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This was written in response to an HT100 Flash Fic Challenge: Under Cover of the Night.

Hi, Society: In the Still of the Night

by Riley Cannon

In the Still of the Night

March, 1940, New York City

Chris sighed and let the curtain fall back in place, no sign of the early spring snowstorm letting up -- or of Toby coming home. And all right, Toby'd called and said he was going to be held up this evening, but that didn't mean he had to be easy about him being out in this weather.

Back in the living room, he sat back down and picked up his book, but it was hard to concentrate on Philip Marlowe when he kept listening for Toby's key in the lock. After he'd read the same paragraph a half dozen times, he put the book down again and just watched the kids playing Monopoly and listening to the radio. Holly'd wiped him out half an hour ago and just about had Harry polished off too. She was collecting her dough from him when the lights flickered a couple of times, the radio fading in and out -- and then everything went completely out.

"Fu -- damn." There was enough light from the fireplace for Chris to make his way back to the window, the kids clustered around him as he pulled back the curtain to look outside.

"Is it the Martians?" Harry whispered anxiously, little hand latching onto Chris'.

Chris picked him up, assuring him, "No, that was just a story. The power must have just gotten knocked out." He couldn't get over it, the whole city dark, traffic grinding to a halt and the drivers climbing out, huddling with some of their neighbors who had stumbled outside with flashlights to look around. He itched to get out there with them, start pulling together a story for the Observer. His mind was racing, knowing the rumors that would already be circulating, ranging across everything from those Martian invaders to Nazi saboteurs. Odds were the real cause would prove to be thoroughly mundane. That was usually how it worked. The human interest angle was irresistible, though, and he was within seconds of grabbing his coat and heading out there -- when Harry's arm tightened around his neck, Gary and Holly crowding closer as well, and he felt a far stronger urge to stay right here and make sure the kids felt safe and secure.

And that wasn't even the amazing part. No, what he hadn't seen coming was how comfortable and welcome that was, not a twinge of frustration or disappointment that they came first. Let someone else bust his ass landing the story; Chris had really important things to do.

"Is Daddy all right?" Holly whispered, squeezing his hand.

Chris squeezed back. "He'll be here any minute," he told her, not a shred of doubt that promise would be kept. He needed to keep the kids occupied and distracted, though, so they wouldn't be fretting away waiting for Toby to get home. Well, yes, and that likely wouldn't do him any harm either.

Taking care of some basics -- hunting up candles and hurricane lamps, and having the kids change into their pajamas -- ate up a fair amount of time, and then Chris had them all snug as bugs on the couch, the firelight and candles casting enough light to keep worries about monsters at bay. In fact, as he sat down beside them he couldn't help thinking that, under slightly different circumstances, with the kids in bed and their dad here beside him, this wouldn't be so bad at all.

"Are you sure there's no Martians?" Harry asked.

"Pretty sure, yeah." He scootched around, back pressed against the arm rest, so he could face them. "I wrote up a story all about that when it happened," he told them.

"For your magazine?" Holly said.

"Umm hmm, the old one I used to work for."

She nodded, up on all those details. "What was your story about?"

"Just how people let themselves get carried away when common sense should have told them it was all a make believe story."

She nodded seriously, in no doubt she possessed common sense enough to put others in awe. "I remember Daddy and Grandpa said that, but Uncle Angus still wanted us to all get out of the city just in case."

"Did you?"

Gary shook his head. "Grandpa said he wasn't heading for the hills just over some fool radio show, and Daddy told Uncle Angus to put a sock in it."

Chris grinned. "I'll bet he did."

Looking thoughtful now, Harry asked, "How come there's no Martians?"

"Well I don't know. Maybe there are, but Mars is really, really far away from here so I don't think we have to worry about them."

Harry gave him an interested look. "How far?"

"Miles and miles and miles."

Apparently satisfied with that ambiguity, Harry scootched a little bit closer and said, "I bet it would take a long time to get there."

Chris smiled. "I bet it would too." There were times he missed the days when Harry parceled his words judiciously, but he had gradually gotten better at following three threads of conversation. It still amazed him how Toby could keep track of everything and never miss a beat.

"I bet Superman could get there like that," Gary snapped his fingers to illustrate.

Holly rolled her eyes and pointed out, "Superman's make believe too."

"So's Nancy Drew."

Before an argument could get going, Chris said, "Lots of good stories are made up, that doesn't mean any of them aren't important."

"How come?" Harry asked.

"How come people make up stories?"

Harry nodded.

"Well, way back in olden times it was so they could try and understand the world."

"Because they didn't have any scientists and stuff then," Gary said.

