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It’s All in the Timing


By: Meghan


Author’s Note: This is a follow-up to my second fic, Gotcha!. Reading Gotcha! isn’t necessary to understand this story, but it couldn’t hurt. You want to read all my stories, don’t you? (please?) Many thanks go to Hannah, Jareth, and Nova for giving me the idea to write this in the first place, and also to Threnody, Timesprite, Hannah, Rachel, Jareth, Julia, Sparcck, and Hanako (yes, Hanako) for all their help and/or encouragement. Rated PG-13 for innuendo and a little naughty language. Enjoy!


“Well, Dot?” Mouse asked. “Truth or Dare?”

“Oh, no,” Dot returned. “We are not playing that.”

“Oh, come on, Dot,” AndrAIa pleaded. “It’ll be fun.”

“No. Truth or Dare gets out of hand too easily.”

“Dot, Mouse has already been attacked by a television set. How much more out of hand can things get?” Bob asked.

Mouse grinned impishly. “Ah say we find out.”

The rest of the room was in agreement, but Dot held her ground. “I think we’ve all been embarrassed enough tonight. Besides, we should go; it’s time Enzo was in bed.”

“But Dot!” Enzo was quick to protest. “I’m not...” his words were cut off by a monstrous yawn. “... tired,” he finished.

“You can all just crash here tonight,” Bob offered.

Mouse raised an eyebrow. “All of us?”

Bob nodded, to which Dot asked, “Where’s everybody going to sleep?”

He shrugged. “It’s a good-sized apartment. We’ll figure something out.”

“I call the bed!” Enzo sang out.

“Good. Now go get in it,” his sister ordered.

“Aw, Dot, I wanna play!” he whined.

Dot shook her head. “No way. It’s late, you’re tired, and we’re not playing anyway.”

“But...”

“Let him play, sugah,” Mouse cut in. “We’ll keep it clean.”

Dot looked around the room, sizing up the pleading faces staring back at her. She sighed in defeat. “All right, all right. But don’t start with me.”

Mouse scanned for a target. “Matrix -- Truth or Dare?”

Matrix, more than a little surprised at being chosen, decided for maybe the first time in his adult life to play it safe. “Truth.”

The hacker studied him for a moment, trying to think of just the right question. She fixed him with a grin as inspiration struck: “Boxers or briefs?”

A few people snickered. “This is your idea of keeping it clean?” Dot asked.

“Pretty much, yeah.” Dot laughed a little and rolled her eyes. Mouse turned back to Matrix. “Well?”

“Boxers or briefs?” Matrix repeated. He thought for a minute, then pulled out the waistband of his pants a little to check. “Nope.”

Little Enzo was the first to speak following this revelation. “I think I’ll go to bed now,” he said, quickly standing up.

Dot smiled. “Good night, little brother.” The others called out their goodnights, grateful for the distraction.

After Enzo was safely out of the room, attention turned back to his counterpart. “Matrix, that was a little too much,” Bob said.

“That was a lot too much,” Ray added.

Matrix refused to be embarrassed. “Just answering the question.”

Dot smacked his arm, then asked, “Ok, who’s next?”

“I’ll go,” said Ray. “Hex -- Truth or Dare?”

All eyes turned to the former virus as she mulled over the question; “Dare,” she finally answered with a grin.

Ray smirked back at her. “I dare you to . . .”

***

Matrix shook his head. “I hope you’re proud of yourself.”

Ray looked extremely guilty. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“You didn’t think she’d get caught?”

“I didn’t think she’d actually do it!”

“You dared a Chaos Virus to streak and you didn’t think she’d actually do it?!”

“Well, she’s not as chaotic anymore...“ Ray began, reaching for an excuse. He lowered his eyes and sighed. “I‘ll never figure that lady out.”

AndrAIa giggled. “I bet Phong will be sorry he missed this.” Phong had opted not to come to the party, saying he’d had enough excitement to last him for minutes. Bob’s apartment was now missing Hexadecimal, Dot, Hack, and Slash as well.

“Only two turns into the game and we manage to get Hexadecimal arrested.” Mouse put her arm around Ray’s waist. “Ah’m proud of you, honey.”

“You don’t think Dot’s mad at me, do you?”

“If I were you, I’d be more worried about Hex being mad at you,” Bob replied. Just then, there was a knock on the front door. “It’s open,” Bob called out. Dot entered the apartment -- alone.

“Nothing like bailing a friend out of jail to make your night complete,” she said, getting comfortable on the couch.

“I’m really sorry about all this, Dot,” Ray began. “I’ll pay you back the bail money.”

