Anais Hollyfield’s eyes were nearly as big as the tile and porcelain edifice before her. Never had she seen anything so big and cold and amazing in all her five years on Azeroth. Vaguely she thought she heard a voice calling her, but she was still in such awe that she could not answer.
“Anais!” the lady called again as she swept into the hallway with her baby on her hip, sighing and smiling with evident relief as she caught sight of the child. “Anais, I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Dinner is ready, dear.”
“Miss Ast?” the little girl asked softly, still staring ahead as the woman approached.
“That,” Anais said somberly, “is the biggest bathtub I have ever seen.”
Miss Ast laughed. “It is quite impressive,” she agreed, offering her free hand to the girl.
“Doesn’t Lala sink in it?” Anais wrinkled her nose, pondering. “It’s taller than she is.”
“Laurelia uses a smaller tub for her baths.”
“You have two bathtubs?!” Anais boggled.
Miss Ast laughed again. “Five, actually. Come now, dear.”
“Five bathtubs,” Anais breathed in wonder as she took the woman’s hand. No wonder Miss Ast liked this house so much.
The evening had nearly been a disaster. Anais was very worried when she and Daddy got to Auntie Mel’s house that afternoon only to find out that Auntie Mel was very sick, like barfing sick, and shivering. Auntie Mel had reassured Anais and Daddy that she was going to be okay, but it was obvious that Anais could not stay with her that evening, and as much as he tried not to worry her Anais knew that Daddy couldn’t afford another evening off from work. Running into Miss Ast had been a lucky thing – Daddy was obviously grateful for her offer to mind Anais for the evening, and Anais herself jumped at the chance. After all, she had a plan in the works, and this was a perfect opportunity to move it forward.
Of course the moment she realized what was in store for her Anais nearly forgot about the plan entirely. First she rode in Miss Ast’s motorbike all the way back to Miss Ast’s house, which was huge! Once there Anais ran all through Miss Ast’s gardens (Miss Ast said Daddy had planted most of the flowers!) with Lala toddling behind, and when Miss Ast called for them to come inside Anais showed Lala how to build a block castle. Then Miss Ast took Anais into another room while Lala took a nap, and let her sort through a gigantic pile of fabric scraps! Then Miss Ast gave Anais a measuring tape and showed her how to use it, and Anais went through each room finding the most interesting things to measure, from Lala’s teddy bear (22”) to a vase with a pretty pattern painted on it (17-1/2”) to the pieces of said vase (1/4” to 4”, not counting the ones that were too tiny to get a good measurement on) to a big fancy steamer trunk with brass hinges (18” tall and 56” long!) And then she found the tub….
“Miss Ast?” Anais asked as they walked down the hall. “Do you have a longer measuring tape?”
“I’m not sure, Anais. We can check after dinner. Are you hungry?”
Anais nodded enthusiastically, and gasped again as they walked into the dining room. The ceiling was so tall! And there was a great big chandelier, with dangly crystals that sparkled and shone. Miss Ast put Lala into a special tall chair with a tray, and helped Anais into her own much bigger chair. This chair had a book and a pillow on it, so Anais felt especially tall as she sat at the table. She put her napkin in her lap, as Daddy had taught her… then looked quizzically at Miss Ast as the lady took her own seat. The placemat before her was empty. Where was dinner?
Before she could ask, a door swung open and two women wearing aprons walked in carrying steaming trays of food. Plates were placed before Miss Ast and Anais, and even Lala was given her own little bowl with a silver spoon in it. Anais stared at the chicken, already cut into tiny bites, and mashed sweet potatoes and vegetables – it all smelled so good! One of the women poured a glass of wine for Miss Ast, who nodded her thanks, and the other placed a tall glass of sparkling apple juice next to Anais’ plate. Then both women vanished through the door they had come in by.
Anais looked at Miss Ast with wide eyes. “You have a restaurant in your house?!”
Miss Ast chuckled. “No, dear. But I’ve hired people to handle much of the household maintenance – all the cleaning and the cooking, the yardwork, and the other things that I don’t have time or inclination to do myself.”
“Daddy does all the cooking in our house,” Anais said, picking up her fork. “An’ the cleaning. But I help sometimes!”
