power. The hotel maids and bellboys had gone on strike at midnight, so none of the rooms were ready for guests. A black bear got into the kitchen and thoroughly trashed the place before the nearest park rangers and Animal Control agents could sedate and transport it. The head chef, traumatized, quit on the spot.

A Rikti incident near a major airport hub meant that several of the professors and presenters due to fly in had not yet arrived, Professor Drout among them. A shipping error had the award plaques on their way to Sacramento. The certificates had come back from the printer with the seal inversed and reversed.

Just as all that was sinking in, the chair of the organizational committee had a total meltdown in full view of busloads of students plus those few august professors who had made it. Screaming at everyone. Swearing like a dockworker. He nearly strangled himself tearing off his tie, which he threw into a tree. Then he yanked the toupee from his head and threw that into the face of an esteemed poetess. Then ran inside and locked himself in a bathroom.

That was when the committee under-chairs decided to cut their losses and cancel the event. Before the lodge burned down, the mountain proved to be a suddenly-no-longer-dormant volcano, the lake turned to blood, there was a swarm of locusts or rain of frogs, a meteor smacked to Earth and turned the whole site into a crater, or something else suitably disastrous to finish off the day.

Best, they figured, to just send everyone home.

So, back on the buses they’d gone. Tired and hungry, disappointed, frustrated, grouchy and cross. For the long, long drive home.

Arthur looked out the window, catching a glimpse of white lettering on a green sign.

Paragon City -- 50 miles, it read.

He leaned his head against the tinted, rain-fogged window and tried, again, not to groan out loud.

**

Chapter Three


“You, jellybean,” Ammy said, “have your very own built-in dribble cup, don’t you? What a mess. Gosh! What a messy messy girl!”

Gwen burbled happily from around the bottle, and yet more rivulets of formula went trickling from the corners of her cupid’s bow mouth and onto her onesie.

Ammy smiled at her. It wasn’t exactly easy to feed a baby with one hand and eat her own dinner with the other, especially with the baby determined to be old enough to do it herself, sometimes batting at Ammy as if to say, “I can do it! Leggo!”

After Collette left, they’d spent a while having floor time, with a striped blankie spread out on the floor of the media room, playing peek-a-boo, stacking alphabet blocks, and good fun stuff like that.

Ammy’d brought along several of the DVDs that David and Leslie had left at the Montgomery house for when their kids visited the grandparents, vintage episodes of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, The Dark Crystal. Gwen was still too young to understand the programs, but she goggled amazedly at the furry Muppets … giant-sized on the immense screen … and laughed whenever Ammy did, which was often.

Then the baby started getting fussy and cranky. Hungry. So they’d relocated to the kitchen. Organized and labeled, sure was! The fridge was stacked with color-coded Tupperware containers, each one with its contents detailed in neat black printing.

Gwen had eaten an entire container of orange mush, half a container of green mush, drunk the bottle to the dregs and still didn’t want to let go. Ammy had to tickle her under that dimpled little chin and pull at the same time. Plip out came the rubber nipple.

Probably it hadn’t been a great idea to give her a graham cracker while the formula was heating up. Not that the baby seemed to have consumed much of it, if any. A drying plaster of drool and crumbs caked her from the eyebrows on down. There was a big gooey wad of it stuck to the top of her head, too.

“Come on, you,” Ammy said, swabbing the worst of it away with a paper towel and then unbuckling the straps that held Gwen into the carrier attachment hooked to the top of the high chair stand.

The Pearces had one of those ultra-modular sets where the carrier could go from carseat to high chair to stroller to resting on its own, all without having to wrestle baby back and forth out of it each time. A real blessing if baby was sleeping during those errands that involved driving around to a bunch of stops. Of course, they also had the quilted sling-sack thing, and the joey-pack so the baby could ride face-forward on the front of an adult’s body, and all the other essentials.

“No spitting up on Ammy,” she warned as she hefted Gwen onto her shoulder to burp her.

She had draped the dishcloth, but if her brother’s kids had taught her anything, it was that the amount of coverage provided by one rag was often not a match for the cone attack of a really big spitup. And that some babies could manage amazing range … not to mention volume … once you witnessed a baby spew out what seemed to be three times as much as his or her tummy could have contained, you never forgot it.

Pat pat pat in the sweet spot low on the baby’s back, a handspan above the diaper – the bulgy diaper, wet but not poopy, Ammy deduced. Thankfully. Because what was true about spitup in terms of volume could also be true in terms of filling a diaper.

Uuurp.

No warm thick milky gush onto her shirt. Yay! Just another dribble, mopped up with the rag.

“Good girl, Gwen, I bet that feels lots better, huh? Lots better!”

Gwen smacked her lips and blew a raspberry. Hiccuped. Looked startled. Hiccuped again. Burped. Ammy eyed her warily.

“Oh I see how it is, huh?” she said. “Fool me into a false sense of security so I turn you around so you can urp all over me when I’m not expecting it.”

“Mmbah!” Gwen declared.

“Yeah? Really?”

“Pwahnaooh! Kah!”

“You said it! Now let’s get you that bath, what do you say?”

“Bah!”

Ammy carried Gwen from the kitchen, as always admiring Collette’s design sense as she moved through the Pearces’ apartment.

