CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: "HOME REMEDIES"

Whatever pleasure Jack had derived from Ann, it had vanished within days and the lingering memory of it was haunting him. Sitting on his couch, Jack stared at his tv, watching the weather channel listlessly, unable to tear his mind away from the encounter. He could still see Ann sprawled underneath him, biting her knuckles, but if that was some kind of intimate thought, he wasn't entirely sure if it was a good one.

He wasn't sure what to think. He had slept with his friend's girlfriend. His friend's girlfriend. He'd slept with ANN! Maybe it was because he just couldn't get past that one comment Cliff had told him, that there was no way Jack could have swayed Ann away from him. Obviously, he could, but he wasn't entirely sure what that meant. Cliff was right, though. Underneath Ann's rough exterior was a softer, tender person inside.

He sighed, wiping his face with his hands. What was wrong with him? He felt like an entirely different person than when he first came here. He felt like an...animal. Like he was ready to pounce on anyone for anything. He felt down. But most of all, he felt more like he'd murdered someone. What did Ann think of him?

That echoing nag at the back of his head barked at him, "Who cares what she thinks? It's not like she put up much of a fight anyway."

"I'm not a bad person." Jack muttered to himself.

"Who said you were? What's wrong with taking advantage of a willing young woman? She wanted it and I gave it to her, what's the problem here?"

Jack was suddenly very aware of just how clear and coherent that little voice was, like a separate person talking to him. It reminded him of the separate voices of Gollum and Smeagol, how there was a bad side and a (for a short time) good side. But if that were the case, then who was doing the talking? Who was in control?

Jack's head split with pain, like a bad migraine hitting him all at once. He got up and made his way for the bathroom, where he opened the medicine cabinet and grabbed some headache medicine. When she shut the mirror, he looked up and jumped as the reflection in the mirror wasn't him...at least not entirely. Instead of the short haired, clean-shaven Jack, he saw the long haired, goateed Ace Valentine staring back at him.

Jack jumped backwards and when he looked again, he saw his own face staring at him again. He swallowed hard and quickly took his pain pills, heading outside and not wanting to see any mirrors or reflections. He opened his mailbox and pulled out an unmarked envelope. He groaned.

This time, it wasn't his mysterious friend,

"Dear Jack,"

"I want to talk to you. I'll be over tonight.. Cliff's going night fishing with Zack. He's going to invite you, but don't' go."

"Ann"

Jack crumpled the note up and tossed it away just as Cliff came bounding up to him with a smile on his face. "Good morning, champ! Don't you just love this brisk fall weather?"

Jack looked at Cliff, feeling more like he'd murdered the young man's mother. Cliff didn't know, obviously. What man could act so cheerful to the man who had slept with his girlfriend. "Uh...yeah." Jack said. "Nice and cold."

Cliff just took a deep breath and let it out with a satisfying "Aaaah! I love the Fall. Winter, too. My favorite seasons. Spring's nice, but it makes my allergies act up and Summer's just too hot, but Fall and Winter are perfect!"

"You're awfully chipper today." Jack noted.

"Ah well, life's been good to me." Cliff said with a shrug, "And yes, before you start asking personal questions, my girlfriend and I were very close recently. Just this morning, in fact." Cliff put a finger to his chin, "And...the other night, as well. Come to think of it, she's been very physical lately. Lately, it's like she's gotten a double-dose of the snuggles, if you know what I mean. Like she can't get enough of me, know what I mean?"

"I guess." Jack shrugged.

"Jack, are you okay? You seem to be in the dumps today." He put his hands on his hips, laughing, "I bet it's Popuri. You've been thinking about her lately, haven't you? Well, let me tell you something, and this didn't come from me." He leaned close. "You know Ann and Popuri are close friends, right? Listen, Ann says that Popuri has it bad for you."

Jack rolled his eyes, "Someone call Dan Rather, this is headline stuff."

"What?" Cliff shrugged, "I thought you'd want to know."

Jack spun on him, "News flash, genius! Girls have been fawning over me since the day I was born. This isn't news to me, I know Popuri's got her little schoolgirl crush. So does Mary...and Karen, as well. I'm not blind, Cliff. I can see for myself that females tend to drift in my way more often than not."

Cliff bit his lip. "I...I was just trying to be helpful, Jack."

"Well, you're not, so shut your pie-hole, Sparky."

Cliff stepped back. "Jack, what the...what's wrong with you? You know, it'd be nice if you'd call me by my name once in a while."

Jack shook his head, walking off. "Go home, fido. I don't feel like work today."

"Well...fine, then." Cliff said. "I was going to invite you with me and Cliff to go fishing tonight, but never you mind. Maybe you'll be happier when I come back tomorrow." With that, Cliff left Jack all by himself on his farm. Jack went about his chores mindlessly, feeding his Lord of the Rings chicken coop and going about and picking his sweet potatoes.

He had just finished piling them into his cupboards and was going to see to Belle when May came waddling up to him in a jacket so thick, she could barely lower her arms. "Hi, Mr. Jack." She said.

Jack looked down at her, as if he didn't know what to think of a five year old child. "Hey, kid."

She tilted her head, "Mr. Jack, you look sad."

He sat down on the ground, cross-legged. "I am sad, kid. I don't think today would be a good day to come visit, so you might want to go home."

May looked at him strangely, then waddle over and wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. "Grandpa says when you get sad, the best thing is a hug and a kiss from someone who loves you. Don't be sad, Mr. Jack."

Jack felt like someone was slipping a glass shard into his chest. He put one of his big arms around the girl and hugged her back. "Somehow, I don't think even that will cheer me up."

