Something that's going to happen later on in the RP, as usual. Way later. Relationship angst for the win!

That Strange Sickness

The more Wraith thought about it, the more she was certain she was overreacting. What felt like a solid lump of lead in the vicinity of her torso was clearly a malfunction of her sensors, product of an overactive imagination and too many bad metaphors. Repeated sensor sweeps confirmed nothing out of the ordinary present in her systems, rendering the pain phantom -- non-existent.

She closed her eyes, now tilted sightlessly toward the ceiling, and turned back the clock in a rush of recollection so vivid she almost opened them again, thinking he'd returned. Her lips parted in a short, humorless chuckle.

The missions only kept getting longer -- or they seemed to. She wasn't inclined to check through her memory, admittedly accurate to perfection, to confirm it. Six weeks and then four weeks and then three weeks and back to four. This last one had been two -- or was it three, after all?

It didn't seem important. Her thoughts focused more on his return and how, with speed (eagerness?) that bordered on embarrassing, she had crossed the room to him almost before he'd stepped in the door, and he in turn had caught her in his arms well before the door closed behind him. It followed naturally that their lips were next to meet, extending the wordless greeting to another level of lingering, physical contact.

His arms tightened on her, pulling her along as he took a half step backward to bump the door with his shoulders, closing it the rest of the way, and leaning comfortably against the smooth surface. Mouth still occupied with hers, he sank slowly to the floor, and she followed with only a faint murmur of protest that didn't even manage to break the kiss.

They sat that way, comfortably ensconced, for several minutes until they parted, apparently by mutual decision, and his mouth curved into a faint, amused grin.

"Hi," he said, and her shoulders shook in the slightest laugh.

"Hi," she answered, then she sank against him, resting her head wearily against his shoulder and twining her slim arms tighter around him.

He didn't object to the behavior, nor did he offer further conversation, only lifting one hand to stroke briefly at her hair before lowering it again to her back.

There they were content to remain, her with her head resting against his chest, him with nose and mouth nuzzling her hair, soaking in each other's warmth and finding comfort in the rhythmic pulse of their systems. A Reploid's heartbeat, perhaps.

The first sign that something was amiss came when his back stiffened, and she lifted her head in query to see the look (momentary vacancy) on his face that meant only one thing -- incoming communications. His eyes came back into focus moments later, and his head sank back to strike the door with a thump.

Then he swore.

She sank against him again, and her arms tightened on him, fingers curling into the fabric of his shirt. She tried not to think of it as clinging. His response was gratifying enough, arms folding around her tightly again -- so tightly she thought he might actually be staying. But their grip loosened seconds later, and she shifted away automatically to permit him to get to his feet. Which he did, catching her hands and pulling her along with him.

"How long?" she asked, resisting the touch of his hand, which had released her own and was attempting to tilt her face toward him.

"I don't know," he said. "Hopefully not long," he added, but his tone didn't seem to indicate this was a strong possibility.

His hand, ever persuasive, succeeded in turning her, and she was rewarded with another kiss for her cooperation. She held him there as long as she reasonably could, helped along by the fact he seemed reluctant to pull away, but, even so, it wasn't long before they'd disentangled, and he slipped out the door again, less than a half-hour after he'd entered it.

She had stared at the closed door for some minutes after his departure, then she turned her back to the door and slumped against it, sliding to the floor to stare vacantly at the ceiling.

It was only when a blunt, scaly muzzle nudged her elbow that she stirred, turning her head to see Panzer watching her with an expression of canine concern. She lifted her hand, reaching vaguely toward the mutant dog, who ducked his head to receive the gesture, and between the two of them he got his ears scratched.

"I am being an idiot, aren't I?" she said to the dog, trying a smile and finding her lips didn't want to cooperate.

Panzer whined, scooting forward to rest his head on her knee, then huffed a low sigh, eyes reaching soulfully toward hers.

"Sometimes I wonder …" she began, tapering off rapidly, as it would sting her too entirely to put what she wondered into words. It seemed almost craven, fleeing from the pain and its apparent source, but even as she considered the option -- leaving him, ending what they had -- a wave of what she could only describe as dizziness swept over her.

Her hand tightened on Panzer suddenly, and the mutant dog yelped at the sudden pressure, jerking her back into momentary wakefulness.

