The Invisible Man Altiverse

Author: A. X. Zanier
Title: Family Matters
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters or basic story ideas to "The Invisible Man." Any additional characters or ideas are mine.
Timeline: 20 years in the future in the Original A. S. Series.
Comments: This one bit me hard and I had to go with it. Originally posted at Yahoo! Groups IMFanfic April, 22 2001

Thanks one again to Rebecca(WorkerCaste) for being a wonderful Beta/Editor for me.

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Family Matters




Today is my birthday.

I know -- not that big a deal these days. But in this family, on this birthday, it's the biggest deal of all. I'm turning thirteen today, and it's become a tradition in this family that this is the birthday when we get to choose. I thought I knew what I was going to decide. Was sure, actually. Until last night. And now I'm not so sure.

Now I'm a little scared.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alyx lay on the grass in the back yard panting, exhausted, and feeling no better for all the exertion she'd just put her body through. Gods, why did this have to happen? She closed her eyes, trying not to think about the absolute disaster that had occurred yesterday. She so wanted to blame herself, but knew she couldn't, knew it wasn't her fault, knew it was just parental guilt. Even if the kid did look nearly identical to her. On more than one occasion they had been mistaken for sisters. But no, Dani was most definitely not her sister. Right now, Alyx didn't even know if she was alive.

Alyx tried and failed to keep a sob from escaping. She'd told that damn Johnson to let her do this mission, but no. It had to be Dani. She was younger, and just as capable. Alyx was too well known. Idiots. Dani was just as well known or they wouldn't have grabbed her.

The whole thing had been nothing but a bloody trap.

And Johnson had sent her right into it.

The bastard.

A shadow drifted across her awareness and she opened her eyes. The person standing over her surprised her a bit.

"Dare, what are you doing home?" She leaned up on her elbows and wiped away the tears with one hand.

"Well, I got this call from Amanda, who was quite sure her mother was at home wallowing in guilt and could probably use some company." He sat down next to her on the warm grass. "Was she right?"

"Nope, not wallowing. Not yet anyway." She flopped back down. "I'm still in that 'shocked-but-angry' stage."

"Ah, good. Then I can leave." He reached out to touch her.

"If you need to, yeah," she said turning to look at him.

He knew she was serious. "If they can't hold down the fort for a couple of days then why am I paying them?"

"Pity?" Alyx managed with a smile.

He chuckled; it was almost true. "So, what exactly happened?"

"I don't know and, if they do, they're not telling. All I know was that she was on a mission to China and vanished. They think it was a trap. Her tracker was disabled," Alyx explained keeping her voice as calm as possible. "Johnson is an idiot."

Darien moved, lying down on his stomach next to her. "What did he do this time?"

"I told him the intel was screwy. Heck, so did Rose, but he was insistent that our 'hunches' did not constitute valid reasoning." The anger she felt leaked into her voice.

"So, what are we going to do about it?" Darien asked her, moving closer. He was hoping to give her what comfort he could with his presence. He knew this had to be hard on her; Dani was her firstborn, after all.

He hadn't met any of the kids from Alyx's first 'marriage' until they were all nearly adults. Well, except for the youngest, Rose, whom he had met briefly when she was about six and he and Hobbes had intervened in her kidnapping. He had a good relationship with all four of them now, though. They were family, after all.

"Do? What can we do? Johnson has ordered me to stay out of it. I do still work for the dickhead, after all." Her fondness for her current superior was evident in her voice.

"We can go get her," Darien said quietly.

"Have you been drinking the girls' concoctions again?" Alyx was convinced he'd been gone a bit too long this time.

"Why not? The kids'll help, I'm sure. This is their big sister we're talking about; you can't tell me they're not upset too," Darien said.

"Of course they are, but..."

He cut off her protest. "Let's at least look into it. I'll give Hobbes a call. Maybe he'd like to go on an adventure." Darien smiled. "Where are the short ones with attitude?"

She focused inward for a moment. "The 'Duo of Doom' is upstairs doing homework, and your sequel is eavesdropping again." she sighed. "I thought I broke him of that habit."

Darien laughed. "Sounds about right, just like me at that age."

"Gods, don't tell me he's started stealing." She was smiling as she said this, teasing him.

