Dammed Time and Damned Time: Part Four

By Dyce

Disclaimers in previous parts.

Yes, I know it's been a long time. I was finishing MiBM. Now I'll work on finishing this one. And no, I'm not demonizing Warren. I have nothing whatsoever against Warren. I just don't think he's good with kids.

The Baby stared contemplatively up at the brightly coloured things dangling above the cot. They were a little blurry, at that height, but they swung around in an interesting way, as if they were as light as he felt in the bath.

His head was cold, and it felt a little wet. Still. It always did, after he'd had a bath. He poked his fist up towards his face a couple of times, until it got into his mouth. That was nice. He sucked on his fist and looked at the bright things. It was strange, that the New Baby hadn't shared the bath. They usually shared the bath. But soft/grey/papa wasn't here today.

That was unsettling. Milk/sweet/mama was upset, too. Still. He would be here in another now. He always was.

The Baby cooed reassuringly as the New Baby splashed in the bath, and kept watching the bright blurry things.

Jubilee counted to ten. Again. The trouble with having telepathic babies was that you couldn't fume while you bathed them. Logan was fine, lying in the cot and cooing happily, but Matt was fretting a little, even though he usually liked being bathed. They both did, thank God. Alanna had screamed her head off every time water touched her until she was almost two. She still hated taking a bath.

Jubilee narrowed her eyes and fought down a seethe. Angelo was working late. Scott wanted the Blackbird all fixed by tonight, because he was worried about a situation in.... where was it now... Indonesia. All right. She could accept that. Scott was always very good about not asking Ange to work extra hours unless it was important.

What was getting right up her nose was what Angelo had said when he called. "I'll be home a little late. Don't worry, we can bathe the twins after dinner instead of before, just this once."

As if she couldn't do it herself! As if she was incapable of doing something as simple as washing two infants all on her own! She was getting so sick of the way he treated her, as if she was a fragile porcelain doll, or a child that needed to be coddled and protected! Jubilee gritted her teeth. She was a mother, not a cripple! Just because she'd had a baby... well, yes, and been kidnapped by Stryfe for days... that didn't mean she needed to be wrapped in cotton wool for the next six months!

Matt wailed unhappily, and Jubilee cursed under her breath. Figuring he was clean enough, she scooped him out of the tub and wrapped him in a warm, fluffy towel, cuddling him against her and crooning softly. "I'm sorry, sweetie.... Mama's not mad at you, I promise...." He sniffled a little, and she smiled, kissing the damp little head. "I love you, baby. It's just that your Papa's being a stinky ol' male chauvanist piglet."

Matt gurgled softly, and Jubilee chuckled wryly. "Yeah, well, I used to think it was cute too. For the first, oh, four or five years, actually. But I don't think Papa knows that Mama's not sixteen anymore." She dried his little hands with a corner of the towel as she bounced him gently. "Mama's a grown up lady. Who can do stuff by herself."

She heard the door open downstairs, and her eyes darkened. "And believe me, he's about to find out."

* * *

They tucked the kids in and kissed them goodnight with a reasonable approximation of normality. In their own bedroom, however, there was a frigid silence as they undressed and got ready for bed. Angelo knew he should apologize... but for what? For loving her? For wanting to take care of her, make everything easy for her? She'd loved having him look after her after Michael and Alanna had been born, and twins were so much harder...

Jubilee slid into a thin nightgown, still simmering. Didn't he understand that this was different? That after Michael had been born she'd barely even been able to walk, that after the caesarian she'd hardly been able to lift their daughter, but this time was DIFFERENT. She was as healthy as she'd been in years, she didn't *need* him to hover over her like an overprotective mother hen! She could do it by herself, she wasn't a cripple...

He grumbled silently, scrubbing at his teeth hard enough to chip the enamel. He wasn't a mindreader! He'd just been trying to help, how was he to know she'd get so mad at him? She was acting like she didn't even need him anymore... like she didn't want him to hold her and take care of her the way he always had...

Something cold uncurled in his stomach. What if she really didn't? What if she didn't need his love anymore? It was all he'd ever had to offer her, his love and care and *presence*... he'd never, ever left her when she was unhappy or when she needed him... was that smothering her now?

"Angelo?" He turned. She was sitting up in bed, her arms wrapped around her knees as that soft, silky dark hair spilled over her shoulders. She didn't look quite so angry anymore, and he brightened a little.

"Si?" he said in a neutral tone.

"I love you," she said softly. "I'm still mad at you, believe me, I'm still mad at you... but I do love you."

He smiled crookedly, the whole thing suddenly seeming a little less important. "I love you too," he said just as softly. "More than anything else in the world."

She smiled a little, eyes softening. "I know. I've never doubted that."

