Title: Elder Wisdom

Author: The Ghost

Fandom: Imagine Me & You

Pairings: H & Original

Ratings: PGish

Warnings: Hmmm...don't think there's anything to be afraid of here, just a mellow little fic continuing the concept of love at first sight.

Disclaimers: Well, three quarters of the characters aren't mine. The rest belong to Ol Parker and whoever he sold 'em to to make the movie. Not making any money, just being a fan and enjoying the world.

Feedback e-mail: ghost8008@gmail.com

"So hey brother how was geek camp?" Del opened Aaron's door without knocking and flopped down onto his bed with a cocky grin. He was unsurprised by the invasion, except that it had taken so long. "Traffic on the circle?" He inquired.

"Too bloody right," she agreed. "Tempted to take old Sally up on the sidewalk."

He pulled three or four shirts out of his bag in a clump. The sniff test sent them flying into the hamper, before he threw himself into the battered armchair he'd rescued from his father's yard sale. "Geek camp," he announced proudly, "was amazing."

She lifted her right eyebrow in surprise. "That's a first."

His grin practically split his face in two; he just couldn't hold it back. "Met a girl."

"About time," the congratulatory grin belied the lackluster words. "So you'll be doing the long distance gig, hey?"

"Best part," he replied. "She's here in town."

"Well, you know you're about to burst, so out with it chap."

He gave her chapter and verse about the beautiful, intelligent girl he'd chased for most of the summer. Del listened tolerantly as he praised her golden hair, and rhapsodized about the green eyes. She even, as a best friend should, let him make detailed plans for the upcoming year- their last, and now promising to be the best. She did raise a cautionary hand once he started planning how they'd stay in touch through university.

"Whoa there," Del stopped him. "I know you're excited, but remember she's your first Aaron."


Her face screwed up a little, "Well, just do me a favor and enjoy today, okay? Don't try to plan tomorrow until it gets here."

"What are you, my mother?"

She grinned, with that sparkling thing happening in her eyes that had always caused myriad adults to suspect she was up to no good, usually with some justification. "You're right. I'm being a drag. Enjoy it Tweak."

"So," he politely changed the subject. "How was your holiday?"

"Made enough with extra shifts to buy three Japanese drums to add to the kit."

"You must have been working like a dog," he exclaimed.

"Pretty near," she replied feelingly. "Did manage one or two dates, but nothing to write home about. One chick actually pulled out the 'I'm not gay, I'm just excited about you' thing."

He groaned feelingly, having been there for her the first time that had happened, and resulted in her broken heart-or at least, broken illusions. He was there for the third and fifth too, when she'd gained some cynicism and was just bored of it.

"Yeah, disaster." She got up. "I've gotta book, working closing shift tonight."

"You're leaving?" He rose up in distress.

Her eyebrow reappeared.

"It's just...well, I wanted you to meet her," Aaron explained.

She clapped him on the shoulder. "We've got all year mate. I need to get a few more hours in before school starts. Don't forget Dante's Cellar tomorrow, hey?"

"Yeah, you're right." He agreed as he walked with her to the door. It was just that he so wanted them to like each other, he reflected as he shut the door behind her. All his life, it had been him and Del, from playing stickball when they were kids, to going to their first concert together. Every Saturday night, they were out doing something; either her band had a gig, which he happily roadied for, or they'd catch a flick, or they'd just head out to the point and watch the city lights with a huge bag of cookies and a gallon of milk, talking about anything from their dreams for the future to the source of the word quark. She kept his shambling van running, he helped her with school. In short, he couldn't imagine his life without her in it, and he was awfully nervous about how a girlfriend would change things. Relax Aaron, he reflected as he went back to his room to finish unpacking, we've been through too much for anything to ever get in the way.


H looked up in relief when Luce and Rach walked into her parents' house. "Hey!" Dropping her newly found adult dignity, she ran to give them a hug.

"Hey!" Luce returned her hug with fervor, and then made room so that Rach could give her a slightly less enthusiastic, but no less sincere greeting. "Am I glad to see you two," she said more quietly.

Rach gave her a sympathetic smile. "Third degree?" She inquired.

"In spades," H replied. "Met a lad at camp, and you'd think I'd eloped or something."

"Cute?" Luce cut to the chase.

H nodded. "Really sweet guy," she replied. "Bitch of it is, if she'd met him first, she'd probably've spent months driving me nuts trying to set us up."

Rachel snorted, trying to hold back her laughter, and Luce threw an arm over her shoulders as they headed for the living room. "Well, maybe if I started talking about Edie's last date in graphic detail she'll get distracted."

H groaned, "Don't you dare. Last time you did that, I spent two weeks promising that I wasn't going to be corrupted by all the lesbians around me. 'I swear, if at least one of my girls isn't normal, I'll kill your father. It's his genes after all. To think he never told me he had a gay great-uncle. These things should be legally disclosed with the blood test,'" she complained in her mother's cadences.

Luce bent over laughing, as Rachel choked her own hilarity down in time to give her mother a peck on the cheek when the older woman entered the room

"Lucy dear, please do stop with all that guffawing. It's unladylike," Tessa directed, causing Luce to laugh even harder and H to join her.

Rachel went for the diversion play. "Mother, I've been meaning to ask you for that lamb recipe for ages, and I just keep forgetting like an idiot. Do you have it handy?"

Luce turned to her after they'd left the room. "You are an evil child."

"True enough," H was unrepentant.

Wiping tears from her eyes with her right hand, Luce grabbed the girl's hand in her left and pulled her over to a couch. "So, tell me about this boy."

H was stumped. What do you tell someone about an entire summer's worth of experiences that they weren't there for? "Well, his name's Aaron. We met at a campfire."


She nodded. "He dropped his s'more on my skirt, it was awful. I still haven't gotten the marshmallow out." H shrugged. "He was so sweetly distressed about it, we just became friends. Somehow, by the end of summer, friend had turned into boyfriend. He's more an engineering type, where's I was in the pure science track, but he's someone who doesn't wrinkle up his face when I talk, y'know?"

Lucy smiled warmly. "There are worse ways to judge a man. Someone you can talk to is a great start."

"Duh," H replied. "I may only be eighteen, but I'm not silly like some girls, falling for the rugby player just because he's built."

"I know it, luv," she put another hand over the one she was holding. "H," she said seriously, "Are you...?"

H knew where she was going, and cut her off. "No, Luce. I'm not ready yet."

Luce's eyebrow rose up, challengingly.

"Honest," H looked around quietly. "I'd tell you. I think you'd give me good advice, without getting all muddled up and embarrassed like most adults would."

Luce gave her a quick hug. "Remember you said that H." She rose up off the couch. "Come on; let's go see if we can make amends by helping out with the prep."

Dinner went far more smoothly than anyone could have predicted. Rachel was full of an interesting new theory about Tutankhamen’s burial items from an article she'd edited recently, which kept everyone away from controversial subjects. H was fascinated; it explained so much.

"The theory is, Tut died so early, he didn't have much of a treasure built up. Apparently, they usually spent the entirety of a Pharaoh’s reign putting together a princely collection of items for their afterlife. His successor...oh drat! I don't remember his name," Rachel lamented.

"It's okay, sis, just tell us what the explanation is," she looked over at her father. "I never bought that line about his shawbty looking like women because that was the way they depicted children."

"It's what I was taught poppet," he explained. "Just passing the error along, I guess."

"Anyway, his successor didn't have too firm a claim on the throne, and it would look bad if he didn't give young Tut a proper send off," Rach continued. "So they think he raided some queen's tomb to flesh things out."

H snorted. "Figures. Women always get the short stick."

"Not in this house, dear. I'm firmly outnumbered." Her father objected without rancor. "What shall we do with our evening?" He asked as everyone sat back over coffee and the decimated remains of a gorgeous dinner. "Scrabble?"

"I'm afraid we can't make much of a night of it," Rachel apologized. "Luce has a bar-mitzvah tomorrow morning."

"I was planning on going to see Natalie," H said at the same time.

"But darling, it's our first night together in eight weeks," her mother protested.

Rachel soothed her. "Oh, mother, you remember being eighteen. She and Natalie have hours worth of gossip to catch up on. Neither one of them will be good for anything until they release the pressure a little."

"We've the whole term Tessa," her father pitched in unexpectedly. H was delighted. Her father was rather a quiet man, and tended to stay out of the way of her mother's decisions. But, every now and then, he stuck his oar in, and it usually resulted in her mother bowing to the inevitable.

Her mother looked surprised too, but she was gracious in defeat. "I do indeed, remember my girlhood. Why, Leslie Finnegan and I could stay up talking half the night about utter nonsense." She looked over at H fondly. "You might as well pack an overnight bag Henrietta. Just make certain you don't disaccomodate Jacqueline Curtis."

"Thanks Mum!" H gave her a hug that clearly took her mother aback.

"We'll give you a lift," Rachel offered as they grabbed coats. "Just be quick about packing up."

H didn't bother to reply. It would be easy enough, anyhow. Her bathroom kit was still packed from camp. She dumped it, a change of clothes, a nightshirt and some mementos from camp into the bag, and returned within five minutes.

"Oh gawd," she complained when they got outside. "Rach is driving, isn't she?"

"Watch your mouth, squirt." Her older sister replied, putting her arm around her lover as they walked towards the car.

"At least the seatbelts work," she commented as she crawled into the back seat of the yellow mini. "And it is an excellent car sis. When are you going to let me drive it?"

"After I've put the first ding on it myself, of course," Rach replied. "If I do it, it's unavoidable, but if you do then it would be utter irresponsibility." Once everyone was settled, Rachel gunned the mini into traffic fearlessly. "Mum still doesn't know that Nat came out, does she?"

H gripped the 'oh-shit' handle firmly and tried not to look. "Are you joking? She'd be convinced that we're living in the middle of some queer Bermuda triangle."

"The rainbow triangle," Rachel laughed.

"Yeah, I'd never be able to see her again. You know how Mum is." She thought for a moment before continuing. "Funny thing, Aaron's best friend is gay too. He talked about her so much, it's a good thing she is. I'd've been offended else."

"It's just as easy to be jealous of a friend as it is a potential rival," Luce commented.

H grinned. "Nah, I'm not jealous. Except maybe of the times they had as kids. Sounds like she's a bit of a hellion, and led him off into trouble more than once." She sighed. "I've never been brave enough to cause a ruckus."

"Wait until university, H. You have to fight the system to avoid having a few adventures during those years." Rachel encouraged.

Closing her eyes for a moment, as Rachel squeezed the car into a traffic gap that seemed far too narrow for it, H thought about it. "You could lose your big sister license for encouraging any such thing, you know."

"If I thought you'd do something destructively stupid, I wouldn't." Rach replied, pulling a hard right just in front of a bus. "So, school clothes," she changed the subject. "I've tomorrow afternoon free, if you want."

"Excellent," H replied. She knew Rach was hoping to go while Luce was working. Luce hated shopping with a vengeance, especially clothes shopping. It was amazing that she always looked as hip as she did. H suspected that Edie bought clothes for her on a regular basis, but she'd never had the suspicion confirmed.

Rach screeched to a stop in front of Natalie's, and H crawled out gratefully. "I'll ring you tomorrow, okay?"

"Hey, H!" Luce called when she would have turned towards Nat's front door. "Ring my mother too; she wants to see you sometime next week."

"Will do," H replied before jogging up to her friend's house. She would too. Luce's mother was as delightful as she was, if in a more old lady way. She reflected on how much her life had improved since Luce and her sister had started dating. Her sister had become much more...approachable. Their relationship had become warmer and looser ever since that birthday six years ago. Luce was, well Luce. H had loved her since the moment they'd met at her sister's wedding. And the best part was, she hadn't lost Hec, either. She made a mental note to e-mail him tomorrow. Last she'd heard, he was in Barcelona for the formula one race. What I wouldn't give to live my life like that, she thought wryly as she opened the door. Well, for a year or so, anyway.


She and Natalie did indeed stay up until the wee hours of the morning talking about boys, girls, parents, friends and all the hilarious and confounding events that had happened over the summer. Fortunately, with the resilience of youth, they appeared for breakfast at an almost reasonable hour, and H didn't feel too dragged out when she called Rach for shopping. Just as she closed the mobile, it rang again. She checked the number and then opened it up. "Took you long enough to give me a call," she teased.

"I didn't want to interrupt your first day back with the family," he replied shyly. "Have a good night?"

"Tremendous," she replied. "Crashed at Nat's, spent the night catching up."

He laughed. "Mine was a bit dull; Del had to work so we only got a few moments to catch up. Speaking of," he continued, "her band's playing at Dante's Cellar tonight. Want to come watch with me?"

"Hold on a mo," she covered the phone. "Want to meet Aaron tonight?"

"Sure, why not?" Natalie replied. "What's the plan?"

H grinned. "His best friend's playing at Dante's Cellar."

"You're not thinking about matchmaking, are you?"

"Well, you have to admit, it would be convenient," H replied reasonably.

Nat covered her eyes. "Oh gawd, I'm heading straight into a disaster with my eyes open. Alright, alright," she conceded when H cast her a sorrowful look. "I'll be good."

H returned the phone to her ear. "Mind if I drag Nat along?"

"Excellent!" He replied. "I usually haul Del's gear over for her before the show, but I can come pick you two up after if you'd like."

H shook her head, then realized that he wouldn't see it. "No, don't bother. We've been there before, and I'm not certain when Rach and I'll be done shopping. We'll meet you there, alright?"

"That would probably be easier," he conceded. "I usually set up her kit for her anyway."

"See you tonight." She rang off, to find Natalie staring at her challengingly through brown eyes.

"You do realize," she said slowly, "that just because we both like girls, doesn't mean we'll like each other."

"It doesn't?" H asked ingeniously.


"Ow!" H laughed. "Okay, okay. Here's how I figure it: I haven't even met her, so I have no idea if you'd be into each other or not." She raised a finger to stop Nat from saying anything else. "BUT. If you think you can be friends, like normal friends, with her and Aaron, we can all hang out with each other. Which means I don't have to hang out with him on one day, and you on another, right?"

"Agreed," Nat nodded. "Just don't get your hopes up about a deathless romance."

H cocked her head for a moment in thought. "Actually, it would probably be better if there was no romance. Might get kind of complicated if any of us had a lover's quarrel, y'know?"

"That's an understatement," Nat replied. "Way too Shakespearean for me, in fact. Think I'll avoid any hot and heavy with this chick, even if she is good looking."

"So where's Rach taking you for shopping?" She asked, topic forgotten.

The usual places, of course. As usual, it was simultaneously frustrating and fun, at least with her sister. Rach always tried on her own things when they went, taking some of the pressure off H. And her suggestions were good ones, too. Not like the last trip with Mum, who really didn't want her to graduate from floral sundresses for another seven years. The things Rach was trying on this time were surprising. No cardigans or wool skirts. H turned away from herself in the mirror in disgust, realizing that no piece of clothing would ever make her look less tall and awkward. It got worse when she caught sight of Rach in an evening gown that was exquisite. Made of some deep blue shimmery material, it looked rather demure, until you realized that it softly hugged every curve. Hell, I can tell where her navel is, H realized, as well as everything else. It moved with Rach, alternately revealing shapes of the body underneath, and hiding them. It relaxed, rather than flared below the knees, creating a graceful swirl of material as Rach turned.

"You have no idea how hard it is to have an older sister who is absolutely gorgeous, do you?" She offered as Rach stared at herself critically in the mirror.

Rachel scrunched around to examine the practically non-existent back of the gown. "You shouldn't complain. I was still in braces at your age, and god, the frizz in my hair! You were blessed with naturally straight hair, you know."

"Giving up on the neutral, don't-notice-me colors?" H pried.

One of those fabulously delighted smiles Luce had brought into her sister's life crossed the older woman's face. "Our anniversary's coming up, you know."

H scrunched up her face in thought. "Your birthday?" She asked tentatively.

"No," Rach denied. "I vetoed that, weird to have it on my birthday."

"So I'm guessing your wedding day is right out," H commented.

Rach made a face. "No, so I thought maybe the night I almost kissed her."

The girl could feel her hairline rising. "Before...?"

"Yeah," Rach replied, turning back to the mirror. "And that's a story I might tell you someday, but not today. But Luce vetoed that one for the same reason, it being her birthday."

"Wow, definitely before," she marveled. "You sure not today?" H asked hopefully.

"Quite," her sister replied repressively. H sighed, knowing from the tone that wheedling was pointless. "You look incredible," H offered instead. "You're so beautiful; you should show off more often."

Rach twirled around in front of the mirror. "You think she'll like it?"

"I think you'll have a hard time keeping it on after she sees you in it," H replied bluntly.

"Mother's right. Luce is corrupting you. Or maybe Edie."

"As if every girl my age didn't learn about that stuff ages ago," H scoffed.

Rach carefully reached behind herself to unfasten the dress. "But not all of them feel comfortable just spitting it out to their elder relatives."

"You're not that elder," H protested. "Sure as hell aren't in that dress." She sighed. "Maybe one day I'll be able to pull something like that off."

"Sooner than you think," Rach replied. "I expect you to dress well for my wedding."

"Wedding?" H grabbed both of her sister’s hands. "Really?" She barely kept it below a squeal of excitement.

"She hasn't said yes, yet." Rach cautioned, and then grinned fit to split her face. "Probably since I haven't asked her yet."

"Like she'd say anything else," H dismissed that concern. "If she even prevaricates, I'll come over and beat her with a pot. I kinda wondered why you hadn't done it ages ago."

Rach reclaimed her hands and began to shrug out of the dress. H held it for her to make it easier to step out of without risking damage to the fabric. "Really, sis," she encouraged when the silence lengthened.

"I guess because it felt inappropriate. Thanks," she said as H handed her the dress, and began draping it over the hanger. "You know, with Hec and all, and my last wedding. We needed to get enough distance to make it a separate event, with no echoes."

"I guess that makes sense," she said. "Does it ever get in the way?" H dared to ask something that she had wondered for a long time. "You know, make things uncomfortable?"

To her relief, Rachel shook her head. "You know we fought it for a long time. By the time we got together, we'd both come to terms with the choices we were making." She reached out and smoothed a hand along H's blonde hair. "What you're really asking, is if I regret it. Not a bit. My single regret is the mess I made by mistaking affection for love with Hec. I almost caught us both in a trap we'd never get out of." Her tone brightened. "So, you want to help me find shoes for this?"

"You certain there's a point?" H asked impishly. "As soon as you bend over to put them on...."

