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On The Edge of California

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Other Than Honourable Conditions Discharge. No benefits. No military perks. No veteran bonus.

And no way in hell that Liz was going to be allowed back into the army.

Liz sat in the window seat of the plane taking her home, staring out at the world below. They were half an hour away from coming in to land, flying into Newark Liberty International Airport. It was a cold day, and it was cold in the plane too. Liz was wrapped up in her camo jacket, a blanket around her legs. She was tired.

Liz didn't know what the hell she was going to do when she got home. Not just for this one day, but for the rest of her life. She had only one friend at home, and her only qualifications were in knowing random facts for the Decathlon Team. She'd been in the army since she was 18 years old, still wet behind the ears.

She picked at a loose thread on the sleeve of the jacket, and then stopped when the thread kept going. She didn't want to ruin the jacket, it was her favourite item of clothing in the whole wide world. It made her feel safe, it made her feel part of something. Something she couldn't be a part of any more.

Five years. Five years of active service, and all of it thrown away because of The Incident. Liz didn't like to dwell on it. Neither did her commanding officer.

“You know I have to do this,” He'd said, as Liz sat in his office, head bowed. There was blood underneath her nails, and she couldn't get it out. “I have no other choice.”

“I know.” She'd replied, half whispering, and that had been the end of that.

So now she was back, in New York. About to see her family in the flesh for the first time in five years. They'd communicated through letters of course, and had sent photos back and forth, but there were never any visits. Liz didn't know if they'd still like her any more.

Liz tried to get people to like her. Back at school, she'd held parties at home with people she desperately wanted to be friends with. She joined various societies in the hope of gaining friends, but they didn't hold up in the long run. She tried to be kind to everyone on her team, always listen to them, and hear them out. That is, until, that last mission.

An image of Liz's last mission flashed through her mind, and Liz thought she was going to throw up. She leant forward, head between her legs, and stared down at the ground beneath her feet, counting. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi-

20 Mississippi's later, and Liz no longer felt like she was going to vomit all over herself. She didn't risk raising her head, so continued to look down at her shoes. They were brown with dust and dirt, and her laces were undone. She didn't have any other shoes.

She hadn't had much to bring back, apart from memories and an injured left leg. She'd never really cared about material things, or wearing clothes that smelt, so she only owned around three shirts and a pair of jeans. She had all her letters from home however, she'd tied them all up with string and then wrapped them up in a plastic bag to keep them safe. Everything was in her giant camo rucksack that was currently in the overhead locker. Five years of a life in a rucksack. It was almost sad.

She had her ipod though. It didn't have internet connection or games, it was an ipod classic from about five years ago. She had the headphones shoved firmly in her ears, people had kept trying to talk to her throughout her journey home. It was the military uniform, it intrigued them. Her favourite band, BOS, was turned up as loud as possible however, and the familiar songs were soothing.

The seat belt sign above Liz's head turned on, alerting people to get back to their seats. Liz very slowly straightened up, settling herself in her chair. In just a few short moments, she'd be on home turf, with no idea of what would happen next.

Getting through security was easier than Liz had expected. The last time she'd been in an airport, she'd been in full uniform and ended up in an argument with a border officer because she didn't have the right paperwork to enter the country. They had good reason to not let her into the country though, she was really a mad girl with a gun.

“What's the purpose of your visit here today?” The border officer asked. It was cold in the airport building, and Liz could see goosebumps on his skin.

“I'm coming home from active service.” Liz replied, and the border officer looked at her with surprise.

“Oh. Wow.” He said, and then looked properly at her camo jacket. “Um. Well done?”

“Thank you.” Liz said, trying not to laugh.

“You're not-” The man sat up straight to look over the edge of the desk. “Injured, are you?”

“Only slightly.” Liz replied, because she did have a bullet in her leg.

“Wow.” The border officer's eyes widened. “Thank you for serving our country.”

“Mm.” Liz said. She didn't really know what else to add.

The border guard handed her passport back. “Welcome home Ma'am.”

“Thank you.” Liz replied, and hid her face as she walked away, to stop her from seeing her sniggering.

Liz heard her parents before she saw them. Or at least, she heard her family dog barking, his unmistakable tone reverberating around the airport. Liz adjusted her bag over her shoulder, walking in the direction of the sound, and then she spotted them.

Her mother, wearing a long purple dress with jeans underneath, biting her nails as she stares towards the departure lounge. Her father, still wearing that horrible faux leather and fur jacket, holding the dog's lead loosely in his left hand. Liz felt for a moment that time stood still as she watched them, the parents who didn't know what she did.

Her mother spotted her first. Even from this distance, she could see her eyes light up. She nudged her husband, and then they both were looking at her, grinning, and then Liz found herself running towards them. Her leg screamed out in pain at the sudden movement, and the bag on her shoulder ached as she moved, but she didn't care.

She dropped the bag on the floor before she got to her mother throwing herself into her arms. She caught her half way, clinging to her tightly, and then her Dad joined the hug, his long arms wrapped around her. They were all three of them crying, and Liz buried her face in her mother's shoulder.

Home.

“Hey there trouble chops.” Her Dad says, and that just makes Liz cry even more. She removes her face from her mom's shoulder and looks up at her Dad.

“You're awful.” She says, and wipes her face with the back of her hand. “Why are you wearing sunglasses?”

“I'm blind.” Her Dad says cheerfully. “Sassa is my service dog.”

Liz looks at her Dad, and then at Sassa who is sniffing her bag. “Just so Sassa could say hello at the airport?” She asks, and her Dad nods, which just makes Liz want to cry more.

“He missed you.” He says, and Liz pulls away to say hello to Sassa.

Sassa was really only a puppy when she went away, but he still remembers her, enthusiastically licking her face. Then again, Sassa thinks of everyone as a friend, even random strangers he's never met before. Liz sits on the floor and cuddles him, grimacing only slightly when he sticks his tongue in her ear.