The décor and furnishings were not opulent, not pretentious, not all that gaudy gilt-edged everything Louis XIV whatever baroque over-the-top-edness that some people seemed to expect from the super-rich. If you knew how to look, though, you could tell. Expensive. Luxurious, yeah. State-of-the-art everything, definitely. But also comfortable. A real home-type home.

The dining room was formal without being intimidating. In the living room, placed so as to naturally draw attention but not demand or dominate it, was a beautiful framed poster from the ballet company’s first performance starring Collette as their prima ballerina. In it, many years ago though it had been, she looked just as lithe and shapely and gorgeous as she’d been when Ammy said goodbye to her only a couple of hours before.

Gwen’s nursery used to belong to Lance, the eldest brother. Ammy hadn’t actually met him, just heard about him in the occasional story or anecdote, and seen him in the few family photos adorning the walls. Blond, handsome, fit. That same kind of shielded, guarded look to his eyes that Mr. Pearce had. Collette had told her that whenever Lance visited Paragon City, he’d most likely share with Arthur, in the room at the end of the hall.

She glanced that way as she reached the nursery.

Arthur’s room.

The room where the door was closed and she hadn’t seen and she was not going to look in no matter how great the temptation. How would she like it if he or anybody else went snooping through her room?

Gosh but she was curious though.

No, Ammy.

Omigosh certainly not! She wouldn’t!

After all, oh-em-gee, not only was it a total violation and invasion of his privacy, not only did she have zero business being in his room at all let alone when he wasn’t here and without his knowledge or his permission …

What if she saw something she didn’t want to see, found something she didn’t want to find, learned something she didn’t want to know? The sorts of things that would make her think about things she didn’t want to think about?

Yeah, good that the door was nice and shut. That way, she couldn’t possibly take even the teensiest peek.

It’d be even better if the door was locked, too. Then she wouldn’t have to be tempted at all.

Of course, she didn’t know if it was locked …

**

Chapter Four


The long drive back from Wolfstone Lake might not have been so bad if he’d been able to sleep through it. Fold up his jacket, stuff it between his head and the window, and sleep.

Only, he couldn’t. He might almost-doze in a boring lecture hall from time to time like anybody else, but in general, years of diligent training had left him too alert for something like that. Never knew when there’d be an emergency, a disaster, a call to action. Had to be ready.

Even when he was at home in his own bed, that alertness remained. Reflexes honed razor-sharp. Conking out in public, or even in semi-private like this, on a bus with twenty-six of his classmates, wasn’t an ability Arthur Pearce could draw upon at will.

He’d have to be flat-out exhausted. Like he’d been that one time at the movies with …

Arthur sighed and shook his head at himself. Some of this was Everley’s fault. Everley, who’d decided to sit by him for the first half of the return bus ride. Everley, who was in the more-or-less circle of Excelsior students that Arthur more-or-less knew and sometimes even more-or-less hung out with.

Everley had a girlfriend. Everley was head over heels about his girlfriend. Everley just could not shut up about his girlfriend. All of his conversations these days were Lauren this and Lauren that and isn’t Lauren wonderful you guys?

Lauren was, to be fair, an utter babe. They’d met the day a bunch of Excelsior boys had been out by the fence scoping the Horses-and-Hotties on the Green. Lauren. Trim brunette, dark-eyed, a knockout, wore jodhpurs like they’d been invented just for her.

The problem with Lauren, or more to the point with Everley constantly talking about Lauren, was that it always and without fail reminded Arthur of that day. With the Luftwaffe, and Amelia. Who sort of had a tendency to be on his mind a lot more than she should be without extra reminders, thanks.

Paragon City – 8 miles, the next sign read, as it was caught in the passing headlight beams. The glow, the skyline, visible ahead in the distance. Almost there.

So, here he was … tired, but not exhausted enough to sleep on the bus. Hungry, but also with the kind of headachy queasiness that came with hours of travel.

Should have been settled in at the lodge by now. Following the afternoon picnic, a tour of the grounds, meeting professors and presenters and fellow students. He’d been looking forward to all of that, and not just because there’d been a lot of smart and pretty girls.

All canceled on account of Murphy’s Law. Everything that could have gone wrong going wrong.

Including a trio of redheads, as if the fates were mocking him on purpose. He’d noticed them just before the committee chair had his meltdown. Had noticed them noticing him as well.

Three redheads, not triplets, maybe not even sisters, but certainly friends at the very least. The tall, willowy one with that fine redgold shimmer of hair hanging nearly to her waist. The perky, curvy one with a mop of rusty-orange curls and a spray of freckles across her pert little nose. And the sultry one with shoulderlength waves the color of autumn leaves.

Not that he was looking …

Well, all right, fine, he’d been looking. He hadn’t been leering. Just … enjoying the scenic natural beauty of his surroundings. And thinking, or trying not to, of how they reminded him of Bex … and how things seemed to have changed between them lately … changed in ways he wasn’t sure he knew how to address.

Once the committee’s decision was made and they’d announced the cancellation of the event, Arthur had taken out his cell and seen that for all the lodge’s vaunted conveniences, reception out there at Wolfstone Lake was chancy at best.

Unsurprisingly, several of his classmates had looked at him as if they expected the multi-billionaire’s son to call Daddy, have Daddy fix all the problems, or at the very least send a fleet of chartered helicopters or private Lear jet to fly them all home with speed and style.

