Title: Unexpected - Part 2
Author: Shatterpath
Feedback address: shatterpath@shatterstorm.net
Date in Calendar: 21 December 2013
Fandom: Light, Water, Muses - An alternate universe for a variety of television series. All disclaimers below.
Pairing: Renatta/Rosie
Rating: PG
Word Count: 8666
Summary: The Lairds are settling in and Kicker makes friends with Rosie. We also learn more about her and what happened to put her in the charge of the Hearts. Renata remains conflicted.
Book: Cartomancy
Category: the continued saga of the Sentinels and other Awakened and the House of Hearts.
Advertisement: Part of the FSAC:DD11


Author's Notes: All words in italics are phonetic foreign words, Spanish in this case.
Important note: Outside of familiar LWM faces, there is a mess of new OCs here. If you're not familiar with LWM, I hope that perhaps you can enjoy this anyway. This is a writing project inspired by ABC's Once Upon a Time and originally was my Nanowrimo 2012 project.

Beta: ariestess

Part 2

++ Rosie ++


"Come on, Scotty-dog, we're going to be late! Chop, chop!"

"Moooooooooom," he groans complaint at my goofy nick name for him and I grin wolfishly.

"I'd give you less of a hard time if you'd get your butt moving sooner in the mornings!"

Rolling his eyes in a way that gets him a reprimanding look, I finally yank open the door and send him through with a hair ruffle and a shove. He makes a strange noise that has my head coming up even as I power walk into a very solid body that knocks me clean onto my ass. Papers fly everywhere, as does my purse and satchel.

"Oh, jesus, ah'm so sorry!"

No one I know, because that heavy accent is pretty distinctive. Shaking off the hit, I take the offered hand and grin at the stranger. She's very pretty, with wide green eyes, looking like a miserable puppy. She seems surprised at my laugh. "No harm done. Rushed mornings always make me clumsy." A significant look at Scotty actually makes him blush a bit and look away.

"Wish ah had as good an excuse, ma'am. Let me help you."

Between us, my things are haphazardly tossed into the satchel, but I pause when I notice her sway alarmingly on the balls of her feet where she crouches. The tanned, freckled face goes white and then faintly green. "Hon, you look terrible, are you okay?"

"No ma'am," she chokes out and I feel instant sympathy. Standing, I ensure I have my keys and wallet and shove the rest of the mess into the arms of my wide-eyed son.

"Tell Eva that I知 running late and will be there as soon as possible." Planting a kiss on his crown, I bodily turn him and give him a gentle push towards the elevators. "Go on, sweetie. I'll be along soon."

"'Kay. Love you, Mom."

"Love you more."

That taken care of, I turn to the stranger and offer a hand. "Come on then. You look like you need a doctor and a good meal in you. That physique should not have you so thin."

"What d'ya mean?"

The words might be confrontational if she didn't look so sick. "Those kinds of muscles take lots of fuel and you clearly aren't getting enough. Which means that you are probably either sick or pregnant." Yep, I知 right. No reaction to 'sick', but she flinches as though struck at the later suggestion. "Yeah, I thought I recognized a fellow sufferer." the green eyes drop to my belly and I laugh warmly. "Oh no, that was years ago. You just met my little bundle of joy. Now, come on, get up and let's get you taken care of."

She's solid as a brick and far taller than I, but I help get her levered to unsteady feet and use my smaller body to prop her up. It takes some effort, but we get moving towards the stairs and even the small exercise seems to help her equilibrium.

"Thank ya kindly for the helpin' hand, ma'am."


A smile finally quirks her mouth and I return it. "Rosie," she repeats back. "Ah'm AJ. Pleased ta meet you."

"Likewise, AJ."

It takes effort for AJ to hold herself together until we got down to the first floor where I can hand her off the staff there. Since I brought her in, she's taken to the quiet and less public side, not the noisy clinic that serves the community. Frankly, it doesn't look like the young woman could handle much chaos right now.

The nurse helps me get a shaky AJ onto the exam table and I tenderly stroke her long blonde locks off her forehead and away from her bloodshot eyes. Rennie is forever giving me crap about my naturally touchy-feely nature, a trait certainly not discouraged by working with children!

"Thank ya again, Miss Rosie," she exhales softly as she clearly starts to relax and I hear her stomach whine plaintively.

"Oh, drop the 'miss', silly. We're friends now."

The soft teasing is the right track to take and she smiles shyly.

Some time passes while we just wait quietly in the oddly comfortable quiet and I sneak glances at the clock. This will be more than late, this will be a half day! Eva's going to kill me, but what could I do? AJ is drifting off, her body still a little tense and I keep stroking her forehead like I would a sick child's.

++ Joan ++

I do love working at the clinic, even during this busy time of year. The challenges are varied and the clientele colorful, from the downtown hookers to the junkies to the ordinary folk with few places to go to the rich and paranoid. When there are no babies to tend, I pitch in where I can. There is always a place for a pair of competent hands.

When the ubiquitous scanners that are such a part of our lives actually flag me specifically through the computer systems, I知 quite startled. Apparently, I知 needed then. A few queries of the machine and I find out where she came in and quickly memorize the pretty woman's face. Ah yes, she was supposed to come see me days ago. Curse this time of year!

A couple questions in the right ears and I知 pushing into room twelve, surprised to see Rosie with her. No, really, I'm not surprised at all.

