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Summer Menage IV

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Chapter 1
Let’s Go to Vegas (Faith Hill)
Sam Point of View

One of the first things I learned the summer before our junior year at Columbia was that spending any time at all in Lima was desperately important to recharging our batteries. We were only there for five days…and we were up and out early on most of those, but we were home. In Lima, we were still pretty much just normal people. Coach Sylvester came up to me at the Hart post-graduation gathering and poked me in the lip. With a wry smirk, she shook her head. “Now that you’re famous…we’re going to be seeing people everywhere trying to copy those massive soup coolers of yours, aren’t we?” she bemoaned. “Disgusting.”

Yup, you can always count on the adults who know you best to keep you from getting a swelled head. Though, I could also count on my Husband and Wife to have my back. “Naw, Coach…silicone isn’t as soft as our Sammy Boy’s lips. They might be imitated…but they cannot be duplicated.” Mercy said with a grin.

Sue looked at us, “I know I don’t really have to tell you that if anything happens to Sugar while she is with you, I will make sure that you are so disfigured that you can never show your faces in public again. I will ensure that you are vilified in the media more than that sandwich schilling asshole who lost weight. Do we understand each other?”

Mercy and I exchanged looks. “We’ll take good care of your girl, Coach.” I told her solemnly.

“You know I love Sugar like she was my play cousin.” Mercy smiled gently. “I’m gonna make sure that she is safe and has a summer that she will never forget…in a completely positive manner.”

Coach Sylvester nodded definitively. “And make sure that you talk up college. She’s getting a gap year, not getting out of it forever.”

I agreed easily. “No problem, next year we really get to sink our teeth into our majors…so we’re looking forward to it.”

She gave me one of those ‘I’m reading your soul’ looks of hers and nodded before she walked away. We didn’t have a lot of time to figure out what that had been about. We had enough time after giving out our gifts to the graduates to spend a little time with Nikki and Beth and our family and friends before we had to get our butts in gear and make it to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport to catch our flight to Las Vegas. When we’d showered after the graduation, we’d also packed and loaded our luggage into the rental SUV. Kurt and Blaine had brought their things to the party and put them in the SUV too. The five of us, Hudson and Junior flew to Vegas from Detroit while Binkie, Delilah and Trina met us at McCarran, having flown out of Newark. Once we were all there, we rented two Buick Enclaves…both very black and very shiny, to take the ten of us and all our clothes and Trina and Dee’s tools and Puck’s, Mercy’s and my own gear for the awards show’s red carpet and after parties to the Four Seasons. I geeked out a little bit over the fact that I was staying in the Four Seasons before we got out of the car. I didn’t realize that the Four Seasons was actually the top four floors of the Mandalay Bay Hotel building.

Hudson was a total goddess. Seriously, even though it was closer to midnight than eleven…check in went smooth as butter. She had gotten us a Valley View Suite and herself, Kurt and Blaine, Dee and Trina and Binkie and Junior four strip view rooms. We were all together on the thirty-ninth floor. Walking into that suite, I was struck again by the fact that I kind of loved having money. I knew it was wrong. The love of money was the root of all evil…but surely preferring to have money rather than not wasn’t actually loving money. We walked into a small foyer with a coat closet off to one side and a half bath to the other. From there, we walked through a room that had a dining table and chairs on the right and a small desk with three chairs a pretty table lamp and the room’s phone. The dining room had a lighted disco ball chandelier above the six-seater table…and a wall mirror above the side board that reflected the light…a lot. We walked through a living room with seating for seven…or thirteen if they were light enough to sit on the end tables. The room was a mix of modern and Art Deco styles that could really only work in Vegas. A lot of gold details. A fucking EPIC view from the windows…that we got to see briefly as Binkie and Junior closed the curtains.

There was a large kitchen-pantry hybrid room with a full size fridge, awesome coffee set up that contained everything we needed to start our morning right.

The bedroom was really nice…but it didn’t scream LAS VEGAS, like the public rooms of the suite. The whole suite was Vegas classy…but the bedroom was just plain classy. The bed was a king, so it would be a bit cozier that our California Kings in our homes. The bathroom was nice enough, it had a separate shower and tub…which always helped us get ready faster. Binkie and Junior reminded us to call them if we wanted to go anywhere. Then they left us and Hudson alone in the suite. We were only staying for two nights, so we unpacked only our serious clothes. Puck and my suits, dress shirts and Mercy’s black jumpsuit were immediately send down to be pressed. Once that was taken care of, she reminded us that we were due at the Four Seasons Spa at ten, and Dee and Trina would begin hair and makeup at three. With her admonishments made, she left us to our own devices. After refreshing ourselves, we grabbed bottles of water and originally thought to watch TV or something to unwind. There was just one problem with that thought. We were all kind of wired. I mean, we were in the city of sin for the first time since we were all eligible to experience the delights. I smiled at my loves, but it was Mercy who put my thought into words. “Let’s go find a slot machine or a black jack table. I want to try my luck?”

Puck laughed. “We can do that…but first…we need to go over Ruth Howard Mayzer’s Rules for Vegas.”

“Wait…Bubbie has rules for Vegas?” I blurted out.

He nodded. “Technically they are the rules for Vegas, Atlantic City, Macau, Monte Carlo…wherever you can gamble and win big money.”

“Why does Bubbie have rules for the world’s gambling Meccas?”

“Because Bubbie and my grandfather and later Saul…they don’t win small.” His smirk clearly said that he knew he was just like his beloved grandmother and uncle in that regard. “And when you win big…it can piss off the house. So in order to not get banned or buried out in the desert, Bubbie and Zayde…they came up with their Rules for Vegas.”

Mercy’s smile was simply breathtaking. “So what are Bubbie’s Rules for Vegas?”

He turned toward us on the couch. “So rule number one is…you don’t shit where you live. Now that isn’t hard since the Seasons doesn’t have a casino…but I think we should avoid the Mandalay Bay’s casino too. I think we should hit the Palms. It is supposed to be pretty celebrity friendly.”

“We can go there. I’m sure that Binkie or Junior will know where it is. What else?” I asked, wanting to hear all about the rules.

Puck nodded and continued. “Well, Sexy Mama…you’re going to need to change. Rule number two is…if you’ve got it…flaunt it. Cleavage, legs, D’at ass…charming smiles… they all distract the other players. You fuck up their game play by making them think about you and your sexiness rather than the cards or whatever and you can always come out on top.” It made sense. “Sammy Boy…play up the ‘aw shucks’, southern boy thing. People always underestimate southerners. Thanks to The Nanny, Bubbie’s obvious Jewishness and Queens’s accent make people do the same thing to her. Rule number three is the flip side of that. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Keep your head in the game. Rule number four… if you lose more than five hundred bucks in just a hand or a roll, just chalk it up to not being your day to gamble and go home. And the fifth and final rule…we do not win too much at one place. If you win a quarter of a million in one casino, five hundred thousand if you’re at a high rollers’ table, then it’s time to move on to the next one. Half the bodies under the desert weren’t people who owed the wrong folks money…they were the ones who were too good and won too much.”

“Have I mentioned lately that Bubbie Ruth is one smart lady?” I asked thoughtfully.

Mercy and Noah just agreed with proud grins of their own. I was actually a little surprised that Mercy still wanted to go since that meant she would need to change. But she did. And she didn’t just change. She went into the bedroom and came out twenty minutes later looking like a walking, talking wet dream. She was wearing the black Alexander McQueen pencil skirt she’d worn to one of the days of Finn and Lauren’s civil trial. But she had paired it with a black, green, blush and white striped rib knit top that had a cross over halter top deal that made her boobs look both HUGE and like they were trying to win their way free with every breath she took. Her favorite, ridiculously high, red bottom platform T-strap, peep-toe Louboutins adorned her feet and pushed her up to, like, five nine. It was hard to take my eyes off her curves, but her lips. Fuck…her lipstick was shiny and wet and a chocolatey pink color that made me think of her mouth right after she finished blowing one of us. She had done something with her hair that made it look even shinier than it had when she went in there. She had diamonds sparkling at her ears that reflected the shine in her eyes and smile.

Noah and I breathed out a heated sigh at the same moment. “No man…no body is gonna be able to pay a damn bit of attention to their cards.” He was able to say. I could only nod.

Fine as he and I both knew ourselves to be, we went in the bedroom and changed our shirts. We still couldn’t keep up with our sexy wife, but in smedium pullovers we could, at least, look somewhat worthy. I remembered to call down to Binkie and Junior, but we agreed to let Hudson stay in her room. That many strangers, in a loud, probably raucous environment would be hell on her. Even though she would do it without a complaint, we knew that we didn’t want to do that to her. Binkie ended up being the one to go with us. Since it was just him, we agreed quickly that if we split up, he was to stay with Mercy. The Palms was…loud and lively. It was exactly what was thought of when one thought of Las Vegas. Mercy wanted to play a slot machine first…then she was golden with moving to the table games. She played a one pull Wheel of Fortune slot machine and lost the dollar. Then she played a dollar on the Michael Jackson Icon slot machine and won five hundred bucks. She jumped up and down like she’d won a million. Suffice it to say that me and Puck were mesmerized watching her in her joy. Mercy said it felt like a blessing from one of the legends she most regretted she would never get a chance to meet.

We left the slots and we made our way from the game of chance to the games of skill. The Palms had tables for everything from baccarat to craps to roulette. They also had like all the poker; three card, Texas Hold’em, Pai Gow…all of them. We each got one thousand dollars in chips and said that when we lost those, we were done. Puck took his chips and kissed us both for luck as he headed to a Texas Hold’em table. Mercy and I floated around for a while. Winning a little here and there. Losing a little here and there. I found out I was not a craps player. That table almost broke me. But then I discovered that me and roulette got along just fine. I doubled my original money there before I decided to get while the getting was good. I was feeling pretty damn good. Then Mercy found the ‘vingt-et-un’, tables, or blackjack for us plebs. She was amazing. It was so fucking hot. Seriously she went from fifteen hundred bucks, after her blessing from the King of Pop, to almost eight grand in what felt like minutes. I’m sure it was longer than that…but it didn’t feel like a long time at all. I do think that the dealer was spending more time checking out her breasts than paying real attention to the house’s hand, and that helped, but she was still really good.

When she decided that she was done with black jack, she and I got one of the Palms baccarat dealers to teach us the game. Noah still hadn’t reappeared. After our lessons in baccarat, and winning enough to not feel like a loser at it, Mercy, Binkie and I decided to go and find Puck. I didn’t know exactly what all those chips in front of him meant. But I could tell when we found him that he was at least a hundred grand up from where he started. He was seated at a poker table with Shannon Elizabeth, the guy from ‘Breaking Bad’-the one that wasn’t Hal from Malcolm in the Middle- and a few other high rollers none of us recognized. When they finished the hand…Noah quit the table…realizing that it was like three and we had to be fully functional during the afternoon and evening. After shaking hands with the other players, Noah came over too us with his usual cocky swagger. Mercy looked at him in wonder. “How much did you finally win?”

Noah threw an arm around her shoulder. “I just took a hand for twenty seven thousand, three hundred and eighteen bucks. That was the biggest of the night though.”

I chuckled. “Damn, I thought you need a serious ‘resting bitch face’ poker face to win at poker.”

My husband shook his head. “No, you just need to not have any tells. If I run the whole game laughing and joking…but never give away a good or bad hand…they can’t try and read me. Now don’t get me wrong, for some people the RBF works…in some games it’s the only thing that does work, but the table wasn’t that kind of table.”

Binkie smiled…or what passed for a smile for Binkie. “Ranger got banned from the Mandalay Bay right before he started Rangeman. He won too much. He is completely inscrutable.”

We all looked at him in shock. None of us had heard Binkie say that many words at any one time. Not even when he’d been teaching me to ride my motorcycle. “Cool.” Mercy and I agreed.

“Bubbie’s Rule Number Five…never win too much at any one casino.” Puck said wisely.

“Good rule.” Binkie agreed. “But you never did answer Ms. Mercy’s question.”

Mercy smirked. “Binkie, I think I’m gonna have to elevate you to play cousin status.”

Noah laughed. Nothing got you on Mercy’s good side faster than helping her assuage her curiosity. “Fine. I started on a different table. The buy in for that one was ten grand. I didn’t want to get any more chips on us, so I played a regular table until I had what I needed. Then I moved over to that table. I’ve been playing the high roller table for the last two hours. I only won a little over a hundred and sixty-grand total. If I had more time, I’m pretty sure that I’d have hit the limit.”

“Damn. Now I don’t just love you…I want to be like you when I grow up.” I muttered. “In two and a half hours, you turned one grand into a hundred and sixty?”

“Bubbie has done better…so has Saul. Its why they only gamble when they need something.” He pointed out as we made our way to the cash out window. We all took our payouts in checks, even though I probably could have done cash without too much problem. On the walk back to our hotel and up to our rooms, we put the smaller checks into our individual Bank of America accounts, and we googled to find where there was a Barclays…we’d been well trained. Big money went automatically into our Barclays account for Saul to play with and turn into even bigger money. But it would have to wait until Hudson could run it over the next day…we were not driving to Hendersonville at three in the morning. Instead we said good night to Binkie after he did another room walk-through and made love until sleep forced itself upon us.

I was proud how functional we were on like four hours of sleep. We managed to get up, showered, dressed and down to the spa on the lobby level on time. Granted, we’d sorely abused the coffee station in our kitchen pantry…but we were there. There may or may not have been naps taken during our customized, aromatherapy, deep tissue massages. There may or not have been a nap during our pedicures and Mercy’s manicure. There were definitely naps during the pure results facials, desert detox wraps. All in all, when the time came to get ready for the night, we were a lot better rested than one would have expected. Hudson, Trina and Dee had finished their Express Facials, Express Massages and Decadence & Delight Manicure-Pedicures before us, so they’d headed upstairs and got our dining room turned into a beauty salon. By the time we were done and released, having tipped the hell out of our treatment providers, Kurt and Blaine were up in our room and everything was in readiness for us to go up and get dressed.

It took us three hours to get all dolled up. Mercy looked amazing. She’d been feeling extra sexy, so she had put on a steel boned, under bust, strapless satin, corset and a black lace cup strapless bra under her black, strapless jumpsuit. That meant that when she put the Alexander McQueen embroidered lily pad chain-maille tunic on over it, her gorgeous titties moved a lot more than they would have if she went with her shaper slip over a fuller coverage strapless bra. Inspired by the chain-maille tunic, Dee’d turned Mercy’s long weave into a ladder braid that looked like it would have been very at home on a queen in a renaissance fair. She even wove a metallic silver ribbon through the length of the braid before she wrapped it up to make a floral looking bun. It reminded me of how Lauren had worn her hair to our senior prom. Lily etched silver hair pins were pushed in to embellish and hold all that hair into place. If Dee went historic with Mercy’s hair…Trina went totally modern with her makeup. Those super expensive, individual, mink eyelashes took forever. Then her eyes were made up with black, silver and platinum with strong black lines and shiny sparkles. Her lips though, oh, my, fucking, Lord. They were lined darker and kept more berry-neutral in the center. But they were also so glossy that they looked even bigger and softer than usual.

Mercy had put on her lingerie and a robe before getting her hair and makeup done, so when they were done with her, Kurt and Blaine helped her to get dressed without messing up her look. Noah and I had had our faces both done while Mercy was getting her hair done. Then Dee made my hair look shiny and bouncy and formal. Puck just had to get his brushed a little. He was at that point where he needed to make a decision on whether he was going to grow it out or if he was keeping it buzzed. So, he kind of rocking a Caesar cut by that point. Dee just made his hair lay flat and wavy smooth. We’d done much like Mercy, so we were sitting there in our ‘no lines guaranteed’ drawers and robes. But it took less time for Noah to throw on his black, Tom Ford Windsor Base Birdseye two-piece suit, snow white Zenga dress shirt, black silk tie, Tom Ford Gianni patent leather lace-up shoes, than it did for Mercedes Jones to get into her jumpsuit and tunic. Noah looked sexy as hell. It took me a minute to realize that he looked like a high-end Man in Black. I was rocking a simple Ralph Lauren Fresco wool two-piece suit in matte gray, and black Prada Runway hybrid wing-tip oxford sneakers. Puck and I had flipped a coin to see which of us got to go without a tie. I was really glad I’d won. Fully dressed, Noah and I watched as Mercy’s imported, silver filigree, Arabel Lebrusan earrings and bracelets were put in her ears and on her arms and her strappy Gianvito Rossi sandals were fastened on her pretty little feet.

Binkie and Junior were ready in their black suits. Kurt and Hudson were going with us. they were both wearing charcoal. A zooted up Alexander McQueen suit for Kurt and a pretty little classic, Amanda Grey business dress for Hudson. Between the two of their black bags, messenger for Kurt and a tote for Hudson, they had everything we needed for the evening including our tickets, wallets, phones and touch up items. We went down to a special entrance where there was a limo waiting to take us to the MGM Grand Garden Arena red carpet. We arrived a little early so our driver had to wait on Mariah Carey’s limo and Lady Antebellum’s to get there and line up before we could slide into our place. It was a fun red carpet as far as they went. There were more than a few interviewers that we knew…so we got some decent questions. And we were right behind Hillary Scott, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelly and their spouses on the carpet. The three of us and Lady A took some great pictures together. Hudson got them to Darcy and their PA got them to their Social Media Manager so we linked up online and hit Instagram hard.

I think, as much as I loved performing…at any given time…I liked the award shows where we were simply presenting a lot better. We’d not been able to get there early enough the day before to do rehearsals, but Haja had managed to convince the producers that we could handle the television time anyway. However, part of the arrangement was that we would rehearse back stage for the entire time between our arrival and the time the telecast started. Thankfully, the producer had the script divided mainly between Noah and Mercy with me chiming in with a punchline and us stating the top radio song award together. We made our way to our seats and were filmed there when the show opened. It was a good thing too. We were up for the first award of the night, the Top Duo or Group award. And we won it. Thankfully by the time we finished with the photos and everything, it was time for us to go and give the Top Radio Song statue to John Legend.

Over the course of the night we were up for nine other awards. Top Streaming Song for ColorBlind which we won, the Top Hot 100 Song for Rescue Me which we also won and Top Streaming Artist, another win. The we lost the Top Billboard 200 Artist and the Top Digital Songs Artist. But the winning started again. We got the Top Hot 100 Artist statue, the Top Billboard 200 Album award, the Top Social Artist; we thanked the hell out of Darcy Lewis for that one; and the Billboard Chart Achievement Award. It was a great night. The performances were epic. Jamal, Delphine and Hakeem did a ridiculously good performance of ‘Conqueror’ that then morphed into ‘You’re So Beautiful’. It was great. Cookie looked amazing in a long black dress with cut-outs showing off that mother of three, seventeen years in lock up or not…she had a bangin’ body. Ed Sheeran had my second favorite performance of the night. I wasn’t that big a fan of the Brittany Spears and Iggy Azalea performance but the audience seemed like they loved it and that was the important thing.

After the last performance of the evening, we did the circuit of press and photogs, congratulated our fellow WMG winners and Mal and the Empire winners then retired to our hotel room. We made out until Hudson reminded us that we had to at least make an appearance at the after party. So, we had a quick shower and got changed. Unfortunately, that meant Trina and Dee had some work to do. But the flip side was that Mercy was out of her corset…which had started hurting her by the end of the show. She did put on a shaper slip, the shortest one she owned pulled up just under her halter top bra, but it was more bendy so it was a relief after the steel boning. When she was dressed, she looked almost as good as she’d looked stepping out of the shower. Her hair was down and wavy, her makeup was a night time look, but similar to the one she’d had on earlier. She was wearing a black silk, Ramy Brook Harriet halter top, Alexander McQueen patchwork ruffled leather miniskirt and red Giuseppe Zanotti suede diamond-cut cage sandals, with chunky silver and crystal jewelry by Anna Bellagio, Kendra Scott & Thomas Laine Ben-Amun finished off her ‘after party ensemble’. Kurt found that our beautiful wife had already made the Cambio best dressed list as well as a few others for her slightly Avant-Gard red-carpet look. I just threw on a basic black look; v-neck, long sleeved black pullover and black slacks with the same shoes I’d worn the awards show. They were hella-comfortable. Puck was even more casual black jeans, a black, white and red plaid shirt with a tee shirt on under it and his black work boots. Noah was hoping that we’d be able to hit The Venetian before we called it a night.

The party was alright. Taylor Swift was hosting it in the Nobu Villa at the Nobu Hotel in Caesars Palace. She was a little salty about the fact that we’d beaten her out for quite a few titles that night. Including most awards won, even though she’d been nominated more times than us. She played it off like she was joking, but my momma hadn’t raised no fools. I knew a true joke from a bitter bite. Her boyfriend, Calvin, was cool though. Cassidy had a fan in him. Tay-Tay did through a pretty good bash. There was a photo wall that was a ton of fun. There were more than enough people we liked there to make the hour we spent there pleasant. I mean, Jennifer Lopez was always really cool to us. Plus Jamal and Cookie were there. Keem was there too, but, thankfully, he was busy scamming on one of the Fifth Harmony chicks so he couldn’t get on Mercy’s nerves too bad. We dipped out and, while it was close enough to walk it…even for Mercy and her heels, we took the limo. Binkie and Junior were rather adamant that we should.

The Venetian was…just wow. The casino offered us the choice of hundreds of table games in separate gaming areas. We could pick from blackjack, baccarat, roulette, craps, Pai Gow poker, Pai Gow tiles and various other games I couldn’t even name. On top of all of those games, there were more than twelve hundred slot machines for people to choose from. We each picked one slot just for fun. We all came up with nothing from that. As soon as we entered the poker room…yup the Venetian had a special, world famous poker room. And as soon as we stepped foot inside, one of the room’s concierges came over and invited Puck to sit in on a high roller game that was starting in a special suite off the main poker room. I didn’t even wonder how they knew to ask him. I watched CSI…I knew that in Vegas there were always cameras everywhere and the Houses knew all. Given the money that would be at play in that room, we left Binkie with Noah and Mercy and I headed back to the other table games. Me and Roulette became besties for a night and Mercedes found out that she was pretty damn good at craps.

We didn’t have to be back to our rooms at any particular time. Our flight wasn’t even until noon…so as long as we made it to the room by nine to shower, change and pack in time to make it to the airport by ten thirty-eleven, we were golden. To be honest, the Venetian reminded me of the casino from the Percy Jackson books…it was easy to lose track of time. They brought us food and drinks. We didn’t even come up for air until Noah reached the Rule Number Five limit and was ready to go. That night, we’d all managed to do well. I walked away with enough to have brought a nice pickup if I needed one. Mercedes’ haul was even better. We did have to pay out tabs, of course, but even then, we left there that night almost three hundred and fifteen grand up. Even Binkie and Junior had won them some loot, mainly by taking advantage of the House Side Bets system. We were riding high…it was probably why we let Noah talk us into one stop at the MGM Grand. That place was not as lucky as we’d have thought after the Billboard Music Awards…I lost my thousand dollars and was in the hole another two hundred when I quit. Mercy went all the way down to the lose limit…lost her thousand and owed the house a full five hundred…when she tapped out. Noah even had a crappy time there. He only won like six grand in the time he played. We ended up making it an early night after all…well, earlier than the one before.

We made love and got some quality sleep. The flight the next day was fine…feeling longer than it was because of the time difference. Bubbie and Lil Darlin’ met us at the airport so that was good. Nikki had a million stories about the rest of her time in Lima and how weird her classmates were acting after seeing us on TV the night before. As much fun as we’d had in Las Vegas, we were glad to be home.

Work Bitch (Brittany Spears)
Mercedes PoV

We had a day…well, not off, but we weren’t traveling or due anywhere before ten or doing anything strenuous before breakfast the Tuesday after the BBMAs. In fact, we slept until nine, had breakfast and still made it to Forest Hills Stadium in Queens by ten for the first of our all hands-on deck, full crew, tour practices. I did have to admit, given the short scope of time before our tour’s opening night, the practices were really grueling. Everyone was there and warmed up by ten-thirty. Our first two hours were spent divided into band, vocalists, and dancers each group ran through our entire fifty song set list. Then we came together and worked on the first third of the list. The way the tour would run, we’d do twelve to fourteen songs, then there would be a thirty minute DJ Ca$$ interlude…giving us time to change for the second part of our set. Which would again be followed Cassidy’s amazing spinning and again we’d change for the final twelve to fourteen songs. The Encore would run anywhere from seven to ten songs…depending on the audience’s demands. Most of these people would be paying more than fifty bucks a ticket…we wanted to make sure they felt they’d gotten their money’s worth. All told, including Cassidy’s hour and the forty-five minutes of our opening acts…our audiences would be treated to almost five hours of entertainment. It wasn’t really what was done. Most of the time concert goers would count themselves lucky if they got two hours from the headliners.

We were planning on another difference, keeping our set lists somewhat fluid. Varying the order we performed the songs in, so that if there were people following the tour, or attending two or more shows in the same region, they’d have, at least, a somewhat fresh experience each time they attended. It would mean that every morning we’d have to decide on the night’s set list and send the changes to the wardrobe matrons and the lighting and sound guys. But fortunately, we were not lip syncing, so that wouldn’t be as much of a bother as if we were. But the costume changes might be effected somewhat. Mainly, if we chose to move the Tamir Rice and Emmitt Till songs…we very quickly donned white choir robes for those songs. So, the matrons needed to have them ready. They needed to know when to have them prepared.

But even more that the fluidity of the set lists, our shows were going to be very, very dynamic. Our twelve background dancers would showcase modern and contemporary, ballet, hip-hop, jazz and even some Ballroom dance moves. Mike and Sugar had both gotten to the city on Monday morning and had an intensive day of practice with Rainbow and the permanent and the other temporary dancers. They were still working on things like the quick changes between numbers and smoothing their transitions…but Rainbow was glowing about how well they knew the numbers and how great their movement was. They gave her all the credit thought. She had made sure that they had videos of every dance she had coordinated and every change or addition that had been made.

Tina’s Monday was much the same as Mike’s. After getting to the city and dropping her things by the brownstone, she had reported to our practice studio in Brooklyn. But where Mike had been working with his fellow dancers, she had been working with the band and the background singers. Arjun may have had more technical training, but Tina had been singing with me, both in class and out, for years. It was she and Santana that really helped him become comfortable with the idea of following where I led rather than sticking to the sheet music religiously. I wasn’t sure how they had finally convinced him, but when I let the music take me where it would, he followed perfectly. It was such a relief. I’d been worried that we’d chosen the wrong person, and there wasn’t really time left to get anyone else. I told my friends that I so owed them one. Santana, of course, demanded a pair of my Louboutins…which wasn’t a problem, we had the same sized shoes, but differing tastes. The ones she wanted weren’t my favorites. Tina stockpiled her favor…she wasn’t sure what she wanted, and didn’t feel I owed her anything anyway.

I shook off those thoughts as we finished our second thirty-minute break of the day. we were running the practice much as the show would go. Fifty-five minutes to an hour of singing and dancing followed by thirty minutes of rehydration…and warmups to keep our muscles loose, then it was back to another hour of practice. The practice ran all day, with an hour for lunch at three. We kept things fairly light, four ounces of lean protein, salmon, chicken breast or steak, alongside a big salad rife with Swiss chard, kale, spinach, rainbow carrot slivers, avocado and almond slices with a simple lemon-ginger vinaigrette gave us all a lot of healthy proteins and fats and enough nutrients to keep us going through an afternoon of vigorous dancing and singing. We did stick to vocal practice and yoga type exercises for the first hour after lunch, just to make sure we had time to allow our bodies to handle, not reject, our meal. After our hydration break, we did a full hour of dance and movement practice. Our day ended at half past six and we were completely exhausted.

Bautista was a goddess among housekeepers. She had held our dinner for us that evening. Which was even more impressive since our house was filled to capacity that week. Adams and Karofsky had gotten in the afternoon before and Adams had turned the big sectional and ottoman in the family room into his bed while Karofsky was utilizing the ones in Bartana’s family room the same way. Tike had one of the guest rooms in that side of the duplex, and when Tessa, Joe and Unique arrived that evening, Joe and Tessa took the extra guest room. We’d gotten a really, really good air mattress and set that up for Unique in Britts studio. It was a purchase that was pretty long overdue. We probably should have thought of that after our guestroom became Nikki’s bedroom. But que sera sera…we had the highly recommended SoundAsleep Dream Series air mattress now and if we got one more, we’d be straight no matter how many of our friends came to visit. In fact, we probably should get two more just in case. Az and Dave had been just as tired as we all were. The Roadies had had their own practice that day. the two football players had spent the day using the stadium’s equipment and our own sets to get used to putting up and taking down stages and sets until Lamar was happy with their timing and efficiency and the safety of the structures. We asked them if they were sure they wanted to continue…it was exhausting work after all. But they immediately shot down any thought of them going back to Lima. “This is better conditioning than what we’d usually be doing over the summer.” Karofsky assured me.

“Plus, I’m making four times what I could make over the summer in Lima.” Az pointed out. “I can finally put money in Lil Bird’s college fund instead of my parents just doing so.” With that as his motivation, I knew that he would keep the job even if he had to crawl over three miles of cut glass every day. Azimo Adams might never be a great human being…but he was a damn good father.

Over a wonderful dinner of creamy parmesan-garlic-mushroom quinoa, roasted Brussel sprouts and grilled lamb loin chops, we all talked through our day and the time since we’d last been together. We learned that Joe had picked a midnight blue Patriot. We found out that Tessa had promised that her godmother would get invited to KAMA’s future parties and such. “Fine, but we’ll have to make sure that there is someone there to keep her and Santana far away from each other. I don’t want it to be said that a chance meeting at a KAMA party caused the end of life as we know it.” Sam told her with a grim smile. He was only half joking. We’d talked about how alike the two superficially different women seemed. Sam had almost convinced Noah and I that if the two of them touched, it would cause irreparable damage to the space time continuum. We’d easily convinced him that even if it didn’t the two of them could easily overthrow governments and destroy the world the old-fashioned way.

Tessa also told us that she and Joe had gotten an email from Erin Owen, the interior designer who had handled the design aspects of the house the would inhabit for the next four or so years. Things would be ready for them to move in by the endo of June, or early July. Erin had just wanted to touch bases with them and get information about their personal preferences and tastes to make the house more ‘them’. I made a mental note to remind George to change the locks when they got there in September. Not that he would forget…but just in case. Tessa was also considering trading her Focus in for an Escape or a late model used Toyota Forerunner. “I’m just…well, since Grandad said that you guys probably got Joe the Patriot because of driving in the snow, I just thought maybe I should look into a vehicle that was heavier and had four-wheel drive. It wouldn’t be fair to Joe if he had to drive me everywhere for like five months every school year.” Noah, Sam and I exchanged a speaking look. “No, don’t you even think about it. You’ve spent enough on me for the next year. I will not accept a single thing from any of or all of you until my next birthday. The parents gave me the title to the Focus so that I could trade it in if I wanted something different for all the cross-country trips I’ll be making. I’m going to have enough money to live off very well with the scholarships I got and my college fund handling tuition and no room fees…that’s not even including what I’m making this summer. Please, let me do this on my own.” She almost pleaded.

“I guess we can understand wanting to stand on your own two feet. Just please, talk with Saul about getting preapproved for a loan through Barclays when you find out how much your trade in is worth.” Noah advised. “You’ll get a better rate than trying to go through any of the financiers the car dealership will try and put you through. And only do a used car if it still has warranty time, like a year or more, on it.” She did acquiesce to that demand, mainly because she could see the sense in doing so and they would benefit her.

After we finished dinner, most of the grown folks tipped in to help with cleanup as a way of thanking Viola for the great meal, while Tessa and I helped Nikolette with her homework. Her school year was almost over so there wasn’t much. It was just nice to have that time with our little angel before bedtime. Nikki was spending every night in her bedroom at our house until Sunday night. I read her the next chapter of Goblet of Fire, though she could read it to herself, it was a ritual that I would definitely miss. In fact, I would miss everything about our little girl. Though, in all fairness, Bubbie and Nikki would be joining us on the road fairly often…sometimes accompanied by Beth, sometime by Sarah or Stacey or Stevie. Ruth had quite a bit of vacation time she could access from her primary job, and joining us on the road was probably a part of her second career. She was planning on using that time to bond with her great-grands and her middle school aged grands. Part of that planning would be taking them to see the sights our great country had to offer and to let them see their big siblings on stage a few times. Once Nikki was showered and in bed, we all took turns abusing our hot water systems and retired ourselves.

Wednesday was very similar to Tuesday for most of us. Unique and Kurt were up early. He was escorting our friend, and spiritual love child to the stores where Bubbie and he spent the entire morning to getting her kitted out as befitting a Diva of her station. Shortly after they left, Darcy swung by and snatched up Tessa and Joe. She took them to the KAMA offices where they spent the morning training for their summer jobs. Darcy introduced them to their ‘Swag Van’, a twenty-fifteen Nissan Transit thirty-five hundred with extended roof storage. She led them through the process of loading and unloading all the various sized Rubbermaid containers that housed all the swag we’d managed to autograph in the previous several months. Everything was organized in a system that was almost intuitive it was so easy to understand. She also showed them how to use the handheld barcode scanner to do their inventory before and after every show. “It has wi-fi and will send the information back to me here at HQ. If you start getting really low on something that we didn’t anticipate selling all that well, I’ll be able to get you more of them to get the bosses’ John Hancocks on.”

“That makes sense. It also makes keeping track of sales a lot easier.” Tessa agreed.

Joe had a different perspective on things. “Can you email us a copy of your nightly inventory so we can compare it to our nightly tallies of what all we sold? It will help us on the other side of inventory control. I mean, I don’t like to think that anyone would steal, but we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

“That’s actually a really good idea, Hart. Not to mention that it shows you’re a realist in your religiosity. My grandparents had a neighbor…that lady was so religious she was actual-factual scary, but every Halloween she’d put out a big thing of candy with a note telling people to just take two pieces. That bowl was empty in minutes…then her house would get tped by kids mad they hadn’t gotten anything.”

Joe looked confused for a moment. “I’m not sure how a religious lady can be scary, but I appreciate the compliment and understand the overarching sentiment.”

They laughed and got back to work. Joe and Tessa learned all about the certificates of authentication that went with each autographed item. With the certificate, every bit of swag they sold was actually resalable as a collectible item. Once she had them well versed on the card readers, the tiered cash boxes and the receipt system they would be using, she gave them the Chase deposit only bank cards with KAMA and their names on them that they would be using to make their nightly deposits. “Chase has over eighteen and a half thousand ATMs around the world. You should be able to find one anywhere.” Darcy assured them. Once Darcy was sure that they could handle everything they would need to handle to be able to do their jobs, and she’d showed them the pepper spray canisters, the two mag lights, the rechargeable flashlight stun-guns and the clever keychain that doubled as an eye gouger that she had hidden throughout the vehicle for their safety, she turned them over to Hudson.

Hudson took the two recent graduates into her office and gave them their per diem cards. “Your per diem is sixty-five dollars per day. With that, you are, technically, expected to handle three meals every day. I say technically because for the most part, our hotel stays include breakfast as part of your room package. In addition to that, we are loading the buses with cereals, breakfast bars, pop tarts, milk and Silk, and snacks. Plus, there is no telling when Cedes, Noah and Sam will decide to treat everyone for dinner. Additionally, on show nights, you all will eat with the roadies, and part of our contracts with all of the promoters is that they will provide dinner for the crew. Probably you will really only use it for lunch. Now in addition to the per diems, which will be added for the entire week every Sunday, there will also be a weekly necessities stipend of twenty-five dollars added every week.”

Joe raised a hand to ask a question going through both is and Tessa minds. “Weekly necessities stipend, what is that?”

Hudson smiled indulgently. She actually found Joe to be one of the most soothing persons to be around that she had ever encountered. She’d told us that he had a way of making her feel at ease in his presence…even from the very first time she’d met him. Usually, it took her a while to warm up to new people. “Well, there are necessities that every person will bring with them that we just can’t buy in bulk…things where personal preferences really matter. Things like toothpaste, toothbrushes…feminine products, for example. Commune wanted to put in on keeping everyone stocked on their necessities since they wouldn’t be home.”

“That’s cool.” Tessa acknowledged. It made sense to her that there could be things that people would want what they were used to…like Tessa needed Colgate Total with whitening mint gel…she hated actual paste toothpaste. “So, what kinds of things are the sibs keeping bulk stocked?”

“Well, Dove soap, unscented Lubriderm lotion, laundry materials and sunscreen. Oh, and like I said, breakfast items and snacks.” Hudson told them. “Of course, if someone wanted to use things other than what is provided they can always get their own. As long as they remember to consider things like space restraints. Now then, the two of you will be bunking in the bus that is designed to suit Artie’s special needs. He, Santana and Brittany have the bedroom while you two, Michael and Tina have four of the bunks. The others will be available to Darcy and Lester when they join us on the road. When we stay in hotels you two can either have a room alone together or you can share with Sugar and Justin respectively. Please let me know your preference as soon as you’ve reached your decision.”

They went over the rest of the particulars then they were delivered to Ethan and Daniel who took them to lunch and then caught them up to speed on the stalker situation and asked them if they would be willing to provide extra eyes and ears on the tour. Both teens immediately agreed, though Tessa had a question for her kind of, sort of uncle and cousin. “So, what’s security going to be like, then?” She trusted Rangeman…but even she knew that it could be well outside their comfort zone. The revered security company could simply be unable to handle the very different job.

“It will still be Rangeman providing the security. Ranger has definitely taken the contract with KAMA and used it to expand both his Trenton and New York offices and their offerings. He said that even if providing tour security lost the firm a little bit in man hours and transportation costs, they were projected to make it back ten times over within the first few years the Heartland offices were opened.” Daniel told her with a smirk.

Ethan continued to explain, “there will be four partner teams on the tour with you guys at all times. Manny and his partner will join you when Ruth and Nikolette come out. Lester Santos will be popping in and out as well.”

“Oh, good…that’s good.” Tessa acknowledged. “We’ll make sure that we keep our eyes and ears peeled.”

“Yeah, and we’ll make sure that Tina, Mike, Adams and Dave all do the same.” Joe’s voice was strong and determined. Even if all his faith and beliefs were proved wrong and he and Tessa turned out not to be forever, which he didn’t think was even close to possible, Mercedes Jones would still be family in his heart. He would protect her like family. He said as much to Ethan and Daniel.

“Good, good. but we want you guys to protect yourselves out there too. You’re getting a great opportunity to learn and see and experience a lot this summer. Take full advantage of it…but stay true to your selves and take care of each other.” Ethan said wisely. “Oh, and just a word of advice from a father…text or call your parents every day. they are going to feel as if they are caught in a weird catch twenty-two. On the one hand, they can’t call to check on you without you thinking that they don’t trust in your maturity and ability to take care of yourselves. But on the other hand, they are your parent and they worry that maybe you can’t take care of everything that comes at you given that this summer will be your first experiences with truly taking care of your selves. So just do them the favor of letting them know that you are okay…often, okay?”

The two teens chuckled, but agreed easily. They had already planned to do it. But having a look into how parents thought was definitely not a bad thing. We all chuckled as Tessa and Joe told us all about their day over dinner. The only person more excited to share the events of the day that day had been Unique. “Lord, chile…I never knew just how amazing the shopping in this city is. I mean, I thought I knew before, but today was a whole nother experience. It was the best seven hours of my whole life. I mean, oh my damn. I spent three hours in Saks, and another three in Bergdorf Goodman.”

She told us the whole experience, “The personal shopper office at Bergdorf’s is on the fifth floor, just behind the evening dress collections. The thirteen thousand dollar champagne-colored Carolina Herrera sequined illusion tulle and the sleeveless ruffled ivory Swiss-dotted ball gowns that cost nine grand a pop that I passed on my way in help put me in a make-believe, Cinderella-at-the-ball mood. My stylist led us into a nicely lit suite of rooms. It was full of mirrors and outfitted with velvet chairs, the walk-in closet of our collective dreams. The three of us made ourselves at home. Her name was Merilyn and she warned us that new-client appointments can last up to three hours but have been known to extend for three days.

The first hour was just trying on different styles and cuts to see what fit and looked best. Then we got into style. Merilyn favored feathers, metallics and lacy fabrics mixed with leather. Even this diva in training was a little bit intimidated by the direction she wanted me to go. Thankfully Mrs. Ruth and Papa Kurt were there. They made sure that I expressed my style and my desires. I picked up a black Elie Tahari skirt. It was a miniskirt and a midiskirt; it was lace and also not lace. The mini was set inside the midi; the outer layer was lace, the inner one not. Then, she brought me the perfect dress, deep forest green. Fit and flare, wearable in all four seasons, could be dressed up or down. Merilyn tossed a leopard-spotted scarf over my neck; it landed in a perfect, chic configuration. It was almost as if she totally knew the way to this Diva’s heart. Then she had me try on a silver and black velvet minidress with geometric rings. Conservatively tailored, but definitely fun. She strapped an oxblood-colored Gucci bag over my shoulder. The good Lord knew it was love at first sight. Next, came a black blouse with golden fruit blossoming on the front, I was not down for that but the floral print leather skirt with lace panels; a reversible shearling coat, blue leather with black collar…those all just screamed Unique. I felt like I was the very definition of smarter, more chic, more fun.

“A few great pieces and you’re all set, a new look,” Merilyn said. Then I found out how much just those ten pieces cost. I balked a little bit…Could I really spend six grand for what she said was a transformation? Crazy. But it was for a whole new me? I looked so mature and feminine and put-together in a way I just didn’t realize was missing from my life. So, I handed over the Bergdorf card you gave me for graduation. I was prepping myself to spend a grand or more of my graduation money to make up the difference, right. Five thousand plus the plane trip and a place to stay…that was an amazing graduation gift in my eyes. Then she comes back and asks me if I would like to look on my own to use the other four thousand. I ‘bout fainted. But I have got to say, honestly I kind of feel like God had put it into your hearts to give me that much because it totally made up for the laser hair removal down there. That isht hurt like a bad mother-father. Thank God I wasn’t a hairy bear to begin with. So then Ruth takes over. She led us through the store and soon I had jeans and leggings, everyday tops, other tops that I could wear with the things Merilyn had found for me. I was totally amazed how much we could get, even in Bergdorf Goodman for the rest of what was on the card.”

“Oh darling, no one wears all super expensive pieces all the time. You mix and match Bergdorf with Old Navy, TJMaxx with Saks. We used their stylists to find what looked best on you and then went from there. That’s why Kurt gave you the Old Navy, Targét, Marshalls and TJ Maxx gift cards. So that you can augment your wardrobe as the year goes by.” Ruth pointed out. “Now, tell them what happened in Saks.”

Unique full on blushed. “Well, um…the stylist’s name there was Julio. Momma-Cedes, he was almost as good as Papa Kurt. He talked to me about my likes and dislikes. Hell, he even talked me into singing him a little something, so I gave him ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ because that song has been speaking to me this week like fire. Anyway, he talked me into trying on a pair of Jimmy Choo boots that cost like five months of my rent for next year. But they were so gorgeous. So yeah, we were looking at a pair of Marques’ Almeida floral capri trousers, so much cuter than the name implies by the way, when Julio’s boyfriend shows up. Apparently, Remi Doelp from Sony A&R is his boyfriend. He gave me his information and wants me to contact him when I’m a year post op…so that I can actually try and do something other than take care of my after care and do my homework…” she joked.

There was not a moment of silence for the next thirty minutes. We were all celebrating with her as if she was signing a contract that very day. I think that most of us who had taken the time to look into the problems she would still be facing once she transitioned…we knew that the biggest hurdle would be finding her next goal. Not knowing what to do with their lives next, seemed to be a major depression trigger for a lot of trans-people. I felt pretty secure that even more than getting through college, getting her own deal would fill that bill well. We talked about how she wanted to handle things, we gave her our full permission to talk to Haja and our Team to use their services when she got ready to start the path of her career. Even if we weren’t at the same label, Unique was our people. She had been since the night Kurt and I beseeched Puck for ideas to torment Rachel for making her life at Carmel hell.

The next morning, we all got up to have breakfast together before taking Nikki to school and Unique to the airport. She had to get checked in to Wexner Medical Center that Sunday so she was going home to get her shit together. She would be there for a while. All of our parents, the Lynns and the Harts were planning on taking turns visiting ‘Nique and her mom and aunt and uncle. After we left LaGuardia, we headed back to Forest Hills and practices kicked our asses yet again. But we were not there near as long. We cut the day short at four to make sure that they were all packed. Okay, so mainly it was to give us a chance to pack. Since wardrobe for the concerts was taken care of, Noah, Sam and I just had to pack for ourselves. I personally packed thirty sets of underwear, fifteen that qualified as lingerie and fifteen cotton sets for athletic activity and dancing. I packed three pairs of yoga pants, three pairs of athletic shorts and graphic tee-shirts to wear with them for practices. Nine pairs of thicker terry-cloth socks, two pairs of practice sneaks and a pair of running shoes finished my practice gear. Then I turned my attention to more Diva like clothes. I picked six nice outfits that I could mix and match without people realizing that I only had those twelve pieces with me. Then I added my Etro orange kimono top. I hadn’t worn it anywhere and it was such a great look, I couldn’t leave it behind. I grabbed a couple of cute as hell dresses, two of each type; casual maxis, one black and one multicolored, slips and sheaths…the sheaths could be rocked with a blazer if there was a meeting where that kind of look was necessary, two fabulous fit and flare dresses that could be dressed up or down, ivory and black lace dresses, two party dresses and two cocktail dress…given who we were, there was every likelihood that I’d return home with several more of those…and finally two evening gowns, one a trumpet silhouette, and the other a formal A-line with a full enough skirt that it was technically a borderline ball gown. Of course, I also had to pack all the appropriate shoes and accessories for all my outfits and dresses. I packed some makeup, not much because the stage makeup was taken care of, so I just packed my favorite things. I packed the rest of my toiletries, including my Proactive, complexion brush and my cheaper Oral B Vitality rechargeable toothbrush. Ultimately, I had one full set of luggage. But it was one that could be nested inside each other to save space.

Sam and I helped Noah make sure that he had everything he needed, then he and I helped Sam. We were done by dinner which was kind of subdued. I was pretty sure that I understood why. Even with anticipation and the knowledge that the tour could be really awesome, there was always fear of the unknown. We talked for a long time, cuddling Nikki on our laps, discussing packing and going over everything that we had packed already, tips like rolling versus folding…making sure to leave dressy items in the dry cleaner plastic to decrease their tendency to wrinkle or the chances of them getting crushed. There were things that I’d forgotten, a cardigan or hoodie for lounging around in cold places, rain coat, hiking boots for exploring the national parks we might be able to fit into our schedule. Some heavier, less expensive jeans for the same reason. Thank goodness, I was able to fit everything in. We helped Nikki get ready for bed and I read her another chapter. Then we took ourselves up and got showered and spent one of the last three nights we had left in our own bed for the summer. I was more than excited…but I was also scared as hell. I just hoped and prayed that everything went as well as we wanted and needed it to go.

 

Aretha, Sing One for Me (Cat Power)
Puck PoV

Man, Friday morning, the night before our very first concert…of our North American tour; at some point I needed to as P!nk or Jill if every new tour’s first night was supposed to feel like we were popping our performance cherry all over again. Still the morning was pretty ridiculous. Our four buses, the KAMA trucks, the Rangeman bus, which would house a total of twelve Rangemen over the course of the summer, the eight main guards, two drivers who could also provide security, and Manny and his partner Zip when Bubbie and my little Nikolette joined us on the road. The Roadies buses were there as well, but they were simply four, stock, black WMG buses with twelve bunks each. They were not quite as tricked out as the ones we’d purchased. Lamar had taken care to have all four of the WMG buses detailed to make sure that there would be no surprises in the bunks or hidden anywhere else that could come back to bite us on the ass later. There was no practice that day, instead, everyone there had their main bags or luggage. Hudson stood to one side near our buses, Lester stood in the center near the front of Rangeman’s bus, and Lamar stood off to the other side of the lot near the WMG buses. They each gave the crew their bus assignments.

We entered our bus, the most colorful and newest. Sam and I entered first carrying Cede’s bags. Once they were all back in our bedroom, we went back out and grabbed ours. Even having looked the bus over before, it was still a little surprising how much room there was. We had room for all of our clothes and all of Cede’s shoes and accessories. There were four drawers under the bed where the shoes lived, most of Cede’s in silky bags to protect them from bouncing around. We also put our monogrammed leather overnight bags under there as well. The fourth, Hudson had found a this great divider system and it held things like Cede’s makeup, me and Sam’s grooming supplies, things like that. It took us a while to figure out a system that worked for us, but it wasn’t that bad. Then we turned to the important things. There was a tall slim cabinet in the galley that was perfect for my and Sam’s acoustic guitars. A drawer under the sofa was the perfect place for throws and Cede’s keyboard. We peaked through and the drawers and cabinets in the galley were stocked with the non-perishables like cereals, snacks…lots of healthy stuff…and everyone’s favorite not so healthy. I noticed that the corner, ‘spice rack’ looking cabinet held a bunch of bottles of vitamins and immune system boosters. Made sense, we didn’t want to get sick on the road if we could help it. The fridge only held Aquafina, Evian and Voss at that point, probably Hudson wouldn’t bother stocking it with milk and fruit and such until Monday.

Once we were completely unpacked, we took all luggage, nested it inside each other as much as we could and it was all stored in a space under the bus. I noticed, unsurprised that Hudson’s bag was already down there. I looked around and noticed that we were pretty much the last ones finished. Then again, we kind of had more shit to find room for…that was my story anyway. We watched as Brock locked up the storage space. I knew that there would be other things that would join our luggage, Brock and Jake would have to store their stuff and Dave’s extra drum kit and the extras of the bulk stuff that we’d bought to provide for everyone’s use would go in there since there was less luggage in ours than in anyone else’s. We joined the assemblage of our Crew, those who would be riding in the four buses we owned. Hudson and Lamar were having a meeting to give us all the rules of tour bus etiquette.

“Alright, for the next fifteen weeks we are all going to be living with anywhere from one to twelve new roommates. That means that we all need to practice consideration and common sense. Don’t leave your stuff all over the place. We all need to make sure that the luggage bays are always kept locked. You are responsible for the guests you bring onto the bus. I am very serious when I say, don’t bring groupies back to the buses. Get a room in a hotel then rent a car and meet us at the next stop. If you want to bring on a guest, guests should be cleared with the other people who live on this bus. However, there are some actual rules. Rule number one, there are bathrooms on the buses. There are washers and dryers…but those are only, fully usable when we stop for the night and have a water hookup. Even then, if where we are parking has shower facilities, use those because there are a lot of people trying for one small bathroom. Additionally, as part of our Tour Rider, shower facilities will always be provided for us at the venues and there will be hotel stops too. Toilets on the buses are for liquid waste only. If you have to do some serious bathroom usage, let the drivers know, they can take us into a rest area or something where you can go without harming the bus’s chemical toilet.” Lamar started. “The drivers want you all to remember, and I am quoting here, that the cardinal rule of touring is Don’t Shit on the Bus. So, don’t do it.”

I was proud of Huds when she interjected with an important side comment. “Any water from sinks on the bus should be used for washing/rinsing only. Use bottled water to brush your teeth.” She told us all with a small, shy smile.

“That’s right, Ms. Hudson. Now, this one is for those of us in bunks. Make sure that when you’re getting into your bunk, orient yourself with your feet towards the front of the bus. If the drivers have to make a hard stop, it’s better that your feet hit the bulkhead, not your heads. Lower temperatures kill germs, so the thermometers are all set at sixty-eight. If you’re cold…add a layer of clothing. If you are a light sleeper, invest in either noise canceling headphones or earplugs. The iPads in the bunks are there for your entertainment. Hudson and I will pass out the wi-fi passwords when we do the final load of the buses before the concert on Monday night. Speaking of, the buses will be at the office parking lot in Chelsea on Monday. We all need to get there by eleven-thirty. Bring all your electronics and personal items that you did not bring today, so your practice instruments, your cell phones and chargers your earphones and any snacks that you’ll want that haven’t been provided. When we load the bus and go to the Barclay Center, we officially start the tour. Anything that you don’t have, you’ll either have to have someone send you, or you will need to buy it as we go.”

Hudson also had some information about the coming days. “Our first date, the Hammerstein Ballroom is tomorrow. If it makes you feel better, then consider it our final dress rehearsal. Our sound check is at three. Everyone is due there by two-thirty. We’re using the Northeast Region NYC alternate looks for the Hammerstein and Alternate three for the Barclay Center. Ladies, make sure that you’re wearing the appropriate undergarments. Kurt and Mrs. Ruth sent everyone the digital look books for the entire tour. When you get a chance, take a moment and thank them for their hard work.” She looked down at her notes. “Our hair and makeup artists for Hammerstein and Barclay will be very familiar…they handled your hair and makeup at Halloween and for the record release party. Saturday, they will be ready for you at five.” Once she and Lamar were done with their parts, Hudson pulled us to the side as Ethan, Brantley, Darcy and Daniel went over the things they needed folks to remember. “Veronica sent eight wigs, they arrived yesterday at the office. Dee said that if Veronica ever needed her to, she would totally have her babies. I had to drag her out of the conference room once they were all unpacked. She would have still been there petting and primping them. They are just that good.”

Mercedes nodded. “She texted me to go by today and try them on. Will we have time before the spa appointments?”

“As long as things wrap up here in the next twenty to thirty minutes. We should be fine.” Hudson noted.

We headed back to hear Darcy’s wrap up. “Oh and last but not least, every one practice responsible pic posting, if it has someone other than you in the shot, get their okay before you post. Don’t be a dick.”

Daniel just gave her a look. “Chicks could do it too.”

“Chicks can be dicks. Just because we don’t have penises…it doesn’t immediately mean that we’re wonderful people. Posting a pic with a person looking ratchet behind you isn’t bitchy, but it is a dick move.” Darcy defended easily.

Daniel just chuckled. “I’m gonna quote you on that next time Riker says that I can’t say a girl is being a dick.”

“Have her give me a call? I’ll fully explain why not crossing traditional gender lines with insults and curses is actually totally sexist.” Darcy shot back. “I wrote a paper on it for my women’s studies class.”

I stepped forward. “Actually, I think it is a pretty good summary of all the rules we’ve received today, and I’m sure Hudson is planning to email us all Sunday or Monday morning…DON’T BE A DICK! We’re going to be living in each other’s pockets for the next few months. Act like you’ve got good home training. Be considerate of others and have respect for yourselves and those around you. Also…don’t be late. I just watched the Temptations movie…I can and will pull and Otis and fine your ass every time you’re more than five minutes late…capiche?” when they all said they understood, I was done talking.

Ethan had one more point. “One last thing and then I think you can all go…unless there are other plans. I will say this as KAMA’s attorney, if you bring drugs onto any of the buses and it is discovered by police, I will demand immediate drug testing of every single one of you, including my niece and her husbands. Anyone found to have taken, used, smoked whatever the cops find, it will be you and you alone up on charges. This is not that kind of party. Cops love busting tour buses. The buses are supposed to be a drug-free and smoke-free zone anyway.” He asked for their commitments verbally and then reminded them about the clauses in their contracts. I thought a few of the roadies looked a little peeved, but then Lamar reminded them that the buses they were on belonged to Warner Music Group. The music super-conglomerate could and would blackball them if they got busted with drugs on that particular tour. They could drink to their hearts content, as long as they didn’t show up to work drunk, but that was it.

Once the KAMA Team and Lamar were satisfied with everything, we reminded the KAMA crew that we were due at Faina at two. The trip to the office was pretty uneventful. It was the middle of the day and we weren’t going near the tourist areas of the city so the traffic wasn’t even as bad as it could have been. In the management conference room the wigs had been unpacked and rested on their canvas head stands that were seated on the table. They were arranged in length order. The first wig was short. Like, I didn’t know you could make short wigs. It was cut into a cute style that kind of reminded me of Halle Berry, short on the sides and back with longer, sleek blonde and deep brown bangs that could be feathered for volume. It was fun and cutely sexy. The second was a sleek, sexy chin length bob. It would look good with the shorter, less formal stage outfits that Sexy Mama would be wearing in the hotter venues. It was a pretty deeper brown with barely there lighter brown highlights.

Her third wig really looked like a shorter version of what her own natural hair looked like. It was her natural color a brown darker than mine, but slightly lighter than actually black, but it only brushed her shoulders. Kind of made me horny thinking about that summer we shot our loads all over her kinky curls as a sayonara to them before she buried them back under a weave for the school year. Her real hair was about as long as the fourth wig. It was a shoulder length, deep brown wig with streaks of auburn and lighter brown shot through the big curls and sleeker, side swept bangs. The fifth was barely longer than the fourth, but the curls were tighter and darker. Like most of the wigs it had a side part on the left side. The sixth was the first one with a middle part. It was long enough that the ends curled under her boobs, where the previous one had rested on her cleavage. It was a darker brown with lots of golden brown highlights. The curls were really loose, like she would do with big rollers to give volume more than actual factual curls. The seventh was even longer, waist length or so. It had tighter curly waves and was a shade or three darker than her natural hair. It had a side part and I just knew she would look hot like fire in it. the final wig looked even more like Ms. Mercedes Jones than the others, though all of them seemed as if Veronica had created wigs that showed different sides to Cede. It was the longest of all the wigs. It went down to her hips and it just kind of waved like a mermaid’s hair from a center part. It was the darkest of all the wigs too.

Sam and I exchanged a look as Dee started helping Mercedes try on the wigs. She was telling our wife how she could use them with wig mics if she wanted to since she had them when Sam and I pulled Hudson to the side. “Have we paid Veronica yet?”

Our PA shook her head. “I have the invoice, but I think she low balled it because how much she loves Mercedes. I looked online and wigs that good…custom made could run anywhere from two grand to four grand each. Veronica only billed you guys four thousand. That might cover the cost of materials…but Dee said she had never seen wigs that were made so well. She swears that each one must have taken hours and hours of work…probably thirty to forty hours each.”

Sam nodded. “Puck…that’s what…thirty-two thousand, right?”

“Yeah…I’d round it up to thirty-five or forty though. Since the wigs are for the tour, we can seek reimbursement from Warner for a large part of it.” I pointed out.

Sam looked at Hudson decisively. “Veronica earned every dollar of the forty thousand we’re sending her. Can you go and have Saul cut a check on the Barclay’s account? We can sign it and send it off before we leave.”

Our PA-slash-big sister nodded and gave us a smile filled with pride. “Not a problem. I can bring it by Faina later and overnight it. She’ll have it before you guys take the stage tomorrow.”

“Good…now any idea how to separate Cede from her new hair…we’re due at the spa in like twenty minutes.”

It took some doing, and we were a few minutes late but we did get there. Plus, since we had basically rented the spa for the day, I mean there were thirty-two of us there for services, they didn’t have room for anyone else. We all got Cede’s favorite package, the four and half hour long ‘Ultimate Relaxation’ package with an added deep-sea mud detoxifying body wrap. The packages weren’t the end of it either though. There were the wax jobs…all the girls were waxed from stems to neck. Several of the guys decided to join the Dam Bros in having their man stubble waxed. Our bold and brave drummer went all in, by the time the waxers were finished with him, he was completely hair free. He kind of hated waxing, but Anika was still paying for it, so he did it just to stick it to ‘the man’ or ‘the woman’ as the case may have been. Sam and I did get the earlobe waxing and we had the back of our necks waxed…just to save Dee some time every week. After we left the spa, we made it home just in time to partake of Bautista’s delicious dinner.

We spent the night chilling around the family room. That day had been Nikki’s last school day, so we were treated to learning all about field day and how she and M&M had sucked at most of the games, but crushed the egg drop and any of the more science based ones. Sexy Mama, Bubbie, Kurt, Tana and Tina were going through the look books and deciding which wig would go with which look. We actually called it a pretty early night. Mainly so we could bone an extra time or two…we needed to say good bye to Cede’s zebra chairs. The next morning, we took care of our hygiene, threw on some pajamas, and pulled Nik-Nak up to the man cave and watched the Saturday morning cartoons of our youth. The good Teen Titans, The Batman, Static Shock, Jackie Chan Adventures, which was way better than most people would have thought, Code Name: Kids Next Door…man we had some seriously decent cartoons. Thank Yeshiva for Netflix and Hulu. It was a great way to bond with our little girl. We made sure that we scheduled time to FaceTime with her every day. We made sure that Hudson’s number was in her phone too. “If you need us, I don’t care if you know for sure that we’re in the middle of a set on stage, call us or Hudson. We won’t have our phones with us, but Hudson can get us if you need us okay?”

“I will.” She promised solemnly. “I’m gonna miss all three of you. But Bubbie said that we’ll come and meet you guys the week before Father’s Day, and be with you guys that whole week and go with you to Lima.”

“I’ll get to see you for Father’s Day…that will be the best gift you can give me and Sam.” I told her in complete honestly. We stayed there until our stomachs demanded sustenance. It was a good way to spend a morning. After brunch though, we had to get focused. Showers, somewhat out door acceptable clothing and we made it to the venue by two. The roadies, including Az and Karofsky, had already set up the stage so we could work with the techs and get the lighting and sound checks done. Everyone was there on time and we had our shit handled within an hour. That gave Max Scheinder, our opening act for the region, and Cassidy plenty of time to handle their shit too. While they were doing their checks, we adjourned to a large area back stage and were able to get in a quick but intense practice as a warm up. We were running the default set list that night. So, to be honest our main concern would be making sure that we did our changes right. At least that was what I was most nervous about.

Lamar and Brantley both checked the room over to make sure that the Rider had been fulfilled. We had everything we needed. The promoter had provided a really nice, healthy late lunch. The room had everything, including the brown M&Ms item, the specific, Air Wick lavender and chamomile essential oils plug ins…we were able to stay hydrated and get ready for the show. We asked them to make sure that the Crew had everything they needed and were assured that they did. After we showered, the three of us made sure that we moisturized and put on our MeUndies, Sam and I finally learned the name of the underwear that Kurt found for us that was so awesome. Sexy Mama put on her bra, the shiny, skin colored, thicker than pantyhose but still pretty sheer, shaper body stocking that covered her from her shoulders down to the vamps of her feet and the shaper camisole she’d be wearing for the first look of the evening and then put on a pretty kimono type robe she brought with her. Trina and Dee handled the three of our hair and makeup, while the others were prepped in their dressing rooms. Since Rickey wasn’t taking Cede’s weave out until the next day, Dee was giving her hair water waves with bumped under edges. Her makeup was stage ready, big bold lips and eyes and everything else just ramped up and smoothed out.

Sam and I had it pretty easy, we just got the spray stage makeup stuff that made sure the lights wouldn’t make us look like week old corpses. We sprayed antiperspirant over most of our bodies so we wouldn’t sweat like pigs under them either. Then we chilled out and watched some TV while we waited on them to finish with Cede. When she was finally released looking all glittery and fucking sexy as hell, me and Sam started getting dressed. Apparently, just as in regular fashion, there wasn’t a whole lot to men’s stage apparel. We were both in lighter colored khakis, and two different colors of the same Goodlife scallop hem v-neck tee shirts. Ivory for Sam and kind of faded red for me. We were in slightly different colored Timberland Westmore apron toe boots, mine were kind of darker than Sam’s. By the time we were done, Cede had donned her Gucci embroidered wide leg cuffed pants and her Steve Madden Andrea Cross strap platform sandals that were the perfect shade of red to match the word ‘Loved’ that was embroidered on her pants’ cuff. The pants were creased…I mean razor sharply creased. She looked really good…but it was nothing compared to how she looked when she finally put on the Alexander McQueen vintage ivory silk embroidered cropped jacket that she and Bubbie had found in a consignment store in her size and everything, and built our whole look around it. Every piece sparkled with small, shiny, glittery beadwork we’d paid a few FIT seniors a shitload to hand sew onto them. But the beadwork ebbed and flowed subtly, so it didn’t look overdone. Ms. Mercedes Jones looked like nothing less than a total boss.

Shortly after we were all dressed, one of the sound guys came in and fit us with our mics. We did a few more vocal exercises just to get things all warmed back up. It was a surprise when a stage manager hit us with the ten minute warning. We went out and had a group prayer with our band, dancers and singers. Sam took charge of it since Joe was out front with the swag sales. “Lord, we’ve come this fair by faith, leaning on your strength and wisdom. We know that you haven’t brought us this far to leave us. Lord, you know how many hearts are represented here. You know that we don’t all call you by the same name, but we know that you blessed us with the talents that have brought us to this spot. Please support us and take care of us your children. Keep us safe from hurt, harm and danger…accidents and illness. We ask that you allow us to have a great performance tonight. That our fans and even our critics and detractors leave this show feeling like it was awesome and epic and worth every one of their hard earned pennies. We hope that you will do so for the entirety of our tour. Thank you. In the name of the father, son and Holy Ghost and whatever other names those assembled call you by, we ask it all…AMEN!”

The last word was said all together. And we did a quick check to make sure that everyone was good, they were all ready to go. So we took that stage and for the next fifty-six minutes we owned that bitch. Our first set was ridic. We’d decided to do a mix of old and new songs but no matter what song we sang, the whole audience seemed to know every word. They loved us. The cheer that went up when we took the stage was so loud it made my heart jump. It was awe-inspiring and strangely humbly. I wanted to be worthy of their adulation. I didn’t even have the words it would take to explain exactly how I felt in moments like that. But the very best part was sharing it with Sexy Mama and Sammy Boy. The fourteen songs for that set were a mix of fast and slow, loving and more sexy plus a few that were just plain fun. Even though we had Artie working his licks full time, Sam and I both had our guitars and we’d hop on those when the song called for it, or when it was a Cede lead song. After we ended the set, which started with the original version of ‘Rescue Me’, with ‘Homewrecker’, a Cede led song from our second album…we headed back into the back.

In thirty minutes, we killed six bottles of water between us. We all took a piss and then we changed into our second look for the night. I was lucky, it was dark denim and a dark Henley for me…similar for Sam, but his shirt was a casual button down with quasi military details. We were both in boots again, mine, my favorite tech boots and Sam a pair of black cowboy boots that he’d liberated from Sander years before. Cede though…she looked sexy as fuck in a bright, bold purple, one shoulder jumpsuit that hugged all her curves just right and had a kind of flared leg. Black wedge sandals completed the look. Her hair was half pulled back to show off the quick makeup change too. Our spray on shit was refreshed and in no time at all we were back on that stage rocking our hearts out.

The second set started with Sam leading ‘Some Gave All’, his ode to the memory of his grandfather’s brother and all of our service men. Probably ‘Hard Out Here’ should be moved from immediately after that moving song. The set ended with a slow, meaningful love song, ‘Spend My Life with You’ where we all led different verses. It might be a good idea to switch that song with ‘Hard Out Here’…have a mellower song behind a deep one and leave them laughing and dancing for DJ Ca$$. As the final strains of that song floated away on the screams of the crowd, Cassidy’s tables and set up came through the center of the stage and we retreated to our dressing room. Our second quick change was super easy for me and Sam…we just had to change our shirts. The deep purple shirts were light enough to tell they weren’t black, but they were dark enough that you might think they were in some other light. Mine was a simple tee, Sam’s was a baseball tee. It was cool that our stylists made sure to include our personalities in their choices. But then again, they knew us better than most industry stylists ever would know their clients. So, it was probably easier. Mercedes Jones had, before becoming famous read an article in Cosmo that outlined how even the most fashion forward artists actually all dressed pretty much alike. So, she had decided that rather than fall into those pitfalls, she would…with the permission of pretty much every fashion house she loved…bring fashion onto the concert stage.

Cede sure as hell did that for our opening show’s Finale. A Moschino cropped one-shoulder top showed off her sexy shoulder and curvy breasts in a way I could almost guarantee the designer had totally intended. It was made for our Sexy Mama. It wouldn’t even be sold in stores until the following year. The black Rag and Bone high rise step hem capri skinny jeans showed the world how sexy thick, shapely thighs and strong curved calves could be. Then she finished it off with a pair of Louboutin black leather and gold metal sling back pumps that she’d fallen in love with the second Bubbie had showed them to her. Where Tana, Tina and Xena had been in a black version of the same jumpsuit she’d worn out for the second set, for the finale and encore, the girls were in similar, but more affordable versions of the look. Their one shoulder tops were almost the same shade of purple, but they came from Macys as did their black, capri skinny-jeans and black, sling back pumps.

The final set went well. There were no technical problems. The third set started with one of my leads, ‘Lost In Your Eyes’, in fact, I had three solos in that set, Lost, ‘Volvo Driving Soccer Mom’…my ode to all the MILFs I’d boned before…and ‘Almost Lover’. The wardrobe matrons had our white robes ready to go after ‘Love Me More’. So, when we launched into the slower, almost gospel-folk sounding ‘The Ballad of Tamir Rice’ which we followed with our cover of the sorrowful song’s inspiration, ‘The Death of Emmitt Till’. Then they were immediately ready to grab them so we could move into the Sam led ‘Insensitive’. The set finished with Cassidy coming back up through the floor and Idris Elba’s video started playing on the big screens around the ballroom. Our part of the concert had started with our original version of ‘Rescue Me’ and it ended with the remix. I loved that it put Cass on stage with us…to me that was how I liked it best, our whole Crew on one stage all together.

We left the stage, but allowed ourselves to be called out for an encore. But before we sang a lick, I moved to center stage. “Hello Hammerstein, have you been having fun?” I asked and the roar of approval that came back at me almost made me stagger back. “Good, that what we want. We want every one of you to have a great experience tonight and basically every day as you live your lives. That being said, one of our friends, tomorrow she undergoes surgery to make her outsides match who she has been all along. If you don’t mind, could we all take a second to pray to whatever deity you praise, or just send well wishes out to the universe for her, if you don’t believe in any. As Mercedes says, even if you don’t believe in God, He or She, still believes in you. Still hears you when you ask for something major. So, I think, if we all ask for this at the same time…I’m not going to say her name…because the last thing her doctors need is their hospital being blocked by protesters who think they know better than God. But if we all ask that she make it through the surgery, and any subsequent ones she might have to have well, and that the surgery be a success, then I do believe that that is exactly what will happen. So, just a moment of silence to ask for all the good for her.” I waited until I counted to sixty, which without the Mississippi’s, was probably more like thirty seconds. Then I spoke again. “Thank you all. Yeshiva Bless. Now Back to the music!”

We’d saved our sexiest songs for the end of the night on purpose. Including ‘Holler’ and ‘Pillow Talk’. Then you could tell that the sexy had gotten all the way down into Sexy Mama because she threw them a cover of Janet Jackson’s ‘Anytime Any Place’ that had me harder than a fucking brick. We finished the encore with ‘Rub You the Right Way’ and, I wasn’t even going to lie to myself…if it hadn’t been for Binkie, Junior and Hudson, we wouldn’t have made it back to our dressing room before me and Sam had Mercedes screaming our name. There was a lot on the fucking rider that I’d put in to be an asshole…I knew it. but I was damn glad to see that the promoter had come through with the unopened twelve pack of Trojan double X-L condoms. I know that we had that pack opened before Hudson could close the door behind them. As awesome as the previous four hours had been, the best part of the night had to be feeling Cede’s tight pussy clenching and squeezing me as the two of us blew Sammy Boy’s cock until he came all over our chests.

The dressing room had a small shower in the bathroom, so we took turns getting cleaned up. The guy even had Cede’s Dove soap. Once we were clean, we got dressed and Sam had found a note asking that we let the promoter know when we were ready for the food listed on our after-concert rider. So, we texted Lamar to ask that he let the guy know. The dude’s people brought in hot buffalo wings, Cede’s olives, the champagne, cold water and the small sandwich tray. We tore through the food like we’d tore through the condoms. Hudson, Trina and Dee came in and had everything packed up in a trice, then we got ourselves together for the masses. With the door open, the people with the VIP backstage passes could start to come and get their things signed and shit. We pressed the flesh and took pictures and kissed babies and everything for two hours then things started shutting down. People started heading to after parties. We grabbed our shit and headed our happy asses back up to Harlem. It had been a long ass night and we didn’t have many that we could sleep in our own beds left.

Man, I couldn’t wait for the morning trades to see what the critics had to say about our opening night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2
Escape Velocity (The Chemical Brothers)
Ambient PoV
Lima, Ohio

By the official beginning of the summer, Rachel Berry had been convalescing at the Lost Creek Healthcare and Rehab Center for an entire month. In that time, she had regained full consciousness and she was no longer constrained by any casts or bandages. She was, however, still regaining the full use of her motor functions. Her fine motor skills had not been noticeably impaired, but she seemed to have trouble walking more than a few steps or standing for more than a moment or two at a time. Since Hiram and Antwan had full time jobs and three very small children at home, it was decided that Rachel should receive her rehabilitation in patient. The truth, unknown to her fathers, was that Rachel preferred it that way. She knew that when she returned home, it would be entirely too easy to forget herself. And move in a way that was not all congruous with the statements she had made to the doctors and nurses overseeing her care. For while Rachel truly felt that their care left much to be desired…it was still far better than the alternative.

The alternative was facing a life with little to no immediate way to achieve her destiny. Once she was released, Rachel had nowhere to go but back to her fathers’ basement. While NYU had been sympathetic to her assault…her new situation…the truth was that her grades had been less than stellar. Not a single one of her teachers had felt that she was worth the drama and trouble of holding her place. Oh, they had prettied it up, couched it in Rachel needing to take the time she needed to heal. A certain Dean of Students had bluntly told the Misters Berry that Rachel added nothing positive to the campus environment. When apprised of the events of the spring semester of her freshman year and the exact details of her interactions around the campus…many Dr. Girardi knew of from others involved, but had no way to prove…Antwan and Hiram had been forced to admit that the professors and administrator were right not to hold a place for their eldest daughter. Once she was fully healed, and had proper medical clearance, she could seek readmittance as a second semester sophomore. But she would be subject to their stringent entrance standards. No one said aloud that her grades the previous three semesters weren’t good enough to get her back in that prestigious school. No one had to.

It was an unfortunate set back but not, Rachel was sure, an insurmountable one. She just had to manage to convince her fathers to let her have some time to find her center. And to give her the money to find a suitable publicist. Then she would return to New York and take Broadway by storm. With her new, slightly -almost- tragic back story and the news coverage thereof, the cache of her name would provide could well open doors that her incomparable talent had not. Rachel realized that she had been very naïve, believing that pure talent and a superlative work ethic could see her reach the heights that were her due, But the success of Mercedes Jones, a much lesser talent no matter what anyone else said, as far as Rachel was concerned, had nevertheless taught Rachel a valuable lesson. In modern America, titillation and sensationalization were what created meteoric rises in status, wealth and power. Rachel finally understood that…after all it was the only theory that made the universe make sense again.

At first, Rachel had been bothered and bewildered by the news coverage after the vicious attack on her person. The news anchors had barely covered her and her condition. She was only relevant in that she had a connection to KAMA. Which really was a stupid name, by the way. The journalists spoke of how despite the acrimony between them and Rachel, Mercedes, Sam and Noah…along with Santana, Brittany, Artie, Blaine and Kurt had rushed immediately to the hospital and even offered to cover any bill if the hospital administrators needed such assurance until her fathers could arrive with insurance documentation. One of the news stories had even included a short statement for their publicist that basically said that no matter what had happened between Rachel and the rest of her old friends, her fathers and baby siblings were a part of KAMA’s family and KAMA always took care of their family. Initally, Rachel had seethed at Mercedes, Sam and Noah trying to claim her family as their own. However, after hearing the thoughts and gossip of the nursing staff at Lost Creek, Rachel had had an epiphany. Even with all their jealousy and envy and hatred, her eight former friends had made a strategic choice and it had worked. One couldn’t buy that kind of positive publicity.

She never even thought of the fact that her former friends had anything other than selfish and self-serving motives. As she would have in their position. Rachel would never understand that KAMA was not trying to steal her family. They just wanted to support their people. She would also never understand why the nurses were always playing rock-paper-scissors outside her door. The truth was that none of the nurses, orderlies…even the doctors…wanted to deal with the annoying recovering coma patient. The day shift charge nurse said it best, ‘she was a hell of a lot more pleasant to deal with when she was dead to the world and couldn’t help shitting herself.’

Still, Rachel was using the time of her convalescence to regroup and renew her focus. On a Saturday in May, one the entertainment media refused to allow anyone to forget was the first night of KAMA’s sold out North American tour, Rachel stood staring out her room’s window, practicing Schwartz’s Meadowlark. She turned, singing still as a knock sounded at her door. She quickly took a seat at a nearby table before telling the person to come in. Shelby Cochran entered with a small bouquet of miniature roses. “Rachel, how are you feeling?” the older woman asked pleasantly. “Antwan and Hiram said that you were up to receiving visitors.”

Upon awakening, Rachel had immediately put an end to visitors. She refused to allow anyone to see her in her diminished state. She’d been kept unaware of the fact that many of her former classmates’ parents had been by with things to brighten her room or food for whichever of her fathers had been sitting with her at the time. Like the nursing center staff, they too thought that she’d been far, far easier to deal with when completely insensate.

Rachel gave her biological mother an appraising look. “I’m much improved from being comatose after having been beaten to the edge of life by some ruffians. I am still experiencing some distressing weakness in the leg that was so severely broken. I am sure that it is only temporary. How are you and your daughter fairing?” She returned politely. If there was a bit of bite to the final question, neither woman acknowledged it.

“Beth and I are doing really, very well. She will start kindergarten in the fall. She already knows all her colors, letters, numbers. She is already showing highly advance mathematical skills, actually. And she can write the entire family’s names…all of us, me and David, Quinn and Francine, Commune, their parents and brothers and sisters. David and I married last September and Quinn and Noah have given me their blessing to allowing him to formally adopt her.” Shelby told her with a smile unlike any Rachel had ever seen on the other woman’s face in any of their previous interactions. Shelby looked happy in a way that was all encompassing…perfectly, purely happy. Rachel found herself a little uncomfortable in the face of Shelby’s joy. “I was saddened to learn of your attack. It was very startling for something like that to happen to someone I know and care about. I can only imagine how horrified and scared your poor parents were when they got the call.”

Rachel found that despite the work she had done…the brutal annihilation of any and all sentiment she’d hoped to breed between herself and Shelby Cochran…she had held out some residual hope that Shelby would have heard about the attack and realized that she wanted to, needed to, take her rightful place in Rachel’s life. It died a little bit more in that moment. But Rachel considered herself to be a consummate actress. She forced a smile onto her face and pretended to be unbothered by the dismissal of her wants and desires, by what she perceived as the rejection of her love. “Yes, it was very hard on them.” she said in what she hoped Shelby would believe was sorrow at what Hiram and Antwan had been put through rather than for her own lack of maternal affection. “I am sure that it was made even more difficult by the fact that they had to choose between me and the babies.” That was actually a thought that brought Rachel immeasurable amounts of comfort. When forced by the hand of fate to choose between the triplets and herself, Hiram and Antwan Berry had made the right choice and rushed to her side, leaving those unnecessary carbuncles to the care of veritable strangers.

Shelby noticed a strange glint in Rachel’s eyes and, in her own desire for a positive outcome for the first child she’d born, misread it as simply the continued after effects of having such a close beush with death. She knew that, though he dealt with the situation in a healthy manner and spoke with a campus counselor, Finn was still sometimes haunted by his accident and the days and weeks when he had been locked in a nightmare of what might have been. The two women, so similar and yet so different, related only by blood conversed a little more before Shelby finally reached the point of her visit. “Rachel, I came to check on you, yes…but your fathers have been very good about keeping me up to date on how you are doing. There is something that I need to tell you. I wanted to be the first to tell you, in fact. I rather think it would be disconcerting to hear this news from someone else. I-well-David and I are pregnant.”

Rachel was so surprised that she didn’t even take a moment to censure her words or try and figure out what emotion she was probably expected to express in that situation. “But you’re old.” She blurted out.

Shelby shook her head. “I’m forty-three, Rachel. Women older than that have children every day. and while it wasn’t planned or even expected, we are happy about the news. I know that you felt I adopted Beth to replace you, so I’m not sure what this knowledge will make you feel. Bur I do care about you and thought that it would be best if you heard it ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ as it were.”

Rachel couldn’t have put words to how she felt in that moment if someone had offered her a million dollars and the Tony for the Lead in Funny Girl. So, she fell back on the manners she’d learned so well as a child. “I am sure that you and Mr. Martinez, that is right? Well, I am sure that you and your husband are very happy and I wish you a healthy pregnancy and baby.”

Shelby felt the dismissal inherent in Rachel’s tone and allowed the twenty-one-year-old to have the last word and said her goodbyes. As soon as the door closed behind Shelby, Rachel flew into a rage. She destroyed the bouquet Shelby had brought with her and all the other blossoms, blooms and balloons that decorated her small but private room. Finally, she sank to the floor, hoarse from holding back the screams of rage, anger and jealousy that were pulsating through her heart, her very being. The tears that flowed down her cheeks honest as most before them had never been. The nurse found her an hour later still on the floor awash in envious anger and hate.

Feeling Good (Nina Simone)
Ambient PoV
Chicago, Illinois

James Lamar Gibbs, the third was having one hell of a summer. He’d returned to Cleveland and spent a week with his mother and younger sisters, one of whom was entering her senior year of high school that fall and took every chance she could to pick his brain on choosing a college. He then spent a weekend in Lima with his girlfriend of more than two years. James relationship with Quinn Fabray may have begun as something neither was looking for…but it was built on a foundation of friendship and the fact that they had taken the time to get to know each other more deeply than anyone else could ever claim to. James was always understanding of her point of view. Quinn never seemed to think that his thoughts or feelings were less valid than her own. They treated each other with respect and love. James protected Quinn where it was important, but also trusted that she could, would and did have the strength to protect herself if the situation called for it. James liked Quinn’s friends and was liked in return. Thankfully, the same was true of how James friends felt about Quinn. They did like her, though, other than his Dalton friends, they had less in common with her than her friends had with James. They would be moving in together come the fall and there was something very important to James that needed to happen first.

Unbeknownst to Quinn, James had already started making plans and moving on them to see to it that his respect for her was never in any doubt from any person…ever. His first step had been getting together with her two best friends. There had been no hesitation or reservations about contacting Santana Lopez and Mercedes Jones. The two, very different, young women had been his girl’s besties since long before he knew her. One was so close they called each other sister and the other was the best frenemy a girl could ever ask for. A trip to Manhattan was out of the question, however. No way could he manage it without Quinn knowing about it. But, it was almost too easy to arrange a Facetime session with the young women, busy though they both were. As soon as he had laid out the reason for the call, Santana had immediately informed him that no woman in the Fabray family had said yes to a ring not from Tiffany’s in over a hundred and fifty years.

“The women in Quinn’s family have the words ‘Old Money’ tattooed on their asses at birth.” She informed him seriously.

It was Mercedes that filled in the details of Quinn’s preferences. “Quinn likes simple, elegant jewelry. A solitaire with a large, good quality stone. Something that speaks of wealth but it shouldn’t be any bigger than two or three carats. Apparently, Mr. Fabray’s mother considered Quinn’s mom’s ring gauche and unladylike at five.” She told him helpfully.

James took their advice down. Yes, he made notes. He went through every ring on the Tiffany website. He wanted to make sure that he found her the perfect ring, even if it wasn’t specifically designated as an engagement ring. Ultimately, after much consultation with Santana and Mercedes, the ring he chose for her was a Tiffany’s engagement collection ring. The Lucida with a simple polished band and a two and a half carat diamond seemed to be the perfect choice. But before he plucked down upwards of fifty thousand dollars on a ring, he wanted one last opinion. Circumstances had ensured that the perfect person was close by. James was living and working with his Great-Uncle Steve in Chicago and fairly nearby in the same city, Francine Fabray was interning with a preeminent psychiatrist. The future in laws were easily able to meet for lunch near the Doctor’s office in the Lakeview area of town.

As soon as he pushed in Francine’s chair at La Creperie, James asked her how she was doing. They both knew he was asking about far more than her physical well-being. Judith Fabray had been released from prison several weeks before. Francine had, by virtue of being the Fabray sister closest to Lima, been the one present when Judith took possession of her things. Attorney Patterson had been there as Francine and Quinn’s legal representation, but Judith had still managed to make thing as miserable as possible. She’d even tried contacting both of her daughters…despite a continued court order prohibiting any and all contact not initiated by the daughters Fabray.

Francine answered him honestly since she knew that James was only asking because he really was concerned. “I think I finally understand what Danica Jones meant when I asked her the same question a few days before that Macardo asshole came forward and all those news people were still trying to claim that KAMA had done the whole tape thing on purpose. She told me that her ‘soul was weary’. I didn’t get it then. I just thought that she was talking about being really tired. I get it now. She wasn’t physically tired but everything within her had felt like it had taken a beating. That’s how I’m feeling now.” She confessed. “Mom-Judith- calls constantly trying to force her way back into our lives. I know that I can turn her in for it. I know that I probably should turn her in for it. But I can’t seem to make myself make that call, ya know?”

James nodded. “Peaches is having the same dilemma. Things were better when we were still at school. It seemed like your mother called a lot less when Que had classes and studying and everything to worry about. Plus, she was ten hours from Lima…so there was none of the stalking kind of ‘running into her in the grocery store’ thing. What does she even want?”

Francine shook her head in befuddlement. “Who even knows. Her alimony is still the same, yes…but Daddy pays her rent and basic utilities. When you point that out, she just complains about the apartment she’s living in. Which, again, I don’t get. It’s in a nice area of Lima, and okay, it not luxurious or huge but it’s still a nice place. And strings had to be pulled to get them to even rent to her with a record, so one would think she would be grateful.” Francine saw the side eye James gave her and questioned it. “What’s that look for?”

“Frannie, you know I already consider you my sister, so I can say thins and you know that you and Peaches are exceptions to the rule. I’ve met your father, your mother, and even a few of your cousins…don’t not a one understand the concept of being grateful.”

“Yeah, well…” she couldn’t argue the truth of his words. “Probably Lucy learned it from the Joneses and taught it to me. Because I am grateful that my sister has a man who had loved and supported her through all the madness. So, let’s leave all the Fabray family drama behind. I want to see the ring that you’ve picked. I’ve gotta make sure that you’re getting something she’s gonna love.”

James had the screenshot pulled up in a heartbeat. “Santana said that it had to be Tiffany’s to satisfy the family tradition. And Mercedes said that it should be simple and elegant with a quality stone that was large, but not too big or it would be gauche and gaudy. Something about your grandmother and mom.”

Francine smiled as she mentally assessed the ring for all the qualities that would most please her sister. It had them all. “It’s a great ring. So, perfect for her. I’m sure that Quinnie is going to love it.” she assured him. James let out a sigh of relief. “She’s a size five and a half.”

“Santana and Mercedes made sure I would never forget. I think they did everything but make me write it five times each like spelling words in elementary school.” He admitted.

She laughed. “You know, my mother made my father buy her a ridiculously gaudy ring. Five carat center stone with a pave band…all because she wanted a ring bigger than any of her friends had. Grandmere wasn’t a fan of the thing…but do you know, the only times she ever said anything verbally about it? When Judith said something to crush Quinn’s happiness in front of Grandmere. I clearly remember this one time. Lucy had been proudly telling Grandmere and Grandpapa about her grades, which were always stellar, often even better than mine. Judith cut her off…told her that it was unbecoming of a lady to boast. Even though our grandparents wanted to know and I had just finished doing basically the exact same thing. Then Judith threw in a little dig about the fact that Lucy was a little plumper and had Grandpapa’s nose which was Aquiline to say the least. She always did that…made Lucy feel as if she was lesser because she wasn’t exactly like me and Judith.”

“Well, Grandmere watched the smile drop from Lucy’s face. She didn’t say anything immediately. But as soon as she was able to, she steered the conversation to Judith’s ring. ‘Yes, Judith, I suppose that Russell really had no choice but to get you such a hefty, gaudy engagement ring. It creates the illusion that your fingers are thinner, longer…more ladylike. Thank goodness that Lucille and Francine have hands more like mine.’ I watched as Judith’s face looked as crestfallen as Lucy’s had. Grandmere would look very satisfied then. She had made Mother feel self-conscious and horrid…just like Judith had done to Quinn.”

The two of them at the table shared a laugh over the savory crepes they’d enjoyed as they talked. “I think I would have liked your Grandmere.”

Frannie shook her long blonde hair. “Probably not. She wasn’t a racist, but she was definitely a serious snob. While your family is rich enough to be somewhat acceptable, she’d have still had issues. You’re nouveau riche, you know.” She told him in an exaggeratedly snooty way that sent them back into peals of laughter. The rest of their lunch was hurriedly wrapped up to go when Francine realized that her lunch hour was almost over.

As soon as they left the restaurant that Tuesday, James started making the arrangements. He made sure that his money was right so that he’d be able to get the ring of his woman’s dreams without negatively impacting their shared plans. He already had the tickets for KAMA’s Chicago stop, complete with VIP backstage passes. With a single phone call, he made the arrangements with Mercedes, Sam and Noah for one hell of a memorable proposal. He made reservations at a lovely restaurant near the United Center for dinner before the concert and reserved a room at the Four Seasons for them the weekend before the concert and the night thereof. James actually didn’t have much in the way of expenses during the week. He was staying with his great-uncle and his great-aunt Marjorie so he didn’t have rent. But by the same turn, when he and Quinn met up in Warsaw, Indiana to spend a weekend together, James paid for everything. It wasn’t a problem…he made good money doing IT work for his great-uncle and aunt’s foundation and production company for the last couple of summers. But they had big plans and he didn’t want to mess anything up. To ensure that things went as he wanted them to go, James started practicing some of the austerity measures he’d grown up with. No more eating three meals a day in restaurants. He woke up early and made himself breakfast. It was just for him, since Steve was already in the second hour of his show when James got up and it would be a few more hours before Marjorie would start her day. their housekeeper always offered to make his breakfast, but he hated creating more work for Serena. Besides, she made his lunch and it was always tons better than the sandwich and chips that he’d have probably made himself if left to his own devices. He left his car in the garage and used mass transit. He left Starbucks alone and drank coffee from the break room at the office. Small things that added up.

Of course, the changes didn’t go unnoticed. Steve Harvey saw the belt tightening and decided that he wanted to know what was at the root of it. He grabbed James one Saturday morning about two weeks after the changes started. “Alright Kid, what’s up?” Steve started as they drove to the comedian’s favorite barbershop. “You managed to go through all your college fund even with all those scholarships you got? You didn’t develop a gambling habit or nothing, did you?”

“Naw Unc. Nothing like that.” James said shaking his head. He’d been very blessed. Steve had set him up with a fat college fund when he was younger, with his mom as the administrator of the account. But James had won scholarships that took care of roughly half his tuition and room and board and fees every semester. Rather than take the extra money back, Steve and Kay had decided that she would pay the full amount before the scholarships hit. Then when James had a surplus, the school would give him the extra money. The excess funding usually came to around twenty-five grand. James never put more than five thousand into his checking account and the rest was placed into a high interest saving account. The truth was that James Gibbs was a saver. He didn’t spend to excess and he saved a lot of what he earned over the summer. Plus, a month didn’t go by that his family members didn’t slip some change into his checking account just to make sure he had what he needed. “I’m just…I’m getting ready to get Quinn an engagement ring. Been two years, time to put a ring on it.”

“Aw hell, you sure you got enough. I mean, I know a man wants to do this kind of shit for his damn self…stand on his own two feet…but that white girl is old money rich. You can’t get down on one knee with some gumball machine-cracker jack box ring.” Steve returned wisely. The entertainment giant actually liked Quinn Fabray. She was not exactly who he expected his great-nephew to end up with, but she was intelligent, strong, beautiful, had dignity and loyalty and money of her own. She was also connected to one of the most popular music groups on the scene. Thanks to that connection, Steve always got an interview when they were doing publicity and they sometimes just called in to shoot the shit on air. That had expanded the market share of the Steve Harvey Morning Show by giving him a large new, younger audience. James solidifying his relationship with Quinn Fabray solidified Steve’s ability to count KAMA’s fans as a part of his audience.

“I’m okay on the ring.” James said honestly. Taking the chance to get another opinion on his choice, he whipped out his phone and showed Steve the screen shot that was still saved to his phone.

Steve sounded appropriately impressed. “That’s a nice ring…Tiffany’s, that’s good. You ran it past her sister and best friend right?”

James told him the story of the Facetime meeting and his lunch with Francine. “So, yeah, I’m confident that she’s going to love the ring. I’m just wanting to make sure that I don’t mess up all the stuff already in the works. You know we’re getting ready to close on that house in New Haven for all of us.”

“The one that you all had my lawyers help you with the LLC paperwork so you and all your roommates could go in together to buy it?” Steve clarified. When James nodded, he asked a follow up. “You all did a partnership agreement too, right?”

“Yes sir, ten people all with equal shares.” James assured his great-uncle. Everyone had agreed, over Kat’s objections, that she too would have an equal share even though she didn’t have as much to put in on the down payment. It was spelled out specifically in the partnership agreement just in case one of them suddenly developed asshole tendencies.

“Good…never let it be said that you got fucked in the game because you were too damn trusting.” Steve warned. “Speaking of…you need to go ahead and get your mind right…you two are going to need to have a prenup…not just for you, but for your girl.”

James knew his great uncle was right…but he still didn’t like the implications of a prenup. However, he just said a very respectful, “Yes, Sir.”

“So, what are you worried about if you’ve got your money right for the ring?” Steven asked bewildered.

James couldn’t not smirk. It was so weird to see his Great-Uncle confused. “I’m just trying to keep my money right for the rest of the week. Quinn’s was already coming up to go with me to the KAMA concert. I have us reservations at Grace for before it and we’ll have a Premier Lakeview Suite at the Four Seasons from Friday night to Wednesday. But even with not having to buy our tickets for that night…I’m still coming up off at least five grand for the stuff I can plan ahead.”

Steve looked thoughtful. “That’s low balling it. I mean, you’re talking five to six days of meals and entertainment. Marjorie and I will have y’all and the family over for dinner Sunday night, but that still gives you like fifteen other meals. And you’re going to ask your woman to be your bride, you’ve gotta look good when you do. Tell you what, I’m gonna take you to Syd Jerome. My man there he’ll make you a custom suit. You can take off the tie for the concert and after party. You’re gonna have to step correct.”