He slid into the bed beside her, and as she lay down, slid a tentative arm around her waist. She didn't push it away, and he relaxed a little, dropping a kiss on the point of her shoulder. "We'll talk about it in the morning," he offered. "Work something out."

She nodded, and he stretched out a finger to turn off the light. Jubilee rested her head on her arm, gazing into the darkness as her husband slowly relaxed into sleep beside her, a warm arm resting gently across her stomach and his breath tickling her shoulder. She hated it when they fought. Hated the thought that there was even the smallest thing that could come between them - and there had been a lot of things in the last ten years, more than a few not small at all. Like the one about his roving eyes.... god, that had been horrible. He hadn't been able to understand how much she hated it when he looked at other women, not when, as he said, she *knew* she was the only one he wanted. And intellectually she'd known that the tall, big-breasted women he looked at were no threat to her - but that hadn't stopped her from hating it, and it hadn't stopped her from threatening to move out if he didn't stop it.

And it hadn't really been satisfying, even though she'd won. He'd given in because it was what she wanted, not because he understood why she was upset. Although heaven help her if SHE ever looked at another man... she sighed. No matter how sweet it often was, he *was* sexist, and sometimes it royally pissed her off.

But she loved him.

She loved him so much that there was almost nothing she wouldn't forgive, nothing she wouldn't learn to deal with, because to lose him was unthinkable.

God only knew they were lucky it had lasted. They'd been far too young when they got married, not really understanding what they were getting into, and they'd had a few bitter fights in that first year; they were both temperamental by nature, could both hold a grudge until doomsday, and they were both as stubborn as an Alaskan winter. But that same stubborness had been their salvation, as they'd gritted their teeth and ridden out the hard times, determined to prove that their love was strong enough to last. And it had been.... just... slowly growing from comfort and passion and need into something stronger and deeper, something that would hold up no matter what got thrown at it.

She sighed again and smiled a little, rolling over to snuggle against him. His arms closed around her, and he murmured something into her hair before sliding back into sleep. They'd work it out. They always did. Even if sometimes their vows and their children had been the only things holding them together long enough for it to happen, they'd *always* worked it out.

Because they loved each other.

That was it, really.

* * *

The Baby whimpered, dreaming formless, frightening dreams of (cold) and (high) and (tight holding). Soon, the nightmares shook him awake, and the whimpers turned into wails.

The Other Baby whimpered too, little feet kicking under their shared blanket. The Baby wailed louder in terror. Something (bad) was going to (takestealgrab) him, away from (otherselfbaby), and he was afraid....

Then (softgreysmellsfunny) was there, picking him up and cuddling him against warm, soft skin. He made soft sounds, nestling The Baby against his shoulder and stroking his back soothingly. The Baby saw(sensed) the other hand reach down to rub the Other Baby's back gently, soothing him back into sleep. The Baby gulped and sobbed, his fingers clutching at the soft skin, until gentle kisses and whispers finally soothed him back to sleep.

Stryfe watched as Angelo cuddled the baby for another long minute before setting him down gently in the crib. The other infant - the 'real' one - was already asleep again, and his father patted his back lightly before tiptoeing away. Huh. Even though the parents had been fighting... and fighting hard... only a few hours earlier, the babies' quality of care didn't seem to have suffered. Good.

Stryfe waited until he was sure Angelo was gone, then slipped out of the shadows to peek into the crib. There was enough of a glow from the little nightlight - which was, he noticed, formed of a cluster of gently glowing crystal stars - to see both small, identical faces. The real child... Logan... had his eyes squinched tight, little fists flung out carelessly as he slept the sleep of the innocent.

The clone... what had they named him... Mateo, also had his eyes closed tightly. He, however, had his small arms drawn up tightly against his body, fist pressed to his mouth for comfort even in sleep. His little body was still tense, even though the fear Stryfe had sensed from him a moment before was gone, soothed away by a father's loving touch.

Stryfe sighed a little wistfully. It must be nice, he thought. To be tiny and helpless was something he'd hated as a small child, but if it meant having loving parents who kissed you and held you when you were hurt or afraid... well, maybe it wouldn't be so bad.

He reached out very cautiously to pat Mateo's rounded stomach. Just a tiny bit. Just to see if he could. The baby sighed a tiny, soft sigh. He did the same little pat on Logan's stomach (just the way he'd seen their father do it), and this time he got a little grunt. Stryfe blinked. He'd had no idea that a clone would be.... so individual. It didn't sleep the same way, it didn't react the same way... it even, from what he'd seen, had a preference for a different parent. Given a choice, Mateo clung persistently to his mother. Logan preferred the company of father or grandfather.