May looked at him, then smiled, "Well, if that won't do it, I'll just have to kiss you until you do get happy." She started pecking him on the cheeks rapidly and he tried to move his head to avoid her.

"Hey, cut that out. Stop, I don't...I don't wanna be kissed!" He said.

"Well!" A voice suddenly said, "I can see I'm not needed."

Jack spun to see Popuri standing behind him, her hands holding a deep dish. She looked at him with a sweet smile on her face. "Aren't you two the cute couple."

"Hi, Popuri!" May cried, jumping from Jack's lap and running to Popuri, hugging her leg.

Jack stood up. "Poe, what're you doing here?"

"I brought you a dish. Some of mother's homemade apple pie, fresh from the oven." She looked at him. "Jack, what's wrong? You look...sad."

"I don't feel well." Jack said, sniffling when he spoke. That small sniffle was getting to be a real bother. Any day now that cold was going to break out on him, he just knew it. "I'm getting sick, so I don't want you girls getting anything from me."

Popuri just scoffed, "Hmph! Well, if you think I'm going to catch something from a mere sniffle, you're sadly mistaken. Maybe you should have some of Momma's chicken soup. It knocks the wind out of a cold something fierce."

"I'll be alright." Jack said, "By my estimate, it'll hit me fully tomorrow and I'll just take a few days to get over it. But for now, you guys can come in and we can share some hot apple pie."

"Oh Jack, I really should get back before I'm missed." Popuri said, but Jack took her by the hands an led her, laughing, into the kitchen where they cut slices of apple pie and divided it into the slices which May, Popuri, and Jack downed eagerly.

When they finished, Jack took them outside and the three of them spent the rest of the day together. Jack let May ride Bilbo, although with his supervision and standing right next to her just in case. He let Popuri brush Belle and she was good at it. Belle seemed to like her, mooing happily as she was brushed.

They tossed a Frisbee back and forth with Frodo barking and chasing it. Jack and May wrestled in the field, getting dirty and not even caring, though Jack kept a suspicious glance out for any and all signs of gophers. Dusk was coming and Jack knew that Ann was going to arrive at any time. "I think it's time you two scamps went home." He said, "But thank you for such a fun day. I really...kinda needed it."

Popuri smiled and turned her head. Jack happily leaned down, but turned her head and kissed her soundly on the lips. "I'm always glad to see you, Poe." He said.

Popuri blushed ten shades of pink. "Oh Jack...Me...I am...me too."

May tugged on his coat. "Don't I get one?"

Jack lifted her into the air and gave her a big smooch on the cheek. Popuri leaned over and gave her one as well. "Go on home to gramps, you little scamp." Jack said. He turned to Popuri. "You too, Poe. I got some business tonight."

She took his hand affectionately, "Jack, I really had fun today. I wish I could be over here every day. Spending time with you is like...nothing's wrong with the world." Popuri looked up and gasped, seeing Jack with tears rolling down his cheeks. "Jack?"

"I'm sorry, Poe. I'm just...I'm so sorry. Please, go home, okay?"

"Jack?" Popuri asked, but Jack had turned and was walking towards his house. She folded her hands in front of her, looking worried, but he had already walked into his house. Popuri lowered her eyes, "Jack...what did I do?"

XxXxXxX

Jack walked into the house and sat down. "What's wrong with me?" He asked himself, cradling his head in his hands. "Why am I like this?"

"Stop your blubbering, you crybaby! Man up!"

Jack lifted his head angrily, a cold glare growing in his eyes. "You...shut up!"

"No one shuts me up."

Jack got up out of his chair and strode into the bathroom. He stared into the mirror, Ace Valentine glaring back at him. "I knew it! I just can't drop being Ace, can I? I just can't stop being the Main Event!"

"Of course, you can't!" Ace cried back, "Everything you were: rich, powerful, in charge, above everyone else...it's all what we were, Jack! You can't just put that aside after six years!"

"I don't want it anymore!"

"To hell with what you want! What you want is some pussified life with roses and candy and pinkie back there rubbing your shoulders after a hard day of work. Sorry, Jacko, but I need a little something extra in my life."

"It's not your life!" Jack cried. "It's my life!"

Ace reared back and suddenly a fist crashed through the mirror and struck Jack in the face, knocking him backwards. Jack felt the glass shards cutting his face, the small particles falling into his eyes, cutting the soft tissues, blood pouring across his face, screaming in agony.

He opened his eyes and found himself on the bathroom floor. Looking up, he saw the mirror was untouched and his face was fine, though he could still feel the glass as if it'd cut him for real. His cheek, where Ace had punched him, was sore to touch.

"We haven't even begun to see what kind of pain I can put you through."

Jack got up and ran into his house, panicked. He looked around as if there was something, anything, that could deliver him from this. His eyes fell to the bookshelf and there, besides his copies of fantasy novels, was the hard backed bible that had belonged to his grandfather. He swallowed and walked forward, grasping it.

"Put that down!"

Jack ignored the voice and sat down, opening the bible to a random page and simply read. He read long and until his mind seemed to clear, letting the words sink in and taking into account all that he had read. He had turned straight to the beginning of the beginning of Christ's ministry, where he had met John the Baptist.

Jack was never a religious person. He believed in God, but that was usually when he wanted a title win. He felt selfish now, realizing that he had only talked to God when he had needed him. He remembered Andy Morelli, a tall, strong Italian fellow from the mean streets of Brooklyn. Whatever stereotypes about people from New York Jack may have heard, Andy was, hands down, the nicest guy in the world. Jack had always thought the guy was a bit of a bible-thumper, trying to fill his heads with thoughts of God when, at the time, his heads was filled with thoughts of money, women, and how to get more of both.