True, he might have been able to pull that off. And they would have been glad about it at the time. Grateful, even effusive. But he somehow had the feeling that a few days after this had all blown over, even the ones who’d benefited from it would be back to the usual distance and detachment that came when kids with rich parents met one whose family fortune blew them all out of the water. The ones like Trowbridge would only have more ammo for their sneering at him.

He did see that he’d missed a call, had a message waiting, but wasn’t able to access it until the bus was well on its way back … and stuck in bumper-to-bumper because up ahead, an SUV had lost an argument with a garbage truck.

And then, since it must have been Murphy’s anniversary, a major anniversary, a Golden Jubilee or Centennial, a fire engine had blared past, racing to the scene of the accident. Arthur caught only snippets of his mother’s words through the warble of the siren. Something about Dad, and Haven, and Gwen.

To top it all off, the phone’s battery died on him as he was about to replay the message. Mom had sounded a little … off … but maybe it was that he hadn’t been able to hear her?

Didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out, though. Mom had taken Gwen to visit Dad in Haven. He’d have the place to himself, probably all weekend.

Which was kind of a shame, because it meant they wouldn’t be there to greet him when he dragged his road-weary butt through the door. On the other hand, it meant he could slob around the apartment in his underwear and watch movies all night.

That sounded really good. If he could stay awake. A sandwich, a shower, a movie and sleep. As soon as possible. Had there been a way to sleep in the shower while watching a movie and eating a sandwich all at the same time, he might have given it a try.

The bus pulled into the Excelsior Academy parking lot and the students filed off with the dispirited trudge of passengers who’d just made a trans-Atlantic crossing in steerage. Nobody said much as they retrieved their unopened suitcases. Those who stayed in the dorms headed for them, while the ones like Arthur whose families had homes in town went their separate ways.

He decided he’d had too long a day to hassle with even the prompt efficiency of Paragon City’s rapid transit, and took a cab from the campus to the Kirby Building.

**

Chapter Five


The nursery was spacious and bright, with blondwood paneling halfway up and sunrise-colored pastel-patterned wallpaper above that, not tacky kid-stuff with clowns or cartoon characters.

Nothing wrong with Winnie the Pooh or Dora the Explorer, but it’d be a pain having to redecorate every few years as the kids got older and their interests changed. Her nephew had started out with Thomas the Tank Engine, and cycled through dinosaurs and Botforms and Shrek by the time he was seven. Her niece, at least, had stuck with Disney Princesses and Tinkerbell pretty much steadily so far.

The carpet in here was a muted weave of rose, periwinkle, lavender and other hues that complemented the wallpaper. The nursery windows, when the curtains were drawn open and the blinds raised, overlooked a spectacular view of Atlas Park. Ammy lingered for a moment to admire the big statue highlighted by spotlights, City Hall dramatically illuminated. Then she used the hand that wasn’t supporting Gwen to remote the blinds down and the curtains closed.

“Don’t need any fly-by heroes being all Peeping Tom at us, do we?” she asked.

Gwen made the rude blatting noise again.

“Absolutely!”

Though, probably, with the security systems this apartment had? Anybody who tried to get too close to the penthouse of the Kirby building might find themselves given a warning stun-bolt zap, a web grenade, or a teleport beam.

Most of the nursery was furnished in upscale baby-furniture – crib, bassinet, changing table, bureau, rocker, toybox, bookshelf already packed with Dr. Seuss and kid-friendly picture books. There was also a white-enameled brass daybed with a plush comforter and pillows. The menagerie of stuffed animals that normally perched on the bed had been moved to the corner, and Ammy’s purse and suitcase sat there instead.

Collette had given her the choice of the daybed, or one that folded out from the couch in the media room, but Ammy didn’t want to be clear on the other side of the apartment where she might not hear if Gwen woke up crying in the middle of the night.

To the changing table, off with the onesie and socks. Dipe-and-wipe. Then up again with the naked baby, and into the nursery’s attached bathroom. Bright, clean. Inflatable happy frog bumper over the faucet. Green non-skid frog-, lilypad- and dragonfly-shaped nubbies on the bottom of the tub.

Soon, Gwen sat belly-button deep in bubbles, playing with a purple plastic hippo as Ammy massaged baby shampoo into a lather on those wisps of hair and rinsed by pouring cupfuls over her head. She squirmed and giggled as Ammy went after her with a washcloth.

And plash-plash-SPLASHYSPLASHYSPLASHY!!!! Squealing at the top of her lungs. Flailing with both hands like a drummer in a frenzy, water flying everywhere.

“Gah!” Ammy cried, catching a dousing of it down the front of her soft shirt.

She’d rescued it from a bundle that William and Sean were planning to donate to a thrift store. It was wonderful having them in town, having them decide to stay in Paragon City, make it an official second home. They’d bought a nice condo in Helios Towers out on Talos Island, done up one of the spare rooms special just for her. Between them and Grandma Marlene’s house in Galaxy City, Ammy thought she was spending more nights and taking more meals at their respective places than she was at home with her parents nowadays. An arrangement that suited her just fine.

The rescued shirt was too big for her, but was a nice rich royal-purple color with mother-of-pearl buttons. The fabric was somewhere between chamois and fleece on the texture scale. Worn loose as an overshirt, its tails hung halfway to her knees and she had to roll the sleeves way up.