"Well, well, Laird, about time you brought yourself to me!"

The lanky, well-muscled blonde reacts with near Dace-like speed, nearly sending herself off the exam table and making Rosie jump back with a squeak.

"No need for that, pretty girl," I coax, lunging out to grab an arm and steady her. "I'm your new OBGYN, Doctor Joan Golfinos. How have you been Rosie? You usually have much smaller charges than this."

Their differently colored green eyes blink at me and I force myself to let my red-headed annoyance go.

"Sorry to be so... aggressive. This time of year is stressful and I知 annoyed with myself for not searching you out." A practiced rake of my gaze over the muscular body shows stresses that alarm me. "And, by your condition, I知 doubly annoyed. Now, catch your breath and rest while I give you a little prodding."

There's no need to get my new charge undressed to see a few of the basic problems. Firstly, she's dehydrated, close to alarmingly so and I instantly order saline through the computer. She'll have to live with a needle in her arm for a few hours.

"By the sound of that wild animal in your gut, I知 guessing you haven't been able to eat much either?"

Laird shakes her head and Rosie pats her arm reassuringly. "No ma'am. Ah'm sorry for alarmin' you."

Her file has all sorts of flags on it, most of which I can't even access, but I know that one. She's one of Dace's, counted among the growing Awakened. So, this a very special case and will get my closest attention. Good, I like special projects, even it will be odd to have her here at HQ and not out at the Ranch.

Thankfully, it appears that she's only dehydrated and needs to keep down a few solid meals. Nothing too serious this early in the game. At almost nine weeks, her system should stabilize soon into the pregnancy. When the nurse brings the saline and its paraphernalia, I add on several nutrient packs as well. Can't hurt and the needle will be in there anyway.

"Are you okay with needles, AJ?"

The blonde sets her jaw and looks away, looking to Rosie for reassurance. "Doctor Golfi..."

"Joan is fine," I chuckle reassuringly as I prep the heavy needle. Her thick southern accent is mauling my surname worse than usual. "Everyone calls me that, and you will be seeing a lot of me over the next year!"

"Thank ya kindly, Doc. Said somethin' about yer charges bein' smaller?"

Conversation is always a good distraction technique and I smile encouragingly at Rosie. I've been up at the child care center often enough to be passingly familiar with the astute, energetic woman and her charges.

"Yes. I'm the head teacher of the small in-house school. That's where Scotty and I were headed when we ran into you."

"Yeah, sorry again 'bout that. An' thank ya for stayin' with me."

An animalistic hiss is the reaction to the heavy needle sliding into her skin, but she only goes rigid and lets me do my job. Good girl. The drip starts with no problem and I straighten up with satisfaction.

"That should ease some of the physical discomfort and help get you reprogrammed for this new environment. Sound good?"

"Thanks, Doctor Joan. Ah've hardly been able ta keep a damn thing down in a month."

"I have to say, AJ, whoever your last hack caretaker was, I知 ready to bust some heads." My tone is mild, but the words are sharp. She blinks, nonplussed, before surprising me with a clear, delighted laugh.

"Ah'll be sure ta pass the message along to mah boss, Doctor Joan."

Patting the young woman on the arm, I hook the rolling stool with a foot and park myself for a long consult. "Good. Now, let's see what we can do to get your stomach to settle, shall we?"

++ Kicker ++


Waking is always hard, my eyelids always painted with lurid loss and fear. But at least with Doctor Joan's fussing and some medication have enabled me to eat and sleep with some normality. It's been a relief. I've been so obsessed with not dealing with has happened to me that I致e gotten too good at it.

"Hey, Jackass?"

Yep, that's my big brother and his perfect timing. He's been hovering all the worse since I gave him a scare by disappearing on him last Wednesday. When I make a noncommittal sound, he sticks his head into my bedroom.

"Miss Rosie's here ta visit if yer up for it."

"And don't get up on my account!"

Rosie's merry voice calling from behind him makes me grin. She's been good company the couple times we've spent some time together and it's been nice to have someone else besides my brother around.

"Come on in, Rosie."

"Well. You look better every time I see you!" She dimples prettily and I grin but don't bother trying to pry my limp body from the mattress. "Doctor Joan did the trick."

"Oh, yes ma'am. Ah haven't felt this good..." my mood falls and she sees that clearly. "Since all this started."

It's so very strange to have someone so tactile in my personal space, but I like how she quickly pets my head and gives me a sympathetic look. "Well, if you ever need an ear, AJ."

"Thank you. Do ah smell more of Miss Frenchie's fine cookin'?"

"That you do! Quit fooling around, Mac, and come feed your poor sib!"

"Comin', comin'," Mac mutters as he carefully maneuvers his massive bulk into the room, balancing a serving tray. "Yer gonna get damn spoilt by all this."

"Damn right," I tease back affectionately and gather myself to roll over and sit up. Okay, maybe just roll over for now. I have never felt so constantly exhausted in my life. And to think, this is just the early stuff... Though Doctor Joan has been adamant that in some ways, it will get easier as the pregnancy gets along. Well, she's the expert.