“Normie's in the car.” Mom says, and Liz looks up.

“You brought Normie?” She asks, “Serious?”

“Serious.” Mom says with a smile, and then looks over at her Dad. “He insisted we bring him.”

“I love you guys so much.” Liz blurts out, and jumps back up to her feet to hug them again.

“We love you too.” Her Dad says, giving her a kiss on the forehead. “Come on then. Let's go home.”

Normie is sleeping in the car when they get to the car park. He's stretched out on the back seat of their car, head buried in his paws. Liz gently taps on the window to wake him up, and when he sleepily looks up at her, his tail instantly starts wagging.

“Give me your rucksack, I'll throw it in the boot.” Her Dad says, and Liz shrugs it off her shoulder to give it to him. “What have you got in here?”

“Letters.” Liz says, opening the back door. “Clothes. Not many.”

“Excuse for a shopping trip.” Mom says, pulling open the front passenger door. “Adrian, you're driving.”

“I drove us here!” Her Dad complains, shutting the boot, and Liz hides a smile because she's missed them so much.

“And I don't like driving on busy roads.” Mom says, rolling her eyes, and climbs into the car.

Liz follows her lead, slipping into the seat beside Normie. Normie rests his head on her lap lovingly, and Liz scratches the top of his head.

“You're getting old.” She tells him, and Normie sighs. “Yes you are.”

“He's elderly like us.” Mom says, doing up her seatbelt. “We're all old now.”

“No you're not.” Liz says. “You're in the prime of life.”

Her Mom laughs. “Keep telling yourself that.”

Her Dad opens the door on the other side of Liz and Sassa jumps into the car, barking happily. Liz laughs, patting him on the head, and then forces him to sit down on the seat nicely, beside Normie.

“Be a good boy.” She says, and Sassa sticks his tongue out, panting. “Don't stick your tongue out mister.”

Normie makes a whining noise and sighs again against Liz's leg. Liz pets him on the head too, rubbing him behind the ears.

“You're a good boy as well.” She tells him, “The best boy.”

Her Dad climbs into the drivers seat and starts the car, peering at the rear view mirror as he pulls out of the parking space. Her Mom instantly starts fiddling with the radio trying to find a station that plays music that she doesn't hate.

“You skipped a good song.” Her Dad says, and her Mom snorts.

“It was Taylor Swift.”

“I like Taylor Swift.” Her Dad says, sounding wounded. “Liz, you like Taylor Swift don't you?”

“Love her.” Liz says, just because it will make her Mom annoyed.

Her Mom huffs, but switches back to the station anyway, and Shake It Off starts blaring out of the speakers. Liz grins, and drops a kiss onto Normie's head.

“So,” Her Dad says, when they've got onto the motorway, “Have you got any plans now you're home?”

“Not really.” Liz replies, “I haven't even properly got home first.”

“Give the girl a break.” Her Mom says, “She's been on British soil for less than an hour and you've already got her sent up a chimney for work.”

“I haven't got her up a chimney.” Her Dad mutters, “I'm just saying. She's smart. She could get a good job.”

“I never even went to college, I'm hardly impressive on a CV.” Liz scoffs, “And anyway, you're not meant to get a job straight away after you come back. You're meant to rehabilitate.”

“You seem fine to me.” Her Dad says, and her Mom hits his shoulder.

“Adrian!”

“What?! She does seem fine.” Her Dad twists round to look at Liz. “Don't you?”

“I'm ready to kill myself at any moment.” Liz says with a blank face, and her Mom reaches round to squeeze her knee.

“Don't say things like that.” She says, “I don't want to think about that.”

“Sorry.” Liz says, and squeezes her hand back. “I promise not to make any other jokes like that.”

“Thank you.” Her Mom says, and pulls her hand back. “Adrian give her a break.”

“Fine.” Her Dad holds up his hands. “No more job talk. Until tomorrow.”

Both her Mom and Liz groan at the same time, and then laugh at their reactions.

At first Liz thinks nothing has changed when she walks up the garden path to the house. Same dying rose bush in the front garden. Same dip in the path where it collects enough rain water that you can't actually walk through it.

“We've got a new roof.” Her Mom says however, pointing with her free hand. The other hand is holding Sassa's lead because given the chance, he'd be off like a shot. Normie is more well behaved, plodding along beside them. “And the front door is new too.”

“You finally managed to pick one you both liked?” Liz asks.

“No.” Her Dad says cheerfully. He's holding Liz's rucksack even though she insisted she could take it. “Your Mom chose one she liked, and I went along with it.”

“Isn't that always the way.” Liz says, watching her Mom unlock the front door, Sassa trying to push his way inside.

“We'll get you a new key, the locks had to be changed obviously.” Mom says, pushing the door open and almost getting her arm yanked off by Sassa. “Sassa! Stop!”

Sassa doesn't listen and makes a choking noise as he strains to get inside.

“This dog is an idiot.” Mom says, giving up and dropping the lead so Sassa can race off.

“But he's our idiot.” Her Dad says, and claps Liz on the shoulder. “Come on. Let's take all this stuff up to your room, and then we can have a cup of coffee.”

“Or fruit tea.” Mom calls, already inside the house.

“Fruit tea is disgusting and I will not allow it.” Dad calls back, and Liz shakes her head and walks inside.

The living room is a lot cleaner than the time Liz last saw it. They've got a new fireplace too, with pictures of Liz proudly displayed on the mantelpiece. Liz steps closer to it, staring at all the photos. There's a photo of Liz when she was two, then her first day of school, then her last day of school, and then a photo of her in her army uniform. There's also a photo of her parents on their wedding day, smiling proudly together.