Mom hated it because not only was Ammy wearing hand-me-downs, she was wearing mens’ hand-me-downs. “For God’s sake, Amelia,” she’d say. “You look like a bag lady. What are people going to think if they see you going around like that?”

Of course, Mom’s reaction might also have contributed to it being her new favorite shirt …

But now it was soaked, and Gwen squealed in glee. PLASH!

“Hey!” Ammy tried to scold. Failed. Giggling too much herself to sound even remotely serious. “It’s not my bathtime! You got me all wet, jellybean!”

Splishy-plashy-splash-SPLASH!

“You got my shirt all wet!”

“Blugh!”

“Well, it is just us girls.” She unbuttoned the soft purple shirt, slipped it off, wrung it out, and hung it on the towel bar, keeping a careful eye on Gwen all the while so the baby didn’t fall over from her sitting position.

The garment she wore beneath was a silky white top with spaghetti straps and a built-in shelf-bra thing that was supposed to give plenty of support and coverage. Though it did not as a matter of fact give sufficient support and coverage that Ammy felt confident wearing it where people might actually see her. Or without another shirt over it.

Gwen, though, she reasoned, didn’t count.

Just us girls.

She finished bathing the baby, hoisted her out of the tub, swaddled her in a big fluffy towel, and carried her back into the nursery. Powder, fresh diaper – Gwen, sassy and playful, didn’t make it easy on her. Fuzzy yellow footie sleepers with embroidered bees and flowers.

Eine kleine gelbe Wanze!” she told Gwen, poking her in the tummy. “Who’s a little yellow bug? Gwen is! Gwen’s a little yellow bug!”

“Agga! Nuh!”

“That’s right!”

Ammy scooped her up again. If there was anything cuter and nicer than an armful of happy baby, all bathed and powdery, warm and lovable, she didn’t know what it could be. Golden retriever puppies might come close, but only barely.

Carrying Gwen, she left the nursery and only spared a quick glance down the hall at the door to Arthur’s room. Where she was not going to snoop. She was just … um … checking to make sure the door was still closed. That it hadn’t blown ajar in a draft or something. Because if it had, why, she’d have to go shut it for him, right?

Still closed, though.

Closed, latched, and locked. Probably.

“Okay, you,” she said, hefting Gwen higher in the crook of her arm. Gwen seized the spaghetti strap on that side in a tiny fist and chortled up at Ammy. “What are we gonna do now?”

**

Chapter Six


The elevator was not out of order.

Arthur was almost stunned. The way this day had been going?

Or maybe he shouldn’t be too thankful yet … there was always the chance that it could break down with him in it, leaving him trapped between floors. He’d have to do one of those deals where he popped a ceiling panel, pulled himself up, and shimmied the cable to the next floor where he could pry the doors open …

All right, so, if it did come to that, he had a plan.

Just better not come to that, because he really was not in the mood.

Shower, sandwich, lounging around in his shorts to watch a movie, and then sleep. Keep that in mind. Eyes on the prize, Artie. Given everything else, he figured he could afford to splurge some on the sandwich. Foccacia bread, marinated portobello mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, slices of beefsteak tomato –

His stomach growled to second that motion.

He did all the usual punching of codes, then let himself in. Mom had left some of the lights on, he saw right away. He closed up, locked up, dropped his luggage in the foyer, and got about three steps before he realized he could hear music.

Lively, peppy, tip-of-the-tongue familiar music. A theme song of some kind? From the direction of the media room, where the quality soundproofing of the walls meant that the door must be open.

Huh. So Mom and Gwen hadn’t left yet. Maybe they were going to Haven tomorrow.

A few steps further on, the naggingly familiar tune clarified enough for him to recognize it – The Muppet Show. Talk about your oldies but goodies! Mom usually preferred Gwen’s musical entertainment to be in the form of those Classicals For Kids things. Mozart and Tchaikovsky and the like.

And now he could also hear Gwen’s gleeful burbling giggles, which always brought a reflexive grin to his own face. Some of the weariness of the long trip fell away.

Arthur pushed the media room door further open and was about to say, “Hi, Mom, surprise!”

Only that wasn’t his mom in there with his baby sister on her hip, dancing around the coffee table to the Muppets.

It was Amelia, and he stood there in the doorway like a mannequin, his jaw agape, his greeting roadblocked in his throat.

Amelia, shoes off and sock-footed, in skinny jeans that hugged her long legs. And a top … a top that … that there wasn’t much of … white and silky, riding about an inch and a half above her waistband to show a smooth stripe of creamy skin … spaghetti straps … kind of a low cowl-draped front, and …

She was, uh, bouncy. Not just in reference to her bubbly personality or ash-blonde ponytail.

She was … very … bouncy …

For a moment, Arthur thought he’d forgotten how to breathe. Let alone speak.

On the screen, Gonzo blew his trumpet, and Kermit appeared in front of the red curtain and announced their very special guest, Elton John. Then it went right into an outrageously feather-bedecked Elton John doing ‘Crocodile Rock.’

“Woo!” Amelia cried. “Here we go!”

As she twirled Gwen, both of them lit up with incandescent eyeglow, and Amelia’s sock-feet kicked up from the carpet. Gwen shrieked in delight as she floated, her sleeper-clad bottom and legs rising out behind her, Amelia holding onto her little hands.