Dot shook her head. “No need. I just let her off the hook.” She smiled. “That’s one of the advantages of being in charge. I did agree to let the troops put her under house arrest until tomorrow, though. She still makes them nervous.”

“Is she mad at me?” Ray asked -- sounding awfully nervous himself.

“No way. She got a kick out of the whole experience. I had Hack and Slash take her back to Lost Angles, and I am to give her a detailed report of the rest of the game tomorrow,” Dot finished with a grin. <P.“OK, how I’m going to top that,” said AndrAIa, giving Ray a poke in the ribs. “Dot -- Truth or Dare?”

Dot was feeling adventurous after this latest escapade -- besides, she figured AndrAIa couldn’t give her anything as humiliating as Ray’s last challenge. “Dare.”

AndrAIa, obviously caught off guard, had to think for a moment. “Oh, wait -- I got one,” said Matrix, then leaned over and whispered in her ear.

AndrAIa gave him a confused look. “Huh?”

“I told you about that, remember?”

“Oh, yeah! That’s right,” the girl said, suddenly recalling. “Dot, I dare you to sing that song from Enzo’s birthday party for us.”

Dot’s reaction was instant: “No!”

“What song?” Mouse asked.

“Dot put together a show for me back when I turned 1-0,” Matrix explained. “Complete with this -- cabaret number. Remember, Bob?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.

Bob gave him a warning look, which wasn’t lost on Mouse. “Well, don’t leave us hanging, sugah -- sing it already!”

Dot shook her head forcefully. “Uh-uh.”

“Dot, you have to,” AndrAIa reminded her.

“I’ll take Truth, then. I’m not singing.”

The Game Sprite rolled her eyes. “Fine, be that way.” She chewed a fingernail thoughtfully for a moment (luckily she was immune to her own poison); then she asked, “What do you have on under that thing?”

“Under it?” Dot repeated in surprise.

“What is this fixation with underwear tonight?” Ray wondered aloud, looking from Mouse to AndrAIa.

“I’m curious. I mean, what kind of underwear do you use with skintight leather?”

“Um... I don’t,”Dot said quietly, eyes on the floor.

The room was absolutely silent; silent, that is, until Mouse started laughing. That set off Ray and AndrAIa, while Bob and Matrix just sat staring at Dot, dumbfounded.

“It must run in the family,” AndrAIa remarked slyly.

“Ah see this is news to you too, Bob.”

“Shut up.”

“Isn’t anybody wearing underwear?” Ray asked in mock seriousness. Nobody answered; they all just stared guiltily in various directions. Finally, AndrAIa cautiously raised her hand: “I’m wearing a bra.”

Mouse gave her a smirk. “We know, honey.”

Ray was ready with a quip of his own. “Yeah, Dre, I don’t know if anyone explained this to you, but the point of underwear is to go under something.”

“You didn’t seem to mind it too much when we met,” she shot back.

He considered this. “Touché,” he replied, prompting a glare from Matrix.

Bob was still staring at Dot. “You’re not wearing -- any underwear?”

Dot was clearly very embarassed. “No,” she said meekly.

“And you never have?”

“Not under this.”

Bob shook his head in amazement. “That’s just so... unlike you.”

At this comment, Dot finally met his eyes. “Oh, don’t pretend you don’t love it,” she said with a half-smile. Her remark got applause from the other women -- and more embarassed silence from Bob.

“Can we move on please?” he entreated at last.

Mouse jumped at the opportunity. “Mike -- Truth or Dare?” she asked with a hint of malice.

The TV had been cowering in a corner for much of the night; normally he was used to being threatened with the garbage disposal, but when the threat came from Mouse, he knew to take it seriously. He started at being spoken to; he wasn’t aware he had been playing. “T-truth,” he answered carefully.

“Damn,” Mouse said under her breath. She’d been looking forward to making him humiliate himself; now she had to come up with a question.

“Hang on, Mouse; I got another one,” Matrix offered. As he whispered his idea, a devious grin spread over Mouse’s face. She turned back to Mike, who looked awfully pale.

“Mike,” she began sweetly. “Ah have it on good authority that you shot some footage of Enzo’s birthday.” Her voice took on a commanding tone. “Where’s the tape?”

Mike sprang up, grateful that the heat was off him. “I’ll be back in a jiffy!” he cried, dashing from the room.

Dot cast a hurt look at her brother. “Am I being punished?”

“I’m not letting you get out of a dare that easily.”

“Come on, Dot -- how bad can it be?” Ray asked.

“Let’s find out, shall we?” Mike bounded back in, brandishing a videotape.