Still, despite a measure of contempt Jack had for the man, he knew Andy was always nice to him and went out of his way to help Jack. Jack liked traveling with him, because the guy wasn't like the other boys in the locker room , who were always wanting to head for the strip joint and blow their hard-earned cash on some nameless pair of boobs. Plus, he felt like when he was traveling with him, he was getting on God's good side by association. In retrospect, that was ridiculous, but that's how his mind worked then.

Jack had once lost a match, a very important match. In fact, it was the first time he lost his AWF championship. He had moped about it and when he'd seen Andy he asked him, "Andy, how come things like this happen to good people like me?"

Andy's lifted his eyebrow. "Did you ever think to just ask?"

"Why should I ask?"

Andy's reply had burned itself into Jack's mind, "Do you think God should talk to someone who ignores him entirely?"

That reverberated in Jack's mind. So what did that mean? Did that mean pray the Lord's prayer five time or build a rosary? Jack was never Catholic and had never understood the Catholic faith. Seemed to him that if God was going to forgive you your sins, why would you have to ask a man in a booth to forgive you? That middleman aspect always confused him. Now he seemed to understand. He had to talk to God and it was just one-on-one, him at the Lord. Did he have to go to the church for this?

Likely not. Wasn't the guy everywhere? Jack just got up and walked outside. He didn't want to talk to his ceiling fan. He wanted to look God right in the eyes. He had things he needed to say. He marched in silence down the mountain path, marching up Mother's Hill. All the while, Ace nagged at the back of his mind.

"There are no answers that way, Jack. You and me, we're two of the same. You can't think you can just get rid of me and be done with it! You can push me aside and lock me down, but I'll never be gone for good. You get rid of me and you're getting rid of a part of you that's bigger than you realize."

Jack marched in silence over the long, suspended bridge.

"I changed your life, Jack. We shook up the world. Muhammad Ali. Martin Luther King Jr. Alexander the Great. Elvis Presley. The Beatles. Babe Ruth. They all had a bit of me in them. They changed the world, saw it though a different light and took the bold steps no one else dared tread on. The name of Ace Valentine is part of those kinds of legacies. You can't take that away. We changed the world, we shook it to it's very foundations!"

Jack marched up and stood at the peak of Mother's Hill, looking into the sky. "God. If it's alright with you, I'd like to be at peace with myself."

"I won't be gone, Jack! Not by a long shot!"

"Please forgive me for what I've done and help me to undo the damage I've done. Whatever troubles I incur, I take them willing."

"My name is Ace Valentine!"

"Help me, God. Please, help me."

"A name that will live in INFAMY!"

"I'm sorry for what I've done. Please don't let Ace take everything from me. Please, God...help me."

Jack stood for several minutes until he realized that Ace was silent. He sighed loudly, his chest feeling as though a ten ton weight had been taken off it. He looked into the silent night sky and smiled, "Thanks."

XxXxXxX

Jack got back to his home just as Ann was walking onto his farm. She spied him and the look that was on his face. "What're you smiling about?"

"Just taking care of some personal business. Come on inside, Ann."

She did and as soon as the door was shut, Ann was on guard, watching him. "Listen, Jack...don't think for a second that I appreciated what we did together."

Jack held up his hands. "I know. I...you're too good a person for what happened, Ann."

"Don't try the sweet talk, Jack. You caught me by surprise, okay? I admit I'm...a bit of a sucker for the kind of sweet talking you did to me, but I'm over it now. I don't want to be sweet talked. I don't want anything from you anymore. What we did together I will forever regret in my heart."

"Me too."

Ann's eyes shot open. She shuffled on her feet, caught off guard. "Wh...what?"

Jack nodded, "Ann, I won't say that in some world, somewhere, you and I couldn't have been something. In truth, I think you're a great girl—a woman, like I said. But the thing is you're someone else's woman and what we did was wrong. I blame myself, because I've always been like this. I've always hounded girls and it's a habit I've found hard to break. But I think I'm over it now and I really regret what we did together. I can only hope that in the future you won't think too badly of me for it."

"I can only hope that Cliff doesn't kill you." Ann said.

Jack frowned, "What do you mean?"

Ann crossed her arms. "What I mean is that I'm not going to keep something like this from him. Jack, Cliff is too sweet a guy to have something like this kept from him. You said some things that sounded true. Cliff doesn't treat me like you were treating me, but it only bothered me at the time. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that he doesn't know the...the me that's on the inside. You saw her, even just a little bit." She held her hand to her heart. "But that inside Ann is totally in love with Cliff because of who he is. Here, sit down."

They sat on the couch next to each other, Ann folding her arms in front of her. "Jack, the Ann you see every day...I have to be her. I have to be so open and happy because the truth of everything is that my life is a really tragic thing to relive and it weights on me every day."

"Like that crack about your mom?"

Ann nodded, "She was a drunk and she whipped me with an extension cord...or a length of barb wire. Sometimes she'd roll a small chain around her fist and punch me under my hind end, bruise me for weeks. Dad didn't see it and I was afraid that if I said anything, it would mean we wouldn't be a family. But when I...when mom died, it was the best thing that ever happened. Jack, my life was nothing but pain and heartbreak for so long. I just got tired of being so miserable. I decided to just...cheer up. Mentally, I mean. I already told all this to Cliff, cause he's the special guy in my life. But you...well, we shared something special, too. What I'm trying to say is that I'm not going to do something like this to Cliff. He deserves to know the truth..." She hung her head, "Even if it means he leaves me. I won't lie to him."

Jack nodded, "Cliff...he won't be very happy with me. Maybe I should be with you when you tell him."