“Thanks Uncle Steve. You sure you won’t take too much flack for me marrying a white girl?”

“Ahn…fuck ‘em. You love your girl and she loves you. She ain’t out for your paper or mine. She’s smart and working on having her own shit together. You’ve been together for a while and have been solid for years. Your Momma and Sisters like her so you’re all good as far as I’m concerned.” Steve assured his nephew. “Now, the concert isn’t until Tuesday…what you got planned for the weekend?”

The new suit and some brainstorming weren’t all that happened from that conversation. James cousins were soon brought into the loop. Junior and Tommy both chimed in with their ideas on how to make the proposal as special as possible. They were so emphatic about helping that James ended up being very grateful for the break from their assistance that was provided by the trip James had to make to New Haven to meet up with his roommates turned partners. They were due in their college city the last Friday of June to close on the seven bedroom, six and a half bath house they were buying just minutes from campus. Though, truth be told, James was also grateful for the time he got to spend with Quinn…he always happy for any time he got to spend in her presence. They talked a couple of times a day, but the weekends they got to spend together always seemed to end too soon.

As James flew to Dayton, where Quinn would meet him during his layover and they would fly the rest of the way to New Haven together, he let his thoughts take him back to through the long process of finding a house that the ten different personalities could agree on. They had started by taking Victor’s advice and sitting down together to make a list of must haves. Since there were so many of them, they decided that they would each only add one thing they couldn’t live without and leave spots for the things that were universal. Like the fact that they all wanted some place completely move-in ready. A place that had all the modern amenities, like updated wiring and plumbing and being wired for cable and internet. They wanted a place with at least five bedrooms and four bathrooms, not including any half baths. The kitchen had to be nice but also functional. They needed onsite laundry and the girls all swore that having it on the same floor as the bedrooms was the best idea ever. Though they could live with basement laundry, if they needed to, but none of them were willing to do garage laundry rooms. Those were never heated. James and Drew wanted dedicated computer space. They were fine with sharing it, but it was a necessity for them given their majors. Everyone agree that they needed a shared hangout space that could be a completely education free zone.

Ultimately they found a great house, less than five minutes from campus. It had seven bedrooms and six full bathrooms, including a master suite. The house was on a five acre lot and had been nicely renovated. Because it had been languishing on the market for a few months, the area schools weren’t as good as they were just a few streets away and it really was a family home, their group had been able to get what had been a million dollar listing for seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They’d put down two hundred thousand dollars as a down payment on a ten year mortgage. That brought each of their responsibility for the mortgage, property taxes and home owner’s insurance to six hundred and seventy-five dollars a month. Together they agreed that they would each put in an additional two hundred and twenty-five dollars a month for utilities, common needs like laundry supplies, toilet paper and paper towels and groceries. Kat was happy that the monthly payments were affordable for her and even left her enough to maintain her car insurance and her car over all. She still felt badly that she’d only been able to scrape together five thousand herself to put in on the down payment and yet had an equal share in the future equity and rental income.

However, Kat had skills she knew her roommates didn’t all possess. She made them all agree that she would handle the grocery shopping and the cooking. It was actually a very easy sell. The only other person who was actually used to grocery shopping was James and he hated the activity. He, Victor, Max and Drew could all cook certain things…but none of them could make a whole meal. They did force Kat to allow them to help out as did Topanga and Taylor. Brad and Quinn had never even learned to make tea. It had been Kat to convince them that the remodeled kitchen of the house on Edgehill Road had been perfectly remodeled even if it hadn’t been done with any thoughts as to the current trends. There was an area that was big enough for a table and chairs for them all to eat in there so the large dining room with its walkout to the great back deck would become a ten-person study. The house had a large, completely finished basement that fit their needs for a ‘no school work’ gathering place. The bathrooms were all up dated and the house was bright and airy and open.

Once the house was officially theirs, the ten friends had an unfortunate realization. They still had to buy furniture. Deciding to put that thought to the side for a later time, Kat convinced her friends to let her and her family treat them to dinner. The drive wasn’t as bad as it could have been, taking just under an hour. The second they tasted the pizza at Mystic Pizza, they all sighed. James looked around and put words to all of their thoughts. “This pizza is worth every second of that drive. Kat-girl, you’ve been holding out.” He chided jokingly.

Kat just laughed. “I didn’t want to get you guys addicted. Have you dropping out because you’re too busy tearing up the road between New Haven and Mystic to make it to your classes.” She quipped back. She had pitched in getting their orders and drinks and delivering everything to the table, even though she had the day off. Finally finished serving the large group, she took her seat at the table and as they all dug in, the pragmatist that she was, she jumped right into the elephant in the corner. “Okay, we’ve got the house. We thought that we had planned for everything. But none of us thought about furniture. And on the way here, I thought about something else, we’ll need to get the kitchen all kitted out. We don’t have pots and pans or even dishes or silverware…well not really. I mean, we have some from the dorm…but not really.”

Taylor cosigned. “We’ll need things like shower curtains and bathmats and cleaning supplies.” She slumped in her chair. “I don’t know how much that kind of stuff costs, but I know that it adds up quick and if I tap into my college fund too much more, I’m not going to be able to make my part of the mortgage for the whole period of the loan.” She said honestly.

Topanga looked miserable, but she was in the same place. Brad was better off, but only because his scholarships included a stipend of fifteen hundred bucks a month. Quinn looked thoughtful. “Guys, give me a second.” She hissed as she whipped out her phone. The conversation that followed between Quinn and her father was a master class in WASP emotional manipulation. Without ever giving anyone at the table any clue as to why she was able to wheedle extra money out of her father, Quinn managed to get Russell Fabray to give her and her roommates fifteen thousand dollars to start the process of furnishing and outfitting their new domicile. Their celebration took on a much less somber tone with that information. They knew that they would not be able to afford to do the personal spaces, each person would bear the responsibility of furnishing and decorating their own space. James quickly told Quinn that he would take care of their shared bedroom.

That led to them remembering something else they’d put off, on purpose in that case. “Oh shoot…we said that since we didn’t want to jinx anything we’d decided rooms after the closing.” Max pointed out. “Since Que got us to money to get furniture…I say that she and James get the master bedroom.” that motion was very quickly seconded and passed. Though Quinn and James tried to defer…they really didn’t try all that hard. Besides as Max pointed out they were the only couple among them so it made the most sense for them to have that particular suite any way.

Brad spoke up. He didn’t talk a lot. to be honest, with all the talking his roommates and friends did, he had trouble getting a word in edgewise. So, when he made the effort to make his opinion heard, the other nine individuals made sure to pay attention. “I don’t mind sharing a room and if Max doesn’t mind either, I think we should be roommates. Our majors are similar enough that we share books and notes and it would just be easier.” He didn’t mention that he didn’t date because he was so much younger than most of the young women in his year and Max didn’t date because he was so very focused on his studies. The two of them sharing a room made a lot of sense.

Taylor pulled out her tablet and pulled up the floorplan of the house that she’d saved months ago. “Alright…I’d suggest that the Brad and Max…and whoever else is willing to pair up…they get the larger non-master bedrooms.” Everyone quickly agreed to that.

Kat raised her hand. “The bedrooms with the gables in the attic.” She began with a timidity no one was used to seeing from her. “I’d like one of those.”

Drew spoke without thinking. “Victor never brings girls back to his place…I never have a girl to bring back, Topanga, you and Cory could save a lot if you didn’t have to get a hotel room when he comes for a visit…same for you and your boyfriend, Taylor.” He honestly couldn’t remember Taylor’s boyfriend’s name. She and the first guy they had met, her high school boyfriend Chad, had broken up over the previous summer and her current boyfriend was a student at Dartmouth that she’d met doing Model UN. No one had really bothered to remember his name. Mainly because he was one of those people who seemed completely boring until he was comfortable with you. So only Taylor saw the memorable in him.

Victor looked thoughtful. “Well, the best excuse for going to their room or a hotel is always, my roommate is home. I am fine with sharing with Drew. Especially since he and James will have a completely separate computer den.”

Harrison smirked. “I’ll take the bedroom up top with Kat, then. It is a lovely room and there will be room for my easel.” It had taken the better part of the previous two school years for Harrison to become comfortable enough with his friends to let them know that he wasn’t just an Art History major…he actually painted himself.

The friends made more plans and were happily looking forward to the rest of their summers at home and the coming semester. James couldn’t wait for the last Tuesday in July. He was certain that it would go down as one of the best days of his entire life. Quinn had no clue what was coming…but she was certainly looking forward to five continuous nights with the man she loved.

Who Says (Selena Gomez)
Ambient PoV
New York, New York

Jesse St. James was having the best year of his life. He had gotten an incredible part in an Off-Broadway musical that had made it to the big time. It would start the preview performances in July and would open in August on Broadway. He was bringing home a little under seven thousand dollars a month after taxes. Which, admittedly would not have gone as far in New York as it would elsewhere, but after his reconciliation with his parents and their worry about him after the brutal attack on someone they sort of knew, his father was paying his rent on a functional and cute little studio apartment in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. It was far better than the loft in Queens he had shared with several other young, determined actors when he’d first moved to New York. With that major hurdle out of the way, Jesse was able to live quite a nice life. He took a gourmet cooking class that helped him to solve his constant eating out problem.

Though he did find himself often frequenting a restaurant near the Manhattan School of Music campus. He had met a young lady, a student at MSM, at Blujeen when one of his cast mates had dragged the entire cast to their favorite restaurant to celebrate the extension of their run to through to April. Christina Nghiem was simply beautiful. At fife foot one, and weighing only a hundred and five pounds, she was a tiny little thing. Her hair was raven wing black with blue and purple streaks the first time he saw her and she was dressed primarily in a black tennis skirt and black tank top with a purple plushy hand flipping a stuffed animal bird. She was sitting at a table next to them, reading an actual book. When their food arrived, Jesse reached for the pepper shaker near him only to get beaten to it and given a look that let him know that he’d be the last person at the table to use it. He shrugged it off, it was an established process in their case dinners. So, he asked her to borrow hers. When she spoke…her voice…it created a visceral reaction within him. “Here you go.” Three words and Jesse wanted to hear more. Before anyone could say a thing, he’d dusted his grilled salmon loin with the pepper and quickly stood and took a seat at her table.

Jesse didn’t care that his food got cold and he ended up getting the whole thing boxed up. He left there with her name and phone number. Over the next week they called and texted. It wasn’t until they had talked daily for a full week and a half that Jesse asked her for an official date. They had gotten to know each other very well. Jesse had learned that Christina’s grandfather was from a very wealthy Vietnamese family but had almost been disowned when he fell in love with and eloped with an American nurse during the Vietnam war. They had settled in London after the war. Her mother and father had met in a coffee house in Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany when they were visiting Festspielhaus…opera’s Mecca. Her father worked for NPR and her mother for PBS. He learned that, like him, she had auditioned for Juilliard and not made it all the way through the week, though she’d made it a day farther than he had.

Christina was shocked to realize that Jesse was seeing a counselor because of the loss of his brother, in front of his eyes, when he was very young and the internalization of his parent’s guilt and grief. She learned that due to his own bravado and over-inflated ego, he’d washed out of the performing arts program at UCLA. It had surprised her because she never expected him to be so honest about his faults. Jesse told her of the day Shelby had saved his life. He told her about how hard he’d worked to replace bravado and arrogance with hard work and humility. He spoke of the gratitude he had for Shelby and Dr. Jones, a man who’d shown him a small kindness when he had no need to and every reason not to. “Uống nước nhớ nguồn”, she said gently. “It is one of my Grandfather’s favorite sayings. It means that ‘Gratitude is the sign of noble souls’. You’ve learned to be appreciative and honor the things others have done for you. It is a major step in growing up.”

“Well, I hope that the rest of the journey isn’t as painful as that first step. I’ve had some times where I thought that it would be so much easier to revert. But when I behaved that way…nothing great happened. I mean, yeah, I won some show choir competitions…but I’m guessing that I won those because of Shelby’s good karma, not my own. Now though, I’ve got a much improved…dare I say great…relationship with my parents. I’ve got my dream job, an amazing role in a musical that’s moving from Off-Broadway to very much on Broadway. I’m friendly with people who should still want to punch me in the face every time they see me. A connection which, I do not deserve, yet it has given me access to a gifted stylist, a great manager, an amazing contract attorney and a PR manager who are helping me to build my brand even more.”

“I still cannot believe how small this world really is. I mean, I told you how kind Kurt and Mercedes, Sam and Puck were to me at the auditions. They were really nice. I just can’t believe that you’ve known them for years.” She laughed.

Jesse loved her laugh. It was throaty and full bodied and just so real. It wasn’t a twitter or a giggle. It was an enticement to share in her amusement. “I fully believe it. After all, you know my deepest and darkest. You know that if Mercedes, Puck or Sam walked up to me and punched me in the face…I would be completely deserving of the physical violence. Instead they’ve attended both my park show and Hamilton. They’ve promoted my performances in both. It is maddeningly confusing. My grandmother simply says that I should be glad that they were raised well and have Christian values.”

“Maybe she is right. There has to be something that makes them do the things they do that no one expects or even understands. As competitive as the auditions for Juilliard are, why on earth were the five of them so ready to warm up with and be so kind to others. It made no sense. I even heard some of the TAs commenting on it. I, personally, think that it is a huge part of why they are so successful. Too often, we see those who behave badly getting all the success, all the accolades. Perhaps God realized that it was starting to negatively impact his brand.” She joked.

It actually struck a chord with Jesse, joke though it may have been. He noticed that Lin Manuel Miranda was also very much a spiritual man. He always tried to treat everyone with respect and practiced a lot of the same things Sam, Mercedes and Puck espoused, though he didn’t come out and say that he was any particular religion. “Are you religious?” He blurted without charm or delicacy. “I mean, do you go to church or temple or whatever. I’ve not stepped a foot inside a church since my brother’s funeral. We used to attend regularly and then we stopped.”

Christina understood exactly why his parents would have stopped. Who could blame them for being angry with God for taking away their child. “Mom was raised Episcopalian, but she converted in the early eighties. So, my family and I are all Buddhist.” She explained to him how that affected her views on the world and how the religion was practiced. They talked about meditation and how Confucianism and Taoism had become a very deep part of the basic tenets of Buddhism. That discussion led them into a discussion of Jesse’s understanding of his own spirituality and the religion that he’d been raised with. Over the course of the next several weeks, Jesse and Christina saw each other as much as their schedules would allow. Christina watched Jesse’s practice. Jesse watched Christina’s spring showcase performance where she dazzled the entire room with an amazing rendition of 'Sì, mi Chiamano Mimì’

They had brunch with Christina’s parents and grandparents when they all came to the city for a visit. And dinner with Jesse’s mother and father when they did the same. Before they realized it, they had been seeing each other for three months and felt very deeply about each other. It was with that realization in mind that Jesse decided to invite Christina to spend the night with him. The love making was all that Jesse had hoped and dreamed it would be. Christina was deeply in touch with who she was as a person, with her own wants, desires and needs. When they came together, she was able to communicate with him in a manner no other woman he’d ever slept with had before. And given how well they knew each other, how much they’d already shared before taking that step…Jesse found it beyond easy to include Christina in his own pursuit of pleasure. With that final compatibility assured, Jesse and Christina’s relationship started to move forward apace.

Yes, Jesse St. James had grown and matured. He had become a worthy mate for a very good young woman. He’d gained a role that would make his career. He lived in a lovely apartment and had learned the value of hard work and saving for the future. He couldn’t wait to see what else life had in store.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Critical Response to Concert

SPIN
REVIEW: KAMA’s First Headline Tour, a Marathon of a Good Time.
Katherine Camp

When you hear that a concert lasted from seven o’clock in the evening to half past twelve in the morning, one would probably expect a festival type night where there are six or seven acts spread over the evening. That was not the case at the first concert of music’s over-night success story, KAMA. Saturday night, I attended the opening night of their North American Tour, Aesthetic Enjoyment. The night opened with Alessia Cara. A YouTube discovery who is gaining notice for her musical composition and lyrical content. She had a forty-five-minute set after which there was a fifteen-minute intermission followed by the beginning of KAMA’s set. We were treated to an hour of straight KAMA. It was one of the best hours of my concert going life. The music was as mixed and varied as the three people who make up the group.

KAMA offered us every song that they have thus far released from the SongBird Soundtrack where they broke onto the music scene to their newest, critically acclaimed and platinum selling album, Foolish Wisdom. They divided the forty-five songs between three hour long sets and a half-hour encore. The audience was also treated to four covers. The first of these was led by Puck and dedicated to his lifelong friend Finn Hudson who was almost killed in a 2014 car accident. Darius Rucker’s ‘I Hope They Get to Me in Time’ was given a rock treatment that though unexpected was never the less powerful and well done. A thirty-minute spin session by KAMA’s resident beats mistress and DJ, DJ Ca$$, that made more well-known spinners jaws hit the floor in shock and awe. It was easy to see that she was heavily influenced by go-go and hip-hop, and yet she showcased rock and soul as well. The next KAMA set was even better than the first. Several of their more raucous numbers found their way into the second KAMA set of the night. The KAMA dancers proved their worth in not only being able to keep up no matter how fast the song was, but in their ability to transition between any of the differing songs. That adaptability and fluidity was never more visible than in the seamless move between the fast, fun and defiant ‘Hell to the No’ and the warmer, slower, loving ‘Believe’. Another thirty minutes of DJ CA$$ was more of a treat than a break. The third set from the headliners will be the set that sees the most possible controversy. Both of their political message songs were in the final set. The entire stage crew donned blindingly white silk choir robes as the group paid respect to two young black men whose young lives, lived half a century apart, were both cut short by hatred, fear and, yes, stupidity. Cell phones with lighters on their screens filled the ballroom. More than one person had tears in their eyes. The next two songs, while rich with melody and the dramatic lyrical content one has come to expect from the group’s love songs, did nothing to brighten the mood. But then, Sam Evans treated the audience to a lyrical cover of 50 Cents’ ‘Just a Lil Bit’. The former, kind of smarmy, rap song was totally turned around and made into something of a love song to KAMA’s songstress. A very fun, slightly dirty love song that definitely brought the mood back up. It must also be noted that his ‘husband and wife’ joined the dancers in a way they hadn’t for his other solos. Ms. Jones showed off twerking skills that Miley Cyrus could only dream of emulating. The set ended with the critically adored ‘Rescue Me’ remix with English actor and rapper Idris Elba, which can be found as a bonus track on KAMA’s sophomore album, Foolish Wisdom.

It was only as we were screaming for an encore that I realized exactly how long the show had already lasted. I called for the encore anyway. We asked and we definitely received. The encore contained the more sensual songs of KAMA’s catalogue. It was only after the end of their last song of the night, ‘Rub You the Right Way’ that many of the audience realized that we’d been standing, swaying and dancing for the better part of five and a half hours. Of course, that necessitated a major retreat to the restrooms once we were sure that KAMA nor DJ Ca$$ would be making another appearance. In the line for the ladies, I made a startling discovery, not only was there not a single person upset at the cost of the price of admission, but, as so often happened after a concert, they weren’t merely discussing the vocals or the live music…this time they were also discussing their favorite outfits and pairs of shoes.

Right before KAMA took the stage a short slide show that showed how fashion forward Mercedes Jones, Sam Evans and Noah Puckerman have been since the moment they broke on the scene. The final slide stated that KAMA would marry fashion and music in a way not seen before. And they kept their word. Mercedes Jones wore custom outfits from Alexander McQueen and Gucci, La Petite Robe di Chiara Boni, and Moschino and Rag&Bone. Her shoes were Steve Madden, Prada and Louboutins. Sam and Puck wore branded fashion as well. But nowhere did one see the almost inevitable metallic mini with all-over fringe or embellished white leotard with curtain skirt or bedazzled red cutout leotard. That was a fact very much appreciated by this writer and most of the women who attended the show. It was a night of depth and joy, of fashion and music and entertainment. Aesthetic Enjoyment was shared by all.

Final Grades for KAMA’s Aesthetic Enjoyment Tour

Overall Experience: 5 Stars (The concert gave everyone a positive experience. There was more than enough bang for your buck, monetarily. The crowd had nothing but positive things to say as they were exiting the venue. Each person felt like they had made an emotional connection with the members of KAMA. The music, dancing and wardrobe were all on point.)

Opening Act: 4 Stars (Cara was good, but rather static. The experience her time on this tour will provide can only help her grow.)

Middle Card Act: 5 Stars (DJ Ca$$ did an amazing job. Her spin-man-ship was on point. Her mix was great and she kept things jumping every time she took the stage.)

Music: 4.5 Stars (Its really nick-picky but a few of the songs went on a little too long. Mercedes Jones is an amazing songstress, but anyone who has even visited a black church can tell you that sometimes the choir can get carried away.)

Stage Show: 5.5 Stars (Twelve dancers, not a single one was out of step the entire time. At no point did they upstage the group. Six background singers, they followed Mercedes Jones where ever she decided to take them and they backed up Sam Evans and Noah Puckerman just as well. Not one time did any of them over sing the main artists. Five-piece band, when Sam, Puck or both decided to join the band with their own guitars. Artie Abrams, Justin Alexander, Dave Briggs, and Erika Chance proved that they were a well-oiled machine. There wasn’t a lot of pyrotechnics, relying instead on video and the music itself to ensnare the audience and keep their attention. Bonus points for the emotional moment of caring and love shared by Puck right before the encore. I hope their friend’s transition surgery went well.)

Fashion: 4 Stars (I’ve never before rated this category in a concert review but in this case, I must. Mercedes Jones and the female background singers, dancers, Erika Chance and DJ Ca$$ earned 5 stars. Sam, Puck and the guys through no fault of their own…men’s fashion is pretty boring… earned 3 Stars.)

* * * * *

Rolling Stones
KAMA Kicks off North American Tour with a Spectacle of Fashion & Music
Shawn Matthews

KAMA took the stage and there was not a butt in a seat in the whole ballroom. It was not that the concert had no one in attendance, it was simply that every single person was on their feet. When Mercedes Jones, Sam Evans and Puck Puckerman took the stage, they were met with a roar of approval that made a somewhat normal moment take on a life of its own. Mercedes greeted the crowd by simply thanking them for coming and asking if they were feeling good. While she didn’t scream, every person in the audience was left with the feeling that she could have made herself heard all through the venue without a microphone. The excitement in the thirty-five hundred capacity ballroom was like a feedback loop, the crowd’s excitement fed the band’s and the band’s excitement fed the crowd’s. The concert opened with a small pyro display as the video screens around the room played the ‘Rescue Me’ video with the band and KAMA gifting us all with a live rendition of the song that was powerful enough to bring down the house. From the beginning to the end, there was a sort of synergy between the music supergroup and their fans.

As many concerts as this journalist has attended, KAMA’s was truly unique. The first of many differences from the usual concert experience one noticed when attending the KAMA concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom, was the ‘Swag Shak’. A KAMA purple and silver kiosk that offered autographed merch complete with Certificates of Authenticity that validated the extra cost between the prices at the ‘Swag Shak’ and the other merch sale booths on the way into the concert hall. The ‘Swag Shak’ was a small two-person operation that was run by KAMA staff and offering everything from posters, CDs and tees to tote bags and backpacks all bearing verified autographs of Mercedes, Sam and Puck. During the first intermission, when DJ Ca$$ spun for the gold, the line for the ‘Swag Shak’ was longer than that for the restrooms. Primarily because everyone was willing to force their bladders into abeyance in order to get their autographed merch and back to their seats in time to hear what the DJ was spinning. By the end of the second of DJ Ca$$’s thirty minute, not only was the ‘Swag Shak’ breaking down having sold out, so too were almost all of the regular merch vendors.

The second difference was that the headliner went on immediately after the opening act. KAMA utilized their in-house DJ, billed as their mid card act, in a new and innovative way. Rather than DJ Ca$$ having one long set before they launched their part of the concert, she had two shorter sets that broke up the, almost ridiculously, long set of the headliner. Seriously, between the opening act, DJ Ca$$ and KAMA there was about five hours of straight music. If it hadn’t been all three and a half to five-star music that could have been torturous. Instead, everyone left the ballroom feeling as if the seventy-five to a hundred and fifty dollars they spent for their tickets was more of a buy one get two free deal of the century. The money was paid for KAMA who delivered in spades. Mercedes Jones’ vocals were out of this world. Sam Evan’s country rock vocals held their own and enlivened hers and Puck’s rock chops. Puck didn’t have to sing a word. His guitar solo on ‘The Fighter’ was epic enough that it showed his vocals were actually his secondary talent. The trio backed by their band, singers and dancers gave us an experience worth every single dollar spent on the ticket. So while KAMA was the main draw, they were not the only ones to take the stage. Alessia Cara was better than anyone could have expected, easily a young Joni Mitchell influenced by Nina Simone and Ani DiFranco in the making. Her lyrical composition was amazing given her youth. DJ Ca$$ blended influences of Missy Elliot, Dr. Dre and Timbaland with EDM, Go-Go and Dub-Step to bring forth something new and innovative.

There were no pyro displays that include forty-foot flames that turn into fireballs and fireworks galore. There were no huge mylar balloons floating above the stage…No glow in the dark, black light lit costumes or indoor snow storms. Despite the lack of the usual opulence and spectacle of modern pop and rock concerts, no one felt like anything was missing. The pyro that was used was smaller and more intimate. A sentiment that seemed to encapsulate the entire experience. The concert was intimate. A feeling that was cemented when Puck spoke to the audience before the encore and shared a deeply personal moment with the entire assembly. In a moment of true caring, he showed those in the audience, several of whom had firsthand knowledge of the journey his friend is current undertaking, that KAMA’s views on inclusion and acceptance were not just lip service. They live them every day. The concert ended with Sam Evans taking center stage and thanking us all for coming out. “Love yourselves and take care of each other. There is UBER and Lyft and taxies and the trains, no excuse for anyone to get behind the wheel of a car if you’ve been drinking. Remember, drunk driving is the ultimate dick move.” he admonished. The true wonder of the KAMA concert was that by the end we all felt less like an audience and more like thirty-five hundred people who shared a mutual friend but were only now meeting each other for the first time. In fact, I met a couple who live in my building. Before the concert I’d seen them a million times without even bothering to learn their names. After the concert, Damien, Sanjar and I had brunch together the morning after the concert to compare notes and flesh out information for this article. KAMA’s concerts aren’t just a musical experience…they are a KAMA-unity builder.

Set List: All 45 Songs in the KAMA Catalogue
Plus covers of the following:
Darius Rucker’s ‘I Hope They Get to Me in Time’ (Puck)
Garth Brooks’ ‘The River’ (Mercedes)
50 Cents’ ‘Just A Lil Bit’ (Sam)
Janet Jackson’s ‘Anytime Any Place’ (Mercedes)

 

NME

KAMA – Aesthetic Enjoyment Review
Milton James

It takes a miracle to make hardened New Yorkers respond to a concert by acting like smitten teenagers with their first celebrity crush…but KAMA managed just that with the opening night of their North American tour. The group treated their KAMA-leons to every one of their hits and all the music from their debut and sophomore albums. The show was amazing, not relying on tricks or spectacle, but on the purity of music and dance and the arts…on pure, unadulterated talent. The beautiful melding of the three primary voices was supported by their six background singers and the artistry of their twelve background dancers led by world famous Rainbow Razalan. It was augmented with pops of pyrotechnics and showcases of music videos and candid videos of the group and crew. But the main thrust of the night, from opening act to encore was all about music-love. Not just love of music, but using music to express love and emotions…to make connections and build community.

The entire night was long…five hours of music…but it felt like it was begun and over in moments. The fashion, for it was fashion, not costuming, was beautiful and showcased the beauty of the fourteen different women on the stage. Whether by design or a happy accident, KAMA gave proof to their many media assertions that all women are beautiful no matter their shape or size. Granted, it did help that no matter how you sliced it every one of those very different women was gorgeous in her own way. Music, dance, art, fashion, KAMA gave their ticket buyers a true evening of Aesthetic Enjoyment worth its weight in gold…platinum…and diamond.

Suitcases (Dara Maclean)
Ambient PoV
New York, New York

Will Schuester really felt that, despite the fact that he was working in a far less than reputable avenue of employment, his life wasn’t going so badly. He had enough regular clients that he could live a nice life without having to rely on the women who might seek those type of services once or twice a year. Though his job and his less than frequent customers did allow Will to afford the luxuries of living in New York. Coffee he didn’t make every morning, a subscription to the New York Times and The New Yorker, and taxis to get where he needed to be, rather than having to take the trains and buses everywhere. For the most part, he was able to attend the theater whenever he wanted. Many of his regular clients didn’t hire him for the more salacious aspects of his job. They simply enjoyed having a knowledgeable companion to attend the theater, opera and symphony with who actually enjoyed attending and stayed awake for the entire production. While Will got along well with all twenty of his regular clients, he did have a favorite. She was the most unassuming and physically plain of all his clients, though she was also the most independently affluent and terrifying of the all. Daphne March was a senior VP in a major corporation. She was also a great fan of Will’s former students.

Will had done something ill-advised for someone in his position. He had grown to care deeply for one of his clients. Daphne was more than a client, she was someone he considered a friend. So, he decided to treat her to something special on their second quarter date. He had splurged and gotten them floor seats, very near the front row at the Barclays Center, complete with an unexpected VIP backstage pass upgrade. He’d been very surprised that he could afford those. What he didn’t know, and never would be told, was that his purchase had actually triggered a system alert and he was upgraded to the VIP passes for his two tickets. It would only apply to the first two tickets he ordered. Had he not apologized and been forgiven; the alert would have only been triggered for that one concert. But since he’d been pardoned by Commune, he would have the upgrade for life. Of course, the groups other mentors, Sue Sylvester, Shannon Beiste, Emma Pillsbury and Shelby Cochran would never have to pay a dime for their tickets or backstage passes…but Schue wasn’t them.

Schue and his companion absolutely loved the concert. It still shocked him how wonderful the trio sounded together. He never thought that blending those voices could ever be as amazing as it was. But it wasn’t just the songs where their voices mingled that showed Schuester how foolish he had been. Every time Mercedes had a song alone, the audience went wild in response. Daphne loved the whole experience, but she was taken aback by how awe inspiring the clothing was. “That Kimono covered slip dress look was just gorgeous. It was intimate without being revealing, vintage and yet on trend and even fashion forward.” She cooed. “And oh my gosh, can you believe how white those robes were at the beginning of those honorarium songs? Both were so very heart wrenching. You know, KAMA inspired me to add Black Lives Matter to my charitable giving.” She said happily as they made their way backstage.

The duo was at the front of a group of pass holders being escorted by a large guy with military bearing dressed in all black. As they moved along the halls, he informed the group that there was no need to rush, “KAMA likes to have at least an hour after the show to get cleaned up and presentable.” He gave them the excuse all Rangemen had been briefed on for why the three stars weren’t immediately available to greet the VIPs. It did sound a lot better than, ‘they get really horny when they are performing, so we have to give them time to get their fuck on before we can take anyone to the dressing room. So rather than taking the group immediately backstage, he led them through the lobby and past the few vendors that still had merch for sale. Daphne was able to pick up a few everyday wear things that she’s not been able to get at the Swag Shak.

When they were finally able to get into the dressing room, Will introduced her to his former students with a smile. “Mercedes Jones, Sam Evans, and Noah Puckerman. Guys, this is my good friend Daphne.” He certainly wasn’t going to tell the kids that Daphne was client as he was two steps above a common rent boy. “She is a very-very big fan.” He told them with a smile. He turned to Mercedes and spoke with sincerity and honesty. “It is good to finally be able to say face to face, I was wrong. You were every bit as good as Rachel, probably even better because tonight, you sang songs from every genre…every single one and they were all amazing. I have to say though…I never thought that I would hear Mercedes Jones doing a Reba McEntire Cover. Was that Sam’s influence or did I just miss that much?”

“A little bit of both. Being a part of KAMA has given me the chance to sing songs in public that I’d never have admitted listening to at all back in high school. But I have always listened to and loved Reba, Garth, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Just like I’ve listened to Creed and Nickelback and some other alternative rock artists since before I really got to know Puck.” She told him with a smile. “We understand and appreciate you wanting to apologize face to face and we respect and appreciate your words.”

Puck laughed. “Yeah, we’re glad that you got your head out of Berry’s tight ass.”

Schue accepted Puck’s unique way of saying that they forgave him. “How is Rachel doing? Antwan Berry pretty much hates me as much as your father probably does, Mercedes. He and Hiram haven’t taken my calls or returned my emails since before they returned to Lima.”

Sam answered the curly haired man, understanding his hesitation in asking and Antwan’s anger. “Shelby saw her Saturday. She said that Rachel was up, walking and talking when she visited. But her fathers said that she was still having some problems with long term walking or standing.”

“Does that mean that she won’t be able to dance again?” Schue was aghast.

The three of them shrugged. It was an unknown variable. Antwan and Hiram were both really worried that Rachel would lose her fingertip hold on sanity all together if that was the case. The conversation turned to more pleasant topics for the last few minutes that KAMA could afford to give Schue and his friend. That night, Daphne paid Schue’s rent and rocked his world. She had never before felt so passionate or commanding. The career woman would never say aloud that she’d never before been as aroused as she was after attending the concert and seeing the performance of one of her all-time favorite groups and meeting them live and in person. The fact that they treated her so warmly and even hugged her goodbye had awoken within her a passionate animal that was barely quenched in the following twelve hours.

The next day as he was returning to his apartment, Schuester sent up a prayer to a God that he barely believed in. he asked for the continued health and success of all his former students and that of his newest friend. He also said a special prayer for the young woman he considered a talent and a protégé. Though he knew that he’d done all the kids in the New Directions a disservice with his favoritism and blindness, Will could not help but hope and pray that she would be dancing on a Broadway stage before he knew it.

Truckin’ (Grateful Dead)
Tessa PoV

A person can read every blog on the subject. Study all the rock star biographies. Ask anyone they want who might have some experience in the arena…but they all agreed that there was just no way to even begin to understand what touring was really like until you’d actually gone on a tour. I was nervous and excited at the same time when I woke up Monday morning. Joe and I both were bundles of nervous energy. We woke up early and showered and went back through our ‘checklist’, which may have come from one of those ‘things to make sure you have for the tour buses’ list on one of those indie rocker blogs. We each had two extra battery packs for our phones. Extra chargers for everything. I’d gotten us a membership at a twenty-four-hour gym…not so much for exercise, but for showers on demand. I didn’t think it would be an issue, but there was one near my house, my house…I had a house…anyway. There was one near our house in Iowa City too, so even if we didn’t use the membership over the summer, it would definitely be used over the course of the school year. After we completed our morning absolutions, we repacked our toiletries, I left out the razor I’d packed thinking that I’d need it near the end of June when it would have been time for me to hit Jewels. But I’d had just enough regrowth that I’d been able to get a fresh wax at Faina.

We each had a multi-vitamin and an immune booster and our, tech filled, backpacks were the rolling kind. They would act as our overnight bags for hotels and whatever. I had my iPad filled with new books, including the ones I had to read for my first semester classes. I also had my lucky Nook filled with all my favorite fiction and nonfiction books. We’d downloaded Waze on all our devises and we’d made sure that we had and unlimited data plan hotspot with us for when we were in the transport van. We put everything together and made sure that all our dirty clothes and towels and everything we were leaving for Patrick to wash and either put away or hold for our return were in the hamper in our guest bathroom then we headed down to see if anyone else was up.

Yeah, it turned out that everyone was up. Brittany met us on the stairs with some interesting news. Commune had to head to the office early because there was some paper work they needed to do. They were purchasing the floor above their current offices to house their secret real estate management company. Apparently, my brother and his honeys were becoming moguls behind the world’s back…which was ridiculously cool. Santana, Artie, Brittany and everyone else had already got their things ready to go and down to the living room. Though, like us, no one had very much stuff. Bubbie had come over to gather Nikki after a last breakfast with her parents. Manny and his partner Zip were there too since Nikki and Bubbie might want them later that day or something. Just as we were sitting down to a huge breakfast, Saul, Mills, Amanda, EJ and Avery showed up. There was more than enough food. It was a whole thing that Viola cooked like crazy whenever her bosses had company. Since everyone was ready to go, and Nikki really wasn’t ready to say goodbye anyway, we all headed to the office with Noah, Cede and Sam who had to be there an hour and half before everyone else. Viola gave Artie one of those collapsible coolers with a long strap. “There are fresh made granola and breakfast bars in there, enough to for all of the buses for two weeks. They won’t last any longer than that without preservatives. Refrigerate them, and they should be just the thing to give everyone a healthy start.” She admonished.

He agreed, there were hugs all around…and then we headed to the office. We took the subway. I was deliriously happy. It made no sense how much I missed traveling the city like a normal person considering how badly those trains could stink…but I had. When we got to the offices, Commune was immediately dragged in to Ethan’s office for their paperwork. Several of the rest of us decided to wait in the conference room until others showed up. Tana talked Brittany, Tina and I into going out to the garage where the buses were waiting so we could get first dibs on the bunks. None of us reminded her that we’d already picked our bunks on Friday. Sitting in the conference room seemed a little boring. Even if Darcy was putting them to work helping her with her daily KAMA mention searches. Besides Yasmine said that Hudson was out there.

We found Hudson looking as harried as any one of us could ever remember seeing her. “Thank God you’re here.” She said as soon as she saw us. “I need a little help. Sam, Mercy and Noah wanted everyone to have a surprise waiting on them when they loaded the buses today. But they didn’t all come in until Friday. Now…Patrick was an angel and he got them all washed and…they smell amazing. He and Bautista even wrapped them into cute little rolls with ribbons around them and tags with all of our names on them. Can you help me get them into the bunks.” She had lists of which bunk on each buss had been claimed by which person and everything.

“Not a problem.” We all assured her. In no time at all the five of us had done all the buses. It wasn’t hard, there were a total of seven buses for us to do. Hudson handled KAMA’s, Tana took our bus, Brittany and I did the guys and then we both helped Tina and Tana do the girls buses. All of us took on the three WMG buses that the tour crew would ride in, they were the hardest, but still fairly easy. Lamar had labeled each bunk at some point. A quick call to Manny, and Roger King, one of the Rangeman drivers, appeared and he took care of the Rangeman bus. None of the non Rangeman people could go on their bus. They were, according to Daniel, carrying enough firepower on there to take over an industrialized country…so, no unauthorized personnel. When we finished, I went over and checked out the Swag Van…not to be confused with the ‘Swag Shak’ which the Swag Van transported.

Leaning against the side of the van I couldn’t help but think about the whole set-up part of our job. Darcy had actually helped us at the Hammerstein and she said she would do it again at the Barclay center that night, but we’d be on our own once we left the city. She would help out when she joined the crew on the road, but for the most part it was up to me and Joe and whichever of the roadies Lamar sent to help us at that particular venue. The kiosk itself had actually gone up pretty easily. The interior main body of it was twenty feet by ten feet and was seven feet tall. There were no screws or nails, just this wicked cool adjustable strap system that acted as hinges for the three walls. Then once they were together, the shelves just had to be pulled up and locked into place. The whole thing was then covered by a weather proof, KAMA purple tent thing with silver accents and lettering.

That part went up pretty quickly. But Darcy said that she wanted us to come up with a ‘store plan’ that worked best for us. So, we would know where things worked best in the field and could do what worked best for us. That took longer. Some things were no brainers, the thicker things, like the folded-up hoodies, went on the wider deeper shelves and the posters went into the grid like shelves. Once we had everything in its place in a way that made sense and would be easily remembered, though I did ask Darcy if she could hook us up with a really good label maker. We could label the shelves and make our lives much easier. She had that and the big ass Tupperware containers Joe and I needed so we would not have to keep redressing the display forms with the tanks, tees and hoodies every single night. That took a ridiculously long time. But we did manage to get everything in place with enough time before the venue opened the doors to go and get quick showers in the crew’s locker room. Then we put on our uniforms and headed back to the kiosk and set up our ‘cash register’.

The uniforms were all the same, denim, khaki or black shorts along with one of several tee shirts in one of several different styles that all read ‘Official Licensed KAMA Swag Dealer’. We had twenty-one shirts each provided by Darcy-slash-Commune. The shirts were all either KAMA purple, silver or black with writing in one of the other colors depending on what would show up best. The first night I’d worn black sandals, but I knew that for all the rest, my sneaks would definitely be my footwear of choice. From the moment the first fans hit the doors, we had steady business. Then the word got around that we were not only licensed merch…but our stuff was autographed and came with authenticity certification. Then we got seriously deluged. Every parent there brought whatever their kids wanted. One Mom thanked us profusely. “Thank you so much. I just knew I was going to end up stuck here half the night while my son wandered around backstage trying to get an autograph.”

“Our bosses thought of that. They don’t like the idea of fans waiting in the dark in the hopes of getting an autograph that they never get.” I told her honestly.

She wasn’t the only parent there that night to voice the sentiment, but she was the most memorable. Not only was she the only one there with an Eastern European accent, but she was the only one there who brought over six grand worth of swag and used a prepaid Amex card to do so. It struck me that anyone who could drop that much for band merch should probably have a real credit card. But it went through on my Verifone VX, and it wouldn’t have done that if she didn’t have the money, so I tucked it away with interesting info that could be utilized for a character in a future short story or novel and went to help the next customer. By half way through Cassidy’s second set, we could hear the music through the ballroom’s sound system in the outer atriums, we were completely sold out of everything. So we broke down the kiosk and set up the easel and big ass sign telling people to go to the KAMA site for more merch. Darcy was very, very firm about one thing. The stock for each venue basically boiled down to three percent of the number of seats. One hundred and five of each item we were selling at the Hammerstein, no more. The least expensive of which were the posters which went for ten bucks a pop, the most expensive was the hoodies and the backpacks at seventy-five bucks each…we still sold out of everything like two hours before the end of the concert.

Joe and I had talked with Darcy, we definitely needed a better way to get just what we needed from the Nissan Transit Thirty-Five Hundred into the venue. So, that Monday, when we took control of the Transit for the rest of the summer, we found two big-ass rolling steamer trunks that we’d be able to use in addition to the hand truck that would carry the kiosk components into every venue. While we were waiting on everyone to arrive, Darcy, Joe and I counted out five hundred and fifty of everything, thank God for vacuum sealed bags that all the bigger items were packaged in, into the steamer trunks and the posters went into a large duffle bag that we could fasten to the top of one of the trunks. We’d be able to move faster at the Barclay center which was good because it was like six times bigger than the Hammerstein. By the time we finished doing that, Xena and the Dam Bros had arrived and stowed the last of their things. They were the first to get there other than those who’d come down from Harlem with Commune. But once they arrived, at a quarter of eleven, pretty much everyone else started showing up. Cassidy and Erika were next with Dave. Each of them had just a little practice thing, a drum board for Dave, a well-loved bass for Erika and a digital turntable for Cassidy. Justin strolled in with all his practice instruments…all six of them. He decided that he would store them under the bus and get one per day to practice with.

Then Sugar arrived. That girl made me smile so hard just by being her own wild and crazy self. Soon as she stored her stuff, more than anyone else other than Justin, by the way, she came running down off the bus with her purple fleece blanket unrolled and over her arm and a pretty sleep mask that was thick and black and had SUGAR stitched across it in pretty, silver, cursive embroidery. “Tessa, have you seen these, yet. I swear Mamma-Mercy and Sam and Puck are just too sweet. My cousin Raymoud, he’s a promoter. He didn’t want me to go on tour…he said that the musicians he knows treats their crews like shit. But Daddy told him that our friends weren’t like that. Please, we all know that Mercedes is the best person, like ever. He didn’t really believe Daddy or Sue, but I’m not his kid so all he could do was grumble. So, I just sent him a picture of me with these and asked him if any of the musicians he knew had done anything like this for their peoples.” She said smugly.

We just shared a laugh. Of course, she flitted off to go flirt a little with some of the guys. It wasn’t serious flirting. She and Rory were killing the long-distance-relationship Olympics. Still, Sugar loved being admired. And guy loved admiring her, so it was really a win-win situation. Plus, it was relatively safe. Even when she went over to meet the tour crew. Az and Dave materialized to loom over her shoulders aggressively. Saying without actually speaking that Sugar Motta was off limits to them. I later heard from the Roadie, Stan, who was our helper that stop, that Az and Dave had warned them all that Sugar’s father was Italian Mafia…so no one with any sense was going to bother her. I was pretty sure he was fishing for confirmation, and since it would only help to keep her safer I told him solemnly, “Not just Italian…Egyptian too. You know the Egyptian mob is worse than the Irish…not quite as crazy as the Russians, but still pretty damn fucked up.”

“Wow, for real. I heard that the Egyptian mob was really hard core because they will break out that old school mummy shit.” Stan muttered quietly.

“Mr. Motta likes me, so I plan to never have to find out.” I said honestly. And I told myself to remember that line to share with Sugar for him. Mr. Motta loved all the stereotypes people had for his family and their associates.

The Barclay Center was an epic venue. It was in Brooklyn, so when the buses were fully loaded and the thirty minutes of goodbyes were said; Nikki, EJ and Avery were just too cute to leave, okay; we drove the hour that it took to go eight miles during lunch time in Chelsea, Manhattan and Brooklyn. Load in went well. While the Roadies were working their magic making sure that the stage was set, Noah, Cede and Sam did a quick rehearsal on the practice court. Once those were accomplished, we were joined by Stan and the ‘Swag Shak’ went up and was stocked with the swag. We had some prime real estate in the GEICO Atrium. The views were truly beautiful. By the time we were done, the sound and lighting checks were completed and everyone, Joe and I included hit the showers. The showers in the Barclay Center were, quite honestly top notch. I’m sure that the headliners had their own showers in the dressing rooms, but the rest of us peons showered off the sweat and dust of set up in the Nets and their cheerleaders’ locker rooms. There were fourteen ladies, from Tana, Tina and Xena to the dancers and lowly little me and the Brooklynettes are a squad of twenty, so there was plenty of room for us all to do our do. Had the showers needed to be staggered, Marceau, Bae-Be and JaJa would have gone first, followed by the background singers, then the rest of the dancers. The black dancers didn’t go first for the reason I’d originally assumed. I’d thought it was because they were like Cede and Moms D and nice-nasty…but the truth was that if they had to wash their hair it took longer to do. That was the real reason Tana, Tina and Xena went next, because it took so long for Xena’s hair to get done. She was considering cutting it, but since no one minded its length…her curls were ridiculously gorgeous…she hadn’t made that commitment yet.

Load in had started at a quarter after one. By a quarter of four, we were all showered and dressed, or in the process of dressing. Lunch was provided for the crew by the promoter and since Joe and I were considered crew, we were able to eat for free. It was really, kind of crazy how healthy it was. But Stan explained that eating healthy on a tour made sense. “Getting food poisoning on a tour bus is just not a thing anyone wants to have happen to them, or even anybody they know…no one should have to go through it. I’m pretty sure that it is a punishment in hell.” He said seriously.

By five, which was still two hours before the show started, though only one before the doors would open, Joe and I were completely ready. We made a final run to the Transit and grabbed the ‘cash register’ from the hidden safe it lived in and with it and our credit card machines fully charged and ready to go, we were ready when Darcy arrived dressed to the nines and ready to help. “Well, damn, you guys are golden. Here is the label maker. Let me know if you need extra labeling tape. I got you the rainbow pack in case you wanted to color code the categories.” She passed us the Dymo handheld label maker and spent a few minutes helping us label the shelves the way we wanted them. “So answer me honestly, you guys feel comfortable with this. We can get you some help if you need it. Some of the part timers are willing to provide regional backup for you guys if you need extra hands.”

Joe and I exchanged a long look. “To be honest, a third would be golden. I mean, it was manageable with the lines last night. But this place is a whole hell of a lot bigger.” I admitted.

Joe cosigned, “my only hesitation is that Tessa and I, we love Mamma-Cedes, Sam and Puck. We know we would never cheat them or steal from them. How do we guarantee that the other people feel the same way?”

Darcy took him seriously. “I will have Lester and his peeps vet anyone I put up to help you guys out rigorously.”

We agreed with that. As she was firing off an email to Commune and Hudson, to get the okay on adding an additional minimum wage position to the roster, I checked out her outfit. She was rocking some seriously tight, dark wash, skinny jeans and a fitted Jack Daniels tee under a black military look blazer. Her moto boots were really fierce and her makeup was on point. “Wow, Darcy, you’re looking really hot tonight. What’s up?”

She looked up half a second. “Oh, Ranger got his hands on one of the boxes for the evening, so Lester, him, Steph and a bunch of the guys are coming up. Gots to look nice enough to make his peeps drool, but not look all trashy or whatever.”

“Well, you met your goals.” I assured her.

“Thanks,” she smiled. “Alright, Hudson says that I can go ahead, but Cedes and her boys say that I’d better make sure that whoever we get is on the up and up and doesn’t end up causing drama and trauma.”

“Amen to that.” I replied. When the gates opened Darcy gave us a hand with crowd and line management, even taking one of the credit card readers and selling the swag down the line. But then Lester, Ranger Manoso, Stephanie Plum and a big black dude that could only be the Tank guy Sam had told us all about. There were a few other guys with them, and two of them stayed back to take over crowd control while Lester whisked Darcy off to the box they had for the evening. The setup at the Barclays Center was different. They didn’t have pipe the concert into the atrium, but our view down into the arena let us know how the evening was progressing. I noticed that Alessia had stepped up her game looks wise. She was still dressed like her, rocking a pair of cool, kind of funky boot cut pants, and a great tee-shirt, with a jacket over it, but her hair was did. Probably Dee didn’t give her a choice if there was time before Cede needed her.

The show was really cool. What I could peep, anyway. It was slightly shorter than the previous one. The first set was cut down to twelve songs. The covers they picked to do were different. They changed up the placement of a few other. The sad, message songs started off the second set so they came out in the flowing white robes. That was beautiful. It really was. Cassidy was on fire. She made everyone in that arena dance their asses off. Then again, so did KAMA, it just wasn’t straight fast songs, there had their slow grind songs and their looking deep into each other’s eyes and just sway kind of songs. We managed not to sell out quite as fast. We didn’t sell out until a few songs into the final official final set. By the end of the set we’d completed our money counts and readied our deposit. However, we were broken down by the end of the encore. The regular merch vendors still had plenty of stuff…but they had prepaid for all their stuff and had decided how much they wanted to sell. So, their deal was a little bit different than ours. They would be selling until they sold out even if that meant that they ended up standing outside at the end of the night and catching people as they left.

Once we took down the kiosk and packed everything in the Transit, I texted Woody. He was our deposit guardian for the night and the three of us drove to the closest Chase Bank and deposited the cash we’d pulled in, it was not an insignificant amount either. In fact, I was really glad for Woody’s presence. We headed back to the arena and, after we made sure the vehicle was locked down tight, Woody escorted us to the backstage area. The trip hadn’t taken as long as I’d thought it had since the VIP backstage pass holders hadn’t made it in to see the stars yet. Woody kind of forced us to go hit the catering area where they were real New York style pizzas and big salads and Buffalo wings and everything happiness. Joe and I were surprised to get a text from Noah. “We’ve gotta ‘After-Party’. Get presentable and wear your KAMA tags. Meet us in the Billboard Lounge in an hour.”

So that was exactly what we did. I hadn’t brought a lot of cute clothes with me. But I did have some nicer jeans, cute sandals and a few tank tops that would work. When I looked as hot as I could, I would not be embarrassed by being the youngest and the least attractive woman in the room. I just refused. I didn’t care about other males opinions, Joe loved me, but I was not giving any of those chicks shit to say on Twitter about me. We found our name tags…they looked like a cross between a traditional ID card and a pin on name badge. Darcy had created our KAMA tags, I think Hudson had done all the rest, or maybe they did it together. It had our name, picture and title. Of which, mine and Joe’s read, ‘Licensed SWAG Distributor’. She would be masterful at writing resumes. Because that title sounded a lot more impressive than overpaid teenage salesperson.

The party was actually pretty hopping when Joe and I got there. Darcy and Lester swooped down on us and kept us pretty close to them and the Rangeman crew until more of the people we knew started arriving. Unsurprisingly enough, the headliners were the last ones to show up. Mercedes looked too cute in a strapless, sun dress looking party dress that was white with defused lilac polka dots. I knew she was happy about the show, but I was also pretty sure that she was happy about having found a reason to have brought those Valentino espadrille wedges on the tour with her. She was wearing her long, wavy, ‘Pocahontas’ wig. Which I only knew was a wig because I’d sat and talked with her and Rickey as he’d removed Cede’s weave, washed and deep conditioned her hair and braided the entire mass into a really cool looking set of braids. Cede said that she wasn’t taking them out for at least two weeks because she would have an easy time greasing her scalp. I had learned so much about how black women cared for their hair in the years since I’d met Mercedes and Danica…I even knew how to do Maea and Mara’s hair and if white people thought adult black women’s hair was complicated, it was nothing compared to the complexity of doing the hair of little black girls.

Still, even as much as I had learned about black hair, I learned even more on the subject that evening. And that was nothing compared to all I learned from Rickey on a totally unrelated subject. I’d grown up in New York, even when we moved to Lima, I was already very cosmopolitan and shrewd and urbane or whatever…but Rickey was someone who introduced me to a completely new concept. Gender fluidity. See, Rickey was born with a penis. Unlike Unique, he didn’t want to chop his off. In fact he felt very much attached to it. “Chile please, it would be an affront against God to take a knife to the blessing that he endowed me with. There are men who get surgery to have anything close to what the Lord above chose to bless me with.” He said quite seriously.

Rickey explained that he was happy as a man somedays and others he felt more feminine. So he flowed back and forth between presenting as fully masculine and fully feminine and anywhere he felt like existing on that spectrum. His sexuality was even more interesting. He was omni-or pan-sexual. Rickey’s first consideration was not with the other person’s primary sex characteristics. There were things he loved about men and women though he preferred ‘Bill Clinton’ sex with women and ‘Ken Starr’ sex with me. I’d been so confused he made me google it and then asked Mercedes what on earth we’d learned in our government classes if we hadn’t learned about the only president in recent history to have undergone impeachment proceedings. By the time he finished his rant against our education system, I completely understood that he meant that he preferred penetrative sex with women and oral sex with men. To be honest though, reading that article made me understand a lot of Samantha and her friend’s jokes from when I was younger a lot better. After trying to explain it better, even though I understood it by that point, he finally just blew out a huff…blowing his magenta bangs back into the waterfall of curls that reached his wiry shoulders. “Look, it’s a whole mess Darling, but it all boils down to the Almond Joy- Mounds debate. Sometimes I feel like a nut…sometimes I don’t.”

I shook off the smile those memories brought to my face as I waved at Rickey where he stood across the room rocking a KAMA racerback tank top, a pair of carpenter jeans and a pair of purple stilettos. While he had his hair fro-ed out rather than in a weave, he still looked more feminine than one would have expected with some fabulous lipstick and eye makeup. I probably would have gone over to talk to him, but I was ambushed by a pleasant surprise. “Tessa-Darling, how on earth does your sister-in-law come into this club setting looking fit for a garden party and yet make the rest of us look like we’re dressed for the wrong occasion?” I heard my godmother’s distinctive voice and turned to see her, Isabelle, Miranda and Charlotte all dressed in chic little dresses and some gorgeous heels. I laughed and just pointed out that Cede was just ridiculously confident like that. “Ladies, I know it’s been years since you’ve seen her, but this is my beautiful goddaughter, Tessa, and that is her boyfriend, Joe.”

Everyone said hello and Isabelle gave him an assessing look. “Joe, you have amazing bone structure and your eyes are very beautiful. Have you ever considered modeling?”

He shook his head definitively. “No ma’am. Vanity and conceit are almost as big a sin as the love of money.” He said honestly. “Besides, that was Sam and Puck’s thing. I just don’t think it’s something that would fit my personality.”

Isabelle pouted. She’d been trying to help Calvin find a new signature model for his men’s underwear line. Joe, with his non-traditional handsomeness, great eyes and intriguing hair would have been perfect. however, in his denial, he had given her a great idea to present to the irrepressible Mr. Klein. She would suggest he launch a campaign with Sam Evans and Puck Puckerman as the faces. Both men were fit and handsome…it could be as popular as the Marky-Mark campaign from the early nineties. She was drawn back into the conversation as Charlotte and I started discussing cheerleading and Judaism. Darcy, Miranda and Samantha were discussing the copyrighting of fonts and graphic design elements. Miranda was also clearly angling for an introduction to Ethan. I was barely listening to their conversation and I could easily tell that she felt overlooked and underappreciated at her current firm and would love to work with Ethan as KAMA grew. I thought for a second, it could work, he was looking for a lawyer to work primarily with the Commune’s property management business. I made sure to introduce the two of them later that evening.

Once I made that introduction, I looked over the room. Joe was speaking with Justin and Dave. He looked so handsome and happy. I saw Cede talking with a few people I sort of recognized, but couldn’t quite place. Sam and Puck were talking to several people. I noticed that they each had a drink in their hands. Their green bottles of Stella Artois changed out only once. The same thing was true for the fruity drink in Cede’s hand. The second glass of salmon pink liquid’s levels went down, but it was never emptied and when the trio’s second drinks were finally replaced, they were replaced with bottles of water. I realized that even though they were only twenty-one and twenty-two, they had at some point made the decision not to drink to excess and were keeping to that decision. I found it interesting, especially since I had heard about their experience with alcohol in high school. I wasn’t the same girl that had left Manhattan. When I moved to Lima, I’d not been a part of a peer group…at all…let alone one like the Cheerios where alcohol was such a part of their social interactions. Even with their desires to avoid extra carbs and empty calories, they still drank like fish when they had gatherings. I was woman enough to admit that given those interactions and what I knew of Samantha and her friends and how they behaved in social situations, I thought that drinking in social situations was just meant to be fairly heavy. That night I learned that I was wrong and it didn’t…probably shouldn’t…have to be.

The party was really fun. I had a good conversation with Liz Lemon, a writer for two NBC shows. She was really nice. But warned me that television writing was a whole different animal from what she’d planned for her life. “Be careful when you take that first job. We all want to make sure that we aren’t one of those people who end up sleeping in our parent’s basements…but if you get stuck in that field, you can suck you in and you might never be able to make your dreams come true.” She was more than a little tipsy and the way she said it was so much funnier. She was a funny person. I envied that about her. But I also knew that I was in a different position. My parent, Joe, my siblings, none of them would let me fall into just any job. And if they saw one trying to drag me into mediocrity…they would definitely slap some sense into me.

Considering that the party didn’t really start until almost two, it was no surprise that we didn’t board the buses until almost seven. Since we were knocking on twenty hours awake, no way could Joe or I drive the Swag Van the, roughly three hours, between Brooklyn and Albany. Instead it made the trip with Van, the other driver of our tour bus, behind the wheel. When we got to the hotel, Hudson got out of the main bus at the Renaissance Albany Hotel. She came back out about twenty minutes later with her tablet and a small box containing what looked like key packets. She headed back into Commune’s bus. Then she came to our bus and Tike got one key packet, Joe got one and told that he was rooming with Justin. Then she handed me a packet and told me to get with Sugar. Thankfully, Tana had woken us all up and made us all go ahead and pack our overnight bags for two nights, because we were able to get off the bus pretty quickly. Granted, we were in pajamas or comfy clothes. Heck, Mercedes was even wearing her scarf…but soon enough, we all got ourselves together and headed up to our rooms. I grabbed the first shower and was asleep before Sugar even made it into the bathroom.

I was shocked when the phone rang at five. It took me a minute to even recognize Hudson’s voice. “Good evening Tessa. The bosses are treating everyone to dinner at a nice steak house. You’ll need nice, date night, apparel. We’re all meeting in the lobby at seven.”

I woke Sugar, who I knew could sleep through a natural disaster with the only thing that would work. “Sugar…wake up everything is seventy-five percent off at Tiffany’s.”

“I’ve gotta get a pair of earrings.” She shouted as she startled awake. Once I was sure that she was actually, fully awake, I brought her up to speed and we took turns getting ready. With two eighteen-year-old girls in the room, we barely made it down in time. But we did make it. dinner was really good and afterwards Joe and Justin came to our room and we watched some TV. Joe and I were cuddled up on the room’s large chair while Sugar and Justin talked on the couch. Still the next day was a work day, so we called it a night at midnight and we all went to our separate beds.

The Albany concert was the next night, so our morning started with most of us in the hotel gym. We worked out and then showered and packed up before checking out and getting back on our buses. For most of the KAMA Crew morning was spent touring the Albany Institute of History and Art. While in the venue, the tour crew got everything all set up. At three, everyone arrived at the venue. The group and their Crew had a short practice and then they went through the sound and lighting check. It was when Alessia was doing her checks that Joe and I started our job. We put up the Swag Shak, then showered and put on our uniforms and we worked the concert. That was how things went for the rest of the week. We had Thursday off, but most of it was spent sleeping in our hotel rooms in Newark.

Friday night we had the concert at Newark’s Prudential Center. Bryant and Nadia came in early with Melli and her mom. Mell helped us with getting everything on the shelves faster so she could buy a poster that she could have gotten for free. But it was for a ‘friend’ at school, so maybe she wanted to authenticity certificate. Not long after they left to get their seats, Stephanie Plum came with several Rangemen along with her father, sister and brother-in-law and the elder two of her nieces. By that point, just half an hour later, we were swamped by crazed fans. But Mr. Plum was awesome. He let out a shrill whistle and made rabid New Jersey KAMA-leons get into manageable lines. He helped us out for the entire time before the concert started and I seriously wanted to kidnap him and take him with us. He told us that Stephanie was planning to take her best friend and her husband and kids to the Bridgewater concert the next night. “If the band is as good as my Pumpkin says they are, I’ll come to that one and help you all out again.” He must have loved KAMA as much as Ms. Plum did, because he was there at the TD Ballpark lending us a hand again.

The day to day work was pretty easy. If we headed out of the venues well rested, then Joe and I drove our Swag Van to the next stop. When our inventory in the van started running low, Darcy would send us more. Each package contained as much as had been in the van when we left Manhattan, enough for a month worth of venues. Thanks to our digital inventory system, it was easy for her to tell when we started running low. Since Darcy had a constant contact with Hudson and our full itinerary, it was really easy for her to send the package to our next hotel. Then Joe and I would have to spend a few hours logging everything into the inventory system to show it had arrived and refilling the bins in the van. We had it all down like science and by the time she had finally found us a third, we didn’t need them in the same way. The NYU senior, a big criminal justice major named John Ripley, just ended up mostly helping with setup, corralling crowds and making sure that we were able to run our smooth machine inside.

John was an interesting person. In a lot of ways, he reminded me of Puck’s classmate Kevin. He was tall and big and had a huge personality. But at the same time, he was gentle and caring and kind. At six foot seven and built enough to easily be mistaken for one of the Rangemen, John had no problem keeping the lines neat and people under control. But he was just as amazing at calming down an overwhelmed teenage girl as Joe or me and we were basically their ages and, being friends with Sugar, we had a whole lot of practice. Then again, the other day, I saw him glaring at something on his phone and my inner coward wanted to run far, far away even though the look was not directed at me. While the truckers usually had the van after concerts, Joe, John or I, drove it during the day and to the concert venues. Okay mostly it was Joe or John. The van didn’t exactly have a third seat, but I could sit on the floor comfortably between their seats and the bins and stuff. Neither of them could. The Swag Van and the transportation of our opening acts, which usually looked very similar to our van, was always nestled right in the middle of the caravan. As we drove, we talked. John was very committed to his life plan. He was majoring in criminal justice and would go on to law school from there. He planned to spend five years as a prosecutor before trying to get into the FBI. I outlined all the hoops Riker and Chris were going through and he thanked me for the information. “I think I’ll need to adjust my time line a little. I didn’t realize that it would take that long just to get into the training.”

He was like that about everything. He’d been raised Episcopalian, so he and Joe had these deep theological discussions that blew my mind. Joe said he felt the same way when John and I started talking politics and the state of things in America as it pertained to race, class and the fiction of an educated elite class. John thought that there was an educated elite and I thought that the only elite class in America was the upper one percent. “The real fiction is race as a class. The truth is that the rich convince poor White people that they don’t have to be concerned that their lives suck thanks to the rules the rich have put in place to keep the poor stuck in bad situations because as bad as they may have it…at least they aren’t Black or Brown or other.”

“By that line of thinking, then the poor should rise up and over throw the rich.” Joe pointed out quietly.

“Probably.” I admitted. “But it will never happen. The rich have all the resources and they have made sure that the poor have too much to do to just keep body fed and family together to even think of revolting.”

“But aren’t you a part of the rich?” John said pointedly.

I knew what he meant, but I also knew that he wasn’t grasping the true scope of things. “I’ll grant you that Puck and Cede and Sam have brought the family forward…but even with the money they’ve made and the fortune Uncle Saul is trying to turn it into…we are so not even close to the top one percent. Those families have enough wealth to not work for generations. Besides, it’s their money. Yeah, they’re planning on making sure that none of their siblings will have crippling student debt or whatever, but we are not the Kardashians. All of us younger sibs are making sure that we will have careers of our own and the Elder Sibs all have masters or more and are doing things for themselves.”

Joe smiled at me then changed the subject as he always did when John and I started getting into ‘loggerhead’ territory. He was good like that. We developed a great working relationship with John. He kind of became what Cede called a ‘play cousin’. He had so many tips for the two of us who were getting ready to start college. His personality gave me quite a few new character traits to build into a future character or something. So maybe it was not how I ever thought I would spend the summer after I graduated high school…traveling the country selling merch for a band…but it turned out to be completely awesome. Joe and I grew closer and closer working together…hanging out together every evening…just plain getting to know each other in ways we’d not realized that we didn’t know. The same could be said for our relationships with Commune and the rest of their, our, friends on the tour. I gained a lot of maturity over the course of the summer. I kept a blog…unpublished…because it was really just for me…but it really helped me to see the progression in my growth. I was proud of the person I was becoming and very proud of all that I had learned.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Happy (Ashanti)
Tina PoV

When Mike and I got back to school after Spring Break, we were swept up into a miasma of studying and papers and exam prep. But no matter what, the feeling I’d had on that stage backing Mercedes, Puck and Sam…it was never far from my thoughts. When KAMA flew us to Manhattan to attend their second drop party, we signed the paperwork for our summer jobs. I had to be honest, I so didn’t read it. I trusted Mercedes’ uncle. I knew there wouldn’t be anything too heinous or harsh in there. It was at the drop party that I found out that the cool guy Mike and I had seen at Uncle Jesse’s club in San Francisco was their opening act that night and for a couple of regions of the tour. I was excited about that. He seemed like a really awesome and cool person. The last few weeks were so very hard. I wanted to focus. I needed to focus, but if I wasn’t in the action of learning or studying…or loving Mike…I was distracted by day dreams of what touring would be like. I texted with Tana and Adam a lot. Adam Kress was one of the funniest people I’d ever met. He made me laugh every time he replied to any of my million questions. But he was also insightful. “I’m not even joking when I say this…Sam and Puck try to kill us when we’re touring. They like to make us go for these long ass runs. Even the dancers be huffin’ and puffin’ by the time we make it back to the bus or the event space. Last summer they had us running in Texas in the summer. What the actual fuck? Sam is southern, he should have known better. I ‘bout died five times on one run.” He kvetched. I about died too…from laughing.

As our household prepped for our finals, we all got snarky and short tempered. I turned to Adam and even BaeBae for outside entertainment, since Tana was going through the same thing. Thankfully, Mike had bonded with Simeon and Jackson and they were able to talk him down when the pre-examination tension became just too much. At the time, it was just a way to keep ourselves sane during our exams. But, it was actually a blessing in disguise. When we arrived in New York after spending a week at home, Mike and I had friends in the Crew other than those we’d known most of our lives. It was really nice. It felt strange in a way though, almost as if we were stealing away Cedes, Sam and Noah’s people. Of course, when I confessed that feeling to Mercedes, she laughed at me. “Child please, you know friends are like cookies, they’re healthiest when they are shared.”

I didn’t stop laughing for, like, ten minutes when she said that tidbit of wisdom…but I could see the sense it made. Jealousy, envy and greed weren’t healthy. Friendship, sharing and caring were. I had to say though, I was really glad that she didn’t mind at all because without Adam to joke with and BaeBae willing to show me the dances I needed to know an extra time or two, even with the extra stamina building Mike and I had started doing after Spring Break, those pre-tour practices would have been the death of me. It was a lot harder than anything I’d done before. I did have to admit I was getting toned in a way I’d never realized was possible. I had Abs, okay they were little a abs, but still, I had definition. It was kick ass. Mike told me he loved me the same and I was beautiful either way, but we had an amazing round of love making that started because he finally understood what I meant when I said that his abs compelled me to lick them. It barely seemed as if we’d been in town a full day, let alone a week when we were assembled at the stadium to prepack the buses.

Oh my GOD, the tour buses were freaking awesome. Externally, it was easy to see that they all went together even if they weren’t all painted exactly the same. Commune’s bus was black with waves of purple and silver and the KAMA name in its trademarked font on the left side and back. The second bus was similar, but there was less purple and more silver and black. I noticed that it only had KAMA on the back. The third and fourth buses were just like the second even down to only having KAMA on the back. It was really easy to tell the Warner buses. They were almost pure black with thin whitish-beige waves. The transfer trucks were really cool, too… both were jet black and chromed out. The trailers were both painted, or whatever, to look like the main, KAMA, bus. But the cutest thing had to be the Swag Van. It was one of those fleet-vehicle type Nissan Transit vans, all boxy and efficient. But the paint job was pretty awesome. The top was black but it ombred from black through purple into silvery lavender. The lightest color was repeated in the KAMA Swag Van Logos on the sides and back. It was really epic. I was totally going to cop that for my hair, with blue tones rather than purple though.

When we got our bus assignments from Hudson, who was seriously, crazy efficient, we found out that Mike and I were on the same bus as Santana, Artie and Brittany. It was a special bus that had a lift for Artie’s wheelchair. Sam confided in me that when Santana went solo in a couple of years, they were going to give her that bus as a congratulations gift. It had a decent half bath in the main part of the bus and one with a shower in the back where Tana, Art-man and Britts slept. The five of us would be charged with watching over Tessa and Joe and Darcy and her boyfriend Lester would be in that bus too when they came on the road. The bunk area was between the front lounge and the ‘stateroom’. It contained six sleeping bunks, plus the couch could turn into a double bed. Mike and I claimed the middle and top bunks on the driver’s side at the front of the bunk area. We wanted as much space between us and Santana the Screamer as humanly possible. Poor Tessa and Joe had to take the bunks that shared a wall with the triad. We all listened to the admonishment of the tour manager and placed our pillows toward the back of the bus. The in-bunk iPad was already facing that way. The bunks were really nice themselves. There was a door that closed the bunks and bedroom off from the front lounge. Each one had an individual overhead bunk light, our own heat-slash-air vents, a plug for our other gear and a recessed pocket for storage of things that we needed in the bunk. I immediately used it to store a sleep mask, some extra hair bands, my special blue little friend and extra batteries for him. Mike was an amazing lover, but there were just times that a girl had to lend herself a hand.

The mattress in the bunk was plusher than I’d expected. There was a bolster pillow already there, the sheets were a silvery taupe color and there was a matching pillow case folded on the bunk waiting for the pillow in my hand and a purple fleece blanket arranged at the bottom. One sniff and I knew that Patrick had rewashed all the bedding for us. If I weren’t with Mike, I’d fight Viola for the pleasure of Patrick’s company…I’d never known that laundry could smell as good as he made it smell. I pulled the fleece blanket up and then spread my beloved Twilight novelty quilt over it. My small, heart shaped, Team Edward pillow was plopped on top of the other pillows and I felt as if the bunk was really mine. I stepped back and checked out what Mike had done to personalize his bunk. Not much, a second fleece blanket, that one in gray…a pillow for the waiting pillowcase. That was about it. That was my fiancé…a true minimalist. Once we had our clothes stored in the drawers that were allotted for our use, we took our luggage out and stored it under the bus. The meeting was interesting. Mike and I may have looked at each other and muttered ‘Don’t shit on the bus’, before dissolving into raptures of laughter several times over the next few days. We even did it during our couple’s massage at Faina. It became a running joke of ours for a long time after Lamar first uttered the words.

It may have been nerves, but it seemed like we blinked Friday afternoon and boom it was Saturday night and we were backstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom getting ready to go on stage. I looked down at myself. The outfit was amazing. It worked so well for all three of us even with our different body types. The black high waisted, liquid satin, wide legged pants thinned out my hips, elongated Santana’s legs and gave Xena’s legs some added fullness. The Spanx camisole tank had a built-in bra, so Santana didn’t have to bother with one, and gave me and Xena both some extra support. The heels were tan and a little boring, but they added height to me and Tana while disappearing mostly, so they were fine. But the piece that made the ensemble for me, my absolute favorite piece, was the red, black and beige ‘Valentino’ cropped, mandarin inspired, jacket. It looked amazing on each of us. I loved the way it seemed to frame our chests without making us look trashy. We were a perfect complement to Cedes ivory outfit with her red shoes. Mercedes’ hair was down in long water waves, so Xena, Tana and I had our hair pulled back into thick, curled ponytails, fairly innocent makeup with bold red lips and small silver hoops in our ears. We wouldn’t be completely identical every stop, but for the first night, it just seemed like it was the right way to jump off.

I was shaking in my Steve Maddens until the music started and then…it was as it was supposed to be. The first time we came to an ‘intermission’ I didn’t even realize that we’d completed the first set. We raced to the dressing room we shared with the eight female dancers and changed into our embellished black La Petite Robe di Chiara Boni Beba one-shoulder jersey flare-leg jumpsuits and purply-fuchsia Blue by Betsey Johnson Jenna strappy evening sandals. Our hair was pulled down to curl around our shoulders and our eye makeup emboldened to match our lips. Cedes’ jumpsuit was about the color of our shoes and she wore black sandals herself. Her hair was so long and curly and gorgeous. It was a great set. I floated through it and into our final change. For the last look of the night we were in stepped down versions of Mercedes’ very designer look. One shoulder, purple cropped tops, embellished black skinny-jean capris pants and shiny black sling back pumps. It was covered for two songs by seriously white choir robes but the songs we wore those robes for were so very important.

After the last song, I was in a headspace that I had never before experienced. I was happy it was done, hungry enough to eat a bear…but disappointed that I couldn’t hear and see the crowd loving what we were giving them any longer. We showered in the facilities that they venue provided then got dressed for a night out on the town. There were after parties to attend and according to Tana, there were connections to be made, if we wanted to make them. The next morning, I was cursing the fact that I was over twenty-one and praising Yeshiva for the fact that we didn’t have to be anywhere for a full twenty-four hours. Of course, when Monday morning got there, I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep. I was up early double checking to make sure that I had everything that I was taking with me, my e-reader and laptop, both of which contained digital copies of every book on my summer reading list. I wished I could type papers on my iPad like Mike, but it just wasn’t comfortable for me. besides, my laptop had all my wedding planning stuff on it…including a great planning guide called Planning Pod that I’d downloaded. I couldn’t live without; it was really great. I’d have felt guilty for waking Mike, but he was just as anxious as I was.

I made it a point to make sure that we left our stuff neatly put away. Even though the last dates before classes started again we’d be in Washington state, we’d still be coming back to New York before went back to California. We’d get the last of our things then. We would have to make a stop back in Lima too. Mike and I had left our engagement rings with our parents. I was wearing a more traditional, and totally fake, ring we’d gotten off of Groupon. I felt naked without my ring, but no way was I letting it get stolen. When Santana and Brittany had heard about my idea, they’d done the same. It was a precaution that we needed to take since the only one who could really be guaranteed to wear their ring on stage would be Cedes, and dressing rooms weren’t the most secure places. Artie and Mike had just replaced their rings with tungsten bands. They did look different enough that people wouldn’t think they were together…not that there was anything wrong with that.

Mike and I showered and dressed and made sure that we had everything before heading down to the kitchen. It was pretty early, so I was surprised that Viola wasn’t alone. Kurt and Blaine had beaten us downstairs. Of course, it made sense; they weren’t going with us because Blaine was working at his father’s company again and Kurt was taking classes at FIT and working with Haja on some secret Commune project. He had loved working with Haja the summer before on decorating KAMA’s offices. I’d never seen him so excited about anything other than Blaine. It had been really cute. However, I could have lived without the constant texts of two barely different shades of purple to see which one was perfectly KAMA. Thank Yeshiva that Haja had eventually just had a special blend paint made to be perfect. That decision came at the perfect time. I had been really close to blocking Kurt between nine and two. Everyone was all dressed and ready long before we actually needed to head to the KAMA offices where we’d be boarding the buses. But since Commune were going, we decided to just go with them. I knew that my tourist was showing…but I loved riding the subway. At least, I loved riding the subway safely accompanied by a large group of people I knew including two highly trained military men turned bodyguards.

When we got to the offices, it was weird. I mean, Mercedes, Sam and Puck were my age. Technically, I was older than Mercedes and Sam…but they had an office and people who worked for them. I knew that I was, technically, one of those people, but singing with Mercedes, Puck and Sam was as normal to me as breathing. I ended up walking around with Santana, Brittany and Tessa, which, of course meant that we ended up leaving the bulk of the crew to go do something we probably shouldn’t have done which was how we ended up in the garage at the buses. But it turned out to be a good thing, we got to lend Hudson a hand, which let us know about the surprise Commune had for all of us before anyone else did. I loved knowing stuff before other people. The blankets were gorgeous and soft and seemed like they would be warm. The sleep mask was embroidered with our names and was way more conducive to light blocking than the one I’d found in Bath and Body Works.

The wait for everyone to arrive was pretty killer. I mean, I took the time to store my stuff and all, but that took maybe ten minutes max. The tension was exacerbated by the fact that everyone who arrived was almost thrumming with anticipation. It was pretty fun though. Because once personal items were stored, people came out and started clowning and joking. By the time it was time to load up; I kind of wondered if we hadn’t been given the extra time to get to know people and bond. I knew the regular crew didn’t need it, but us summer folks definitely benefited. It was fun riding the bus over to the Barclays Center. Hartman were driving over in their Swag Van so it was just the five old school New Directions. We spent the hour talking school and, whoa, Artie didn’t just have a summer reading list, he had like thirty movies he had to watch for his different film classes.

The drive time flew by. When we got to the Barclays center, the trucks were already there and the WMG buses had beaten us there too, because all the roadies were already working away. They were good. I mean, they were ridiculously good. So were the sound and lighting people. It was a good thing they were so good at their jobs. Even with as fast and efficiently as they worked, the day was still very full. While they were building and arranging and all that, the dancers, singers, band and KAMA warmed up and stretched. Then we practiced…and practiced…and practiced. I knew I shouldn’t mind, it was the nature of the job. And I did have to learn a lot of dance moves, no one on a KAMA stage just stood and swayed unless the song called for it. But still, I wasn’t quite used to the level of activity that Commune demanded of their people. It was good for me…but damn. After practice was sound check and then lighting check. Then we went into the locker rooms and showered and moisturized and pulled on button front shirts and yoga pants then reported to our hair and makeup persons. The clothes that night were even better than the previous concert. The wardrobe matrons were awesome. We all had three outfits per concert and there were three alternatives for each of us for each region. They managed to keep nine different outfits for twenty-six people cleaned, pressed, ready and sorted to the right person through everything…plus the robes. They were called Wardrobe Matrons, but only one of the duo was technically female. Beverly St. Christian and Joseph Norwich were friends of Noah’s grandmother. They had been working as matrons for fifteen years and had worked under her on the soap opera. They were the consummate team, on tour and off. They’d been married for the better part of a decade. They were almost fifty and yet, they had more energy than all the rest of us at the end of the night, though they’d been running around like crazy making sure that everything was where it needed to be. I wanted to be them when I grew up.

After the concert, we showered and as we were getting dressed, Hudson popped her head in and told us to get changed and head to the after party at the Billboard Lounge. I was kind of shocked. When I asked Santana about it she just laughed, “Girl Asian, Aretha, Trouty and Puck don’t go to the after parties unless the promoter is paying them to be there. That’s why they didn’t bother with the one the other night. Now, the thing about our beloved KAMA is that they are the types of bosses republitards have in mind when they swear that that dumbass economic theory called ‘Trickle Down’ actually works. Because when Commune gets paid…we get pain, in this case in the form of bonuses.” Then she Britts and Artie did a fast three-way hand slapping thing that was too thruply cute. So, we got dressed to go and party. I didn’t have much in the way of club ready apparel, but I had some really sexy black leather look leggings and a silver cowl front tank top that I could rock with a black under bust corset and boom, I was sexified. Of course, Mike had it easy. A pair of jeans, a silken tee shirt and boom, he was all gorgeous.

The party was fun. There wasn’t much in the way of food, but the drinks were flowing and I was one happy little back ground singer. We danced and drank and made merry. It was really a lot of fun…until we realized that it was like six in the morning and we were, officially, just a couple of hours away from having been awake for a full, literal day. After the Barclays Center, we were in Albany, then two stops in New Jersey. After that we were in Philly and we got to go see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall and we went to the zoo. Of course, then Brittany messed it all up by asking if it was prison for animals and what their crimes could have been. Then Sam, Puck, Artie, Adam and Damien started trying to come up with the causes of the animal’s ‘unfortunate incarceration’. So that was pretty hilarious.

After Philly, we went to Baltimore then did another show in Maryland before hitting DC for a show. I got to meet Mercedes’ married cousins. Her cousin Hannah was nowhere near a horrible as I’d have thought given everything. She seemed to be trying really hard to be a better cousin to Cedes. I was glad. Because I liked her and as her best friend…I couldn’t like someone who was mean to Cedes…it was a rule. After we checked out of the hotels that the promoter arranged for us in Washington proper, we spent the small break at Prince William Forest RV Campground about an hour from DC and an hour away from our next stop in Richmond. The place was pretty much the exact opposite of what I was expecting. There were hookups for water, sewer, electricity…the works. Each ‘site’ also had a fire pit and there was a big pool for the campers to enjoy. The most interesting thing was that the campground also had a coin laundry mat next to the showers. We found the campgrounds to be some peace in the intensity of the tour. Of course, we didn’t spend all our down time at the campgrounds.

Cedes, Sam and Puck had Hudson make all these special arrangements. When we were settled and all the hookups connected, a bunch of fifteen-person passenger vans popped up and we drove up to Maryland to Six Flags America. We spent six and a half hours riding roller coasters and running through the park like we were twelve-year-olds let loose to run amuck. It was fabulous. Hudson had gotten us passes, dining passes and Flash Pass that let us breeze through the lines. There were thirteen coasters or thrill rides and Mike and I rode them all twice. We ran into Commune and they had taken advantage of their fore-knowledge to bring suits so they’d done all the water rides. Mike and I met up with Hartman for a late lunch and Joe’s locks had been braided up and into a kind of crown dealy to allow him to go on the coasters and rides that they would have been considered a hazard for. Mike asked him about it and he told us this great story. “When we were getting in line for the BatWing Coaster, one of the park people said that I would need to secure my hair. I had no clue what he was talking about. But this Black lady with skin like mahogany and locs even longer than mine, she grabbed me and Tee by the hands and she took us over to the side. She taught Tee how to pull them up into a ponytail really high on my head and make them into this bun…and it hasn’t moved. We tried to thank her and she shushed us. ‘Never say the words thank you to someone for doing your hair. It will make it all drop out. I’m sure that you appreciate it.’ Then she told us that we were an almost perfect match, and patted out cheeks.”

“Tina, I wish you could have met her. She didn’t look any older than Moms D…but the way she spoke and the way she just felt…it was as if she were millennia old. She was amazing.” Tessa finished the retelling.

“That’s really cool. Who else have you ran into?” I asked curiously, even as a part of my mind tried to come up with which mannerisms and body language could be used to convey an aged wisdom far greater than the body’s appearance.

We talked as we ate then went on a few rides together. When we ran into Artie, Britts and Tana near the Mind Eraser we ended up turning our group of four into a group of seven. Which turned out to not be a bad thing. Flash Pass plus Artie’s chair…we had like zero wait for most of the rides and attractions after lunch. Tessa and Joe got swallowed up by Sugar and her crew of the temporary dancers when we ran into them. But then we ran into Xena, Arjun and the Dam Bros, and it really became a party. Tana, Xena and I all got matching henna tattoos. While Arjun and the Dam Bros did the same. Mike and Brittany said that they would let that be a background singer thing when we suggested they get the dancers together to do something similar. But the day wasn’t just spent riding the rides and exploring the attractions. There was so much shopping. My father loved the DC universe of superheroes, so I got tons of souvenirs for him and mom. Mike’s dad’s secret love of comic book heroes was well fed too. It felt amazing to buy my parents gift with my own money…even at the inflated theme park prices.

That night when we got back to the campground, we were all talking and laughing and it was just great. It took us forever to get all showered and in pajamas and down for the night, but once our heads hit our bunk pillows, we were down for the count. On Monday, we all got up and after all the walking the day before, everyone was happy to stick with yoga and core training for our exercise. Then we all took care of our laundry and whatever. While I folded mine and Mike’s things, my mind went to a slightly pressing fashion issue that I was facing. After the DC Concert, we had all attended another after party as we had in the previous three huge cities, but not in the smaller one. With that pattern established, I was able to anticipate which dates on the tour would be more likely to include the need for club clothes. Cities like Atlanta and Charlotte, yes…places like Jacksonville and Columbia…not as likely. I had mentioned to Mike in passing that I didn’t think I had enough club appropriate apparel to roll with Mercedes anymore. It was just a joke…a bad one…but I so didn’t expect what happened next. Apparently, Sugar who was coming to go over some dance steps with Mike, over heard. She went running to tell ‘Momma Cedes’ all about how there was a need for an emergency shopping trip.

There was a multi-level mega mall in Arlington, VA that Mercedes had been day dreaming of since she visited the capital with her parents long before the fortune and fame. Tuesday morning when we came back from Sam and Puck’s ‘running in the wild’, I was surprised when we all got a text demanding our presence and to be dressed to go to Arlington National Cemetery for the tour. Actually, I wasn’t that surprised. We’d done culturally important things other places too. We just usually knew the night before so we’d be up, dressed and out on time. Still, anything was better than starting the summer reading we’d all said we were going to start during our down time that week. Now I had to say, there was no lie in the message. We did go to Arlington. We were there for like three hours. I found out a bunch of really interesting facts, including that the land had been commandeered after Robert E. Lee had decided to fight for the Confederacy. I loved that fact. Fuck him for fighting to keep black people enslaved. He deserved to lose that beautiful land. Of course, I didn’t just learn and laugh in righteous indignation…I also cried…a lot. Like almost to the point of dehydration. But it totally wasn’t my fault. When we were at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, Sam, Adam and Damien sang this really said song that I later found out was called ‘Arlington’ by a country artist named Trace Adkins. I was a total wreck for like an hour after that. Seriously, it was so touching. I wasn’t the only one who cried…everyone there at the time was at least a little saddened. Most of the other ladies shed a tear or twenty…I was just the only one who couldn’t seem to stop.

After the tour, and me desperately sucking down three of the seriously overpriced Dasani’s in the gift store…and all of us buying a few souvenirs for our families back home, we got back into the rentals and followed our lead vehicle in a caravan that headed to the Fashion Center at Pentagon City instead of back to our tour buses. We spent twice as long at the mall as we had at the national memorial. So seriously…Mercedes kept the New Direction women together and we shopped until the guys literally came and dragged us away. I discovered a store called Altar'd State and got quite happy. It was there that I had a realization. I’d paid for a few things…a top I saw that was absolutely perfect for DJ and some DC souvenirs…but other than that, Cedes told me to consider it a bonus. I noticed that she made Santana and Brittany pay for more of their own stuff and pointed that out. “Tee, Tana and Britts have been getting paid well for over a year. Trust and believe they’ve got the cash to buy their own shit. Besides they go clubbing without us all the time. You and Mike go out to a club twice a month. You wouldn’t need these clothes if not for me. Now, hush your mouth and say thank you.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “You do realize that I cannot both hush and say thank you at the same time, right?” I smiled sweetly and thanked her…then I gave her a hug so she knew I meant it. “I’ll be honest, I wore my last cute club type outfit at the DC after party. I don’t want to embarrass everybody by looking like a country bumpkin.”

“Girl, you know we don’t give a damn. You do you. But there are tons of industry people who pop up at the after parties. If you can start your come up…why not look good doing it?” Cedes said with a big grin.

“You have a point. But I’m not ready for primetime yet. So, we’ll just call all of this practice.” I told her and we headed out to find the Haagen-Dazs we’d noticed on the mall directory. We had a slightly early dinner in the food court, which, inevitably, led to an impromptu autograph signing for KAMA. Then we booked it back to the buses. That evening, while Santana, Artie and Britts were enjoying their king-sized bed in the stateroom and Tessa and Joe were over in the Ladies Bus visiting Sugar and watching movies, Mike and I found out that by putting me on top and sticking very close together, the love making didn’t just occur, it was mind-blowingly good. Then we followed it up by breaking more than a few of the RV park’s laws in the ladies’ showers. Ah yeah, good times. The next day, we headed into Richmond where we all had rooms at the Richmond Marriot very close to the Coliseum. I found out that the tour crew and the drivers were all in a Holiday Inn Express a few more blocks away. The promoter had made all the arrangements, and had put KAMA’s people in the same hotel as KAMA per their contract, but had read it very strictly so they felt comfortable saving some of their profit by putting the road crew and others in a less expensive hotel.

I wasn’t mad at them. They were putting us up an extra twelve hours ahead of the concert, a fact that I appreciated. With all the running and practicing and showering in the wild…I was in desperate need of a bubble bath. So, I took a nice long one and managed to knock out both Everyman and Dr. Faustus for my fall theater class. After our mornings of relaxation, KAMA took everyone, Crew and crew, Rangemen and drivers out for lunch at the Tarrant’s Café. Basically, they rented the place out and fed all, like, hundred and fifty of us. It was really cool though. I got to know a lot of the tour crew that I hadn’t met. Mike and I had a good conversation with John Ripley, the recently added third member of ‘Team Swag’. He was mainly helping with setup and crowd control. Which worked he was almost as big as some of the Rangemen. It was interesting. When I was talking to Tessa, I realized that she and I both catalogued and memorized people, their personalities, and their mannerisms. I talked to them and tried to understand their insecurities and their foibles. Tessa watched them and tried to figure out their backstories and future. She and I got really close over the course of the tour from New York to our first Virginia stop. So much so that we spent a good bit of the after party discussing people and making up their backstories and motivations.

As much as I was learning about people, both those on the tour and those who just loved KAMA and/or music in general, I was learning even more about myself. There would never be a time I didn’t love being on stage with Mercedes, Santana, Sam and Puck…all of our friends really…but in the back of my mind, I knew that I was falling in love with acting more than I ever thought possible. I couldn’t help but remember the words of my theater professor after I gave my monologue performance that made up the class final. “Ms. Cohen-Chang, I have to admit, it is rather rare of me to ask this…but are you majoring in theater?”

I shook my head. “I’m actually majoring in performance studies and music. Theatre is my minor though.”

Mr. Bald nodded. “That is something at least. I was hoping that you would be majoring in theater because you show an amazing aptitude and talent on that stage. Your Antigone managed to convey the rebellion and stubborn loyalty that the character demands while giving her an innocence that most people forget she’d still hold and have.”

“Wow…thank you.” I said very deeply touched. “I haven’t done much acting. I was painfully shy in high school. I found my voice in our school’s show choir but I could not make myself brave enough to really try out for the theater productions.”

He smiled gently. “The beauty of acting is getting to show the world someone else, while keeping your truest self hidden and shared only with those you choose to let in.”

“I never thought of it like that?”

“There are those who utilize their talents in that manner. There are those for whom fame is not as frightening. They use fame to live out loud.” He said wisely. I understood what he meant. That was how Cedes, Puck and Sam were. I said as much, unthinkingly and Mr. Bald chuckled. “Your friend has one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen on screen. But her voice…it is without match amongst her peers.”

I smiled proudly. “Mercedes’ voice is amazing. She would tell you that I’m just as good. I come close…but she has me beat on her range and the intensity that she can wield with it; the emotions that she can induce in others with it. Sam and Puck have really stepped up their game to keep up with her.”

Mr. Bald’s gaze locked on mine. “Ms. Cohen-Chang, Tina…I think with training you could be as strong an actress as Ms. Jones is a singer.” He finally said after reading my soul for several long moments. “You just have to decide if you want it enough.”

Those words just kept reverberating inside my mind over the days and weeks of the tour. Did I really have the kind of talent Mr. Bald said he saw in me? And if I did…Did I want to be an actress enough to go after it? Did I want it enough?

Karma Police (Radiohead)
Ambient PoV
Quantico, VA

Aaron Hotchner looked around the table at his team. They were meeting to discuss the case Assistant Director Pescia was putting quite a bit of pressure on them to resolve. Originally, the Assistant Director had simply wanted a profile worked up to allow for local law enforcement to move forward. But with proof of corruption, bribery and other malfeasance on the part of several local law enforcement agencies involved…the case had moved up the food chain and Director Comey had them actively pursuing the case. He wanted the BAU to take down the actual unsub and build an unshakable case against the corrupt LEOs in California. The seven members of the BAU team were more than happy to take on the task.

