March 26 2006
Escondido

John Lynch lay abed, hands behind his head, looking through the open door into the master bath, feeling warm with pleasant expectations. "What is it that's so erotic about watching a girl brush her teeth in her underwear?"

Anna, her back to him, spit into the sink. "I'm not brushing yet, I'm gargling."

"Same difference."

"Hm. How would I know? I'm just glad it is." She took another mouthful direct from a large bottle and made gargling sounds. At the same time, she wiped the bowl and top of the sink with a rag.

"Always busy, aren't you?" he rolled out of bed, dressed in his boxers, and padded into the bathroom. He almost had his arms around her before he noticed the pine smell.

She was gargling with household cleaner.

"Uh, most people get by with Listerine."

She spit into the sink again. The liquid was an almost fluorescent green. "Most people have remarkably efficient defenses against infection. This is all I've got."

"You don't get infections."

"Not viral or bacterial ones. But there are all kinds of nasty things that thrive in warm, moist, dark places, if you let them." She wiped at the sink again. "I'm not taking any chances, especially now that I'm sharing this mouth." She looked over her shoulder at him. "This isn't the first time I've done this. Have you noticed anything? Funny tastes or odors?"

"No," he said slowly.

"Then allow that I know what I'm doing, Jack. When I come to bed, all you'll smell is toothpaste." She stepped backwards, nudging him back until he was out the door, then swung it shut with a foot.

"Hey!"

Her voice came clearly through the door. "A little privacy, please. My mouth isn't the only warm moist place that needs some attention."

"Ah…"

"Oh, Jack. Have you had any problems? Redness, irritation, rash?"

"No. Sorry. I just didn't give it much thought, I guess."

"Sokay, love. Roxanne warned me."

"Roxanne?"

"Uh huh. She says all guys are weird about feminine hygiene."

Ten minutes later, the door opened and she stepped out, smiling. "What do you think?"

"I can't believe my eyes. I send you to a pricey clothes boutique, and they sell you a football jersey?"

"I didn't buy it at Estrellita's; Elise told me where to get it. She said it would be a treat for a man who's good with his hands." She wound her arms around his neck. "Shall we give it a try?" He could feel every movement of her body where it touched his, and her heat passed easily through the fabric. One of his hands stole into a wide-open sleeve and stroked the bare skin of her shoulder, her spine, the hollow at the small of her back; the other slid up the back of her thigh to cup a buttock. She breathed up at him, "You can touch every inch of me without taking this off. And with a little cooperation, you can remove it in about two seconds. With just one hand, if the other happens to be busy."

A few minutes later, he said, "I have to ask you something."

She nibbled his ear. "I already said yes, I think."

He put his hands on her shoulders. "Seriously. Listen to me. Anna… you said you did a lot of research before you made your pass. Yes?"

"Yes. I looked up stuff for weeks."

"Did you come across anything relating… domestic satisfaction to overall well-being and performance?" He tried to keep his voice neutral, unaccusing.

"'Domestic satisfaction.' What a Victorian way to put it. Oh, yes. Early on. It's very well documented. I was so relieved."

"Eh?' He felt his brows gather.

She cuddled closer. "Long before I knew what the word 'love' meant, I felt compelled to bind myself to you however I could. If I'd known half what I do now, I'd have crawled into your bed our first night under the same roof. After two years, I just couldn't wait any longer. But I was afraid. And ashamed. You were so stressed out. I wanted you so bad, but it seemed so selfish to make any new demands of you. But I thought I might not have much longer… before we all lost you." She stroked his belly. "Then I read about the benefits a man got from regular sex and lots of love, and I was liberated. Doing what I wanted to do anyway might actually help you." She smiled up at him mischievously. "Did you think maybe I was taking one for the team?"

She suddenly rose to her knees and pulled the sheets down to his thighs. He was uncomfortably aware of her eyes on the hash of scars on his body. He nearly reached for the sheet, but restrained himself. "What are you doing?"

"Filling my senses with you." Her hand reached out to touch a jagged welt that ran from his bottom rib to his navel. "When I first saw you, I knew those marks on your face were damage, but I didn't understand the implications. Until that first night at the beach house, when I came to your room and I saw what you looked like under your clothes. It seemed impossible that you could have suffered so much damage and survive. I had the strangest impulse to climb into bed with you and touch your scars. The idea that you were self-repairing intrigued me." She leaned forward to place three fingers in the scars on his brow. "Still does, actually. And then you told me that you'd written your own software fix to compensate for the damage you couldn't repair. I was in the presence of a god." Her fingers touched the shuriken puncture he'd got breaking the kids out of the Complex. "Stab wound." She touched another, a round puckered scar in his side just below the ribs. "Exit wound, twenty-two caliber, or maybe five-six-two. Very old. Someone shot you in the back, made a bad job of it, and I'm betting never got a second chance." Her fingers traced a long, thin scar on his hip. "Pressure cut, blunt trauma. Did it break your pelvis?"