"Sorry," she whispered, lifting her hand from his head, and he gave a soft whine. "Sorry," she said again, and pushed dazedly to her feet, bracing her back against the door and shoving herself steadily upward. It took her several moments to regain her footing -- she wondered if something was wrong with her stabilizers -- and she pushed herself away from the door.

In a moment of rapid reorientation, she realized that it had grown dark, outside the house and in, and a check of her chronometer indicated that more time had passed than she had given herself credit for.

So much, she thought, for "hopefully not long."

Seconds later, the thought struck her as unfair, spiteful, and she shook her head angrily, a welter of emotions washing over her. She reached for the door in an extension of the gesture, crossing the threshold into the crisp night air almost before she realized she'd done so. But once completed, the action seemed irreversible.

She let the door fall closed behind her and began to walk, falling into a haze that resembled the one that kept her near the door. This time, though, she seemed compelled to walk, aimless, through the streets of the neighborhood and then farther out. She didn't know how long she walked, one foot landing steadily in front of the other over moonlight-silvered sidewalks, under pale yellow streetlamps.

With each step she tried to put distance between herself and the gnawing ache that had replaced the lead that previously weighed her to the floor. With each step she felt herself draw away, but even as her foot landed, she felt it catch up with her.

The hopeless race continued for another hour, until her slow, directionless flight led her to a quiet neighborhood, much like many of the others, and up the walkway of a modest house she only recognized when she reached the door. Her hand had already reached out to ring the doorbell before she thought, and she shuffled back a step as if contact with the mechanism had stung her.

When several minutes passed with no response, she began to hope that they had slept through the sound, and she turned to walk away, halting guiltily when she heard footsteps shuffle down steps toward the door. It opened a few seconds later, and a sleepy-looking Douglas poked his head out, gaze more than a little bleary.

"Wraith?" he said blankly. "What're you doing here? You know what time it is?"

Embarrassment washed over her, and she felt her gaze drop to the ground, suddenly, keenly aware of the unreasonable hour. "I'm sorry," she said.

From behind him, she heard his wife's voice, equally sleepy and curious. "Who is it, Doug?" she asked, attempting to squirm past his arm to have a look outside. "Wraith!" She sounded equally surprised.

"I'm so sorry," Wraith repeated, lifting her head at last and pressing the heel of her hand against one eye. "I didn't.. I wasn't thinking. I'm sorry to have woken you --" She pulled her hand away and looked at it, blankly surprised to find it wet.

It was only then, to her horror, that she realized there were tears flowing freely down her face -- a final betrayal by her uncooperative body. She swore, then swore again, lifting her arm once more to scrub away the liquid, but she found her effort in vain, as it only kept pouring down.

"What the hell, Wraith --" Douglas began, but Ekatarin -- Kitty -- finally succeeded in her bid to push past him, trotting barefoot out to the porch and taking Wraith by the arm.

"My god, Wraith, come inside, please --" She shooed Douglas out of the way -- he moved reluctantly -- and tugged the Reploid toward the house's interior. She resisted only momentarily before letting the other pull her along, zombie-like, behind her. She found herself ushered into the living room and ordered to settle on their couch while the taller woman left to get something hot to drink.

Wraith was vaguely aware of her ordering Douglas to let her handle this -- less aware of his puzzled reply -- and in what felt like the next moment, Kitty was beside her again and thrusting a mug of hot cocoa into her hands.

"Sorry," she said gently. "We're not big tea drinkers."

Wraith managed a wan smile and sipped, relieved to find the tears were finally receding.

Kitty sat beside her in silence for several minutes, drinking from a mug of her own as she waited for Wraith to recover. The Reploid lingered over her drink, aware enough now to dread the question she knew would be coming.

"Better?" Kitty finally asked, when they had only the dregs of their drinks left to swirl in their mugs.

Wraith nodded, but her gaze remained firmly fixed on the leavings that rotated slowly in the ceramic container. She looked up only at the touch of Kitty's hand on her hair, stroking gently and clearly meant to soothe.

"Then would you tell me?" she said, setting her mug down on the coffee table beside them. "What happened to bring you all the way out here -- did you have a fight?" She added this last with a hint of doubt, confirmed when Wraith shook her head immediately.

"No," she said softly. "We didn't fight."

"Then what, Wraith?" Kitty repeated, hand dropping from Wraith's hair to join its companion in clasping around her hands. "It can't have been nothing to bring you here like this."

