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Ritual Madness

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Laurel's headache wasn't going away, despite the two aspirin she'd been taking every six hours since she'd landed in Houston nearly a week ago. In the immediate aftermath of … what they'd done, exams had been enough to keep her mind focused elsewhere. But at home, surrounded by people who loved her, acting normal was more of a challenge than she'd anticipated. For the first time she'd wished that she had the kind of distant family that so many of her college friends complained about. Instead she had to keep lying to her two doting parents and loving older sister who kept giving her concerned looks and, while insisting that they had complete faith in her abilities, wondered if law school was really right for her.

She'd never been so relieved to leave home before.

Four years of flying back and forth to Providence had taught Laurel that early morning flights were the best, filled with silent businessmen rather than screaming children. She'd said her good-byes at the house and taken a car service to the airport—she said to spare her family the drive, but she needed the space to come back to herself, to get mentally ready for whatever awaited her in Philadelphia. So she was more prepared than she might have been when she saw, of all people, Michaela Pratt sitting at the departure gate.

Michaela's hair was pulled back and under a scarf lest it lose its perfection in the Houston humidity. Her eyes were hidden behind large sunglasses and she wore jeans, flats, and black cardigan over a crisp white blouse. She was sitting in the row next to the window, Laurel's own preferred spot, daintily nibbling on something wrapped in a paper towel. Her skin glowed in the rose colored light of the early morning sun.

She was stunning, as usual. Laurel hesitated, but sat down next to her—no use in avoiding the inevitable. They weren't friends, but when someone has nearly killed for you, your relationship changes. But she couldn't think of anything to say.

Luckily Michaela was never tongue-tied. "Surprised to see me?" she asked, with just a hint of southern honey in her voice.

"Didn't know you were coming to Texas for the holiday," Laurel replied.

"You mean you didn't know I was from around here," she said, taking off her sunglasses and smiling in that fake way of hers, voice dropping even further into the accent she'd clearly trained herself out of at some point. "Beaumont born and raised. Well, slightly south of Beaumont, as my future mother-in-law likes to remind me. But the direct flight is from Houston, so I got myself on that early morning shuttle van and my grandmother packed me breakfast." She opened the paper towel in her hand to reveal a homemade biscuit stuffed with cheese and ham.

Laurel thought it probably wasn't the time to mention the egg sandwich the chef had put in her bag before she left the house. "I hear it's nice country out there," she said.

"Good idea to stay away from it," Michaela said. "Not the kind of place to go wandering around in." She paused. "And now you know that I'm the scholarship student that stupid people think you are."


"It's your clothes," Michaela said, looking her up and down. "They look like basics bought at the mall but anyone with an eye can see they're high quality. Plus your tireless defense of the downtrodden lacks that edge from having actually been downtrodden. As for me, well, you can hide a lot when you make your own clothes and learn how to talk right."

Laurel shook her head. "Anglos are idiots," she said, and Michaela laughed—a real laugh, and Laurel was glad to hear it. "So, going to Connor's big New Year's party?"

Michaela laughed again, this time not as happily, and Laurel immediately realized it was the wrong thing to ask. "A party with that one? Probably not," she replied, the steel coming back into her voice. "I'm heading up to New York to see Aiden. You?"

"Maybe," Laurel replied. "Kan's friend is doing something, too, across town, but I thought we might stop by." She bit her lip, not sure why she was lying—she hadn't spoken to Kan in weeks.

"Well, if I were you? I'd avoid. He's just doing it to get back into his boyfriend's good graces and he's so unpleasant when he's manic."

And while this was true—they'd learned this on that night—it also struck Laurel as a particularly unkind thing to say. But she was saved by responding by the gate announcement that they were boarding her zone. "Well, that's me."

"Guess I'll see you in class," Michaela said, sliding her sunglasses back on, and it was like a door closing.

Laurel stowed her rolling bag and slouched down in the seat with her headphones blasting Aphex Twin, her eyes glued to the window so she wouldn't see Michaela walking by. She'd been right the first time; they weren't friends.

Fuck Laurel Castillo anyway.

