"I'm still not sure about this, Derek."
Derek zipped up the suitcase, buttoning the straps together. "C'mon, Case, we haven't had any time off in months." He tossed the bag by the door with the other luggage, catching her around the waist as she moved past him to the closet. "C'mere."
Casey giggled, squirming away from him playfully. "Derek – "
"When was the last time we were alone?" Derek asked, drawing out his words as he wrestled her over to the bed. "Alone, alone?"
"Umm…" Casey smiled, collapsing into the pile of clothes on the mattress. "Never?"
"Exactly." He brought his knees to the edge of the bed, leaning down slightly to grab her hands. "This is our chance, Casey," he said dramatically, pulling her up by her wrists. "Our chance for freedom!"
She grinned, wrapping her arms around his waist. "Well, it has been awhile."
"Yes it has," he replied, tilting her chin up. "Think about it. Just but you and me, no disturbances, no interrup – "
"DADDY!" A flash of brunette energy appeared in the doorway, stopping short at the couple half-on, half-off the bed. "Daddy? What are you doing to Mommy?"
Casey pushed Derek away quickly, clearing her throat. "Nikki, honey, you're supposed to be picking up your Legos."
Nikki Venturi gave an enthusiastic sigh, rolling her eyes to the heavens. "I did that hours ago, Mommy."
"Did you?" Casey rose an eyebrow, opening her arms for the little girl. "And your stuffed animals?"
Nikki bounced forward into her mother's lap, smiling proudly. "All away."
"And your Barbies?"
"I tried to put them all in the Barbie Dreamhouse, but they wouldn't fit, so they're taking a vacation in my closet." Nikki leaned in, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Doctor Barbie and Teacher Barbie are having some issues, so I had to put them on different shelves."
"Oh, good thing you did that. We wouldn't want them to get into a catfight and trash bathroom like they did last time," Casey replied wisely.
Derek hid a smile, checking his watch. "Emily'll be here any minute now."
"No, I don't wanna babysitter!" Nikki's lower lip trembled. "Why can't I go see Aunt Marti? I miss Marti!"
"Marti's got finals this week, honey." Derek scooped her up by her arms. "Sides, don't you want to stay with Emily? She's fun, right?"
Nikki pouted. "I don't think you should go, Daddy. What if there's a hur'cane?"
"We're miles and miles away from the ocean, Nikki, we don't get hurricanes here."
"What about a asteride, then?" Nikki demanded. "Who's gonna stop it if you're gone?"
Derek frowned. "Who let you watch Armageddon again?"
Nikki's eyes widened. "Nobody." Derek just looked at her, and she huffed. "Well, it wasn't my fault, Grandma was watching it, and Grandpa made fun of her and said she only liked the mushy stuff, like the girl and the boy who kiss a lot. And so she threw a pillow at him and called him a brunt who only likes explosions and fights, and – "
"Okay," Casey cut in. "Mom and George are getting a list of blacklisted movies."
Derek sighed. "Listen, baby. There are no hurricanes, no asteroids, no tornadoes, thunderstorms, giant gorillas, super villains or serial killers in this city. In fact, I think it's safe to say that they're not even in this province. The whole country, even."
Nikki looked skeptical. "What about evil robots?"
"None of those either."
"What about Grandpa? Why can't I stay with Grandpa?"
Casey poked her head out from the bathroom. "Derek, maybe we should just stay home. She obviously doesn't want us to go – "
"No! No, we're going, we are definitely going." Derek gave her a look and hitched the girl higher up on his hip. "Look, there's only one Snickerdoodle in this room. Who do you think it is?" Casey gave him a look, retreating back through the door.
"Me!" Nikki raised her hand proudly.
"You sure are. And ex-squeeze me, but I thought that snickerdoodles were the bravest kind of little girls there were…"
"I am! I am brave!" Nikki bounced excitedly in his arms. "I'm totally braver than Greta Schlepper, because when I dared her to jump off the swings she backed out at the last minute, even though I did it like, eight times."
"That is very brave," Derek said gravely. "So brave that I think you can handle Emily for a night, right?"
Nikki scrunched up her nose. "But Miss Davis has funny lookin' hair."
Derek laughed, and Casey stuck her head out from the bathroom again. "Nicole! That's not nice at all."
"What? She does! It's like, screwy. And curly. Greta Schlepper said her daddy says that curly hair is a sign of the devil."
"Greta Schlepper's daddy is just bitter over being dumped by Emily's curly hair," Derek informed her.
"Derek, cut it out!" Casey admonished. She came out of the bathroom brandishing a hairbrush. "Brushin' time."
"What does dumped mean?"
"Nothing, honey. Tilt your head back." Nikki vaulted herself backwards, causing Derek to almost drop her. "Not that back! Not that back!" Derek grunted, lifting her back up so Casey could attack the girl's long, dark curls with the brush.