"That's right. The world was mysterious and frightening, so they needed to explain things so they wouldn't be scared anymore."

"Like if the lights all went out?" Holly said.

"Umm hmm. Except they didn't have lights back then," Chris said, thinking he had a way to show them how this blackout didn't have to be anything scary. "All they had was the sun and the moon, and firelight, and because these were so important to them, they had stories to explain what they were and where they came from."

Eyes wide, imagination already dazzled, Harry asked, "Like what?"

"Well," Chris got more comfortable, "one time I heard this story from the Cherokee people--"

"Those are Indians," Holly informed them all.

"That's right. Anyway," he hurried on before she could launch into a discussion of Indian Affairs, "what they believed was that the Sun was a young woman who lived in the East, and the Moon was her brother who lived in the West. Usually the Sun and Moon lived in harmony with the Earth, but one time the people down on Earth saw the sky was growing dark when it should have been bright as midday, and looking up they saw this giant frog creeping across the sky, chasing the Sun to swallow her up." Three pairs of big blue eyes were riveted on him, all of them inching closer. "The people were afraid, but there was nothing they could do. Even their bravest warriors couldn't hope to rescue the Sun from her fate, and the land grew dark as the frog caught her and gobbled her up." He paused dramatically. "Do you know what happened then?" Three golden heads shook in unison. "Well, the Sun was much more powerful than anyone had reckoned, certainly more than a match for an old giant frog, and suddenly light began to return to the land as she fought her way free. First just a few golden rays of sunlight and then more and more until the sky was blazing with bright, warm light once more and the frog could only hop away in defeat."

"And he never came back again?" Harry asked, worried about it.

"Sometimes he did. Sometimes he tried to swallow the Moon, but the Moon and his sister always escaped and triumphed in the end."

"I bet I know what really happened," Gary said.

Harry turned to him. "What?"

"The frog was an eclipse."

Chris nodded. "That's right."

"What's an eclipse?" Harry wanted to know, so he could be absolutely certain about this giant sky frog deal.

"It's when the Moon moves into the path between the Earth and the Sun," Gary said. "That's a solar eclipse. A lunar one is when the Earth moves into the path between the Sun and the Moon."

Harry tilted his head back, as if trying to peer through wood and brick and glimpse all of this astronomical hurly-burly. "Did I ever see one?"

Gary shook his head. "Not yet."

Holly gave Chris an interested look. "Did you?"

"A couple times, yeah," he admitted, bracing for the barrage of questions sure to follow. "The first time, I was with my uncle and aunt upstate, and we'd just gotten up on a cold January morning, only instead of the sun coming up we had this eclipse. Your grandpa and dad probably saw it too, right here in the city."

"Was it scary?" Harry asked.

He nodded. "A little bit. Mostly it was exciting."

Harry nodded to himself. "I bet I see one sometime."

Chris ruffled his hair, smiling. "I bet you do too, pal." He angled his watch to catch some light and check the time, firmly told himself Toby was fine and would walk in any minute now, and ransacked his memory for any other stories to keep them all distracted in the meantime.

And as if on cue, Harry commanded, "Tell another Cherokee story."

"Tell another Cherokee story what?" Chris prompted.

Abashed, Harry said, "Tell another Cherokee story, please?"

"That's better." Getting comfortable again, he began, "This is one about what they thought the stars were like. Some people would say those were only balls of light up there, while others thought they might be human, but mostly people said they were living creatures that were covered with feathers and fur that glowed with an unearthly light. One night, a hunting party had been out all day and decided to make camp in the mountains when they saw two lights moving along a far off ridge..." he continued, not even about to entertain the thought of running out of stories before Toby got home.

~*~ Not quite frozen to the bone, Toby thought he had never been more glad to see his own front door as he held onto the handrailing and carefully made his way up the snow-clogged and slippery stoop, cold-numbed fingers fumbling for his key. His taxi had been four blocks away when the lights went out, the driver spooked and refusing to budge another inch in the darkness. No amount of money would make the guy change his mind, and Toby had finally given up and decided to make the rest of the trip on foot. Piece of cake under ordinary circumstances, but more akin to some strange trip through hell tonight, with people milling around, the air filled with fearful whispers.

The only thing Toby was afraid of was getting lost thirty feet from home, but as he turned the key and swung the door open, all those worries melted away in an instant. It was a little chilly here in the vestibule, but loads warmer than outside, with a hurricane lamp set out on a table and lit for him, the soft glow from the living room holding a promise of even better things.

Hanging up his overcoat and hat, he went in quietly, stopping to simply look in at his family, cozy as could be in front of the fire. Harry was asleep, head resting on Chris' shoulder, and it looked like Gary and Holly weren't far behind him. On tiptoe, Toby made his way over there, laying a hand along the back of Chris' neck. "Hey."