The smell of apples and cinnamon finally gets me up to happily accept the warm bowl Rosie sets in my hands. I have never enjoyed oatmeal in my life, always repulsed by the gray, gloppy mess. But that was before I ate Miss Frenchie's cooking! Now, I look forward to it every morning. Eventually, I知 sated enough to pay attention to my company again, smiling at my unexpected pal.

"Thanks for breakfast."

"You're welcome. It's nice to have some adult company as a change of pace. I'm one of the 'New Year's widows' because things are so busy this time of year."

"So ah've heard. So, tell me about yer school."

"Sure! When I was pregnant with Scotty, I decided to get my degree in early childhood education, because I致e always liked kids. Turns out that the Hearts had been thinking about opening a satellite campus here in the building for some time. There's a private school in town that we're associated with, by the way. My older sister was one of the founding members of the Hearts and tossed my name into the hat. When I came here to interview with Dace, it was the strangest thing. I walked into her office and could see the woman was tired and stressed, but she glanced up and then her eyes got wide and she sat right up. Before I left that office I had a job, more freedom than any educator could wish for and an extremely generous moving package. We just had to get our butts here fast! That was four and a half years ago."

"So, the King o Hearts knew she liked ya right from the git go."

"I didn't understand it then, but learned over time. There are strange and wonderful people in this world that need special treatment and I知 sensitive to them. Like you."

My startle isn't feigned as she laughs delightedly.

"Oh, the look on your face! I figured out there was something about you the moment we met. When your energy levels are better, I値l introduce you to some of my students and their grownups."

Crossing my arms, I grump, "ah'm used ta bein' far more anonymous than this."

Grinning, Rosie pats my knee and gets to her feet. "It's a gorgeous day out, clear and cool. If you're up to it, there's a park behind the building, away from the street. It's lovely. I'll come yammer at you soon, AJ! Bye!"

Waving, I return the farewell and give some serious thought to taking her suggestion.

++ Renata ++


"Glad to have that over with for another year, hmmm?"

If asked, I would hard pressed to say which I知 happier to see, Rosie or the steaming mug in her hand. With a faint smile, she offers it, motivating me to finally rouse from the bed. Good, hot coffee starts to clear out the cobwebs, as does her quick kiss on what feels like an epic case of bed head.

"This seemed like a worse year than usual. We've barely seen you at all. When you've cleaned up, get ready for the boy hurricane. He's ready to make up time with you."

"Out in a few," I croak as she leaves me with a pat to the leg.

There's no fooling my Rosie, there never has been. She knows that my strange behavior is more than the busy holidays. Sleeping in my damn office for the better part of two weeks is not helping my case either.

I can't get that woman off of my mind.

Ruthlessly shoving my turmoil away, I clean up and get dressed in preparation for my son's birthday.

It's a lovely day, if not exhausting from all the small kids and the strained quiet between Rosie and myself. I hate the later, feeling like there's a stone around my heart. What do I say to her? What can I say?

When Jack married Dugan in that small, beautiful ceremony overlooking Puget Sound, I hadn't expected to find true love. But I had, even if nothing came of it for nearly a year and a half. The sisters had been estranged and Rosie and the asshole boyfriend disrupting the party had not led to the reconciliation Dugan had hoped for. When I answered the door of the condo I shared with the couple all those months later, the broken, lonely woman there was barely recognizable. Seems her wild life had finally caught up with her and she was pregnant with nowhere to go. I stood between her and my best friend, livid from the invasion into her life, but there was no choice. Rosie and the baby needed us.

Those days were some of my best, getting to know Rosie, to see the woman behind the brash arrogance and acerbic tongue to the sweet soul within. She really is a lot like her older sister, even if neither can admit it. Love came slowly, a gentle dance that made us stronger than our separate pieces. And Scotty has always been the light of both our lives.

Standing in the doorway watching her clean, this new attraction wars violently with what I have right here. Elbow deep in washing dishes, cake-stained sleeves rolled up and shaking her thing to the Black Eyed Peas, she is impossibly wonderful to me.

A curious glance over her shoulder shows me that she has felt my regard. She doesn't stop her chores when I wrap my arms around her, but she does playfully wiggle her ass against me, making me smile.

"Forgive me ignoring you?"

"Oh, Rennie, you nut, I知 used to it."

"Let me make it up to you."

"Let me get these dishes done."

"Forget the dishes, they can wait."

With the soapy water soaking my shirt where she turns in my embrace and accepts my ardent kisses, we rebond there in the kitchen of our home together before clicking off the lights and retreating to the bedroom to connect again.

For this, I will ignore the insidious itch to that enticing stranger.

I have to.

++ Dace ++


With things finally settled down after the holidays, the building has quieted and people are back to their usual routines. None are more grateful than I. Being the boss is so often a thankless job, though I知 ever so grateful that I can handle it. There were long periods in the past that I wouldn't have believed it. With Anastasia more retired than not, the bulk of keeping the House of Hearts running falls on me now. Luckily, I know my strengths and weaknesses and have the most amazing people working for me.

Still sore from the shenanigans last night at Karen's birthday party, a good, solid workout is just what the doctor ordered. Glancing over my to-do lists, I see that I finally have some wiggle room and leap up from my desk to quickly retreat to my sprawling ensuite to change and grab my gear. A quick check in with the Collective has me off the hook unless something serious comes up I forgo the elevator to hit the stairs.

