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Playing House -- continued! [Jan. 31st, 2010|07:21 pm]
CoX Fan Art and Fan Fiction

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[incineratrix]


Chapter Ten


He thought on the way to his room that he’d have trouble falling asleep. He often did, when they had overnight guests. Like being in an unfamiliar place, or on a bus, or surrounded by others.

Those reflexes of his could just tell when there was some different element in his environment. It was a good thing overall, a trait that his father had worked to encourage. Had saved his life on more than one occasion. Just, sometimes, it wasn’t the most convenient habit to have.

But, by the time he’d brushed his teeth and taken care of other pre-bed bathroom business, and slid under the covers, his eyelids were already on the way down.

Sure, it was strange knowing that someone else was in the apartment. The someone else, though, was someone he knew. Liked. Trusted. Someone whose shoulder he’d fallen asleep on once in a movie theater full of freaky Bruce Campbell fans.

Arthur had the sneaking suspicion that if he took a real close examination of what that might mean, he’d end up at a conclusion that equaled trouble.

So he evaded it long enough to make sure his alarm was set to a saner hour than it had been, pulled the covers to his chin, and …

Sleep.

Like a log, like a rock.

Not, as it turned out, like a baby.

Crying.

Gwen was crying.

He went from deep under to wide awake with only the barest of transitions. A glance at the clock told him that he’d been out for a solid six hours, and a mental check told him that it had been a good six hours. He was more refreshed than he probably had any right to be. Which wasn’t to say that he couldn’t use another two or three hours, but he could get by without them if he had to.

Gwen, crying.

And Amelia’s voice. Muzzy, sleep-muddled, but pleasant. Soothing. Gwen’s wails subsiding into watery hiccups and sobs.

Arthur got out of bed anyway, padded to his door, listened. Telling himself it was just to make sure everything was okay, under control.

“There’s a girl, there’s a good girl, there’s a good baby,” he heard Amelia croon. “S’okay, jellybean. Ammy’s here. Ammy’s got you. Everything’s okay.”

Unable not to smile, he opened the door and looked down the hall. The nursery door was ajar, a honeyed spill of light on the hall carpet.

“—into a nice dry dipe, there we go, isn’t that better? Gosh, yes, that’s lots better, isn’t it? And a foot … another foot … good girl, all done. Up we go. Yeah.”

Seemed like things were okay and under control.

“There we are, okay … ack … that’s my hair … shh, shh … who’s a good girl?”

Soft sing-song words, and the sounds of movement, the sounds of Amelia walking the baby back and forth.

And then somehow he was right outside the nursery, cat-stealthy without even trying to sneak. Looking in through the gap of the partly-open door. Wanting to see, because it just sounded so nice, so gentle.

It was. Nice and gentle.

Gwen’s head rested on Amelia’s shoulder. The baby was snuffling, but no longer crying. She wore cotton footie sleepers, pale blue patterned with white puffy clouds. One thumb was stuck securely in her little pink mouth, and the other tiny fist clenched into a clump of Amelia’s hair.

Amelia walked her around the room, rubbing her back, patting her diapered bottom, humming.

Nice and gentle.

It also hit him not unlike a medicine ball to the gut.

Her hair fell long and loose and mussed, released from that habitual ponytail. It swung against her back as she moved. Thick ash-blonde hair whispering over the satiny jewel-tone – purple, of course, amethyst – fabric of her sleepshirt. The hem of which reached halfway to her knees, but it had slits up the sides so that with each step she took, there were glimpses of shapely leg and smooth thigh.

That just-woke-up look of her … eyelids heavy over eyes still emerging from some dream … face even more unguarded … more painfully, sweetly vulnerable than usual …

And those glimpses of leg, the sway of iridescent violet satin against her hips, the low but not plunging vee of the neckline and the way it draped …

She carried Gwen to the rocker, grabbed a twilight-colored blanket that had been folded and set atop an ottoman, and snuggled the two of them into the rocker with the blanket over her lap. Rock, rock.

“Okay, jellybean,” she murmured, still in that nice and gentle sing-song voice. “Let’s leggo of Ammy’s hair now … there we go … ow … there we go.”

Gwen allowed Amelia to disentangle the strands from her fist, and burbled a sigh as she laid her little head against the front of Amelia’s sleepshirt, which looked so cushiony and inviting and –

Moving on, Arthur!

“How about a story?” Amelia asked the baby. “I could tell you one my grandma used to tell us, about the cat and mouse who tried to be friends.”

“Mbah,” Gwen said.

“Hope that’s an ‘okay,’” Amelia said. She nuzzled the top of Gwen’s head. “Let’s see. Once upon a time, there was a cat and a mouse who decided to take up housekeeping together …”

As he listened from just outside the door, Arthur became fairly certain he’d heard or read the basics of this one before … one of Aesop’s Fables, but storied up. And even with Gwen not old enough to understand the actual words, she was enraptured by the rhythm of Amelia’s voice, the animation of her features.

Until she stopped talking, blinked, and looked over at Arthur in the doorway. He realized he’d shifted position to lean on the jamb, and that slight motion had attracted her attention.

“Hey,” he said, pitching his voice low and soft to match hers.

“Hey, hi … gosh, sorry, did we wake you?”

“Nah. Well, yeah. But I don’t mind.” He smiled. “Can I hear the story too?”

“Sure, c’mon in.”

He went, and though his impulse would have been to pat-ruffle Gwen’s head when she babbled at him, he knew that given her head’s placement and proximity that’d be a dangerous, dangerous move. Instead, he squeezed her foot, then pulled the ottoman over to sit beside the rocker.

**

Chapter Eleven


“Arthur’s going to have story time with us,” Ammy told Gwen, and booped her nose. “He wants to hear about the cat and mouse, too!”

Arthur was also almost too darn cute for her to be able to concentrate. Sitting there right close to them in the glow of the amber-shaded bedside lamp, casual and rumpled in tee shirt and scrubs, his hair messed up from sleeping on it wet … too, too cute.