“I'm surprised you haven't got a photo of the dogs up there.” She says, and her Dad laughs.

“I've tried, don't you worry.” He pats her on the head like he would Normie. “My daughter and my two sons.”

“Oh great, I'm second best to dogs.” Liz complains, but she's only teasing. “I like the photos we have up though.”

“Me too.” Her Dad says, and then pauses. “We were thinking of having a dinner party on Saturday. So you could see people?”

“That would be nice.” Liz says, knowing it's more for other people's benefits than her own. “I'd like that.”

“Good.” Dad says, and then turns when Mom walks into the room. “She agreed to the dinner party.”

“Great.” Mom says, “I've put the kettle on, and the dogs are in the garden.”

“I'll keep an eye on them.” Her Dad says, “Do you want to take our darling daughter up to her room?”

“Of course.” Her Mom holds out her arms and her Dad hauls Liz's rucksack into them. “Come on Liz.”

“Lead the way.” Liz says, and follows her out of the room.

“We didn't move anything in your bedroom.” Her Mom says, as they walk up the stairs.“We didn't think it was right.”

“You make it sound like I died.” Liz replies. “I was only in Afghanistan.”

Only.” Mom repeats, getting to the landing. “Just down the road, wasn't it?”

“Exactly.” Liz says, and laughs.

“Silly girl.” Mom says fondly, and pushes open Liz's bedroom door.

Liz takes a deep breath as she walks into the room. She thought it would be more shocking to suddenly come in here, to see that nothing has changed, but it just feels like home. The same familiar sheets are on her bed, the same posters of old films on her walls.

Her old doll house is still on the floor in the corner, exactly how she left it. Liz itches to look at it, to feel like a little girl again. Instead she spins around, looking about the place, and then looks back at her Mom.

“Thank you.”

“Don't know what you're thanking me for.” Her Mom says, and then takes a step inside the room. “Liz?”

“Yes?” Liz asks, taking the rucksack from her Mom and then placing it carefully on the floor.

“What happened to your leg? You're limping.” She says, never one to mince her words. Liz falters, looking down at the leg in particular.

“It's nothing.” She says, “I just got shot.”

“Got shot?” Mom repeats, slight alarm in her voice.

“I was a soldier.” Liz reminds her, and then reaches out and touches her arm. “It doesn't hurt that much though.”

“I- We worry.” Mom says, and then hugs her again. “I'll leave you alone to unpack.”

“Thank you.” Liz says, and hugs her back.

She doesn't unpack straight away. She's tired, and bits of her body are hurting, and she just wants to sit down for a long time and cuddle a dog. Instead she walks over to where the dolls house is, and drops to her knees in front of it.

The house itself is a replica of Liz's own. It was made by a family friend when Liz was a little girl, and it's correct right down to the wallpaper on the walls. There are little dolls too, a Dad doll, a Mom doll, and a Liz doll. There's three dogs too, although sadly one of the dogs has died since the models were made.

Liz opens up the dolls house's front and looks inside. The little people are exactly where she left them the last time she played. Mom doll is in the living room, sitting on the sofa with a dog. Dad doll is in the garage, fixing a car. The other two dogs are asleep on the bed upstairs that they aren't meant to sleep on.

And Liz doll is nowhere to be found.

Liz hunts around for herself for a little while, peering in the extensions that were also made. There's dolls of her Mom's sisters, but apart from that, no sign of her. Liz wonders if the doll was taken for an adventure one day and accidentally lost, and it makes her a little bit sad. Still, she can always go online and find one that looks a little bit like her, it would be no trouble.

Liz stands up, her knees clicking, and her left leg complaining that it's hurting. She flops down onto her bed instead, staring up at the ceiling, and the cracks in the paintwork. It's good to be home.

Liz spends an entire week doing nothing, and it's amazing. She stays up late with her parents, catching up on television shows she didn't even know existed, eyes glued to the screen long after her parents have fallen asleep on the sofa beside her.

She sleeps in, or at least, wakes up automatically at 6 every morning, and then has the glorious realisation that she can roll over and go straight back to bed. Her Dad lets the dogs upstairs in the morning, and they clamber onto the bed and shove their faces into her own, licking her nose.

Her parents take it in turns to make her breakfast, bacon butties and boiled eggs and slices of toast. The first day she's home, they bring it to her in bed, and they spend the rest of the morning talking to each other and laughing. Liz spills yolk all over her bedsheets, which Normie cleans up for her.

Liz wishes occasionally that she'd come home sooner. She's missed so much, and she realises she's taken away so much from her parents. They've never gotten to deal with her as a grown up, someone they can make rude jokes with, and talk explicitly and frankly about things. She's always been too young to be in on the joke, especially her father's jokes.

They go for long walk together with the dogs on the second or third day. Sassa dances about, running after a ball that her Dad throws for him, and also playing with the other dogs that walk their way. Normie stays by Liz's side, walking in step with her, as she listens to her mother's stories. Liz has a few of her own about her time in the military, some so rude that they have to stop walking because they're laughing so hard. Sassa comes bounding back when they stop, cocking his head at them, so confused that they've stopped, which only makes them laugh harder, till Liz can barely stand.

On Saturday morning, Liz is woken up by Normie burying himself under the covers. He loves the warmth, laying on laptops and burning himself on radiators because he loves being hot so much. Liz rolls over sleepily and wraps her arm around him, and Normie licks her nose.

“Your breath smells.” Liz tells him, and Normie licks her lip. “Oh my god, ew!”

She throws the covers off, sitting upright to wipe her mouth. She loves her dogs, but she would never, ever, kiss them on the mouth, or let them kiss her. Whenever she sees people doing that with their dogs, she feels a bit physically sick.

The bedroom door opens, and Liz looks down expecting to see Sassa, but instead her Mom is standing there.