They had gone over the evidence with a fine-toothed comb. Garcia had been able to use her amazing skills to trace campaign donations, both those that were on the books and those that were of a more personal…off the books…nature. She had found even more pies that he had his thumb in than Rangeman had managed to uncover. Corbin Richardson was a power-player. He collected corrupt officials like some people collected comic books. There wasn’t a major metropolitan area that he didn’t have a connection or three living in. Rossi had been invaluable in building the unsub’s profile. He was able to speak with more than a few of their shared acquaintances to find out more about the man…information they rarely had access to before anyone was hurt. Spencer had combed through the unsub’s company and personal financial records and had been able to pinpoint the man’s movement of funds off-shore and the purchase of a large estate in Manama, Bahrain, where he had some previous ties and investments. However, that was not the only aspect of the unsub Dr. Reid had been researching. “The current swing towards more mainstream acceptance of relationships like that between Mercedes Jones and either Sam Evans or Noah Puckerman actually began in spring twenty-twelve when a hotel manager turned blogger posted a blog called ‘redefining beauty’ that went viral. It spoke of him having overheard a teenager staying at the hotel speaking to an ex-girlfriend about a current or future love interest. The young man said that he was redefining his beautiful. It led to the blogger finally beginning a relationship with a girl he had liked for a long time, but who he hadn’t asked out because she wasn’t what was considered by society to be beautiful. He’s continued to blog about their relationship as it has progressed and the couple recently became engaged. However, since the rise in popularity of KAMA and the greater acceptance of a more diverse range of body types, there have also been some rather significant attempts to redirect everyone back to the established societal norms. But those norms have only been in place for the last twenty-five years. In the eighties, the preferred body type averaged a size six. In the seventies…after the height of the popularity in the sixties of Twiggy, the ideal swung back to a more ‘healthy’ thin. The eighties became the decade of the ‘hard bodies’, thin and fit…but again athletic. But before the advent of Twiggy, societal ideas of beauty had always fluctuated between healthy, athletic, fit women and more curvaceous, voluptuous women. I’m still not sure why it is suggested that women look like me to be considered beautiful.” The last was muttered, but someone at the table heard it.

“Because we let a gay man decide what female beauty should be,” Rossi grumbled. “I’ve never been one to follow the current trend of preferring women shaped more like pre-pubescent boys. No offense Reid.”

“None taken.” Reid shot back. He liked women who were thin, but not those who were emaciated to the point that they lost all the defining characteristics of femininity. Breasts and rounded hips were not a bad thing for a woman to possess.

“Now instead of people calling a preference a preference, they address it as a fetish. A terminology that is grossly incorrectly applied but it forces most people with a preference for curvaceous women to internalize those desires in a way that is unhealthy. It is simply that some men prefer voluptuous women, some prefer women who are merely shapely.” Rossi continued. “Today, Jennifer is the closest on the team to the high standard of beauty. But there was a time when Kitten and Tara would have been fought over…when men would have killed each other for the pleasure of their company.”

Morgan smirked over at his best friend and girlfriend. “I know I still would, Baby Girl.” He said teasingly.

Tara chuckled but pointed out a second variation on the theme. “We should also consider the long-held stereotypes of Black women and how they play into the Unsub’s obsession. Black women have been portrayed since slavery as over sexual, overly sexualized, ‘fetishes’. It may be part of why he has so greatly dehumanized her and thinks of her in terms of possession.”

Rossi shook his head. “That’s true. It makes no sense, though. Considering that the only sexual interactions slaves had with the ruling class was nonconsensual…how did the stereotype of the lascivious Black woman even start.”

Garcia surprised them all by answering. “The same way it usually does in cases of rape victims being vilified…other women. The prevailing theory online is that the White women were upset that their husbands preferred the slaves to them, so they started claiming that it was all the slave women’s fault…that they had lured the poor unsuspecting Masters into their beds with their voluptuous bodies and their immorality. Slut shaming and victim blaming all rolled into one.” Seeing the looks of surprise and almost pride on the faces of her colleagues, Penelope blushed bright red. “What? Most thick women online communities are populated by Women of Color. I’m usually the only white woman in the room. I’m shaped far more like most Black women than White.” She said defensively.

Hotch allowed himself a small grin before calling them back to the matter at hand. “Reid, what else did you find out that could give us an idea as to Richardson’s next move?”

Reid looked thoughtful. “Richardson currently seems focused on two things. He is trying to distract from his obsession by convincing those who know that he has moved on to Toccara Jones, a television personality, fashion model, occasional actress and singer. They have been dating since his return from that European business trip in February and March. There seems to be very little likelihood that the unsub is in anyway serious about the relationship. He would never move on from a quarry until he had gained satisfaction. Besides, his second focus precludes that conclusion. He is moving things around to enable him to permanently move to Bahrain, a country which though it has diplomatic relations with the US, it does not have an extradition agreement with us. Currently, the duality of those two foci means that he is staying in California…but he has to be planning something. He won’t move without Ms. Jones.

“Richardson won’t find getting to her easy or simple.” Derick Morgan said with a feral smile. It had been down to Morgan to concentrate on the victim profile. He’d been able to glean a lot of information from the family of Mercedes Jones that he had access to. “Rangeman considers her protection a top priority. Through their connection with KAMA, they’ve increased their profitability across the board and several of the KAMA team members work with Rangeman on a contractual basis. According to Ramos, two Rangemen are involved in serious relationships with people associated with the group. According to the family…even if he does manage to get past Rangeman, no way is Jones not a danger to him herself. She’s been raised to fight and fight hard. Though she might not for herself, she will for her men and her family. I’d say possibly never seeing them again would give her a damn good reason to fight harder than ever before.”

Those assembled at the table acknowledged the truth of that statement. Hotch did want more information. “What did you find out at the concert Saturday night?”

“Other than the fact that we’re probably gonna be parents in nine months?” Garcia whispered to herself and JJ and Tara.

“Baby Making Music?” Tara asked quietly.

Penelope nodded. “Better than Barry White and Luther Vandross combined.” She admitted with a wicked grin. “We barely made it into work on time this morning and I don’t think poor Clooney had a run since Saturday morning.”

The three women shared a smile older than all three of them combined. Hotch, Rossi and Reid looked at Morgan in a look just as old. Equal parts respect and good natured envy. “Well, other than that, what did you learn pertinent to the case?”

“The Rangeman presence is as solid as one would expect. The VIP groups are led from the arena to the backstage and given an hour-long facilities tour. The ‘guests’ use that time to hit the vendors they pass for things to get autographed.” A not so hidden glance at his partner for the evening’s assignment told the team how Garcia had spent the break. “I’m pretty sure that the tour is just Rangeman’s way of doing a last-minute check on the VIPs to make sure they aren’t a danger, but they say that it is so that KAMA can get cleaned up and presentable. When we got into the dressing room, the group was there as was a primary guard. That evening they were also accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Jones. Franklin Jones was watching everyone who entered that room like a hawk. He takes his responsibility to his younger cousin very, very seriously. Ms. Jones is smart. When Hannah introduced me and Baby Girl, Mercedes cut her off before she could say that we were FBI in front of others. She figured out quickly that we were on the job and it didn’t need to be said why.”

Rossi looked impressed. “She’s taking her situation seriously. That’s good. How about her counterparts?”

“They pay every bit as much attention as Jones. The three of them have their people, kids they grew up with and can trust, in every area of their crew. Plus, they have one of Evans’ relatives in their driver pool. I know for a fact that Puckett has more information than he’s admitting to.” Morgan said bluntly.

“How do you know that?” Hotch asked curiously.

Morgan smiled. “Ramos…Rangeman is pretty sure that the Puckett family knows something is going on and is making moves to protect the kid and his wife and husband. The theory on it was that during the ‘persuasion’ of Macardo to get him to turn himself in, that Puckett cousin found out something he took back to the family…something that they are not telling anyone outside the genepool.”

“What do we know about the Puckett family?” Hotch asked curiously. “Should we look farther into them?”

Reid’s head came up fast. “No.” he said firmly. He didn’t elaborate. How could he tell his family that it was one of his mother’s most closely guarded secrets? Even Spencer himself didn’t know all of it. But what he did know was disturbing enough that he’d never share it with anyone. Diana Reid had been taken from a clinic as a newborn by a nurse who had raised her. The Puckett woman had given birth to triplets, but had been so out of it afterwards that she’d never realized the lie the nurse had told her. The mother had shown up so far into labor that the doctor couldn’t get there in time to deliver the babies. The nurse had done it all alone. The woman who had raised his mother had not even known the woman’s first name. Diana’s ‘mother’ had always said that there was nothing good that could come of Diana’s birth family finding out where she was. With her schizophrenic paranoia, Reid knew that it was too late for her to ever meet them. He quickly covered with the information he’d uncovered since he found out the true history of why his mother was an only child. “The Puckett family is large and skates the line of legality. Several branches are law abiding…but for the most part those are the exception. And legal or criminal…those with Puckett blood are all family and they are as cloistered as any mafia family. They take care of each other to the exclusion of the rest of the world. It is rare that the women of the family take their husband’s names…or in the usual circumstance…give their children their father’s names. Gabrielle Puckett was a rarity in that she took Sander Evans’ last name and gave her children his name as well.” He was relieved when Hotch didn’t ask any further questions. Just took it as Reid being Reid and moved on.

“Okay then…it is another avenue of protection for the primary target, but doesn’t help us with taking down the Unsub and his network of influence with him.” Rossi pointed out to the table at large. Though, he was actually considering making an overture to Gabrielle Puckett-Evans. Richardson wouldn’t go down easily. If they could get someone close enough to the man to facilitate the man’s fall…it would certainly be helpful. And while he had many connections that could have been useful, none of them lived or worked west of Chicago.

The BAU team went back to work, assessing the best way to ensure that Corbin Richardson’s current mission in life was unsuccessful.

Roadie (Tenacious D)
Azimio PoV

It was seriously the best decision of my life to take the job with Puck, Jones and Evans. Don’t get it twisted, it was hard work. I mean, so fucking hard. In the first couple of weeks on the road, I lost inches off my belly, ass and thighs. I was strong as hell though. I mean, hella strong. I knew that my coach was going to be seriously happy when I got to camp that fall. But more than that, when I got that first paycheck and realized that after taxes, I’d cleared more than twice what I could have working any shift at the Sprawl Mart in Lima, I knew that, even though I missed Lil Bird more than I could say, it was the right choice for us. It was hard work, but I learned a lot. I learned a shit ton about wiring and pyrotechnics and, to my surprise, carpentry. I learned how to pack a truck and how to do a bunch of things I wasn’t sure I would ever need in the future, but who knew.

Dave and me, we were back on total, best friends for life, almost brother, godfather of my child, status. Our bunks were right together. When we stayed in hotels, we shared a room with each other. When I Skyped with Lil Bird, he was over my shoulder reminding her that her G-Paw loved her. When he Facetimed with LaKeith, I was right over his shoulder picking and teasing, until they got to serious, lovey-dovey talk…then I dipped to the left and gave them their privacy. I may have watched LaKeith dicking Dave down that one time…but that had been satisfying a morbid sense of curiosity. I didn’t need to see anything more than that. When we weren’t talking to our people, we were talking to each other. We knew that it was easy to outgrow a friendship…especially when it was built on commonalities that had changed and were no longer so common. So, we talked and we found new shit in common.

But we weren’t reclusive. We made lots of friends among the rest of the tour crew. For the most part, they were cool people. They taught us all about groupies and the kinds of people who would drop to their knees in a heartbeat for a chance to get closer to the stars. I was just happy that none of the rest of the crew harassed Dave for his gayness. A few of them even laughed at the thought. “More than a few of the guys on this run…they don’t exactly care what the rest of the body is carrying as long as the mouth is pretty and doesn’t have a gag reflex.” Mikey, one of the lighting techs told me when I mentioned the lack of bullshit to him. “Besides…Jergens, herself, picked the crew for this tour. Only the clean and the non-bigots…one guy slipped through the net on the clean…he isn’t a junkie…but he will slang when he needs cash.”

“Damn,” I said quietly. “Is he gonna be a problem for Puckerman, Jones or Evans?”

Mikey shook his head. “Naw, he’s got better sense than that. This is the nicest tour we’ve ever been on. Our per diems are fat as hell. The band takes us out to eat with their people when they do a full group meal. Man, they took us all with them to Six Flags…that came out of their own pockets. Nobody does that for random, label hired roadies. That was some pretty epic shit. Not to mention, at the Norfolk stop the other day, Puckerman saw me setting up some gels and reached up and tied my shoe for me after calling me by name and telling me to be careful climbing things with loose laces. They are internationally known pop-stars and they are learning our names and just basically treating us like we’re real people…it would be madness to fuck this up. I personally want to make the cut the next time they do a tour.”

When I told Dave about that convo, he and I made it our business to find the guy, a cat named Hank. We ‘befriended’ him and kept close tabs on him all the damn time. It wasn’t a real hard ship. He was a cool enough guy. He wasn’t tall or handsome, but he was strong and pulled his weight. He never minded answering our questions and if he did sell shit from time to time…he never got high as far as we could tell. Thing was, Dude was in almost constant contact with his brother Jim who worked in LA. I wasn’t sure why, but every time Hank mentioned Jim, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I shrugged it off at first…but that shit never went away. As we moved from Virginia to the North Carolina stops, it seemed to be getting worse. So, the night after the Charlotte concert, once everything was broken down and on the trucks, while most of the rest of the tour crew was making their way to the after party, I found Dave and asked him to come with me to find Woody. Dave and the Texan Rangeman had bonded over some ‘only those who have lived in the Lone Star State can understand’ stuff. But I knew he was good people and would actually listen to me.

“I know it sounds crazy, but man…every time Hank says something about his brother, it’s like my skin crawls and I just…I don’t know how to explain it. But it’s like my hackles rise and I just want to break his neck…or get far the fuck away from him. The weirdest part is that I can talk to Hank for an hour and until he mentions Jim, I’m fine with Hank. He comes across a little skeevy…but not really sketchy. Ya know?” I finally told the Rangeman.

“We did background checks into all the tour crew. Hank Schmidt…born to Hardin and Jessica Schmidt of Good Intent, Kansas. Has two brothers, Mitchell and his twin James, or Jim…one sister, Laura. She died at twenty of an accidental drug overdose while in the hospital getting an appendectomy. Jim lives in Torrance, California…Mitchell followed his parent’s footsteps and teaches school in Good Intent.”

I shook my head in consternation. “See, I’m good with every name you just said…but every single time you talked about Jim…I got the wiggins.”

Woody seemed thoughtful. “I’ll get Hector and Grunt to look into Jim Schmidt. Maybe there is something there. Maybe there isn’t, but it doesn’t hurt to check.”

I felt so much better after that. I didn’t have a lot of friends…not as many as I thought I did in high school…but the ones I had now were real and they were important to me…none more so than my Lil Bird’s godparents. I was going to make sure that I take care of them just as much as they are taking care of me and of her. Yeah, Mercedes really should learn that Dave can’t hold water. She’s flying my parents, my cousin Rae, and Lil Bird out to meet us in Tulsa for my baby’s birthday. I’d been almost sick with the thought of not being there when she turned two. Come to find out, having missed her goddaughter’s first birthday, Mercedes wasn’t all that keen on missing a second. She’d told Dave so he could convince me not to take the day off and fly home. He could not keep a secret. He had to tell somebody, so he’d told LaKeith. I just happened to have been‘asleep’ in the bunk above him during the telling. Yeah, every night when I said my prayers, the first thing I prayed for after I prayed for Robyn, Rae and my parents, was the continued health and well-being of Jones, Evans and Puckerman. They damn well deserved it. Then I prayed that I would have the kind of future that let me take care of Lil Bird and raise her right…because she deserved it too.

Yeah, I may not have been gung ho when I agreed to take the job as a summer tour roadie. But I knew that the decision was the right one. I also, found that I kind of hoped that I’d have the chance again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Traveling Band (Credence Clearwater Revival)
Mercedes PoV

I thought I knew what touring was. We had toured the summer before…the Aesthetic Enjoyment Tour wasn’t our first time at the rodeo…I thought I was prepared for it. I was so not ready. No two tours were alike, and an arena tour was completely different from a festival tour. Hudson and Darcy, in the office, they did everything they could to help. Even with the super tightly packed schedule, they had built in down time. Time which we could fill with things we wanted to do, like museums, theme parks and just fun…but by the middle of June, I was already so damn tired. I knew that I was trying to do too much. I had given myself until the first Monday of the month off before I started working on my summer reading assignments. I was taking five classes in the fall at Columbia and another four at Julliard, but two of them were really reading intensive. The good news was that I had completed all of my core requirements by the end of my sophomore year, just as I had planned way before I ever agreed to a three-way date, of the dirty kind. The bad news was that with two business strategy/psychology classes, I had more reading on hand than I had the summer before we started at Columbia.

Seriously, I had as many books to read as Noah and Sam combined. For each of the six books, four for the business strategy class and two for the business psychology class, I had to create a brief synopsis and an outline of what I considered to be the most salient points. It was labor intensive…educational…but labor intensive. There were times that I felt myself teetering on the edge of burn out. But one thing always pulled me back. The fact that every night, whether we were in our bus or in a hotel room, I was able to spend at least a few hours co-ed naked wrestling with Sam and Noah. I was a very lucky woman. The one thing that kept me sane was the fact that my husbands and I made love every single night. We also made love after every single concert. At least we did until Fayetteville, when Bubbie and Nikki joined us. We got lucky in that they and Darcy, who had travelled with them, watched the concert then waited and came back with the VIPs, which gave us time for me to ride both of them until we were all completely fulfilled, before they arrived with the group led by Sybo Diaz one of the larger Latin Rangemen. Sybo was joined by Manny in uniform and Zip looking like a fan. I think he was playing Bubbie’s date. I mentally wondered for a second how much of it was pretend. But then any other thoughts flew right out of my head. I actually beat Sam and Puck to our little girl and scooped her up into a huge hug. “Oh, Niks…I’ve missed you so much.” I may have shed a tear, but she looked so cute and I really had missed her so much. She was wearing a black and white sleeveless organza, scuba, handkerchief dress and black leggings with her hair all curled and pulled back in a pretty head band.

“MeDe…” she crooned hugging me tightly back. “I missed you too.” she whispered.

Sybo was doing a great job making sure that none of the non-family VIPs took pictures of our mini-reunion. Bubbie was hugging Noah and Sam. I had to pass Nikki into her Abah’s arms to be able to accept my hug from Bubbie. Then they took a seat on the sofa while we signed autographs and took selfies and otherwise entertained our fans. Thankfully, Fayetteville wasn’t a big enough venue for the promoter to be willing to pay us for our time in attending the after party. Once we were all done at the Cumberland County Crown Coliseum, we grabbed Nik’s and Bubbie’s bags from Tessa and Joe and got them settled in their bunks on our bus. Once we got everyone changed into some comfy lounging clothes, we all huddled together with Nikki, happily wearing her Star Trek uniform pjs, on the couch in the front lounge while Bubbie and Hudson took the chairs.

Nikki was ecstatic. She loved the whole bunk beds in a moving vehicle idea, but as much as she enjoyed that coolness, she had missed us a lot and wanted to share all her adventures from the previous couple of weeks. With no school, and it not yet being time for the math and technology camp, Nikki, Jazmine, Michelle and Marcus would be going to at John Carroll University in Cleveland after the Fourth of July Break. It was the same camp Lauren had gone to every summer for years. Plus too, it was close to the family. The math camp that had first grabbed their interest was all the way in Texas. The fearsome foursome was all atwitter planning for that. The camp didn’t have a uniform, per se, but our little geniuses had all decided that they would spend the entire time in ‘geek shirts’ and shorts. Sam kept going online and finding new ones to order and have shipped to our soon to be campers. He loved finding them the best Superhero or funny science based sayings shirts. He knew all four kids’ sizes by heart…but always ordered a size up because, “Stevie and Stacey grew like weeds every summer. Lil Darlin’, Jazz, and M-n-M’ve probably grown a foot each since the last time we saw them.” Puck and I stopped pointing out that the kids would only be there for fourteen days Manny and his partner would be going with them and they would all be spending the two weekends they were off, with Momma, Daddy and the family in Lima. We wanted them to have a normal camp experience…but they were vulnerable to the psychopath that was still stalking me.

Bubbie Ruth, Kurt and Blaine had been keeping M-N-M entertained when their schedules allowed and the twins’ mother, Elizabeth Ann Taylor…EA to friends, watched over them when their schedules didn’t. Mills and Saul and Amanda and Uncle Ethan all pitched in when they could too. Nikki told us all about how the three friends, often with EJ and Avery, went to museums and trips to the zoo. Apparently, each borough had their own or something. Of course, no matter where they went, they always had their two Rangemen for company. But Manny and Zip never stayed silent and aloof for long. They loved Nikki and EJ and Avery…and I was pretty sure that if he could, Manny would totally kidnap Michelle and Marcus and raise them as his own. He thought they were the funniest kids ever.

The drive from Fayetteville to Charlotte was under three hours long, and Nikki had a million stories to tell and even more opinions to render about our concert and Victoria Monet, our opening act for the Southeast region. And yet when we got to the Sheraton Charlotte Hotel, Nik-Nak was knocked out. She had fallen asleep mid-sentence telling us about the last time Blaine had taken them to the Children’s Museum. We checked in after four on Sunday morning and yet, I was completely unsurprised to see Lester waiting on us in the lobby. Nikki slept through the whole process and her Abah carried her up to the Sheraton Club Level, double room that was her and Bubbie’s respite while we were in Charlotte. After we tucked her in and gave her all the kisses we’d missed, we made our way to our one bedroom suite nearby. This time we were in a promoter booked hotel, so it was just us and our crew and the Rangemen who handled all their own arrangements. I was pretty sure that Hudson had taken care of the arrangements for Ruth and Nik-Nak’s room. At least, I hoped so. I didn’t want to cut into the poor promoter’s profits any more than necessary.

The lobby had been bright and trendy. The suite’s living room dominated by a large deep tan sofa and coordinating arm chairs, console with a massive TV and a work table with two rather comfy looking business chairs. But the bedroom was actively gorgeous. The walls painted a nice shade of ochre. The floor carpeted in a geometric dark gray medium high carpet. The furniture was all darker wood, the bedding all bright, beautiful white. Both of the suites two full bathrooms were nicely appointed too. The larger had a separate bathtub and shower, a nice little water closet and a double vanity. The smaller was more like a traditional hotel bathroom. We were all a little wired once we put our things away and showered. I looked over at my boys…my men. “Hey guys, wanna play a little game?” I whispered huskily.

Puck’s eyes lit up. “What do you have in mind, Sexy Mama?”

I smiled dirtily. “Well, why don’t we have a naughty whisper contest? We whisper all the dirtiest we want to do to each other and the person who holds out from touching themselves or one of the other two the longest gets to have control when we get back in from whatever Hudson has planned for us for today?”

“Hell yeah, Mercy,” Sam breathed gently. He knew what their whispers did to me. Hearing their low honeyed tones talking dirty describing what they wanted to do to me…it was something that never failed to make me wet and achy and wanting. That night was no exception. Sam started and he wove a tale of loving sexual domination…he and Noah tying me over a coffee table. Bound, and blindfolded, my breasts bound as we hadn’t played since before we left Lima. He talked of fucking my mouth and throat to get his cock slick before sliding his dick between my bound breasts, fucking them until he came. All the while, Noah would be fucking my ass and playing with my pussy and Sam’s guitar roughened fingers would be torturing my engorged nipples until I was just one big, massive orgasm. I was pretty proud of my restraint because when he finished, I was wet enough to be uncomfortable…but I hadn’t given in and touched myself.

Noah took his turn next. “So, Sexy Mama…where should I concentrate my fantasy. I like Sammy Boy’s. You love having your tits played with. I love fucking that gorgeous ass of yours. But I think that mine has to be something more. Something we all want, but know it can’t happen for a while yet. Yeah…I know just what I’m gonna tease all three of our asses with.” He grumbled darkly. Then he launched into a thoroughly debauched telling of all the things they would do to me to ensure my pregnancy, when the time finally arrived. Trading me back and forth between the two of them for hours and hours on end. Leaving me in a destroyed bed, so completely full of their combined cum that it gushed out of me with every pulsation of a still orgasming pussy. But hot as that was, he didn’t stop there. He continued to describe all the different ways they would continue seeing to my needs and pleasure as the pregnancy progressed, of accidentally fucking me into labor at the end, because even at thirty-nine weeks, heavily pregnant, they wouldn’t be able to resist my allure. Noah even talked about how they would make sure I was satisfied even when intercourse was prohibited after I gave birth. The way he described sucking my milky breasts…it was almost too much. I never thought of that as erotic…but damn. Then again Noah Puckerman whispering like that could have made the alphabet song sound filthily erotic.

I managed, barely, to resist the temptation to push him to the bed and ride him like I was wearing a cowboy hat...but I did manage. However, I also hadn’t thought of anything to say as I was so enraptured in their tales of teasing and orgasms. They already knew my darkest, my dirtiest and my kinkiest fantasies. Instead, I laid out their strangest kink in my most passion filled whispers. I talked of unbraiding my natural hair and allowing the long, kinky yet softly coarse, dark curls to trail over them from the top of their head to the soles of their feet before I traced the reverse route with my mouth. Only then would I lick and suck my way back to their long, hard cocks…laving the appendage with a nimble tongue before taking one deep into the recesses of my mouth and down my throat while I stroked the other with a fist full of their favorite version of my hair. I would take turns sucking and stroking until they had both anointed my hair with the evidence of their passion. Then…then I told them about how I would restart the process, mounting and riding Noah’s cock while pleasing Sam with my hands, mouth and breasts. When Puck came, balls deep, in my pussy, I would allow him to slip out of me as our other husband moved behind me to take me as I came up on my knees, allowing me to use my mouth and hands and breasts to please our partner. Only when we were completely sated would the back and forth cease.

I never noticed that I had slid my hands over my body more than once as I was talking. I didn’t even notice when I slid my hands into Sam and Noah’s laps and started stroking their erections as I got deeper and deeper into the daydream scenario. I didn’t even notice when Sam and Noah exchanged conversational glances and look above my head or when Sam, acting on those looks started nimbly unbraiding the wealth of winding cornrows Rickey had created the day before we left New York. It was only when, my tale completed, Noah stood and went to the door placing the do not disturb sign out before texting Hudson and Bubbie that we were indisposed until at least three that I realized what was happening outside my head.

Needless to say, I didn’t command anything when we got back that evening. Then again, we didn’t leave the room until it was time for dinner and my ‘story’ had been brought to life with many creative addendums made by my beloved husbands. When we finally showered, they both had to help me wash and condition my hair. It was thick with their cum and a little matted from all our activity. Suffice it to say I wore my hair out in a loud, proud Effie ‘fro when we went to dinner. It felt ridiculously soft between the protein infusion and the fifteen-dollar shampoo and twenty-dollar conditioner that Rickey refused to let me leave his shop without swearing I would use religiously. Of course, Darcy…well her and someone who snapped a picture of me and Sam kissing outside Pisces Sushi Bar & Lounge where we took our family, Crew, Rangemen, drivers and crew for dinner. Anyway, both of them posted a picture of me with my pretty big afro. I was proud of my whole look. Feeling sexy as hell after how we’d spent our afternoon, I’d paired the hair with a curve hugging cutout back petal sleeve royal blue sheath dress that I had copped from a website for under thirty-five bucks and wore with a pair of six hundred and fifty-dollar Alexandre Birman nude, silk ankle wrap sandals. I loved playing with fashion like that. Okay, so maybe I picked those particular shoes mainly because they were the only ones I had with me that didn’t have a super high heel and this sista-gal was walking pretty after five hours of boning. Still, I looked fly.

Dinner was probably very interesting for the chefs and wait staff of Pisces. The hibachi and sushi were both awesome examples of their craft. The cocktails were great, though with Nikki with us, we stopped at one each rather than our usual two. But even on good behavior there were still sixty-plus of us, laughing, joking teasing and experimenting with new foods that we’d not tried before. I knew that a lot of the tour crew was surprised that we took them out with us. I hated doing what I considered to be deceiving them, by letting them think that we were footing the whole bill for the evenings we took them to dinner with us, but Warner had given us a pretty large budget for feeding Lamar and his crew. So much so that we usually got reimbursed for sixty to seventy-five percent of what we spent. Still, the way me and Sam felt about it…we probably would have taken them out with us even if we did have to pay for it out of our own pockets. It wouldn’t have been right to leave them behind. We had paid for the theme park adventure for everyone. It was worth every dime too.

After dinner, we settled up and got kind of ambushed by a few members of the local media. “Mercedes, can we get your statement on this morning’s death of real estate mogul and television personality Donald Trump?” One brave soul shouted out above the other six voices.

I exchanged a look with Sam and one with Noah before replying. “To be truthful, all I can say is that I hope that he is remembered fondly by his family and friends. I didn’t know that he had passed away. Between traveling and resting between our concert last night in Fayetteville and the concert tomorrow night here in Charlotte…we haven’t had a chance to read the news yet today.”

Puck wasn’t near as nice. “So, what happened? Did his heart give out while he was auditioning his next young, foreign trophy wife or did he finally stiff the wrong construction crew?”

Sam scoffed. “Probably the second one…I mean, even if you can stomach the pure dee bullshit that comes out of his mouth…he still looks how he looks.”

One of the reporters expressed his shock. “Sam, you’re supposed to be a southern gentleman…here you are speaking ill of the dead?”

Not a single person there wasn’t surprised when Sam gave a very Mercedes worthy side-eye. “Okay, let’s just leave aside that the ‘man’, and I totally use the term loosely, insulted my wife. Which I can’t really, I see no reason to ignore his insults to this amazing young lady. I don’t-didn’t-know him personally…but what I knew of him…I never liked. He stiffed hard working construction people, craftsmen and even architects and yet made money off those people’s hard work. Then he called himself a successful businessman. He declared bankruptcy multiple times to avoid paying his debts. That’s supposed to be a relief in the hardest of circumstances…something that you do once in your life but even then, only if you ain’t got no other choice. He used it like it was a get outta jail free card. He somehow managed to lose a metric shit-ton of money in casinos in the eighties and nineties, kind of their heyday. He treated women, God’s gift to and partners for, men like disposable playthings…like garbage. He disrespected our nation by spewing all that racist, birther bullshit about our President. I’m not saying that Barack Obama has been perfect, but he’s done more for this country than we had any right to expect with the way he’s been treated. He saved Detroit…he saved our, hell, the entire global economy. He made sure that there was good, decent healthcare for Americans…a lot of ‘em for the first time ever. Who knows what else Obama could have managed if he was less of a nice guy and a little more of a shark and had Congress behind him for more than just those first two years. So, no…I didn’t like Trump when he was just a run of the mill welcher. I sure as hell didn’t like him when I was old enough to understand that he didn’t treat women right. I pretty much hated him when I realized that he was racist on top of all his other horrific qualities. But now because he dropped dead, I’m supposed to lie and act like he was some saint. Yeah…Naw. One day I’ve gotta meet my maker and I sure ain’t gonna do it with a lie about that piece of nothing staining my soul.”

None of us knew it, but Darcy had been recording his entire diatribe. She posted it to YouTube, titled ‘Sam Evans’ Official Statement on Donald Trump’. It went viral. Seriously, amazingly viral. It went so viral that the next night when we were getting ready for our Charlotte show, Hudson came running into our dressing room without even doing that knock then enter thing. “Phone… Presss…President Obama…is on the phone.” Her hand was shaking as she held our ‘business’ iPhone out towards us.

“Quit bullshiting, Hud.” Puck shot back as Dee sprayed his face with the stage foundation and powder combo spray.

“That must be the incorrigible Mr. Puckerman.” A distinguished and immediately recognizable voice came through the speaker.

“Uh…Uh…sorry Mr. President, Sir.” Puck snapped to attention like he’d actually gone into the military or something. Sam wasn’t any better. In fact, given the fact that he was saluting the cell phone, he would probably have rated as worse.

“Well, now, I have to say that you, uh, wouldn’t be the first person to not quite believe that it was the President on the phone. I felt the same way when President Carter called me upon my election in two-thousand and eight.”

“I can see how that would be awe-inspiring.” Sam said with a small smile.

Obama smiled. I could tell. “Yes, Mr. Evans that is exactly the right word. Now, I understand that you have a show to prepare for and I do not want to keep you from your fans.”

“They can wait.” I blurted out, finally able to get a word past the shock and surprise making me look like a goldfish.

He laughed. I made President Obama laugh. That was a huge accomplishment to me. I was proud of it. “Ms. Jones, did you get the card I sent you all after your Grammy win?”

I nodded then realized that he couldn’t see me so I forced myself to speak again. “Yes Sir. I had it framed. My Grandmother may have re-appropriated it though. She loves you…voted for you both times.”

He chuckled again. “Well, I guess that she will have to be your guest when you three come and visit me.”

“Whosaywhatsthatnow?” I babbled stupidly.

“I was calling to invite KAMA to take part in a celebration of American Creativity at an In Performance at the White House this coming October.” He said in that calm, sure way that made him so popular on the international stage.

I nodded too overwhelmed to speak. It was Sam who answered instead. “We would be honored, Sir.”

“Of course, I mean, it’s not like we’re going to say no to the President of the United States of America.” Puck tried for humor.

“You could say no…it is a choice that is available to you.” Obama returned in a teasing manner.

“Not if we want to ever sleep with our wife or be acknowledged by our parents again in this life time- Sir.” Sam admitted without rancor.

Obama’s deep, genuine laughter made us all smile. “I uh, I understand where you are coming from Mr. Evans. I will have Michelle’s assistant contact your manager with the dates and to formalize the details. On a more personal note, let me say Ms. Jones, I would like to thank you for your message of body image positivity and of waiting for love rather than sharing your body with all and sundry. As a father of two young women, it is nice for my daughters and yours to have a role model in popular culture that understands the importance of loving one’s self no matter what. Mr. Evans, thank you very for your eloquent defense of myself and my administration yesterday. It is nice to have someone show appreciation for what I have tried to accomplish. Mr. Puckerman, I know better than most how much guff you have received since you’ve chosen to speak out against police violence and excessive use of force. Thank each of you for all you are doing to try and make this nation better through your music, words and deeds.”

Then boom…he was gone. Sam, Puck and I looked at each other in total disbelief. “Did that really just happen?”

“Oh, it totally just happened.” Nikki replied. She sounded almost as awe struck as we were. I was completely and totally jazzed. We let Trina and Dee finish up their work then we went out there and ROCKED the hell out of Charlotte. We were feeling so patriotic that we started the night with the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ instead of our usual opening number. Granted it was the Hendrix version, but the crowd stood with hands over hearts for the whole thing. Unfortunately, Charlotte was a big enough city that the promoter paid us a cool millie to attend the after party, so we’d agreed. We did get Nik-Nak ready for bed and into her Bunk in our bus with Tessa, Joe and Zip watching over her before we went and spent six hours laughing, dancing and schmoozing at the Underground. Bubbie was not even ready to go when things got closed down. She’d been the bell of the ball. Then it was back to the buses with our asses and we slept until we got to Atlanta.

Atlanta was a different kettle of fish from our usual tour stops. The promoter had been happy to contribute towards our lodging and yet leave the actual booking of the hotel to our staff. Hudson had done a great job getting a deal at the Wingate by Wyndham hotel a few miles from the venue which allowed us to keep everyone together. The hotel had laundry facilities and Dry Cleaning…plus it had parking for our buses and trucks and it had meeting rooms where we could practice and with the necessary accoutrements for us to have a Team Meeting, which we hadn’t managed since we got on the road. With so much available that benefited us, Hudson had arranged things so that we would be in Atlanta until the morning of our Columbia South Carolina concert. The trucks and the tour crew would head out around six in the morning with the bulk of us not leaving until about ten. That would give them the time they needed and we’d get there well in time for our sound and lighting checks.

We got checked in and Sam carried Nikki up to her and Bubbie’s room which adjoined ours. Despite having only had four hours of sleep on the bus, we only had time to shower and change before we needed to meet Hudson, Bubbie, Darcy, Lester and Lamar for the Team meeting. Hudson had us up and running in a small meeting room. I knew that the hotel was awesome and we had made the right choice the second we walked in for our meeting. Waiting on us on a side buffet, there were coffee and bagels and bacon. The seven of us made like locusts at that table. We sat at a table facing a wall that had been blank when we entered the room, but Hudson soon had three ‘screens’ up, showing our New York Team members, Haja, Brantley, Ethan, Daniel, Kurt, Grant and Mills. Our Lima Team…Gwen, Antwan and whichever of our parents could get there. That morning it was just Dad and Gabby. I was a little surprised at the person on the third screen. Madeline St. Clair had made arrangements to Skype in from LA.

“Can I go first, because I have huge news?” Maddie said as soon as we’d all exchanged pleasantries, including everyone wishing Darcy a happy belated birthday. She had turned twenty-three the same day as the Fayetteville concert. We had given her a thousand-dollar universal gift card…in addition to the five-thousand-dollar bonus she earned in Charlotte. In her new employment contract, which she’d signed for her second year as our social media manager, there was a brand-new stipulation. Every time we went viral or our social media trends top five for the day, she got a bonus in leu of a commission, which would have been a little harder to assess. It worked, she had us trending at number one at least once a week. I shook off those thoughts and paid attention to the meeting in progress.

No one had had any problem with letting Madeline speak first. That would allow her to say her piece and return to her business quickly. So, she continued. “I know you guys have been busy so I don’t know if you realize that we listed the Mar Vista house on Monday. I listed it based on the appraisal since there are no houses in the area comparable, with a finished basement. It was listed at one point three million. We’ve got eleven offers on the table ranging from asking up to two-point-three-five million.”

“What the hell?” Noah blurted out. “Why so much?”

Madison smirked. “The house is fully remodeled and updated. It has a pool and a famous LA scandal attached to it. I knew it would sell for above list…I just wasn’t expecting an offer to come in for a million over listing. Now, the highest offer did come with a request to buy the furniture that Kendra staged it with, but she said that you could sell it as is and it would barely bite into your profit at all.”

Sam and I exchanged a long look. Neither one of us cared why they were offering so much. We just wanted the place off our hands. “So, sell it to the highest bidder.” I finally said and Sam and Puck quickly agreed. “Maybe our bad luck house will be good luck for them.”

“I’ll let them know immediately. I can fax you the paperwork, but you’ll need to have them notarized and overnight them back to me.” Ethan chimed in and asked her to send him the purchase contract and the buyer’s information so that he could check everything out just to be careful. “Not a problem. I’m using that settlement statement you drafted for Mills and Francesca. So, it should be copasetic.” Maddie told him with a smile before signing off.

Hudson assured us that she would make sure that things ran smoothly as far as we were concerned. While we were on the subject of real estate, Mills chimed in with some information on the New York real estate proceedings. “Alright, the floor over our heads is now legally yours. From what I understand from Maddie, your profit from her sale just paid you back for the purchase price of the property management office space. The previous owners are paying for the demolition and the crew chief says that will be finished by the end of next month. Sam, your father signed off on your blueprints and Shelby Johnson is a go to do the new build out. Her points of contact will be primarily Haja and Kurt again. Soon as she finishes, I’ll get you a tenant for the rental space. I’ve got a few properties that I think would make a good showcase flat here in the city…but I still think you’ll want to table that until you come home in the fall. None of these places are going to hold that long and even for a place just to hold parties and the like, I refuse to help you buy anything sight unseen.”

“I’m good with waiting. We just wanted you to keep your eye out in case there was something that we shouldn’t let slip through our fingers.” Sam said appeasingly. Bubbie gave me a look. She swore up and down that Mills and Saul would be making an announcement sooner rather than later. Primarily because Auntie Millsie’s moods were swinging like a pendulum. I was personally waiting on some other signs. Mills and Francesca were busy enough that she could just be moody because she is so tired. Still, everyone but Saul was walking on eggshells with her. None of the rest of her could kiss her until she forgot she was mad, so we were just careful.

The next report came from me, Sam and Noah as we brought everyone up to speed on the phone call we’d received the night before, before our Charlotte show. There were squeals, sighs and happy exclamations of pride and joy…and that was just Daddy’s reaction. Gabby’s was even better. She showed where Sam got his babbling in times of shock from. It was hilarious. When everyone had expressed their disbelief and happiness, Haja took over from there; the First Lady’s staffers had already sent him the particulars and Ethan the contract for the performance. We wouldn’t get paid, of course, but we did get a nice little tax break for waiving our performing fee. Plus, we’d be performing in the White House in front of the Black First Family. I’d have sold my left tit for that honor let alone comp the government a fee that we often waived for the right cause anyway.

Once we finished discussing the impossible to believe, once in a lifetime opportunity that I would forever be grateful to Sam for earning us…I was convinced that it was Sam’s words that brought us to the President’s mind as a possible artist for that event…Hudson and Lamar took over to talk about the coming weeks of the tour. Lamar went first and handled the overreaching things. “So, the way this next week works is that we’re here in the ATL until Friday morning. After the concert Friday night, KAMA, the band, background dancers, background singers and a few members of the road crew are off until the following Wednesday. The drivers and most of the road crew will stay in Columbia and drive down to Charleston on Wednesday morning. After Charleston, we’ll have Florida before we do the second Georgia stop and a special mini-concert at the Officer’s Club on Fort Benning and then back to back Alabama concerts. Everyone has the Fourth of July weekend off…well except the drivers and a skeleton road crew. Those who want to can fly themselves home. Everyone will come back together in Mississippi. We have three back to back stops, Jackson Mississippi, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The Fourth will be the last real break until we wrap the main body of the tour in September.” He finalized.

Hudson then took over. “We’re using this week as something of a break. While we are busy in this meeting, Beverly and Joseph are taking the chance to get all the wardrobe pieces that have worn during the tour all sent out to get cleaned. We’ve let everyone else know that they can do their laundry here as well. At two we are all due at a local salon and spa called Three-13. They have services from Mani-Pedis to massages, body treatments and hair and everything. We’ll be there until eight, and then we’ll have dinner at Atlantic Seafood Company. Tomorrow, you guys are in practices all day with sound check at four and the concert starts at seven. Thursday, you can all sleep in, and then we’re scheduled to leave for Six Flags over in Georgia at noon. We’re there until ten…then it’s back to the hotel to sleep and we head to Columbia on Friday.”

“You’re taking everyone to Six Flags again...isn’t that getting kind of expensive?” Gabby pointed out gently.

Hudson smirked as she often did when she managed a great feat that she was very proud of. “Well, I managed to work out a deal with their corporate headquarters. We got seventy-five total full price Six-Flag season passes…they comped us Flash Passes for each one and gave us a reduced price on the dining passes. The free Flash Passes saved us more than the season passes cost and best of all the season passes are accepted at every Six-Flags in the continental US of A.”

“Damn, Hudson…how did you work that?” Daniel asked surprised.

Our PA blushed. “I just counted on Mercedes, Sam and Noah to be themselves and be willing to sign autographs and take pictures with their fans. Once one person posts the pics…”

“The park gets a huge bump in regular priced ticket sales. Those people, and even season pass holders, come and spend money in droves just hoping that they will run into you guys. Even if they never do, they had a fun day.” Daniel finished for her. “Genius, Hudson, pure genius.”

Darcy offered to take it one step further. “Thursday, before we leave, I could send out something on Twitter saying we’re heading there.”

I wrinkled up my nose. “Let’s wait until we get there. That way we won’t be mobbed before we can even get into the park. I mean, Nik-Nak’s with us…I want to make sure that we can have fun with her too.”

Darcy looked thoughtful. “That’s perfect. I’ll post a picture of the three of you hugging Nickelodeon in the park, her face totally not seeable, and post it asking that everyone respect Nickelodeon’s privacy if they want to take pictures of you guys.”

“Not a bad idea. We can even give them times to meet us certain places when Nikki is on a ride or something.” Sam suggested.

Gabby looked thoughtful. “Isn’t Cassidy a local? You guys should go ahead and tell her, she might have nieces or nephews she’d like to take along…don’t you get a certain amount of friend tickets with each pass?”

Puck nodded. “Good idea Angel Mom…I know she has like two here, and I think two or three in Charleston…or the other way around. Hud, can you go ahead and text her now so they can get their shit together?”

With that settled, Gwen took over. “I’ve found the perfect property here in Lima like you asked. Three stories, forty-five units…the apartments were built before any of you were born and desperately need remodeling. They are currently operating at only ten percent occupancy. They are asking one point two two five million, but they have been listed for almost a year.”

“Oh, then go in with an offer of nine hundred thousand and let them think they talked you up to a million.” Mills suggested. “What kind of monthly income can you expect at full capacity?”

“A little above twenty-five thousand a month. With the pricing table Sam approved for Lima.”

Sam rolled his eyes. Gwen wanted to charge Dayton rents in little Lima…it wasn’t going to work and even if it did, it wasn’t what Sam was hoping to do in our home town. Mills saw something via the connection and rushed on. “That’s not bad for the area. Rename it, set reasonable rents and in five years if Lima is still booming like it currently is, you can update it a little bit more, rebrand it and increase the rents some more.”

Gwen made some notes on the suggestion and we moved on. Ethan had some interesting news. We’d gotten the money from the TMZ settlement. It was fifteen million dollars, but we all agreed that it was more about the principal involved than anything else. The National Enquirer has offered a settlement of fifty-five million dollars, about a tenth of our original lawsuit ask. “We’ll never be able to disclose the amount of the settlement, but it is as good as them admitting guilt. Besides we really want to go after the people at VIVID. They are even deeper pockets than the tabloid.”

Puck had a really good thought on that news. “Okay, take it and put half into our Human Resources accounts to pay the new staff for the property-management firm, and put the other half and the money from TMZ into an endowment to fund a legal aid fund. Give money to people who need help getting justice for shit, like the parents of the Mike Brown and Tamir Rice…people who really were wronged and can’t afford attorneys like you guys. We can do the same when Fox News and the two douche canoes settle too.”

“That’s a good idea, Noah.” Gabby praised him. He blushed so cute.

There wasn’t much left for us to discuss after that. Daniel got three new clients, friends of Jesse’s. Ethan was in talks with P!nk and Corey to be their attorney. Darcy had too much work between us, Rangeman and a few foundations she was helping…for pretty much free. Haja and Brantley were seriously loaded out. After experiencing them first hand, three of our opening acts had signed with the two of them. Even though we hadn’t asked for it at all, they were having Ethan draw them up a sort of a lease, that basically meant we would keep their base salaries and just pay them their already agreed upon commissions and bonuses in exchange for letting them utilize their office spaces in our office for all their clients. Ethan and Daniel had made a similar offer…but I had leverage over both of them…they recanted it very quickly. Things were going great for our camp and I couldn’t have been happier. After an intense hour and a half, the meeting finally wrapped up and we were able to catch a nap before we got back up, showered, moisturized and got dressed for a nice relaxing spa day.

Yep, our lives were hectic, crazy intense and seriously tiring. But we managed to keep ourselves together and enjoying every single moment.

 

Here 2AM Version (Alessia Cara)
Puck PoV

There were things I liked about spa days…primarily the back-exfoliation treatments and pedicures. But mainly they were Cedes’ thing. I’d been to a lot of spas around the country since we started the wild and crazy ride called stardom…but nothing prepared me for Three-13 Salon and Spa. The building was pretty fucking huge with a big ass hot pink sign. When we got inside, we quickly realized why it was so big. That place was serious about its shit. They had beautification down to a science for real. We were greeted by the owner and his partners and their right-hand woman. Lester Crowell was one cool dude. He’d had two heart transplants and was still kicking. He dressed like a rock star…okay an eighties rock star, but a rock star nonetheless. And given the way his tone changed when he introduced his partners and his ‘partners’, I was pretty sure that he and the later kind of his partners were his lovers. One of them, Traci, she was cute in a surgically enhanced kind of way. Her face was pretty in a fey kind of way, but she’d definitely had her boobs and booty enhanced. Still, before I got with Sam and Cede…I’d have boned her.

I zoned a little bit after the original meet and greet. I knew I wasn’t getting my hair did, and the first thing they did was separate us to get information about everyone’s hair and what hairstylist they should be assigned. So, while they were doing all that, I started looking around a bit. There was a sign for something called Angels of Life that was distracting the hell out of me. I must have been zoned out even further than I thought because I didn’t hear Lester come up behind me. “When I was thirteen,” Lester voice broke into my silent reverie. “I was diagnosed with IHSS, idiopathic hypertrophic sub-aortic stenosis. At forty, I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Emory put me on the transplant list for the first time by the time I was 43. By then, I barely had the strength to walk or talk. There is something about laying in the same hospital where the same disease took the life of your beloved mother only two floors above your head that gives you a reason to get your ass up.” he chuckled mirthlessly. “I will never understand where I found the determination and strength to continued working during my illness and right up until I received the 1am call from my Emory transplant coordinator on April fifteenth, Tax Day, two thousand. I was blessed to receive a healthy and strong heart and after a, faster than I thought possible, recovery I was able to do things I had never done before and others it had been years since I could even think to try. Then nine years later, my transplanted heart developed what is actually a pretty common threat to all transplanted organs, chronic rejection, similar to coronary artery disease. The doctors told me I was at high risk for a massive heart attack and my only option would be another heart transplant. I got the second call at a quarter to six in the morning on December third of two thousand and ten. I was given a healthy & strong heart, my 3rd heart. This time, when I was lying there all I could do was reflect on the grace, fortune and protection I had been blessed with. In that very moment, it became my mission to make a difference in the lives of those touched by transplants…that is when Angels of Life was born.”

“Whoa.” I breathed. I’d never really known anyone with MAJOR health problem like that. Even Artie, he was in his chair because of a car accident, not illness. “That’s amazing.”

He gave me a charming grin. “Every year, weekends all through August and September we hold a bake sale here and all the proceeds from it got to paying for a hair and fashion show with a silent and live auction. The proceeds from that are all given to Georgia Transplant Foundation. They help people all throughout the state of Georgia who are undergoing the transplant journey. So far, we’ve donated a hundred sixty thousand, three hundred and thirteen dollars. The goal this year is to add at least another hundred thousand to that total.”

“What can I do to help?” I heard myself ask.

Mr. Crowell looked a little surprised. “Let me get Christina over here and we’ll find out. Thank you.” So, we grabbed his right-hand, Christina, and I grabbed Sam and Cede, Hud and Darcy and we worked it out. Just as we were settled on giving them a package for our Tijuana, Mexico concert that included four VIP ticket packages, hotel and flight, plus four autographed tee-shirts…the tee shirts we would leave with them to give to the winner of the package the night of the auction…a short, glasses wearing chick came in.

Christina smiled hugely; like the look was a little scary it was so predatory. “Rita, I forgot you were coming in today. Come and meet our new friends. They just gave an amazing package for the Angels of Life live auction.” We were introduced to the Director of Communications of the very organization we’d been discussing.

“Wow, Christina, that’s wonderful. I didn’t think you ever forgot anything.” She teased obviously comfortable with Lester and Christina both. “Mr. Evan, Ms. Friedman, Ms. Jones, Ms. Lewis, Mr. Puckerman…nice to meet you all. Congratulations on your Grammys and diamond record and wow…I’m meeting Grammy award winning music artists and I look like a schlub.”

“Ah…I’ll forgive a fellow Jew.” I joked.

Rita looked a little surprised. “How’d you know?” She asked curiously. “It’s rare for people to know right off the bat.”

“My Bubbie’s maiden name was Howard too. So, I assumed.” I said honestly. “It really sounds like you guys are doing good work.”

“Thank you. We service anywhere from eighteen hundred to twenty-two thousand transplant patients and living donors and their families every year.” She told us with a smile. “One of my co-workers…she runs GTF’s fundraising program…she is a HUGE fan of you guys. Our office is constantly filled with your music. I mean, I like you guys too…but she goes above and beyond in fan-girliness.”

“Is she coming tomorrow night?” Cedes asked her.

Rita shook her head. “No, Illy tried winning some on the radio…but she couldn’t afford to buy enough for her, her husband and her kids.”

I smirked, we could so fix that. “Hey, didn’t Massey say his family wasn’t going to make it after all?” I asked. We’d held four tickets that were decent seats but not spectacular back for one of the tour crew guys. But his brother and sister-in-law and their children weren’t going to be able to come for whatever reason.

Sam nodded. “Yeah, but rather then leaving them at Will Call, why don’t we…Hudson, is there a way that we can have them couriered over to their offices for her. Let Rita and her co-workers see Miss Illy’s face when she gets the tickets.”

“That would be awesome.” Rita laughed. “I’ll take a picture and post it on line.”

Darcy and she started talking seriously above our head in their super-social media babble. But they ultimately came to some sort of accord and the next time they had an event…and we did it for pretty much all of them…every time Rita tweeted out the details for one of their events, we simply retweeted it and shared it on our site. Plus…when we could we sent things for their auctions. That day, for their coming Dawgs for Kids event, we gave them a package similar to what we’d given Lester for Angels of Life and a framed autographed picture, complete with a certificate of authenticity. The Georgia Transplant Foundation’s auction four pack of tickets was for our Barbados concert. I felt good about the good we did in the first half hour of our spa day. Then Lester introduced me to his sister Leslie who gave me a whole head facial…seriously…it was way cooler than it sounded. Then, Sam took my place in her chair and her protégé Magy gave me a chest and back facial too. I had to say I loved not having itchy back or back-ne for over a year. After that, Cede, Sam and I had a hot stone, full, hour long thruple’s massage. Then me and Sam got our feet done. He went and got a haircut, and I went and joined the Dam Bros and got my face waxed. That was all the stuff I would even consider getting so I went and found Nikki. She’d gotten a mani-pedi and was currently getting her hair done. She looked adorable. Her stylist’s name was Lilia and she had a purple streak at the front of her dark hair. “Your wife had us give her a Repechage seaweed thermal mask treatment…which is an amazing deep Conditioner…with her. Her hair is so pretty and thick.” The stylist cooed. I wasn’t sure if she was referring to Nikki or Cede. The case could have been made for either. “Now, I’m giving Princess Nikki a trim and then we’ll blow her dry with a diffuser, give some definition to her curls with the finish and she’ll be all done.”

“Great. Thank you.” I told her with a smile. As she finished her work with Nikki, I watched all the many processes going on around the room. The place really did have their shit down to an exact science. It was kind of like there was an assembly line deal. The youngest looking people washed and conditioned the hair before the hairstylists got them or after the colorists were done with them. Then there were people who handled blowing hair dry before it was fully styled. All around the salon our people were getting different services. I noticed that Santana and Tina had decided to get extensions to bring the closer to Xena’s amazing length. The stylists were even able to shape up Simeon, Lamar and Adams’ and a couple of other brothers in the crew’s, fades. It took me a while to find Cede, she was sitting at the station of a younger black woman with a very short, very blonde afro getting her hair braided into an intricate design that was pretty enough to wear out without a wig but small and tight enough to wear under the wigs as needed.

I’d thought that six hours was overkill…but I’d not realized that for as many services as we each got and as many people as we had, it was actually really good. Granted, we’d had to use the black card to pay the bill, but everyone was happy and Cede was looking really, really relaxed so it was worth it. When we got to the Atlantic Seafood Company restaurant, Devon, Tonya, Kevon and Tricie were there waiting on us. Nikki was off like a shot to get picked up by her tallest uncle. She loved riding either Kev, Dev or Benton’s shoulders. It made her feel like she was on top of the world.

Dinner was fucking awesome. Even the rankest of the Roadies had left Three-13 looking pretty damn fly so there may have been some strutting. We had a great meal, good company, Dev, Tonya, Kev and Tricie, who Niks had to sit next to, to talk math all evening, they brought us up to speed on what was happening in their lives. Then after dinner the elder sibs joined us as we took Nikki to Barnes and Noble and Sprawl-Mart up the street because she’d killed her last Sudoku book and needed more. Patrice and Nikki were huddled together, pouring over them to see which ones were challenging enough. Yeah, I got bored waiting. So, we got her one of every book the two stores had. Hopefully that would hold her for a while. While we were in Sprawl-Mart, we may or may not have stocked back up on some things like condoms and toothpaste and the like. Sam decided that he wanted to grab a sketch pad and some decent quality art pencils and such. We all left there with way more than we meant to grab. But it was late enough that there weren’t a ton of people in the store so, even with the looky-loos and those brave enough to ask for autographs and selfies, we still made it back to the hotel well before midnight. We helped Niks with her shower and Mercedes read her another chapter of the Potter book they were on. Then it was kisses all around and we left her and Bubbie, who was rocking a ‘sombre’ look that took her natural dark locks down to fiery red at the tips. It was really gorgeous and seemed so damn Bubbie; I couldn’t help but take a pic and send it to the family.

The next morning, it was back to work. We were awake and watching the morning news shows by eight. Informed, showered and dressed by nine and on our way down to breakfast shortly after that. Our trip to Sprawl-Mart made a radio show where they called it Hashtag Parenting for Real. Having to make a late night run to the store for things to keep a kid entertained while on a road trip was apparently a thing that happened to a lot of parents. It was picked up by the local news outlets. But other than that, the only thing everyone was talking about was still the death of Donald Jonathan Trump. It was something of a scandal. He had always said that his friendship with Jerry Epstein didn’t include sharing sexual proclivities. But he’d died in bed with a young model from a country whose name I couldn’t pronounce, but it was part of the former Soviet Bloc. Her visa claimed she was eighteen…but it had been determined that she was not near that old. In fact, she wasn’t old enough to drive. Then as if that weren’t enough…reports were surfacing that not only had he died having a hell of a lot less money than he’d ever admitted to in life, but he’d basically cut everyone out of his will except Ivanka and her kids and his youngest son…the one he had with that Eastern European nude model I used to beat it to way back in the day. Yup…nothing at all for the two understudies for American Psycho the Musical and nothing for the younger daughter either. Bubbie had met him more than once. She was pretty sure that he would’ve loved being notorious for a while.

We spent the morning getting our bodies, minds and voices ready for the concert while Bubbie, Tessa, Joe, Darcy and Lester, who was seriously wrecking shop on the field Rangemen, along with Manny and Zip took Nikki to the Georgia Aquarium. Lunch was delivered to the amphitheater by Panera and after that, we all adjourned to the dressing rooms while the roadies and techies did their jobs. There were showers had by all the Band, Crew and us ourselves before the sound and lighting checks. Then it was hair and makeup and clothing time while Victoria and Cassidy did theirs. Then we did a short run through with everyone to make sure they remembered the song lineup for the night. There was a prayer, Cede led it that time…then before we knew it, we were rolling out onto the stage and getting the crowd hyped up before we went into our first song. The night was boss. Like seriously. KAMA and GTF were both trending thanks to the video Rita had posted on YouTube showing her co-worker’s reaction to our gifts. In addition to the tickets we’d sent four backstage passes, some tee-shirts, hoodies and autographed copies of our CDs and SongBird. They loved our choices of covers. Atlanta felt like an R&B town, so we’d let Santana out of the back for ‘Fairy Tales’. Then later she and Cede gave them ‘The Boy is Mine’ and the Dam Bros gave them ‘Adorn’. Then during the ‘hot as fuck encore’, me and Sam had them panties droppin’ to our version of ‘Freak ‘N You’. It was a damn good concert. After the concert, Sam and I fucked the hell out of our wifey in the shower before getting presentable. We got lucky that we managed to get finished and dressed before the Elder Sibs came back with Bubbie and Niks. None of us were surprised that Cassidy came back with her family. They were in the same group as the radio winners so we didn’t get to talk to them as much as we’d have liked. They seemed nice though. Her niece and nephew had me rolling. There were a multitude of selfies taken with that group.

The next group contained the lady from the foundation. That whole family was tall. Like she was a big, beautiful, black woman, maybe a size sixteen…but she was also closer to six feet than five. Her husband had a bright smile…but something told me that if he wasn’t smiling he would definitely look like he could bite the head off animals. He was fucking tall and built like Benton Jones, just the light skinned version. Their kids were stupid tall too. A boy and a girl and neither of them were shorter than their mother. Then come to find out they were eleven and twelve. I just…couldn’t. The boy was twelve and looked at least fifteen…and the daughter, she was adorable in a way that screamed she was going to be a beauty when she was older. So, I had Hudson slip the dad one of Rangeman’s cards and I told him that if he needed to hire them for her dates in a few years, I would totally pay for it. I would want someone to do the same for me if Nikki or Beth were eleven and already had curves. We also had Hudson slip them a gift card for the restaurant we’d had dinner at the night before and an envelope for the development officer of the foundation. We’d done a little more research and they did some incredible work. We knew that that ten grand wouldn’t help a whole lot of people, but they joined our charitable giving list so they would get one of those checks every quarter. So, we could feel like we were doing something to help.

There was one more group after Mrs. Illy’s group and then we were taken to a club a few miles away in Buckhead called Sanctuary. Again, we were met by the Elder Sibs. I hadn’t even realized that Tonya and Patrice were dressed for a night on the town more than a concert. They looked good, but, in her figure hugging black, one shoulder, ruffled romper and super high stilettos, Sexy Mama looked hot like fire. Cede clowned them for clubbing on a work night. But they just teased her right back that at least they had real jobs. That was becoming a running joke among the Elder Sibs, how we didn’t have real jobs and still made a mint. It was a decent club. We had fun for a while. With Tonya and Tricie there it gave me and Sam two more safe souls we could hit the floor with. That was always nice. We stayed as long as we were contractually obligated to stay…four hours. Then we said good night to the Elder Sibs, who were making the very best of a night out, and were finally able to head back to our hotel.

The next morning, a very, very, very excited Nikolette had us up with the freaking chickens. But her excitement was really, really catchy. So, we got up and dug out shorts, tennis shoes and shirts. We showered, lotioned and got dressed. Sexy Mama was looking fly as hell in a pair of short, khaki shorts and layered white, bright teal and purple tank tops. Both of the bottom ones gave her extra support added to her fucking sexy ass, sports bra. You could look at her and see fading evidence of our nips and sucks from the past few nights. But she also looked bright and fresh and happy as hell. Sammy Boy, like me, was rocking khaki cargo pants…those fashion blogs could kiss my ass, they made my life easier. Hudson had already put together our backpack with sunscreen, wallets, sunglasses cases, cell phones…pretty much everything we needed, including swimwear and flip-flops to wear on water rides. Damn, she was fucking efficient. She looked nice, too in a pair of longer olive-green shorts and a darker ivory cap-sleeved tee-shirt. I checked out my little girl, she was wearing denim shorts and a red tee shirt that read TO infinity sign AND BEYOND on the front in white. Bubbie’s shorts were the same color as Cedes’ but the same length as Hudson’s. Her purple fitted tee shirt had a melting Rubik’s cube on it. Like Nik-Nak’s her hair was pulled up into a curly ponytail and they both had hats attached to the belt loops of their pants.

When we went down for breakfast, even if it more than two hours before we were supposed to leave, everyone was already down there with their stuff, ready to go, even all the non-Nikki-adjacent Rangemen. I was surprised to see the Elder Sibs had taken a PTO day each to join us. That was pretty damn awesome. Apparently, as long as they had been in the area, they still hadn’t made it to the amusement park. So, Hudson being tremendous, she made magic happened and once we were all fed and watered, the fifteen seater-vans were there and we were on our way. The ride over was silly fun, we were singing and joking and just having a ball. We even got Nik-Nak to sing with us and she tended not to around a lot of people, even though she had a really pretty little voice. Getting to the park took less time than I thought it would, barely thirty minutes and we were there.

The morning passed really quickly. There were a lot of rides and activities just for kids. So, we let Niks do those first. Then she wanted a caricature of the four of us and another of her and Bubbie and then one of all five of us together. The Elder Sibs got their own couple caricatures too. But me, Sam and Sexy Mama decided that we did enough pics…we didn’t need the caricature too. She got a henna tattoo and she and Cede got matching face painting. Then we went on the ‘kids Nikki’s size must be accompanied by an adult’ rides. We had lunch and did the souvenir buying thing, Hudson manifested an empty backpack from somewhere for all our purchases, then she, Bubbie and Niks went to play in the Metropolis Games area while the Elder Sibs, Sam, Cede and I went on a bunch of coasters.

We went backwards from Metropolis Park, starting with the Superman’s Ultimate Flight and not stopping until we were all the way back to the Georgia Cyclone. The Cyclone was older and it was the Ike Turner of the parks coasters. It beat the hell out of our legs. Devon and Kevon’s legs barely fit in the available space. And Cedes’ hips didn’t actually fit in the seat. But even with all of that, we had a great time. In the lines, as we waited, we gave autographs and took selfies and other pictures. Everyone was pretty nice and polite. There were plenty of tweens who almost squealed and passed out when they saw us. People assumed that since they were with us and were big ass Black men, Dev and Kev must have been football players or something and they would ask for their autographs too. Their reactions were hilarious. Tonya and Tricie clowned their asses hard. I laughed so hard in line for the Goliath, I damn near pissed myself. On a summer Thursday, the park had been pretty empty when we got there, but by the time we’d stopped riding for lunch, the place was all kinds of packed.

We met everyone for dinner at Dee Jay’s Diner. Then, full and happy, we changed and headed to Hurricane Harbor. We were still soaked when we left the park that night. But the HUGE smile on Nikki’s face made me feel like I was walking on a cloud instead of a fucking boat load of hills. That was one hilly theme park. It was kind of ridic. But then again, the way Sexy Mama’s tits looked when she was breathing hard from the combination of heat and sixty-degree angle hillside was so totally worth it. The ride back to the hotel was a hell of a lot quieter than the ride out. Cede basically had to get into the shower with Nikki to get her clean…that was one tired little Poppet. Sam braided her hair while I held her after she was dry and in her pjs. She slept through all of it. But the smile on her face told a story beyond her exhaustion.

When we got to our room, love was made and we were out like lights. The next morning, we got up, packed up and had our asses checked out and on the buses by the eleven AM check out time. We just ate on the bus, there was always cereal, microwave oatmeal and breakfast bars and shakes on our buses and we were technically running a little bit behind. Thankfully, it was only a little more than a three-hour drive to South Carolina’s capital city. When we got there, Cede, Tana…all of us singers, were nursing our throats better. Coasters are fun, but they are hell on your throat. The thing I loved about the southeast regional stops was that other than Atlanta and Miami, our stage clothes were super casual. That night when we opened the show, Sexy Mama was in a pair of heeled Tims, a pair of denim booty shorts, and layered tank tops, the top one was black and was clearly a Potter shirt. It read What Would Hermione Do? The ladies who had her back were similarly attired, except Tina’s shirt had Jubilee from the X-Men on it blowing a power filled kiss. Santana’s had Death complete with a scythe on the front holding a book and it said, ‘Grim Reader’s Book Club’. Xena’s was, unsurprisingly, a Vampirella tank.

Me and Sam had it even easier, jeans long for me shorts for Sam, boots and I was in a vintage Nirvana tee and Sam was in a Raglan shirt with the four Sith Lords on the front arranged like they were Queen from the Bohemian Rhapsody video. Our backing men were dressed almost exactly like Sammy Boy. Navy blue camo cargo shorts and raglan tees. Adam’s shirt was very similar to Sam’s except it had different versions of Joker doing the whole Mug shot thing. His brother’s was all about the different incarnations of the Bat Insignia over the years and Arjun’s had Wonder Woman on the front of his. Oh, and their Tims were black like mine over tan like Sam’s. The male back ground dancers were in the Tims that matched Sam’s. They got to wear black cargo shorts with their black tank tops. Joseph’s was almost my favorite. It simply said, ‘Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile’. But Jax’s was pretty awesome too. It was a white on black picture of the Winter Solider…Sam loved it. Mike’s had, funnily enough, a Joker kind of thing on the front. Simeon’s was just a tank top version of the tee shirt he’d worn at South by Southwest. He found the whole ‘Straight Outta the Closet’ thing hilarious.

Their female counterparts were dressed just the same as Tana, Tina and Xena. Black tank tops, denim booty shorts and tan Tims…though their shoes weren’t the heeled versions and they were a lighter tan rather than brown. Like everyone else, Britts’ tank top was black with a rainbow My Little Pony flying on it. JaJa’s was kind of Dr. Who meets the Starry Night art work. One of the summer girls, Joaquina’s had a comic book-slash-nineties X-Men cartoon Rogue in front of a red and black X-Men symbol. Bae-Bae’s shirt was epic as shit, it had the big six of the Justice League, Aquaman, Bats, Supes, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Cyborg arranged like the Appetite for Destruction Guns and Roses album cover, with the top banner saying ‘Justice League’ and the bottom banner reading ‘Appetite for Justice’. Cede said it was the perfect combination of me and Sammy Boy. Kelli’s shirt was a play on that old Bette Midler Halloween movie ‘Hocus Pocus’. It had a caldron that was made of and contained the word ‘Amuck’ repeatedly. Rainbow’s was a little dirty with its busty, sexy Smurfette on the front. Sugar’s was all her…the Powderpuff Girls was on the front of it…Sugar and spice and everything nice plus a weird thing that no one but her parents understand. Marceau, the last of the summer femmes, was rocking a Storm tank. I worried that it might seem a little bit racist putting Tina in Jubilee and Marceau in Storm, but Bubbie had just looked at me like I was being stupid, so I shut up.

We had a blast that night. Just straight up performing and having fun. When Jamison brought her people back stage we were glad to see her. She had graduated NYADA in May and she had earned a place in a touring company of Cabaret, so she wasn’t going to be our tenant anymore starting that fall. We’d miss her, but she was more than happy and Ryan had already found his next roommate. Seth was transferring to NYU for his last two years. He and Artie were ecstatic. So was Ryan when he was being honest. He didn’t like his ‘prone to piss people off but unable to fight his way out of a wet paper bag’ brother so far away from him; besides Seth had wasted a boat load of money going back and forth pretty much every weekend. After we finished the meet and greets, we actually packed up our stuff and caught an Uber to the airport. We took a red eye flight to Dayton. By the time most people were having breakfast, the five of us, and all our fellow Limans, were home. Fuck that was an awesome feeling. It wigged me out that no matter where I went or what I did Lima was still home. But it was…and I was done fighting that feeling.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6
Father to Son (Queen)
George PoV

“May You Live in Interesting Times”. That’s an ancient Chinese curse…not a blessing. It took me forever to understand how anyone could consider that to be a curse. But eventually I understood. There was something to be said for peace and quiet…and when you lived in interesting times, there was very little of either. My life could not have been more interesting if I tried. I was living in a mad house. I was working like a mad man, and the support system and family that I existed within all had it just as bad. The summer before my blood born daughter’s freshman year of college was also the summer before my wife’s first semester of med school, the summer before my younger son’s senior year of high school, before my younger daughter’s freshman year of high school. Oh, and I forgot to mention that it was also the summer of my eldest son’s first North American tour with his wife, and their husband and the summer before their junior year of college. Yeah, and that was just on the home front.

At work, well, at my primary job…general contractor, I was in the midst of my heaviest time of year. Spring and summer meant a shit ton of outdoor jobs. Projects like new roofs, decks, patios and outdoor rooms were more often than not planned for that timeframe and Lima was no exception. Just in the month of June we had six covered patio jobs, three outdoor kitchen, bar and dining areas and seven decks. In addition to all of those, I was also working two kitchen remodels and a basement buildout. And those were just the smaller projects. I was also building a full, basement to roof, house for the kids’ buddies. That one was near completion. I was waiting to hear back from Maribel on the finishes. By the time it came for the Ohio tour stops, Santana, Artie and Brittany would be able to sleep in a house they owned. I was busy as hell on the work front but I couldn’t really complain. It was a good thing. I had a kid in college, a wife quitting her job to go back to med school…all that work was a blessing. But in addition to the paying jobs, I was also working on my part of the first Athraichean Properties subdivision. We’d gotten over the first few hurdles. The Public Hearings had been a pain in the ass but thank God for Sander Evans’ southern boy charm. We’d done the plat map and gotten it approved. We’d met all the city and county zoning requirements. We’d passed the marketability and feasibility studies and gotten our regional impact surveys all done, registered and we were good to move forward. That we’d accomplished before the New Year. However, we’d needed to concentrate in the first couple of months of the year on the shopping plaza. When that was finished, we all agreed to take a breather before we launched our selves into getting the land cleared. So, April was taken off.

May hit me full force; I was deluged with jobs and trying to manage the timber buyer that we worked out a deal with to clear all the trees, stumps and larger bushes from the land for us. Best part was that we actually made some money on the deal. Granted we poured that money right into the next stage of the project…getting all the pipes and lines ran to make the land livable. I got all the permits we needed and found a company who would run things the way we needed them. Turned out that the city and county were easy, they even agreed to lay the pipes we wanted used. Finding a firm willing to encase the electric, cable and phone lines in red ABS pipes had given me migraines and nightmares. But we finally had everything in place and all that work had started the Monday before Father’s Day.

I was really looking forward to Father’s Day that year. Danica had decided that, since all the kids were coming home that weekend, and it was the first wedding anniversary for Kevon and Trice, we’d do a huge family dinner. But because her life was going crazy too, it would be at a restaurant. She had twin terrors at home with the sweetest smiles ever. One of them was fully potty trained and the other was still having accidents at what Dani and Bent considered an alarming rate. The truth was that some kids just hated to stop what they were doing to go to the bathroom. Hell, some adults felt the same damn way. But where Maea was having trouble with going when her body told her to go…Mara was having trouble listening to anything anyone other than her body told her to do. Not Mother Richardson…the kid was too smart for that. But she refused to listen to any of the people who worked for Mother Richardson at her new center. Timeouts didn’t bother Mara. You could take every toy away but you couldn’t take her imagination from her and that seemed to be all the toy she really needed. Dani and Bent were getting near their wits end. According to the Parents Jones, the Twins were more of a hand full than their three elder siblings were at their age all put together.

On the work front, Benton and Danica were both pretty damn busy. When I was honest with myself, I was pretty sure that they had it worse than me. At least I was outside a lot and the worse I had to deal with was a toilet replacement. They were up to their wrists in yuck mouths on a daily basis. Parents held off on getting their kids major dental problems handled. The orthodontist that they have in their office now was busy almost from open to close every day. Things are crazy and on top of all of that, they agreed to take on two dental school residents, one male and one female, who needed the residency to complete their education. It wasn’t something new to them, but Benton was having trouble with the young guy and his constant need to flirt with Danica. The guy was a twenty-seven year old white kid and he had dreams of the hot, curvy older Black woman teaching him how to pleasure women. I loved my Becah, but I couldn’t say I blamed the kid for having a crush. He hadn’t crossed the line or anything. But Benton was pissy as hell whenever the kid’s name was mentioned. The worse part was that Danica was amused by the kid and irritated by what she perceived as Benton’s lack of faith in her. Yeah, things in the Jones house were interesting to say the least.

The Evans side of that equation was not having any less drama in their lives. Sander was the face and primary architect of Athraichean Properties. He was working two full time jobs. He and Gabby were raising two middle schoolers and a toddler. Gabby was working a full time and a half job teaching. She was coordinating a bunch of shit with her relatives to try and either catch or take out the guy stalking Mercedes. On top of that, they were fiscally sound and their credit was being rebuilt quite quickly thanks to Gwen and Saul…who were financial gurus of the first caliber, by the way. Anyway, they were starting to think about having a home of their own again. But that line of thinking came with its own drama. Neither Sand nor Gabs wanted to seem ungrateful, nor did they necessarily want to separate Sloane, Mara and Maea. So, while they waited for the right time to move back out on their own, they were living smart. Squirreling away what wasn’t needed for day to day living or to finance Sander’s dream that he infected me and Hell-Bent with. Yes, Athraichean Properties was a mental disease that came from too close contact with a dreamer. But then again, so was half the shit going on in our lives, so there really wasn’t much I could complain about on that side.

The main thing all we three couples all had in common was the cycles of worry and relief we were going through with our kids all off ‘touring’ around the country. We woke up worried, watched the morning news for news of their activities. Unfortunately, the week before Father’s Day the news was all full of that non-bill paying Fershtinkiner Trump, we didn’t get too see too much of our kids. Thankfully Lauren’s cousin had been kind enough to link us all in on their News Feed. So, we did get the online news about their happenings. Still, we tended to go about our morning business worried. We would talk to Noah, Mercedes and Sam around lunch time…their morning, were relieved for a couple of hours…while beginning to get worried about Tessa, talked to her mid-afternoon…her morning, were relieved for a couple of hours…while beginning to get worried about how the show would go that night. It was a whole, vicious cycle. But at least they were all calling everyday…and Joe was calling his parents on the daily too. We’d run into Big Dave Karofsky and he was in serious parental melt down because he hadn’t spoken to his son in over a week. I happened to know from Tessa that he was fine. He had been their Roadie assistant the night before. So, not only was I able to tell him that his son was fine and hadn’t had any accidents that led to dismemberment or death…the information was less than twenty-four hours old.

So yeah, Father’s Day was pretty damn important that year. The kids got in at the ass crack of dawn Saturday morning and they crashed hard. Which was understandable, when they got up, they all split up. Noah brought Bubbie and Nikki to see us, while Sam and Mercedes took the affectionately called ‘elder sibs’ and went to see their parents. They had dropped Tessa off on their way home that morning. Jake came by during his ‘lunch hour’ and we all had a good meal and caught up with each other. Nikki dominated the conversation at first telling us all about her time with her parents on the road, including time with Dev, Tonya, Kev and Tricie, a trip to Six Flags and a trip to the Georgia Aquarium. Though she loved Jake and Tessa and Triple S, the one of her older aunts and uncles that she had bonded with the tightest was definitely Patrice. But it was an easy thing to understand. Even if she made her living with applied math…Patrice shared a love of theoretical mathematics that even Ruth and Saul and Noah couldn’t match. It was good for Nikki to have that and to see a woman in a STEM field. There weren’t enough role models for young girls to encourage them to go into the maths and sciences. As much as Sarah takes after the Howard-Mayzer math giftedness, she wasn’t interested in math beyond financial and accounting any more than Noah was.

Jake brought Noah up to speed on their pool business. He was working with five of the other guys from the New Directions and they had North Lima, the McKinley, Shawnee and Lima Heights school clusters, on lock. Some of the outlying areas still used places like Sears and Pools-n-More…but with unbeatable prices, a work ethic that the big guys couldn’t touch because none of them wanted to let the others down, and-at least according to a few of my clients who were also their clients-their statuses as eye candy…Puckerman Pool Services was the go to pool cleaners for every pool owner in the area. Noah was more than happy. He’d handled their books for the entire time he’d run it, but Jake and Gwen had a deal. They both kept track of everything, income and overhead, and balanced their copies of the books separately and then reconciled both sets at the end of the month. So far, Jake hadn’t been more than fifty cents off. Gwen was sure that he’d be able to handle them without her…but he wasn’t as confident as she was. She did handle the taxes. I didn’t blame Jake for that at all. She did mine to. I didn’t like to risk my math skills when it came to the US government. It just wasn’t worth it.

Noah got Sarah talking about what she was looking forward to most about going to McKinley that fall. The answer pretty much boiled down to ruling the Cheerio’s JV squad with an iron fist and making a place for herself in the school’s newspaper. She was pretty sure that she could convince Sue to let her do a fashion column. “If not this year, then definitely next year. With Tessa gone, the paper needs new leadership. That Ben-Israel kid had turned it into a gossip mag. Tessa pulled it back from that tragedy and put it back to more what school papers should be…but she did that by trimming all the fat. We need to reintroduce some of the fun stuff without letting the bull crap take back over.”

“Just remember…starting the first day you walk into high school, your real and true permanent record begins. Colleges look at everything. Lyor won’t admit it, but I’m damn sure that he had to grease some palms to get my ass in to Columbia. To be the next Anna Wintour, you will have to get your paper the right way.” Noah said gently. “Now, I will say that Tessa’s godmother is besties with Isabella Wright over at Vogue. Unlike her boss, Isabella takes interns every year. Kurt is already on her short list for his senior year. You get your shit handled…and you can easily make sure that you have that opportunity. Have you thought about where you want to go to school?”

Sarah nodded. “The New School…Parsons. It’s in New York. I can do both fashion design at Parsons and creative writing at the Public Engagement School.”

Rebecah smiled. “Okay…and if you change your mind?”

Sarah shrugged, but gave her mother a look that clearly asked if she really thought Sarah was going to change a life goal she’d secretly held in her heart for years. “Then the New School has a ton of other majors I can switch to without too much trauma and drama.”

“Besides, in New York, she’d still have NYU, Columbia and a ton of other schools she could transfer too if her grades are good enough.” Tessa pointed out. “So, make sure that your grades are epic and try for as good an SAT and ACT score as humanly possible.”

“Speaking of, how are your SAT prep classes going Jake?” I asked.

“You’re taking them already?” Tessa was surprised.

“Yeah, between it being my senior year and having football, basketball, New Directions and academic bowl, not even talking about my three AP classes…yeah, me and Ryder wanted to go ahead and take the test prep when we could really focus on them. Besides, I’m taking the graduation test in the fall, so…it just made sense to take them now.” Jake said with a winning smile.

“So…have you finally decided where you’re going to apply then?” Becah asked. Jake had been going back and forth between so many schools. Trapped between wanting to stick near family and going to a school that really had the program he needed.

Jake shrugged. “I really like Penn State, the University of Miami and Illinois Institute of Technology. They all have top tier architectural engineering programs and I think I can get into those three, unlike MIT and Cal Tech. I mean, Abrams couldn’t even get into MIT.”

“Oh please, Artie didn’t really want to go to MIT, their film program isn’t all that spectacular.” Noah scoffed. “He still won’t admit it…but I’m willing to bet that he fucked up the essay or something on purpose.”

Tessa rolled her eyes and looked at Nikki. “Don’t use that word, Niks.” Then she swatted her brother against the back of his head. “Don’t cuss in front of Nikki. Cede will kick your ass.”

“Yeah, because ass isn’t a curse word.” He shot back.

“Kids…try to behave with some maturity in front of your daughter-slash-niece.” I dragged them from the fight before it could get going good.

“Sorry.” They both said sheepishly.

“Zayde George…what do you want for Father’s Day?” Nikki asked me out of nowhere.

I looked around the table. “I’ve got it right here. Nik-Nak. I’ve got it right here.”

Becah gave me one of her beautiful smiles. Sarah and Nikki shared their, almost identical ones with me, too. Tessa’s bright grin was no less lovely, different though it may have been. The same was true for Jake’s and Noah’s. I wished that Bethany was with us, but other than that, I couldn’t think of a single other thing I needed in my life. Yes, I lived in interesting times. But the crazy was worth it for moments like that.

Send ‘em On Down the Road (Garth Brooks)
Michael Chang, Sr. PoV

I was very happy that Mike chose to come home to visit for Father’s Day. I knew that he didn’t have to. He’d not done so the summer before when he stayed in California and worked. He had called and sent me a gift. That was good. I was happy to get a gift rather than a card with a gift card inside it. That had been my Father’s Day for years…since his mother had stopped choosing my gifts for him when he was ten. On my Birthday, Christmas, Father’s Day, always a card and a gift card. I never realized he got me that because he had no idea what to get for me. I’d held myself so aloof from my son; he hadn’t known what to get his own father. As much as I still didn’t necessarily like his fiancée…she just was different than who I had imagined my daughter-in-law would be…I would always be grateful to her for being strong enough to fight back when he was taking her for granted. If she had not been, he’d have never have called home that night and we wouldn’t have the measure of closeness that we now shared. A closeness that allowed him to buy me a gift he was confident I would enjoy…a gift that I actually loved.

When he got home on Saturday morning, he and I had had a nice talk in the kitchen over breakfast. His mother had already left for her Mahjong club since he’d kept his imminent arrival a secret. “So, my son, how are you enjoying your touring?” I asked him in our native tongue. Well, technically that of my father…both my son and I had been born in America.

He responded in kind. “Father, it has been an amazing experience. I didn’t realize how much went into a tour of this magnitude. It is amazing. And I am learning so much about my craft. I never dreamed I would get to work with Rino Razalan. She is just amazing. Every day we perform a million different styles of dance and she makes sure that they are all blended seamlessly. I’ve never had so much fun and joy and it is amazing, Father.” He gushed.

“So, have you done anything but dance?” I teased after responding appropriately to the joy he found in his work for the summer. He spoke of the museums that they’d visited, and having fun with his fiancée and their friends at amusement parks and going on dates with Tina on their days off. They had gone to the Smithsonian together in Washington and found quiet time to spend together no matter how crowded the schedule.

“But Father, even with all the time we spend together and with our friends from here, we’ve made good friends with others on the tour too.” He said happily. “Jax, Simeon…they are really cool. It’s a little weird, they’ve been there since the beginning…but sometimes I get the feeling that they are still finding their bonds with the rest of the Crew. Its like KAMA’s crew is a family, but they are the second cousins or something. Anyway, Joseph is cool too, but he’s a bit too flirty. I know he’s straight, because he and Marceau are totally dancing around being something, but he is constantly flirting with everyone. It’s a little disconcerting, to say the least.”

I gave him a thoughtful look. “For some people that is simply their way. When I was in law school, I had a professor who called everyone ‘honey’ or ‘darling’ or some other such nonsense. It wasn’t to demean or harass. It was simply how she spoke. Perhaps too, it could be a coping mechanism. You’ve said that Joseph is British. I imagine that over there where homosexuality is more accepted, he may often find himself to be the only heterosexual man in the room. Maybe he learned to out flirt the flirts…or at least give as good as he got.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” He looked thoughtful. “Thanks Father.” He might have said more, but a huge yawn cracked his jaw, so I sent him up to get some sleep. I noticed that he moved with a grace and fluidity of movement I’d rarely seen before he left home.

As I was finishing my morning paper, it hit me. He’d hidden his dancer’s grace when he’d lived at home. He had made himself clop and clod to hide the fact that he was and had always been a dancer. I knew it with the same surety that I had known I’d never survive medical school. I knew it with the same surety that I had known that Julia Zheng had been the woman I was destined to marry within an hour of meeting her. It was a slap in the face. I understood in that moment, the final piece of the puzzle. The final thing that was standing in the way of me having the type of relationship I’d always longed to have with my son; the kind of relationship that, in the dark hours when I could be nothing but honest with myself I had to admit, I wanted with my own father. Michael…Mike… He’d tried to be who I wanted him to be even if it made him miserable. Then, he had tried for years to carefully bring me to a place of understanding without permanently damaging our bond. Now, I was the one who needed to make some changes. I just had to figure out exactly what form those changes needed to take.

So as my beautiful wife of over twenty years played Mahjong…a.k.a gossiped with the few other Chinese women in the area. As my twenty-one-year-old son slept in the room he’d left for college and would never again live in, in the same way he had such a short time ago. As they rejuvenated themselves, I adjourned to my office and spent an hour in introspection. I made several decisions and realized that the best place to start was probably the most difficult. I picked up the phone and called the Cohen home. I was somewhat grateful that Frederick Cohen answered. “Hey, Mike…Everything Okay? I’m surprised that you’re still up and around. Tina’s been knocked out since ten minutes after she walked in the door.” He said swiftly before I could let him know that he had the wrong Michael Chang.

“Mr. Cohen, Mike is also asleep. This is Michael. I was wondering if you knew if your wife or daughter had made any plans for lunch tomorrow,” I asked before he could start talking again. I was sure that part of the reason Tina had grown up to be so painfully shy was that it was difficult to get a word in edgewise with her loquacious parents.

“Wow, Michael. I think those are the most words I’ve ever heard you say at one time. Certainly, all directed at me,” he quipped. He had apparently missed his calling as a comedian.

I sighed. “It is with that in mind that I was calling. I’ve not been entirely fair to your daughter, not because she is the wrong kind of Asian, as I know she believes, simply because she wasn’t my choice for Michael. However, I’ve begun to understand that he is the one who has to make his own choices and it is up to me to accept them, or possible lose him forever.”

“Yeah, it sucks being a dad. For years they want to do everything you do or want them to. Then they have to do what you tell them to. Then suddenly, when you’re used to being the Head Honcho in Charge, they flip the script and want to make all their own decisions. You can’t even say anything if you think it’s the wrong one because if you do say, ‘taking a summer to tour around the country with your friends maybe isn’t the wisest choice’ and then you turn out to be wrong…the gloating is painful man…it almost physically hurts.” He babbled. “But in my defense, when I said I thought it might be a bit stupid, I didn’t know that they were going to be in million-dollar Winnebagos and have ten-foot-tall former Green Berets protecting them.”

“Yes, I have to say, young Jones, Evans and Puckerman are doing surprisingly well thinking things through and using their success to help and benefit their friends.” I said calmly. It was funny. I’d been hesitant for Mich-Mike to go on the tour, but I’d never doubted that the tour would be safe and well-appointed. Mercedes Jones didn’t strike me as the kind of person who enjoyed, or was even willing to endure, ‘roughing it’.

Cohen chuckled. “Ain’t that the truth? Burt swears that that lawyer they got for Finn, Jones’ uncle…total shark…he wasn’t planning to take a dime if they didn’t win. Said that the drunk asshole had made his favorite niece cry and therefore he had to pay.” We actually shared a laugh. Burt Hummel was the best mechanic in Lima. There weren’t many people in town who didn’t utilize his services. He’d tell anyone who was in his shop long enough that story. He’d always finish by saying he still wasn’t sure if he should be mad or grateful. Burt was both a good father and a proud man. There were times when those two aspects of his personality came into minor conflict. “So, you said something about lunch?”

“Yes. Soon the Cohens and the Changs will be family through our children. We should get to know each other. Find commonalities. In a few years…hopefully we will be blessed with grandchildren. We will both see them more often if we get along and are considerate of each other.” I postulated. Goodness knew that my parents and Julia’s had not gotten along well at all. Mike saw one set of grandparents at Christmas and the other at Easter and, until he was old enough to beg to go to Asian camp, he’d spent one week per summer with each. He’d never asked to spend more time with either set.

“That strikes me as a pretty good idea. Besides, maybe if my wife has yours to talk to about all the wedding stuff she’ll stop making me look at four different shades of white. Like Tina’s going anywhere near a traditional white dress.” He laughed happily. He certainly did laugh quite a lot.

“Julia just prays that Tina doesn’t make her wear an, and I am quoting here, old lady mother of the groom dress.” I confided.

I could almost see him shake his shaggy head of hair. “We’ve got at least a couple of years yet. I don’t know why they are in such an all fired hurry.”

I was thoughtful. “I have seen the Say Yes to the Dress episode Rebecah Puckerman was on. Apparently, just ordering the dress and having it altered can take up to a year or more. Perhaps they are ruminating on things that must be decided as soon as possible.”

“Jeez, I rented my tux a week before the shindig.” He told me. “We guys have it much easier.”

I could not agree vehemently enough. “Where would you like to go for lunch tomorrow?” I asked before either of us said something that would get us in trouble if my Julia or his Madeline overheard…which Julia always did at the worst possible time.

“You know what, I’m like Mikey in those old commercials. I’ll eat anything. So, you can pick, just let us know when, where and for Tee and Maddie, what to wear.” He returned with the almost visual smile I was coming to expect from a phone conversation with him. I was sure that I had never before known such a jocular person in my life.

“Usually for things like this, we’d go to Vivace. It’s my favorite restaurant.” I said cautiously. I wasn’t sure if he and his wife regularly went out for lunch at a fine dining establishment.

“Man, Maddie loves that place. With the whole tie required thing, I can usually get away with only going on our anniversary and her birthday. She’s gonna have one hell of a happy Father’s Day this year.” He chortled. “But you’ve been married a long time too. You know…the happier they are, the happier we are.”

I could not help but agree. We spoke only a little longer before he thanked me for the invite and reminded me to call him with what time they should meet us there and signed off. As soon as my call to Frederick-just call me Freddie-Cohen ended, I immediately dialed the familiar number for Vivace Cuisine. I was perfectly ready to bribe our way into a table for six. I was surprised that no monetary inducement was necessary. “It is a simple matter of changing the party size of your reservation. Though, I suppose from the way you phrased your inquiry, it was a Father’s Day surprise for you from Mrs. Chang.” Fraser, one of the hosts told me with a slightly apologetic tone.

“My wife is a queen among woman.” I told him honestly. When the call wrapped up, I called Freddie back to let them know that the reservation was for twelve thirty at Vivace for sure.

I’d accomplished all I needed to in my study, so I returned my coffee cup to the kitchen and decided to wash up the small number of dishes that had been used since my wife left earlier. I finished up and was wiping down the counter when the backdoor opened to admit my beautiful wife. Julia was carrying a few reusable cotton bags bearing the logo of the new grocery store across town that had opened just a few months before.

Her eyes tracked mine as I looked at the bags I took from her small, yet strong hands. “I know it’s all the way across town…but the freshness of their meats and produce…heck, just the selection of their produce. It is most definitely worth the drive.” She defended smoothly.

Again, I found myself in a position where I couldn’t argue against the truth. I pressed a quick kiss to her cheek. “They do seem to have a better selection of authentic tasting ethnic food. Even the Asian Market’s ginger isn’t as fresh as theirs. And my blood pressure has significantly decreased since your introduced me to beet juice.”

The disgusted face she made was truly adorable. “I cannot believe that you drink that stuff alone. I mean, yes, it is very healthy…but so are Chia and Flax seeds and you don’t see me taking those unless they are blended into a smoothie too.” she chuckled. “I ran into Maribel Lopez at Sprouts.”

“Really, I didn’t think she was the kind of woman to do her own shopping, not for groceries anyway. Doesn’t she have people for that?”

“Oh, shush you.” She chided as she swatted me playfully. “She’s currently busy decorating Santana, Brittany and Arthur’s house, and crowing happily about having them put down at least some of their roots so close to home. Anyway, a little birdy told her that KAMA will more than likely be giving out fairly substantial bonuses at the end of the tour. With so many of their friends having houses here…”

“Maybe Michael, Mike,” I corrected myself, “and Tina could too and then we’d be able to see them more often, especially after they start having children.” I completed her thought process. “I would be willing to help them afford to build a house here, if they wanted to do so.”

Julia gave me a long hug. “That is good, because, I happen to know for a fact that the subdivision that the two triad’s houses are in has sold almost all their lots. There are three worth anything left and those three are only left because their buyer’s financing fell through. My thought was that maybe we could go ahead and buy the land -maybe go in together with Maddie and Freddie- and we give it to them for a wedding gift…or sooner if they decide that they want to use their bonuses in the way we’re hoping they might want to use them.”

“You are a genius, Oh beautiful wife of mine.” I told her happily. I should have paid attention to how she got her way in the household years ago. She didn’t command and bluster. She facilitated you in achieving her goal, and she did so in such a way that you thought it was your idea all along. Julia was positively diabolical.

She gave me a smug smile. “I know.” Her retort was so apt to my thoughts that I wondered for the millionth time if telepathy was among her many talents. “Anyway, she stopped me to tell me about the house, yes, but also to invite me to have lunch with her and Analyn Anderson next week. I think that they want me to join them on the patient care board at St. Rita’s.”

“Would you enjoy that?” I asked her noncommittedly. I knew that she had been longing to find something to fill her days after Mike graduated. She had a few church things, and she gave sewing and violin lessons…but combined they only filled a few hours a week.