Dancing and flying now, to ‘Crocodile Rock.’

Then Amelia swung around and saw Arthur in the doorway. Her expression was a total hilarious wallop of shock. The eyeglow faded, her feet sank to the floor, and she reeled in the baby to cradle against her side. Gwen also spotted Arthur and waved her arms at him, baby-talk jabbering all excited.

“Uh, hi, Amelia,” Arthur said.

“Arthur! What are you doing here?”

“I, uh, I live here?” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m, um, babysitting?” she said.

On the screen now was the Swedish Chef, whacking a chicken with wooden spoons. Arthur took a couple of slightly numb steps into the room, picked up the remote and hit ‘pause.’

They stared at each other. Blinked at each other. Talked at the same time.

“But my mom --”

“But your mom --”

They both broke off. Stared at each other some more.

“I thought you were on your school trip,” Amelia said, as Arthur said, “I thought Mom and Gwen went to Haven.”

Gwen added her voice, clearly thrilled at this unexpected turn of events. “Oooaguh niff! Glurrr! Abababa!”

“Wait,” Arthur said, holding up his hands.

“Okay,” Amelia said.

Stare. Blink.

“I’ll start?” he asked.

“Okay.”

So he summarized it for her, the bus, the lodge, the disasters, the cancellations, the bus again.

Partway through, he saw it dawn on Amelia that her top was … while not exactly skimpy, not exactly demure either … and not at all the type of thing she normally let herself be seen in by just about anybody … let alone a guy. She sort of shifted Gwen in her arms until the baby was serving as a kind of modesty shield.

Which was good because it helped him restore his concentration … also too bad because, well … moving on!

“Um, your mom said she left you a message,” she said when he’d finished.

“Only heard part of it and then my phone died. What’s going on?”

Her turn, then, and she told him how she’d gotten a call from his mother, asking if she could babysit for a couple of days even though it was short notice. “She didn’t tell me a lot of details, but I got the idea that, well, that something bad was going on in Haven, your dad was in trouble or in danger or something, and she needed to go as … well … you know.”

Arthur’s eyebrows rose. “As … well … you know?”

“Noirenard,” Amelia said.

“She told you that?”

“Uh-huh.” She smiled a little. “Probably I should have guessed, I mean gosh, I had plenty of the clues right there to figure out.”

“Dad’s in trouble? Then I should--”

“No, you shouldn’t. I got the idea she wanted to handle this on her own, not endanger anybody else, at least check it out first.”

“Yeah, but --”

“Arthur, you weren’t even supposed to be here, you were supposed to be at your conference. You can’t go rushing to Haven without knowing what’s happening there. Give her a chance. Wait until she calls.”

He frowned, though he knew she was right.

“And, well,” Amelia added, “after the day you had? You should get some rest before you do anything.”

“I guess,” Arthur said, nodding. “And I guess this means you’re off the hook, too. No reason for you to have to stay now that I’m --”

“Nuh-unh,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

**

Chapter Seven


Shocked though she was by his sudden and unexpected appearance, and mortified though she was to be standing here in this teensy not-much of a top, Ammy raised her head, firmed her chin, held his gaze and continued.

“Your mom hired me, so until she tells me different, I stay and do my job,” she said.

“Are you telling me my mom outranks me?” Arthur asked. His lips twitched, and those adorable darn dimples appeared at the corners of his mouth.

“Well she does as far as this is concerned. Seriously, though, think about it. You’ve been on a bus for … how long?”

“Too long.” He heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes.

“Right. So, you’re tired. Too tired to have to be taking care of this little jellybean.” She tickled under Gwen’s arm, and Gwen chortled and kicked.

“Jellybean?” he echoed. “You call her jellybean?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing … now. In fifteen years or so?”

“Pff. As if it’ll matter fifteen years or so from now what someone --”

“Yeah … cupcake?” Again with the dimples.

Ammy shook a finger at him. “You … don’t you …”

Arthur laughed. “Look, I’m just --”

“Nuh-unh. Because you look, what if you call your mom in the morning and she says yes, hurry, get to Haven at once? You couldn’t take the baby along, so you’d need a babysitter again anyways. It’d be silly to go all the way home now just to come all the way back again first thing tomorrow.”

“Okay …” he said slowly. “That one, I can agree with. But … Amelia …”

“But what?”

“I, uh, don’t know if … uh …” He had that trying-not-to-blush look, and his gaze went everywhere except at her. “If, uh, my mom would be exactly wild about us being, uh, here … like … um … this. You know. Alone. Together.”

She scoffed. “Omigosh, Arthur, she’s your mother, she knows it’s not --”

“Not like that,” he finished with her. Still looking trying-not-to-blush. “Uh. Yeah.”

“As if she’d have to worry that you’re gonna put the moves on me or something,” Ammy said. Her own face pinked, but her mouth kept right on going. “As for my mom, jeez, she’d totally giftwrap me and throw me at you if she thought it’d do any good.”

He was still holding the remote, or had been, because now it jumped out of his hand like it had tasered him. It hit the coffee table, the battery compartment popped open, and batteries skittered onto the floor.

“Um,” she added. From pink to magenta, felt like. “Sorry.”

