The Joys of Hearth and Home.

Disclaimer and Author Notes: Okay, first of all for any lawyers that might be circling out there – though it's a pleasant image for my daydreams I do not and will in all probability never own anything official to do with Sega, the Sonic team or the entire blue hedgehog universe. Okay, now that's done with, onto the good stuff.

First off, two announcements; firstly for everyone who read the summary and thought 'he's pairing who with who? – this I gotta see!' Unfortunately there's nothing unnatural here save an author's pretty unique take on the Sonic characters so far; I can't suggest strongly enough that you read my entire arc of stories to get the full picture of what's going on, but in case you just want to get launched into the deep end it's enough to say that in my fics Mighty is and has always been female, hence the pairing. In case you are interested in the arc, the series goes like this: Angel of Darkness and Ice – The Best Medicine – A Bloodstone Rose – Iron Skin, Golden Heart – Lose Your Illusions – Psyche Out – Friends and Lovers – A Pair of Second Chances and now, brand spanking new, The Joys of Hearth and Home. As a last note, the earlier chapters of this fic will overlap with APOSC; thought I'd mention that to avoid any confusion.

The second sound-off goes to my dedicated cadre of reviewers; hope you'll enjoy this latest offering of mine, a change of pace from the marathon that A Pair of Second Chances turned out to be (don't ask me how they end up so long, I just sit down in front of the screen and get key-tapping – by the time I stop it's dark and I've written a whole lot more than I'd ever planned to!) However, seeing the comments left at the last chapter of that tale, I think it's perhaps best if I tell you now something I've made my mind up on – I doubt I'll ever write a 'dedicated' TailsCream fic; let me explain. In my timeline, these two are just bordering fourteen and about to turn thirteen respectively; cast your minds back to yourselves at that age – did you ever really have a serious girl/boyfriend? Were you going out with someone? Personally it doesn't seem right to have them as a serious couple just yet at their ages – much more realistic (and a heck of a lot more fun) to have them walking on eggshells around each other in the background, not daring to make the first move, just waiting to get a nudge in the right direction at the same time as shouting off all the nudge-nudge, wink-wink sent their way by parent, adoptive older siblings and close friends. That's my interpretation anyway – if you disagree, please feel free to contact me and tell me your arguments to the contrary; you never know, a 'ten-years later' idea might crop up in the future, now that would be a challenge…

For now though, having waffled on long enough, I'll end as I started; please enjoy the read and let me know if there's anything I can improve on.

Okay, catch a lift folks; the show's heading north of the border!

Chapter 1 – The Homecoming.

As she had been for the past fifteen minutes, she continued to gaze out of the window in front of her, not caring that the task she had started nearly a quarter of an hour ago had yet to be completed, nor the fact that the water around her hands, having already cooled well past the point of tepidity, was actually starting to stagnate into a cold soup of grease, old morsels of foodstuffs liberated from the pans they had been previously befouling and a few last remnants of bubble patches. Even as her hands worked mechanically in the sink beneath but in front of her, her eyes never deviated from their position, trained on the garden before her, seeing but ignoring the slightly unkempt grass waving in the playful breeze as well as the petrol mower, left outside almost carelessly from the previous night as a sudden rain shower had spared the lawn from its forthcoming trim, in favour of the sight of her front gate; only occasionally, even more rarely now, did she briefly break contact to glance across at the clock on the wall, each view thrilling and tormenting her equally. She was taut with pent-up emotion, the finely honed instinct of a mother that knows logically her child is well grown, fully able to live alone in the outside world, yet still cannot bring itself to completely break away emotionally was now telling her that soon, oh so very soon, her eldest child, the one she had fretted about so often in the past as misery had been piled upon tragedy for her family, would be returning. This she knew, and thus she waited where she was, knowing the time was coming closer, was almost imminent and unwilling, unable almost, to tear her attention away to focus on anything other than her little one's return.

A shadow fell over the gate post and she moved; without needing to see she knew her baby had come back. Ripping her hands from the sink, pausing only to give them the very briefest rub down with the nearest tea towel that came to hand, she bolted towards the front door, wanting nothing more than to fling it open and usher her progeny into his rightful home. Her hand seized the door handle roughly and the sudden coolness of the metal beneath her ungloved hand shocked her enough to act as a conductor of her rational mind; with a visible effort she checked herself – she was going to rush out towards him like a headless chicken, what would he think? Taking a breath, she faced forwards again after closing her eyes for a second and this time she did turn the handle towards her, fighting down a sudden surge of excitement as she recognised one of the two voices that percolated faintly through the wooden door; that is definitely my son – he's come home at last. The panel before her swung away; before the door was even half-open she'd squeezed her way around it, her eyes forwards and meeting those of the one she'd loved from the day she'd become aware of his existence. Stepping carefully down the garden path, she extended her arms, seeing him tail off in his conversation, the one beside him fading temporarily out of the picture as she echoed his action; her arms wide, she felt her son re-enter her bosom at the same time her feet left the floor a little. Feeling rather than hearing his deep-throated purr at the same time as greeting him cheek to cheek, she forced herself to blink a for a second before her throat managed to find the words that had lodged there and force them into the open,

"Alright there kitten?"

XXX

Kitten; as always Mighty was forced to look down at this stage, partly to give the reuniting mother and son the privacy they deserved but mostly so that neither of the two would notice her blossoming grin and shaking shoulders; if I hadn't seen the pictures myself I'd have a hard time believing he'd ever been a kitten! That was certainly true; even as she brought her face up again Big was just returning his mother to the floor; though the armadillo knew from experience that Tia was the second-largest in her boyfriend's family, her eldest child still dwarfed her by some considerable margin, the same way he did virtually everyone else Mighty knew with the possible exception of Vector standing on tip-toe. The armadillo herself barely reached his elbow; in fact, now that she thought about it he'd been the first Mobian she'd ever clapped eyes on that had given her pause to doubt her own prodigious strength; even now, knowing for a fact that Big had very personal reasons for avoiding conflict as much as was possible, to say nothing of the fact that he was soft as spun sugar anyway, she wouldn't have backed herself in a straight fight against him; especially after what he did to Metal – ripped that upgraded chest of his apart like it was tinfoil. A twinge went off in her arm at the memory of the metallic hedgehog and she grimaced, forcing such thoughts from her mind as she rubbed the recently-healed injury absent-mindedly – as of right now, this trip was all about Big and his little sisters and she was going to be damned if she was going to let the memory of an oversized can-opener with an inferiority complex ruin it for either of them. In fact, I owe him a favour; suddenly the thought made her smile – rather than throwing the visions of Metal's attack on her away heedlessly, she was able to give a smug mental grin at them, wishing spitefully that wherever he was now the robot would somehow feel it and writhe at the good he'd unwittingly done; if it hadn't been for him, we'd have never ended up in hospital together, he'd have never seen the impact his masterpiece had had…yeah, overall pal, thanks for that.