The doorbell rang, and downstairs a dog started barking madly. "That's her. Go get it, I'll finish." Derek took the brush from Casey, shooing her out the door. "No backing out. Freedom, Case! Freedom!"
"Yeah, yeah." Casey waved a hand dismissively, jogging down the stairs to the first floor.
Derek swung the little girl over to the dresser, setting her on the surface. "Hair." Nikki tilted her head forward obediently, making raspberry noises with her mouth as Derek pulled the brush through her hair quickly. "Okay, no funny business tonight, Snicks, I mean it. Mommy's been really, really cranky lately, and I need to cheer her up, and that means no panicky phone calls saying that my daughter's trying to jump off the roof or something."
"Daddy, I only tried that once." Nikki's voice was muffled by the fall of her hair.
"Yeah, well, no more. Not tonight. Done." Nikki flipped her head up, whipping her hair back.
"Are you sure I can't stay with Grandpa? He always gives me presents."
"Yes always! I'm his favoritest granddaughter."
"You're his only granddaughter, baby." Nikki stuck out her lower lip. "Which, makes you extra special," he appeased.
"Derek! Em's here!"
"Okay, come on." He lifted her off the dresser, setting her down on the ground. "Grab a bag, Snicks."
Nikki smiled proudly, grabbing a duffel bag from the doorway and lifting it up to her shoulders, nearly buckling under the weight. "Ready, Daddy!"
"Good thing." He swung the other bags onto his shoulders, laying a steady hand on the little girl's back, keeping her from toppling backwards. "Downstairs."
He led her carefully down to the first floor, seeing Emily and Casey standing near the door. "Hey, Derek," Emily greeted. "Hey, Nikki! Long time no see, sweetie."
"Sweets are for dessert," Nikki informed her sourly, and threw the duffel bag down on Emily's foot.
"Nikki," Derek warned.
Nikki rolled her eyes. "It was a ac'dent."
"It's okay," Emily said, through gritted teeth. "Heh. I've got, uh, hearty feet."
Casey shot her daughter a warning look, bending down to her level. "Okay, listen to what Emily says, okay? And no playing Superhero, because we still haven't fixed the couch from last time."
"Mom-my, I told you that wasn't me, that was Dam!"
"The dog stole a sheet from our bed, tied it around his neck and jumped on the couch until it broke?"
"Uh yeah, that's what I said," Nikki said. "Duh."
"You named him Dam? Dam the dog?" Emily asked skeptically.
"It's Daddy's favorite word!" Nikki said happily. Derek smirked.
"It's with an 'm'," Casey said quickly. "You know, like the Hoover Dam? Because Derek…enjoys architecture."
"Uh huh," Emily replied warily. "That's always been one of his hobbies."
"Okay, well we'll be at the Kahler Grande hotel downtown, the number's on the fridge – "
"And there's a flu bug going around at her daycare, so if she starts coughing in the middle of the night – "
"Give her some cough syrup," Emily finished.
"Right. And it's – "
"In the cabinet above the stove, I know. You told me all this over the phone, remember?"
Casey smiled. "Right." She gave her friend a warm hug. "Thanks again for doing this, Em."
"No problem. Nikki's adorable, we'll have a blast."
"SNICKERDOODLE ATTACK!" The women snapped their heads over to see Nikki do a running jump off the second stair, pummeling Derek with a stuffed giraffe.
Derek tumbled down onto his back, groaning in mock pain. "Stop, stop! My delicate sensibilities!" Nikki giggled wildly, smacking him in the face with a plush hoof.
"Ahem. Well – she won't do that if you ask nicely," Casey said.
"Okay, Nicks, time for us to go," Casey called. Nikki looked up from her spot on Derek's stomach, all elation disappearing.
"I don't want you to go!" She jumped off Derek, catching him in the jaw with her foot as she vaulted towards her mother. "Why can't I go with you? I wanna sleep in a hotel!"
"Nikki," Derek and Casey said together. They paused, and Casey shook her head, stepping forward to take the little girl's hand. "Honey, we love spending time with you, but sometimes grown ups need some time alone to discuss things by themselves, okay?"
"Like what things?" Nikki's face creased in dismay. "About me? I told you that Dam was the one who broke the couch – and I promise I won't put peanut butter on the toilet seats anymore, even if Uncle Edwin dares me to – I'll be good, I promise!"
"Honey, honey, calm down, we're coming back tomorrow, okay?" Casey brushed an errant curl away from her face. "It's not you, okay? You're perfect, and we don't ever want you to change. Daddy and I just need some…alone time, to…talk. About things with us, not you, okay?"
