You’re going to get in trouble. I didn’t tattle, but they’re gonna know.
Hyrum sat on the floor of Jax’s office, using the ornate wood desk as a backrest, and he tapped on the screen of his tablet with his pointy finger. Rhys was next to him, and when the video on Hyrum’s tablet appeared on the giant monitor, he squealed. “You did it! We can watch it here without the babies!”
They had wanted to watch a cartoon Hyrum downloaded to his tablet while they were upstairs, in the living room, but Alex and Charlie were being Alex and Charlie, which meant hearing it would be next to impossible, and every few seconds one of the twins would do something in an attempt to get Hyrum’s attention. Hyrum asked Aubrey if he could take Rhys upstairs, promising he would be extra careful, and they wouldn’t touch anything except the TV.
Will and Aisha’s door would not be locked; Aubrey knew that. They had nearly the same open-door policy she did: if you live in the building, you’re family and our home is your home. The only exception, times the door was locked, was because Alex and Charlie were Alex and Charlie, and if they were home there needed to be a barrier between them and the stairs. There was a guard, but the rule was now that if only one parent was home with them, the door was locked.
Aubrey told Hyrum that they could go, but to be back for lunch. She was making tacos and knew Hyrum wouldn’t want to miss that.
I followed because I wanted to be where it was quiet, too. That state of quiet was relative to the volume at which Hyrum would turn the cartoon on—he had the same taste in sound that Rhys did, complicated by minor age-related hearing loss—but it still seemed like a better type of noise than Alex’s shrieking. But instead of heading upstairs, Hyrum hesitated at the head of the stairs and then headed down to Jax’s third-floor office. Hyrum peeked down the stairwell for snooping guards, and finding none, he gently wiggled the doorknob to see if the door was locked.
It opened with a soft click.
“Don’t touch Jax’s things,” he told Rhys. “We’re only gonna watch the cartoon, okay?”
I sat between them and the monitor, hoping Hyrum would hear me.
You opened the door. There’s a silent alarm. It turns on the security cameras.
They already know you’re in here. Not only will someone be here soon, they’re gonna tell on you.
“Wick, hush,” Hyrum said. “Turn around and watch. It’s really funny.”
But what’s going to happen in about three minutes won’t be.
Hyrum snatched me from my spot on the floor and set me between his crossed legs, admonishing me again for talking, because he and Rhys really wanted to watch this cartoon. It was about a superhero with his own red dragon, one that looked like Jeff, and they didn’t want to miss it because of loud babies or jabbering kitties.
I heard footsteps on the stairs and wondered who it was. There was a chance it was Vicat, Rhys’s personal guard; if she’d seen him on camera, she would rush to protect him from the other guards who might not appreciate how sweet and sensitive he could be. It might be the teenaged backup desk guard, who would puff out his chest to look as intimidating as possible, and then growl at them—or worse, he would yell. If he yelled, Hyrum would cry, and if Hyrum cried, so would Rhys, which would annoy Will, and no one wanted to annoy Will.
Hyrum was old enough to be the desk guards’ father, but it wouldn’t matter. He was where he was not supposed to be, and this wasn’t like riding his bike in places he knew Aubrey didn’t want him to go. This was the King’s office; the only one allowed there without explicit, previous permission was the Emperor.
I listened closely.
Dress shoes. Two pair.
One person was dragging his feet along, the other had a specific cadence. One did not take the stairs as often as he should, the other ran them for sport.
Another smaller set of feet started up from the near the front door, but I wasn’t worried about that. She would not say or do anything to upset Rhys and Hyrum unless directed to.
I relaxed a bit.
Blood would not be shed today.
I’m not gonna say I told you so, but…
Jax and Will stood in the doorway. The volume on the cartoon was unnecessarily loud, and both Hyrum and Rhys were transfixed. They didn’t realize they weren’t alone until Jax cleared his throat; Hyrum twitched with surprise and regret, but Rhys smiled.
“Daddy! Look, Hyrum made the cartoon play really big!”
Will crossed his arms. “Where is it you’re supposed to be?”
Rhys frowned. “Watching cartoons.”
“I don’t know.” He wasn’t sure where to look. Will looked serious and Hyrum seemed scared, and Jax wasn’t giving anything away. “Aunt Aubrey said we could.”
“Hyrum?” Jax prompted.
He sighed hard and turned the cartoon off. “I told her we were going upstairs to watch Will’s TV. I’m sorry. But we didn’t touch anything except the TV. I didn’t use the computer, I promise. Drew showed me how to make shows on my tablet play on the TV, and—”
“At any point, did you ask permission to use my office?” Jax asked.