Gwen grinned around her thumb at her brother, and he reached across Ammy’s lap to tickle her foot again.

Way too cute!

Maybe she shouldn’t have insisted on staying. Maybe she should have done the prudent thing and gone home. This was … well … really probably not the most appropriate arrangement, was it? Unchaperoned like this, unchaperoned except for a baby who wasn’t even old enough to tattle on them.

Not that there was anything to tattle on. Nor would there be. It wasn’t …

It wasn’t like that. Couldn’t ever be. The sad twinge she felt at the thought was all the confirmation she needed. All she’d ever needed. He was her friend. That was enough. That was more than she could have asked.

“Where was I?” she said, forcing herself to pull it together.

“They bought a pot of butter to save for the winter,” Arthur said. “But Cat had a serious butter fixation, and Mouse didn’t think he’d be able to wait that long.”

“Ah, no, not just butter.” Ammy widened her eyes at the baby and said, “It was … yellow, creamy, delicious butter!”

Because that was the way you were supposed to tell this story. Little kids loved repetition, and anticipation. Even ones who were still too young to understand the words could pick up loads from expression, inflection and intonation.

So, not just butter. Yellow, creamy, delicious butter! Said in a voice that was longing, greedy, covetous. The way a pirate might talk about treasure, or Homer Simpson about donuts.

Of course, the story went on, Cat couldn’t stop thinking about the full pot of yellow, creamy, delicious butter. He was always telling Mouse they ought to just eat it now, or some of it, only a little, they’d still have plenty left for winter. Every day, pleading and whining, driving Mouse crazy, but Cat couldn’t help it, he just loved butter so, so much …

Yellow, creamy, delicious butter!

Gwen’s eyes would go all big and round, then she’d squeal and kick and giggle when the words were spoken. After about the third time, Arthur was saying it along with Ammy, and that really delighted Gwen.

Mouse couldn’t stand it any more and told Cat they would put the pot out on a shelf in the shed behind their house. That way, Mouse said, Cat wouldn’t be seeing it all the time, thinking about it, craving it.

And Mouse would keep an eye on him to make sure Cat didn’t try to go out to the shed. Soon, Mouse said, Cat would forget it was even there. Then, when winter rolled around, they’d have a whole pot saved up and they could enjoy that when everything else was bleak and dull and cold.

But it didn’t work, did it?

Not only was Cat unable to stop thinking about it, his hungry greed for the butter – the yellow, creamy, delicious butter! – drove him to do a terrible thing. Cat lied to Mouse, said that one of his sisters had a brand new baby kitten and he, Cat, was to be godfather, and he had to go to town for the ceremony.

Except instead of going to town, Cat went down the road until he was out of sight of the house, then sneaked back through the woods to the shed when Mouse wasn’t looking. Went into the shed. Took down the pot. Opened the lid.

“Oh and he could smell the butter,” Ammy said, widening her eyes again at Gwen. “The --”

“Yellow, creamy, delicious butter!” Arthur chimed in.

“He told himself he’d take one taste, just one, just a single lick,” she went on. “But it was omigosh soooooo good that then he told himself just another, one more, one more wouldn’t hurt.”

“Uh-oh,” Arthur said.

“Before he knew it, though, he’d licked and licked and licked until he’d licked the whole top off. And then Cat was horrified, and soooo ashamed of himself. He put the lid back on and thought that maybe Mouse wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

“Yeah, good luck with that.”

“Who’s telling this story?”

“Sorry. Go on.”

“When he got back to the house, he was feeling way guilty but he also couldn’t stop thinking about how nummy it had been, melting on his tongue, that --”

“Yellow, creamy, delicious butter!” she and Arthur said.

“—and Mouse asked him about the new baby kitten, and the christening, and wanted to know what they’d named it, and Cat hadn’t thought of that part so he said what first jumped into his head: Top Off. Which Mouse said was the strangest name for a kitten he’d ever heard, but Cat insisted it was a great name, an important family name, they’d had an uncle named Top Off who was the most famousest cat ever.”

Repetition and anticipation, and stories like this tended to go in threes, so twice more Cat lied to Mouse about his other sisters having new baby kittens and him being godfather. Twice more, Cat sneaked around to the shed. Twice more, he came back and when Mouse asked, told him that the kittens were named Half-Gone, and then All-Gone …

By the end of the story, when winter came and Mouse discovered Cat’s deception and Cat decided that Mouse would make an even better dinner, Gwen was yawning, fighting to stay awake.

“And that, Mouse said as he ran away down the lane,” Ammy finished, “was why cats and mice should not be friends.”

“Where did you learn that one?” Arthur asked. “Your grandma?”

“Grandma Marlene, yeah. I know it’s silly.”

“It’s fun. She really liked it.” He dimpled at her, covered her hand with his, gave a brief warm squeeze. “So did I. Thanks.”

Ammy bit her lip and looked down, blushing. Gwen yawned again. Her eyes were very droopy. “I better put her to bed. It’s late.”

“Or early,” he said, glancing at the clock.

“That, too.” She got up, carefully cradling the drowsy baby, only remembering when she let the blanket fall from her lap that she was in her satiny sleepshirt, and bare-legged. Not like there was anything she could have done about it, though.

She carried Gwen to her crib, tucked a light blankie around her, then brushed a wisp of that gossamer hair from her forehead and leaned to kiss her cheek. Gwen murmured and sighed, smacked her lips, poked her thumb in her mouth again, and went to sleep.

“Goodnight, Gwen,” Ammy whispered.

As she straightened back up, Arthur, from behind her, said, “Are you going to tuck me in like that, too?”

**

Chapter Twelve


“Are you going to tuck me in like that, too?”

Arthur heard his own words, and the words on their own were fine, but the way he’d said them was not at all the way he’d intended.