She was so caught up in the pleasant daydream of Metal screeching in rage at how happy he'd unwittingly made her that only a sudden eclipse of the sun in front of her broke the spell; looking at the obstruction suddenly, the armadillo glanced away bashfully for a moment before regarding the Mobian in front of her again, grateful beyond words that Big's virtually unflappable temper had been inherited from his mother.

"And here's Mighty", Tia gave a smile, nothing more that that; like her son she had no hidden plans or cunning duplicitous factors to her personality; what you see really is what you get; smiling now, the armadillo gleefully reciprocated the embrace the tortoiseshell cat bestowed on her; and believe me I'm grateful for that, from both of them;

"Hello Tia", the armadillo greeted before being forced to hold her lips shut as something scratched along the side of her face gently; the last thing she wanted to do was risk one of the cat's whiskers getting caught around her teeth. It was unusual for her to be in this position – her normal way of saying hello consisted of an embrace similar to this and a quick peck on the cheek but, as Big had explained to her during one of the nights she'd stayed over in his marshland home, kissing was actually rather rare in cats. Aside from the risks of uprooting one of the sensitive whiskers on their muzzles, as carnivores by birth their teeth were naturally sharp and pointed; a friendly kiss could very easily result in a pierced lip for the unwary and thus most cats greeted as Tia was saying hello to her now, rubbing cheek against cheek in a quick, gentle motion. Still, greeting's done cheek to cheek – never said anything about what happens in love and all that; as the older cat pulled away from her Mighty had to fight to make sure there was nothing resembling a wickedly-guilty expression on her face that might cause Tia a measure of concern; as far as I can work out there kissing's all above board!

Such a thought nearly brought a grin wobbling to her lips but she just about managed to clamp it down, or at least if Big's mother did notice anything amiss about her expression she was too polite to mention it as she returned her attention to her eldest child, reaching for the small, battered bag he'd brought with him out of instinct, only remembering who she was dealing with when he drew it back and cleared his throat,

"No mum, the doctor said you had to watch your back remember?"

"Ah that was months ago; I'm off light duties now, thank anyone who lives up there for that", Mighty glanced up as the cat rolled her eyes heavenward for a second before continuing, "just pushing the mop bucket along and having to ask people to get a bloomin' pack of printer paper for me was driving me nuts".

"I can imagine", the armadillo chipped in, such a scenario in her mind making her shudder, "I couldn't hack a sedentary job at the best of times; that would have been the last straw for me I can tell you".

"It nearly was for me as well", Tia vigorously agreed, nodding sagely at her recollections with undisguised distaste, "it was only a little twinge for goodness' sake; the amount of fuss they were making over it you'd have thought I'd snapped my spine clean in half". Big raised a finger, wagging it back and forwards in a warning manner,

"Ah, but as Mr Trenton was very keen to impress on me almost from day one, in this day and age you can never be too careful; he nearly got done by someone who tried to take a picture frame off the wall and dropped it on his foot – tried to sue him for negligence or something just as stupid".

"Nothing happened I hope?"

"Nah; the guy backed down because of something to do with a counter-file for destruction of property or something like that; Mr Trenton wasn't too sparing with the details, just wanted it out of his hair and was glad to be rid of the whole problem", Big sighed in a world-weary manner; you and me both pal – sometimes I really wonder if you haven't been right all along; not for the first time Mighty shared her partner's dim view of society in general and, also not for the first time, she found herself slightly envious of his untroubled existence, alone in his self-imposed semi-isolation. Without realising it she realised she had copied his sigh and, having heard herself do so, she immediately came back down to earth with a bump and, recognising the conversation could quickly go down a dark alley, made a brave stab at changing track by pointing at the mower she could see laying idly by the side of garden shed,

"Hey, someone done the mowing?" She glanced around the grass before adding with a chuckle, "and if the answer to that's yes, they want shooting". Good; as Tia laughed and Big followed her eyes towards the lawnmower as well, Mighty realised her gambit had gone well, even more so as the lady cat shook her head at the appliance disapprovingly,

"Well it's not been done yet; Bill was going to keep spring going this year but the weather wasn't being co-operative – had a light shower, left the lawn too wet to mow". Big gave a low 'hmm' and headed towards the shed itself,

"Well it's been a fine day so far, should have dried out – I could…" A hand in front of his progress stopped him dead; despite the fact he could have simply bulldozed past it and barely noticed the impediment had ever been there, Big was not the sort of Mobian to rub his mother up the wrong way no matter how tall or strong he was,

"You'll do no such thing my lad, and neither will you greenie", having noticed Mighty's smirk at her boy, Tia was quick to level the playing field by reminding the armadillo of her occupation, "not until you've come in and had a hot cup of tea and slice of cake, fresh out the oven as well, you arrived just at the right time. You can let me know all about what's been going on as well; it's been a bit quiet out in this neck of the woods recently". At the mention of cake, both faces brightened, Big rubbing his dinner-plate sized hands together in evident glee,

"Lucky us"; too right – if it was anything like the crumble she rustled up for us all last time…um,um,ummm; "well then mum, lead on; that's a bargain I don't mind calling on". With a smile Tia beckoned them both forwards and without protest Big and Mighty fell into step behind her; as the front door loomed up before them, the cat felt a tap on his tail and glanced over his shoulder, reclining his head backwards to let Mighty whisper up to him,

"Your mum said about your dad keeping spring going – what's that about?" Oh that – I forgot; well actually he hadn't forgotten, that option wasn't available to him – he'd merely failed to take into account that Mighty, even getting on as well as she did get on with his family, had yet to be introduced to the more intricate and arcane superstitions of his clan. With a gruff chuckle he straightened up, shuffling to the side to let her go in ahead of him and answering as she slipped past,

"Just one of dad's little beliefs", he explained, the armadillo paying him rapt attention as she took her shoes off and placed them by the doormat, "as far as he's concerned spring doesn't start until the lawn's had its first trim and ends when he gives it it's last; quite funny really, one year when I was small by the time spring had started in his calendar it was early September – we were having the garden returfed". Mighty chuckled and shook her head, recognising the idea and comparing it to some of the more outlandish theories held by the rest of her beloved team of 'industrial-scale landscapers',