Chris looked around at him, smiled. "Hey. Hand's cold."

"Sorry." He started to move it.

"Nah, it's okay. It'll warm up."

Yes, he could feel a thaw already setting in as he went around to join them on the couch, Chris lifting Harry onto his lap to make some room. "Everything all right here?"

"We're good," Chris told him.

"I can see that," Toby said as the kids stirred, blinking sleepy eyes at him, faces lighting up as they realized he was home. "What's been going on?" he asked, ashamed he'd been worried that Chris might not be coping well under the circumstances. On the other hand, as they told him how they'd found the candles and lamps, and weren't even scared for a second, it felt good to have his more usual confidence in his lover confirmed.

"Wow, sounds like you guys've been having a great time here," he said as they finally wound down, sharing a smile with Chris. "Guess nobody missed me for even a second, huh?" he went on, pooching his lips out like he was sad about that. A tangle of tiny arms around his neck and a flurry of kisses promptly reassured him, however, and he fell back against Chris, laughing up into his face and betting he'd get a hug and a kiss from him in just a bit.

"How's it look out there?" Chris said, setting him upright, hand lingering along the back of his neck.

"Dark and cold. You're not missing anything." Wracked by a shiver, he pressed closer to Chris and tried to absorb some of his body heat. He was telling them he'd been halfway home to them when all the lights went out all over the city, turning his adventures into a far more amusing tale than they had seemed at the time.

*** "You know, I can draw my own bath." Toby felt obliged to point that out as Chris undressed him and led him over to the tub.

The lights had finally come back on, to the delight of all, although after putting the kids to bed there had been a mutual agreement to keep some of those candles going, spread around their bedroom and bath, their flickering glow creating an intimate and inviting atmosphere. Keller, warmed by the summer sun, was a glorious vision; Keller by moonlight was a sure bet for very sweet dreams. But Keller lit by the soft glow of candlelight ... yes, that wasn't too shabby either. And it was a delicious cherry on top to look into those blue eyes and know Chris was thinking those very same things about him. A guy could really get used to basking in that.

"You complaining?" Chris whispered, holding him close and making him feel a hundred times warmer already. "Don't get a chance to spoil you often," he added, pressing a kiss to his cheek.

Hands resting on his shoulders, Toby gave him a playful look. "So, are going to join me or just watch?" he asked because it felt odd to be standing there naked in the candlelit bathroom, with Chris still fully clothed.

"Mmmm," warms lips brushed along his jaw, "just watch, I think."

"Hmmm, you have plans?" He loosened Chris' necktie some more, worked a couple of shirt buttons open.

"Could be," Chris admitted, kissing his mouth this time.

Pretty sure he would enjoy whatever Keller had in mind, Toby lowered himself into the bath water, submerging completely for a second before bobbing back up and shaking water out of his hair. "Sure you don't want to come in? The water feels good." No lie either, the warmth was seeping right into him, chasing the chill away.

"Well I gotta say, the view's pretty good from here," Chris said as he sat down on the edge of the tub and dipped his hand to cup some of the water, drizzle it over Toby's head. "Feeling better?"

He dropped his head forward, giving his lover better access to his neck and back, the feel of those strong hands massaging him doing wonders. "Feeling pretty good, yes."

Those hands slid up to grasp his shoulders as Chris kissed the nape of his neck. "Okay if I go check on Harry? Gotta make sure he's not watching for Martians."

Smiling at that, loving him for it, Toby said, "I think I can manage not to drown myself, yes."

Chris laughed, kissed him again. "Glad to hear it. I don't need an emergency to give you the kiss of life."

Toby looked around at him. "Is that what it's called?"

Chris leaned down to meet his lips, lingering this time. "Fits, don't you think?" he whispered, one finger stroking along his cheek.

He nodded, reached up to pull him back for another. "I could live on them."

Hand cupped along his cheek, Chris caressed him with that intent gaze. "Me too," he whispered, pressing a kiss to his forehead before standing up. "I'll be right back."

Toby nodded, resting back and closing his eyes, not a doubt in his mind about that.

~*~ Chris lingered a moment, committing this vision to memory: Toby, wet and gleaming in the candlelight, pale skin slowly warming up with color as he soaked up the heat of the water. Far too tempting to climb in there with him, stroke his hands along that lean body, kiss every inch of him until he was feeling nice and toasty -- but if they got started, they wouldn't be able to stop, and he really did need to go look in on Harry. It was all right, though, Toby wasn't going anywhere. That knowledge made it somewhat easier to leave him for the moment.