He’d meant to say that in a light way, a joshing and teasing way. A way that would make Amelia turn pink. Make her blush and squeak and sputter.

“Hey!” she’d go. Or “Um!” Or “Arthur!” in the cutest little shocked and breathless gasp.

Instead …

Jeez.

Instead, it had sounded like a challenge. An I-bet-you-won’t. Half almost-mocking, and half almost-daring. With a hint of … what?

Flirtation? Or something even stronger?

He had picked up and neatly folded the blanket, and stood there now with it in his hands, astounded at himself. He read similar astonishment in the twitch of Amelia’s shoulders as she finished straightening up, even before she turned from the crib to face him.

When she did turn, she was blushing, but she hadn’t squeaked, and didn’t sputter. Chin held high, she looked him square in the eye and called his bluff.

“Do you want me to?”

Called his bluff with a bluff of her own. Throwing it back at him. But bluffing. She had to be. This was Amelia, remember … shy, sweet, innocent, easily flustered Amelia. No way she’d follow through. No way in a million years.

She was counting on him to get flustered and embarrassed now, he realized. Counting on him to back down, make some clumsy attempt at a joke. Let him be the awkward one for a change.

Not happening.

“Sure,” he said, holding her steady gaze with a nonchalance he didn’t feel.

Now she would stammer and protest.

“All right,” she said. And nodded toward the nursery door, a well-let’s-go kind of nod.

Arthur looked at her for another few moments, waiting for her to recant, but …

“Okay.” He dropped the folded blanket onto the ottoman beside the rocker, and headed into the hall.

She wouldn’t actually follow

She followed.

His mouth had gone dry. His heart pounded against his ribs like someone knocking to alert the residents of a burning building. His brain yammered at him, demanding to know if he had gone crazy, didn’t he realize he was leading Amelia to his room? Amelia? To his room???

That stretch of hallway carpet looked a mile long. Like the Last Mile in a prison, between Death Row and the gas chamber. Fitting, because there were plenty of people who would be glad to throw the switch if they knew what he was doing.

Leading Amelia to his room???

Of course, it wasn’t like that, they both knew it wasn’t like that.

Mostly.

Maybe.

Oh jeez.

Friends, he told himself. Good friends, yeah. But still, really, just friends.

Right.

Oh jeez oh jeez.

Any minute now, she’d falter. “Um,” she’d say, “I think maybe …”

And he’d say, “Yeah,” and then they’d laugh it off …

But he was at his door. Going into the room. Flicking on the light.

Amelia followed.

He sensed her pause as she stepped in, and had a moment to be relieved, even grateful, that he’d never gotten out of the habit of neatness-and-order that his father had impressed upon him and Lance from a young age. Place for everything, everything in its place, no wasting precious seconds scrambling to find something when lives might be on the line.

So, no clothes and books and magazines strewn hither and yon. Thankfully! No socks and underwear on the floor, no dirty dishes piled up crusting with mold. No trash can overflowing. His computer corner was tidy. The door to the walk-in closet that also contained the hidden room he thought of sometimes as the Aspy-Cave was shut.

Arthur glanced at Amelia. He saw her rapid-fire flurry of blinks as she took note of the disarranged bed – king-sized, yikes, what must she be thinking? – and her blush deepened. She quickly averted her eyes, and continued scanning the room, too curious not to.

The shelf of action figures and collectibles made her smile. She admired the beautiful rune-engraved sword displayed centerpiece on one wall. The sight of the small purple space crystal and moon rock she’d given him brought a wistful look to her eyes. And the framed promotional poster from La Battala de los Titanes, one of The Giant Mosquito’s early major title bouts, nearly got a giggle.

What was he doing?

This was a very, very bad idea.

He knew that. Knew it.

Yet here they were. Somehow, here they were, and he was powerless to do anything except let it play out until …

Until what?

Mouth dry, pulse racing, throat tight, body tense. Breathing required a conscious effort. So did walking. His legs felt like jointed wooden stilts. It was a miracle he could take even a single step without tripping over dust particles and breaking his neck.

Neither of them said a word. She just … waited … looking at him … patient. Then one eyebrow angled up, as if to ask, “Well?”

He forced a gulp, stilt-walked the last couple of paces, and climbed into bed. Stretched out on his back, still with every muscle tense, feeling less relaxed than he’d ever been in his entire life.

Nervous?

Heck, practically petrified.

But also …

Also something else.

Amelia came to him, sat on the edge of his bed. He was far too aware of her now. Far too aware of her bare knees below the hem of her sleepshirt. Far too aware of its satiny sheen draping her contours.

Meeting her eyes seemed safest, but even that was difficult. They were brown, just brown, a plain ordinary brown as she might have said, not even trying to describe them as hazel the way some girls with brown eyes liked to do.

Brown, but not plain. Not ordinary. Not when they brimmed with such …

Oh, this really was the worst idea in a long string of bad ideas.

She tucked the covers around his shoulders, smoothed them across his chest. Her fingertips brushed his hair from his forehead, a delicate tickle of touch, on his forehead and not the nape of his neck this time but still enough to send a shiver through him.

Then she leaned down, bent toward him in a fall of ash-blonde hair. He smelled lavender-scented shampoo, a hint of baby powder. Her lips found his cheek in a soft, gentle kiss like the dewy caress of a rose against his skin. A kiss that lingered longer than it probably should have, but was also over far too soon.

“Goodnight …” she whispered, “Arthur.”

Before he trusted himself to say anything in return, she had crossed the room, turned off the light, and left, pulling the door closed behind her.

**(to here)

Chapter Thirteen



She had kissed him.

Kissed him!

Only on the cheek. A goodnight kiss.

But still, a kiss. Still, she had kissed him!

Head awhirl, Ammy returned to the nursery.