Not that that was to say that they didn't adore both parents. They did. Logan, especially, was supremely confident, even at such a young age, that his parents would always be there when wanted, and that they would never let anything bad happen to him. Mateo was less trusting and more clingy, crying more often for comfort than for food. But he got it, every time, and the nightmares and screaming fits were becoming less and less frequent over time.

Stryfe sighed. He wished he'd had parents like those. Foster-parents, even.

"How sweet," Irene said mildly, popping into sight on the other side of the cot. Stryfe glared at her. She gazed back, quite unperturbed. "I meant the babies."

"If you like that sort of thing." Stryfe looked at them again. "They're a bit fat, aren't they?"

"They're supposed to be." Irene smiled a little, wishing she was tangible enough to pat those fluffy curls. They were so cute!

Stryfe eyed them thoughtfully. The infants really were a bit chubby. And they drooled a lot. And there was a faint, persistent smell of urine hanging around the room, under the aromas of baby powder and lavender. "Well... their parents seem to think they're attractive," he said a bit doubtfully.

"Oh, they usually do," Irene said mildly. "Even when the baby has a face like a bulldog."

Stryfe thought about it. Given the number of really exceptionally ugly babies he'd seen around, there'd have to be some kind of instinctive response involved. These ones were really rather handsome, comparitively. They had big blueish eyes, curly dark brown hair, and attractively peachy complexions. "I suppose."

"You've obviously never had one," Irene observed. "You'd understand better."

Stryfe gave her a horrified look. "I most certainly haven't! I don't want one! They're stupid and smelly and they grow up and try to kill you."

"They do what?" Illyana inquired, sounding rather startled from where she carefully hovered out of sight. She had enjoyed terrorizing Stryfe, but terrorizing babies was not her thing.

"They do. Look at me," Stryfe said reasonably.

"You are not a statistically valid sample," Illyana pointed out, accurately enough. "I didn't. I did a rather alarming assortment of other things, but that wasn't in it."

Stryfe sniffed. "Yes, well, Tyler did. And Nate Grey, I think, although that was accidental. Anyway, I have a familial predisposition."

"He has a point... ooh." Irene made a small, surprised noise. One of the babies - she couldn't tell which - was awake, and looking right at her. The big, soft eyes gazed disapprovingly at her for a long moment, and then the baby blew a raspberry at her.

Stryfe leaned over to inspect the infant. "Hello, Logan," he whispered. "I hope you're not holding any grudges about my kidnapping you." Logan giggled, making a grab for Stryfe's long silver hair and getting a good handful, which he tugged quite hard. "Ah. I see that you do. Well, I'm sure you'll get over that." Logan blew a raspberry at him.

Illyana chuckled. "Good baby," she said fondly.

"Hmp. I think we should leave them to their sleep," Stryfe said a bit huffily. "Come along." He vanished. Irene followed.

Illyana stayed a moment, peeking at the babies. Matt was still sleeping. Logan gazed up at her, eyes already closing again. "Hi," she whispered. "Just so you know, he's a creep. Don't you let him win you over." Then she vanished too.

Logan sucked his fist and dozed off, wondering vaguely if the shiny people were anyone he knew.

* * *

The next morning, Angelo woke up first.

Jubilee was curled away from him, her slim back and silky black hair all he could see. He sighed, gazing up at the ceiling. He'd messed up again, yup. They'd fought, and the babies had gone into hysterics, and.... well, there hadn't been any nookie last night, which was understandable under the circumstances, but he did kind of miss it.

He still wasn't entirely clear on why she was mad, of course, but he'd learned to live with that. She didn't want him 'fussing' as if she was 'helpless'. Well, okay. He wasn't sure WHY she didn't want to be snuggled and spoiled anymore, but okay. He'd back off a little, and see if that worked.

Yes, and he'd start by not going and getting her breakfast in bed, the way he usually did when they argued.

Instead, he propped himself up on one elbow and just watched her sleeping for a while. She was beautiful, he thought wistfully. Her face was a little thinner now, and there were the first traces of lines around her soft eyes, but it was still the same sweet, cherubic face he'd fallen desperately in love with more than seven years before.

Angelo thought about that. He did love her. He always had loved her. Even though he knew, intellectually, that their relationship was much stronger now than it had once been, sometimes it felt like there'd never been a time when he didn't love her. That she'd always been an integral part of him. He just... well, sometimes they argued. And sometimes he didn't understand her at all. And sometimes she was damn irritating, possessive and irrational and all......

But he loved her anyway.

He didn't think she was perfect anymore, but hey. She was better than perfect. She was HIS. His wife, his love, mother of his children and keeper of his heart.

She stirred, opening those big blue eyes and looking up at him. "Hi," she said warily.

"Hi," he responded, voice noncomittal.

She sat up, and they looked at each other for a minute.

"Are you still mad at me?" he asked softly. "'cause I didn't mean to... treat you like you're helpless or something. I just wanted to help."