“I really think I would. You know that boards like that always need representation of people of color and women too. But I was still considering Sue Sylvester’s offer.” She replied.

Sue Sylvester had come to the house shortly after the end of the school year and told my wife that she needed her to come and teach Chinese as a foreign language as well as violin. However, Principal Sylvester had made sure that Julia understood it would mean going back to college and getting an education degree. “Because, I’m not that idiot Figgins, I need you because I know that you know both the subjects, but I don’t need somebody who doesn’t understand how to teach either.”

The visit had been weighing heavily on Julia’s mind ever since. We’d done well over the years. Julia had never had any need to work. In fact, she hadn’t had an actual job since before Mike was born. His early years she’d devoted most of her time and attention on making sure that his formative time was enriching and that he had all that he needed to grow and develop well. When he’d started school, she’d volunteered her time and gave her energy to his classes. From Pre-K to fifth grade she was always his class Room Mother, often at the school from when she took him in the morning until he was ready to leave in the afternoon. When he moved on to middle school, she took over the PTA. She’s single handedly made William Henry Harrison Middle School the best funded middle school in the entire state of Ohio. But just the nature of growing up combined with the way Figgins ran William McKinley High School had left her with far less need for her contributions to the school. Once Mike started driving, she had even less to do day to day. Unfortunately, by then, not only was her work history more than a decade old, but the nation was entering a recession and the world was on the brink of global economic collapse. Financially, we were okay. My work wasn’t negatively impacted and I’d been very conservative in our investments so our retirement portfolio wasn’t even hit too hard. But no one in Middle America needed custom designed gowns. And with the bursting of the housing bubble, there was no one hiring real estate agents, let alone one who hadn’t sold a house since the Clinton Administration.

“Well, why don’t you do both?” I suggested. “Most of the colleges in the area have flexible schedules for non-traditional students. You could always schedule your classes around the board meetings. We can certainly afford to use some of our savings to handle the costs and just replace it when you start working.”

She looked at me in wonderment. “But – but what about you?”

I shrugged. “I am happiest when you are happy. I will be fine. If you have an evening class, I’ll swing by Sprouts and grab one of their big salads and premade dinners. If we need to host a dinner party or something for your board or my work, then we’ll figure it out. We can make this work.” I pulled her into a hug. “For the last twenty-two years you’ve put Michael and I before yourself. Now, it is your time to come first in this family.”

“Wow…thank you, Qīnài De. I wonder what college is even like now. Can I even get in? How do I even start?” She babbled the fears that had been holding her back from something she clearly wanted to do.

I pressed a kiss to her still raven wing black hair. “Julia, our son is upstairs. He can tell you all about college in twenty-fifteen. As for getting in…you graduated magna cum laude from Stanford. I am almost positive that you can get into OSU-Lima or UNOH easily. As for the rest…well that’s why God gave us Google.”

We shared a laugh and I realized that I still needed to tell her about my morning’s introspection. I lead her to the banquette where Mike and I had had our talk earlier. I told her all about my ruminations and realizations. Then I confessed to knowing about her Father’s Day surprise for me and how I’d changed it to include our future in-laws in our celebrations. “Michael Robert Chang…I am very proud of you. I know that it can be hard to see past our hopes and dreams for our son. But the biggest and brightest dream we had for him was that he would grow up to be a good strong man. And he had. He is strong, strong enough and smart enough to learn how to bend rather than break. He is good, a good person and a great friend. He is a wonderful son, and I am sure Tina would say that he is a great fiancé.”

“You did an amazing job raising him.” I returned honestly.

She kissed my cheek. “You did help. I know that things haven’t always been smooth sailing in you’re and Mike’s relationship…but you are not a bad father Michael. You’ve provided everything he or I could ever want or need. So, we did an amazing job raising our son.”

I still felt that she’d done the better job, but the look on her face told me not to argue further. She and I talked a bit more…fleshing out plans for the immediate future and hopes for the more distant time to come. I was a little surprised when Mike came down just a couple of hours after he’d gone up to rest. Julia jumped up and ran to envelop our boy…young man…in a long overdue hug. They talked for a while and I let their voices wash over me…just enjoying having them both home even if only for a little while. We spent the afternoon chatting, talking, and Mike and I helped Julia make short work of her usual Saturday tasks. That was a good thing. It allowed myself and Mike to learn a few of her laundry miracles. It was in incredible day. When it came time to make dinner, we handled it together. I’d not held a knife in many years, but it turned out I was still a dab hand at slicing and dicing. As we worked, the kitchen had been filled with music. Mike actually knew the words to many of the songs I’d bothered to learn the words to myself, in my youth. A fact he credited to that Schuester character. Unlike my beautiful wife, I could carry a tune…but Mike’s voice was more than simply carrying a tune. He was surprisingly good and seemed well trained. The credit for that, he told us, went to Tina, Mercedes and Ms. Cochran-Martinez.

Over dinner, Julia told Michael-Mike an edited version of the changes to our original Father’s Day plan. “I’ve already changed our reservations for lunch tomorrow. It is for pretty much right after church. Though, you do look like you’ve grown enough this last year that the suits you left home won’t fit any longer.” She worried.

“He can borrow one of mine.” I assured the easily.

Both my wife and son turned and looked at me as if I’d spoken a language so foreign to them that it hadn’t even originated on Earth. “You are going to let me borrow one of your five thousand-dollar suits?” Mike gaped at me when he was finally able to speak.

“Yes. I know that I have not in the past. But you are a man now.” They both still looked quite perplexed.

Until my wife had a realization, “Mike, your father, well…he is trying to say that he is understand that you are no longer a little boy. You’ve grown up and are a man now. A boy no longer, that means that you two are growing into a different relationship. One that will, eventually, be between two equals.”

“Exactly.” I smiled brightly. Julia had always been better at expressing my emotions than I was. My disconnect from enlightened emotional connections was why I had gone into intellectual property and copyright law. It was as lucrative as contracts with far less emotional involvement or litigation. I knew that many attorneys found it all dry and boring. But then again, many people found me to be dry and boring so I suppose it was a match made in heaven.

After dinner, we took a little time and Mike found a suit to wear the next day. Then, while we were at it, we helped him to clean out his closet of all the things he’d outgrown in the past year or so. Julia told him to take them down to the kitchen and she would take them to Good Will when she ran her Monday errands. The entire evening was, well, it was what I’d always hoped we’d have when we spent family time together. We’d spent years forcing the simple pleasures of quality time. But always in the past there had been an underlying tension of expectations and diverging hopes and dreams. And even just a tenseness that came about because one can schedule time to spend together, yes, but there was no way to enforce the quality aspect that we shared that evening.

Even with his nap, Mike retired early that night as did Julia and I. though I was sure that he went to sleep far earlier than his mother and I had. Sunday mornings started early in our home because our church started Sunday School at nine with the church service following at ten. Most people seemed to blame the smile I wore on having Mike unexpectedly home on Father’s Day. I let them believe that. Julia did too. We knew that his presence was only partly responsible for our joyousness. But no one else needed to be enlightened any further. The service was good. I had to admit I’d not paid much attention. I knew that the Sunday School lesson and the sermon had both revolved around the love our Heavenly Father had for all His children…but other than that I was mainly noticing the way the pretty coral colored, summer wrap dress Julia was wearing flowed over her pretty curves. I managed to go through the motions convincingly and was paying rapt attention to the benediction.

Thankfully, despite the holiday, church let out in a timely fashion and we were soon making our way to Vivace. We arrived just moments before the Cohens. I noticed that, like Julia and I, they owned a Toyota sedan. But theirs was an older model Avalon than our own, one that showed that they may not have hand an exorbitant income, but they were decent financial planners. If I had to guess, they had timed its purchase to ensure that it was paid off by the time Tina graduated high school. And it would, with Burt Hummel caring for it, last until she graduated college easily. Their choice of apparel showed much the same tendency. Madeline Cohen was wearing a pretty sheath dress that stopped below her knees. The dress’ print was a bright, summery floral but it was a very traditionally cut dress that could be dressed up or down with the right accessories. Frederick Cohen was in a simple olive colored, but well-cut suit probably Ralph Lauren or J. Crew. I notice that while her parents had ascribed to my preferred theory on dressing…Tina was more along the lines of my beautiful wife. Her dress was beautiful. It was a rather retro cut with diagonal stripes that seemed to wrap around her. It was what Julia called a halter top, maxi dress with lining from neck to above the knees and then semi-sheer to the floor. As I said it was a beautiful dress, but it struck me most as a blend of a classic cut and a very modern, trendy color palette.

Though we’d arrived only moments before them, Mike still managed to make it over to their car in time to open Tina’s door for her while I did the same for his mother and Freddie did the same for Madeline. We said our hellos and made our why inside. Fraser was all smiles and greeted both Madeline and Julia like old friends. Not really surprising considering how well Julia tipped. He showed us to our table and we took care of seating our women before we took our own seats. I wasn’t sure what expectations I’d had of the meal. But honestly it was a truly positive experience. While we were incredibly different people, Frederick-Freddie- and I ordered almost the exact same mean from having a soup despite the heat, to both enjoying the Kunafa for our ‘dessert’. Khaled Alkhatib was so much more than a chef, the things he did with food, textures and flavors were, quite honestly, works of art.

However, the meal wasn’t simply enjoyable because of the food. The entire hour and a half was filled with intelligent discourse and debate. We had discussions on a wide variety of subjects, not even bothering to avoid the dreaded subjects of politics, religion and the impact of social media on the younger generations. Freddie and Maddie were, well to be blunt, some of the most left leaning people I’d ever met. But they were also well-informed and passionate. Their conversation was supported with cogent facts and they were able to sway me a bit towards their position on a few, more centrist, ideals. We were coming from two very different perspectives on many political issues and yet, even though we were two different religions…technically…we shared many of the same beliefs and principles. It was an enlightening afternoon. By the time we called for the check, I was forced to admit that my refusal to accept Mike’s choice of Tina, I’d cut myself off from getting to know two very interesting people with whom I shared many commonalities. I had to admit that my introspection was often showing me things I did not like about myself.

After we left Vivace, we decided to head to The Met for some of their cheesecake and a glass of wine. But mainly it was to continue conversing. Mike and Tina caught the tab for our dessert and we all took a long walk talking and getting to know each other. It was during that walk that I realized that Freddie and Mike were more comfortable with each other than I was with my son. That needed to change. Not their closeness. I was glad that Mike would get along with his father-in-law. But I wanted to have a closeness of my own with my son. I made a decision and before I could second guess myself, I had fired off a quick text to the office manager at my firm letting her know that I would be working from home both Monday and Tuesday. I would start building the relationship I wanted to have with my son…and there was no time like the present.

The Best Day (George Strait)
Benton PoV

It was simply a truth that there was no Father’s Day better than one that a man got to spend with all of his children and his best friends and all of their children. Heck, my mom even came to spend the weekend with us. When she showed up Friday evening, I was happy. Then when I got up the next morning, I headed down to breakfast and found my four oldest, Tonya and Tricie’s parents know I claim them; just like I knew that Lester, Nichole and Quita all claimed my boys too, that was as it should be; they were all sitting having breakfast. I watched in the doorway, laughing at their antics as they fought over who got to hold their baby sisters. I didn’t even get the chance to hug all of them before my little MeDe and her Sam came strolling in with Hudson behind them. “Hey Daddy.” MeDe said with a big old, bright smile and she came and gave me a huge hug. I got a quick one from Sam before he disappeared downstairs to see his own parents. They usually spent quiet time downstairs as a family unit themselves on Saturday mornings. I didn’t fault them for it. They needed that time.

Every one of us heard when Gabby realized that her boy was home. Her squeal of happiness was probably heard three counties over. “Where’s Noah?” I heard my wife asked as I pulled my most unexpected child in for a hug. Hudson was a great young woman, but you could look at her and see that she still needed a bit of parental nurturing. It was humbling that she allowed us to provide that for her after all I was sure she had been through.

“He went to see George and Becah.” MeDe answered from where she had snatched Maea from Tricie’s embrace. “He’ll be over later.”

“Well, this is the best Father’s Day gift I could have gotten.” I couldn’t help but chuckle. “All my kids home for the weekend. This is just about perfect.”

“Well, what would make it perfect?” Tonya asked me confused.

I smiled. “Nothing that’s gonna happen for at least a couple of years.” I shot back.

She, Tricie and MeDe all shook their heads. “Sorry Papa Bent…but…naw, you’re definitely gonna have to wait a couple of years for perfection.” Patrice admonished.

“That’s alright, I’ve got Nik-Nak and Beth to spoil. I can wait,” was my smug reply.

We had a good meal, though it was, admittedly more breakfast foods for lunch than actual breakfast or even brunch. Puck and the entire Altman-Puckerman Crew rolled in around three. By then Sam and his clan had joined us chilling out in the living room. When we were all together, we were a hell of a loud bunch. That afternoon was no different. It was fucking awesome. Nikki, Hudson and I were debating Monopoly versus Life when, MeDe whistled for every. “Alright…surprise number one, everyone under thirty…sleep over at our house tonight. Parents, you have earned yourselves a night off.” She turned to her baby sisters who were sitting on Sam and Puck’s laps with Sloane on Kevon’s next to them. “Maea, Mara, you two want to come and stay with us, don’t you?”

Stevie, Stacey and Sarah all looked shocked and happy. But they didn’t have anything on Amara and Amaea. The twins literally hopped down from their brothers’ laps, ran over to Danica and started begging to be able to go. My beloved got down to their level. “If we say you can go…you two have to listen.” Their almost identical heads bobbed emphatically. “Then I suppose that you can go and stay with your sisters and brothers and niece.”

“Fank you, Mommy.” They said in perfect unison. Once they had permission all that was left as far as they were concerned was leaving. So Mercedes explained that they needed to pack their stuff. She knew they understood because they then grabbed her hands and dragged her up to their room. Sloane caught up quick and soon he’d been granted permission and forced his big brother to go and help him get his stuff too. No way were Stacey and Stevie getting left behind. They were off like shots as soon as Gabby nodded at their unasked question.

In less than thirty minutes, we were getting kisses and hugs and then boom, we were alone. We looked over at Sander and Gabby and Becah put into words what we were all thinking. “I know that they probably expect us to do something like go out to a fancy dinner or something…but is it wrong that I just want to go home and take a bubble bath with a glass of wine knowing that I won’t get interrupted.”

Danica and Gabby both laughed. “If it’s wrong, then I’m so right there with you girl.” Dani laughed.

“I personally want to just watch TV for an entire show without having to change it lest little eyes see something they shouldn’t.” George raised a good point.

Sander chimed in next. “Or eat a plate of food a, hot the way God intended and b, without a little mouth ready, willing and able to eat more of it than I can.”

Gabby moaned. “We can have sushi.”

“Oh yeah, we can have sushi…” Danica said happily.

Becah and George exchange a long, speaking look. “You guys mind if we stay too.” George laughed.

I nodded. “Sure…you guys can go get your stuff and grab the wine. Me and Sander, we’ll go and get sushi and Chinese food from China Dragon. Gabby, you and Dani can pull up Netflix of Hulu and find something for us to binge watch.”

“Hell yeah.” San laughed.

It was good plan. We ate good food. We drank good wine and beer. We watched the hell out of Orphan Black. There was no one we had to please or entertain other than our selves. Even Momma had disappeared. We laughed our asses off as we told truly humiliating stories about our partners from way before we were the ages our adult children were that same night. There were breaks. Dani and I desperately needed to make love without having to worry about waking toddlers. So, did Sander and Gabby at least I assume that’s what they did when they disappeared for an episode and a half. Rebecah borrowed Dani’s jetted whirlpool tub for her soak. The night might not have been what the kids envisioned when they gave us a break from the young ones…but it was exactly what we needed. The next morning, after a breakfast that included eggs and coconut water and berry smoothies, we returned to being responsible adults.

When we saw all of our kids at the dinner Danica had organized, my first thought was that MeDe had gone shopping again. But my second was that we had a fine-looking family. Big as hell…the kids alone were rolling like twenty deep, but every single one of them was beautiful in their own special way. The dinner was great. I knew that Danica and MeDe could cook better than the chef of the restaurant my wife had rented, but I also knew that doing things the way she’d arranged them gave Dani and MeDe the opportunity to enjoy themselves without having to worry or work. That was worth everything. Everyone there was connected to us some as closely as the Fosters and Neelys and some as quasi-distantly as the Cochran-Martinezes. There was just so much love all around us. Nikki and Beth were in heaven with their Abah, Papa and Papi all in the same place. Lester and I had a blast embarrassing Devon and Tonya. It was the way Father’s Day was meant to be…full of laughter, family, fun and good food.

After dinner, the kids had taken center stage. “Alright, Daddy, you and Papa Bent have both been hinting…but you know grandbabies are a little bit off, other than Nik-Nak and Bitta-Beth for a few more years.” Tonya teased.

Lester laughed. “Alright, Lil Girl…but if you get tenure, I expect a baby to bounce on my knee no more than twelve months later.”

The whole room filled with laughter. “Anyway…as my better half was saying, since we can’t give you two what you say you want most. We figure that we’d give you something you were planning on giving yourselves. Well, put in on it anyway.” Devon continued when the laughter died down. I’d let Lester join me, Sander, and George in buying the RV that was scheduled to be delivered the following month. While he wasn’t really interested in following KAMA, he wanted to be able to use it one or two weeks a year to go visit the kids and take his boy to see some of the big national parks. To be honest, I’d have just lent it to him when he wanted to use it, but the man had his pride.

Kevon smirked. “We kicked in on it too.”

Mercedes, Sam and Noah just nodded when we looked over at them. “Everyone put in on it Daddy.” MeDe smiled.

“Me and Hudson did too.” Nik-Nak said proudly.

The four of us could barely speak to express our gratitude. It was a very touching gift. We’d only had a little more than the cost of a car left on the twelve bunk RV with its pull-out sofa and convertible dining banquette. Beth came forward carrying a big Father’s Day card. Inside was a printout of our remaining balance on our rolling man cave-slash-family vacation mobile. There was only five grand left. It looked like they had each put a thousand dollars on it…all of them, from Devon and Kevon all the way down to Sloane, including Nikki, Hudson and Bethany. Twenty thousand dollars of the balance had been covered as our mutual gift. It felt better when I thought of it like that. That way it was two-hundred and fifty bucks spent per kid per father. That one I could handle.

“Thanks so much, Kids.” Sander spoke up quietly. “This means a lot to each of us, knowing that you love us enough to put this kind of money towards us having a happy Father’s Day and feeling appreciated is pretty amazing. So, yeah. Thank you all.”

We each echoed the sentiment and the rest of our extended family congratulated us. Then Shelby and David asked if they could make an announcement. Beth started bouncing. “Can I tell…I haven’t told anybody that I’m gonna be a big sister too. Can I tell everybody?”

Nikki ran over and gave her a hug. “You, kind of, just did. I’m so happy for you Bee.” She laughed and we all couldn’t help but join her.

There were congratulations all around for the newlyweds. The rest of our time together that night was spent celebrating Kev and Patrice’s first anniversary. They got the usual gifts, including the rest of their china and tickets to shows and events in Atlanta…stuff like that. Apparently, their flight to visit us was their gift from MeDe. Then Sam and Noah gave them Fox Theater Season tickets. It was a nice evening. Everyone pitched in and we made short work of getting the kids’ house back in its normal configuration and all the party tables and such back down to their basement. It was funny that we left as childless as we’d arrived. Double A&S, Triple S and Jake didn’t make it back to their real homes until Tuesday morning. The best gift our older kids gave us turned out not to be the visit, or the kid-free weekend or even the RV. Nope, the best thing they did for us was somehow they managed to make Maea use the bathroom, not her pull up, every single time. And Mara didn’t have a single timeout or discipline problem for almost three months. Damn, I loved my kids. Now if I could just get that asshat at the office to stop flirting with my woman right in front of my face without catching a case…my life would be truly perfect.

Am I Evil (Metallica)
Corbin Richardson PoV

Perhaps it was the nostalgia of the weekend…Father’s Day had such a special meaning for me. My own father couldn’t be bothered to show any emotional support, it just wasn’t his way. But he had instilled in me a will and a drive and a determination that few people could match. Perhaps it was all the social media postings of the Jones Family as the celebrated Father’s Day surrounded by friends. I knew that when I’d successfully absconded with my chosen prey, they would never be the same. The thought of tears in her mother’s beautiful eyes was almost as arousing as the sight of demure ‘Daddy’s Girl’ Mercedes Jones that she showed in the pictures her brothers and their wives posted to their ‘private’ Facebook accounts. Perhaps it was simply expediency…the knowledge that with most of the tour’s population was on a several day long break it would be the perfect time to reach out to Hank Schmidt. I was grateful that when I’d noticed the long break over Father’s Day weekend on the tour schedule, I’d made moves to get Hank’s brother Jim out of my way. The man was damn good at his job, and reading the emails exchanged between the two brothers had definitely been well worth the time spent…so it wasn’t a permanent removal. But Jim was seriously overprotective of his ‘black sheep’ of a twin and had threatened to quit his position when he’d felt I was the cause of Hank’s arrest. I hadn’t caused it. Hank was a salesman of illegal and illicit goods. That had caused his arrest…I’d just not done anything to prevent it. I could have, but I chose to let thing play out and reap the reward of a favor for smoothing things over after the fact.

In order to make sure that Jim couldn’t act as the angel on Hank’s shoulder…or hear anything that would make him take his years of experience and profitability to another company…I made sure that Jim wasn’t available over Father’s Day weekend. It was surprisingly easy. A small bug in his girlfriend’s ear from her good friend, who just happened to be one of my assistants, had managed quite well. It was Schmidt’s own fault. He’d been dating the lovely young woman for eight months and had yet to take the time to meet her family. Really, that just wasn’t a good idea. As I understood it, Jim had only one choice so he was off to the wilds of southern Oregon and pretty much unreachable. It served my purposes perfectly.

I called Hank Schmidt on his cell phone later in the evening on Father’s Day itself. “Mr. Richardson, I, uh…is something wrong with Jim?” he asked as soon as he recognized my voice.

“No Hank. Jim is fine. I believe that he is spending the weekend away with his girlfriend…channeling his inner Ben Stiller. No, I am calling because you owe me a favor. That spot of trouble I helped you get yourself out of in two thousand and six…” I reminded him.

He gulped audibly. “Uh, yeah…um…thanks again for that. I’m not exactly the kind of guy who would do well in prison.”

“Yes, well, your gratitude is appreciated…but unnecessary. What I need is you to do a few small things for me and we’ll be able to forget all about your unfortunate past peccadilloes.” I returned calmly.

“I’m not in New York right now. I’m on the road with rock-n-soul group KAMA.” He stammered. I think he was beginning to realize that all those years ago, he hadn’t escaped the consequences of his actions all together. He’d instead made a deal with a devil and it was coming due.

“You are exactly where I need you to be.” I assured him.

“I can’t get you anything until after this tour is over. These kids run a clean tour. The security guys check our buses all the time.” He made an erroneous assumption as to why I was contacting him. “If the money weren’t so good and the kids weren’t so nice, this would be a boring three months.”

I shook my head as his joke fell flat. Schmidt was useful, but that man was a certified moron. “I don’t need anything illicit from you. You’d have no way to get it to me even if I did. I simply need information.”

“What kind of information?” His confusion was palpable.

I laid out a quick fairy tale about wanting to get back into the music game and how I would need a major, flagship act to do so. “I don’t have to tell you that KAMA is the biggest thing to hit scene in quite some time. Probably they will be looking around for a better deal sooner rather than later. I need information on them…their likes and dislikes, their preferences and hatreds. Everything. So, what I need from you is information…weekly observations as you do the job you’re already being paid to do. I want to know everything that you can glean about the kids and their people. If I can build the right package, wooing them from Warner shouldn’t be all that hard.”

Hank Schmidt actually rather impressed me with the intelligence of his next question. “What kind of information will be useful? I don’t want to, ya know, tell you a lot of stuff that isn’t gonna help you.”

“Don’t worry about that. Just tell me everything you learn. Especially about Ms. Jones. From the interviews I’ve read, it seems like Puckerman and Evans mainly follow where she leads them.” though with an ass like hers who could really blame them. “Any information, no matter how small or inconsequential it might seem to you at the time, could make a world of difference. Weekly emails will be best, but if there is some particularly interesting tidbit feel free to go ahead and shoot it to me. I’ll text you the email address I want you to use. I’d like to keep this all on the hush until things are more firm on my end.”

“And that’s all I have to do…nothing illegal?”

“That’s all. Nothing illegal. I’d never ask someone to do anything I wouldn’t be willing to do myself.” I lied smoothly. What I was asking him to do was definitely technically illegal and certainly morally reprehensible, but I wanted the information and didn’t particularly care if he got in trouble for providing it. The email he’d be submitting the information to would be almost impossible to trace back to me. This entire conversation was taking place on a phone whose SIM card would be shredded before his first email came in. Ultimately, it would be his word against mine. And he was just a roadie with little past and no real future. The information he would be sending me was needed to further develop the securing of my beloved obsession. I’d already made several successful moves. A home where she and I could be very happy, most of my personal wealth quietly and inconspicuously shuffled into a tax shelter account with the Deutsche Bank…accessible from anywhere in the world. I had contacts in Ibiza, Dubai and Mykonos who could get my all the attitude adjusters I’d need until Dr. Becher had worked her magic and ensured that my query would find a home in her beautiful prison. Doctor Lydia Becher was an expert on behavioral conditioning and cognitive recalibrations. She was also willing to work for anyone who would allow her to advance her research…whether the global scientific and psychiatric community considered her experiments to be humane and worthwhile or not.

“Alright…send me the email. I’ll give you anything I find out.” Hank said resolutely. “After this we’ll be square, right?”

“Completely.” I returned. I also made a mental note to crush Hank Schmidt if he did not deliver any information of any importance, and possibly after I’d successfully left the country with the woman who would bear my children. It wouldn’t do to have too many loose ends left behind, after all. As soon as the call was ended, I texted the general access email address to him, popped out the SIM card and put them both in my desk safe until I was sure that everything was handled to my satisfaction.

With that business concluded, I showered and prepared myself to spend the evening with Toccara. In another world, perhaps I could have found a more than temporary satisfaction with her. She was witty, beautiful, voluptuous, sexy and a tigress in bed. Unfortunately, she was also something of a prude when it came to most of my preferred sexual activities. Still, she proved to have her uses outside the bedroom. She was tapped into all of the best celebrity gossip pipelines and unknowingly provided a wealth of information on Mercedes Jones. But best of all…she’d gotten us tickets to KAMA’s LA concert. I wasn’t sure how that would turn out. It could either go very well or horribly badly. I somehow doubted that her watchdogs would allow me to utilize the VIP backstage pass that was a part of my ticket. It would be both a blessing and a curse if they did. Being that close to her would be a dream come true for me. It would be both invigorating and unnecessarily perilous. I had an advantage that would surely be lost if I saw her face to face again.

I was physically rather forgettable Yes, I was tall, but more lanky than big…by the same turn, I wasn’t very handsome nor was I truly ugly. With brown hair and brown eyes, I was average. When added to the fact that I’d never been one who photographed well, there was every chance that my prey would not have been able to pick me out of a line up, as it were, when the time finally came to snatch her up. Giving her that fore knowledge was not a risk to be undertaken lightly. I would need to consider the advantages and disadvantages carefully.

A simple truth was that whether or not I was allowed close to Mercedes, attending the concert at all would, more than likely, mean the end of my dalliance with Toccara. There was no way she wouldn’t see enough to figure out that she was just a place holder for the woman I really loved, as much as I was capable. A large part of me wanted to be selfish. The thought of having both women in my bed, pleasuring me, each other and whomever I felt deserved the honor, was a decadent dream that I allowed myself in the dark hours. I had contemplated the idea of having Dr. Becher reeducate both Mercedes and Toccara simultaneously. However, after careful consideration, I decided that if I wanted to make that dream come true, it would need to be done in stages. I was confident that neither woman could possibly have outwitted or outmaneuvered me by themselves, however there was a small likelihood that as a team they would have proven to be more than I could handle. Still, six months to a year after I’d captured the affections of my premier obsession, compelling Toccara to join her would probably be child’s play.

The thought of having both women under my complete control was better than any drug or male enhancement on the market, and quite a few that weren’t. I fucked Toccara for several rounds of almost completely satisfying passion before I finally allowed her to rest. As she slept, it thought about what I’d learned from my contacts at the LAPD and Interpol over the previous week. The experiments I’d run on Grammy night and during my time in Eastern Europe had proven that the drug and antibiotic cocktail had worked as well as advertised. A total of ten women had ingested the combination. Of the ten, nine had been the victims of some truly remarkable gang rapes. I’d watched one Scandinavian co-ed take on a total of twenty-eight men. By the time they were finished with her, a couple of them were able to fist both her stretched out cunt and gaping asshole. Of those nine, six of them were pregnant, despite morning after measures. One had refused the pill due to her religious beliefs and one had just not taken with child. Only one had escaped completely unscathed. Her friends had noticed her strange behavior and gotten her out of the Crimean club before she could be taken advantage of. My own German stand-in for Mercedes had also gotten pregnant. But there were six other possible fathers so I didn’t concern myself with her. I doubted she’d have kept the child anyway…it was impossible to work a pole heavily with child.

As sleep claimed me, I smiled into the darkness. The time was coming that I would finally become a father myself. The child would belong to Mercedes Jones…whether she liked it or not. I’d decided and my will would be made manifest.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

I Know Where I’ve Been (Hairspray)
Unique PoV

There were quite a few blogs and articles online that spoke of different people’s experiences with their gender reassignment surgeries. There were even some people who posted their day to day lives from their diagnosis with gender dysphoria or dissonant identity disorder up through their surgery and recovery. It was interesting to read about the women who became their truest selves. I wasn’t sure if Tessa had infected me with her cray-cray need to research everything or if I was just following in the footsteps of my mentor in all things Divaness, Miz Mercedes Jones…in trying to prepare like a certain fictional Gryffindor know-it-all…but I did everything I could to be well prepared. This Diva devoured everything she could find written by women like me…who had been trapped inside a male body. All of them were informative. Most of them helped to infuse me with confidence. Some of them scared the ever-living shit out of me. Still, they all told the simple truth that every experience was different.

I’d read all the blogs. I’d been packed for weeks. I’d tried all I could to be prepared…I still wasn’t. I didn’t love having to stop my hormone treatments. Even only not taking them for thirty days as uncomfortable to me. My therapist thought that was simply a manifestation of my anxiety about my coming surgery. I didn’t agree with her. I just didn’t like feeling like a Kleenex commercial could start a crying jag that would last for an hour and lead to dehydration. On the Saturday after my fucking diva-licious shopping experience in Manhattan…God Bless Mercedes Jones, Ruth Mayzer, Kurt Hummel and their whole genetic lines BTDubs…my aunt, uncle and mom decide to do my last real meals for a while up big. We went out for breakfast, had my favorite take out for lunch and they invited Jake and Ryder over for a homemade dinner of all my favorites. It was the best dinner I’d had in a long time. My mom made her amazing fried chicken wings, my Uncle barbequed ribs and burgers and roasted some corn and other vegetables on the grill, my Aunt Wyn made some greens, and Jake brought me his potato salad. He said it was his Grandma’s recipe…I emphatically swore ups and downs that the woman who created that delight on a plate needed to be sainted and knighted. Oh, yes, it was that good.

After dinner, we played some board games, and I opened a gift from Jake’s parents, the Jones, the Evans and Triple S. They had gotten me three weeks’ worth of cotton nightgowns and robes and slippers. There was a note with them, “Read online that, much like after having a baby, you’ll probably ruin all the PJs that you take with you, so here are some that look good enough for a Diva to be seen in, but are also completely throw-away-able. A new set for every day. They are already washed and ready to pack. We love you and we’re praying for you!” I was deeply touched and there may have been tears. It wasn’t my fault…the hormones had been hell getting used to and yet it was somehow worse going without them.

Once I finished crying over that gift, Jake had to go and be all sweet and give me a Nintendo 3DS. “I was going to loan you mine…I really was. But I’m just not that good a person. I mean, three weeks is a long time to be missing my Mario Kart. So, I just got you one of your own. Now you’ll have something to keep your mind off your new hoo-haw…and I can still play myself to sleep at night.”

I rolled my eyes. “I swear you Pucker-men just refuse to just admit that you are big old softies to your people.” I laughed.

“Maybe…maybe we’re just assholes who have rare moments of kindness…you can’t prove otherwise.” He crowed back, making us all laugh. Not too long after that, he said his goodbyes. Chase had gotten back from spending the week with her grandparents that afternoon. I was pretty sure Mario Kart wasn’t gonna be what put Jake to sleep that night.

Ry and I were shooed to my room when we tried to help my family clean up the kitchen. “You got everything that you need?” He asked plucking nervously at a loose thread on my bed spread. I think he was more nervous about my having surgery that even I was.

“Yeah.” I replied. As I packed the things I’d gotten from Jake and his family, I showed him the small bag I had to take with me to the hospital the next day and the larger ones that would accompany my aunt and mom to the hotel. My uncle had to work so he’d be going back and forth visiting me in Columbus and being here in Lima to make it to his job on time. then I picked up the tote bag that contained the magazines and books I’d gotten to entertain myself with those first couple of days after the surgery. I added my new 3DS. “And once I’m feeling strong enough, I have my mom’s old iPad full of my summer reading list books.”

“Good, that’s good.” Ryder nodded. “I…uh…I got you something, to, ya know, take care of you for when I can’t be there.” He reached into the backpack he’d been lugging around all evening. It contained just one thing, a medium sized shiny teal gift bag.

I made a grabby hands motion. I was very sure that there would never be a time in my life when I wouldn’t enjoy getting gifts. I loved it. Ryder knew it, so he played keep away with the bag for a few minutes. But a few kisses and I was finally rewarded with my gift. I pulled out a soft, gray kitten lovie with a pretty pin ribbon around her neck. I, immediately, started to pet and cuddle the small stuffed toy. “Oh, she’s so soft and pretty. I think I’ll call her, Precious. Thank you, Ry.” Stupid hormones. I wasn’t supposed to ruin that simple statement of gratitude with tears.

“Hey,” he took me into his arms and held me close. “No, tears. This is about a happy thing. We’re celebrating a good thing. Two of them really. Not only are you about to become the you that you’ve always been inside. Your truest self. ‘Cause once you get all healed up, you’ve got that guy form Sony wanting you to come and sing for them…and you’ve got me. You’re in a good place.” He soothed.

“I know.” I sighed. “I know, it’s just…this is major. I mean I’ll be in surgery for a long ass time. It’s scary.”

“Yeah, I get it. I was scared when I had my tonsillectomy and that was a short surgery that they do a million times a day.” He acknowledged. “I can’t even begin to understand how scared you must be. But we all love you and we’ll all be praying for you. Did you ever make up your mind on whether or not you were going to get the breast augmentation?”

I’d been going back and forth on the idea of increasing the femininity of my upper body for the last several months. Basically, since they set my surgical date. I shrugged. “I still have time. It can’t be done Monday in any event. I’ve got six months to a year to make a choice on that one. I’m tending towards yes because Aretha, Chaka, Mariah, Jill Scott, Queen Bee…I mean, the word Diva is almost synonymous with having big tey-tas.”

“No, it’s not. What about Diana Ross, Donna Summers, Whitney Houston…Skinny Mariah…India Arie or Kelly Rowland?” He shot back. “You already have bigger breasts than most of them.”

“I’ve been a wonderful influence on you.” I smiled broadly. “Either way…that decision is quite a ways away.”

“True.” He chuckled and kissed me. “You’re beautiful. You don’t need those things in your body to make you beautiful. Heck, you’re already bigger than Lopez and she had the surgery.” We kissed and snuggled talking about everything and nothing…school, plans for the future, what time he and his parents would be able to come see me every day when I was in the hospital. How much I loved my Precious…how much we cared for and loved each other…until it was time for Ryder to leave if he wanted to make his curfew. We said our long kiss filled goodbye. There was no fear in that hug, but you could certainly feel that we were trying to reassure each other that everything would be fine. And it would. I took long hot showers that night and the next morning. My nails were bare of everything but a coat of clear, gel polish. Veronica had taken out my weave and deep conditioned my hair before she gave me a chin length bob of block braids. So, I felt as ready physically as humanly possible.

Morning came early. We had to be at the hospital by nine. My Aunt Wyn was the queen of punctuality, so we arrived at Wexler by half past eight. In preparation for my surgery, I couldn’t have anything but clear liquids…seriously the thickest, most filling thing I was allowed to have from the moment I woke up was white grape juice. It was less than happy. The admission paperwork was no joke. Even though we’d done some of it earlier when I’d come in to stockpile my own blood for the surgery. I was tagged like an animal in the wild with one of those fugly paper-plastic hybrid ID bracelets and then forced to remove even the clear nail polish. That was interesting…the gel didn’t come off easy. There was a pee test to take, only to find out the nurse hadn’t been supposed to give it to me since I couldn’t actually be pregnant. Still, it was nice to know that even before the surgery, I was feminine enough to make a trained medical professional make that mistake. My blood pressure was taken twice. It was kind of high the first time, so the nurse had me do a breathing exercise to help with the pre-surgery jitters and took it again. It was much better the second time.

Once I made it through all that, I was taken to my room left to change into my gown. It had to be a hospital gown that day. Oh, the humanity…that thing was so u-g-l-y it didn’t have an alibi. But I persevered. I saw my doctors. Dr. Blackburn-Knudsen checked on me first, but I saw all my doctors over the course of the morning. There was no need for shaving, thanks to the permanent hair removal procedures that had been one of the intermediate stages of my transition. But I was turned into the promised pin cushion as I received an IV and there were three blood pulls to make sure all was as it should be hemoglobin wise. Then they gave me something to ensure that I’d evacuated my bowels. I could have told them to just let me have coffee…but I guess they didn’t count that as a ‘clear’ liquid. It was a weird experience to have to poop that many times in one day and feel perfectly fine. Me, Mom and Wynn talked and watched TV. They left in the afternoon to go and check into their hotel, so one of the Nurses, a younger lady named Carla, and I went exploring. She was so kind…just incredibly supportive and cool. I showed her pictures of all my people and she took a picture of me in my fashion nightmare. It was all really fun.

After a bounteous dinner of chicken broth, apple juice, gelatin and an ice pop…I spent a ridiculous amount of time texting with everyone I knew to pass the time. When Mom and Aunt Wynn started arguing about who would stay with me and who would head back to the hotel; Mom was still over compensating a little bit for her initial reaction to me being trans; I stepped in and sent them both back and told them I’d see them bright and early. I was allowed to shower, but I had to forego any lotions or moisturizers. I did cheat a little bit. I used my acne wash and the after lotion for my face…but that was it. I didn’t sleep too badly. But I was awoken at seven to prep me for the actual surgery. By the time surgery prep was done, Mom and Aunt Wynn were there with Ryder and his mom. We got to talk for a little while, then I was being taken into the surgery suite. The anesthesiologist was a closet comedian. “Alright…say your alphabet backwards from Z to A.”

“Whoo Lordy, I can’t even do that…” I was out.

The surgery took a total of eleven hours. I was asleep…no I was something harder than asleep…for the entirety of it. The dreams, though, they were amazing. I loved every single one. I couldn’t remember exactly what they were…really it was more like one long dream with different chapters. I was happy, Ryder was there so were my friends. It was nice. Then I started coming out. Within minutes of getting out of recovery I had an epiphany. Born women pay the price for their femininity or for original sin…whatever…with their monthly menstrual and childbirth pain. Its stretched out over their entire lives. We trans-women pay that due with the pain of the surgery. All at Muthafuckin’ ONCE. Thankfully, once I’d answered a few questions to assure the recovery room staff that I was cognizant of place, time and aware of my identity…they gave me drugs.

That turned out to be an adventure in and of itself. Other than my hormones, I wasn’t a medication user. We didn’t have any way to guess which ones would cause side effects and which ones would work as directed. Hydromorphone caused nausea…then they gave me Phenergan…which made me high as a fucking kite. I was totally a diva kite. Oxycodone scared me so much I started crying. Not my most diva like moment, but I was totally still high. Then they gave me regular morphine. That was fine. So, I was on it regularly, like every four hours, for the first twenty-four hours after my first dose. Then they hooked my back up to a machine that allowed me to control my dosages. I think I did that shit wrong. I started doing it every few hours, maybe three and a half. But then I started thinking I was going to get hooked so I made myself wait longer and longer until I wouldn’t pump the button until the pain was being a total and complete bitch. But ultimately it didn’t really make much of a difference…after seventy-two hours on the PCA, they moved me off the pump and onto orally administered Tylenol 3. I took T3 for the rest of my stay.

Doctors Christofiles, my urologist, and Robinson, my plastic surgeon, were the doctors I saw the most after the surgery. But Dr. Grogg…the OB, was the one who had to teach me how to dilate my new vagina after the packing was removed on morning of the sixth day. That was a whole lot of awkward. Ryder and Jake almost peed themselves laughing when I told them about that HSM. I punished them by making them go to the store and get me more KY and condoms to cover the dilators. They totally cheated and went to see Vince’s sister Netta and she hooked them up. When Dr. Grogg took the packing away, I didn’t look…the blogs hadn’t failed me yet, so I knew there was no need to even peep. I also got rid of the catheter. Praise Jesus, I could finally leave the bed. The shower was calling my full and entire name. Getting into the shower, though, that was interesting. It almost felt like I needed to relearn movement without the hated appendage in the way. I also finally looked at my new hoo-haw. One other thing I figured out during those first few days after the packing was removed, I learned to spend the fifteen to twenty minutes of private dilation time, three times a day to listen to my some of my Western Civ summer reading books on tape. It was a damn good use of the time.

I had been in the hospital for seven days…healing really well and hoping that I’d get out the next day…when I started spiking a fever. I had an infection. I immediately started to freak all the way out, but I ended up being more than somewhat blessed. The infection was not in any of the surgical incisions nor was it inside and pervasive. It was a simple site infection where the epidural had been placed then removed. However, Dr. Blackburn-Knudsen decided that it was better to be safe versus sorry so I had to stay in Wexler for seven more days because of the administration of the cefoxitin, an IV antibiotic. After that was finished, I needed to wait until I was able to evacuate my bowels without chemical assistance. With that accomplishment under my belt, I was able to move to the hotel for another two weeks. Both Mom and Aunt Wynn had needed to return to work, but Uncle Timothy still had vacation time and he, Ryder, Jake, RJC and Mary Hart all made sure that I was never alone. I’d gone back on a lower dose of my estrogen on day three, but over the time in the hospital and during my follow-up visits during those two weeks, they got my levels exactly where they wanted them and my prescription could once again be filled at a regular pharmacy going forward. Once that was done, I was happy to get home, even if I was still forced to wear the DVT prevention stockings for a while.

Recovery wasn’t the fastest thing. Pain wasn’t my friend…but it was a constant companion at first. But drugs scared me more than pain hurt, so I didn’t take anything heavier than Aleve after I left Columbus and returned to Lima, though. I had plans and they did not include opioid addiction. I’d finally made it home the day before Father’s Day. And that Monday, I was treated to a surprise visit from Mamma-Mercedes and Pappa-Kurt…and Sam, Puck, Blaine, Tessa and everyone else I’d not seen since I visited them before my surgery. “Girl, you gave us a scare when Ryder said you’d gotten an infection.” Mercedes said as she looked me over as hard as a mother bear with a cub gone from her sight too long.

“You act like we haven’t talked at least three times a week since I left New York.” I laughed. Lord have His mercy…we Divas sure were drama queens. I’d talked to everyone in that living room at least once or twice a week during my time in Columbus. Tessa and Joe heard my voice every single day. If I didn’t call them, they called me.

Santana had been looking me over herself while I greeted everyone. “Your surgeon did good work. If I didn’t know, I probably wouldn’t guess. I mean, seriously? Did they give you hip implants?”

Artie swatted her and called her rude but I just I chuckled. “Nope…no need, Wade Adams was always meant to be me. I had hips long before I ever started hormones.” I confessed.

“How are you feeling?” Tessa asked carefully. “And don’t lie…your eyes are already getting tight.”

“Fine, I hurt…but it’s down from hurting like a son-of-a-bitch to just feeling like aw-damn-naw.” I blurted. “I feel a sense of accomplishment that I managed to get up, showered, dressed and out here and was still able to get up and open the door when you guys got here.”

Brittany came and gave me a hug that literally felt like sunshine and rainbows. “It will be okay. The hardest part is out of the way. It will only get better from here.”

I boo-hooed all over her. I might never have been able to put into words why…but I cried out all the fear and hurt and pain and it felt like it was all replaced with joy and warmth and love. Brittany and Mamma-Mercedes just sat there and hugged me as I had my catharsis cry. They dragged my ass out of the house…it was good. We picked up Ryder and Jake from their ‘office’ and took them with us. They were in between their morning and afternoon appointments so the timing was perfect. We had lunch at Bonefish Grill and I was taken over by a feeling that I’d turned a major corner.

I really needed that day out to get my mind right…to remind me why I’d gone through the surgery. Why it has been so vital to me that my body and my mind matched each other. When I had my next appointment with my psychiatrist Dr. Clark, she noted that I seemed ready to move forward.

“You just don’t know. I’d let how much things hurt make me start to doubt how much it was all worth it.” I’d never lied in any of my sessions with Dr. Clark. It seemed counterproductive as hell, so I didn’t do it.

“You feel differently now?”

I nodded. “I got a reminder from a very good friend that I was over the hump. Getting to and through the surgery was the hardest part. We, because it’s not just been me by myself on this journey, we’ve made it too far to let my own head dick myself in the game. And a huge part of healing is mental.”

She nodded. “That is very true. Sounds like you have gotten to a much better head space than you were the last time we spoke.” Dr. Emile Clark then did something I had come to expect when she’d been wanting to ask something and yet was giving me my time to speak on what I needed to get out and express. She smiled super brightly and got all chipper. “So, College soon…I know it’s probably too early in the summer for you to be starting to work on all those campus needs checklists. But are you getting ready mentally for that next life step? There can be a lot of drama surrounding being Trans on campus. Especially somewhere like OSU and even more when you’re talking about living in the dorms.”

“I’m not really all that worried about it. My name change went through in April. You know how important it was to me to graduate as me and not as him. Coach Sylvester was really helpful on that front…which to this day kinds of shocks the hell out of me. She called me Rupaul even at the senior awards dinner. I’ve already started the process of changing my driver’s license. I’ve told you about Mr. Antwan, right?” I paused.

“The gentleman whose daughter outed you at Carmel, but he and his husband have been mentoring you since they met you?” she clarified.

“Yes, Mr. Antwan is awesome. He is also a lawyer. He got me a Declaration of Gender Change form and it was signed, sealed and delivered before I even made it out of Wexler. When I got back to Lima, my notification letter was waiting on me and I’m going to go and get my new license next Monday…after Ms. Veronica works her weave magic over me on Saturday.” I was almost singing as I talked I was so happy.

“And the reason you aren’t worried about the dorm situation?” She pointedly led me back to her original topic.

I shrugged. “I’m not worries about it because this Diva will not be living in the dorms.”

“Really, are you planning on driving from Lima every day for classes?”

I shook my head. “I was worried about the probable outcomes of living in the dorms. None of them seemed very positive. And really, the thought of community bathrooms was giving me nightmares. Two of my friends from high school, their bestie, a more recent friend, though he was classmates with the first two I mentioned his boyfriend they had made plans to rent a place off campus. They found one they could afford and it had an extra room. When they found out that I’d be doing OSU for my freshman year, they offered me the spare room. So, now I don’t have to worry about living in the dorms with the pretty-pretty princesses or even worse some closet hiding, good old boy fool who thinks that my body should be his wonderland no matter how I feel on the subject.”

“And your friends all accept Unique?”

I laughed. “I’ve always been Unique to them. I mean, yes, I was still Wade some of the time when we first met, and they knew that I was born male. But Finn, my first day in show choir he asked what I wanted him to call me, and it sure as hell wasn’t Wade.”

She made another note on her pad. “And you feel safe living with these friends?”

“Abso-fucking-lutely.” I almost shouted in outrage, taking offense on their behalves. I took a deep breath, because, who knew that shouting would make my new va-jay-jay unhappy. “Sorry…but…yeah, you don’t know them, so you don’t understand how wrong you asking that was. Lauren…she’s such a badass…but with an amazingly kind heart for her people. Not all people, don’t get it confuseded…she doesn’t actually like a large preponderance of human beings. But that’s because she thinks most people are stupid, superficial, judgy assholes. She sure as hell ain’t wrong, either. Finn…at first glance, Finn was a total cliché dude-bro jock type. Then you find out that he might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer…but he wasn’t the dullest either. When he tries, he can be incredibly accepting because he is used to being underestimated and dismissed as lesser. Vince…he is…with the shit he’s been through, he would totally be perfectly within his rights to be typical ‘angry black guy’ but every time I’ve talked to him…he’s been kind and encouraging and, yeah, nosy as hell. He’s from Texas and I’m the first Trans person he knows for sure he’s met. Still, he’s already told me that if I have any trouble next year, to let him know first. Probably because he knows that Lauren will just break a fool’s head without forcing them to understand the error of their ways…but still.”

“And the other two…the boyfriend and girlfriend?” she prodded.

I chuckled. “You don’t listen so good for a shrink Doc.” I teased. “The last two are gay boys. I went to school with Dave, like Finn and Lauren, he was two years ahead of me. He was on the football team with Finn…and Finn is Pappa Kurt’s brother BTDubs…anyway. Dave is still kind of closeted…but he and LaKeith have been dating since before Easter. I trust them. They didn’t have to offer me this chance. They did it because they worried that I wouldn’t be safe in the dorms.”

“Sounds like you have a good support system in place.” Dr. Clark asked in her statement.

“I’m lucky. I know that. My mom may not have dealt well at first, but she came around a lot quicker than most Trans kids’ parents do. She really does accept me for who I really am. I went through some pretty bad bullying at Carmel…but then I landed at McKinley and that was a blessing like you wouldn’t believe. Everything since then has been so good it’s almost scary. I have friends that I know I can count on to have my back. A lot of people like me never find that, ya know?”

“That is true. You’ve been very lucky. So, you’ve crossed this hurdle. You’ve got college to look forward to. What is frightening you about the future?” she asked me quietly. Thankfully, our hour was up, so I didn’t have to answer it. I’d have until our next session to think that one through.

The drive back to Lima was quiet. Mary seemed to sense my need for introspection. Sometimes, the turn in her behavior towards me, still made me wary. But according to her, she’d been reading her bible trying to find the words to convince Joe to make better choices in who he called friends, when she stumbled across Matthew Twenty-fifth chapter, fortieth verse. “It was like He slapped my face with His Truth.” She’d told me quietly. “I felt so ashamed. Whether I think you are right or not…if God didn’t want you here as you are, you wouldn’t be. When I realized that, I couldn’t help but ask myself, by what right did I have to second guess the Lord and His plan for you? I didn’t have any right. I had to treat you better. I read up on what you were going through. Not to be funny, but if the Lord thought that you had to go through all of that…you’d need someone to make your row a little easier to hoe.” I thanked her for her help and her honesty. We all had our own walk with the Lord. Hopefully, Mary’s ‘Come to Jesus’ moment was a lasting change.

It took me a few days of thought before I really had an answer for Dr. Clark. Our next session started with her reasking the question. “I’m not afraid of the future. I’m anxious about some parts of it; moving mine and Ryder’s relationship into a sexual one, whether or not Remi Doelp was seriously going to sign me to Sony music, whether or not Mamma-Mercedes was going to introduce me to Queen Bey. All of those make me giddy and anxious. I guess I fear going outside my comfort zone and finding all the horrors and hatred for the Trans-community that I see on the news and online. But for the most part…I’m looking forward to the future and what it’s going to bring.”

And that was nothing less than the truth. Because in that moment in time, I was happy. I was healing. I was brave and a diva…I was Unique.

 

I Feel Lucky (Mary Chapin Carpenter)
Xena PoV

Time was definitely not a dude. I was sure of it once we started the ball rolling on SBX and our ventures in Goldfield. Time was a chick because she could be sweet and kind or a massive bitch. I said that simply because, we were ready to get our shit started. The utility runs were begun five days after the beginning of the New Year. I don’t know that any of us expected it to take so damn long. They didn’t start the actual building of the brothel proper until half-way through April. It seemed as if everything took forever when it came to the building of our primary property. When they first started the runs, I talked to Attorney Harris and got a copy of his wife’s paper on prostitution as a business and me, Blair and Slickback all read it to get ideas on how to do things right.

We used that to make some serious decisions. We run the strip club and the brothel different from most. Our dancers and stable wouldn’t be independent contractors, they’d be employees. As such, they would get a base hourly pay and then the dancers would keep their tips and the Featured Entertainers would make a commission of thirty to thirty-five percent per appointment. That would let us put them on our medical insurance that we’d need to have since we were going to have maids and managers and cooks and everything else employed there too. That wasn’t how it was usually done, but it seemed like much of the way it was usually done kind of sucked ass. So, we decided to do it our why and pray that it worked out. Another thing we learned from Dr. Walters-Harris’s paper was that we would need to make sure that each Featured Entertainer had the option of turning down any customer without having to pull that out price them bullshit. Slickback pointed out that we’d need security on site to enforce the FE’s decisions. Some people couldn’t handle rejection. We added a security station and security offices to both the brothel and the hotel. With a bar onsite on the hotel, and the fact that the Featured Entertainers weren’t going to be working the hotel and customers weren’t allowed in either of the dorms, we thought there might better be security stations in those two also.

We worked out how many people we’d need in the three main aspects of our principal and secondary ventures. There would be administration or management, guest-slash-customer services, and support staff. The administration would be headed primarily by jointly Blair and Slickback…but we were all sure that we needed to hire people who really knew what they were doing to manage the hotel, we knew the sex trade…hospitality, not a much. Blair would be the head of the guest or customer services line of things. She’d taken a lot of online courses since we started things to learn what she needed to know…but even she admitted the most important stuff had come from Dr. Walters-Harris’s papers. She’d found others online and devoured them all. Blair wasn’t stupid, and Dr. Amanda Walter-Harris knew business better than anyone else we’d looked into. Best of all, if Blair had a question, Attorney Harris didn’t mind getting her an answer from his super-intelligent wife.

Even with all of that going on, it still seemed as if things were moving at a snail’s pace. I thought that I was a patient, pragmatic person…but no. I was not. I hated the waiting. More than Slickback and Blair. So, the two of them put their heads together and decided that if I had something that I could do to help me both pass the time and to feel as if I was pulling my weight on our venture. “Alright, look, you’ve got resources we just ain’t got. We’re not going to hire an interior decorator bitch for this. They’d probably try and make it all look like a brothel and shit. We know what we’re running…but that shit ain’t gonna look like no fucking brothel. If a mutherfucker takes a selfie in our place…that shit ain’t gonna fuck them in the game at home.” Slickback told me in his own inimitable way.

“So, what, you want me to…”

“Look into that shit and start working that shit out. You’ve got the blue prints. You know what we’re trying to do with our shit. Put some shit together and figure out what that shit is gonna cost. We can get this shit built but until we get the place outfitted and everything we can’t open. So, you do you and let us know what to get and what paint we need and all that good shit.” He made me laugh.

But it worked. For a while. The thing was that as the building progressed there were problems. First problem was that we had three, technically four, different builds start with in the same six-week time period. That may have been stupid on our part, but we were impatient and we were determined. We had no way to run the brothel if the dorms weren’t there. It would be too hard to make sure that our people were taken care of if they lived all the way in Vegas or wherever and there wasn’t really anywhere for them to live in Goldfield as it stood in that moment. Apparently, we should have built in a contingency for all the normal hiccups that happen in building what basically amounted to two hotels and two dorms…which were just specialty hotels. There were problems with the pools going in, problems with stuff going over budget…stuff like that. By the time it was time for us to leave on the tour, I was coming onto crunch time for picking all the paint colors. But I’d come to a realization. We didn’t have enough money to get everything built, outfitted and staffed.

I called Slick and Blair and ran down the numbers of the staff we’d need to get things up and running…the way we wanted them to be. “Damn, Girl…maybe we need to win the lottery too.” Slick joked frustratedly.

“We’ve invested too much in this for it to go under before we even get started.” Blair sighed. “What are we going to do?”

“We have enough to get things built. We have enough to get things outfitted right. We’ll concentrate on that right now.” I suggested. “This is a different thing, but it’s the same shit as all our lives. We manage what we can and take on the next step as they come. That’s all we can do.”

So that’s what we did. I got my ass on the ladies’ tour bus, which was tricked out as hell. It was great. Every single bunk was long enough for me. The sheets looked and felt amazing. The blankets were warm and happy. The buses had superior wi-fi. And each bunk had an iPad to augment my laptop. I was able to look up a million different things and one of them was what states participated in the multi-state Mega Millions and Powerball lottery draws. It was pretty much everywhere. In fact, only five states didn’t participate. So, I came up with a system. I went with the same numbers that we’d played back in the day in OKC, my birthday and age, Blair’s birthday and age and Slickback’s birthday. We were all born in September, I used that for the Powerball number. That was the first ticket, the remaining four on the card were always quick picks. I played a two pull multi draw on each game. That was thirty bucks a week…thirty bucks a state, it wasn’t a lot of money. But it was ten times what we’d spend back in the day when the chance to win a hell of a lot of money was our gifts to each other for birthdays and Christmas. Me and Blair more than Slickback. Blair had dreams of never again turning tricks. I had dreams of making that happen for her.

I knew that because of how me and Blair were, lots of people assumed that I was a lesbian. That wasn’t it. Blair and I were sisters, not of blood, but of trauma. I’d had to explain that so some of the newbies within our first days on the bus. Me and Blair, we understood each other in much the same way Vets who’d been through war together got each other. That was probably insulting to Vets or something. They actually went through war… Anyway, I wasn’t gay. I just didn’t see any point at all in a long-term relationship with some dude when there wasn’t anything they could do for me that I couldn’t do for myself. I needed them for orgasms once or twice a month…other than that, I took care of myself on that end too. Blair and Slickback, they were family. So were Sam and Mercedes and Puck. Shit, Sam had helped us out by tweaking the blueprints I’d bought and Mercedes helped me come up with a color palette and such…okay mainly, she let me bounce ideas off her and told me when the paint I was going to pick would clash with the floors we were pretty sure that we were going to use. Puck, he got me the name of George’s supply guys and they were able to get me info to negotiate with our suppliers. Kurt was really awesome too. He made sure that I got the differences in things like wallpaper…way too expensive for our budget and regular paint versus semi-gloss…things like that.

I had some good friends. And I made some more on the tour that summer. Sugar Motta was the first and probably the most surprising. Of all the summer people, she was the last one I was expecting to become my buddy. I was sitting in the front lounge as we were heading down to Philly, trying to figure out the best colors for the first floor when she plopped down next to me. “My Daddy always says that no matter what all those color shrinks say, warm neutrals are the way to go for the most pleasant hotel lobbies. And my cousin Sareah, she runs a service kind of like what you and your friends are trying to get off the ground. She says that making sure everything looks professional and businesslike helps the customers remember to act professional and businesslike and makes your service providers feel like they have real jobs so they aren’t so ashamed and everything.”

“That’s cool.” I said and picked the ‘Chaise Mauve’, a warm neutral, over the ‘Silverpointe’, a cool blue tone. “So…what can you tell me about thread count?”

“I can tell you that Daddy says that those hotel supply people are total rip-off’s. Their prices might be good, but their stuff is basically trash. I’ll get you the information for his contact at Macys. That’s where he gets all the linens and bed clothes for his properties. He buys them in bulk so he gets great prices.” Sugar said happily.

From there a friendship was born. Sugar was great. She was so damn happy. She had an innocence to her that I just wanted to protect…but she also had a blasé, kind of attitude to my background and current business venture. As promised she hooked me up with her father’s contacts and she helped me figure out the number of linens we’d need for the hotel, brothel and dorm. By the time we reached North Carolina, most of the other chicks on the bus had listened in and asked me about things and were even putting in their own ideas. Right before we pulled into Fayetteville, Marceau came to me with a crazy idea she had for our whole deal. “Think about this. Nevada law basically stipulates that your people…your featured entertainers, I think you said y’all decided to call them…have to get tested monthly. That will get really expensive, really quick. What if you somehow managed to get a doctor to work there…take care of the stable? Maybe even see the townspeople if they need it.”

“That wouldn’t be a bad thing. I know that you’re planning on getting all your people on insurance, so the cost would be lower for testing than if you did it the old-fashioned way, but still. An on-staff doctor could make sure that your stable is tested for STDs and keep the fems dosed properly birth control wise. Plus, it would make your record keeping for the state regulators a lot easier. But, how would you guys manage to get one?” Sugar was kind of confused.

I thought about it for a long time. Marceau had a point. Plus, too if we had a doctor on site…heart attacks in the rooms wouldn’t be such a massive deal. “You know, one of Blair’s old regulars is a doctor…he was actually an OBGyn, until his wife died of cancer. They didn’t have any kids…she was his whole world. So, after she died, he had money, so he just sold his practice and kind of stopped living. Blair was his only non-necessity excursion he made every month. She’s stopped turning tricks, but he’ll call Blair just to check on her. They are close. So, I was thinking, maybe we could check with him to see if he wanted to get back into the medical game and help a town where the nearest doctor is two and half hours away.” I explained to her.

“If you can work it out… that would be pretty awesome. Even if that particular guy doesn’t want to do it, maybe you should check in with somebody fresh out of their residency. Maybe somebody who didn’t come from money and so they have a boat load of student loans.” Sugar suggested.

“Yeah,” Dee chimed in. “If you can work it out to give them an office and they can see town people and keep that money you could probably get away with paying them less.”

That made sense to me. Once I crunched the numbers on how much the testing would cost for the number of salons we were hoping to run, I emailed Slickback and told him about the idea and he was all over it. There was a med school right there in OKC and he had no problem charming a chick in their comptroller’s office to find out who had the most student debt among their residents. We actually had four names before I’d figured out where we could work the medic office into the design. Ultimately, we figured out that we’d save enough to make up for the loss of one party rooms. So, one of the seven was repurposed for a Medical Center, complete with its own bathroom. Then I had to read up on what all we’d need to set that up…which meant more money. Still, I concentrated on what I could control and kept playing our numbers.

By the time we wrapped up in Atlanta, all three builds were going strong. I’d submitted the beginning of the interior design stuff and we’d placed the orders for all the paint and all the flooring. I was asked as politely as Slickback could manage if I would continue on in looking into furnishings and everything else. It was really polite too. He only cussed twice in every sentence. Apparently, Blair had been making him read up on proper management etiquette. It was really hilarious. Still, I was woman enough to handle it. Okay, the twelve other women on the Ladies Bus, including Kat Pearson, the lady trucker and wife of our other driver Marty…we were woman enough to handle it. I mean, in the end I had three spreadsheets with like twenty-three different worksheets in each. It was a lot of work.

Honey Pots, we’d finally agreed on a name for the brothel-slash-strip club, would have two bars, one with a game room like lounge, the club, an indoor pool with hot tub, two hot tub suites…they would be rentable by the hour for couples or polys who wanted to get their freak on in a non-native and non-traditional environment…it was Santana and/or Brittany’s idea. And those were just the public areas. The private staff only areas would include the utility rooms, so the HVAC stuff and the water heaters…not including all the tankless ones that were part of the water system Sam had designed for us…the electric room, a big ass server room, that Artie and Darcy’s cousin Lauren had designed for us…they were also creating our website for us. The site was going to be pretty sweet. It would let customers chat or IM with our Feature Entertainers, pick their favorite and schedule appointments. Plus on Friday nights, those people with a certain paid subscription could watch the Featured Entertainers when they danced in the club. It would be an extra revenue stream that didn’t cost us anything and would be cheaper for most people than actually going to a strip club.

Anyway, the private areas would also have a staff lounge, the janitorial room and a big ass laundry center that would keep our linens and everything clean as a regular hotel. Our Head of Housekeeping would go over the rooms with a black light and luminol once a week. We were running a clean joint in every possible way. The first floor would hold the entrance lobby, the main bar which was inside the strip club. That would but up against the selection gallery where walk in customers would select from the available Featured Entertainers…then they would pay in the business office and use the elevator lobby to go up to one of the party rooms. Again, those were the parts the public saw. There would also be a full kitchen that served pub food in the club and bars, and simple room service fare for the party rooms.

The second and third floors each held a dozen play rooms that would comfortable hold up to four people. Each had a small, three piece, bathroom and a closet…like a real bedroom. they also had an intercom system that connected the rooms to the business office in case the customer wanted to make changes to the party, and to the security office in case the Featured Entertainer needed their assistance. The customers could also rent the play rooms like they could rent the hot tub suites…but it was a premium charge…so we’d make good money either way. The fourth floor was where the bulk of the fantasy rooms would be. Ten rooms that had different themes, an old west saloon, a Victorian drawing room, a BDSM playroom, the deck of a pirate ship, a locker room, a mini-movie soundstage and the four different common rooms from Harry Potter, without any of the coats of arms…no one wanted to piss off Ms. Rowling. Then there were two more fantasy rooms on the next floor up…both of them were set up as teeny bopper bedrooms. None of our stable would be under twenty-one, but if their customer wanted age play that was a service we were willing to provide. We were seventy-nine percent positive that we’d saved the daughter of one of Slickback’s girl’s regulars back in OKC. He’d hired the blonde, blue eyed cheerleader looking girl once or twice a week, every week for years. When the daughter went off to college, he started drifting off, until summer, then he’d be back. So, yeah, if some creeper wanted to pay one of our crew to call him daddy and it kept him from touching his own kid…we were so willing to do that shit. Hell, I’d fucking hit my back to make sure that nobody had to go through that shit.

The fantasy rooms were bigger than the play rooms and could hold more people. Their bathrooms were more luxurious too, to keep the fantasy going. The closets of those rooms held even more toys, condom and lube than the closets in the regular play rooms. Murphy beds were also hidden in the décor whenever necessary and whenever we could manage it. The two fantasy rooms on the sixth floor wouldn’t be alone. There would also be six party rooms on that floor. Those would be our biggest rooms and would hold the most people. Like the play and fantasy rooms, they would be rentable for stag and hen parties, or for adventurous customers who had no need for the services of the Featured Entertainers. Or the customers could hire the FEs who didn’t mind playing large groups and orgies. The last room up there would be the medic’s office, which would have a private staircase and tiny private elevator. That was costing more than I wanted to add to the budget, but Artie reminded me that not everyone who’d need to see the doctor would be able to climb the stairs.

There was a lot of stuff that I knew and more that I didn’t. So, I talked to people. I needed to know about professional kitchens, so, when we went to a really nice restaurant; I’d go and talk to their kitchen managers to find out what would be needed and how things should be set up. In talking to a lady when we were in Atlanta, I realized that she was in a fucked-up home situation. Thankfully, she didn’t have kids, but her boyfriend was a real piece of work. But he controlled her finances and had her on lockdown. I told her that if she could get out there, she could bunk with Helen until things were up and running. I gave her the cash I’d had on me which wasn’t a lot. But then Sugar, Marceau, Dee and all the other girls from my bus, who knew they’d been eavesdropping and taking notes when they saw me slip away, they all pooled their cash and Melissa, that was her name, she had enough that she didn’t even have to go home that night. Between the twelve of us, okay about half of it was Sugar, we managed to give her over three grand. Her boss, who knew more than he had ever let Melissa know he knew, told her she could either stay at his place that night and fly out in the morning or he would take her on down to the airport that night. Several of the other cooks and waiters had been sticking back money, trying to figure out how to help her too. They added another twenty-one hundred to what we were able to give her.

“Thank you, ladies, so much for helping her.” Guy, her boss, said hugging all of us. “None of us had a way to get her out. We’re all locals and her boyfriend would track her down at our places. He wants to be a professional wrestler and he could kick our asses, easy. We didn’t want to get her out and he kill her when he found her. With somewhere to go, somewhere far away and a job soon to keep her there…now Melissa will be safe.” I couldn’t really blame Guy for not doing more. He was barely bigger than Blaine Anderson and nowhere near as cut. Besides, if a chick wasn’t ready to leave helping them out just caused more troubles than it solved. But Melissa was ready to go. So much so that she had Guy take her straight to the airport and left her car in a park and ride parking lot near the restaurant. We wished her well and I made sure that she had my fellow, former Warrior Princess’ cell phone number for when she landed in Vegas.

I called Large Marge and let her know that she was getting a wounded bird who would make a killer Kitchen Manager, she been Guy’s assistant manager for five years so she was more than qualified. Helen agreed to take good care of her. She wouldn’t be the first wounded bird we’d helped out. Women like Melissa who wanted to live but had nowhere to go, often ended up on the streets. It was easiest to take in the ones who didn’t have kids, but we’d been known to help moms too…it was just harder to keep them from going back. Seeing your kids go hungry can make a woman decide that being a punching bag is worth it to feed them. “Hey, Zee, I’ve been taking classes online since I got here… think maybe your Melissa could help me learn to be a bar manager instead of just a bartender?”

I shrugged. “Ask her. It will give her something to do until we have a kitchen for her to manage and you know Slickback would love to have a bar manager that we know we can trust.” I told her honestly.

“Alright, I’ll ask her when she gets here.” Helen seemed happy with the thought.

The rest of the Atlanta trip was good. But even the trip to Six Flags, man did I love roller coasters, didn’t make me feel better than helping that wounded bird fly. So, it was with that on my mind that I went into a truck stop gas station, in Lexington, South Carolina, while the buses were fueling up before we reached Columbia and I laid down my thirty bucks to play Mega Millions and Powerball for that night, the next night and the following Tuesday and Wednesday. I noted that the prize was already up to almost four hundred million. But I knew that I would be happy with a tenth of that. Columbia was an easy concert. The clothes were cool and the fans were amazingly hype. We had a break after the concert, a whole four nights before the Limans in the band and crew, and the others who were using their free flights to spend their weekends with their dads, would join us in Charleston. Hudson was kind enough to give us the name of the hotel we’d be staying in in the coastal city…so me, the Dam Bros, Dee, Joseph, Marceau, and a couple of the others who didn’t really have dads, or they were too far away to make the trip for only a couple of days…we headed down to Charleston and got a couple of hotel rooms on the beach.

It was a great break. We spent every day on the beach from ten or eleven in the morning until sunset. Then we went back to the room and washed off the ocean…had dinner and I worked on my design plans. It was amazing what all I could find and order online. I was having such a nice, relaxing time…it wasn’t until I was watching the news on Thursday morning and they were talking about how a single ticket sold in Lexington, South Carolina had won the entire four hundred and eighty-seven million dollar Jackpot the night before. My hands were shaking as I dug through my purse for the special little coupon holder that Hudson had given us the summer before, when we didn’t have the per diem cards and had to get reimbursed for our expenses and therefore had to keep track of the receipts. Inside I had Powerball and Mega Millions tickets from eight states and the District of Columbia. All of them were arranged neatly by date and I’d dutifully completed the name, address and signature information on the back of every single one. I pulled up the site to check my numbers against the winners. Sixteen…check, My birthday. Three…Blair’s birthday…check. Twenty-Four…my age…check. Ten…Slickback’s birthday…check. Twenty-eight…Blair’s age…Check. And Nine…for September…the month we were all born. HOLY MUTHERFUCKING SHIT.

It took me four tries before I managed to call Attorney Ethan’s office number. Cleotha could barely understand me to put me through. “Xena, everything okay…the Dam Brothers didn’t get arrested did they. They are from Kentucky, they should know how to act in the south.”

“I think…I’m holding a Powerball ticket and the numbers match the website.” I squeaked out.

“Holy Mutherfucking Shit.” He breathed. “I’m gonna need you to repeat that for me…because it sounded like you just said you won the lottery. A lottery worth almost five hundred million dollars.”

“I think I did.” I whispered. “And I don’t know what to do now. Don’t get it twisted. I know what I need to do with fifty-five or sixty million of it. We didn’t have enough money to staff the places we’re building. We can create five hundred jobs in a county that is basically a ghost town right now. I figured that if I could win enough for five years of payroll…roughly fifty-eight and a half million, we should be able to get off the ground and be making enough to cover that plus make a nice profit…ya know? The plan was for me to work with KAMA and send what I don’t make into the business for other overhead costs until then. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.” I babbled.

“Well, first off fill out and sign the back of the ticket.” He advised.

“I did that before I left the gas station.” I assured him.

“Okay good. Look, don’t tell anyone else. Okay? I’m going to call Saul Mayzer. He’ll know what to do. In fact, I’ll get Hannah and Franklin to watch EJ and Avery…me and Amanda could use a nice weekend in Charleston. Probably Saul and Mills will like it too.”

“Okay…I can do that. We’ve got practice this afternoon. I’ll just concentrate on the day to day stuff I can control.”

“Exactly…great plan. We’ll probably be there tonight.” He said quietly.

I carefully put everything neatly back into the coupon holder and that neatly into my bag. I took a nice long shower and made a few decisions. I wasn’t moving out of my apartment. I liked it. I might add some more personal touches…but that was it. I would have a nice condo in Goldfield when everything was said and done out there. I might invest in a beach house there in Charleston though…it was the favorite of all the places I’d been since leaving Oklahoma City. I wasn’t quitting my job any sooner than I’d originally planned. I loved my job. I loved Sam, Cede and Puck and I wouldn’t repay their kindness and loyalty with anything less. I wanted to start a charity to give foster kids money to go to college…or give money to it if there already was one. I was going to totally change our tech plans for the venture. Artie and Lauren had both said that iMacs would let us keep information on our clients far more securely. Blair, Slickback and I hadn’t thought we could afford to do that. But if we were able to almost guarantee confidentiality…yeah, that would be a good thing. I was also going to pay our tech gurus more than the two years of subscriptions to Hulu and Netflix that Lauren had wanted and the fifteen hundred bucks Artie swore was good enough.

After my shower, I packed my room up. If I checked my bag to make sure the ticket was still there…that wasn’t crazy. We all met in the lobby and if I was a little bit quiet, no one seemed to notice. There was no trouble meeting up with the rest of our crew at the TD Arena where the buses were congregated as the roadies got to work. The night was good. We got to meet more of Cassidy’s family. They were cool people her young nephews were at that age where they knew that they liked the way girls were different from them. Felix and Frankie were world class peepers. They managed to see all of us ladies in different states of undress over the course of the evening. But then, their father caught them. Boy, he let them have it. The, admittedly, adorable twin ten-year olds both got swats on their backsides and a serious lecture about respecting others and women especially. It was a pretty boss lecture. Then he made the dastardly duo apologize to every single lady, individually. I liked him. That was A-plus parenting…and for a change I didn’t mean that sarcastically.

I was surprised and then again, not really, when we got to the buses to find Saul and Mills Mayzer and Ethan and Amanda Harris waiting on us. Attorney Ethan showed up and introduced me to his wife. Amanda Walters-Harris was pretty and petite, but she was so smart it was easy to forget the physical side of things. They told their Niece and Nephews that they had caught the concert and it was amazing. They actually had two hotel rooms at the nearby Renaissance Charleston Historic District Hotel. They pulled Cede, Puck and Sam to the side and told them that they needed to keep me there the next morning, but would put me on a plane to Jacksonville as soon as they could the next afternoon. I absolutely loved that my bosses didn’t ask any questions.

The next morning, Saul and Ethan and I drove back up to Columbia. It took us longer than we would have liked to complete the claims form and all the necessary paperwork it took to remain anonymous. I’d really lucked out in the fact that I even could. It was rare for the states to allow it. Saul, Ethan and I had discussed it the whole way up and given my age and lifestyle and what I was wanting to do with it. I wasn’t going to get the lump sum payout. Instead I would take the yearly annuity option. Ultimately, it would be best for me tax wise and since I wasn’t old it wasn’t like I would for certain die before the full thirty years had passed. I wouldn’t get the payout immediately…there was a fifteen day wait since they had to collect from all forty-four states that play the game. That wasn’t a problem for me. I would have to pay federal income tax and state and local New York taxes on each yearly payout. Saul gave them the account information for what Sam and Cede called a bucket account. The big money would go into that. Then taxes would be paid and investments would be made. The first check, I’d let Saul play with a quarter of what was left after taxes and everything. Then I was taking ten million and dumping it into the project.

As I flew the short flight to Jacksonville, I couldn’t stop thinking about things. I was pretty sure that the main reason that Ethan and Saul both wanted me to take the annuity was to make sure that I didn’t spend everything immediately on the venture. I had no desire to do that. I just wasn’t going to let it fail before we could even see what we could do. I saw Melissa and others like her that we could employ. I saw girls and guys like Blair and I had been when we got kicked out of the system with no way to make something of ourselves that we could employ. But even more than just giving them jobs, we’d also give them a chance. In the more dorm like of the dorms, Blair and I had talked Slickback into putting in a library. Since we knew that we’d have to hire dancers who were too young to be Featured Entertainers, young’uns who had aged out of foster care with barely the clothes on their backs, we’d give the dancers the chance to use computers to get their GEDs or do online classes. That way they didn’t have to become Featured Entertainers. They could do anything with their lives once they had their paper. Blair and I were going to help them do it. Slickback wouldn’t care, he would always be able to find Featured Entertainers…he was good at that shit.

The thing all those anti-prostitution people would never acknowledge or realize was that prostitution had been in existence for as long as bartering. There was never any need to do more than put out the word that you were hiring…we wouldn’t need to put adds on Craigslist or in the papers. Chicks and dudes both would find us. If we built it, they would come. We just needed to get the building finished, and get every position staffed. Now, we had the means to do that. I was determined that we would do it right.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Cool for the Summer (Demi Lovato)
Cassidy (PoV)

Man, the summer was flying by. I was loving everything about it. I’d seen my grandparents, Nisha, Nara and Max in Atlanta, gotten to take Nara and Max to Six Flags…which we all loved. I’d helped Xena with her big projects, which I’d originally kind of felt bad about. But then my thoughts turned back to my biological mother. What if, in being able to escape Rocky, she had to turn to prostitution to keep body and mind together? If she did, I’d want her working for people like Xena and her family. The plans they had in place were pretty boss. So, I helped Zee…and found that I kind of liked it. She had to stay behind in Charleston to do something with the attorney and financial advisor for something, probably to do with her venture, but she met us in Jacksonville in time to join us all for the preshow practice. She was lucky enough to miss the ‘morning’ run though. Of that, I was kind of jealous. No seriously, we left Charleston at five in the morning. We got to Jacksonville before nine. We were staying overnight in Jax…which made sense, it was a less expensive city, hotel wise, than Charleston. So, we checked into the Hyatt Regency on East Coastline Drive. I was sharing with Erika, as usual…though recently she and Damien had been seeing each other more and more so who knew how much longer I was going to have my usual roomie. Once upon a time, I could room with Adam no problem, but he and Kelli seemed to hook up most nights so I’d have ended up sharing with Joaquina rather than Adam. Which didn’t seem like it would be a bad thing. She was nice enough and she was kin to Blaine who was a pretty good egg…even if he was a silver spooner.

Anyway, so we got there…got checked into out rooms and Sam sent out this mass text. ‘RIVER RUN at twelve thirty…before it gets too hot.’ Seriously, it was noon on a June Day in Jacksonville Florida… it was hot as hell ten minutes after the sun came up. But we all showed up…except the Roadies, those lucky bastards were doing their preliminary walk through of the venue. So, we ran along the St. Johns River from the hotel to a little tributary called Deer Creek and back. In ninety-one degree, seventy-two percent humidity weather. By the time we made it back to our hotel we were all panting and almost crawling to get back to our rooms. I was pretty sure that if it hadn’t been overcast, there would have been a revolt…led by Mercedes. For serious…it was bad. You’d have thought we would be used to it. Sam loved working out outside. On the other hand, if it had been a Cede day to decide what we did, we’d have stayed in the hotel fitness center or done laps in the pool. We’d taken a vote on the first tour that disallowed Puck from picking our group workouts…he thought ‘badass cross-fit’ gyms were the best idea ever. ‘Death traps we paid money to use’ was way more appropriate a title for those nightmare houses.

Still, we had a routine that we lived by on tour. Every day, show day or otherwise, we ate three square meals, with lots of vegetables. We worked out for at least an hour total. We took our supplements, vitamins to keep us healthy and herbals to keep our immune system healthy. Five weeks into our journey, the routines had been working well…knock on wood. So, when Sam called…we ran. Then again, we were often rewarded with little gifts from Mercedes when things were really horrible. A week after our Jax, Lord please take me now, River Run, we all got awesome new FitBit Charges. So, we really couldn’t complain.

In fact, I really couldn’t complain, like, at all. I was really grateful for having the tour where I was basically the mid card act. It boosted me up the ‘Celebrity DJ Ladder’ so quickly after the announcement that it about made my head spin. I’d been booked solid for months. I was going to have to crack and get someone to handle my appointments fairly soon. Hudson had been telling me that for a while, but I was stubborn. My own ability to handle my calendar was fucked by my southern woman’s inability to say no. One weekend that same cultural weakness had seen me do a Bat Mitzvah on Friday evening, an underground hip-hop club spin Friday night, two different wedding receptions and an after-hours club on Saturday and a surprise fiftieth wedding anniversary-slash-vow renewal party on Sunday. I slept until Wednesday after that.

But that one weekend was paying for my niece’s college in a couple of years, as long as she went to a state school. It would probably only cover a year or so elsewhere. But still, it would handle more than what she had set aside before that weekend, so, I couldn’t complain about that either. For the most part, I lived on what I made working with KAMA, my side gigs…I saved some, I reinvested some in my brand, and I put money away for Nara and Max to go to college. Frankie and Felix already had nice fat college trust funds. Uncle Nadir was not a low man on the chemical research totem pole. But Aunt Nisha, she made enough to make sure that Nara and Max had, but she’d never had much for extras. But with my lucrative career and even more lucrative side hustle, I did. So, much like she and Aunt Kat and Uncle Nadir had done for me when I was little, I made sure that Nara and Max got some extras. I also ensured that Grandma and Granddaddy had some nice extras too. Every other week, I did an Amazon order for all the stuff they used that wasn’t food. I couldn’t just give them a boat load of money…or it would mess them up for taxes. But Saul and Gwen both said it was safe for me to buy them their necessities and free up some of their pension money. Besides, they would never have accepted anything more anyway. So, I didn’t hurt their pride by forcing them to accept more than they were willing to allow me to do for them. They had been pretty wise with their money over the years, so they owned their own home and their cars were pretty new. I did believe them when they swore up and down that they were doing okay.

Even if they were doing okay, Aunt Nisha, Aunt Kat and I had decided that we were going to send them on a cruise to the Caribbean as a big Christmas gift that year. We’d planned it out Aunt Kat and I were getting the cruise itself and Aunt Nisha would buy them some new luggage, and the gifts from Uncle Nadir and all the grands would be gift cards so they could get some new vacation clothes. I was very excited about it. The second we made it officially official, I was booking all the rest of us on the same exact cruise. I’d done my research and Royal Caribbean had activities and services that would make everyone happy from Frankie and Felix on up to Granddaddy. I’d talked to a friend of a friend who happened to be a travel agent. Lacey had helped me to understand what we’d be able to do. Since Nara was over fourteen, we’d be able to put the kids all in one stateroom that could be connected to Nadir and Kat’s stateroom. Me and Aunt Nisha would have one stateroom to share and Grandma and Granddaddy would have another. Trish had even been nice enough to give me enough information about the cruise line’s ships to make a decision as to which one we should sail on.

I was pretty sure that Nadir knew what I was up to. He knew me well enough that when I’d asked him if Frankie and Felix had passports and wondered how I could find out about Nara and Max, it hadn’t taken much for him to figure out my plans. He’d made me promise that I’d let him help if it cost more than I could afford. But by the same turn, he’d immediately started working on making sure that Aunt Nisha, her kids and Grandma and Granddaddy had passports. He told me that Aunt Kat and the boys had theirs due to their trips to visit his Grandparents in Toronto. Hudson had made sure that we all had passports within our first six months as part of KAMA’s Crew. So, I with a little input from Uncle Nadir had decided that I should make the arrangements for over the kids Spring Break, which would hopefully line up like it almost always did, and happen after Columbia’s like it had since I joined the group. It was going to be a great family vacation. The kind Nisha and Kat have always wanted to do but couldn’t because Nisha refused to let Kat and Nadir pay for everything. Ha, she’d have no choice this time since she wouldn’t even know about it until it was already a done deal.

One person that I sure as hell wasn’t buying a ticket for was Rocky. In fact, Rocky Lee Carter was not even invited. Grandma and Granddaddy would just have to forgive me. Even if the week-long cruise cost less than Grandma’s pearls, I wasn’t spending that much money on a man who was constantly wishing that I did not and had never existed. Besides, the rest of us would have a much better time without him there to shit on our parade. Felix and Frankie were basically never allowed any freedom when he was around because Aunt Kat and Uncle Nadir didn’t want them learning any of his bad behaviors. Nara and Max didn’t talk to him, ever, but both of them had been known to throw things at him if they could get away with it. I never narcced them out; I rather enjoyed seeing his reaction. So yeah, it was just best for everyone that he did not believe even for a moment that we wanted, needed, expected or accepted his presence in any way at all.

I smiled to myself as I imagined how well that was going to go over at Christmas. Ah well…I had more in life to worry about than my biological’s slighted feelings. My career, untraditional as most people considered it to be, was going great. My family was doing good. All things considered, I was having one of the best years of my life. And my personal life was just fucked up enough that I wasn’t living in that weird psychological place where things were going so good that I started to dread what was going to happen to ruin it. Dave and I had ceased sleeping together not long after Valentine’s Day. It was completely amicable and he was still pretty much my best friend. We spent a hell of a lot of time together…just no more co-ed naked fun time. Dave had reached a place in his life where he was looking for a more serious relationship.

I totally got it. He was a couple of years older than me and he finally had time to try for a real, adult relationship. I didn’t blame him at all. In fact, when he found his person, I was totally down to spin at his wedding. As for me…I had issues. For real, serious, bone deep trust issues and abandonment issues. On top of those…I also had major time issues. There was no way that I’d have the time it took to build and nurture a real relationship. Hell, I didn’t even trust myself not to wind up picking a guy just like the guy who knocked up dear old Mom. One day, I’d find a therapist who could help me become confident in the one area of life where I was a total coward and then I’d try the whole love schtick…maybe. But until I was ready for that kind of adult-ish-ness…I had my friends, between Erika, Dave, Adam and Justin…I was never lonely. And between KAMA and my side gigs…I was never bored.

As my musings ended, Erika reached over and thumped me. “Chica, what’s going on under all that hair?” she teased. “Your face has been cycling through so many emotions, it was like you were spinning your brain.”

“Oh hush.” I shushed her. She loved to pick on what my ‘expressive face’. “I was just thinking about how things are going this year. I think Hudson might be right…It might be time for me to either get better scheduling software or an assistant of my own.”

“Thinking about that weekend you took so many jobs you damn near sprained your arm?”

I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t almost sprain my arm…it was just tired. But yeah.”

“We’ve all double booked ourselves at some point, but you were definitely an over achiever that weekend.” She smirked. “Have I mentioned that I am a little jealous that you don’t have to wear the silver halter jumpsuit I’m stuck in tomorrow?”

“Only five or six times. But don’t feel bad…I’m still jealous of those heeled Tim boots you keep getting to wear.” I shot back. We spent the next little while shooting the shit until we felt like sleeping. We talked mainly of our families. Since starting with KAMA, my road roomie had sent a full quarter of her pay back to her parents in Bayamon. With six kids still at home, and their first grandchild on the way, the money had been a blessing to the poor but happy family. Her Irish twin sister Sheila had married as soon as she’d graduated high school. Sheila’s husband worked with their father at the hotel where Senor Calderon worked and had since before he was eighteen. Things were changing again for her family soon. Erika’s third sibling, her brother Sebastian, had gotten into Hunter College on the Upper East Side. He was scheduled to move to Manhattan right around the time we got back from the main bulk of the tour. Erika was so proud of her Seb…he had scholarships and grants and would be living on campus, but Erika was really excited that he’d be close and that she was in a place where she could help him with extras and maybe even take him out for dinner when he didn’t have plans with whatever friends he made.

I was happy for her and to be honest…I was thinking about pulling a few extra double bookings on purpose. Nara was smart enough to get into one of the millions of schools in New York. I went to sleep that night wondering how to make that happen. I woke up, Jax show morning and immediately fell into my usual morning yoga. Completing the entire forty-five minutes of my morning salutations before Erika awoke. Her morning routine wasn’t all that different from mine, though it took place in a very different language. It took twenty to thirty minutes after she got out of bed before she was capable of saying a word of English. During that time, she usually hit the gym or she showered, dressed and everything. If she stayed in the room it was all accomplished while speaking to me as if I knew any of what she was saying.

We had breakfast together and checked our phones. Sam, Mercedes and Puck had decided that we were running a flipped set list. The band would start the night with the ‘Rescue Me Remix’ and end with the original song. Mercedes decided that everyone would be in Southeast Alternate Three…which was a very casual, very cool mostly linen and lighter color apparel set for everyone but the main three. Then the call went out for us all to get on our swim suits and meet them at the pool. I swear it took no time at all for me to throw off the shorts and tee shirt I’d put on after my shower and pull on the navy blue, halter wrap bikini top and matching bottoms I’d brought with me for just such an occasion. Erika threw on a strappy back aqua colored set that was similarly designed enough that everyone would understand that they were both from the same designer. L Space Swimwear by Monica Wise was an awesome line and they made our modest curves look hot as hell. Flowy maxi coverups and flip flops were donned. We grabbed our room keys, sunscreen and some cash for the vending machines near the elevators and headed up to the heated, roof top pool.

I noticed that it was just KAMA, Hudson and the Crew up there. But then I realized that, though early, it was still late enough that the road crew had gone over to the venue to get things ready for the sound check. I was woman enough to admit that I checked the other women out to see how I stacked up. I was a little surprised to see Santana in a pale ivory colored bikini rather than her usual, almost trademark, red color palette…but the color looked amazing against her butter pecan skin. Artie was already in the water with Brittany, who was rocking a TINY…like miniscule…pink floral bikini. Xee had her long, tall form stretched out in a lounger as far from the pool as possible. Her hair pulled up into a top knot that had to be killing her neck. Her bikini was pink and gray camo. It suited her well. Marceau’s suit was a two piece as well. In fact, looking around it soon became apparent to me that the only ones not wearing traditional bikinis were Mercedes and Hudson.

Mercedes was showing off her thick, lush curves…I really needed to work on my hetero-crush on my boss. It wasn’t healthy. Anyway, Ms. Boss Lady was wearing a burgundy-purplish, Grecian drape top V-neck swimsuit that proved to be a tankini when Puck slipped his hand up the top. Hud’s maillot was a simple, old fashioned, navy blue suit with a ruffled skirt. She was so tiny, I wasn’t positive that she hadn’t had to get that one from the kids’ section. She was so adorable. She was also scarily efficient. Like, I was positive that if she’d been raised in the Red Room…she would totally be Natasha Romanova. She was just that competent. Marceau, Bae-Bae and Joaquina waved us over to where they were playing in the water. We were cool with Bae-Bae and Marceau and Joaquina were cool. Even if Marceau liked me so much because I let her pick my brain about my home town for at least a little while every day. Hell, I was kind of proud that I could say that I even knew someone who’d gotten into Emory Med school…that was no easy feat.

KAMA took over the pool before ten in the morning. We headed down around one, showered…washed our hair and made it to the coliseum in time for a quick warm up and sound check. Since my hair was freshly washed, it was curly as hell, and Dee just told the local stylists that had been brought in, the staff of Bamboo Salon to go with it. Come to find out that the stylists specialized in natural, Black hair, so they knew exactly how to handle most of our hair and were at least conversant with the rest. In fact, they turned out to be really epic with the rest. By the time the six women and two guys finished with the thirteen of us, even Rainbow and Kelli…both of whom had stick straight hair, were rocking curls and looking fabulous.

Everyone was wearing linen for the first look of that show. Santana, Tina and Xena were in deep pewter linen wrap dresses with silver wedges on their feet. Rainbow, Britts, Bae, Jaja, Sugar, Marceau, Kelli and Joaquina were in baby blue, high low, linen tunics and bright white leggings…their feet ‘bare’ for the first third of the night. Erika…she had gone even more daring. Ridiculously high heeled, black strappy boots covered her to her knees, then it was just bare legs up to her short…seriously short black shorts and tied up, icy-silvery- blue men’s linen dress shirt whose sleeves had been truncated to the point that they were barely even straps. Had to give her credit she looked wild and cool and kind of wicked. Mercedes was in a linen dress that had a print with all the colors of the singers, dancers and Erika’s tops. The dress was an empire waist number that seriously…Why didn’t God see fit to give me boobs like that. Even half of that would have been nice…anyway, huge boobs aside, the rest of the dress flowed over her figure. Highlighting and then moving to shelter. It was a gorgeous dress made even more so by the carefully, hand sewn crystals that swirled through the pattern of the blues and silvers. When she moved just right, you could see that she was wearing icy blue capri-leggings. She’d paired her clothing with silver wedge booties with crystal embellishments.

Victoria and I were both wearing anything but blue or silver. Victoria wasn’t actually wearing a whole lot, shiny black booties, a black and yellow crop top, and skort number. But I was rocking a carmine red linen dress that was strapless and fitted to my hips then the skirt was slit and swirled around me, under it I was wearing a pair of ivory shorty shorts and a matching half vest over my shoulders. It was a great show that night. I had created two fabulous new mixes over the break and I rolled them out in Jacksonville. I’d caught Tana and Brittany in a compromising position before we’d left NYC and, with their permission got their happy-joy-joy sounds recorded and I used that as the undercurrent for my second set. It worked better than I’d ever dreamed. The place was lit. I was floating on air when the night wrapped. It wasn’t a party city, which was great, because we were up and out the next morning by nine and we got to our rooms in Miami’s Intercontinental Hotel by four. We were actually able to run from our hotel to the amphitheater for our daily exercise and the band and crew had a great practice. Then we all ran back to the hotel, got cleaned up and took over the La Camaronera Fish Market for dinner. It was an early night…mainly because we were all full as hell. Yet again, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives had proven correct about how good a restaurant was. People could blast on Guy Fieri all they wanted…that show hadn’t failed us yet.