"Henrietta Vivian Foster!" Her sister cut her off.


The tall barista folded up the towel she had been cleaning with when she heard the shushing sound of the door opening.  Reflexively, she pasted a welcoming expression on her face and started to call out a greeting, but it stilled on her lips as she made eye contact with the younger of the two women, whose eyes were filled with laughter from something her companion had said. She wasn't just smiling with her face, the barista realized as she felt her heartbeat pick up in response. Her whole body seemed to participate, practically shouting uncomplicated good cheer.

God, Del thought to herself, that's five kinds of beautiful. She pulled her metaphorical tongue into her mouth when the older woman gave her an amused glance.

"Afternoon," habits really can be useful sometimes. Having said some combination of the same formula two hundred times a day meant that there was little chance of her stumbling over her own words. "What can I get for you?" She forced herself to slide her eyes away from the stunning blonde to include the older woman in the request.

"I'll have a latte," the brunette replied, while the girl studied the menu in a bit of confusion.

"Who knew there were so many ways to make coffee?" She turned to the Del. "What's good?"

"Do you trust me?" Del couldn't help but grin as she said it, feeling as if the girl's attitude was contagious.

"Implicitly," the blonde laughed. "Do your worst."

Del, as she always did when asked to tailor a drink to the person, made a show of looking the girl up and down thoughtfully, scratching her chin. This time, however, she was enjoying the opportunity a little more than she should.

The girl cocked her head a bit. "What're you doing, measuring my coffee aura?"

"Shush," the barista grinned. "You want to get the right drink, don't you?" Fortunately, the girl laughed in delight, a sound that was definitely worth hearing. Del made up both drinks, and tried not to hold her breath as the blonde tasted hers.

She shot startled eyes up to meet Del's after one sip. "This is divine. What's in it?"

Del grinned, and broke strongly from the routine. "That would be telling."

"But what if I want another one?"

"You'll just have to come find me," Del offered.

The girl took another sip, and then looked up with a friendly smile. "I think I will, thanks," she said before wandering out of the shop behind her companion.

Rachel looked down at her sister in amusement after they'd left the espresso bar. "That should put an end to the laments of how gangly and awkward you are, I should think."'

H looked up in surprise. "What?"

"You just knocked that poor girl for a loop," Rach clarified, as she had been fairly certain she would need to. H still retained the innocence of youth, with a marvelous lack of self-awareness, something Rachel was profoundly grateful for, in some ways, even if she wasn't looking forward to the day that that innocence tripped itself on the real world.

H looked from her coffee back towards the door in confusion. "You're joking."

Enjoying herself, Rachel took a long sip from her cup. "She sparkled up so much when she looked at you that she looked like a christmas tree."

"She did not."

"Well, you sparkled back a little, you know. You had to have noticed something."

"I think you're just seeing lesbians everywhere, now." H retorted, her face a bit hot.

Rachel chose not to take umbrage. "Normally, that'd be a fair statement. But if that girl's not gay, I'm turning in my union card."

"Why just because she was tall and good-looking?"

"Actually, I was thinking tomboyish and flirting with my sister."

"Erp," H replied intelligently. "It really came off as if I was flirting back?" She asked after a long moment.

Rachel threw an arm over her sister's shoulders. "Don't panic. You just made her day, nothing wrong with that."

"I just thought she was nice, and kind of funny."

"Well, that seems like a good reason to flirt," Rachel replied teasingly.

"Rach!!!" H protested in despair.

"Heh, got ya back."

Chapter 2

That night Del was stretching onstage, going over every lick and riff in her mind as she breathed deeply. Aaron was setting up her kit, and he could be trusted for it. He knew down to the millimeter where she liked everything, leaving her free to mentally prepare for the show. This was going to be the first gig they played with the new piece she'd written for the Taiko drums, and all eleven of them were nervous about it. If they nailed it, oh god, if they nailed it, the crowd was going to go ape. At least she hoped they would. She grimaced as the plastic band slid down her arm for the fifth time, distracting her. Hazard of playing a club when you're only eighteen, gotta wear the bracelet.

"Here," her friend's voice caused her to open her eyes. He was holding out a bit of first aid tape. She took it gratefully, and used it to attach the green plastic in one place as far up her forearm as she could stretch it. "Jesus, I missed you. I always forgot to bring this stuff."

Aaron ran his hand through his hair. "No problem," he replied vaguely.

Del looked him over carefully. "You're as wound up as I am; last I knew you weren't performing. What's got your shorts in a twist?"

"They're not here yet," he replied.

She sighed. "Aaron, it's only eight thirty. The door's not open yet."

"Right," he answered distractedly.

"Man, this girl's got you whipped."

"Sorry," he replied abashedly. "I'm being a bit daft, aren't I?"

"S'ok, I still love you," she replied. "Now get the hell out of here so I can warm up." Del gave him a little shove, and he stumbled off the stage.

She closed her eyes and resumed her exercises, shedding awareness of sounds and movement around her. Good thing I'm meeting this girl tonight, before Aaron gets any deeper. Need to feel her out. And let her know someone's got his back if she dicks him around. Caught in the excitement of first love, he was flying high and monofocussed. He'd left it a bit late, but he'd always been shy and deferential. Too embarrassed to talk to most girls, and unfortunately, the airheads at their school couldn't look beyond his mellow personality to discover the gold underneath. In five years, she knew, they'd be beating down his door. Already, his gangliness was developing into a chiseled handsomeness. Combine that with his earnest personality, and strong sense of fun, and women will be dying for him.

She sighed as she dropped down to the floor to stretch her lower back, pushing her left elbow against her right knee. Until then, he was innocent heartbreak waiting to happen. An image of the girl from the coffee shop rose in her mind. Speaking of heartbreak...not my usual type, Del acknowledged. Probably a good thing nothing happened beyond a little flirting. She doesn't look like she'd settle for casual dating. More like the kind who throws her whole heart into a relationship. Wonder what came over me?

Doors in half an hour, dope.

She reminded herself. Get your head in the music, plenty of time later to deal with girls, Aaron's or your own. Finally, she successfully ran all the way through the show in her mind, reviewing every single measure, and practicing with ghostly hands the way she wanted it to feel, to sound. She wrapped up just in time to get off the stage before they started admitting customers. The canned music started up as she was coming off the last stair, heading for the green room. She and the rest of the Idle Kings would wait it out until the crowd reached a reasonable density.

"Good to have Aaron back," Stephanie greeted when she opened the door. The horn player, who ripped out the hottest jazz licks Del had heard anywhere aside from the CD's of the golden days, greeted her. Steph was always the quickest to finish warming up. "He got Mickey's sound board set up in half the time."

Del grinned. "Yeah, and that's when he's distracted by true love. Imagine what he'll be able to do when he's got his wits back."

"You ready for your baby's debut?" Steph asked kindly.

"No problem," Del replied coolly, going to the mini-fridge and pulling out a coke.

"You don't fool me, girl. You're nervous as a hen in a cathouse," Steph's voice had a nice huskiness to it. In fact, she'd be an excellent vocalist if she could be spared from horn.

Del settled for a shrug and sank herself onto the couch. Getting in this group at its' inception had been the best break. All older than she was, and much further along with their music, they'd been hesitant to take her on, even with a hot audition. Fortunately, Steph knew her coach, and trusted him when he said that while young, she was never a flake when it came to music. Never. After he'd told her about how she'd continued to practice with a broken ulna, showing up for every lesson, and working the injured arm as hard as the doc would let her (and maybe a bit more, she'd been scared to death she'd loose her chops), Steph had the ammunition to talk the rest of them into giving her a shot. That was a year ago, and they'd probably have a big enough following by the time she graduated to take it on the road. Del winced mentally. She knew that Larry had turned down an opportunity to open for Vicious Cycling, a moderately well known club band, because they all wanted her to finish and the tour started in November. She wasn't supposed to know, but it's hard to keep a secret like that quiet, especially when Mickey was on the crew. That man just didn't think before he spoke. Ever.

They were completely unusual. Just their size, eleven players, would be unmanageable for most groups. But they produced a big sound, unique to them with two horns, a sax, a trombone, lead guitar, electric bass, three violins and Dave: a vocal artist who could sound like anything-a soprano, an accordion, even a damn lawn mower once. And, of course, Del herself on her everything-is-fair-game drum kit. That wasn't counting Mickey mixing, absolutely necessary to keep the balance from chowing, especially in small spaces. But the locals really seemed to like them, and things had just been getting tighter the longer they played together. The new song was Del's first creation (well, the first she'd shared with the Kings), but every single piece they played was original, no covers for Idle Kings.

She kept herself distracted from her nerves by tossing the bachis, the large wooden beaters from her new drums around, flipping first one, then the other, then trying to spin them through her fingers the way she could normal sticks. It didn't work so well, and she put up with the ribbing as the rest of the band trickled in with good-natured malicious rebuttals.

"You remember which side to hold, don't you Del? Hate to see you go off and beat those brand new axes with the wrong end."

"Why don't you come over here and show me, Dave? You're the expert at beating off."

"Only on a bad night, honey."

She grinned, "Oh, honey can make for a good night. Why I remember two weeks ago..."

"Stop! Stop!" He protested. "I'm not old enough to hear about your exploits."

The group laughed, and chatter continued to flow around in predictable patterns. Steph and Ally debated the phrasing on the third song, Larry moved around, nervously making certain everyone had the play list for the night in the correct order, Monique and Dave teased each other mercilessly, occasionally throwing a jibe her way to make certain she didn't feel left out. It was normal, and safe. The building energy among the group quickly quelled her own trepidation, snapping her into her usual pre-show vividly alert excitement.

By the time the club's manager ducked his head into the room and nodded, she was ready for anything. It was a fabulous place to be, and one of the reasons why she kept playing, despite the hellishly hard work. Walking on stage was like walking into one of those spring nights where you knew the universe was full of delightful possibilities, all designed for you. When youth and energy came together with complete focus, and hands, mind, ears and body all combined to become a medium solely for music.

Then Monique and Dave opened Commuter's Frenzy with the crispest synthesis she'd ever heard from them, and she knew it was going to be a good night. One of the shows when they put just a little extra zing into the performance, and even their mistakes seemed brilliant: she could feel it in the air. Frenzy had a string line inspired by Marriage of Figaro, with a frantic tempo just barely held into form by melody. The horns came in right on cue, with beautifully round tones laying a big band lick over the violins in a way that any normal human would swear wouldn't work. Del came in with Ally on bass, giving the tune a foundation that the listener didn't even know they were missing until it appeared. It was one of the few songs Del played almost entirely on 'standard' drums, putting out a driving down beat. It was the kind of line more common to metal bands, again insane, and again it worked.   When the vocals came in, she gave herself up to the music, and stopped analyzing it. Think too hard, and she'd blow the groove.

They segued from Frenzy to Night Sky, then melded it right in to Damn Your Love and Shocking Pink without a pause. Finally, they took a break, bringing Pink to a close and leaving the stage in silence for a moment. The crowd yelled, causing Del to grin at Steph when the older woman shot her a wink over her shoulder. She knows we're spinning gold tonight.

"Thanks folks," they all murmured into the microphones. Del liked that, that they always said thanks to the crowd. It kept things in perspective, reminded them that they'd all be accountants or something without the crowd. Monique had suggested it after seeing Indigo Girls, and everyone had embraced the idea. Larry cleared his throat, getting the club's attention. "We're going to debut a brand new song for you tonight, as well as a new sound. Which I'm certain you'll all find shocking," he grinned at the crowd, who obediently laughed at the ironic tone. "This song is particularly special, the first offering of our young Del Hansen. She's kind of shy about getting out from behind that drum set of hers," Del stood up and made face towards his back for that, causing the crowd to laugh, while Larry continued, oblivious. "So give her a big hand to get her out here," he invited, turning around to gesture Del forward.

"GO STICKS!" She heard over the crowd noise, and reflexively shot a smile off towards the corner Aaron always inhabited, despite the stage lighting preventing her from seeing anything at all past the first two rows of dancers.

Mickey came out from behind his soundboard to help Del and two others pull the giant Japanese drums from where they were waiting in stage left, to front and center. After Mickey turned off the nearest mike, he bailed, while Del fussed with the placement of the three drums. The rest of the band moved back a little, giving her room. She needed it: the big drums required so much full body movement to drive the sound all the way through the shell that playing them was almost a gymnastic dance. Besides, it was traditional. Finally, she turned to check the rest of the group. They were ready of course. Many had racked their own axes and either taken up a mic or picked up a hand drum. She took a deep breath, firmed her grip on the thick wooden beaters, closed her eyes, and began.

It was a deceptively simple riff, like a heartbeat in pace. A triple flourish on the last possible moment of the up beat, a solid down beat that came like a crash of thunder, requiring a pivot of her hips to drive the arm that started above her head to make enough sound in the deepest drum, then wait for so long that it seemed impossible, and triple to downbeat again.

Don't rush it, she coached herself. It was the hardest part-that wait for a long, slow three count of silence. Then the strings came in with a classically shaped motif, running around the scale with an almost florid shaping of the notes, but they were playing in minor, and phrasing like an electric guitar. The bass came in subtly underneath them, playing counterpoint to the violins, so smoothly half the crowd probably didn't notice. Then, inspired by traditional African vocals, the rest of the band came in with deep harmony. It sounded electric and primal. And still, Del played the heartbeat. Don't rush it, she continued to remind herself. Easier, now that other sounds, other rhythms were filling the silence between.  

Then the band, singing lyrics made up of syllables, not words, borrowing from scat, but mutating it, making it their own. It was almost tribal in effect. Yeah, and you never would have been able to get harmonies that beautiful if Dave wasn't around, she admitted to herself. She'd known what she wanted, but he knew how to get it out of the group.

Then it came around to Del's solo, as the singers came to an abrupt, round stop with the violins, just leaving Ally supporting the heartbeat. When Del began to play a more complicated rhythm, the crowd murmur rose in surprise. She carried the essence of the melody along with the heartbeat on her three drums, utilizing different parts of the head, different styles of drum stroke to create the tonal differences required. It was a full body workout, each stroke preceded by a lift of the arm completely above her head, each motif requiring her entire body to deliver it. She was sweating before the congas came in to complicate the rhythm, as they finally, finally increased the tempo, and the two of them played a duel of riffs while the violins arrived to ride the increased tempo.

The rest of the band rejoined them in a rush, carrying an exhausted Del through to the end of the song. There was a long moment of silence when they finished, and she wiped off her brow with a forearm in dismay. Hell, they hated it.

But then the crowd began to cheer loudly. "Again!! Let's hear it again!!" They began to clap rhythmically, echoing the heartbeat, demanding a repeat.

Del looked around in amazement, completely at a loss for what to do.

Larry saved her. "Sorry folks, it's time for a break. 'Sides, if you take a look at our percussionist, you'll know we couldn't do that one twice in a row without a cardiologist on standby." The crowd laughed sympathetically, and broke off the synchronized clapping for simple enthusiastic cheers.

She gratefully staggered into the greenroom, and laid herself down on the concrete floor to dump some body heat. She opened her eyes to find Steph standing above her, offering a can of soda with a congratulatory smile. "That was tight," Steph gave her the ultimate accolade.

Del smiled in thanks popping the can open before replying. "Tell you one thing," she said, taking a long draught before continuing. "It'll be a long damn time before I write another solo for those damn drums."

Steph laughed throatily. "Girl, you gotta suffer for your art, didn't you know?"

She gave Steph a dirty look before turning to accept the congratulations of the rest of the group crowding around.

Two sets later and she was free to head out to the dance floor and Aaron. She raised her eyebrow when she got to him, standing just behind and to the left of his seat at the small round table. A blonde sat to her left, almost behind her, and a redhead to Aaron's right.

"Well?" She asked coolly.

He nodded casually. "It'll do," he replied.

"Jesus, Aaron. It was bloody amazing!" The redhead contradicted in disbelief. "It'll do?"

"What's its name?"

Del turned herself around to meet the eyes of the blonde, and the floor dropped five meters from under her feet, making her ears ring and her chest contract. Ohcrapohcrapohcrap. This is not good. Dread filled her as she tried to control her voice and demeanor, managing to reply casually, "It doesn't have one."

The girl just smiled, shooting sparks all the way down to Del's toes, devastating her just like this afternoon, and giving her a touch of precognitive fear.

"It was bloody unreal!" Aaron grabbed her from behind and pulled her off balance with a hug, dragging her several steps through the crowd before letting go. It was a needed tension release, and Del laughed loudly, tugging ineffectually at the arm around her chest.

"Leggo of me you buffoon!" She shouted.

He did, and she ended up on the floor glaring up at his delighted face. He offered her an arm up, and pushed her back towards the table. "Ladies, I'd like you to meet my best friend, the amazingly talented Delilah Hanson. Del, this is Natalie, and over here," he reached to shyly link hands with the blonde. "Is Henrietta, fondly known as H."

Del's stomach filled with lead.


Earlier, H and Nat had met outside the club before the show. H was guiltily relieved at the delay in alone time. She knew she'd be telling Nat about that thing Rachel imagined at the coffee shop this afternoon, since trying to keep even a tiny secret from her friend was tantamount to impossible, but she still hadn't quite figured out a way to tell it without looking like a complete git in the tale.

Aaron spotted them immediately as they thread their way through the crowd, looking for his tall form. "H!" He called and waved. She smiled and waved back, grabbing Natalie and pulling her through the thickening mass.

"Hey," he pulled her into a hug and gave her a light kiss. "It's been ages since I've seen you."

She bapped him lightly on the shoulder. "It's been two days, twerp."

"That's at least an eon!" He laughed and released her, holding out a hand to Nat. "You must be Natalie."

"And you're Aaron," she smiled. "I'm glad to finally meet you, since you factored largely into H's mails."

He grinned. "I have a feeling you know more about me than I'd be comfortable with."

"What do you expect?" Nat teased, "First thing to learn about girls, best friends have the right to know everything. I'd think you'd know that, with a female best friend."

H let out a sigh of relief. If Nat was razzing him already, they were going to be friends.

Aaron shook his head slowly. "Del may be a female friend, but she's definitely not a girl."

"Sounds butch," Nat laughed.

Aaron's forehead scrunched a little. "Well, tomboyish anyway. When you say butch, I usually think of the grizzled iron -haired, military-cut women heading out of factories carrying their lunchbox in one hand and a hardhat in the other."

"Something wrong with that?" Nat challenged.

"No, I think they look like a force of nature, actually," he replied earnestly. Bless him; he didn't realize she was deliberately giving him a hard time. It was so earnest and cute.  "But Del's too...Del to hang that picture on."