"No, I'll tell him. You'd better be here and have a bat nearby or something. Jack, promise me you won't hurt him if he comes after you."

Jack looked away, wondering. He'd had men angry at him before—for a lot of reasons, mind you—and a female was occasionally one of them. But Cliff was different. Cliff was more than just some random stranger, he was Jack's...friend. Jack couldn't claim a lot of friends, but Cliff had been his at least for a time. What kind of a friend was he?

"Jack...I hope you don't think I'm some kind of slut." She said, "I've never even thought about this kind of thing until you and Cliff came along. In fact...when you first came to the village, I kept looking forward to seeing you at the Inn. Just seeing you was the highlight of my day. But I really didn't know much about guys, so I wasn't sure how to approach you. Of course, by then you'd already gone to the Harvest Festival with Popuri. Not only will this hurt Cliff, but if it got back to Popuri...she'd never forgive either of us."

Jack nodded. He recalled what Cliff had told him. Popuri was smitten with him. He didn't need someone to tell him that, it was all very much obvious just by looking into her eyes. Still, Jack didn't mention Karen or Mary. He hadn't figured them out...he hadn't figured anything out.

"Ann, I don't think you're a slut. These things...well, they happen sometimes. In another world, another time, I could see us together. But don't tell anyone that. Right now, I wouldn't jeopardize the friendship we have. I know we can't ever undo what we've done, but keeping you as a friend would be a start."

Ann nodded, a tear rolling down her cheek. She sniffled and wiped it away. "Hey, after I tell Cliff, you may be the only friend I have." Jack reached over and hugged Ann. He hoped Cliff wouldn't come at him with a gun.

XxXxXxX

It was after midnight when Ann finally heard Cliff climb up the stairs silently. She was glad that her dad was gone from the Inn for the night. He was at Gotz's for a late night round of poker with Gotz, Duke, and Saibara, the old gruff guys of the village that wanted to be just them and reminisce about the good old days. She had a terrible feeling in her heart.

She remembered what Popuri had told her: "Just ask God for help when it feels like you're in over your head."

Ann closed her eyes. "God, it's me. I know you're not happy to see me, but there's nothing I'd really like more than to keep Cliff. I know I asked for a new mom after what happened...happened, but this is more important. Think you could...you know, do something really good for me? I promise not to get into dad's vodka cabinet. Please?"

She heard the door open and sat up. "Cliff."

He turned the lights on, looking around. His hands were full of tackle, poles, and he wore a fisherman's cap with flies in the brim. "Ann? What're you doing up so late?" He set his things down and came over, "You look upset?"

"I am, Cliff." She said, taking his hands, "Baby, I need you to sit down, we have to talk."

Cliff cast a confused look, but nodded and sat, "Okay. What's up?"

Ann opened her mouth, working it up and down to try and find the words. "Baby, I...I gotta tell you somethin'. I did something. Something really bad. To you, that is, and I know if I tell you, you're going to hate me forever. But that's okay, because I'm prepared for it. I'm...I'm ready if you never want to see me again."

Cliff only looked at her in confusion.

"Baby, when I first met you, I thought you were just a little bit of eye candy. But after we got to be friends..."

Cliff smiled, "You mean when you started riding me like a pony?"

Ann laughed, then snapped, "Shut up, I'm trying to be serious! Cliff, I..." She looked him in his eyes, "I really, honest to God love you, baby. I know I never say it, but I feel it in my heart. You mean the world to me. That's why this hurts me so much and I know you're going to hate me for it and I hate myself for even doing this to you. Cliff, I—"

Suddenly, Cliff's hand was over her mouth. He looked at her in wonder, "Ann, you're crying."

She swallowed, knowing full well that hot tears were rolling down her cheeks. "Cliff, be serious."

Cliff just smiled, "A beautiful girl like you shouldn't have to cry. You're too pretty for that. Besides, haven't you had enough tears to last you a lifetime?" He moved next to her and wrapped his arms around her.

Ann sobbed suddenly, her heart twisting inside her. "Cliff, you have to hear this. I've done something terrible!"

Cliff backed away, looking into her eyes calmly. "Ann, you're really hurting because of this, aren't you?"

"Cliff, it's killing me!" Ann cried. "I hate myself for even doing it!"

"Then why would you want to suffer more by telling me?"

"Because you deserve to hear it. Because I won't keep something like this from you!"

Cliff just smiled that sweetheart smile he gave only to her, "Do you love me? Really?"

"Of course, I love you."

"And this thing you did...it's tearing you up something fierce? I take it you won't do it again?"

"What kind of a person would I be if I did it again?" She cried, wiping her eyes, "I'm already a terrible person for doing it in the first place."

Cliff just hugged her, "Then as far as I'm concerned, you look like you've learned your lesson. I don't need to know what you did. It's nice that you want to be honest with me, but this thing...it's hurting you so much. I know it'd hurt me and I should know what it is, but Ann, my only concern in this life is you. If you're sorry—and I can see that you truly are—then I forgive you for whatever it is. Just know that I love you with all my heart and nothing you tell me will take that away from me." He then whispered in her ear, "But just to be sure...don't tell me anyway. Much as I love you, testing it wouldn't be fun, would it?"

When he said this, Ann exploded into tears, blubbering and crying into his shoulder as she held him. Cliff just held her, patting her back. He wondered to himself, despite his words. What could she have done that was so terrible?

She slept with someone. That had to be it. Only something on that kind of scale could make her break down like this. He figured it had to be someone he knew, so it could have been Gray, Rick, Jack, Harris...who knew? Probably Jack, considering what Cliff knew about him. His heart exploded in a nova of pure rage and Cliff entertained the thought of destroying Jack in a fury of homicidal glee.

