|Second of the series. It pretty much follows the first one directly. It's also probably going to get axed completely from their backstory -- largely 'cause it involves Maq's characters so heavily. (Them being Dan and Munchie.)|
Wraith grimaced, leaning over to scoop up the shattered bits of the lamp she'd knocked over in a panicky moment of not-quite-awake-yet. As near as she could figure it, she'd had a dream, which would make it about the fifth night her unconscious mind had thought up a new and creative way for Douglas to die while she stood by helpless. The bit about carnivorous aliens and being tied to a railroad track still didn't quite scan, she reflected muzzily, turning up the dustpan and watching the last tinkling shards of porcelain tumble into the processor. I hope that wasn't ours.
Douglas was still cheerfully bedridden and hitting on the nurses at every opportunity, but he was apparently well enough to demand alcohol, to her annoyance. All she got from her efforts to remind him what had gotten him there in the first place was "Geez, Wraith, you're such a nag" or similar. She sighed, picking up the books he'd requested off the table next to the door, and started up the hallway. On the bright side, she supposed, it meant he was getting better.
She reached his room in the infirmary without passing a soul, a rare event in and of itself. Maybe the mercs were off doing something mercenary.. like earning a paycheck. She scowled slightly, rapping lightly on the door. Despite having access to Arthur Brandt's relatively unlimited funds, she had tried to make her own way -- and Douglas' own way. Both had proven more challenging than she would have guessed. When her knock garnered no response, she pushed the door open quietly, guessing him to be asleep, which he was.
What made her drop the books to the floor with a clatter was the small child curled up on the coverlet next to him, snoozing peacefully. Her ward sat up with a violent snort, wincing (which made her feel a pang of guilt) and yawning, before eyeing her with reproach and mumbling something slightly incoherent and very rude (which made the pang of guilt fade right away).
"Who's your friend, Douglas?" she asked crisply, quickly snatching the books up off the floor and walking over to deposit them on the bed next to him.
He gave her a very bleary look. "I have a friend?"
She rolled her eyes, folded her arms, and waited, while he turned his gaze from her to his lap to his left and to his right, where he finally paused, blinking. "... Purple hair.. funny clothes.." He peered at Wraith again, apparently not awake enough for anything to surprise him. "You know her?"
"If I knew her, I wouldn't have asked you." Wraith gave the child a closer look as she stirred, yawning a little and blinking quietly.
Purple hair and funny clothes did indeed sum the girl up, but there was something curiously familiar ... and was that a tail? When the purple-haired child finished shaking off her sleepiness, her expression blossomed into a smile of delight at the sight of Douglas' bleary curiosity. "Daddy!" she crowed, flinging her arms around him in an embrace that made him cringe.
Wraith's mouth twitched. "Something I need to know, Douglas?" she asked, and he winced at her exceptionally dry tone of voice.
"N-not that I know of.. ow.. ow, hey, lay off a little.." He patted the girl carefully, and she pulled away, still beaming, and turned to face Wraith.
To the Reploid's blank shock (and faint horror), the girl launched herself off the bed and into Wraith's arms with an equally disturbing cry of "Mommy!"
Douglas chortled, leaning back a little and taking a couple of small gulps of air. "Now who needs to explain?" he demanded light-heartedly, setting one hand against his chest as if to contain a heart attack.
"It's a lot bigger stretch for me," she snapped waspishly, garnering a chiding look from the girl and ignoring it, "especially since you're supposed to be the father."
The brown-haired human couldn't contain what ended up sounding like a hysterical giggle. "That's wrong on more levels than I want to think about."
The girl squirmed down from Wraith's arms and clambered up onto the bed again, a purposeful look on her face. She patted the covers. "Mommy, come!" A satisified smile lit her face as Wraith did so, even deigning to take a seat where she had indicated.
"Are you going to tell us your name?" Douglas asked her curiously, and Wraith spared a moment to admire his absolute refusal to apply reality to surreality.
"Munchie!" the girl said firmly, sounding surprised that he hadn't known that already.
"Munchie? That's your name?" He glanced up at Wraith, arching an eyebrow and clearly wondering exactly what she was.
Who would name their child "Munchie"?
The girl nodded firmly, pointing at Douglas, "Daddy!", then Wraith, "Mommy!", then at herself, "Munchie!"
"If you say so," Wraith said doubtfully.