Nat laughed and gave him a miniature bow. "You'll do, lad. You'll do."

Aaron turned to H. "How was shopping?"

"Fun and exhausting," H replied. "My sister got the hottest dress. It's too divine for words."

"Did you get anything?"

She shrugged. "Sweaters, pants, a couple of skirts. The usual." She thought a moment. "One awesome sweater, actually. I can't wait to wear it."

"Why didn't you?"

"Saving it for the first day of school, of course. Have to have some compensation for the end of holidays."

He turned and gestured towards the stage as the musicians filed in. "You ready for this? They're a bit different."

"Which one's your friend?" Natalie asked.

Aaron pointed towards a dark lock of hair barely visible above an amazing conglomerate of drums, "The drummer."

"Can't see much," Nat complained.

"Don't worry," he smiled. "We'll see her after the show."

"Big group," H commented.

"And look!" Nat was excited. "They've got a couple of violins! I love stuff that uses strings!"

"Hold on to your seat then," Aaron warned. "These guys are going to knock your socks off."

Once the music started, H had to agree. She'd never heard anything like it before. She didn't sit there for long, listening with surprised pleasure. She quickly grabbed his hand and dragged him out onto the dance floor, calling 'Come on!' to Nat. The unusual rhythms forced an odd dance style, sort of improvisational and expressive, but they all got into it, following the crowd as it bounced and swayed athletically.

They were out of breath and laughing by the time it came to a halt, and headed back to their table for a drink. Her friend leaned over when the sax player introduced the new song. "Guess we'll finally get a look at her. Who knew so many drums could be piled in such a heap? Would've had a hard time seeing Robbie Coltrane over that mess."

"GO STICKS," Aaron shouted as movement began behind the kit.

The figure that emerged was a tall girl in jeans and a black t-shirt, deceptively simple, but eye-catching. She was built to make the shirt stretch just a bit across the shoulders and the hems of the sleeves, while it wasn't doing any work at all to slide into the waistline of her jeans. A wide leather belt, with the buckle on the left side accented the flatness of her abdomen. Her short hair was spiking around a red bandanna, folded into a headband, and obviously there to keep the sweat out of her eyes, since her dusky skin was reflective with damp. The face was planar, with just enough padding to avoid angular, and very familiar. Oh geez, H thought. Welcome to the first day of a life filled with mortification.

"Remind me about what I said earlier, even if she was hot?" Nat murmured in her ear, surprising her.

"Bad idea," H replied uneasily.

"Uh, huh," Nat murmured. "Remind me again."

H reached over and pinched her friend's side. "I'll have to say it if you keep it up."



Nat's hand came to her forehead. "Ouch! Low blow!" She whispered. "Okay, okay! I'm cured!"

"Shhh. They're starting."

It was a good thing Nat obeyed, because H couldn't have said a word after that heartbeat began thrumming through her. She felt it all the way down to her toes. H was fairly certain that she was standing there with her jaw hanging loose, looking like an idiot, but she frankly didn't care. She suddenly felt, as the music grew, that she'd been spending her life forgetting what it was to be human, forgetting all the powerful impulses that civilization had put a veneer over, and tried to breed out of the human animal. She felt robbed by that veneer, washed thin, until this music came and reminded her that her ancestors had fought, loved, bled and rejoiced not so long ago. Then the lyrics hit, and spoke directly to her soul.

"My god," she whispered, leaning back against Aaron's chest as it came to a close.

He wrapped his arms around her waist. "She's amazing, isn't she?" He proudly whispered in her ear.

"Oh yeah," she looked around, and found that the rest of the club was just as spell-struck as she was. The figure on the stage slumped a little.

She thinks it bombed, H realized in wonder. Before she could say anything, someone near the front shouted 'Again!' and the crowd shook off its paralysis.

The canned music came up as the band deferred a repeat performance, and she turned to Aaron. "Have you heard that before?"

"Nah," he denied. "Watched her beat her head against a wall with a blank music score in one hand and a pencil in the other for a long time. I didn't even know she'd finished it. They must've been rehearsing while we were off learning our emcee squareds."

The next two sets were anti-climatic, but they enjoyed them. She and Nat headed out to the dance floor several times, and pulled Aaron along twice as well. Finally, the band said goodnight, and departed the stage to a roar of appreciation from the club. About ten minutes later, the drummer joined their table.

H's trepidation increased as the black-haired girl squeezed herself between her stool and Aaron's, there being no other place for her to stand and make eye contact with him in the crowded corner, meaning, of course, that she hadn't seen H yet. "Well?" She strained to hear Aaron's lackluster response, and Nat's disclaimer.

"What's its name?" She heard herself ask, unfortunately hurrying the inevitable moment.

Then the girl turned around and made eye contact, and H couldn't have said what happened next. Except that her pulse increased and those eyes were incredibly blue. A many-varied blue that filled with a complicated essence that echoed inside her, that echoed the music. She'd noticed them, in the shop. She remembered thinking how much they seemed to belong to someone she'd like to know. Now, she actually saw them.

She was shocked back to reality when the alto voice spoke, with the quirk of an eyebrow to acknowledge her recognition of H. "It doesn't have one," Del said easily, as if she hadn't just given a club full of people a religious experience. Confused, H just stood there, feeling trapped by the force of personality she saw in the girl's intense stare. She couldn't, quite, make herself turn away.  

Aaron saved her just as she was wondering if she was turning into a statue, tackling his friend and roughhousing with her in celebration. It was somewhat charming, watching them play together, making her remember everything Aaron had said about this person who seemed a combination of best friend and big sister, all wrapped up in one.

"Kind of like a couple of puppies aren't they?" Nat leaned over and whispered into her ear as they watched. The comparison flummoxed H, but she mustered a time-honored reply.

"Boys," delivered with just the right amount of amused exasperation.

Nat laughed at her. "Well, not exactly. If they made them like that, I'd be a straight girl."

Startled, H glanced over at her friend speculatively, but the wrestlers returned to the table before she could say anything.

"So," Aaron suggested. "What do you say we head out to Marco's to celebrate with a sugar overdose? My treat."

"Sounds good to me." She replied. "Nat?"

"Wouldn't turn down a chocolate mousse pie," Nat answered carelessly.

Del shook her head. "Should break down the kit," she replied ruefully.

"And do what, ride it home piece by piece on that death machine of yours?" Aaron laughed. "C'mon, we'll come back and pack up tomorrow morning," he urged. "The Cellar doesn't mind, and you know it'll be safe here with Gus minding the store." He nodded towards the bouncer, a man who'd earned his muscle shirt. "Cripes, Del. Term's about to start, you know we won't get many more chances."

"Alright," the drummer gave in and followed them to the door, stopping to pull the bouncer aside on the way out.

"Should we take care of the equipment first Aaron?" H asked worriedly while the drummer made arrangements.

"Nah, we do this about half the time anyway, don't know why she gave it a second's thought."

The walk down to Marco's was pleasant, since nighttime hadn't yet caught the crispness of fall. H felt warm and wanted with Aaron's arm over her shoulder. Nat clearly approved, so that was sorted. Though Del was harder to read, it sounded as if there was a reasonable conversation going on back there. Of course, if Nat's comment meant anything, the tall girl might not know what she was getting into.

H sighed, wondering if she should say something to Del. But what? H herself hadn't thought that anything unusual had happened until Rach gave her a hard time. And it was just as likely that Rach made the whole thing up just to give her a hard time. But then...H knew she'd felt kind of interested by the tall girl, right off the bat. Not attracted, exactly, but like she was meeting a new friend. So, there could have been something for Rachel to misinterpret. Did Del as well? Oh geez, what if she decided that H was stepping out on Aaron?  Then again, there was a large possibility that Del didn't even remember her. How many customers came into a coffee shop in a day? H tried to do some mental math, figuring how many lattes to pay labor, overhead, et cetera. It was just a wild guess, but the number had to be a lot more than fifty. If you served fifty cups of coffee in one day, would you remember any one particular customer?

"She likes you," Aaron made her jump a bit by whispering in her ear.  "I like you too," he grinned.

"You sure?" H asked.

"Of course I'm sure, why wouldn't she?"

H shivered. "I don't know, she's just so...concentrated. Like just add water, and you'll get three people instead of one." Not to mention that I have no clue what she's thinking about me.

"She's always been like that, even when we were kids. Don't worry, though. She's...hmmm, particularly distilled after a show. Especially this one."

"How did you two ever meet?" She asked as he held the door open for her.

"Been meaning to ask about that myself," Nat spoke up from behind them. "School?"

H jumped a little, did Del hear their conversation?

They grabbed a table in the all night diner. Del politely held out a chair for Nat, and H noted how she made it look more natural than Aaron did.

Aaron groaned. "You would pick a story guaranteed to embarrass me." He glanced across the table at Del.

"Don't look at me, old man. I'm off to the loo," she stood and with an odd little salute, two fingers against her brow, headed towards the door in the back wall.

"Coward!" He shouted after her.

"Ok," Natalie laughed. "After that build-up, you're not getting away without this story."

"You know what you're going to order?" He asked hopefully.

"Stop delaying," H punched him on the shoulder.

"Ouch! You didn't tell me that you were such a violent wench!" He shielded himself with the menu, as she hit at him again. "Uncle! Uncle!"

She fixed him with a gimlet stare. "Start talking mister."

"Alright. So I was about five when my mother died." H's face lost it's teasing hilarity, and he reached out a hand to squeeze hers. "Don't worry; it was a long time ago."

Nat apologized. "Aaron, if it's really a painful story..."

"Nah, just embarrassing," he denied. "So Da took me to a festival, several months after. I was a pretty slow tot, and didn't quite get what had happened with Mum. Anyway," he smiled. "Da and I got separated, and I was in a bit of a panic, when I saw this woman who I imagined looked like my mother from the back disappear through a door. Well, I shot after her right quick. And..." he turned a brilliant shade of red. "Followed her straight into the women's room, right into her stall as she was dropping trou."

Nat's hand rose to cover her mouth as a suspicious choking sound came from her side of the table. "Yeah," he laughed. "Needless to say, she wasn't pleased about finding some boy invading her space that way, and started screaming and beating me with her hat."

"Oh, lord," H lost her battle against her giggles and started laughing as well.

He grinned as he continued. "It was one of those ghastly creations, all feathers and plastic fruit. I remember getting a scratch along my cheek from a cherry stem. Feathers flying, ALL the women in the loo screaming now, god knows why, and there's me, huddled into a ball trying to hide under the sink." He looked at their faces and started chuckling as well.

"And?" Nat prompted.

"So Del marches in, takes one look at the scene and walks right between me and the hat. The woman was so startled she stopped screaming, and Del, face straight as a razor, says: 'Thanks so much for finding him, Mum. We was worried sick.' With that, she grabbed my hand and hauled me out of there as if it was the most normal thing in the world."

"She didn't! At five?"

"She did." He confirmed. "She was taller'n me then, and really looked like she could've been an older sister. We spent the rest of the afternoon terrorizing the carnival." He grinned. "Until her father caught up with us, and had my father paged over the intercom. I couldn't sit down for a week, Da was so annoyed." He shrugged. "It turned out that she lived about two blocks away, and that, as they say, was history."

"Terrorizing?" Nat asked leadingly. "What'd you do?"

"Oh, nothing much," he replied lightly enough for H to realize that they'd been horrid. He looked up in relief when the waitress arrived. "Ah, Marge. Great timing. Del and I'll have the usual."

Del returned as Nat and H ordered their desserts. H looked over at her suspiciously; she'd spent an awful long time in the loo.

Nat apparently agreed. "Avoiding the story of your heroism?"

Del looked over at her tolerantly. It was kind of a nice expression, H reflected. "Or hedonism, depending on which parts he told." The alto voice replied.

Marge slid huge glasses in front of each of them-milk for Aaron, cola for Del, cherry cola for H and lemonade for Nat.

"Right," Aaron said definitively. "I propose a toast to tonight's artistic success," he lifted his glass in invitation as the others followed. "May there be many more in your future Sticks."

"Here, here," Nat and H echoed as they all clinked.

After they drank, Nat spoke up. "It was inspired Del, you have a real gift."

"Step back," Del replied lightly.

Aaron clunked his glass on the table, leaving a bit of a moustache behind. "You're not getting around this one champ. It was bloody unreal."

"Like Stravinsky's Firebird Suite," H fought her discomfort to offer.

Del's eyes lit up, though she didn't move a muscle in her face. It gave H a warm feeling to know that the talented musician heard her accolade.

"What?" Nat expressed confusion for herself and Aaron.

H shrugged, a little embarrassed to explain something that she suddenly realized, far too late, hadn't been a public comment. "It caused a riot, first time it was played."

Nat asked a question about the band that diverted their attention, and the conversation flowed much more smoothly as they gobbled up the sweets Marge brought. Del didn't say much, but she added bits and pieces to Aaron's stories, and she laughed as readily as anyone else at the table, H noted with relief. Perhaps there was nothing to worry about, after all, she reflected as they ended up standing on the sidewalk outside of the Cellar.

"Gotta jet," Del announced her departure. She turned to Nat, "Need a lift? If you don't mind straddling the bike."

Nat laced her arm through Del's. "Lead on Sir Knight, I'd be delighted to meet your noble steed."

H stared after them when they departed, somewhat surprised and a little bereft at the unexpected offer, but simultaneously relieved. She'd been so...uneasy, every time the girl looked at her.

"She's giving us time alone." Aaron felt compelled to explain. "Do you like her?" He asked anxiously.

"I think she's fascinating." H replied honestly.

Chapter 3

Start of term arrived with its usual anguish. Each instructor seemed to have realized that there was only a year left for torturing their long-suffering students and was amazingly dedicated to wringing the most out of every minute. Apparently, Aaron was having the same experience in his school. They had managed hardly more than a brief phone call every night. H was just wondering, as she and Nat left the school after last bell on Friday, if she ought to beg out of their tentative plans for a movie tonight when her mobile rang.

"Hey gorgeous," Aaron's voice greeted her when she flipped it open. "It's horribly unromantic of me, but I was hoping to change tonight's movie into a study date."

H breathed a sigh of relief. "Perfect. I was just wondering how I could afford the time off."

"You know Nathan's coffee shop?"

"Oh," H replied. "Uh, yeah, I do. Isn't it too noisy?"

"Well, Del works there, and I give her a lift with the maths, you know, when it's slow. We could meet somewhere else, though, if you'd prefer. Del wouldn't mind."

No way around that one without being a total ass, H realized. "Five O’clock?" She said instead.

"Done," he agreed. "I can't wait to see you."

H turned to Nat after she rang off. "Studying in a coffee shop. You in?"

Nat shook her head. "I need a library. Ten pager for old Hawser."

H felt apologetic, "I'd ask him to change venues, but..."

The redhead laughed. "Darlin', I appreciate that you don't want to abandon me, but it might be a good idea to spend some time alone with your man every now and again." She grinned wickedly. "I assure you I won't invite you along for every date when I find myself a woman."

"That's silly," H protested. "We'd have just as much fun with you there as without."

Nat gave her a skeptical look, but didn't pursue it. "Well, I'm off. Say hey to Aaron."

As H turned her feet towards her own home, her mind wasn't on Nat's strange ideas, schoolwork, or seeing Aaron for the first time in a week. It was on music. It was odd how every time her mind was idle, it returned to that night in the club. Images of Del on stage, turning the act of drumming into a dance just kept popping up, front and center. She woke in the morning with the sounds of the lyrics, nonsensical though they were ringing through her ears. Her steps falling on the concrete seemed to echo the heartbeat as she hummed her way home, trying to bring the experience back to her through memory.

Unexpectedly, she looked up to find herself, not home, but at the shop. Shrugging, she pushed her way in, hearing the familiar jingle of the bell on the door. Luce looked up and smiled. "Hey! How was the first week?"

"Horrid," H threw her bag on the floor behind the counter and reached over to give the woman a hug. Luce reached into one of the chilled display cases, pulling an apple out from behind a bouquet and tossing it to H. "Anything worth having takes work."

"But does work have to be so painful?"

Luce laughed and returned to the repotting that H had interrupted. "Glad you're back, youngster. How's your young man?"

"Seeing him tonight. Nothing exciting, just studying." She paused for a beat. "Met his mate last week."

"The hellion," Luce commented, showing that she remembered the conversation. That was one thing H liked about Luce, she always paid attention.

"Saw her band play."


"So good I can't get it out of my mind," H admitted.

Luce gave her a startled look. "What?"

H slowly tried to describe the performance, the different influences the group combined in a unique way. When she found herself going on endlessly about how the young drummer looked so completely a part of the music, she stopped herself, not entirely certain why she suddenly felt embarrassed.

Luce was still looking at her as if she had continued talking. After a long moment, the older woman asked her. "So Aaron introduced you after did he?"

"Yeah, after."

"You two get along?" The question oddly sounded more than casual.

"I guess," H picked at the stem on the apple, twisting it around. "She made me feel weird."

"How's that?"

H realized that this was why her feet had brought her here. Smart feet. She wanted to get over this sense of disturbance that the girl caused in her. Aaron so wanted them to get along.

"Well...she's just so intense. You'd have to meet her to get it; she looks at you and...." She scraped at the skin of the fruit, pulling off the pectin coating. "I mean, she's our age, and she's accomplished so much. That song she wrote was better than anything I've ever heard. I'm into science, but..." She trailed off again.

"Hey," Luce's tone made her look over. "Don't let anyone make you feel small."

"That's just it, I didn't. I felt..." She searched for words. "I felt like the world had more possibilities than I knew." She shook her head.


H looked around, and realized something. "How'd you get into this?" When Luce's right eyebrow rose in question, she remembered that Del had used that gesture as well. Firmly, she returned to the conversation. "I mean, it's perfect. You seem to like everything about it, you're full of all these interesting stories about the people who come in, and the history of flowers and all."

Luce, bless her, didn't protest the nonsequiter. "I got my degree in history, you know."

"You did?"

"But when the time came, I realized that I couldn't face taking on an academic position, just about the only thing it prepared me for."

H smiled. "I can't even imagine you in the stuffy suit, all stern and all."

"Our flat had three window boxes. My final year, I'd spend all my free time planting in them, or planning what I'd plant next. I'd spend hours researching which plants would do well, and so on." Luce laughed. "Well, finally I put two and two together and realized a way to avoid the dangerous world of academia."

"You get a kind of look on your face when you think you're alone, tending to them. Sort of intent, like you're in another world."