The rest of the apartment was dark and quiet, as she’d left it, as it had been since she’d gone around earlier after putting Gwen to bed the first time. She’d collected and washed the few dishes, she’d picked up toys, she’d made sure yet again that all the systems were set, and everything was the way it should be. Then she’d gone to bed herself, until the baby’s crying woke her.

Poor thing had been soaked. A change, a cuddle, the pacing and soothing, the story of Cat and Mouse and the pot of butter. Yellow, creamy, delicious butter.

Then she’d kissed Arthur.

Oh-em-gee.

Only on the cheek! A goodnight kiss!

But still.

But nothing!

It hadn’t been serious … had been a play-kiss, a pretend kiss, a silly didn’t-count kind of kiss that he’d just about dared her into because he didn’t think she really would

She had, though.

And somehow, it didn’t seem so play, so pretend, so didn’t-count. It seemed, it felt, like it had counted a lot.

Why had she done that? How could she have done that?

How could she not? When the opportunity, the invitation, the darn-near challenge, was right there?

Oh-em-gee.

Bad girl, Ammy.

Crossed the line.

If … if there was a line …

There was totally definitely a line.

Actually there were lots of lines.

And this had crossed one of them, for sure.

One of the physical-type-category lines.

The nursery was awash in a cool, dim blue glow from the nightlight. Ammy checked on Gwen and found the baby sleeping that deep and peaceful sleep that a marching band couldn’t disturb. She was on her back, head turned to the side, the blankie bunched around her tummy. Her thumb had slipped from her mouth and her tiny fist lay loosely curled beside her head.

Such a sweetie, such a cutie, such a darling little jellybean!

Smiling, Ammy went to the daybed and snuggled into its softness. But once she was there, her traitor thoughts and giddy fluttering heart insisted on remembering what she’d done.

He knew how she felt about him. Or knew at least that she had feelings for him that went further beyond just-friends than maybe they really should have. And he was okay with it, he didn’t mind so much, as long as those feelings didn’t get in the way. As long as they weren’t acted upon or made a big deal of or anything.

It wasn’t like that … except, for her, it was, wasn’t it?

Gosh, yes. It was, it had been for a long time. Even with everything else. All the reasons why not. So many reasons why not, why it couldn’t ever be, why there had to be those lines.

Like the one she’d just crossed.

Kissing him.

On the cheek was all! A simple goodnight kiss!

Still a line. A physical-type-category line.

And he hadn’t stopped her. He could have stopped her. Why hadn’t he stopped her? Why had he … jeez … just about dared her like that? Why had she gone along with it instead of … of … something else?

He really hadn’t thought she would, that was why. He hadn’t meant it, had been joking – no matter how it’d sounded – and then she had gone and turned it into not-quite-a-joke after all. Arthur must not have known what to do, how to get out of it without hurting her feelings or something.

So he’d gone through with it.

Ammy rolled her head on the pillow, biting her lip, face tingling with a blush.

The way he’d lain there … more like someone in a dentist’s chair or strapped to an interrogation table than in his own bed … all tensed up and looking at her … apprehensive but accepting, in a strange, determined way … almost tharn from Watership Down.

Kind of how Ammy herself had been.

His eyes, that beautiful shade of blue, gazing up at her …

She couldn’t remember breathing, though she must have been because she hadn’t fainted, and she had been able to whisper goodnight.

She could definitely remember the way her hands wanted to shake as she’d tucked the covers around his shoulders. She didn’t think they had shaken, at least not terribly noticeably, even when she’d also smoothed those covers across his chest.

And though they’d really wanted to shake when she brushed his hair from his forehead, she was pretty sure they hadn’t then either because right about then a weird sense of calm had descended on her. Almost a fatalistic sense of calm.

Leaning down. Pressing her lips to his cheek. And yes, finding just that slightest scratchiness, that slightest roughness. Which made it all the more real. Not fairytale, not daydream. Real. Dangerously real.

But … hey … she’d finally gotten that peek at his room! And aside from the bed – omigosh big bed! – it was almost exactly ideal as to how she might have pictured it if she’d been able to picture it. Neat and orderly, precise, but fun and welcoming. Action figures and lots of books. That incredible sword on the wall. The crystal and moon rock she’d brought back from space, sitting there on a shelf.

And that poster! El Mosquito Gigante in full luchador glory! She would never forget the way Arthur had waxed fanboy enthusiastic about how his father had taken him to see that fight; he had just been the most adorablest thing ever right then!

With another faint smile, she turned on her side and relaxed into sleep.

Some time later, an unknown amount of time later, she woke to the sense of a nearby presence. The subliminal impressions of warmth, sound, scent, movement. A familiar presence.

Familiar, and not alarming.

Except … alarming because it was familiar. Because …

A hand clasped her wrist.

Another covered her mouth.

A low voice murmured into her ear.

“Amelia.”

**

Chapter Fourteen


Sleep kept eluding him.

The way he always eluded attacks from foes. Something ironic about that, but Arthur didn’t exactly find it amusing.

He tossed. He turned. He sat up, punched his pillow a few times, flopped face-down. Muttered dark imprecations at himself. Couldn’t breathe, smothering in pillow. Flopped to his back. Stared at the same old patterns of shadow on his bedroom ceiling. Rolled to his side. Couldn’t get comfortable there either.

Kept thinking about her.

Trying not to.

Knowing he shouldn’t.

But unable to stop.

The way she had looked, both shy and resolute. The satiny violet shimmer of that sleepshirt, the peaches-and-cream of her skin. The way her breath had tickled warm and soft with her gently-whispered goodnight.

The kiss on his cheek, lingering just a bit too long … and not nearly long enough.

He swore he could still feel it tingling there. Wouldn’t have been surprised to see it there if he looked in a mirror, glowing pale and faint like a lipstick-print made of sparkling effervescent energy.

She’d really done it.

Arthur almost couldn’t believe it. Definitely couldn’t believe he’d let her, but he’d been so sure she’d retreat … or maybe … maybe he’d been hoping she wouldn’t retreat after all?