"'Course not. You'd never let him. Kinda hard to sneak something like that past a telepath." He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

"Oh, like you had no influence whatsoever." She'd always known he'd make a wonderful father. She'd been more than right. "Did he decide yet?"

"Not officially. We both know he wants to," Darien said softly. "He thinks it's neat, still. He hasn't really had a chance to see the down-side of quicksilver yet." He got this odd look in his eyes.

"What? Mr. Plot-and-Plan, I can see an idea percolating in that wee little mind of yours." Alyx reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder.

"I think maybe he should get a taste of what it's really like," he answered.

"You mean..."

Darien nodded. "Why not? With his luck, we'll be in more danger than he will, and his full powers haven't kicked in yet, have they?"

Alyx shook her head. "Soon though. Very soon."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So I was eavesdropping. How else was I supposed to find out what was going on? I knew my mom was upset about something and that it involved Dani, but she wouldn't tell me what. I had called Rose -- she was always good for slipping me information I wasn't supposed to know -- and she told me pretty much what I had just overheard.

I never really thought about how dangerous it could be. I mean, that was the point of our powers wasn't it? To be able to do those things for the Agency and get away with the job done and no damage to the good guys?

You know, us: my Mom; my half-siblings Dani, Chris, Manda, and Rose; and someday, probably, me, Ari, and Zoe.

For the first time I realized those scars on my mom weren't just reminders of an adventure she'd had but the remains of serious, life threatening injuries. Mom and Dad had risked their lives every time they'd gone to work. Mom still did. It could have been her and not Dani that was missing and, although Dani was my sister and all, and I was worried about her, it would have been so much worse if it had been Mom.

I wandered out of my room to check on my sisters, who were doing their homework in our study. They had the most recent version of Cousin Jason's holographic display running, beta testing it for him. It was showing an intricate multidimensional model rotating slowly between them.

They didn't even look up when I slouched into the room. (Yes, I've picked up some bad habits from my dad.)

"Well, Brother dear..." Zoe began.

"Have you come out of your mope yet..." Ari added

"And made your decision?" Zoe finished.

"Do you guys have any idea how annoying that is?" I moved over to the couch and sank into it.

As one they looked at me and said, "Yes." Then they turned back to their work.

Bad enough I had to have sisters, but I got stuck with identical twins who share the same brain. Sheesh. I watched them for a few minutes, trying to figure out how to have a serious conversation with the 'wonder twins'. They might be only eight years old, but they were far more intelligent and mature than their ages implied. Neither of them went to a regular school anymore; the teachers had given up on them, actually were frightened by them. So they instead had special tutors provided by the Agency. Then, of course, there was Cousin Jase, who gave them just about every new thing he came up with to use, abuse, and sometimes even improve. They held at least four joint patents that I knew of.

I sighed. "I don't know anymore. What happened with Dani..." I trailed off as they both looked at me.

"So you finally realized..." Ari began.

"That it's not some game." Zoe added.

"About bloody time." They said together.

"You've being hanging around Claire too much," I complained.

"Not me," Zoe said, hooking a thumb at her twin. "Just her. Can't help but pick it up though."

I shook my head, thankful once again that I wasn't a twin.

"Look, I'm trying to be serious here," I griped at them.

"We know," Zoe said for both of them. They shut down the display and sat on the floor in front of me. "Talk."

"I had..." I made sure to put emphasis on the word 'had', "decided to have Phase II done. Was going to wait till I turned sixteen and go straight into the Agency. Take classes in my spare time like Chris did. But now..." I shrugged.

They looked at each other for a moment.

"Not a bad plan," Ari said.

"Actually showing some of that..." Zoe added.

"Intelligence you supposedly inherited from Mom and Dad." Ari finished.

They glanced at each other again.

"Look, brother dear, you know it's not just fun and games. You have first-hand experience with the potential downside to quicksilver." Ari tipped her head to the side, as if listening to something only she could hear.

"But that was the gland, not the same thing as us," I pointed out.

Zoe took over. "Oh, really? And how often has Mom come home exhausted or upset because of something that happened? Just because she doesn't go quicksilver-mad doesn't mean it's any easier. It's harder for her, in fact. She doesn't have the option of having it removed like Dad did."

"If the Phase II works, you will never be able to *not* quicksilver again," Ari added.

