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Playing House -- concluded! [Feb. 6th, 2010|10:57 pm]
CoX Fan Art and Fan Fiction

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[incineratrix]



Chapter Thirty-Four


At first, she didn’t say anything, and he wondered if he’d asked it aloud or if it had just been in his head.

“Um, well …” she said. Trailing off.

“Yeah.” His voice heavy. Almost wishing he hadn’t mentioned it. He didn’t know, either. But they were a ways past being able to ignore it and go back to business as usual now, weren’t they? Things had changed. Been brought to the surface, to the forefront. They had to –

“We’ve got to come up with something,” she said. “After all we went through and still managed to mostly keep cover, gosh, it’d be a waste to not be able to explain now how we got out of there without spilling all the beans.”

Arthur glanced at her. Not what he’d meant. A good and valid point, yes … but not what he’d meant.

And he could tell by the faint blush pinkening her cheeks that she knew it, too. Her hand moved within his like a timid creature, unsure whether to stay or bolt. But she kept on talking, sentences speeding up and running together.

“I guess we could say that we don’t remember what happened, that we fell and that was the last we knew until we washed up on a beach, but that might be hard to explain how we could have survived that long a fall, sure it’s possible but with the baby and with your wrist, I don’t know, I don’t think they’d just take it at face value like that, they’d have to figure some hero or other was involved, if they wouldn’t already think it was suspicious a couple of kids escaping from a locked room and a gang of thugs, though I think we mostly did a pretty good job making sure that they didn’t see us do anything too overt, I mean gosh when you kicked those guards they never saw it coming, so it’s just that one guy I eyebeamed who might say there was something weird about it but I did also kick him in the, um, well and he hit his head on the way down and --”

“Breathe,” he said. Twitching back a grin at that ‘kick him in the, um’ bit. On his lap, Gwen goggled spellbound up at Amelia and the flow of words.

She inhaled. “—anyways nevermind that, it’s really the whole falling over the rail thing that’s the problem, so we could try saying that some hero was flying past, maybe going to fight the octopus, and heard us or saw us or something, and swooped in to the rescue as we plummeted to our doom, but then we’d need to say who, and sure we could call someone, someone who knows who we both are, but the problem with that is how anybody who does isn’t somebody we could ask because then it’d be too risky publicity-wise, too suspicious, too convenient, so we couldn’t really go to any of the Young Paragons or Liberty Alliance with it --”

“Yeah …”

“—and there aren’t that many people who know about me knowing you, Arthur I mean, but even if it was like Meridian or Sean or someone they might be able to put two and two together and it could ruin your secret ID, so unless maybe you know someone who could do it, I wouldn’t care so much if they guessed who I was … as long as it didn’t like get all outed all over the place because then my mom would know that you knew about me, and --”

“Your mom doesn’t know that I know?”

Amelia’s wide eyes went wider at him. “Omigosh she would kill me!”

“Are you telling me that …” He frowned, shaking his head. “That if you’d broken cover to save us, your mother would be mad about it?”

“I am so totally never, not ever supposed to let you or your family find out,” she said, shivering. She tried to reclaim her hand then, but he tightened his grip and wouldn’t let her.

“Even if it meant letting someone get shot? If we were … out at a party, some big event, and there was a bomb or an attack … she’d rather have you do nothing than have you give away your secret to save lives?”

“I would if I had to, though,” Amelia said. “No matter what she --”

“That isn’t what I asked.” He had known her mother was callous, but … “And if she cares so damn much about impressing my parents, wouldn’t she be proud of her daughter the hero saving the Pearce kids? Having my parents say how grateful they were?”

“She’d hate it.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Once she hears about this kidnapping business, that’s going to be what’s on her mind most,” Amelia said. “Not whether we’re okay, or what’s going to happen to us. Only that I had better be behaving myself and not doing anything foolish like revealing my alien parasite superpowers.”

With that, she flinched in on herself and her face twisted as she struggled against more tears. Arthur, speechless as much from being stunned as being infuriated, shook his head again. Callous? Cold. Beyond cold. Downright despicable.

“…” he said.

“For God’s sake, Amelia Jane!” she sneered, in a bitter and chillingly exact impression of Helen Montgomery. “If that had gotten out! What a disaster! As if it isn’t bad enough already that you go around in that ridiculous costume; letting the whole world know? What would the Pearces have thought?”

“How about that you saved their son and their baby girl?” Arthur said, incredulous.

“Gosh and probably she’s already furious if my name’s been connected to this,” Amelia went on in her own voice. She tugged away more strongly, and he still held firm, wouldn’t let go.

“But she … when we were … I thought she …” He floundered. “I thought she wanted you to be …”

“Remember when we were, um, dating? Pretend-dating?” Her cheeks went brighter red.

He nodded, and unthinkingly said, “Vest, not cummerbund, sure.”

“That was different. She couldn’t stand it that those guys at your school thought I dumped you, oh-em-gee as if it wasn’t bad enough that I let you get away what kind of an idiot would dump you, but before that, it was different. It was the kind of thing she could brag to her friends about, brag to her side of the family about. Babysitting, though? Huh-unh.”