And if he’d wanted to …

It would have been so easy right then. To just reach up, sink his fingers into the thickness of her hair, slide his hand around the nape of her neck. Draw her closer. Draw her face to his … her lips to his …

If he’d wanted to.

Scratch that. No if about it.

Of course he’d wanted to, he wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t blind, he wasn’t dead. He was a young, straight, healthy teenage guy for crying out loud! A pretty girl, a girl he liked, a girl who liked him, sitting right there on the edge of his bed?

Who wouldn’t have wanted to?

But.

But, no.

Couldn’t. For all the many, many reasons.

“Nggggh.” Arthur flopped onto his back again. The sheets and blankets were a hopeless snarl by now.

Kissing Amelia would have been …

Don’t think about it.

… like drinking pink champagne. Sweet and crisp. Heady. Intoxicating.

And against the rules, remember?

If he’d so much as tried, she would have slapped him silly, called him a jerk, and stormed from the room.

Yeah. Right. Sure she would. That’s exactly what would have happened.

“Gah.” He sat up, turned over his pillow to the cool side, laid back down. Sternly ordered himself to quit it and go to sleep.

She wouldn’t have slapped him.

She might have gasped, might have trembled, might have had her own fleeting moment of anxiety and doubt well up vivid in those wide expressive eyes … but then …

Then …

Arthur gripped his forehead, squeezed his temples until his head hurt. Forced a long, slow exhalation, all the way to the dregs of his lungs.

Okay. He could deal with this. He could get past this.

Kind of had to. What else was he going to do, tiptoe down the hall to the nursery and --?

Although he’d been nowhere near sleep, he all of a sudden was fully awake. Awake and on high alert. Adrenaline rushing, every sense sharp.

Something was different.

Something was wrong.

Instinct and training told him so, picking up on subtle cues that a quick glance around his room confirmed.

The apartment’s power was out. The building had backups on its backups, and redundancies on its redundancies, so an outage should not have been possible for more than a flicker of a split-second.

The power out, the security system disabled. The phones would also be down.

And someone was inside. He could just about smell a malevolent presence on the air. He could almost taste the hostility and stealth and purpose.

He didn’t question it. Only acted. Out of bed and to his door, listening keenly before opening it. Silence in the apartment. But heavy silence. Careful silence.

Down the hall, to the nursery. The nightlight had its own internal battery, he remembered. Might give him away. No choice, though.

Quick as he could, he opened the door just wide enough to slip through, then closed it and listened again.

Nothing but the sleep-breathing of his baby sister and Amelia.

Arthur crossed to the daybed and crouched, his vision adjusting to the dim blue glow. If he startled her …

He grasped her wrist with one hand, covered her mouth with the other just in case. “Amelia.” Voice low, barely above a murmur. But urgent.

She woke, and she was startled, all right. As if she thought … well, he could guess what she thought!

“Rrrfrr?” she said into his muffling hand, lips moving against his palm in a way that would have been insanely distracting at any other time.

“Trouble,” he whispered. “Someone’s in the house. We have to get to the panic room.”

The whirl of other emotions were pushed aside at once. She nodded, eyes clear.

“You carry Gwen,” he said, still whispering as he let go and stood. “Hurry.”

Amelia threw off the covers and swung her feet out, revealing a heart-stopping length of leg and a hint of the white lacy edge of something else that would have been insanely distracting at any other time. Then she was up, the sleepshirt’s hem falling back where it belonged.

As she went to the crib, Arthur went to the nightlight. He waited as Amelia gathered up baby and blanket, tenderly, trying not to jostle Gwen and get her crying. She made hushed soothing noises as she did so.

“Mnyuh,” Gwen said. Her little face scrunched unhappily. But then she settled onto Amelia’s shoulder like a doll-shaped sandbag, asleep again.

“Okay,” Amelia mouthed.

Arthur pulled the nightlight, casting the nursery into what thin city illumination filtered in around the edges of the blinds. “Follow me,” he said. “Stay close. And unless we have to, don’t break --”

Her free hand pressed his chest, stopping his words. “I know,” she said.

It occurred to him that if just being alone in the apartment with her was dangerous, being cooped up in the panic room for hours on end with her verged on suicidal. And her in that sleepshirt …

Nothing else to be done about it except be caught by whoever’d been able to infiltrate the Kirby Building. Through all its state of the art security systems and the defenses his mother had designed.

Whoever it was, he knew, still wouldn’t have been much of a match for The Aspirant and Star Amethyst … except that would have to be a move of last resort … and not if it meant putting his little sister at more risk than not doing so.

Which meant, for now, it was all up to Arthur and Amelia.

**

Chapter Fifteen


She followed him into the dark hall, their feet silent on the carpeting. The precious bundle of baby was a warm weight in her arm and against her shoulder.

From somewhere in the apartment came a dull thump, a muted clink. Arthur stopped. Ammy stopped behind him.

They listened.

Nothing.

But she could feel it, how they weren’t alone. A cold tide of fear and outrage rose in her heart. Not fear for herself. Fear for Gwen, who was so small and helpless and innocent.

The outrage was stronger – how dare they? How dare anybody do this? Ooh when she was able to …

Arthur reached back and took Ammy’s hand, the hand that wasn’t occupied with holding Gwen. He gave it a firm but gentle squeeze. Still clasping it in his, he moved on. A few more steps. A few more steps to the door of his mother’s room, and then the panic room.

Then blinding-bright beams jabbed at them out of the gloom. Several beams, from several directions.

“That’s just about far enough,” chortled a jovial-sounding voice.

They stopped again. Ammy flinched her eyes to squinting, and shielded Gwen’s sleeping face.

“Well, well, well,” the voice continued. A man’s voice. Unfamiliar. With a truer mean edge coming out beneath that jovial chortle. “Look at this, look at what we have here. Simper Fi was right, it’s another of the Pearce brats.”