"You're discovering passion," understanding lit up Luce's tone.

"Is that what it is?" She crunched into the fruit, waiting until she had swallowed to ask. "Does everyone have a something like that?"

"The lucky ones," Luce replied.

"And what does it feel like?" She was confounded when Luce started laughing, so hard she could barely speak.

Finally, the older woman choked out, "You say that as if you didn't have any of your own."

"I don't," H replied tartly, and then winced when she heard her mother in her own voice. "I'm sorry, but I don't. All I do is go to school and hang out with my mates."

"Oh, I'm sorry luv," Luce was instantly contrite. "But you're indulging it right now. The irony was too much for me."

"So, great oracle, what is this secret passion that I harbor?"

"Understanding." Luce replied with a smile.

"Say again?"

"You dig deep into everything," she explained. "You're not just content to know that this and that happens, you need to know when, and how, and most importantly, why. Goodness, you had the longest 'why' phase in the history of human evolution. That's why you gravitated towards the sciences, didn't you realize?"

"But...That's not the same. It's not like being a musician, or a green-thumb."

"Why, because it's explored with the mind, instead of your hands?"

"Uh, yeah." H quickly realized the holes in that argument. "So you figure I'm on the right track, then? Not just...I don't know, hiding from life by burying my nose in the books?"

"As long as you remember that there's more to life than just the questions. But I imagine that you're discovering that now." She must have sensed that H wasn't following. "With Aaron?" She clarified, making it more of a question than it needed to be.

"Aaron, right."

"Things are okay with you two, aren't they?"

"Sure," H replied. "Why wouldn't they be?"

"I just thought," she shook her head. "Never mind. Why don't you come to dinner Sunday? Mother'll be there."

H grinned. "Love to. What's she been up to?"

"The latest has a billiard hall, so she's turning into a regular pool shark."

"Excellent," H enthused with delight at the thought of the grey-haired woman surrounded by the rough exterior of a pool hall.

"Lost twenty quid to her the other night."

"I'll keep my hand on my wallet." H checked her watch. "Well, I'd better bolt." She gave her friend a hug. "Thanks Luce."

"Anytime, luv."

Funny, H reflected later as she walked towards the coffee shop. Everyone acted so weird about Aaron. As if she should want different things, or be someone other than herself, just because he was in her life. It was a bit annoying. She puzzling and picking at it so hard, she forgot to watch where she was going, and nearly trampled a little tyke running proudly ahead of his mother, obviously a new skill by his size. She realized the danger at the last minute as the woman yelled at her son to be careful. She dodged him, but lost her balance in the process and collapsed an A-frame sign out in front of a small grocer's shop.

"Are you alright?" The woman ran to her after scooping her young son up in her arms. The grocer ran out himself and exclaimed, giving her a hand up.

"I'm fine," she reassured. "Is he okay?" She asked as the boy began screaming.

"Bit of a fright at the noise, that's all."

"I'm sorry, it's all my fault."

"No harm done. We're not used to looking for people at knee height." She soothed the child as they continued on their way. H turned to the grocer, who was lifting the sign up. "Did it survive?"

It hadn't, she saw, the frame was cracked, the wood divided along the side into two sharp pieces of wood that met at odd angles. "Don't fret, Miss. A little wood glue and it'll be fine."

"Are you certain, I have some money..." She dug into her bag, but he reached out a hand and stopped her.

"It'll take me ten minutes to set right, and I'd rather a cracked frame than a bruised child. Now off with you," he flapped his hands at her. "Go enjoy this beautiful evening. Aren't too many more coming before winter, you know."

H apologized once again before taking his unsubtle suggestion and continuing on her way, a bit more alertly this time. So she was surprised to be surprised when arms surrounded her from behind after she'd gotten a few feet into the coffee shop. Not that it was a bad surprise, she reflected as she leaned back into the strength behind her.

"Did you know that the seat is missing from your trousers?" An alto voice asked her from behind, ending the moment.

"Del?" She asked in astonishment, and then the sense of the words sank into her brain. "It is? Oh, no..."

"Come on, we're off to the loo." Del began frog-marching her through the shop, stopping for a moment by Aaron's table, scattered around with books and papers. "Need to borrow your girl for a moment mate. Back in a flash."

H giggled at the look on Aaron's face, sort of fish-like as his mouth hung open, as well as the sheer absurdity of the situation, walking in tandem through the shop with her human garment draped around her to protect her modesty. Del released her the moment they were safely through the door, and H twisted herself around, standing on tiptoe in front of the mirror to see the damage. A long rip straight across the seat exposed her pants to the world. "Del, what am I going to do?"

"Hang on a mo," the girl was gone in an instant. She returned a few minutes later, during which H had almost convinced herself that five safety pins might, might get her home safely. She opened the door at Del's knock, keeping most of herself behind the door.

"Here," the girl thrust a pair of jeans at her. "Good thing I was going out tonight, had 'em in my saddlebag."

"Thanks!" H shouted through the quickly closed door.

She swam in the jeans, when she got them on, but with the belt from her own pair, and after rolling the pants' legs up several times, they were workable. Aaron looked up with a smile when she got back out to the cafe. "You look adorable," he commented.

"I look five years old. What did her mother feed her while she was growing, spinach?" H complained.

"You should see her Da; he's like a walking mountain."

"Well, I'm glad she's the one that noticed, before the whole cafe knew far more about my underwear than I want them to." H looked around. "Where'd she go?"

Aaron gestured towards the espresso machine. "She's working. She'll join us if it gets slow." He patted a pile of books sitting next to him.

"Understanding boss?

He nodded. "Friend of my Da's."

"So," she flipped open her chem text. "What's your headache tonight?"

"English," he made a face. "Three pages on Kipling's 'If.'"

"It's only a two-page poem," she protested, aghast.

"Yeah," he grinned. "One of the guys tried to argue it down to two in favor of spare prose showing greater skill, but the prof wasn't having any."

Del showed up briefly to put a mug on her table. H dug around in her bag, "Oh, right. Here..."

The dark-haired girl waved her off. "No charge for family."

A slow grin grew on H's face. Family...she liked that.

"See?" Aaron told her when Del went back to serve another customer. "Told you she liked you."

"Good thing, too, or I'd still be showing my arse all over the place. God that's so embarrassing. I must have walked three blocks without a clue." She took a sip of the beverage, "Just as good as I remember."

"You've had it before?" Aaron asked in surprise. "Usually, she makes really unique beverages for anyone who asks her to. Pretty good at guessing tastes, too." He gestured towards his own. "Mine's a rather boring vanilla latte, however."

H took another sip. "Hmm...Dark chocolate, I think. And foam. It's rather strong. Some other flavor, too..."

"Hey geek-boy," H's reverie was interrupted by the ridiculous rudeness. She looked up to see a fantastically handsome guy, about their age, standing near their table. He was all expensive clothing and overpowering cologne, H wrinkled her nose in annoyance.

"Hi Daren," Aaron sounded resigned.

"Where'd you find the girl? Go to the continent to find someone who'd hang out with you?"

H watched as Del tiptoed up behind the preppy, and started doing...something, it wasn't quite clear what.

"Actually," she spoke up, making note of the wristband he was wearing, peeking out from underneath the cuff of his Armani leather jacket... "I found him. Got bored of the empty-headed tennis crowd, don't you know." She sighed, a little, trying for disaffected disappointment. "They look pretty, but you dig around in there and they're all self-absorbed little boys who wouldn't know an original thought if it smacked them in the face."

His face scrunched up, "Why you little tart..."

Aaron stood up at the same time that Del slapped a heavy hand onto the idiot's shoulder. "Time to go, Daren." Her voice allowed for no prevarication.

At least it did to H, Daren, however, clearly wasn't capable of picking up the subtlety. "You can't kick me out! I'm a customer."

Del pulled a phone out from her back pocket. "Rather discuss this with the owner or the cops? I can ring either," she asked, flipping it open.

He glared at her for a long moment, then shook loose of the hand and strutted out. H clapped a hand to her mouth when he turned, seeing the word 'wanker' written in bold letters along the back of his very expensive jacket.

She waited until the door closed behind him to turn to Del. "You didn't."

"Didn't what?" She asked with a completely straight face. "Ready for a refill, anybody?"

"I'm good," Aaron replied.

"Just barely started on mine." H added.

Del nodded and strolled casually back behind the bar.

"Well," H said. "Things are never boring around you lot, are they?"

"You're amazing," he gave her a look that made her uncomfortable. "Thanks for...saying that. How'd you know he's on the tennis squad?"

"Wrist band," she shrugged. "No big deal, really. It's just one of the benefits of having a sharp-tongued mother. You know how to annoy just about anyone." She folded her notebook open. "And none of this is getting my chem prep done."

"Or my essay written," he agreed.

They managed to be fairly studious, straight through to closing, stopping every now and again to share a chance thought or to comment on something that happened out on the street. It must have been busier than usual, because Del's pile of books remained unopened all night. Aaron exclaimed in surprise when Del came by, sweeping the floor. "Shoot, how long ago did you close?" He glanced at his watch.

"About thirty minutes ago," Del replied. "You two had your noses buried so deep, I thought I'd just dust you and leave you here until morning."

Aaron folded up his notebook with a snap and turned to H. "You want a ride home?"

"If it's no problem."

"Of course not," Aaron replied. "Besides, it's getting cold out there."

They piled out of the shop, H thanked Del profusely for the jeans as the girl let them out of the store she hadn't finished cleaning yet. "I'll wash them and bring them round tomorrow."

Del waved off the thanks and the offer. "Just give 'em to Aaron next time you see him. I'll be okay until then."

"Brr, you're right. It is getting cold." H commented to Aaron, picking up the pace towards the battered old van. She hopped in quickly when he unlocked the door, rubbing her arms against the chill.

"It'll warm up quickly enough once we get moving," he commented, putting the key in the ignition.

Only to hear nothing. "C'mon you old beast!" Aaron thumped on the dash in frustration.

A weak parody of an engine turning over greeted his second attempt, but not even that lame performance evidenced itself on the third. Finally, he gave up. "I'm sorry," he turned to her. "Damn thing's as grumpy as a troll." He looked around, as if a solution might be found in the lot, running his hand through his hair. "I'm going to have to call my father, and that'll take a while. Let me see if Del can give you a lift."

Before H could protest, Aaron hopped out and ran to the door of the shop.

"All set," he jumped back in and rubbed his hands together.

"I hate to put her out any further," H protested.

"Nonsense," Aaron replied. "You heard her, you're part of the family now. You do for family."

"You two really are like a little family, aren't you? I don't think I realized, during the summer."

He nodded. "Shrinks would probably say it's some sort of motherless child bond. We take it turn about looking out for each other."

"Well," H replied. "Thanks for letting me be a part of it. It's very flattering."

"Bosh," he replied. "Oh, she's about done if she's turning the lights off. I'll walk you over, shall I?"

She shook her head at him. "Sooner you call your father, the sooner he'll get here. Are you certain you don't want me to wait with you? It's bound to be dull."

"No," he leaned over and dropped a pleasant kiss on her lips. "I was saving that for your door." He returned for another one. It was...nice. Kissing him always felt rather cozy. "No point in both of us freezing out here. I'll be fine," he said as Del strode towards the van.

"Okay, if you're sure..." H felt horribly guilty.

"I'm sure, I'm sure!" He laughed.

H hopped out, coming to face the tall girl. "Thanks, for this."

Del's eyes met hers, perhaps for the first time that evening. "It's no problem, really."

She could feel the smile filling her before it made it to her face.

"Ready?" Del turned sideways and held her arm out towards the bike, her other hand coming up to the small of H's back, in a gesture that was oddly chivalrous. The hand dropped away rather too quickly for H to explore that thought, but it did cause her to blurt out. "So, you moonlight as a superhero, do you?"

Del looked down at her from her lofty height. "Say again?"

"Well, you met Aaron by rescuing him from a dangerous hat, and you saved my dignity today... I'm just wondering if you get a bonus for each one."

Del laughed. "I assure you, there are no blue tights in my wardrobe."

"Probably for the best, you'd stop traffic with that ass." Del's eyebrow went up, as H wondered what in the world had possessed her tongue. "I mean, not that I was looking. You know, it's just there..." Why, exactly, H, are you talking about this? "Oh hell, just take a compliment, alright?"

"Alright," Del replied neutrally. "Here," she took off the leather coat she was wearing. "You'll need this, trust me."

"What about you?"

"I'm used to it, don't worry." She unsnapped a helmet from under the seat and handed it over. "Wait until I get her started to get on, okay?"

"Her? Does she have a name?"

"Sally," Del grinned. "Why? Doesn't she look like one?"

"Of course she does," H laughed. "Thanks Sally." She directed the comment towards the gas tank. "I appreciate it." She looked back up. "Do all motorcycles have names?"

"Can only speak for mine."

"Hey," H reached out a hand to the girl's bicep to pause her before she kicked the engine over. It would be too loud, she realized. "What did you give me to drink, really?"

"Cappuccino with almond and bittersweet chocolate."

"How'd you know I'd like it?"

"You don't seem the kind of girl who likes things watered down," Del answered, then rose up to kick the engine over. I don't? Huh, I think I can live with that, she thought as she scrambled up onto the seat when Del gestured to her. She tentatively put her hands on the girl's shoulders, only to have one of them captured and firmly placed around Del's waist.

"Hold on tight; don't want to leave you behind, after all."

H shrugged and brought the other hand down. She was right, after all. It was a better way to hold on, she felt safer immediately. Which left her to enjoy the ride. I have GOT to get me one of these things. The sense of power, with the wind rushing past her, no longer protected from the world around her by the glass and steel of a car, made her feel alive, and whole. Nonsense. Thinking that an object makes you complete is just advertising. I bet the romance of it would wear off right quick...like the first time it rains. Besides, Mother would put the kibosh on that thought right quick. Da too, he's all about the safest vehicle on the market. In fact, something occurred to her when they stopped at a light, and she tapped on Del's shoulder.

"I just realized," she half shouted. "My folks might flip if I turn up on this thing."

"I'll let you off a couple of blocks short, shall I?"

H nodded the helmet vigorously.

Better enjoy it while you can, H told herself. They might think to forbid it. She was glad for the jacket, and for Del's broad back in front of her. If I'd realized she'd be taking the brunt of the wind, I wouldn't have let her give me the coat. I've got a sweater on, after all.

Sure enough, when Del stopped the vehicle and got off in their quiet residential section, H noticed goose bumps along her arms. Impulsively, she reached out and briskly rubbed them. "You're freezing," she explained shyly.

A hand caught hers, stopping the motion. H looked up quickly, and saw the skin around Del's eyes crinkle. "I'm fine, really." It could be true; the hand still restraining hers was almost hot.

Regardless, she quickly stripped off the coat and handed it over with the helmet. "Well, I can give you this back, at least. Put it on," she said sternly when the girl made to put them both on the seat. "It'd be a poor thank you for getting me home to get you sick."

Del grinned as she shrugged into it. "Yes mom," she answered.

"Well, you're the one who said I'm family." H defended herself.

"Touché," Del congratulated. "C'mon, I'll walk you home." The girl gave H a stern look as she began to protest. She closed her mouth with a snap, realizing that she'd trapped herself.

"You were brilliant, you know, with that wanker." Del commented as they began to walk towards her home. Del, she noticed, took one step for every two of hers.

H laughed. "I can't believe you wrote that on his jacket."

Del shrugged. "It's true enough," she defended herself with a sort of guilty smile.

"Aaron was right," H said noting the sparkle her eyes. "You were a hellion as a kid, weren't you?"

"Guilty." She laughed.

"Tell me about some of your adventures," H urged.

"Oh, I don't think that would be a good idea," Del demurred. "I'd better quit while I'm ahead. You might run screaming into the night."

"I'm not that timid," she looped her hands around the tall girl's elbow. "And you're not that scary."

"I'm not? Better work on that," she muttered. "Note to self: improve terror factor."

"Well, if you actually do want to terrify me, why not tell the stories? It's easier than going off and growing an extra head or something."

"You're relentless."

"Yep, it's my persistent fault."

Del smiled down into her eyes. "Don't know as I would call it a fault." She broke eye contact and said in an exaggerated tone. "Now annoying, maybe..."

"Brute," H complained.

"Right." Del nodded. "Haven't you been paying attention?"

H laughed. The banter continued all the way home, which passed far too quickly for H.

"Oh, we're here!" She exclaimed, almost passing the walk up to the front door. She hauled on Del's arm to stop the forward momentum, then self-consciously let go. When did I take her arm like that?

Del followed her as she climbed the stairs, and H turned regretfully to say goodbye, only to hold her breath as Del's hand stretched out. For a second there, she'd crazily thought the girl was going to touch her face. But she didn't, just stretched out an arm to pull the screen door open. Which was oddly disappointing.

Quickly, H dug her keys out of her bag and unlocked the door, turning to look up at Del in confusion, feeling oddly aware of the other girl's nearness. "Well...here I am."

H wished for a pause button, as several things crossed Del's face so quickly she couldn't catch them. "Right. Cheers, then." Del stepped back and turned to descend the porch steps without looking back.

It seemed rather...abrupt. Stop it H, she berated herself. She did say she was going out. I probably made her late.


Del flipped her phone open as soon as she got back down the walk, and used the phone's memory to dial.

"Laura? Look, I'm a right brute, but something's come up. Can we reschedule?"

"You're a champ. Thanks luv."

She stared at it for a long time before stuffing it back into her pocket. Idiot, she berated herself. Laura was a good date: charming, fun, and cheerfully hedonistic. Exactly what she needed right now. She shoved her fists into her pockets. Problem was, she wasn't a good date right now.

In fact, she was furious at herself. What are you playing at? She'd known she was in trouble from the moment those green eyes had turned her world upside down. Del's gut clenched even at the memory of the experience. She'd been frantic for a graceful way to get away, get her head on straight, the minute she'd realized that she was desperately attracted to Aaron's girl. An intention immediately flummoxed by Aaron insisting she tag along to Marco's.

All your intentions are rather easily flummoxed, aren't they? She acidly reminded herself as she got to the bike. Looking at it, keys in hands, she shook her head. She was in too much of a temper to ride. With a shrug, she locked the helmet back into the seat, and yanked it up onto the center stand, a little more viciously than necessary.

She'd made it through the little impromptu party fairly safely, mostly by using Nat as a shield. But she'd realized that it'd be better just to avoid the girl's company altogether. An instinct she clearly should have followed. Even now, she remembered the feel of H in her arms, leaning back so trustingly when she'd, with good reason mind, wrapped herself around the blonde.