There's generally only a couple hundred people in the building, so the gym isn't massive, but is certainly thorough. Only one of my Hounds is there and he nods silently but does not pause in his strenuous workout. It took some time to really accept the idea of the Hounds being 'mine', but Anastasia encouraged it. Ownership of their well-being, she would say, fosters caring what happens to them. As usual, she was right. The woman has always been at the top of her game and really finessed me into the leader I have become.

Luxuriating in the giddy freedom of not being under crushing deadlines, I leisurely warm up before heading over to my favorite sparing partner, the heavy bag. As soon as possible, I need to find another sparing buddy, I miss boxing. Being busy can suck.

The Hound leaves and I have the place to myself for a bit before I知 joined by someone I don't expect.


Truthfully, I壇 pretty much forgotten she and the brother were even here. I nod in greeting, but the young woman doesn't even notice me, going to the same heavy bag I left a bit ago. She's not dressed for a workout, but in normal, grungy civvies.

Then her scent reaches me and I know that I知 right to wonder that she's acting a bit odd. Her stress is acidic and powerful, tickling my instincts. But I don't know this woman and I rein myself in and stay back to observe.

Kicker stands at the bag for what feels like minutes, her body tense, before pounding dramatically at it. I'm impressed with her strength and wonder at the tingle of magic I feel coming from her. Then she stops, steadying the swaying bag and leans against it as though she needs the help to stay upright. Okay, screw this, I知 getting involved.

"Hey Kick," I call out jovially and slowly wander over, toweling myself, to give her a moment to collect herself. Sure enough, she roughly scrubs at her eyes before turning and gamely trying to give me a smile. It's a spectacular failure, but I admire the effort nonetheless.

"King o Hearts."

"Oh please, no need to stand on formalities. Just call me 'your highness.'"


"It was a joke, Kicker."

For a long moment, she stares at me uncomprehendingly before nodding in what looks like resignation. "Dace."

Not wanting to push, I look for neutral ground. "Hey, since you're not really dressed to work out, could you give me a hand?"

Despite her obviously troubled mood, she brightens at the prospect of something to do. "Sure, if ah can."

"Just wear the punch mitts for me. The bag gets boring."

For some time, we bond with no words as I punch at the heavy pads on her hands. Finally pleasantly winded, I wave her off and collapse on a bench to towel off again.

"Thanks. That was a better workout than I was expecting. How you doing, by the way?"

The casual inquiry gets a riot of naked emotion as she joins me on the bench. The girl's ready to burst, that much is obvious, but she's reluctant to open up. Okay, I can share first.

"Mine were triplets."

Shocked, the grass green eyes jerk over and I know I have her. Grinning, I half turn and prop a foot on the bench to wrap my arms around my leg and hold her gaze.

"That was a weird time, for sure, never knowing exactly what the hell was going on with my damn body. And the circumstances of how they came into being was even weirder. See, I知 what a pal of mine has dubbed a Sentinel." Hanging on every word, Kicker nods like she knows the term. Good. "When sexually mature males and females get in proximity, things get a little... instinctual." Her questioning look turns to a blush when I raise a suggestive eyebrow and chuckle. "Among our numbers, we have one that accidentally drove herself insane by overloading her senses. She's the one that figured the breeding urge ages ago. So I borrowed our big male and his partner, they live in Washington state, and got my darlings out of it. Strange to have your body out of your own control like that."

That does it. The last comment strikes a nerve, making Kicker noticeably flinch.

"Kicker, you and I don't know each other, but we have damn good people who can vouch for both of us. Can I make a suggestion? Maybe it would help if you had someone to talk all this out with. Someone who really knows how to help."

Squirming like my girls do when they're uncomfortable, the younger woman wants to bolt, but she also wants some solace. "Y'mean, like a shrink?"

"Oh, don't sound so petulant, you. Some of the coolest people I know are shrinks. There's one nice lady in particular I think you'll like."

++ Kicker ++

Part of me wanted to stay and talk more with the King of... with Dace. Her overpowering presence is oddly soothing, like I have someone guarding me. Someone who isn't my brother. I love him, but he's going to make me crazy. Face it AJ, he's already making you crazy.

With that depressing pep talk, I retreat to the apartment the Hearts gave us to indulge in a long, warm shower to hopefully quiet my turmoil. It partially works, until I catch the refection of my naked body in the mirror, the busy towel stilling.

I wasn't imagining it.

I'm starting to show.

Freaked out, I dive into clothes and head for the elevators. I need to get the hell out of this building for a bit. The weather's cool and overcast, but I値l be okay for a bit out in it. I've been out in the sprawling park several times and it's lovely here, rich with trees and open grassy areas and plots of flowers.

Just try and forget. Just try and survive this and move on. Just try...


Is that hail for me? I don't know the voice, deep and rich like Ren... Turning in question, I see a small, voluptuous woman dressed warmly and pushing a stroller. She has a nice, relaxing smile and an impressive mane of deeply red hair. Despite myself, I知 curious and wait while she catches up. "Kin ah help you?"

"Oh, you are adorable, Dace was right! Hi, my name is Darya Farazell and I was told you might need an ear?"

"Oh, yer the shrink." Do I really sound that hostile? Blowing out a hard breath, I offer a hand. "Real sorry about that ma'am. Mah manners have gone ta hell lately." Even as she takes my hand, I glance down at the stroller, seeing a pair of tiny shoes peeking out the front.