“That really doesn’t make any sense!”

Amelia uttered a miserable laugh. “Sure it does. Funny how in that, Mom and Merry Sue of all people were on the exact same page there. Hired help. Mom doesn’t want anybody to know that I babysit for your sister sometimes, that I work for your family!”

“You’re hardly the hired help!”

“That’s how she sees it. She lets me, because … I don’t know … like what I said before about how she’d gift-wrap me and throw me at you if she thought it’d do any good and … why are we talking about my mother?!

Her voice rose in a desperate scream, and she yanked her hand from his so fast that he couldn’t have kept hold of it without hurting her.

**


Chapter Thirty-Five


Ammy wrenched away and covered her face. She heard Gwen start to cry, and felt just horrible about that, horrible and guilty.

Way to go, Ammy! And right when …

No, don’t.

Right when he’d been holding her hand that way, when he’d had that sad and strange smile, when he’d asked what they were going to do now in a way that …

Don’t!

“Oh god Arthur I’m so sorry,” she said, her head sinking lower. “This is exactly it, exactly what people always think will happen and here I go again, losing it; we were fine all that time, I held it together all that time but now as soon as we’re out … another Ammy-meltdown … no wonder they say I’m erratic and unreliable --”

“Not when I’m around, they don’t,” he said. “They better not. But, Amelia?”

“Huh?” She almost couldn’t bear to listen, because this would be it, this would be the speech, That Speech, the one she already knew and knowing it was bad enough; if he felt like he actually had to say those things … if she actually had to hear him say them …

“You’ve got to help me some here.”

She turned, sniffling, and saw that he’d managed to hoist Gwen up to comfort her, sort of rocking as he sat, jouncing her in the crook of his elbow.

“I may be good,” Arthur said, “but even I can’t hug both you and her very well with one arm tied to my chest.”

Ammy laughed a little. “Sor--”

“Quit that.” He dimpled to let her know he wasn’t really being stern.

“Mph.” Her mouth pinched shut.

“And get over here.”

She moved closer, and with a bit of maneuvering and Gwen-juggling, was able to end up sitting beside him with her head leaning on his upper arm, and her arms around his waist.

“Need you to hear me out, okay?” At her reluctant nod, he continued. “All that time we were kidnapped and being held hostage, we did what we had to do. We stayed clear, we stayed focused. What mattered was being safe, and getting out of there. Right?”

He … this wasn’t …

Oh good.

“Right,” she said.

“There wasn’t room for overthinking. Which means, for you, the overthink world champion, hey, it’s been piling up. You’ve got how many hours backlogged? And now that we are safe, and out of there, now that it’s over, we’re no longer in danger … it’s all crashing down on you at once.”

Closing her eyes, she nodded again.

“So, we’re not going to worry about your mom.”

Easy for him to say!

“I know, easy for me to say.”

“Arthur, that’s spooky.”

He chuckled. “Anyway.”

“Moving on?”

“Moving on. Now, we could say that we didn’t fall all the way to the water … there was a ledge, a piece of scaffolding or something … we landed on it, or maybe caught it and pulled ourselves up, and Grinz and Simp couldn’t see us in the fog. But if it turned out there wasn’t anything like that a few yards under the platform, nobody’d buy it.”

“Yeah.”

“And I agree with you about not being able to call in help from any of our friends. It would raise too many eyebrows. Our best bet might be to imply some mystery hero, who was that masked man, someone who didn’t want to be identified, didn’t want rewards or attention or publicity.”

“You mean, like …”

“Like we were locked in the office and we heard some kind of scuffle, a couple of thumps,” Arthur said. “Then a click as the door was unlocked. We peeked out and there were the guards, unconscious.”

“So we decided to try and sneak out,” she said, warming to the scenario.

“But one of them spotted us.” He hesitated, a pained look crossing his face, a small shiver working through his body. Ammy hugged him tighter. “Shouted an alarm and grabbed me, so I tried to fight back while you ran with Gwen.”

“Then the others all came running, chased me up the steps. Merry Sue hit me. And suddenly out of nowhere --”

“It was all so fast, and so dark in there, with flashlight beams going every which way, that you couldn’t even see exactly what happened. Meanwhile I pretended to be knocked out and my attacker left me there, so I got up and went to find you.”

“Up and out onto the walkway was about the only way we could go,” Ammy said. “So we headed out there, hoping to find a way down. But some of the bad guys followed us.”

“I tried to reason with them,” Arthur said. “Bargain with them. But they were too mad by then, wanted to teach me a lesson. So the big one hit me. Punched me so hard I crashed into you and we all went over the rail. I thought we were dead for sure.”

She nodded. “I screamed.”

“Yeah, you did.” He bent his head over to bump against hers. “Hope I never have to hear you scream like that again. Scared me half to death.”

“Sorry.”

“No, I mean, it was good … authentic, like the busted face and wrist. Doesn’t mean it still didn’t almost make my heart stop.”

“Um, thanks I guess?”

“Just don’t make a habit of it, huh?”