Miami was a serious shocker of a show. First of all, since it was such a major city we were in branded apparel again. I was pretty sure that my dress cost more than my monthly rent, but I looked fierce as hell so I wasn’t complaining. The audience seemed surprised to see us all so expensively dressed. But that really was the least surprising aspect of the evening’s entertainment. Apparently, Hudson and the band were in on the surprise, because when SHAGGY…Mr. Boombastic himself…strolled out on the stage to join KAMA for ‘Your Guardian Angel’ before letting them join him in ‘Angel’ and him, Puck and Sam totally crushing ‘It Wasn’t Me’. the crowd was completely wild for the rest of the night. I was pretty sure that most of the crowd had no voices at all left by the end of my first set. It was just that epic a night. One that didn’t end until seven in the morning after an after party at LIV that was off the chain. Brantley and Haja had flown down for that show and they would be with us for a week, making sure that everything was running smoothly and going exactly as it should.

The party ran so long that we got back to the hotel with just enough time to shower, pack our stuff and hit the buses hard for the nine-hour drive to Columbus, Georgia, our next stop. That was a seriously small town. But we had two shows there. A regular show at the nine thousand seat Civic Center…then an after concert set at the Fort Benning Officer’s Club. Both shows were fine. No miss steps for KAMA and no missed transitions or skips for me. The trouble came after the show. Even as much as I hated Rockey, I may have still had a small weakness for military men. And the men of the Ranger School at Benning were the best of the best. I had an amazing night with two of them and had to rent a car to meet the crew in Birmingham. It was one of the best nights I’d ever had in all my life…but I was so completely whipped that night. My arms were still on point, but I didn’t move near as much from the waist down. Granted, the smile on my face probably made up for the lack of dancing.

Sam, Puck and Cedes had kind of laid into me during sound check for not checking in to let them know that I was safe and heading out that morning. It was hilarious. Sam kept talking about how worried they were…then Cedes smirked at me. “They were worried. I just wanted details. I don’t know many other women who’ve been with two men at the same time. I wanted to compare notes.”

Thankfully, both Birmingham and Tuscaloosa concerts went well. Then we had the Fourth of July weekend off. Since, between the Atlanta and Charleston stops, I’d just seen all my family, and Erika invited me, I joined her in spending the weekend in Puerto Rico while our bosses retreated to their love nest and everyone else took some time to hit the gulf beaches. It was an epic weekend of sand and surf and fun. Her hometown had some amazingly beautiful parts to it. Her family was gracious and welcoming. Her whole neighborhood was really. I ate so much that when we flew back to meet the tour in Mississippi…I was looking forward to Sam’s crazy runs. But I’d gone from high-ish yellow to caramel brown…so to me, the weekend was very well worth it.

As I got ready to take the stage in Jackson, I ruminated on a million thoughts. I was truly happy. I was looking forward to lots of things both personally and professionally. My music was my life and it was going great. I wasn’t exactly sure how my life was going to go for the rest of it. But I had to say at twenty-two…beginning to really make my mark on the world…it was off to one hell of a start.

Hall of Fame (The Script feat. will.i.am)
Adam PoV

A little more than halfway through twenty- fifteen, I had to say it was turning out to be one hell of a year. Of course, that statement could always be taken one of two ways. As with any year, it was meant both positively and negatively. On the plus side, Damien and I had done enough background vocal work on the side that we’d each made three-quarters of our yearly base KAMA salary in addition to said yearly base salary just from our side hustle. Another plus side was that Aaron and Ronnie were true to their word. They were each contributing a hundred bucks every month to the mortgage of mom’s house and putting money into Rodney’s account every time they got paid. Me and Dame were putting money into Rodney’s account and we had set up similar accounts for Jarrod, Jaden and Denzil and we each put in fifty bucks every week for each of them. We may have also been slipping an extra hundred into Mom’s account too, but if so we’d never tell.

Granted, Dame and me weren’t saints. We saved for our goal of having separate places in a much better building…but we were twenty something year olds in the big city. We were not completely responsible with our money…who the hell was. But with Dame Ruth and Monsieur Kurt in our corners, we didn’t end up looking like dumbass idiots with more money than fashion sense. With our gear and kicks right and our fades tight, thanks very much to Cleotha’s amazeballs cousin, Mel…we hit the clubs at least two or three nights a week, when we weren’t working. Now, it went without saying that we loved the nightlife. The women our age in New York were driven as hell. In most cases that meant they were looking for a hit it and quit it just as much as we were. They had their careers to focus on and were not trying to get waylaid by the husband, house, white picket fence and two point five kids for at least another ten years. To ensure that their vision for the future came true, they took their birth-control seriously. Not only were they on the pill or the shot or had an IUD, but most of them rolled with their own condoms just in case. Not that we didn’t always have our own, but it was nice to know that they were looking out too.

I didn’t consider myself a player, because I wasn’t running any game. I didn’t claim to be looking for a relationship. I never said that I wasn’t. Never tried to be more than exactly who I was; a guy with a disproportionately big ass dick looking for a good time. And Damien was just as honest. But he was down for whatever, whenever. There were times I’d see him dancing with a chick, then take her and her gay bestie or boyfriend and disappear. All three of them would reappear twenty or thirty minutes later looking liked a good time was had by all. Sometimes Dame and his new friends would disappear altogether and he’d pop back up the next morning looking like satisfaction personified. There were mornings when I was a little jealous. Every man had dreams of threesomes…I wanted one too. Granted, my preferred demographics for said threesome were somewhat different. I hoped that I could get two beautiful ladies, preferably two of two different races, maybe even completely different from mine too…that would be awesome…but yeah, I dreamed of being with two women, while Dame was living his dream.

Still, there was more to our lives than singing, sexing, and shopping. We made sure to make our family a priority too. No one could claim that we didn’t go out of our way to take care of the family back home in Paducah. The week after we got our big ass bonuses for the Valentine’s Concert, we took a trip home and set Momma, Jaden and Denzil up with new computers. Fifteen hundred bucks went really, really far at the computer store in Paducah. Okay, we may have added some to it…but we were able to get both twins their own refurbished Dell laptops to augment the refurbished desktop we’d gotten them before we left after Christmas. Mom’s tablet was upgraded too. We got her a tricked-out Surface Pro 3 to act as both a laptop and a tablet. But she’d already saved up and gotten herself a small desktop that was more comfortable for her to use for writing her papers.

It tripped me out that my mom was taking classes in computer science and business management. She wasn’t trying to be a head honcho either. Her big aspiration was to have an office job where she sat in front of a computer all day. She wasn’t even all that pressed as to what it was as long as she sat at a desk in a suit and had benefits. It may not have been a huge ambition. But given that she’d spent most of her life working minimum wage jobs either outside or on her feet all day or both…her dream wasn’t surprising. Personally, I didn’t actually care what her dream was…I wanted it to come true for her. All of my brothers felt the exact same way. Jaden and Denzil were only rising juniors, but Denzil wanted to go to college for agricultural management and Jaden felt that he absolutely needed to because he said that he needed to get a degree in hospitality and business management in addition to a culinary arts degree if he wanted to own his own restaurant and he didn’t see himself working for other people long term. I got it…he could be a son of a bitch to others if he wasn’t the HNIC. Jaden and Denzil were the most driven of all eight of Momma’s sons. They had the ambition and drive needed to do a hell of a lot more than the rest of us.

Then again, the twins were lucky, they’d sort of had a dad. Well, Jaden definitely did. He actually looked a lot like his father. Denzil was either made up entirely of recessive traits, or he had a different father. But Jaden’s father claimed him too. However, the twins were old dude’s dirty little secret, mainly because he was also to the married mayor of Paducah. So, he did all his paying for things under the table. He’d gotten Momma to put them in the Big Brothers club and he became their big brother so he could spend time with them. One of the best things he’d done for them was to funnel some money into two of those five-two-nine plans. So, if they got good enough grades to get in someplace, they would have an easier time getting their paper than any of the rest of us had even come close to having. Well other than me and Dame…neither of us were the higher education types.

Anyway, the twins had never been dumb. Then again, the family buzz was that the other guy mom had been sleeping with at the time was the guy who set up the law school that opened and closed in a span of like four years in Paducah when I was a kid. When we went to visit them, Jaden and Denzil had just gotten their report cards. I was proud of my brothers. Denzil had all As, like not a single one of his grades were below a ninety-five. Jaden had a high B or two, but he too had like ridiculously good grades. Dame and I were both so proud of them, that we forgot that we both hated going shopping with their tall asses. Yes, we took our six foot and six foot two inches tall baby brothers to the mall where we had to constantly hear how this was too short and that didn’t fit right. I kind of hated them for that. But we had a good time other than that. Somehow, we ended up spending an hour in Kitchen Collection allowing Jaden to pick out the best tools of his desired trade. That was boring as hell, so afterwards me and Damien forced Jaden and Denzil to wait while we looked through F.Y.E. and Spencer’s for an equal amount of time.

The weekend passed too quickly, but we made time to go back home a few other weekends when we weren’t working or practicing or whatever. We always had fun when we went. It gave Momma a chance to see with her own eyes that we were healthy and happy. It gave me and Dame a chance to make sure that she and the twins and Aaron, Ronnie, Rodney, and Jarrod were good. On our flight back to NYC after the last visit before our life became the Aesthetic Enjoyment Tour, Damien looked over at me and smirked, “You know as soon as we have our new places, we’ve gotta get all of them to the city for a visit.”

“Oh, I know. We’ve been there for a few years now but we didn’t have any place for them to sleep and no way could we or they afford New York hotels.” I reminded him. It hadn’t been that we didn’t want our family to visit…the logistics had just been impossible before.

When I thought about it, I realized that Damien and I were in the midst of having a truly banner year. We easily had the money to be able to afford to get places of our own. Even if we listened to Saul Mayzer’s advice and purchased condos instead of just finding a new place to rent. We just needed to wait until our lease was up in September. Okay, that wasn’t exactly the truth. We probably should have set thing up so that the closing was in September, if we were buying places…which Momma, Aaron and Ronnie had joined the battle and convinced us was the smart thing to do. But we wanted to see what kind of bonuses we got after the tour wrapped. We’d add that amount to the eighty-five or so grand that we’d each saved for our down payments and that would determine our budget.

It was a month or so before Columbia’s final exams, yeah, KAMA’s entire Crew, Team and Staff knew the Columbia academic calendar like we were paying to be there ourselves. So yeah, me and Damien sat down and figured out what we were looking for in our next homes. Damien had suggested that we avoid the areas of Manhattan that were rife with clubs and bars. “Think about it…yeah, it’s cool not to have to catch a cab to the club or whatever…but do we really want to have to deal with the club head’s throw up when we go out on Monday mornings? Imagine trying to sleep with all the club-banger noise, sirens, Ubers and cabs at all hours and all the crazy shit that goes with living in walking distance of the nightlife. Plus, you know that shit’s either gonna be hella-spensive or all rundown and shit.”

I couldn’t fault his logic on that one. So, we settled that issue. We both wanted to live in the same building, we didn’t care about being on the same floor. We could climb stairs or take the elevator when we wanted to see each other. That wasn’t an issue. “We should try to each get a two-bedroom place. The spare bedrooms can double as music rooms or offices or whatever, but mainly they’ll be there so we have enough room for everybody when they come for visits.”

“True,” Damien agreed. “I need a bigger fucking closet man. It ain’t even funny. My closet is packed so tight, I can’t even tell you what’s all in there. I ain’t seen my shell top retro Adidas in a minute. It’s so bad, I saw one of those super luxury closets on TV the other day, and not only did I drool, I ended up watching the whole show hoping to see that bitch again.”

“Was that why you were watching Real Housewives of Orange County the other day?” I teased. “I can’t even pretend like you ain’t telling the gospel truth. I don’t need that whole dressing room thing, but enough space for all my pants would be nice.”

“Don’t forget, Justin’s looking for a place, too?” he asked.

“Yeah, he was there when Saul flat out told us to wait until after the tour.”

“We should get with him and look in the same building for all three of us.” Dame suggested.

I smirked. “That will make my piano lessons easier.” I stopped and thought for a minute. “It’s five of us though…Simeon and Jackson are thinking about looking into upgrading their home situations too. Maybe we can get a group buyer’s discount or something.”

“I don’t think it works like that. But shit, we can try.” He said and threw out his hand for a bump.

Then we spent the next few weeks prepping for the tour and seven or eight weeks thereafter on the actual tour before we got to see if Jax and Simmy were down for our plan. Justin, we weren’t giving a choice, he was twenty-one and while he made enough and had enough sense to get his own place, it was better for all involved and his parents’ and godmother’s nerves if he had some older guys he could rely on when needed nearby. Of course, we didn’t spend our time on the tour just waiting to get a chance to see what Jax and Simmy thought about our plan. Because the tour itself was awesome. We had great shows most nights. We all managed to stay healthy. We cemented and created relationships with our summer time compatriots.

I personally became hella-close to Tina and her boy Mike and Kelli. Tina filled a little sister spot in my brothers only world. I’d never realized how much I’d have loved having a little sister until Tina wormed her way into my heart by never being bothered by my jokes and tossing them back at me as good as I could dish them out. In fact, something about her eyes reminded me of Jarrod’s, made me wonder if he had some Korean in his background. We couldn’t know. Momma never could figure out who his daddy was. Only he and the twins carried the Peterson last name. Most of the rest of us at least had biologicals on our birth certificates and court documents. Though the twins had a daddy everywhere but on paper. Still, I freaking loved Tina. Having her for a running partner was great. She wasn’t a lot taller than me or a lot faster than me…so we were prefect running mates. Plus too, it let her long legged fiancé be able to get his run on without having to hold back or worry about Tee. But the best part was that Sam and Puck didn’t yell at us for slacking because Tina was their girl, and Cedes got mad at them if they made her cry…which I was almost sure she could do on purpose. It was great.

Kelli was definitely not a sister to me. I was from Kentucky not Mississippi. No, she was entirely different. She was, well, I guess she was my girl or something like that. I’d never had a long-term boo-thang before her. To be honest, I assumed that fucking the same chick more than a time or three got really boring, really quick. But she introduced herself to me at the first practice after their paperwork was all signed and they were officially official. Then Kelli proceeded to work her cute little ass off to show me how much she wanted into my bed. And I let her, but I didn’t make it easy on her. See, I tended to avoid white chicks who only dated Black men. Seemed like to me, they usually did it at least partially to piss off Daddy Dearest and I had enough daddy issues of my own. But ultimately, Kelli succeeded. She won a ticket to ride. Mainly because it was nice to have a woman put in that kind of work to be with me. Don’t get it twisted, I did not suffer from a lack of female company. But I was not used to being a first choice…especially not when in the same dating pool as any of my brothers. It was nice to be wanted and Kelli was most of the things I looked for in a woman, short, cute, flexible and commitment-phobic.

Seriously, we didn’t date like Tee and Mike, but we did hang out and sit next to each other at meals. Hudson hadn’t put most of the summer people with the old guard. Instead they had put them together. Kelli’s assigned hotel roomie was Joaquina. Joaquina was good people. when me and Kelli started hooking up, she told Kells that she was cool with her trading keys with Damien so that everyone could get some sleep. It was pretty nice of her. Dame had asked her if she was sure and Quina had said yes. “You give good conversation. You and Erika are doing whatever it is that you’re doing, so you won’t be using this to try to get into my pants. We have the same political leanings and don’t like the same snacks. That all I really look for in a roommate.”

“Why is the snack thing important?” Damien asked confused.

Quina laughed. “Because that way, you won’t eat my ice cream and I won’t eat your old people cookies.”

“Huh, yeah…good looking out.” Dame agreed. We’d had many…many fights over both Nilla Wafers and Ladyfingers. Some of them had even gotten pretty damn physical.

So, my bro and Quina became roomies and me and Kelli got to get our fuck on, on the regular. I was shocked, as we approached the Fourth of July weekend, to realize that we’d been banging for a while and that shit wasn’t boring me. I mean, there wasn’t anything Kelli wasn’t down for. She was amazing at giving head, like no gag reflex good. She loved anal, asking for me to fuck her ass at least two or three times a week. Plus, she would do things like surprise me in my bunk and suck my dick until I fed her addiction. Yeah, I was pretty sure she was addicted to cum. It was awesome…but sometimes I felt like I was the latest in a long line…which both freaked me out and made me buy condoms like I owned stock. Which I may well have, I let Saul do his do with my investment portfolio. He knew what he was doing, I didn’t. I did pay Kelli back when we were backstage in Birmingham. That one had an extra air of danger to it…I mean, me, a Black guy dicking down a White chick in a semi-public place in Alabama. Even in twenty-fifteen it was kind of stupid dangerous…but that just made it hotter.

The holiday weekend was pretty awesome. We were in a fresh hotel room in Jackson…me and Kelli didn’t come up for air until it was time to get ready for the show. We had a blast all through Louisiana and Texas. Though after the Fort Worth concert, Kelli hadn’t felt like having sex. Something about the whole incident had totally triggered some serious emotions in her, so I just held her while she cried it out. I think that those hours holding her and comforting her were probably the longest I’d gone without cracking a single joke since I’d learned to talk. The next day, she’d wanted to skip out on the trip to Six Flags over Texas, but I managed to cajole her into giving it a chance. We went on every thrill ride the park had to offer…we even did The Riddler’s Revenge twice and Titan three times. Then we spent the entire afternoon chilling in the pools in Hurricane Harbor. It was a great day. But to be honest…the feels coming off both of us as we made love that night…they scared the hell out of me.

I was not liking the thought of catching feelings. I would never want to hurt Kelli like the men in my family tended to hurt even the women they loved. It was going to take some serious thought on what to do about it, but until the end of the tour, I was just going to enjoy the ride.

Human (Rag’n’Bone Man)
Justin PoV

I was a full year, plus a few months, into my first real job and I was so happy I had trouble believing that it wasn’t all going to come crashing down on myself. I had spent my first year honing my craft and learning so many instruments that I was going to be invaluable to KAMA for the foreseeable future. In the year since I’d joined the group’s band, I’d gained proficiency in clarinet, harmonica, violin, flute, piccolo, and organ, and started learning a few other instruments including the xylophone. Additionally, I’d also spent it building a very positive credit history and saving my money like my name was Scrooge McDuck. I had taken out two major credit cards and a card for Macy’s. Before that time, I’d never had more than my debit card, it was a weird thing. But I kept to the plan. I never put much on them, never more than a hundred to a hundred and fifty dollars on each and they were paid off every month. Saul Mayzer had explained the best ways to pump up our scores during one of the fiscal awareness sessions he’d held for all of us KAMA people not long after we’d gotten our first bonuses.

To be honest, there were a lot of great perks that came with being a part of KAMA’s Crew. They made sure we were well taken care of on the road. They weren’t mean and never belittled us or our contributions. Hell, they acknowledged our contributions in the liner notes and when it came time to dole out royalties. But my favorite of all the perks was access to Saul Mayzer. He helped us all with financial planning and management at a really reduced rate. Through him, I rolled half of each of my bonuses into the CDs, other high interest bonds and investments that he recommended. I saved the rest in an Ally Bank savings account. Of my weekly pay checks, I gave Julia, my godmother and landlady, five hundred bucks a month in rent. I was also responsible for two of her utility bills. It was the least I could do. She had never asked me for a dime, not even once I dropped out of Juilliard. I also took over feeding myself…that was probably the biggest relief for her. It was more than likely the biggest bill I’d caused her.

Other than those few expenses, I gave myself a five hundred buck a month fun allowance. The rest was saved religiously. I even saved the fifty dollars that my paternal grandmother slipped into the boxes with the birthday and Christmas gifts she and my grandfather sent me that year. Even so, I was shocked when I realized how much I’d saved up. My saving’s account had a nice, plump ninety-three thousand dollars in it when I checked right before we left New York to begin the national part of our North American tour. I also had several CDs that I could cash in to make up the rest of what would be needed to have a twenty percent down payment. Saul had created a CD ladder and rolled them up as necessary. But then again when Dame, Damn and I had talked to him about getting his wife to help the three of us start looking for places to buy…he’d told both of the Dam Bros and myself, “I advise you to wait until after the tour to do so. I believe that you’ll find it very beneficial to hold off for the moment.”

We didn’t know exactly what he meant, but knowing our bosses the way we all did…we could make an educated guess. So, we listened to the very smart man who knew something we didn’t know. Still, I could not wait to have a place of my own. I tried very hard not to date women too much older than me, and girls my own age very rarely had places of their own. The closest most of them came to actually living on their own was having a dorm room. Those usually came with roommates. Roommates usually came in two varieties…the watchers and the growlers. The watchers liked to watch what was going on between their roomies and their dates if they could get away with it. They were often the ones who pretended to be asleep when we got back to the room…but then I’d feel them staring at me while me and my friend were making out. I found that creepy. But I still liked them better than the growlers. Those were the roomies who got angry that their roommate had brought someone back to their room and made their feelings expressly known before they finally left us alone. I’d been cussed out by one too many growlers to ever like that type…like it was my fault their roommate brought me home. According to both Dame and Damn, the watchers were also more likely to be the ever-elusive joiner, but I wasn’t sure such a roommate really existed outside the porn industry.

However, those weren’t the main reason I was ready to move out. I loved Julia, I really did. She was and always would be one of my favorite grown-ups ever and one of the best ladies I’ve even known. But between me being her godson and her having literally changed my diapers when I was a baby and her having to save me from my burnt-out downward spiral, in her mind I was stuck somewhere between six and twelve on the ‘responsible adult-o-meter’. She gave me a curfew that I had to adhere to when I was not working. Yeah, it was two AM…but still a curfew. Besides, her laundry room was also in the basement and she’d caught me with a sexy little co-ed from CUNY one Saturday morning. Neither of us ever wanted that to happen again as long as we lived.

I was very much determined to enjoy the lifestyle my place with KAMA gave me without falling off the wagon. That was going to be very easy for me for several really good reasons. The first of which was that I’d replaced feeding my addictive personality disorder with alcohol and was feeding it copious amounts of music and time spent with beautiful young women instead. The second reason was that when I was partying with KAMA and the rest of the Crew, I could never seem to get an over twenty-one band…like ever. Which, yeah, I wasn’t there yet, but that had never been a problem even when I was a lot younger. The final reason was that Erika, Bae, Cass and JaJa…they had all taken me under their wings. So, while I was enjoying the press of lovely, curvy bodies against me as I danced through the night at whatever after party we happened to be attending that evening, none of the four of them would hesitate to grab my drink from my hand and take a sip to ensure that it contained no alcohol. I was never sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, I was glad that they loved me and cared about me enough to be on the lookout for any backsliding. On the other hand, it was like they didn’t trust me. But then again…I may not have been to a place for trust yet. Some of the tour crew ran their own AA meetings and they were nice enough to let me attend. Some of those guys had decades under their belt but their besties still had their back on the road.

Yeah, I couldn’t get mad at them for having my back. Besides, they had taught me how to dance for real. I’d taken a ball room dance class in middle school, so I’d never had a problem learning what Rainbow was having us do. But real club dancing, I’d learned that from Bae-Bae, JaJa, Erika and Cassidy. If not for them, and Dame and Damn teaching me to be a smooth mofo, I would have no way to get girls. That would have been a true and real tragedy. In my life, I’d had three relationships that lasted longer than two weeks. They’d all occurred since I found a place in the KAMA family. During the precious tour, the guys had all told me not to limit myself to a certain type before I tried the entire spectrum. So, I’d been the reading rainbow of dating. I still didn’t have a specific type…but I knew what I didn’t like better. I didn’t like very, very tall girls…nor did I like very short girls. Ladies between five-five and five-ten were just about perfect. I liked curvy ladies, but not very curvy. I was certainly a butt man…however breasts were awesome too. I liked girls who were passionate about something. It didn’t have to be music they were passionate about either.

One girl had been seriously into politics and we’d dated for the latter half of her spring semester. Roni could talk for hours about the flaws with the Electoral College system and how the advent of technology had rendered it obsolete. She knew not just why she voted the way she did…but made strong cases for why certain people voted against their own best interests and how foolish it was to abstain from voting. I’d learned a ton from her. We’d technically broken up at the end of the school year. She was spending the summer studying abroad in France and I was touring. We did have a date already set for September and she’d sent me some great food porn over the past several weeks. Toni was really sexy, too, not just amazingly smart. She was slightly above average height and a little curvier than Erika but a no where near as curvy as Mercedes. She had such amazingly soft, light-brown skin, lighter even than Cassidy’s and the prettiest hazel eyes. But what made her, just so beautiful to me was her freckles and curls. Plus she had an amazing ass and she let me play with it whenever I wanted. I was pretty sure that she and I were not each other’s Johnny and June…but I could listen to her wax poetic about the American representational democracy versus other democratic systems in the world for hours, especially if she was nakedly doing so again. Hey, I was a twenty year old guy who’d only really started paying attention to the whole sex thing about a year before…it was a presence in my psyche all the time.

But, I…fortunately or unfortunately depending on one’s perspective…wasn’t into random hookups beyond making out either. At least not anymore…one STI had been enough to make me straighten up and fly right for the rest of my days. Thank God that Trichomoniasis was easily cured with an antibiotic. Blow jobs were not safe sex. But I was never making that mistake again. So, I was getting little to no real satisfaction on the tour. I was, quite literally, taking things in hand myself in my bunk with the curtains closed, or in the showers of our hotel rooms. Dame and Damn were less careful…but not really. They just used condoms every single time. But if some random groupies wanted to suck them off or even fuck them, it was pretty rare of them to say no. That was kind of why they loved rooming together. At least, that was how it had been before Kelli Rogers and whatever was going on between Dame and Erika, anyway. I was with Joe Hart, and even though he wasn’t a judgy type person; he was just so inherently good that I wasn’t about to bring some chick back to our room. That would have felt like the ultimate in rudeness. So, I took care of myself.

Overall though, I had an awesome road roommate. He had an amazing voice and his guitar skills were among the top twenty guitarists I knew in real life. He played bass, drums and keyboard too. The jam sessions we had in our hotel rooms were pretty epic. It tripped me out sometimes how different he and his girlfriend Tessa could be. Joe was laid back and made a practice of loving everyone. I was pretty sure that he was the kind of guy who took bugs back outside rather than killing them. Tessa was so neurotic it wasn’t funny. She was the very opposite of a people person. She was good with her people, but others…not so much. When she just met you, if she found something of interest in you, then you were golden…if not, she didn’t bother to remember your name. But at the same time, they both had an undercurrent of unshakable loyalty and a core of strength to them that spoke of shared ideals and complimentary dreams. It was an interesting study in human interpersonal relationships.

There were a lot of those happening on the tour. Like the new girl Kelli…she’d caught Damn in her web with the quickness. The two of them were keeping things superficial to make things less dramatic on the tour. But Damn was considering suggesting that they make an agreement that if they were still feeling each other when the tour was over, they’d date for real. It seemed to be working out for them. We were seven weeks into the tour and Dame said they were ‘getting it in’ every night we stayed in a hotel.

I loved hotels. I did. We were always in really nice ones, too. Mercedes had laid out the places she was willing to stay and the fact that her full Crew stayed where she, Sam and Puck did, so we always had nice rooms. They were very firm in that ideal in all their contracts. Even so, sometimes the hotels exceeded expectations. Like where we stayed in Jackson, Mississippi…we were performing at the Mississippi Coliseum. It wasn’t our biggest stop nor was it our smallest. But the promotor was apparently so grateful to get us for their venue that they put KAMA, and therefore KAMA’s Crew, up at the Westin in Downtown Jackson. That was one of the most awesome of all the places we stayed during that tour. The hotel was brand new. So new, in fact, that I was pretty sure that I was the very first person to sleep in the king-sized bed in my solo room. Yup…the promoter was so happy to get such a big named act that he’d provided us each with our own rooms. And Hudson was so awesome that she’d provided him a list of those who were all coupled, or thrupled, up so he didn’t end up paying for rooms to just sit empty. Mr. Jenkins, the Mississippi promoter guy, also got off pretty cheap because a lot of the crew took off for the weekend of the Fourth and they didn’t need rooms because they didn’t get back until the day of the show.

I wasn’t among those. I’d seen my parents over the Father’s Day break, and just hadn’t felt like being bothered with making extra travel arrangements. Besides, I was working on a melody line that would just not leave me alone. Yet, even with playing with the music, I still had to sleep. I slept so good in that hotel room it was almost coma deep. I made sure to find out everything I could about the mattress, the bedding all of it. I would so be using that information when I got a place of my own. I slept so well that I woke up and went down to the fitness center without prodding from anyone. I felt better rested that I had since we left New York. The show that night went great. Maybe it was the great night’s sleep, maybe it was the two nights off, but whatever it was, we were all, totally, in the right headspace for that show. The stage apparel was even working in our favor. SouthEast Alternate Two was cool and comfortable even under the stage lights. That night our comfort and rest showed itself beautifully. The dancers seemed to move like they didn’t have bones. Dave’s arms were going so hard; I thought he was going to need to ice them like a pro-pitcher at the end of the night. I, myself, knew that I needed some serious massaging of my primary tools of trade. But I was so damn proud of the audience’s reaction that it was totally worth it. They were the liveliest crew of the whole south. There was an after party but it wasn’t as long as usual. We partied, showered threw on comfy clothes and were on the buses on our way to our next stop before we’d have usually managed to extricate ourselves from the local celebrities and richer fans at the after jam. It wasn’t a super long drive from Jackson to Ponchatoula, Louisiana where we spent three lovely nights in the Reunion Lake RV Resort. The RV Park was a lot cooler than the name implied. It had a big lake and awesome pool and Direct TV hookups for all our rigs. It was really nice. Best of all the bathrooms were so clean they practically squeaked. The slots we were assigned were off the beaten path and well away from the bulk of the other ‘campers’ so Sam, Mercedes and Puck didn’t have to worry about being bothered.

It was a little weird though. The Resort had quiet hours from eleven at night to eight in the morning so after the after parties wrapped up around six, we couldn’t go back to the buses until eight. However the promoter…it was the same guy for both New Orleans and Baton Rouge…had thought of that. He took us all out to breakfast after each of the shows. It was a damn good thing that Sam made us run around the resort every day, because the way we were eating I’d have gained twenty pounds over those two and a half- three days. Before the Lakefront Arena NOLA show, we had an early dinner at Brennan’s…I ate so much I was almost physically sick before the second set. Then the next night, we had our early dinner at Parrain's Seafood Restaurant before we made our way back to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for our show. I’d learned my lesson the night before; sort of. I got a to-go box that I devoured as soon as we wrapped the encore. Breakfasts at the Ruby Slipper in New Orleans and the Kolache Kitchen in Baton Rouge definitely didn’t help my overeating problem either. On Thursday, our one show free day that week, we headed to our next stop.

It was as we were leaving Baton Rouge, heading to Houston, that my phone chimed with a Facebook alert. Given the cost of international calling or texting Toni and I were only really communicating through Facebook and Twitter, so I was all over that alert. What I saw made me feel sicker than the crab & mirliton remoulade, shrimp & grits, gulf fish amandine and blackened redfish…wow I really did stuff myself at Brennan’s. Toni had posted a picture of herself with a tall, lanky brunette guy somewhere in Denmark. She’d captioned it ‘Sampling the local fare!!!’. I couldn’t even wrench my eyes from the screen even as sick as the sight made me. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that, even though, we’d said we were taking a break and we may or may not get back together in the fall, I’d not been acting like it. I’d been pretty much acting like I was still in a relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I’d danced with a hell of a lot of chicks at the after parties…but that was it. It flipped my world on it axis to realize that I had totally pulled a Rom-Com move.

That had to change. I wasn’t Jennifer Aniston or Jennifer Garner or Jennifer Lopez…wow, a lot of the actresses who did rom-coms were named Jennifer. Anyway, I wasn’t a girl and I wasn’t in a rom-com. So, after our very successful Houston show and at every after party thereafter, I made sure to find myself a new cutie to make out with. I didn’t personally post any pics but the girls did and they always tagged me in them. I did have to admit, that one decision made the after parties a hell of a lot more fun. I kind of made it a point to try new things too. I made out with a really pretty, Hispanic, transgender woman. She was really gorgeous, but she was also only using me to make her girlfriend jealous. I was kind of flattered that she thought I was sexy enough for that to work. At one point, I even made out with a guy. I mean, yeah, the dude was so hot any one, male or female, who wasn’t completely ace, demi or whatever would have made out with him…so I don’t even know if it was really fair of him to use me in his sick game of KAMA Crew Pokémon…meaning he had to catch us all. Blake, hot name too, was a devoted KAMA-eleon and he was following the tour throughout the entire south. He managed to add quite a few of us to his collection. By the time the tour reached Fort Worth, his Facebook feed told quite the tale. He’d kissed me, went even further with Dame and Erika…even further than that with Jax and, in Houston, he posted a morning after picture of him and Simmy. That was seriously funny. Not the Facebook Timeline, but Simeon’s walk of shame.

Simeon had tried to cover his tracks by making a Sprawl-Mart run and getting work-out clothes, some cheap running shoes and a small backpack. Then he’d pretended like he’d gotten up early and gone for a run. Of Course, that shit didn’t work. Everyone in the Crew knew Blake by now, and Darcy had even friended him. We all knew where Simmy had spent the night. It wasn’t like we even cared. So, we clowned him hard for his attempt at subterfuge. The very fact that he tried to cover that hookup up was way more hysterically funny than him having let Blake get him into bed. After all, the guy was hot enough that he convinced me to kiss him. Simmy just had to try and be all sly. So yeah, he got teased for days.

It was good that we had that laughter after Houston, because Fort Worth…that turned out to be one of our best shows and yet, one of our worst stops. Texas signified our regional transition from Southeast to Southwest. That meant saying good bye to Victoria Monet who was moving on to open for Cat Valentine’s tour. But it also meant saying another hello to Todrick Hall. I liked that guy’s voice and he was truly funny and the work he was creating for his play he was going to take on tour the following year was truly epic. The changeover also meant new set orders, new costumes, and in my case, a new keyboard. The Yamaha P-115 Ultra Platinum Keyboard that Sam, Cedes and Puck had gotten me eighteen months before when I’d first joined the Crew had to be sent off for repairs. Thankfully, there was a newer version of the same setup waiting in the wings so there was no lag time or need to panic. However, if that had been the worst thing to happen, it would have been fine. Unfortunately, nothing in life that is fully good and brings people of all genders, ethnicities and ages joy would be left unsullied for long. It just wasn’t the way things worked. Our tour was no exception. Twenty-six concerts, in twenty-five cities without a single fight, stage stormer…not even a shoplifter…then came Fort Worth.

I didn’t find out about what happened until after everything went down, of course, but it was all over the morning papers and on the national news the next morning. “RANGEMAN RESCUES CONCERT GOER AT FT. WORTH AREA KAMA CONCERT.” The article told the story, including the parts that we hadn’t learned the night before. During our second set, a young girl, only fifteen years old, had been pulled into an off limits, darkened area of the convention center she had to pass on the way to the bathrooms. The man was twice her age and almost three times her size. She tried to fight him off, but he was a huge motherfucker. She suffered a broken cheekbone and a hairline fracture of her jaw for her defiance. Around that same time Bones was making his security rounds. With Mercedes’ Stalker still on the loose, every venue was still monitored carefully at all times. When Bones entered the area, he found the girl’s clothes had been shredded and some of them used to bind and gag her. She was barely conscious and weeping…still trying to get away. He immediately radioed for help and stopped the assault with authority. The young girl was injured, but no worse than that. Bones had been in time; her assailant had had no chance to do more than terrorize and grope her and get his pants open. Which was bad enough.

The men at Rangeman were all men of honor…protectors. That was probably why Bones didn’t stop beating that son of a bitch until the others got there. The prick had tried to fight back, but…like most cowards…against a man his own size, he’d lost and lost badly. Bones had broken the guy’s entire face, both of his hands, more than a few of his ribs, his collarbones and his shoulder. Then he’d cuffed the bastard and left him face down on the floor while he stripped off his own shirt and covered the girl to preserve her modesty and dignity. He carried her to the ambulance that had been called in when he alerted his fellow Rangemen to the crime he’d stumbled upon. A local news crew had been in the parking lot covering the concert and the protesters that had come out to express their anger at the relationship KAMA shared. There had been minor protests at most of the southern shows…but the two Texas shows had definitely had the biggest and angriest. They had their own special brand of crazy. They didn’t just get pissed about the polyamory…no the bible thumpers in Texas were egged on by the racists who were pissed off that Sam, Cedes and Puck were together when Cedes was black and the guys weren’t. Fort Worth’s crowd was twice as large and chocked full of racist nuts.

Anyway, the people from CBS-DFW filmed Bones carrying the young girl to the ambulance and saying something into his phone. He was actually relaying the girl’s name and seat information to the others so they could go and get her mother. Her mom had bought her the tickets and brought her to the concert to celebrate her fifteenth birthday the night before. Some of that made the news that night…as did Woody and Ramon escorting the handcuffed and beaten asshole to and ambulance of his own. Puck, Sam, Cedes and the Crew all learned of the assault after the encore because the usual security measures had to be altered while Bones, Woody and Ramon went down to the Fort Worth PD to give their statements. One of the Rangeman drivers, Mr. Guzman, had to come in and take point with Binkie in KAMA’s dressing room during the meet and greets. It wasn’t a bad use of him, the dude was big…like he was big even for a Rangeman. He and Junior should not have been able to fit on the same bus. He also had a mean mug that looked like he ate baby chickens for breakfast. The VIPs were so well behaved that night there was talk of making his presence in the meet and greets a more permanent thing.

With the knowledge of what had happened at their concert, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knew them that KAMA popped in to visit the poor girl in the hospital and took care of her family’s deductible. They had insurance so KAMA didn’t have to pay the full bill. They took pictures with her and her parents. They left her with all of the things that the Swag Shak carried and more than a few things they didn’t all autographed and some of it even framed. Mercedes sang Demi Lovato’s ‘Warrior’ to her and reminded her that she’d been so strong. It was really kind of them to take that time. We had all taken the time to get her something for her room, teddy bears, mylar balloons and flowers, but we didn’t want to inundate the poor thing with all of thirty of us. Then we left the hospital, and made our way to Oklahoma City. That was an interesting stop. We had dinner out at a restaurant Xena recommended with her father figure and sister Blair in attendance. Blair had an interesting face and a body that wouldn’t quit. I thought she was adorable. She literally patted me on my head when I told her so though, so there was no making out with the quirky hottie.

She, Xee and Slickback had several meetings so Xena met up with us in Tulsa. Tulsa was a blast. Sam, Cedes and Puck’s goddaughter’s birthday was that same day so Azimio’s whole family along with the entire Jones, Evans and Puckerman clan came to visit. They threw the little girl a party at the zoo and we were all invited. Since only Erika and Cassidy had much little girl toy buying experience, the rest of us all just gave her small gifts and money for her college fund…but we managed to have a wonderful time and we all got to play with cute kids so it was a pretty great day. The show went well and KAMA dedicated Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’ song to her at the top of the show. Robyn got to come out and see the show as did Beth, Sam’s little brother and Mercedes’ baby sisters were all there at the beginning of the night, but of course, they went back to their RV and hotel early. After Tulsa, we had our next show in Little Rock. That concert happened to take place on my twenty-first birthday. Somehow the bosses decided that since it was my birthday, they would feature me in the show. That was kind of awesome. I got to play several instruments and was able to be front and center on the songs that had piano or sax solos. It was pretty cool. But my best present came at the end of the night, my parents and Julia came back stage with the VIPs. Puck, Sam and Cedes had flown them all in for the night and I was excused from the after party to spend time with them.

I loved what I did. I loved who I was and I was never going back to where I’d almost let life take me. My future was brighter than I’d ever really believe possible when I’d dropped out of Juilliard. I knew in my heart that my happiness was not fleeting. There was so much living for me to enjoy and I knew that I could make a real mark on the world, all through my very first love…music.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes (Dierks Bentley)
Sam PoV

Touring was hard work. I personally never minded hard work. My grandfather had always said that it was good for the body and good for the soul. However, MeMaw had always added that getting some rest when possible was a necessity or I’d burn out and that wasn’t any good for anybody. The break at Father’s Day was awesome. We’d gotten to spend some time at our house and sleep in our own bed. But that break was work in and of itself…just in a different way. We had our little siblings and older daughter with us for the bulk of the time we were in Lima. That was so epic. I loved Sloane and I never really got to see him. So, playing with him and helping him say the parts of the body that we pointed at was fun. Helping him say anything really. He wasn’t the most talkative kid. He was smart, but just didn’t talk…at least that was how it started. When he realized that me, Noah and Cedes wouldn’t give him what he wanted until he at least said a version of the word, he was little we didn’t expect perfection…but we did demand more than just pointing and grunting. Once he figured that out, he started being more willing to use his words…those that he knew, which was actually more than I expected. The kid was really, really smart. I was pretty sure that the adults were so focused on Mara and Maea’s more immediate issues than they had been on Sloane’s refusal to talk when he still had time before anyone considered it a problem. That wasn’t a bad thing, but I’d been pretty sure that we could fix it…so we did. Besides, there were times when we really hadn’t been able to figure out what he’d wanted. Words were a necessity.

We managed to fix Maea and Mara too. The simple truth was that they were Jones/Harris women which meant that they had a predisposition to having some pretty serious control problems. Now usually that wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but they were also stuck in a weird limbo place where they were often treated like the eldest when it was just the two of them and Sloane…but they were also the babies of the Jones kids and kind of Kiddles in the Middles when considered in relation to the entire, extended Jeverman family, especially those still at home. Still, all they needed was a little talking to. Mara was pretty easy. Noah just told her how much better it was to get attention for being good than to get it for being bad. He’d explained to her that the point of having a boat load of older siblings was that she could learn from our mistakes rather than making them herself. “That’s not to say you won’t make mistakes…but they’ll be your own and not something we’ve all done a million times before.”

“But, Amy Mackleson said that I was the evil twin.” Mara said quietly.

Puck scoffed. “First of all, there are no such things as evil twins, so Amy Mackleson is an idiot. Second of all, even if that was a real thing, who is Amy Mackleson, idiot that she apparently is, to tell you Amara Grace Jones who you are? You decide for yourself if you want to be good or bad…In fact, nobody is all good or all bad, so you do you. You listen at school, because you’re too smart not to. You make the choices that are best for you. If anybody doesn’t like it…you tell them to see Sarah and she’ll beat their asses then, make them an appointment to see me.”

She threw her arms around him and hugged him tight. He hugged her back just as fiercely. “I love you Noah.”

“I love you too, Mara. You know, I wasn’t much older than you when I let other people convince me that I was pretty much worthless. It took your big sister and Sammy-Boy to really convince me otherwise. I don’t want you to ever feel like that. Okay?”

“Okay.” Mara said and gave him another hug. From then on. Mara was golden. She was not a perfect child, none were, but it was like Puck had given her the permission to be true to herself. So, she was.

Now Maea, she was a tougher cookie to crack. We tried everything…we tried taking her to the bathroom every fifteen minutes. We tried celebrating when she did make it to the potty, but by Monday we were completely out of clean clothes for her and the ones we did have were in the wash. By the time the Elder Sibs had to leave to get back to Atlanta in time for them to make it to work on Monday morning, we were all frustrated and kind of at the end of our tethers. Maea had another accident after things were just down to the twenty-one and under crew…and Puck. Suddenly Mercy grabbed the keys to her car and disappeared. She came back like half an hour later with a Sprawl-Mart bag of some of the UGLIEST kid clothes I’d ever seen…and I’d seen Will Smith’s “Parent’s Just Don’t Understand” Video, so I knew ugly kid clothes. The shirt was both plaid and paisley…how was that even a thing? The pants were a shade of brown tinged with green that seemed to have been designed to be the same color as the worst possible accident a kid could have. “Alright, Maea…you’ve gone through all your cute clothes. So now, you’ve gotta wear these.”

“But they ugly. Mommy says Maea and Mara pretty girls and pretty girls wear pretty clothes.” She argued.

“Yeah, and when you stop peeing and pooping in your clothes every other minute…you can have your pretty clothes back…but until then.” Mercy admonished and then forced Maea into the ugliest outfit the poor little darling had ever worn in her life. Amaea cried like her very soul was in pain. It should not have been as funny as it was. That was the last time Amaea Gale Jones ever had a potty accident in her life. The thought of dressing like that more than once definitely made her pay attention to the demands of her body forever after.

Still, as much as we had loved being with the family and having all our siblings under our roof for those four days, we made a conscious decision to take the Fourth of July weekend completely off and completely for ourselves. We hadn’t been back to our place in Chicago in months, so we knew that that would spend the down time there. As soon as we finished the meet and greets after our Tuscaloosa concert, we headed for the airport. The drive back to Birmingham was over and done in less than an hour. And since it was just the three of us and Binkie, we had no problems at the airport. Apparently, Ranger had worked a deal with the TSA that they allowed his men to board planes armed, and his men would provide support for the Air Marshalls and act as on flight security. It made everyone feel more secure when we were traveling.

The flight itself was only a couple of hours long and since it was closer to morning than night when we got in the traffic wasn’t all that bad. The apartment was a little stuffy when we got there. So, we dropped the AC down to sixty-eight before we showered off the flight and just fell asleep in each other’s arms. Of course, since we’d gone to sleep naked, when I woke up, our soothing, romantic bedroom was filled with the beautiful sounds of Mercedes’ pleasure. I looked over and her pretty little hands were overflowing with her big, gorgeous breasts. Her body was writhing with her legs splayed and hooked over Noah’s shoulders. I came up on my side, resting my head on my hand, I watched as he devoured her. He was like a starving man at an all you could eat buffet. Only after he’d made her come twice did he lift his sexy head. I watched in envy as he licked the dewy drops of Mercy’s passion from his lips. “Well, Babygirl, looks like you owe me an hour of pure obedience…You woke Sammy-boy up.”

The smile Mercy gave me was one of pure feminine satisfaction. I remembered once again that night of our very first thruple date. I’d thought in a moment of brilliant clarity that no matter who held the dominant reigns in the bedroom…Mercedes Antoinette Jones was the one in our relationship with all the power. I leaned over and gave her a long, slow, deep kiss. “Morning, Beautiful Mercy.” I whispered against her lips before I moved to kiss Noah in the same intense, passionate way. “Morning, Sexy Comfort.”

Mercedes chuckled breathlessly. “Sammy Boy, you’ve gotta stop looking up baby names. It’s still gonna be a couple of years before we can have a baby.”

I shrugged. “I know…I also know that we have to give them the name that’s best suited to them. I just want to be prepared.” I offered with a ‘you know you love me’ grin. Then I silenced any further commentary by leaning over and sucking one of her sensitive little nipples into my mouth. I licked and sucked as Noah got a condom on and he made love to our wife as I helped him lead her to and over the edge of bliss a time or three. His commands were all based on the determination that Mercedes would save her voice. No matter what he did to her, she couldn’t scream. Even when he took her from behind while I sucked her passion hardened clit, she could moan, she could grunt, she could make that sexy little gasping groan…but she wasn’t allowed to scream. She managed it…mostly. A couple of times, I kissed her just to swallow the scream I could see was about to wrench its way out of her.

Of course, I had to help her get her vengeance. So, she and I made Noah scream out in pleasure with the expedient method of her sucking him off while I fucked his ass. I knew that was one of his favorite ways to make love. Number three on the list. Number one being us both inside Mercedes and number two was him inside Mercy’s tight little pussy and me in his hot little ass. Once we had our breath back, he and Mercy banded together to wring my ass out. In my most honest moments, I could admit that I loved being the meat sandwiched by my loves as much as they both did. It never failed to leave me completely and fully satisfied. Only then did we shower and get presentable for the public. Thankfully Mercedes thought ahead and called Binkie.

We hit IHOP for breakfast and grabbed some light groceries then ensconced ourselves in our love nest for the rest of the weekend. Mercy rode me in our shower. I ate her pretty pussy on our balcony. Puck had me for breakfast as he and I fingered Mercy while we sat at the dining table. We fucked her beautiful body between us in the music room. My back got kind of angry at me for that one…but it was totally and completely worth it when she screamed out her special scream that let us know that we’d done our job to the best of our abilities. We even christened the guest bed room on sheer principality. Granted, we did wash all the bedding afterwards. It would have been gross otherwise.

One day, I would finally be able to decide which way Mercedes Jones looked sexier, on her back under me, splayed wide open and undulating under me, her breasts shaking and jiggling, or riding me…looking down at me as her tight, wet heat enveloped me…her breasts shaking and jiggling. Then there was the possibility that she looked best on her hands and knees, that magnificent ass of hers up in the air as I took her from behind, thrusting deep into her and pushing her forward to take Noah’s cock into her beautiful mouth. One day…maybe…in the very far future, I finally be able to make a choice. Until then, I was so good collecting data for the next fifty or sixty years.

It was no wonder that Binkie had to come and get us early in the morning on Monday, reminding us that we had planned to drive over to Lima and take Nikolette to her camp ourselves. We actually slept the whole way to our Lima house, which the parents had opened for Nikki, Michelle, Marcus and Jazmine and their parents and Manny and Zip. We made it, getting there just as they were loading into their rented Suburban. “Daddy! Papa! MeDe!” Lil Darlin yelled happily when she realized who we were.

We hopped out and gave her a huge hug. “Hey, Lil Darlin’ you didn’t think we were just gonna let you and Double M-J go adventuring without us at least seeing you off.” I joked when it was my turn to hug our pretty little girl. She looked so cute in her Blue Lantern tee shirt, jean shorts and Adidas shell top tennis shoes. All of them were wearing their Lantern shirts. Nik-Nak’s was blue for hope. Michelle was in orange…avarice was kit and kin with extreme ambition and that was Michelle’s defining trait as far as I could tell. Her brother’s shirt was the original Green. Marcus had more willpower than most people three times his age. Probably because he’d had to deal with Michelle from the moment they were humans. Jazmine was in the darker, purply blue that the Lantern Corp called indigo and said was the indication of a person of compassion. Jazmine was filled with compassion…for her people.

“Are you coming with us or are you just here to see us off.” Jazzy asked happily from where she’d run over to say hello too. It had taken her a little while to really warm up to us. She’d known Mabel her whole life and seeing her replaced had not made for a happy best friend. But through treating Nikki well, we’d become okay in Jazz’s book. Her parents had grown to like us for the way we’d handled everything with Mabel’s passing.

EA and her husband Trey were fun and they were very much happy to see us. “Oh good, with you guys there to distract everybody, we can cry in peace without the other parents seeing and thinking that we’re all wussy or something,” Trey Taylor laughed. He told dad jokes like it was his job. But, luckily for everyone, it wasn’t. Richard Michael Taylor the Third, known to everyone as Trey, was one of Mayor de Blasio’s Deputy Mayors. It left him less time with his family than he would have liked, buthe was doing good work.

No one was surprised nor could they really fault Nikki for choosing to make the just under three-hour trip with us. It had been a couple of weeks since we’d sent her back to New York with Bubbie while we returned to our tour. We’d missed her more than it seemed possible considering that we’d not even known of her existence at the same time the year before. The simple truth was that a year or a lifetime…she was ours and missing her when she wasn’t with us was as much a part of that as loving her was. It was funny, Lil Darlin wasn’t a particularly talkative child. She said what she wanted to say, but she didn’t usually talk for hours on end. Nikki talked the entire way from Lima to Cleveland almost without stopping. Well, it wasn’t actually Cleveland, it was actually about fifteen miles outside the city in a town called Berea. Baldwin Wallace University was a four-year private, coeducational, liberal arts college that had NCAA Division III sports teams. The school was not big…nor was it tiny. It had been founded by the Methodist church, so the older buildings on campus reminded me a little of churches.

We did the registration thing, everything had been prepaid, but we had to cough up a seventy-five buck cash key fee. Thankfully, Binkie had our back, because the only one of us who usually carried cash was Hudson, and she had stayed with the tour. Bubbie had probably had it…but she’d been kind enough to let us take Niks and she’d stayed behind in Lima. Once we had their room assignments, we helped the kids with taking all of their things to Ernsthausen Hall, where the three girls would be sharing a single room and Marcus would be forced to get to know two other roomies. Each kid had needed to bring a blanket or sleeping bag, Nikki, Jazz, Marcus and Michelle had brought both. They all had new sheets, two pillows, pillow cases, towels, laundry bag, coat hangers too. Best of all, it was all color coordinated. Marcus’s sleeping bag was Batman, so all his gear was either dark gray or golden yellow. Michelle had fallen in love with a Supergirl sleeping bag, so her things were royal purple or pink to match. Jazzy had gone with Tiana, of course, so her stuff was either deep purple or light green.

But Lil Darlin’ she did her Papa proud. She’d wanted a Princess Lea sleeping bag. So, I’d searched until I found the perfect thing. Okay, so I’d paid one of Kurt’s friends from FIT a grand to make her the perfect thing. There was a drawing of Lea in her battle gear, so a white battle suit, gold vest, brown boots, matching gloves and her blasters in black holsters on her hips. She was on a field of purple throwing the ‘Slave Lea’ costume away and saying ‘Nope’ emphatically. Suri, Kurt’s friend had gotten that printed or whatever onto fabric and made Nikolette a nice soft, totally double stuffed sleeping bag…and everything that wasn’t the picture looked like space. It was epic. So much so that hit Suri off with a two-hundred and fifty buck bonus and I had her working matching comforter sets for Lil Darlin and Punkin’s room in Lima. Nik-Nak’s stuff was all either purple or, when we could find it, stars on navy blue.

Mercedes, Elizabeth and Fina Cuoco had gotten them all shower caddies, shower shoes and all the shower necessities, soap, combs and brushes, toothbrush and paste, shampoo and conditioners, lotions…those kinds of things. Seriously, Mercy and Fina had totally educated Elizabeth on the fact that all people needed lotion all year round, not just women and not just in the winter. Poor Marcus was destined to be all kinds of metrosexual. The kids all also had two boxes of Kleenex tissues and a small fan. Bubbie, Darcy and Hudson had made sure that they all had unique pens, pencils, sixty-two gig USB flash drives on monogrammed lanyards. But the monogramming didn’t stop there. All four of the kids had personalized rain coats, a couple of hats, and wallets which contained around thirty dollars in spending money…all of it in singles and quarters since it was mainly for vending machines.

After spending half an hour signing shit for the kids and teens that would be our M-N-M & J’s buddies for their two weeks of camp, we got them all settled. Then we met back up in the girls’ dorm room. “You have your phones?” Nicholas Cuoco asked as the kids were giving us all hugs.

“Yes.” Their exasperation was real.

“Your chargers?” Trey added in.

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t forget to wear your shower shoes every time you go to the bathroom.” Mercedes chided. “You don’t want to catch athletes foot.”

“We won’t.” Jazzy assured her.

“If you need anything at all, you can call Suga Mama and Big Daddy and they will have it waiting on you next weekend when you go to Lima. If it’s an emergency, call Ms. Hudson and she can have whatever you need shipped her in twenty-four hours.” I reminded them.

“Yes, sir.”

“Call us every evening.” EA added.

“Every other evening is fine.” Fina changed it. “You can call anytime you want to…but you definitely have to call us every other day.”

Manny checked them out. “Your watches are waterproof. They are also your panic buttons. So, do not…I repeat do not take them off.” He didn’t mention that most of their stuff had GPS tracking enabled in it. Hector and Grunt were awesome.

Zip cosigned that as did the rest of the adults in the girls’ room, it afforded us the most privacy. “Manny and I will be here watching over you during the day, even if you don’t see us. So, if you need something that won’t even wait twenty-four hours, text us and we’ll see what we can do. We’ll definitely check in with you four at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Remember, no matter what anyone says or does…you do not take off those watches.”

When the kids agreed and reminded us that they weren’t idiots. We gave them another round of hugs. “We love you very much…all of you. So, take care of yourselves and each other. Call us to check in and call us if you need anything.” Puck summarized and then we had to leave. We had to make our noon flight to get to Jackson in time for our sound check.

Having forty-eight hours to ourselves capped off with those few hours with Lil Darlin’ was a perfect way to get our focus back where it needed to be. We sailed through those next couple of weeks on the road and, other than having to release a statement about the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail, how much more proof do people need that there is a reason for groups like Black Lives Matter. Anyway, before we knew it, we were in Tennessee. I loved being back in my home state. I’d grown up not far outside Nashville so we were in my stomping grounds. Well, like most states we had two shows in the state. The first one was in Memphis. The heart of Rock-in-Roll and the home of the King. The show was pretty epic. We’d changed up a lot of our covers so that we could include ‘Walking in Memphis’ and damn if hearing Mercedes Jones covering Pam Tillis’ ‘Maybe it Was Memphis’ didn’t give me such an epic boner that people literally talked about it on social media for three days after the concert. They might not have known for sure but that damn Blake, our biggest fan of a tour follower, had pictures of me on stage in that same outfit at a different concert with a mild stiffy…I always had those when performing…and he showed them side by side. Darcy was laughing so hard when she called to tell us that the side by side shot was trending number one on Instagram that she dropped her cell phone…twice.

We left Memphis immediately after we wrapped the Fed-EX Forum’s VIP meet and greets. Thankfully, the arrangements had been made for the video filming before Brantley had booked us for an after party there. I had to admit that after parties were definitely a lucrative sideline to the tour, so I didn’t complain about doing them, anymore. Probably, I’d have really enjoyed a Memphis after party…but we were all due on the set at eight in the morning. We all slept for the entire three or so hour drive between Memphis and my grandparents’ farm. MeMaw was letting us park the rigs there while we rushed to the studio since we weren’t able to check into the hotel until that afternoon. We were hopeful that she was going to allow us to make upgrades to the farm and to build our tour buses a barn among the outbuildings.

It was still a little up in the air…but not for the reasons most people would think. MeMaw had no problem with us building a barn to hold the four tour buses, two semi-trucks and trailers. What she had a problem with were the other improvements that we wanted to make to the farm. Mercy, Noah and I all agreed that we wanted to invest fully in the farm, bring it back to how it had been when Mom was little a thriving almost seven hundred acre working farm alive with livestock and food crops. Since PaPaw had passed, MeMaw had managed to keep all the land but most of the fields had been fallow ever since. She had sold off all but the breeding stock and the money she used to up keep the place came from the stud fees. But even then, she was keeping the outbuildings to a pretty low standard of upkeep, while focusing on maintaining the house and keeping a small personal garden. But she didn’t have a whole lot left over after she paid the two men who took care of the animals for her and the house and outbuildings. However, she was good with that. “I’m just trying to keep this all together for your brothers and sister if one of them or all of them decide to come and make this their home and livelihood.”

We thought that since we had enough money to make the updates and get things back up and running and possibly employ some people who were out of work and may have been for quite some time, we should. But MeMaw was stubborn. Momma was working on it for us. Especially since Stacey was making noise about going to Duke and majoring in agricultural science and management. But so far, she had also made noise about being a model, an actress, a fashion designer and a fireman. This was the first time she’d actually looked into schools. Duke was her first choice because she wanted to return to the south…and like most southerners thought Florida was not really the south. The Gator’s agricultural science and animal husbandry programs were ranked ninth in the entire world though, so she might should just get over that if she was serious about wanting to learn how to make the family farm a success once more.

MeMaw’s farm was not far outside of Nashville and was the most beautiful place on earth. It had started as seven farms back before the Civil War. It had belonged the seven Puckett cousins of that generation. When the war broke out, only three of them had sons. All seven of them had all fought for the Union, a fact every generation of Pucketts were very proud of…well one did enlist in the confederate army, but he did so as a spy and passed tons of information to his cousins through their women at home. Anyway, all only two made it back to Tennessee, but they never did have kids so the seven farms were combined and divided into thirds which passed to the three sons that had been born before the war. From there the land had been parceled out as needed. But in the last three or four generations, PaPaw had been the only Puckett interested in farming and living in the south at all…so the land had been combined into one big ass farm that he and MeMaw had been responsible for passing it on. Mom hadn’t minded the whole southern living part…but having grown up on the farm, she’d long ago discovered that she hated farming. I loved being outdoors and maybe in an alternate universe, I’d made the choice to take it over…one where I’d never met Mercedes Jones maybe…God that would have been a horrible universe.

When we got to the farm, the farmhouse was dark, as it should have been it was almost four in the morning. I wouldn’t have even known that if Jake hadn’t had Hudson get me so I could open the gate. Thankfully, MeMaw had made sure I had my own copy of the keys to her property when I turned eighteen so I was able to open the equipment gate without having to get her out of bed. I climbed back into bed with Mercy and Noah and got a couple more hours of sleep. Hudson was seriously epic…and I was kind of starting to wonder if she ever slept. She somehow managed to get us all up, presentable and over to the old bunk house where we found MeMaw and Grams Mae waiting on us with breakfast.

Mercy, me and Noah were all pretty shocked to see Grams Mae, but apparently she and MeMaw had worked her visit out between themselves over Father’s Day break after we’d made the arrangement to leave the vehicles at the farm during our shoot. Those amazing ladies had created quite the spread. There were biscuits, both buttermilk and plain, an assortment of jellies, jams, preserves, syrups and hot sausage gravy to go with them. They had made homemade blueberry, blackberry, honey bran and my personal favorite, praline pecan, muffins. All of that was accompanied by bacon, sausage and eggs. But best of all…MeMaw had made The Coffee! Capitalization and exclamation mark were both well deserved.

The Puckett coffee was something that people had died for, seriously, there was one former Puckett spouse who had tried to sell the secret to Starbucks…it hadn’t ended well. Cousin Pam had told him not to do it. He hadn’t listened. Stupid bastard. Okay, so he probably wasn’t dead…nobody had seen him since nineteen-ninety- three…but probably he’d run away to Canada with a waitress or something. I could definitely see her making him scared enough to disappear. One day, I was going to find out why Cousin Pam and Coach Sylvester looked like twins…though Coach was about six or seven years older than Cousin Pam…but still inquiring minds wanted to know. MeMaw must have really loved me because she made vats of The Coffee! And it was a family secret recipe that wasn’t even shared among the whole family…just the special ones. I mean, Girl Sam had gotten to learn, but not Melanie and they were twins. MeMaw had already told me that I was too heavy handed…but she figured Stevie was pretty much the perfect one of us to learn from her.

Breakfast was a loud, raucous…cowboy like…meal. Afterwards, everyone thanked MeMaw and Grams Mae, a few, like Xena even asked them if they were looking to add any grandchildren through adoption. We cleaned up behind ourselves too, even taking the time to carry things back to the bunkhouse kitchen and wash and put them away for MeMaw so she wouldn’t have to fool with it. Still, when the vans got there to take us to the studio, we were all ready, including both of our grandmothers who were present. The drive to the NuMynd Studios wasn’t long at all, just a bit over thirty minutes. Brantley, Darcy and Kurt were there awaiting our arrival, even if we were a little early. They had actually flown in from Cleveland and were accompanied by the real stars of our video, Tamir Rice’s mother Samaria Rice and his sister, Tajai, who had been in the park with him that fateful day. We’d invited Mr. Dylan to join us in the video since he didn’t have to let us cover ‘Ballad of Emmit Till’ but the veteran rock legend had declined. However, his son Jakob came to represent the family. I could not tell who had swooned harder Joaquina or Erika.

Jamal showed up with his brother Andre about ten minutes after we got there. Cookie was on probation so she couldn’t exactly leave New York. She did dip to Philly a time or two to see her family, but we all agreed that Nashville was a little far afield and we didn’t want her getting into trouble. Still an entourage was a necessity for any Lyon or Empire artist, so it wasn’t just Jamal and Andre, but they were the only ones important enough to get to talk to us. Part of that entourage was his personal makeup artist. “Man, my skin is so sensitive if I even look at a mirror wrong, I have an allergic reaction.” He’d explained when Puck teased him gently about the diva-like behavior.

The two local choirs, one from Christ Church, a predominantly White congregation, and the other from Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a predominantly Black congregation. Both choirs were present and accounted for by ten minutes to eight while Skye and her mom rolled in right on the dot. Kurt and Bubbie Ruth had managed to corral the two head choir directors and gotten every one’s sizes and measurements and the had ordered two hundred and fifty or so of the ivory off the shoulder mermaid lace and tulle gowns from the Tadashi Shoji fashion house and the equal number of off-white Perry Ellis men’s linen suits. They had been told to bring their own ivory or brown shoes, comfortable but Sunday go to meeting appropriate. Hudson and Kurt had arranged for pretty much every hair and makeup person in West-Central Tennessee to turn out and somehow, the choir was ready to go by the time the director Sing J. Lee, studio manager Nick Eagles…that poor dude had geeked out as hard as Artie when he got to meet Mr. Lee. Sing was an awesome guy. He’d flown in from Britain to do our video all based on the theme Artie had come up with and the message of the song. Anyway, the choir was ready to go when the Director and studio manager were ready to place them. It probably did help that the women of Mt. Zion had arrived with their hair and nails all not just done…but Did.

The theme was a simple one…Peace. We were all sure that poor little Tamir’s soul was at peace. He was only twelve when he was murdered after all. So, the choir would be in soft ivory, the band was set to be in pure white linen and the singers were all in blue. We’d even rented all white instruments. Before we’d even gotten to the studio, the space had been transformed into one huge pulpit. We were shoved into our own apparel with hair and makeup done and on set. The three of us, plus our dancers in flowing blue dresses and tank shirts and wide legged white pants. It may not have been a New York or LA production…but this was not a cheap video to make. The clothing budget alone was pretty ridic. Since we had agreed to mention the fashion houses in our liner notes that would come with the purchase of the video, even digitally, both Tadashi Shoji and Perry Ellis had given us a huge break on the cost of the dresses and suits for the choir. Bubbie’s connection at Macy’s was a mother herself and she had gifted the clothes for the Rices to them, so they would both be leaving with a new dress and shoes. The Alexander McQueen Periwinkle wool and silk jacket that Jakob would be wearing had been a steal, at least according to Kurt…but even half off was expensive when the original price tag was over sixteen hundred bucks. Yeah, there may have been a reason they made it a practice to never tell me the cost of the clothes they bought for me.

While we were getting set up on our side of the shoot, Mr. Lee was in Studio B, a smaller space which had been turned into a quintessential American park setting. Samara Rice was seated at a white painted picnic table under a pure white gazebo going through a blue photo album of pictures of her son. She was dressed in a royal blue embellished and draped gown from Adrianna Papell. Her braids arranged into an intricate crown atop her head. As she got to the older shots, those most people had seen on the news, she was joined by her daughter. Tajai’s dress was a brighter blue, and simpler and yet more complicated Rickie Freeman for Teri Jon scuba dress with a sculptural side ruffle. Grams Mae and MeMaw took seats across from them. Both of the grandmothers in shades of blue. Though all three dresses were by the same designer, their dresses were even simpler than Tajai’s. Together the Black and White grandmothers took the hands of the mourning mother and sister and even without hearing their words, it was easy to see that they were praying with and for the Rice family. Then Grams and MeMaw stood and moved around the table and sat surrounding the family as Samaria showed them the pictures in the album. That whole portion of the video was synced with the first verse and it looked so deep and profound.

When Sing Lee came in, we were all in position. Jamal and Skye seated together at a huge, white grand piano. Mercy standing beside it, her hip against the wood. Jakob, Puck and I settled on dark wooden stools with our guitars arrayed out behind her. The large choir seated in the ‘pulpit’s’ choir stand.

The Ballad of Tamir Rice

In America’s heartland,
The new lynchings are state sanctioned events.
A child gone so soon, lost to fear and tragedy
A call for help, as we’re taught to do
Was turned into a call to arms too good to resist

In the greatest land on all the earth
The boy’s dreadful calamity is becoming far too common
Though history tells a different tale…
It’s happened far too often

We played the slow, mournful, soul song with its usual gospel like reverence. Lee didn’t have play back going. He had us simply playing and singing, though the track would later be added and synced as needed. The choir lifted their voices on the controversial, and every bit as angry as I was feeling when I wrote it, chorus.

You stole his life, you took his youth
Yet victim blame and color shame
All to hide your own bitter truth
You’re a coward with a gun and lies to proclaim

We actually had to take a break at that point. One of the white men in the choir raised his hand. “It’s a tragedy and all, but the guy did reach to his waist band and the cops had been told he had a gun.”

I put down my guitar and turned around. “He was a twelve year old BOY. He wasn’t a guy. That implies he had some age to him. He was a child and the cops rolled up on him like he was a goddamn terrorist with a suicide belt on. Who knows what they yelled at him…if they even had time to say anything. Two seconds. Let me ask you sir, when you were twelve, if you were playing in a park with a toy gun and the cops came rolling up to you like that what would have happened?”

“They’d have probably taken me home and my old man would have tanned my hide.” The man admitted.

“Exactly.” I hissed. “The same thing would have happened to half the people in this room. Not because we’d done anything different than that little boy did. But because our skin color was the same as the cops. We hear all the time about some White man, old enough to know better, ‘oh he’s a good boy, he just made a stupid mistake’. We’re afforded the chance to be boys long after we’ve become men, yet there are actual kids who are seen as grown because they have brown skin. It’s time to stop that bullshit.” I knew I was crying. I couldn’t help it. Every time I thought of that poor kid, all I could think was of my Stevie shot down for being a kid and playing.

“Besides, if that Loehmann feller was so sure he was in the right, why wouldn’t they help that child?” One of the other White men said almost quietly. “By that point they saw what they had done and they were ashamed. They chose to let that poor child die because it’s a lot easier to win ‘he said, she said’ against a dead child. I’ve been a cop for fourteen years. I ain’t ever fired my weapon without being damn sure who I was firing at. We’re supposed to protect and serve the community…not shoot children and then just let them die. They were more worried about covering their own asses then being decent human beings. Then those bastards with a badge couldn’t even let his sister go to him. They cuffed her and sat her in a cruiser and were cruel enough to damn well make sure she could watch the light leave her brother’s eyes. They did that just to make sure that she would be too scared to pay attention to what they were saying and doing. It makes me sick to think of it. To think that they call themselves officers of the law and carry the same badge I hold dear. And that whole Blue Lives bullshit…I chose to be a cop. It’s a choice I’ve reaffirmed a million times. I can take off my uniform anytime I want. Black folks can’t stop being Black.”

One of the Black women stood up and went over to the police officer. “Thank you. We hear so often people saying Black Lives Matter is a racist or supremacist thing. It’s not. We aren’t saying that Black Lives Matter more, just that they matter too.”

“Well, of course they do. You might not think they matter more, but I sure as hell think some of them do. I have never encountered an African American who had evil in their hearts the way some of my own family has.” An older white lady said firmly. “Hell, the woman who raised me, who taught me everything I know about how to love and be a good Christian woman…she was darker than midnight. Ms. Lottie always told me that she wasn’t able to have kids herself so God gave me to her to make up for it. My parents fired Ms Lottie when I was fourteen because they decided that I’d outgrown the only person to show me true, real unconditional love in that house. They might have fired her, but until the day I finished my doctorate, Ms. Lottie called me every week to check on me and make sure I was working hard in school and trying to make more of my life than my parents ever thought I could. My brothers were supposed to be the family pride…I was just a girl. Well, thanks to Ms. Lottie…I’m a college professor and author, when nobody told me I could be more than a wife and mother. My eldest brother, he’s a sick bastard…likes to claim he’s a good Christian…but if you look he’s in both the Klan and NAMBLA. When I had my own children, I went and brought Ms. Lottie home to live with us. My mother may have called herself ‘Grandmother’ but Ms. Lottie was the grandmother they went to for love and affirmation. And, ya know what, when Ms. Lottie passed, I used my high falutin’ parents’ money to throw her the finest funeral Spruce Street Baptist Church ever did see.” She chortled.

A Black woman of around the same age, later fifties or early sixties, laughed. “That was a nice funeral. Lottie Jenkins was my Momma’s cousin. She was always really proud of her little Charlotte. That’s you right?”

Apparently it was because the next thing we knew the two women were sitting together and talking. Somehow that seemed to open some sort of flood gate. Before we knew it, people were finding folks they knew from school and work and their neighborhoods and the choir was fully integrated, not just the sort of rough, within their vocal sections packing they’d originally been sitting in. Sing Lee smiled and got us rolling again. Mercedes voice had empowered the first verse. The second was all Jamal

Two seconds, just a moment and a half of time
Yet you demanded and expected compliance to an order unheard
Four minutes was a lifetime and a half never to be
A boy’s body slain, a world cut short, a dream deferred

Unfit for duty, yet hired anyway,
Protected and elevated by the white of your skin
The very privilege that allowed you your badge
The root and the enablement of your horrible sin

The choir repeated the chorus, somehow the same voices seemed so different, so much more powerful when raised together that time.

You stole his life, you took his youth
Yet victim blame and color shame
All to hide your own bitter truth
You’re a coward with a gun and lies to proclaim

I had the bridge, unusual for me, but they were my words and I didn’t want anyone else taking the flack for them. If the person listening couldn’t see my rage and sorrow…they weren’t paying attention.

Loehmann was no man just a coward who never had a clue
Killing and abusing the very ones you vowed to protect and serve
Yet you’ve been supported and sheltered by your brotherhood of blue

 

The final verse alternated between Skye and Mercedes. Her voice was softer and lighter than Mercy’s but her lament was chilling. Together, making points that added up to complicity of my whole race was a daunting truth that seemed too firmly rooted to ever be changed.

(Skye) A sister cries as her brother dies, she begs you for just a shred of humanity
(Mercy) Killing generations of Black men and women hiding behind the old excuse
(Skye) You threaten a mother as her baby lies bleeding from your insanity
(Mercy) So many lives ended as they ‘reached for a gun’ they couldn’t even use

(Skye) So People of Color, we scream and we rail at the injustice of it all
(Mercy) Hoping and praying that one day this nation will live up to the mission of its pledge
(Skye) Some White people get it and when we rise they always answer our call
(Mercy) America, until brotherhood is real and love is shared, then we’re all standing on the edge

The choir brought the chorus back to life once more before we went into the final bridge. The last four lines were almost fully from the inspiration song, a suggestion from a legend that had been an opportunity we couldn’t refuse. On stage it was usually left to Puck to sing, but with a Dylan present, he couldn’t not share.

(Puck) This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
(Jakob) That this kind of thing still lives today outside that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
(Puck) But if all of us folks that think alike, if we gave all we could give
(Jakob) We could make this great land of ours a Greater place to live.

Sing Lee was an efficient director. He didn’t have us there all day. He had filmed the scenes with the Rices and the grandmothers while we were all getting in place in the larger studio. Sing Lee had added the grandmothers to the original scene that was supposed to have just been the mother and daughter. He had made the change when he realized that MeMaw and Gram Mae had costuming there for them as well. Then, while he was filming we five leads, the band and the choir in one studio, his top assistant filmed the dancers, all in blue and white, dancing through the playground to the song pipped through the studio’s audio system. Rainbow had come up with a modern-interpretative dance that was beautiful and yet horrifying at the same time. It told a story of struggle through the centuries, all in one modern playground. Ultimately the dance ended with all the People of Color in various rigor poses on the ground while only Joseph and Kelli stood. Though even then the way it finished, Joseph seemed to be physically dominating Kelli. It was ghastly…but I defied anyone to tell me that wasn’t how certain elements of our society felt things should be. Then they ran through the second choreography, which ended with everyone happy and together…as it could be and should have always been.

We wrapped up and thanked the choir members with fifty dollar gift cards to Target and matching ones for Darden Restaurants. They could go to any Olive Garden, Longhorns, Yard House, Bahama Breeze, Cheddar’s or Seasons 52 for a meal. Hudson and Haja had worked out a deal where we’d gotten a hell of a discount…actually since we were scheduled to do a Target commercial and let Darden use the background music from ‘ColorBlind’ in one of their ads, I think we actually made money off that one. We did also make pretty hefty donations to their churches too, so everyone was happy. We dragged Mrs. Rice and Tajai, Sing and his assistants, Skye and her mom, Mal and Andre and Jakob out to have dinner with us and the Crew. Hudson had made the arrangements, but she wasn’t there when we finally wrapped around seven. She texted us that she would meet us at the restaurant. She’d actually gone to the Omni, where Kurt, Brantley, Darcy and the Rices already had rooms to get us checked in and get our keys. She’d also handled getting the tour crew, who had spent the day exploring Music Row and Nashville on the whole, checked in to their hotel at the Holiday Inn Express Downtown near the Arena. The promoter was handling all the rooms but our three people and the Rices, so we couldn’t exactly fuss about that the tour crew wasn’t listed in the contract as those person who had to be in the same hotel with us.

The dinner was amazing. We offered Jakob a chance to join Jamal, Skye and the Rices as our guests the next night. I was a little surprised that he accepted but he must have known that the invitation included the performance too. The next day was spent getting ready for the show while Kurt and Darcy took Ms. Samaria and Tajai to a day spa. The actual concert was an epic event. Todrick was amazing. He and Jamal got along so well that Mal ended joining him for a few songs too. Cass’s set included protest songs and driving African beats. We actually did the encore as the first set and ended the show with the two ballads, while behind us and on all the vid screens was a list of people of every color who had been killed by police while unarmed or lynched by the Klan no matter what they were calling themselves at the time. That night when people left they weren’t rushing out to go and make love, as we usually tried to inspire…instead they were deep in conversation…and thought. Maybe we could make some small change. I really did hope so.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

People Get Ready (Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions)
Mercedes PoV

Nashville was what I mentally called a NEWT city. Nastily Exhausting certainly fit. It definitely tested my physical, mental and emotional limits. One day, I’d figure out what the mental W meant since wizarding did not apply. It came too close after Fort Worth, which was a hellacious night and morning. I took it pretty personal that someone had harmed a girl at one of our shows. It pissed me off that any man thought he had the right to harm a female but to do so at a show that was all about love…MY Show…OUR Show. Yeah, naw…that made me very, very angry on a deeply personal level that was extremely hard to put into words. And I knew that Sam and Noah felt the same way. I shook off those thoughts and my mind returned to the emotional havoc that I’d had to deal with and handle in a mature fashion just a week later. I had taken a moment to speak with Ms. Rice during one of our breaks from filming our second ‘fundraiser’ video. I mean, it would be played on music video channels and everything, but a large portion of the proceeds from the streams and purchases would be given to the legal defense fund Puck had theorized and that Uncle Ethan had begun to bring to reality after our business meeting in Atlanta. “I want to thank you again for allowing us to record this song and to make this video. Are you sure…” I began only to get cut off.

“I’m very sure. I miss my baby in a way I hope you are never really able to understand. But, no matter what those Fox News talking head types have to say, I’m not in this for a paycheck. I just want my son to live on and for the police to stop and think when they have someone’s life in their hands. I just know that this song is going to help to keep Tamir alive in people’s memories. Like Mr. Dylan’s song helped to do for Emmitt Till.” She told me stridently.
I nodded in understanding. “Yes Ma’am…but you didn’t have to choose us. I know that plenty of people have asked you for this chance…this opportunity to honor your little boy.”

Samaria gave me a wry grin. “Do you know why I said yes to you three? It was you and your voice, yes…but mainly it was your White boy…Sam, not Noah. Noah seems like he would love nothing more than five minutes alone with those two cops, but they would all end up coming out of the room alive. Sam…he was the first person who seemed like Tamir would never just be a name to him. In a different world…a better one maybe…my baby would have grown up to be friends with Sam’s brother, Stevie. They would have been on the basketball team together at Ohio State and gone on to keep up with each other as they got married and had kids of their own. Ya know?” Her smile was so sad, I couldn’t help but ache for her loss.

“I know that nothing will ever make your loss better. But I am praying for you and your family.” I finally said the only thing I could think of that didn’t seem like some stupid, but well-meaning platitude.

“I’ll take it. We need all the prayer we can get.” She said honestly.

Her daughter came over to show her something Kurt had given her and I took the time to head to the bathroom and have a mini-break down. It was Gramma Mae who found me huddled in a corner of a convenience loveseat in the antechamber of the ladies’ room in a designer lace cocktail dress. At first, she didn’t say a word, just hugged me close. I don’t know how long she just held me as I wept, but finally she quietly spoke truth to power. “You know MeDe Baby, you and your boys are doing a good thing with this song. You’re giving a name to all the men, women and children whose lives are cut short by people we’re always told we should be able to trust. Tamir Rice isn’t the only one, not by a long shot…but neither was Emmitt Till. There were lynchings throughout the south not just in the fifties and sixties, but going all the way back to after the Civil War. They claimed that they had their reasons to kill this black man or kill that black boy…but it all boiled down to one thing, fear.”

“Fear not hate?”

“Baby, you’re gonna find that at the root of almost all hate is fear. I hate snakes because I’m scared as hell of them. For a lot of White people, its fear of being shown to be just like the rest of their fellow humans, poor Whites especially. I can understand it to a certain point. When the only thing you have going for you is the color of your skin, the scariest thing you can ever face is equality. What they fail to realize is that the ones with all the money, they are counting on that fear and, they will use and abuse that fear to make sure that those same poor Whites never stop to look at who and what is keeping them so poor.”

“If the poor ever banned together, the wealthy wouldn’t know what hit them.” I smiled evilly.

Gramma Mae chuckled. “I wouldn’t enjoy that thought too hard Baby, you and your boys are far from poor and getting closer and closer to wealthy every time I turn around.”

I shook my head with a laugh of my own. “Nope, we’re doing alright. But Nikki and Bethany and the kids we have together in a few years, they’re gonna have to have jobs of their own too. Maybe our great-grand kids will be able to live off the family money…but then their Great-Granddaddy Sam would figure out how to haunt them for being silly and lazy.”

“Oh, he sho-would.” Gramma Mae laughed. “Sam don’t want his family to be truly poor ever again…but he would hate it if they acted like Paris Hilton or those Kardashian kids.” We shared a moment of humor before she got serious again. “You know, you’ve got both sides of this in your blood Baby. One of my mother’s brothers was killed by police. They said that he had tried to take their gun, but he was shot in the back. We might not have had all the forensic science that is available now. But we did know bullets made small holes going in and big ones coming out. Max was twenty years old, on his way home from school in Alabama. He’d never hurt a soul, off the football field. But they shot him dead because, how dare a Black boy go to college. He was just an uppity n-word to them.”

“On the other side, your PopPop…he had a cousin who was a cop. Ginger was a good cop. She got shot on a routine traffic stop. Back before there were cell phones or even on the shoulder radios. She bled out before another car came along and saw her lights on. If she hadn’t called in his license plate before she got out the car, they would never have caught the asshole. Thing about it was the guy who killed her was a twenty-year-old college student. He was White, went to an Ivy League school. Started running drugs because his father would only give him a thousand dollars a month for his allowance and he wanted to make easy money. I always wondered what he needed more than what would be about thirty-one hundred bucks per month to do. It wasn’t like he had bills to pay. Anyway, MeDe, his life ended because Ginger was a cop in a state where killing a cop got you an automatic death penalty. His father, he had other sons, and was pissed off as hell at the entitled moron he’d raised so he wouldn’t pay for all the appeals and such. The public defenders weren’t all that involved in trying to get him off, especially since the prosecutor had pretty much gotten an on the stand confession. The asshole even said he’d shot her because she was an ‘uppity n-word bitch’ who thought she was important just because she had a badge.”

“I’ve heard myself called an uppity n-word backstage at a couple of our first award shows. Then the same chick smiled like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth and congratulated me like she hadn’t just said that racist shit under her breath.” I admitted. “I personally didn’t care, we’d just spanked her in more than a few categories. It was sour grapes. Now, every time we beat her…it makes my heart smile in a way I don’t feel about the other nominees.”

Gramma cackled. “Well, Baby…they always said that living well is the best revenge. Now go dry your face and let’s go let your girl Trina make you all camera ready. And you just remember, there has been a lot of change in the last fifty years. Not near enough sometimes…and we’ve still got a ways to go, but things are better.”

“And we’ll do our part to make more change happen.” I said solemnly.

With those words, I was able to refocus and we got the video in the can. On the way to the restaurant we had a good, ten-minute chat with M-N-M&J, they were loving the camp and could definitely see going back the next summer too. We had dinner that night in the restaurant that MeMaw Rose swore was Sam’s favorite place to eat in the whole state. Arnold’s was an iconic meat and three sides restaurant that had been going strong since the early eighties. I had to admit, the fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and cornbread were all really good. Almost as good as MeMaw’s or Gabby’s. After dinner, we took ourselves to our rooms at the Omni. The love we made that night was slow and sweet and affirming. Even Noah needed to fill back up on the love that evening. It was raw and telling of exactly how emotionally draining that whole process had been.

The next morning we were actually up pretty early. It was a show day and we had a routine to keep. I was up about an hour before Sam and Noah. I used that time to take care of my skin. Wearing stage makeup under the lights and heat, I’d had to step up my skin care game. It also meant that wigs or not, once a week, I did a deep condition mask on my hair and spent an hour luxuriating in a cocoa butter and shea butter body balm to keep my skin nice and lubricated, because ashy was just not classy. I could admit it, I’d have killed for a nice, deep tissue massage, but there just wasn’t any time for me to have a spa day…well not in Nashville. I texted Hudson to see if we could hit one when we hit Lexington the day we reached Kentucky’s largest city. Once the guys were up and breakfast was had by all, we worked out with the rest of the crew. We took over the fitness center for just over an hour, filling every machine and trading off to something new every fifteen minutes. It was a pretty good center with bench presses, free weights, leg presses, life rowers, inclined sit-up boards and, of course, stationary bicycles and treadmills. It had been a great work out and we were moving a little more slowly on the way back up to our room. But after our showers, we were good to go again.

Once everyone had finished circuiting the fitness center, we all showered and met in the private dining area of the Kitchen Notes in the Hotel. After lunch, we broke up and Sam, Noah and I returned to our room and called the parental units while they were on their way back to work from their own lunch breaks. Once we’d spoken to our families, we took some time to answer emails and fan mail. Then we headed to the Rupp Arena to practice and run our sound checks. I was glad that practice, sound check and the concert itself all ran like clockwork. We did our Meet and Greet with our guests of honor seated on the couch in our dressing room, then we invited everyone to the after party. But the grandmothers both begged off and the Rices had an even better reason, Tajai was way too young to party and they had a pretty early flight the next day. However, both of them couldn’t stop talking about their spa experience and the tour of Music City that Kurt and Darcy had arranged for them to fill their day. It made me feel good to make their lives brighter for at least one weekend.

Nashville was a major American music mecca, so of course the after party was a must attend. The Nashville promoter was actually a big ass music name. Louis Messina was actually president of AEG Live and yet he was cool with taking on KAMA for just one city. He was not disappointed. We’d played to a completely sold out twenty-thousand seat arena. The after party was held at one of the largest clubs on Broadway, the iconic Wild Horse Saloon. The place was so packed, we had to send those of our crew who were under twenty-one back to the hotel. The after party was pretty ridiculous. We spent quite a little while speaking with John Esposito, the head of Warner Nashville. He was pretty awesome. We knew that we needed to make the best possible impression. When Sam got ready to record his solo album, it would be going through the head of Warner’s country arm…Mr. Esposito. The better he liked Sam, the more likely he would be to take Sam’s opinions into consideration when deciding track lists and any squabbles between Sam and his producers. We also had a long conversation with the executive VP of content and programming at Cumulus Media. Music stars were nothing without radio plays. The industry was changing and growing to include digital and social media too, but there was still nothing like hearing your album on the radio. We were shocked to learn that our songs ‘Homewrecker’, ‘Amazing’ and ‘Some Gave All’ were being played on country stations. They were the most country feeling of our tracks, so the latter two didn’t surprise me. But I led ‘Homewrecker’…I expected the Sam songs, they were almost pure country with rock undertones. ‘Homewrecker’ was an R&B song with a country riff. At least that was how I thought of it. But according to Mr. Dickey, it was a very much requested song across their country stations. “Which is no small feat considering that it is at best a B-side.” He said positively. “Just remember, there are artist that never have to leave their roots to cross over, Aretha, Reba, Garth, Prince, Metallica…those are just a few that are household names in every home in the world without changing anything about their music.”

“Thank you. I suppose I understand that…and there have been other Black artists in country music. I mean, Hootie…I mean Darius Rucker and Charlie Pride just off the top of my head. But I’ve always considered myself very R&B-soul so I never considered this a possibility.” I stammered. “Wow.”

“A voice like yours deserves to be recognized.” He said before drifting away to speak with the head of Sony Nashville who was there also.

To be honest, the whole party was like a who’s who of the Nashville music scene. It didn’t end until after five in the morning. We showered and caught a couple of hours of sleep before we loaded the buses and headed to meet the tour crew and rigs in Lexington. Our first stop was not the hotel or the venue. We pulled into the ZiYan Salon and Day Spa. We all had massages and manicures and pedicures and facials it was just a great day. Then we checked into our rooms at the Hyatt Regency Lexington. The show went well. We had a short issue with the three sixty video screens during Todrick’s show. But we got it fixed and things went well for the rest of the night. We ended up having to pull out one of the backup snares and send Dave’s primary one for repairs after the show, but little things like that just didn’t seem as catastrophic as they had before Fort Worth. While the Rupp was an even bigger venue than the Bridgestone Arena had been, Lexington was a smaller town, so there wasn’t an after party there. Instead we did our load out and headed to St. Louis. We also said goodbye to Todrick and welcomed Alessia back into our tour. Alessia would be with us through the states considered the Heartland.

We spent Santana’s birthday at Six Flags Over St. Louis, even going so far as to have a birthday party, complete with her family and in-laws at the Macho Nacho with funnel cakes from a nearby vendor. Santana was more than happy. She especially loved the five-thousand-dollar Louboutin gift certificate I gave her, and the matching ones for Neiman Marcus and Saks that Sam and Puck had given our friend. For Tana though, nothing beat getting to wear a crown and a beauty queen sash that said Birthday Queen on it all around the park all day. We had a blast all day. Best of all, as a thank you for us flying them in to be with their daughter on her birthday, the Lopezes had brought Beth and Nikki with them so we got to spend two extra unexpected days with our daughters. It was an amazing time. From there we went up to Champaign, Illinois for a Saturday night, sold out show at the State Farm Center and then we headed to Chicago.

There was no way we were staying in a hotel in a city where we had an apartment. So we had Hudson make the crew’s arrangements and had the Chicago promoter reimburse us. We got the Crew, the tour crew and the original New Directions rooms at the Hampton Inn Chicago Downtown. Chicago was a very important stop for one of our tribe and something told me that it would be best to have the whole crew there for her momentous occasion. We’d also gotten a two queen studio suite there for Shelby, David and Beth. We’d have gotten Francine a room of her own as well, but she was already living in the city for the summer for her internship. After much discussion, we let Russel Fabray in on the details. Neither Puck nor Sam were happy with giving him that courtesy, but I knew Quinn. Despite all that had happened, she’d want him there…if for no other reason than to rub her happiness and well-adjusted future in his face. But he was on his own for paying for his stay. As much as I thought Que deserved her spite…I wasn’t paying for it.

However, as far as Quinnie knew, all our friends were coming to Chicago to go to Six Flags with us and just to hang considering that we had some good down time. Everyone was in town by Sunday afternoon, but James had to take Quinn to dinner with his family…most of whom were in town for ‘the concert’ as well. I’d met and talked to James cousins Tommy and Junior enough times that I knew for sure it was better her than me. Me, Sammy and Noah all agreed that as much as we loved our friends, and even as much as we loved our Beth, we’d send them all sightseeing while we held up in our apartment all day that Sunday, making love until we almost couldn’t walk.

I loved being loved by Sam and Noah, anywhere or anytime…but there was a freedom in making love in our little three bedroom Chicago condo. Since we’d been there only a month before there was no need to feel like we had to cram in all the freaky-deaky shit we tended to get up to when there. Though there was something about the privacy afforded us there that made all three of us more inventive and adventurous. Saturday night our lovemaking was lazy and languid…ironically, it was easy like Sunday morning. But after a great night’s sleep, a healthy breakfast and a long hot shower, Sunday morning’s lovemaking was on and poppin’, I’d discovered a fascination with bondage that was almost sick in intensity. Not a random, ‘tie me down and fuck me hard’, bondage -though that was a thing I really did love- but no. I’d realized that I was a sick, sick puppy and it was all Sam’s fault. Okay, that was probably not fair. I’d always known that my breasts were over sensitive and the quickest way to bring myself off was to hurt them some. I never knew about breast binding until Sam had introduced me to it that long-ago night, senior year. It had been so good that I’d passed the hell out after so many orgasms I couldn’t count them all. We’d played with it once or twice more since then and every time was black out good.

While we were still in Nashville, I’d done a little reading and then a little shopping online. I’d seen the things meant especially for the play I wanted to engage in, but even the silk ropes were pretty ugly. I stumbled onto a blog from a Black female submissive and she had truly awesome tip. The silk or satin anti-breakage sleep scarves that were basically just a yard or two long and four to five inches wide…the kind you could find even at Sprawl-Mart, they worked perfectly. They could be used straight or twisted into prettier rope-type deals. I checked the Sprawl-Mart site and sure enough they had them in two colors, I’d ordered five of each, hoping that it would be enough for what I wanted to do. I’d gotten a text alert saying that they had been delivered during our sound check the day before. I’d grabbed them out of our mail box on our way up the night before. Sam and Puck had barely paid attention to the package, they had had other things on their mind, so it had been easy to stash it in our closet.

After our shower, I looked over at my handsome men. “Ummm…I want to play with something new.” I paused. “Well, it’s not new, we’ve done it before…but I got us a new way to play it, and I thought that maybe we could make it a more regular part of our play time.”

Sam came over and gave me a long slow deep kiss. “What’s on your mind Baby?” he whispered when he pulled back.

“You and Noah head into the bedroom. I’ll grab my new toys and meet you there.” I said happily. I was damn near skipping when I ripped open the larger brown puffy envelope. I grabbed the five bright white scarves and took them into the bedroom.

“Mmmm, Babygirl, what is going on in that sexy head of yours?” Noah teased pulling me into his arms. “You wanting us to tie you down and fuck you good. We already have some good stuff for that.”