I knew they were right, but I hadn't let myself think about it. I had been too busy focusing on what I considered the fun aspects of being able to quicksilver. I remember, just once, my dad going quicksilver-mad. I must have been five, maybe six years old, but I still remember it. Something like that you don't forget, no matter how young you were.


// I looked up from my lofty construction -- a combination of blocks, tinker toys, and Lego's -- when I heard my dad cry out. He was leaning on the door frame with this look of utter pain and despair on his face. His eyes looked funny. Red streaks running through them.

"What are you looking at?" He was nearly yelling, but I was sure I had done nothing wrong. Heck, he'd been helping me build until a few minutes ago. He had just gone to get some aspirin, or so he had said.

"Mom!!" I shouted, then remembered she was out in the yard doing her exercises.

"I don't think she's going to be much help to you," he growled at me. I actually began to feel afraid, and I was never afraid of my dad.

I didn't like it. Not one little bit. I remembered something my mom had said, about the madness. She'd told me a few months ago, just in case, that if Dad were to ever start acting odd, eyes looking funny, his head hurting, that I was to go get her.

He took a few steps towards me and I scrambled to my feet, backing away. I wondered if I could make it out back before he got to me.

With an easy sweep of his hand, the beautiful building that had taken two days to construct was shattered. The pieces flew across the room to fall to the floor with a variety of sounds.

"Look at this mess." He was waving a finger at me. "Guess you'll have to be punished now." He came after me then, the look on his face sending terror shooting through my veins.

I ran.

At first he didn't follow me. He just stood there, with several different emotions warring across his face. The hard, nasty one I didn't like won. I almost made it to the back door. Almost.

He caught me by the back of my shirt and lifted me into the air. I tried to fight him, like how Mom had taught me, but I had no leverage, couldn't breathe.

I tried to yell, to shout for my mom, but I had no air to shout with, no way for the words to get past my lips.

So I did...something. Like shouting in my head, but just for my mom. I saw spots before my eyes. I wanted to breathe. Wanted air. Didn't want this person before me, who both was and wasn't my dad, to be doing this. I could feel the tears running down my cheeks, feel the terror running through me. When he raised his hand to hit me I squealed and shouted so loud it hurt, in my head.

Then I heard my mom say, *I'm coming. Be brave.*

Be brave? When this living, screaming horror who had been my dad was about to do...do.... I don't know what, but I wanted it to go away. The whole world was getting dark and spinning in a weird way. Like when you hang your head backwards off of one of those 'Spin and Pukes' at the playground.

Then there was air and light. I wasn't hanging by my shirt collar any longer.

"Darien!" Mom was really pissed.

Dad dropped me then, but I didn't fall. Instead, I was lowered gently to the floor. I sat, coughing and panting, and watched. Watched my dad turn and go after my mom. Call her names I'm not supposed to say, even if it does make Mom laugh sometimes.

She just looked at him with this sad smile and her eyes began to glow. My dad stopped cold, unable to move. She went to the locked cabinet, the one I wasn't allowed into. The one that had a small fridge inside, as well as lots of funny-shaped bottles. She tried to reach something on one of the higher shelves and couldn't. Her belly got in the way. She was going to have a baby in a few months.

The items she wanted floated down to her. I always loved it when she did stuff like that. My mom was magic, or so I believed.

Dad had started to move again and my mom spun around to look at him. She had one of those needle things in her hand. He hit her across the face, nearly knocking her to the floor. I jumped to my feet to go after my not-dad, but then I heard her in my head again.

*Stay back, love.*

It was hard, but I did it.

He grabbed her by the throat and pulled her to her feet. He lifted her up off the ground so that her feet swung in the air, but she didn't fight him.

"Do you really want to be like Jess?" she growled out, not having quite enough air to talk normally.

My dad froze and began to shake in place, then let go of her and dropped to his knees, burying his face in her stomach.

"Shh. We'll deal later. Hold still." She was running one hand through his hair, tears running down her face.

I flinched when she stuck the needle in the back of his neck, but I think it scared me more when he fell asleep because of it. Mom held him and lowered him gently to the floor. She tossed the needle away and hiccuped. She was really crying now, and I went to her, figuring it was safe. The not-dad was gone right?

"I warned them," she was saying. "I warned them, but would they listen to me?" She wiped the tears away. "Oh, no. I couldn't know, I just live with the man."