Munchie gave her a cross look, a pair of cat-like ears twitching irritably where there shouldn't have been twitching ears at all. Wraith paused, peering at her. The ears, the tail -- yes, it was a tail, she saw it twitch -- and the face were all so familiar.
"Gah!" the black-armored Reploid yelped, lurching backward slightly. "That.. that cat-thing! You're that cat-thing!"
Douglas, about to scold his bodyguard for her remarkably rude reaction, stopped when the little girl bounced on the bed a couple of times, clapping her hands. "Munchie! Mommy knows!"
Wraith looked faint.
"Wow, I didn't know she was a little girl." Master of the under-reaction, him. Munchie hugged him again and leaned her head carefully against his wounded chest, the picture of contentment. "Oh, hey," the invalid spoke up suddenly, "which books did you bring?"
She snorted. "The ones you asked for, of course."
"Even the smut?"
"You didn't ask for any smut."
"Oh.. yeah.. I must have been really out of it." He grinned at her, reaching across to snatch up the books she'd brought, one murder mystery, one sci-fi, and one robotics textbook. Neither caught the concerned look the flashed across the little girl's face as he sat back against, thumbing thoughtfully through the robotics text.
"What did you want that one for?" Wraith asked him idly, ignoring Munchie, who scooted across the covers and took hold of her arm, yanking insistently and yelping "Mommy!" repeatedly. "Planning to work on your minor monstrosity again?"
"He's not a monstrosity, Wraith," Douglas retorted, sounding almost grumpy. "He's the best I could come up with, given the supplies I had available."
"Well, I wish you -- ow!" The Reploid broke off at a particularly vicious yank, casting a disapproving stare downward to the girl, who was glaring at her with surprising intensity. "What?!"
"Errand, Mommy!" the girl snapped crossly, sliding down off the bed but refusing to relinquish her grip on Wraith's arm.
"What errand?" Wraith, genuinely puzzled, allowed Munchie to pull her across the room to the door, where the girl strained to reach for the doorknob, eventually giving up and leaping for it. The pair watched her for a few moments until she finally turned around and howled.
Douglas chortled at Wraith's stunned expression. He, she noted irritably, hadn't been on the receiving end of the blast. "You'd better do what she wants, you know. Or else the doctors are probably going to kick you both out."
"Read your book, Douglas," the pale-haired Reploid snapped, and he ducked down behind it, though not before pulling a face. "All right, urchin," she growled at Munchie, who was beginning to look impatient again. "We're going." With that, she pushed the door open.
"Hey, who's your friend?"
"Eh? Oh.. I'm not exactly sure. She just sort of.. happened." Crawled into her lap and purred her to sleep, as a matter of fact.
"She's cute! Can we keep her?"
Famous last words, Wraith reflected ruefully. When the kitten first appeared, Wraith had been sitting outside one of the simulators, waiting for Douglas to return from what he'd promised would be a quick errand. If four hours was quick, she'd bloody well retire right then and there. The argument had ended, as they frequently did with regards to pet adoption, in Douglas' victory, and he had carried the purring bundle all the way back to his quarters.
Wraith had not expected Munchie's adoption to last long, given Douglas' attention span, and she had certainly not expected to be towed down the hallway by the kitten herself on an errand of unknown nature. It did not bring her great comfort when she discovered they were headed toward the bar.
"Look, Munchie," she began as the little girl pushed the door open, "I don't know what you're thinking, but --"
"No minors!" bellowed a guttural voice from, as Wraith had guessed, behind the bar. She gave the owner a hard look, which he returned sullenly.
"She won't be drinking," the Reploid finally snapped, as Munchie released her and darted toward the bar, pointing at something behind the bartender.
The man himself eyed her suspiciously, but she wasn't paying him any attention. "Errand, Mommy!" she repeated her mantra, pointing.
Wraith ran her gaze quickly over the selection, taking a moment to figure out what the girl wanted. "Vodka!? Are you insane?!"
Munchie pouted. "Important!"
"For what?" Wraith was skeptical.
"I think that's exactly the kind of medicine he doesn't need," she retorted, eliciting a howl of frustration (those were becoming more and more frequent) from the child.
The bartender leaned heavily over the the bar itself, fixing the pair with a red-rimmed, threatening stare. "You two," he growled unpleasantly, "are making the customers nervous."