Yeah, trusting. Her and Aaron both. Trusting Del not to be a...

God, was she seriously thinking these things about her best friend's girl? An overpowering urge to lean her head back and howl ran through her. Determinedly, she changed direction. A walk wasn't going to be enough, clearly.  

She'd stayed away from the table for the rest of the night, more than a little frightened by how hard it had been to drop her arms once she'd gotten the girl safely into the toilet. But that didn't keep you from jumping at the chance to spend a little more time with her, did it? And did you even resist a single chance to 'innocently' get close to her?

Damn good thing the girl was so straight; she hadn't seemed to suspect a thing. She'd even playfully taken Del's arm, a gesture that had made her feel twenty feet tall, and swelled with pride. So good, in fact, that she'd left it there, with a sense of grasping the moment while Del was still...safe in H's eyes. An illusion that would quickly be broken if she didn't get a handle on herself. She'd almost blown it there at the end, nearly giving in to the urge to brush a stray lock of hair aside. God knows what H would have done if she had. Probably kick me in the shins, she thought with a smile, thinking about the way she'd stood up to Darren.

Remembering how H had defended Aaron, she gave herself a mental slap. You self-absorbed idiot. What, do you think that she'd fall straight into your arms if you made a move? Is it her or Aaron that you think so little of?

Thinking of Aaron stopped her cold.

Oh, god.

Her long walk finally brought her to the King's rehearsal space, a smallish section of a warehouse they'd gotten dirt cheap because of a friend of a friend, and the fact that getting it up to code would cost more than the owner wanted to lay out at the moment. So it worked out for all of them. Especially Da, she thought with a bit of a smile. All her drums had moved here the moment they'd gotten it, much to her father's relief. He was tired of fielding the neighbor’s complaints. With the space that had opened up in her room, Del had gotten an electric kit that she could practice on with headphones. That wasn't what she was in the mood for right now, she thought grimly as she went directly to her oldest set, beaten into uselessness by years of practice. And moods like this. Why this girl?  Del had never had trouble leaving, or taking girls as they came before. As long as they were interested and self confident enough to take Del as she was...or leave her as she was, she'd not particularly worried over passing up the unavailable.

Fully an hour and three broken sticks later, she stopped, exhausted, when one of her tom heads split under the onslaught. One harsh truth had come clear as she had beaten the set into submission. She'd been acting like a child. Actions were the result of choices, and impulse was a poor excuse.

You need to give yourself a bit of a break, too. Maybe it was hard to let her go; but you did. Likewise, you didn't reach out when you wanted to. What was it that guy said? "It's easy to be good in the country?" Now you know to be more aware of your impulses, eventually treating her the same as, say, Aaron, will become a habit.

Until that happened, she'd stay out of the way. Aaron didn't need people tagging around while he explored his first romance anyway. She let herself out, before turning to fasten the padlock that secured the door. Pausing, she rested her head against its' weathered metal. She'd be a bit lonely...and Aaron wouldn't understand.

No way out but through,

she reminded herself, pushing off and walking towards home with a determined step, finally feeling comfortable enough to pull out the phone and check on Aaron.

"Get home alright?" She asked as soon as he picked up.

"Yeah, left the radio on. Ran the battery right down. Smooth, huh?"

"Hell, we've all done it."

"You didn't get any trig done tonight," he nagged.

"Wanted to leave you and your girl alone," she said lightly. "I'll do it tomorrow after my shift."

"But tomorrow's Saturday...I thought we were all going to Jimmy's party."

"Can't be helped, son. Besides, last time I went to one of his parties I woke up in the park."

"True enough. Wasn't Gina Sheffield with you?"

"I can't remember," she chuckled.

"I swear, someday you're going to have to teach me your secrets."

"You're doing alright on your own."

"Speaking of. She rang from home. Told me to thank you again. Which I'm doing."

"Good boy."


She hung up, feeling much better. That's really all it should take. A simple reminder of what's important.

Chapter 4

Nat, Aaron and H walked out of the theater into the crisp October night talking a mile a minute.

"That was terrible."

"And that scene with the paring knife, what was that about?"

"Were we supposed to be moved, laughing, or what when that thing happened with the guy on the street?"

Nat laughed at Aaron. "I think we were supposed to give up and walk out."

"Yeah, that's probably it. The managers were probably disgusted that we stayed through the whole thing and they had to keep the projector running."

"Could be an attempt to save on power," H suggested.

"Wow, economics drives everything, doesn't it?"

"Where's Del tonight?" H asked when Aaron threw his arm over her shoulders, then drew Nat to him with a friendly gesture to turn them into a walking sidewalk blockage. Pedestrians smiled at their high spirits as they dodged around the moving wall.

"Date...uh, I don't know this one. Chris? Candice?"  He shook his head.

"She sure seems to go on a lot of them," Nat remarked.

He nodded. "Seems like. New thing. Not dating, I mean, but the frequency."

"I don't think we've seen her since the show at Clancy’s last week," Nat remarked. "I'm beginning to feel like a third wheel without her around."

"Never think it," Aaron dropped a kiss on top of her head. "I'd be devastated if you stopped coming about."

"Speaking of dates..." H began. "How was last night?"

"Misfire," Nat replied with a grimace. "She kept talking about her poodle in a little girl voice."

"Arg," H choked.

"It was intolerable,” Nat laughed. "If I never hear another dog story again, I'll count myself lucky."

"I like dogs," H protested.

"Then swear you won't talk about it if you get one." Nat replied sternly.

"On my honor...well, no more than one tale a week."

Nat gurgled in frustration. "No tail puns."

"What's the verdict on Halloween?" Aaron asked. "We doing your friend's party?"

"Yeah, but try and get Del along, would you Aar? I rather fancy walking in with her on my arm, since my ex'll be there...and kind of dread going stag."

Aaron smiled knowingly. "Del'd enjoy that. Maybe a little too much..." He added thoughtfully.

"Do try and get her to come," H pleaded.

"Alright, alright!" He laughingly submitted, not unwillingly. "I'll see to it. Haven’t seen enough of her lately anyway." He looked down at Nat. "Must be one ugly breakup."

She thought for a moment. "Not exactly. The breakup itself was quite civilized. Maybe too much so," H made a noise of agreement. "All that pissed-offidness didn't get out at appropriate time. So, post-breakup, she's been nothing but catty. Always makes some cutting remark about how much better her life is without me, and then oh-too-sweetly asks who I'm seeing."

"Blech," he commented.

H put a hand on his stomach. "So do try and get her to come, I'd love to see Mirna choke on her tongue when she sees her."

"Why would she do that? She really thinks Nat can't get a girl at all?"

"Not one as gorgeous as Del," Nat explained.

"She's gorgeous?"

"Jesus, Aaron, even I noticed. And I'm the only one here not into girls,” H exclaimed in disbelief.

He flushed. "Well...really? I guess I just never thought about it."

"Sure you're into girls Aaron?" Nat teased.

"Yeeeaahh, I sure am." He paused. "It's kind of like seeing your sister as attractive, I guess."

"Whatever. Next week, I pick the movie," Nat demanded as she climbed into the van.

"Oh, no....no more chick flicks, please!!!" Aaron wailed as they made their way home.


"I don't know, mate." Del prevaricated when he called her.

"What? You have a date?"

"Well, no." She admitted.

Aaron was beyond frustrated. "Doctor's appointment? Chores? Planning on being overwhelmed with homework? Oh, no I remember. You promised to take the Halloween closing shift."

"Easy, Tweak."

"Come on Del, it's wearing a little thin. I thought you liked them."

"I do."

"So what's the problem?"

A long silence. "I haven't got a costume."

"Roll up your jeans, stick a cigarette behind your ear and go as the Fonz."

"I thought you said an eighties theme?"

"All right, add a bandana and go as Springsteen. Come on, I haven't seen you in weeks." Ingeniously, he added. "It'd be a real help to Nat."

"How so?"

He explained the situation, starting to throw in a few stories he'd gotten out of Nat and H as ammunition. The situation wasn't just catty, as Nat had implied, but downright mean-spirited. It didn't take more than the first...a picture of Mirna making out with her new girl with the caption 'eat your heart out' stuck in Nat's locker.

"I'm in."

"I knew that would get you." He grinned, even though he knew she couldn't see it.

"You just yanking my chain?"

"No, it's true enough. I had even worse stories lined up, just in case you proved difficult."

"It'll be my pleasure to shove it up that bitch's...."

"Del! Language!"


"Don't uh...go overboard, okay?"


Oh, Lord.

"Really Del..."

"Relax Tweak; I'm getting mellower in my old age."


"Sure thing."


Del realized that she was the last to arrive, seeing the others gathered on Aaron's porch. Not surprising, really. She'd spent a good amount of time giving herself a lecture before she'd set out. She paused in the darkness, knowing that she'd be unseen, to take a deep breath. Tonight, she knew, she'd find out if her unreasonable attraction to H had worn thin with time and distance.

Trying to distract herself with other girls certainly hadn't worked. She hadn't even managed to raise a glimmer of excitement about a single one of them, and honestly, the overly social round was getting tiring. But it was the only good excuse she'd been able to find to painlessly avoid her best-friend's company.

She caught her breath when H turned, giving Aaron a self-mocking pirouette to see her costume. It seemed to involve a ridiculously high-collared cape in some shimmery purple material, and a flowing gauze shirt that was open to the navel. A three-pointed silver charm hung off a leather thong to draw attention to the length of bare skin. Honestly, though, better there than the girl's laughing face as she lifted up a crystal globe. Aaron's exclamation drifted over to her. "I get it! Labyrinth."

She gave him a hug, causing Del's heart to contract. No, time hadn't worn down the way the girl made her want to...oh, say, go slay a hundred dragons.

"You're a bit of a puzzle," she heard the blonde say to Aaron, who was wearing an I-heart-toxic waste t-shirt and had silver balls bouncing on springs over his head.

As good an entrance as any, she thought, quickly stepping forward. "I'll give you a hint," Del said as she entered the light. "Why's that thing on your head?"

"Because if I wear it anywhere else...." he trailed off. "Good god, who are you supposed to be?"

"Joan Jett."

"I thought Nat and I were being daring..." H said quietly. Del noticed the slight flush pinking H's face with guilty pleasure. Down, girl.

"Mirna Talbot, eat your heart out," Nat said reverently.

Del deliberately moved her gaze over to the redhead. "It'll help, won't it?" She asked, gesturing a bit towards her costume self-consciously.

"You're joking, right? It's bloody perfect."

"From the looks of things, you could have done the job yourself," Del complimented honestly. "Daisy Duke looks good with red hair."

"Huh," Aaron commented.

"What, Tweak?" She turned, bracing herself for whatever blow to her ego he'd prepared.

"Just realized, this is the first time I've ever seen you in makeup. You turning into a girl on me?"

"Not bloody likely," she grumbled. "Nearly poked my eye out putting this stuff on, those pencil things should come with warning labels." He was, she knew, referring to the black outline around her eyes that Steph had insisted was necessary for verisimilitude.

"It takes practice," H offered.

Reluctantly, Del turned towards her.

"Hi," the blonde said.

"Hi," Del winced when she heard the repressed happiness in her tone.

"Let's bolt, guys," Nat spoke up. "This costume isn't exactly designed for warmth, wool coat or not." She buttoned up the long coat she'd obviously taken off to show off her outfit.

H followed along in the two other girls' wake, Aaron by her side, content to just listen to the banter going on around her. She felt so funny all of a sudden, very aware of the heat of her skin, contrasted by the chill of the October night.

Oblivious, Aaron called out "Did you put that outfit together Del?"

"Are you nuts, Tweak? I just told Steph what we needed. She's good at this type of thing."

"What exactly did you tell her?"

"Eighties, and I wanted to cause trouble."

"She certainly pulled that off," he commented. H agreed. If every man there, not to mention a few women, didn't drop their jaws at the mere sight of her, H would eat her cape. Even she'd been unable to peel her eyes away from the girl in her black leather pants with, gods above, a lace up fly that had been left more than a little loose on top. The wide, black leather studded belt drew attention to the looseness, as well as the fact that the waistline didn't really reach up high enough to mask the girl's hips or lower abdomen. It was a disturbing, sexy combination. The tank top, all in black was skintight and ended a good four inches above the beltline. A smooth leather jacket with a priest's collar and a metal chain around her neck completed the outfit.

"You really don't mind being used this way?" Nat was asking Del.

"Would I be wearing this ridiculous get up if I did? I'm rather looking forward to it."

"Most folks would think I was being rather petty," Nat sounded apologetic. "I think I'm being rather petty."

"You are not!" H couldn't resist protesting. Del gave her an appreciative look over her shoulder that made her feel like she'd said something profound.

"My Da says that crazy people make normal people crazy." Aaron offered.

"So petty people make normal people petty?" H took umbrage. "That's ridiculous."

"Here's the way I figure it, gang." Del's low voice cut through any reply Aaron might have made. "She's the one who decided on a war, regardless of what Nat wanted. So, we beat her at her own game, and make her quit the field."

"Gosh, I wish that could be true," Nat said wistfully. "But I'll be happy if we can just make her want to avoid me for the night."


"I almost didn't come, knowing that she was going to be there too." Nat shrugged. "But that just got me so angry at myself."

"That's why you have mates," Del draped a friendly arm over Nat's shoulders.

"As simple as that?"

"As simple as that."

"I think I'm very, very glad you've decided to be my friend."

Del laughed. "You may live to regret those words. I can be a real bastard sometimes. Why I'm perfect for this." She gave Nat a nudge as they approached the house. It was evident that the party was in full swing, all the lights were blazing and the music and a few partygoers were spilling out the door onto the lawn. "You three go on in, and drift towards her. We'll let her get smug, thinking you're stag."

"Jesus, you are perfect for this." Nat commented.

"Machiavelli had nothing on me." Del grinned raffishly, an expression H wished she could get away with, but she knew she'd look like Bambi playing dress up if she tried.

They pushed their way into the house, pausing just past the threshold to get their bearings.

"H! Nat!" Leslie ducked out from the crowd. "Glad you could make it!"

"Looks like a bash," H congratulated.

"C'mon," Leslie gestured for them to follow. "I'll show you where to stash the coats."

They emerged from the bedroom and drifted naturally towards the table set up with munchies. All the furniture in the main room was crowded to the side, creating an impromptu dance floor that they had to fight their way through.

No sooner had they started picking than H caught sight of their quarry. She nodded to Nat. "Didn't take her long to find you, did it? Makes me wonder if she's not still carrying a torch."

"Sure got a strange way of showing it. I'd switch to men first after all the bull." Nat replied acerbically.

H watched out of the corner of her eye as Mirna, done up as Elvira, made her determined way towards them, dragging Molly Ringwald behind.

"H! What an original costume!" She exclaimed in overly friendly tones. "And you brought Nat along with you, how sweet." Mirna wrapped her arms around an embarrassed looking Molly, shooting a complacent look at Nat.

"Mirna." H nodded at her, and then turned to Molly. She felt bad for the girl, who was clearly baffled by Mirna's behavior. "I don't think we've met. I'm H."

Molly gratefully extricated herself from Mirna's over firm grip to extend a hand. "Beth," she sounded friendly enough.

"Beth's got a wonderful new BMW sedan," Mirna piped up before any more introductions could be made. "Tell them about it darling."

The girl shrugged.  "Gift from my Da. Overcompensating for a divorce, you know how it is."

H was glad when Nat offered in a friendly tone. "There's got to be a few perks. You may as well enjoy it."

Beth gave Nat an appreciative smile, relaxing a bit. Mirna frowned, then reclaimed the reins of the conversation by turning to Aaron. "You're an understanding boyfriend...putting up with a constant third wheel."

Mirna's eyes gleamed as everyone saw that the shot struck home, by the hurt and embarrassed look on Nat's face. That bitch!  H was furious, and drew a breath to make her own reply when Aaron stopped her, grabbing her arm and cutting his eyes over to Del, who was approaching Nat from behind. Wait, his eyes said. H leaned back and crossed her arms, still fuming. This had better be good.

"There you are, luv." Del wrapped her arms around Nat from behind. "Sorry I'm late, traffic you know."

When Nat craned her neck around to greet Del, the dark-haired girl captured her lips in a long, slow kiss that seemed to H to go on forever. She couldn't take her eyes off the hand that Dell had buried into Nat's hair, no doubt to keep her friend from jerking back in surprise. It was a fascinating hand, with long fingers that seemed strong and capable. She imagined that Nat must feel completely surrounded by the tall girl. Then Del let her hands drop to the belt loops on either side of Nat's waist, pulling her body almost pornographically close. H's gut echoed the sensation she imagined Nat was feeling, an almost painful tingling.

Finally, it was over. Nat spoke lowly to Dell, with their faces only inches apart. H could hear it, but she doubted that even Aaron could make it out entirely.

"You didn't tell me you were going to do that," Nat accused.

Del looked completely unrepentant, and more than a little mischievous. "You might have chickened out. Tits up now, time to finish it off."

When Del turned them both to face the group, Nat looked mussed and thoroughly bussed. H felt sympathetic. She probably feels like she's been ambushed by a succubus.

Mirna looked...exactly the way H wanted her to look. Her jaw hung open, and she seemed completely enthralled by Del. She outright stared, lips moist and a slight flush growing on her skin as her gaze traveled first down, then up the drummer's long body. Like what you see, do you? H thought maliciously.

Del somehow...cranked up the sex appeal, capturing Mirna's eyes in hers and stretching out a hand. "Name's Del." Her voice was a bit lower than normal, and sounded dangerously seductive, rubbing against the spinal cord of every person in earshot.

"Uh...Mirna," the girl drifted forward, pulled seemingly without her knowledge. Then she actually, to H's disgust, simpered, and played up to Del. "Your costume's really fab."

Del immediately dropped the girl's hand and gaze. "Thanks," Del dismissed her with a disinterested tone before turning to back to Nat with sparkling eyes. "Come on, let's dance."

One look at Mirna's face made H grab Aaron's arm and drag him off to the dance floor, holding her breath. She was going to lose it, ruining the whole thing by laughing her tail off if she stayed there one moment longer. They ducked a magic eight ball costume that staggered by in a parody of a dance and slid into the void he'd made on the dance floor next to their friends.

"Hope that lad isn't drinking," Del muttered. "He'll never fit in the loo."

Aaron laughed, "I don't think his arms will reach all the way up to his mouth anyway, see how they're kind of sticking out to the sides?"