"Mom?" She held me tight. "Is Dad coming back soon?"

"Yes, love. I promise." //


Dad had had the gland taken out two weeks later.

Oh yeah, I knew the downside to quicksilver. Had heard stories about what happens when you overuse your powers -- the headaches, the collapse of your shields, the intrusion of other minds upon your own. My telepathic ability had been triggered that day, so by now I was quite adept in its use.

For a while I'd thought I was better than everyone else, until Mom got tired of my eavesdropping on her and Dad and made me go a full day with no shields. I never want to go through that again. By the end of the day I wasn't sure who I was anymore. It took two days for me to recover, to find myself again. And I'm the lucky one; I don't retain the memories of others unless I want to. My mom can't get rid of them. She has hundreds, if not thousands of memories and experiences that are not her own.

Yet somehow she never loses her sense of self. She once said it was because of Dad, that thanks to an incident early in their relationship, he became a bit of an anchor for her. A focus point when she felt lost. A stable point in her life of near-constant upheaval.

"Hey, guys. Got a minute?"

Speaking of my dad, he was standing in the doorway. Slouching, really, much like I had been not that long ago. "Sure," I answered.

"Girls, go ready the guest room, please." He was watching them, waiting for the barrage even I knew was to come.

"For who?" Ari asked.

"Whom," Zoe corrected.

"No. It's who." Ari turned on her twin.

"It's wh..." Zoe was interrupted.

"Girls." They stopped and looked at him. "Just get the room ready. We'll explain later."

They looked up at him and nodded. As one they left the room, and as soon as they were out in the hall they returned to the argument. Girls are so weird.

"Let's take a walk," Dad said to me, and I got to my feet with a nod.

"Where's Mom?" I wanted to know she was okay.

"In the shower. How long was she out there, anyway?" he asked, leading me down the stairs and out into the yard.

I shrugged. "A couple of hours, I guess." He gestured for me to sit and I did on one of the patio chairs. "She seemed to need it."

He nodded. "How much do you know?"

There was no point in pretending I didn't know what he was talking about. Mom had caught me, after all. "Just that Dani is in trouble and no one really knows exactly what happened. Rose only gave me the general information."

"Ah, so Rose is the leaky one this time. I thought she knew better." He was smiling as he said this, so I knew it wasn't that big of a deal.

"Your mom is going to do a little digging to make sure this wasn't part of the plan, and if it's not, we're planning on going to get Dani ourselves." He was watching me carefully, waiting for my reaction. I made sure not to give him one.

"We want you to come along. We think it's time you really saw what it's like to work for the Agency," he said.

I just sat there in surprise. I hadn't overheard that! "You're kidding, right?"

"Nope. You don't think we've forgotten what day today is, do you?"

I shook my head. They never forgot.

"You've never really seen your mother working. It's not like at home. The stuff she does here is just parlor tricks." He waved his hand. "Simple stuff she does out of habit."

I nodded my head, as if in agreement, but in reality I wasn't quite sure what he was talking about. He couldn't mean that the way lights go on and off as she goes in and out of rooms, doors opening and closing, items fetching themselves for her, are tricks? Tricks? As far as we knew, the only people in the world who could really do stuff like that were members of this family. Mom, well Mom got the mother load of abilities, and she passed them on to all of us in one form or another.

"How is cooking dinner from another room simple?" I asked him and he started laughing.

"Ben, if she wanted to she could probably relocate the entire house with very little effort," he said. I realized he was serious. "You do remember that her abilities are not the same as yours, right?"

"Yeah, I remember." You see, I'm a true telepath. I can hear other people's thoughts and, to a degree, allow them to hear mine. I also have some small talent as an empath. I don't really pick up emotions, not like Uncle Mike, but I usually get feelings along with the words. Mom is something different. We call her a telekinetic, telepath, and empath, but she's not. Her abilities can just be used that way. She can also short out the power in the house, create lightning, and control a computer with her mind. Possibly all at the same time. I had never really thought about what that meant, or how powerful the ability to manipulate just about any form of energy could be. And that's not even counting her ability to quicksilver.

Now I was beginning to wonder about the things she might have done over the years.

