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A Girl's Best Friends

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The bachelorette party is coasting nicely. They've had their mani-pedis and been massaged. The male strippers have come and gone. Now they're enjoying wine and cheese, chocolates and petit-fours while the bride is being henna'ed.

"Having fun?" Pepper asks her.

Maria smiles. She's belly-down on the massage table, naked and feeling no pain after her third glass of wine. "Definitely. Great party. You guys are the best. Here's to you!"

She raises her glass, and the henna artist mutters something to herself then tells her, "You need to lie still! This is very delicate design, you move around, it gets screwed up!"

"Don't worry, I've got an idea...." Natasha brings over a low rolling cart, pushing aside manicure implements to make room for Maria's glass. She rummages among the catering extras until she finds a straw, which she pops into the wineglass. Now Maria only has to lower her head to drink.

"You're so resourceful!" Maria praises her, sipping from the mysteriously refilled glass.

"Just think, this time the day after tomorrow, you'll be married!" Pepper sounds wistful.

"Do you wish it was you?" Maria is a little more direct than usual, thanks to the wine.

"Yes and no..." Pepper says softly. "Being married, having someone who's always there for me...I'd like that. But Tony...don't get me wrong, I love Tony...I'm just afraid that if we got married, he'd stop trying. I'd be another hobby he lost interest in."

Wow. That's a lot more honesty than Maria was ready for. "I love James." She can finally say it out loud without her stomach clenching up. "I started out--when I first met him, I hated him. But little by little, I realized that the things he did...before...he was as much a victim as anyone he...hurt."

Natasha nods. "He's a completely different person. And you're smiling a lot more these days. I think you're good for each other."

Maria changes the subject. "It's a little funny, not knowing what I'll be wearing when I walk down the aisle, but it's my own fault. I would have been happy with a simple civil ceremony, but he wanted the whole enchilada, so I told him he could be in charge of everything."

"Don't worry," Pepper assures her. "I've seen your dress. It's lovely."

"It isn't a hoop skirt, is it? I told him no hoop skirts!"

"Not even close," Natasha drawls

"Oh god, tell me it's not a bimbo dress."

"It's perfectly tasteful and you're going to look divine," Pepper tells her firmly.

"And by 'tasteful', we mean totally appropriate and absolutely flattering. Without giving too much away," Natasha smirks, "I can tell you that your henna will not go unseen."

Something with a low-cot back, then.... Somehow, Maria's glass has emptied itself. Natasha takes care of it, and she relaxes as the henna design creeps down past her left kidney.

"I think JB has very nice taste." Wanda is the youngest member of their party by more than a decade, and as usual, the quietest. "He gave you that beautiful necklace."

"That's true." Maria plans to wear the antique necklace for the wedding. Not only is it old, the sapphire will serve as something blue. She glances down at her engagement ring, another vintage piece. "Let me guess--it's old-fashioned. Traditional. White. Lacy. How long is the damn train?"

Pepper and Natasha exchange glances, then Nat says, "None of the above."

"It's a little old-fashioned, but I would have said 'classic '," Pepper tells her.

"There no lace whatsoever. It's more silvery than it is white, and there's no train. I think you'll like it, and you're going to look amazing in it."

Well, if she can't believe her two closest friends, who both have excellent taste in fashion, who can she trust? Besides, even if she hates it, it's only for a few hours.

"You two make such a handsome couple...I'm sure your kids will be beautiful."

"Kids?" Maria rears up in alarm at Wanda's words.

The henna artist begins to swear in her own language. Stops. Maria looks up at the reflection in one of the spa's many mirrors. The woman is staring into space. Then she smiles, pats Maria on her right butt cheek and says, "Don't worry, I'll fix it."

Wanda catches Maria's eye and winks. "Thanks, kiddo--but give us a chance to practice the whole 'husband and wife' thing first, okay?" She still feels the flutter of panic Wanda's question evoked. She never knew her mother, how can she possibly be one? More wine....

"Okay," Pepper breaks in to lighten the mood. "We've established that you aren't getting married because your bio local clock is ticking. So, what's behind it--is your first dance going to be 'Opposites Attract'?"

Maria purrs. She is definitely drunk, and if James was here, she'd probably tear his clothes off and reenact their first time together. "He's the type of man who can fuck my brains out at night and make me chocolate chip pancakes in the morning; He's a keeper!"

The henna artist chants something that probably means 'La la la, I can't hear you!'. Natasha rolls her eyes. Wanda giggles.

"Chocolate chip pancakes?" Pepper repeats wonderingly. "He actually makes you pancakes?"

"He also makes incredible French toast. And fantastic omelettes. There's a reason he went to work in the cafeteria...the man's an incredible cook." Maria has to admit, James is a man of many talents. The best part is, his prowess in the bedroom is even more impressive than his skill in the kitchen....

Perhaps she's dozed off for a moment--Maria jerks awake when the henna artist gives her another pat on the fanny.

"All done!" Pepper carols.

Maria is too buzzed to be self-conscious as she sashays over to the big mirror. Wanda hands her a hand-mirror and she looks at the design that swirls from shoulder to hip. Flowers and stars, wavy peacock feathers and geometric motifs...she is a work of art.

"It's absolutely beautiful," she says to the artist, who looks pleased and gives her a fistful of "Henna by Devra" business cards. Maybe she'll set them out at the wedding on the table with the favors. James did say something about gift bags....

She's swaying a little as she gets dressed. Definitely buzzed. She's lost track of how much she's had--at least one bottle, single-handed.

"Oh god, I'm going to have such a hangover," she mumbles.

Sitting in the back of the limo, Pepper pulls a little pill caddy from her purse. "Here, have some Benadryl," she offers. "It's supposed to help."

"It can't hurt," Maria sighs, taking the tablets and washing them down with bottled water from the minibar.

Then they're back at the Tower. How the hell did that happen?

"I talked to Tony," Pepper informs her as they're all clambering out of the car. "He's even more trashed that you are, if it's any consolation--" Who says she's trashed? She can stand upright and walk and everything...although she's comfortably numb...if she can't stand upright, at least it won't hurt if she falls. "They're still in Atlantic City, having 'fun'..." Pepper puts air-quotes around the word. "So I'm going to tuck you into our guest room for tonight in case you need anything...."

How did she get into the elevator? Wanda is gone, so they've made at least one stop. Pepper and Nat have their arms around her, which is sweet, because she's okay, really. Hell, if James was here, they could practice their first dance...she can dance like Ginger goddamn Rodgers. No relation to Steve, right? Spelled different....

Pepper is tucking her in, and Maria smiles gratefully. She'll just take a little nap, then she'll tiptoe home while Pepper's sleeping. After all, she doesn't want to miss breakfast....