She nodded slowly. "You can help. Just..... I CAN do it."

"I know." He picked up her hand, dropping a gentle kiss in the palm. "*You're a wonderful mother,*" he whispered in Spanish. "*And I love you more than life itself.*"

The crystal-blue eyes softened, and she cupped his cheek gently. "*I love you too, querido,*" she said softly. "*With all my heart.*"

He smiled wryly at her. "Which doesn't solve anything, I know, but I thought we should keep it in mind." He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Just don't ask me to give up doing the night-calls, okay?"

The thunderclouds appeared in her eyes again. "I can do it," she said stubbornly. "There's no reason for you to get up just to bring them in here to me." And never mind that Logan usually had to wait (and usually had to settle for a bottle) if she did it alone - he never seemed to mind.

Angelo scowled. "I like doing it," he said, just as stubbornly. "You know I like doing it. I *like* having that time with them."

"And that's why you always rush to feed them and change their dirty diapers at 3am?" she asked, sounding a bit sceptical. "Because you like it?"

"Si. I do." His scowl deepened. "So *I'm* going to do it, because I like it and you don't."

Jubilee scowled too. "So? I'm their *mother*, Angelo. It's my responsibility to take care of them, and I don't need you to-"

"And I'm their father!" he snapped. "It's my responsibility too! And I can't breastfeed, and I can't take care of them during the day 'cause I'm working and that's why I do it at night because that's when I *can*! That's MY time with them, the only time I can count on having, and I can't believe you'd be selfish enough to try and take that away from me!"

Jubilee bit her lip and counted to ten. "I'm not trying to be selfish," she said levelly. "But you have no right to tell me what I can and can't do with and for our babies."

Angelo sighed, scrubbing a hand through his hair. "It's one thing, Jubes. One thing that *I* want to do. I'm not saying you shouldn't, I'm saying that *I* will, because that's the only time I have. You have them all day, every day. I don't."

Jubilee looked down at her hands. Much as it galled her to admit it, he did have a point. "I'm not saying you can't-"

"Well, that's what it sounds like," he muttered.

"I'm *not* saying you can't do it. I'm just saying you should *ask* instead of tossing orders around."

Angelo gave her a long, blank look. "Are you saying," he said very quietly, "that I should ask your permission to take care of my own sons?"

"I... not exactly, I just-"

"Because last time we talked, I seem to remember the words 'partnership' and 'equal parenting' coming up. You are their mother, si, but I'm their father. That's an *equal* position, Jubilee, with just as much authority. If you say you're going to take them to the creche with you, or that you're going to have TummyTime every day at three, then you can do that. And if *I* say that I'm going to spend time with them at a certain time, because that's when I have time to do it, then I can do that, too. I *don't* need your permission."

"I-" Yes you damn well do! she wanted to say. They're MY babies, I had them! But that was not only unpardonably selfish, it was unfair. Angelo was a good father, and he loved the kids just as much as she did. "You're right," she said quietly. "You don't need my permission. But we *do* need to sort this stuff out, so we know who's doing what. Okay?"

He nodded slowly. "I guess... I always *have* done the night-time stuff. Since Michael was a baby. It just didn't occur to me that you'd want to do it."

Jubilee nodded. He had a point there, too. He *had* always done it before, and she couldn't blame him for falling back into a habit she'd always encouraged. "I know. I should've talked t'you instead of just steaming about it."

He relaxed a bit, giving her a wry smile. "I've just been doing what I always do, amante," he said softly. "You never minded before."

"Yeah, I know. But it was different before." She ruffled a hand through her own hair, a gesture they both used so often that it was like a private signal of exactly what the other was feeling. "But I'm *healthy* this time. I'm not sick, I'm not injured... I can do a lot of stuff myself now, that I couldn't do before. And it bugs me that you won't let me do it."

He nodded again. "Makes sense. But I *want* to be able to do stuff. I don't wanna end up one of those fathers who's never allowed to do anything except hold the baby when it gets handed to him. I know you want to be able to do everything, but you can't. I need to be able to do some of it too."

Jubilee nodded, reaching out to take his hand in hers. "I won't shut you out, love. I promise." She smiled at him. "And if you want nights that bad, be my guest. But when it's winter, and there's a foot of snow outside, and the floor is freezing, remember that it was YOUR idea."

He grinned suddenly, the same charming grin that had always turned her heart inside out. "I will." Leaning forward, he kissed her lingeringly. "*I love you, my wife.*"

"*And I you, my husband,*" she said softly. Then she grinned. "*And in the spirit of sharing, up, up, and out of bed. It's time to go get the twins for breakfast.*"

* * *

Michael looked up as his parents entered the kitchen, and sighed quietly with relief. They were holding hands and smiling at each other, a sure sign that the storm had passed. "*Good morning!*" he said cheerfully.