Mouse snatched the tape from him and turned on the VCR. Since Mike’s insatiable need to annoy the entire populous of Mainframe kept him out of the apartment during all the good shows, Bob had long ago bought another TV -- an inanimate one. It was this TV that Mouse was now fiddling with.

“What the...?” she muttered as the VCR refused to accept the tape. She pressed EJECT, and another video dutifully popped out. Mouse gave it a glance. “Hmm... note for later: somebody ask Bob why he’s got a Springer tape in here.” While Bob stammered an excuse, Mouse stuck in the new tape and hit PLAY. She and AndrAIa knelt on the floor in front of the TV, while Dot cringed on the sofa, already embarrassed. Bob put a comforting arm around her shoulders.

After a few moments of static and bad tracking, the TV displayed a decorated stage. For a few nanoseconds nothing happened; then Enzo, wearing his old 01 jersey and looking a little confused, entered through a backstage door.

“Awww -- look how cute you were,” AndrAIa teased.

The group watched Enzo compile up with the mild interest that is given to all home movies; but this interest increased considerably when the lights dimmed and Dot appeared onstage in a red dress that just barely made it past the BSnP’s.

“Damn, baby, look at you!” Mouse remarked. Dot was now blushing furiously. <P.“DO

“Mm-hm. Still fits, too,” Dot replied, managing to muster up a little pride.

“Oh, yeah?” Bob said with interest. As if cued by his question, the tape panned over to show Bob and Enzo staring at Dot, mouths hanging open. This image drew snickers from the audience.

“Something catch your eye there, Bob?” Mouse gave him a smirk.

“Shut up, you guys,” Bob answered weakly.

“Oh, now they’re both turning red,” AndrAIa said, looking back at the couple on the couch.

“Shh -- I want to hear this,” Ray said.

The reactions to the first verse were easy enough for Dot to take. There were a few giggles, and Mouse and AndrAIa put on an exaggerated display of swaying, but for the most part they genuinely enjoyed her singing.

Then the second verse started.

No laughing. No smart-ASCII comments. Just shocked silence. Dot buried her head in her arms, trying in vain not to picture what she knew was happening onscreen. She felt Bob shift uncomfortably; then he laughed under his breath and rubbed her back. "It's almost over," he whispered. Dot glanced up just in time to see her videotaped self move even closer to Bob. Their lips almost touched; then Dot put her hand on his face and pushed him away.

That did it. Mouse burst out laughing, as did Ray. AndrAIa stared at the screen in shock for a few more nanoseconds before succumbing herself. Matrix chuckled and shook his head, remembering how much he had teased Bob in the days that had followed.

The third verse of the song was drowned out by laughter. Mouse and AndrAIa belted out the final "You're ALPHANUMERIC!!" along with the tape, and there was some brief applause as Mouse moved to the VCR to stop the video.

"That was fantastic," Ray said.

"Oh, man; my stomach hurts," said Mouse, still trying to get her laughter under control.

AndrAIa, giggling, turned to face Bob and Dot, both of whom had turned interesting shades of red. "Um...I have a question."

Dot sighed; she had a pretty good idea what the question was. "What is it, AndrAIa?" she asked wearily.

AndrAIa gestured to the TV, then back to Bob and Dot. "What in the Net took so long?"

"I was just playing around there. I didn't think of him...that way yet."

Matrix gave a scornful laugh. "Then how about telling us what the password to your organizer was?" Dot responded by winging a pillow at him. "You stay out of this; it's your fault I'm in this mess." She ducked as Matrix tossed the pillow back at her.

"Dot, do you realize how close you came to *kissing* him?" AndrAIa pointed out.

"Forget nearly kissing him; there was a full-body manuever goin' on there. That's not how you 'play around' with guy friends." Mouse said. When confronted with five raised eyebrows, she continued. "Ah said that's not how you play around with guy friends. No fair stealin' my M. O."

Dot threw the pillow at Mouse. "I was just playing around. That's my story and I'm sticking to it."

The other four shared a glance. Ray spoke up. "All right, then. Bob, what's your excuse?"

"My excuse? What do I need an excuse for?"

"Your best friend almost kissed you in front of a huge crowd, and you didn't exactly look opposed to the idea. So, I repeat -- what's your excuse?"

"I...um...I was just...AndrAIa, Truth or Dare?"

Now it was AndrAIa's turn to throw the pillow. "You pansy," she teased. "Truth."

"Hmm... is there a story behind that?" he asked, pointing to her navel ring. "I mean, did you just decide to do it, or was there a reason?"

AndrAIa laughed. "Oh, there's a reason. Remember, Sparky?"

"Yup. I almost won, too."