"Really?" Nikki looked up at her mother quizzically. "Like you guys do at night when everyone's asleep?" Casey's mouth fell open, speechless.
Derek watched Emily's eyebrows shoot to her hairline, and he laughed nervously, scooping the little girl off her feet. "Okay, be good and we'll bring you a present."
"Present!" She laughed, eyes lighting up in delight. "A pony?!"
"Uh, a stuffed one maybe," Derek offered. "Just don't break anything."
Casey shook her head, hugging the little girl from behind. "Love you, baby."
"I love you too." Nikki smiled, appeased, and jumped down from Derek's arms, running off into the living room.
"Guess she's over it." Derek grabbed the bags again. "Thanks again, Emily."
"Sure thing." She shot a sly look at Casey. "Have fun…talking."
"Uh, we will." Casey threw a wary look over her shoulder. "Uh…call my cell if you run into any…problems. Okay?"
"No problems. No problems at all, she's a complete angel." Derek snorted, and Casey's face grew more worried. "Hey, come on, it's your first weekend off in months, guys. Go have fun, we'll be fine. I'm an experienced babysitter, remember?"
"Okay..." Casey looked unconvinced, but Derek pulled her out the door firmly. "See you tomorrow!"
"Expect us late," Derek said.
"Goodbye," Emily called, waving.
Derek dragged her out to the car, throwing the bags in the back seat. "Freedom!"
"Are you sure she'll be okay? It's her first night without us. What if she gets scared?"
"She's almost six, Case, she'll be fine."
"I was talking about Emily," Casey said wryly.
"Well, Nikki will protect her." Derek laid his hands on her shoulders. "Time for us to have a talk, Mrs. Venturi."
"I'm not in trouble, am I?" Casey slowly relaxed, a teasing smile spreading across her face.
Derek pulled her close, smiling wickedly. "Not yet."
"Miss Davis, can we play now?"
Emily rose an eyebrow. "Nikki, you don't have to call me that, you can call me Emily."
"Okay, Miss Emily."
"No, it's just Emily."
"Really?" Nikki looked at her strangely. "Whatever you say, Just Emily."
Emily opened her mouth to protest, then shut it. "Okay." She shook her head. "Um, that's a cool giraffe you've got there," she started, taking a sip of her soda.
"He's Sexy!" Emily spit out the soda. "Ew! You hafta clean that up, Just Emily!"
Emily grabbed a napkin, wiping at the spilt Pepsi. "Uh, Nikki, what did you say?"
"Sexy!" She held up the giraffe, smiling widely. "He's the most awesomest giraffe ever. I got him at the carnival, when Mommy helped me play the squirt gun game, which she was really, really good at, and so she told Daddy that if he ever made her mad, she could shoot him since she's good at it, and he laughed and said that was sexy. So his name's Sexy, see?"
A smile slowly spread across Emily's face. "And your parents let you name him that?"
"Well, they wanted me to change it, but I said no. I mean, it was Daddy's idea. Besides, I couldn't change his name after that, he'd get confused!"
"Right," Emily said seriously. "Well, how about a snack, then? Are you and, erm, Sexy hungry?"
"Starving," Nikki declared. "And so is Sexy."
"I am so sorry, Derek."
Derek sighed, smoothing Casey's hair back from her face. "Not a problem, babe."
"I just...I've been feeling really run down lately…"
"You could've told me that," he pointed out, "before you puked all over the valet."
She moaned, leaning forward into his chest. "I'm sorry!"
"It's okay, it's okay." He frowned. "Are you sure you're all right now?"
"Yeah." She shook her head. "I don't know what's up with me lately, I mean I've been achy and tired, I feel horrible and mean all the time, and now I'm getting sick? I'd blame PMS but I haven't had a period in – " she froze.
"What? Casey." Derek narrowed his eyes. "Casey. You haven't had a period in what?"
She winced. "Since May, I think?"
"Oh my God."
"No. No, I can't be." She shook her head.
"Your birthday, when Lizzie took Nikki," he said. "We didn't use…did we?"
"No, but I'm on the Pill," she replied.
"Yeah, you were on the Pill when Nikki blasted into existence, too."
She winced, shaking her head. "Drugstore, right?"
"Okay, so what do you wanna eat, Nikki?"
"Syrup?" Emily frowned. "Like…pancake syrup?"
"Uh huh!" Nikki pushed a chair over to the counter, climbing on top and grabbing a bottle of pancake syrup from the cupboard. "It's Daddy's favorite!"
"On pancakes?" Emily asked.
"No, he doesn't eat pa'cakes unless they have chocolate chips in them. But one time Mommy made blueberry pa'cakes for me cuz they're my favorite, and she spilled some syrup on her arm, and Daddy licked it off!" She giggled. "He's so silly."