"Hmm, that's a new one on me, certainly a lot better that Vector's idea of seeing in the new season – doesn't leave a mess on the wall for one thing". She risked a look and grinned internally; much like one of the lures that Big used so often to bring his lunch onto his hook, that comment was completely irresistible,

"I just know I'm gonna…", he sighed, realising the futility of delaying the inevitable and putting his hands on his hips, elbows grazing the walls flanking him as he shook his head and did what needed to be done, "go on then; what's his tradition?" Mighty acted like she hadn't heard for a second, only giving as false start of surprised when a deep, ominous purr began to reach her ears,

"Sorry, what were…oh yeah, I remember now"; you and what army pal – you'd never use those on me or anyone else in a million years; still, as Big retracted the tiny hint of claw that had peeped out the fingers of his glove for a second, Mighty was only too aware that knowing something in your head isn't quite the same as believing it with your body – as her mother always said, your brain's not the one that does the hurting if it gets the call wrong. As such, she quickly moved on to the meat of the issue, Big's pretend anger dissipating like morning mist as she did so,

"As far as scaly's concerned, spring's only in the air when he's swatted the first housefly out of it; it was a big hairy bugger as well, didn't half make a mess when it splattered on his daily rag's crossword". Big shook with quiet laughter for a second before returning to a resemblance of solemnity, stroking his chin as though thinking hard,

"What did he do with the body, once he'd scraped it off the wall I mean?"

"Dunno"; can't think where he's going with this; completely wrong-footed by the query, the armadillo could only answer with the truth, "just threw it away I guess". The massive cat groaned, putting a hand to his head,

"Of all the waste; he could have given it to you – Froggy would have loved a treat like that just before we left, perfect going away present that, partially-digested blue-bottle, he'd have eaten it right out your hand".

"I'm sure he'll be able to let one go", the armadillo grated with an air of gentle mockery, jerking a thumb over her shoulder as she heard the soft click of a kettle being switched on in the room directly behind her, "anyway, right now I've got a date with a nice warm cuppa that I don't plan on missing, not after that train ride anyway".

"It wasn't that bad – okay maybe it was", Big sympathised as his other half glared up at him murderously, "come on, maybe the cake will soothe your recently ragged nerves".

"And my stomach; café food, yuck!" Pressing into the hallway wall, Mighty let the larger cat pass her before turning to follow him, right into the oncoming ambush.

XXX

Only the sudden rumble of thunder from above them both prevented the plummeting ordnance from devolving into a true death from above attack.

As Big, half-turning towards the source of the noise, was rocked back to his heels by the impact Mighty jumped backwards startled, almost crashing into the closed front door behind her as she tried frantically to work out what had happened, and more pressingly as far as she was concerned, what kind of missile was it that could possibly knock her boyfriend back a pace? Fortunately the arrival of a second assailant leaping into the fray cleared up the question for her and she let herself relax, the shock wearing off slightly as she recognised what was going on, her arms falling back to her side as she saw Big, as always balanced for a spilt-second so it seemed that he'd end up toppling backwards into, or even possibly through, the wall at his back, begin to teeter forwards once again, the movement gradual but gaining momentum until he finally impacted back to the floor again, settling down with a heavy thump as his two new burdens added to his already considerable weight. Finding it impossible to decipher who was who in the ruck of arms, legs and tails before her and knowing it would be equally as impossible to try to squeeze past this second reunion, the armadillo simply stood where she was, listening to the sudden chorus of purring from in front of her as Big's homecoming was completed; each locked in place around his neck with one arm, Sophie and Chloe, twin sisters identical to the last hair, welcomed their older brother back to the fold.

Eventually she managed to see differences in the embrace as it all slowly settled down; as Big faced away from her again, Mighty was able to easily see both twins, one on either of his shoulder, rub their cheeks against their brother's, one of them speaking as she did so,

"Hey Big bro", the older cat purred at the mention of his name, his ear twitching to shadow his sister's face like an overhanging umbrella as he slowly began to lower them both to the floor, "glad you could make it".

"Like I'd miss you two coming of age at last, in the physical sense at least", both sisters hissed at the implied insult as they now stood in front of their brother, light marmalade fur standing on end in and quivering in response to Big's cutting insult; into this position of relative calm, Mighty was able to get a word in edgeways, peering around her partner's bulk to see the two younger cat girls,

"Hey you two; everything going all right?" Both waved back; okay, going on this I think the one on the right's Chloe; Mighty returned the waves with a cheery smile and wink, all the time trying to put a name to each of the two cats in front of her as their tails were obscured. Despite being identical, there were differences in the way the pair of them behaved and, as far as the armadillo could make out from her relatively slight experiences of the pair of them, Sophie was the slightly more extrovert of the two; as the twin on her left hand side now had given the more enthusiastic greeting, she'd have placed better than even odds that she had a handle on which one was which. Big, of course, never had a problem telling them apart and Mighty felt herself flush with vindication as she noticed him smile benignly at the right-hand twin, chivvying her slight apprehension along with a quick question,

"Hey Chloe, how's school been; don't tell me they're still making you wear gloves in your P.E. classes still?" The other cat snorted, breaking out of her shell easily in indignation of what she perceived as an insult to her temper,

"Too right they are, in fact they've only gone and extended the damn ban", as she turned around to follow her sister into the kitchen Mighty caught a glimpse of her tail and nodded to herself; the tip of the fifth limb was resolutely marmalade and therefore it was definitely Chloe speaking, adopting a high, falsetto voice to mock the announcement of draconic new measures to prevent accidents at her school, "'from now on, all Mobians with claws or sharpened nails will, without exception, continue to wear their gloves at all times, even whilst performing sports' – how stupid is that? They don't use their eyes teachers; a lot of the girls there have got nails sharper and longer than my claws have ever been".

"Well, if it saves one life…" Mighty began, chuckling as both younger cats looked over their shoulders in unison, distaste and disgust written large over their faces before Sophie condensed such emotions into words,

"Save a life my left foot, do you know how hard it is to hold a badminton racket when you're got gloves on, especially in the middle of a match when you're starting to get a bit of a sweat on? And anyway, she nicked the guy", Chloe snarled a little as her twin pointed her out with an accusatory finger, "why are we all ending up in hot water over what she did?"