She smiled against his arm. “I’ll try not to. So, what then? We were falling, and … someone or something caught us?”

“You grabbed onto something, you’re not even sure what, and just when you thought you couldn’t hold on any longer, yeah, someone was there. You never got a good look, what with the fog and everything. You got set down here on the beach.”

“Okay,” Ammy said, thinking it over. “Gosh and in this town, not like it’s the first time that’s happened. But what about you?”

“Mostly the same, except with my wrist broken, I couldn’t grab hold. Fell into the water, almost drowned, then got hauled out and dumped on the beach. You heard me coughing and found me there.”

“Probably as soon as the story gets out there’ll be a hundred people claiming to have seen the whole thing.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if even Grinz and the rest of the gang corroborated it,” Arthur said. The corner of his mouth – on the unbruised side – tilted up. “Some unidentified superheroes getting in there and foiling their plot is a whole lot easier on the ego than letting a couple kids slip through their fingers.”

“It’s only really lying a little, too,” she said. “Isn’t it?”

“Only technically. A couple of heroes who didn’t want to be identified. That’s true enough, right?”

“Right! But …” She glanced up at him. “What about, um …”

He cut his gaze away, that half-smile fading. “What?”

“Well, I was gonna ask what about when the people who do know me find out that I was the babysitter and then they might figure out about you, but … what did you think I was gonna ask?”

Arthur swallowed, and sighed. His shoulders slumped. “Well … sooner or later you’re bound to ask about Glad Rags.”

Again, she hugged him tighter. “Whenever you’re ready to tell me, Arthur, I’m ready to hear.”

**

Chapter Thirty-Six


“I don’t know if I’m ready or not,” he admitted. “But I think I need to.”

“Okay.”

“First, though, about the other thing? I know my dad. He plays everything close. He’d keep as much information to himself as possible, dole it out only on the most need-to-know. The authorities, or whatever heroes brought in on the case … but he wouldn’t go spilling it all to the media.”

Gwen was in his lap, two of his fingers gripped in a little fist as she busily tried to chew on them. Maybe some teeth about to come in. Felt like there were harder ridges below her pink gums, and she was certainly drooling enough.

“He could make sure,” Arthur went on, “that your name was kept out of it. Say you’re a minor --”

“I’m almost --”

“I know, but this time it’s a good thing. He could say that out of respect for your family’s privacy, you declined to be identified or interviewed.”

“They’d go for that?”

“They wouldn’t like it, and some reporters would be bound to go digging, but in general, yeah, I think they’d have to.”

“What about that picture, the one Wits took?”

“Dad wouldn’t have shown that to anybody but the most top-tier officials involved. And if it does get leaked somehow, well, we’ll deal with that as it comes. Same as with Glad Rags and what she might or might not try and do with what she knows about my mom … and, now, whatever she might suspect about me.”

Arthur bowed his head to nuzzle the top of Gwen’s, those wisps of not-yet-blonde / not-yet-auburn hair still smelling vaguely of baby shampoo.

“Do you want to talk about it now?” she asked.

“I never had a fight like that before. I don’t mean because I had trouble reading her at first, or because she was so good. It … Amelia … I was mad. I don’t think I’ve ever been that mad in the middle of a fight.”

“Well, gosh, but you had plenty of reason --”

“Did I? What we do, beating the bad guys, we’re supposed to do it because it’s right. It’s justice. We’re stopping crimes, defending the people who can’t defend themselves. But with Glad Rags … I didn’t just want to beat her, or stop her.” Now that he’d begun, the words kept pouring out of him. “I hated her. I wanted to hurt her. For what she said about my mom, for what she was threatening to do to my family … I wanted to hurt her, make her suffer, make her pay.”

“Arthur --”

“I said awful things to her. That her father was a loser, a failure, a coward … and that she was exactly the same.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “Arthur, I saw what she was doing to you, how she was hurting you. I hated her too, hated her for that, for making you hurt that way. If it’d been me --”

“When she pulled that gun, I got it away from her. I … I pointed it at her.”

That silenced Amelia. Not appalled – yet – but sympathetic.

“She told me to go ahead and shoot her with her own gun, prove that I was as bad as my mother. But I didn’t. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t shoot her. What I did, though …” His voice sounded like a stranger’s in his own ears. “What I did was … worse. I threw the gun back to her, I told her she’d wasted her whole useless life, and that it’d be no surprise if she took the easy way out like her father did.”

“You mean she --?”

“No, she really did fire at me, the way I told Grinz. Except that she didn’t miss. I dodged. I gave her back the gun, and for a second or two there I … I think she really was considering it. I turned my back to leave her there, and just somehow knew she’d decide to try and kill me instead.”

“That was a really brave --”

“But what I said then … Amelia … I meant it! I couldn’t have shot her, but if she’d turned that gun on herself and pulled the trigger, blown her own brains out, I could have stood there and let it happen. I could have watched her die and not cared at all. Maybe even been happy about it.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, clenched his teeth – sending waves of pain rolling sickly through his jaw – and half-twisted from her. Loathing himself. Feeling tainted and soiled and wrong. Unworthy to be holding Gwen on his lap, after the things he’d said, the things he’d done.