They all laughed, releasing the tension from the confrontation in a way that didn't suggest that they'd planned for something like it all along.

To H's relief, Del had dropped the siren act and simply put herself out to make certain that Nat had a good time. Bet old Nat's completely forgotten about Mirna, H realized during their third dance. Probably the best revenge ever. Eventually, they were all more than tired. They left the floor to congregate next to the punch bowl to rest up, and get their first real chance at conversation since they'd gotten there.

"Remind me never to get on your bad side, Del." H complimented.

The deep blue eyes tracked to hers over Nat's head. "Never happen," the girl said with quiet conviction.

"Still," Nat added, oblivious to H's sudden silence, "You did that so well, it was kind of scary."

Del shrugged. "Told you I can be a right bastard. You have to admit, she'll definitely avoid us now."

"Too right," Aaron agreed. "Deserved it too, making up to you with her girl right there. Cold."

H noticed Del glancing thoughtfully at the magic eight ball, which was fighting his way towards a group of guys dressed as Duran Duran in the corner.

"What?" She asked.

Del winked at her, then suddenly staggered, as if she'd been pushed, knocking right in to the poor fellow. H watched in horror as, constrained as he was by the ridiculous costume, he lost his balance in turn and fell right into Cher, whose spike heels weren't designed to hold up under assault, and fell, like a domino, knocking a screeching Elvira straight into the guacamole with a crash, bringing the entire table down in an incredible mess. Everyone in the room stopped and stared, then started laughing. H heard Del as she gave Nat a low-voiced suggestion.

"If you give her a bit of a lift now, she'll never bother you again." Del gave Nat a slight push in the right direction.

H watched Mirna's face change from embarrassed and flustered to surprised and grateful as Nat gave her a hand up, brushing potato chips out of the bedraggled wig and leading the girl off to clean up. Once they were out of the room conversation slowly rebuilt to its previously high level.

"Del," Aaron said warningly. "You promised."

The dark haired girl grinned fit to split her face. "Always was rather good at billiards."

"You knew that was going to happen?" H asked in amazement.

"She did," Aaron answered in a long suffering voice."

"Oh, leave off mate," Del replied. "Solved her problem didn't I?" The tall girl walked over to the eight ball, helping him to straighten his costume and clearly apologizing.

H turned to Aaron. "Is she Puck or Mephistopheles?"

He sighed. "She's Del. Just Del."

"That was rather brilliant, you know."  H nodded to Del as she returned to them, acknowledging that the tall girl would hear the comment.

"What you hired me for," the dark haired girl shrugged.

Aaron cleared his throat. "Not to get my head knocked off, but I stopped by this afternoon."

"Not a hanging offense, I think." Del replied with a bit of puzzlement. "What, did you catch Da and Florence in their jammies again?"

Aaron turned a bit red at the reminder of an unfortunate incident from last year. "No, uh...you left your Trig exam on the bed."

"Ah," the tall girl's jaw muscles stood out a bit. "We need to talk about my low IQ now? Wouldn't you rather dance with your girl?"

"Stop it," Aaron replied with some heat. "You're smarter than three of me. Just not in math. So, we're studying together tomorrow." H was a bit stunned to see the normally mild Aaron sound so definitive.

Del made a quick move towards Aaron that H thought, for one scary instant, was going to be a punch. But instead, she just pulled his forehead to hers in a strangely filial gesture and murmured something very softly before walking off after Nat.

H stared at him for a moment. "What'd she say?"

He looked cute when he was embarrassed. "It's, uh...our ...oh nothing."

"Your what?"

"You know, when we were kids, I read a book that gave me the idea we should become blood brothers...with a clubhouse, secret handshake and..." he sighed. "A magic phrase."

"That's so adorable I can't stand it," H replied, not unkindly. "So what is it?"

"It's a secret," he grinned.

"That's it," she declared. "You two are clinically insane."

"I agree," Nat replied as she and Del returned. "But thank god for that."

Sensing that both Aaron and Del were getting uncomfortable, H searched for a change of subject. Fortunately, a distraction quickly presented itself to her as the current song ended, and someone on the floor shouted. "Survive!" The boy at the disc changer waved a hand in acknowledgement. "Give me a minute, then," he shouted back.

"Oh! I love that song!" She pulled at Aaron's sleeve. "Let's go dance."

"I'm fagged out, luv." He smiled apologetically. "Del'll go out with you; she's like the energizer bunny."

"I don't want to be a bother..."

"Nonsense," Aaron cut her off. "She doesn't mind, do you mate?"

Del, who had a rather bemused look on her face, shrugged. "Yeah, why not?" She said, taking H's hand and leading her out to the floor. They stood there awkwardly for a moment before the DJ got his act together.

At first I was afraid, I was petrified...

They grinned as the entire crowd took up the refrain, acting as campy as they possibly could. H felt the delight bubbling up in her as Del raised an eyebrow in amused invitation before dropping her dignity and joining in, dramatically bringing the back of her hand up to her forehead and leaning back. H followed her lead, putting as much into it as she could. When Del lifted her up and spun her in a circle as the music swelled to 'hey, hey' H couldn't help it, she laughed, feeling elation fill her all the way down to her toes. She and Del camped about, laughing as hard as they were dancing and making a menace of themselves on the dance floor. Fortunately, the entire crowd was acting just as ridiculously, so their antics didn't raise any complaints. At one point, H found herself doing a rockette-style kick line with the eight ball, a rubik's cube (who HAD to be his date), Prince, and Madonna (who contrived to be wearing less than any other person in the room...but she didn't remember Madonna having a five o'clock shadow). The rockette line eventually fell apart, and she naturally found herself returning to dancing-if that was what you called it-in Del's shadow. By the end of the song, H found that she and Del were leaning together holding each other up as they chuckled. H pulled back and smiled up into Del's eyes, catching her breath as the tall girl's expression changed. Something, an idea maybe, niggled at the back of her brain, where she was afraid to pull it out and take a good look at it. When the opening notes of "Every breath you take" by the Police washed over them, Del shifted her weight, in a move H knew would end with them walking off the dance floor. Impulsively, she grabbed at the drummer's waist, restraining her. She was somewhat surprised at the tactile impact of the smooth, warm skin her palms encountered. H felt her skin beating with her pulse in response as Del gave her a startled look. She found herself moving, ever so slightly, into Del's arms.

She was close enough to hear the tall girl's breath catch. Without any conscious directives, H's body moved to encourage Del into the dance, trailing her right hand lightly down the drummer's left arm, bicep to wrist, until the girl clasped her hand in her own and brought her right around to the small of H's back. Oddly formal, the stance held the fascination of not-quite contact. Finally, Del took a deep breath, and began to move, supporting H with strong arms and subtly guiding her in time to the music. It feels like heaven, she realized, taking in the scent of the body surrounding her, acutely aware of every shift of balance. It was...new, being so aware of another person. She could even feel Del's heartbeat against her skin, could map every muscle on the girl’s body in her mind, could sense the fluid power moving slowly deeper into the dance. The idea slowly rose from where it had been hiding at the back of her brain, so subtly that she couldn't be surprised as it finally made itself known.

This feeling, of being alive and excited with her heart in her throat and her body pulsing, this is what Luce had been talking about, the part of life she was supposed to remember, along with the questions. This feeling that dwarfed anything she'd ever experienced before, making her terrified and joyous all at once. And oh god, it was so good it was painful. She felt tears prick her eyes. She couldn't say why, she definitely wasn't sad. It was just that the emotion was staggering, larger than she could ever contain within her poor body, it had to come out somehow.

The song faded away, and they just stayed there, not pulling apart, not looking at each other, as H slowly came back to reality. And panicked at the thought of meeting Del's gaze with everything she felt still so powerful, she knew she'd never be able to mask it. Turning her head aside, she muttered "I've got to go!" and blindly staggered to one of the bedrooms, avoiding everyone's gaze and closing herself in with an air of the pursued. Pressing her back to the door, she closed her eyes as every muscle in her body clenched tight against the wash of emotions pouring through her. She needed to get it together. To put it out of her mind, safely closed off where no one could see it. She had to get through the rest of the night, without letting Aaron know that her whole life had just turned upside down on the dance floor, in the arms of his best friend.

Finally, she began to feel as if her emotions were her own, and wandered over to the mirror to assess the damage. Her make-up hadn't run, fortunately. Waterproof mascara does have its uses. In fact, she was surprised to discover that she didn't look any different than she had before they'd left for the party, decades ago. Shouldn't she look a little different? Be grateful for small favors, and get back out there before Aaron comes looking for you. She lifted her chin and stepped back out to the party, determined not to let any of her confusion show.

Chapter 5

Morning brought a sense of doubt, as the bright light of her bedroom, so prosaic and normal, made the overwhelming sensations of the night before seem impossible. God, she realized. I made a right git of myself. Briefly, she wondered if the punch was spiked. The more she thought about it, the more it made sense. Bet Chris Johnson did it, he's forever trying to sneak something into the punch at the school dances. Hopefully, Del hadn't noticed anything weird, she mused as she trailed into the bathroom. By the time she'd showered and changed, she'd convinced herself that the whole thing had existed only in her alcohol-befuddled imagination. I'll have to apologize to Del, next time I see her.

Breakfast and then a walk, she decided. It was a glorious day out, with the yellowish light of fall, and a crisp scent in the air. Might as well get out, not many more of these coming before the snows.

As she walked, she thought about a few things. Like why, if her imagination wanted to create a fantasy, it would do so around Del, not Aaron. She is rather larger than life, H admitted to herself. A figure so far from Aaron's earnest kindness, that it was ridiculous. Though H prided herself on being sensible, she knew that her heart was just as prone to the romantic as the next girl's.  She'd fallen in love with the music, so exciting and primitive, just like Del herself, she realized. Del seemed fearless, and unrestrained by society's rules, and answered only to her own code of fierce loyalty. When did I get so florid? Anyhow…

Combine that with stunning good looks, and she's a hero straight out of one of those dime store novels.

It was, she reflected wryly to herself, a bit of a surprise that the good looks of Del, a woman, had the power to do this to her. But fortunately, it wasn't a devastating discovery. How could it be? Add in the probability that I was a wee bit drunk, and feeling a tad reckless from the sheer unreality of the night's events, and it all makes sense. She nodded to herself. That was it. She was sure of it, and the next time she saw Del would prove it, she was certain. She was far too sensible to fall for a figure out of romance. Her steps came to an end, and she looked in surprise at the door to the Idle King's rehearsal space. Her feet had brought her here, knowing she needed to prove to herself that there was nothing, absolutely nothing there but childish fantasies. Smart feet.

She gave herself a wry grin as she heard muffled drum beats through the door. No time like the present, she thought, pushing her way in.

And immediately knew she'd been fooling herself. She stood unnoticed, gazing at the picture of Del seated on a stool with her eyes closed and a small wooden drum cradled in her lap. Unlike the first time H had heard her play, the notes were soft, susserated by the sound of her hands sliding along the natural hide of the head, creating a wandering beat that seemed thoughtful, and sad. Light filtered down from dirty windows up near the roof, highlighting the dark hair, the angle of jaw to neck. It wasn't hero worship, or a night's reckless urging after all. It was a complicated soul that she'd first met through music, then recognized in deep blue eyes. No matter that was impossible. It was true; she felt it down to her bones.

She moved forward, coming within a few steps of Del before the blue eyes opened, and the drum petered out. Del smiled a greeting, putting the drum down beside her and standing. "Sorry, I was just..."

H didn't stop to think if it was a good idea. She walked right into Del, practically knocking the tall girl over, reaching up to wrap her arms around the drummer's neck. It wasn't graceful, but she found it: the sense of a place made just for her that she'd gotten an inkling of last night.

"H?" Del asked tentatively. "H is something..."

H cut off the question, urgently buried her hand in Del's hair and pulled, capturing the tall girl's lips as soon as they came within reach.

It was divine, when Del finally wrapped H in an embrace and began reciprocating. H wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. She wanted to bury herself into the tall girl and never come out. But more than anything, she wanted to keep feeling the strong arms around her as she experienced a kiss that wasn't a bit cozy, but a meeting of her other half in a flash of fire.

Everything in the universe was perfect, incredible, alive...damn, there just weren't enough words for this. It was everything it should be: right up until the point that Del's mobile rang, bringing the world crashing in with uncompromising clarity. H instantly realized what she had done; the pain slowly painting itself over Del's face forced her to. Real pain, H saw, and deep self-loathing. I did that, she was appalled at herself.

"Oh, god." H exclaimed as the phone continued to ring, unheeded. "I'm sorry."

Del's hand reached out, lightning quick, keeping H from running off. "Aaron," the girl said. "I..."

"I'm an ass," H pleaded, hoping to direct that loathing where it belonged; it hurt so much to watch as the girl ripped herself to shreds.

"No," Del said, fiercely. "You were confused...I wasn't, though. And I damn well should have stayed the hell away."

"You did." H defended. "And I'm the one who...Oh, I'm so sorry."

Del's eyes reflected deep pain. "Don't hurt him."


The taller girl swore roundly, impressively and rather continuously. H felt like she was watching a train crash, knowing she was the one who'd pulled the switch. "I'm so sorry," she broke into the flow of self-abuse, before ripping herself out of the girl's grip and running out of the warehouse.

She'd wandered for hours, feeling worse with each step, until finally, and consciously she sought out her sister's flat.

Luce mutely opened the door wide in invitation when she discovered the rueful face on her doorstep. "Figured it out, did you?" She said quietly as she closed the door behind H.

"You knew?" H tried not to feel betrayed.

"Hm, better to say I had a guess."

"Luce? Who's at the..?" Rach stopped herself. "I'll call Mum."

Now that she was here, H didn't know what to say. She sat on the couch and picked at the bouquet on the coffee table. Finally, she took a deep breath.  "Can I...not talk about it? Just, not yet."

Luce joined her on the couch without speaking, and simply moved a tuft of hair out of H's eyes. The generous caring was too much to face bravely. H turned and buried her head in her friend's shoulder, and started crying without being quite certain if she knew how to stop.

She woke puffy-eyed, with the worst headache, glaring at the cheerful sunlight filtering through the window. Grimly she pulled on the sweats and t-shirt she found waiting for her, and dragged herself out to kitchen to find Rach sizzling up bacon and eggs.

"Perfect timing," her sister grinned. "Luce went out for the paper. We'll have one of our Sunday morning slug-fests, shall we?"

H grinned despite herself, remembering how they'd spend the whole morning lounging around in their pajamas when she was a kid, staunchly dedicated to accomplishing nothing. They'd petered off as she had grown older, and begun developing independent interests. She smiled fondly at her sister's back. Not once had they ever indicated that they had anything better to do than to spend hours answering questions like "Who invented shoes?”

H bee lined for the coffee pot, which gurgled the end of the brew cycle. Deftly, she pulled out two mugs, running them under warm water to heat them up before pouring out for them both. Adding milk to Rach's she placed it next to the stove, in easy reach for her sister. She added a generous helping of sugar to her own, and then wrapped both hands around the mug, enjoying the warmth seeping through as much as the caffeine.

Rach nodded towards a bottle of Tylenol resting on the counter next to the coffee pot.

"How'd you know?" H made a face as she opened the bottle.

Rach glanced over at her. "You think you're the only one who's ever cried herself to sleep?"

"Is love always messy?" H asked in resignation, accepting the plate that Rach handed to her.

"Life is. Love's just a part of that." They trailed into the living room to lounge as they ate, pointedly ignoring the table. After all, it was Sunday. Finally, H put her fork down.

"I need to break up with Aaron, I guess." she said. "How could I mistake friendship for love? How dumb is that?" Then a clue hit her upside the head and she looked over at her sister. "Oh, god."

Rach smiled understandingly. "Family failing. You, at least, figured it out faster. There's hope for future generations."

"Future generations...oh, is Mum going to flip."

"But we won't," Rachel pointed out gently. "So why don't you bring her around?"

The rattle of the door opening saved H from having to reply.

"Bit chilly out this morning," Luce commented as she stripped off her jacket, settling into the couch next to her lover and accepting the plate that Rach surrendered to her in exchange for the morning paper. H watched wistfully, seeing love even in this small, uncomplicated accord.

"How I wish," she said, then stopped, embarrassed.

"Don't give up hope, luv." Luce admonished. "Things usually have a way of working themselves out."

H shook her head. "Not this time darlings. I don't think there's a way through this tangle."

Rach looked over at her. "Oh, dear. I didn't even think to ask. Does she care for you?"

H played with her eggs. "I never told you that you'd met her, did I?"

"No, you've hardly breathed a word about her. We are talking about the drummer, right?" Rachel asked. "The one you told Luce about?"

H nodded. "The drummer...and the girl in the coffee shop."

Luce inhaled her eggs, as Rach smiled, and kindly didn't say a single word of the phrase 'I told you so.'

"Yeah," H admitted for her. "You were right."

Rachel frowned slightly, as she gently rubbed her recovering lover's back. "I'm sorry duckling, but I'm missing the tragedy here. That young woman certainly seemed very interested."

H shook her head. "You don't understand. Even if she..." Her chest tightened at the thought.

"Loves you?" Luce asked with a secret smile.

"Yeah..." H got lost in the idea, which she hadn't allowed herself to explore yet.

"Oh, lord, you've got it bad," Rachel broke into her musings.

H felt herself flush, not able to hold back a smile at the thought. Then reality intruded. "Even if she does, she can't...uh," what was she saying again?

"Be with you?" Luce saved her.

H gratefully nodded.

"Posh," Rachel denied. "If she loves you, she will. It's not as if your families will forbid it." Then her face changed. "Is it? I mean her family...?"

H laughed. "Nothing so Romeo and Juliet, thank you very much. How I hated that play. Anyhow, I think she's been out on at least a dozen dates since I've met her. Clearly, her Da doesn't care."

"So it's totally on," Rach decided. "Suck up your courage and tell her how you feel. She might surprise you."

"You don't understand," H repeated. "I did tell her," she thought for a moment before correcting herself. "No, I didn't tell her. I came at her blindside and kissed the living daylights out of her."

She had, she noticed with a bit of enjoyment, completely flummoxed them both. "Damn, kid. That took guts." Luce said respectfully.

H couldn't let their admiration continue, not knowing what she knew. "I think I ruined her life."

Slowly, she began to describe what she'd come to understand about Del. The fierce loyalty, the powerful bond she had with Aaron, how she'd made an object of herself just to help Nat, a new and casual friend.