Emily snorted. "Yeah, really silly."
"An' then he told her that it was the yummiest thing he'd ever had, and Mommy's face got really red and she hit him. Only she wasn't mad, cuz she never hits him when she's really mad, she only tells him she's gonna cut him off. Which I don't know why she would wanna cut Daddy, cuz that's really mean, and Mommy's not mean at all, she's really nice." She scrunched up her face. "Grown ups just don't make sense sometimes."
Emily's face felt frozen in the same expression of disbelief she'd had since she'd arrived. "You know, they really don't."
"Anyway, he didn't have any pa'cakes, but he told Mommy to take the syrup upstairs so that he could have a snack later. And then she hit him again, and he threw his napkin at her. Then we watched Spongebob." Nikki grabbed a cup from the cupboard and flipped the top to the syrup open, squeezing a generous amount of the sticky substance into the cup. "But then later I saw the syrup in the upstairs bathroom, so I knew that Daddy did take it to have a snack, and he musta ate it without pa'cakes, cuz I didn't find any plates up there. So I'm gonna eat it all by itself, too!"
"Oh God," Emily managed.
"Are you praying?" Nikki took a drink of the syrup, giving herself a sticky mustache. "Cuz I hear Mommy say that a lot, too, really loud, and when I asked her she said she was praying. But I don't pray like that when I say my prayers before bed – is it a old people thing? Do you have to get louder when you're old, because God can't hear you as well?"
"Um – "
"My grandpa says that noise is guhnetic in our family. What does that mean?"
"You mean, genetic?" Emily cleared her throat. "It means something that's passed down from parents to children. Like how you have your mommy's long dark hair, and your daddy's brown eyes."
"I didn't take Mommy's hair! Or Daddy's eyes!" Nikki cried, distraught.
"No, no, I didn't mean it like that. I meant, uh – " Emily broke off, flustered. "Well, when two people have a baby, the baby has some things that are exactly like the mommy, and different things that are exactly like the daddy."
"Why?" Nikki tilted her head to the side, confused. "I thought babies were nice. Why would they steal things?"
"They don't steal them, Nikki, they just get them. Babies look like their parents. You look like both your mommy and your daddy, because you have things that are the same as…theirs." Emily's brow furrowed.
Nikki frowned. "That doesn't make any sense. Why do babies look like parents? Greta Schlepper is my best friend, and she doesn't look anything like her daddy. Greta's got really pretty blonde hair, and her daddy's hair is dark, like mine."
Emily's expression darkened. "Greta Schlepper, huh?" She shook herself. "Uh, it's just how things work. When babies are born, they get things from both their parents."
"Uh…" Emily laughed nervously. "Maybe that's something you should ask your parents about."
"You know, people say that to me a lot. Like last week when I asked Aunt Lizzie what handcuffs were, she got really red, just like Mommy does a lot, and told me to ask Mommy and Daddy."
"Why were you asking about…" Emily trailed off, realization dawning. "Oh. That's…nice."
"Yeah. Mommy and Daddy must know everything." Nikki took another drink of the syrup, eyes wide. "Hey, what are handcuffs, anyway?"
"I'm gonna kill you if this is positive."
"You had a part in it too, you know."
Casey paused in her frantic pacing to shoot him a murderous glare. "Are you sure, Derek, are you positive?" she barked.
"Uh, on second thought, it's all my fault," he backtracked.
"How long has it been?"
He checked his watch. "Um, three minutes."
"How long do we have to wait?"
"Since the thing said five minutes," he said slowly, "I would guess that we've got a couple left."
"How are we gonna do this? We barely manage with Nikki as it is," she moaned, collapsing into an armchair. "I don't think we're ready."
"Case, don't jump to conclusions, okay? We don't even know if you are pregnant yet."
She snorted. "Don't patronize me."
"I was not – "
"You were too."
"Casey, I – "
"You know what? It's a woman's right to do this kind of thing alone. You don't have to be a part of it."
Derek visibly shut his mouth, taking a deep breath. "Okay," he said slowly. "Notice me not commenting."
"Noted." She blew out a breath, lifting her bangs off her forehead. "Seriously, how is this gonna work? I barely can get away from work before seven most days, and you just got promoted."
"I didn't get promoted, they just gave me more work, there's a difference." He sighed. "I can drop some of my classes. Larry Smits has been looking to teach some Social Studies lately. He'd take a couple of my sections."
"And what would that do? We'd both still be gone every day, all day."
"Less homework to check. Fewer lessons to plan." He shrugged. "You can cut back at the firm, we can hire a full-time babysitter, whatever it takes. We'll make it work, like we always do."
She smiled softly. "Promise?"
"Swear to God," he said, laying one hand over his heart.
"You're such a doof."
"Doof says five minutes are up."