“Are you mad?” Rhys asked, voice small.
“Well, I’m not happy.” He continued to focus on Hyrum. “My office is not a playroom, and I expect permission to be asked before so much as touching the doorknob.”
Will gestured for Rhys to get up and then signaled for Vicat to come in. “You’re going upstairs, and you will apologize to your aunt for lying to her about where you intended to go.”
“But that was me!” Hyrum protested. “He never said nothing!”
“Rhys, did you hear him say you would go upstairs?”
“Then you owe her an apology. Going somewhere else was wrong, and you know that.”
Hyrum got to his feet. He held his hands near his chest, shaking them, and tears sprung to his eyes. “It was me. He shouldn’t get spanked. It was me. Spank me.”
“Daddy, am I gonna get spanked?” Rhys asked, though he didn’t seem to be upset by the notion.
“No,” Will said. “We don’t do that.”
“Go,” Will said. “We’ll discuss this later.”
Hyrum was still in tears. I jumped onto the desk so that Will could see I was there, hoping he would listen.
He didn’t do anything except turn the monitor on.
“That’s not the issue, Wick.”
I know. But he thinks it is. Did anyone ever tell him the office was off-limits? Because you know he wouldn’t have come here if they had.
“Why here?” Will asked Hyrum. “The monitor upstairs is perfectly functional. For that matter, you have access to several between your living room and mine. Drew would have gladly allowed you to use his.”
“This one’s big,” Hyrum answered, sniffing. “I never watched one that big. It’s even bigger than yours.”
“Did you know you weren’t allowed to enter the office without permission?” Will asked. “Did Jax ever tell you it was off-limits?”
Hyrum’s hands pressed to his stomach, and he barely managed to squeak out, “No.”
“All right then.” Jax plucked the remote for the monitor from his desk. “It’s my fault.”
“No,” Will said, “they said they were going upstairs. That matters.”
Hyrum bounced on his toes, clutching at his shirt. “But I didn’t think of it until we were in the hall and I didn’t think about telling Aubrey. I’m really sorry.”
“And you’ll apologize to her.” Jax held the remote up. “Use this when you turn the monitor on. I’ll leave it on the arm of the chair. But first, check the upper right corner. If it’s safe to use, the light in the corner will be green. If the system is in use somewhere else in the building, the light will be red, and you absolutely cannot turn it on.”
Don’t tell him about the blood and guts he might see.
Or your freaky porn collection.
He had Hyrum turn it on and off and asked him to point out the lights. They went over the things in the office Hyrum wasn’t allowed to touch—nothing on the desk, nothing in the desk, in fact, nothing from the desk to the wall—and assured him it was fine to pull the chairs away from the other wall to sit in.
“We knew you were in here because you didn’t use an access code to open the door,” Jax went on. “When that happens, the security cameras in here activate and the guards can see who’s in here. You were lucky. If the desk guard had been new and unfamiliar with you, they would have burst in with arms drawn.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Guns. They would have been prepared to shoot,” Will said.
“Oh. That’s not good.”
Jax gave Hyrum permission to use the office monitor unless he was working; he had to promise to tell Aubrey where he was going and to stay away from the desk, but if what he wanted was to watch TV, that was fine. He could play video games, as well, but only if he connected his tablet to the monitor.
You have a game console right there. Teach him how to use it.
“Don’t bring Charlie or Alex in here,” Will said. “Rhys will listen to the rules, but they will not.”
“They came here to get away from the little monsters,” Jax said.
“They’re not monsters,” Hyrum sniffed. “They’re just babies but they’re loud.”
“And they take toys you don’t intend to share, and lately they argue for the sake of arguing,” Will said. “We do understand.”
“You can bring toys here, too,” Jax said, “but the same rules apply, all right? Now go tell your sister you’re sorry for lying to her. And if she’s angry, you’ll just have to deal with it.”
“Hyrum.” Will stopped him at the door. “No one in this house gets spanked. Ever.”
“You promised no spanking me. But I didn’t know about the little ones.”
“Never,” JAx agreed.
“No one gets spanked?” Jax asked when Hyrum was halfway up the stairs. “Not even a tiny bit?”
“What are you suggesting, Jax?”
He wants to know what freaky things you and Aisha are into.
She slapped your butt once.
“That doesn’t count, Wick.”
“Do I want to know?” Jax asked.
“Probably. Wick, go upstairs and make sure no one is too upset.”
Jax bent over, hands on knees. “Wick, is he avoiding the question? There’s shrimp in it for you. Just meow if he’s avoiding it.”