"We'll be leaving," Wraith responded coolly, struggling to maintain her composure as she was caught between Munchie, who was threatening to throw a temper tantrum, and the irritated bartender, who would probably do worse.
"MEDICINE NOW!" the purple-haired girl bellowed, cat-like ears flat against her hair. Her tail even fluffed slightly. It was surprisingly menacing.
"For godsakes, take it and go," snarled the barkeep, slamming the slim bottle of vodka on the bar with such vehemence Wraith was afraid it would break. With surprising agility, Munchie clambered up one of the barstools and snatched it before Wraith could, grabbing the Reploid's arm in her free hand and dragging her once again toward the door.
"What you need," Wraith growled once they'd reached the hallway, "is a good spanking."
Munchie ignored her, good spirits completely recovered. "Errand, this way!" she cooed, releasing the dark-skinned Reploid to clutch her prize as tightly as any treasure. The elevators this time.
"Where are we going?" Wraith let them onto the elevator without complaint, sparing a brief moment to wonder what all this was about, then tapped the floor number after a brief pantomime that mostly involved Munchie shaking her head and stomping her small foot if she picked the wrong one. When the elevator door opened, the girl sprang out as if it had been on fire, leading her unwilling companion on a harried chase up several abandoned hallways until they finally reached a musty -- and disreputable-looking, Wraith thought -- doorway with a peculiar symbol she failed to recognize.
Munchie pushed the door open without hesitation, not seeming to take notice of Wraith's objection about knocking. After following her inside, it struck the Reploid that she was singularly out of place in this rather peculiar room. There were tools, symbols, and devices everywhere, none of which she recognized. It looked to her like a cross between a mad scientist's lab and an apothecary.
She wondered if Douglas would tell her how he managed to shrug everything off. "Hey, what are you doing?" she barked, catching sight of Munchie, who had wandered farther in and was poking around one of the cluttered benches. The girl rolled her eyes, and Wraith had no time to respond before a new voice spoke up.
"Can I help you ladies with anything?"
Wraith managed to keep from jumping but spun a little too quickly to face the speaker, mentally cursing herself that she hadn't heard him coming to begin with. "We were --" The words "just leaving" faded to silence as Munchie crowed and trotted over to the stranger, immediately engaging in what could have almost passed for conversation.
"Gunshot wound, eh?"
Munchie nodded firmly, and Wraith sighed mentally, taking a step backward toward the door. I'd like a ticket back to the real world.. She studied the stranger silently as they talked, puzzling over how familiar he looked and wondering where they could have met before.
"That bad already? Well, I've got just the stuff for it." He reached over to ruffle Munchie's hair, having apparently forgotten that Wraith was in the room, then ambled into the back. He had taken that bottle of vodka with him, she noted.
Munchie immediately began poking around the clutter again, emerging triumphant with what appeared to be a small collar with an oversized bell.
"You won't be catching any birds with that," Wraith remarked to her. "Put it back, it's not yours."
The kitten-child gave her an exceptionally indignant look, switching her tail and pulling a face.
"You heard me right, kid," she retorted, putting her hands on her hips. "It doesn't belong to you!"
The little girl's tail fluffed in response, but the argument was interrupted by the stranger's return with a bottle of strange-colored liquid. Wraith gave it -- and him -- a long, suspicious stare, but he ignored her completely, half-bending to have another one-sided chat with Munchie. "Oh, sure. The bell-collar, too?"
Munchie made an affirmative mrring noise, and he rose again, turning to Wraith for the first time. "That'll be thirty credits," he said cheerfully, extending his empty hand toward her.
"What?" It took Wraith a moment to process the request, and she met Munchie's hard stare with one of her own. "I didn't bring any money with me!" she snapped, mostly at the child, who looked thoroughly indignant.
"You didn't?" The man drew back, hrming thoughtfully. "Well.. I suppose if you get the money to me tomorrow ..."
"I can get it to you later today," Wraith told him irritably, but he waved her off, apparently lost in his own musings.
"Tomorrow would be great, yeah," he said, extending the bottle of supposed medicine. "At eight, I think."
"I beg your pardon?" She was having trouble keeping open hostility from her voice, but she took the medicine as quickly as she dared without seeming rude. She was half-turned toward the door when, to her utter mystification and horror, the bottle vanished in a flash of light and a puff of smoke, leaving her holding a bouquet of flowers.