"Don't worry, she's out like a light. This is Wynnie, my youngest." Flipping back the fleecy blanket, Doctor Farazell gives me a peek at the red-headed toddler sacked out there.

"She's cute."

"She is at that. Don't let me interrupt your walk. Would you like some company?"

Falling in step beside her, I wrestle internally with my emotions. These people are trying really hard to be really damn nice to me. I'm not used to it, but clearly I better get used to it. Since I haven't sent her away or stalked off, the doctor sticks to my side, the stroller's wheels humming along with our moving feet.

"Ah heard the baby's heart beat today."

Yes, that really was my voice. Dammit. Doctor Farazell grins whitely. "Oh! Congratulations!" then the smile fades and I知 barely surprised at the gentle hand on my arm, pulling me to a halt. "Oh, not congratulations. I see. Come sit down, sweetie."

Blurry with tears, I manage to find the park bench without falling and bury my head in my hands.

++ Darya ++

Distracted as I am by the thick, but blunted, feel of 'the Other' about this one, the good doctor is in charge here. That, and I hate to see someone hurting, it hurts me too. Literally, of course. Being as powerfully empathetic as I am is a two-edged sword. The pretty blonde doesn't move for awhile, her drying hair flickering in the breeze. She's going to get cold, and I root around the stroller and come up with a spare blanket to throw over her shoulders.

That finally gets a reaction, her smile watery. "Thanks. So, what do you want to know?"

"AJ, I don't want to know anything. I want to give you a safe, neutral space to talk as freely as you feel comfortable with. I know nothing about you, except for a phone call from Dace that gave me a name, a photo and had the computers track your ID. So I followed you out here. That's it. I didn't even catch your last name from the file Dace sent me."

"Laird. It's Laird."

"That's a nice name."

Those grass green eyes watch me in that odd combo of competent professional and vulnerable young woman. Emotions flit nakedly over her face, pinging against the barriers around my psychic sensitivities. The blows are powerful, but low key, clearly muted by what I suspected has something to do with that pretty stone around her neck. I don't how I know, but I do. And I知 rarely if ever wrong in these subtle observations.

When AJ opens her mouth again to speak, I知 ready to be the ear she needs, but there's a pause, as her striking eyes jerk away as though she has seen something alarming. For a moment there is absolute stillness and some dark feeling skitters down my spine. The hand that has been gently shifting the stroller back and forth stills and I pull my daughter close, my protective instincts now alerted.

"We should go back," the blonde says simply, her voice serious, deeper and more resonant than it was before. Creeped out by whatever has just transpired, I nod silently in agreement and stick close to her side as we power walk back to HQ.

That disconcerting feeling does not fade until we are safely inside. For a moment we stand there, in the clinic, and stare back the way we just came.

"That wasn't close," AJ suddenly volunteers quietly and I look up at her. The expression is thoughtful and calm. "But it was powerful. Ah better stay inside." Sighing heavily, she scrubs her face with both hands and smiles weakly at me. "You hungry? Ah think ah could use some of Miss Frenchie's good cookin' right 'bout now."

"Yes, of course, that sounds wonderful. Let me drop Wynnie off at the daycare center and I値l be at your disposal."

With a last glance out the glass doors, I do my best to shake off the creepy sensations and follow my new charge.

++ Kicker ++

I've gotten spoiled in this safe place and nearly forgotten how that feels. Seems Nick is right and someone is indeed looking for me. The scrutiny wasn't powerful enough to alarm me about actually being discovered, but I don't like that it was so close.

Should I stay here and possibly endanger these nice people?

But, they are like me, like all Awakened, and I really do understand that there is safety in numbers. How I wish there weren't kids involved in this. The memories of Scotty's happy face, young Wynnie sleeping in her stroller, the hoofbeat sound of my tiny child's racing heart, they haunt me.

Trying to focus, I agree to meet Doctor Farazell in the cafeteria and drop her off on the fifth floor before pulling out my cell phone to catch Nick up on what just happened. It's a quick, businesslike call and he thankfully doesn't inquire how I知 doing. Not sure I can handle him worrying after me too.

So infuriatingly awkward.

When I wearily ask Frenchie, already eyeing me speculatively in preparation for whatever masterpiece she'll line my stomach with, for a private eating space, she walks me to the kitchen. There's a hallway here, lined with a half dozen doors, one which she quickly unlocks.

"Who are you expecting?"

"Doctor Farazell."

"Got it. Make yourself comfy, kiddo."

It's not what I expected, this tastefully furnished lounge that almost looks like a modern twist on a hunting lodge. The low-key comfort of the space instantly relaxes some of my rattled nerves and I happily flop onto the big, slightly overstuffed couch. The black leather is shockingly comfortable and I might have to sneak away for a nap here on occasion. When I spot a remote control that turns out to activate a fancy electric fireplace I thought was only a facade, it gets even better.

The door cracking open makes me sit up from my zoning out and I hear Doctor Farazell's voice call merrily to someone. "I always feel a little Greek!" Then she steps in and hands me one of the two big mugs she's holding. Oh goodie! More of that almond milk and coffee thing I知 hooked on now. "That smells good! Matches well with cocoa. I haven't been in here in ages. It's one of the best rooms in the house. Frenchie really likes you!"