“I … uh …” Arthur stammered.

And he was just so all rumpled and exhausted … those blue eyes glazed with fatigue … a fine golden fuzz on his jawline, his version of the what-did-they-call-it, five o’clock shadow, though it was hours past five o’clock …

Focus, Ammy.

“I’m not gonna ditch out on you guys,” she said, recovering the thread of her reason. “We can call Collette in the morning and see what she says, but for now, I’m here, I’m staying, I’m doing my job. ‘Kay?”

“Okay.” He heaved another sigh. “But only since I can barely win a logical debate with you when I’m awake and at my best. As wiped as I am? No chance.”

“Gee, thanks.” She stuck her tongue out at him.

“Perfect example of why you never made the debate team,” he said.

“I never wanted to be on the debate team.”

“Another good reason.”

She raspberried at him that time, and Gwen imitated her, then squealed as if she’d just done an amazing trick.

“Nice rebuttal,” he said, grinning. Then he glanced at his sister, smiled at her, glanced at Ammy. His eyes twinkled. “You were flying her.”

Ammy squirmed in a minor attack of the guilts, and played with the baby’s foot. “You, um, you don’t think your folks would … mind?”

“Maybe when she’s older and telling all the other kids in preschool that her babysitter can fly. Until then? Nah. And besides, this is Paragon City. I bet they hear that kind of thing every day.”

“I’m way careful and I’d never, ever drop her or let her fall.”

“I know.”

“And she loves it!”

“Well, sure she does; it’s the greatest!” he said. Ooh those darn dimples! “I’m just jealous. You haven’t flown me in forever.”

“I … well … you …” Her turn to stammer.

As she looked down to escape the dimples and the twinkling blue eyes, she realized again what she was wearing, and wondered if there was any suave way to run and fetch her overshirt without seeming like a complete embarrassed dolt. Or another shirt from her suitcase, maybe.

Except then he’d know she was embarrassed and self-conscious. Which he probably already did know, but then he’d know she knew he knew, and …

Okay, Ammy, enough of that.

At least he wasn’t … gawking or anything. Probably he didn’t really even much notice, or think it was a big deal. Gosh, it wasn’t like some of their friends didn’t go around in less than this all the time. Out in public even.

“So --” they both said. Stopped. Laughed.

“You first,” she said.

“Well, since I can’t get rid of you --”

“Nope!” She flashed him a bright, cheery smile.

“—and since I’ve been on a bus for approximately thirty-nine hours … at least, it feels that way … I’m starved and grubby and I bet I smell like a truck stop.”

“Eew. We’ll stay waaaaay over here, then, won’t we, Gwen?”

“Gabagabaga!”

“See? She agrees with me!”

“I don’t blame her,” Arthur said, sort of plucking at his shirt like it was a roadkill carcass someone had wrapped him in. “So I’m going to go get a shower and try to make myself human again, then get something to eat.”

“I can make you a sandwich,” Ammy said. “Your mom left all kinds of stuff.”

“Hey, you don’t have to --”

“Really, gosh, it’s no problem at all.”

“Well … all right, I guess … thanks.”

“Hmf, if that doesn’t show how much faith he has in my cooking,” Ammy said to Gwen, with a wide-eyed expression that made the baby giggle.

“Hey! I didn’t … I … hey!”

“What kind?” she asked.

“Whatever.” He paused, then ventured, “Portobello mushrooms, mozzarella, beefsteak tomato?”

“I think I can handle that. And if you’re lucky, we might even let you choose what to watch on TV.” She repeated the bright flash of smile.

“It’s my house!” he objected, laughing.

“Yeah, but you’re not even supposed to be here, and we’ve got you outnumbered.”

**

Chapter Eight


The shower might have been one of the quickest he’d ever taken, and he told himself all the way through it that it was not because of anxiety over whether or not he’d hear his bathroom door click quietly open.

Which it wouldn’t.

Crazy even to have the thought anywhere even in the back of his brain, down where those primordial reptile impulses lurked.

This was real life, not some teen movie. Things like that didn’t happen in real life.

And if they did, they didn’t happen with … well …

It was Amelia, for crying out loud! She was about the last person who would pull a stunt like that. He was not going to hear the door click open, hear her soft smiling voice inform him that Gwen was napping and so …

This was not one of those situations!

He wasn’t going to suddenly find himself having to fend off a … a pretty girl … here in his shower … while they were both …

His hand shot out and slammed the water spray all the way over to bone-freezing cold, stifling a wincing yelp through his teeth as he did so. But it helped.

Shivering and covered in goosebumps, he got out, dried off, combed his hair straight back from his forehead, and pulled on his usual lounging-around-the-house attire. When, that was, he couldn’t very well go lounging around in his underwear – good golly, and if she’d shut the door to the media room so the soundproofing was total, he might not have known she was in there until he’d walked on in …

That would have been awkward!

Moving on, though. Definitely moving on.

In loose-fitting hospital-type scrubs and an Excelsior Academy Department of Phys. Ed tee shirt, he padded barefoot into the kitchen. His state of mind was improved somewhat … well, both disappointed and improved … to note that Amelia had pulled on a tee shirt of her own.

Gwen was in the baby carrier attached to the highchair frame, clacking and clattering her ring of brightly colored plastic keys. When she saw Arthur come in, she squealed and flung them over the side.