“Hey, it’s like I keep telling you: it’s all in the timing.” AndrAIa turned back to the others. “Here’s how it happened: we were...1-7. We’d just finished this snowboarding game...”

***

“GAME OVER.” The cube rocketed into the sky, leaving two teenaged Sprites and one large dog in its place.

AndrAIa watched the game leave. “Well, that was a lot harder than it should have been.”

Matrix surveyed the new system. They had landed in the downtown sector, and everything looked to be running smoothly. He nodded slightly. Good. A well-ordered system meant they wouldn’t have to be the heroes for once. He turned to AndrAIa. “At least we won.”

“We?” she retorted. “I was the one racking up all the points. You can’t just rely on basic manuevers in a game like that; you have to impress the judges or you won’t get a high score.”

“Excuse me if I didn’t feel like taking a stupid risk.” He wasn’t really angry, but his lackluster game performance was getting to him.

“Since when do stupid risks bother you?” AndrAIa asked with a smile. They began walking down the street, looking for a way to kill time until the next game. “You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were afraid to try any tricks,” AndrAIa said teasingly. Matrix didn’t answer; she gave him a glance, and found him looking at the ground. The young woman stopped walking and put a hand on his arm. “Enzo...” she began, a playful smile slowly appearing on her face, “Were you scared?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Matrix answered gruffly. “I just...I’m...I’m not built for games like that. I don’t have your agility.”

“Uh-huh. I don’t think ’agility’ is the word you’re looking for, Sparky.”

Matrix decided to play along. “And what word am I looking for?” he replied with a faint smile.

“Bravery,” his companion answered simply.

He swallowed a laugh. “You think you’re braver than me?”

“I know I am,” she answered, using the same joking tone.

“You are not braver than me.”

“I am so.”

“You are not!”

“Yes I am!”

“AndrAIa, you’re not braver than I am. As brave, but not braver.”

“Who said ’I love you’ first?” AndrAIa asked smugly.

There was a brief pause before Matrix answered. “That’s different.”

“How?”

“That’s...you know, emotional. I’m talking about physical acts of bravery.”

“Oh, like a few nights ago?”

Matrix just narrowed his eyes at her. AndrAIa giggled. “Let me guess; not that kind of physical.”

“Right,” he said dryly.

The Game Sprite grinned and shook her head. “You can narrow it down however you want, but it doesn’t make you braver than me.”

“Want me to prove it?”

AndrAIa thought about this for a nano. “Yeah,” she replied. “I do. We’re gonna settle this. We’ll go until the next game cube drops, and we’ll see who can pull off the best ’physical act of bravery’.” She raised an eyebrow. “Deal?”

Matrix nodded slowly. “Deal.”

They shook on it, then AndrAIa slapped him on the shoulder. “Tag; you’re it!”

He gave her a smirk, then headed off to find a way to prove himself.

“Don’t forget to bring back the dragon’s head as proof!” AndrAIa called after him.

“Very funny!” he yelled back.

AndrAIa laughed. “Come on, Frisket; let’s go find some excitement of our own.”

***

“About half a millisecond later,” AndrAIa continued, “I’m sitting at a sidewalk cafe, having a soda, when he comes back.”

“Acting all proud of himself, right?” Ray said with a grin.

AndrAIa shot a look at Matrix, who looked a bit sheepish. “The exact opposite, actually,” the girl replied. “Before he even sits down, he’s making excuses about how there ‘aren’t any ways to be brave in this system‘.”

“So you didn’t do anything?” Mouse asked Matrix, a little surprised that he, of all people, couldn’t find a way to be macho.

“Oh, he did something,” AndrAIa laughed. “I wouldn’t consider it very brave, though...”

***

“An...earring?! That’s it?”

“Hey, I said there wasn’t much to do.”

“Yeah, but...” AndrAIa was trying unsuccessfully to hold back laughter. “An earring? I’ve had my ears pierced since I was initialized! Did you even feel it?”

“It pinched a little,” Matrix said sulkily, knowing full well that this little deed wasn’t going to hold up.

There was silence between them for a few micros. Then AndrAIa sighed. “It...it looks good,” she said by way of apology. Matrix didn’t say anything, but he did meet her gaze. Encouraged, she continued. “It’s pretty sexy, actually.”

“Where’d you get it done?”

He pointed back the way he had come. “There’s a place a few blocks over.”

AndrAIa stood up and tossed a few units onto the table to cover her bill. “Show me.”

“Why?” Matrix asked a bit warily.

A mischievous grin was AndrAIa’s response. “Well, it is my turn, isn’t it?”

“But you already have earrings.”

“Who said I was piercing my ears?”

***

“So you punched an extra hole in your body just to show up your boyfriend,” Dot summed up with a smile.