"Because you'd have done exactly the same in her position; in fact you'd probably have done worse", Tia's voice called from the kitchen, reining in the mutinous mutterings of her daughters towards the education system in general, "and you can moan all you like about the rules, they won't change for anyone so you better get used to them", her voice fell silent for a moment before, after a short pause, it came back, slightly more mollified than previously, "even if the nasty little nerk was asking for a good back-hander". Chloe beamed in her mother's vindication as Sophie merely shrugged and Mighty, having been informed of the situation on the trip down by her partner, gave a short laugh,

"Too right he was; if anything you should have clobbered him harder", she advised the grinning, obviously unrepentant twin, "take it from me, people only ever pull my tail once", of course, that was a cue Big had to take; a couple of seconds later, in a silence punctuated only by the badly-stifled giggling of a duo of cat-girls, Mighty opened her screwed-shut eyes again and, smiling wickedly even through her blush, spoke in a tone laden with dark promise and certainty,

"Girls, go into the kitchen and shut the door please".

"Why?" Sophie teased nettingly, trying hard not to laugh at both the armadillo cracking her knuckles and her brother trying to look innocent from just behind her.

"Because, sixteen you both may be", Mighty began, her wicked grin reaching terrifying lengths now as even Big backed up a pace or two, "but the following scene of retribution contains gratuitous violence and explicit language, and is therefore unviewable by anyone who isn't me!"

XXX

A couple of hours later, having settled down once more following the completion of a couple of household duties that couldn't be ignored, Tia cast her eyes to clock once again and sighed; no, he's not going to make it – bus must be late or something, and tonight of all nights as well. She risked a final glance at her creation on the stove, appraised the situation for a moment before shaking her head; it simply wouldn't do to leave it any longer or the lasagne would lose too much heat – Bill would just have to microwave his portion when he finally arrived home.

"Chloe", a quick patter of feet from behind her let her know that one of her daughters had answered the summons, "set the table would you? I'm just set to dish up – tell everyone else to scrub paws and get sat down".

"Sure"; with that load of her mind Tia dismissed it from her mind and set about cutting the dish before her into easily-servable portions – the cutlery draw rattled for a second before the relative calm of the kitchen was shattered, "hey everyone…"

"No Chloe", with a long-suffering sigh and shake of her head, the purple cat looked over her shoulder to better inform her marmalade daughter, "go and tell them, don't shout at them; it's not polite".

"And you reckon Soph's is? No, kidding, point made", birthday girl or not, the comparative kitten was still sharp enough to know when she was testing her mother's patience, "I'll get them when the table's laid".

"Good, this won't be long", Tia assured her before turning her attention back to the task in hand, dexterously wielding a combination of knife and ladle to ensure the transition of lasagne from baking tray to six independent plates went smoothly and with the loss of only a few drips of tasty gravy to the countertop. This was done in less than a minute, the chef then quickly taking a little time to place the now-empty baking tray in the sink and run in a little cold water to soak the worst of the soiling away before placing one of the plates in the microwave; though she knew from long experience that the time her husband arrived home from his daily labours was a slave to the condition of the rush-hour roads, she seriously doubted he'd be much later home than quarter of an hour from now. Leaning back to take a quick glance into the dining area adjoining the kitchen Tia realised that all were present and correct at the same time Big noticed her movement; without another word he'd stood up and shuffled past Mighty and into the kitchen to help her.

Thanks son; as always the simple little gestures like this hit her the hardest; it was suddenly a real struggle to smile as she scooped up two of the plates with her back to her son, not wanting him to see the battle she was having to undertake to make sure her hands didn't shake as she picked up two of the dishes because she knew how much it would hurt him, would continue to hurt him in the future no matter how much he tried to dismiss worries such as these as groundless for her benefit. For that reason she kept the pain she felt even now hidden; she knew why he'd done what he had, she'd even had a hand in making sure the path he'd set for himself could be made real for him despite the fact that his retreat from the evils of the world had crushed her heart sorely; no mother should be forced to see a son leave the nest so soon in his life. But she had seen it and it had hurt her deeply but she would not let him see such wounds – the barest inkling of unguarded feelings around him would have been enough, frozen in his perfect memory, to open up the ways to all kinds of self-guilt and remorse that he didn't deserve, not after all he had lived through already. Thus it was with a quiet intake of breath that Tia turned back around, seeing the face she still loved framed atop a powerful body forged into steel by the rigours of his outdoor life, and held out the two plates for him to take, a few directions guiding his next few steps along the path,

"These are your sisters, doesn't matter which, they're the same".

"No they're not", Big quipped with a chuckle as he craned his neck back to see into the dining room again, "they might look alike but you of all people should…"

"The meals you wally; they're as different as black and white, everyone who knows them could tell you that", Tia commented at her disingenuous offspring, pointing towards the table with a chiding hand, "now get before the food goes cold".

"Okay I'm off, I'm off"; as much as it was possible for one of his stature, Big sloped away towards the table, two gasps of anticipation and words of thanks greeting his appearance there. Tia followed a moment later, making sure she was in full control of herself once more, setting the facts straight in her own head; it's not like the whole world came down when he left – if anything he's been going from strength to strength. He's fit as a fiddle, just like he always has been and thanks to Mr Trenton he's got a good career looking up for him now – always knew that man would come good for him. And above all that nonsense; it was as the elder cat walked through the doorway herself, skilfully balancing the remaining three plates in her two hands, that her gaze fell for a second on one of the table, her guest thankfully not noticing Tia's momentary pause as most of her internal self-doubt and pain was sheared away, the majority of the mental weed pruned back to almost nothing, leaving behind only a tiny, wrinkled seed for the moment; he's found someone else out there for him now – I might be his mother, but he's grown up into his own man and…;

"Oh, thank you Tia", Mighty smiled up at her partner's mother as she set a plate down in front of her, the delicious aroma of the dish steaming up to greet her and setting her mouth watering, "save the washing up for me and I mean it; if this tastes as good as it smells it'll be the least I can do";… as far as I'm concerned he's unearthed a real gem in you Michelle Armadillo – just proves that old saying 'the only time you're guaranteed to find someone is when you're not really looking'.

XXX

"So, mum", looking across from where she had been listening to Mighty trying to convince her daughters that her career in industrial landscaping did not make her a glorified gardener, Tia's attention quickly refocused onto her only son, "is the doc sure that back of yours in completely under control?"

"Oh yes, just like he said really", idly tapping the side of her fork against one of her canines, the clinking sound helping her shape her answer as she tried to recall exactly what the GP's diagnosis had been, "inflamed sciatic nerve was his opinion; just gave me a prescription for some anti-inflammatory pills and told me to stick to light duties only. I didn't really have a choice in that though; if it twinged at all I couldn't hold anything anyway, just seized up for a second; dropped a bucket full of water once, took ages to mop it up right".

"It didn't hurt did it? You should have taken some sick leave if it was stopping you that much".