“Morning.” She says, leaning against the door frame. She looks very cuddly. “Your Dad and I are going shopping for tonight.”

“Mm?” Liz pushes her hair out of her eyes. She's still not entirely awake.

“Do you want anything?” Her Mom asks. “We can pick it up from the store?”

“I don't know.” Liz says, thinking. “Uh, can you get me a bottle of vodka?”

Mom laughs. “You never change.” He says, and smiles. “See you in a couple of hours Lizzie.”

“See you.” Liz says, and watches her Mom slip quietly out of the room, shutting the door behind herself.

Liz flops back against the bed, and then kicks the covers off her legs. With Normie in the bed it made it extra hot, and Liz is starting to cook. She looks over at Normie who is snoozing with his head on the pillow, and sighs.

“Lazy dog.” She says, playing with one of his ears, and then rolls over onto her side to fall back asleep.

Liz wakes up an hour later with a mouth that tastes like graveyard dirt. She sits upright, reaching blindly for the glass of water she keeps by her bed, and drinks the whole thing in one. Her mouth still tastes horrible though, and she smacks her lips together, looking around for anything else to drink.

In the army, they'd drink whatever they could. Liz has washed pills down with water, beer, vodka, anything that was a liquid. She'd learnt not to be picky, especially when dehydration was concerned. As everyone knows, you can only survive for three days without any water.

Liz looks over at Normie who is now flat out on his back, legs in the air, and eyes rolled back. She snorts, reaching over to rub the fuzzy grey fur on his chest, and then climbs out of bed. She stretches, swivelling to make her back crack, and then peers out of the window. The curtains are still closed, making her look like she's spying.

Nothing has changed in the back garden, same land, same very old tree house. There are birds on the lawn, and in the many bird feeders that her Mom has strung up on the other tree. Sassa likes to sit underneath them and watch the birds with a dopey fascination.

Liz pushes the bedroom door open, and makes her way downstairs. She figures her parents still aren't home yet, the house is too quiet. When she makes it down to the living room, Sassa is chewing his toy sausages, which means her Dad has hidden a treat in there to keep him silent for a few hours. Sassa looks up when Liz walks into the room and wags his tail happily, but then continues trying to get the treat out.

Liz wanders into the kitchen to get herself a drink. There's the last remaining dregs of apple juice in the fridge, so she swigs it straight from the bottle, looking out into the garden. There are more birds now, chirping happily. There aren't any neighbourhood cats where they live, only dogs, so the birds are free to fly around happily.

The kitchen floor is cold and Liz now realises why her Mom is always forcing her to wear slippers. He's always worried that she'll step on something, like a glass will have mysteriously shattered all over the floor without any of them realising, and Liz will unknowingly step on the shards.

Liz throws the apple juice cartoon into the bin, and then picks up an satsuma from the fruit bowl. She wanders into the living room, peeling it idly, and then jumps when the phone starts to ring. She drops the satsuma, and then quickly rescues it from Sassa, who has moved with lightening quick speed to grab it.

Liz straightens up, tossing the satsuma from hand to hand as the phone rings and rings. She doesn't like answering phones, never has. Texts are far more convenient, especially when you're a socially awkward weirdo like Liz.

The phone goes through to voice mail, and her father cheery answer message starts up. “Hello! You've reached the Toomes household, but we're not in right now. Call us on the mobile if it's urgent.”

A beep and then-

“Liz fucking Toomes, pick up the damn phone.” Betty Brant says, and Liz drops her satsuma again. This time Sassa gets to it before she does, and races off with his prize tightly clamped in his jaws. “I know you're there.”

Liz hesitates for a split second, and then picks up the phone. “Hello?”

“I thought you'd never pick up.” Betty says with a sigh, and Liz shuts her eyes. Betty sounds older- Well she would, it's been five years since they last spoke. Betty would be 23 now, the same age as Liz.

“How did you know I was home?” Liz blurts out.

“Your Dad told my Dad.” Betty replies, as if it's obvious. “Hello.”

“Hello.” Liz replies, and Betty gives a little laugh over the phone.

“It's been a long time.” She says, “I heard you hurt your leg.”

“News travels fast.” Liz says wearily, Mom must be telling every person she knows. “But yeah. I hurt it.”

“Badly?”

“I can still walk. Just limp a little.”

“Oh.” Betty says, “I heard you got discharged too.”

“I left of my own accord.” Liz says, a little too curtly. There's a pause.

“I missed you.” Betty says, and Liz sits down on the sofa. “Why didn't you come home sooner?”

Liz scratches her leg. “I wanted to fight.”

“Really?” Betty asks, “You?”

“Me.” Liz says, and then decides to change the subject. “How are you?”

“I'm good.” Betty replies, “I work for the Bugle now.”

“That's cool.” Liz says, “Doing what?”

“Boring admin stuff really.” Betty admits, “But it's a wage, and a proper job, and people respect me.”

“People always respect you.” Liz says, but Betty scoffs.

“Yeah right. They just think I'm a stuck up bitch.”

“I mean, when you think about it...” Liz says slyly, and then they're both laughing like no time has passed at all.

“You're horrible.” Betty says, but Liz can hear the smile in her voice. “I can't wait to see you tonight.”

“Oh you're coming?”

“Of course I'm coming.” Betty says. “Your parents have invited everyone.”

“Oh great.” Liz says, and Betty laughs.

“Cheer up chicken. I'll be there to entertain you, and help you escape when you have enough of people.”

“Thanks.” Liz says, smiling. “I wish my parents remembered I'm shy.”

“They're just excited to have you home.” Betty says, “Don't worry about it.”

“I'll try not to.” Liz says, “Are you bringing anyone?”

Betty laughs at that, which makes Liz frown. “What?”

“Did your parents not tell you?” Betty asks, which just makes Liz even more confused.

“Tell me what?”