In the backsplash of the lights, Ammy could make out bulky shapes, men and women in baggy loose-fitting functional clothes. Black and charcoal grey and midnight blue. Night-ops camo.

And …

Yellow masks.

Garish yellow happyface whole-head masks, with black circles for eyes and huge goofy smiles. Fitting close over their features so that the smiles were distorted into weird grimaces.

She didn’t recognize them, but by the way his grip on her hand suddenly clamped to almost painfully tight, Arthur sure did.

“I told ya, boss! I told ya I seen da boy!” From the largest of them, who had what looked like a military beret perched atop his happyface mask.

“That you did, Simp, that you did. We’ve got ourselves a two-for-one bargain special going on! Must be our lucky day!”

“Whoever you are,” Arthur said, sounding like he didn’t know, sounding like he was trying to sound brave, sounding basically just the way he should sound if he was an ordinary multi-billionaire’s son who didn’t also lead a secret life, “you’re making a big mistake doing this. If you leave now --”

The man with the jovial voice laughed. A crazy, cackling, high-pitched laugh. “Leave? Leave now? When the fun’s only starting? I don’t think so, kid!”

Gwen stirred and whimpered. Ammy rocked in place, hummed low in her throat. Several of the lights homed in on them.

“What ya want us should do, boss?” asked the one in the beret. Who also, Ammy saw, had bandoliers crisscrossing his barrel chest, and a knife roughly the size of a machete hanging at his hip. “Ya wants we should grab da baby? Dat’s what’s we’s here for.”

“No!” Ammy blurted, clutching Gwen close.

Arthur put himself between her and the men. “No.”

“Yes!” the boss said to Ammy, mimicking her. Then again to Arthur, mimicking him. “Yes. This is a kidnap plot. What kind of a kidnap plot would it be if we didn’t kidnap anyone? Tell me that.”

“Take me, then --”

“Arthur!”

“—and let the girls go. You don’t want to hassle with a baby. I’ll cooperate. Just let them go.”

“Hmm.” The boss stroked the chin of his mask. “Hmm? Hmm. Hmm! No.”

“But, Grinz, the kid’s got a point,” one of the women said. She was tall and heavyset, with a roughened rasp from years of smoking, shouting or both. “Diapers, bottles, all that crap --”

He rounded on her. “Did I ask you to open your chuckle-hole, Merry Sue?”

“It’s true, though,” Arthur said. “Babies are a lot of work. A lot of mess. And noise. Take me instead.”

“Arthur, please!”

“It’s okay, Amelia.” He glanced at her, and she bit her lip, knowing what he wanted, knowing what he meant. Get Gwen out of this. Get Gwen to safety. Then

“Aww,” Grinz said. “Real sweet, kid. Real noble. Nice try. No dice.”

“Yeah, no dice,” echoed Simper Fi.

“What I said before about a two-for-one bargain special? Not a buy one get one free. This is Daily Double Bonus Round where the scores can really change and the prizes are better than ever!”

“Yeah, prizes!”

“Your mom and pop want you and Li’l Sis back? They’ll have to shell out the big bucks.”

“Yeah, big bucks!”

“You can shut your chuckle-hole too, any old time now,” Grinz told Simp, cuffing him upside the head and almost knocking his beret off. A couple of the others laughed, enjoying the show.

During this, Ammy and Arthur had been surveying the situation while also acting properly daunted and scared. As far as Ammy could tell, the situation wasn’t encouraging. Too many of the gang were in here, between them and the entrance to the panic room. Others must be elsewhere in the apartment, judging by the thump and clink heard earlier.

While the happyface-maskers were mostly armed with bats, batons and other blunt weapons, it’d still be a rough fight. Too rough while trying to carry and protect a baby. Best bet for now really was to go along with them, and wait for a better chance.

The other woman, not Merry Sue, tapped her wrist in a time’s-a-wasting manner. “We need to get this show on the road, G.” She was short and wiry, and spoke with a nasal accent that was annoying from the very first words.

“Right you are, Jolly Jill, right you are.” Grinz clapped, briskly, and looked at Arthur. “Still going to cooperate, Young Master Pearce?”

“She’s got nothing to do with this,” Arthur said, nodding toward Amelia. “You could let her go, and --”

“Hmm. I could, I could.” Again, he stroked his chin. “But … I think I won’t. She can take care of the baby-brat, and, if we end up having to convince the money-men that we mean business, why, we can always shoot the babysitter.”

**

Chapter Sixteen


He had expected something along those lines, but oh, hearing it out loud like that was so much worse!

Arthur made himself breathe slowly through clenched teeth, and took a half-step backward even as Amelia took a half-step closer to him, so that they ended up standing very close, almost touching, with Gwen in the middle.

His sister had woken up thanks to the lights and the voices. He could hear her mewling whines of uncertainty, and he wanted to kick these creeps black and blue for upsetting her even more than he wanted to kick them black and blue for being here in the first place.

And Grinz?

He really wanted to kick Grinz.

With the cool, trained, analytical part of his brain, he knew that this was all too well-planned and well-organized to be coincidence. Whatever had happened in Haven to lure his mother there was a diversion, getting her out of Paragon City so that this kidnapping plot could be put into motion.

If not for the thousand and one things that had gone wrong on his trip, he wouldn’t have been here right now. He would have been away at Wolfstone Lake, or at the very least on his way to Haven himself in response to Mom’s message. He wouldn’t have been here, and Amelia would have been on her own.

On her own with Mr. Smyle’s gang. Because that, Arthur knew, was who was behind this. Normally, Smyle limited his activities to Haven … but for this, he was making an exception. The Haven news hadn’t missed the chance to do birth announcements and follow-up stories in honor of their city’s premiere citizen’s new daughter.