Sam, on the other hand, came over and took the plastic packs from me opening them and enjoying the feel of the silks in his hand. “No, these wouldn’t work for tying her hands and feet. They slip and slide too much.” I could almost see when he realized what the silkier scarves would be perfect for. “Noah, go look in the chest and find those nipple clamps with the tension screws. Mercy wants us to make her beg and scream by torturing her sexy ass titties again.”

I nodded a little hesitantly but decided to pull on my big girl drawers and ask for what I wanted, the whole nine yards. “Can you get the blindfold and the cuffs too?”

“Ohhhh, shit Sexy Mama, you’re gonna let us play with you for real today aren’t you?” Noah drawled sexily as he got the other accessories to the game I’d been dreaming of playing for months.

I smiled confidently. “Yessss.” The sibilant tone surprised all of us, but none more than me. It sounded kind of dangerous…and sexy.

Sam took his time twisting the scarves and drawing them around and between each of my breasts winding them together and tying them off to bind me right against my ribs, and then again halfway up the long slope. His southern was showing as he spoke gently to me while he did his work. “Fuck, Mercy, it’s so damn sexy, you making moves and going after what you want. I love how confident you are. Even when you’re blushin’ you make sure that your wants and desires are seen to. I love your big, sexy titties. Love that we can drive you wild just playing with them.” He murmured. Once the two layers of binding were in place, tied tightly, but not so tightly that our game would need to end too soon, I was blind folded and led over to the bed. Rather than cuffing my hands together, Puck had grabbed two of the long shackles and they cuffed me to the curls and curves of the cutouts in our head board. I bit back a moan when both of their mouths closed on each of my nipples. With the blood barely starting to tingle in my breasts, my nipples were already beginning to get hyper-sensitive.

“Ut-huh.” Noah chided. “We want to hear every,” lick, “single,” flick, “sound.”

My back arched of its own volition. Somehow, it made the ‘rope’ tighten, only for it to go back to the way it had been when I relaxed. I straight up whimpered. “Good Girl.” Sam rewarded me. I would say I was slightly ashamed at how wet those two words made me, but I’d have been lying. No matter what form our love making took, it was still an expression of love between the three of us. There was no place for shame in the physical manifestation of our love. Noah was the first one to pull away and affix a clamp to the swollen, hardened nipple he’d been teasing, but Sam followed soon thereafter. I could feel their eyes on me as they sat back and admired their handy work. A new tension filled the room as one by one they moved off the bed. I strained to tell where they had gone. I was pretty sure that I heard the bedroom door open but not close. I soon became absolutely sure that one of them was still there with me as I heard the play chest open and close a couple of times and then the nightstand drawers opened and closed a time or two.

A scream was wrenched from my throat when something I could only guess was an ice cube touched the very tip of my very much engorged and captive nipple. The stab of cold drew back. “Do you need to use your word, Baby?”

I shook my head. “No, just, think that might be a build up to sensation. The shock made it more painful.” I reasoned.

“Alright, but just for my own personal edification…what are your words?” Sam asked me carefully.

“Qui means quit and nien means caution.” I reviewed. Then I gasped as Noah’s tongue rasped against my non-iced nipple.

“Good girl.” Sam verbally petted. Then he dragged the ice cube around the swell between the first and second ‘ropes’.

“Ooooh.” I groaned as my body tried to arch in pleasure and back away from the cold at the very same time.

Sam and Noah then spent the next amount of time immeasurable teasing me with differing sensations, the cold bite of icy fingers then the hot slide of a soft tongue. Tiny nips and hickeying sucks. They played and teased until tears of want slid down my temples and I was begging incoherently. I was so lost in my tempest of lust, want, need and feeling I completely missed the sound of a vibrator clicking on. The second it touched my pussy, right under my clit, I flew off like a rocket into the stratosphere of one of the strongest orgasms of my entire sexual life…and that was saying a lot. Just when I didn’t think it could get any better, Sam hit the immediate release on the nipple clamps. I couldn’t even scream as that pain made the pleasure even stronger. Then those beautiful bastards untied the ‘ropes’ and into the abyss I flew.

Before I was able to think, Noah kissed me, drawing my attention from the ethereal plane to the feeling of him sinking deeply into me. “Fuck, Babygirl. Your hot little pussy is so fuckin’ tight. You feel so fuckin’ good. Gawddamn, I wanna fuck you for the rest of our lives.” My hips rose up to meet his every thrust until we were both moaning and chanting out the Lord’s name as we crested another wave of orgasmic pleasure. “Shit…You…fuck…love…you…” he groaned as each pulse and throb of his cock met and married with every clench and flutter of my pussy.

As soon as Puck rolled to the side, Sammy took hold of my hips, turning me over and pulling them up until I came up on my knees. His hands slid under us to play with my swollen, throbbing breasts. In no time at all we’d found a rhythm that brought us to the greatest pleasure we knew. “Mercy Baby…I wanna come in your ass. I know we haven’t prepped you a lot…but please say I can shove my dick in your tight little asshole. Only place on God’s green earth that is tighter than your pretty little pussy. Please, Mercy…say I can take your hot little ass.”

I nodded emphatically. “Please…Yeah…God…Sammy baby…yeah.” I babbled.

Noah knew that when I was in the frame of mind that I held in that moment, I had less than no ability to reason what may or may not have been a good idea. So, he quickly moved to grab some lube and squeeze a substantial dollop onto my butthole which Sam had been staring at like a starving man as he’d begged so prettily for my consent. As soon as that was done, he shoved his head under where Sam and I were joined and tongued Sam’s balls down…rushing Sam to his inevitable cum. Sam took the hint and slipped out of my pussy…the deluge of pussy juice that came out with him would have been slightly embarrassing if I’d cared at all. “Oh, fuck yeah.” Noah growled before he fastened his mouth to my now empty pussy, his tongue doing an admirable job of filling what was lost as Sam roughly took my ass.

I squealed out a sound unlike any I’d made before as I freaked out and orgasmed at the same time. I don’t even know if Sam came or not, I was that far into my own pleasure. I didn’t even come to until Puck dribbled cold water on my chest. When I blinked my way back to consciousness, they were both staring at me in concern. “You okay?”

“Oh, I’m so far beyond okay…fuck that was amazing.”

Both of them laughed and we dragged ourselves to the shower. We spent the rest of the day moving between the bed, the kitchen and the shower. Making love in various freaky deaky ways. Noah even let me use a vibrator on his ass while Sam and I sucked him off. It was cool, but he admitted that as much as he liked getting a double blow job while getting his ass reamed, “That vibe just didn’t feel as good as Sam’s cock.” Sam didn’t want to try that. Instead, he elected to fuck me while Noah fucked him.

As much as I loved the Lord and enjoyed spending my Sunday mornings finding small churches to attend and give Him all praise and worship, that was one of the best Sunday’s I’d had on the entire tour. I felt ready to take on the world by the time we left our apartment on Monday morning. It was a damn good weekend even if it only lasted one day.

Rockaway Beach (The Ramones)
Puck Pov

The Sunday we spent in our Chicago condo was such a fucking awesome day, I relived it in my mind for weeks afterward. Thinking back, I was pretty sure that we never actually had dinner. That may have been why we changed the meeting spot from the hotel, to Lou Mitchell’s Diner a block or two away the next morning. We had pancakes…all the pancakes. They were so, so good. I was full on Badass and ordered the Belgium malted pecan and bacon waffles…two of those bitches. They came with fresh butter and some special syrup that were so good I almost cried. The diner’s special blend coffee was awesome too. I tasted Cede’s multigrain pancakes and they were good, and so were Sam’s fresh banana pancakes, but I won the best order of the day contest.

Santana watched us eat for a minute and started laughing. “You three…did you eat anything but each other yesterday?” She teased. Probably we should have waited on everyone to get there before we ordered and started eating, but we were hungry.

Artie gave her the side eye. “Tana-Doll, you know I love you, but we both know that you, me and Brittany are about to order three fourths of this menu and eat all of it.” Yeah, he called her out and she answered by kissing the hell out of his ass until the waiter got there. They didn’t order three-quarters of the menu, but they did order a hell of a lot of food too. So yeah, Art-man was speaking the truth on Tana’s hypocrisy. It should also be noted that they didn’t wait on everyone to get there before they ordered either. The others all came in a few at a time.

When Shelby and David got there, they didn’t arrive with just the two of them and Beth. Not only was Frannie Fabray with them, so were Saul, Mills and Nikki. I hopped up and had both my girls in my arms in seconds. The only feeling in the world that was better than boning Sam and Mercedes, better than being on stage in front of a packed stadium…was hugging my little girls and knowing that in that moment all was right with my world. Shels and Mills had even dressed them alike. They were both wearing black shoes with thick white soles that looked like a sneaker had mated with a ballet flat and created a hybrid with a big bow on the front just for them. Like their MeDe, they were wearing one of those romper things. Theirs were black and white with a white lace front vest over the rompers. And like Cede, they had decided not to bother changing at the park and were wearing their swimsuits under the rompers. Completely innocent, totally adorable plain black, Nike, racerback one pieces for my babies though.

That made me look over at Sexy Mama, she was rocking a cute off the shoulder, gray and white striped romper that had a big bow around her waist and gathers around her shoulders. I’d mentally made fun of the puffy, three quarter length sleeves, but it looked sexy as hell on her. Under it she was rocking a black and white halter top one piece that was black up to her huge, sexy ass titties and then white over them. I couldn’t wait to see it wet. She was wearing a black halter sports bra under it, but that would, hopefully, be taken off before we hit Yankee Harbor. For walking around the park she had on a pair of white and black, Wanted petal wedge sneakers, but I knew she had a pair of simple, Sketcher, black wedge flip flops in her bag to wear in the water park area.

While the woman and girls we loved were looking all fly and classy, me and Sammy Boy had gone for comfort over fashion. Sam was rocking a gray tee shirt that he called his ‘truth to power’ shirt. Emblazoned across his chest were some simple truths that everyone needed to acknowledge. It started with ‘Science is Real’, ‘Black Lives Matter, ‘No Human is Illegal’, ‘Love is Love’, ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ and it finished with ‘Kindness is Everything’. Of course, Sam had ordered it just a bit too small…so it was looking fucking hot on him. He wore it with a pair of gray camo cargo shorts, soft as shit, gray Sketcher ankle socks and low-top black Converse sneakers. He’d ordered my tee shirt too. A vintage heather black tee that I’d ripped the sleeves off of, which read ‘Punch More Nazis’. Sam wasn’t exactly sure if that was a life goals shirt or it was a Captain America knockoff shirt. He wasn’t sure and I didn’t care. That was a sentiment I could stand behind. “But the guy who sells it said that a portion of his proceeds go to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, so I thought it was good either way.”

It was very good either way. So, I wore it with pride and some used to be black cargo shorts and a pair of Sketcher Go-Gear flip-flops. They made me look like a total dude bro, but they were comfortable as hell and I didn’t want to have to carry around extra shoes and shit. I was already carrying a backpack with my trunks, a towel, three of our big ass Six Flags refillable cups and the two, count them two, twa-twa sunscreens that Cede, Trina and Bubbie insisted we use religiously. The Supergoop! Super Power sunscreen mousse broad spectrum SPF fifty was for our regular skin but the Eau Thermale Avène hydrating sunscreen balm SPF fifty plus was for our noses, lips, eyes and ears. I may have complained but I knew that Cede used a third one just for her face so…I decided to shut up before she added that one too. Besides, I might have been a serious badass…but I wasn’t stupid…cancer wasn’t anything to fuck with. Sam had a backpack with his shit, sunscreen and the other two refillable cups we’d bought in Virginia and Georgia and took whenever we went to one of the parks.

We actually got off pretty easy. Cede’s bag was pretty ridic. It wasn’t so bad at the beginning of the day. At breakfast the big ass purple nylon tote bag only contained her wallet, her sunscreens, a hair brush, wide tooth comb, pick, a scarf to match her outfit, her personal iPhone and one of the thin books she was reading for her classes. Though why she’d stuck one in that day I couldn’t say. She had finished all her reading journals and essays by that point. I’d noticed that she had, like me, probably without conscious thought, put in the red plaid and blue plaid purses that we’d gotten for Nikki and Beth to carry small amounts of money so they wouldn’t have to ask every time they saw a souvenir they wanted. Personally, for me it wasn’t about the whole asking thing, it taught them to look at cash and know, I’ve got this much money. Then they had ask themselves if the trinket was actually worth the cost. That was the most important part of giving them the cash. And it was a lesson that it was never too early to start to learn.

We let Shelby and David and Saul and Mills eat in peace. We took care of ordering for and making sure Beth and Niks ate a good breakfast. Saul and Mills had brought Nikki because Bubbie was saving up some time to get all the grand kids and meet the tour that last week before they had to go back to school. The parents would have them on the road with us for the two weeks following our Ohio dates…so our younger sibs would be on the road with us for three full weeks. They were so going to get sick of our shows. The whole family was still waiting on an announcement from Saul and Mills, just looking at her face there was not a doubt in my mind that Mills was totally pregnant. But maybe they were waiting until after the first trimester was over to tell anybody. I just hoped that she was as far along as I thought she was, the waiting was killing all of us. And Francesca would totally kill Mills if she was hugely pregnant at her wedding. But I was pretty sure that Mills had to be near the end of her third month…so it should be all good.

Everyone, our Original New Directions peeps, our Crew, our tour crew, the Rangemen and the various and sundry family members associated there with, was all assembled, fed, watered and into the fleet of fifteen passenger vans that Hudson had arranged for us by nine. The Rangemen drove the rented vehicles and probably shaved some time off the hour and half long trip…because we made it there just after ten. The park didn’t open for another half hour, but we did get a good parking spot so the walk to the gate was short. I was a little surprised that they went ahead and let us go in. We went to the courtyard at the center of the entrance area to work out the logistics. There was a total of eleven Rangemen present, King Roger, had elected to stay behind with the vehicles. The big, mean looking, Rangeman hated heights and roller coasters and crowds and pretty much every part of amusement parks. However, we could all agree that there was no need for them all the trail us all day. Manny and Zip were the primaries on Nikki and Beth and Junior and Binkie, technically, had seniority on our security detail, so they had first dibs and the four of them decided to split the day with Manny and Zip taking the morning and Binkie and Junior electing to handle the after-lunch duties. We all agreed that we were going to have dinner together, but everyone was on their own for lunch. Binkie and Junior told our clique to meet them at the Go Fresh Café Orleans in Orleans Place at two for lunch and the hand-off from Manny and Zip.

I couldn’t help but be amused by the Rangemen’s hot summer day uniforms. Darcy in the Rangeman rebrand had pretty much planned for every possible contingency…at least all the ones they’d probably encounter while guarding our asses. Even though all of them weren’t actually on duty, they all wore their uniform. Darcy had done them right, they looked like a unit, but not out of place, in their black tank tees with the new Rangeman Logo above their hearts, black cargo shorts that seemed sturdier than mine or Sam’s or any of the regular guys’. The shorts also had the logo on both the back pocket and the right thigh cargo pocket. I noticed that they had on black hiking boots and taller, black, versions of the same soft ass socks Bubbie had introduced me and Sammy Boy to. I was pretty sure that they were each packing no less than two guns, four knives and a taser or two…and probably a few things I didn’t even consider weapons but they could totally kill a fool with.

When the group broke down, our group was still big as hell. The band and dancers went one way, the tour crew broke into smaller groups. Tessa and Joe went off to explore the park together, though Saul and Sam both asked them to meet up with us for lunch, just to check in. Sugar and John went with them. Finn and Lauren had brought LaKeith with them. So, he and Dave headed off to do couply stuff, which meant that Azimio decided to roll with us. Vince rolled with us. I was kind of starting to feel bad for the guy. It must suck to be around couples all the damn time and not be able to find your one…or two as the case may be. Anyway, Saul and Mills decided to stick with us too. Probably because Shelby and the girls would give Millsy cover for what I was sure she considered to be her secret. She could easily sit out of roller coasters to keep Shelby company or to make sure that she has help with the girls if she needed it.

Not that she needed it. no matter what ride we went on, how far we walked, whatever, Neither Beth nor Nikki spend so much as a full two minutes on their own feet. Finn was constantly stealing ‘Drizzle’. Now that Beth was older, she’d been told an age appropriate explanation of why Finn’s nickname for her was so different from everyone else’s. Probably it helped her to understand why Finn and Lauren spoiled her ‘something awful’ at least according to Sam. It was kind of true…but it also wasn’t just Finn and Lauren. Between me, Sam, James, Finn, David and Saul…Bethany and Nikolette were treated like total Princesses all day. They rode shoulders, they got snacks and they got water and Dippin’ Dots and other things they probably shouldn’t have had before lunch. It didn’t matter who was buying they both got, because none of us, not their parents, not their Framily-aunts and uncles, not even the Rangemen, cough-Manny-cough brought for one of the girls and not the other. Cede’s big ass purple bag didn’t have a prayer. By the time we were scheduled to meet up with Binkie and Junior, it was full as were me and Sam’s backpacks. We finally just gave up, rented a stroller…Beth was young enough that we, technically, could…even if we only used it to carry all the shit we’d bought the kids, and ourselves and each other. Sam and Cede both loved all the Justice League merch and Bugs Bunny was totally badass. Plus, Beth couldn’t go home with all that stuff and we not send stuff back to Amara, Amaea, Robyn and Sloane. And if we send back to them, then we had to get stuff for Jake, Triple S and that had to be expanded to include M&M and Jazzy so yeah, we had a metric shit ton of stuff.

But even with the shopping, and some stopping to take requested pictures and sign requested autographs, we also rode ever single ride we wanted to ride. Some of them more than once. Niks and Beth rode every kiddie ride too. The Flash Passes were worth their weight in gold. At lunch, I sent Gwen a text asking her to give Hudson a bonus for her good work. After a healthy lunch, damn Rangemen, we headed to Yankee Harbor and played there until it closed at seven. Thankfully, none of the rides in the water park area had very tall height requirements. Once we’d done all eleven of the water-thrill rides, we spent the rest of the time playing and having a fucking blast in Hurricane Bay…a massive wave pool. When the water park closed we used their facilities to shower and get dressed again in our real clothes, before we returned to the main part of the park to enjoy some of their entertainment features. We had dinner all together as a big ass group at this great Mexican restaurant about twenty minutes from the theme park that Justin recommended. It was where his parents always ate after a day at the theme park. I fully understood why, the Three Amigos enchiladas were awesome.

The ride back to Chicago was so much quieter than the ride up. We had to help get Niks and Beth up to their hotel room and washed for real and into bed. Then we went back to our apartment with our original crew. That was a dumbass idea. Don’t get me wrong, it was pretty epic. Everyone had swung through their hotel rooms and gotten their lounging clothes, even BabyMamaDrama and her Big Black Boo Thang who were staying at a much ritzier place than we’d put everyone else up in. Quinn was going to figure out his plan if he wasn’t careful. After we’d all assembled in the lobby, we’d hit the corner store and glommed all the snacks, so the party was pretty awesome. Though it was less of a party and more of a Netflix and Chill the way parents thought it was supposed to go, but fuck it was nice chilling out with the folks who knew us best. Within two hours after we got to our love shack, there were fifteen of us, the thirteen first time in a long time National Championship NDs, minus Rachet’s bat-shit ass, and James and Vince, all chilling around our living room. We had a pretty epic time too. Probably it would have been less embarrassing all around if we’d left the beer, wine and most importantly the tequila at the store. It definitely would have been less embarrassing if we’d, okay, I’d remembered to close the ‘toy chest’.

“You three are some kinky mofos.” Santana crowed as she came out of the bedroom swinging the nipple clamps that had made Cede pass the hell out earlier around her extended pointer. She’d also found my vibrating cock ring and one of our paddles. So, she hadn’t gone too deep that stuff was all in the hang shit up part of the wardrobe-armoire thingy that was our love shack’s toy chest.

“And you’re a nosy bitch.” I growled before stalking, drunkenly, over to grab our shit and put it back.

“And you know this man.” She stretched out the last word comically.

Then here came BabyMamaDrama with Sexy Mama’s purple We-Vibe. “This thing…what is it even?” she held it up high for all to see.

“Oh, it’s a We-Vibe, you use it on the clit and against the G-Spot during intercourse…that is a mind blower.” Tina giggled and made the exploding mind hand gesture.

Lauren laughed and gave her a pound. “Damn, Stutter, it’s always the quiet ones, huh?” she teased.

Vince shook his head. “Elle, you know you and Finn aren’t quiet and everyone up in here knows it don’t get no freakier than the two of you.”

Finn threw a decorative pillow at him. “Shut up, Vinnie…you’re just butt hurt because your last chick turned out to be uber-prudish.”

Vince laughed and nodded. “Yeah. She know she was wrong for that shit too. She dressed more like a stripper than any chick I’ve ever seen not working a pole and then she wouldn’t do anything good.”

Cede picked her head up off of Sam’s lap. “So, umm, she can dress however she wants. It’s her body. How she dresses is not determinative of who she actually is as a person. Now that we’ve got the public service announcement out of the way…What do you mean she wouldn’t do anything good? I may have had Darcy help me check out ole girl’s Facebook page, this is a no slut shaming zone or whatever…but come on, what ever happened to truth in advertisement?”

Vince held up a finger, “We’re gonna come back to why y’all be Facebook stalking my dates in a minute. As for what I meant…she didn’t suck dick, but she was fine with me eating her out…expected it really. She didn’t do doggy style…but she also didn’t do missionary because it might have messed up her hair. Oh, and did I mention that when she rode me, and she got hers she acted like we were done for the night. It was seriously just that bad.”

We all exchanged looks. There was no way in hell anyone wanted to be the one to say shit on that one. But then again, I was always the one to say what everyone was thinking when the rest of them were too polite or what the fuck ever. “Man, how the fuck did you date her for a whole month?”

Vince shrugged. “I wanted to see if that shit got better when she was more comfortable with me.”

“I get it. You figured she might try to play the good girl at first, but be a freak in the sheets if she thought you were all in. Gotcha.” I nodded.

“Xactly.” Vince nodded looking drunk-wise. “But she just sucked…in the worst possible way.”

Everyone started laughing at that then there was more conversation accompanied by more alcohol and the next thing I knew it was morning. Hangovers were officially the worst. But we soon found out that there were worse things than hangovers…even worse than hangovers on concert days. As everyone was getting up and trying to get rehydrated, take some pain killers and shit when someone decided to turn on the television. “In Celebrity News, last night, music super-group KAMA had a night in with their friends and have accidentally reminded us all that they are still college students in the best possible way. Residents in the building that houses their Chicago condo were treated to singing telegrams early this morning. One of the residents, Alex Wubbels, posted a video of the three am serenade.” Yeah, there we were in our lounging clothes and it was easy to tell that Cede was unrestrained in her oversized black tank that read ‘I Don’t Run. And if you ever see me running, you should start running too, because probably something is chasing me’. I was to her left with Sam on her right and the rest of our crew all arrayed behind us. Even drunk, we were really fucking good as we serenaded the poor woman we’d woken up with Bon Jovi’s ‘It’s My Life’, complete with Jersey compliant dance moves. The news people interviewed Ms. Wubbles, too. “Of course, I wasn’t mad about it. I’ve been trying for days to win tickets to their concert and boom, they came to my door and sang for me. That was not a bad thing in any shape, form, or faction. I was just coming off a twelve-hour shift at University of Chicago Hospital. It was a crap night and that visit allowed me to go to bed with a smile on my face.”

The news went back to the anchors. One of them looked at the other and chuckled. “How is it that even when they are clearly very much inebriated, they can all sing better than I can at my best?” The White guys asked his co-anchor.

“They were all in a national championship show choir…for the most part…and three of them are world famous singers. And you do sound like a dying moose when you try and sing.” His buddy, a Latino man, joked. “The group of friends managed to serenade at least two apartments on every floor of the Chicago condo building. However, singing telegrams weren’t the group’s only drunken escapades.” He smirked. “Several donations to local charities were made not so anonymously.”

There was audio of my voice on a voicemail leaving the contact information for Gwen Abrams, “Shush. Shut up, we’re supposed to be doing this on the down low.” I was clearly not talking into the phone and yet, I was completely understandable…even drunk off my ass. “Yeah, we want to help and we can, but I’m way too BEEP up to remember how much we gave you, so just send her the specifics for our taxes, yeah?”

“Noah, you have to say please.” Sam chided in a loud, drunken whisper.

Cede chimed in too. “Yeah and thank you.”

“Please and thank you.” My voice returned. “Now, I was a good boy why don’t you come over here and let me feel those soft ass lips.” Thankfully, the call ended there. Hell even I couldn’t tell which of my lovers I’d been talking to.

“That call was made to Special Olympics of Chicago. Other organizations to received additional donations from KAMA and their friends included the Ronald McDonald Charities, Open Books, and Bridge to Success.” The White guy finished.

The Latino closed off the segment with some more banter. “You might feel like you’re failing as a singer against Drunk KAMA, I think I fail as a human compared to Drunk KAMA and their friends. I’ve not given to five organizations in one night since Christmas.”

“Me neither, Juan, me neither.” They moved on after that.

Cede, Sam and I grabbed our phone to see how pissed off Daniel and Darcy were with us. Thankfully, neither of them were too mad. But Darcy did have a tidbit of information that we desperately needed. “In case you were too drunk to remember, you also made a promise on social media that your former choirmates would perform you with for your encore tonight. People are talking about it everywhere.” She texted. “I guess Kurt has a lot to do this morning. They’re going to need to practice with you guys this afternoon.”

“Aw fuck me backwards with an elephant dong.” Sam cursed vehemently as he read the message. While our language wasn’t exactly the same, me and Cede both cosigned the sentiment.

“What’s wrong?” James was the first to ask.

“We may have…in our totally fucked up state…promised the fans that you guys were going to join us on stage for part of the show.” I told them quickly, like ripping off a band aid.

Kurt shook his head in denial. “But they-we don’t have stage apparel or gear or anything.”

“Kurt, maybe you could work a miracle. I mean, you worked with Bubbie and Ms. Wilthorne, you can find them something that would work with what we’re already wearing. It can be straight off the rack and everything.” Cede said sweetly. “I know you can make this work. You’re our fashion guru.” Thank Yeshiva that small amount of flattery was pretty much all it took to convince him.

Kurt around and noticed the looks of pleading on our friends faces. “Fine, but I need everyone’s current sizes…and Quinn and Lauren as my assistants.”

James looked up. “Me and Peaches have dinner reservations at Grace for six.”

Kurt was in the know on the whole surprise proposal thing, which may have been why he asked for BabyMamaDrama for his helper…keep her from getting underfoot during our post-sound check timeline run through. “I’ll make it work.” He promised his former Dalton brother.

From there things devolved into all of us running around like chickens with our heads cut off. We managed to get everyone Ubers back to the two different hotels. James and his ‘Peaches’ weren’t staying with the rest of the crew. He’d already made his arrangements before we decided to make things huge for him and Quinn. Once that was done we showered and made a bank run. Then we stopped by CVS and got apology cards and slipped all our neighbors cards with a Bill inside apologizing for our drunken escapades the night before. I couldn’t tell who was happier that we lived in a small building, me or Sam. We ran a truncated schedule, shortening our workout time and only giving our parent twenty minutes to bust our chops about the drunken partying. I was just glad the others had talked me and Santana out of hitting a club. Who knew what shit would have gone down if we’d gotten toasted in public.

The latter half of the night was a big ass blur. But one thing Sam, Cede and I remembered from the night before was that James and Quinn had closed on that house they were getting near Yale. So, we decided to give them some money for furniture as their engagement gift. We’d been trying to figure out how we could help them with making the place a haven for them after classes and stock it with stuff that would last until they had made their money back in rent and everything. Personally, I’d have just handed them a check and let them decide on their own why we were giving it to them…but Cede said we should make sure not to hurt their pride. That comment made me and Sam smirk to each other. James had managed to do something that Russell and Judith, Sue, me, him, Cede and even Moms D and Hell Bent had not been able to do. Somehow, some way, he had taught Quinn to respect herself. I wanted to trick out their house just to reward his ass for performing that miracle.

Sound check and the timeline run through were accomplished before Kurt and the girls showed up at the venue. It was quickly decided that our friends would join the background singers so they would have to learn less choreography. After half an hour watching Finn try to get the moves Dave raised a hand. “Hey, Finn, you’re their drummer friend? The one that gave you the licks I needed to be able to hit to get picked up? Let’s let him use my extra kit…because Dude, I’m sorry but ain’t no way you’re gonna learn those steps tonight.” Finnocence almost wept in joy that he could just rock out on the drums rather than trying to dance. It worked too. In less than thirty minutes, Finn and Dave were golden. They had worked their shit out and by the end of practice everything was smooth sailing. We were good for all of our songs, and the love songs we were covering, including BabyMamaDrama’s favorite song…that one was super important.

Quinn and James headed back to their hotel to shower and get changed for their dinner. The rest of us all ate the delicious and healthy fare our promoter made sure was available at the United Center. It was a great show. Alessia had added some drama and movement to her act. She had seriously come up and I was sure that in a year or two, her name would be as big as ours. Cassidy’s sets were on point too. All in all, Chicago was one of the best nights of the entire tour. It was just a little more special because we got to take the stage with our peeps. James’s surprise had gone off without a single hitch. I was happy and my friends and family were doing great, what more could any man desire.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Colour of My Love (Celine Dion)
Quinn PoV

I had to admit, my sophomore year of college held far more learning experiences than my class time would suggest. I’d never considered myself to be sheltered, but South by Southwest had showed me how naive I really was, even more than meeting all of James’ friends from Cleveland. I’d rebelled for a short time and dyed my hair pink, but I’d done it with Kool-aid to make sure that it wasn’t permanent. At the…music festival…that seemed too limiting for what I’d experienced that week, everywhere I’d looked there was new music, new food, new people, new technology, new everything. I talked to people who had vastly different experiences than I had or those of James or MeDe or anyone I knew, really. I was sure that it was good for me. The thing was, when I got back to Yale, I realized that our group had become so insular, that I’d missed all the culturally, physically, spiritually and emotionally different people that surrounded me on campus. James and I made a conscious effort to go to some other clubs and try and meet some different people.

One of the first meetings I went to was the campus Young Republicans meeting. I’d always considered myself to be a republican, my parents were. My grandparents had been. It was just who we were. Fabrays were Republicans. My Grandmere was related to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Other than President Obama, I’d voted for Republicans down the ticket the one time I’d voted. That first meeting I attended was the only meeting I went to. The Fabrays might have been Republicans. My Grandmother might have been related to a long deceased Republican president. But Lucille Quinn Fabray was definitely not a republican. I couldn’t even begin to believe the crap that had come out of their mouths during the meeting. They felt that gay marriage was wrong and should never have been legalized, their feelings on Trans people didn’t even bear consideration. Disgustingly enough, Biff McIntosh and his roommate Wyler Pierce were nodding along like they weren’t still fucking each other through their bed every night …at least according to Vince’s sources, which were impeccable. That was strike one. Then someone decried the benefits of free well woman visits and basically women having control of their bodies and health care and finances and basically anything at all and not only did no one disagree, several people agreed with that idiot’s old trifling ass. That was most definitely Strike Two. I didn’t actually stay for Strike Three. I finally stood up and looked around. “Sorry, but I’m just going to go now. I didn’t realize that to be a Republican, I had to hate people like my friends Kurt and Blaine, who deserve all the happiness marriage can bring them. Because they understand that marriage is a commitment of honor and fidelity and not just a piece of paper or a business deal. Or my friend Unique who deals with enough bullshit by nine AM that would it send any of you, weak ass, punk bitches into therapy after just a few days of dealing with it all. And considering that I am a female…an adult woman not a child who needs one of you genetically defunct asshats to tell her how to live, breathe, take care of myself, my body, my education or a various host of other decisions…I’m going to leave before I decide to make you all cry like the whiney little snowflakes you like to call everyone else.” Suffice it to say, that was the only meeting of the ‘Young Republicans’ I attended.

James talked me into going with Taylor and Topanga to the Mock Trial Association. And all of us who were not completely science brained, joined the Debate Team. Kat joined the Undergraduate Women in Science at Yale club. It met at the same time as the Debate Team and it gave her something to pad her resumé. If anyone thought it was weird that we started attending meetings, even for competition based clubs, in the middle of a spring semester, no one said anything. We tried a whole bunch of different clubs and groups but we eventually settled on just a few each. I kept the MTA, the Debate Team and the non-competitive glee club. I shared all three of those with Taylor, but Topanga didn’t sing, so she was only in the first two with us. Taylor had Model UN and she convinced Victor to join her going to those meetings. Harrison, Taylor and James attended the Black Student Alliance at Yale together. I joined them for the Afro-American Cultural Center meetings. Pretty much all of us found some place where we could go and interact with people outside our immediate social circle. We even dragged our shier friends into the game. Brad and Max found a group of science bros. Drew made us all join an organized running club. It was co-ed and more about health rather than racing or competition. We’d been doing a smaller version on our own, so it wasn’t a big deal. Even before Taylor dragged him to Model UN, Victor was in pretty much all the political -slash- government clubs, and surprisingly enough the Dramatic Association, though I guess that acting ability was a necessity for a spy.

That had become a running joke among us. Taylor was going to be president. Topanga would be her attorney general. Victor was going to lead the intelligence community…that or he was going to be the iron fist inside her velvet glove…yeah, that double entréndre was totally intended. When Taylor broke up with her high school boyfriend, she and Victor started getting closer. But he never asked her out, probably because Victor saw Taylor as his pedestal chick. I’d noticed that as they had become really good friends, Vic looked at Tay much like Puck had viewed MeDe for a long time when we were younger. Hopefully when she broke up with that guy she was seeing from Dartmouth, those two would get their heads on straight. They would make a great couple. Both of them had a deep sense of honor, a drive and ambition that would augment and support each other. Besides, their kids would be seriously cute and ridiculously smart.

James and I dated every Friday night and our group of friends hung out together every Sunday. Saturday tended to be spent working on papers, projects or other assignments. We had moved beyond two groups of roommates, the previous year. By that spring, we were as solid as the New Directions were. I came to truly understand what Mama Dani had meant when she told me, “Quinny-Girl, Love is the only thing in life that is a completely, wholly renewable resource. The more you give, the more you have to give.” We were a family of choice. Often, one of my sisters would run interference when Judith called. They told her that I was in the shower. They made up an evening class. Finally, Topanga pointedly asked her if she realized that she was violating the terms of her release by contacting me without my express written consent. That bought me a whole three weeks of blessed silence.

Unfortunately, that just meant that Judith started calling me as soon as school was over. Literally, I was in my car driving to the hotel James and I were staying in overnight after the ten of us had taken all of our things to our storage unit we rented that summer when she called me. I didn’t answer. James and I had given ourselves thirty-six hours before we had to make our way back to our homes. We spent almost that entire time making love. There was something perfect about waking up in James’ arms. It made me feel safe and loved and content in a way I still couldn’t seem to get used to. And the orgasms. I had had an orgasm before…but even the smallest ones I reached with James made any not created with him pale in comparison. By the time we headed back to Ohio, I’d stockpiled enough pleasure to get me through at least the first two weeks of the summer.

James and I were both working during the summer, as usual. It was okay though because I still found my internship to be amazingly enriching. The summer after my freshman year, I’d worked with Attorney Patterson’s team. His focus was all business contracts, will, probate…somewhat dry law. His partner, Attorney Roger Estes, he focused on civil litigation. I had helped with research for Mr. Patterson that had been used in one of his contract arbitrations. But working on litigation was an entirely different animal. I loved it. During my second week, I found out about Mr. Estes had a practice of taking an intern with him and his paralegal to court…a different intern for every case. “I know more than one person who made it all the way through law school without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. They never realized that the career they were working towards wasn’t right for them. I decided to catch my interns early…make sure they knew what they were getting into while they still had plenty of time to correct their course. If you see what litigation is and you realize that it isn’t the right fit for you…change your major, head to med school. Go to New York and take on Wall Street. Head to Silicon Valley and become a venture capitalist…don’t let yourself get trapped in something that makes you miserable just because that is what your degree is in or because you spent too much to get a degree not to use it.” he told us all wisely.

I lucked out and was the first one picked to go with Mr. Estes and his paralegal, a pretty Hispanic lady a little older than Santana’s mom named Jania. A few of the other interns were envious, but it was so their own faults. They apparently couldn’t grasp the concept of business casual, so how could he trust them to dress appropriately for court. And don’t let me get started on their complete disregard for punctuality. Not to mention that one of the actual law student interns had been complaining since day one about the fact that he was actually expected to do real work. His internship the previous summer had mostly consisted of golfing with his godfather and it was a paid internship at that. Then again, Lawrence Edward Calloway, Junior, was also Francine’s ex-Russell and Judith approved-boyfriend…and pretty much the poster boy for White Male Privilege. As much as I loved every second of time I got to spend with Beth, Eddie was definitely making me wish I’d applied for an internship in the governor’s office like Topanga and Taylor both had in their home states.

The case I was awarded the privilege of attending and assisting on was almost perfect for me. Mr. Estes client, Frank, was suing Burt Hummel’s biggest local competitor. He’d gotten his brakes done at Nick’s Auto Shop. He’d been told that he needed new calipers in addition to the rotors, drums and pads. Frank had paid over eleven hundred bucks and lost his car overnight while the work was done. Three days after he had gotten his car back, he’d caused an accident on his way to Dayton, because his calipers locked down. His car had been towed to a Midas only for Frank to find out that none of the work he’d paid for had been done. So, Frank was suing Nick’s for his money back and the cost of repairs to his car and the car of the person he’d hit, oh and their medical bills of both parties. He was also suing for court costs and pain and suffering too.

Within two hours of the session being called to order, I knew that I was definitely in the right major and on the right career path. It was incredible, watching Mr. Estes take the owner of Nick’s apart on that stand. It was actually kind of similar to the way Santana and I used to take apart lesser Cheerios when they ceased to amuse us and just became annoying. He never raised his voice. He never even seemed belligerent. He seemed charming and affable. I was certain that at one point the witness forgot that Mr. Estes was the lawyer for the plaintiff. I was surprised how quickly the trial progressed. Mr. Estes called the mechanics from Midas, the police and first responders and put in a whole bunch of depositions, then he cross examined the owner of Nick’s and the two managers that the defense called…then it went to the judge to make a decision. He found in favor of the plaintiff and Frank got everything he wanted, but he didn’t get much in the way of pain and suffering. Finn and Lauren had each gotten a lot more. However, Mr. Estes’ fees were included in the judgement awarded to Frank, so everyone was all very pleased. None more than Mr. Estes. On the way back to the office, Jania explained. “When court costs and lawyer fees are included in the judgement awarded by judge…not a jury…the fees are more automatic. Because Lee charges on a sliding scale based on what the client can afford, he wasn’t going to make much on this case. However, the judge just guaranteed that he will make his highest per hour billable fee. Instead of making seventy-five a billable hour, which was what he was set to charge Mr. Mathers, Lee is going to make two-twenty-five per hour instead.”

Mr. Estes laughed. “That’s right, so when you pass the bar wherever you’re going to practice and you register with the courts, go high with your fees. You can always give people breaks if they need them in office. Unless you’re with a firm…in which case your fees are going to have to be high enough for you to make enough money from your billable hours not just so you can cover your salary and your overhead, but also to create profit for your firm. It’s a good idea to start in a firm if you can. It’s good entry level experience.”

He took us to dinner to celebrate the win and do a breakdown of what had happened and what I’d learned. He asked me about any previous courtroom experience I’d had…what real life court cases I’d witnessed. I told him about MeDe’s assault case and my mother’s child support fraud case. I told him what I knew of Finn and Lauren’s case. I hadn’t been able to get there in person, but I’d received nightly updates from both MeDe and Tana, so I knew most of what had happened.

“Antwan Berry could have been one of the best litigators in the country, if he wanted to.” Mr. Estes smirked. “He just doesn’t have it in him to really sink his teeth into cases he doesn’t care about…the ones that don’t light a fire in him. That’s why he does so much family law…those cases always get his back up. And I don’t know Harris personally, but his reputation is pretty well known in the Midwest.”

Over the course of the rest of the summer, I had a wonderful experience. I did get roped into helping them with their International Picnic Day picnic. I may have…kind of…taken it over and just did it myself. The woman who usually planned it had become a grandmother at the start of the summer. Technically, she’d done most of the planning. I was more of a party coordinator, I made sure that everything was set up correctly and that the day ran smoothly. It went absolutely perfectly until I noticed that Papa Benton and Daddy were talking. I almost ran over to run interference.

“I’m not going to lie. I did mention it just to rub your old money, WASP schnoze in the info. Maybe if you’d been a better father it would have been you he visited.” Daddy said something under his breath, or at least too low for me to hear. Papa Benton shook his head. “You can call yourself her Daddy all you want. Hell, from the stories that she told me, you used to be a damn good daddy…kind of made me hate you more. But Quinnie and Frannie swear that you’ve made full amends and that they have forgiven you. But they also say that they will know for sure that you’re really, truly…completely sorry when you’ve spent enough for them to be sure.”

Daddy sighed. “I’ve been wracking my brain to figure out what will be enough. I even considered buying Frannie that Porsche she’s wanted for ever. But I don’t want her to kill herself, and she would she drives like she is the reincarnation of Dale Earnhardt.”

“Try driving somewhere with my son-in-law.” Benton Jones grumbled. Daddy asked which son-in-law. “The father of your first grandchild.”

“Oh God…her adoptive parents need to know that they must never let her drive. Not if she gets a lead foot from both sides of her genetics…” Daddy actually sounded worried.

“I’ll make sure that Que lets them know that Bethany has a predilection for speed.” Benton said with a wicked grin. It was something that Shelby and David had already figured out. None of us had realized that that the twelve-volt battery operated, Star Wars Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder could go that fast. Sam had thought that was the perfect birthday gift for his Pumpkin. The only one of the babies who would ride in it with her was Sloane. Amara, Amaea and Robyn avoided that treat like the plague.

“Bethany…after the city in Judea. A biblical name?” Daddy asked quietly. “Have you seen her? Is she as beautiful as Quinn was as a baby?”

“Well, a Talmudic name…Noah picked it.” Papa Benton told him. “I saw her the day she was born.” He said truthfully, carefully omitting the entire truth. “She was a beautiful little thing with thick brown hair and a pair of lungs that rivaled MeDe’s the day she came into the world. She had one hell of a grip too.”

“All Fabray women do…the men learn to hold things tightly, the women in the family come into the world tight fisted.” Daddy said proudly. “Frannie was the same and Lucy-Quinn-she almost broke my finger.”

Benton smiled a little arrogantly. “I’ve seen the girls at an after-Christmas sale…I firmly believe you.”

“You got Frannie to go to a sale?” Daddy sounded shocked.

I decided that it was time for me to stop eavesdropping and make my presence known. “Mama Dani and MeDe are good influences.” I said with a smile. I gave both men hugs, though the one I gave my biological father was still pretty stilted and tense. “Last year, Frannie managed to get a pair of Jimmy Choos for half off.” I bragged.

We actually had a pretty nice and completely cordial conversation for a few minutes before we all adjourned to go mingle. It was strange and almost unsettling. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had definitely missed something in the beginning of their conversation. The rest of the event went off with absolutely no hitches. We didn’t even run out of ice too early and had enough bottled water for everyone. The following morning, Mr. Patterson and Mr. Estes called me into the conference room. “Well, Ms. Fabray…if you do decide not to go into law, which, I truly believe would be a damn shame, you could be one hell of a success as an event planner.” Mr. Estes joked.

Mr. Patterson agreed with a smile of his own. “Now, when I was speaking with your father, he reminded me that you and your partners at Yale will be closing on your new school domicile later this month. To thank you for all your hard work, we’d like to help you with decorating your rooms.” he handed me an envelope containing a thousand-dollar e-gift card to Wayfair.

“I…Thank you both.” I managed to stammer out gratefully. “I…this is very much appreciated.”

Mr. Estes smiled broadly. “You’ve done a good job here these last two summers and you have yet to punch Calloway, even if the entire paralegal pool is betting on when your patience runs out.”

I was pretty proud of myself for the fact that I never did physically snap on that asshat. Two weeks later after we completed the closing process, I found myself wishing that I had gotten in on the betting. We could definitely have used the money. All of us were considered incredibly intelligent and yet not one of us had not considered that it would fall to us to get the furniture for the house until we had left the closing and were eating a celebratory pizza dinner at Kat’s pizzeria. It was very easy to get Daddy to contribute some money to helping us get things for the house. I told James and our roommates about the fifteen thousand that he gave me for the public areas. I wasn’t surprised that he gave me a matching amount to furnish and decorate James and my bedroom…the master suite. I was really, really happy that our friends gave us the biggest bedroom. I was really, really surprised when, a week after I got back to Lima, I got a call from Jim, our real estate agent in New Haven.

“Quinn, I spoke with Katherine and she told me give you a call. You know how there was the stipulation that the Meyers would refurbish the basement before you guys took possession of the house in August?” He said as soon as we exchanged the common courtesies.

“Yes, we asked that they take twenty grand off the purchase price if we had to do it ourselves.” I said thoughtfully.

“Exactly, well, the father’s start date was moved forward. They need to be in Miami in two weeks. They are willing to turn over the twenty-five thousand they had set aside for the refurnishing to your crew to handle things. Katherine said that you would be the best person to handle this matter.” Jim Jeffers said cautiously.

“Can you transfer the funds into a dedicated account and get me the name of a good general contractor in the area?” I asked quickly thinking on my feet.

“The first has already been accomplished. I will send you a list of my preferred vendors.”

I stopped. I wasn’t sure why that bothered me. “Thank you…I have a very good friend who was an architect and general contractor in Manhattan, he will look over the list you send me and verify that they are the pest people for each of the positions.”

So that was exactly what was done. When I got the email from Jim, I passed the list along to George and he got in touch with some people he knew who did the kinds of work we needed done. They all said the same thing. Jim Jeffers’ list contained the crème de la crème, but they weren’t the best. They were the people who made a ton of money doing luxury remodels, but they were pretty well known for overcharging on their labor costs and cutting corners on their materials. In fact, with a little research, I was able to find out that one of them had been the plumber that the people who had owned the house before the Meyers had utilized to install the basement bathroom in the first place. That seemed counterproductive to me. Thankfully, George was able to give me a list of capable craftsmen who would do the job right.

It was an interesting experience doing home renovation and interior decorating long distance, ultimately, Kat was proven correct. I really was the best person to handle it. Not only did I have all the experience of seeing and helping Judith with the four redecorations or complete renovations she had done to our home, but I had help. George proved to be a wonderful resource. So, did Shelby. Who knew that she loved home décor and furniture and that whole thing so much? I sure didn’t…but she did. And since George had told her that if she thought she was buying a crib she was bat-crap crazy. He was building her one from scratch and all she had to tell him was whether she wanted it painted or stained and if stained what shade. Once she’d made that decision, she was on hold until they were able to find out the baby’s gender. With nothing better to do, she pitched in to help me. Somehow, Mama Dani found out and before I knew it, I had an awesome spreadsheet all ready for me to organize my thoughts and choices. She even sent me a list of furniture and appliance retailers in New Haven with the best reputations. I managed to get the whole house, minus people’s personal spaces, furnished, decorated, at least theoretically…for under a hundred thousand dollars. Minus the twenty-five thousand for the basement and the fifteen my father gave me the week after we closed, that left me just under fifty thousand bucks I had to find from somewhere. I wasn’t sure how the hell I was going to pull it off…but I was determined.

However, my summer wasn’t all work, drama and trauma. I spent every other weekend on a short, get away date with James. We went to Kings Island one weekend. That was quite fun. I loved roller coasters and so did James so that trip was almost perfect. One weekend we spent in Cleveland visiting with his mom and sisters and Beth. On that trip, Ms. Kay took us to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. “Your little soul sister, she is destined for this place. You should at least see it once before she drags you all here for the induction ceremony.” I couldn’t argue with her logic. I couldn’t believe that I’d lived my whole life so close to it and never visited. We also visited the Cleveland Museum of Art and the A Christmas Story House and Museum. There was still time spent shopping for his sister, Billie. She’d graduated in May and was heading off to Spelman that fall. It was a lot of fun and James and I had a ton of great tips to help her out. It felt a lot like when I’d gone shopping for bedding with Francine just two years before. James and I barely had any time alone that whole weekend, but it didn’t even matter. I got to spend time with Beth and with James and with his family so it was one of the best weekends of my life.

However, the date weekend I looked forward to the most was the weekend before the KAMA concert in Chicago. I left Lima immediately after work the Friday before the concert. By nine I was pulling into the valet at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. As soon as James had sent me the hotel reservations for our long weekend, I immediately knew that there was something really major happening. James and I always stayed in nicer hotels…but not Four Seasons nice. James was waiting on me in the lobby. He’d already checked in and he took me up to the forty-third floor and let us into our suite…yes…SUITE. He’d gotten us a gorgeous two room suite with a lake view that made me dream of staying there forever. He’d already had room service bring up my favorite later evening snack, a snack I’ve thoroughly corrupted all of the roommates into loving. Natural honey Greek yogurt with almonds and pistachios was healthy and delicious…and not near as expensive as my true favoritest of all favorites, which James also had waiting on my arrival, a jumbo shrimp cocktail. He’d ordered an amazing unoaked white Rioja for us to enjoy with our ‘meal’.

I took a long, hot shower to wash away the day, before joining James in the beautifully appointed king-sized bed. I was feeling very powerful. The way his eyes had flowed over my naked body as I stood in the doorway between the bathroom and the bedroom, the way his tall, thick, muscular body tensed just a bit more with want and desire. The way his long, thick beautiful cock tented the sheet he’d drawn up over his body. They all combined to make me feel desirable, desired and wanting…and rather…aggressive. I strode forward and snatched the sheet away. “Okay, Peaches, you feeling froggy.” He stated rather than asked his voice deep, rich and dark. It flowed over my enflamed nerves like melted chocolate.

I smirked and nodded. I’d learned long ago that term had nothing to do with the amphibious creature and more to do with a state of being ready to jump, or in that particular case, jump on someone. I was and I did. I knew how wet I was and I could see how hard James was, so I was confident that we could skip some of the preliminary warm ups. I straddled him and held him down by his shoulders as I kissed him fiercely. As the kiss grew deeper I rocked my hips, humping my pussy along the swollen underside of his cock. My hands slid down his chest tweaking his hard little nipples as they traveled to our hips. When my hand wrapped around the base of his dick, James moaned into a third or fourth kiss. I shifted and rubbed the head against my clit, my own moan joining his. When I slid down his shaft, my back arched and so did his. By the time I’d surged and retreated until he was fully seated inside me, I was coming in a flurry of muttered words of love and repetitions of the word fuck. I didn’t let that stop me from riding him hard and fast. I reveled in the pleasure I was receiving from him and the pleasure I saw on his face. “Fuck, I’m so full.” I grunted as I rocked my hips faster and faster, reaching for the ultimate pleasure that I knew being with James could bring me.

“That’s because you’re so fucking tight. And hot. And wet. Fuck, you feel good.” James shot back. “Shit, Peaches. Condom!”

“Don’t care. I’m on the shot.” I reminded him and something about feeling him skin to skin…that small measure of danger, however minute, sent me into a stratospheric orgasm. I was lost in sensation and pleasure and James, he took his moment to take control. He didn’t last long. Everything was just too good. When he erupted inside of me, the feeling of him painting my walls and cervix with his seed just did something to me. I came so hard my vision started to gray out.

James fell to my side and pulled me over until y boneless body was covering his as much as possible. “First of all…” he panted. “That was probably the best love we’ve made.” I nodded weakly. I was already starting to drift into sleep. “Second of all…we cannot do that again until after graduation. That was some ‘one time and I’m hooked’ shit right there, Peaches, God damn.” He muttered sleepily

The last thing I felt was his lips pressed to my forehead. I awoke a few hours later to the delicious feeling of James mouth on my breast and his fingers working gently between my thighs. The love we made that round was slow and sweet and yeah, protected. I could definitely see what he’d meant about going without a condom being addictive. I wanted to share every bit of my being with him…going without gave me a real feeling that we had shared it all. We finally awoke to the ringing of the phone. At some point James had set us a wake-up call for eight. If I’d thought that the posh hotel room –no-suite was the end of the surprises James had in store for me boy was I wrong.

After an exquisite, shared shower, we dressed and had breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. Then James teased me into going to the spa with him, only for me to find out that he had set us up for a fifty-five-minute couple’s massage. But even that wasn’t the end of his surprises. When we finished our massage, Frannie was waiting on us in the spa’s waiting area. James treated her and I to forty-minute aromatherapy mani-pedis. When she and I finished, the three of us walked down to the iconic Gino’s East River to have a legendary deep-dish pizza. I had the signature spinach pizza with a blend of fresh spinach and mozzarella cheese. It was amazing. They brought the pizza to the table in the hot deep-dish pan. So, it was more than just delicious, it was an experience. After lunch James did the sweetest thing. “Alright, I know that you two haven’t had the chance to have much one on one, sister time this summer. So, I’m gonna make myself scarce and allow you to go and bond through what we all know is your preferred sport.” Frannie and I both knew he wasn’t talking about cheerleading. “Frannie, always a pleasure. Peaches let me know if you see some place you want to go for dinner. Oh, and don’t forget about Monday.”

I kissed him goodbye and, as soon as he was gone, I rounded on my sister. “Alright…spill it.”

“Spill what? And what’s happening Monday?” she hedged. Frannie had never successfully kept a secret. She was just too much of a bone deep, inherent tattle tale. From the way she got all wide eyed and innocent looking and her voice went all high pitched, I was sure that she was hiding something. I was also sure that I would get it out of her.

“A suite at the Four Seasons, a couple’s massage, mani-pedis for you and me? James is totally up to something and you know what it is. Now spill it.” I demanded.

Frannie shook her head trying to be strong. Her first attempt was distraction and then guilt. She shot me a disappointed look. “Maybe your boyfriend is just trying to do something nice for you. Give you a special weekend. Did you ever think about that?”

“I have no doubt that James is trying to make the weekend special. What I want to know is why? What is his end game?” I prodded.

My sister had grown stronger in the years since she took up the full mantel of that title. “You can wonder all you want. You can badger me all day long. But I’m not telling. You are going to have an amazing weekend that you will remember for the rest of your life. I’m not spoiling it.”

“Come on, Frannie. If it’s that good, you know you want to tell me. It won’t ruin anything.” My tone turned cajoling. “You know you love telling secrets.”

She shook her head. “Maybe I do. And I am perfectly willing to admit that this may well be the biggest secret I’ve ever successfully kept. But I am keeping it. Now, you can either break out the hard-core torture devices…which I don’t think you could fit a water board in the wallet on a string that you’re calling a purse today. Or we can go and make sure that we are the cutest, sexiest, flyest White girls at your friend’s concert Tuesday night.”

I knew from the look on her face it was time to make a strategic retreat and regroup, because she wasn’t budging. So, I allowed her to believe that I had dropped the subject. We walked from the restaurant checking out the store and landmarks as we passed. Before we got to the bulk of the shopping, both of our phones voiced text alerts. “Just made a mint on the Youngstown deal so I put seventy-five hundred on each of your cards. Have fun, Girls. Love Daddy.”

That would have increased my suspicions, except for the fact that Daddy had a long history of giving us a small portion of his profits from his big deals. When we were young, the money had gone into our college funds and one or two small trinkets or candy pieces. As we got older, he’d take us to Columbus or Cincinnati for a day of shopping and five-star dining. So, I didn’t realize that it was part of the whole weekend until much later.

Given that we were in one of the country’s true shopping destinations, I felt it was incumbent upon us to explore the smaller boutiques and specialty shops rather than going immediately to the department stores. After all we were pretty much their target demographic, young, thin, pretty young women with healthy wallets. Besides, I knew it was a lingering issue, but I still got a real kick out of being able to shop in those stores and fit all the designer clothes Judith had spent my entire childhood bemoaning the unlikeliness of my ever being able to wear, Frannie quickly agreed.

“Okay, but we should totally start from the skin out. Nothing breeds confidence like beautiful lingerie, she said brightly.

I happened to disagree with her a little. I felt the right pair of shoes were marginally more confidence inducing. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea to start with the lingerie. Inside 900 North Michigan Shops, we found an incredible little boutique called Enchante Lingerie. It was a very nice store and I found quite a few sets very sexy lingerie that I knew I was going to love modeling for James, and even a few sets of more going out appropriate undergarments. But I cut myself off when I hit a thousand bucks. Frannie looked over my purchases and shook her head. Then it was off to Rigby and Pellar where I hit the more normal lingerie jackpot. I didn’t even mind the fact that I’d not even found anything but underwear and I was down twenty-two hundred bucks. We went tripping through the mall looking for something awe inspiring to wear to the concert. We wanted to look young and trendy, but Frannie refused to allow me to look at jeans. So, it took me forever to find something. However, Frannie had much better luck. She quickly found a backless merlot crystal embroidered matte jersey bodysuit at Michael Kors and paired it with a black Plongé fringed skirt that was modern and sexy but still just a little bit classic. Whole outfit, one store. Lucky Bitch.

Then we wandered into the Gucci store and I fell in love. Nothing about that store said Quinn Fabray, but there was an amazing little black leather, strapless mini dress with intarsia flowers on it. It was more than half again what I had left from Daddy…but I could not resist. It was so not me…but it was so gorgeous. It was just too much. I bought it anyway. I found a pretty, much, much less expensive black silk dress to wear over it that would allow the starbursts on the bodice of the mini-dress to peak through the cutouts and deep v-neckline at Club Monaco. I would wear the more five star restaurant appropriate dress over the sexy as hell Gucci number for dinner and then leave the outer-dress in the car during the concert. As we were getting ready to focus on shoes and accessories, Frannie looked at me and asked again. “Hey what’s going on Monday?”

“Oh, we’re going to Six Flags with MeDe and her boys and their band.” I said absently as I looked through the directory for shoe stores.

As soon as I finished the sentence, she grabbed my hand and dragged me into Artizia. “I saw the cutest romper, but I don’t have anywhere to where it. And it was on sale, but I was a good girl and I put it back. You can look like a model in all the pictures people are going to be taking of you when you’re rolling with the rock stars.” Seriously, I wanted to be mad because I was ready to get to my favorite part of the shopping excursion. But then we went in there and damned if Frannie wasn’t right. It was a scarlet red, Azure Skies cropsey romper that looked amazing on me and it was only thirty bucks.

After Artizia, we started on an expedition to find shoes. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anything for either of us in that particular shopping center. So, we went for a six-block romp through another plaza of commercial happiness. We found some awesome accessories to go with our outfits and Frannie found a great lipstick and I got some new eyeshadow…but still, we couldn’t find the right shoes. The day had been amazing. Frannie and I had had a great time, we’d talked and laughed. I’d regaled her with stories of the fun things I’d done with Beth and Shelby and David so far that summer. She’d told me funny stories about her internship. She really was going to make a great therapist. I was so proud of her. But that didn’t change the fact that it was getting late and we still didn’t have shoes. So, we decided that we’d done enough adventure shopping and headed to a sure thing. Even with all our bags it didn’t take us very long to get to Nordstrom.

What we’d spent over two hours trying to get accomplished visiting smaller stores and boutiques, we managed to do in less than half an hour at the big department store. I got a pair of black, Vince Camuto, Chesta tall gladiator sandals to wear Tuesday night and a pair of brown, suede, Ugg Reagan wedges for the amusement park. Frannie found a great pair of black, leather…kind of retro…Kork-Ease 'Bette' wedge sandals that she swore felt like she was wearing flats even though they gave her more than four inches of extra height. Like she needed it, my older sister was four inches taller than me and was sometimes confused for a model.

I was getting ready to text James to see what he wanted to do for dinner when Francine stopped me as she stared at her own phone. “Umm, I think…I just got a text from James’ mom. Ms. Kay says that she expects me to come to dinner tomorrow with you and James.” She said confused.

I shrugged. If Ms. Kay was in town, then I could definitely see her telling Frannie that since she was my family, she was to come to the family dinner. “Well, then, I guess that you’re going to meet the rest of James’ family.” I chuckled.

“Oh, God…what am I going to wear?” she groaned. That made us both look down at the vast amount of bags we were carrying and bust out laughing.

I walked Frannie back to the Four Seasons, where her car was parked, before returning to James and my suite. He was coming out of the shower, having spent his afternoon playing basketball with his cousins Tommy and Junior. If he’d have been dressed when I got back, we would have gone out for a nice dinner somewhere. I was sure of that. But he was only wearing a towel wrapped around his hips and as I watched beads of water flow down his chest and stomach into that towel, I knew that there was something I wanted in my mouth a lot more than food. Eventually, we did order something from room service, but we didn’t make it back out of our room until the next morning when we headed over to his Uncle Steve’s house to go to church with his family.

I knew it was foolish…but I’d dressed with care that morning. My green gingham Michael Kors A-line, midi, halter sundress was paired with a tan shrug sweater and a pair of simple tan leather, strappy sandals with a church appropriate three-inch heel that matched the floral belt around my waist. I wore very, very little makeup, just eyeliner, mascara and a subtle lip gloss. My hair, which had grown back down to once again reach the middle of my back, was pulled back at the temples and held back with a simple gold clip. Small gold knots glistened at my ears. I wore my slim, Tory Burch, gold Reva stainless steel strap watch, but no other bracelets or rings. With a last check to make sure that I had everything I needed in my purse; room key, cell phone, wallet containing cash for the offering, lip gloss and balm, a small notebook…just in case the pastor said something deeply profound to me during his sermon…mint flavored gum…to chew to help me stay awake if he was deeply boring. I grabbed my Bible from my carry all and I was ready to go.

James was waiting on me in the living room of our suite. He was looking incredibly handsome in a dark gray suit and light ivory dress shirt. He’d forgone a tie, but was wearing his class ring, his understated Movado Bold black watch and the thick, platinum cross I’d gotten him for his birthday the year before. I wished I was wearing my own crucifix, but the dress wouldn’t work with it, so it was staying in the room. He gathered his room key and shoved it into his pocket and we headed out the door.

We were both quite surprised to find Frannie waiting on us in the lobby. “Mrs. Kay called me last night and told me that she expected to see me at church with the two of you this morning, too.” she explained to our unasked questions. It was easy to see that she too had taken care with her appearance. Probably because we’d had it drilled into our heads from a very young age that a lady was immediately identified by her carriage, appearance and diction. When I was young, Grandmere would often point out our mother’s failings in those areas. I’d recently realized that she did it as a form of vindication or vengeance for the way Judith had treated my younger self. Yet, all those years later, Frannie and I tended to fall back on those lessons whenever we were nervous. Whatever the reason, my sister looked lovely in a black and white gingham midi-sun-dress with a larger, bolder check than my own green and white dress. Her dress had wide shoulder straps, which allowed her to wear her antique crucifix. Like me, her makeup was simple and light. She had pulled her shoulder length, honey blonde tresses into a Cheerio pony…even years later that was still a hairstyle that every former Cheerio could do in her sleep.

Since Frannie’s car hadn’t yet left the valet station and we’d forgotten to call ahead for James’ or mine, we rode together in her navy-blue Jetta. James was a great driver. We’d left the hotel at a quarter to ten and we arrived at Salem Baptist Church with fifteen minutes to spare before their ten thirty service began. The church was Huge. It was larger than the Catholic Church or Ada Methodist in Lima. I was pretty sure that it was bigger than the churches we attended in New Haven too. Cousins Tommy and Junior were waiting on us outside the church and they took us in to join the family in two of the very long pews. Steve’s family was fully present and accounted for. The only person some might claim to be missing was his first wife, but as I understood it, it was best that they not be in the same place at the same time…ever. The choir was a good size, larger than some, but not as large as I almost expected of such a large congregation. Theiy had a total of six leads, and a few of them were almost as good as MeDe and Artie. I definitely had a few ‘come to Jesus’ moments while they were singing.

The sermon was delivered by Pastor James T. Meeks. He had all the visitors stand before he went into the sermon, but we didn’t have to say anything, thankfully. We did have to deal with a lot of hand shaking though as the congregation was admonished to greet all the visitors. It was on the subject of God’s love and was titled ‘He Still Loves Me’. His scripture reading came from Luke chapter thirteen. It was a good sermon, but it was almost ridiculous in the length. Probably he needed a Benton Jones in his deacon board to remind him that no one wanted to sit in a pew all day. Then he stretched out the ‘Call to Discipleship’ out forever too. I was so glad that a different pastor did the benediction.

After church, most people wanted to ‘greet’ Uncle Steve and his family and visitors. It had taken another half hour before we could head to the Harvey family home by then, James and I, and presumably everyone else was starving. Thankfully, Mrs. Kay, Mrs. Marjorie and Marie had handled most of dinner before they headed to church and Uncle Steve and Mrs. Marjorie’s housekeeper, Serena, had taken care of the rest. Within fifteen minutes after we got to the house, everyone was washed up and around the table. The food, oh good Lord the food. There was cabbage, collards, peas, beans, okra and sweet potatoes. There was fried chicken and stewed chicken with a rich, buttery gravy filled with shallots, onions, garlic and mushrooms. There was a great pot roast with carrots and fingerling potatoes. We all ate and laughed and had a blast. Billie had a million questions for Francine, since she was pretty sure that she wanted to major in psychology as well. That or Sociology. What followed that statement was the most hilarious thing I’d ever seen.

Mrs. Kay looked at Billie. “Sociology or psychology…what, exactly, do you envision doing with either of those degrees?”

Billie blushed. “I thought that if I became a social worker or a psychiatrist, I could help soldiers who come back with PTSD or the gold star family members with their grief.”

Everyone started looking around. Francine smiled. “That’s an amazingly generous thing to want to do.”

“Yeah, ‘cept Billie doesn’t have a generous bone in her whole body.” James said quietly under his breath. Cousin Junior on his other side gave him a fist pound for that observation.

But for the next fifteen minutes, that was the closest anyone came to actually stating what everyone was thinking. Instead, they all tried to be supportive, while offering alternates that would be more in line with Billie’s personality. Finally, after watching everyone pussyfoot around the main point they were all trying to make, Steve’s voice cut through all the clutter. “Oh, I see…that’s how y’all gonna be? Gonna make me say it. Gonna make me be ‘Uncle Steve the Dream Crusher’?”

His daughter smirked. “Well Dad, you are kind of good at it. Remember when I wanted to be a hip hop dancer and you told me that I was the exception that made it a rule that all black people have rhythm. I only stopped talking to you for like a week.”

Steve gave her a quelling look. “Fine then…Wilhelmina, you know I love you…but you know you ain’t got the patience to listen to other people’s problems. Didn’t you just make Junior cry because he asked you for some advice about a speech he had to give at his old high school while you were reading a couple of months ago? You’d have been better off saying that you needed to see a psychiatrist because you thought about being a social worker. You know that you’re about as flighty as they come in this family.” He told his great-niece with brutal honesty. Then his gaze softened. “Now, what is it you really want to do?”

Billie shook her head defiantly. “I really do want to major in psychology. Spelman has a great program for it and I do love figuring out how people’s minds work.”

“That’s because you’re nosy as hell…not because you want to help them with their problems.” Cousin Tommy pointed out. “Could you be a good shrink? Hell yeah, you’re smart enough, you could do anything. But you’d end up hating it within a year, maybe two.”

“So, what am I supposed to do?” Billie asked when she was finally willing to acknowledge what everyone was telling her.

It was James who spoke up, giving Billie advice that was sound and smart. “Billie-Barbie…nobody said that you had to declare a major the minute you walked on campus. You can be undecided until you finish all your core curriculum classes. That could give you three to four semesters to figure out not just what you can do, but what you want to do. You can always do volunteer work to help Vets and families like ours. To be honest, I always thought that you’d be a great writer or maybe an editor…let somebody pay you to read all the time.”

She got a greedy smile all over her face. “That would be a dream job.” She laughed. “I could do English or journalism and business management…I could become a publisher or an agent for authors. I don’t like to write books near as much as I love to read them.”

“You always have. You were reading before you were potty trained.” Mrs. Kay reminded her fondly.

For some reason that struck everyone as funny and the rest of dinner, the rest of the afternoon was spent talking and laughing and just spending time with each other. But by about five, Mrs. Marjorie decided that she wanted to take Billie shopping to get some new stuff for college. She decided that all the ladies should go. Uncle Steve groaned as did all the guys, which somehow ended up translating into them having to go to…that was a master class in marital manipulation. It was pretty sweet to watch. Thankfully, Billie wanted to go to look at laptops first. Mrs. Marjorie decided to hit the Best Buy on the Magnificent Mile. Since, we were so close to our hotel, and Frannie and I were still peripherally family, we were able to get away pretty soon after while Uncle Steve worked on spoiling his college bound great niece a bit.

James and I said goodbye to Frannie and made an early evening of it. The next morning, we were up early. We showered, dressed and were out the door by eight thirty. I had worn the pretty red romper, but decided that the day was too hot and I would be sweating too much to force myself to don the comparatively unnecessary strapless bra. James was wearing a red heather tee-shirt that I didn’t really understand. There was a little robed monk looking figure writing in a big book with the words ‘Jawa Script’ under it. He found it hilarious and Sam, Artie and Lauren all loved it. He’d thrown on some khaki cargo shorts and a pair of sneakers that he proclaimed were not just sneakers… “Peaches, these are Nike Air Jordan 1 "Chicago"s. Calling them just sneakers is like calling Louboutin’s just some heels.”

“Which you’ve done, repeatedly.” I pointed out earning a fond shake of his head and a kiss for my troubles. It may have gone even farther, but we realized that we were running late. So, after a quick necessities double check, we headed out to meet the ND clique and the Commune Crew and tour crew at Lou Mitchell’s Diner. I really enjoyed breakfast. The diner’s food was amazing. It was a good thing that we were going to have a day of serious walking. I ate more bacon than I was comfortable admitting aloud and that was in addition to the best Eggs Benedict I’d ever had other than Maria’s at home. It was so worth the exercise that I would need to do to work it off, though.

I was happily shocked when Shelby and David walked in with Beth and Puck’s uncle, aunt and his older little girl. I went over to hug Shelby, who was starting to visibly display her pregnancy. “Surprise.” She said cheekily.

“I know…you didn’t say that you guys were coming to Chicago too.”

David chuckled. “We actually hadn’t intended to. But then Saul and Mills called to tell us that they were bringing Nikki to go to Six Flags with her parents, and asked if they could bring Beth. And you know how much Beth adores her big sister and vice versa, how could we say no.”

Shelby took over from there. “When they asked if we wanted to come too, well, its ben a while and I do enjoy theme parks…even if there will be a lot of rides I can’t go on this time. I’m still excited to go.”

She wasn’t alone in her excitement. As we loaded into the vans, everyone was talking and chatting, the enthusiasm was contagious. I was certainly looking forward to all the thrill rides. Thankfully, the drive from downtown Chicago to Six Flags Great America was long enough to allow my, and everyone else’s, food to settle…even those of us who had over indulged. That was especially important since between MeDe and Nikki’s love of centrifugal rides and the guys’ love of roller coasters, I was fairly certain that my stomach didn’t stop getting slung back and forth until we finally left that park about ten hours after we arrived. But I had so much fun. Beth and I sat for a caricature, and then James and I did the same. We ate a ton of carnival foods. I shared a funnel cake with Beth and Nikki. We rode all the rides. MeDe and I accompanying Nikki and Beth on the kiddie ones, while we allowed our men to ride the coasters that were so big the girls couldn’t do and that scared us too bad to want to ride them with the guys.

But it wasn’t just the time I got to spend with the more extended part of my family, I enjoyed spending time with my framily too. I had a great conversation with Finn and Lauren and Vince. Man, if he was just a couple of years older, I’d so introduce him to Frannie. He was a truly stellar individual. I got a chance to tease Santana about all her feelings. They shined beautifully in her eyes every time she looked at Artie or Brittany. I picked out souvenirs with Brittany. She told me about how much she was learning from Rainbow. We even talked through her feelings of dread for the fact that once they graduated, Santana would want to launch her career and Brittany would need to go dance on her team. Which was a great thing but it would mean not dancing with Commune and the friends she’d made with their crew. That saddened her a little. So, I just reminded her that no matter where she went and who she worked for or with, Mercedes, Sam and Noah would always be her friends, and that it was probably true of the other dancers too. It cheered her up a little bit…well, that or the Harley Quinn hat she found…one of the two.

To talk with Artie, I had to wait out my boyfriend. He and Artie and Lauren got started talking computers. To make sure that my existence never devolved into constantly waiting out techno-conversations, I just needed to avoid the three of them having a convo anywhere near Drew. Usually, I’d have left James to what made him happy, but I stood there and waited it out that day…though not for completely altruistic reasons. I needed to get some research software for a class coming that next semester and I needed to know which one was the best. Artie would know and if he didn’t, he’d find out. And unlike my boyfriend and our roommate…Artie could translate his explanation into English. The whole day, we’d chilled in couples and thruples but we’d also walked around in small groups of friends too. Beth and Nikki had had a blast. I don’t think either of them spent a total of fifteen minutes on their own two feet all day. Shelby and Mills, who I hadn’t heard was pregnant, but I was pretty sure she was, had spent more time chatting and talking than they had going on rides, but they were both all smiling and happy when we left.

After dinner, Finn blatantly asked if we Original New Directions plus Blaine and Vince, could do something. Puck and Santana both wanted to find a club and go do something. But that got shot down real quick, “My feet and legs hurt from all the walking I saw y’all mofos do today.” Artie scoffed. “No way do you guys actually want to go to a club after all that.”

Lauren cosigned as did Vince. It was quickly decided that we’d go to Commune’s place and hang out. So, that was exactly what we did. Unfortunately, we also got more than a little inebriated. I blame the tequila. I was never, ever drinking tequila again…ever. Tequila turned me into a Joe Nichols song character. Thankfully, Kurt and Blaine were too busy sixty-nining a few feet away to notice James fingering me until I came or my repaying him with my own superlative blow job a few minutes later. Thankfully, none of our shenanigans made the morning news…at least not the private/naughty ones. However, I clearly remembered instigating the whole ‘we join KAMA for the encore’ thing. I’d enjoyed doing it at their album release party and thought it would be a blast. I didn’t expect that I’d end up playing Hummel’s handmaiden all afternoon, though. He worked me and Lauren like we were his bitches. But we didn’t grumble or complain. Well, other than to remind him that Lauren was not wearing a short dress on that stage and that she wanted to not show her arms off. Which was a travesty…after two years of collegiate wrestling training, she had strong, defined arms. Though, I could understand, if she wasn’t comfortable, she just wasn’t comfortable.

We managed to get ‘stage gear’ for those of us who needed it and get me back to my hotel in time to get dressed for my date. But really only because Kurt and Lauren came up and helped me with my hair, Lauren, and makeup, Kurt. We almost ran a little behind because Kurt thought that covering the Gucci mini-dress was a crime against fashion, but I reminded him that I was going to a very upscale restaurant before the concert. Even with our little kerfuffle, at six James and I walked into Grace looking every bit the beautiful couple we both knew we were. When we got to the restaurant, things were going perfectly. The Maître ’D was efficient and polite, we were shown to our table. We had a great view of the Kitchen Window, a prime location in the restaurant. The night seemed like it was going to be perfect. Every aspect of the restaurant’s interior was well thought out. The walls had strategic jutted counter tops where wines were placed and discreetly removed and rotated around during the wine pairing experience. Then we met our waiter. Peter took one look at me and immediately started fawning all over me and basically ignoring James. Thankfully, there was actually pretty well a whole staff for each table. Or our experience would not have been as pleasant as it was.

In fact, while James and I were debating why Peter was acting like a douche, I thought racism, James thought jealousy, the restaurant staffer whose job it was to in taking note of each table's pace, whoever they were, they had noticed Peter’s behavior and reported it themselves. The staff member in the kitchen watched the diners to make sure that their dining experience was completely seamless. They made sure that the waiters did not bring out new dishes until everyone was present like when I was guided to the beautifully appointed rest room. They also didn't remove anything until we had both completed the course. How they took note of us so subtly was beyond me as the wait staff, during downtime, simply stood in the shadows along the back wall. Why did they take the time and energy to do that? Because every time new dishes were brought in or completed, there was always a pair of waiters who had synchronized their moves to either replace or remove something at the same time. The Grace staff had gotten transitions between courses down to a T. Anyway, while we were still trying to figure out the why’s of Peter’s behavior, the Maître ’D came over and apologized for his behavior. He was replaced with a young lady named Helen, who was polite and kind and efficient and in every single way absolutely amazing.

Words simply could not express the dining experience we had that night. The food was awe inspiring. The restaurant offered ‘tasting menus’ in two choices. One was called Flora and the other was Fauna. Since there were two of us, and we wanted the fullest possible experience, we each picked one choice with a wine pairing. Every single dish was absolutely beautiful. A visual and gastronomic delight was set in front of us with each remove. The plates themselves were a work of art. Our opening finger food dishes were made of bees wax and it could have passed as a sculpture itself. The wine pairing was worth every extra penny. Grace wasn’t simply a restaurant…it was an event in and of itself. While we were dining, there was another event at a table nearby. As I was thinking to myself that Grace was the kind of place that men took women to propose, a woman who was maybe a year or three older than Frannie gasped so loud the whole place heard her. As she lifted a petite, but sparkling, diamond ring that had been in her cake, her date got down on one knee in front of her. She joyously agreed to become his bride…I found myself wishing that they were James and me.

In all the years of going to fine dining establishments with my grandparents and my parents and eventually with James, I’d seen any number of marriage proposals…I’d even seen the very, very rare public proposal rejection. Over the years, I’d felt envy seeing them. I’d envied a woman my mother scoffed at who was being asked to marry a handsome man who looked at her with such love and desire that it took my breath away. I’d envied the beautiful dresses the beautiful women wore. But I had never envied their and their date’s desire to be together forever. I was happy for them. Even when my parents’ disastrous behavior had made me stop believing in forever, I’d still felt a certain measure of happiness at their joy. But that night…I’d never wanted more to be the woman with the man she loved asking her that all important question. I shoved that feeling aside as we finished our meal and James settled up. He’d handled it all like Grandfather used to. I had no definite idea what anything cost, just estimations based on past experience.

Despite our early reservations, and the close proximity to the concert venue, we didn’t make it to the United Center until the near the end of Alessia Cara’s set. I slipped off my over dress and fluffed up my curls as, James came around and opened the door to help me from the car. As soon as James and I arrived, one of the Rangemen, Junior I think, showed us to the New Directions’ and KAMA family box. We were situated directly across from the stage in one of the twenty-person suites on the lower level. It gave us a perfect view of the stage and Nikki and Beth were taking full advantage of it. They were looking out over the crowded floor and all the people leaving their seats on the floor and up the stands. They were back as quickly as they could manage while on the stage the roadies were clearing the Cara stage set and getting the KAMA stage set up. Frannie was over there with them, looking more than a little awesome in her new outfit.

While that was happening outside our box, inside our little area of the massive arena Kurt and Blaine were bringing me up to speed on the songs we would be singing for KAMA’s encore. They had videos of the dances that we’d be doing. It was many steps up from swaying and making like the Pips in the background…but not so complex that I didn’t have it down in a few minutes. My former classmates and forever friends had even recorded the practice, so that I could go through them and get myself ready for the performance. But before I could move to the side to do that, Kurt, wanted to go through our timeline. “We just have to go back stage as soon as they start ‘Leave a Light On’. It’s the last song in the second set. Probably, by the time we get back there, they will be just about ready to go for their last real set.”

Blaine took over from there. “Once we get back stage, the five of us will sit through hair and makeup. James, Cedes, Sam and Puck said you can come and you can dance…but you have to lip-sync…or you can just come back and watch the encore from backstage. Whichever way you want to do it.” Blaine’s tone was teasing. Sometimes I almost forgot that they’d been friends for years before I ever met either of them.

“I’ll just come back and watch from backstage. I’m not one for getting out in front of thirty thousand people.” James shot back.

Blaine and Kurt seemed to find that funnier than I did. But it was amusing. “Okay, so yeah, we’ll dress and hopefully have time for a quick warm up.”

“I don’t know…we’ll be singing along so we shouldn’t need much of a warm up.” Kurt reminded his fiancé.

“If you two will go first in hair and makeup, I can do my physical warmups then.” I postulated.

We got all of that settled and focused on our friends’ show. I had to say, KAMA knew how to put on one hell of a show. I’d seen their finale look, and yet I still wasn’t prepared for their opening apparel. It wasn’t revealing or anything. It was just awesome. MeDe was in wine Marchesa Notte while Tana, Tina and Xena were in the black versions of the same lace, ruffle-hem, halter neck, cocktail dress. While the background singers were in black heeled sandals, Mercedes’ footwear were a pair of silver metallic leather, four and a half inch high sandals with crystal embellishments around the ankle and a waterfall of crystals down the vamp and she rocked them like they were a pair of Sketcher comfort sneakers. Her hair was huge…a big, voluminous waterfall of waves and curls that reached almost to her waist. She truly shined like a star. Brittany and the other girl dancers were in flowy, lacy black maxi-dresses with burgundy leotards underneath and wine-colored dance shoes. I noticed that Erika was in sexy, rocker chick, black leather, high waisted shorts and a lacy wine-colored lace top with a black bandeau bra under it. Her hair, like Santana, Tina and Xena’s was done in big curly faux hawk styles, adding some rock to their main-stream fashionable looks.

Sam and Puck were happy to be guys, but being guys meant that their fashion was a little bit boring. They were dressed well, but not as well as their woman or the other females on the stage. Puck was dressed more casually than Sam, in a burgundy shirt that had portions that were lighter than others and gave it an almost tie-dyed effect…its sleeves were of course rolled up to show off his forearms. His pants were a shade of black so dark that they almost seemed to draw light in. Sam’s outfit was in similar colors, but shirt seemed dressier and lighter. His pants were slightly less dense a darkness, but not that much. It still struck me as funny seeing him dancing with any measure of fluidity. He’d never been as bad as Finn, but he was not a dancer…at all. The male background dancers were dressed far more formally than even Sam. In fact, in their burgundy dress shirts and black slacks, they looked like they’d just come from meetings and taken off their ties and blazers. Artie looked like Artie. Just in a burgundy polo rather than an actual short sleeved button-down shirt.

The music was every bit as amazing as one expected from MeDe, Puck and Sam, but it was really an intimate spectacle. I found myself so fascinated that even though I had prior knowledge of the set list, I was still surprised when one set ended. I was absolutely shocked when I realized that an hour had gone by. Kurt had been very right. We’d sung along. I’d danced with James for a song or two. I’d danced with Beth and Nikki…in fact, I danced so much I was pretty sure that I had no need to do a physical warmup after all. Especially not after DJ CA$$’s set. I was a Cheerio for almost all of high school and I’d still never had that much physical activity in forty-five minutes in my life. The second set was an emotional roller coaster. They had so many different love songs and sexy songs, but they also had their tributes to Tamir Rice and Emmitt Till in that set too. I was so engrossed in the music and the showmanship, Finn had to tap me on my shoulder to get my attention when it was time to go.

James and Frannie came with and I was a little surprised to see Frannie making the trip. But like James, she wasn’t hindered or bothered as we headed backstage. Our escort for that trip introduced himself as Chet. Chet and Frannie seemed to hit it off like gang busters on the long walk from our box to the back-stage hair and makeup area. In fact, he stayed chatting with my sister and my boyfriend as Lauren and I were given a similar hair and makeup look to the ones they’d just done for the KAMA background singers whose curly faux-hawks had been clubbed into thick buns at the back of their heads. We’d made it to the back just in time to join in on the pre-set prayer before they returned to the stage. As I sat in the chair, I couldn’t see the trio behind me talking, but just the murmurings of James voice soothed me. Trina and Dee along with three of the locals handled the five of us and we were readied quickly and efficiently while KAMA and their Crew performed the last of their three main sets. Their stage apparel for the final set and encore was truly beautiful. Santana, Tina and Xena were in sleek dark metallic silver sheath dresses that had deep V necklines and stopped at their knees. Those were paired with the same black sandals from their opening look. By contrast, Mercedes’ A-line black and silver jacquard dress had a high low skirt that showed some of her thick thighs off. The thin, tank straps and sweetheart neckline showed the world-famous décolletage that women were already trying surgery to copy. But the highlight of the outfit had to be the knee high, glittery, silver, strappy sandal with beautiful scroll work going up the front of her legs. It was a surprising choice with the very formal dress, but they looked fabulous together. Like her girls, Mercedes makeup was mainly shades of silver and charcoal with bold deeper purple lips for her and wine for the girls. Lauren and I were treated to the same look.

Unfortunately, we’d not been able to find the same Milly Camilla plunging sequin open-back cocktail dress that the regular background singers were wearing in my size and there was no time for us to get the one they did have and alter it. We had managed to find me a Halston Heritage sleeveless, V-Neck, Lurex jersey, midi dress that was a pretty perfect blend of their dresses and Lauren’s Halston Heritage sleeveless, halter-neck, textured metallic, evening gown. Lauren’s dress covered her a lot more than anyone else’s but it did have a slit up the front that was pretty damn fierce. With Hudson’s help, Kurt had managed to get us the same subtly glittery body stocking things that all the non-dancer ladies wore under their stage apparel. It may have taken both me and Lauren, Frannie and Kurt’s help to get those damn things on. After leaving me at the hotel, Lauren had had a crash course in high heels, we’d both been gotten the same black, Vince Camuto Saraya sandals Tana, Tina and Xena were wearing.

Finn, Kurt and Blaine were all wearing the same thing that Arjun, Damien and Adam were wearing; gray, Armani Collezioni scale-cut square cotton sport shirts, black Denim and Supply Ralph Lauren men's slim-fit cargo chino pants, Calvin Klein Saffiano leather roll buckle reversible belts, Fossil men's automatic modern machine stainless steel bracelet watches and black Vans. Kurt’s hair was higher than I had ever seen it before and Blaine’s curls were gelled in such a way that it put them on full display. Trina had done a thing where it didn’t look like they were wearing makeup, but Finn’s brown eyes look like shiny dark chocolate pools. Blaine’s hazel eyes were snapping with flecks of gold and Kurt’s sea-storm eyes were almost glowing. Then again, Lauren’s amber eyes looked like pools of gold and my own hazel eyes were sparkling with flecks of emerald that were so beautiful my own breath caught in my throat.

Hudson made sure that we were all in place and headed onto the stage to join our friends at the exact right moment. I wasn’t expecting to see a second drum kit on the stage, but Finn kissed Lauren on the cheek and went to it and took a seat behind it like that was an expected thing. It really did made sense…Finn was, at heart, a drummer. Behind a drum kit was the only place he had rhythm. Maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t have any rhythm…maybe it was just that he had a finite amount that was just not enough to run his whole body for dancing. But he did have enough to operate his two arms and his foot for drumming. Kind of like how Santana’s mother always said men weren’t actually stupid, it was just that God had given them two heads and only enough blood to run one at a time.

Even with a much larger…much, much larger…crowd than I was used to being in front of, at least to sing, being on stage with Santana, Brittany and Mercedes not to mention the rest of the New Directions, was as natural to me as breathing. We did six of the seven songs that comprised the encore and had just finished an amazing cover of India Arie’s ‘The Truth’ when MeDe called an unexpected halt to everything. “Guys, you all have been an amazing audience. Chicago is a city that Sam, Puck and I really do love to visit. Now, I know that this is really unusual, but I’d like your permission to bring some people out to help us make this final song even more special. Though I have to confess the special-ness is for my soul sister more than for you guys. I hope that you’ll forgive us.” As she finishes saying that, Frannie, Shelby and Beth, Daddy, Mama Dani and Papa Bent…the three of whom I didn’t even know were in town, and James all came out onto the stage from the entrance we’d come in while Steve and Ms. Marjorie and Ms. Kay, Maria and Billie plus Cousins Tommy and Junior all came from the other side of the stage.

While Mercedes addressed the audience, Sam and Noah had pulled me forward to just right of center stage. James walked up to me and dropped to one knee in front of me. The cameras that made sure that everyone in the arena could see, the entire concert, were focused on us. “Lucille Quinn Fabray…the first time I met you, I was fully prepared not to like you just because Blaine and Kurt are both insufferably smug when their matchmaking bears fruit. But then you laughed at something Kurt said and I knew that I wanted to hear that sound every day for the rest of my life. Over the last three years, you’ve been my friend, my best friend, my girlfriend and my lover. Please say that you’ll be my fiancée and eventually, my bride and wife?” he pulled out a small iconic blue box.

The ring he pulled out was perfect. A simple solitaire in a polished setting with a rounded, polished band. My hands shook as they surrounded his beautiful smile and I kissed him slow and sweet and deep. “There is nothing that would make me happier.”

The floor mics had picked up our every word. Over twenty-three thousand people all screamed and shouted and celebrated our love as James placed the ring on my finger and pulled me into a kiss that set my blood to flame. I honestly didn’t even hear MeDe, Sam and Puck launch into ‘Spend My Life with You’. I was hugged and congratulated by our families and our friend and all was right with my world. To celebrate, MeDe insisted that we join them at the after party as planned, so we didn’t make it back to our hotel suite until the next morning. We stayed there an extra night to do our own private celebrating. When we finally returned to living life, James and I called our roommates and shared the news they already knew from the social media frenzy the onstage engagement had caused. They were ecstatic for our joy. All of them said that it was a good thing we were getting the master suite. Topanga and Cory were engaged too, but he wouldn’t be living with us after all.

Neither would Frannie. While Yale had accepted her into their psychology doctoral program, Columbia had courted her for theirs. Plus, Chet would be replacing Junior as a primary on the KAMA detail come the fall…so New York won out over New Haven. The Basement was completely finished the week after Ms. Pillsbury’s wedding. Kat and her dad did the walk through for us and I sent the final cashier’s checks to our amazing vendors. I should not have been surprised to learn that someone…Mama Dani… had arranged for the painters who’d done the basement to paint the entire interior of the house according to the furniture and décor choices I’d made on the spreadsheet she’d made for me that I’d, of course, shown her when I had it finished. That wasn’t all she’d done with that information either. When we all met up for the KAMA Columbus concert, MeDe, Sam and Puck had given James and I our engagement gift…even though I hadn’t even started planning our engagement party which we would need to have over the winter holidays. So much to do…no time at all. Anyway, when we opened the envelope, we found gift cards and certificates for the stores noted on the spreadsheet and in quantities that would allow us to furnish not only the public spaces, also, at least, Kat’s bedroom.

It was one of the busiest summers of my life, but it was the most amazing three months of my life. I’d handled everything life threw at me with aplomb. I’d experienced joys that I’d been afraid would never be mine. I’d learned more about myself than I’d realized I didn’t already know. I was amazed everyday by the woman I’d become and how really, truly blessed I was.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

I Love You, Always Forever (Donna Lewis)
Emma Pillsbury PoV

Cliché dictated that the third time was the charm. I knew on a deeply personal level that there was a real reason that cliché was till uttered on an almost hourly basis. Hal was the third man to ask me to marry them and, thanks to my weekly sessions with Dr. Harmon, I realized that he was the only man I had said yes to for exactly the right reasons. I’d said yes to Ken Tanaka because he was a deeply flawed as I was – just in a different way. I’d said yes to Carl Howell because he seemed to be the perfect man every little girl dreamed of marrying…who was I to say no. But Hal…I had said yes to Harold Gruber because I loved him more than I’d even loved anyone else in my life and because I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life without him at my side. I said yes to Hal not because he completed me, but because for the first time since I was five years old, I knew that I was good enough and complete all on my own. Because he supported me in my moments of weakness and was proud of my moments of strength. I said yes to Hal and it seemed as if the entire universe was in support of that decision.

Ranger had arranged things so that I could keep the job that I loved and Hal could move to the Midwest to join me while keeping the job that he loved. At first I felt very guilty about that, but then Hal showed me the prospective numbers from their interest surveys. Lauren’s cousin Darcy really was an amazing talent. Much like Lauren herself. Interest in having Rangeman residential security was up in the Midwest by fifty-five percent and their corporate and business services were desired even more strongly. There had been a small problem with finding a place in Columbus that would be the main hub with smaller field offices in larger towns with a hundred or more clients that were more than sixty minutes’ drive from the hub. The field office staff would have bi-weekly fitness check-ins and therefore, Hal wanted something roughly the same size as the other hubs, Trenton, Atlanta, Boston and Miami, but within walking distance from a decent hotel. Hal had found a perfect, absolutely perfect building in March. It was even near the sports complex of OSU. The seller was trying to be a tough negotiator. That all changed when Finn, who happened to be leading the OSU football team by the building on their warm down stamina run…the coaches loved him because he could still exercise with the team, he just couldn’t play any longer. Finn paused to say hello to Hal by name and told him to ‘give Drizzle a hug’ when he got back to Lima. It turned out that the seller was a HUGE Buckeye fan. Since Hal was good friends with ‘Hero Hudson’, the seller let Rangeman have the building for ten thousand under asking price. Hal was very happy.

Then there was some problem with getting permits in place during the final stage of the renovations of the building. But again, an outside force stepped in and the problem suddenly ceased to be problematic. A few days later Rangeman was all over the news for saving a teenage girl from being raped at a KAMA concert. The pieces on the Veteran owned security company in the Columbus Dispatch were glowingly supportive of the fact that Columbus citizens would soon be protected by the former military men that the firm intended to hire. The very next day, Rangeman’s desire to convert some of the underground space to cells and interrogation rooms was no longer a zoning problem. Everything was going apace for Rangeman Heartland’s main headquarters to be fully staffed and opened in time for the start of the new school year. Sue and I were already helping Hal and Ram go through the resumes and CVs of the vets recommended to Ranger. There were a fair few of the honorably, and a few other than honorably, discharged former service members to go through and Ranger decided that Sue and I would be the perfect consultants to assist in the undertaking. Myself, because Ranger thought that I could read between the lines of their psych evaluations better than anyone else and Sue, because with her parent’s old network of contacts and connections…she was easily able to ascertain when ‘other than honorable’ should have been full blown dishonorable.

The two of them had met when Ranger came out to Ohio to handle some of the original paperwork involved with creating Rangeman Heartland. Sue had walked up to him and told him bold as brass. “My Mother told me to tell you that you’re welcome.”