She bit her lip, staring down at the test in her hand. "You know what? Let's not look at it yet."
He looked at her incredulously. "Are you kidding? You bit my head off when I told you only a minute and a half had gone by."
She set it on the cheap, hotel desk gingerly, rising from the chair. "Well it occurs to me that if it is positive, we're not gonna have a night like this for quite awhile."
Derek's countenance grew pained. "That had occurred to me, yes."
"Well, I think we should take advantage of it then, yes?" She slid into his lap smoothly, straddling his legs easily. "Once we look at that test, we can't go back."
"Hmm." He tangled his hands in her hair, smiling lazily. "I knew all these years with me had corrupted you."
She tilted her head to the side, frowning. "That was you?"
She smothered his laugh with a kiss.
"Okay! You've had your syrup, and the ensuing wipe down," Emily said briskly. "Now what? You wanna watch a movie?"
"No." Nikki shook her head decisively.
"Play a game?"
"Yeah!" Nikki exclaimed. "Let's play Beauty Pageant!"
"How do you play that?"
Nikki stopped short. "You don't know how to play Beauty Pageant?!" she asked incredulously. "Oh jeez, now I have to teach you." Nikki grabbed Emily's hand, bringing her to the middle of the living room. "I play this with Greta Schlepper all the time at her house. Her daddy has a ton of really cool dresses and stuff in his basement, and he brings them out so we can play with them." She pushed the small coffee table out of the way, clearing a space. "Some of 'em are really old, and he doesn't let us play with those. But sometimes if we ask really, really nice, he lets us dress him up!" She giggled. "And he recita…recin…says stuff from plays, too. He says the drama's in his blood."
Emily rolled her eyes. "Oh yes. The dramatic blood."
"He's the silliest old person I know. Except for my daddy, he's silly too. But my daddy's cooler than Greta's daddy because my daddy can do the airplane game, where he throws me in the air and onto the couch, and Greta's daddy can't because he says he has a bad back." Nikki pulled on Emily's hand. "Sit!"
"Okay." Emily sat down in the middle of the floor, folding her legs beneath her.
"Can you play the airplane game?" Nikki asked. "Oh no, you can't, cuz you're a girl. Mommy can't either. Mommy can dance, though, and Daddy can't cuz he's got left feet. Do you have left feet?"
"Only one," Emily said. "You like to dance?"
"I love to dance!" Nikki rambled nonstop as she bounced over to the cupboards in the armoire, pulling out a huge wicker basket. "Greta and I dance all the time at school. One time we were dancing at recess, and Connor Henderson made fun of us and said we looked stupid, so Greta threw grass in his face and told him to get gone or she'd put a Schlepper Hex on him. It was so awesome!"
"A Schlepper Hex?" Emily asked incredulously.
"Yup!" Nikki grunted, pushing the basket over on its side, causing a pile of clothes to tumble out onto the floor. "There's a Schlepper Hex and a Venturi Hex, and nobody messes with us because of it. Greta's daddy told us about them when Connor pushed me in the mud and made me cry. He had to come pick me up cuz Daddy and Mommy were at work, and that's when he told me 'bout the Venturi Hex and the Schlepper Hex."
Emily watched the little girl sort through the clothes wildly, fabric flying. "Um, what's the Venturi Hex?"
"It's this secret power I have," Nikki said reverently. "Oh, I can't tell you! Your last name is Davis, not Venturi or Schelpper!"
"Oh, but if you have a Venturi Hex, and Greta has a Schlepper Hex," Emily said. "Wouldn't I have a Davis Hex?"
Nikki tilted her head, considering. "Yeah, I guess so. And your mommy musta not known about it, or she woulda told you. Okay, I'll tell you. Put this on." She handed Emily a leopard-print hat, and Emily plopped it on her head obediently. "Okay, my Venturi Hex is an inva…ivnis…somethin' you can't see. Whenever someone makes me feel sad or scared or angry, all I hafta do is use my Venturi Hex, and then whatever they say doesn't matter. Cuz it erases words, see?" She stuck out her chest proudly. "Like when Connor told me that the picture I drew for Daddy, the one with the fish with the hat on, looked stupid, I used my Venturi Hex and then everythin' he just said didn't matter, because it just erased the words from the air. Isn't that cool?"
Emily smiled softly. "That is really cool. Greta's daddy is a smart guy."
"You know her daddy?" Nikki asked. "My daddy said that he was bitter cuz you put him in the dump."
"I…" Emily raised her eyebrows, surprised. "Really? I mean…yeah, I know him. I mean, I used to know him."
"You don't know him anymore?" Nikki frowned. "Did you unknow him?"
"Yeah, I unknew him." Emily bit her lip, grabbing a plastic, beaded necklace and running it through her fingers.