Well, not literally. (Not that Michaela hadn't thought about it once or twice. Or three times, even.) But if someone was going to find out about her background she would rather it had been Wes, or even Asher who probably assumed that's where she came from anyway. At least it wasn't Connor.

She just hoped that she'd been negative enough that Laurel and her perfect Legal Aid boyfriend (how cliché) wouldn't show up to Connor's party. She didn't need that on top of everything else. Sure, she'd messed around with a few girls in college, but she'd told Aiden that, the day they'd talked about all their previous sexual partners. Aiden hadn't returned the favor.

Fuck Aiden. Fuck Aiden and his perfect family and his pre-nup wielding mother. She signed the thing to prove a point even though ultimately it wasn't going to matter anyway. Still, it was kind of hard to break up with your fiancé when you couldn't return the ring.

Michaela found the black leather dress in the back of her closet that she'd made for a Halloween costume, short and spiky and harsh like she felt. The boots were good, too, and it was okay to look a little more dangerous than usual. She didn't want a kiss at midnight.

Not that she was expecting any of the men at this party to be interested.

Oliver answered the door. "Oh! You're—"

"Michaela," she said, smiling. "I'm at Middleton with Connor." She handed him a bottle of wine.

"I'll take that," Connor said, swooping in from behind him, and, as predicted, grinning maniacally.

Michaela slipped off her coat. "Where should I put my things?" she asked.

"Wow," Oliver said. "You look fantastic."

"Oh, she knows," Connor said. "Come with me."

She followed him through the living room which yes, was mostly full of men, though there were a few women as well. "Nice place," she said.

Connor shrugged, nonchalant. "It suits him," he said, opening the door to the bedroom so she could set down her coat and scarf. "Drink?"

"God, yes," she said, and they headed to the kitchen next, where a punchbowl sat on a small table.

"I think you know these people," he said, and when he closed the refrigerator door she saw Wes in the corner and Rebecca sitting on the counter, clear plastic cups in their hands.

And standing next to them, of course, was Laurel Castillo, in a slinky silver tank top and tight black jeans. "Hey," Laurel said, sounding surprised. "Didn't expect to see you here."

"Oh, none of us did," Connor said, putting a drink in her hand. "Guess she didn't have anything better to do after all." He bared his teeth.

"Or I was just curious as to how you managed to play house with your IT guy boyfriend," Michaela replied.

"It's like they can't help themselves," Wes said, awe in his voice.

Rebecca snorted. "Imagine if they teamed up. They'd be like, a two-person legion of super villains."

"I don't think either of them have the stomach for that," Laurel said.

Connor turned to her, eyebrow raised. "Someone's grown in their claws."

"About time, don't you think?" Laurel asked.

"I'd agree," Rebecca said, nodding.

Michaela nodded. "Me, too," she said, because Laurel definitely looked better with fire in those blue eyes of hers.

"You three need a room?" Connor asked. "I'm sure Wes would be more than happy to just watch."

"Don't be gross," Wes said.

Connor grinned. "Aww, he's a gentleman."

"Yes he is," Rebecca said, looping her arm through Wes's. "When's the last time you saw one of those, Walsh?"

"When I woke up this morning, thank you very much," he said.

"What was that you saw?" Oliver asked, coming up from behind him.

"You," Connor said, his face softening, and it was like night and day. He smiled, and Michaela had to look away, remembering when Aiden looked at her like that.

"Uh-oh, what did you do now?" Oliver asked, but he was smiling. Connor opened his mouth to speak but Oliver put a finger to Connor's lips. "Never mind. I have some people I want you to meet. Sorry!" he said to the others as he pulled a shrugging Connor out of the kitchen.

Rebecca made a whip cracking sound.

"He does seem calmer," Wes said. "Happy, even."

"I think it's sweet," Laurel said.

"God, of course you do," Rebecca said, rolling her eyes.

Michaela scowled, feeling suddenly protective of Laurel. "Given everything that Wes has done for you over the past few months, I'm not sure you have any room to criticize."

"By that standard you two should be engaged by now," Rebecca said.

Laurel straightened from where she'd been leaning against the counter. "I don't think being willing to kill to defend someone actually means a whole lot, in the end," she said, and walked out of the kitchen.