“Well, I’d been wanting one. Showing up Enzo was just an added bonus.”

“Did it hurt?” Mouse asked.

“It stung like hell, but it was over pretty fast.”

Ray shook his head. “Beaten by a piece of jewelry. Shame on you, Matrix.”

“Hey, I wasn’t beaten yet,” Matrix retorted.

Rolling her eyes, AndrAIa continued her story. “He did have the upper hand with his next move, I’ll admit...”

***

“Enzo, are you sure you want to do this? It‘s so...permanent,” AndrAIa glanced nervously around the waiting room.

“Yes, I’m sure. And call me Matrix.”

“You don’t have to do this just to outdo me, you know.”

“I know,” Matrix said shortly.

AndrAIa could tell he was nervous; she decided to get him thinking about the end result rather than the process. “What are you going to get?”

“An icon,” he said, gesturing to his left shoulder. “Like Dot’s, sort of.”

AndrAIa nodded. “Cool. What do you mean, ’sort of’?”

“You’ll see.”

A greasy-looking binome stepped out from behind the curtain separating the waiting room from the main area. “Matrix?” he called out gruffly.

Matrix exhaled loudly, trying to look nonchalant, and stood. He gave AndrAIa a pat on the leg as he passed her and followed the binome behind the curtain.  

Some time later, Matrix reemerged, holding a cloth over his shoulder. AndrAIa hopped up from her seat instantly and went to his side. “Well?”

“Well, what?” he said a bit abruptly. <P.“WELL,

“Yeah, it’s fine.” Matrix made his way to the counter to pay. He and AndrAIa never asked any payment for the help they gave to systems that needed it, but they didn’t usually refuse it, either. They were more than happy to help out systems in need, but they still had to eat.

“Can I see it?” AndrAIa asked, a little confused by Matrix’s curtness.

“In a nano - let me pay the guy.”

AndrAIa raised her eyebrows, but decided not to push it. When they were outside, she asked him again. “Now can I see it?”

Matrix let out a sigh and took the cloth from his shoulder. The image underneath was still bloody, but she could see the design of an icon flanked by two fins and topped with a star. AndrAIa just stared at it for a moment; then she spoke. “Enzo...” she began slowly, “why does it have fins?”

She knew perfectly well why it had fins, of course; she was just taken aback by the fact that Enzo would permanently scar himself for her. It was a little disconcerting, truth be told - and at the same time, more than a little flattering.

Matrix had been looking at various things since removing the cloth from his arm: passing cars, the sky, the ground - everything but AndrAIa. He still didn’t look at her when he made his attempt to answer her question. “It’s... well, it’s... you know.”

AndrAIa buried a snicker and put a hand under his chin, turning his face to hers. “You know,” she said with a smirk, holding his chin so he couldn’t turn away, “there are easier ways to let a girl know you love her. But,” she added as his expression turned uncomfortable again, “I still like this one. And I’m sure it’ll look just fine once it stops oozing.”

Matrix, finally relaxed, laughed at her last remark. “I’d like to see you beat this,” he said arrogantly, putting an arm around her shoulders. “I’ll have you know it hurt like hell.”

“You mean you put yourself in pain for me?” she said melodramatically, batting her eyes. Then she smacked him lightly in the chest. “I’m not impressed.”

“And you’re also losing.”

“I am going to win, Sparky.”

“I’m waiting.”

“Don’t rush me,” AndrAIa said coyly. “Be patient... things like this are all in the timing.”  

About a millisecond later, the words that AndrAIa had been dreading and Matrix was on pins and needles waiting for sounded through the system: “Warning, incoming game. Warning, incoming game.”

Matrix shot a look at AndrAIa; she was staring up at the game cube in disappointment. He started to speak when she held up a hand. “Don’t say it,” she warned. Unfortunately for her, he didn’t have to; his expression clearly pronounced his triumph. She just rolled her eyes and headed in the game’s direction. “Come on, or we’ll miss it.”

The trio of game-hoppers took their place beneath the falling cube. A crowd of Sprites and binomes stood just outside the perimeter, watching them prepare for the game. Matrix laughed, unable to keep his arrogance in check any longer. “And you were so sure of yourself,” he teased. “Couldn’t even beat a little tattoo.”

“I still say I’m braver than you, Sparky.”

The larger Sprite glanced up at the game cube, then back to his companion. “Well, you’ve still got about thirty nanoseconds.”

AndrAIa was about to get on his case for patronizing her when she realized he was exactly right. And that was all the time she needed. Her irritated scowl gave way to a mischievous smirk. She turned to the crowd, waited until the cube was just above her head, and calmly flashed the onlookers just before the game wall closed.