I let slip a tiny meow and then ran for the stairs before Will could refute or Jax could renege.
Hyrum was in the kitchen with Aubrey. His hands were plastered to his chest and stomach, and he bounced lightly on his toes, cheeks wet. Aubrey was making him wait; he’d apologized, but she wanted him to understand that violating Jax’s office wasn’t a little thing and that it could have turned out badly.
No one would have shot him, but without the security cameras, he and Rhys would have been frightened half out of their minds by the guards bursting in, yelling. I might have peed on the plush red carpet, someone might have jumped up and broken things on Jax’s desk, and the minor infraction would have become a Big Thing.
“You were lucky that Jax and Will were in the building.” The stern tone she hoped for was lost in the amusement that dripped behind her words; after all, Oz and Zed had done the same thing when they were little, sneaking into the office to watch a movie they were not allowed to see. She’d expected this sooner or later. When he bounced harder, his heels striking the floor, she gave him the tiniest blip of a smile. “I accept your apology, Hyrum. I know you didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”
“Rhys didn’t get in trouble, did he? On account of it was my fault.”
“He apologized and is washing his hands. Lunch will be ready soon.”
Alex and Charlie were in the bathroom with him, which meant there would be a mess to clean up when they were done. Soap would coat the vanity with water puddled on the floor; chances were high that Rhys would dribble on the floor and in an attempt to mimic his big brother, Charlie would pee all over the back of the toilet. Before he could finish, Alex would run down the hall, yelling that her brothers were making a mess.
I didn’t need to go watch them to know the result of three toddlers in a bathroom.
It happened at least three times a week. Aubrey never complained, but instead praised Charlie for his efforts, and thanked Rhys for helping to potty train him.
She told Hyrum to wash his hands, too, but didn’t add that he’d been wiping his nose with the back of his hand and snot was not on the lunch menu. “Oh, and your computer pinged. I think you have a call.”
He checked before going into the bathroom. It was his mother, and he shrugged it off. “I’m not calling back, Wick. I always feel bad when I call her.”
No skin off my nose, dude. She whines a lot. But you know she’ll call back later.
“Maybe I’ll feel like talking to her later. After tacos.”
He did not feel like talking to her after tacos. After the tacos were gone and all that remained were splatters of beef and cheese with crumbles of tortilla shells, while he helped clear the table, Aubrey told him she’d had a nice talk with their mother before lunch.
Hyrum was nearly always polite and listened to his sister carefully, but this time he grunted. He didn’t want to hear Valerie’s latest gossip, didn’t care if Spencer’s wife was the devil wrapped in a frumpy hand-sewn skirt that she didn’t need because Spencer earned decent money and could buy her anything she wanted, didn’t care if Elle was disobeying her husband by taking a part-time job even if it was in a day care center. Or rather, he cared, but not the way she wanted him to, with judgment and disapproval.
If Spencer’s wife was proud of her sewing skills, he was happy for her.
If Elle wanted to work and it made her feel good, he was happy for her.
He didn’t want to judge anyone for the choices they made. And deep down, he approved. There was no agreeing with his mother on some things.
“She’s coming the day after tomorrow for a visit.”
Hyrum dropped the handful of seasoned ground beef he’d intended for the trash on the table. “Why?”
“Because she hasn’t seen you in a while, and she’d like to. It will only be for two or three days.”
“If I call her back, will she stay home?”
“This is a big deal for her, Hyrum. Shuttles frighten her, and she’s coming alone.”
He sighed hard. “Then she should take her broom.”
Eli would like to go for a walk. Take Hyrum.
Drew looked up from his computer and glanced at his newborn, who was sound asleep in the bassinette next to the desk. “Eli wants to go out,” he said, sort-of mocking me. “Where does he want to walk to? Fuzzy’s for his first bender?”
He thinks the fresh air would do him some good.
“Ah. And I suppose taking Hyrum was his idea, too?”
It would have been if he could form a clearer concept of Hyrum. Right now, he’s just Snuggly Dude and Giver of Kisses.
“That sounds about right. What am I?”
Happy Man, full of warm touches and soft voices.
Where is Oz?
“Downstairs in her grandfather’s apartment. She has a conference call and needed someplace quiet while she rips one of her contractors a new one.”
Get Hyrum. I’ll warm the stroller up.
We lapped Union Square, keeping to the sidewalk, in case Oz finished verbally destroying the contractor who dropped a ball or two or ten and delayed the opening of a major hotel at the Wastelands by a month or more and that she wanted to join us. Guards trailed behind and watched from Union Square, though to anyone looking they all seemed like tourists taking in the cool night air. I tried to mark where every one of the them were; Hyrum had two guards following and Drew had two, but there were four keeping a careful eye on people who so much as glanced at the royal heir.