He squashed that thought. Jack was a fighting machine. The very thought that he could march onto Jack's farm and—enraged though he might be—try to fight Jack was ludicrous. Jack would bend him into pretzel-like shapes no matter how hot-headed he got. Much as Cliff thought it would be nice and dramatic and, to him, the right thing to do, he figured Jack was just being Jack.

"But why my girlfriend?" He thought, "Of all the girls in the world, why did he have to try and take mine? Because he's Ace Valentine, that's why. He can't stand not having any sort of control of something. He's done it before. I heard too many people tell me that—including Kai—not to believe Jack wouldn't stoop to that level and take away something that was in my grasp—namely Ann."

He looked down and saw that Ann was still crying and very hard. "Annie," That was his pet named for her, just as Baby was her name for him, "Annie, what's wrong?"

"I don't deserve you, Cliff." She cried, "I don't deserve a guy like you. You don't deserve a no-good girl like me."

"Hey, hey, it's okay." He said, speaking softly to her, kissing her forehead. "We'll be okay. Look, everybody makes mistakes. It happens. We're all only human. When we're at our lowest...well, that's when things can look up. Just before Jack found me on the way to Flowerbud, I was stuck in the middle of nowhere with a broken car and broken dreams. Now look at me: working the earth and with a good woman at my side. I may never be the world's greatest professional wrestler, like I'd wanted, but I'm the world's luckiest guy because I've got you and that's all I need. I guess you weren't expecting to get saddled with a guy like me, huh?"

Ann wiped her eyes, her crying subsided, "Cliff...you're the best thing that's ever happened to me...besides my mother drowning."

"Hey, I just know what I know: I love ya, Ann. No matter what. Glad you thought to tell me, but I forgive you anyway. You'll always be my—"

Ann jumped up, her eyes widened, "Don't say it!"

Cliff smiled, "Ann, you're always going to be my—"

She tackled him, her hands trying to cover his mouth, giggling like crazy, "No! I am NOT!"

"My little chipmunk!" Cliff cried, "Come on, you sound like one when we're intimate, you have to admit!"

"I do NOT squeak like a chipmunk!" She laughed, wrestling with him. The two of them rolled around on her bed, laughing , hearts swelling, their tears and pain forgotten entirely. Eventually, Cliff managed to roll her over on her back and, laughter dying slowly, he leaned down and kissed her softly.

"Cliff, you are the most amazing man I've ever known." She said.

"And you're the most unbelievably beautiful girl...no, you're not a girl...you're a woman. A real lady, you know that?"

Ann's face softened, "Oh Cliff. You sweet little...call me a lady, Cliff. Treat me like one. Show me how it feels to be a lady." She sighed, feelings his tender lips on her skin as he showed her that he meant what he said. He truly forgave her and although he might not have been the kind of lover Jack had insisted he was, Ann loved him all the more because she could see that his heart was filled with nothing but thoughts of her. Her night with Jack was a fleeting moment of passion, easily forgotten and forever damaging, but Cliff—her sweet, loving Cliff—didn't even want to hear of it.

She only wished her mother were alive so she could rub it in her face.

XxXxXxX

Jack waited for the expected explosion from Cliff, but it never came. He tried to stay awake at night, figuring the young man would charge onto his farm and try to kill him in his sleep, but he woke up the next morning and—surprise!—his cold had finally come through full bore. His nose ran, was pink, his head felt stuffy, and he was coughing. Could he predict the future or what?

A knock came at the door and Cliff walked in. From the expectant look on Jack's face, Cliff knew his assumptions were right. He shoved the expectant hate at the back of his heart and smiled, "Morning, Jack."

Jack looked at him in wonder. "Hey...dude."

"Aren't you getting up? Or do we have no work for today?" Cliff came in; Jack tensed, readying himself as best he could.

"Er...are you okay?" Jack asked.

"Yeah, why?" Cliff asked, cocking an eyebrow, "Oh, I bet Popuri told you. Ann's been pretty distraught the past week and last night she said she had something to tell me."

"Did she tell you?" Jack asked, getting ready to defend himself.

Cliff just shook his head. "Nope. I didn't let her. I love her enough that I just forgave her for it. She was in a bad way when she was trying to tell me, so I figured she'd apparently suffered enough. Better to just let it be, Jack. True love conquers all and there's nothing in here," He tapped his chest, "But love for that young lady."

Jack felt his brain somehow explode. He touched his head to make sure it was still in one whole piece. Cliff just looked at him smugly, that smarmy bright smile that almost made Jack sick had he not bee completely relieved that Cliff hadn't heard the awful truth.

"Oh. Yeah, Popuri told me." Jack said, lying through his teeth, "Figured you'd be angry or something."

Cliff shrugged, "What can I say. Forgiveness is a divine power, Jack. Sometimes, that's all it takes."

Jack slumped into his chair, relieved as if he had somehow dodged the death penalty, even though he could likely toss Cliff around like a rag doll. "Spanky...you're a better man than I ever will be."

Cliff smiled knowingly. "I know, Jack. I know."

"Well," Jack took a deep breath, anxious to change the subject, "To answer your question, I don't think I'll be working at all. I've got a cold, so I'm staying indoors for the next few days. But I'll give you a little extra this week so long as you make sure the animals are fed. Make sure Bilbo gets some exercise, too. I'll be back on Monday, I hope."

Cliff nodded, "Will do, boss." He tossed a salute. "Feeding chickens, here I come."

When Cliff left, Jack looked into the sky. "You do good work, boss."