"Best rooms?"

"Sure. Dace has designed several little hidey-holes like this when she needs some privacy. It's tough, being the boss."

"And it's prob'ly damn secure too, then."

"That too," she agrees with an enigmatic smile that is made for her face. The quiet is undemanding as she lounges back in the armchair and I stare into the false flames, letting them hypnotize me.

"Ah heard the baby's heartbeat today." the shock of it makes my voice waver alarmingly, but at least there are no tears this time. "Brought it home that this is really happenin'. Not ready for this."

"We never are, even when we've planned out every step of the way. Tell me what happened."

Her voice is soft, almost hypnotic, and I find myself just giving in. I知 so damn tired of holding all this in.

"Me and my boss were out huntin' ancient Artifacts, the kind that have magic, an' it turns out the damn thing had changed over the centuries. So, we sneak past the cult that's been worshippin' the damn thing an' ah grab it and go ta hand it off, right? Next thing ah know, ah'm in a hospital, lookin' and feelin' like ah've been on a month-long death march. It had drained so much of me and Nick's life force, we were more'n half dead. He actually was in worse shape than me, which only made sense later. Skippin' a period didn't phase me, after all that stress, but then it was almost Christmas and still nothin'. Ah'm annoyin'ly regular an' ah knew somethin' was goin' on. Turns out ah'm pregnant an' no one knows how. Baby's touched by magic and we figure somethin' happened when we got zapped, not somethin' more... mundane."

++ Darya ++

She's tripping over her words, rushing to just get it all out, her accent getting so thick that I really have to pay close attention. Clearly, she hasn't talked about this much if at all. The pain and relief and anger and confusion wash over me.

"At first, that's what we figgered had to have happened, some cult loony took advantage of me, but turns out it was the damn Artifact. Nick even went to the cult for some explanation, said he was surprised that they were totally calm about the theft and they knew I was pregnant and that's what they'd been waiting for. Some bullshit about destiny. How could they know what ah am? How? Then again, Renata did, and you obviously know..."

"There's more to you than meets the eye?" I add on gently and she nods miserably, green eyes cutting nervously to me and back to the fireplace.

"So, yeah, glad ta know ah wasn't raped by some stranger, but really, didn't that damn Artifact do the same thing? And nearly killed me and mah boss in the process? It transfers life energies we found out. Originally used ta heal, it used that magic to combine me and Nick into this baby."

Again she falls silent, scrubbing her face in that stress gesture I知 guessing is an old one.

"AJ? Can I ask you a personal question?"

"Sure," she whispers, not looking at me.

"How do you feel towards the baby?"

Yes, I知 right. By the stunned look on her face, no one has asked her this. Really, people can be so impossibly dense sometimes.

"It takes a very strong woman to keep a child born of such traumatic circumstances. I really admire you for that. And just because you were not physically attacked, does not make what happened to you any less of a violation. Someone should have told you that long before now."

For a moment, she only stares at me, eyes welling up with tears, before she crumples and bawls into the couch. Ah, those are the tears I致e been hoping for, the cathartic ones she clearly has been bottling up. Stroking the fine blonde hair, I sit quietly and just wait her out.

It's some time before she quiets, her body relaxing, much of her stress draining away.

"Thanks, Doc," she sighs eventually, but makes no move to sit up.

"My pleasure. Sometimes we just need a fresh pair of eyes. Lord knows I do."

She nods and the comfortable quiet settles again. I'm hoping that Frenchie's gift for knowing what's going on will hold out and give AJ some more time in this insulated space.

"Ah have mixed feelin's about the baby. Ah feel kinda... detached. The heart beat really threw me, made it real."

"All of that is completely understandable. Even without the circumstances of conception, none of that is unheard of, particularly for a first time mom."


"Oh, you poor thing, hasn't anyone talked to you about more than just the mechanics of this?"

"Not really."

Praying for patience for pure science that has overlooked this woman's unique circumstances, I keep my voice calm and modulated. "That feeling of disassociation is understandable, as you are going through a massive change on all levels. Your body and every system within is changing and your emotions and thoughts can't help but be affected. Pulling away and holding back is an understandable gut reaction. My first was planned out every step of the way and the shock of it still sent me reeling. Be patient with yourself."

++ Kicker ++


Trapped in this building the way I am, the well-stocked gym is a godsend. No, I can't work out like I壇 like to, muscles burning and weary, body wet with sweat, but I値l take what I can get. There are plenty of low-impact stuff that gives focus to my restlessness and cabin fever.

Talking with Darya a lot over the last few days has helped too. She's an excellent match, strong and quietly composed with a backbone of steel and completely unflappable. Her eldest daughter is the same type as Dace, a Sentinel, and Darya herself is a fully functioning empath with enough of her own juju that I can clearly sense it. So, being able to completely open up has been very therapeutic.

Gotta remember to thank Dace for that.

For now, I have made some peace with the innocent life I carry. None of this is the baby's fault, which I already knew because it never even occurred to me to abort it. Just thinking about that makes me shudder. Darya wisely pointed out that my reaction is very telling, that I do have some feeling for the baby and that's a good sign.

But I知 also not ready to be its mother. Really, I知 not. There is so much I have to do with so little time, that I can't make a child first in my life. So, now I have to find her or him a home. And what if its got the same thing I do? This genetic quirk that leads to pointed ears, freaky eyes and a growth rate slower than some trees? Thank all that's holy I知 among those that really understand me for this time. With their help, I can find a solution for the baby.