Mama smiled her sweet, loving smile, and kissed the top of his head. "*Hello, baby,*" she said fondly.

Michael sighed. "I'm not a nino anymore, Mama," he said with patient reproach. "I'm seven." Mama always did that. Michael didn't mind the affectionate 'mijo' from Papa, but being called a *nino*...

"Sorry. Feeling mushy this morning." Mama smiled in Papa's direction. "I'm sorry if it bothered you when we were arguing last night."

Michael shrugged. "*These things happen,*" he said, exactly the way his father always did. "*It's no big thing.*"

Mama gave him a slightly worried look. "Most kids get upset when their parents fight," she said a bit suspiciously.

Michael gave her a lofty look. "I don't see why," he said, this time in his best Uncle-Hank impersonation. "You always make up again by the next day."

She grinned at him. "We're getting predictable, huh?"

"Nah." He gave her her own gamine grin. "You've *always* been predictable."

Papa laughed. "Good point," he said, ruffling Michael's hair fondly. "You know you don't ever need to let it worry you, right? When Mama and I argue?"

Michael nodded. "I know. 's like when I argue with Robbie." Which he did, frequently, usually when Robbie wanted to do something very, very silly. Naming him after Uncle Bobby had, in Michael's opinion, been a strategic error on Uncle Hank's part. "It doesn't mean he's not my best friend, but even best friends get 'noying sometimes."

"Si. Exactly." Papa gave him a proud look. Michael beamed. He loved how proud and happy his parents were when he did something mature or clever. He knew it made some people uncomfortable that he was always quiet and reserved, but his parents had always made him feel good about it.

"Papa can get pretty annoying too." Mama grinned roguishly. "But we love him anyway."

Whatever Papa might have said was interrupted by Alanna's own personal wakeup call - which consisted of Alanna waking up, sitting up, and calling for Mama and Papa at the top of her lungs. She'd started doing it soon after the baby was born, and they were more or less at a loss to figure out how to make her stop.

Michael had formulated his own plan of action.

"I'll go!" he said quickly, while they were still exchanging resigned looks, and scampered out of the kitchen and up the stairs before either of them could say anything. He'd been keeping the frogspawn in a bowl of water, it'd still be fresh...

* * *


Jubilee grinned, sipping her coffee with a happy sigh. God, she missed coffee when she was pregnant. "Frogspawn. You should have heard the shrieking."

Cecelia chuckled softly, sipping her own cup of caffienated silt. "I gotta try that on Hank." She grinned wickedly, mimicking her husband's voice with fiendish accuracy. "*Ceciiiiiiiiiiiliaaaaaa..... can you get me that box of samples that's right across the room from me but I can't get it because I can't get up because my great big muscley arms and legs are just painted oooon.....*"

Jubilee snickered. "Angelo's figured out that if I have to get it for him, he doesn't *want* it. He just grabs whatever kid is closest."

Cecilia nodded approvingly. "That's a well trained man." She smiled at the younger woman, whose eyes had tracked down to the twin babies who lay on a quilt on the grass beside their table. "Keeping you up?"

Jubilee shook her head, long tendrils of straight black hair slipping out of their loose braid to fall around her face. "Logan's a little sloth," she said tenderly, reaching down to touch his fine, wispy curls. "Matt still wakes up a fair bit, but he goes right back to sleep when you pick him up."

The older woman sighed. "Lucky you," she said resignedly. "Helen wakes up every two hours, day and night. Hank gets more sleep in the lab than he does in our bed. And I only sleep when Helen's with Ev and Zoe."

Jubilee patted her hand sympathetically. Robbie, Hank and Cecelia's eldest, had been a natural-born irregular... sometimes he'd sleep for two hours, sometimes three, sometimes only one, and every time he woke up he cried. For ages. And then Nora had appeared, and had seemed to think that eight or ten hours of sleep in twenty-four was quite enough. And now Helen, barely two years younger than Nora, who was at least regular, but who never, ever let up. "She's only a few weeks old. She might grow out of it."

Cecilia nodded mournfully. "*Please God, let it be so," she muttered prayerfully.

"*If he doesn't, I'll take her for a few hours any time you need it,*" Jubilee promised.

"*I love you. Really. I do,*" Cecelia said fervently.

Jubilee smiled. "*No more kids after this,*" she said firmly. "*Definitely.*" It was really kind of fun being bilingual, even though Angelo still poked occasional gentle fun at her rather idiomatic Spanish. Still.

"*Definitely. And I mean it this time.*" They'd exchanged the same vow when Nora was a baby, and Alanna a terror of a toddler. "*You?*"

"Totally." Jubilee switched back to English with a wry grin. "We've hit deadline. Ange is getting fixed."