XxXxXxX

Jack laid in bed for the next day, miserable and lonely. There was nothing to do and he didn't feel like reading. For the most part, Jack was up in bed and napping, although he couldn't sleep forever. His fever was up, he was taking medicine, he ate light foods and some clear fluids and orange juice. The satellite tv had some decent channels to watch. It'd looked like his grandfather had only gotten the bare minimum of satellite deals so he could watch Ace.

On that day, Jack was tempted to pop in a random tape and watch one of his old matches, but the very thought of Ace Valentine was detestable. So he didn't want to watch himself run around the ring and talk like...well, like his old self. Those days were gone and even thought it seemed like he was having more than enough trouble leaving it behind, he really wasn't ready for another herniated disk or the intense soreness.

He received a letter from Ann, confirming what he'd suspected.

"Dear Jack,"

"As you no doubt know by now, Cliff didn't want to hear what I had to tell him. I guess this is the only way that things could have been. I feel good knowing I had tried to tell him and even better that he loves me enough not to hear what we'd done, although I suspect he may know and has simply forgiven us. Still, you never know. He might be waiting to ask for a three-way or something. Hey, I'm open if you are, Winkwink. If not, let's never speak of this again and I promise not a word to Popuri."

"Ann"

XxXxXxX

At the beginning of the second day, he was sleeping heavily when a knock came to his door. He lifted his eyes and moaned, "Who is it?"

"It's me." A muffled voice answered.

Jack couldn't hear. "Me, who?"

"Jack, it's Popuri, open up, it's cold outside!"

"Come in!" he yelled.

Popuri opened the door and shut it against the cold winds. "Brrr. Pooh! The cold is so cold! Jack, I haven't seen you in days, what're you doing in here?"

"I'm playing golf courses in the midst of my unfettered mind." Jack replied with a cough, "What do you think I'm doing? I'm sick, Poe, so you'd better get out of here."

She walked up to him and felt his forehead. "Jack, you're burning up. You have a fever."

"I have a cold! Of course I have a fever. Don't hang around for long, Poe, you might get sick or something, to say nothing of the fact that I feel like crap and I'd make you feel the same way if you stuck around. So do yourself a favor and go home."

Popuri looked at him, looked around, and then walked out the door without so much as a 'see ya'. Jack just shrugged and went back to sleep.

Thirty minutes later, he was woken up by the sound of the door opening and he looked to see Popuri shut it and toss a duffle bag by the door, her other arm heavy with a picnic basket. He moaned, "You're crazy if you think I'm going on a picnic."

Popuri looked at him with a no nonsense look on her face. "Jack, this is some supplies for me to make chicken soup. I'm not going to sit here and let you suffer, you don't seem to be any good at taking care of yourself, so I'm going to take care of you until you're better."

Jack rolled his eyes. "Poe, don't. I'm fine, really. Look, I'm jumping all over the place. ACHOO!" he sneezed and Popuri was suddenly at his side with a box of tissues. "Blow your nose, Jack. Being sick is no excuse for bad manners."

Jack blew his nose and sneezed again, then suddenly felt the urge for BLTs. He moaned to himself. "Oh no. Not her too." What was he going to do. He looked up at Popuri and said, "Get the door, Mary's coming."

She offered him a strange, confused look, "What? How do you know?"

"I want some BLTs."

"Jack, you're not eating BLTs while you're sick, now tell me how you know Mary's coming?"

Knock, knock

"Jack, are you home?" Mary's muffled voice came.

Popuri answered the door and Mary and Popuri stared at each other for a long moment before Mary asked, "Hey, Popuri, what're you doing?"

"Jack is sick, so I'm staying to offer him some help." Popuri said, sounding as if nothing could be better than taking care of sick Jack. He moaned and rolled over.

"Wow." Mary said, "What a coincidence. Cliff just told me Jack thought he was going to get a cold, so I brought a couple of books on fighting colds for him." She walked over to Jack and felt his head. "He has a fever."

"Duh." Jack said.

"Jack, hush." Mary said. "You need your strength."

"Listen to us, Jack." Popuri added. "We're women, we're always right."

"Horseshit!" Jack cried, "Get outta my house, you two old bags! You'll drive me insane before I can get better. I'll not be talked of with such disrespect."

"I think he's getting delirious." Popuri said, "I'll get him an ice pack."

"I'll look up the best remedy for a fever." Mary said, sitting on his couch and thumbing through one of the books she brought.

"I'll have to start his chicken soup." Popuri said, "Is that alright for you, Mary?"

"Let me see what you brought. Jack needs the right enzymes and vitamins to help him get well."

Jack moaned out loud, wordlessly.

"Hush, Jack." Popuri said. "I don't think he has any vitamins here, but the General Store would."

"Do I have time to run there before you finish cooking?" Mary asked.

"Of course. I'll wait until you get back." Popuri said with a smile.

Mary was gone and back in less than an hour and she brought her own duffel bag with her. "What's that for?" He asked.

"Jack, Popuri can't take care of you round the clock. Obviously, I'm going to have to stay with you and make sure you get the proper balance of vitamins and nutrients according to my books." She patted her nearby book. "You don't mind, do you?"

"I just want some sleep!" He cried.

Popuri returned from the kitchen, "And you should refill your ice tray once in a while, I had to refreeze some ice before I could make this ice pack. You'll get some sleep when you're through eating, you have to keep up your health, like Mary says."

Knock, Knock

"Go away!" Jack cried.

"Come in." Popuri said sweetly.

The door opened and Karen waltzed in carrying a duffel bag in her arms.

"Karen!" Popuri said, surprised. "What're you doing here?"