Though he was also, honestly, kind of relieved that it wasn’t Smyle himself come to call. Grinz didn’t look like a pushover, but he was still no Smyle. Arthur had studied untold casefiles, viewed countless videos, heard too many of Mid-Knight’s war stories. When he had first seen those yellow masks and known whose op this was, his hair wanted to stand on end, and his blood had chilled by several degrees.

“Let’s not lollygag, people,” Grinz said, with another brisk clap. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy, you two escort Young Master Pearce to his room. Merry Sue, Jolly Jill, I’m putting you in charge of the girl.”

“Wait, what?” Amelia took another half-step, which brought her into contact with Arthur, pressing her, almost huddled, against his back.

“You’re splitting us up?” Arthur asked.

“Well we don’t want our hostages to be dragged all around town in their PJ’s, now, do we?” The yellow smile-face mask cocked to the side, in what was supposed to be a coy, playful gesture aimed at Amelia. “And you can pack a bag for the little one. All those necessities. Ba-bas and binkies.”

“Why do we have to --?” Merry Sue began.

Grinz heaved an exaggerated sigh, and cocked his head at Arthur this time. “There’s just no winning with the ladies, is there? You try to treat them like just one of the guys, they complain. You try to be polite and considerate, they complain. You try to be politically correct, they complain. Should I have a couple of the boys guard her while she changes clothes?”

“No!” Amelia and Arthur said together.

He shrugged and raised his hands, palms-up, at Merry Sue. “See what I have to deal with? Can’t please anybody. Why do I bother?”

“Fine, fine,” Merry Sue said. “Come on, girlie.”

“I …”

“Come on!” The big woman had a baton slung at her waist, and drew it now to thwack the business end on the dresser. It made a loud, violent bang, and Gwen started to cry.

“If you --” Arthur began.

“Yeah?” She hefted the baton as if asking whether he wanted the next one on top of his skull.

“Arthur, don’t,” Amelia said, comforting the baby. “We’ll be back in a minute.”

Merry Sue and Jolly Jill flanked her, leading her toward the hall and back to the nursery. Just before they reached the doorway, Grinz called out, “Oh, and miss?”

Amelia turned.

“Just in case you get any brave, stupid ideas? I want you to remember something.”

“What?”

“I want you to remember …” Grinz produced an ugly, snub-nosed pistol from his pocket, waved it with a flourish like a magician doing a trick, and pointed it at Arthur. He cackled his high, shrill laugh again. “Remember who’s got the gun.”

She paled, and Arthur could see the movement in her throat as she swallowed.

“That always gets their attention,” Grinz said to Arthur, in a buddy-buddy confiding tone.

“He won’t,” Arthur said, keeping his gaze fixed on Amelia’s. Fine line between assuring her, and not tipping the bad guys off to how he wasn’t as terrified as he ought to be. “I’m worth a lot more to them alive.”

“One hundred percent correct.” Stepping up beside Arthur, Grinz nonetheless stuck the gunbarrel into the undershelf of his jaw, angled up so that if he pulled the trigger, there would be a large messy splotch on the ceiling. “But I am a psycho.”

Several of the yellow masks nodded, and mumbles of agreement came from behind some of the cheery black smiles. Arthur tried not to react, neither jerking away from the cold invasive prod of the metal, nor back-spin-kicking Grinz through the bedroom window … which was by far the more tempting.

“So,” Grinz went on, still addressing Amelia, “remember that, won’t you, cutie-pie?”

“I’ll remember,” she said. And though she spoke in a soft tone, almost meek, Arthur suddenly had the idea that being kicked through a window on the penthouse floor of the Kirby Building might be the least of Grinz’s problems if he got too frisky with that gun.

The women led her out. Moments later, Grinz put the pistol away and shoved Arthur over to the two men who, of all the gang, looked the most identical. Don’t Worry, and Be Happy … Smyle had always needed his head examined, but if those were what passed for nicknames among his gang these days, he needed a full-on lobotomy … had the builds of dedicated gym rats. They wore matching camos, and where their sleeves were rolled past the elbows, Arthur could see corresponding “I-heart-Mom” tattoos.

The musclebound gym rats snorted and sniggered as they walked him to his room. Little knowing that he could have dropped them both before they knew what hit them. Overconfident in their bulk and size.

Not now, though. Not yet. He couldn’t chance it until he was sure Amelia and Gwen were safe.

Arthur dressed quickly, grabbing clothes from his not-yet-unpacked suitcase and his belt from where he’d left it. Hidden in the belt, well-concealed but easily accessible if you knew where to search, were a standard handcuff key and a sturdy multi-tool made from composites that wouldn’t show up on metal detectors.

He felt better once it was on, and better still after donning socks and shoes. Sure, he could fight barefoot, but given the choice, he’d go with something on his feet, thanks. Heck, he’d seen Die Hard, if for no other reason!

Though his guards gave the impression of being as thick-headed as they were thick-necked, he didn’t think he could risk trying to get the lockpick in his mouth. It was impossible to spot once it was in place, but getting it there wasn’t the most subtle process. Somehow, “Anybody else want gum?” didn’t seem like a good thing to say, and “What? It’s my retainer!” wasn’t the best either.

As soon as he made to reach for his phone and wallet, they blocked him with growling headshakes. He mustered a hey-had-to-try grin that they didn’t respond to, and when one of them held up a hank of cord, Arthur extended his hands to let them bind his wrists.

**

Chapter Seventeen


If they hurt him …

They wouldn’t. He was right. He was worth a lot more to them in one piece. He and Gwen both.

But still, oh god oh god.

It felt like she was screaming on the inside the whole time she got dressed. Pulling on her clothes, yanking her hair into a ponytail. Not even caring that the two women in their horrible yellow happyface masks were right there.

Her nerves were taut, strained to the snapping point. She quivered as she jabbed buttons through buttonholes, hyper-alert in the awful expectation of shouts, a scuffle, a shot.

Stay calm, Ammy.