"And she's only known Nat for what? Two months. She'd never hurt Aaron in that way, at least not without me thoughtlessly throwing myself at her." H finished sadly. "I saw it in her eyes. She hates herself, right about now. And it's all my fault."

"This lad...Aaron," Luce asked slowly. "He really cares for you."

H felt like crying, again. "I didn't mean to lead him on, I really didn't. I thought that..." She looked over at them. "I hurt two good people in the span of about three minutes," she confessed. "And I haven't got a clue how to set it right."

Luce put the plate down and crossed over to kneel in front of H. "H, I want you to listen to me, alright?"

H nodded, holding her breath to keep back the tears.

"There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that either of you could have done to keep from gravitating towards each other."

"How can you...?"  H stopped, and looked from one to the other. "It's not like you two. Lightning doesn't strike like that for the rest of us."

"How'd you feel, H, when you first met her in that shop?"

H thought for a long, long time. "Like I'd just met someone I wanted, no knew was going to be my friend."

Rachel called over. "Almost as if you already were friends, but just hadn't met yet?"

"Yeah, but that's not..."

"Then that night, with the drumming...how'd you really feel?"

"Like I'd just woken up, for the first time in my life..." H admitted. "But it got to every single person in that club..."

"As if for the first time, you saw someone else for what they truly are, and by extension, came to understand yourself, as well?"

H nodded, wanting them to be right. Selfishly wanting it, needing even a small modicum of absolution, as well as the promise that...that it was real. That she wasn't just caught in an adolescent high, and that, even without her sister's happily ever after, she could know that someone had felt... Del did, didn't she? They hadn't had time...

"Then you found yourself standing just a little closer than you should, laughing more easily, talking a bit more freely...?" Luce offered.

"And maybe, trying to avoid thinking about why you enjoyed being around her so much. Telling yourself it was nothing if your heartbeat got just a little bit faster when she was around," Rachel continued.

H nodded, mutely.

"Then what, love?"

"We...didn't see each other. For a long time. Until the other night, at the party, we...danced. She wasn't going to, I mean when the slow song came on, but I just..." She stopped for a moment. "It was..."

"Like finding home," they both said softly.

"Exactly," H replied just as softly. Then she looked at them both, one to the other. "You're not going to tell me I have no responsibility in this, are you?"

Luce shook her head. "I'm saying, you were both fighting something bigger than you think, and that eventually you would have ended up...recognizing each other, coming together, sooner rather than later. But that doesn't mean you're not responsible for what you do next."

H gave them the beginnings of a smile. "So, wise ones, keepers of the secrets of the ages: how does one break the heart of a really nice guy, while destroying the self-respect of the woman of your dreams in a healthy, responsible manner? Oh, and let's not forget trying to keep your mother from dying of a heart attack." Then she shook her head. "Never mind, I know I have to break up with him. And I know that if I even go near her afterwards, it'd be...wrong. Not with the way she feels. If she finds her own way through her conscience, maybe she'll...but I can't count on it, can I?"

"No, H, you can't." Luce gave her a lopsided hug before returning to the couch.

"But you'll like yourself, even if she never gets quite untangled," Rach attempted a ferocious frown as she lifted her coffee cup up and continued, "Of course, if she takes too long, I might be tempted to go down to that shop and knock her over the head with a drumstick until she sees sense." H laughed a little, as she tried to imagine Del's reaction to her rather polished big sister coming at her in the name of true love. She felt a lot more like laughing when she caught sight of the hand wrapped around the coffee mug, however, and practically bolted out of the chair. She grabbed her sister's hand, mug and all, so she could examine the ring in the light. "I thought you were waiting until..."

Rach laughed. "Luce beat me to it."

"You didn't!" H giggled as she accused Luce. "She had all these plans."

Luce gave her an embarrassed smile. "You approve, then?"

"Are you kidding? I was beginning to seriously consider abducting the both of you and presenting you, hog-tied, to the preacher."

Relieved at having something less painful and complicated to focus on, H settled herself cross-legged on the floor. "So when? Does mother know? How'd she react? How about Ella? Can I stand for both of you? Oh geez...how does this work? Are both of you going to be given away?"

Laughing, Luce reached out a hand and stopped her. "Easy there. No date yet. You're the first to know. We'd love to have you in the wedding, and no, we're not going to have that traditional of a ceremony." She smiled at H's enthusiasm. "Do you want to help with the planning?"

"Of course!" H bubbled. "Now, tell me all about how you asked her."

Rachel laughed as Luce turned a bit red. "She was darling," Rachel explained. H took a deep breath as Rachel spun out the story. It was good to know that life went on, that she could still be happy for others, even if her life seemed to be one big mess. She nodded to herself. That was okay. She was blessed with good friends and family. It was enough.


Larry's phone call was a blessing. Cycling was in a panic, the band they'd gotten to open for them had backed out at the last minute. She was the only reason that the Kings had to even hesitate. Monique had volunteered to coach and bully Del through her term's work, and he'd already called her Da, who hadn't said no... He was almost apologetic about calling her last...but did she think...?

She thought. Oh, yeah. She thought maybe there could be a god.

But that didn't make the upcoming conversations seem any more savory, she thought as she headed home to her father. She found him in the kitchen, buried under the sink. She leaned against the door frame, waiting. Not looking forward to admitting to him what she had been up to. Knowing how much it was going to hurt to see the disappointment in his eyes. She clenched her jaw, hating herself just a little bit more. He'd tried so hard, since her mother had left, in his own silent way to be both parents to her. When she'd come out, he'd just told her gruffly that he didn't see as plumbing made much of a difference. When she acted out, he'd just sit down with her and talk. He'd talk about responsibility and passion, tempering each other. The only time it had ever seemed that his patience wasn't boundless, was the one time she'd lost it completely. Junior high, that was, and a kid had been teasing her mercilessly. She'd beaten him bloody for it, and her father had turned her over his knee, even though she was already well on her way towards her current six foot two. "Del, you gotta lot of reasons to be angry at this world. But that doesn't give you the right to beat on a snot kid half your size. You wanna hit something, you come home and put it where it belongs. I'm the one who's failed you."

She hadn't been able to look him in the eye for weeks. Like she couldn't meet his eyes now, when he pried himself out from under the sink and found her waiting.

He sighed, then settled onto a kitchen chair and began meticulously wiping the grease off his hands with a rag. "Out with it," he rumbled.

She took a deep breath. "I did something...I'm pretty ashamed of."

He threw the rag towards a pile in the utility room, waiting.

"I uh, crap."

He folded his arms and leaned back, an action that the kitchen chair protested loudly. "Well. I know you're not knocked up, you don't look like you've been using, and I seriously doubt you've been stealing. So...to my limited imagination, that leaves either fighting or girls. Which?"

Del walked over and slumped into the cracked chair facing his.

"Girls. Aaron's girl, to be specific."

Usually rather hard to shock, he looked floored. "I never would have thought that of you," he said quietly.

She looked down to examine the grain of the small table. "Neither would I, Pop." She admitted in a small voice.


She shook her head. "I don't know. I've been...god just being around her turns my head into a turnip. Been that way ever since I met her."

"All those dates," he said with sudden understanding.

"Yeah," she admitted. "I was trying to. Well. Didn't work. Gave me good excuses to avoid them, though."

"I was...worried. Some women..."


"Well," he furrowed up. "It's possible to use sex to abuse yourself...and you jumped out of the gate younger than any father's comfortable with. I was scared for you."

"You'd rather I betray someone who's never done anything but be there for me?"

"I'd rather know you were trying to do the right thing."

"Jesus, Pop. It's not like I'm some dewy eyed kid, I should've just been able to control myself." She paused for a moment. "Isn't that what you're always telling me?"

"So...you want to run."

"If I'm not here...she might not hurt him." She took a deep breath. "And I definitely won't."

"That tour."


"If you don't graduate, I'll beat you black and blue."

"I know, Pop."

He sighed. "I must be insane."

"Thanks, Da."


Aaron found her packing. "Bloody hell?" He exclaimed as he bonelessly threw himself onto the bed.

"Going on tour, mate." She replied.

Confused, he blurted out the first thing he could think of. "When did that happen?"

"About two hours ago." She grimaced at a pile of clean laundry that had probably been sitting in a clump, unfolded for weeks. With a shrug, she started shoving the clothes into a duffel.

"When were you going to tell me?" He asked, a little hurt.

"Now," she replied, closing up the green canvas bag before sitting on it.

His brain roiled, as the distance that had been growing between them became more acute with her uncommunicative manner. Granted, she wasn't exactly wordy at the best of times, but she communicated, god damn it. "Del...Did something happen, over the summer?"

"You know what happened over the summer." She sounded impatient. "I worked my tail off, rehearsed with the Kings, and had a few lousy dates. Same old, same old."

"Ever since I've been back, things have been different. Is it H? Don't you like her?" He knew he was on the right track when her eyes flashed.  

"Jesus, I just want to play my bloody music. That's what I've always wanted." She replied. "You, of all people, should know that."

He scratched at his head a bit. "I don't get it, she's a great girl. And she likes you, quite a bit actually. You never really gave her a chance," he accused.

"Mate, she's a paragon, alright? What the hell's gotten into you?"

He got up and started pacing. "It's as if you've been saying it's her or you. You refuse to be around, if she is. It's a hell of a thing to do to me Del." He looked at her. "Can't you just be happy for me?"

"That's all I want for you, Aar." She replied sincerely, but then she looked away. "But we're not kids anymore. We can't be together all of the time. You gotta get out of the clubhouse, son. What'd you think? You think we'd be in each other's pockets constantly after you head off to university? I'd trundle along behind just to keep you company? I've gotta make my own life." She looked at him, finally. "And music is the only way I know how to do that."

"I know that," he replied, hurt and confused by her words. "I'm not saying I don't want you to go, alright? I'm talking about something else...something going on that you're just not telling me about."

She clenched her jaw, and he thought, as he saw the guilt in pain in her eyes that she just might, might open up. But she didn't. Instead, she stood up and looped the army duffel over her shoulder. "Just the music, mate. It's the only thing going on for me right now."

And she left him there, wondering what the hell had just happened.


"Step back, you did what?"

H blushed, keeping an eye out the window for Aaron's arrival. "Uh...you heard me."

Nat rolled over on the bed, and eyed H in bemusement. "Let me get this straight. In the span of a single dance, you suddenly decide that not only are you gay, but you're desperately falling for Del." She held up a hand as H started to speak, forestalling the interruption impatiently, just rolling on with her disbelieving synopsis. "I'll give you points for taste; the woman is out and out yummy. But then, the next morning, you decide you'd gotten some funny mushrooms or something, and it was all just an overheated fantasy. So, in your inimitable logical, calm, and conservative fashion, you decide that the way you prove this to yourself is to go directly, do not pass go, and kiss her without even a by-your-leave?"

"Er...pretty much."

Nat grinned. "So...she kiss you back?"

H felt her skin trying to discover if it could turn purple.

"Damn good kisser, isn't she?" Nat offered with malicious sympathy.

"So your plan is to break up with Aaron, hopefully not using the L-word, never go near Del again, and what? Join a convent?"

"Pretty much, yeah." H admitted.

"You are allowed to be happy, you know."

H smiled at her friend. "I will be...eventually."

"I still can't believe you did that."

"I can't either," H confessed. "Shit, there he is."

"I have chocolate on hand for emergency services afterwards."

"Not funny, Nat." She glanced sadly at the figure exiting the van outside her parent's house. "He doesn't deserve this."

"Honey, none of us deserve it. It's just the way it is." Nat voice followed her into the hall.

H took a deep breath before opening the door, not giving him time to knock.

"Hey," she said.

He pulled her into a hug. "It's so good to see you," he whispered into her hair. "I had the worst weekend."

She winced, and firmly pulled herself away. "I have to tell you something."

"Alright," he took her hand and led her over to the steps.

"I have to..." Words were fun. Useful, too. Yeah, good things to have sometimes. Like now, for instance, a few words would be a great thing.

She took a deep breath and began again. "I can't be your girlfriend anymore."

It was like kicking a puppy, and having it look up at you in bewildered pain. "What'd I do wrong?"

"Not a blessed thing," she admitted.

"So, what didn't I do? I didn't mean it," he reached out anxiously. "Really, just tell me."

"It was what I didn't do," she replied quietly, trying to grab all of her courage into both hands. "I didn't fall in love with you."

He grabbed his head and leaned forward. "I can't bloody take this. Every fucking person I know, telling me 'Sorry mate, maybe you thought we had something, but it was bullshit.'"

She risked reaching out to touch his hair in a gentle caress. "I...didn't realize, didn't know there was a difference between the affection I was feeling for you, and real love. I thought we had the same thing you did...I really did."

"So what changed?" He asked bitterly, not looking up.

She took a deep breath. "I did."


"Aaron, I...I do care for you."

He stood up abruptly. "Yeah, but just not enough to stay, right?"

"Would you want me to?"

"Yes...no...I just want things to make sense again."

"Yeah," she replied. "I get that."

Chapter 6

It was the end of a long, very grey November. It had been a strange time for H, who discovered, to her surprise, that classes were still as interesting, and she was still able to have fun with Nat and the friends they roped in for diversions. Wasn't she supposed to fall apart? Pining away for what-might-have-been?

When she thought of Del, which, admittedly approached the staggering frequency of a few hundred times a day, she was more likely to feel deep concern and worry as she was to feel grief in loss. She could not, for the life of her adopt an appropriately black sense of despair about the future. Which is odd, H reflected, hitching her book bag into a more comfortable position as she made her way to Flowered Up after classes. Because I'm just not seeing a happy end to this, not for me, at any rate. The thought of going out with any one else...blech.

She was worried. How was Del doing, away from home? Had she found someone to unburden herself to? Was the camaraderie of the band enough to keep her from missing the generous, unflagging support of Aaron? Or was she a bit lost, never developing a real sense of comfort as they moved from place to place, surrounded only by people who were older than she was, barely tolerant of the kid in their midst? Did she know anyone as caring and as wise as Rach and Luce, someone to help her see what happened in terms of complexity, instead of black and white?

She was worried about Aaron, too. She hadn't really understood all of what he was saying to her when they broke up, not until later when Nat had taken it upon herself to ferret out Del's location. (H suspected that Nat was planning some sort of friendly intervention. She thought the two of them were being ridiculous.) H had a nagging idea, looking back at it, that Aaron was much more upset about Del leaving him than H. But was that just self-serving?

None of them had told him the truth. That was really bothering her. She hadn't lied, granted. But she hadn't given him an ounce more than she had to. She could see him feeling just bewildered, wondering why all this had happened to him, why his relationships were falling apart. For her part, H thought that she had been doing him a kindness at the time. Now, she wasn't as certain. Was it more painful to know that your girlfriend had fallen for your best friend, and that it had happened right under your nose, or to sit there just wondering what in the world had happened? But then again, did she have the right to tell him everything? It affected Del, too. Damn, this would be easier if she hadn't run off so quick, maybe stopped and talked it out a little with the drummer.

H shook her head, as if trying to shake uncomfortable thoughts off. Why couldn't everything be like science?  Concrete answers were there, if you just looked hard enough. Or math? No matter how you worked it, a sum came out the same way every time, there was only one correct answer.

The other surprising emotion H had been feeling was what had pointed her at Flowered Up, seeking out the one person (who she knew at any rate) who might possibly have felt the same thing.

"Hey," Luce greeted as soon as the bell jingled.

"I've got a question," H replied.

Luce laughed. "So what else is new?"

H giggled, remembering how much she had plagued Luce, not to mention every other adult in her life, with just that phrase when she'd been younger. "You guys must have been ready to kill me."

"Not a bit of it...except maybe Edie," Luce replied. "Why you zoomed in on her, when the time came for interest in birds and bees is a mystery to us all."

H giggled harder, remembering how flustered the tough acting lesbian had been by constant questions about chemistry...no, to be honest, biology...between the sexes. "Lord...I can still remember her face when I asked her what a penis was for."

"And the poor girl had to bite her tongue from giving an honestly biased answer, which would not have been flattering, or appropriate. So, what's the question?"

"When you and Rach..." She trickled off, suddenly realizing that she might be bringing up a painful subject.

"Lord, this isn't about bees and bees is it?" Luce smiled. "Should I call Edie?"

"No, nothing like that. It's just...remember when you two had decided that you couldn't be together?"

"Sure..." To H's relief, Luce didn't show any remembered pain.

"Well...it's supposed to be painful, right? Unrequited love, and all that. But, when I think about Del, now.... I feel a yearning, yeah. Good strong kick to the gut kind of yearning. But also I feel..."

Luce's face cleared. "Uncomplicated happiness, right?"

H let out a long breath in relief. "Yeah. I thought maybe it meant that it was nothing more than..."

Luce snorted. "Quite the contrary."


"Ah, hell. You've been one for the big conversations, lately, haven't you?"

H just shrugged her discomfort.

"That wasn't a complaint, mind. Think of it as a growth spurt." Luce leaned back against the counter. "You're asking the tougher questions, now, too." She thought for a moment. "This is just my opinion, so go away and do your own thinking before you take it as canon."

H nodded her understanding. Funny, Luce had never quite said that to her before. Maybe she actually was growing up?

"See...the first few times we discover that the opposite sex, or" she grinned, "for some of us, the same sex... Anyhow, what we discover, when we fall in love can be something like 'I've found someone who makes me feel good about myself.'" She smiled with what H interpreted as fond memory. "It can be tremendously exciting, new insights about yourself and new hormones to discover." Luce gave her a frank look as she added the last.

"But, for me, at least, when I found your sister, I found something else. Something that might be characterized with 'I've found her…or maybe, ‘I’ve found us.' It's seeing someone, really seeing someone as they are...and then seeing how you fit together...warts and all, and gaining a confidence that few people are ever blessed with. It’s not a change of focus; it’s as if your field of vision got broader." She shrugged. "For me, just knowing she was out there was a cause for happiness. It makes the world just a bit more real, more tolerable."

"Yeah," H replied with feeling before reaching out and hugging her friend. "Thanks, Luce."

"Well, high-mindedness aside, I found doing without her a bloody hard time." Luce admitted.

"Sort of like a constant toothache."

Luce laughed. "Now there's a romantic image."

"Whaddaya expect from a science geek?"


The road was not the best place to try to get a new piece of music together. Rehearsal space and time was catch-as-catch can, especially if you're the opening gig, and not the main event. Fortunately, at least for Del's sanity, what she'd written was baggage-lite, and needed only Ally, Steph and herself. They could, with a little determination, manage to form a comfortable grouping in a cheap motel room, though Steph found herself sitting cross-legged on the bed.