Karen tossed her bag near the door with Mary's and Popuri's. "Mary came into the General Store to buy medicine and told me about Jack and that you were trying to take care of him. I figured you might feed him, but he's going to have some other needs he needs taken care of. So I'm gonna stay with you guys in case he needs some house work done or a pillow or something."

"Go away!" Jack cried, moaning. "If I want a wife to nag me, I'll order one from Russia!"

"Jack, hush." All three said together.

So the situation went the rest of the day with Popuri cooking, fixing Jack's various medical needs, Mary inspecting the food, making sure he had vitamin supplements and the correct back arch to expedite healing, and Karen fetching him pillows, keeping the fire stoked, helping bring the things they needed. All the while, Jack sat back, miserable and unable to sleep.

Karen brought him a small bell while the other two were in the kitchen. "You're lucky I like you so much, Jack. Having to put up with those two while you're sick...you must hate it."

"Go home and choke." Jack snarled.

She laughed. "You're so funny. I'll get you another ice pack. Just remember: no suck-face until you're well." She went into the kitchen and Mary returned with a glass of water and some pills. She winked at him.

"Jack, you're lucky you've got me to help take care of you. Those two wouldn't know a vitamin from an enzyme with the instructions written on both. But keep those lips to yourself until you're better, okay? I should be okay, because I had my pre-winter shots, but just to be prepared."

Jack looked up at her. "Go read yer trashy hacks, bookworm."

Mary smiled sweetly at him, "You're so funny, Jack. Here's your vitamins. You know what to do."

For the pure spite of it, Jack put the large vitamin in his nose, held down one nostril, then used a deep breath and some basic physics to shoot the pill across his house to land in the corner.

Popuri came up to him holding a tray of steaming chicken soup. She talked in a low tone as she came towards him, "Jack, you're lucky you have someone who can cook for you to—OOP!" Popuri's foot tangled on the rug near his dining table and she fell, the bowl of hot chicken soup flipping in mid-air and landing right on top of Jack's head.

"AAAARGH! ACHOO!" Jack cried and sneezed.

Popuri jumped up. "Oh Jack, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean too, are you alright?"

"IT BURNS!" He cried, leaping out of bed. Mary came running over to Jack as he slung the bowl off of his head.

Mary leapt up next to him. "Jack, let me take a look. Karen, get the medical supplies. Popuri, clean the bed off." She looked at his face, holding it with his hands. Karen came up to him and put her hand on his face, twisting his head around the other way.

"He looks burned."

Mary rolled her eyes, "No spit, that's why I said to get the medical supplies."

Karen turned to Mary with an angry look, "Why don't you get the medical supplies?"

Popuri grabbed his face and turned it to her. "Jack, you look burned. Do you think it'll leave a scar?"

Mary said, "It depends on the temperature of the soup. How high was the stove setting?"

"Two hundred degrees," Popuri answered.

Mary pulled out a calculator. "Okay, so the temperature of the room plus the ambient temperature of the house minus the cooling temperature of sitting water in a room temperature environment divided by the outside ambient temperature and carried over at a pace of fifteen to twenty seconds out of the pot...ewww, this is going to be trickier than I thought. Popuri, did you use genetically engineered chicken or natural chicken for that soup?

"ENOUGH!" Jack cried, making all three girls jump back. They stared at him as he sighed loudly and coughed, "I'm gonna take a shower."

Mary pointed her finger, "Make sure it isn't above a farenheight temperature of —"

"Bite me!" Jack snapped, leaving for the shower.

Mary sighed, "I think I need a drink of wine. He's a real crank when he's sick."

Jack jumped in and let the cool water fall on him as he washed off the chicken soup in his hair. He sighed, thankful for the small retreat from the insanity the girls were putting him through, and stepped out, his foot suddenly slipping and he cried out loud as he fell backwards out of the tub and onto the floor, his lower half sticking into the air.

Before he could right himself, Karen, Popuri, and Mary all rushed in.

"Jack, we heard a crash, are youOHMYGOD!?" Popuri shrieked as she ran in, hiding her eyes, but not quickly enough.

"OH GOD, I'M SORRY!" Karen cried, covering her eyes. "WE'RE SORRY!"

Mary sipped her wine, lifting an eyebrow. "Hello-o-o-o."

XxXxXxX

As soon as Jack was dressed, and the sheets were taken off and replaced, he fell back into bed and watched with some amusement as the girls finally went about their tasks with silence and a blush on their faces. It wasn't long lived. The night wore on and if it wasn't Mary picking about having too many vitamins, it was Popuri putting another ice pack on his head.

If it wasn't Karen propping his back with yet another pillow, it was Mary knocking the spoon out of his hand for accidentally taking in a piece of gristle from the chicken soup.

Karen came out of his washhouse with the laundry basket in her hands. "Jack, I figured as long as I was doing your sheets, I'd finish the rest of your clothes. You don't mind, do you? This is the first load I washed."

He shook his head. That was likely the nicest thing they'd done for him all day. She brought it to the foot of his bed and looked in the basket, her face scrunching in wonder. "Hmm. This is odd." She dumped out a basket full of pink clothes. Jack's eyes widened. "What the...those aren't mine."

"Oops." Karen said, reaching in and pulling out a pair of red socks. "I guess I got your white clothes mixed with a colored one. Sorry, Jack."

"My shirts!" Jack cried. "They're all pink."

Karen looked at one clothing article and picked it up. "Not this one. It's pink and a little brown and...OH MY GOD!" She flung his tightie-whities across the room in disgust.

"Shows what you know." Popuri said smugly. "Everyone knows you don't mix colors and whites."