Ranger quirked an eye at her. “May I ask why?”

“Turkmenistan, two-thousand and four. You and your team were pinned down by some Soviet Nazi-sympathizers. You were on a black op, no help was coming. My mother’s team was in the area. They took out the crew that had your team under heavy fire.” Sue smirked. “Mother really hates Nazis. She’s been taking them out since before I was born.”

“There is a legend of a Lady Doris…hopped from the USAC to MI-6 to the CIA to the German FIS back to the CIA.” Ranger said thoughtfully. It didn’t surprise me that he knew the name of Sue’s mother. “No history before she joined the USAC…little known about her other than the fact that she may…or may not actually exist.”

“That’s dear old Mom, alright. Not even I know her backstory. Just an old phone number to call if something happened to Dad while she was away before I was eighteen.” Sue admitted.

I looked at her like I’d never seen her before. “Did you ever call it?”

Sue scoffed. “Of course not, Fun Time Skooter.” I, later, had to actually google that one. Apparently, Skooter was Skipper’s red haired best friend. “I’m Sue Sylvester. I did not need adult supervision. Besides, nothing ever happened to Dad.”

I was surprised at that. The Sue Sylvester I knew was one of the nosiest, most curious people I’d ever met. It seemed odd to me that she had not called the number just to find out who was on the other end. But I said nothing. Sue was also very protective of her secrets. I respected her desire not to discuss the subject further. Ranger and his men did as well. So, everyone moved forward with their business. It was interesting that my two ‘bosses’ had a connection to each other. But it made my life easier, because that sole connection had bred a wealth of respect between the two of them. That respect worked out well for me. I always had the support I needed in working at McKinley and helping Rangeman.

Things at McKinley were going wonderfully. Test scores were up across the board. Sue had forced the board to allow her to ramp back up vocational arts courses. That really benefited about thirty-five percent of our students and the twenty-fifteen graduating class had had the smallest percentage of senior year drop outs we’d seen since I started at the school. Not every person was academically inclined and giving those who weren’t the opportunity to begin to explore their gifts was a necessity. That summer, Sue had even brought in a special new guidance counselor whose job it was to identify those kids as early as possible. Shane Montgomery was a small, wiry, Biracial man in his later twenties. He had master’s degrees in statistics and career assessment therapy. I found him to be very interesting. He’d graduated from high school while serving time in juvenile detention. He’d gone on to college and worked his way through a state school working construction during the day and going to classes in the evening and online. He had completed his masters in much the same fashion. I found his determination to complete his education not just refreshing, but inspirational. The first day he came in to meet the guidance department, he’d sighed. “I feel like that kid from the first Jurassic Park movie. I worked so hard to get out of high school…now here I am back in the car.”

“Yeah, but at least you’re out of the tree.” Lisa Roundtree, our guidance department secretary, said with a wicked grin. Lisa was only a little older than Shane and had just gotten through a ridiculously quick divorce. She’d married a man she’d dated for three years over Thanksgiving break the previous school year and by Spring Break they were separated with the divorce paperwork filed. I tried not to listen to gossip, but I had overheard her and Molly, the ninth and tenth grade counselor, talking about the subject on more than one occasion. Her perfect seeming husband had changed after the wedding and hit her one Sunday afternoon when his sports team had lost. She’d left that same day and filed for divorce the next. She was certainly a strong woman. I admired that in her.

With the addition of Shane, we were now four counselors strong. Given the nature of his remit from Sue, he would handle the incoming ninth graders. Molly would have the rising tenth graders. Sandy would manage the eleventh graders and I would handle our college bound seniors. I knew that Sue wasn’t done. She also wanted to bring in a true psychologist who specialized in teens and young adults to handle the more emotional counseling aspects of the student population’s needs. Coach Sylvester wasn’t happy having just the McKinley High Cheerios and New Directions held up as national models she wanted McKinley, and therefore herself, held up as a perfect prototype of a high school. To be honest, I wasn’t so sure that it was a bad thing. She did seem to have ideas on running the school that were exceptionally beneficial to our students.

It was strange. Even though I was technically working a full time and a part time job. I had still found time to plan my entire wedding and to help Shannon with the planning of hers. Shannon and Marc were getting married the first weekend of our winter break. The wedding planning was most enjoyable. I found that it channeled my ability to focus on the minutest of details into a positive avenue. Hal laughingly suggested that if I ever found myself in need of a third career, I’d definitely found it. He may well have been right. I planned an entire, medium sized wedding in under a year. All while working more than full time, supporting a long distance then an immediate intimately close relationship and fostering a class of graduating seniors. I was pretty proud of myself. But even more so, I was deliriously happy.

Everything was going smoothly. The weekend before, Hal and I had double checked all the last-minute details. I’d verified all our vendors and made sure that everything was set on their end. Hal had made sure that the hotel had all the rooms we needed reserved for when we needed them. Our favors and the gifts for our wedding party had arrived and were all wrapped and ready to go. Everything from the seating chart to the place cards were set and ready to go. The wedding party was due to start arriving on Tuesday to make sure they had all they needed and so that the groomsmen could help Hal with some surprise he had planned for the rehearsal dinner. We were actually having the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner on Thursday. The step away from tradition had to be taken when Sam, Noah and Mercedes gifted Hal and I with tickets for our entire wedding party to attend their concert in Columbus on Friday night. The Monday before Hal and my big day, I’d spoken with Hudson Freidman. She was a wonderfully efficient personal assistant. She made sure that I had everything that I needed on my end to allow Mercedes, Noah and Sam to skype in for the rehearsal.

I was honestly and pleasantly surprised when Kurt Hummel appeared at my door the very morning. He talked me into accompanying him to the coffee shop. He offered me his services as a day of wedding coordinator. “I know you, Ms. Pillsbury, you’ve had comprehensive wedding rehearsal and ceremony timelines and checklists ready to go for at least the last month. And you know me. you know that my attention to detail and abilities to micromanage event vendors and contractors without offending and-or pissing anyone off are second only to – well, you don’t know Haja very well, so I will claim that my skills are second to none.” He gave me a beseeching smile. “Please Ms. Pillsbury, let me do this for you. you were the very first authority figure to give me validation and support on my path to a fashion and style career that will, one day, have my name spoken among those of Lagerfeld, Mizrahi or Armani…eventually.”

I couldn’t say no. I knew that I couldn’t do it all by myself. And Kurt was right…there was no one in Lima that I could trust to pay attention to the tiniest details like him. “I would love your help, Kurt.”

The smile he gave me was blinding in its happiness. “You are going to have the best wedding day ever.” He promised happily. I could have told him that I knew that I would even if everything went completely wrong. As long as I was marrying Hal, the day would be perfect.

We headed back to my condo to go over everything that he was right, I did have all already set up. We’d barely settled down with my rehearsal, pre-wedding, during wedding, reception and post reception notebooks when the doorbell rang. I should have been surprised, but I really wasn’t to open it to find Cheryl, Ronald and their adorable two-month-old daughter Elianna Reese. Cheryl gave me a hug and she and Ronald brought the baby in. “No point in locking it…Mom, Ben, Caleb and Janine are right behind us.” Cheryl said with a smile. “And…I worked my ass off…but I did it. I fit my dress perfectly.”

Neither Ronald nor I pointed out that she’d actually ended her pregnancy at a weight deficit. She’d probably just had to tone to get her body back as she wanted it. By the time I’d introduced Kurt to my soon to be brother and sister-in-law, the rest of the Gruber family had arrived. With the last name Hummel, perhaps I should not have been surprised how well Kurt got along with Hal’s family. Apparently, there were a few little things that we could do to incorporate Elise and her late husband’s and therefore Hal’s Germanic heritage. In fact, the easiest to incorporate were ones that we’d planned on without conscious thought. Out first dance was set to be a waltz. Our wedding cake was three tiers, yes, but it was all light ivory and very simple. My bouquet was made up primarily of Lily of the Valleys. Hal had bought my wedding shoes, though I’d picked them out. These were things that either I or Hal had decided upon without really knowing why. Elise had one finale thing that she wanted us to add. “In America, the tradition is that the ring is worn on the left hand…but in Germany, the wedding ring is traditionally worn on the right hand. My grandparents were best friends and neighbors in the old country. All four of them immigrated to the US after World War I. My parents they took to America like ducks to water. By the time I was old enough to marry, both of my grandmothers were widows. When I married, Henry and I wore a set of wedding bands in the traditional American way, those of my Wimmer grandparents. And then on our right hands, we wore my Scholz grandparent’s rings. Cheryl and Ronald wear the rings of Helmut and Gerda Scholz on their right hands. I know that you and Hal have already purchased your wedding set. But I would be very honored if you would consent to wear Kurt and Ilse Wimmer’s rings.”

“I…I would be honored.” I said quietly. The rings were silver, which would go well with the platinum of my rings and the titanium of Hal’s.

Kurt was looking over my shoulder at the rings Elise had given me. “Oh my, are those German coin rings? Those…the real antique ones…they are very rare.”

Elise smiled. “They are. These were some of the first cast. But their true wealth is the history of love they signify. My grandparents’ marriages each lasted for over fifty-years. My own parents were married for almost sixty. That is my hope for my son’s marriages. That like those rings, they will stand the tests of time and weather all life’s storms.”

There was a heavy silence as we all took in the import of her words. Thankfully, Caleb was quite good at filling silence with humor. “Well that’s all well and good, but you’ve only got two sets of rings and four sons…well three that are actually gonna get married. Ben…don’t look at me like that…we all know that you like to date the kind of women who think that marriage would just curtail their social lives.”

“And that’s just the way I like it.” Ben threw back just as Caleb had expected. We all shared a warm laugh.

It was into that laughter that Hal entered accompanied by Ranger, Stephanie, Tank, Ella and Hal’s partner and best friend Ram. While Hal’s blood family lived near enough to drive, his chosen family had flown into Cincinnati checked into the hotel where we’d secured a block of rooms for our wedding party and guests. The Renaissance Cincinnati Downtown Hotel was a touch upscale for some budgets, but they were very interested in access to Rangeman’s services and had given us a wonderful deal for our friends and family. With Stephanie, Ella, Cheryl and Kurt all present, it was quickly decided that we should gather Shannon and Shelby if possible and text or Skype in my niece to verify that the bridesmaids had everything they needed. That would knock one more thing off my final week checklist.

I had never before felt so unnecessary in my life. Ella and Kurt had banded together and once Shannon and Shelby had arrived and Skype was set up with Betty, her mother Rosalyn and my sister Jane, the cabal was called to order and I became superfluous in the very best way. Forty-five minutes later and Kurt and Ella turned their attention to the groomsmen. After that Kurt and Ella made sure that Mommy and Elise were golden. Then it was my turn.

“Have you packed for the honeymoon?” Cheryl asked showing her priorities.

I nodded. “Hal, insisted that he wanted it to be a surprise. But he did tell me that I would need my passport and to pack for two weeks including a night at the theater and some time at the beach. I have tried to plan for all contingencies while sticking to two checked bags.”

Kurt chimed in next. “I know that you are not actually changing your dress for the reception. But are you changing shoes?”

Again I answered in the affirmative. “The ceremony shoes are lovely, but the heel is rather high for dancing. I found a pair of Easy Street Passion pumps at Macy and they will be my reception shoes.” I showed them pictures of both pairs of shoes and everyone agreed that the ceremony shoes might be prettier, the reception shoes would serve me well for dancing the night away. We went over all the other little details including Elise reminding me to pack a separate wedding night bag that Shannon or one of the other Limans, could bring back for me and I pick it up when we returned from our honeymoon. An hour after Cheryl voiced the first question to me, I was released from examination and declared fully prepared. I’d even managed to assure them that I had their Bridal Party gifts without actually telling them what they were. Hal had convinced me to be a bit unconventional. Instead of each of us buying the gifts for our half of the bridal party, we’d each purchased each member of our bridal party something. We all had a lovely dinner together allowing our friends and Hal’s families to get to know each other better.

Wednesday, Ranger, at Ella’s suggestion, treated all the women of the bridal party to a spa day at Spavia in Miami Township just outside of Dayton right about half way between Lima and Cincinnati. It was a great spa. Amazing reviews, and they were even kind enough to email me their hygienic and cleanliness practices along with seven years of their health department assessment reports. I found out quickly that Stephanie Plum was a bad influence on me. Though her influence just pushed me a bit out of my comfort zone…so, it wasn’t perhaps, all that bad. Somehow, she convinced me to get a full Brazilian wax. She did it in the most insidious way, everyone was scheduled to get one. There was simply no way to back out when my mother, mother-in-law and my niece were doing it. There was actually a bit of psychological trauma involved in knowing that my mother was getting her vaginal hair removed…but I tried very hard not to think of it too much. Then we all had either the purifying detox or the anti-aging perfecting wraps. Facials were also had by all. The vita-c radiance facial included a hot stone neck and shoulder massage and a deeply hydrating hand treatment high in anti-oxidants, vitamins a,b,c,e, omega 3,6,7 and 9 fatty acids. At least that was according to the lovely young woman of Asian descent who administered mine. The spa day was a wonderful way to hold a bachelorette kind of event without one of those degrading and humiliating ‘parties’ where everyone drank to the point of vomiting and some sweaty behemoth tried to put his lice infested genitals altogether too close to your face.

While we ladies were getting waxed, plucked, massaged and pampered, Hal, my daddy and his groomsmen had a day that made most of them deliriously happy. Shannon had Marc take the men to his favorite gym. They spent the better part of the morning working out together, teaching each other self-defense moves…or rather teaching Daddy, Caleb, Ben and Ronald defense moves. When they were done at the gym, they went out to lunch at Lourdes. A tour of the Lima Field office space was followed with a return to our condo and an afternoon spent playing Pandemic. While Hal loved it, I refused to play that game…all the therapy in the world wouldn’t return me to an even keel after even thinking of the title for too long. They met us all for dinner in Dayton at a Mexican restaurant that was loud and garish but had years of one hundred percent on their health inspections and large portions. After dinner we all split up, the Limans and my parents returned to their homes and the out of town visitors returned to their hotel rooms.

Thursday was a very busy day. But the morning…the morning was just for Hal and I. we had a lovely, quiet breakfast together. We’d awoken in each other’s arms. Hal and I had agreed to abstain from intercourse for the two weeks leading up to our wedding. But we allowed ourselves the comfort and pleasure of sleeping wrapped in each other’s arms. That morning would be the last time we’d enjoy that luxury until after we were declared man and wife. It was also the last time we’d see our little condo until we returned from our honeymoon. After breakfast, we washed, put away and covered the dishes in the cabinets. We cleaned out the dishwasher and dried it out as well. Hal took out the trash while I cleaned out the trash can. Then we took care of our toilets and cleaned the bathroom…together. We covered our bed and other furniture to protect it from dust and other particulates. We had both made sure that we had everything we needed. My wedding dress and shoes were awaiting me at my parent’s house, though I had everything else I needed from my wedding day lingerie, robe and slippers to my wedding night overnight bag and all my honey moon luggage.

From the moment we loaded into Hal’s midnight blue Chevy Tahoe, the next few days flew by. As soon as we got to Cincinnati, we checked into our hotel rooms. Then we toured the church, making sure that the church’s event coordinator had everything that was needed. We’d had to get them what basically amounted to depositions from my priest at the Episcopal Church in Lima, that I attended, pardon the pun, religiously. Hal had spoken to a Lutheran Cleric who had served on the last base he’d been stationed at. Fortunately, the man was a firm believer in love and was willing to state without lying, Hal’s being a member in good standing of that same parish. We had completed pre-marital counseling at my church in Lima. So, they did have everything in order. As soon as that was done, Jane and Rosalyn had made an appointment for all the ladies to get manicures and pedicures. I assume that Stephanie knew about it ahead of time since it hadn’t been a part of our spa day the previous day. We left the nail shop with just enough time to get showered and changed for the rehearsal and following dinner.

The rehearsal went swimmingly. There were no technical difficulties. We were using a rather traditional Episcopalian wedding ceremony, with two added songs. One of which was a solo from Mercedes and the other would be sung by her, Sam and Noah. We ran through it three times, then Father Walsh released us and we all went out a wonderful dinner where we gave out our gifts. I had found my ladies a great set of lab-created opal and white sapphire in white gold, necklace, earrings and a cocktail ring. The opals would look amazing with their pearl pink dresses…well Shannon’s was pewter gray, but it would look amazing with her dress as well. My mother was in a pink lace cocktail dress with a satin jacket while Elise would be in a silver lace dress with a matching dress. I’d gotten the bridesmaids jewelry sets for half off. I hadn’t even tried to find a sale for the mothers’ jewelry. I found them each a five-piece set of stretch bracelets, white, pink and dark gray cultured freshwater pearl baroque and crystal rondel tied together both of their dresses. However, unlike my bridesmaids, the bracelets were the matching pieces. I found Elise a gorgeous Belle de Mer sterling silver, pink, white and black freshwater pearl three-strand necklace and a pair of Majorica sterling silver, freshwater pearl triple drop earrings in the same colors. For Mommy, I found a more traditional Belle De Mer cultured freshwater pearl three-layer necklace and a pair of Honora Style cultured freshwater pearl & Swarovski zirconia linear drop earrings in sterling silver to finish off her gift.

Hal had gone a different route. He was a firm believer that women loved purses. It was something that he had learned from Stephanie. She loved them second only to shoes. So, with that in mind, he’d gotten them each a different Coach purse. My mother’s bag was traditional black Mercer satchel. His mother got a black Drifter crossbody bag because Elise was not a fan of large purses. Shannon got a brown reversible large market tote…while the rest of the bridesmaids got Mercer, glitter, rose grain leather satchels. Stephanie showed that this gift was right up her alley. She and Betty truly loved those purses. Then Hal gave my father and his groomsmen their gifts. He gave each of them a monogrammed blue and gray Yeti Hopper Two 30. My father was almost as happy as Steph and Betty about his Yeti cooler. Though Elianna was not able to be our active Flower Girl. She was an honorary one. So, we gave her a pair of real diamond earrings for when Cheryl took her to get her ears pierced and a rather large savings bond for her college education. Ciaran and Connor would each carry a pillow with our rings. They were each given a huge Lego toy set and the same size saving bonds for their educations.

I gave Hal’s men each a Skagen unisex signature stainless steel mesh bracelet hybrid smart watch. To go with the watches, I also got them a set of Sutton by Rhona Sutton stainless steel mother-of-pearl stone cuff links. And I’d found for my father a Rapport of London chrome demi hunter pocket watch with seventeen jewel movements, and the cuff links. Over the course of the meal, Hal’s surprise ran, it was a slide show of pictures of the two of us as individuals until the night we met at KAMA’s debut album release party and then of us as a couple from there. It was touching and lovely, a wonderful surprise. The dinner was delicious and with the kids present, we all adjourned to our hotel rooms rather early. Friday was a rather lazy day. I spent time with my mother, sister and sister-in-law just talking and chatting and really having a better discourse than we could usually have. It was really nice. We were joined by the other ladies after lunch and still, a nice time was had by all. The ladies all helped me take the gift baskets that we’d gotten to welcome our guests who were arriving that evening. We attended the concert in Columbus that evening and I had to say, I loved Stephanie and Betty’s reaction to the entire night. the music was spectacular. I got to see the young people I’d had a small part in molding into amazing adults really shine. In addition to seeing Noah, Mercedes and Sam ‘rocking out’, Artie had an amazing guitar solo. Santana and Tina performed a duet on a cover of ‘Same Script, Different Cast’. Sugar, Mike and Brittany all had dance solos in different songs. And they all did such amazing jobs. We joined the Native Limans on the tour’s families in the very front and we could see everything so clearly, including the love and passion all of them had for their careers. I truly enjoyed every single minute. After the concert, we went backstage and I was able to congratulate my former students, all of them, face to face.

“Ms. OCD,” Santana laughed when she hugged me. “Me, Artie and Brittany have a house. Its right up the road from Wheezy, Trouty and Puck’s place.”

I smiled proudly. “Santana, it is so wonderful that you guys are making such good choices. Real estate is almost always a great investment for your future.”

“It was less about investing for the future and more about actually being able to sleep in the present when we were in Lima. But it worked out great. Between our extra bedrooms and the Mansion Gala, Foghorn and the Zilla call home in Lima, we had to put the tour crew into a hotel, but the Crew-crew, other than the natives, and Justin whose at Casa Hart, they’re all staying with the six of us.” Santana told me happily.

I smiled knowingly. “You’re actually allowing people into your inner sanctum…you must be very close with them.”

She shrugged as she always tended to do when she didn’t want to admit to a positive human feeling. “Yeah, well, I lived up their asses last summer and have been working with them for over a year. Xena, the Dancing Girls, Eureka, Cass and Dave…those are my folks, ya know. Plus, Adams and Karofsky stayed their asses with their families, so I was good. Though Adams is damn lucky I haven’t snatched up Pajarita and kept her cute little butt, yet.”

I smiled, reading between the lines. Santana really cared about her bandmates and she was glad that Azimio and David were having a chance to spend time with their families. She did have a point, Azimio’s daughter was adorable. She attended the same daycare as Jeanie Sylvester-Motta and Sue often brought pictures of the two girls together. They seemed inseparable. “I am happy that you’ve become such good friends with your bandmates.”

“You know that between Wheezy, and me…no way were they hiring assholes.” She shared.

I let her have the final word. But I knew how hard it was for her to trust others. Rather than embarrass her further, I gave her a final smile of approval and told her I would see her the next day. I had not invited all the glee kids to the wedding, but my favorites…mainly those whose parents had become my friends…which was almost coincidentally, most of the original thirteen. I’d gotten to know Maribel Lopez long before Santana had joined the glee club. The woman had been fiercely protective of Santana’s future, but she’d never been blind to her faults. I respected her a lot. She and Santiago had been invited to every one of the weddings I’d planned. But they were not the only ones, Burt Hummel had been my mechanic since I moved to Lima. He was a good man and an amazing father. The Jones were my dentists. Their reputations were better than anyone else in the state for cleanliness and sterility. Both the Jones family and the Hudson-Hummels were invited. I wasn’t close with the Changs, but I was close with the Cohens, so Michael would be coming as Tina’s plus one. I wasn’t close with the Zizes or the Andersons, but I knew that Lauren would be attending with Finn and Blaine with Kurt. The Evans and Puckerman-Altmans were partially invited because I considered their sons to be very much the kids of my heart.

I tried to get William to see how amazing Mercedes’ voice was from the very first time I heard her sing. I wish I had been stronger back then. Noah, he’d been a sweetheart to me even before he joined the New Directions. He hated to show how good his heart was…but I still remembered the young freshman football player who’d been kind to me in the teacher parking lot on the second day of school his very first year at McKinley. My lunch bag had gotten caught in my car door and ripped spilling my lunch and sending some of it rolling under my car. I was almost in tears. Noah came over and he crawled under my car to get my bottle of water and my apple. I did thank him profusely, but I confessed that I’d never be able to eat the apple after it had rolled on the ground. Later that morning, he showed up at the door to my office with a lovely, large Honeycrisp apple. He didn’t have to get that for me. I knew it hadn’t come from the cafeteria, which meant he’d snuck off campus to get it. He refused to allow me to pay him back or anything. Sam…he was a different story, not that he was any less special…just he’d come later and for him, it wasn’t his talent or his kindness that had created the basis for our friendship…it was actually his fear.

Sam Evans had started at McKinley scared as hell. With his learning disability, I’d had his file well in advance and met with him during the football training camp he’d attend before the first day of school. He had not been in a public education setting since he was in elementary school…and though he tried to hide it, he was scared to death. Scared of the unknown, scared of the failure…worried about what success even looked like let alone if he could actually achieve it. As a person who was almost literally afraid of air, his fears touched me. But maybe even more than that, his determination in the face of his fears emboldened me. Yes, the original six New Directions…or the Muppet Babies as Kurt had once called them…they were my favorites among the many students I’d counseled during my tenure at McKinley. But Sam, Mercedes and Noah…they were special in their own right.

I shook off those thoughts as Mercedes came over and gave me a hug. “I’m so happy for you.” she said with a huge smile.

“Thank you,” I responded with a smile of my own. “You know if it weren’t for the three of you, Hal and I would never have met. So, I definitely want to thank you.”

“Happy to be of help.” She said cheekily. “I’ll dance at your wedding.” She teased.

Sam had overheard and added in, “I like you too much to do that to you, so I’ll just stick to singing.” He teased.

While I was talking to Santana, Mercedes and then Sam, Puck had cornered Hal. My Darling fiancé told me of their interchange on our way back to Cincinnati. “You know, your kid Puck…he thinks the world of you. He cornered me and said that since I was putting a ring on it, he wanted to make sure that I knew what he’d do to me if I ever raised a hand to you in anger.”

“Oh no, he didn’t.” I groaned.

Hal smiled gently. “Oh of course he did. He cares about you. Sam gave me a speech when we first started dating seriously. His was a rough estimation of the usual shovel speech. Hurt her at your peril…he has a shotgun, a shovel and access to over seven hundred acres of land…they’d never find all of me. that kind of thing.”

“Good Lord.” I breathed. “How violent.”

“It wasn’t a bad speech. It was even kind of traditional. Puck’s tonight…it was a tale of beauty. He told me about how Haja’s brother does something similar to what I do for Rangeman and if I were to ever raise a hand to you in anger, Puck could and would hire him to hold me down so Puck could cut the offending appendage off. Then said appendage would be force fed to me. From there things got a little dark.”

“A little dark?” I squeaked. “How could it get darker than amputation and forced cannibalism?”

“I’m not going to tell you.” Hal smiled gently. “But he is going to email me the whole thing if we ever have a daughter.”

I chuckled. “He probably is testing it out on you for use when his own adorable daughters start dating.”

“Probably.” We shared a long laugh. “I’m still surprised that you managed to get your sisters to let you ride back with me…it technically being our wedding day and everything.”

“Well, Janie is seven months pregnant with twins again. She managed to fall asleep twice during the convert. And one of those was during ‘Shakin’ My Head’.” Hal looked impressed. That was a pretty raucous song. It was hard not to dance to, let alone actually sleeping through. “So, when I told George and Rosalyn to go ahead and take her on back to Cincinnati after the concert and Betty and I’d catch a ride home. And we did. Ram, Tank and Ella are giving Betty a ride in their Yukon and I’m riding with you.”

“I’m glad.” He said gently drawing up the hand that was nestled in his to his lips. The rest of our hour and a half ride was passed in companionable silence, listening to the CD we’d gotten from the concert. We both already owned all KAMA’s CDs, but we hadn’t thought of bringing our hard copies with us and we knew we’d probably want them at some point over the next couple of weeks. One or the other of us listened to at least three or four of the songs on a daily basis. Hal would never tell a soul, but when he was feeling particularly romantic, he liked to make love with ‘Slow Hand’ on repeat in the background. Our record was a full twenty-three repetitions. Our little caravan all arrived back at the Renaissance around two forty and we all headed up to our rooms.

I showered, washing my hair and leaving Avlon KeraCare overnight moisturizing treatment on it as I slept. The hair mask was something I did before all the major events in my life. I was a creature of habits. I slept very well considering that I was alone in the large hotel bed. But I’d disinfected the sheets and recovered the pillows with my own cases, so it was quite comfortable. When I awoke I bleached out the tub, the hotel maid was kind enough to lend me her supplies. A long relaxing bath was followed by a nice shower, where I removed the mask and used lukewarm water and a baby shampoo to remove the residue. After carefully moisturizing my entire body, I called down and ordered breakfast for myself. Steel cut oatmeal, with clarified butter, honey and berries on the side along with two scrambled eggs, three strips of peppercorn bacon and a full carafe of water with lemon. I was full but not bloated. I enjoyed the peace and quiet with just myself and some music playing quietly in the background. For both of my previous attempts at marriage, my mornings had been filled with noise. I didn’t find that as enlivening as most women seemed to. So, this time no one was arriving to help me start to get ready before noon. I’d given myself three hours of peace.

Twenty minutes before the noon hour, I had paid quite a pretty penny for a beautiful set of Lise Charmel Orchide Paradis ivory lingerie to wear under my dress. I donned those and a beautiful silk robe that had been dry cleaned by the same cleaner who did all of my non-machine washable clothing. I headed to the door and let in my mother, who was ten minutes early, as I expected. She and I had a nice quite wait for the rest of the ladies. “I like your Harold, Dear. You’ve chosen well this time.” She told me quietly as we sat just enjoying the peace and quiet.

I couldn’t help but agree. By fifteen minutes after noon, Shannon, Shelby, Stephanie, Betty, Cheryl and Elise had joined Mommy and I. Stephanie had arranged for lunch for everyone. The shrimp, avocado and broccoli salads were accompanied by mimosas and more of the water with lemon to maintain our hydration. Lunch was beyond delicious and we had some great conversation during it. But by one, it was time to get the show on the road. I pulled on a button front light beige shirt dress and made sure that I had my shoes and jewelry and all the things I needed to take to the church with me. I checked my phone and was unsurprised to see that Hal had texted me at nine. “I cannot wait to marry you, Emma. Thank you for loving me.” I was so happy that I read that before I had my makeup done. I texted him back my own joy at the idea of being his forever and then it was time to go.

The ladies were a flurry of conversation and teasing as we rode down and headed to the church where our hair and makeup was done and the ladies put on their pink or pewter Lela Rose sleeveless cocktail dresses. When Stephanie had realized that her bridesmaid dress had pockets, she’d called me squealing in happiness. I’d really searched long and hard to find a dress that would look good on the five very different women and yet be something that they really enjoyed wearing. I had picked very natural makeup looks for all of us and had picked hair styles for my bridesmaids that would work with Stephanie and Betty’s curly hair. I knew from past mistakes that it was definitely easier to curl straight hair than it was to straighten curly hair. So, the hairstyle I picked was a curly updo. The photographer had arrived and Kurt had made sure that everything was going properly in the main portion of the church. At a little before three thirty, I was helped into my ivory Kenneth Winston, strapless, Crepe Georgette lace trumpet gown and the cotton French lace capelet which was fitted around the neck, and longer at the back than the front. I didn’t feel like a princess like I had in the dress I’d picked to wear to marry Ken. I didn’t feel like Audrey Hepburn, like I had in the dress I’d worn when I had married Carl, thank God for Annulments. No, the dress I wore to marry Hal…it made me feel like a grown woman who was the best Emma Pillsbury the world had ever known.

The photographer took some beautiful pictures of Shannon helping me with my blue topaz jewelry or Mommy helping me with my veil. It was all quite perfect. The whole evening was perfect. The ceremony started promptly at five. It was lovely and beautiful. Kurt made sure that every single moment went as smoothly as silk. The processional was lovely. Stephanie celebrated when she made it to the front without tripping or anything…but I knew that was because my line up had paired her with Ranger. Not that I would ever say that to her. As Connor and Ciaran made their way down, Daddy gave me a small smile. “I don’t feel like I want to take you and run as far from this church as fast as I can this time. Your Hal is a fine man, Mermaid. He loves you almost enough to make me believe that he deserves you.”

I could only give him a strong, happy hug as the music started to swell. And Daddy escorted me down the aisle and into my future. I could see the love shining in Hal’s beautiful blue eyes as I reached him and the rest of the world fell away. I said the things that I needed to say in the appropriate places. I heard Mercedes beautiful voice raised in ‘Ava Maria’. I heard Hal’s deep, wonderful voice accept me as his wife as I accepted him as my husband. Time care roaring back to me as my heartbeat returned to normal after Hal and I kissed for the first time as man and wife. Sam, Mercedes and Noah serenaded us as we made our way down the aisle of the church and out to be pelted with rice as we headed to a limo which drove us Riverview Park. We took our wedding party pictures in the scenic park while the four charter buses Hal had arranged shuttled our guests from Christ Church Cathedral to the Monastery Event Center where our reception was being held.

The reception went amazingly well. We decided against a full bar, instead we had beer, wine, champagne and two signature cocktails, lemongrass ginger martinis and Manhattans. We did have a sit-down dinner, but we kept it to three simple courses. A salad of mixed field greens, English cucumber, tear-drop tomatoes, shaved red onion, ruby red beets, with Capri farms goat cheese crumbles and citrus vinaigrette on the side. Followed by a main course of either pan-seared all-natural chicken breast drizzled with a balsamic glaze, and served with wild mushroom risotto cake and asparagus or grilled swordfish steak brushed with tomato butter and paired with roasted corn with charred green onion sweet butter, thyme-roasted red bliss potatoes. The final option, which my dad had insisted on for some reason, was roast sirloin of beef, those who chose it enjoyed with roasted root vegetables and fingerling potatoes. Thankfully there had been no unexpected additions to the guest list and everyone had RSVPed with their dinner choices. It all went swimmingly.

As their wedding gift, Commune had leant us their DJ CA$$. In addition to the songs we’d selected for our special dances, she played a lovely arrangement of songs from my and Hal’s birth years and the years we graduated high school and college and officer training school…it was very beautiful. We waltzed to Ingrid Michaelson’s ‘The Way I Am’, it spoke to us because we truly loved each other exactly as we each were. The rest of the evening was a complete blur of joy and dancing and the amazing vanilla bean and Chantilly cream wedding cake and more dancing. It was the best night of our lives. Both Hal and I thanked everyone for sharing our joy with us then the limo took us back to the Renaissance while the shuttles returned those who were sober to their cars and those who weren’t to the Residence Inn, where they could get a room and sleep off their drink.

Kurt had even ensured that Hal and my bags made it from our separate rooms to our Executive King suite where we spent our first night as man and wife. It was mainly spent sleeping, we were exhausted and we had to be up and out early the next morning, our flight left at ten so we needed to be at the airport by seven thirty. We made it, primarily because my mother, George and Rosalyn in addition to Hal’s mother and brothers all came to our room as we were trying to figure out how to get everything out the room without leaving our wedding apparel and stuff in the Tahoe at the airport while we were gone. They took charge of getting all of that handled…which worked because Mommy and Daddy were taking our wedding gifts back to the condo for us. Hal had some serious documentation for traveling internationally, but it allowed us to seemingly fly through the security checkpoints. It was then that I learned we were flying to London. We spent the next eleven days touring through Europe then we spent three days touring Ireland before we returned to London and flew home.

It was a beautiful honeymoon and when we got home we finally opened our wedding gifts. Among the usual homes goods, which I’d dutifully registered for, we found our gift from Hal’s friends and coworkers at Rangeman. Hal and I had tried to find a place that I would be comfortable moving into, but it hadn’t worked and to be honest, Hal hated the thought of buying something other people had lived in first as much as I did. So, we’d agreed that when we got back from our amazing honeymoon, we’d start looking for a piece of land in the same areas…townships no more than forty-five minutes from Columbus or an hour from Lima. The men of Rangeman, and it was just the men because Ella and Stephanie had each given us a setting of the exquisite china I’d selected, they had purchased for Hal and me a three-acre lot on Lincoln Place in North Lewisburg. It had already been cultivated for water and sewer and all the rest of the utilities, so it was just a matter of getting the right plans and building our dream home. I couldn’t wait until it was finished, knowing that once our dream home was done we’d be able to start our family.

Of course, a very wise person once said that when men plan…God laughs.

 

Mom (Garth Brooks)
Shelby Cochran-Martinez PoV

Many people were absolutely content with their lives and considered themselves to be lucky. I could understand that. Seven years ago, I’d been one of them. I was perfectly fine living my content life. But then I’d made the best choice ever…to adopt my Bethany. From there it seemed as if even my desperation choices, like returning to Lima so that I could be close…but not too close…to family, and taking a job at McKinley, they had been leading me down the road from contentment to happiness. Now, I understood that I wasn’t merely lucky, I was actually blessed. I was no longer just content, I was gloriously, amazingly, happy. I was over forty and while technically I was still renting rather than buying, I lived with most of the people I loved…with my family. My parents were still alive, whole, healthy and able to live on their own. I was a female over forty in a world where age and gender discrimination were ridiculously prevalent. But I had a job that I enjoyed getting up every morning to do, one which made a difference in the lives of those I taught. I had the kind of job security that most people could only dream of. I was married to an incredible man. And David knew exactly who I was and loved me anyway. I had my daughter, who was delightfully talented and incredibly smart. Almost scarily so. Quinn and Noah were both very intelligent, but we were all pretty sure that Beth, like her older sister Nikolette, was genus level gifted. I had more real true friends than I’d ever before had in my life. Primarily because I hoarded the true friends I’d been blessed with like a dragon hoarded gold. I still called my best friend from high school once a week and tried to see Maureen in person at least once a year.

But the love I maintained for my old friends didn’t mean that I didn’t value my new friends just as much. I was so honored when Emma asked me to be one of her bridesmaids. I knew that she didn’t make friends easily and that Shannon, Sue and I were the closest ones she’d had in a very long time. Emma had asked Shannon, who she had been closer to for longer than she’d been to me or Sue. Sue had told her that she would come and she would dance and make merry, “but no way in hell are you putting me in some nightmare of a dress and forcing me to stand there in heels and all the other bullshit that bridesmaids have to do.” She’d told Emma with no hesitation. Me, I said yes, the second she asked me.

I might have made the cut since Emma did have a sister she was somewhat close to but Jane had bit been able to accept the honor. She had let Emma know that she was pregnant with twins, for a second time, and would not be able to be a bridesmaid as soon as she was asked, which I respected. When I found out I was pregnant, I went immediately to Emma and asked her if she wanted the chance to choose another woman for the honor and even offered to give them my dress so they would just have to get it altered, which I still had to do anyway. But she said no and I served her to the very best of my ability. I was showing, but the alterations of the pearl pink, bateau necked, deep v backed bridesmaid’s dress hid the baby bump well. I was only five months along, but I was visibly pregnant. Happily, glowingly, visibly pregnant.

I wasn’t expecting to get pregnant at forty-four years old. Having a biological child wasn’t even on our radar. No matter what I’d said to Rachel, I had quite honestly believed that my child bearing years were behind me. David and I had talked about adopting another child. But we had decided to wait until after our first anniversary to begin the process. I’d been on birth control my entire adult life. Of course, I knew that certain antibiotics and hormonal birth control were completely non-mixy things. And yet in all the excitement of getting ready for our honeymoon, it never even entered my mind to go and get my shot readministered after I completed the antibiotics for the upper respiratory infection that I’d gotten when Beth’s cold mutated as it crossed the age barrier. I was a firm believer that everything children caught mutated when it infected the adults around the kid. But that was neither here nor there. My pregnancy was a perfect storm of events. The surprise gift of the spectacular Caribbean honeymoon, the antibiotics usage, David not thinking to buy or bring any condoms. Granted, there was also the fact that we acted like teenagers for the whole six or seven days we were there. We literally did nothing but eat, sleep and make love…and there were a few times when we chose to make love rather than eating or sleeping.

So, perhaps, it wasn’t all that shocking that I ended up pregnant. I wasn’t expecting to be expecting, but both David and I were overjoyed about it. I had to admit that I thought it only right to let Rachel know before the news got out and she learned it from someone other than me. I’d gotten more sincere congratulations for my pregnancy from Amazon when I signed up for their baby registry. It didn’t bother me. I cared about her, if she needed a kidney and I could give her one, I would, but she wasn’t my child. If I’d maintained in my heart and mind Rachel as my child…I’d have lost my mind before she was two. I’d have driven myself crazy worrying and wondering and hoping things I had no right to think and hope. Beth was my child and when I told her about the pregnancy, she was amazingly enthusiastic. So were Quinn and Francine.

The Sisters Fabray were seriously happy about my pregnancy. Almost to the point that I worried that Francine might have rethought her decision to go to Yale for her doctorate program to stay nearby. But I assured her that I would make sure the baby knew his or her Auntie Frannie, just like Beth did and that seemed to help. Quinn and I, we spent that summer helping each other. David and I decided to be surprised by the baby’s gender, so I found planning out the nursery enjoyable, but more complex than I would have if I’d known. At the same time Quinn was, in her spare time, looking through a million websites trying to furnish the house she and her friends were buying in New Haven. She helped my pick the stain for George to create a masterpiece of a crib, and I helped her pick furniture for their basement lounge area. She helped me decide on a gender non-specific theme for the nursery and I helped her figure out what pieces she could get from Ikea and which ones really needed to be purchased from a furniture store where assembly and setup was part of delivery.

I truly enjoyed working with Quinn on her not so little project. We talked at great length. We learned things we’d never known about each other. She and I talked about ethics, and the circumvention of rules without harming our own personal ethics. We laughed a lot; sometimes at each other but mostly with each other. One of the conversations seemed to settle in her mind that no matter if David and I had one child or twenty, we would always love and Beth and more importantly to Quinn, we’d never treat her any differently. Given what I knew of Quinn’s early years and her non-relationship with her mother, it wasn’t surprising that she would be concerned that we might prioritize the new baby, a biological child, above Beth. But I was confident that neither David or I would every allow that to happen.

When I thought about it, I had a lot of fun that summer. In addition to my foray into interior design, I’d visited a couple of amusement parks. Not only had I gone with KAMA and crew but David, Beth and I had gone to Kings Island with his parents, siblings and nieces and nephews for an entire weekend. I was pretty sure that by the end of her time with her Martinez cousins, aunts and uncles…Beth spoke better Spanish better than poor Will ever had. She’d had a blast and gotten almost as spoiled by her new grandparents as she did by her Abah, Papa and MeDe. That was a great weekend, surpassed only by the weekend when we got to go to Six Flags Great America and witness James proposing to Quinn. There was something truly lovely about that relationship. James had helped Quinn to not only grow past the trauma and drama in her history, but he’d helped her grow without allowing himself to become a clichéd Captain Save-a-ho. They were not what many people would consider a traditional couple and yet the love between them was the very definition of a true, traditional, partnership. I was overjoyed and filled with pride for the two of them.

I was also outrageously proud of Mercedes, Sam and Noah. I’d had successful proteges before, one of my former Adrenaline Junkies had been a top five finalist on American Idol and another had been in leading roles on Broadway for the last several years. Still none of them had even come close to the success of Commune. But it wasn’t just the level of success that they had attained that made me proud. Their level of showmanship was something to behold. I’d attended two of their concerts in the same region and in the same month and yet I’d truly felt like each one was a different experience. That could be difficult for even more seasoned acts to achieve and usually they did so by varying their set list and trading out songs from their catalog, once they had four or five CDs under their belts. But Commune was giving their audiences every single one of their songs every show. It made their fans really happy and gave them all evenings that had kept hashtagAETOUR and hashtagKAMA trending on Twitter and Instagram all summer.

Of course, no matter what people may have believed, teachers did have to work during the summers and I was no exception. With my place at McKinley secured and Sue Sylvester a very willing partner to my quest to win another championship, I’d made a few small changes to the way the New Directions was run. I’d begun by going to the feeder middle schools and holding auditions a few weeks before nationals. Just as I’d have done if they were trying out after the start of the new school year, I’d had those rising ninth graders who were interested in joining the show choir had to sing one prepared song and one song of my choosing. From Harrison Middle School, I’d gotten seven, including Sarah Puckerman; who hadn’t really had a choice about trying out… she was family. I’d only gotten four new members from Taft Middle but the new eleven voices were strong and they more than made up for the nine members who’d graduated that May.

I’d also taken a note from Sue and Shannon’s books. I’d gotten very lucky. Benton and Danica were taking Beth with them on ‘the great Jeverman clan KAMA following roadtrip’ the same week that I had scheduled my New Directions Boot Camp. I was holding my camp the week before the Cheerios and Titan’s camps. The camp was primarily aimed at helping the incoming freshman begin the process of bonding and becoming New Directions, so they had to be there by ten Monday morning. However, my secondary goal was to spend some time helping those kids whose talent was not quite on the same level as their drive or enthusiasm. Those kids would arrive between three and four on Monday afternoon. The rest of the more veteran New Directions all arrived by ten on Tuesday. I had a great group that year. The seniors included Jake, who had gotten back from trailing the AE Tour. He even sang on one of the stops and went to the Teen Choice Awards. He would be beating the ladies off with a stick. He, Riley, the Cass Twins, Hell, Ivy and Marley made up my senior core. Marley was still with the group and she attended the camp, but nothing anyone could do seemed to get her to really BE a part of the group. She just held herself apart and didn’t want to be friends with the rest of the choir. I couldn’t force more from her than she was willing to give Fortunately, my talent wasn’t consolidated in just the seniors. Roderick, Jane, even Alistair and Spenser were all really quite good. I was looking for a song that would be perfect for a Jane and Jake or duet and another for Roderick and Hell. The rising sophomores were…well a lot of them had joined the club because they were very much driven and determined to follow in KAMA’s footsteps and assumed that I’d be the gate way to stardom.

Zion Cooper and Myron Muskovitz were the leaders of that crew. The two guys had a small group of four girls that were all just as driven and all just as ambitious. Thankfully, none of them truly lacked talent. They just were less gifted than they believed themselves to be. None of them were as memorable as they were sure they were. I tended to call them Sparkle Baby, Cleavage, Velma and Roxie. Sparkle Baby loved shiny things and was easily distracted. Cleavage was very top heavy and she knew it. I was fairly certain that she held the record for the most dress code violation of any freshman to ever before attend McKinley High. Velma and Roxie were nicknamed after Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. They were both really, really, really into Broadway. They were as dark and light as their namesakes and they fought each other like a cat and dog, each trying to be declared the alpha bitch of the pack. I wasn’t sure why they thought they had a chance. I was fairly certain that Zion and Myron really only had eyes for each other. Not that there was anything wrong with that…except that much conceit and ego in one relationship could not be healthy.

I was very grateful for the final three rising sophomores. Judith Totah was an amazing dancer who could carry a tune and loved being part of the choir. She wasn’t shy like Ivy, but she didn’t want to sparkle and shine…she wanted to build and support. Alison Crews was a very interesting young lady. Much like Regina and Chase, she was more interested in one day ruling the world and the New Directions was just a rung up her ladder. She was smart as hell and good at reading a crowd and people in general. The final rising sophomore was a young man who did not want to be in the show choir at all. Tristan Kane had a nice voice. He was a strong tenor, just edging into bass. He was the youngest of four boys and his mother was pretty much determined that he was going to be her gay son that she did all those fun gay son things with when he finally came out. There was one problem with that. Tristan was severely heterosexual. In fact, he was so heterosexual that he put up with Cleavage on a daily basis just because she had breasts which were, I was almost positive, as big as Finn Hudson’s head. Still, he stuck it out, probably because of Cleavage and making his mother not-unhappy. The three of them were a good balance to the drama that seemed inherent in the other six.

Even as the size of the New Directions grew, I made sure not to fall back into old bad habits. Everyone who had the talent got time to shine during competitions and those who were ambitious and driven…I worked with them until they were, at the very least closer to being as good as they thought they were. I had a total of thirty-four student singers and I made sure that I gave them all as much attention as I could. In the camp, there were fifteen boys and nineteen girls and given their ages, I knew that I needed at least another set of chaperones. Given that Cleavage was what Danica called a fast-tailed little girl, I compelled her parents, Otto and Marlene Zueck, to be the other chaperones. Since we had the whole school to ourselves, we were also able to put the girls in Hall A and the boys in gym…meaning we kept them as far apart as humanly possible whenever we weren’t doing dance drills or vocal fundamental exercises. We even kept them separated during the stamina builder exercises. Marlene and I decided to sleep on cots with air mattresses on them against the breezeway and main hall doors to make sure that no one snuck in or out. Granted, we also took turns keeping watch over the heathens so that we could each have a little alone time with our husbands during the week…but we made it work.

I was very, very, very happy when I was able to sleep in my bed again. And that I had some time to recover before Beth got back from my parents. They had scooped her up for a weekend as soon as she got back from road tripping with the Jevermans. It was certainly one of the more interesting summers I’d ever had. I had much to look forward to that coming fall. But every single day I awoke in David’s arms was wonderful. I never lied and said that we were a perfect couple. There was no such a thing. But we were great friends, great lovers, great caretakers and we fought the same way. People always think that in good or even great marriages the couple doesn’t fight. That is impossible. Two people, even if they are completely compatible and love each other, are not going to agree on every subject. It was the manner in which they fought, the feelings that were hurt, the apologies that were rendered…those were what made it possible for the couple to move forward together. David and I both fought the same way. We tended not to lose our tempers in a loud expression of anger, instead getting colder and colder…more and more analytical and logical as we assessed our opponent to find what would work. We dug in deeply enough to get our point across and with others we could and often did go straight for the jugular. However, we each made sure not to do that with each other or with those we truly loved. We were both very aware that there was nothing that could be undone, no words that could be unsaid…but there were apologies and reparations. We also acknowledged that there were some actions that could not be made right and some words that can never be forgiven. Our symmetry in how we argued allowed us to navigate that minefield better than a lot of other people we knew.

Francine, in finding herself desirous of a long term, productive relationship, asked me to tell her how it was that I knew that David and I were compatible enough for the long haul. “On the surface, David and I are very different. We come from different backgrounds. We are different races, yet when you get to the root of who we are as people, there you find the more important similarities. Yes, David never wanted to be anything but a teacher. I found my way to teaching by a more circular path. But we both found the ultimate satisfaction in helping young people learn and develop and reach their fullest potentials. David is an agnostic catholic who goes to Mass with his mother whenever he can’t get out of it because he both loves and fears her. I am a High Holiday Jew who goes to temple for exactly the same reason. We shared similar tastes in literature and both love broad swaths of musical genres. We share similar hobbies and ideal leisure time activities. Our personalities mesh well and our faults complement each other. But the truth was that we’d have never found all that out if we’d allowed the superficial differences to keep us from taking the time to get to know each other.”

“I get all that, I mean, I can see most of what you just said by spending the last few summers with you two. I guess I asked the wrong question. I think I should have asked, how did you know that David was worth getting to know? There is this guy that I met in Chicago and I feel like there is some invisible connection between us, but if I really want to have the time and energy to put towards getting to know him better, I’ll need to go to Columbia rather than Yale and I’m running out of time to make the final decision.” She told me honestly.

I thought about what she was asking for a moment. “I guess in this case, you already seem to feel that your person of interest is worth getting to know. You just don’t know if he is worth making an adjustment to your trajectory. So, tell me…why do you prefer Yale to Columbia?”

Frannie shrugged. “I know that both schools are similar in terms of prestige and academic quality, I kind of feel that the Columbia program is somewhat traditional and a little too rigid for my taste. Yet by the same turn, Yale just has this overtly snooty air that will be hard to get used to after Ann Arbor. I feel like Columbia’s somewhat less cozy than Yale because of its proximity to NYC. But then again, I’d be in New York…even if I chose not to live in Manhattan proper, I’d still be close enough to all the shopping and Broadway. But I won’t be all that close to Quinn. Besides, my admissions officer at Columbia was without a doubt the most unpleasant grad school representative I've ever encountered.”

“You can visit Quinn and she can visit you. It’s less than a two-hour drive. As for the admissions person, you’ll never see them again. Now, I know that when you were deciding where to apply, you were mostly interested in Yale because it was ranked number two for clinical psychology in the nation. If that hasn’t changed then you should go to Yale and try just having a friendship with the guy until you finish your degree. You can always go to med school at Columbia since their medical program is closer in rankings to Yale’s than their clinical psych programs. Trust me, if this guy feels the same connection you felt and he is really worth the time and energy, then he wants you to do what is best for you and your future…not just what might feel good right now.” I advised.

“I know you’re right. I think I just needed to hear it said out loud. You know?” I agreed and we talked a little longer. “I do think that I want to get my own apartment in New Haven. Quinn suggested I joined her and her friends, but I don’t think I can live with roommates again.” She confessed.

One of the things I respected most about both Quinn and Francine was that when they made up their minds, they moved on things with swiftness and determination. Our conversation was held the Tuesday after Emma’s wedding. By the time I got home from Boot Camp, Frannie, her father and his lawyer had made all the arrangements to rent a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment a short drive from campus and a short drive to Quinn’s house. It was even semi-furnished. I was so happy for her. I still wanted to kick Russel Fabray in the balls a few times…but he was still better than his ex-wife. Her, I’d set on fire if I could get away with it.

Still, as summer started the inevitable fade into fall…I couldn’t help but look forward to the future and all it would hopefully bring.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

Sweet Baby (Macy Gray)
Santana PoV

I had my shit together and I knew it. I was pretty damn proud of myself the summer after my sophomore year of college. My relationship was going strong. My family life was fucking boss. We had dinner at least once a month with one part of my fam or the other. We saw my Abuelo, Tito, every week. Primarily because if I wanted to see my favorite aunt and uncle, I had to see the old man. Not that it was a hardship, my Abuelo was pretty much exactly like me. He’d been far more understanding of my sexuality than my father’s mom had. It’d taken her a minute to come around. But the again Tito was pretty chill and damn near a sex addict, himself. Abuelita was very, very religious. She attended mass every single morning and says her rosary, like, three times a day. Besides, once Artie entered the picture and her hope for great-grandchildren was revived…she stopped giving me the speeches and depressing sighs. Not that she and Artie got along…nope…not even a little bit. The fact that she’d tried to sell me when I was little, and the fact that she called me Garbage Face for five years…those were not things Artie was willing to forgive. They were also the reasons that Tito couldn’t stand her either. And they weren’t things that she ever saw a problem with having done.

My school shit was going every bit as strong as my family and relationship. I wasn’t taking the ridiculous course load that Trouty, Wheezy and Puck had…so, I was handling my course load well pretty easily. If I kept my shit together, I’d graduate with both my major and minor right on time and ready to take the world by storm. And I was going to take the world by storm, too. In all the after parties and award shows, the team at Warner and all three members of KAMA had made sure that I made all the right connections. I’d met the heads of a boat load of the labels that were all under the umbrella of the Warner Music Group. I’d been introduced to touring musicians who would be nearing the end of their current contracts around the time I graduated from NYU. I’d been introduced to another image consultant, but that broad hadn’t been able to dress herself, so what on earth could she have been able to tell me. But I hadn’t said that to her face. I was even invited to the MTV Video Music Awards as myself with two additional tickets for my man and our woman. I’d started agonizing over what to wear immediately, but Ruth reminded me that I had access to an award-winning stylist so I shouldn’t worry. When she was right, she was right I’d given her my idea for a thruple ‘theme’ and allowed her to do what she did best. When I thought about it all, I was proud of how seriously I was taking the build up to my career.

I was pretty proud of most of the things in my life. I had my boos. I had my future career well on track. Like, ridiculously, well on track. Mike Caren of Elektra said that he and Lyor had discussed which of the many sub-labels of Warner would be the best fit for me and Elektra Records was waiting on me whenever I was ready to get my shit started. I already had my whole management structure in place…because I was using Gala-Nipple, Trouty and Zilla’s Team. Hey, they were damn good at what they did and they said I didn’t have a choice but to use them. Which would usually annoy me and make me determined to use anyone but them, but I was stubborn, not stupid. Brittany and I had talked and once I was ready to get my career started, she would work with Commune and make sure that they had someone in her place and she was going to leave them to dance with and for me. Rainbow was trying to make sure that by the time that time came, Britts would be an accredited choreographer as well. For the first year, while we got things all stabilized and running smoothly, Artie was going to head my band in the same way Dave headed KAMA’s. I didn’t trust that I’d be as lucky as Commune had been in finding the right people from the word jump. My hubby would watch out for the band dynamics…make sure that there was a solid unit in place. Once we had everybody in place like they needed to be, then he was going to direct my videos and KAMAs when they wanted him to do it too. We had it all planned out. The music videos were going to be Artie’s spring board for getting into television and-slash-or movies. As me and Artie were getting ready to start our junior year of college, we were focusing on our major classes and making sure that we had the cred to start our careers after graduation.

Outside of that, Artie, Britt-Brat and I owned our own home. Yup, we’d done it with a lot of help from our parents…not monetarily, we had that handled. In fact, by the time the construction mortgage had been converted over to a regular mortgage, we’d already cut it down by more than half. When we saw that our monthly mortgage payments were under eight hundred bucks, we decided to each pay eight hundred bucks meaning that we were paying twenty-four hundred dollars towards our mortgage every month, and we gave them the bulk of our bonuses after the Valentine show…which was almost a hundred grand. At the same time, we made sure to sock away the funds for Mami would need to get the house furnished and decorated. I didn’t believe for a moment that she wouldn’t put in on it if there was something she wanted us to have that was outside our current budget, but we were trying to make everything happen by ourselves. We needed to start adulting. Damn it…Darcy was infecting my vocabulary.

Britts and Artie were more than happy with our progress on the payments. Partially because with some of the extra in the escrow account, George had gone ahead and installed an inground, six-person hot tub that was fenced in and accessible only from our master bedroom. It also meant that the next summer or maybe the one after next, we’d be able to start installing our pool. The maybe was because I was advocating for an indoor heated pool and we’d need longer to save for that but the way I saw it, we had nothing but time on our sides. We all knew that Baby Boy Puckerman wasn’t yet to the place where he would be able to do our pool design and part of us wanted to wait until we could give him the work. I knew that was what Commune was waiting on before they added a pool to their ridiculously large mansion in Lima. And it also made sense to wait until we’d be able to spend more time at the house. But then again, technically, we’d started making plans to install a pool before we ever even saw the blueprints. And everyone who’d ever even met me knew I was not a patient person.

In fact, I was pretty sure that we’d done a lot of stuff ‘wrong’ in the whole home building process. We hadn’t even seen the final floor plans until Gwen had approved them. Then Mami made like she was the long-lost Property Sister. Whenever there was a design choice to be made, or at least the ones she wanted us to have to make, we got exactly three options. The one she wanted us to use, one that she was willing to allow us to use and one so god-awful ugly she’d have disowned all three of us if we tried to pick it. She and Melanie and Roger made the bulk of them in accordance with Gwen and Sander’s rules for Artie compliance in all rooms. Like how all the floors throughout the split-ranch style house were Brazilian Walnut. With its super high Janka hardness rating, it would stand up to Artie’s chair the best. But we were allowed to choose the width of the plank we liked best and we got to decide between the lighter sapwood and darker heartwood. Mami was even magnanimous enough to let us pick the natural stone tiles and the metal type we wanted for the fixtures in the bathrooms. But that was about as far as that went.

I did have to admit that the parents made sure to educate us on the whys and hows of the floor plans and the fixtures and everything that was chosen. It wasn’t exactly news to us. Artie had lived a decade in a chair and I’d done a metric shit ton of reading when we were getting ready to move to New York. And in the years since, I’d found this great blog called the ‘Mad Spaz Club’ for people with spinal cord injuries or who were in wheelchairs for other reasons. I’d hipped Mami to it too…and hoped and prayed that she took the hint. Ultimately, it took the Superior Step-Dad, George Altman, just under nine months, start to finish to build our ‘Love Shack’. Not that it was a shack. That bad boy was a four bed-three and half bath suburban delight of a house, with a study that Papi reminded me would make a great nursery one day and three car garage with enough undedicated tool and storage space that Mami enclosed a sixty-four-square foot room that could be enclosed storage or it could and probably would be an editing bay. God knew she and George’s electrician dude guy had put in enough outlets and shit.

We didn’t know how things turned out until we got to Ohio for the two tour stops we had in our home state. We knew that we’d have three guest rooms and a pull-out couch in the study though. With those and the fact that Pippy-no-Stockings, Teen Jesus, Boy and Girl Asian, Lil Bird’s Daddy, and Closet-Case all had their parents’ homes to stay at, and Sugar’s house was big enough to have its own zip code, and Puck, Aretha and Trouty’s big ass house had more rooms than a little bit, we told Huds to cancel the hotel rooms and everyone could rest their weary heads in the comforts of actual homes. It all worked out easily. Teen Jesus took Brunette Beethoven home with him. Mikey-Boy took the Limey into the Chang family guest room. Sugar opened her home to Naw’Oleans and Bow-Tie’s cousin. We took JaJa and Bae-Be, Dave, Erika, Cassidy and Xena. Mami had one of the guestrooms done up as a music room with a pulldown murphy bed. As soon as she heard that we had one, Xena claimed the Murphy bed…she thought it was the coolest thing ever. Dave took the pull-out in the study and the four girls doubled up in the queen beds in the other two guestrooms. Everything worked out perfectly, but it only worked because chicks could sleep together without anyone getting all bemused.

That left Commune with just Rainbow, Simeon, Jackson, Arjun, Adam and his chick, and Damien…and Hudson, of course. It worked out perfectly. They had enough rooms that none of their assigned family rooms had to be taken up and yet, no one had to double up except Adam and that Kelli chick. Now she was a freaky-deaky little thing. I kind of liked that about her. A couple of the Rangeman guys camped out in their basement, but that was more for security than anything else. Their boss was in town, so he put most of the security team up in the same hotel they were staying in down in Cincinnati so that they could do some debriefing. The promoters still had to pay for rooms for the touring crew, but even that worked out because it allowed the roadies and Lamar to stay in Cleveland and Columbus…close to the venues.

The second I walked in the front door, I knew I fucking loved our house. For serious, damn it…that damn Cassidy had infected my lexicon…anyway, the hardwood floors were gorgeous. They went throughout the entire house, except for the bathrooms and utility room. Those were a white stone with grey veining called Cappadocia sand home…it gave even the small, half bath a sense of brightness and airiness. The walls of the main living areas were all painted a slightly rosy, creamy, taupey beige with deep gray, steel blue, true taupe and true beige accents. It looked amazing with the floors. The ceilings weren’t white, which was awesome, instead they were the lightest shade of pale, slightly rosy, beige. The whole house was big and open. The doorways were more than wide enough for Artie…even for the smallest rooms and nooks. The hallways were all six feet wide. It was just perfect. Then when we saw the master suite…I fell even deeper in love with our new home. The room had vaulted ceilings that were painted to look like a gorgeous twilight sky. The walls were painted a smoky grayish blue that made me think of storm clouds and long Saturdays spend cuddling in bed. Speaking of, the bed was big and broad, high enough for comfort, but low enough for Artie’s needs. It had a dark blue duvet cover and pale gold sheets with a rainbow of pillows…masculine enough for Artie with pops of gold and red to make me happy and a rainbow of other colors and shapes to please Brittany. Mami definitely got an A-plus on the bed and the matching rosewood nightstands, entertainment center and vanity. I was very happy to see that there was a built-in wheelchair hoist that could totally double as a sex swing. It had been discussed on the MSC blog as a way for handicapable men…and women too…to be able to use different positions during sex. Mami had taken my hint, I could only hope that Artie would be into trying the new things too.

I continued into the master bathroom and couldn’t hold back a smile. The rosewood of the bedroom furniture was carried into the bathroom in the room’s cabinetry. There was a three-sink, completely custom vanity, with white marble countertop that was similarly veined to match the flooring. The entire twelve-foot countertop looked like stair steps since each of the sinks were actually at different heights. Each countertop area was a nice, generous, forty-eight inches wide…gave us each plenty of counter space. Artie’s countertop level was thirty-two inches and only had a thin drawer under the sink, to give him the ability to roll into place and reach the faucets and everything. My level of the countertop was four inches higher at the standard thirty-six inches height. My cabinetry was more woman friendly…meaning I had storage that Artie didn’t need or want anyway. The rosewood under my section of the countertop held one full width, but half depth, four-inch tall drawer on top, then three thin, six-inch tall drawers that were all half the depth of the thirty-inch-deep countertop. The bottom was a double door floating cabinet that was only gave me two additional feet of storage that went all the way back to the wall unlike the drawers above it. Britts’ section was similar to mine, but her extra four inches of height to her countertop lent her an extra four-inch height drawer. All the oil rubbed bronze fixtures and drawer pulls were mirrored in the metal encasing the glass doors of the massive roll in shower and the fixtures of the deep, soaking tub next to it. The rods that would allow Artie to pull himself from his chair to the bench in the shower, or onto the toilet or even, if he was feeling like it, into the soaker tub, were all the same dark metal.

“The bathroom and bedroom floors in the master suite are heated, but we didn’t bother for the guest rooms.” Mami explained a she walked us through the house in the early morning of that Friday of the Columbus concert. “I figured since we had to drop one counter top level for Artie, we could go ahead and make sure poor Brittany didn’t have to break her back every morning to get dressed either.”

Artie loved it. “I just like how it makes having the lower counter seem more normal somehow.” He confessed to my mother, earning himself a hug.

Mami did like Artie…maybe more than Brittany…she had a thing for nerdy guys. As was evidenced by her choice of my father. “You are perfectly normal, mi niño travieso. If anyone says otherwise, you send them to me and me…I’ll sent them straight to el infierno.”

“Mami, how come Artie is just naughty and I’m a devil?” I asked while giving her a total screw face.

She gave me one right back. “Because mi pequeña diablita, Arthur thinks bad things…but you…you say and do them.”

Brittany giggled. “Mami, you’re right. Artie thinks mean and evil thoughts, but Tana almost never stops at the thinking.”

“Come Angelita, let me show you where your towels and sheets and such live.” Mami chuckled. While they left the large master bath, I headed into our huge walk-in closet. Inside there were two large rosewood chifforobes with matching lingerie chests and a long horizontal dresser with like twenty drawers. There was ton of storage for shoes and yet even with all the wooden furniture there were still five sections of hanging racks. Several sections were tall enough for even full-length gowns for Britts but there were also plenty of lower racks that Artie could hang his shirts and pants on. It was a perfectly designed closet for our needs. I noticed that Mami hadn’t been able to resist doing some shopping. She probably decided to help us define our sections. There were a few sundresses and nice soft skirts and blouses to show Brittany’s part of the closet. My own section had a few pairs of slim cut slacks and pencil skirts and a few body con dresses. Artie’s section had slacks and dress shirts that had long sleeves…because Mami refused to buy the ones he preferred. There was lingerie in one of the chests that would look good on me and in the other a smaller selection of things that would complement Brittany’s slimmer body, fairer complexion and hair. In the long dresser, I found silk boxers for Artie as well as a few tee-shirts I was pretty sure were Papi’s handy work, not Mami’s.

I caught up with them as they were looking through the study. Rather than desks or whatever, it was a room designed for reading and relaxing though there was also a TV and video game system in the room for entertainment purposes. In fact, the room was less of a study and more of a den. It was cozy and all dark wood and microfiber furniture, including a full couch with a pullout bed. Hell, it even smelled comforting and shit. There was a half bath in the hall going back towards the entryway. The great room had a fireplace and a corner that would be pretty perfect for a Christmas tree. It was pretty open with clear sight lines into the kitchen, front entry and the dining room. A hallway led to a huge ass pantry and a smaller one that it seemed was destined just to be a place for wine to live. The little corner pantry was lined in cedar and had smaller version of the glass entrance door and everything. Then Mami showed us the utility room. The washer and dryer lived there…I rolled my eyes and was happy to note that the table top for folding clothes and all the storage shelving was the perfect height for Artie to manage everything in the room. Which was great, because I did not do laundry…or bathrooms. I could clean the hell out of a kitchen though.

The kitchen, now that was hot as hell. Modern, dark zebrawood cabinetry, stainless steel appliances and brushed nickel hardware all gleamed. It wasn’t a huge kitchen, but it was fully functional. There was a center island with an inset, polished, ebony butcherblock countertop taking up most of the surface area. The upper cabinets were every bit as gorgeous as their lower counterparts but I knew that other than the open shelves on the bottom of them would get used. The only one who could reach more than the bottom most shelves was Brittany. Unless, I looked under the counter section that was lowered and cabinet-less to give Artie some prep space also. I also realized that was why Mami had gone with the French Door refrigerator. It put the freezer section at his fingertips. Over all, I loved it. It would work if Artie wanted to cook, or if Brittany wanted to try her hand at baking again…or for me to just make sandwiches or reheat pasta.

“Now, the guest rooms are all ready for your friends.” Mami told us as she led us through the small hall off the kitchen. We went into the center room first. “I told you that I was setting one as your music room, but I put in a murphy bed that acts as a built-in desk when it’s not need as a bed.” She showed us the music room which currently just held a music player, a small keyboard and a stand for Artie’s guitar. “The linens are color coordinated. This room is the peach room.” I noticed that the walls were painted a lovely shade of pale peach. “So, the bedding, linens and everything are either peach or ivory.” It shared a bathroom with another guest room. The simple three piece bathroom had the same floor tiles and counter tops, but it mirrored very modern zebrawood cabinetry from the kitchen rather than having the rosewood from our master. “Now, this room, is the cherry room.” Mami explained. It was easy to tell that the room had cherry furniture and the linens were in shades of red, pink and chocolate…without being dark or overly bright. It was a good balance. “Finally, we have the grape guest room.” She introduced us to the final bedroom which actually had its own bathroom. The solo bathroom was a smaller version of the other one on that side of the house. The bedroom had light colored maple furniture, and the bedding, curtains and everything soft was done in shades of purple and green. All three of the rooms were pretty lovely.

Thankfully, Mami and Papi had made arrangements for everyone to have a nice breakfast, nothing major, cereal and milk, bagels and cream cheese, bacon, toast and jams…that kind of thing. They’d made sure to have all of our personal favorites. Strawberry cream cheese for Brittany, honey and pecan cream cheese for me and Artie, Orange juice for me and Britts, apple for our hubby; every type of Smuckers on the market, because Brittany was always changing her mind on what her favorite preserve actually was. And of course, there was coffee. Mami had placed a Keurig in the kitchen for us, but that morning they’d brought in a big ass box of coffee from the Lima Bean. Papi had made sure there was enough sugar available to choke a bear and a wide selection of creamers. Thankfully, someone had also gotten a whole bunch of herbal teas, because BaeBe wasn’t much of a coffee drinker. Hell, my parents were so awesome, they even had honey for her.

Once we’d all eaten, Mami and Papi left us to our own devices and headed home. We’d see them later as they were coming to the concert. The nine of us took showers and slept until we had to get up and dressed to meet the buses for the drive down to Columbus for sound check. Our bedding was perfection. The mattress was one of the best I’d ever felt and I resolved to find out what kind it was. The sheets and blankets were all really soft and smelled great. We just slept that morning, but it was some damn good sleep. None of us had taken the time to explore much before we went to sleep, but I sure as hell checked out our bathroom. So, when we got up, the three of us brushed our teeth with the three Phillips Sonicare Diamond Clean toothbrushes that I found under my cabinet with a ‘Welcome to your new home’ card from the Doctors Jones. We got dressed in some clothes we didn’t mind practicing in and headed out. Even with nine of us and three showers, we were all clean and refreshed in plenty of time to get over to Commune’s house where the buses were waiting on us.

It was a comparatively short ride to the Nationwide Arena in Columbus. The tour crew had gotten booked into their rooms at the Red Roof Inn Plus, less than half a mile from the Arena then promptly gotten to work. By the time we all got there, things we set. We ran our usual sound checks, KAMA then Cassidy and then Alessia took over the stage while we KAMA folks headed to the Activity Center and ran through our practice. We sure did enough practices considering that we were doing shows pretty much every night, but I knew that it was that dedication that made our shows run so smoothly. And that night was no different, though the show lineup was changed a bit to give all of us who had parents and family members there that night a chance to shine. I sure as hell took that chance to show the world exactly how good I really was. We had some really serious good moments on that stage that night, and I knew that I personally was riding a high as we met with the families and Ms. Pillsbury. I was damn near giddy with it. Columbus was the state capital so, of course, there was an after party that we had to attend, but Commune was pretty cool in that they allowed any of us who wanted to ride back to Lima with our families to do so. Of course, Pippy, Teen Jesus and their muscle man all had their own vehicle so they just headed out when they were ready. For a change, the three of us decided not to go to the party. As much as we wanted to go and get our dance on, we really wanted to go and try out the hoist. I slipped Xena my copy of our house key and gave Dave the code for the security system then Artie, Britts and I headed home with our parents.

Now, Artie had plenty of practice with hoists. There was a dressing hoist in our bedroom in Harlem and another one of the same type in his bathroom at his parent’s house. But for the most part he didn’t actually like to use the damn things. He found them to be overly cumbersome and had taught himself to get in and out of his chair using his upper body strength and well positioned hand holds. The built-in hoist next to the bed in our new bedroom was a fast fit. It was easily fitted with the sex swing, I’d found in one of the drawers of the rosewood vanity. Once that was all setup we were able to play to our hearts content. We managed to work through Artie figuring out how to use the hoist to give Britts some ridiculously hot looking missionary loving. Then Artie took my ass from behind a full four and a half feet in the air. The orgasm was real as fuck. Seriously, I damn near blacked out. It was so fucking awesome, we made the decision to build one of those in all of our future houses.

There was a delightful shower and then we slept and crashed hard as hell. But we did make it up in time get our happy asses dressed and drive down to Cincinnati. Mami rented us a Denali, so we had enough room for Artie’s chair, and Cassidy’s wedding reception kit. We followed Cedes, Sam and Puck in Puckerman’s Charger and Mami and Papi were behind us in Papi’s Macan with the Altmans, Jones and Evans in the Jones’ Enclave. The Redheaded stepchild, Teen Jesus and Unique were babysitting all the kiddles while the adults went to the wedding and reception. I looked fly, if I did say so myself. I’d found a great baby blue, lace, mini cocktail dress and some ivory FMPs on sale at Neiman Marcus. Britts had gone cute-sexy in a multi-printed, orange, ivory and black, midi dress with ruffled hem and some seriously hot as all fuck ruffled, suede, lace up sandals. Artie had worn a traditional navy slacks and blazer with a super light orange shirt and a tie that had his navy, my baby blue and Brittany’s ivory in some geometric pattern that looked way too mature for my handsome hubby. But he looked good as hell.

The wedding itself was really nice. It was elegant and classy. Emma was looking great. The dress wasn’t super expensive, but even I probably wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t spent the last couple of years around gowns that cost upwards of ten grand. But given that she was working with a public school salary, it was probably near the higher end of her budget. Her ivory gown was floor length with a small train. It didn’t fit the princess dresses she usually dressed in. She was dressed like a grown up. It was a good look on her. I’d have thought that a redhead would have avoided the pink, but it did look good on her bridesmaids. Bieste looked decent. I mean, she was one of the best teachers at McKinley and a truly good soul…which reminded me…I needed to get with Puck so we can figure out how to blackball Cooter and make sure that asshole couldn’t even get a job cleaning jockstraps anywhere in the continental United States, except maybe Mississippi or Fort Worth. Anyway, Bieste looked nice. She might not be the most beautifullest girl in the world, but she managed at least pretty that day, and to be honest, some of that was the beauty of her soul shining through in pure joy for the happiness of her friend. It was cool to see how many of the teachers from were there. It wasn’t all of them by any means, but there were at least several people from each department that I recognized.

The reception was nice. The venue was ten minutes away, but rather than making people drive around an unfamiliar city, there were shiny black party-bus type buses to convey us back and forth. The dinner was great. The music was on point. Over the course of the evening and into the night, one thought kept going through my mind. Ms. Pillsbury looked happier than I could ever remember seeing her. Which made a lot of sense…at least to me. Hal Gruber was even hotter than Dr. Carl. He was sure as hell smarter than Coach Tanaka and he had a lot more sense, backbone and honor than Will Schuester had ever had even on his best day. And that was how I felt after I’d reached the point where I no longer wanted to set Schue on fire on a bi-weekly basis. I was happy for her. I really hoped that she liked our gift. We had decided that a Bissell home floor steam cleaner would be practical and something Pillsbury would appreciate. Plus, it was on her registry and it didn’t break the bank. The open bar was pretty awesome…couldn’t get too happy with it though, we had to drive back to Lima at the end of the night. When we left, we were giddy, but not tipsy or drunk. We did have to stay a bit longer than I’d have preferred, but that was just because we were Cassidy’s ride. She had done her thing and I know that I saw both Hal and Ranger slip her envelopes of cash for her tip. We swung her through the Chase in Dayton on the way home so she could deposit the two grand the envelopes contained. She was happy and hell, I was happy for her.

Not a happy as I was when we got home and found that Erika and Elena had made paella for dinner and saved the four of us some. It was so good, even if I’d still been full, I’d have eaten the whole thing and worked it off the next day or something. Not that there was time the next day. Since I was home, and apparently Tito had been gloating to Abuelita that I saw him so often, my grandmother made Mami and Papi bring her over after Mass. As soon as we found that out, we invited Roger, Gwen, Chris and Melanie over to join us for dinner. No way could we have my parents over and not theirs. Abuelita coming over was definitely a good news-bad news situation. Abuelita brought groceries with her and made us all a Puerto Rican Sunday dinner that was quite frankly without equal. She even made Pastelon…my favorite. But she also brought a couple of my cousins with her. Now, I was cool as hell with Diego and Angel…hell, I still owed Diego a grip for the whole Prison Bitch Tinsley shit, but the third of my cousins she brought with her, Alejandro, was irritating as all fuck. Like those people who thought Artie was a nerd…they should have been forced to meet Alejandro. He thought that he was the smartest person in the room. He’d quit school at thirteen claiming that he was bored and gotten an online diploma within a year after that. He had started a whole bunch of degrees online, but couldn’t be bothered to finish one before getting bored and moving on to the next thing. I could understand most of that, I got bored easily myself. My problem with Alejandro was that his ass was a less intelligent, less driven Percy Weasley and it pissed me off that I even knew enough about those books to make that comparison.

I greeted him like I always did. “So Alex,” he hated nicknames and abbreviations of his full name. “You actually finished a major yet? Or are you still settling for being an Assistant manager at the Quick Stop, Dante?” In my defense, he really was too damn smart to be working at a gas station for the rest of his life.

“No, Santana, I’m working on my BS in applied mathematics. And I quit the QT,” he stressed the name of the gas station like it mattered. “I work for the post office now.”

“Oh my god…you’re a mail man. You swear that you have an IQ of a gazillion, and you’re a freaking mail man.” I crowed in laughter.

Alejandro gave me a dark look. “It’s an honorable profession.” He was getting angry. Good, I liked him better when he was angry. He was the only person I knew who was less of a dick when he was mad.

“Well, of course it is. I love getting my Cosmo delivered monthly. But I’m pretty sure that I saw an episode of SVU where a post man with too high an IQ became a serial killer out of sheer boredom. Are you gonna break Abuelita’s heart by becoming the first Latino serial killer.” I shot back.

“A la mierda, pequeña prima.” He snarled.

I just smirked. “You wish…I don’t do incest. But, ya know what? I like you like this…hot under the collar… not all supercilious and unctuous. Taking that stick out your ass looks good on you Primo.” Leaving him speechless, I sauntered off leaving him looking stupid as I went to see what horrible story Abuelita was telling the others about me. My feisty grandmother had pressed Artie and Elena into service. They translated for her to Brittany, Dave and Xena as they all marched to the beat of Abuelita’s drum. My grandmother could speak English as well as any other American…she just preferred not to unless she had no other choice. I wondered where Erika had gotten to only to realize that she’d probably headed over to Gala’s house…where Damien was staying. Those two were still scratching each other’s itches in a strictly no strings kind of way. I had a bet on it being Eureka to catch feelings first…but not for Dame, nope I was pretty sure that she was secretly in love with Cassidy. Yup…Artie had his money on Damien falling for Erika and her leading him on a merry chase…until he learned Spanish just to understand that she’d been in love with him for a while and only telling him in her mother tongue. Brittany wouldn’t take a bet either way, which probably meant we were both wrong and they were really going to successfully manage the whole friends with benefits minefield.

It didn’t take Abuelita near as long as it would have without all the help and almost before I knew it we were chowing down on asopao with shrimp and vegetables, ramp escabeche, arroz con gandules, my delicious pastelón, that I graciously shared with my family and friends, and finally she finished it off with coquito cupcakes. I swear, Elena was ready to beg to be adopted and she wasn’t the only one. Dave totally wanted my Abuelita to feed him on an almost constant basis. I didn’t blame him, when I got real loot, I was building a big ass house in Cali with a separate place for Abuelita to live on the same property, so she could come over and cook our meals, but then go back to her own house. I’d even hire her a driver to take her to Mass every day. I was a good granddaughter. It was one of my favorite family dinners ever. Diego and Roger bonded over our hardwood floors. Angel and Mami had fun teasing Melanie and Chris. And Gwen, she had the most fun of all. She quickly figured out that Alejandro was an intelligence snob. So, over the course of dinner, she threw out my husband’s awesome A plus GPA, but she managed to make my GPA a topic of conversation. “You know Santana’s got an overall three point seven-five GPA at NYU…and my little Artie told me that she finished this last semester with a three point eight two five. You must be so very proud.”

Alejandro pasted a fake smile on his face. “That’s great, Satan. You must be working very, very hard to get those type of grades.”

I would have squashed him verbally for that meirda, but Gwen spoke up before I could. “Oh, I’m sure she does work hard, but remember, she isn’t just a full time student, she’s also got a full time job with amazing benefits.” Gwen said proudly. “Plus, according to Haja, she’s got quite a few industry reps quietly courting her.” She really enjoyed rubbing his nose in my success.

After we finished dinner, Abuelita asked for a tour of the house. Our guests asked if she could give them a few minutes to straighten up their temporary homes. Thankfully, Brittany had convinced me to help her make our bed when we got up. Of course, when we showed her the study and she noticed its proximity to the master suite Abuelita looked at me, “this room will be un vivero perfecto for las criaturas. I will wait until you finish that hoity-toity college of yours, then I want bisnietos.”

“L’Anciana, you know that I plan on having a career after college. It’s gonna be at least a half dozen years before I can even think about taking time off to have a kid.” I sighed exasperatedly.

Abuelita gave Brittany a long look. “Her, your Rubia, she can have me bisnietos with your genius Judio husband, while you have your big career.” Of Course, my grandmother only saw those two as mine. Mami was still not her daughter in law. She was Papi’s wife. By the same term, her kids and grandkids were only every referred to as belonging to her.

Brittany looked so happy I was almost ready to knock her up myself. “I love babies. Santana, Artie…can I have a baby once you two finish college? Abuelita said I could.”

I gave my grandmother a complete screw face. “Do you see what you’ve done?” I turned to the only woman I loved more than myself. “Brittany, please, give us until after my first international tour?” I negotiated. And what followed was definitely a fucking negotiation. It took us hours, literally two and a half hours, to get Brittany to agree that she could wait until I’d gotten at least a gold album and Artie had won an MTV Video Music award for Best Direction to go off her birth control and we’d start trying for a kid. It took us another half hour after that to get Abuelita to shut up about how she might be dead by then. By the time we got all that settled, I was freaking exhausted.

I was so tired, I said good night to everybody and went and took the longest shower I’d ever been blessed to take…then I crashed. Monday was a show day, so Trouty had us up at the ass crack of dawn to go for a run. At least he managed to get Adams, Closet-Case, Poufy-Nipples, El Gigante, and Clone Boy…hell all of the locals and more than a few of the younger New Directions and a few young Titans joined us. I was a little surprised that Unique even came out…she was doing more of a power walk than a jog or a run, but she kept up with all of us, not the Rangemen at the front, but most of us could barely keep up with them, so it wasn’t that big a deal. She and Pippy made good time and they never did fall all that far behind Tina and Cassidy. The rest of the morning was spent getting the house back together. We cleaned it from top to bottom, with some help from our bandmates. We even did laundry and remade the beds and everything. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to get it all done and stocked the leftovers that we didn’t manage to eat in the freezer. Art-man, Britts and I agreed that we would be back as soon as we could to at least spend a weekend recharging after the tour.

When we left that morning, we locked the house down and set the alarm. The tour moved immediately from Cleveland to Pittsburgh after the concert and after party. Then it was on to the next stop, and the next and the next after that. We did everything we could to keep things from feeling monotonous. And I had to give Commune credit, they gave one hell of a show every single night. They took care of their crew for the whole summer…if only we’d realized that even though there were no snakes in the bush, there was certainly a pawn on the board.

Welcome To The Future (Brad Paisley)
Artie PoV

I knew that it probably wasn’t cool to say, but I, freaking, loved touring. The repetition was kind of a bitch, but it was still a hell of a lot better than going to an office every day and all that shit. All the same, I was grateful that we had a game system on the bus. By halfway through August we were all a little tired and ready to go home, but the two weeks after we left Ohio were pretty awesome. Our caravan was joined by a total DRV…Dad Recreational Vehicle…which contained the Doctors Jones, and Bubbie Ruth and all the kids in Commune’s big ass family, oh and Az’s Little Bird. It was supposed to have been all the parents, and all the kids and then Ruth would fly out to take over when the adultiest of the adults had to get back to Lima. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way, though it was for the best of all reasons. Sander’s team at his job got a new project that needed all hands on deck and even he would be getting what was basically overtime for the rest of the summer. Then on top of that, WH Taft had lost the head of their social studies department at the beginning of the summer. With Mama Evan’s dual masters in history and politics, the principal had pushed her through to head the school wide social sciences department. It was great news and even came with a raise…but it also came with responsibilities that made it an impossibility for her to go a vacation that close to the start of school. Poor George was the last adult to have to back out. The grown folk’s property venture had run into what Dad called a hiccup, but it was something that George had to stick around town and handle. Rebekah had known that she wouldn’t be able to ride with them the whole two weeks, so she stayed to enjoy some peace and quiet alone with her husband before she started med school the third full week of the month. So, in the end, there were three actual adults, one man-child on the brink of man status, one bossy as hell teenager, two rather mature tweens, two little girls, and four toddlers all in a DRV, undertaking a family road trip.

It was pretty cool timing too. The Teen Choice Awards halfway through the two weeks they were with us. Since it was the Teen Choice Awards, Commune glammed up their teenaged siblings and the three of them were the bosses’ dates for the event. Since it wasn’t a performance show, the timing of the tour made that impossible, just the six of them, Hudson, Binkie and Junior flew out of Grand Rapids as soon as humanly possible after the show that Saturday night. Lester and Darcy had met them out there to provide extra security, Lester, and to do the whole Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, hype shit, Darcy. The rest of us drove on to Milwaukee and watched the Blue Carpet and the awards show from the comforts of the Mitchell Meeting Room at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center. Huds had even arranged for us to be able to partake in a variety of snacks and everything. It was pretty much awesome. There was popcorn, pop, tons of candy and snacks…both Red Vines and Twizzlers…so it was a pretty good haul.

KAMA had been elevated from the early arrivals to nearer the end of the middle set of arrivals…one could even make a case that they were just near the front of the ‘Oh Hell Yeah, they’re here now so the show can begin’ people. The first of our trio of nominees to do the walk was Sam and Tessa. Sam looked way more casual than he usually did for an award show in a pair of dark wash jeans and a ‘faded’ pumpkin orange Henley with the sleeves pushed up. It was easy to tell that what he was wearing cost more than the average outfit, but it was something that Darcy would have no problem telling people how to recreate. It was also something that let Tessa shine, in what she told the world was a Marchesa Notte, embroidered tulle, high-low gown and Schutz Cristen Crystal-Embellished Leather Sandals. The pale blue dress with the pink, ivory and green floral embroidery was pretty on her. The top of it kind of reminded me of the Madonna ‘Like A Virgin’ nineteen-eighty-four MTV performance dress, but it wasn’t over the top or risqué. Her hair was stick straight in comparison with the poofy, flowy dress. She looked lovely. Of course, Sam spent like a half a minute on the tour and the other minute and a half of the clip they showed bragging on Tessa’s coming attendance at the University of Iowa.

Cedes and Sarah were the next ones up the carpet. I was actually more than a little surprised that Puck had let Sarah out of his sight at a Hollyweird event. He was sure that half the producers and power people in that town were pedophiles and the rest were just plain, old fashion rapists. But then I noticed that both Binkie and Junior were shadowing two of the girls that meant the most in the world to Noah Puckerman and realized why he was so cool with it. Of course, there was the obligatory, who is this with you and what are you wearing questions. Cedes was in a cute red, Zuhair Murad, lace and chiffon, fit and flare mini-dress which she, Kurt and Ruth had paired with a pair of black, Sophia Webster royalty velvet crown embellished sandals…that gave her a heck of a lot of extra height. She’d decided not to have weave put in for one night or take one of her wigs with her. Instead, her hair had been straightened at the roots, and pulled back into a jeweled band and then left to afro puff out from there and that was not a small puff either…it was a halo of hair for real. Next to her, Sarah looked a lot more hot than I was comfortable thinking about. Though everything she was wearing was really age appropriate.

Mercedes let her speak for herself to address the question of who she was wearing. “My dress is Carolina Herrera…it was a gift from Sam, Cede and No-Puck,” she caught herself. Sarah’s dress was demure, starting at her the bottom of her neck in four, alternating, wide bands of pink and black. The pink parts were embellished with small little shiny bits of something. Her hair was loosely curled and caught in a half updo that looked intricate, but innocent. “My shoes are Louboutins…they were a gift from Moms D. Cede’s Mom.” She clarified. The shoes in question weren’t as high as I usually thought of when Louboutins, but the black lace over pale pink peep toe heels did have the distinctive red bottoms. They were cute and looked good on her. She’d gotten a simple American manicure and pedicure since they’d left us, but that was to be expected. It was a red-carpet event.

“Wow, Louboutins for a fourteen-year-old.” Someone tried muttering under their breath. But the whole world heard it. Especially Sarah.

“I will have you know that I earned these shoes. Moms D said that I had to stay on the A honor roll all through middle school and I did. Okay, maybe earn is the wrong word since doing well in school will benefit me in the long run, but still.” Sarah argued.

Mercedes smiled a chilling smile and we all knew that meant the Diva was unhappy with the asshat camera guy. “All As and a ‘graduating’ A-plus average and that was with advanced math and English classes. She worked very hard for those shoes. Harder than I was willing to work at her age. My parents have always given great incentives for good grades. Momma just knew that the way to Sarah’s heart was through her shoes.” She teased Sarah all while giving that guy a look that should have had him pissing himself. “Her accomplishment should be lauded. But by the same turn, even if she’d done nothing to earn her treats, she is walking the red, well, blue carpet. Why on earth should she not be able to look like many of the other guests out here tonight?”

The interviewer made a sound of agreement, when Lester popped into the frame looking almost more like a secret service agent than just regular security. “Is there a problem, Ms. Jones?” the look he shot the camera guy was pretty damn hostile too.

“No, Mr. Diaz.” She said sweetly. The Rangemen all had code names for Commune to in public if they didn’t go by a nickname. Most people looked at Lester and assumed since he was Hispanic, Diaz was probably his real name. And it might have been if his father had been the parent of Cuban descent, but his dad was Puerto Rican, hence the name Santos. Still, it was a damn good feint and would fool a lot of people. “We were just getting ready to move along. Nice to speak with you Darla.” She looked at the camera man and moved on without saying anything else to him.

Somehow, Puck must have heard or learned what happened because we saw him, but we had to change to a different site to see his interview. He and Jake were dressed similarly, distressed jeans that cost way more than anyone would ever let good old Sammy-Boy know they did, white tee shirts that showed their muscular-ness and blazers, black for Puck and navy for Jake. They were both even wearing same lace up leather boots. Two different colors though Jake’s were a dark brown rather than navy. They looked good and damn near identical. The blonde chick from Entertainment Tonight…or maybe she was the one from the Insider, anyway…she told them that and they just laughed. they’d totally done it on purpose.

Other than Jamal Lyon, who walked the carpet by himself, right after Puck and Jake, I zoned out over the next round of teen beloved celebrities. It was cool to see Wiz Kalifa there with his little boy. Hakeem Lyon was there with Tiana…like that shit was for real. I’d dated Brittany, before she and Santana were comfortable being out. Well, before Santana was anyway. I could spot a beard easily. But I figured maybe they had an arrangement. It was none of my business either way. The awards show finally started. I loved music. I loved movies. I loved good, quality television. I wasn’t a big fan of entertainment journalism. I did pay attention to the actual show. I loved Jamal and Hakeem’s performance. I thought that Tiana was overrated and just trying to get by with pushing her sexuality to the hilt. She could sing, so she wasn’t totally manufactured, but she wasn’t as good as people made her out to be, but she was a good performer. The televised show didn’t let us see both the categories KAMA or KAMA members were nominated in, but we did get to see them take the Surfboard for Choice Song: Group…which they won for ‘Rescue Me’. When Ludacris read off the list of those who’d won awards that weren’t being shown, he’d straight up laughed when he read out, “Sam and Puck of KAMA have dethroned One Direction, for the Choice Male Hotties of the year.”

It was pretty awesome to see from the family road trip outside looking in. And to be honest, it ended up being more than a blessing that they were touring the Midwest and mountains with us, sorta, they didn’t stick with us all the time, they did stuff and then met back up with us when they were ready to. Like when they stayed in the Twin Cities to try and find Prince in his natural habitat. They met up with us again in Des Moines. Thankfully, they were with us in Wichita when Damien got food poisoning…it may have been because we dared him to try the shrimp in a sketchy diner where we went for lunch. But Adam, Arjun and I were admitting nothing. Anyway, Jake was easily able to rock his gear and provide the necessary background vocals. Because he’d been a New Direction and was family, he could follow Cedes crazy runs better than anyone on that stage other than my Devil Doll and my ex-girlfriend. But he also had a weird kind of synergy with Arjun. That guy was even better after Jake finished educating him on judging Mercedes’ moods to figure out which songs she was going to all out on. It was interesting to hear laid out like that. We’d grown up with her and figured that shit out in an intuitive kind of way…so none of us had realized that that was what we were doing. It helped…Arjun moved from a good temporary backup singer, to a borderline great one with the potential to be a permanent one if the need ever arose.

It was hard to say good bye to them in Phoenix, but they were just five days from the first day of school for all the Lima kids. Nikki wouldn’t start her fifth grade year until the day after the MTV Movie awards. I had to admit, Nikki was my favorite little kid out of the whole Commune crew. The math she and I could play around with was seriously epic. And watching her playing with math with Brittany sincerely wrecked my confidence. They got into mathematics at a level that kind of scared me. Me, Puck and Ruth had to bow out after a while. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but Ruth was the one who stuck in the longest with those two. I kind of wished that Lauren had been there too. That would have been awesome. Zizes’ GPA was less than a hundredth of a percentage point below my own…but she was way deeper into higher levels maths than I was. Me, a lot like Puck, I preferred my big ass numbers to have dollar signs in front of them. I was pretty sure that I was well on my way to earning those kinds of checks myself. My documentary had been a large part of my high end of the semester GPA. I was really proud of it. My professor had even entered it in the fall student film festival. Some big names came to that. I could only hope and pray that someone major saw something in my film to make them want to talk with me further. That would be so boss.