Gotta remember to thank Nick for sending me here.

My nervous gestures have come to the forefront as all this has progressed, annoying me with my lack of control. The gem is the more common worry stone, but lately I keep going to the points of my disguised ears. They are very sensitive and stroking them is soothing and helps me focus, bringing up sensations like adrenaline without the chemical shock.

My hand falls away from the unconsciously stroking when a familiar stranger walks into the gym. Well, well, she's alive then. Renata hasn't noticed me yet, focused as is on settling her small bag and stripping off the baggy sweatshirt. The woman has a fine physique in the body-hugging spandex, the deep purple and black contrasting nicely with her rich coloring. I've thought a lot about her over my weeks here. Like an insidious itch, her face won't leave me, her voice lingers in my mind.

Frankly, it irritates me.

Nor am I happy about being dropped like some sort of childish inconvenience. Not that I care. I can take care of myself just fine, thank you.

Stiffening, she whips around suddenly, as though she can feel my thoughts, my sharp gaze. Those dark eyes are more magnetic than I remember, widening in her beautiful face. The moment draws out almost comically.

I feel like I should be wearing spurs and my Stetson as we unconsciously face off.

++ Renata ++

Oh, I need this workout badly. While things have stabilized across the field of my life, there's this nagging itch of worry in the back of my mind that I can't shake. I feel like I知 being watched all the time and it's making me crazy. At least my home life is the picture of normalcy, Scotty his usual happy self and Rosie my rock and safe harbor. Whatever that strange subtext with Kicker is firmly under control and life in the building has stabilized again.

My equilibrium is shattered at the feel of a searing gaze on my skin.

Whipping around, I desperately hope to catch whatever itchy regard has been so unnerving. What I find is possibly worse and my whole well-ordered house of cards collapses around me.

In the twenty-one days I have avoided the striking woman, she has impossibly grown even more beguiling. With only a glance I see that she has put on needed pounds, filling out her lanky, muscular frame and softening her face. And those eyes... they are hypnotic and I cannot look away.

No, this cannot be happening to me. It just can't! But I知 shaking with the need to go to her, indulge the burn in my veins, discover how she smells and tastes, feel her skin against mine.

The flaming green eyes narrow and, without looking, she grabs her small bag and a towel to stalk over to me. Yes, she's as graceful as I壇 imagined, moving with a liquid, animal-like grace on soundless feet.

Well, that partially explains how she snuck into my building.

It's so much more overpowering this time, her body in my personal dance space. So close her body heat bleeds into mine, she glowers hotly into my eyes. Some horrified corner of my brain notes that I知 wet all over, sweating and salivating and needing clean underwear.

For an endless moment, we seem frozen as I stare into those eyes, watching how they blur again and the gemstone color once more shines out at me. Then her head cocks off and her anger cools as she steps away.

"Good ta see ya, Miss Renata. Yeah, ah'm doin' okay, thanks fer askin'. Well, see ya around. Maybe."

With that icy blast of sarcasm, she stalks out and I collapse to the bench, shaking like a leaf. Really, that woman should come with some sort of warning label.

That's how Darcy finds me some interminable time later, her happy chattering knocking me from my daze.

"Jeez, Ren, couldn't you even have waited for me before you got yourself all worked up into a lather? I'm only a few minutes late. How early did you get here anyway?"

Darcy. Darcy's talking to me and I知 too shaken to react. It takes a moment for her earthy green eyes, so like Rosie's and nothing like my nemesis', to darken with concern.

"Hey, you okay?"

Closing my eyes, I struggle for control and manage to nod. "Sure." My damn, traitorous voice sounds low and breathy even to me. "Just a bit... tired. Go get warmed up and I値l be with you shortly."

"Okay," she agrees, but I can clearly hear the confusion and concern in her tone.

Calming, I watch my pal warm up in front of the big mirrors, tracing over her fine physique and poking at my own feelings. No, nothing more than the sisterly adoration I致e always had for her. So it really is just Kicker then.


++ Kicker ++


Now how exactly did I get talked into this again? Even if I hadn't been given good directions, the noise would have led me accurately and I peek warily around the corner. There must be dozens of the little beasts, squealing and racing about and tumbling over one another. Then I知 spotted and it's too late to escape.

Rosie's smile is wide and open and have to grin back. "There you are! I was beginning to worry you'd chickened out."

Yes, this is how I was unable to say no. Really, can anyone tell this happy woman no?

"Ah'm here with bells on. Anythin' ah should know?"

"Be prepared for questions and getting clambered over. They're an active, curious bunch."

The children are gravitating over now and I feel the perverse urge to hide behind the much smaller Rosie.

"Hey kids! We have a new friend who is going to help out with Fawn and Cubby's birthday. Can you all say hello to my friend, AJ?"

There's a flurry of 'hellos' as they cluster around us and I almost jump at a curious hand on my leg.

"Say hello, AJ. They're generally harmless."

"Hello, kids. Ah'm AJ. Pleased ta meetcha."

"You talk funny," points out one youngster, who quails at a sharp look from his teacher.

"Cory, that's not nice. Where is your lovely accent from, AJ? I've never asked."