If Hyrum or Drew met with an unfortunate end, it would be sad. But Eli was second in line to the throne, and if something went wrong, he would be the most protected. He was bundled up in the stroller, wearing a heavy pair of footed pajamas with a light blanket over him, and he was only half awake, with no clue that he was the most important person on or near Union Square that night.
To be fair, he wasn’t quite aware that he was a person at all. I sometimes peeked at his dreams, and he viewed life in terms of how satisfied he was. Boobs fed him and told him how wonderful he was and how loved he always would be. Happy Man soothed him. Snuggly guy comforted him. He had no concrete opinion about his cousins, but Aubrey was Warm and Squishy and Jax was Too Loud. Will was Strong but Soft Man and Aisha was Smells Nice. But Grandpa Eli, he was Everything but the Boobs, and little Eli looked for him constantly.
Right now, he was trying to get a fix on Hyrum, who had been unusually quiet all through dinner, and though he agreed to go outside with Drew, he wasn’t happy about it. Drew tried to pull conversation out of him, but was met with shrugs and sighs, and the occasional grunt.
Buy him hot chocolate and a donut. Trust me.
Drew trusted me. We headed onto the Square for a snack at the bakery, and after Hyrum had licked all the chocolate from his donut and taken a large bite, Drew asked him what was bothering him.
“You know Jax isn’t really mad about his office,” Drew said. “You’re not in trouble.”
“Rhys isn’t in trouble, either.”
“Then what’s bothering you? You’ve been quiet all evening.”
Hyrum took another bite. “My mom’s coming to see me.”
“Oh. Yeah, okay, I get it.”
“Every time she calls, she says something about me coming home, and now she’s moving out of the little house in Spencer’s back yard and she’s going back home, and she says there’s a big room for me, but I don’t want to go.”
“But she’s my mom. I have to do what she says.”
“Hy, you’re a ward of the King. He’s the only one who gets to say where you live. And he’ll say you get to live where you want to, not where she wants you to.”
He knew that. He understood that there were official papers signed by a Supreme Court judge that made Jax his legal guardian, and that he would never make Hyrum go where he didn’t say he wanted to go. But he also knew his mother. “She’s gonna talk a lot and say things and then she’ll make me feel bad about how much I like it here and then make me feel like I have to move and I’m a bad son if I don’t. But I don’t want to. If I go back there, my life is over.”
He wasn’t being dramatic. Life as he had come to love would end, and he would wallow in the misery of the ghost his father had left behind.
“Look.” Drew shoved his cup aside and set his crossed arms on the table. “You can’t leave now, anyway. We’re knee deep in the nano-suit project at work, and I need you for that. Literally, my life is at stake here. We’re fine tuning what I’ll wear when I go to Elysium, and your input is critical.”
“She won’t believe that.”
“Doesn’t matter what she believes. You see things no one else does. You have ideas no one else does. I need that.”
Hyrum was a lot like Drew in that respect. Drew had big ideas that popped out at the right moment; Hyrum had smaller ideas and needed context—like being in the room with the space suit Ozoo Enterprises was designing—but they tended to be as important as Drew’s. Just before Christmas, when Drew was working on the gel that kept Elysium’s computers at a safe operating temperature, Hyrum coughed up the answer Drew had been searching for, a way to raise the temperature of the environment around the computer without sacrificing heat dispersion and function of the computer systems. It was a simple ratio alteration, fewer nanobots and more gel, and additional liquid to thin the gel just a tiny bit. Literally a microscopic bit, but it made all the difference.
He didn’t understand the principle of resistance, but he knew it was easier to swim through water than it was through syrup and thought that the nanobots would find it easier if the gel were thinner. “You don’t get as hot when it’s easier to move.”
Drew listened to Hyrum; other people in the lab were all highly educated and of course they knew better than Hyrum. But Drew thought it was worth a shot, and it worked. He made a few micro-adjustments and the operating temperature dropped a full degree. Tests suggested the room temperature could be raised as much as 7 degrees. It was also why Drew was headed for Elysium and why a new suit was being designed. He was testing not only the new gel, but the temperature of the pod it would be used in, necessitating new suits for the humans who managed the routine maintenance. His life truly did hinge on Hyrum’s idea.
His voice was barely above a whisper. “She’s gonna make me go, Drew.”
“That’s not going to happen. Your home is here. She can’t make you do anything.”
Hyrum said he knew that, but for the first time, I think he was lying.