Cecilia blinked.

She blinked again.

"Does Angelo *know* he's getting fixed?" she asked cautiously.

"We agreed, soon after Michael was born. We're stopping at four, and he's getting something permanent done to make SURE we do." Jubilee grinned. "I think he's hoping I've forgotten about it."

"I'm SURE he is," Cecilia said firmly. "He might try to argue that the two of you have only had three children together, in the purely technical sense-"

"No." Jubilee shook her head, smiling softly. "Ange'd rather die... or even lose contact with his precious li'l swimmers... than let Michael think for even one tiny second that Angie doesn't love him just as much as the others. He's spent the last seven years being Mikey's daddy just as hard as he can, and he'd never jeopardize that."

Cecilia smiled softly. "Good," she said approvingly. "That's how it should be." She was having more and more trouble maintaining the testy, abrasive image, especially now that she and Hank had worked out the early bumps in their relationship, and she usually didn't bother when it was just her and Jubilee. Jubilee repaid the confidence by letting her jumpy, confrontational facade drop, to reveal a rather gentle and sensitive young woman with a surprisingly sophisticated sense of humour.

Now she smiled, reaching down to touch her son's waving hands gently. "He's a good father," she said fondly. "A little smothering sometimes, but I can live with that."

Cecilia chuckled. "You're lucky. If I want Hank to look after the kids, I have to go down to the lab and physically drag him out." She paused. "Or mention to Bobby and Angelo that he hasn't seen his daughters much lately. They go get him for me."

Jubilee grinned. "You gotta love 'em." Then there was a screech from the sandpit, and she rolled her eyes. "ALANNA, YOU SHARE THE TOYS!"

"NO!!" Alanna yelled. You had to give her that. She was a very assertive child. She never made any excuses, she just demanded what she wanted... or refused to do something she didn't want to do. Loudly.

"DON'T MAKE ME COME OVER THERE!" Jubilee yelled back.


"Right back, Cece." Jubilee heard a pathetic squawk, and winced. "Just gonna go pry my daughter off your son's fur...."

* * *

Stryfe sprawled on his bed, contemplating the ceiling. He was not, he realized, really living up to his usual standards of villainy and chaos-bringing. He hadn't actually done a single evil thing, if you didn't count killing small furry animals and fundamentalists, since he'd made Mateo. Huh.

On the other hand, it'd been years and years since he'd had a holiday. If he'd ever had one. Now that he thought about it, he didn't think he had.

But he'd *earned* one. He'd sowed enough chaos and destruction for any three villains. He *deserved* a holiday.

He poked his armour with his foot as it lay scattered across the floor. Now that he thought about it, the armour wasn't exactly comfortable. He was always too hot or too cold. And it dug into him in several places. And if he wasn't careful, one day he was going to bend the wrong way and neuter himself.

And he *really* didn't want to do that, especially since according to Murphy's Law, it would happen in front of Cable.

So... he followed the novel thought a bit further. He could have a holiday. That would give him more time to... observe the infants. Yes. And if he was on holiday, there would be no point to wearing the armour. On holiday, one dressed for comfort, or so he understood. So...... what did he have that was comfortable?

After some serious rummaging through his 'disguises' wardrobe, he found just the thing.

Irene looked up as he wandered into the kitchen-sitting room of the complex. "Stryfe, I've been-WAUGH!"

Stryfe headed for the fridge. He was going to drink milk. Out of the carton. That was what people did when they were Having A Holiday. TV had told him so.

"Stryfe... ah.... is that you?"

"Who else would it be?" he asked, opening the milk and squinting down inside it. It was pink. He liked strawberry milk, but it wasn't the traditional colour for carton-gulping. Ah, well, he'd just have to make do. "No, wait, don't answer that. Yes, it's me." He took an experimental gulp. Hm. An interesting sensation. He did it again.

"I'm just asking because..... uhm... did you know that you're wearing a purple tracksuit?"

Stryfe rolled his eyes. "I'm not *quite* mad enough to have missed that, Irene. I've decided that I need a holiday."

"A.. holiday?" Irene was making some rather odd choking noises. He ignored her.

"Yes, a holiday. I've been raining chaos and destruction down on humanity for seventeen full lifetimes, and most of this one, too. I think I *deserve* a holiday."

"I'm sure humanity'll be pleased," Irene said a bit dryly.

"It can consider itself lucky," he said loftily. "I'm not going to kill *anybody*, unless they really deserve it."

"Such as..." Irene prompted warily.

"Well... anyone who comes near my house. And those annoying people who call me and try to sell me double glazing." Stryfe thought about it. "And anyone who tries to hurt the babies, of course."