Wraith stared at her miserably, feeling another surge of humiliation at the concern evident in her voice. "It's not --" she began, then fell silent, as it clearly was. "It shouldn't be," she amended. "It shouldn't be .. important."

Kitty watched her in silence, an expression like skepticism on her mobile features. As if to answer it, Wraith began to speak, halting and reluctant at first, but with increasing strength as she realized Kitty intended to listen to the entire story without complaint or interruption.

As if in response to this sympathetic audience, Wraith's words began to tumble one after the other, beyond the events of that afternoon. The long gaps between his visits, the anxiety and loneliness that accompanied the time he spent away, and with it all an edge of self-loathing that it bothered her at all.

When Wraith had finally fallen silent, the girl gave her hands a gentle squeeze, removing the mostly-empty mug from her grip and setting it on the table.

"I feel like a fool for crying," Wraith said, almost in punctuation, barely noting the relocation of the mug.

"You shouldn't," Kitty said matter-of-factly, watching her for a moment before she spoke again. "You know," she began, pausing to make sure she had Wraith's attention. "You know, when you and Doug ran off all those years ago, I cried for weeks."

The pale-haired Reploid looked up sharply, surprise and guilt playing across her features, but Kitty paid her little heed, smiling faintly at the memory.

"Weeks and weeks. Mama didn't know what to do with me." The girl glanced at her sideways and grinned. "That was when I started studying robotics and all, you know? I figured he'd go on to college or something, and maybe I could find him there. Silly, huh?"

She wrinkled her nose in amusement, but Wraith only shook her head wordlessly.

"Well, I guess it worked, sort of …" Her smile faded. "I'm just saying, you know. It's not wrong to miss someone you love."

Wraith felt another pang of guilt, and she lowered her head again. "I didn't think," she murmured. "I didn't think.. it would be this way. It.. it was an oversight."

"It's rough, Wraith, it is." Wraith only shook her head, but Kitty caught her hands again, frowning. "If my Doug pulled a stunt like that, you know I'd be all over his ass for it -- why haven't you said something to him?"

Wraith lurched, shaking her head. "I couldn't. It's not.." She shook her head again, more slowly. "I don't want to bother him.. with something like this."

"'Something like this'?" Kitty sounded almost indignant. "Wraith, honey, you need to get in touch with your self-worth, 'cause it's been neglecting you, too."

"He's not --"

"If he's not, why are you here? It takes more than a little thing to bring you all this way in the state you're in." She sighed and fell back, letting some of the anger ease from her voice. "I'm not saying he's a bad guy, Wraith -- and I'm not saying you should give up on him, either."

Wraith's shoulders gave a guilty jerk, and Kitty paused, watching her with an entirely new dimension of pain in her gaze. "You shouldn't have let things get this bad for you." Then she shook her head, sighing, as the Reploid's shoulders drooped farther, hands clasping around each other.

"Oh Wraith, I'm sorry.." She scooted closer, wrapping an arm around the other's slumped shoulders. "I really shouldn't be throwing all this back at you."

Wraith only half heard her, the combined effort of holding back tears and not jerking away from Kitty's supportive grip taking most of her concentration. The human girl kept after her stubbornly until, defeated at last, Wraith slumped into her embrace and let free the emotional torrent she had been holding back.

Over the embarrassing vocalizations of her misery, sometimes sobs and sometimes broken sentences, she could hear the other woman's voice uttering soothing nonsense that somehow, slowly calmed her. Even as her sobbing ground to a halt, a wave of exhaustion swept over her, augmented by the insistent chirp of Douglas' sleep protocol. She surrendered to it gratefully, an escape from the emotional riot she found herself caught up in.

"I miss him," she murmured as she crossed the threshold to unconsciousness. "I just miss him.. so much."

Kitty caught her as she slumped, easing the admittedly heavy Reploid down until her head rested in her lap, and let her lie that way until she was certain she wouldn't wake when jostled. Then, uttering a very soft sigh, she slipped carefully from under the unconscious woman and got to her feet, carefully arranging the other's limbs in a more comfortable position.

Stretching, she started from the room, stopping just outside the doorway when she caught sight of her husband, leaning against the wall with arms folded and a scowl on his face.

"Guess that answers that question," she remarked, and he looked up at her.

"Ah, yeah. Sorry," he said distractedly, glancing past her as if he could see around the corner of the door. "Is she all right?"