Betty laughs. “I'm married now.”

“You're fucking what?” Liz says, astounded. “When did that happen?!”

“When you were away!” Betty is laughing more now. “I guess your parents didn't mention it?”

“No they didn't!” Liz exclaims. “Who did you marry?”

“A girl named Kat.” Betty says, and her voice is filled with love. “You've met her once or twice.”

Liz racks her brain for a girl named Kat, but comes up with nothing. “Have I?”

“Yeah. She works for the Bugle too, she's a really cool reporter.” Betty says, and she sounds so damn happy that it's making Liz's heart hurt.

“I'm so happy for you.” Liz tells her.

“I have the wedding photos on my phone, I'll show them to you.”

“I'd like that.” Liz says truthfully. She hears the sound of her parents car pulling up in the driveway, and turns towards it. “My parents are home.”

“Where'd they go?” Betty asks.

“Food shopping.” Liz watches them climb out of the car, even from here she can tell they're bickering. “I better go.”

“I'll see you tonight, okay?” Betty says. “Don't hide in your room.”

“I'm not going to hide in my room.”

“Yeah well, I don't trust you.” Betty's voice softens. “Missed you.”

“Missed you too.” Liz replies, and Betty hangs up the phone.

Liz stands there for a moment, phone in hand, trying to work out all the information she's just been told. Betty. Kat. Married. Jobs. Everything's changed since Liz's been gone, more so than she would have liked.

Not in a upset way, she isn't angry that Betty's married or anything. She likes Betty, she makes her laugh, but she doesn't fancy her. They're just friends. Childhood friends.

The last time Liz kissed a girl, she was 16, and Betty had only done it to stop her complaining about not being kissed.

The living room door swings open and Liz jumps, turning to face her parents. Her Dad jumps a little at the sight of her, and then his face softens.

“I see you're finally up.” He says, laden with shopping bags. “I thought you were going to sleep the whole day.”

“Yeah well, you know me.” Liz shrugs. She would actually sleep the whole day if she could, she's permanently tired.

Her Mom nods towards the phone in her hand, and Liz realises she's carrying a large potted plant. “Who rang?”

“Hm? Oh, Betty.” Liz looks at the phone, and then places it back in the cradle. “She's coming tonight.”

“Good.” Her Dad marches towards the kitchen. “Doris, come help me!”

“I've got a plant!” Her Mom calls back, looking down at her plant. “Do you like it?”

“It's lovely.” Liz says, slightly amused. “Why do you have it?”

“It's for you.” Mom says, and Liz blinks. “Well, it's a plant to commemorate your return.”

“Oh.” Liz takes a step forward to look at it. It's got long straggly leaves that are cascading down the flower pot. Dotted about are bright pink and purple flowers that smell amazingly sweet. “I love it.”

“I'm glad.” Her Mom smiles, “Now I should probably take this into the garden before your father yells at me for dropping soil everywhere.”

Liz follows her into the kitchen, but doesn't go any further, stopping just behind her Dad. Her Dad turns to face her, looking her up and down.

“Okay?”

“Betty's married.” Liz says, and her Dad nods slowly.

“Yes.”

“Why didn't you tell me?” Liz asks, and her Dad sighs.

“I thought it might upset you. That you couldn't be there.”

“Well it didn't.” Liz scratches her arm. “I wish you'd told me earlier.”

“Sorry.” Her Dad reaches out and gives her a side hug. “Are you upset?”

“Not really.” Liz hugs him back, and then moves away, looking out through the window. “I like the plant.”

Her Dad rolls his eyes. “Your mother saw it and fell in love with it. So now we have another stupid plant.”

“You love it really.” Liz says, watching her Mom try and find a place to put it.

“I suppose I do.” Her Dad says, and Liz leans against him quietly.

Wearing a dress is harder than Liz expected. For one, she feels like a fraud in it, lumpy and awkward. Two, it's black and old, and it looks like she's going to a funeral. Black doesn't look good on her.

Liz stares at her reflection in the mirror, and then self consciously tugs at her hair. It doesn't fit her face any more. She wishes she could cut it all off, but then her Mom would throw a fit and tell her she looked like a boy.

There's been an attempt at make up. Liz found her old make up bag from when she was a teenager, hidden under the bed. Well, not really hidden, more discarded. Liz sat at her dressing table and looked at herself in the mirror. She smeared blue eyeshadow over her eyelids, and drew red on her mouth, and stabbed herself in the eye with the mascara, and then stared at her reflection. A failure stared back.

Liz took the back of her hand and dragged it across her mouth. It left a satisfying smear across her cheek, and across the back of her hand. It looked a lot like blood. Liz remembered staring at her reflection after the incident, at the blood dripping from her nose, the way her teeth were stained from it. She thought she looked more beautiful then than she did now.

The door opens, and Liz snaps her head towards the sound of it. Her aunt Cheryl, dressed impeccably as usual, jumps about a foot in the air at how quickly Liz moves.

“Christ.” She says, placing a hand over her heart. “You scared me!”

“Sorry.” Liz apologises, and then turns back to look at the mirror. “Habit.”

“Silly” Cheryl walks over to where Liz is sitting and places her hands on Liz's shoulder. They both look at their reflections in the mirror. “You ruined your make up.”

“It was ruined the moment I started.” Liz replies, and Cheryl sighs.

“You should have asked me to do it-”

“I'm twenty two.” Liz interrupts, “I should be able to do my own make up.”

“Well I doubt you've been practising for the past five years.” Cheryl says. She's still studying Liz in the mirror. “Do you want me to help?”

“I don't think you can fix this mess.” Liz says, pointing at her face. Cheryl raises her eyebrow.

“Shush. You're a pretty girl.”

“You're just saying that because you're my aunt.” Liz says, and Cheryl shrugs.

“No. If you were ugly, then I would tell you.”