Nikki reached over and patted Emily's shoulder consolingly. "It's sad when you unknow people," she said. "I used to have a imagin'ry friend named Rupert, but I unknew him when me and Greta decided to be best friends. Sometimes I miss him." She smiled. "Mommy said that Rupert must miss me too, so I'm sure that Greta's daddy misses you like Rupert misses me."
"Well…" Emily trailed off. "I don't think so, I mean…he got married. He has Greta now…he doesn't have time to miss me. I'm just…Emily."
"Yeah, that's your name, Just Emily." Nikki smiled. "It's a really cool name. I only have one word in my name, but you have too." Emily laughed weakly. "Well, I guess I have two names, cuz my mommy and daddy call me Nicole when I do something bad, and Nikki the rest of the time."
"People call me Em sometimes," Emily said.
"Em?" Nikki beamed. "What about Emmy?"
"My little brother used to call me that," Emily said, smiling. "Do you wanna call me that?"
"Okay, Emmy!" Nikki clapped her hands happily. "No one else can call you that, though, it's my name."
"Deal." Emily shook the little girl's hand.
"I think Greta's daddy misses you," Nikki said decisively. "Like Greta told me that she's been really sad ever since her mommy moved out, and she only sees her every other weekend. And I heard my mommy talking to my daddy, and she said that she was worried about Greta's daddy when Greta went to visit her mommy, because she said that Greta's daddy was all alone. And so she made Daddy go over and watch his hockey game with Greta's daddy, and he didn't come home for a long time, so they musta had fun."
Nikki threw a glittery blue coat that looked vaguely like a relic from a Prince video at Emily, who pulled it on over her shirt, nodding and trying to keep up with the fast paced commentary. "Derek watched the hockey game with Sheldon?"
"Who's Sheldon?" Nikki threw a strange look at Emily. "Anyway, you should go over and watch hockey with Greta's daddy, because my daddy doesn't do it all the time. He says he doesn't like Greta's daddy, but my mommy doesn't tell him to go over and visit him anymore, he just goes by himself. And so I think that my daddy and Greta's daddy are secret friends, like me and Connor."
"You and Connor?" Emily frowned. "I thought Connor was mean to you."
"He is," Nikki explained. "But only in front of his friends. Other times, when there's no one around, he shares his animal crackers with me, and sometimes he lets me use his baseball glove, even though he tells me that girls can't play baseball at recess. But after school while we wait for the bus, he teaches me how to play catch. But during recess, we fight. So we're secret friends."
Emily giggled. "That's…wonderfully dysfunctional. You truly are Derek and Casey's child."
"Yeah, so that's how I know my daddy and Greta's daddy are secret friends. Cuz they pretend to fight, but they still watch hockey together and they gang up on Mommy when she wants to watch Hairspray and they wanna watch The Matrix. But then they end up watching Finding Nemo cuz of me anyway." She grabbed Emily's foot and jammed a platform shoe on it, then switched to the other foot and dressed it in a huge, green, Converse sneaker.
Emily laughed. "Wow."
"Anyway, you should be Mr. Schlepper's real friend, too, cuz Daddy's only his secret friend, and Mommy's his friend but she drives everybody crazy. Especially Daddy. So you should go and cheer him up when Greta goes to visit her mommy. And then you can be happy, and he can be happy!"
Emily bit her lip. "Maybe I will."
"Okay, you're ready!"
Emily grabbed at the couch, climbing to her feet shakily. "Oookaaay," she said, wobbling on her uneven footwear. "Yeah, I feel gorgeous!"
Nikki giggled, clapping her hands. "See? You're a beauty queen."
"I feel like a beauty queen," Emily said, taking a shaky step. "Oh, shit – " she tripped on the edge of the rug, toppling over.
"You said a bad word! I'm telling!"
"Oof." She rolled over. "Bad words are allowed in times of desperation."
Nikki rolled her eyes. "You fell. Daddy and I fall all the time. Sometimes on purpose."
"Uh huh." Emily winced, pressing a hand to her back. "You don't pull any punches do you?"
"Duh." Nikki grinned. "Okay, wanna play Candyland next?"
"It does not."
"You slammed my head into that metal headboard thing – it was violent."
"Yeah, well, you might've gotten me pregnant," Casey countered. "So we're even."
"I don't think so."
"You know what, you're right. Cuz if we are, I'll be the one puking and aching and carrying around a whole other person inside of me for the next eight or so months, being generally all around miserable, so I think I can get punching bag rights, don't you?"
"Sure, but not during sex," Derek said incredulously. "That was just mean."
Casey snorted. "Are we gonna look at this thing or not?"
"Things are dimming. I see a light."
"You're such an idiot."