He had to do a running kneedrop and slide to get there, but he made it, snagging them out of the air just before they hit the floor.

It was their favorite game, one they could and did play at home, at restaurants, anywhere: how many times could she make big brother catch them, and could she make him miss?

Amelia, at the counter, grinned at him over her shoulder. “Just in time!” she said, brandishing a bread knife over a sandwich. “Do you want it cut diagonally, or in half?”

Arthur dangled the keys just out of Gwen’s reach. “Isn’t diagonally still in half? Just … halves that are triangles instead of rectangles?”

“You know what I mean!”

“Isn’t it, though?”

“I could cut it all uneven.” She moved the knife.

“You wouldn’t!” He gave Gwen the keys.

“Would so!”

“Nah. You couldn’t stand it.” Caught the keys as Gwen tossed them over the side again.

Amelia’s eyes glinted. Impish.

“Amelia …” he said, in a warning tone.

Then she hacked the bread knife down, sawed through, and there on the plate was a sandwich that had the larger portion a kind of trapezoid, and the smaller portion an irregular wedge.

He boggled at her in only-partly-feigned shock. “It’s uneven!”

“Here,” she said. Sweetly. “It’ll still taste the same.”

“But it’s uneven!” He took the plate, looked at the sandwich. “And you didn’t cut the crusts off!”

“It’s focaccia bread! There are no crusts! Besides, gosh, you only do that with peanut butter and jelly.”

“You do?”

“Yep.” Totally serious. She meant it. “Creamy peanut butter, grape jelly. And it’s gotta be on ordinary white bread.”

Snickering at the idea of his parents allowing ‘ordinary white bread’ into their kitchen, he carried the plate over to the table. Amelia picked up a dishtowel and started wiping crumbs from the counter.

“You have too many weird rules,” he said, giving back the keys yet again. Gwen decided to gum on the keyring for a while, so he started for the fridge to see what there was to drink.

I do?”

“What next, different kinds of food can’t touch on the plate?”

“Oh … eat your sandwich!” she said, flapping the dishtowel at him as she turned toward Gwen.

He snatched it from her grasp, spun it into a twist, snapped it out at her butt. “Left rear pocket!” he shouted.

Zing! Direct hit!

Amelia screeched and jumped six inches straight up. She came down sputtering and indignant in that too-cute way she had, and rounded on him, a hand clapped to the affected area. Gwen shrieked and whooped like it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen.

Cat-quick, he hid the dishtowel behind his back and put on an innocent expression.

“Arthur!”

“What?” Still Mr. Innocence.

“That really stung!” Though she was also giggling too hard to sound genuinely mad. “I think it’s gonna leave a …”

“Turn around and I’ll get the other side,” he said, once more spinning the dishtowel into a whip. “That way you’ll match. Wouldn’t want you to be uneven!”

Her eyes narrowed. “Give me that towel.”

“Nope.”

“Arthur …”

She lunged, but he saw the move telegraphed in her posture before Amelia herself knew she was going to do it, and he danced backward around the table, waving the dishtowel, taunting. First like a flag, then like a matador’s cape. All while Gwen kicked and chortled.

“Give it!” she cried.

“Nope!”

“For someone who’s supposed to be so darn tired --”

“I recover fast.”

Amelia veered toward the stove, where another dishtowel hung over the bar. Arthur darted past, beat her to it, and then whirled both in the air above their heads.

And that was when his own baby sister betrayed him. With a plastic clatter, the toy keys hit the floor. His heel came down on them and skidded. Only for a split-second, but a split-second was all it took for Amelia to rush him.

“Hey!” He managed to get both hands, with both dishtowels, behind his back before she crowded him into the space between the dishwasher and the counter.

Him laughing, her laughing, Gwen laughing. And her right up against him, fingers dig-tickling at his ribs, trying to get her arms around behind his back to filch the towels, which … uh … pushed her chest to his in … well …

“Oh,” she gasped. Let go. Retreated. Blushing like mad, flustered.

“Uh,” Arthur said. Cleared his throat. Meekly handed over the dishcloths. Figuring that if she decided to whale the heck out of him now, he probably deserved it.

“Um,” she said. With a lot of rapid blinking. She pointed to the sandwich. “You, um, you should …”

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, right, food, excellent. Let’s go see what’s on TV, huh?”

**

Chapter Nine


Arthur retrieved batteries and put the remote back together as he settled onto the couch with his sandwich, a root beer and a bag of Sun Chips.

Meanwhile, Ammy ejected the DVD of The Muppet Show and put it back in its case. Then she stretched out on her side next to Gwen, who was down on her blankie.

All the laughter and excitement had worn off, leaving the baby mellow, content to lay there on her back, gazing up with beginning-to-go-glassy eyes at the screen. She had one leg up, the foot gripped in a hand. Her other foot thumped randomly against the floor. The other hand curled loose around the juice bottle that Ammy helped her to hold.

Killer Croc Island II: Super-Croc?” Arthur asked, flipping through the channel guide with rapid thumb-presses of the button.

“Um, eew, no.”

Attack of the Space Spider?”

“Again, no. Do you want to scare the willies out of her?”

“Out of her?”

Ammy lolled her head back and upside-down crinkled her nose at him. “I’m not scared of super-crocs or space spiders, thanks!”