“I know, dear,” Miss Ast smiled as she cut into her dinner. “And he is a wonderful cook. I’m afraid nothing I have in this house is quite as good as your father’s skethyl berry pie – but I believe we may have chocolate ice cream in the kitchen for girls who finish their plates.”
Anais gasped and dug into her potatoes. Across the table, Lala picked up her spoon and managed to smear some of her own creamed dinner across both cheeks before shrieking and throwing the spoon on the ground.
Anais swallowed. “Lala,” she said sternly, “You won’t get any ice cream like that.”
Miss Ast chuckled as Lala dug her hands into her bowl. “Laurelia doesn’t actually like ice cream yet.”
“But she’s gonna spill all her dinner!”
“It’s okay, Anais,” Miss Ast reassured her. “I’ll be content if Laurelia eats a little bit of table food. She’ll get a second dinner after.”
Anais blinked. “A second dinner?”
Miss Ast nodded, taking a napkin to wipe off Lala’s cheeks. Lala waved her hands and stuck her tongue out to try to lick the napkin, which made Anais giggle again. “You’ll see,” Miss Ast promised.
Not long after Anais followed Miss Ast back out of the dining room (Miss Ast carrying Lala and Anais carefully carrying her small dish of chocolate ice cream), down the hall to a small sitting room where there was a big couch with soft cushions. Miss Ast propped herself up against one corner of a couch with Lala on her lap and directed Anais to sit anywhere she pleased, so Anais hopped up on the opposite end of the same couch and curled up with her ice cream on her lap and took a bite as she watched Miss Ast get settled. “Where’s Lala’s dinner?” she asked.
“Right here,” Miss Ast said. “I carry it with me. It’s a special milk mommies make for their babies.”
Anais’ hand froze with the spoon halfway to her mouth as Miss Ast started unbuttoning the top part of her robe. But shock quickly turned to fascination, and slowly the spoon returned to the bowl as Anais watched, enthralled, as Miss Ast began to feed her baby.
“Does it hurt?” she asked softly, after a long moment.
Miss Ast shook her head. “It just tickles a bit.”
Anais shifted in her seat, and suddenly remembered her ice cream. She scooped up another bite. “Do all mommies do that?” she asked.
“Did my mommy do that?”
Miss Ast made her funny sideways half-smile and shrugged. “I suspect she did. But I don’t know for sure, dear. I never had the privilege of meeting your mother.”
“She was nice,” Anais said, nodding.
The three sat in silence for a moment; the mother, her suckling baby and the little girl eating ice cream. Anais thought hard as she sucked on her spoon. She had to admit that Miss Ast’s house was really nice, and that kinda threw a wrench in her plans. But then, on the other hand… maybe the plan didn’t have to be abandoned entirely. Maybe if she just turned it around…
“Miss Ast?” she said, “you have a really nice house.”
“Why thank you, dear,” Miss Ast replied. “Mmm, I think Laurelia’s falling asleep…”
“And it’s a really big house,” Anais persisted.
“It is,” Miss Ast agreed.
“Really really big. There’s lots of rooms! Lots of empty rooms.”
“Enough rooms that…” This was it. Anais took a deep breath. “Enough rooms that Daddy and I could move in here. And Ru, of course, and… you wouldn’t even know we were here! Unless you wanted to.”
Miss Ast chuckled softly, not even looking up as she adjusted the now-sleeping baby and refastened her robe with one hand. “I doubt that would work out very well, dear.”
Anais frowned. “Why not?”
“Because,” Miss Ast said, “well… your daddy and Laurelia’s daddy don’t get along very well. I don’t think keeping them in the same house is a very good idea.”
“Lala’s… daddy?” Anais blinked. “Lala has a daddy?”
“Of course she does, dear. His name is Bareris.”
“But — but if Lala has a daddy, how come I’ve never seen him?”
“He’s not often home. He’s busy travelling, and… Anais? Anais, dear, what’s wrong?”
Everything. Everything was wrong! Anais felt like crying. Lala already had a daddy! It made sense now. Of course Miss Ast lived with Lala’s daddy. But — but all her plans! Anais saw them crumbling before her. Lala couldn’t have two daddies… could she? How would that even work?! And what about — what about….!?!