Derek sighed dramatically. "I don't know whether you're mean or kinky, I haven't decided yet."
"I'm looking at the test, now."
"Fine, fine. Look."
Casey wrapped the robe tighter, fidgeting with her hands nervously. "We'll be okay, right? Either way?"
He tilted his head. "Well, I dunno. If you are pregnant, are you gonna slam me into the headboard again?"
"It was an accident," she whined. "I was a little out of it at the time."
He smirked. "Oh you were, were you?"
She huffed, grabbing the test from the desk and plopping onto the bed next to him. "What if I am? I mean…"
He put an arm around her shoulder. "So what if you are? You felt the same way last time, and look what we got."
"Nikki." She laughed. "Yeah."
He leaned his chin on her shoulder, nudging her gently. "Go on."
She sighed, slowly sliding the test open. She paused, her mouth open and closing several times. "Oh, man."
Derek laughed. "Yeah, I am not gonna be the one to tell Nikki."
Casey fell back onto the bed groaning. "We're not gonna have a full night's sleep for another ten years."
"Okay, crazy girl, time for bed."
Nikki protested weakly. "No, I wanna…ninja turtles…"
Emily threw a wry glance at the living room, which looked like a national disaster area. Toys, dress up clothes, books and stuffed animals of every type and breed littered the room and every available flat surface. "The ninja turtles will be there waiting for you tomorrow morning. And Emmy's got a long night of clean up ahead of her…" she shooed the girl towards the stairs. "C'mon, bed."
"But Daddy always puts me to bed."
"I can substitute," Emily insisted. "Come on." She scooped the little girl up in her arms, expecting more protest, but Nikki merely mumbled something incoherent and laid her head down on Emily's shoulder. "Tired?"
"No," Nikki slurred, her eyes drooping. "Venturis don't get tired, they get…" she trailed off into a yawn. "…they get…"
"Bedtime," Emily said. She grinned, scaling the stairs quickly and pushed her way into Nikki's room. "Pajamas, okay, uh…" she trailed off, looking at the dresser. Nikki's clothes were currently being inhabited by a line of stuffed animals. "Well, you've got a dress on, it can double as a nightgown."
"No…I need the…lion and the…" she yawned again. "The lampshade…"
"Okay." She laid Nikki down on the bed, and the girl instantly curled up around a pillow, her dark hair spreading out on the blanket. Emily looked at her for a second, smiling. "Best thing that they ever did, ever," she whispered, bringing the blanket up around the girl's waist. "Goodnight, Nikki."
She rose to her feet, sighing. "Only three hours late, too." She shook her head, moving to the door to start working on the disaster in the living room, when a framed picture on the small desk caught her eye.
She bent down, picking up the plastic frame, decorated with dried spaghetti noodles arranged in swirls and hearts. It was a photo of what Emily recognized as Sheldon's daughter Greta, who was hugging Nikki around the waist as they sat on a blanket in the middle of a park somewhere. Behind them sat Derek and Casey in a similar position, Casey's face creased in annoyed affection, an expression Emily knew came easily when spending extended periods of time with Derek. Next to them on the blanket was Lizzie and another boy around her age that Emily didn't recognize. A boyfriend, perhaps? It'd been so long since Emily had seen Lizzie that she didn't know.
Last on the blanket was Sheldon himself, and Emily felt her breath catch in her throat. He was smiling over at the girls, face frozen in a look of such devotion that she knew instantly how much he cared for his little daughter.
Emily smiled without really realizing it, looking back at Greta. She'd only met the little girl once, at Nikki's fourth birthday party. She still hadn't stayed for very long, instead choosing to return to work to pop in and out and avoid any awkward reunions. The girl had long blonde hair, a relic from her mother, Emily thought with a pang. Not that she was jealous or anything. I mean, they were only married for three years. And…well, she wasn't jealous.
But her face was all Sheldon, Emily could see the similarities as clear as day. And if Emily could tell anything from that small picture, she could tell that Greta was just as quirky and offbeat as her father, judging by the huge, fluorescent green wedding veil adorning the little girl's head. Emily chuckled a little, forcing it past her choked throat.
She took a shaky breath, setting the small frame back in its place and exiting the room and closing the door softly behind her. She had to clean the living room, and she had to clean the syrup off the counter, and she had to get up early the next day, but…she could give Sheldon a call. I mean, it wouldn't hurt, right?
"MOMMY!" Hurricane Nikki barreled through the foyer, giving a running jump into Casey's arms.
"I missed you so much but Emmy's really cool and she let me have syrup and we played Beauty Pageant, and she wore your spotted hat and we watched Happy Feet and she did the penguin's voice and I told her all about the Venturi Hex because she said that she had a Davis Hex too and I had lots and lots of fun but I missed you even MORE lots!" Nikki took a deep breath after her rant, hugging Casey's neck tightly. She paused, only to see Derek walk in. "DADDY!"