"She's asleep now," Kitty replied, watching him with amusement. "That's some program you wrote up -- passed out just when I thought a human ought to."

"Yeah, well." His still-vacant tone and distinct lack of preening at this praise caused her to walk around in front of him, waggling her fingers in front of his eyes.

"Hey, Dougie -- you in there?"

He blinked and shook his head. "Yeah. Yeah, I am. Sorry, Kitty."

She uttered a faint snort, putting her hands on her hips. "What, no manly grunts? No declarations that you'll go kick his sorry ass?"

"I can't kick his sorry ass, fair Ekatarin," he retorted, reaching out to scoop his arms around her waist and draw her nearer. "Otherwise you know I would." A scowl crossed his features again, and his gaze again drifted somewhere distant. "What the hell is he thinking, anyway? Leaving her alone like that .. she's never been alone in her life."

"I don't know if being stuck with you is preferable, though," she remarked, and he gave her a withering stare.

"Need I remind you that you volunteered for it …"

"I think of it every day." She grinned and leaned comfortably against him, letting her arms rest around his middle. "What are you thinking?" she asked after a moment, when his bantering fell once again to silence.

"Just thinking," he said vaguely, and she sighed, reaching to pinch him lightly.

"Don't do anything that'll get you in too much trouble," she said, and he looked up at her with a sudden grin.

"I won't -- trust me."

Her expression was supremely doubtful, but she let it go, straightening to tug him back up the stairs and to their room. He went willingly and with only one backward glance toward the living room where his former bodyguard slept.

"Maverick Hunters," chirped the voice, full of a receptionist's requisite false cheer. "How may I direct your call?"

Douglas stared at the phone with distaste, but he shrugged and plowed on. "Yeah, I'd like to speak to Sorn -- the, uh, Xi Squad commander."

"May I ask who's calling?" Without missing a beat.

"Yeah.. tell him it's Wraith." Douglas shrugged again. Logic dictated it would be the fastest way to get through to him.

There was a pause, unexpectedly long, and the receptionist spoke again, false apology joining the cheery tone. "I'm sorry, sir, but Xi Squad is out of the base, along with her commander. I can leave a mess --"

"I'll call again tomorrow."

"Sir, it would be considerably easier if you would just leave --"

"How long is he gonna be gone?" the human interrupted, and the receptionist's tone became frosty.

"That's classified information, sir."

"Then I'll be calling again tomorrow," Douglas said flatly, and he hung up the phone.

"Nice as it is to see you," the Reploid remarked, "I find it hard to believe you called me out here just for coffee and gossip, Wraith."

Wraith looked at him with a wan smile, staring at her own cup -- still mostly full -- and gave her head a slow, deliberate shake. "No, it's mostly … business, I guess," she said, though the statement did strike her as slightly misleading.

Arc glanced at her over the rim of his mug, expression interested. "Business, huh?" he said around the container before he lowered it. "Sounds serious."

She gave a slight nod, hands twisting around her own for a moment -- she took care not to damage it. "I.. I was wondering, Arc.. if there's any work for me at the estate these days." She turned the mug in her hands. "I was thinking about coming back."

Her gaze lifted to see him watching her thoughtfully, concern playing briefly across his features. "Moving back to the estate?" he asked. "I thought you had a place of your own."

She fidgeted, then nodded slightly, and his expression of concern deepened.

"Wraith, what's happened?"

She was silent for a long moment before giving her head a very slight shake. "It's.. nothing, Arc," she said, finally looking up. "I just wanted to know if I was still welcome."

"You are more than welcome in the Brandt household, Wraith," Arc answered her with a sudden grin, though his expression sobered almost immediately. "But I think you'd be better served by patching things up."

Surprise flashed across her face, and she opened her mouth, but Arc shook his head, cutting off her protest. "Relax -- what I said still stands." He smiled crookedly, spreading his hands. "I'm not trying to dictate your life or anything like that. You just sound like you aren't sure."

She gazed at him in silence, pain filtering into her expression. Then a small, weary smile curved her mouth, and she bowed her head. "You're right. Of course." He looked about to speak, but she shook her head, rising and pushing her chair back.

"Thank you," she said, looking up again, and the smile was a little stronger. She paused, looking as though she was about to speak again, but she said nothing, only inclining her head and turning to walk away from the small café.