She needed to stay calm. For Arthur and for Gwen.

“No funny stuff,” Merry Sue said.

Jolly Jill did a nasal, somehow unamused laugh. “Good one.”

“Oh, zip it.”

Ammy bundled Gwen into warmer sleepers and a little knit hat. She loaded the diaper bag with essentials, including a spare blankie and a stuffed animal. “We have to go to the kitchen,” she said. “Juice, formula --”

“Whatever, but make it quick.” Merry Sue drummed her fingers on the baton’s handle, eyeing Ammy. “You wouldn’t do anything like try and hide a phone in there, or get a knife, would you?”

“No.”

“Better not, ‘cause Grinz meant what he said about your boyfriend.”

“He’s not my --” She broke off, fists clenching.

Jolly Jill laughed again, this time a nasty and derisive laugh, scornful.

“Nah, ‘course not,” said Merry Sue. “Rich brat like him? You’re just the hired help, girlie.”

Doing her best to ignore them, she got the joey-pack from the nursery closet and buckled it around herself. Padded straps over the shoulders and cinching at the waist, a baglike seat slung in front with leg-holes and smaller straps to hold the baby. Once Gwen was secured in that thing, she wasn’t going anyplace without Ammy, and it left Ammy’s arms free just in case.

The moment she so much as looked at her purse, which sat open and out of baby-reach atop Gwen’s dresser, Merry Sue swatted it to the floor. The contents sprayed out, her silver charm bracelet glinting, jingling as it fell from where she’d tucked it so it wouldn’t get wet when she bathed the baby.

Then the big woman’s combat boot crunched down hard on Ammy’s cell phone.

“Move,” Jolly Jill said. “Get the bottles and let’s go. We’ve wasted too much time already.”

No shouts, no scuffles, no shots from elsewhere. Ammy hurried to the kitchen, filled three bottles with formula and three with juice, added some crackers and a burp-rag, and turned to her guards.

“Okay,” she said. “Oh, wait.”

Merry Sue raised the baton menacingly, but all Ammy was doing was picking up the ring of plastic keys. She clacked them in front of Gwen, who gurgled and grabbed for the toy.

On the way back through the apartment, she glanced into the living room and saw that the thump and clink had been from a couple other members of the gang, also in the full-head masks. They had moved most of the furniture aside – none too carefully, either – to clear a patch of floor. Upon this carpet canvas, they had just applied the finishing touches to a spray-painted graffitti happy face, yellow and black, six feet in diameter.

The women hustled Ammy into the entryway, where she’d said goodbye to Collette Pearce not that many hours ago. Most of the rest of the gang gathered there already, guffawing at their boss. Grinz put on an elaborate show of impatience, sighing, tapping his foot, pretending to primp in the hall mirror, checking an imaginary watch for the umpteenth time.

“Women,” he said as they arrived. “Always takes them forever to get ready, doesn’t it?”

“Arthur!” Ammy rushed toward him, so relieved to see him unhurt and okay that she couldn’t help it.

He met her partway, the ginormous weightlifter-looking guys bookending him not objecting. Their swaggering poses said that they knew he couldn’t get far.

Gwen squealed in delight and threw the keys for her brother. An “oh crud” look flashed in Arthur’s eyes. He went for the catch, missed – on purpose, Ammy was sure – and fumbled to pick them up. That was when she saw that his wrists were tied, and she hurled an irate glare at Grinz.

“You didn’t have to --!”

“Amelia, hey, it’s all right,” Arthur said, giving the keys back to Gwen. With his bound hands, he seized Ammy’s, held them, made her look at him. “It’s all right.”

“Everybody, on three,” Grinz said, gesturing like an orchestra conductor. “One, two, three, awwwww!”

“Aww,” the gang chorused, more or less in harmony.

“Aww,” went Simper Fi, a beat behind everyone else.

“Got something going with the babysitter, do we, Young Master Pearce?”

“Shut up!” Arthur said, color flooding his cheeks.

“A little au pair action, hmm? My, my, my, do your parents know?”

“It’s not like that!” Ammy cried, her own face flaming.

Ribald, dirty chuckles from the gang. The weightlifters elbowed each other and nodded. Jolly Jill did her derisive nasal laugh again. And someone said, “Nice,” stretching it out into something more like, “Niiiiiiyssssse.”

“Looks like plenty of ‘like that’ from here,” Grinz said, with a deliberate gaze-drop of his mask’s black eyeholes to their linked hands.

Blushing even more furiously, Ammy pulled her hands back, though it seemed like Arthur was reluctant to let them slide from his grasp. Maybe almost as reluctant as she was to let go.

“Don’t get me wrong, cutie-pie,” Grinz continued. “This is good news for me. Gives me extra leverage. You act up, I take it out on lover-boy here. He acts up, it’s your turn. Makes my job a whole lot easier. I won’t even have to threaten the little one at this rate!”

“You rotten creep,” Ammy said before she knew she was going to. “You jerk! You bastard!

“Ooh-hoo-hoo!” He waved his splayed fingers beside his head. “Tough talk from the cutie-pie! I’m so scared I think I may wet my pants!”

“Diapers, we got,” Merry Sue snarled.

“You --!”

“Amelia,” Arthur said, quietly, and she subsided.

The last two happyface-masks, the ones with the cans of spray paint, joined the crowd. “All done, just like the big man wants it,” one of them reported.

“Fan-diddly-riffic!” Grinz said, clapping. “Don’t want them to have any doubts about who’s behind this, do we? I hate all that tedious waiting around while every quack and group of weirdos in the city tries to claim responsibility. As bad as when they try bringing in some fancy expert, a negotiator, wanting to talk, wanting to be your pal.”

“So let’s roll,” Jolly Jill said.

“Let’s roll,” agreed Grinz. “Simp, get the door.”

Simper Fi opened the door, and out they all went, into the hallway leading to the elevator.

**
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