Casey laughed and handed her off. "Just remember to breathe, baby."
"I told her about the Venturi Hex, Daddy, and she understood, and we played Beauty Pageant just like me and Greta do…"
Casey grinned at Derek, moving into the living room to hug Emily. "Well I'm guessing everything went okay."
"Yup. She's an angel."
"No she isn't." Casey gave her a look. "She didn't do anything to you, did she? She's not blackmailing you or something?"
Emily laughed. "No, really, I had fun. She's adorable."
"Well, good." Casey grinned. "Thank you so much for doing this. I know you're busy with work and everything…"
Emily waved a hand. "That's my fault. I don't spend nearly enough time with you guys. Nikki helped me see that last night."
"So you're gonna be around more often now?"
"Hopefully." Casey squealed and hugged her again, making Emily laugh. "You're just happy cuz you'll get to have more 'talks' with Derek."
Casey pulled back, grinning. "Actually…" she bit her lip and trailed off.
Casey shrugged. "Uh, Derek and I found out last night…" she raised her eyebrows meaningfully.
Emily gasped. "No!"
"No way!" She laughed, pulling her into another hug. "That's awesome. Congratulations!"
"Yeah, talk to me in eight months, I'll tell you how happy you should be for me."
"…and we had syrup just like you do and we watched cartoons and we had cinnamon toast for breakfast, but she makes it tons better than Grandma does but don't tell her that, cuz she might get mad!"
"Sounds like you had a busy night." Derek swung her down to the floor. "I gotta get the bags upstairs, Snicks."
"Oh, honey, why don't you stay down here and say goodbye to Emily?" Casey called.
"NO! I don't want Emmy to go!" Nikki ran to Emily and threw her arms around her legs, nearly knocking the woman to the floor. Again.
"Oh, I have to go, I have to be at work in a couple hours," Emily said, laughing. "I'll be back to visit, though, I promise."
Nikki nodded, appeased. "Soon," she demanded.
"Of course." Emily hugged the little girl tightly, then pulled back and tweaked her nose. "You keep on keepin' on, Nikki."
"Um, okay," Nikki said, brow furrowing. "You're weird."
Casey swatted the girl's ponytail. "Nikki."
"Ha, I guess I am." Emily grinned. "Hey, remember what we talked about last night, about how stuff is genetic, and babies get stuff from their parents?" Nikki nodded. "Why don't you go ask your daddy that one question now, huh?"
"Okay, I will. Bye!" Nikki said quickly, bouncing off upstairs. "DADDY! WHERE DO BABIES COME FROM?!" Casey burst into laughter.
Emily grinned. "I'll definitely be back to do this again."
"Yeah, we'll keep you in mind." Casey sighed. "We'll need all the alone time we can get in the next few months."
"I can't believe you're pregnant again. That's insane."
"I blame Derek." Casey scowled. "I fully intend to take it all out on him."
Emily shrugged. "He can take it." She took a breath, turning serious. "Look…I'm sorry I haven't been around, really. I just…" she looked down. "Well, I guess I got caught up in a lot of stuff. I should've been here for you guys."
"That's okay, Em. We understand." Casey tilted her head, smiling softly. "What brought this on?"
"I just…kinda realized what I'd been missing, hanging out with Nikki all night." Emily laughed. "She's one of a kind."
Casey rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it. She puts Marti's six-year-old antics to shame. In fact, I wish the only thing Nikki did was wear cat ears and steal her friends' toys."
Emily laughed. "She certainly is Derek's daughter."
"That's not necessarily a good thing."
Emily raised an eyebrow. "Well, you know, she can keep your attention. She certainly entertained me last night," she said slyly.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Pancake syrup?" Emily smiled mischievously.
Casey blushed and threw a pillow at Emily. "Get out!"
"Talk to your kid. Do you think she tells those stories at school?" Another pillow went sailing through the air, and Emily laughed. "I'm going! Bye, Spacey."
"Go to hell."
Emily laughed, waving once more, grabbing her coat and exiting before another pillow could make its way to her head.
She jogged down the steps towards her car, pulling her jacket on, knowing she had a huge smile on her face. A loud bang suddenly broke the silence, and Emily stopped short, turning back to look at the house, which is exactly when a huge duffel bag came sailing out of the upstairs window.
"Nikki!" Emily could hear Derek's voice, and she burst out laughing.
She wasn't even gonna ask.
Okay, well, I have a six-year-old sister. And she's not nearly as…ahem, special as Nikki is, but let's just say that she definitely was the inspiration for this very…well, special story. But I left it open for a sequel, since specialties are the spice of life.
Review if you like pancake syrup!