"Hey, guys," she said as she walked out to us. I still can't stand how she can sneak up on me. She moves so quietly that she's caught me doing quite a few things that I shouldn't have been. Good thing she's pretty cool for a mom.

It took me a long time to figure out why my friends from school always wanted to hang out at my house, and when I did I was so embarrassed I hid in my room for days. How are you supposed to react when you find out your friends are begging for invites to your house so that they can check out your mom? My mom, for god's sake. When I got over the embarrassment and was able to think rationally again, I realized both how funny and how nice it was. If the guys only knew how old she really was. She may look like she's in her twenties but she's lots older. She was in her thirties when she met my dad, over twenty years ago. My dad doesn't look all that much older, either. They figure it's some weird side effect of long term quicksilver exposure -- keeps you looking a decade or so younger than you are. There was a time I thought it would be worth it just for that reason. Come on, young-looking forever, or darn close to it, and being able to turn invisible? What kid wouldn't be tempted?

Then I really looked at her, standing barefoot in the grass with her hair still damp from the shower. Her eyes, silver-colored from the saturation of quicksilver in her blood -- the color my eyes will turn if I have the process done to me. The streaks of silver in her hair -- not gray, not white, but silver. She has six of them, mostly framing her face, and they stand out against the vivid red of the rest. Badges of honor, she calls them. Every single one represents a time when she pushed herself to the limit and ended up either near death or so ill as to make no difference.

She rubbed the top of my head, mussing up my hair, and then went over to Dad and ran her hand across his shoulders as she moved behind him on the way to the chair. He grabbed her hand and held on to it as she sat down and she leaned against his shoulder, sighing. It dawned on me again that they are nothing like my friends' parents, and I'm not talking about looking younger. They actually talk to one another. They touch each other a lot and, though you'd think it would embarrass me, it just seems right. Even when they have to spend weeks apart because of work, they always end up right back where they were, as if they had never parted. I don't think I've ever heard them fight, or argue over anything serious. I'm more likely to see them reading together while lying on the hammock out back. I had heard some major brawls at a couple of my friends' houses, and it always confused me.

I like my parents the way they are.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alyx and Darien were lying in the hammock listening to the crickets chirp in the warm evening air.

"Mikey will be here by morning, and I can't find any trace that this was a set-up on the part of the Agency," Alyx said quietly. "Whoever grabbed her did so for their own reasons."

"Why do I have the feeling that you know why she was taken?" Darien ran his hands down her back and pulled her closer.

"Know? I don't 'know' anything. Rumors, those I have," she said, lifting herself up a bit to rest her head on her hand. "Remember, before we met, how the Chinese tried to get the quicksilver formula through you?"

"Yeah. They went into hiding for a while after that," he answered.

"Well, there have been several attempts over the last five years to acquire not only the quicksilver, the gland, but also our powers. We think they've figured out that it's genetic for us MacTierneys, not an implant." She looked down at him while what she said sank in.

"Ah, crap," he muttered, and she couldn't help but giggle. Some things never changed.

"If they are doing what I suspect, we actually have some time." She brought her hand up to run along his face.

"And what would that be?" he asked, closing his eyes for a moment.

"I think they are going to pump her full of fertilization drugs and then harvest her eggs. She has a birth control implant, so once they remove that it will take at least a month before they could harvest," Alyx said. He cringed a bit. Then the light bulb went off.

"That's why you wanted to go on the job; there wasn't anything they could do to you." He opened his eyes and looked at her.

"You can't still be upset that we can't have any more..."

"No. No, it's not that. I know how lucky we are to have the holy terrors that we do have. You went through hell to make that happen." He pulled her down and kissed her.

"It was worth it. Don't you dare ever think otherwise," she replied with mock anger.

He laughed. "Not likely." She lay down, her head on his shoulder. "Although, with the twins we're at about the limit of what we can handle."

"Smart-ass. I want you to consider something," Alyx said quietly.

"What?" he asked, knowing that the discussion had turned serious.

"Don't be insulted, but it's been a while since you've worked for the Agency. Some things have changed." She curled up against him, breathing in his scent. "You might want to consider a temporary implant if we decide to do this rescue."

"A temporary gland? When did this happen?" He was very surprised that he hadn't known about it, that she had managed to keep it such a complete secret.