Tiptoeing down the stairs, he cracked open the door to Harry's room and saw he'd been right about the kid still having the Martians -- or giant sky frogs -- on his mind: he was over at the window, kneeling on the window seat and looking out the window. Chris knew what an overactive imagination was like, racing around like crazy sometimes, no matter how many times you were assured that there was absolutely nothing hiding under the bed.

"Hey," he called softly, and Harry glanced around at him. "How's it look out there?"

"Pretty good," Harry allowed with caution, trying to angle his head to gaze up at the night sky. "Looks like about all the lights are back on."

"That's good." Chris joined him at the window, having to admit it felt pretty good to look out at the city all lit up again. "You know what I heard?" he asked, snagging Joe the Bear from the dresser.

Giving him a curious look, Harry said, "What?"

"That bears are really good at keeping Martians away." Chris held the bear out to him, watched him look it over seriously, an internal debate raging away. When he'd turned five, Harry had announced he was too old to sleep with the bear anymore, but Chris had a hunch that resolution wasn't always easy to stick to.

"I don't know," Harry reached out a little hand to stroke Joe's soft fur. "You don't sleep with a bear."

Chris smiled. "Well no, not anymore, not since I met your dad."

Eyes wide, Harry asked, "But you used to?"

"Umm hmm."

Hand closing on the bear and dragging him over, Harry nodded. "And Joe might be lonely."

"I bet he is," Chris agreed, leading him back to his bed and getting him settled in again, Joe clutched snugly.

"Does Daddy keep the monsters away now?" Harry asked, eyes starting to drift closed.

Smile wistful now, Chris nodded. "He sure does."

"That's good," Harry said around a huge yawn.

"Yep." Chris waited, making sure Harry was well and truly asleep this time, and let himself out of the room quietly, confident in Joe's powers to fight off any sign of nightmares. Bears really were good at that.

Back upstairs, he was only mildly disappointed to find Toby already out of the tub and starting to dry off. "Here, let me," he took the towel from him and began working the soft cloth over him, extra diligent about getting him completely dry because of the cold.

"Harry okay?"

"Yep," Chris rubbed along Toby's collarbone, "Joe's fighting off the Martians for him."

"That's good. And I really can dry myself off."

Moving, Chris drew the towel along his back, nuzzled the nape of his neck. "Want me to stop?"

"Well I didn't say that."

Chris laughed and kissed his shoulder. "Yeah," he drawled, "let's not get crazy, huh?"

"Exactly. So, these plans you had," Toby went on as Chris finished up and tossed the towel aside, "what's the next step?"

"Well, you can start with these," Chris handed him a pair of pajama bottoms and got a quizzical look in return.

"You want me to get dressed?"

"Umm hmm, but just those. You'll warm up faster skin to skin."

"No kidding," Toby replied, laughter in his voice as he bent and pulled on the navy pajamas, taking his time about it because of being well aware Chris' appreciative gaze was lingering on those long legs and beautiful ass. "What about you?" he asked, pulling them over his hips and tying the drawstring.

"Go get in bed," Chris told him, locking up another memory there: Toby standing there, pajamas riding tantalizing low on slim hips, the dark cloth making him seem luminous in the soft light. He reached to stroke the line of golden hair trailing up from his groin, soft and downy under his fingertips. "You know what?"

"We should start making more use of the tub?"

He laughed. "Yeah." Fingers curved around Toby's waist, he gave him a squeeze. "Go on, I'll be there in a sec."

"Okay." Toby's head angled and Chris closed his eyes as lips teased the corner of his mouth and staked a quick claim on his lips.

*** Stripped down to just his boxers, Chris slipped into bed beside Toby and rolled on his side to gather him close, hands massaging over his back. "Still cold?"

Toby snuggled closer, trying to keep their feet from tangling. "A little. Sorry, my feet feel like blocks of ice."

"Then bring 'em over here," Chris growled, pulling the covers up and catching Toby's feet with his, rubbing them. Kissing his temple, he confessed, "I was worried about you, out there in the dark and the cold." He could admit to the fear now, when all he'd ever want was safe and sound here in his arms.

Toby didn't tell him that was nutty. He only drew back a bit to look at him, serious and understanding, touching his face. "I had a few moments myself." He bent his head, kissed Chris on the shoulder. "And I'm sorry you had to cope with the kids all on your own."

"Don't be. Taking care of them wasn't any kind of burden."

Searching his eyes, smiling when he saw that was only the simple truth, Toby nodded. "You're sure?"

Chris kissed his cheek. "I was right where I wanted to be, Toby. The only thing missing was you."

"Well I'm here now."

Oh yes, he was, and heating up nicely every moment.


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