Liz gives a burst of laughter at that, and Cheryl smiles too. Liz looks back at herself in the mirror, and then looks up at Cheryl.

“Will you help me?” She asks, and a light sparks in Cheryl's eyes.

“Of course.” She says, and tilts Liz's face towards the light. “You look a bit like a clown.”

“Thanks.” Liz says, deadpan, and Cheryl laughs.

“You're welcome” She says, and then kisses the top of Liz's head. “Let me get my make up bag.”

Liz watches her leave. Cheryl has a way of holding herself that makes you want to watch her. When Liz was little, she thought Cheryl was the most beautiful girl in the world, second to her mother of course.

Liz draws a random pattern on her thigh with her finger. She doesn't fancy Betty. She knows her parents thought she did, long ago, which is probably why they didn't tell her that Betty had gotten married. She likes Betty, she's a good friend, but she doesn't feel anything romantic towards her at all. Promptly after being kissed by her, Liz had thrown up. Or maybe that was because of the vodka she'd been drinking.

Cheryl reappears in record timing, holding a large silver make up bag. That's what Liz's always liked about her, she's quick on her feet. That's why she's good at dealing with her parents when they're having one of their tiffs.

“What's your moisturising routine?” Cheryl asks, dragging a chair over so that she can sit beside Liz.

Liz readjusts herself so she's facing Cheryl. “Moisturising routine?” She asks, and Cheryl wrinkles her nose.

“You're going to be harder than I expected.” She says, and Liz laughs.

Liz manages to be late to her own party because of Cheryl. She insists on trying different make up looks, experimenting with different shades of eye shadow, and by the time she's happy, half the guests are already here.

Liz comes down the stairs wearing bronze eyeshadow and a weird matte lipstick that feels weird when she licks it. She spots Betty halfway down the stairs and stops abruptly, causing Cheryl to bump into her.

“Careful.” Cheryl says, smoothing the shoulders of Liz's dress. It catches Betty's attention and she looks up from where she's talking to Liz's parents.

There's a long moment of silence as the two stare at each other.

And then Betty breaks into a genuine smile and holds out her arms. “Hey babe.”

Liz rolls her eyes by that, but hops down the stairs two at a time until she reaches the bottom. There's a moment of awkwardness, and then Betty sweeps her up into a hug, pressing a lipstick kiss to the corner of Liz's temple.

“You're early.” Liz mumbles, trying not to wriggle her way free.

“I'm a reporter, of course I'm early.” Betty replies, and Liz snorts, and then manages to pulls back.

“You look well.” She says, because Betty does. Her hair is curled slightly, and it's gone a dirty blonde colour that makes her look older.

“You've got make up on.” Betty says, staring at Liz's face.

Liz touches her cheek where she can feel heavy and thick foundation. “Cheryl did it.”

“It looks good.” Betty says, and then reaches out and squeezes Liz's arm. “How's the leg?”

“Leggy.” Liz replies, and sticks out the leg in question. “It's not visibly injured. I just limp a bit.”

“You poor thing.”

“I got over it.” Liz shrugs, and looks back up at Betty's face. “So. Your wife?”

“Yes!” Betty's face lights up, “She's just getting a drink, she'll be here in a second.”

“My parents are serving drinks?” Liz whips her head round and spots that either her Mom or her Dad has set out a platter of drinks. “Bastards, they stole my vodka.”

Betty snorts at that. “You poor poor alcoholic.”

“Shut up.” Liz says, and then spots a women that she's never seen before. She's tall, with long red hair, and she's laughing whilst she talks to Betty's Dad. She's very pretty.

“That's her.” Betty says, pointing to the women. “Kat.”

Kat must somehow hear Betty say her name, and looks over at them both. She flashes a winning smile, and begins to make her excuses to Betty's father.

“I wouldn't think she was your type.” Liz says.

“What is my type?” Betty asks.

“To be honest, less gorgeous.” Liz says, and Betty raises her eyebrow.

“Don't steal my wife Liz.”

“Wasn't planning to.” Liz says, and Kat walks up to them, smiling.

“What aren't you planning to do?” She asks politely, and Liz turns to her.

“Stealing you from Betty.” She says, and Kat laughs, her cheeks turning pink.

“I doubt Betty would let you do that.” She says, and then holds out her hand that isn't holding her cocktail. “It's nice to meet you.”

“It's nice to meet you too.” Liz shakes her hand. “I'm Liz.”

“I know.” Kat smiles. “I've heard lots about you!”

“That's never good.” Liz says, because with Liz, it rarely isn't. She's spent many an underage drunk night with Betty, and she doesn't want many people to know about what they got up to.

“I've told her good things and bad things, don't worry.” Betty says, “But mainly the good things.”

“Don't worry, I can tell you all the bad things about Betty.” Liz says.

“Hey!” Betty interrupts, and Kat laughs.

“You poor thing.” Kat says, “Liz telling me all your secrets.”

“Pity me.” Betty says, and hooks arms with Kat. She then presses a kiss to Kat's cheek, and Kat turns her head to kiss her on the mouth.

Liz looks down at the floor awkwardly because she hates being with couples who are affectionate with each other. With her parents it's okay because it's her parents, but with people her own age? Horrible.

“Hey, have you told Liz yet?” Kat asks, and Liz jerks her head back up to look at them.

“Told me what?” She asks.

“Oh shit yeah!” Betty says, and turns to Liz excitedly, “Guess what I have?”

“I have no idea.”

“Okay, so what is our favourite band in the world?” Betty asks, and Liz frowns.

“BOS?” She replies slowly, and Betty nods her head eagerly.

“I got us tickets to their concert that's coming here next week.”

BOS, otherwise known as Bringers of Spiders, is Liz's favourite band in the whole entire world. Their sound is a mixture of Fatherson and Mallory Knox, and Liz is hopelessly in love with them.