The Reploid immediately turned her icy gaze to the magician, only to discover he felt he'd just done something terribly clever and smooth.
"What exactly is the meaning of this?" Wraith attempted to insert something of dripping menace into her tone, though she managed to botch the effect with an indignant toss of her snowy mane.
His pleased expression gave way to a puzzled look. "Don't you like flowers?"
"That's hardly the point, Mr. --"
"Crasher," he told her promptly. "Dan Crasher. And I've just provided the ingredient to saving your brother's life, you know -- you ought to be a little more grateful."
"Brother?" The incredulous word was barely out of her mouth before Munchie tugged on his coat, shaking her purple head.
"Oh.. lover." The enthusiasm in his voice faded considerably.
Wraith choked back a sudden, burning desire to beat them both senseless and gritted out "He's not my brother or my lover. He's my ward. I'm his bodyguard."
".. Oh!" Crasher's face brightened once again. "Then that means you're available!"
This time Munchie's reaction mirrored her own, the tiny cat-girl shaking her head furiously and stamping her foot almost on top of his as she yanked fruitlessly at his coat.
"Eight o'clock tomorrow, then, right?" he repeated, taking her elbow and steering her easily toward the door. "I'll meet you here -- and don't forget the money!"
With that, the door shut, she and Munchie on the outside. The kitten looked terribly flustered, as if something in her grand plan had gone awfully awry. Wraith had long since ceased to believe she herself had any plan whatsoever and was rapidly on the way to losing faith in reality. Glancing down, at her hands, she noted vaguely that the flowers she held had once again been replaced with the bottle of unpleasant-looking liquid.
She was beginning to get a headache.
(3) Midnight, Candlelight, and Champagne
"So, are you going on a date with him?" Douglas found this situation entirely too amusing, in Wraith's opinion.
"Of course not."
"He seems to think you are, though." He attempted to fend off Munchie, who was gesturing insistently with the bottle of unnatural liquid and -- more alarmingly -- a spoon.
"That would be a problem of perception on his part," Wraith grumbled, "He wouldn't take the hint."
Douglas cast her a sidelong glance, grinning. "Poor Wraith, it must be hard to be menacing when you're so short."
"Short!" Wraith jumped as if stung. "I am not short!"
Douglas couldn't restrain a whoop of laughter, at which Munchie took the opportunity to shove a spoonful of the medicine in his open mouth. "Gah, that's terrible!" he told her, grimacing dramatically as he swallowed the stuff. She beamed at him and chirped "Medicine!" in lieu of sympathy.
"I'm five-foot six, Douglas," Wraith snapped before he could recover. "That's not short. That's.. that's average."
"You're short," he giggled at her, squirming farther down under his blankets. "I'm gonna go to sleep now, all right?"
Wraith, about to make an irritable reply, subsided. "Munchie's going to wake you up in an hour to take more of it, all right?"
"Mm-kay," he mumbled into his pillow, dropping off before another word could be said. She felt a small pang watching him, something like nostalgia and guilt, but she brushed the emotions aside to glance at the little girl-cat, who was contentedly brushing Douglas' hair back from his face.
"Why medicine, Munchie?" she asked wearily, voicing the question that had been bothering her ever since she saw the spoon in the girl's hand. "What is that stuff?" That I just let you give him without checking...
"Medicine." She sounded puzzled, as if Wraith were being unutterably dense about the business.
"Yes, but what is it for?" The thought that something else might be wrong with him after he'd taken a gunshot to the chest was enough to make her physically ill. "He's recovering brilliantly, according to the doctors." She scowled. "Nothing else is wrong with him."
Munchie bristled slightly, laying one small hand on Douglas' chest and extending the other imperiously toward her. Wraith took the proferred hand with some trepidation, arching an eyebrow skeptically. As their hands made contact, she froze, eyes widening (ineffectually) at what flashed into her vision. "What.. is.." It was nothing concrete, just an impression, a landscape of creeping disease. Infection?
She jerked her hand free, gulping a shallow breath. "You'd better not be yanking my chain."
The cat-child gave her an extremely patronizing look, then went back to tending Wraith's sleeping ward. The Reploid choked back the indignant splutter that was her initial reaction and stalked toward the door. "You just make sure he takes that medicine," she growled, admitting defeat.