"No, it was really strange really, like half of me went completely dead", recalling the periodic weakness that had swept through one side of her body not so long ago, the older of the two talking cats tried to put such an experience into words that could convey both the alien numbness that had half-crippled her and the feeling of shamed helplessness that such a condition instilled in her, "my entire left side, it just stopped working all of a sudden; all I could feel was a right needle of pain, all the way down my left leg – I couldn't walk or anything, sent me tail over nose more than once. You couldn't predict it either, that was the worst thing; I'd be right as rain one minute and the next I'd have to sit everything out – I was just lucky one of the other girls lived nearby, I didn't dare drive at all while all this was going on. Your father had to pick me up when she wasn't on my shift though – I wasn't going to risk anything until I was sure the doctor was going to give me the all clear".

"Best way to be; better safe than sorry", Big assured her sagely before giving a shrug, "anyway, I doubt dad would have even let you drive until you were well again". Tia gave a disdainful snort even if, in her heart of hearts, she knew her husband had only had her best interests at heart when he'd done what he had,

"He didn't, in fact he confiscated my car keys for months. I can't believe he made me get a doctor's note before he gave them back to me", Big's shoulders shook; yep, that's got dad written all over it that one; "still, I suppose he was right in the end".

"Yeah, he was, especially because it was your left side going out of action all the time; could you imagine accidentally hitting the clutch going around a sharp bend?" Tia shuddered and flattened her ears,

"I try not to"; a flash of movement caught the corner of her eye and, focussing on it, she quickly offered the salt shaker forwards, "sorry Mighty, did you want this?"

"Huh?" Seeing the item being offered with her fork halfway to her lips, the armadillo quickly shook her head, "no, sorry Tia", she broke off to quickly swallow her latest mouthful, smacking her lips as the last of the gravy trickled down the bottom of her throat, "umm, this is a delicious lasagne; no, I was just showing Chloe how to throw a decent right cross, just in case anyone else decided they want to try it on with her".

"Yeah", one of the two twins backed her up, stabbing out her arm over the tabletop as a demonstration, "snap it out and twist your hip as you do so, get as much power as possible behind it".

"If you got half as much power behind your fist as you do behind your lip you'd hit harder than she does", Big retorted, nodding at his girlfriend as Mighty just about stifled her giggling fit, the cat girl sat beside her glaring at her sibling, "anyway, no fighting at the table, unless you've relaxed that rule mum?"

"Not a chance of that; you three, and yes that does mean you", the twin at the head of the table gave a look that was a picture of appalled innocence as her mother singled her out, though such a charade couldn't last long under Tia's stern look and she quickly fell into line, looking down to join her sister and Mighty in such an abashed position, "no fighting, or even fighting talk, at the dinner table; anyway", a slight chuckle broke through the mother's mask of impassiveness, making all three penitents look up, "I doubt he'd try anything on with my little girls now, either of them".

"Just as well; I'd have ripped his face off if he'd yanked on my tail", Sophie assured the table at large, bringing up her fifth limb as she did so, the tip of it still peroxided white to set her apart from her sister in a physical sense, " no-one touches this and gets away with it unless I tell them to, speaking of which", bringing the tip of her tail up for closer inspection, she let it drop with a sigh before turning to her mother, "better break out the old hearth rug and the bleach mum, needs a touch up for tomorrow".

"You can do that tonight, after the washing up; nice try"; damn, foiled again; recognising her gamble for getting out of the nightly chores had once more resulted in fruitlessness, Sophie merely shrugged and returned to the serious business of enjoying the fruits of her mothers' labours; before she'd eaten much more than three or so more bites, however, the meal at large was interrupted by the sound of a handle turning – before anyone present could connect words to mouth, there was the noise of a heavy door being opened and a voice called out,

"Evening kitties". The result was immediate; without hesitation three voices rang out to answer the greeting, Big's deep sonorous booming backing up the shriller tones of his sisters.

"Hi dad".

XXX

Ah, every time; just after she lowered her eyes Mighty shook her head – it seemed that no matter how often she reminded herself mentally about her boyfriend's father her mind always contrived to forget the message. Her vision had been trained at a point just under the jamb of the kitchen door and as such Bill had simply walked straight under it; only just taller than his two daughters, the main breadwinner of the household was as far removed from his son's hulking profile as it was possible to get. He was, compared to his eldest child at least, so ridiculously tiny that Tia had to lean down slightly from her seat so he could stretch up and bring his cheek into contact with hers, marmalade tabby fur ruffling through tortoiseshell purple for a second before he took a step backwards and appraised his wife, smiling all the time,

"In the microwave is it T? No, don't you dare", he raised a finger as Tia made to stand up, waving her back down as she made to fetch his food for him, "I'll get it in a second, right after", turning his attention from her, his bright hazel eyes twinkling down the length of the main table as he paced inexorably towards the newest arrival to the family feast, "I've said my piece here – hello son", this time the two cats only shook hands, the hello slightly more constrained than earlier as Bill slid his hand as far up his son's arm as he could comfortably reach, "it's good to see you again after so long – how's old Trenty doing now?"

"Hi dad; Mr Trenton's, well, it is arthritis but", the future picture-framer held up a strong finger before the mood of depression could linger at all around the table, "the doctor says it's not advancing at all fast; he's easily got at least another couple of years in him yet".

"More than enough to get you all trained up then", curiosity satisfied, Bill swatted the well-padded arm gently before looking down the table the other way, "alright there greenie, how's the business?" Mighty grimaced at the nickname; it had been Bill's invention after all; somehow I knew that description of my job was going to come back and bite me – still, I couldn't exactly say I'm part of a unique team of Mobians who's sole purpose is to help guard the most powerful treasure in the world could I?;

"It's going well", she said shortly, hoping he'd leave it at that – unfortunately, though a lot more restrained than the vast majority of her other friends, Bill did have a bit of an edge to his humour that was absent in his wife and son and as his grin edged slightly wider, the armadillo was pretty certain she was going to be feeling the full bite of such witticisms,

"Good to hear that is; plenty of work for those green fingers of yours I hope?" A snort just to the side of her alerted Mighty to what was going on at the head of the table; okay, Big's sister or not that is going too far!; and allowed her to quickly shape her answer,

"Oh yeah, plenty, but what people should remember though is that these green fingers of mine can very easily clench into a pretty big green fist", almost without meaning to the armadillo caught a glimpse of Sophie very swiftly retracting her pinkie from where it had been lurking insinuatingly just under her right nostril from the corner of her eye, "and, green or not, that fist can do a heck of a lot of damage". Bill merely laughed, enjoying matching wits with his guest and quickly tracking around the table towards her, offering his hand as he did so,

"So I gather from what Big tells me", Mighty tried to hold in a smile as she felt her hand taken, the older Mobian's paw almost swallowed whole by the armadillo's paw as she closed it softly around his, "been uprooting anything much recently?"