Karen stood on her toes, jabbing her finger into Poporui's face. "You shush, you classless prude. I know damn well how to wash clothes."

"Just as well as you know how to cook?" Popuri asked.

Karen growled, fuming, "That's low, Popuri."

Jack smiled, sniffling, and sat up, "Alright. Cat fight."

Popuri turned her nose up at Karen. "Hmph! Well, I'm not here to ruin Jack's things. Jack, is there anything I can do to make you feel better?"

Jack nodded, a strange glimmer in his eyes and a smile on his lips. "Yeah, I want you two to stop fighting."

The two girls looked to the ground, ashamed. "Sorry." They said.

Jack waved them off. "It's okay. Go ahead and hug and make up."

Karen and Popuri looked at each other and hugged at arm's length, looking to Jack for approval. He grinned, "Yeah, that's it. Get closer."

They got next to each other.

"See, don't you feel better?"

They nodded.

"Now Karen, rub Popuri's back a little bit."

The girl started rubbing Popuri up and down her back.

Jack's grin widened, "Now Popuri, rub Karen's hair a little."

Popuri smiled and did so, noting Karen's bangs.

Jack smiled all the wider. "Now...go on and give each other a little kiss. Go on."

The two of them frowned, staring at him. Karen and Popuri looked at each other, then to Jack. "Are you sure? I think we've made up enough."

"Well, I don't." Jack said, "Now go on, Popuri, give Karen a little kiss."

Popuri furrowed her brow, but shrugged and leaned in with her lips puckered. Jack watched with his eyes widening with each second that passed. Popuri smooched Karen on the cheek, near the corner of her mouth.

Jack smiled wider, "Alright, now Karen, you give Popuri a kiss, but this time...use your tongue a little."

"Jack!" Mary cried, walking in on them suddenly. "Stop it!" She turned to Popuri and Karen. "Will you two stop letting him turn you into lesbians?"

Karen and Popuri were suddenly ten feet away from each other in the span of a second. Mary turned back to Jack and handed him another pill and a glass of water. "That was uncalled for, Jack. Now give me this pillow. You don't need it." She grabbed a pillow that was sitting across his lap and tried to yank on it, but he took a corner of it and held on for dear life. Mary struggled to pull it away, but Jack refused to let it go and finally Mary just gave up.

It went on into the night until at last, Jack looked and saw Popuri on the couch, Mary strung out next to her, and Karen had collapsed at the foot of his bed, all of them completely spent of energy. Jack leaned back and finally smiled because he could get some sleep.

That is, he slept until Karen started snoring loudly.

XxXxXxX

The sun shone through the blinds the next morning and Jack yawned, then stopped, suddenly aware of something. He sniffed, his sinus clear. He jumped out of bed and laughed. His headache was gone, his fever disappeared, and his cold was...cured. "I don't believe it." He said. "They did it. They cured me! HA! Karen, Mary, Popuri! Wake up, you sweet girls! You cured me."

He shook Popuri, who woke to a fit of coughing. That prompted Mary to wake up and sneeze as hard as she could. On the bed, Karen rolled over, moaning.

XxXxXxX

Jack peeked his head out through the door at the five people at his doorstep. "Look, I know you're all worried, but I'm quarantining them here until they're better."

Rick, Sasha, Jeff, Basil, and Anna all looked at him sternly. "Are you sure?" Rick asked. "We can't even see them?"

"Unless you want the plague, be my guest. Guess they shouldn't have tried to cure me so hard. Don't worry, they're in good hands. I'll take care of them until they get on their feet."

Sasha shook her finger at them, "Alright, but I expect you to be a perfect gentleman to them, Jack. They're young ladies, not your rough-and-tumble playmates like Cliff and Ann."

Jack just saluted her and shut the door, turning around. Karen, Popuri, and Mary all sat in his bed, ice packs on their heads. He rushed over to Mary and pulled the thermometer out of her mouth. "A hundred degrees even. I'll get you another ice pack, Mary."

"Jack, I don't feel so well." Popuri whined.

"You're sick, Poe. You're not supposed to feel well." Jack said, his eyes suddenly going wide. "Uh-oh! OH CRAP!"

Mary looked at him, worried. "What? Is it worse than you read?

Jack looked at the thermometer. "No, I just...I think this is a rectal thermometer." He shrugged, "Oh well, I'll just get you to brush your teeth double-hard tonight. Karen, how ya doin', babe?"

"I think I'm going to throw up!"

"Just don't do it on my pillows, they're old and I can't replace them."

"BLEARGH!"

"AAAAGH!" Popuri shrieked, "JACK, KAREN THREW UP ON ME...ACHOO!"

Jack panicked, running into the kitchen. "Hold on, I'll clean it up, just don't—"

"HURRLK!"

Jack sighed again, "-Throw up yourself."

"JACK, I THREW UP!"

"I'm not deaf, Popuri! Mary, get—"

"BUURGH! YECK!"

Jack slapped his forehead. "-Out of my bed before you puke."

"Jack, we're covered in vomit!" Popuri cried, "Help us!"

"Jack, my head hurts!"

"Jack, hurry up with that mop!"

"Jack, you're burning the chicken soup!"

"Jack, your pants have a hole in the rump, your hind end is sticking out!"

"Jack, I'm covering in puke!"

"Jack, I think I need to use the bathroom."

Jack sighed, toying briefly with the idea of grabbing the sickle in the corner. "Jack, you're in over your head."

"Jack!"

"I'M COMING! SHUT YER YAP!"

XxXxXxXxX

Author's note: What happened? I went on a Christmas Sabbatical to hopefully get my muse back. And it worked. More to come, peoples.