“I guess,” he said, in a hoarse and rasping whisper, “that I’m not the hero everybody thinks I --”

“Hey, oh, hey,” Amelia said. “Arthur, don’t.”

She moved in the sand, rising onto her knees. When she touched his shoulders he was torn between the desire to flinch away, and the desire to seek comfort even though he felt unworthy of that, too.

Amelia settled it for him. She was having none of the flinching-away stuff. Her arms went around him and she pulled him close.

“You’re you,” she murmured into his ear. “You’re you, you’re real. That’s so much better, Arthur. So, so much better.”

It was as if something broke loose inside him, crumbling like a rockslide.

She wasn’t only saying it to spare his feelings. He could hear her sincerity, her true belief. He could feel it in the unreserved way she embraced him. She did not think less of him … if anything, it was the opposite. He hadn’t failed in her sight, tarnished the idealized image, shattered the illusions. Because, to her, for her, none of that mattered anymore. Maybe hadn’t mattered for a long time.

Real.

Arthur fell against her, heaving unsteady breaths. Letting her hold him, welcoming her holding him, glad to have her arms around him and her face buried in his hair … and was that a gentle kiss? Like the one he’d almost pressed into her hair when their situations had been reversed?

He thought so, but right about then he also realized that his head was cradled against firm curves …

Hold the phone, he thought with a sweeping sense of deja vu.

He’d been in this particular compromising position before.

Only, this time, the curves weren’t covered by reinforced impervi-weave uniform. Just regular clothes. He could hear the strong quickness of her heartbeat, feel the warmth of her skin through the fabric.

Most of all, this time, it wasn’t some other world’s Star Amethyst, and a case of cross-dimensional mistaken identity.

It was Amelia. This world’s own Amelia.

And him. Not Aspirant-him, not even Arthur-Pearce-him … all of that and none of it … just … who he was …

The earlier question recurred, in the original sense he’d asked it. What were they going to do? About this, about them?

About falling in love?

**


Chapter Thirty-Seven


Oh and if it had only been about them … their lives, their hearts … only them … then maybe … maybe it could have …

But it wasn’t, was it? And never had been. Never only them, their lives, their hearts.

She knew that.

She had always known that.

He knew it, too.

Not only them. So many other people who’d be affected … so many other lives, other hearts …

Ammy closed her eyes but the silent tears still fell. Raining soft onto his hair, which was already fog-dampened, so maybe he wouldn’t notice … and if he did … maybe he’d understand.

Some things just had to be.

And some things just couldn’t.

“It’s all right,” she murmured. “Everything’s going to be all right, Arthur.”

“Is it?”

Still with his head resting on her, um, bosom … pillowed there, nestled there … and when he spoke, even that slight motion of his mouth, the warmth of his breath through damp cloth … it made her almost want to faint.

Don’t do this to yourself, Ammy, her mind seemed to moan at her. It’s only going to hurt more.

“Yeah,” she said. “It is.”

Answering him? Agreeing with that inner voice? Both?

“Okay,” Arthur said. “Okay.” He took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh.

On his lap, Gwen fussed and complained. Ammy let go of Arthur. She settled onto her heels, swiping the back of her hand across her cheeks. And hoping that here in the grey, shadowed dimness under the pier, her blush wouldn’t show.

She picked up the baby, chafing Gwen’s tiny hands in hers, holding them near her mouth to blow warm air. “We need to get going,” she said. “It’s all cold and wet. We don’t want Gwen to catch a chill or something.”

Arthur nodded, pushing himself up. “You think that’s bad, you’re not the one who has to go for a swim.”

“A --”

“Has to look authentic, remember? Our story is that I fell all the way to the water.”

“You mean you’re going to …”

That was exactly what he meant. He walked down the sand and paused, standing in broken shells and slimy strands of kelp while the mucky foam surged around his shoes. Then he waded in, wincing as the surf climbed his legs higher and higher with each step. At waist-deep, he paused again, like he was bracing for it, then crouched and ducked his head under, fully submerged. He shot up sputtering and spitting.

“Yick,” Ammy said.

“Definite yick,” he agreed, trudging back to shore.

“You have kelp on you.”

“Extra authenticity.”

She made a face at him. He grinned, or as best he could.

They made their way up the tumble of rocks and driftwood, found a break in the concrete retaining wall, and scramble-climbed to street level. Going carefully, Arthur with one arm strapped to his chest by the refigured joey-pack, Ammy carrying Gwen.

Independence Port was never the liveliest area of Paragon City, and way out here at one of the far ends at this hour of a weekend morning, it was so deserted as to be borderline eerie. Most of the buildings looked vacant, abandoned, or downright condemned. Some had CLOSED signs in the windows that looked like they’d been there since Arthur and Ammy were Gwen’s age. Others were boarded over. Still others had those prospective-land-use billboards detailing construction projects that had never gotten off the ground.

Finally, they found one that was not only still in business, but actually open. Or, at least, there was a light on inside and the sign said ‘24 H0UR KW1XX1T-F1XX1T’.