AndrAIa replaced her top and turned to find Matrix gaping at her in disbelief. “I win,” she said simply.

Matrix just stared at her; he would have been angry if he hadn’t been so surprised. Finally, though, he just laughed and shook his head. “Forget it,” he said, throwing up his hands in defeat. “I couldn’t beat a stunt like that anyway.”

“Told you I was braver than you,” she said with a grin, slipping an arm around his waist.

“Yeah, yeah, you win,” he returned with a sigh. “Just... don’t do that anymore, ok?”

AndrAIa giggled. “Deal. Now, what kind of User are we up against here?”

***

The end of AndrAIa’s story was accompanied by laughs and looks of mild shock from her fellow players. “You don’t screw around, do you, Dre?” Mouse said with amusement.

“Nope. Game Sprite programming - I play to win.”

“Whose turn is it now?” Bob asked.

Dot jumped in with the answer. “Truth or Dare, Mouse?”

“Dare.”

Dot was ready for this. “I dare you to get your belly button pierced.”

“All right,” Mouse answered calmly. When she was met with silence, she asked, “What, ya mean right now?”

Dot nodded. The hacker blinked, then said, “Uh... I don’t think anything’s open anymore. It’ll have to wait.”

“Nah, places like that are open all night,” Bob said.

Mouse responded by giving him a look that said, very clearly,shut up.

AndrAIa cut in: “Uh, that could take a while; why don’t we finish up the game first, then go?” This, she figured, would give Mouse time to work up her nerve. After everyone agreed, she leaned over to her friend and whispered, “What’s the problem?”

“Ah have this thing about needles,” Mouse whispered back, embarrassed.

“But those tattoos around your eyes...”

“That’s exactly why Ah have a thing about needles.”

AndrAIa giggled in spite of herself. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle this.” In her normal voice, she asked, “Dot, Truth or Dare?”

Dot rolled her eyes. She didn’t know what Mouse and AndrAIa had been whispering about, but she had a feeling she was walking right into it. Oh well, she thought, might as well get it over with. “Dare.”

Beaming, AndrAIa said, “I dare you to get your belly button pierced.”

“Oh!” Dot laughed. “I should have seen that coming. Ok, fair enough. We’ll go when we’re done here.”

“Actually, I think the game’s pretty much over,” Ray said.

“Well, let’s see.” Bob counted off on his fingers. “Hex is under house arrest, no one’s wearing underwear, and we now know that AndrAIa will do anything to win an argument. Yeah, I’d say we’ve pretty much exhausted the possibilities.”

Everyone stood and prepared to leave. Bob gathered up the empty glasses and soda cans lying around and carried them into the kitchen. Mouse, trying her hardest to not think about the fact that she was about to pay someone to jab her with a needle, sauntered over to where Dot was trying to explain to Hack and Slash, via a vidwindow, that she needed one of them to come to Bob’s apartment to look after Enzo.

“Listen to me: Hack, you stay with Hex. Slash, you come here.”

“Yes ma’am!”

“On our way, boss!”

“No, Hack; you stay there. I only need one of you.”

The two robots pondered this for a moment... then resumed saying they were on their way.

“Let me help, dear,” Hex’s voice floated over the vidwindow. She raised her arm, and Slash suddenly disappeared from view, reappearing in Bob’s apartment nanoseconds later.

Dot blinked in surprise. “Uh... thanks, Hex.” She closed the vidwindow. “That’s a handy trick, I must say.”

“So tell me, Dot: what is the password to your organizer, anyway?” Mouse asked with a wry smile.

Dot blushed slightly. “Guardian,” she answered after a brief pause.

“Awww... Bob, did you hear that?” Mouse called into the kitchen.

“Hmm? Yeah, I heard,” Bob said, returning to the living room. “But I already knew that,” he continued, hugging Dot from behind.

Matrix chuckled. “Do you know how long it’s been that way?”

“Well, I assumed it’s been that way since we got together,” Bob said, releasing Dot and giving her a questioning look.

“Nope,” said Matrix.

All eyes were on Dot; she sighed heavily, making a mental note to never play Truth or Dare with these bloodsuckers again. “I changed the password to ‘guardian’ about 2 or 3 minutes... after I met you,” she finished in a decidedly softer tone.

Mouse spoke first. “Ok - no more claiming you didn’t have a crush on him from the beginning anymore.”

There were general sounds of agreement from the others. Dot looked like she was going to protest, but, knowing she couldn’t win, kept her mouth shut. Bob just gave her a half-smile and squeezed her hand.

“It’s ok, sugah. I mean, who hasn’t had a crush on Bob at some point or another?”