She was half-aware of a dismissive snort from behind her as the door swung shut, and she stood still in the hall for a moment, debating her options. Of all the stupidity to get dragged into.. But the fact was she had to pay him. Hopefully she could manage some kind of escape without even walking in the door.
Upon her arrival at Dan Crasher's quarters, however, her wishful thoughts vanished as though ripped away by a Kansas tornado. She bit down hard on her initial reaction, blurting out, "I brought the money" in lieu of "What in the name of God are you wearing", and was congratulating herself inwardly on a nice save, when he caught her extended hand and flipped it over, and caught the credits in his own, bending to kiss her knuckles extravagantly.
"Please, my lovely, do come inside!" he grinned what might have passed for a roguish grin if the lavender and sequined tuxedo hadn't completely captured her horrified attention.
"I have to get back to --" she began weakly, but he swept her inside without responding and darted a critical eye over her attire as he set the needle on what appeared to be an old record player and switched it on.
"You might have worn something a little more suited to the occasion," he said, sighing petulantly as the player began to scratch out a mellow jazz tune Wraith thought wholly inappropriate to the situation. "But I guess it's all right -- you look stunning regardless."
The white-maned Reploid found herself thinking that "stunned" might have been a better word for it, really, but before she could give voice to that correction, he whirled her into an awkward tango and pulled her step by step across the room. When he had almost reached the wall, he dropped her into an absolutely terrifying dip and held her there for a moment that would have been considered uncomfortable in any situation. "I'm afraid I.. don't dance.." she mumbled, avoiding his praise-seeking gaze.
"Oh?" Disappointment flickered into his voice again, and he nearly dropped her, remembering at the last moment to pull her upright. "Well, I guess we can go straight to dinner, then."
"Really, you don't have to, I should just --"
"Please, have a seat!" He waved her toward a small, stained table and tugged a rickety chair out for her to sit on.
Resignation on her face, she sank into it, noting vaguely that there were no placemats. Dan bustled into another room, chattering happily (and half to himself, she was willing to wager), and left her alone at the table to do some quick thinking. The most obvious solution was to leave immediately, though it seemed unnecessarily cruel under the circumstances -- until a slightly muffled "It'll be just a minute!" wafted into the room, accompanied by the ping and whirr of a microwave.
Wraith focused her attention on the table, growing more depressed as the record player got stuck in the middle of a track. To her surprise, she discovered that, rather than candles, the mage (at least, she supposed he must be) had magicked a glowing ball to hover above the table, flickering like a real flame. She peered at it for a moment. At least I hope it isn't a real flame.
A few minutes later, the whirlwind in a bad tux trotted jauntily out of the kitchen, a TV dinner in either hand. Setting one down in front of her, he seated himself opposite on a small stool that didn't appear to be in any better condition than her own chair. With a tiny sigh, Wraith picked up her plastic utensils and began to eat.
The meal passed primarily in silence, punctuated by squawks from the record player, which Dan failed to notice immediately, and cheerful munching noises from the man himself. To Wraith's relief, he didn't seem to have anything else planned, and she was just about to say her good-byes and make an escape when, in an impressive display of good timing, he caught her hand again, expression somewhere between wistful and suave.
"Listen --" he began, but whatever he was attempting to say went completely unspoken, interrupted by the explosive crash of the door being kicked in.
When the shower of dust and splinters finally cleared, Wraith saw Munchie standing in the ruined doorframe, huffing furiously and glaring. Resignation stole over her features again.
"Mommy! Come HOME."
"Now, just a minute --" the inestimable Dan Crasher protested, releasing Wraith, who immediately got to her feet.
The kitten stalked through the broken bits of door and grabbed the bodyguard firmly by her wrist. "Home now," she snapped at Dan, then proceeded to drag Wraith's unresisting body out the door and into the hallway. Once they were safely out of range, the little girl stopped and released her.
Wraith gave her head a small shake, and a shower of splinters rained down around her. "Went a little overboard, don't you think?"
Munchie fixed her with a disgusted look, rolled her eyes, and stalked away, grumbling to herself in kittenish.
"Well.. thanks anyway.." she called after her. I'm going to have a long shower, go to sleep, and pretend none of this ever happened. That idea firmly in hand, Wraith marched to her own quarters, more tired now than she had been almost any day on the battlefield.