“Here’s a show on planning, hosting and ettiquette for elite political fundraiser dinners.”

“Gah!”

He smirked. “Okay, okay. News, talk show, crime show, something about pelicans … basketball?”

“No.”

“History Channel thing on the Black Death?”

“No!”

“Monster trucks?” he teased. “Gruesomest Sports Bloopers Ever Caught On Film? Womens’ beach volleyball?”

“Sometimes you can be such a guy!” Ammy said, rubbing her palm in circles on Gwen’s tummy.

“Sometimes?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I am a guy.”

“I’m gonna throw something at you.”

“Ah, you’d miss or I’d dodge, don’t bother.”

He was right, too, darn it. So she didn’t bother. Wasn’t like she had much of anything handy to throw, anyways. A few scattered plastic blocks, that was it.

“Ooh, hey, wait, go back!” she said. “Ninja Warrior’s on. You could so do that!”

“Ninja what?”

“Oh-em-gee!” Ammy let go of the bottle – it was almost empty and Gwen had lost interest in favor of playing now with both her own feet – to twist around and look at him. “You’ve never seen Ninja Warrior?”

“Huh-unh. What is it?”

“It’s this … gosh, how to explain … not like the kind el Mosquito Gigante fights. It’s this weird obstacle course thing, I guess … William and Sean watch it all the time, so I kind of got in the habit of watching it with them whenever I’m over there.” She paused, pursing her lips thoughtfully. “I think they mostly watch it for the shirtless Japanese hunks, though.”

Arthur looked at her, his expression somewhere between dubious and amused. “Shirtless Japanese hunks. Right.”

“Well …” She shrugged.

Still with the dubious-amused expression, he clicked through the channel guide until he found it again. His brows knit further. “Amelia,” he said. “That’s a scrawny old bald man … with an octopus. He’s holding a … he just kissed! … a dead octopus!”

“Oh … um, well … not him, okay, some of the competitors are there as like comic relief, you know?”

Arthur stared as Mr. Octopus took three lurching clumsy strides across the Quadruple Step and then faceplanted into the muddy water.

“What the heck is this?” Arthur demanded, as another contestant, this one a potbellied comedian in a black crop-top and absurd bike shorts, took his turn and wiped out with a spectacular splash. “Are you messing with me?”

“No, really!” Ammy said, giggling at his incensed tone and incredulous look. She could tell he was about to change the channel again, so she sat up and reached for the remote.

“Hey! Mine!” He clutched it tight.

“Give it a chance! There, hear that? The announcer? This guy, the next one up? Makoto Nagano? He’s William and Sean’s favorite. A real athlete. You’ll see!”

“I better,” he said. “Or I’m going back to the monster trucks and you’ll just have to deal, cupcake.”

Ammy said nothing more, only lowered herself beside Gwen again and watched Arthur as he watched the television.

The commercials ended and the English-language voiceover announcer introduced Nagano, who was this famous all-star, showing clips of him exercising on his fishing boat. Bronze, buff, toned, fit. With a charismatic smile and boyish self-deprecating attitude that came across even in translation. No wonder William and Sean liked him.

“At least this one’s in shape,” Arthur acknowledged.

Then Nagano began his run, making it look easy and effortless, like he did this kind of thing every day, piece of cake.

Arthur first sat up straighter, then leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. His blue eyes sharpened, gaze fixed on the screen. His face went intent, focused, alert.

Quadruple Step, Log Roll, Jump Hang, Pipe Slider, Warped Wall.

“He’s good,” Arthur said, in a low, musing kind of voice.

She hid a smile, still watching him as Nagano finished in record time and another of the all-stars took a turn. She could tell he was running the course in his mind. Seeing what they did and how they did it, thinking how he could do it, what could be improved upon.

A corner of Arthur’s mouth slanted up in a half-grin, and Ammy thought suddenly that the guy who moved like a cat now looked like a cheetah that had just singled out tonight’s main course from the antelope herd. The race was already run and done in the cheetah’s head, and he was tasting the prize, fait accompli, before the first puffs of savanna dust were even kicked up beneath his paws.

And oh, gosh, but when he looked like that he was so …

His pose drawing the thin tee shirt taut to his chest and shoulders … that fine golden fuzz along his jawline and chin, a shade or so darker than his blond hair … how it’d be the slightest scratchiness, the slightest roughness to the touch …

Stop it, Ammy!

Her breath hitched and she had to close her eyes for a moment. Caught up in that pang, that pull, as if a hook pierced through something inside her and reeled her helpless as a fish on a line. It wasn’t wanting, exactly, no. More of a yearning that she knew couldn’t ever be and so it left her torn by a faraway sad and sweet sort of ache.

The way they had been in the kitchen … when her arms had gone around him, all in fun, silly fun … until she’d realized that she was pressed up against him like that, even … even squooshed up against him …

“Amelia? You okay?”

It felt like her whole body was blushing, but somehow, somehow, she managed to smile and bob her head. “Yep! Fine!”

The end credits were rolling, and he flipped her the remote as he got to his feet. “You’re right, that’s a weird show. But yeah, I bet I could. Maybe next time I’m in Japan, I should give it a try, you think?”

“That would be so awesome.”

“Now, though --” He yawned. “I’m beat. See you in the morning?”

**
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