Matrix, Ray, and Slash instantly raised their hands. Mouse was about ready to make another snide comment, but it died on her lips when she - and everyone else - noticed that every female had kept her hand down. Including AndrAIa.

Confronted with her friends’ stares of disbelief, the Game Sprite made an effort to explain herself. “It was when I was a kid, ok?” she began, speaking more to Matrix than to anyone else. When his expression of shock didn’t change, she went on. “It was completely innocent; I was a kid, he was nice to me - I thought he was cute - and I had this little schoolgirl crush on him,” she said hastily, not looking Matrix in the eyes until she finished. Unfortunately, he was still staring at her when she did venture to look at him. “I don’t anymore!” she added defensively. When he still didn’t lighten up, she said, “Well at least I didn’t have a crush on someone who tried to delete me!”

Matrix’s eyes widened; he looked around at the others, trying to think of a way to justify her remark before the questions started, but it was too late.

“What?!”

“Who?”

“Oh, Enzo, you didn’t.” Dot’s remark turned the inquisitive stares in her direction.

“He did,” answered AndrAIa. With that, both women turned to Mouse.

After looking to Matrix for verification and finding him staring intently at the floor, it was pretty clear to the others who the object of Enzo’s affection had been. Ray decided to milk it for all it was worth. “So... you have a thing for Mouse, do ya?”

“HAD, Surfer. Past tense. Very past.”

Bob just shook his head. “Dear User...”

“I don’t anymore!” Matrix blurted out. An elbow in the side from AndrAIa and smirks from the rest of the group made him realize his mistake. “Ok, ok... I forgive you,” he sighed. AndrAIa just grinned at him.

Mouse was blushing almost imperceptibly, but she covered it with a wry smile. “It’s good to be us, isn’t it sugah?” she mused to Bob. The Guardian gave a flustered grin and nodded.

A point from the conversation finally caught up to Ray. “Wait... you tried to delete him?”

“Well, not on purpose.”

***

Bob exited the bathroom, the hardwood floor chilly on his bare feet. He had graciously taken a shower last, which meant he’d had no hot water. Such were the curses of being a good host, he thought to himself. He peeked in on Enzo as he passed the bedroom; despite being in a full-size bed, the boy was curled up in a ball near the edge, sound asleep. Bob chuckled to himself and carefully pulled the door shut, then continued on to the living room.

The Sprites were all fast asleep when Bob entered the room. “Didn’t think I’d been in the shower that long,” he muttered. Since Bob’s wardrobe had little to offer in the way of extra pajamas - he mostly slept in old Guardian Academy T-shirts - the others had opted to sleep in their regular clothes. Matrix and AndrAIa occupied the sofa; they were lying on their backs, her head resting on his chest. Bob was struck by how alike the two Enzos looked when they were sleeping; something in their expressions gave them a similar innocence. There were times, the Guardian mused, when you got glimpses like this, hints that there was still some of the little kid in Matrix somewhere. This must why AndrAIa stuck with him through all the rough times; she had seen the Enzo in Matrix - where no one else could.

Mouse and Ray were curled up on the floor atop a haphazard pile of throw pillows and spare blankets. The fact that the two of them had remained a couple for all this time was something of a shock to their friends, given the natural wanderlust they both had. Both Mouse and Ray attempted to keep things casual, but it was evident that they really cared about each other. Bob would have dwelled on these thoughts a bit longer, but he was distracted by the one Sprite who had yet to fall asleep: Dot.

She was curled up on the loveseat, obviously waiting for him. The soft glow of the lamp gave her eyes a faint sparkle. Dot, unlike the others, had taken him up on his offer of something more comfortable to sleep in, saying her body armor was impossible to get a good night's rest in and all she had stored on her icon were a few business suits and some spare underwear. She was now wearing one of his old Guardian Academy T-shirts; it fell to mid-thigh, with her bare legs peeking out below the hem. Bob's first thought was that she looked incredibly sexy. He wondered if he should be worried that she looked better in his clothes than he did, but he quickly shoved the thought to the back of his mind.

She smiled when their eyes met and held out her arms to him. Bob, returning the smile, went over and knelt by her side. Dot wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him softly.

“Miss me?” he asked when the kiss had ended.

“A little,” she responded teasingly. She scooted over as much as she could so he could join her on the loveseat. They lay silently in the dim light, her head on his chest, his hand resting on the curve of her waist. Bob trailed his fingers lightly along her stomach; he could feel the newly-added navel ring through the cloth of her nightshirt.

“So are you going to keep this or not?”