“You're fucking kidding me, what the fuck?!” Liz exclaims, going slightly too loud and getting weird looks from everyone. “You bought us tickets?!”

“Uh huh!” Betty goes up on her tip toes in excitement, “They're not great seats because I had to buy them so late because I didn't know if you'd even want to see me or whatever-”

Liz pulls her into a hug and pats her on the back. “I love you.” She says, because BOS is amazing and she loves them and she'd do anything to see them live. “This is incredible, oh my god?”

“I'm so happy!” Betty says, and pulls back. “Let's get drinks!”

“Yes!” Liz says, and she's smiling so wide it hurts.

Liz, Betty, and Kat take their drinks outside to talk because it's getting too crowded in the house. There are several people outside as well, it's a humid evening, and Liz gives people she recognises a tight lipped smile. It's more a party for her parent's friends than hers.

“Your parents seem nice.” Kat says. They're leaning up against the garden wall, and Liz has taken her shoes off because they're making her feet ache.

“Yeah, they are.” Liz replies, rubbing the sole of her foot. “Betty can back me up on that.”

“They're great.” Betty raises her glass in acknowledgement. “10 out of 10, would parent again.”

Liz rolls her eyes at that and knocks Betty with her hip. Betty knocks her right back, grinning.

“Your parents have a nice house.” Kat says, looking about the place. “And your garden's huge.”

“It's because of all the dogs.” Liz says. “They need lots of space to run around.”

The dogs in question are currently locked up in the spare bedroom with a vast selection of chew toys. Normie isn't much trouble, he would have been a perfect party guest, but Sassa is another story. Her parents learnt their lesson when Sassa was a puppy, and he ate all the bacon and egg tartlets.

“You're so lucky.” Kat says, and then looks over at Betty lovingly. “We're thinking of buying a bigger house together soon.”

“That's nice.” Liz says, because she's not good at talking to people. She really just wants to sit with Betty quietly and have a few drinks, but Kat hasn't seemed to get the memo that Liz's anti social.

“We're living in an apartment near work.” Betty says. “You'll have to come visit.”

“Yeah. I'll have to.” Liz really wants to get away but doesn't know how.

“So,” Kat starts, and Liz fantasises about stabbing her own eye out with her cocktail glass, “How did you get into BOS?”

Liz pauses at that, surprised. If there's one way to get her attention, it's to talk about her favourite band.

“I went to one of their first gigs.” She says, “They played support for The Dead Lay Waiting, before they split up. I fell in love with them and I bought their CD and most of their merch after the show.”

“They had merch back then?”

Liz shrugs. “It was just a shirt with a giant spider on the front. Not like all the shit they have now.”

Liz actually owns most of BOS merch. Well, she hasn't got any of their new stuff, she's been busy after all, but Kat talking has reminded her to go online and buy it all. She has shirts, and key chains, and jumpers, and hoodies, and beanies and scarves. If BOS are selling it, she's got it.

“Impressive.” Kat says.

“Do you have any merch?” Liz asks, but Kat shakes her head.

“No. I'm not really into them.”

“Not really into them? How? Why?” Liz asks, actually shocked. “Why is Betty married to you if you don't like them?”

Betty snorts her drink at that and then has a coughing fit. Liz thwacks her on the back helpfully.

“Liz you can't just say things like that!” She exclaims, still coughing. “And stop hitting me.”

“Sorry.” Liz says, and does as she's told. “But seriously, why?”

Kat shrugs, a smile playing at her lips. “I'm not a fan of the lead singer. He's suspicious.”

“You're weird.” Liz says, because how can she not like Spiderman?

Spiderman, real name unknown, is BOS' lead singer. Nobody knows who he really is, only that he's from New York, and he can sing like a God. He always wears a mask onstage that looks like a spider head, and he's never once taken it off. Liz loves him. Sometimes she wishes she could wear a mask and hide away from everyone.

“There's just something about him.” Kat says, and then holds up her hands. “But no judgement. You can like whoever you like.”

“And I will like the right person.” Liz says, and drains her glass. “I'm going to get a top up.”

She escapes before Betty or Kat have a chance to ask her to get them another drink.

It's not that she doesn't like their company. It's just that it's the first non-family conversation she's had in a while, and it's draining. Liz dumps her glass on a random table, and then escapes to find somewhere to hide.

When she was younger she used to hide in the garage. It seems like the perfect place to go to now, out of sight of the party guests, and it has benches inside for her to sit down and collect her thoughts. There are a few spiders, true, but Liz's faced worst, especially in the last few years.

Liz pushes the shed door open, and then shrieks.

“Christ!” Her Dad exclaims, taking the cigarette from his mouth. “Quiet!”

Liz shuts her mouth with a click and slams the garage door shut behind her. “I thought you quit smoking!”

“I-” Her Dad says, “What are you doing here?”

“Don't evade the question.” Liz folds her arms. “Why are you hiding in here?”

Her Dad sighs, and then takes a long drag of the cigarette. “I needed a break, okay? Is that acceptable Liz?”

“No.” Liz says, and looks around.

The garage is completely different. It's less musty, more technology now, with various bits of equipment dotted about the place. Most of it however is covered in large sheets, so that Liz can't actually tell what anything is. She supposes it's to keep it out of harms way.

Her Dad shakes the cigarette packet at her. “Want one?”

“I thought you didn't approve of me smoking?” Liz asks, and her Dad looks at her with an unamused expression.

“It's a party. Smoking doesn't count at a party.”

“Fine then.” Liz holds out her hand and her Dad tosses the packet at her. “Got a light?”

“In the drawer.”

Liz reaches into the drawer of an old bedside table that is randomly in the garage, and finds a lighter and some condoms. “Fucking gross.” She says, and lights her cigarette.