It was a grimy, grungy hole-in-the-wall repair shop – small engines, appliances, electronics – with a barred window showing assorted grease-clotted tools and pieces of metal, a partially-dismantled vacuum cleaner, a radio that looked like the centerpiece of someone’s school science fair project, other stuff.

Arthur looked at Ammy, shrugged again, and opened the door. Something buzzed overhead as they stepped through into a confined space of industrial metal shelving cluttered with more parts and gutted appliances. The floor was scratched, scraped, stained.

Motors whirred, circuits hummed, lights flickered. They could hear a television from somewhere … a game show, the frenetic kind with lots of manufactured excitement, urgent music and clock-tickings, audience shouts. The air smelled of hot wiring, oil, and coffee strong enough to be a wake-up slap from across the room.

“Hello?” Arthur raised his voice.

There was movement behind the counter, movement that Ammy had thought was a random pile of junk. Nope. It was the shop’s proprietor.

Reformed Freakshow. The ones who plea-bargained, served their time, and tried to rehabilitate into productive members of society. She’d seen them a few times before, even helped them when they ended up on the other side of robberies for a change, but it was still hard to get used to.

He looked about fifty, going by the grizzled appearance of what human features were still visible amid the cybernetic implants, assorted body piercings, and tattoos. He sported a bar code on his forehead, the lines wrinkled like they’d come from a crumpled price tag. His black and orange tiger-stripe spiked mohawk showed about an inch and a half of grey at the roots.

“Yuh?” he grunted, squinting at them. “Help ya?”

“Uh, hi,” Arthur said.

The narrow squint narrowed further as the ex-Freak took a better look at them. Ammy could just imagine the picture they presented.

Two tired, bedraggled, sand-speckled teens … the boy soaked and kelp-strung, with a bruised face and one arm in the jury-rigged sling … the girl with damp clothes and limp hair, hugging a damp, shivering baby to try and keep her warm.

“Shipwreck?” the proprietor asked. “Capsize? Fall overboard?”

“Um …” Ammy said.

He frowned and shot a quick glance at the television. The game show had gone to commercial, one of those local ambulance-chasing lawyer types who was all personal injury and “If YOUR property has been damaged in a superpowered or metahuman battle, YOU may have money coming to YOU!”

But a news feed scrolled continuously across the bottom, and …

The ex-Freak’s eyes bugged out. He stared at Arthur, his mouth open, exposing some teeth that were crooked-yellow, and others that were titanium crowns. “Holy hopping hydraulics! You’re those kids they’re talking about on the news! You’re … you’re …”

“Arthur Pearce, yes, sir. Could I please borrow your phone for a minute?”

**

Chapter Thirty-Eight


Of all the bizarre things that had happened in the past several hours, all the strange things he’d seen, Arthur thought that possibly nothing could top the sight of Mr. F1XX1T, the aging former Freakshow shopkeeper, doing the gitchy-gitchy-goo at Gwen.

“Babies are the greatest, aren’t they?” he asked Amelia, as Arthur picked up the phone at the end of the counter. “Gotta love the babies. Cutest critters on the planet.”

“They sure are,” she said, with a peculiar bemused expression that said she didn’t know quite how to react.

“So you’re the Pearces’ sitter, are you?”

“That’s me!” Bright smile, only a little bit forced. “I’m the babysitter.”

F1XX1T pondered this for a moment, while Gwen goggled awestruck at his tattoos, the chromed steel ringbolt through his eyebrow, the tiger-spikes of hair. He looked at Amelia again. “You get hazard pay?”

At that, she burst out in a fit of laughter, and Arthur almost misdialed as he struggled to hold back his own.

“Um, gosh, I don’t know,” she giggled. “We didn’t exactly tah-ha-haaaalk about it …” And dissolved again into helpless shaking mirth. It got Gwen going too, squealing and kicking.

“I were you?” he said, in a tone of paternal advice-giving, and with a companionable pat to her shoulder. “I’d ask.”

Amelia could by then only answer with a head-bobble of a nod. Even now, wet and sandy, clothes rumpled, eyes red, hair a mess … when she laughed …

Arthur had to turn completely away so that he could concentrate. The number was one only he and Lance – and someday, when she was old enough, Gwen – ever knew. It was changed every few months, and went to an ultra-secure dedicated line. Though he had rarely ever needed it, each time he made sure to memorize it just in case.

“So, hey,” he heard F1XX1T say. “Think maybe there could be a reward in this? Not that I wouldn’t help you kids out for free, you seem pretty nice. But …”

“Don’t worry,” Arthur said, punching in the code that would prevent any sort of traceback or recording. “I’m sure my parents will be very grateful.”

His mind provided him a mental movie, some task force command center like the ones he’d seen dozens of times before. Computers, white boards, maps, display screens. Agents hard at work, cops and heroes, city officials. Palpable tension ratcheted to its highest notch, but channeled into efficient urgency. And overlooking it all a window-walled conference room with long mahogany table, plush executive chairs.

