((A/N: Not much of an update here, but I've been battling a fever for the past several days so I figure a shortish chapter is forgivable. I'll try for something longer by next weekend)

Maes unlocked his front door and went in as quietly as he could.

Gracia was asleep on the couch. She was curled into a ball under a heavy blanket, her sweet face just barely visible above the pink-and-blue floral spread. He watched her sleep for a moment, love swelling his heart painfully, and shaming him. As rough as the road of being a family man was, he wouldn't give it up for the world. He should have just come straight home to his wife and child instead of walking alone. Maybe the dog bite was a sign that he just needed to be home more and not let the stress get to him so much.

He leaned over and gently touched his lips to her brow. She was a little feverish still, but cooler than she had been that morning. She gave a cute, muffled little squeak at his touch and shifted a little in her sleep, but then fell still again. He smiled down at her lovingly, then tucked the blanket a little more snugly around her legs and headed off down the hallway.

He looked in on Elysia in her nursery at the end of the hall. She was sleeping beautifully: a secure, pink little bundle nestled in her cradle. That painful feeling of love in Maes' chest doubled. He whispered a soft goodnight and turned to his own room.

He flopped down onto the bed and kicked off his boots. He took off his glasses and put them on the nightstand. He stretched out on the bed, hissing at the pain in his leg as he moved it. Then, still more or less fully dressed, he closed his eyes and took a deep, contented breath.

He was almost asleep when a high, plaintive wail echoed from down the hallway. Elysia was awake.

Maes clenched his jaw, convinced himself that rolling over and screaming into his pillow till morning probably wouldn't do him any good, and so opted to drag his tired, aching body back out of bed and tend to his daughter.

Oscar Brentford stood on his porch in the cold, his old bones aching. The military officer standing in front of him had a little notepad in one hand and a pen in the other.

"And you say it went that way?" He gestured to his left.

"Yessir. Dog big as a bear, went right down that there alley. Scared it off by banging two trashcan lids together. Bang! Like that. Weren't hardly an hour ago."

The officer grunted and made a note in his book.

"Is it your dog?" Oscar asked.

"It belongs to the military, yes." The man's voice was flat and professional, holding nothing of the kind lilt that that other military man's voice had carried. The one that got bit. He'd seemed nice. A proper gentleman, not like this cold boy here.

"Listen Mr. Brentford," the man said as one of his subordinates stepped forward and produced a small rectangle of cardstock. "Here's my card. Call me if you or anyone you know sees the dog again." Then he smiled an eerie smile that left his light gray eyes absolutely frozen. "Have a pleasant evening."

The men got back into their military vehicles without preamble. The way that they moved loudly stated that they were busy people and had other matters to attend to. Oscar almost spoke up before they drove off, to tell them that someone in their ranks had already had an injurious encounter with the beast and might be able to tell them more... but then he figured that they probably already knew that and had already spoken with him.

So Oscar shivered in the cold night, wrapped his green-and-blue plaid robe more tightly around himself, then climbed the short steps up to his apartment and went inside.

Maes opened his eyes to the sunrise-gray light that touched the ceiling of his bedroom. He yawned and rubbed his face, then jumped a little as he felt something beside him move.

"Morning," Gracia greeted, her voice hoarse from coughing. She must have gotten up from the couch and come to bed after Maes had fallen asleep. She snuggled up against his side and he put an arm around her. The feverish heat of her body against his was soothing and, for some reason, almost erotic. He knew that she still wasn't feeling well though, and would probably not fancy the idea of a quick romp before he had to leave for work. So he just held her for a while, comforted by her smell—Gods above, had she always smelled this good?—and the feel of her skin under his hands.

"How you feelin'?" he asked her, stifling another yawn.

"A little better," she sniffled. "I only used one box of tissues yesterday; aren't you proud?"

"Oh, so proud," he chuckled, squeezing her. She gave a scratchy laugh in reply that quickly dissolved into a coughing fit. She turned her face away from him and covered her mouth with the quilted pink sleeve of her nightgown.

Maes gave a soft, worried little whimper and sat up.

The room around him rocked suddenly and he almost fell back down against his soft mattress. A loud roaring filled his ears and, for just a moment, he felt as if all of the oxygen had been violently sucked from his lungs.

"M-Maes?" Gracia hacked, looking up at him as she fought to stop coughing. She wiped her watering eyes on the back of her hand and sat up. "What's wrong?"

Maes couldn't answer her for a moment, still breathless from whatever it was that had taken hold of him, but after a beat he was able to suck in a harsh breath.

"...Sweetheart?" Gracia's eyes were wide and still over-moist, looking impossibly blue in the morning light. She cupped his face in her hand, concerned, and Maes had never wanted her so intensely and so savagely as he abruptly did the moment her fingers touched his cheek. And then he could see her lying beneath him, writhing, sweating, calling out his name in ecstasy... "Maes, are you alright?"

Maes shook himself, banishing that passionate image from his mind. Where the hell had that come from?

"Yeah... yeah I'm okay..." Maes managed shakily, pushing his hair out of his eyes. His brow was hot and clammy. "I think I almost blacked out just now. I got a little dizzy, that's all. Sat up too fast, I guess."

"Oh no, I hope you're not getting sick..." she tisked, moving her hand up to his brow. "You are a little warm."

"I don't feel sick... Just a little light headed. I lost a little blood yesterday, maybe that's it."

"Wait, you're hurt?"

Maes almost launched into an explanation of last night's encounter with the dog, but he was suddenly wary of telling her about it. He wasn't sure why. It was like there was a soft voice in the back of his head telling him to just keep it to himself. It would only worry her anyway. It was no big deal. No need to trouble her with something so unimportant, right? It barely even hurt. He was fine.

"...Oh yeah. I got the nastiest paper-cut on my finger. Just gushed blood. Look." He reached his hand over and showed her the narrow slice on the tip of his index finger. It wasn't a complete lie, at least. Half of HQ had probably heard him cursing his head off after he'd done it. Paper-cuts hurt.

"My poor baby..." she mock-crooned, giving him a less-than-sympathetic pat on his arm.

"It nearly killed me."

"I'm sure it did, sweetheart."

He chuckled and kissed her on the cheek, telling her to go back to sleep while he got ready for work. She didn't need to be told twice. She closed her eyes as Maes regretfully got out of bed. As he stood, though, that dizzy breathlessness took him again and he only barely managed to stumble into the bathroom and close the door before his wife could notice.

He leaned against the counter over the sink, head bowed, sucking in huge lungfuls of air in an attempt to dissuade his body from blacking out. Maybe he should just stay home today. He felt fine otherwise, but he wasn't going to be much use at work if he kept swooning like this.

Besides, it might be nice to spend all day in bed with Gracia...

Once again he saw his wife in his mind's eye, her hips raising to meet his, the two of them tangled in the soft sea of their bed sheets, her fingernails digging hard into his back and sides...

Maes shook himself. God, what the hell was wrong with him today...?

He ardently decided that it wouldn't be a very good idea for him to call out from work in his current, weirdly sexual mindset... He and Gracia probably wouldn't get much rest if he did stay home, anyway. So, instead he turned away from his reflection over the sink and took a cold shower.

A very, very cold shower.