"Of course." Irene wished she dared roll her eyes. "Although I'm really quite sure those ninjas were after Wolverine."

Stryfe sniffed disapprovingly. Unfortately, just at the moment he was taking another gulp of milk and... subsequent to the sniff... squirting it out his nose. "Wolverine just would have messed it up," he said, when he finished spluttering. "He's a half-wit, semicompetent at best, and I doubt he can even *spell* 'forward planning'."

Irene stared. Stryfe was standing in his kitchen. Himself. In the kitchen. In a purple tracksuit. With milk splattered down the front. Talking like a sane person, while at the same time being very obviously as mad as a hatter. "If you say so," she said meekly.

* * *

Michael held out a finger, smiling as a chubby little hand grabbed onto it, tugging lightly. "Hi."

Matt gurgled softly, his tiny fingers flexing around his brother's bigger one. He tried to pull it into his mouth, and Michael giggled softly. "You can suck on it," he whispered seriously, tucking the tip of his finger into the soft, gummy little mouth. "I washed my hands."

Matt made a happy slurping noise.

"I figured I'd come in and keep you company," Michael explained quietly. He pushed his glasses up his nose, and looked out the window. The sky was still just barely tinged with pre-dawn green and yellow. "'cause I couldn't sleep. An' anyway, I have to be up soon for morning training."

Matt chewed on the finger with hard little gums, gazing up at his brother with wide eyes. Michael smiled. "I guess you don't know what that is, right? Well, it's when Grandpa and Aunt Betsy and Aunt Kitty do their ninja-training, and me and all the other kids and Mama and some of the grownups do too. Aunt Kitty says it's best to start young, so you're flexible." He wiggled the finger gently, and Matt giggled. "You'll probably start when you're 'bout three." He tickled Matt's tummy gently, smiling, and Matt cooed happily. "I'll help you," he promised seriously. "It's not hard, once you get used to it. And it gives you lotsa energy."

Logan stirred sleepily, awakened by the soft murmur, and Michael gave him the other index finger to suck on. "It does, really. And it'll make you fit, like me." He giggled a little. "Tia Cecilia says that the X-kids are the fittest she's ever seen. She says it's all 'cause of me, too, 'cause I'm the oldest and I get everyone to play lots of sport and stuff."

Logan grumbled a little, and Michael rested his face against the bars of the crib. "You can be on my team," he promised seriously. "Even if you're not very good. 'cause I'm your big brother, and I gotta look out for you."

"*Good.*" Michael looked around in surprise. It was Papa, smiling at him, looking ruffled and sleepy in boxers and un-tied robe. "*Glad to hear it.*"

"*I couldn't sleep,*" Michael explained a little bashfully. "*And I heard Matt making noises.*"

"*And what were you doing awake?*" Papa asked gently, kneeling to give him a hug.

Michael beamed and hugged back, sniffing the mixed smells of aftershave and engine oil and a whiff of mama's perfume. Papa's hand rubbed the back of his Yoda pyjamas gently, and Michael sighed happily. "*I woke up and I couldn't go back to sleep,*" he explained. "*So I came in here to talk to the babies.*"

"*Well, okay.*" Papa hugged him one more time, then stood up. "*You did good keeping them quiet.*"

Michael beamed. "*I talked to them and everything,*" he said proudly. "*And I told them about morning training and stuff.*"

"*I heard.*" Angelo scooped Matt up, then paused. "*Think you can carry one of these?*"

Michael nodded, holding out his arms. "*I'm big enough.*"

Very carefully, Papa laid Matt into his arms, making sure his head was supported. "*Take him in to Mama, then. I'll bring Logan.*"

Michael wrapped his arms carefully around his baby brother, sniffing carefully. "Papa, I think he might need a new diaper," he said, making a face.

Papa made the same face. "He can't possibly, I changed him just a couple of hours ago," he said plaintively. Leaning over, he unsnapped the back of Matt's pyjamas and pulled one leg of the diaper just the teeniest bit open. "Oh, ugh. He does, doesn't he?"

Michael nodded, heading for the change-table. "I can do it."

"I dunno..." Papa began doubtfully.

"I can *do* it," Michael repeated impatiently. "Honest, Mama and Aunt Zoe let me do it."

"Well... if you're sure," Papa agreed a little reluctantly. "But I'll be right here."

Michael rolled his eyes, pushing his glasses up with one hand while the other one held Matt carefully on the table. Jeez, some people acted like being seven meant you weren't any good at ANYTHING. He couldn't HELP being seven. He was getting to eight as fast as he could. Anyway, changing a diaper wasn't exactly rocket science. All you had to do was make sure the baby was in the middle of the table, then you took off the old diaper, wiped the baby off with the cleanest end, and shoved it in one of the special bags real quick, before the smell got too bad. Then you got a baby wipe, cleaned the baby off with careful attention to the bits that didn't show, threw the wipe away too, a little ointment on any red spots, clean diaper on, careful to stick it down properly and not make it too loose or too tight, and there you were. Honestly, a six-year-old could do this stuff. "See? Told you I could," he said, giving his father a reproachful look and hoisting Matt back into his arms. "Does Logan need changing?"