He could see his father, not pacing, not wasting any energy, poised and controlled, waiting. Features set in a stoic, impassive mask. Taking in everything that went on around him. He could see his mother, letting the role she was expected to play – the more anxious, frightened, eaten alive by worry – cover for her impatience to act, her frustration.

And then the call coming in. Recognized immediately by them both.

“Pearce.”

“Dad.”

“Arthur.” And a tight expulsion of breath that was the closest Michael Pearce could get to a sigh of relief. “Where are you?”

“Yeah, they said on the news it was some Haven-based gang,” F1XX1T was telling Amelia when Arthur hung up a few minutes later. “Already ki --” He glanced at Gwen, who was trying to chew the collar of Amelia’s blouse. “K-i-l-l-e-d a bunch of people. How’d you get away?”

She recited the story they’d agreed upon, and if she stumbled a couple of times, that would be easy enough to explain away because of emotional upset. It sounded, Arthur thought, kind of thin but overall pretty good. Not great, but hopefully good enough to keep anybody from prying too deep.

“And you never saw who?” he asked. “Well don’t I feel bad now for wanting to know about a reward … all I did was let you use my phone, and here whoever saved your lives does a fade without so much as giving you a name?”

“I guess they just didn’t want the credit,” Amelia said. “All that publicity, gosh.”

F1XX1T snorted. “I never did understand those hero-types. Anybody who’d dress up like …” He stopped when he saw the way they were both staring at him, as politely as they could but still staring. “Yeah, I should talk.”

“I know what you mean, though,” Arthur said, rejoining them. He offered Gwen his fingers again, but one taste of the salt water on his skin made her scrunch up her face into an appalling grimace. “Who’d want to do something like that? With the costumes, and the masks?”

From outside came the low whupping vibrations of heavy air being cut by helicopter rotors. F1XX1T hurried over to the window to peer out. “Looks like they didn’t waste any time,” he said, whistling.

Amelia bumped Arthur’s ankle with her foot. He gave her a wide-eyed innocent ‘what?’ look in return. She crinkled her nose at him. “Who would want to do something like that?” she whispered, and bumped him again.

A trio of police choppers descended to the street in front of the repair shop. Downdrafts sent litter whirling along the gutters. Before the lead one even touched the pavement, Arthur saw his mother spring out, lithe as a cat … or a fox … auburn hair tied back but vibrant, her blue gaze sharp and searching. His father was right behind her.

Cops fanned out, covering the area, doing what they did. Making sure it wasn’t a trap, watchful for ambushes. The Officer-In-Charge kept up a constant, rapid report into his comm. None too happy about having the Pearces just rush ahead like that, but not about to be the one to tell them no.

Arthur led Amelia out of the shop. “Mom … Dad,” he said, lifting his uninjured hand.

He’d said on the phone that they were safe, they were okay. Hadn’t gone into a lot of details. Time enough for that later. So of course Mom gasped when she got a look at him.

She rushed forward and they met on the sidewalk, her simultaneously trying to hug him to death and not hurt him any worse. “Arthur, oh, thank God!”

“Good to see you, son,” Dad said, his firm grip closing on Arthur’s upper arm.

Gwen shrieked with joy and waved her little hands, grabbing eagerly. As soon as Mom released Arthur, Amelia stepped up. Biting her lip in a hesitant, half-hopeful, half-apologetic smile, she handed Gwen over. Then she stepped back again, drawing her disheveled ponytail over her shoulder and twisting it.

Mom cuddled Gwen close, showering her with kisses. Dad, still clasping Arthur’s arm, rested his other hand atop the baby’s head. They stood that way, surrounded by cops and police helicopters, until the OIC approached to say they should get the kids to a hospital before any reporters showed up.

**

Chapter Thirty-Nine


From the window of the hospital administrator’s office, Ammy had a bird’s eye view of the chaos down below as they set up for the press conference that would soon be taking place on the main steps out front.

Already, the street was packed with newsvans. Camera crews jockeyed for position, each one trying for the best angle. Reporters primped and rehearsed. Photographers kept trying to slip past the police cordons. Anybody who stepped through the doors got bombarded with shouted questions.

Craziness. Gosh.

She was glad she didn’t have to go out there and face that mob. Mr. Pearce had, after listening to her and Arthur, agreed that it’d be for the best if they could leave her name out of it as much as possible.

His agreement was less to do with her mother and father, she thought, than it was to do with the other aspect. The protecting-Arthur’s-secret aspect … even if it was just protecting his secret from the other Young Paragons and Liberty Alliance members, the people who would recognize her and be able to guess from there.

The slight, almost curt nod Mr. Pearce had given her seemed to suggest that he appreciated her willingness to understand, and respect their wishes. She hoped that was what it meant. They’d never talked about it outright. Ammy wasn’t even sure if he knew that she knew about him, though he probably did. And of course he knew about her.

Once they’d arrived at the hospital, all three of them got checked over by the doctors while Arthur and Ammy answered questions. Then she’d been escorted out by a nurse to clean up while Arthur got sent off to have his wrist x-rayed.