"South Carolina. Umm, d'ya kids know where that is?" Some of the older ones nod or raise their hands, but most of the little ones have no idea. "Kin someone find me a map ah the United States? I kin show you."

Handing off the box in my hands to a laughing Rosie, I allow myself to get dragged into the classroom for a impulsive geography lesson. As I do my best to interact with all these small people, several are immediate standouts. There's one girl in particular, older than the rest, tall and lanky with a shock of wavy flaming red hair and blisteringly intense blue eyes. There is a gravity to her, a sharp intelligence that sees more of me than I am entirely comfortable with. Keeping close to her is a matched pair of youngsters, tow headed and just as blue of eye and just as observant.

Thankfully, the gaggle tires quickly of my novelty and most of them come to Rosie's call for attention. But my quiet blue-eyed audience remains and I return their regard with unabashed curiosity. Is this how I had been as a child? Charismatic and otherworldly? Like young wild animals, they are unbearably curious and so understandably wary. I am a new, potentially dangerous predator who is very aware of them.

That my child will undoubtedly be like this suddenly strikes me.

++ Emily ++

This one is different.

I've met some really interesting people over my life, but this one stands out. I can't quite put my fingers on it, but her-- what did Ingle call it-- her Pattern is muddy somehow. Like trying to see through shower glass or a spinning fan.

"She's fuzzy," Katie observes and I nod, as does Sandy. At times like this, they stick close to me as the older cub. A familiar touch on my arm makes me jump and I guiltily duck my eyes to my Guide. Her very grown-up scowl is as much for my concentrating to hard as it is from pulling her away from her birthday fun.

"At least go say hello," she tells me, sounding just like Nana. "It's rude to stare."

"But, she's not... right," I lamely try to explain, the Monkey Twins nodding vigorous at my poor explanation.

"Ya mean the out of focus thing?" We all look over when the new lady speaks. Warily, I nod and she looks thoughtful. "Yer them, aren't ya. The Sentinel children? Ah've heard about you. Ah'm not a Sentinel, but ah'm similar. Ah work fer a man that's good friends with Alex Moreau. Ya know her, right?"

Katie and Sandy are starting to relax, though they don't rush her. Yet.

"Ah'd show you what ah really look like, but it's hard and ah'm not at mah best right now."

"Because of the baby," Sandy pipes and the lady startles like one of the dogs seeing a ghost.

"We can smell it," I explain, once more the focus of those really pretty green eyes. They are even greener than Kryn's! I didn't think that was possible. "I'm Emily Farazell-Taylor."

She smiles and the pretty green eyes sparkle like gems. "Oh, so you're Darya's Emily. So pleased ta meet ya. Your mom's been real nice to me, helpin' me with some stuff that's been troublin' me."

"She's really good at that."

A collection of tugs reminds me that I haven't finished introductions yet and I roll my eyes at my friends. "Be patient! I'm getting there. These two are Katie and Sandy Bogart, Dace's daughters. And this is my Guide and partner, Fawn Goldston. It's her and her twin brother's birthday today."

"So you're the birthday girl. Ah made a cake for ya. Jus' a little one, but it's mah favorite. See if Miss Rosie will dish some up and you kin guess what it's made with. 'kay?"

And we are all happy to have made a new friend, just like that.

++ Rosie ++

"You did great. Didn't I say you would?"

Grinning wearily, AJ stretches like cat, nearly knocking herself off of her feet, and yawns. It's so good to see her more relaxed, not the stressed woman I befriended.

"You did an' you were right. Don't rub it in."

That makes me laugh and dig back into the unexpected gift of lunch, savoring the delicious mix of rice and beans and some sort of savory spices. It's nearly as tasty as that amazing apple cake she brought in for the kids, not a crumb of which is left. A shame, really. Eva and the TAs have taken the kids to the park for lunch while I opted to stay here and get some work done. Oh, and socialize for as long as I have company.

"This really is delicious. Feel free to spoil me any time you see fit."

Snorting with humor, AJ shoots me a sidewise glance and smirks. "Mah own sausage is better, but that's what Frenchie had to borrow. Ah'll make it for ya sometime. Yer kitchen's got to have more in it than mine does."

"Oh it's well stocked, my--" The phone interrupts me and I know that number intimately. "Excuse me, AJ." Picking up the receiver, I greet my partner, "hey, baby, I was just talking about you."

"Hi Rosie. Listen, I hate to bail on you, but an event's popped up and the boss wants me to cover."

This is what happens when you marry a workaholic in a position of power. "Okay. Take care of yourself. Love you."

"Love you more. Tell Scotty too."

"I will. Bye."


Woe is me, I致e been spoiled by all her attention lately. Ah well, one night won't kill me. I still can't shrug off that lingering feeling that I知 missing something. Renata's been acting a bit odd lately and I can't figure it out. Smiling bittersweetly at a faintly curious AJ, I shrug. "My partner has to work late."


"Eh, it happens. So what did you think of the Sentinel kids?"

"They're familiar and foreign. Ah could like 'em. But, no, ah ain't comin' back here again."

There's a twinkle of humor in the summery eyes that makes me crack up. "Oh, but you did great!"

"Ah had cake to bribe them with. That's how ah survived."

Who knew that scared, shy woman I bumped into in the hallway would turn out to be so sassy and funny?