"Nah, only a couple of small hickory nut trees; oh damn, sorry, I always forget"; knew I left something behind; once more Mighty realised she'd forgotten to bring the hickory nuts she'd harvested with her – the first time she'd actually been invited to accompany Big on one of his homecomings she'd ended up challenging both the girls that hickory nuts really were as sour as she was making out and promised to bring them a handful to prove it. Both cats laughed, Chloe indicating her with a faintly mocking ring in her voice,

"You need to remember to tell Big about things like this; he'd never let you forgot".

"He doesn't, believe me", the Chaotix moaned with a resigned sigh, her plated head shaking as she rued another mistake made, "I knew the second I saw him something was missing but could I put my finger on it? Anyway, enough of sounding off on me, you", Bill jumped to attention as his son's girlfriend pointed him out with an air of authority, "go get your dinner; Tia put her heart and soul into this – if any goes to waste it'll be a travesty". Chuckling, Bill left for the kitchen, speaking over his shoulder as he exited the dining room,

"Looks like you've got yourself a fan there T".

"Makes a change from the rest of you ungrateful rabble", the matriarch of the family raised her voice to call back her other half; both twins huffed affronted as the sound of their father laughing was quickly joined by the humming of the microwave powering up.

"Now you know that's not true, we're all grateful; we just hide it very well", Tia rolled her eyes before casting Mighty a glance that spoke ten thousand words, "but that's bye-the-bye; I know what I was going to say…"

"First time for everything there dad"; as the rest of the table hastily set about disguising sniggers from Sophie's comment a dangerous pause sidled out from the kitchen, the calm before the ominous storm before Bill continued darkly,

"…apart from no sweets tonight, was that has someone done the lawn?"

"Yep", Big sat back in his chair carefully having finished his meal, hands slowly patting his rotund midsection, "just ran the mower over it after we got the stuff settled down, oh and the beds are set up again".

"Good lad, and thanks a lot Mighty", there was a loud, crisp ping as the microwave finished, "I speak from experience when I say it's a devil of a job trying to get that bunk-bed set up, especially when T's gone and thrown her back out of joint". The armadillo smiled, recalling the fun she'd had no more than a half-hour earlier; helping Big shift one of the twin's beds into the other twins room and from there, guided by Sophie's more enthusiastic than accurate directions, slotting the two former bunk-beds together again to secure sleeping arrangements for the night for everyone,

"No problem, just what I needed in fact after the train trip here. I was dying for a bit of a work out; I could barely stretch my legs it was that bad".

"And believe me it only gets worse the shorter the distance you have to go", Bill assured her, reappearing in the kitchen doorway with a steaming plate in one hand a pair of utensils in the other, taking a seat beside his son and Big pulled to the side to give him some room, "bloody bus, that's the third time it's been late this month and the new driver's a…well, not someone I'd buy a pint for put it like that".

"That good huh? Be lucky you're not on the school buses then dad", Chloe informed him with a long-suffering air about her, "all the drivers are like that".

"Much like the teachers", Tia chipped in on her daughter's behalf, Bill pricking his ears at the news, "they've extended that ban dear". He rolled his eyes with an exasperated sigh,

"For what; it's not like she, er…, she did anything other than just, do what the law lets her get away with", Bill finished somewhat lamely; thankfully, rubbing his neck as he was, Big never saw his father's eyes dart towards him for a second, Mighty's following suit and knowing immediately why this was tricky ground; every time I think I might want a memory like his, it's only then I remember…

XXX

Mighty gave a slight shiver, recalling what had been said to her on that long, terrible walk back to the station that would eventually deliver the two battered and traumatised Mobians to the Station Square general infirmary; Metal's attack had been swift and savage, catching her completely unprepared and in the open – only Big risking his life and, more than that, his very mind had been able to beat the robotic sadist off. The armadillo had come to in the cat's arms, her own broken limb splinted to the remains of what had once been Big's treasured fishing rod to prevent further damage and only then, in the aftermath of his physical battle had he finally let her in, revealed the festering mental wounds that, in his eyes, would never scar over; his perfect memory would damn him eternally. Blessed with his effortless recall, he had poisoned, that had been the word he'd used, poisoned the gift that had the potential to make him one of the most famous artists alive in the world by staining such a crystal memory with the crimson of spilt blood; in a moment of rage, made furious by his first serious artwork being defaced and destroyed by an ignorant brat, the school-Mobian Big had lost control and at long last wreaked terrible revenge on the one who had wronged him.

Only his species, that of one of nature's finest predators, had resulted in such a horrific outcome; had he been a human or an inoffensive animal such as a mouse, or even another armadillo in fact, his fate would have been so very different. Instead with his claws drenched vermillion and unable to forget what he had done to someone, a living, breathing person despite whatever crimes he had committed, the cat's only choice had been to run; though spared any charges by both his previous conduct and widespread knowledge of all he had endured stoically to that point, the damage had been more than done. He had left behind all that he'd loved and all that he'd hated together, begun afresh in a new, isolated place; his contact with anyone had been minimal and for the most part wholly accidental – heck, if anything the only reason Mighty had ever found him in the first place had been due to her own totally hopeless sense of direction leading her astray on the way to Mystic Ruins. All this had come spilling out like rank pus from a rotting wound, painful, unbearable to him as he couldn't forget the horrors in his head; even now, no more than four months after the incident Mighty's recollections of Metal Sonic's attempt on, if not her life then certainly her future, had receded to the point of being little more than a half-remembered nightmare – imagining or even trying to imagine having to live with them every day of her life made even her steel nerves quail and quake. Yet Big had been given no choice; unable to forget and certainly unable to forgive himself, he had soldiered on resolutely up until that point and, when life and death had hung in the balance, he'd been able to release his inner demon, the reviled, revolting aspect of his nature that he normally subsumed so well, commanding his feral, primal instincts against his foe to save her and that wild force, with such powerful hands to break and claws to shred, with sharp teeth to bite and limbs to lash, had virtually torn Metal Sonic to ribbons even if the mnemonic pain, the agony of having to lose himself in such reckless hatred once more, had almost shattered his sanity.