Del had managed to convince Steph to put down her beloved horn in order to take on a vocal part. It wouldn't work if she hadn’t; Del had heard her husky throbbing tones as she had written the damn thing. Steph wasn't trained in voice, but that just added to the sound she was looking for. Ally hadn't been hard at all to convince to take on an extra-curricular project, for which blessing, Del was profoundly grateful.

They had just finished the first, slightly rough run through of the thing, and Del looked at the other two in question.

"Jesus, kid." Ally said finally.

Steph nodded agreement.

What the hell did that mean? Del bit her lip to keep from asking. It would just sound like a need for reassurance, which wasn't at all useful.

Ally caught her at it. "You don't have a clue, do you?" She shook her head in wonder. "You know, none of us are slouches in music," she offered without a trace of false modesty. "Any one of the Kings can pick up an instrument, and wring out something amazingly juicy." She wrinkled her nose a little, "Kind of a rarified company, in truth. This is one of the first times I've been with a group composed entirely of serious musicians, people who'd rather play than eat. Which, you have to admit, is how you have to feel to keep playing when paying jobs are so thin on the ground."

"Got some good songwriters, too. But I have never...and I've been doing this for longer than you think, never run into someone like you."

Del didn't want to hear this, suddenly. It was too frightening. "A punk dyke who likes to hit things?"

"Fuck off, kid. This is important," Ally rebuked. "If you don't respect what you've got, you'll waste it. And that would piss me off to no end. And what you write..."

Steph spoke up for the first time. "Your music doesn't lie."

Ally smiled at her. "Yeah. That's it."

They shared a look. "I never would have said that drums could talk."

"Yeah...and I'm a bassist. I should damn well know better. I'd always thought of them as...support structure."

"Guys, could you please leave off?" Del asked desperately.

Ally looked over at her. "The moment we get home, you, m'girl, are going to start studying with Deke Lambert."

Steph looked startled. "The RCM Deke Lambert?"

Ally broke out in a satisfied smile. "One and the same. He's a friend of my mother's, and I know he'd shoot off his left toe for access to a student like Del."

"Ally, I haven't near the grades, or the money!, for the Royal College of Music. Besides, they're all about string quartets and such, not my stuff.”

"Maybe RCM is, but Deke isn't. We'll figure it out, kid. Now," she set aside her ax and gave Del a laser stare as Del tried to protest. "What's got you between such a rock and a hard place?"

Del looked away. "What makes you think I am?"

"Like I said," Steph told her. "Your music doesn't lie."

"Crap. Can't we just play?"

Ally stared at her for a long moment before sighing. "You know, you don't have to do everything alone."

"It's just stupid teenage drama. Nothing important. Besides, that's bull. I'm never alone," she protested. Wasn't she here, getting them to help with this? Wasn't she always with someone? Aaron, a date, the band?

"When you wrote Heartbeat," Steph used the tag the band had given her first composition, since she still hadn't given it a name. "How long did it take you?"

"'Bout six months I guess...had to learn treble stuff, first."

"Ever occur to you that there were ten of us around that could have taught you how to write in treble?" Steph asked gently.

Del looked away, "I didn't want to bother you guys with such baby-lesson crap. But look, guys, folks are always helping me out...Hell, look at Aaron." She wasn't certain what she was defending herself against, but felt compelled to do so anyway. "He's always hauling my kit around, getting me through maths, that kind of thing."

"Sure, but you never ask, do you?"

"Sure I..." The lie stopped halfway out.

"And even with Aaron...it's like the only person you can trust is someone you've known for ten years. That's a long time to have to put in before being allowed access."

"Yet, you're there in a second when anyone needs a hand.  Don't even start to deny it; I've seen it happen more than once."

This was wrong, Del knew. They were making her out to be...some sort of..."Guys, I'm not..."

"What you are, kid, is a young woman who's being offered the world and is about to blow it because she can't admit she's in over her head."

Steph gestured towards the score in front of her. "It's like the music. I'd wager twenty quid that you're already squirming away from letting Al set you up with the opportunity of a lifetime, just to keep from putting yourself in a position to actually need someone else for something so important to you."

What the hell were they driving at? Del began to feel trapped. She didn't want to talk like this. They were dragging pieces of her out into the open, against her will. I'm not ready for this, she thought it panic.

"Even now, you're rightfully pissed off, because we're being interfering old biddies. But you're just going to swallow it, aren't you kid?"

"Why are you doing this?" Del grated out, a feeling in her chest, like a wild animal, reaching up and clogging her throat.

"Because," Ally said gently. "We don't want you to become a statistic."

"Give up. I'm not that dramatic...or that desperate."

"You're in pain, alone, and feeling trapped by something." Steph grabbed at her hand, pointing out the bruised swelling along her knuckles. "There's a wall somewhere with a hell of a hole in it right now, isn't there? You're already hurting yourself; you think we aren't going to worry?"

"Why'd you leave every single one of your friends behind when this tour started?"

"You did the same," Del pointed out.

"No...We went on a tour. Youleft."

"When's the last time you talked to Aaron?" Steph asked rapid fire after Ally.

"Please," Del was appalled at the pleading in her voice. "Just leave it."

"What keeps you from seeing good in yourself?"

"Why can't you be loved?

"Because!" She shouted, throwing the precious djembe across the room. "I fucking well destroy things! Everything! I stole Aaron's girl, alright? And for what? So I can ruin her life too? She'll hate me one of these days, just like..." Del stopped, appalled at herself, at what she'd let out.

Steph, undaunted, got right in her face, grabbing both lapels of her jacket and forcing eye contact. "Like who, Del?" She asked quietly. "Who left?"

Del's throat closed completely. A real, physical block. Not a single word could have come out, even if she'd known what to say.

"Oh, you poor kid," Steph, at least a foot shorter than Del, folded wings around her protectively and pulled her close. And Del, big strong Del, cried for the first time in over fourteen years.


The CD arrived in the mail, no return address, and the handwriting on the envelope was unfamiliar. Aaron flipped it around in his hand, thoughtfully. It was just your standard CDRW, it could contain anything. No label, no nothing. Aaron shrugged, finally, and booted up the old Pentium II he'd kept after upgrading, just because he couldn't bear to throw it out. If it was some kind of virus, not much lost.

He waited patiently for the machine to figure out that it was a computer, just closing his eyes and not thinking about much. That was better than feeling like the world was out to prove that he was born to be a victim.

It was a depressing thought, and one that had been niggling at him for a while, annoying the hell out of him. He was, he admitted, engaged in a full-fledged mope. Del had called, once, right after they'd hit the road. He'd pretty much given her the cold shoulder. It was contrary, and unfair. Without saying it outright, he'd somehow given the impression that every thing that was wrong in his life was her fault.

She hadn't called again. Who could blame her? Maybe she was keeping something under her hat, but somehow that made her the bad guy? If Aaron had just respected that maybe, sometimes, everyone needs to have a private thought or two, he'd still have a best friend to commiserate with. And where did that whole Del or H thing come from, anyway?  The old girl had probably just been trying to give him room to have a girlfriend. Or something.

Fact of the matter was, he was confused as hell, he admitted to himself as he slipped the CD into the drive. But one thing was certain; he was developing a high skill in whining. Not a talent he would have chosen to develop.

The computer thought about it for a moment, then opened up the jukebox and started playing. He knew who it was from the first note; it was Del, through and through. As he'd trained himself to do when listening to her stuff, he closed his eyes and concentrated on what he was feeling, instead of what he was hearing. The music was...conflicted. Dancing an edge between safe harmonies and a distant joyous motif on chimes, a promise of something wonderful, that never quite got together, never made it. Maybe it's not finished, he thought to himself as the lack made itself known to him, created a sense of disappointment. Then his eyes snapped open in shock when a whiskey contralto began singing lyrics. She NEVER writes...

You call with laughter
Lightning crawls through
I become yearning
As you move
Away, now
I strive, I smother
Lightning kills brother
You cry with laughter
I resist, I cannot
Tease with rapture
If I could dance
Chance unhindered
Cherish our spark
You cry with calling
Burnt in the dark
Hope consumed

He didn't wait for the music to end. He couldn't bear it. Desperately, he reached out and clicked it off. What the hell was that? He couldn't sit still, grabbed his coat and practically ran from the room, setting off at a brisk clip down the darkened road.

It isn't bloody fair, the first complete thought floated up in his mind. She DOES this, gets inside people and makes them feel things. The rest of the world has to muddle along, misunderstood, unheard, what right does she have to put her guts out there like that?

He was just jabbering, he knew, because he was scared. Howling at the moon, isn't that what it was called?

That didn't keep the fear from crawling up his spine. His childhood hero, his rock, was hurting, bad...and it was, in some mysterious way, entirely his fault.

Chapter 7

The bus pulled into the warehouse lot so late, it was practically morning. Tired, pale faces trundled out, one at a time, yawning as they worked to seek out brave significant others and family members, waiting patiently in cars that were idling to power heaters. Del didn't even bother looking. Da worked third shift, even on christmas eve. Hell, especially on christmas eve, when triple overtime paid for a lot of groceries and heating oil for the coming year.

She sighed, wishing she'd thought to park her motorcycle in the warehouse, emptied of instruments as it was. It was going to be one damn cold walk home. No way out but through, she reminded herself as she zipped the coat up to her neck and shoved her hands deep into pockets.

"You're an asshole."

Surprised, Del stopped and turned to face him. She shouldn't have bothered; his face was hidden in shadow, as he loitered under the eaves of their rehearsal space.

She thought about it, for a while.


He took a step closer, as she began to see his expression. "But I'm a selfish bastard...sounds like we should be friends."

"Perhaps we should," she admitted.

"You know, it took about three minutes for that song of yours to scare the living daylights out of me, but it took a whole month for me to figure out what it meant."

"Which song?" She asked, afraid she knew.

"The one with lyrics. Got a rip in the mail," he admitted.

"Ah, that one."

Steph or Ally, obviously. Probably Steph. After her...explosion, the two older women had been wonderful and irritating as hell. Making her talk all the time, getting her to laugh, giving seriously unsolicited advice, and acting like two old hens fussing over an uncooperative chick. She'd been on the edge between guilt for making them worry so much, unnecessarily, really, and gratitude to know that they really wanted to be helpful. And, if she was honest, they had been.

Didn't keep her from wanting to kill them, on occasion.

"Seems to have that effect," she conceded.

He offered a small smile, gesturing towards his van in a tentative invitation. "I've got a gallon of milk, two bags of cookies and about an hour's worth of guesses and choice words I've been wanting to share with you." He looked at her wistfully. "Care to take a chance?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world, mate."

He had a goofy smile, sometimes. But then again, she suspected she might not want to look in the mirror any time soon.

It was a nice start, she thought as the van pulled into the point after a mostly silent drive. Didn't mean that this was going to be easy, she admitted tacitly as she accepted the cookies and blanket he offered, and they walked in silent accord to the patch of grass that offered a cinder-block wall for leaning against, and a nice view of city lights below and stars above.

Thank god it's not a white christmas. Denim does not do well in snow. He started, thank god. But then, she'd always known he was braver than she was.

"So...you and H." It was as much question as statement, with a lot more along with it.

"Yeah," she confessed in a single, ungraceful word.

"For how long?" He asked, with a hint of vulnerability.

"About thirty seconds." She paused for a moment, and then added. "And since the day we met."

"So you weren't, uh..."

"No mate," she protested. Even with the guilt she did carry, she was a bit offended. "We weren't running around."

"Did you mean it? What's in the song?"

She sighed in exasperation. "What the hell is in that song?" If she'd known how much grief it was going to bring about, she'd have let it lie on paper, unheard.

"You love her...like, forever-after kind of love?"

She was taken aback. You didn't have to name things, when you put them in music. Love was a very scary word. Then she snorted at herself. Who was she fooling? She knew the answer; she just hadn't admitted it yet.

"Like, as long as she'd let me stick around kind of love." She thought for a moment before adding. "And maybe a little longer."

"She's not the one who left."

"No, mate.  She's not." Del was ready for it, this time.

"You're trying to fight it off...because of me."

There was no answer to that. On the one hand, if he didn't already know the answer, this whole conversation was meaningless. On the other, there was more to it: complicated fears that she'd just begun to come to terms with under the bullying support of her two guardian nags.

"And you pulled a runner, because you figured I would. And then maybe she would, hey?"

She barely nodded, but he caught it.

"Hence, you're an asshole. You think a dozen years doesn't mean anything?"

"It means I'm the last one you should expect to move on your girl."

"Thus we get to the selfish bastard." He took a swig of milk. "Look, let's get one thing straight. I love H, like...like she's the first girl who's ever looked at me, and not seen a dork. She's fun, and funny and smart, and beautiful. But you, me, H...we all know that it probably wouldn't have lasted past next year, when we all go off to university. Maybe I don't want it to be true, but it will be."

She didn't say anything. She bloody well couldn't.

"I was hurt when she split with me...and devastated when I realized why. And let me tell you buddy, I was more than a bit pissed off at you." He wrapped his arms around his knees, pulling his legs up tight under his blanket. "But after a while I realized a few things. Amazing how quickly you can get into perspective when you're scared silly for someone."

She just sighed. She was out of music, for good. Or maybe she'd just publish anonymously.

"I realized that I was...embarrassed. That she had chosen you over me, that I was somehow lacking." He paused for a moment. "But I wasn't lacking. Love was, that's all there is to it. If she feels for you anything like what you feel for her...that's not an intelligence test anyone should fail."

"Next, I'm pissed, right? I mean, you, of all people, daring to steal my girl and embarrass me like that. I was glad you'd gone, and hoping you were miserable, and all alone." He looked over at her. "But then you go and tell me that you are all of those things, and it didn't make me the least happy."

He sighed. "So my brain finally kicks in, and I realized that I could have seen all of this happening, if I had been willing to. I knew something had been bothering you for a while...but I was too busy enjoying having a girl friend. Finally, not being the butt of the jokes in the locker room, finally feeling just as good as the other guys. I was on top of the world, because I wanted to be. And since your discomfort refused to fit with that, I tried to ignore it. No...not try, I deliberately put blinders on to anything that wasn't perfect, and tried force you into the mold, to goddamn make you come along for the ride. What you were feeling really didn't matter. I didn't once stop and ask you what was wrong...because it wasn't convenient to know."

"I'm an asshole." Del confessed. "And I'm very, very sorry."

"That wasn't so bad, was it?"


A christmas wedding,

H looked around the reception room of the ancient hotel. Smallish, but this was a much more intimate group than her sister's last wedding. She had quit the field, with an apologetic glance to Luce, when her mother had begun to monologue endlessly about sperm banks and donors. Instead, she'd sought out a quiet corner near the punch bowl.

It would have been nice, she thought wistfully, if there were at least a cousin or some such that were near her age. But H had been born far later than most of her generation, frequently leaving her at loose ends at these family groupings. She had, for a while, enjoyed herself immensely hanging about with Edie and Luce's other friends. One simply couldn't be within five feet of Edie on a roll, and two glasses of champagne seemed to be more than enough to get the irreverent woman onto a roll, without choking with laughter at her somewhat naughty observations of the people and events around her. But, Mother, of course, kept shooting her panicked looks that had begun to make the entire group nervous, and H had returned obediently to her Mother's sphere.

For as long as I could take, at least. Nothing like a lesbian wedding to send her into a panic about her remaining offspring. Now there's a bit of bad news I can wait to share with her. Not like it's going to be practically relevant, any time soon. H sighed a bit, as she leaned against an ancient wooden beam. She really, really wished that Nat's family hadn't packed off to visit family in the states for the holidays. It would be nice to have a least one friend to sigh with as the opening bars of the first dance opened up, and Luce let Rachel lead her out onto the dance floor. Her breath caught in her throat, seeing the very private look that they shared as the dance began. Now, she was doubly glad she'd found a corner to hide herself in. People might misinterpret the tears pricking her eyes.

Soon, Mum and Da, along with Ella and her pool hall gentleman, joined in. It was, in some ways, a visual lesson on the rewards, and risks of love and partnership. Rach and Luce, so joyous together they could probably light the room on their own, without the help of electricity. Mum and Da, after decades, still stumbling along negotiating happiness. Ella, devastated once, but out there seeking, risking, not letting anything, especially age, keep her from trying to find a way for lightning to strike a second time.

"Isn't it your turn?"

H's breath caught in her throat as she spun, as quickly as if she'd been shot, to find the owner of the voice she'd only heard on the edges of dreams in the last several weeks. An eyebrow cocked up at her, but the gesture was hesitant, questioning. Del stretched a hand out slightly, simultaneously offering it to H, and indicating the dance floor.

"May I?" The girl infused a whole lot of question into her tone. H bit her lip as she took the proffered hand, and followed the tall drummer out onto the spotlight of the barely tenanted dance floor. She hardly dared to breathe, as she felt an arm wrap around her lower waist, felt her hand clasped and held.

"You came back," she whispered as her body found its own reaction, simultaneously relaxing and gearing up five notches.

"I'm sorry I left," the girl replied.

They weren't dancing overly close, but H could still feel the heat and her nearness, traveling the four inches between them. Del's head was tilted down to hers, filling her visual field completely. H felt a twinge as she memorized tiny details, dark circles under delicious eyes, and a bit of gauntness. Her dusky pallor was a bit pale.

"You look like hell," she couldn't help but exclaim. Aren't you just the romantic? She chastised herself.

"It's the suit. Aaron's: doesn't fit right." H's hope meter jumped up a gazillion notches from the ridiculously high setting it had already found when she first laid eyes on Del.

"It's wonderful," she replied, though she couldn't even say what color it was.

"H?" The word was intense, questioning.

"Yes." She'd barely breathed out the word before her lips were captured in a warm, gentle, and very intense kiss. Unrushed, unsurprised and without the need to close out thoughts of consequences, it took the fire and magic of the first kiss and turned it into something pale. Everything was alive now, and they had all the time in the world. She loosed her hand and brought it up to capture Del's head, and simply gave up on everything but coming home.


"Darling," Tessa asked her husband in cultured tones. "Who is that tall boy that Henrietta is kissing?"

He glanced over her shoulder before replying mildly. "I believe that's a girl, my dear."

"A girl." She clarified.

"Yes, dear." He replied with a touch of humor.

"That Henrietta is kissing."

"Of course."

"Does Henrietta know?"

"I'm rather certain she does."


The End


Thanks for hanging with me...

The Ghost

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