Rebecca smirked. "Guess it's too early to buy that wedding present."

Michaela huffed and downed the rest of her cocktail.

By quarter to twelve Michaela was pleasantly drunk, having freed herself from her classmates to spend the evening talking about nothing important with a roomful of admiring men that she didn't have to worry were going to try to grope her in the corner. But when she rose from the couch to visit the bathroom she nearly toppled off her heels, so on the way back she filled her glass with seltzer and headed to the tiny balcony off Oliver's bedroom for a bit of fresh air.

She was intercepted by Oliver himself. "Hey, we're headed up to the roof to watch the fireworks."

"Let me get my coat and I'll be right there," she said, smiling at him.

Of course she had no intention of doing so, didn't need to be the single straight girl on a roof full of men kissing each other at midnight. So she stuck by her original plan, digging out her scarf to wrap around her neck before stepping out onto the balcony.

"Can't see the Delaware from here," a quiet voice said—Laurel, of course.

"I don't think much of fireworks anyway," Michaela replied. "Back home people are setting them off all the goddamn time. What's so special?"

Laurel nodded. "So, I thought you were going up to New York to be with Aiden."

"Aiden and I are taking a break," she replied. "Probably a permanent one."

"I'm sorry," Laurel said, and actually sounded like it, too.

"My grandmother always said that God laughs when you make a plan," Michaela replied. "And where's Kan?"

"It got complicated," Laurel said. "I couldn't—I couldn't be with him with this big secret between us."

Michaela nodded. "Don't know how Connor does it."

"Maybe he's a better liar than we are," Laurel said.

"Or he needs it more." Michaela tried to remember what it had meant to need Aiden, to have a space in her future that had to be filled by him.

"We're doing okay on our own, aren't we?" Laurel said. "Besides, it's going to be a brand new year in—" she glanced at her watch— "less than a minute."

Michaela held up her cup, nearly spilling it in the process as she was still a little tipsy. "Well then, Happy New Year."

Laurel clinked her cup with Michaela's. "Happy New Year." She drank and Michaela couldn't help but watch her throat moving. Laurel had thrown on a jacket over her bare arms but the silver top still glistened in the light from the full moon overhead. "What?" Laurel asked.

So she'd been staring too long; suddenly, she didn't care. "I was just thinking that moonlight suits you."

"Oh?" Laurel asked, taking a step closer. "Because the other day, I'd been thinking that the sunrise suited you."

Michaela grinned. "Really?" she asked, and stepped closer as well, close enough to touch. She could hear people counting down from ten at other parties in the building.

"Yeah," Laurel said, and swooped in to kiss her, wrapping her arm around Michaela's waist to bring their bodies together. It was chilly on the balcony but Michaela felt warm now, down to the tips of her toes. The explosions boomed and crackled around them, but all she could think about was Laurel's tongue in her mouth, and how it might feel between her legs.

Maybe this one time Michaela didn't mind fireworks so much.

They put on their coats and hats, trying to sneak out before the rest of the party came back down from the roof. Laurel still couldn't quite believe that she'd just been on a balcony making out with Michaela, but apparently it had happened, because she was holding Laurel's hand and laughing as they walked out the door.

"Elevator," Michaela said. "No way I'm walking down the stairs in these heels."

"Glad I'm parked close by then," Laurel said, and they were giggling again, then kissing again, not bothering to stop when they heard the elevator ding and the doors open.

"My, my, my," Connor said, grinning at them. "So that's where you two were. And what is this?"

Laurel smiled at Michaela. "We don't know yet," she said.

"Yeah," Michaela said, smiling back. "We're not making any plans."

"All right," Connor said, shrugging slightly, and held the elevator doors open for them to walk in as he walked out. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"And what is that, exactly?" Michaela shouted, making Connor laugh as the doors closed.

Laurel turned to her, now that they were alone again. "Really, no plans?"

"My only plans for 2015 are to stay at the top of my classes, make law review, and get a killer summer internship," she said. As she spoke she unwound and rewrapped Laurel's scarf, which had gotten tangled in their rush to leave. "But there's plenty of room in there for seeing where this goes."

"I like the sound of that," Laurel said, and kissed her again.