“Anais?” Miss Ast asked gently.
“Where is the baby going to live?!” Anais wailed.
“Why — Laurelia lives here with me, darling.”
“Not Lala,” Anais threw up her hands in frustration. “The new baby!”
Miss Ast blinked at her. “The new – what new baby?”
“The baby you and Daddy are going to have!”
“We are?!” Miss Ast looked positively flabbergasted.
“YES!” Anais felt her cheeks grow hot. “You’re Lala’s mommy, and Daddy’s my daddy, and you’re in love, and when mommies and daddies love each other that’s where – how – babies come from. Daddy said so!” Her vision blurred. “And even if Lala can’t be my sister then at least I’ll have the new baby but if she-she-if she doesn’t l-live w-w-with me an’ d-daddy…!”
Anais burst into sobs. Miss Ast leaned back against the cushions and mumbled something in a low voice that Anais couldn’t quite understand; it sounded almost like I’m going to kill that man – but that couldn’t be right. She wanted to ask Miss Ast what she’d said, but couldn’t stop crying.
Miss Ast sighed and reached out an arm to cradle the sobbing child into a close hug. She kissed the girl on top of her head. “Anais, darling, listen to me. I’m not having a baby.”
“Wh-what?” Anais blinked up at her, still hiccoughing with her tears. “But – but Daddy said –”
“I know,” Miss Ast interjected. “I know what your Daddy said. But just because two people can have a baby, it doesn’t mean that they will.”
Anais sniffled. “Th-there’s no baby?”
“B-but…” Anais frowned and tears welled in her eyes again. Several thoughts fought their way for expression at once, but only one made it out. “I w-wanted a baby sister,” Anais whispered sadly. She buried her face in Miss Ast’s robes again.
Miss Ast rubbed her hand along Anais’ back. “And you may have one someday, dear one,” she said gently. “But I expect it will not be soon.”
Anais rubbed her face on Miss Ast’s robe. “D’you think… if I ask Greatfather Winter… he might bring me a sister?” she asked hopefully.
Miss Ast chuckled softly. “I rather doubt it, love. Greatfather Winter only tends to bring things that can be put in boxes.” She paused, then smirked. “Anais,” she said firmly, “Would you put a baby in a box?”
Anais smiled at the mental image, despite the tears rolling down her cheeks. “No,” she conceded. “That’s silly.”
“Of course it’s silly!” Miss Ast continued, grinning. “The baby would chew on it.” Anais snickered. “And drool on it. Think of it – all that wet, soggy cardboard!” Anais giggled. Miss Ast leaned over to speak more closely into her ear. “And then, when the baby pooped—.”
“EWWWWWW!” Anais shrieked, laughing, her tears forgotten. Lala gasped and woke up with a start, her eyes wide and her arms flailing. “Oh, Lala,” Anais giggled, leaning over to kiss the baby on her forehead. “I’m sorry I woke you up.”
“Lala’s fine, darling,” Miss Ast smiled. “But I think it’s time for both of you to go to bed.”
“Already?” Anais pouted.
Miss Ast nodded. “But if we get you and Laurelia changed quickly, I’ll read you a story.”
Anais’ eyes lit up.
It wasn’t until later, as she was drifting off to sleep on a little bed set up in Lala’s room, that Anais realized that she still had a lot of unanswered questions. Oh well, she thought, there’s always tomorrow. And so what if the plan didn’t work out today? There would be more days. And even though she had a different name, Anais was a Firewing, and like Daddy told her, Firewings don’t give up. Ever. Even when they’re really… really… sleepy….
* * * * *
It was after midnight when the hunter rode up to the Darksworne estate. The few lights still on were dim, and Westel was vaguely relieved to note that the house was still standing. He let himself in the front door, intending to creep down the hall as quietly as possible so as not to wake the sleeping girls… but was surprised to see Astoreth leaning against a wall in the hallway, waiting for him.
“Hey doll,” he said. “Everything okay?” A sudden worry struck him. “Anais didn’t get sick, did she?”
“Anais is fine,” Astoreth reassured him. “But you and I… we need to talk.”