Then it was my turn; once more Mighty could almost hear the conversation she'd had with herself in the back of the ambulance; she now knew what was wrong and equally she knew she had to do something about it; what could or should she do? Only a nurse's innocent question had given her the spark; at her directions all the pieces had come together and on that same night, not a second too soon in her eyes, the recipients of Big's ultimate masterpiece, a unique gift of a lifetime to commemorate a unique moment in two lifetimes, eloquently titled The End of the Hunt, had been united with its creator. She herself had not been present at the occasion itself but when she had finally been able to pluck up the courage to enter the cat's hospital room, her relief that her thought had come to such fruition was elational, almost enough to make her pass out again. Such had been the power of his enlightened smile, placed there as for the first time he'd seen the massive impact his work had imparted to the ones he had delivered it to, that the armadillo had been immediately transcended away from such insignificant concerns such as her still-broken arm; instead she had been consumed utterly from within, if she hadn't loved the cat before that moment she hadn't stopped loving him since. Their first kiss had been enough to let her try her hand at drawing herself; though a crude, clumsy sketch by the cat's impossible standards, every time she had visited him at his Mystic Ruins home her heart had swelled a little more with pride; Big could have decorated his home with masterpieces enough to make a collector of a hundred years weep, yet he respected and cared for her feelings enough to make sure that her feeble effort, the only decoration he really had at his home, was mounted proudly above his bed, guaranteed top billing. Every time she thought of it, her work in the home of, as Mr Trenton had often commented, the artist of his generation; it was enough to…

XXX

She blinked; something knocked her elbow again and she tuned to it this time, tuning in reality once more and hearing Chloe's voice this time as the cat girl asked her question again,

"Plate?"

"Huh?"; it was all the armadillo was able to come up with at such short notice – only when the exasperated kitten pointed to the empty tray just under her chin did she understand and answer properly, "oh, yes I'm finished, thank you Chloe". The twin favoured her with an 'I-know' sort of look as she accepted the dish; for a brief second Mighty hoped she'd got away with her momentary lapse into history, a second that came to a very abrupt end at the sound of a snigger,

"Yep, she was miles away", Bill chuckled, Big echoing his father's smirk to a lesser extent with even the usually supportive Tia having to look away to hide her smile, "meditating where you Mighty? Let me guess", the head of the table nodded insinuatingly towards his son, "Big was right in your line of enlightenment – he must have been the way you were staring right through him".

"Actually I was, er, lost in thought"; that at least is true; "I was just thinking, that is, Chloe doing what she did reminded me of the way we actually ended up getting together". The Chaotix nodded at her partner, fingers tightly crossed under the table and after jolting his memory and sifting the truth from the fiction he had to weave, Big returned the nod with a sad smile,

"Yeah, we've all got to get our claws dirty at some time or another; just lucky our guy knew what was good for him and backed off – if he'd actually gone for her", the cat flattened his ears, grimacing as Mighty rolled her eyes, "they'd have been passing him into the back of the ambulance with a pooper-scoop if he'd tried to get a piece – one punch would have spread him all over the nearest wall and most of the pavement".

"What can is say; I have a highly refined clientele and he most definitely did not qualify", Mighty took a sip of her tea as most of the family around her chortled, Big meeting her eyes for an instant and accepting her silent thanks with a raise of his eyebrows; cheers mate – now you've dug me out of a hole as well as dragged me out of a ditch!

Just as the armadillo had been more than a little apprehensive of revealing her true employment details, both she and her massive consort had been keen to shield the cat's family from the true reason behind their getting together; fortunately with a little brainwork between them, they had managed to come up with a solution that was both convincing enough to be easily believable and, more importantly, close enough to the truth to vindicate either of them from being called outright liars. As far as Big's family, and her own for that matter from the contact she'd had with them; mind you, soon have the big one to do something about that; knew, she was an industrial-scale landscaper employed on Angel Island who had met Big one night when some drunken fool had come at her when she'd been visiting friends in Station Square. He'd been in the vicinity and come to the rescue of the inebriated pillock before Mighty had completely lost her temper, and, with the problem dealt with, the two had become chatty and, as Sophie had coined the phrase, the rest had been history. It was a simple, elegant solution and had been completely watertight, not that it had had to hold much water so far; the rest of her closest friend's family were so thrilled that he'd managed to hook someone like her they weren't exactly bothered by the detailed reasons behind how they had ended up together; look at the now, not the then – another gem of yours mum. Chastised by her previous inattention, Mighty was galvanised by the sound of Tia's voice once more, ignoring the assorted clanks and squeaks as Bill and one of his sisters cleared the table of the first course,

"Now, got a bit of a selection for tonight's afters; Mighty, you're the guest", the armadillo squirmed in her seat, almost turning tomato red as the advent of proper manners, a commodity sadly lacking amongst her rough-and-ready flatmates, caught her slightly flat-footed, "what would you like; I've got some nice ice-cream in the freezer, a bread and butter pudding on the side and, girls what did we have last night, my memory's having a minute?" Sophie tutted and shook her head,

"Oh dear, that's always the way it goes; first the sciatic nerve goes and the senility quickly follows it"; Tia's face darkened towards her impudent daughter before Bill stepped in to save his errant offspring,

"It was a rhubarb crumble love, and did I smell custard when I was washing my hands?"

"You did", his wife assured him before giving her attention back to her guest, cheerfully beaming once more, "that's cold in the fridge, so, the choice is yours". Mighty glanced around for a second before giving a nervous chuckle,

"Boy", her tongue flicked over her lip for a second, completely unsure as to which of the delicious dishes she should pick, "put me on the spot why don't you? Err, little help anyone…?"

XXX

All I ask is that you share what's left of the crumble – it's not like I want you to halve all your worldly possessions between yourselves; acutely aware of how well this display of sibling obstinacy would be going down with her guest and all the more embarrassed because of it, Tia was on the verge of denying her squabbling daughters anything else at all when, to the surprise of everyone present and herself most of all, a new voice broke up the monotonous procession of claim, furious denial, counter-claim and equally furious denial,

"Hold it; armadillo logic to the fore…" Big groaned, one hand ascending to cover his eyes,

"Oh no, anything but the armadillo logic"; fastidiously ignoring him, Mighty carried on, waving the two girls towards the kitchen,

"Right, you pair, go and get the whole crumble and, Bill you said you wanted some?"

"Too right I do", the elder cat assured her before his scathing glare whipped out over his daughters, "but the rate that pair are going I'm sorely tempted to say they can go hungry arguing and I'll have the whole lot".