Hospital scrubs, lime green, eew. They’d do, though, until William got there. She had called him instead of their parents. They wouldn’t like that …

But since when did they like anything she did?

Besides, if anybody could help smooth this over with the family, it’d be William. Or at the very least, he’d be on her side. Him and Sean both. Between them and the Pearces, her mother couldn’t be too mad … could she?

The administrator’s office had a small television perched on a shelf. Ammy watched, smiling, as the station re-ran the interview with Mr. F1XX1T. Him in front of his grungy shop, just enjoying the heck out of the attention.

“Real nice kids,” he told the Channel 9 reporter. “Real nice. Real polite. Shook up by what they went through but who wouldn’t be? And that baby girl? Cute as a bug. Just the cutest little thing!”

Then the news cut to a view of someplace Ammy didn’t immediately recognize because she hadn’t seen the building from the outside from that angle. Or with crime scene tape festooned everywhere, cop cars parked nose to nose in roadblock formations … and one of the ‘Happy Occasions’ trucks tipped smoldering onto its side at the end of a long skid, windshield blown out, peppered with bullet holes.

“—appears that several of the suspects fled in another truck identical to this one before law enforcement reached the site,” a different reporter said. “Of the individuals in this vehicle, which engaged in a shoot-out with Paragon police, two were gunned down and five others, four men and a woman, were taken into custody.”

Ammy gasped as the image switched again, this time to jumpy from-a-moving-car footage of five people being led, cuffed and under armed guard, into a precinct house. Their yellow happyface masks had been stripped from them, they were bloodied and roughed up from the crash … but even so, she would have known most of them anywhere.

Wits, tall and skinny, looking around all anxious like he was more concerned with what the authorities might be doing with his laptop than he was with his own situation. Simper Fi, plodding along head down. One of the weightlifters, and given the way he had to be led stumbling by the arms, she guessed it was the one she’d eyebeamed and kicked. Merry Sue, glowering at whoever was near enough to glower at.

The last of them, Ammy realized, must have been Grinz himself. His expression indicated that while he was not thrilled about being caught and arrested, he still found it preferable to having to go back to ‘the boss’ after such an epic fail.

She wondered if that meant the two who’d been gunned down were Jolly Jill and the other weightlifter. Gunned down. Killed. Shot dead by the police.

It made her feel both a little bit sick and a little bit vindictive, which in turn made her feel even more sick.

There was nothing at all about Glad Rags. That made Ammy feel really sick.

Someone knocked at the door, opened it. “Amelia?”

“Oh, hi, Mrs. … um … Collette,” she said, turning from the television to look at Arthur’s mother. “How are they? Are they okay?”

Collette Pearce smiled, hanging a garment bag on the coat stand. “Gwen’s fine. Looks like she’s even about to have her first tooth come in. Arthur’s going to be in a cast for a few weeks, but they say he won’t need surgery. He’ll just have to take it easy for a while.” Ammy’s mouth quirked, and Collette’s smile widened. “Yes, I know. Good luck with that.”

“I’m so --”

“You,” she said, pointing at Ammy, “had better not be about to apologize for this happening.”

“Um …”

“We can’t possibly thank you enough.”

“Really, I …”

“You took care of them. You were there when they needed you.”

She nodded, eyes downcast.

“Michael is doing everything he can to minimize any attention on you,” Collette went on, “but he’s also making a point of telling the media that our babysitter stayed calm and clear-headed, didn’t panic, was as trustworthy and reliable as any parents could have hoped.”

Ammy bit her lip, blushing. “Thanks.”

“Which is still understating the case by a long way, Amelia. A long way. And that gentleman from the repair shop was right … you definitely deserve hazard pay.”

“Omigosh you don’t have to pay me!”

“Maybe, maybe not. But we’re not going to forget this.” Collette hugged her, which reminded Ammy again how petite a woman she was. “Now. Your brother’s here. He’s in with Michael right now, the two of them finessing how they want to spin this for the press and for those … for your parents. He brought you a change of clothes, so you can get out of those scrubs if you want. Then he’ll take you home … though I’m sure Arthur would be disappointed if you didn’t stop in and see him before you go.”

**


Chapter Forty


Three weeks in a cast, and they wanted him to avoid sports activities for another three after that.

Sure. No problem. That was going to be fun to explain.

Arthur flexed his fingers, the only part of his left arm below the elbow that wasn’t immobilized in plaster. He leaned against the raised upper portion of his hospital bed and sighed. Private room, high-security wing, checkpoints, guards. Blue-and-white-striped loose cotton pajamas. A tray table over the bed, holding the remote, a plastic juice tumbler with a bendy straw sticking out of it.

The wall-mounted television showed someone from the PPD’s public-and-media-relations office at a podium that had been hastily set up. Even with the sound muted, Arthur knew this was the whole ‘ongoing investigation’ and ‘cannot release further details at this time’ spiel, leading up to the rules of engagement for the actual press conference at which the Pearces would be addressing them.