"Not yet." Papa smiled, reaching down to ruffle Michael's hair. "You're pretty good at that. I'll have to get you to do it more often."

That, of course, was the price of proving that you were big enough to do something. People went around expecting you to DO it.

* * *

"I don't think that's a good idea, Robbie," Michael said, sounding resigned. He knew, of course, that Robbie wasn't going to listen to him. He just wanted the protest on record.

"Uncle Remy can do it," Robbie pointed out.

Michael rolled his eyes and appealed to Etienne, who was a teeny bit younger than Michael, and a little older than Robbie. "'Ti, tell Robbie this is a bad idea."

"It's a bad idea," Etienne agreed. Mind you, Etienne was so easy-going that if Robbie had appealed to him first, he would have agreed that yeah, eating one of the little red chili things was an exciting idea. 'Ti was adopted, because Uncle Remy couldn't make babies himself, or so the rumour went, so he had an arrangement with the Guilds that any obviously mutant orphans would get funnelled his way. 'Ti had spiky purple hair, bright orange eyes, and a cajun accent that he was fiercely proud of. "Dey burn, when you bite 'em."

"Uncle Remy can do it," Robbie insisted stubbornly, reaching for the chili.

"It'th going to hurt," Rachel said warningly, then scowled. She'd lost both her front teeth recently, and the resultant lisp was driving her nuts.

She and Callie (who was pink all over and had weeny horns poking up out of her curly pink hair), joined Michael and 'Ti in watching resignedly as Robbie picked, bit, and began to howl. Tia Cecilia was on the other side of the garden, so they didn't anticipate any major difficulties.

It was pure bad luck that Uncle Warren, who wasn't a bad person but a die-hard ageist, happened to get there first. "What happened?" he asked sternly, looking around at what he probably thought were guilty little faces.

"Robbie ate a chili," Michael said calmly. "We all told him not to."

Uncle Warren scowled some more, picking Robbie up and passing him hastily to Tia Cecilia, who'd come running up with a worried expression on her pretty face. "He ate one of the chilis," he said, as if Tia Cece wouldn't have heard Michael saying the exact same thing. "You'd better get him to the medlab or something. I'll deal with the rest of them."

The other four waited hopefully for Tia Cecilia to tell him to go away, but she seemed to be too worried about Robbie, and she just hustled him off. Oh, drat. "We TOLD him not to," Rachel said, in case Uncle Warren hadn't been listening the first time. Uncle Warren was very nice, of course, but he very rarely paid attention to anyone who was under four feet high or twelve years old.

True to form, he frowned down at Michael, who was the oldest and the group's leader by default of being the biggest and most vocal. "You shouldn't have let him," he said reprovingly. "You're the oldest, and-"

"I didn't let him," Michael said, trying to keep the patient weariness out of his voice. "He just did it. Robbie ALWAYS just does things."

"And why were you all in the garden in the first place?" Uncle Warren asked sternly.

"We followed Robbie." Callie didn't like Uncle Warren. Neither did her mama, Aunt Sarah, who didn't like anybody much. Although she did like Michael, who she called 'Short'n'Ugly', as a way of telling him that even though he was technically human, he was still acceptable to her. "Because we're not supposed to let Robbie wander off by himself because last time we did he nearly drowned in the lake."

Uncle Warren frowned some more. "Well, you shouldn't be in here," he said firmly. "You have a perfectly good Designated Play Area, and that's where you should be." He shooed them out of the garden, and flew away again.

Callie scrunched up her little five-year-old face and said an extremely bad word.

"That's not nice," Michael said automatically, although he privately agreed with her. "Uncle Warren just... isn't very good with children."

"That'th right." Rachel nodded, giving the sky a dirty look. "Becauth he'th rude to them."

"Because they make him uncomfortable," Michael said a bit uncertainly. "That's what Uncle Hank says."

"Uncle Hank is too nice," Callie said firmly. "Anyway, are we going back to the Play Area? I don't want to."

Everyone looked at Michael.

Michael looked around speculatively. "Want to go look at the frogspawn? You can see the tadpoles in it now."

"But that's at the lake," 'Ti protested, not seriously, just enough to nod to propriety. "We're not supposed to go there without a grownup."

"We won't go IN the water," Michael compromised. "We're just going to look. And nobody's to fall in this time, 'cause that's very hard to explain."

(End part four)