"No. A building collapsed on me. I was pinned by a beam for two days."

"John Lynch, I want to know how you got every one of these."

"No can do. I've forgotten quite a few, I'm afraid."

"Then make something up." She ran her palm along his jaw line. "You haven't shaved in a while."

"Uh, no. Sorry." He moved slightly. "Let me go, and I'll go do it."

"Why? Is it uncomfortable?"

He blinked. "It's supposed to be uncomfortable for you."

She shook her head slightly, eyes closed, the hint of a smile on her lips. "The texture is interesting, actually. Kind of like hundred-grit sandpaper."

"God. Just what I wanted to hear. It doesn't hurt?"

"My skin's bulletproof, remember? It's very sensitive, but it doesn't register pain from a little beard stubble. I like it."

"Son of a bitch." He put his hands behind his head, feeling her tiny hands roving over his body, exploring. "I'm sleeping with a beautiful woman who's a Cordon Bleu chef and a perfect housekeeper, who's always ready for sex, thinks my scars are sexy, and even likes five o'clock shadow on her bare skin." He smiled up at the ceiling. "Pinch me, I must be dreaming." His smile disappeared, and he screamed, "YOUCH! JESUS CHRIST, WOMAN!"

"You said to pinch you. It's where my hand was."

He drew his knees up. "I'm crippled for life."

"Let me rub it and take the sting out. Hm, it's starting to swell. Maybe ice would be better?"

He pulled her on top of him. "Everything you need to make me feel better is right here."

An hour later, she snuggled her head into his shoulder. "Am I really beautiful?"

"More beautiful every day, doll." He pulled her a little tighter against him.

"How can that be? I haven't changed since yesterday."

"I see you a little more clearly every day, that's how."

"Hm. Elise says I look like Tinkerbelle. Do I?"

"Some. But I think you'd make a better Peter."

Her hand stopped its slow circle on his chest. "Peter Pan is a guy."

"Well, not exactly. Peter is a child who refuses to grow up. On stage, the role is usually played by a slender young woman, to emphasize a complete lack of adult male characteristics."

Her hand resumed its motion. "Nice save."

"Thank you."

She rolled away and tugged at him until he rolled over on top of her, cradling her shoulders in his arms. "Doll, what are you doing?"

"Auditioning to play Peter. I remember a few lines." He felt her heels press against the backs of his thighs. She smiled up into his face. "'Dark and sinister man… have at me.'"

Another thirty minutes later, he heard her throaty chuckle. "I guess I got your answer about the warm milk." He drifted off finally.

Sometime later, he woke with her lying on her side beside him, back in her football jersey. He usually woke instantly, but what he was seeing made him wonder if he was thinking clearly. "Doll… are you sleeping?"

Her eyes slitted open. "Trying to."

"But you don't sleep."

She closed her eyes again. "Not around here, I don't. Gimme an hour or so, kay?"

Perplexed, he slid out of bed. She drew her knees up and stilled again as he headed for the shower.

-0-

After Jack left, she continued her experiment, carefully shutting down more of her external sensor feeds and motor controls, being careful to leave her motion controller enough resources to simulate normal sleep. She paused and built a subroutine that would bring her back to full functionality if certain stimuli were detected: a sudden change in a family member's heart rate, her name spoken above conversational level, any sound not in her database, and a great many that were. Then she continued to isolate herself from outside distractions and possible triggers while at the same time largely immobilizing herself, installing a layer of protection for her family in case her experiment got out of hand.

It was time, she decided, to keep her promise to Caitlin. She was going to attempt to explore the Alpha file.

When she was ready, she cast her memory back to the time in the mall when the file had opened, looking for a trigger experience. I was in Estrellita's. Elise had directed me out the back door, and I was going to find the kids. No, that's not right. I knew where the kids were. I was moving to join them. To protect them. I was scared… but not for long, not really. I was angry. Worse. I was enraged. The hate just rose up out of nowhere and…

-0-

When he returned to the bedroom, she hadn't moved. Her breathing was slow and regular, and as deep as it ever got. One hand lay curled by her head. She looked exactly like a sleeping girl. Rather than climb back into bed and risk disturbing her, he decided to get up for an hour, even though it was barely past midnight. He drew the covers up to her chin and touched his lips to her forehead. "Sweet dreams."