He tipped his head back and sighed again, closing his eyes. At least he wasn’t going to be marched out there – or worse, wheeled out there – to play traumatized victim yet. The cameras would have to be satisfied with Gwen. Which they would be, he had a feeling. Darling adorable babies always made good fodder for the evening news.

As for his face, the swelling would go down in a day or two, the bruises would fade soon enough. Nothing to worry about there. No wired jaw, or meals done by blender.

“Hey,” said a low, familiar voice.

“Hey!” He opened his eyes, sat up. “Hi!”

Amelia stood just inside the door. Her hands twined fitfully by her waist. She wore a simple dove-grey cashmere dress, violet belt with matching shoes, and a shades-of-purple silk scarf knotted loosely around her neck.

“And … uh …” Arthur added. “You … changed clothes.”

“William brought me some stuff over from his and Sean’s,” she said.

“It’s nice,” he said. “You look … you look good.”

“Thanks.” Her cheeks went pink, and she toyed with the visitor’s pass clipped to her belt. Still standing over by the door. “I’ll be staying with them a while, until some of this blows over, I guess.”

“C’mon in, have a seat.” Trying for a grin, he held up his arm and said, “Broken wrist. Not contagious.”

She smiled, crossed the room, sat in the chair nearest the bed. “How’re you doing?”

“They gave me something when they set it; when that wears off, we’ll see.” Not telling her it had only been ibuprofen; she’d accuse him of being all such a guy again. “So hey, think my uniform glove will cover the cast?”

“Don’t you even!” Shooting him a stern look.

“I mostly use my feet,” he argued.

“Arthur …”

“Or what if I only showed up at some meetings that way? Put in an appearance? Didn’t do any actual fighting?”

“Arthur!”

“Fine, fine. How about you?”

“Heck of a bruise like I expected,” she said. “That’s all.”

“Good.” He glanced at the screen and groaned. “Ugh, they’re about to start. Want to listen?”

“Not really, not right now. I’m sure it’ll be on later.”

“Over and over.” Arthur clicked the television off. “Have you been watching any of it so far?”

“Uh-huh …”

“The interview with our Freak friend?”

She nodded. “And the crime scene.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Two of them dead.”

“They arrested Grinz.”

“But not Glad Rags.” He flexed his fingers again. “She got away. She’s still out there somewhere. She’s not done with us yet. I know she isn’t.”

“Did you tell your parents about her?”

“Some of it. Not all of it yet. Enough. I doubt there’s any real hard evidence … Mid-Knight would have taken care of that years ago. So, even if she does try and use the information, she won’t be able to back it up. Helps that the media loves Mom, all the charity events and social functions … she’s the face of the the family, the approachable one, a lot more than Dad.”

He’d thought that he’d been doing a decent job of sounding cool and detached there, treating it as a problem to be assessed and addressed. Nothing more. That was what he’d been aiming for. But he didn’t quite make it. He knew as soon as he fell silent, and Amelia’s hand moved to cover his good one.

“Arthur … Glad Rags is not going to be able to hurt you again, not ever, not if I have anything to say about it. Promise.”

“Thanks.” He turned his hand within hers, clasped it. Held it.

“I, um, should go,” she said, after far too short a time had passed. “William’s waiting for me, and if we leave while the press conference is still going on …”

“Makes sense, slip away unnoticed.” He made himself release her hand and leaned back against the raised mattress and pillow.

Amelia stood … then hesitated … reached out … smoothed the hospital blanket over his chest. He looked up at her, his breath caught somewhere in his throat. Her fingertips brushed his hair from his forehead in a light, tickling caress.

Arthur closed his eyes, trying not to gasp, as she leaned down. Her ponytail swung against him, thick and soft. She pressed her lips to his cheek. Like before, it was a gentle kiss, and a lingering one, but this time there was something else to it. Something more. Something sweet, and almost unbearable.

“Goodbye …” she whispered, “… Arthur.”

He lay stunned for a moment by the kiss, eyes still shut, hearing her footfalls cross the room. Then it fully sank in. Not so much what she’d said, but how she’d said it.

“Amelia --!” Arthur sat up fast, whapping his arm on the tray table edge but barely noticing.

At the door, she turned, ponytail tracing an ash-blonde curve over her shoulder. “What?”

He struggled to form words. “…goodbye?” he finally managed. “You don’t mean …?”

Her glance was all questioning puzzlement.

“You don’t mean … ‘goodbye’ … as in …?” Arthur tried again.

She paused for a moment. Looking lost, and wistful, and sad. Then, quietly, she asked, “As in … forever?”

“Yeah.” His voice was hoarse.

“No … oh gosh, no,” she said, even as he read though maybe it should be in her expressive eyes, and that alone hurt more than ten broken wrists. “Unless that’s what you --”

“No!” It tore from him, and he forced a swallow and repeated it more evenly. “No. Not at all.”

A tremulous but relieved look eased some of that wistful sadness. “Then I’ll see you later, ‘kay?”

“Okay,” he said.

She smiled, and she waved, and then she was gone.

**

THE END


**

(( With tremendous gratitude to the wonderful SkyStreak for collaborating with me ... really couldn't have done it without you, hon! ))
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