Somehow, I had become the OND’s, Original New Directions, GPA tracker. Like seriously the second that they got their grades, they all emailed me with them. Like I had a dedicated spread sheet or something. Okay, so maybe I did have a spreadsheet dedicated to tracking all our grades, but I created it because they sent me their grades every semester. I may have been tracking Rachel’s grades before she got beat down, too. Hey, inquiring minds wanted to know. Her grades were the worst of the entire OND. Even Finn had better grades than Rachel, and not to be funny but that shit made me laugh every time I thought about it. She had some serious grade issues. Even her performance based classes weren’t all that great. That must have crushed her heart. I’d have felt bad, except for her getting those rugby jocks to dump me down those stairs. Hell, I had laughed my ass off when that jack ass had been taken out of class in cuffs for questioning in the Ratchet beat down case. A few people in that class who’d had classes with Santana before they knew me…they came up to me after that class just to say that they finally got how me and Tana were together. That happened a lot when people finally got to know me.

After we left Arizona, we hit Vegas. That was a pretty damn cool crowd. I mean they didn’t just know the words, they knew every one of our names. By then we were rolling with Todrick Hall, and I popped up on his set for a while to help him out and people were shouting my name like I was somebody. That was real as hell. After Vegas, we headed to LA. Xena rented a car and rolled out to Goldfield to check the progress on her side hustle and but she made it to LA the very next day. She was happy as hell with the progress that was being made though so that was cool. Lauren and I with some assistance from one of Darcy’s old MIT buddies had written some serious firewalls and programs that would allow the people who utilized their services to be assured an almost unparalled level of security that their names and information would remain hidden. It was hard, but I got to have a serious blast writing code to allow for their customer service reps, at least that was how I thought of them, to do web shows and interviews with prospective clients. Lauren had me beat though. The code she wrote was going to be utilized to secure the streams bringing the strip club to all those who wanted to purchase a membership to look at the dancers. She would call me cackling to have me look over portions and help her extrapolate the needed bandwidth. She was having just that much fun with her part as I was having with mine. Lauren was also the one working to make the site visually both subtly sexy and user friendly. We’d both agreed to charge Xena and her peeps next to nothing instead, we were planning on using the publicity from making their site secure to ride a tech wave into a side hustle. Me and Lauren were both entrepreneurs at heart.

I wasn’t sure what changed in South Carolina, but about a month after Xena stayed behind in Charleston with Team Money, aka Ethan Harris and Saul Mayzer, Lauren and I started seeing deposits from SBX incorporated that basically amounted to like real programmer money. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. To be honest, I didn’t feel like it was something she needed to do. Yeah, it took up a serious portion of our down time…but we were enjoying what we were doing. So, I took time to ask Xee about it. “What’s up with the extra money Xee? It’s like real money. I thought we had an agreement.”

She gave me a smile that always made me uncomfortable…like we were in the Walking Dead and my adopted big sister had started to turn and I had the biggest brains she had access to. “Artie, the deal was in place when we were strapped for cash and every dollar was going into the brick and mortar setup. It adapted because I came into some money and I would have felt skeevy as hell if I hadn’t cut you guys a better arrangement.”

“So? You could have done something for us once you got your shit up and running. You told me that you’re fucking addicted to the Property Brothers show…you know how delays and problems happen in just remodeling, what if you guys need that money to cover your asses?” I shot back.

She ruffled my hair. I snatched my head back. I hated when she did that. She didn’t even care. Why did I always catch the most feelings, even completely platonic ones, for women who never had any fucks to give? “Artie, if I swear that the first thing I did was refill and double the contingency account for each of the builds, will you take the money and stop bitching at me for trying to do the right thing?”

I thought about it for a second. “I just don’t want to stand in y’all’s way. Being able to go legit is important for your family. Plus too, I’ve seen your plans for getting people out of bad sitchiasions…it’s important too. I don’t want to fuck your shit up before it can even get started.” I said honestly.

“I love that you get it…why we’re working so hard to do this. And I appreciate that you care...but Dude it’s a little insulting that you don’t think I’m intelligent enough to have my shit straight.” She shook her head sadly…it took a few minutes for her ponytail to stop moving…she had a lot of hair.

“How is it that I come in here trying to be magnanimous and return your money, and I’m gonna roll outta here feeling like the worst person ever?” I grumbled. “You and I both know you ain’t nowhere close to stupid. Stupid people can’t commit emotional blackmail. Fine, I’ll take the money and put it all on my mortgage. Will that make you happy?”

“Ridiculously happy.” Xena answered. Then she dropped a kiss to the top of my head. Her old tall ass…even if I wasn’t in a chair she’d have towered over me. “Now, what’s this Tana told me about turning a wheelchair hoist into a sex swing and do you think we need to make some of the rooms accessible?”

That lead to us getting into how that would work and how they’d already had it in their plans to make all the bathrooms wheelchair user friendly. From there, we went to talking about how to say that on the site without offending anyone or whatever. That evening reminded us both of a simple truth. Family, blood or choice, family tried to do right by family in all things. So, by the end of our talk, our shit was golden all over again. Which was good, because we’d killed all the time I had before my date with Tana and Brittany that night.

LA was a good city for my low level chronic, back ache, but overall it was less accessible than New York. Still, whenever we were in the area, Tana wanted to go to Rodeo…thankfully she’d squeaked out some time and taken Brittany with her that time. But she also loved to eat at fancy restaurants where she could star watch. I’d gotten us reservations at Craig’s, which was haute cuisine, even if the name of the place always made me want to watch Friday. John Legend and Chrissy Teigen were there that night, so were Rosie Huntington Whiteley, and Cindy Crawford, but we actually sort of knew and had spoken with Chrissy and John before. We said hello as we went by their table but definitely played it cool. But before they left Chrissy sent John Legend to our table to tell us to let KAMA know that they would be at the concert the next night and couldn’t wait to see them again. But the most boss thing of all was that when we called for our bill, they’d handled it for us. So, I left the wait staff a big ass tip and we headed back to our deluxe room in the Luxe City Center Hotel near the Staples Center. And made love until sleep overtook us. then it was up and on a show day schedule the next day.

From the second we knew that our Staples Center show was happening on the anniversary of the birth of the King of Pop, there had been no way that the show wasn’t going to be dedicated to his memory. The show that night had to have been one of my top five favorite shows of the entire tour. Of course we had to make the show special; so, Cede, Sam and Puck had decided that all the non-KAMA songs would be Michael Jackson songs. There were usually a total of five covers, including the Dylan cover. We were doing one extra that night because a…we could and b…because that was as narrowed down as we could get ourselves when it came to favorite Michael Jackson songs. To be honest, if Cass hadn’t created a whole set of her favorite Jackson songs, we’d have still been arguing on which ones to do for the five covers we could reasonably fit into the set list. The first cover of the night was up to Puck to decide upon. He’d won the right of first choice by winning a game among the three of them that Sam called the ‘who can last the longest under the onslaught of pleasure of a doubly focused oral extravaganza’. We probably shared way too much sexual information amongst ourselves. But anyway…Puck’s pick was ‘Man in the Mirror’. The vocals were Him, Arjun and the Dam Bros…but the dancing…that was all Elena and Jax. They did a mix of modern and contemporary that was beautiful and visually wrenching. That performance broke the internet. For a full hour.

Then the video of the second MJ Tribute cover was posted. Sam’s selection, well, he gave his pick away. Santana and I got to sing our asses off on ‘Scream’ while Britts and Mike recreated the iconic brother-sister dances from the nineteen-ninety-five video. It was fucking incredible. The internet fans loved it and were all clamoring for my Devil Doll to step out of the background and put out an album of her own. The third Michael cover was voted upon by all the OND’s, those on the tour and those back in Lima and NYC. Actually, we ended up in a tie between Puck and Cedes singing ‘Dirty Diana’ and him and Sam doing ‘Smooth Criminal’…so we did both. We all agreed that after the state finals junior year, we couldn’t resist doing ‘Thriller’…though it was a very close runner up. Cede’s choice was placed during the encore, blasphemous though the thought may have been, ‘Human Nature’ had never sounded so good. She and Sam made magic with that duet. Rainbow had choreographed an amazing dance sequence to go along with it. Sam and Cede parked and sang while the dancers all moved around them in shades of red. It was gorgeous and loving and sexy as hell. It was the perfect end to the night.

The internet fucking exploded with how much people were talking about it on social media and just everywhere. Darcy, who was there along with almost all of Team KAMA for that special show and for the MTV Video Music Awards the next night, had recorded all the covers and put them up on the site. The fans had their choice of one free download for their merch purchases over a hundred bucks. If they bought over five hundred dollars in merch, they got all five videos. By the time we made it back on the road after the award show, there had already been over a hundred thousand people who’d been able to download all five videos.

With KAMA nominated in more than one category and ‘The Ballad of Tamir Rice’ video debuting during the show, even though we weren’t performing, our whole camp had tickets to go to the event. In addition to Commune themselves, the VMA’s planning board had sent invitations to three individuals within their Crew. Rainbow was a VMA award winning choreographer, she got to walk that red carpet all the time. Dave had been in a VMA nominated band before and was in one for a second time. He wasn’t invited every year, but he was invited often enough that he didn’t find it strange that he’d gotten invited again. Cassidy was going as his plus one. It would get her out in front of more people. She was as good as Daft Punk or Avicii or any of the other major DJs that had deals of their own. The third invitation among KAMA’s crew had gone to none other than mi Hermosa Diabla, Santana Lopez. We were doing the VMA’s red carpet as a thruple. I was pretty sure that was because Lyor and his people weren’t stupid. They thought that if they got Tana hooked on the high life, she would quit school to pursue the dream. It was something both Brittany and I agreed we wanted to avoid, but by the same turn, if Santana really wanted to do so, we’d support her. My plan was to enjoy the perks and try to stretch out their wooing until she graduated as planned.

See we had plans for our future that include us all getting our paper first and foremost. Because when we understood the moves our people were making on our behalf…when we could double check behind our money folks…when we could read and understand the contracts people wanted us to sign…then we knew, we’d be fucking unstoppable. Besides, Santana was in love with the thought of shoving her degree down Berry’s throat whenever she got the chance. I kind of loved that idea myself. But still, we were going to enjoy Elektra’s attempts to convince us to make moves early all the same. The future was a stunning prospect filled with trepidations and worries…but it was also filled with possibilities that would still be there when we graduated. If they weren’t, we’d just have to make our own opportunities. I was confident that no matter what the future brought to us, between the three of us, our families and the friends we’d made…there was nothing we couldn’t face, fight and overcome.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

Endless Summer Nights (Richard Marx)
Darcy PoV

I had nothing at all to complain about. I had more than one amazing job. I had very little in the way of living expenses. Between Gwen and Hector, almost all of my tech cost were expensed back to me. I’d been very diligent about paying down my student loan debt. I’d come out of undergrad with less than thirty thousand in debt, but I’d incurred quite a little over three times that just for my concurrent MS work. I wasn’t even sure if Sam, Puck and Mercy knew that I had my MS. I had a very real tendency to hide my intelligence behind my snark. My mom and Dennis hadn’t found out until they’d gotten the letter with the tickets that communicated exactly what degrees I was graduating with. So realistically, KAMA may have thought that when I graduated in the June after I was hired, I was getting just my undergrad degrees, but I was actually getting the MS, the two BSs and the AA. It had been hard as hell. I’d had to take both night and summer classes to make it work, but it had been so entirely worth it. So, when I got that huge windfall bonus after the Valentine’s concert, I’d put the whole thing towards paying off my student debt.

Then, a miraculous thing happened. I got a bonus from Rangeman when they finished calculating the impact my work for them had made. In addition to the somewhat ridic contractor fees they were paying me, which were a total bonus to me anyway…Rangeman gave me a bonus of twenty-five thousand that I immediately put towards my student loans, too. With those two bonuses and the fourteen hundred bucks I sent the student loan vampires like clockwork, I had less than what I owed for just the undergraduate portion of my education left to tackle after the tour. And best of all was Gwen had still written off or whatever, the interest of my student loan repayment up to the full federal allowance. She was so awesome. I wasn’t sure if I could, or even should, continue to have her do my taxes once I was no longer just working for KAMA, but she insisted. So, I was thankful. To show my appreciation, since she was charging each of us, KAMA adjacent souls, less than H&R Block, I sent her a Best Buy gift card for a couple of hundred bucks.

Ms. Gwen called and offered me a deal, “Darcy, I would like it very much if you could find some time to come out to Lima once my new office is closer to being ready and help me get the new computers and everything and create a cyber security system, make it so my clients information is as safe as houses.”

“I can certainly do that.” I told her with no hesitation, my mind immediately starting to try and decide how fast a processor would be best to run some of the better accounting softwares. I’d have to do some research to find out which one she liked the most and which one was the best on the market.

“Good, I’d also like you to set me up so that I can have an umm… I’ve forgotten what Arthur called it, but I want to be able to work from home more often without having to drag actual paperwork all over the place, I’m hoping to go as paperless as possible. Oh, and I’ll need to be able to access my staff’s client files, but keep my files accessible only to me. Is that possible?”

“Yes, it is. I can set your business up with a remote desktop system. I can even make it so that you’re the only one who has the necessary credentials to log in remotely. And backup your staff files from their hard drives to a separate server weekly that you can access if you need to but only you or your IT specialist would be able to get into the files on it.” I advised her.

“You’re agreeing to be my IT specialist, though right?” She asked with a small bit of unease.

I chuckled. “You know I’ve got your back, Tax Lady.” And I did. Given the mobility of my job, I couldn’t even be sure that Sam, Cedes and Puck even knew when I flew to Lima in March. I’d spent a few days helping Gwen order the right CPUs, monitors, printers and other peripherals that she needed for herself, her assistant business manager, Sunni, her four junior accountants and the receptionist she was hiring. Her husband and the interior decorator guy had done a good job on making sure the office looked nice and was somewhat functional. They had made sure that each workstation or office had a desk, an ergonomic office chair, a place for a visitor to sit and storage. Me, I made that bitch user friendly. I made sure that every desk had a computer, monitor, ergonomic wireless keyboard and mouse, speakers, a flatbed scanner, one of those big ass accounting calculators with the receipt tape on it that printed out their math, and I picked out the office phone system. I also gave her the specs for the office copier-slash-printer-slash-fax machine and got her under contract with a VoIP service provider that included IP faxing as part of their package. I made sure to get her an eighty terrabyte Buffalo DriveStation server and kept a full twenty terrabytes accessible only by her and I which was set to back up all her staff files weekly, keeping the files for a year. Then that year of files would be backed up on a second one of the same servers that would hold those for seven years.

While I was there in Lima, I also hooked Uncle Ben up too. He’d finally realized that between Amicitiae Amore, the parent’s subsidiary businesses, most of which were too small to have their own HR departments, KAMA and Amor Verissima, he needed help and couldn’t manage it all out of his home office anymore either. Thankfully Amicitiae Amore had spaces in their newly refurbished business park. Uncle Ben’s office was next door to Gwen’s. He was in the process of hiring a part time receptionist, an HR administrative assistant, two HR Generalists, a benefits administrator and a compensation specialist. I helped him get all the tech he needed too. Okay so I just made sure that everyone would have all the same things as Gwen’s people, just with small all-in-one printers rather than flatbed scanners. They each cost slightly more, but it served their needs more than just a scanner would have. That wasn’t to say that Uncle Ben’s office didn’t have one of the big ass major yield printers too, it did, but Uncle Ben said that the HR types would appreciate having the chance to print small documents at their desks.

One of the biggest differences in the two setups was in their conference rooms. They were both technologically ready for conference calls and video conferencing, but Uncle Ben’s everything was doubled and the build out itself meant that he could close one of those accordion walls that sub-divided the room so he or his people could hold two different conference meeting at the same time. The next most noticeable difference was that Gwen had a much larger space dedicated to file storage, and a separate one just for KAMA and their property management company’s files. Uncle Ben was dedicated to having everything saved digitally unless it was something they had no choice about and had to keep paper copies because of federal, state and local laws. It was therefore an easy decision to set him up with an additional Buffalo drive to facilitate his greater digital storage needs. I was grateful for all the experience I was gaining through my association with KAMA. The two networks I built for those two businesses were better than anything other businesses their size in Lima would have been able to afford or even manage.

When I took the job, Gwen had already had a domain name, thanks to Artie, so I just had to upgrade its security. From there it was an easy matter of setting it all up and establishing the emails for her and Sunni and the rest of her staff. Uncle Ben was a whole different situation. He had only just stepped out on his own, so I started him out from the ground up. Well, I got it started, set up the hosting server, purchased the domain, that kind of thing and then turned it over to Lauren for the web development. My Baby Cousin was fucking awesome at web development. She did her daddy right and she did her daddy proud.

Lauren created a site that was both aesthetically pleasing and damn near educational. I certainly learned a lot. She had pages that showed the services Zizes Human Resources Management Group offered, others showed the qualifications and certifications of the people who had managed to get past all of Uncle Ben’s stringent demands and requirements. My smart cookie of a cousin even included a link to both SHRM and HRCI so that lay people could read and understand all the extra letters behind all their names. I had to give her mad credit. No one would have believed that it was not only not done by a pro and cost Uncle Ben a metric shit ton of money. But the truth was that it had been handled by a college sophomore who’d concentrated mainly on film studies and finance…one for whom programming was a stress relieving hobby. Once it was up, and Artie had seen it, he had to tweak his mom’s site too. By the end of the school year both businesses had amazeball websites and I wasn’t sure they weren’t going to end up out growing the offices they’d just gotten all set up.

With those two side projects successfully completed, and my work for both KAMA and Rangeman going strong, I was fulfilled and content. I lent my services to a few small non-profits and helped them establish their social media presence but even with making my own self crazy trying to do way too much, I was having so much fun. Lester and Hudson both agreed that I could and did so much without feeling worn out or tired, because I was doing what I loved. I got to do some programming. I got to break social media platforms on a semi-regular basis. Everyday there were more republican candidates entering the twenty-sixteen presidential campaign and I had so much fun tearing them apart on my own social media accounts. Those that Sam, Cedes or Puck took a particular dislike to, like say Ted Cruz and Ben Carson…those guys I got to shred in my professional capacity as well. And, after we spent a week with KAMA on the tour, Lester and I took a little four day, long weekend, mini-vacation spending a weekend in Hilton Head.

The way things worked out, that Friday after the buses left Atlanta to go to the South Carolinian capital city, Lester and I caught a flight to Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport and rented a cherry red, Chevy Camaro Convertible. We had an a-may-zing lunch at a waterfront restaurant called Love’s Seafood. I’d found it online and decided that it was perfect. After devouring some ridiculously good shrimp n’ grits, and their Bubba Gump Shrimp and an eight ounce ribeye, between the two of us, we drove to the South Beach Marina Inn where Lester had gotten us an quaint little one bedroom, two bathroom suite that had a kitchenette and loft. Plus, it was only like a second’s walk to the beach. But before we could really get settled, we had to hit a mall. The vacation had been somewhat spur of the moment and neither of us really had any beachy clothes with us. Lester was one of those people who loved clothes. It was almost unnatural how much he loved clothes, it really was. Usually, I didn’t let it bother me, after all a case could be made that I was the same way when it came to my tech. But just like me with my tech, he was a little specific about where he wanted to go and shop. Since I didn’t care, I let him do him. So, we ended up at the Tanger Outlets. My entire contribution to the excursion was creating a list of what I felt we’d need for four days of fun in the sun and four nights of romance and lovemaking. The way I figured it, I needed four swimsuits, a decent dress and heels, some lingerie and regular underwear and a few pairs of shorts and walk around tops. Lester would need less but want more. Thank God, I was in comfortable shoes.

We hit the Leggs, Hanes, Bali store first so I could get some more bras and panties. I found so many cute pieces, nothing that qualified as lingerie, but I only wore lingerie on date nights anyway. I found some extra cuddly pajamas and got a bunch of stuff that had Lester chuckling at me…including some tights. But hell, they were on sale and like HBO had been saying all summer, winter was coming. From there we went to the Adidas store, I do not know how Lester talked me into getting running clothes and sports bras tops…but I ended up with two sets of exercise clothes and new running shoes. He grabbed new stuff too, but that was to be expected. I’d noticed a long time before that all the Rangemen loved exercise and all its associated accoutrements. We went from Adidas to PacSun and I found some really cute walk around clothes, not all of it just for that trip either. I found a gorgeous, maxi dress that would be perfect for a date night while we were down there. I hadn’t actually planned to look at the swim wear there, just because I thought of them as a place for surfers. Lester wasn’t that limited in his thinking. He pulled several and talked me into trying them all on. I tended to be more comfortable with one pieces, but living with health foodie, Hudson and getting sucked into exercising with Kama for over a week had done a body good. I was looking pretty fucking fantastic in the bikinis that Lester found for me. When we left PacSun, I truly believe that after that stop, we just needed to hit a shoe store…I was so not considering how much Lester loved clothes and me…and me in sexy clothes.

Lester looked at me as we made our way towards the next store and all of me felt beautiful. I loved the fact that Lester had never once asked me why I didn’t wear my contacts more often or why I didn’t curl and-slash-or straighten my hair, or wear more makeup or a less bold lipstick. No matter what, Lester always looked at me with love, want, desire and need. So, when he asked me the question that followed the heated look, I actually contemplated it. “Darcy…I love how you look when you’re dressed down…I love how you look when you’re dressed for a professional occasion or event…I fucking love how you look when you’re not dressed at all. And I also love how you look when you’re dressed for a club or just because you’re feeling naughty. Can I pick you out some things and you wear them out and about while we’re here?”

I waited for the feeling of inadequacy or inadequacy based anger that I truly expected to start surging inside me. It didn’t come. I waited for the feminist outrage. It did not come. Instead, I found that I only had two concerns. “Okay, two things…finding clothes off the rack for curvy girls is not easy, like at all. And second, if you dress me like I’m guessing you’re wanting to, are you going to go all crazy if guys look at me? Because, seriously the girls get mad attention when I’m not dressed up like your dirty fantasy chick.”

Lester’s smile managed to be lascivious and possessive and protective all at the same time. “Gorgeous, you don’t know how sick I am. Because while I guarantee that I will keep you safe from any attempts at disrespect…I love watching men’s reactions to you. I don’t know how you don’t see it, but we can be in a club just dancing and some ‘wish he was me’ will start checking you out, sometimes to the point of ignoring the model thin chick he’s with and I can see it in his eyes, that he knows that you are the hottest woman in that entire place and he would drop old girl in a second if you gave him any signal at all that you even might want him, but you never do. Because you’re with me…because you chose me. Its fucking hot as hell.” He confessed. “And don’t even get me started on how hot it is when their dates are checking you out too.” His eyes were several shades darker and I was sure that if I’d checked, I’d have found him more than half hard.

How could I not kiss the hell out of him…if my boobs hadn’t been all sweaty and gross, I’d have probably shoved his face between them as a reward for that hot little tidbit of honest. I decided that his honesty had to be reciprocated. “If you’re sick…then so am I, because I might not see the looks men give me, but I do see how women look at you. And yeah, knowing that you chose me from all of those chicks to make your long-term lover…it does make me very, very happy in my lady parts.”

He growled sexily. “Gorgeous, you know I’ve been with a lot of women, but none of them have ever made me feel the way you do. I’ve never met someone so open and honest about who they are. You live life as if you have zero fucks to give and with a bravery that is just unbelievable. That is the sexiest thing about you and when you consider that amazing rack and your diligence in your Kegel exercises, that’s saying a lot. You’re fucking perfect for me.”

“Well, to be worthy of your admiration, I guess it’s only fair that I tell you that if I was more comfortable with the idea of arrest…I’d blow you here and now and not give a fuck who saw or who watched.”

Lester pulled me into what hopefully looked like a simple hug from the outside. “Darcy…you don’t know what kind of man I really am. You should not say things like that to me. Fuck…Come on…shit. I need to sit down.”

We found a bench neat the Sketcher’s outlet, we were sure as hell going in there next, and Lester was able to sit down with his legs splayed wide enough for me to stand between then. I liked being taller than him for a little while. “It’s a little too late for the ‘you’re too sexually sick for me’ talk that Stephanie warned me about.” I replied with a hint of something I was calling sarcasm.

Lester huffed. “If Beautiful knew some of the thoughts Primo had about her after those distractions, she would have run screaming.”

I smirked. “If your cousin knew some of the things that Stephanie was thinking after some of those distractions…he’d have realized that he was fooling himself a hell of a lot earlier.” I laughed humorlessly, throwing myself to the bench beside him. “It’s funny really…every Black person I know swear that all white girls are freaky as hell…but you and Ranger both, seem to think we’re all as pure as the driven snow. I’m not saying I’m a complete freak-a-leek, but until today…I was almost positive that some of my fantasies would forever be fantasies.” I hesitated.

“Like what?” Lester said wrapping an arm around my shoulders and pulling me close. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.” I rested my head on his shoulder and nodded. For the next few minutes, Lester laid out a fantasy that so closely mirrored my favorite ‘Lester’s in Trenton, guess I have to take care of my needs all by my lonesome’ masturbatory fantasy it was almost surreal. “There are clubs in New York that take a private membership to attend.” He started again. “Some cater to the real hardcore BDSM types, others to people like me…people, I think if I’m right about where this conversation is going… people like you. People who like to put on a show…perform for a crowd.” I bit back a whimper, desperately not trying to either break the spell or do something that would totally get us arrested. “I am nobody’s dominant, not the way they mean it in most of those places, but I would love to fill a special closet or wardrobe with outfits for you to wear just to a certain club I know of. I’d pick your outfit from the skin out, you’d take all the care you could with primping and dressing…because you’d know that every eye would be on you. Even if we never took the stage, you’re too gorgeous, too beautiful, to sexy and we look too hot together for anyone not to watch us as we eat or dance or play.”

“Fuck…” I breathed.

“Oh yeah…but not at first. I’d want to watch your eyes go sapphire as I licked and sucked your beautiful tits before that…and even they would have to wait until I got my full of dancing and making out with you on the dance floor.” He said before he pressed a kiss against my temple. “I love dancing with you Darcy. I love doing everything with you…even just sitting here people watching while we talk about exhibitionism and voyeurism and whatever is locked in that gorgeous head of yours. But I’m gonna hold off on that until we get back to our room. Probably only because Ranger would KILL me if I got you arrested for public indecency.”

I laughed. “He probably would, but only if Stephanie wanted him to. Otherwise it would upset your YaYa and we both know that you and all of your cousins are more afraid of that than you are of going to war or being dropped in the Atacama with just a divining rod.”

Lester looked down at his lap. “Oh good…that killed that erection.” He muttered. “I’m going to need you to never again mention YaYa that soon after we’ve been talking about any sexual topics, let alone kinky, freaky ones.”

My laughter that time drew attention…more than we needed in the moment, so we got up and headed into the Sketchers outlet store. The comfort flip flop mecca. I ended up with like six pairs of super comfortable thong sandals and wedges in a variety of designs and colors. Lester brought two pairs, one black and one deep wine colored…both were flats and looked really athletic and he was happy. After we left Sketcher’s, we headed to the Michael Kors followed quickly by Saks off Fifth and Lester started playing dress up. He didn’t stick to just club apparel either. He found me some seriously sexy day and career dresses. Some sexier walking around vacation apparel, some even sexier bikinis, and the shoes, aw man the shoes. My legs and ass looked amazing in the shoes he picked. Though most of it was stuff that I would never have picked for myself…I looked amazing in every piece of clothing or pair almost ridiculously high heels. I’d been paying for all my own purchases until Lester took over choosing and from there, when I tried to pay for anything, he smacked my hand or ass and told me that his choice, his cash.

We finally took our happy asses back to our room and dropped it all off before we walked to the Salty Dog Café, a Hilton Head must visit restaurant. The food was pretty good. It was a family restaurant, so we kept our conversation as family friendly as possible. “So, beach tomorrow afternoon?” I suggested happily.

“Hell yeah, beach tomorrow afternoon, then we’re gonna get all dolled up and going out for dinner…then dancing. I’m going to make sure that you know every time men or women are drooling over you. Make sure that you know every single dirty, freaky, nasty thing I’d do for that particular person as our audience. You’re going to do the same and then when we have had as much fun dancing as any person ever, we’ll come back here and fuck each other until all we can manage to do Sunday is lay out on the beach and rest.”

“Sounds like my kind of weekend. But Monday, I’d love to go to the Historic Charleston City Market Monday morning.”

“We can definitely do that. Maybe have lunch somewhere there in Charleston then drive back to Savannah for our flight.” He agreed.

It was an amazing vacation. Lester catered to my every need or whim and all he asked in return was that, if I didn’t have a major objection to something he picked, I’d wear what he selected for the entire three remaining days we were in the resort town. Saturday morning after we made love, again, we had breakfast at an amazing place called Stacks. The pancakes were so good that the only thing that stopped me from ordering seconds was the fear of having a food baby in which ever of the bikinis Lester decided that I needed to wear that day. which turned out to be a retro, red bandana looking, halter top one with tie side bottoms that Lester had found at H&M. I paired it with a white, halter top, lace maxi-dress cover up that was kind of sheer. I put my hair up on top of my head in a bun and slipped my feet into a pair of white, wedge thong sandals, grabbed my glasses case which contained my prescription sunglasses. Lester handed me a reusable shopping bag we’d gotten the day before and I threw our stuff inside.

We spent the day either playing in the water or laying out under the hot southern sun. Lester made a point of reapplying my sunscreen every hour. As he rubbed the thick, protective cream into my skin, he talked to me about the people around us. “You’re gonna make those kids so sad. If their daddy spends any more time watching your sexy ass, their mommy is so gonna divorce him…oops, never mind, Mommy’s watching us too.” It was great.

Until, Lester went to go and get us some water. We’d decided to stay a while longer before we headed up to get ready for our romantic date night. Not long after he left, an older man and his super young companion set up shop way too fucking close. The guy had looked to be in his later forties, with dark brown hair and one of those ‘I’ve still got it’ dad bods. He was definitely one of the more fit men on the beach, but he had nothing on my Lester. The chick with him was clearly a trophy. She was maybe my age…maybe. She had long blonde hair and surgically enhanced lips and tits on a size nothing body. The rock on her finger was big and blinding. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that the old guy started trying to strike up a flirtatious conversation…with me…with his wife sitting right next to him. It really didn’t help that there was something niggling me at the back of my mind about him. Some weird sense of déjà vu or something even though I’d never seen him before in my life.

Lester came back with our water and I was sure that he could see the relief in my face. That relief turned to shock, horror and disbelief when Lester introduced himself to the man who was clearly flirting with me and disrespecting his trophy wife. “Richard Deal, and this is my new bride Amy, we’re here on our honeymoon.”

“Holy shit, you’re such a sick bastard, you were just flirting with your own daughter.” Lester blurted out while all I could do was start laughing hysterically…and I meant that in the most literal sense of the word hysterical.

Richard Deal took off his sunglasses and there in his face were eyes I saw every time I looked in the mirror. “My only daughter is only six years old and lives with her mother in Alpharetta Georgia.” He said in denial.

I stood and took off my own sunglasses, showing him his eyes reflected back at him. “No, the only daughter you acknowledge is six and lives with your second wife. My mother was Amelia Denisof. You met her when she was fifteen, started sexing her when she was sixteen and by the time you were done, she was addicted to Xanax and oxycontin and I was on the way. You should remember her, after all she is the only time any of your ‘beloveds’ parents tried to have you charged.”

“That bitch lied.” He growled. “Sorry to tell you sweetie, but Amelia was already popping pills when I met her.” Then he looked me up and down, “you do have her fabulous rack though…I think yours are even bigger.”

I just laughed. “Wow, so first you’re lying to try to victim blame, then you’re perving on my breasts even though you know that you can’t deny that I’m your biological daughter. And I do mean just biology. I have a father and he’s a thousand times the man you’ll ever be.”

He just shrugged. “I guess I, technically could be your biological father. You do look quite a bit like your mother. I was with Amelia; I never denied that. But then again, Amelia was with a lot of men. She could be bought for a smile and quick, ‘you’re so pretty’. I guess low self-esteem must run in the family since you’re here with that Spic.”

Lester laughed in his face. “I’m not Mexican, you bigoted asshole. And no one has more self-esteem than my gorgeous girlfriend. She is amazing. Oh, and I’ve met Amelia Denisof Lewis, she is the very epitome of loyal. I’ve read those old police reports, she firmly believed that you loved her and you were going to marry her as soon as she was old enough.”

“In fact, my mother stayed loyal to you until the day you got engaged to your first wife.” I snarled. That no good mutherfucker could say what he wanted to about me…but I’d be damned if he was going to talk about my mother like that. “Amy, I’d watch it…Dear old Dad,” yeah the sarcasm was real, “He marries all his wives before they can legally drink and divorces them before they hit thirty.” I warned her, not out of compassion…but just to be a bitch. It had the advantage of being the truth.

Whether she had the intellectual capacity to respond, we’ll never know because Dick proved his own lack thereof, he looked completely unconcerned. “That is your version of events. You are nothing and no one. I am a Deal of the Georgia Deals. I have connections you can only dream of. Not that they are necessary, any possible charges would have had to been filed twenty-five years ago.”

“You’re right, you got away with what you did to Darcy’s mother. You’ve probably always gotten away with what you do to young girls and women. But one day, you’re going to get caught with your hand in an underage cookie jar. That kind of sickness doesn’t go away, it never gets better. Wifey number three is what twenty? And I’m willing to be that you’ll have an even younger mistress set up somewhere within a couple of months. Probably, she’ll have just turned sixteen.” Lester said with a deadly seriousness. “When you slip and get fooled into thinking some chick is older than the age of consent, I’m going to be there to help with your arrest and conviction.” He vowed.

“And I’m going to be there in that courtroom every single day of your trial to make that jury think about the fact that you have a daughter who is older than the victim and you should have known better.” I hissed. We gathered our stuff and headed back to our room having gotten the last word and happy for it.

After that, Lester offered me the option to stay in or even if I did still want to go out, we could go lower key…and I could pick my own clothing. I shook my head. “I want what you promised me. I want a weekend of semi-naughty kink negotiation. Because that’s what we’re really doing here. Seeing how much of what I dream of I can actually handle. I want to know.”

“Okay.” He said simply. I loved how he trusted me to know what I wanted or needed.

I did take a long ass shower. I’d spent a good portion of the day in the sun and the best I’d managed was to be less glowingly pale and more just plain glowy. When I was done, drying my hair to a livable level of dampness, I quickly threw it into a thick ass four strand, Dutch braid. There was no sense in my having my hair down in that humidity. Yes, Hermione Granger was totally my spirit animal…but I didn’t want to look like her. Once my hair was done, I headed into the bedroom to see what I’d be wearing. I could hear the shower running in the second bathroom and knew that he’d left his shower until he’d heard mine stop. That was kind of him. I gathered myself and smiled when I saw the pretty black with floral embroidery plunge bra and matching thong set that Lester’d found at the Lane Bryant outlet. It was a deeply plunging bra and the shape of the cups would match the sweetheart neckline of the BCBGMAXAZRIA, sleeveless, babydoll, mini dress he’d picked for me to wear that evening and night. The flowers embroidered on the sexy lingerie would match the red of the dress perfectly. Rather than sticking with black or red shoes, he’d set out a pair of sparkle, crinkled, metallic, leather platform pumps from Giuseppe Zanotti that matched the other color of the embroidery of my lingerie, a deep, burnished pewter.

I was rubbing lotion into my soft, if more toned than I’d even been before in my life, body…grateful as hell for the spa day I’d enjoyed with the KAMA crew when Lester came in wearing just a thick, white towel around his waist. “Do not even look at me like that, Gorgeous. We’ve got reservations at six-thirty.”

I pouted a little bit, but I finished dressing. I wasn’t in the mood for a whole lot of makeup. I fully intended to dance my ass off and didn’t want it to melt off onto my dress. Besides, I was taking full advantage of the facial I’d gotten a few days before and the sun-kissed glow I was rocking. So, I just gave my eyes kohl wings, hit the upper lids with some silver shimmer and let mascara be my friend. My lips were moisturized, lined and given a bright, bold red paint job. I mentally went through the limited jewelry I had with me. In went a pair of largish diamond solitaire earrings, and on went a silver and diamond pendant necklace that was long enough to draw every eye to the swell of my breasts. It was a somewhat unnecessary redirection, even I could barely stop looking at the girls in this dress. I made sure that I had everything I needed in my purse. When I pushed my feet into those amazing heels, I gained five inches of height and my gait immediately changed.

“Fuck, you’re so fucking sexy.” Lester breathed drawing my eyes to him. I’d been avoiding looking at him as he dressed lest all our plans ended up being thrown out of the window. He’d paired a pair of deliciously cut Armani slacks with an ivory Henley that was tight enough to make his pecs and arms look amazing, but clearly high end enough that his admittance was guaranteed anywhere. He was considering doing away with his blonde tips and had decided months ago to grow his hair out, so there was a bit of a dichotomy with how great he smelled and how put together over all he was…and his slightly scruffy looking hair.

I licked suddenly parched lips and returned the compliment. “And you think you aren’t? I want to throw my panties at you like you were a fucking rock god, Dude.”

“We’d better go, now.” Lester moaned as he gave me a very quick kiss. “Or I’m going to end up fucking you here and now.”

My boyfriend was legitimately the best. He’d made reservations for the two of us at OMBRA Cucina Rustica on the main road of the island. The restaurant was lovely and intimate. The food was delicious and I kind of wanted to move in and force them to cook for us for every single meal. We talked about my work, not just with KAMA and Rangeman, but I was working with some smaller non-profits in New York and the tiny non-profit in Lima that Gwen had had to create to handle the expenses of Sam’s signature philanthropy project, the Allen County Family Shelter. I proudly told him how close I was to paying off my student loans. “The only thing is…that I have no clue what to do after they are paid off. I mean, my original ten-year plan was to rent as cheap a place as I could stand until I paid those off and then spend two years paying the money I’d been putting towards my loans into a savings account to buy a house. But now, should I keep up the same plan, just pulling it forward. Should I stay with Hudson and just save for the future? I love Huds, she’s like the sister I never thought I wanted. But, I’ve always dreamed of having my own space. I went from Mom to Pop-Pop and Grandma back to Mom then her and Dennis…then it was off to college, but I always had a roommate, and now Hudson.”

Lester let me get it all out never advising, just listening. Finally, he asked me if there was a length of time I wanted to be on my own, or what would determine when or if I ever wanted to live with someone again. “Is there something that would make you need to move within the next year or so?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t really say. I mean, if I won the lottery, I’d pretty much have to buy a place just for the tax shelter. But I’d never want to move to the ‘burbs or anything. A nice condo or something would work perfectly. No yard to mow and someone else to call when something breaks.” we shared a laugh at our shared philosophy.

Lester directed the conversation to a discussion of Rangeman; things like the increases in their profits since I’d increased their online presence. We talked about the other ways to make the business grow. Most people thought that Laster was just one of the men of Rangeman, but he, Tank, and Bobby were a part of Ranger’s core leadership team. Hal was joining the four of them and the heads of the Atlanta, Boston and Miami offices. “The original plan was that the four of us would all split up and do as Ranger has Hal doing, setting up and running an office. Tank was going to set one up in New Orleans, I was either going to have LA or New York and Bobby would have the other. Unfortunately, as we were getting ready to start the next expansion, the recession hit. In addition to that set back, marketing on the whole completely changed and without the ability to do what you’ve done for us, we were getting stagnate…just treading water. Things were good and we were making consistent profits, but not necessarily enough to grow things the way we wanted to. When we got the call asking us to provide protective services for a group of underage popstars, we really wanted to say no, but Beautiful was having none of it. You see, she’d seen what we hadn’t. She actually watches award shows. She realized that they were good kids who were being forced to make big changes because their life was happening so fast. Steph said that she had a good feeling about us taking that contract. We couldn’t doubt her, all of us have seen how her feelings can come to fruition. But this time, I really think that even Beautiful is shocked by how much good has come about since we signed on to provide body guard services to them. Ranger said that even with the cost of expanding into the Midwest, we couldn’t afford to wait. We needed to reorganize the New York office. It needs a real head, more guys and, with the new Warner Contract, we have got to go bigger.”

“Wow, that’s awesome.” I said sincerely. “So, how is it going to be accomplished?”

He gave me a bright smile. “Well, the Trenton office will be kind of downsized…but only in a technical sense of the word. Instead of being our headquarters, it would be a satellite office like New York is now. Since it would be a lesser office, the current manager of the New York office would be moved down to Trenton and the Core Team and Beautiful would relocate here. Primo is still debating whether to buy one of the buildings near our current NYC offices and turn those into apartments for us and the men and then redecorating the fifth and sixth floors of the Rangeman building into more offices and client meeting rooms…maybe even a secondary monitor room just for off-site monitoring of our biggest clients like the Warner properties and the like. The second option would be to sell the current building and buy something that would work more like the current Rangeman building model.”

“So, what I’m hearing is that in the next what eight to ten months, you’ll be moving to New York…like I can see you every other day or so…rather than every other week?” I asked him, trying not to sound too hopeful.

Lester gave me a long slow smile but shook his head. “Probably closer to twelve to eighteen months. Maybe even as long as a full two years. It would actually take a little less time to start from scratch. Hal is on track to have his office fully staffed and open by the end of the year, January at the latest. We’re giving the New York guys who wanted to transfer to Trenton with their CO the chance to do so…which means time to get their shit together. We’re also letting those closest to Beautiful transfer up here too. It’s a whole big thing. Plus, getting the transfers licensed to carry in their prospective new states, which takes a while all by itself.”

I thought of something. “How is Steph gonna handle being that far from her mother?” It seemed like every time I was face to face with Stephanie, she was fielding calls from her mom and spoke as if she saw her every day.

Lester laughed. “She’s looking forward to it. The better question is ‘how is Helen taking the thought of her daughter being that far from her’…not well. As I understand it, Abuela Edna had to finally have a serious come to Jesus talk with Beautiful’s mom.”

“Now, I’ve really gotta make sure my student loans are paid off. With Ruth Mayzer and Stephanie Plum in the same city, my clothing allowance is gonna have to go up.” I joked…kind of.

He laughed and signaled for the check. We settled up and headed out to our rental car. “You know…I never thought that I would be in a committed relationship with a woman. But I love you more than I ever thought myself capable of loving another person.” He said seriously as he took my hand.

I pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I never thought that I’d trust anyone enough to put my heart on the line. It still bugs me out that I can feel like you’ll never hurt me on purpose…and would actually care if you did by accident. I don’t know how you managed it, but I love you too.” I told him honestly. Then I had to lighten the mood. “Okay, the sex is incredible so that could be a big part of it…”

“I personally blame your incredible rack and your unbelievably tight cocha.” He smiled giving back as good as he’d received as he held the door to the car for me.

We exchanged goofy and-slash-or sexy reasons that we’d come to love each other for the first half of the two-hour drive to Charleston. When we exhausted that topic, we talked about current events and such like that. I, as Sam and Puck, was having to discuss the death of Trump way too much on social media and I was whining about it a little, so Lester started coming up with ridiculous ways to address it next time, in character. His Sam sounded like a mix between Foghorn Leghorn and Rhett Butler and his Noah sounded like Fran Dresher’s long-lost love child. I laughed so hard I almost regretted not using the bathroom again before we left the restaurant.

Of course, with Lester driving, there was about half an hour shaved off the driving time. We got to Trio Lounge around ten. The place was nicely crowded. The cocktails weren’t watered down and the DJ was awesome, almost as good as Cassidy. Perhaps best of all for our purposes, the dance floor was pretty packed. Lester had reserved us a VIP table…which turned out to be totally necessary. Every time we hit the floor, I made sure to pay attention to the men and women around us. There were a fair few women tracking our every movement, but I’d totally expected that. I was really surprised by how many, seemingly, heteronormative Caucasian males were looking at us. We went to sit out for a while after being a little bit goofy while dancing to ‘Hotline Bling’. I leaned close to Lester and whispered. “I think you’re making that dude over there in the Tom Ford slacks have a ‘sexuality questioning’ moment.” I teased.

Rather than get offended, Lester just laughed. “Nope. Sorry Gorgeous, he’s looking over here wondering what he’d have to do to ascertain for himself if your amazing tetas are as real as we both know they are.”

“He looks like a real good old boy done good…are you sure you think he’s looking at me?” I asked again. Then I checked him over and noticed that his eyes were swung a little more my way than Lester’s. There were so many eyes on my boobs, and I was so very used to ignoring those, it must have been throwing me off.

However, the guy next to him was definitely not straight and he sashayed his way over to us. “Hi y’all, my name is Adrian. My brother Jeff and I were really hoping and praying that the two of you are just besties out to get their dance on so that I could, if I should be so blessed, spend a little time with you sir, and he could get to know the lovely lady a bit better.” His accent was so thick, I was almost positive that he was heaping it on.

“Sorry, Adrian, I’m straight and we’re together.” Lester said with a charming smile. “But for the record…because my gorgeous girlfriend and I may have been trying to figure out something…you were staring at me but he was staring at her. Right?” I noticed that he’d never introduced us. It wasn’t his way to give that kind of information to strangers.

Adrian gave him a weird look, but he did answer. “Yeah. I mean, I may have looked her over a bit at first. Those shoes are amazing and her bra is a miracle worker…because those puppies are the real deal and yet defying gravity. But mainly I was checking out that beautiful mound of flesh God blessed you with in lieu of a regular ass, and Jeff was trying not to look like he was stripping your lady friend naked in his mind.”

We shared a laugh and conversed just a bit more before Adrian went back to report to Jeff and Lester turned to me and asked me a question without ever saying a word. “I like the thought…I still really love the thought of it. But I don’t like having someone too close to us in an intimate moment. At a place where we were anonymous and so were they, like one of those clubs you mentioned, that I could totally see myself…us…doing. But I don’t think you could relax with some miscellaneous dude there while we’re getting down. I know that I’d feel bad being all ‘lookie no nookie’ to that guy or even that redhead over there who’s salivating all over the mere thought of you.”

After a long slow deep kiss that made my insides melt and my lady parts stand to attention begging for more, Lester pulled me back onto the dance floor. The rest of the night, we danced teasing each other and all those around us. At one point, Lester led me into a spin that made my skirt flare all the way up and showed the whole place my thong revealed ass. I’d have been embarrassed except, I could have sworn I heard a pretty strawberry blonde lady just a bit younger than Lester comment, “damn, her ass is as sexy as her tits.” I liked it when people other than me appreciated my body…it was a damn fine one, no matter what those skinny-minnie chicks say.

Lester heard her too, though he didn’t say anything until we were walking back to our car and saw her leaving as well. “I think she really would love to see you naked Darling Darcy…you sure that you don’t want to go back to her place. We could make up fake names and perform for an audience of one.”

I shook my head. “Yeah, naw. I think my particular shade of voyeurism is more of the public performance kind of deal. The thought of more interpersonal voyeurism just doesn’t may my lady parts stand up and say howdy.” Then I gave him a side eye, “why do you want to?’

He too shook his head. “No, like you, if we’re going to do it, I want us to take every precaution. A club where no one but management has even the slightest clue who we are, where masks are a thing we could add and the people watching would only think it sexier…I’d prefer it like that too.”

Once we were sure that we were definitely on the same page, we tabled the application ideas until we could work it so that we had the ideal scenario. Of course, that didn’t mean that we couldn’t and didn’t enjoy the fantasy and damn if we didn’t sex each other so good that night that we never did make it to the beach the next day. We did discover another kink of mine. I loved being praised for my performance in bed. Hearing how sexy I was or how good I felt or how responsive my body was, it just did something to me. Sunday, we just lazed about, making love whenever we decided we felt like it. then we went and had another amazeballs seafood dinner. After dinner, we did go for a long walk. I had to burn some more calories to get rid of my seafood-baby. Monday, we took another trip to Charleston and hit the Charleston City Market, and even though it meant getting up and packed and checked out at the ass crack of dawn, it was totally worth it. I couldn’t say which I loved more the Sweetgrass baskets, the artisan botanical beauty products or the handmade jewelry. Oh, or the food. We ended up having to stop by a Fed Ex store and ship all our stuff back to our apartments. It was either that or buy suitcases and have to pay those ridiculous baggage fees.

The drive back to Savannah and the flight back to Newark was filled with a ton of laughter. I didn’t realize how many selfies and pics we’d managed to take of each other during our time on the road and our mini-vacay. Lester, like all the Rangemen, had some pretty fucking serious enemies that they had made while in service to our nation, so I was careful to only post pics of the two of us where there was no way to identify him. But I did make sure to put up proof of how incredibly sexy my man was…hey, I had enemies too, just petty ones from high school. We actually said goodbye at the airport and I just took the subway home, Lester’s local family had given him a ride back to Trenton. That had taken some serious convincing. It worked better for him, but he didn’t like not seeing me all the way back to my door. But I was an independent woman and I had my taser. I dared anybody to fuck with me. Tuesday, I slept in a little, but after that it was back to the grind. The rest of the summer was spent making sure that KAMA’s online presence was the best money could buy, and on a merchandising side project for KAMA that Daniel and I were sure was going to be at least a decent money maker. We selected twenty-five holiday or gift themed items and set up a special holiday store on the KAMA site. We had cute sweaters and Ugly Holiday Hoodies and of course the ‘ChristmaKah’ CDs. By the time we all had to fly out to LA for the VMAs, we had all the merch prepared and the site was all ready to go live on Labor Day. That would give shoppers time to look it over, save their money, and still get their orders in in time to receive their stuff before Christmas…though maybe it’d be cutting it close for Chanukah.

When we flew out to LA, Lester and Tank were both with us. I’d worried that there was an increase to the threat level, but it turned out that two of the guys needed to head back to Trenton to get their physicals and other yearly evaluations done, so my honey and Tank would be taking their place on the last week of the US part of the tour. I had a shit ton of work to do or I’d have gone through Cali and the Pacific Northwest with them. Instead, Lester and I just agreed that once he was back and KAMA was back in school, we’d go to the club we’d spent the rest of the summer after we got back from Hilton Head jumping membership hurdles to join. Yeah, having Ethan look over that membership contract was worth every single thing ever. It was slightly embarrassing so much more funny. But he did me the solid, so I watched EJ and Avery for him, so he and Amanda could spend a kids free, romantic weekend on the Vineyard.

That was one of the most interesting times of my life. I was happy and yet somehow restless. I was truly in love and yet fantasized about doing things with him that most people would consider relationship killers. I was still growing up in certain areas of my life and yet, I was already fully matured in others. It was a little strange to me that at twenty-three, I was still learning about myself. But then I realized that that was what life was…continuing to learn more and more about yourself until you either knew it all or died…whichever came first.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

If It Makes You Happy (Sheryl Crow)
Hudson PoV

I spent the summer of the Aesthetic Enjoyment tour extremely busy. I had fun and experiences that I could only have dreamed of having just a few years before. I gained an undiscovered love of hotels and theme parks. The latter really surprised me. I didn’t consider myself a fan of heights, large gatherings, or noise. But after my first trip on a roller coaster, I found that I was totally and completely hooked. I loved the feeling of flying and falling and yet being firmly, safely strapped down. I was a fan of most thrill rides, really. Something I might never have discovered if, in my early days with KAMA, I’d not been determined to bond with all the members of their Team…at least those present in New York at the time. Haja had taken me antiquing, while Brantley and I had visited Coney Island. He found it an affront against God that I’d lived in the Five Burroughs for most of my life never been to the world renown amusement park. We’d spent the day talking and getting to know each other. He actually gave me some tips for dealing with my shyness. “The trick isn’t to imagine everyone in their underwear, it’s really just to remember that they are human and so they are just as vulnerable as you are. They’re just better at faking it.”

“So, imagine them emotionally naked?” I’d summarized.

“Exactly, Kid. There isn’t a single person you’re going to talk to who doesn’t have their own foibles, insecurities or whatever. Now, in your job, it might do you good to observe and figure out what they are, but me and Haja, we take it a step further. We figure out their vulnerabilities and use those to manipulate them into giving KAMA or whoever, exactly what they want or what we want them to have.”

“You know, you calling me Kid makes very little sense. You’re not that much older than me.” I pointed out.

“Sorry, Cutie…but in this case, it really isn’t the age it’s the mileage.” He semi-apologized. Over the next few months, I realized what he meant. In my shyness and fear, I’d held back from really living life. Brant had never had the opportunity to do such a thing. He had always needed to face facts and live life. There was a certain amount of caution to living life as a young Black man, especially one who was so very steeped in Black and Hip-Hop culture…but he’d never hidden himself away or allowed that caution to become all consuming. I respected that about him.

So during the pre-planning for the tour, when I noticed how close our several of our tour stops came to many theme parks all owned by the same company, I had an idea. I put it before Haja and he thought it would be a great way to build in some fun down time on the tour. Something that both he and Brantley assured me was in the best interest, not only of our bosses, but of everyone on the tour. I negotiated the terms myself. After our contracts were updated for the second year, Haja and Gwen had set us each up with a departmental budget, so there was no need to bother anyone as long as I stayed within my hundred thousand per year executive assistant discretionary budget. To be honest, the deal I worked out was pretty awesome. I didn’t get the sale price for the season tickets, but I did get them to throw in the super expensive Flash Passes and a somewhat bare bones meal pass, all for under ten thousand. I was quite proud of that accomplishment. Especially when I saw how much fun everyone had over the course of the summer.

As much as I enjoyed going to all the different theme parks. As much as I enjoyed experiencing all the small and large churches Mercedes, Sam and Puck found for us to attend whenever there was time on a Sunday morning. As much as I enjoyed all the different cities and states and all the lovely hotel rooms…by the time we hit LA for the VMAs, I was ready for home. I missed Haja, though he’d joined us for a few stops. I missed Brantley, though he too had come on the road a few times. Just to make sure that everything was going well…as if we weren’t in almost constant contact and he wasn’t in actual constant contact with Lamar. Daniel only popped his head in twice…once right after Fort Worth and when we were in Ohio, though the later one was probable more to spend some time with Amara and Amaea than for anything to do with KAMA PR. But he had a lot of work to be done, both for KAMA and for his other clients, that could only be done in the office, so that was to be expected. Darcy joined us a few time as well. I got why she did so. She wanted to make sure that Tessa and Joe had everything they needed and even more, to supervise without them feeling micromanaged, or even knowing it really.

However, the VMAs saw every member of Team KAMA meeting us in Los Angeles. Ethan and Haja were actually waiting on us at the Luxe City Center Hotel when we got there. It seemed that Haja was a busy boy over the summer. He’d managed to broker a deal for Noah and Sam to do some modeling for Calvin Klein. “The thanks actually go to Tessa’s godmother, Samantha, her best friend Isabelle Wright and Joe Hart. Apparently, when Samantha introduced Isabelle Wright…who happens to be an executive over at Vogue…to Joe, she wanted him to do it. Joe said that it wasn’t his thing and reminded her that the two of you actually used to model.”

“Wait, I thought Bieber was doing Calvin Klein?” Mercedes interrupted to ask.

Haja smirked. “He was and still is. But Isabelle, Italo Zucchelli and Mr. Klein, himself, are all banking that your two husbands, individually and together, will be far more profitable for the company than the Biebs.”

“Yeah, how much are they banking on it?” Puck asked cheekily.

Ethan whipped out the paperwork. “They are offering you each twenty million a year for two years…or get this…a hundred and fifty million if you are willing to make a five year commitment.”

“Sheee-it.”

“Damn.”

“Mutherfucker.” Puck said, but his voice was the only one to continue. “Sam, I don’t know about you…But I am so good taking that hundred and fifty million dollar contract.”

Sam nodded. “Hell yeah, we’re taking it. My Momma didn’t raise no fool.”

Ethan smiled and there were some intent papers to be signed. “The rest of the contracts, we’ll handle when you guys get back to New York. Now, I also wanted to let you know that I took care of the transfer of Carmine and Chaz Puckett’s probation to New York state. And between the two of us Mills and I managed to get everything set up for their and the Benson-Pucketts’ apartments in Independence Plaza. It turned out to be entirely too problematic to get them to rent to your elder cousins. However, this complex actually allows residents to sublet their space. So technically, their apartment is being rented by you and you’re subletting it to them. Carmine and Chaz are in a two bedroom and Samantha, Freddie and their triplets are in a three bedroom. I’ve already prepped the contracts for their signatures. As per your stipulations, all the four adults have to do is pay five hundred towards their rent and handle their own utilities.”

“Good.” Mercedes said quietly. “I know that iCarly isn’t doing badly, but I don’t want those babies to have to miss their mommy and daddy because they had to work two jobs and go to school to make their future brighter.”

“I just hope that with Carmine, Chaz and Mrs. Benson in close proximity, there will never be any reason for The Trio to be left alone with Spencer Shay.” Sam said sounding quite relieved. “I mean, the guy seems like a nice enough person…but, from Cousin Sam’s stories, he strikes me as the kind of guy who needs a baby sitter not the kind who should be a babysitter.”

There were some more things that they had to go over, but fortunately, nothing that took very long. Before we were all able to head up to our rooms. Since Darcy and Lester were rooming together, I had a superior room all to myself. It was quite lovely. As much as I had grown to care for Darcy, I was a very solitary kind of person by nature. I unpacked and double checked to make sure that I had everything that I would need for our stay in Los Angeles. I could always go back to the bus, but I prided myself on my efficiency. And it would not have been an efficient use of time to have to go back to the bus because I wasn’t prepared in advance. I set out a nice, but comfortable outfit for our visit to Six Flags Magic Mountain the next day. Then, I went through KAMA’s calendar for the following two weeks, making sure to set reminders for them to email their summer reading journals and the other things that their professors wanted turned in before the first day of classes. I knew that they were all done, even the mock financial statements Cedes and Noah had needed to create for their financial economics class. With all of that accomplished, I took a nice bath and dressed for dinner. That was a nice relaxing meal and then I was able to go to my room and rest for the remainder of the evening. The next day we spent the entire day at Magic Mountain. I rather missed having any of the younger kids with us. They had such joy about being at an amusement park and they tended to act as something of a shield between KAMA and their multitude of fans. We’d arrived at the theme park within half an hour after it opened and within an hour after that, the place was well and truly packed. We weren’t able to stay there all day. We weren’t in LA just for the Staples Center tour stop, we also had the VMAs and that meant that we needed a spa visit. Still, a great time was had by all.

I’d made the arrangements for those who were walking the red carpet, except Bartana who had previously made their own arrangement for that afternoon and evening, to visit the Ritz Carlton Spa in Marina Del Ray. It was Mercedes’ favorite of the spas we’d experienced in the city. She knew the names of the people who took care of us there and they had all the services that we needed. We got there around four that afternoon and didn’t make it back to our hotel until after a lovely, but late, dinner at Sakura House, an unassuming little Japanese place in a small, out of the way strip mall that Rainbow told us about.

Our Staples Center show was really, very awesome. The show was completely sold out and there were so many celebrity VIPs that I found it quite daunting. Of course, in a city the size of LA there was no way that we could avoid the after party, but I helped to make sure that KAMA’s Crew stuck to just one alcoholic beverage and had water or soda thereafter. A few of the newer folks were less than pleased, but I wasn’t going to let them stop me from doing my job. The party somehow became an Event To Be Seen at for a lot of the VMAs nominees and presenters. Pretty much everyone who was anyone was there at the Mayan that night into the morning. I actually kind of liked events like that. I was able to seem like I was interacting with everyone while really all I did was hide in the midst of the crowd and make sure that Sam, Cedes and Noah had everything that they needed. I was confident that I was as efficient as humanly possible and I knew that was able to appear and disappear almost like magic. I also wasn’t trying to shop scripts or demos or otherwise advance a personal agenda. I must have done something right. That night I had six offers from people trying to lure me away from KAMA ranging from one of the Jenner-Kardashians to a Trap star. It was nice to be wanted but I didn’t think there was much of anything that could make me leave my family.

It kind of tripped me out. Did these people really think that I didn’t know why their PAs had sought out other employment? One of them liked to call her PA at three in the morning to let Ms. Star’s dog out. The PA did not live with her employer and would have had to drive across town to do so. Another of the people who tried to lure me away from my bros and sister that night was a guy who liked to make his PA check him for BO before he hit the red carpet. Another was fine as a person themselves, but I knew for a fact that their manager was one of the most horrible person on the face of the planet to those he considered lesser. But the worst was the one who collected event swag and at the end of awards season had tried to get her PA to sell the stuff through their personal EBay account and give the star the cash. All the swag, even things that the PA could fit and-slash-or use. I guess I was spoiled because for the most part, if Cedes, Sam or Puck didn’t want it, I got first dibs. There were exceptions…like the Teen Choice Awards show swag. Tessa, Sarah and Jake had gotten first pick of that stuff, even before KAMA themselves. Yeah, I was quite happy with my bosses, or the principles as most of the other PAs called their stars.

We made it back to the hotel around seven, which was not ideal. Everyone was only able to get a few hours of sleep before the Red Carpet ladies all had to get up, shower and report to the connecting room to Cedes, Noah and Sam’s Platinum Suite which had been turned into a hair and makeup wonderland. Ruth, Darcy and the rest of Team KAMA had arrived the evening before some time during the concert, Ruth and Kurt had transformed the closet and the bathroom of the room next to Commune’s suite making sure that everything that would be needed for the music group to get dressed. The three of us, Darcy, Ruth and I, who’d be with KAMA on the Red Carpet got there early to have the first go with Delilah, Catherine and Catrina to have our hair done. We would do our own makeup later. To make my life easier, I had Catrina braid my hair into two four-strand French Braids and then winding them into a large chignon at the back of my head.

“Ooohhh…I like the braid idea. But I need some hair down.” Darcy told Catherine with a big smile. “Can we do a half up-do with maybe a five-strand braid at the back?”

“I’ve got you, Doll.” Catherine assured her.

Dee looked at Bubbie. “How do you want your hair. Ms. Ruth?”

Ruth laughed. “Do what you want that won’t take forever so I can handle Mercedes and the guys…but Delilah Darling, I’m too damn old for braids.”

By the time Mercedes, Puck and Sam came through the connecting my vision for my hair had been realized as had Darcy’s. Ruth’s hair was pulled back and up into a thick, intricate bun and everything was in readiness for them. Mercedes came in with her braids undone and her hair washed, but damp. The day we got to LA, she and Catrina sat with a pad and worked out an intricate formal braided hairstyle that consisted of ten braids up to the center of her scalp on each side. Those braids and the center hair would then be braided into three layers of braided mohawk, that would be curled up at the nape of her neck and affixed until it was unmovable. While Catrina was busy, Dee took care of updating Sam’s color and Dani, took care of Puck’s low buzz. Rainbow and Cassidy came in then. Rainbow found herself in Catherine’s seat while Cassidy chatted with us as she waited her turn. It surprised no one that Dave, Artie, Brittany and Santana rolled in last. None of them liked mornings…at all.

Ruth had styled each of the women and Kurt had handled each of the guys, so everything, other than their lingerie and underwear, that they needed to get dressed was there waiting on them in that room. Once Mercedes’ hair was done, she grabbed Bubbie and they disappeared into her suite and she came back in wearing a silk kimono robe rather than the button down and leggings she’d worn when she was getting her hair done. That allowed Dee to begin wielding her airbrush compressor to apply Cedes foundation. The skintone matching MAC foundation made Mercedes already healthy skin look flawless. The current trend tended towards a subtle, neutral makeup for the red carpet. Not Ms. Mercedes Jones. Trina gave her eyes wings then covered her upper lids with a chocolate eyeshadow a few shades darker than her skin. Then Trina’s deft hands did their work with metallic silver over that. It looked great. Cedes’ lips were done in a deep, warm berry wine color that was glossy but not ridiculously so.

While everyone was getting their hair and makeup done, the room was filled with laughter and music. They all joked and teased and sang and danced as they got dressed. Over her black lace and gold satin eyelash lace halter bra and matching thong panties, Mercedes donned a custom-made Spanx shaper slip that like the bra, matched the cutouts of the Maticevski Corrosion, silver and gold, metallic stripe gown. The gown was sleeveless, and the asymmetric silhouette featured a vertical cut-out opening in both the front and back, framing Mercedes Jones’ signature cleavage. The dress then flowed into the voluminous folds of the high-low skirt. The striped design pooled at the hem and opened up into an elegant train. The Australian designer had contacted Ruth after the Grammys with the exclusive unique design. The dress was edgy and yet elegant; it was fashion forward and looked amazing. Bubbie had paired it with a pair of six-inch, silver and gold, peep toe, red bottom pumps. With the, technically, high neckline, the dress wouldn’t work with a necklace, so instead Kurt had found her a silver and gold floral motif antique Victorian sterling silver, rose and yellow gold aesthetic wide cuff bracelet, a Konplott Cages golden shadow crystal antique brass wide cuff bangle bracelet and Holy Lights hollow Gold-color wide wrap geometric big modern fashion arm cuff. The arm band would go around her bare upper arm, while the very different, wide cuff bracelets would decorate her wrists and forearms. The look was completed with a pair of Stazia Loren Diamanté, tassel earrings that were large and long enough that they reached down to Cedes’s shoulders.

Perhaps it said something that I mentally ran down her outfit first when Mercedes was actually one of the last people dressed and ready. Since Santana and Brittany were the first of the KAMA ladies scheduled to arrive at the VMAs they were actually ready first. Ruth had outdone herself with that thruple’s look. Artie was in black True Religion jeans, a white Armani dress shirt and a black and white Neil Barrett contrast-stripe sport coat with a pair of black and white Maison Margiela men's Ace low-top sneakers. She had him in a silver Movado watch and a Tateossian Stonehenge bead bracelet with black, silver and rose gold beads. That bracelet tied him into Brittany’s rose gold cuff bracelets, matching bauble drop earrings and the rose gold and black diamond lariat necklace. Ruth had found for her a midnight black, Redemption, plunging satin halter slip gown that only Brittany could have worn because the rest of the women in KAMA’s camp were kind of addicted to underwear and that dress was not only completely backless, it would have shown even the tiniest pair of panties like crazy. She looked gorgeous with her sun-kissed, natural, makeup and bold pink lip, her blonde hair was fishtail braided back to a deceptively loose looking chignon. She looked elegant and sexy and of course she was Brittany, so she looked very happy too. Santana was decked out, neck to toe in white. Her Zuhair Murad Cady gown had an almost sheer, trellis-style lace top with a jewel neckline and crystal embellishments. The floor length Cady column skirt had a seriously high front slit and the skirt started in a High-rise band which sat above Santana’s natural waist. Thanks to Bubbie and Kurt’s talents, no one would ever realize that both Santana’s and Brittany’s dresses had been bought off the rack and each one tailored to look as custom as Mercedes’ gown. Santana’s long hair was straightened completely and then slicked back from her forehead and temples into a half up style only for the sleek, almost black locks to be turned into a five or more-strand fishtail braid that ended at her backside. Her makeup was beautiful. Not as bold as Mercedes’ nor as natural as Brittany’s…but very much Santana.

That trio had to be down stairs no later than two thirty to make their limo in time to be in their spot for their three twenty scheduled arrival at the Microsoft Theater. Kurt was going with them to act as their stylist/PA on the Red Carpet. He was in an unobtrusive navy blue Brooks Brother’s suit that he’d added a bit of flair to with a broach that actually had Bluetooth and was connected to his cell phone in case of an emergency. Dave and Cassidy were the next to leave. Dave was pretty easy. He was rocking a pair of three hundred-dollar Brunello Cucinelli spa contrast-trim sweatpants, a charcoal gray, John Varvatos Henley, a Lanvin Attitude two button soft blazer…and a pair of mint condition red, black and white Air Jordans that cost at least as much as the sweatpants…and added some color to his pretty much gray ensemble. Even his Meistersinger watch had a gray band. As blah as Dave’s color scheme was, Cassidy was going the exact opposite route. Her bright, mint green Badgley Mischka dress had a ballet cut bodice with spaghetti straps, princess seams and a racerback. The gown’s skirt had godet ruffles and a handkerchief hem. Despite the classy dress and simple silver jewelry…Cass went hard for her shoes, hair and makeup. A pair of black Sophia Webster Mila suede, cutout, peep-toe booties showed off her inner Rockstar. Delilah amplified her natural curls and braided three braids back from her right temple while allowing the left side total freedom. Her makeup was flawless with super dark kohl line, purple and white shading above the lid and a matte purple lip…she looked righteous and edgy and fierce and yet…a tad sweet. It was an interesting projection…but she pulled it off.

The two friends headed down once Darcy had taken care of the photos for the KAMA blog which wouldn’t go up until after the event. We didn’t want to step on the toes of the entertainment journalists after all. Rainbow was the next to leave the dressing room. Dee and Trina had handled her between the two of them. Delilah had turned her sleek black hair into a super sleek highish ponytail that looked kind of severe in a sexy kind of way…I understood the concept better after working with Puck and Santana for a while. The hair went well with her navy and black Jonathan Simkhai Collection Beaded Fringe Jumpsuit. she accessorized it with five pieces of Adriana Orsini’s Anise Crystal jewelry collection. Rainbow had layered a choker and longer necklace, and both her arms and ears dripped with the star anise shaped crystal jewelry. Her Valentino Garavani Exclusive Ankle Strap Pumps were black and high and I envied the grace with which she moved even on five and a half inch stilettos. Then again, like Brittany, everything Rainbow did looked like dancing. Blaine headed out with Rainbow to act as her minion and to meet up with his fiancé there.

Sam and Noah were both rocking differently cut Ralph Lauren suits, black Nigel cut for Puck and navy Morgan cut for Sam. With the suits they each wore different colored John Varvatos Henleys, Puck’s was burgundy and Sam’s was charcoal and they wore black boots from Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga, respectively. The only jewelry they wore were their engagement rings, Centrix watches and Iconography necklaces, a crucifix for Sam and a diamond encrusted Star of David for Noah. As soon as Ruth was completely satisfied with the trio, we headed back to our rooms to get dressed. It didn’t take me much time at all to put on the barest possible amount of makeup, add a berry lip gloss and don my nut brown, MILLY double-knit A-line dress, the Easy Street lace up comfort heels that matched it and grab my prepacked and ready vintage chestnut Ghurka Fielding leather messenger bag. I did a quick double check. It contained business cards of all the relevant KAMA peeps, as well as Stephanie Plum and our Rangeman account manager. I had my iPad mini, my cell, KAMA’s professional cell, my wallet and room key. I also made sure that I left one part completely empty. That part would hold everything Cede wanted to carry that didn’t fit in her clutch as well as Sam and Puck’s wallets.

KAMA really were the last of our people to leave. Haja and Brantley had signed three of KAMA’s opening acts from that summer to their management group and they were walking with two of them. Haja attended with Alessia Cara while Brantley was a member of Todrick Hall’s small entourage. Ethan was managing to avoid the whole deal. He and Amanda had brought Avery and EJ out and they were spending a family day at Disney. There was a large part of me that was a little bit jealous. I shook those counterproductive thoughts off as I went back to the dressing room. Once there, I made sure that Cedes had her Christian Louboutin Vanite patterned leather clutch which contained her driver’s license, one bank card…her oldest account that had the lowest available balance…her lipstick and blotting paper, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Her actual wallet, a mini pack of Kleenex, her personal cell, and a few other bips and bobs went into my messenger bag. Sam and Puck handed me their wallets, keeping just some money for tips and their licenses and a single bank card in the money clips that they placed with their room key cards into the breast pocket of their suit coats.

Since Corbin Richardson would likely be in attendance. We were all on high alert. Rangeman had provided all of us on the Red Carpet as a part of Team KAMA with Bluetooth headsets that would allow us to communicate with them and each other as we moved from the limo into the Microsoft Center. We had four Rangemen walking the carpet with us that evening; Tank, Lester, Junior and Binkie. Two of them were, individually, walls of pure muscle with all the know how necessary to take a grown man apart. Lester came across as affable…until you crossed him. Darcy had told me of how she’d finally met her biological father. It had left her more upset and shaken then she would ever admit to, but both Lester and I knew her well enough to suss out her true hurt. He confided in me that he has Hector working on decimating not just Richard Deal, but every member of his family with a skeleton in their closet. And Binkie…he clearly considered the trio to be his people and no way was he going to allow harm to come to them on his watch. In addition to the identifiable protection of the Rangemen, and the expected protection of her husbands, Mercedes had another unexpected line of defense near her side on the red carpet…other than Darcy and the ridiculously illegal and pretty damn lethal taser that she loved so much. Daniel Harris was always nearby acting as KAMA’s PR makager. He also had his orders from Momma Dani and Papa Bent, as well as his own father and both of his uncles. Daniel was to make very sure that no harm came to Mercedes on his watch.

Like Haja and Brantley, Ethan and Daniel were developing their client bases beyond KAMA. And with the way everything shook out after the video scandal and TMZ actually settling a lawsuit, they…especially Ethan… were in pretty high demand. So much so that Darcy said that it was time to for a second receptionist to be hired and for the phone lines to be separated out by wings a lot more than they currently were. Brigid would be relieved. The last time I checked in with her she was getting overwhelmed with the sheer volume of calls that come in every day. Puck was hoping to put off having to do the whole interview/hiring thing until it was time to staff their property management group in a few months. Even though most of the work would fall on Mr. Zizes, none of the trio really looked forward to going through the hiring process more than once.

Daniel, Tank and I rode with KAMA in the Limo to the Microsoft Theater. With the lineup of limos, it came as no surprise that the other six members of our party were waiting on us when the door of KAMA’s limo was opened. The three of us who were not famous, slinked out of the other side and readied ourselves to help them get down the carpet. Mercedes was kind and answered the same questions about who she was wearing a hundred times. She big upped Tony Maticevski and the gorgeous, fashion forward gown he’d designed for her. The thruple actually had fun talking to Giuliana Rancic and to Michael Yo, those were easily their favorite interviewers. By the time they had gotten inside, Mercedes Jones was already considered a shoe-in for all the best dressed lists.

The night was a great success. Todrick was a major part of the preshow. He did a great job covering Bruno Mars, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. His whole set was energetic and just showed the world how awesome he could be. KAMA won two awards during the preshow which made us all very happy. The Best Pop Video was awarded to them for ‘Rub You the Right Way’. That was an extra bit of happiness for the crew since it seemed to give truth to Michael Haussman’s idea that showing the world that Mercedes was sexy not despite her size, but just because she was. That thought was cemented when the very next award was given to KAMA for the same song. There was some wait since the first few categories presented in the televised broadcast just didn’t apply to KAMA. We all enjoyed the performances. Mercedes really loved Demi Lovato…that was definitely a mutual admiration society though because Demi loved Mercedes too.

‘The Ballad of Tamir Rice’ video premiered as the show came back from commercial. It was deeply moving and very touching. From the first scenes in the white playground to the final scenes showing the amazingly inclusive and integrated choir…it was just beautiful. The audience was very much in tears. As was evidenced by Jamal and Tiana who presented the next award…Best Video with a Social Message…to KAMA for the video for their hit ‘Believe’. “I almost don’t want to say anything and we just all let that sink in.”

“It really was deeply moving. Probably we’ll see it up for this category next year.” Tiana agreed, and they read off the nominees.

When they read the winner, Jamal Lyon was so happy, it would have been easy to think that he’d won the award. When they took the stage, Jamal hugged Mercedes joyously, spinning her in a circle. He grabbed the mic really quick to ‘apologize’ for his exuberance. “Sorry, y’all…but I love these guys.” Everyone chuckled good naturedly.

“We love you to, Mally-Mal.” Puck teased. He thanked everyone that was needed, including Warner, Alek Kershishian, Denise Lee, Valerie Willthorne, Pink, The Dixie Chicks, Sir Elton John…the whole lot.

Then Sam grabbed the mic to remind everyone that all love was beautiful. But it was Mercedes who got to speak at the end. “I want to thank our fans. Those who can and do buy our music, but also those who live in such financial straits that they can only listen to us on radio or via other free media. Thank you. I am glad that we bring you hope and we thank you all very much for the love that you give us…and not just KAMA, all of us who make our livings trying to bring you all happiness and joy. We hope that we continue to make music and movies and books that you all can find moments of delight in…but more than that we hope that we continue to make books and movies and music that you can find yourselves in. Thank you.”

The applause from the regular seats was deafening. There was a ground swell of hoots, hollars, and clapping from the entire room as her fellow musicians and famous people felt like she was including them in giving thanks. I met them backstage and helped them to find their way to the press room. Of course the questions weren’t just about the awards they won, a lot of them were about the video that debuted a short time before. Everyone wanted to know if KAMA was brave or stupid for being so very vocal on the issue. Sam finally shut them down with a striking answer. “When this country can go six months without either a video of a police officer shooting an unarmed Black person surfacing or a mass shooting happening then we’ll stop talking about police violence and gun control. Change never happens when people sit silent.” That sound bite was all over the news the next day.

Over the course of the rest of the evening, KAMA was up for Video of the Year for ‘Rub You the Right Way’, but their video for ‘Believe’ was up for Best Direction and Best Art Direction. Both Alek Kershishian and Denise Lee took home Moonmen for their work on the stunning video. Everyone was sure that Taylor Swift was taking home the last award of the night. It was all over the buzz and she was the VMA darling. She had ten nominations. It was not an unusual expectation. Ice Cube and his son O'Shea Jackson, Jr. presented the nominees then Ice Cube’s smile got very, very big and he showed the envelope to his son and doppelganger who mirrored the look of fierce joy. “Video of the Year goes to KAMA for that sexy ass piece of video gold… ‘Rub You the Right Way’. Huh, yeah!”

There was an actual moment where all the industry people were in shock. But not the fans. They had made the video the most streamed and downloaded video of the year. They knew that they were singing the sexier song a hell of a lot more than they were the pop princess’s ode to not getting over the smallest slights. But soon the entire theater came to life with raucous applause. KAMA made their way back to the stage. Mercedes accepted hugs from both men and Sam and Puck both got bro hugs of their own. It was Cedes who took the mic first. “Daddy, Devon…Kevon…I just got hugged by Ice Cube.” She chortled before thanking people appropriately.

Sam dedicated the win to Michael Haussman. “I want to thank you for helping us show the world that it is okay to not be a size nothing…that you can still be loved and sexy and wanted and desired at a size fourteen or sixteen. That what matters is being healthy and being true to who you are and those you love.”

Puck went a slightly different route. “Yeah, that’s why Sammy Boy is our gentleman. “I want to dedicate this to all those haters who try and talk isht about Ms. Mercedes Jones because she’s not a hanger or whatever they seem to think all women should look like. There is beauty in every woman. There is something to be desired in every woman…every human being. If you can’t see that, the problem isn’t with them or their weight or their looks…it’s with you and your own lack of self-esteem and self-love. Thank you MTV and our fans for showing the world that tonight.”

There was a ton of post awards interviews and the like. I watched the crowd closely. There was a moment of abject terror for all of us when Corbin Richardson came over to congratulate KAMA and there was no way they could side step or avoid him. He shook Sam and Puck’s hands but bent down to kiss the back of Mercedes’ “Congratulations, Ms. Jones…I have to say, you are even more beautiful in person. Your video of the year…” The look he gave her made my skin crawl and Sam and Noah both start to ‘bow up’ as Stevie called it. “It was very inspiring.” He finally completed the thought. The way he said the word inspiring left no doubt in any one’s mind what he meant. “It was my second favorite of your videos.”

No one asked what his favorite video was. Thankfully, Daniel stepped forward. “Thanks man. We’ve gotta get going…there are fans out there who want to see their KAMA.” He said cordially though anyone who knew him could see the hate in his eyes.

With Tank looming over Daniel’s shoulder ready and willing to put Richardson into traction, the skeevy stalker moved on. Darcy, Ruth and I took control of getting KAMA moving more quickly through the celebrity gauntlet and back outside where many fans had congregated to cheer and get what autographs they could. As we made our way through that crowd, sticking close enough to be available if needed, but giving the trio room to sign and smile and take pictures with the fans, I overheard Lester as he made call into Rangeman to let Ranger know what had happened. “He’s escalating. Have Manny let the Feds know.”

It was a crappy ending to the triumphant evening. However, like the champs they were, Cedes, Sam and Puck shook it off and took their entire Team and Crew out to dinner at Rock’n Fish. That dinner really enlivened their spirits. By the time everyone changed and we headed to Supperclub for Diddy’s #FINNAGETLOOSE after party, the trio was all smiles and joy and victory once again. Probably, considering that we had to get back on the road before noon the next day, KAMA should have had us go to maybe the Jeremy Scott and Adidas Originals party or even the Republic Records soiree. Diddy parties were not small or quiet events. They were parties in the truest sense of the word. We didn’t get back to our hotel rooms until almost nine that Monday morning. There was just enough time for everyone to shower and change, repack our clothes and check out before we needed to say goodbye to the Harris family, Ruth, Kurt, Blaine, Haja and Brantley and get underway to our next tour stop.

I was exhausted. I wanted to sleep in my own bed. I was a little tired of playing dress up every time I turned around. But I was also happier than I could ever remember being and I was loving every single moment.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

Good Life (One Republic)
Daniel PoV

It was intriguing how a surprise move that started out as just a way for me to help my younger cousin and had the benefit of allowing me to be closer to my family had blossomed into the opportunity of a lifetime. Not just for me, but for Riker and our best friends-slash-chosen family members. Riker and I were in an incredible place in our relationship. We hadn’t spent more than a week apart in the entire time since we’d officially moved to the east coast. Which was almost a novelty. She and Chris had been amazing undercover cops. They’d had the highest solve rate in their department in Seattle. But those types of cases usually were not over and done with quickly and they had to fully immerse themselves in the worlds of their covers. We’d been pretty lucky though, the longest we’d gone without her captain making a way for us to see each other was two months. It had been hard but we’d made it work. Even though we had made the long absences work, it was nice to come home to each other most nights.

We were also able to be closer with both of our families. Riker’s parents had met and become friends when they were in middle school in rural Alabama, but neither of them had found themselves able to stay stuck on the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians federally allowed lands. Her mother Chareesma was half Chickasaw and half black and her father, Dancing Wolf was full blooded Choctaw. They were both born and raised in the southern state and hated it. They’d had Riker when they were in their teens but managed to not only graduate high school on time but to go on to college. After they had finished college, they’d worked as teachers in different countries around the world as Riker was growing up. That was a large part of the reason that my beautiful fiancée spoke fluent Spanish, French, Mandarin, Portuguese, Korean and Vietnamese…in addition to Chickasaw, Choctaw and English, of course. From the time they had gone international to before she returned to America for college, Riker figured that she spent a total, if she added all the short visits to her extended family together, of one year in the country of her birth. I’d met her parents only once, when they, and all of her grandparents, had attended her college graduation.

With Riker on a more stable schedule, that summer, her parents were finally able to come for what they felt was a long overdue visit. They flew in from Spain where they were teaching English as a second language and American Cultural History at a posh private secondary school. We picked them up at Liberty International in Newark the second Saturday in June. It was of little surprise that we saw her father first. Dancing Wolf McGraw was a six foot two inch tall, man with a swimmer or runner’s build and the same thick, dark…dark brown hair Riker had, though his was significantly longer and much, much straighter. It reached the small of his back easily. The first time I met him, I remember thinking that if Antonio Banderas had had hair like that, he wouldn’t have needed that horrible weave to play Armand. On first appearance, Dancing Wolf was a taciturn and reserved man. But once you got to know him, you realized that he loved to joke and kid around. In fact, he had a mental collection of dad jokes that included horrific puns and one liners from every corner of the world. That afternoon, coming out of the security checkpoint, no one would ever know that Riker likened receiving a smile from her father to seeing the Aurora Borealis. “It’s always there lurking around, but actually being there and seeing it is rare and special.”

It was certainly there as he beheld his only child face to face for the first time in far too long. They emailed, spoke and Skyped often, but there was nothing that could replace seeing that the person you loved more than life itself was whole, healthy and strong with your own eyes. The joy of their reunion was visible in every feature of his face. By his side, his wife…spiritually long before they’d actually made it legal…was smiling brightly. Chareesma was almost a full foot shorter than Dancing Wolf but her energetic legs more than kept up with his longer ones. Her hair clearly showed that there was Black blood in her genetic make-up. It was actually a little lighter than her husband and daughter’s, and it was a thick mass of kinky-corkscrew curls that were difficult…almost impossible to tame. She’d done so for Riker’s graduation, but it didn’t seem as if she’d bothered for the international flight. While Dancing Wolf wore a rather traditional blue button down shirt, simple pair of well-loved jeans and a pair of All-Stars that had seen more miles than most, Chareesma’s clothing was neither traditional nor simple. Her jeans were vintage, probably actually from the sixties vintage, bell bottoms with red and yellow flowers embroidered around the hems. A shirt that she’d clearly stolen from her husband was open to reveal an orange and red floral halter crop-top and a still flat belly. Her trim curves and unlined face helped people to confuse her relationship with Riker as being siblings rather than mother and daughter.

Seeing her parents closing the distance between them, Riker couldn’t help herself. And really who could blame her. It had been a hell of a long time since she’d graduated college and been in their actual, physical presence. She sprinted forward meeting her irrepressible mother halfway. Both Dancing Wolf and I followed our women at a more sedate pace. Mine a bit more sedate than his. I liked Chareesma and Dancing Wolf. I really did…but trying to follow their initial, emotional reunion conversation with Riker gave me a headache. Compared to Chris, Dom, Grant and Riker I basically knew slightly better than college level Spanish. The way the McGraws flowed through languages, sometimes using two or three in the same sentence, was just too much for my poor brain to keep up with. Finally their greetings and assurances of each other’s’ continued well-being were complete.

“Sorry Daniel,” Chareesma said with an apologetic grin as she drew me into a hug. “We’re being rude.”

I just chuckled. “No, you’re happy to see each other. Besides, it serves me right for not paying more attention in my foreign language classes.”

Dancing Wolf shook my hand. “You keep up pretty well when we remember to stick to Spanish.” He soothed. “Let’s get on out of here. Since 9/11, speaking too many languages while looking ‘other’ in an American airport is pretty ill advised.”

He spoke nothing but the truth. One would like to think that people could see Riker in her khaki shorts, hunter green tank top and Sketcher’s flip flops and Chareesma in her croptop and Birkenstocks and realized that they were showing way too much skin to have been uber religious Islamic zealots. But fear made people even stupider than group think tended to do, so we made like bananas and split. Dancing Wolf’s damn dad humor was infectious. The McGraws tended to travel light. They had their carry ons, Chareema’s purse…one of those magical carpet bag purses that could hold the secrets of the ages…and an old Army duffle bag that had belonged to Chareesma’s grandfather. He had been a code talker in World War II. According to what Riker knew of her family history, it had been quite the scandal when he returned from the war with an Italian bride. Her mother had kept that tradition when she had married and borne the children of a black man. That was how the tribe saw it, though in reality Chareesma’s father had himself probably only been half Black. He just didn’t know exactly what his mother had been beyond being Native American. She’d died in childbirth and regionally she was assumed to have been Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw or Seminole. That had worked out in his favor somewhat. Rather than putting him into the Alabama foster care system, he’d been turned over to the Chickasaw tribe and raised as one of their own.

Anyway, we gathered their things and headed to our apartment building. When we moved into our place, we’d happily moved ourselves and our things into the master suite. We’d then decided to decorate the smallest of the three bedrooms as an office-slash-study. But we’d turned the third bed into our guest room. After several trips to furniture stores on the Jersey side of the tunnel, Riker had picked out the furniture from a store called Raymour and Flannigan’s. The queen size bedroom set was called Jovie and was beautifully intricate and yet stunningly simple. With its woven wood design, the furniture looked like something one would find in the orient or perhaps India. And Dominique had taken a single look at it and declared, “I’m decorating the ever-loving fuck out of your guest room for my blog.” And she did. Within a few weeks, the bed we’d purchased was covered with a truly gorgeous duvet set. The deep burgundy was highlighted with light ivory, peach, reds, teals and browns. So, Dominique used those colors elsewhere in the room. The ceiling was painted a pale ivory. The walls a soft peach. The browns picked up by the walnut furniture and hard wood floors. There were pops of teal in the art on the walls and in the pillows and the sheets. The colors were all mirrored in the large area rug that covered most of the floor. Indian looking jars held fragrant oils on the dresser and nightstands. Oriental baskets awaited visitors’ trinkets near them.

Chareesma and that room seemed to be made for each other. She loved it. Dancing Wolf laughed at her squeals of delight. “Nice.” He said simply.

I left the three of them to have some time for themselves while I went and procured the ultimate ‘Welcome to New York’ feast…Chinese food and New York Style pizza. I wasn’t surprised to find that Dom and Chris were in our living room with Rike and her parents when I got back with the food. Chareesma and Dancign Wolf were laughing and sharing embarrassing stories of Riker’s childhood in Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos and South Korea. Chris and Dom returning the favor by telling stories of undercover cases, including the one where Chris and Riker had to pretend to be partners, rather than partners. That one had been pretty emotionally scaring for Riker. While Rike didn’t have a problem with lesbianism and had played one on a different case, kissing her ‘sister’ had bothered the hell out of her.

As we set up our feast, I asked why they hadn’t invited Grant to join us. Chris’ laughter was quick and a little smug. “I can’t believe that we know, and you don’t.”

“What? What don’t I know?” I asked her.

Dominque’s chuckles joined her wife’s. “You see him every single day…and we know where he is tonight, and you have no clue at all.”

“Will someone just tell me where Grant is?” I finally groaned.

My beloved Riker took pity on me. “Grant has a date tonight.”

I blinked a couple of times. “Grant…our Grant…Dom’s brother Grant? Has a date? With who?”

“Remember that gamer group Ruth told him about…the one her second assistant is a part of?” I nodded in response to Dominique’s question. “Well, there were a couple of girl gamers in the group. One said girl gamer happens to be that intern turned junior assistant to one of KAMA’s Warner reps.”

“Wait…Gina’s a gamer?” I got hung up on that little tidbit.

“Apparently, she is deeply into the Elder Scrolls world and has been for years.” Chris said happily.

I thought about it for a minute. “She’s going to eat him alive. I’ve met her a few times. She’s got no filters and is very much bold.” Then I thought for another minute…the twenty-something younv woman was a weird blend of Puck and Darcy, with apparently some Sam or Ain’t Got No Mercy thrown in to keep things interesting. She had a loyalty about her that tempered her sharp edges. “Actually, now that I think about it, she might be just what he needs.”

The rest of the night we talked and laughed and joked. Unfortunately, the next morning I had to go into the office. A real estate mogul turned reality TV personality had bit the big one and given how many times he’d tweeted negative or derogatory things about KAMA, of course, everyone wanted to know if we had a statement. I crafted a statement that was basically reiterated by Mercedes when the papz stuck mics in their face down in Charlotte. Of course, then Sam opened his mouth. I mean, don’t get me wrong…Puck’s was, well, what you expect of Puck, irreverent and truthful, if a little mean. No one expected Sam ‘Southern Sweetheart’ Evans to let loose with such a strong condemnation of anyone, let alone someone he’d never even met. I was so very grateful to everyone and everything that had conspired to make sure that Darcy was there with her phone to record his statement. With her video we were able to cut any misquoters off at the pass. Though given Sam’s impromptu statement the actual quotes were by and large better than anything the right-wing media could have come up with to claim he had said about the death of the only ‘successful’ businessman to have gone bankrupt more often than not.

With all that happened that Sunday, of course I had to go in on Monday to smooth any ruffled feathers and sooth any savage beasts. Sunday hadn’t been such a major thing, since Riker and Chris were both off duty that day and really Dancing Wolf and Chareesma were there to visit Riker not me anyway. Riker and our friends took her parents around the city to see some of NYC’s most iconic sights. I was able to meet them for lunch at the world famous Tom’s Restaurant…even if most of the world thought that its name was Monk’s Diner. Then Riker and I took them for dinner in Chinatown at Jing Fong’s. But Monday Detectives McGraw and Sanchez were back at work and so was I, which left Chareesma and Dancing Wolf to the tender mercies of Dominique Villareal-Sanchez.

Dominique is one of my favorite people in the world and as close to me as my little sister Melliscent. But…Dom was a shopper. She wasn’t just a hobby shopper either. She had managed to create a very lucrative career out of shopping for beauty and fashion finds. A career that had only grown since she’d moved to America’s Fashion Mecca. She was smart and savvy and she had a serious addiction that she’d made work for her. That may have been why she could never understand that others didn’t share her affliction. Perhaps it was my own fault. I never thought that leaving Rike’s parents with just Dom for entertainment would go the way it did. She took Chareesma and Dancing Wolf McGraw, neo-hippies and world citizens, shopping. Macys, Neiman, Barney’s, Saks…they hit them all. When I got home the living room was cluttered with the iconic stores’ highly recognizable bags. Dancing Wolf was sprawled out in an arm chair looking more than a little shell shocked and sipping on a cup from Intelligentsia Coffee, Dominique’s favorite post shopping coffee haunt.

Before he could say anything, I immediately went into apology mode. “I am so sorry. She was supposed to take you guys to do something YOU wanted to do.”

“Daniel, it’s fine.” Chareesma assured me laughingly. “It was my suggestion to go shopping. Dancing Wolf and I may not pay much attention to fashion and such, but we are teachers and needed to replace some of our professional wardrobe. I’ve been one of Dominique’s subscribers for a very long time. So, who better to help us replace and update than our daughter’s very good friend, who just happens to be a popular fashion blogger?”

Dancing Wolf sighed. “I knew that we were going to have to bite the bullet and engage in some capitalistic endeavors, I just never thought that we’d do all the shopping Eesma wanted to do in one day. We’re here for weeks.” He groused. “Did you at least have a better day than I did?”

I shrugged. “Well, I’ve wrapped up the little bit of mishegas the Trump death caused. I swear, the media wanted statements from every single one of my clients. KAMA was just the biggest and the first. So tomorrow I’ll be available to take you around. Which would you rather do, the Statue of Liberty or MoMA?”

“Ooohh…I want to do both.” Chareesma laughed. “While I think about which one I want to do first, why don’t you go and get out of that suit. Then you can tell us all about your day. I still cannot believe that that cute little girl we met when Riker graduated college is a world-famous rock star. I love her voice. And all the little girls at our school just love them some KAMA.” She shooed me towards the master bedroom. “Go on now, dinner sh