"No need for that; off you go, the crumble and three sets of bowls and spoons", Mighty appeased him knowingly before pointing Sophie and Chloe on their collective way, Big hiding a smirk with his hand as his sisters both departed, a frenzied whispering conversation trying to second-guess the armadillo's intentions at the same time he was; armadillo logic – well, whatever it is chances are it'll work. From his numerous experiences with that turn of phrase and its examples, the fisherMobian was reasonably sure that it would be a straightforward, though not necessarily pleasant, solution to the problem present. With a soft thump the fridge was closed and a second later both cat girls appeared in the dining room again, one holding the crumble, the other with a trio of bowls and spoon and neither looking exactly sure about what to do next as Mighty beckoned them towards the table,

"Right, sort your dad out"; both twins exchanged a glance before getting to work – Bill murmured his thanks a moment later as his son placed a bowlful of crumble in front of him, his attention like everyone else's fixed on what was about to transpired; from the smile on her face, he'd have wagered that Mighty must have had something big up her sleeve,

"Okay, as for you pair; Chloe", the cat with the serving spoon glanced up almost fearfully, quivering as she tried to anticipate what was coming next, "you divide what's left in half; Sophie, you get first pick", her master stroke completed, the Chaotix looked away from them both to beam wickedly across the table at large, "now I can guarantee that what's left will be cut exactly in half".

A split-second of dumbfounded silence followed this proclamation, then Tia howled with a sudden gust of laughter, her husband rapidly joining in as she reached across the table, offering a hand that the triumph-flushed Mighty gladly shook,

"Now that", the cat choked for a second before speaking clearly again, "that really is an absolute pearl; all those arguments about who got the bigger slice of cake, all over, all finally over. Thanks a million Michelle, you've just saved this family a lot of grief".

"My pleasure", normally she might have been embarrassed but the sight of even the two twin starting to snicker even if they were the butt of the logical joke emboldened her somewhat, "just a shame that my mum never had a chance to use that one with the family".

"You were an only child weren't you? Never had anyone to fight with?" Bill commented, wiping his eyes a little as Mighty nodded,

"Well, yes and no", after taking a minute to put her thoughts in order she extrapolated on her enigmatic answer, "no I never had any brothers or sisters to scrap around with and that was probably a good thing overall, but there were always cousins, nephews and the like so I never missed out on the whole 'together-under-the-same-roof' thing, squabbles and all". Big smiled and winked across the table at his partner,

"Probably just as well; nothing like a bit of a family to-do for getting some wind in your sails, or, in this case", he gave his sisters, both still under the blanket of shame for their earlier misconduct, a hint of a smug smile, "getting it taken out of there". Mighty echoed his grin and snatched up the last of her water in the glass before her,

"I'll drink to that; believe me I'd have a good go at anyone under the sun but only a complete idiot wants to get in the middle of an armadillo family dispute, least of all when the fur really starts flying"; and with a bit of luck; even as she drank she never let her boyfriend drop from her vision; you'll be able to see how true that is a bit later on.

XXX

It was only later that night, as she reclined on the recently pumped up air-mattress and looked into the warm, ever-so-slightly cheeky eyes of the Robbie Williams poster splashed across the opposite wall, that Mighty allowed herself to dream about the reactions to her proposal tomorrow. Crossing her hands behind the shell where the back of her head should have been, the armadillo glanced around the rest of what had until very recently been Chloe's room; much like any teenagers, it was liberally adorned with the pictures of bands that she'd never even heard of and little mementos symbolising the friends she'd made and the trials she had to endure as part of a daily life. A slight sigh escaped Mighty's lips as she recalled why she had been given this room, why Chloe had moved in with Sophie rather than vice-versa to accommodate her; once, a long time ago, this was Big's room. This house only has three bedrooms, so his mum and dad had one, he had this one and his little sisters shared the third – when he moved on though; once more a stab of sympathetic pain pierced her heart – somehow her mind's eye could acutely visualise the youngster Big having to leave his family home for what he had thought would have been the last time, running away to start afresh in a strange new world where his sins would be hidden, unblackening his name once more even if his memory was still as sullied as it ever had been; Chloe moved out into here.

She rolled onto her side sadly, recalling the fun she'd had reconnecting the two former bunk beds together to allow the two twins the ability to sleep together in the same room again at the same time that her mind wandered downstairs for a moment; by necessity more than anything else, Big was kipping on the fold-out sofa as it was the only receptacle in the house large enough for him to enjoy his repose on. She felt mixed up and agitated, happy and sad at the same time; sad that Big had ever been forced to leave but at the same time glad that he was now home, back where he belonged with his family and that she'd managed to be blessed enough to find him as well; almost as much as his painting had enriched the lives of those who had seen it, his whole personality had been a tonic to her own life, visiting him a joy unlike any she'd ever really experienced before. Added to that pair of warring adders were the thoughts of her question tomorrow, to say nothing of the varied and bi-polar reactions her feverish imagination was letting run riot in her mind; it all came to a mind that weighed down on her brain even more heavily than her shell did her body. Shifting her eyes to the clock on the wall Mighty gritted her teeth; it was coming up to midnight and sleep was miles away – the video the twins had picked as the first part of their birthday treat seemed to have been run months ago, she could barely remember anything that had happened in it at all. With a huff she finally gave up on sleep at all; kicking her way out of the covers, the armadillo stalked bad-temperedly across the room to the duffel bag she'd brought with her and rummaged around in one of the pockets, trying to work by her sense of touch in the darkness. Luckily what she wanted was the only thing in that pocket and she hurriedly retreated back into bed with it, the nip in the air making her shiver a little as it was still too early in the year to put the heating on. Softly clicking on the bedside lamp, careful not to make any noise in case she disturbed anyone else fitfully dreaming, Mighty quickly flipped her novel over and tugged on the bookmark, the pages falling open to where she needed them to be and her finger tracing under the words she'd last read.

Slowly the combination of the electric bulb and the words on the page in front of her worked their subtle magic; eventually her reading speed began to grind down, her eyelids drooping lower and lower as the pent-up emotions within her were expelled by her eyes, her brain frantically devouring the text before her to assuage the stress on her mind. At the end of it all it was only a Herculean effort of her mind as the book fell to the floor from her leaden fingers that allowed her to reach out and snagged the cord of the light to the side of her; it was only the dead weight of her hand that tugged the illumination off, sleep finally claiming her as the tides of time washed overhead, speeding along to the new dawn and the celebrations that awaited every member of her temporary family there.

A/N: Okay, I know there were a lot of OC's up there and there will be a lot more to come this story; let me know if they're all believable, please – I gladly take criticism as long as it improves my art. For the full story behind the get-together of this coupling check out Iron Skin, Golden Heart; as some of my reviewers pointed out, Big was (and in my opinion still is) treated rather scathingly by the fanfiction community in general, Mighty a little less so but still with less respect than I think they both deserve. This is an attempt to give them some real character, feelings, family and history; did I succeed? And what is weighing so heavily on Mighty's mind – answers next chapter!