"Oh, four years ago, and it has been successfully tested." She slid one of her hands under his shirt to run along his stomach muscles. "The surgery is fairly minor -- most recipients are working again within a week. The gland is absorbed into the body after about six months. There are no side effects, no counteragent, and so far no problems." What she didn't tell him was that they discovered the hard way that her kids could not use the temp gland. Dani's younger sister, Amanda, had volunteered to test it, since she'd opted not to take Phase II and activate her quicksilver abilities. It had nearly killed her. The genetic differences in their systems that allowed the QSX Phase II to work, they'd discovered, caused a rejection of the artificial gland. Though the quicksilver was the same, the artificial gland caused too big a conflict in the QSX kids. They had one choice -- Phase II or no quicksilver ever.

Darien wasn't sure what to think. He still had reminders of his life with the gland, including the tattoo on his wrist. The monitor chip had been removed, but the tattoo remained, the colors stuck where they had been when everything had crashed. Four red and six green. He still felt guilt over that day. It had taken time, but he had gotten over the anger. Even with how it had played out, he wouldn't change a thing.

He still remembered that old dream, and he never once regretted waiting to take the gland out. He'd had that damn dream for three weeks until he finally told Claire 'no,' then never had it again. As a result, he'd been there when the incident he'd dreamed about occurred, so instead of just Alyx and Bobby trying to save those kids, it had been all three of them. The sniper who, in his dream, had gotten off a shot at Bobby and hit Alyx, never had a chance to fire this time. The entire nasty situation had been ended without much of a struggle at all. None of the kids being held hostage had been injured beyond being a little scared.

When he had finally gotten Alyx alone after that one she must have thought he was nuts or on the verge of quicksilver madness, because he didn't let her go for nearly twelve hours. She seemed to find it somewhat amusing.

He'd kept his foreknowledge a secret the entire time. Turned out Alyx had been keeping a few secrets of her own. They'd been married just a few months later, with her already pregnant, much to his complete astonishment. A couple of those 'missions' she'd said she been on were actually for some surgery, correcting and repairing the damage she'd suffered years before. It's amazing what can change in just five years.

Now she was talking about sticking another gland in his head.

Darien shifted around a bit so that he could actually look at his right wrist. That reminder he had chosen to keep. After all, without the gland, and the turns his life had taken because of it, he wouldn't be where he was now with the things he currently had. He'd always hated the gland, but without it, where would he be? Still rotting in prison. With nothing to look forward to and no one who gave a damn about him. Even though at times it had been pure hell getting here, this was better.

Alyx ran her fingers around the tattoo, following the circular path. She was wearing the ring he'd given her ages ago, the one patterned after the tattoo. "Ah, Dare, I didn't mean to bring up old memories. It... If we do this, I don't want you get hurt, and being able to quicksilver was always helpful in that area."

He moved then so that she was lying beneath him. "You worry too much. I haven't lost all my skills, you know."

She laughed. "Given your current job, I should hope not."

His current job, his business, was to defeat security systems and help create improvements. He'd even done work for some military and government installations -- having worked for the Agency got him the in there. More commonly, though, it was private corporations that he worked for. The one thing he didn't do was computer security. If...when...Alyx left the Agency, she planned to come work with him and handle that side of the business. But for now he got paid to break into places, and then tell the owners how he did it. Got paid damn good money to do it, too. Not quite as exciting as being a thief, but it kept him out of jail.

"I could be sitting around the house, living off the wealth you stole," he said with a smile.

"You can't prove that," she said with a wry grin, her hands moving to lie on his sides. "Just think about it. We're having a family meeting tomorrow evening. Even Jase will be here. You got a hold of Hobbes and Claire, right?"

"Uh-huh." His mind had moved onto other things. Not because he was trying to avoid this discussion, but because it always moved on to other things when she was nearby. "I will think about it. Now, however, I don't want to talk."

"Really? What do you want to do?" Her hands made their way under his shirt again and were finding all those places that made him squirm and think about other things.

"I've been gone almost two weeks and you can ask that?" His voice was soft and he moved lower so that he was whispering in her ear.

"Uh-huh," she said, mimicking him.

"Then I guess I'll just have to show you," he commented, his hands now roving and finding the places that made her gasp and moan.

"Oh, yes please," she said, and then for a long while after was far to distracted by him to even think, much less speak.


*