Dot wrinkled her nose. “Nah. It’d be different if I had my midriff bared all the time like AndrAIa, but with my outfits it would just be uncomfortable.” She looked up at him and giggled at his slightly disappointed expression. “I know you like it, angel, but it just isn’t practical.”

Bob allowed himself a small laugh. “Well, at least you held out longer than Mouse.”

“True.” The hacker had removed her navel ring almost immediately, saying the dare had been to pierce her belly button, not leave it that way. “The Mouse. Squeamish about needles. Who would’ve thought?”

“Not me.”

“You know, I think her squeezing my hand when the needle went in hurt me more than actually getting the piercing,” Dot laughed quietly.

Bob smiled. “I’m kinda proud of her, to tell the truth. I mean, she hates needles, but she still went through with it.”

Dot nodded. “Plus, she got her revenge on Mike, so it all evened out.” The TV had made the mistake of falling asleep in the waiting room; Mouse had taken the opportunity to get Mike a piercing of his own.

“Yeah, he’s not going to be too happy when he wakes up,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think it was very sporting of her, though.”

“And setting her up to get taken out of the Gotcha game was?” she shot back, smirking.

Bob feigned reproach. “Just whose side are you on, anyway?”

Dot responded by giving him a quick kiss, her eyes glinting mischievously. “I outrank you; I don’t have to answer that.”

“I have ways of making you talk,” he said, starting to tickle her. Dot let out a squeal before grabbing his hand and holding it away from her.

“You’ll wake everybody up!” she hissed, suppressing a laugh. When she was sure he wasn’t going to try anything, she released his hand; Bob immediately returned to resting it on her waist. “Actually,” Dot continued, “Mouse did you a favor. I doubt Mike will feel much like talking with a freshly-pierced tongue.”

Bob made a face. “Tell me about it; I didn’t know a tongue stud would swell up like that.”

“I didn’t even know he had a tongue.”

Bob chuckled. For a while they just laid in each other’s arms, content with the silence. Then Dot whispered, “Truth or Dare?”

Bob smiled wryly. “Funny.”

“No, I’m serious. Truth or Dare?”

Bob gave her a strange look, but decided to take the bait. “Truth.”

“Did you have a crush on me? You know...before?”

Bob smiled. “Oh, yeah.” <P.“WHY

Bob shrugged. “Too dumb to realize my own feelings, I guess. For a long time it was just a mini-crush. No offense,” he added quickly.

Dot grinned. “None taken.”

“Ok, my turn,” Bob said. “Truth or Dare?”

“Truth.”

“Were you really just ‘playing around’ at Enzo’s party?” Dot blushed and mumbled a response Bob couldn’t quite catch. “What was that?” he prompted.

“I said, ‘Not exactly’.”

Bob smiled and kissed her forehead. “Well, I enjoyed it.”

Dot grinned at him. “I thought so.”

Bob hugged Dot to him, running a hand up her arm. He paused at the tattoo on her shoulder, tracing it lightly. “When did you get this?”

Dot smiled at the memory. “In college.” <P.“MAY I

“It’s simple, really,” she began. “I was young, away from my responsibilities, and slightly drunk.”

Bob laughed. “Define slightly.”

“I was lucid enough to know what I was doing, but I no longer cared that it would last forever and really hurt.”

“Ah. Do you regret it at all?”

Dot shook her head. “No. I still like it.”

Bob nodded. “Truth or Dare?”

“I thought it was my turn.”

“You took too long.”

“I wasn’t aware there was a time limit,” she said with a laugh. “Well, there really aren’t too many dares we can do, are there?”

“Oh, I don’t know about *that*,” Bob said with a smirk. When Dot looked at him questioningly, he leaned over and whispered in her ear. Dot’s eyes widened in disbelief.

She looked at him in shock, then glanced around at her sleeping friends. “Do you realize how many people are in here?” she whispered, unable to keep herself from smiling.

Bob grinned back. “It’s a good-sized apartment; we’ll figure something out.”

“Please tell me you’re joking,” Dot said.

“Yeah, I am,” he answered, gently rubbing her arm. Dot knew he was telling the truth, but she could hear the wistful note in his voice. She sighed; they’d been together for some time, but had been taking the physical part of their relationship slowly. Lately, though, they’d both been hinting, sometimes quite clearly, at wanting to take things further; Dot, for her part, saw no reason to wait much longer.

She put a hand under his chin and looked directly into his eyes. “However, I’m, uh...I’m free tomorrow night,” she said softly.

Bob raised his eyebrows, surprised; then his face broke into a grin. “Until tomorrow, then,” he said, then kissed her deeply. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Bob.” Dot laid her head on his chest and closed her eyes.

The End

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