They stay there in silence for a very long time. It's not awkward, it's more relaxing, not having to speak or make polite conversation. Liz stares down at the floor and watches a daddy long legs stumble across the floor drunkenly.

“Betty got us BOS tickets.” She says, looking up at her Dad. Her Dad looks back at her.

“The band?”

“Yup.” She says, “Next Saturday.”

“Do you want to go?” Her Dad asks, and Liz nods. “That's good then.”

Liz stands up, and then drops her cigarette on the floor and grinds it out underneath her shoe. Her Dad follows her soon after.

“I'm gonna go and find Mom.” She says.

“You do that.” Her Dad says, “But first you're hiding the evidence.”

“Fine.” Liz picks the cigarettes off the floor and crumples them into her hand. They're burning slightly, but she doesn't quite care. “See you.”

“Don't get into fights.” Her Dad says, and there's a twinkle in his eye. Liz smiles and leaves the garage, only pausing to drop the cigarette butts into a bush on her way out.

She spots Cheryl talking to one of her parent's friends that she can't remember the name of, and almost slows down to talk to her. Then she thinks that Cheryl might rope her into conversation with the other person, and speed walks away.

She finds her Mom sitting on the sofa, talking to one of her Dad's friends from work. Her Mom is laughing at whatever the guy is saying, and when Liz coughs politely, she looks up and beams at her.

“Hey precious.” She says, and Liz sits down next to her.

“Hey.” She replies, and leans against her. “Hey Phineas.”

Phineas nods at her. He's playing with a weird electronic gadget that he keeps switching from hand to hand.

“What's that?” Liz asks. Phineas blinks, and then pockets it.

“Nothing.” He says. “How's the war?”

“War-ish.” Liz replies. The two of them fall silent.

Her mother pats her on the knee. “Have you seen your father? Phineas and I can't find him anywhere?”

“No.” Liz lies. “Not at all.”

“Funny.” She says, and there's slight confusion on his face. “Did Betty tell you her news?”

“The tickets?” Liz asks.

“Yeah.” Her Mom's face is split by a grin. “Happy?”

“Very happy.” Liz smiles. “You knew then?”

“Betty rang us up a couple of days ago and asked us if you'd be up for it. We said yes, obviously.”

“I'm glad you did.” Liz says, and then yawns. “I might go upstairs in my room for a bit, if that's okay?”

“Fine with me.” Her Mom says. “Feeling okay?”

She presses the back of her hand against her forehead anyway. Her Mom still worries about her health, even now.

“Feeling fine.” Liz stands, “See you Phi.”

“Phineas.” Phineas corrects, but Liz has already left the room.

Her bedroom is dark, and Liz fumbles for the light switch. It illuminates the room, and Liz is half expecting to find someone sitting on her bed. There's nobody though, and Liz collapses onto the bed, fumbling under the pillows for her phone.

No new messages. Liz wasn't really expecting any. Liz shoved the phone back under her pillow and closed her eyes. She'd come back down to the party when people started wondering where she was.

Liz wakes up groggy. Her mouth tastes like the bottom of an ash tray, and she wretches. There's a glass of water on her bedside table, and she grabs it, sitting upright barely enough to raise the glass to her lips. She gulps the water down eagerly, and then slams the glass on the table.

She's still in her dress, which is odd. It's light outside, which is just confusing. Liz rubs her eyes, and then panics when her fingers come back covered in black. Then she remembers she was wearing make up, and groans.

There are smears of it all over her pillow from where she moved in the night. Liz wipes her fingers on the fabric because it's ruined already, and then climbs out of the bed. Her body hurts. She pulls the curtains back and stares out into the garden, expecting to see party guests.

There's nobody. Liz looks out towards the horizon, and sees that the sun has only just risen. It's morning then. She slept the entire night.

Liz looks back at her room. Someone has taken her shoes off and set them neatly in the corner, and the same person must have put the glass of water by her bed. There's a packet of aspirin there too, but Liz doesn't have a hangover. She's just tired.

Liz strips off her dress, throwing it onto the chair in the corner. She peels off her tights too, and then stretches out her legs. There's a full length mirror in the corner of her room, and she stands in front of it. She's pale, ghost like, and she can see most of her veins. There's a large scar across her knee, where the bullet went through. It's red still, but when Liz touches it, the pain is very faint.

Liz takes off her bra, and then her underwear, throwing them onto the chair too. Her pyjamas are folded neatly at the bottom of her bed, and she puts them on. They're grey, with pictures of cats on, and Cheryl bought them for her.

Liz climbs back into bed, and pulls the covers over. She yawns, nuzzling her face against the pillow, and then falls fast asleep.

Liz comes down for breakfast in her camo jacket and jeans. Her stomach is rumbling badly, and she needs something to eat before she ends up with cramps. It's not like she's gone hungry before, but after a week of eating heartily for every meal, her stomach has come to expect it.

She finds her parents at the dining table. Her Dad is obviously nursing a hangover, and her Mom is speaking extra loudly to piss him off.

“Good morning sleeping beauty!” Her Mom says cheerfully when Liz comes into the room. “Sleep well?”

“Mm.” Liz replies, and sits down heavily next to her Dad. “Who came into my room last night?”

“I did.” Her Mom says, and looks over at her Dad. “This one was passed out in our bed wasted.”

“I wasn't wasted.” Her Dad says, and shoves a forkful of bacon into his mouth. “I was tired.”

Her Mom turns to Liz. “He was wasted.” He says, “So I came in to make sure you were okay.”

“Sorry. It was my party, I should have been there.” Liz takes a piece of toast from the toast rack and starts to lather it with butter.

“It's okay.” Her Mom smiles at her. “You were tired, it's allowed.”

“Still.” Liz says, and takes a bite of toast. “Thanks for looking after me by the way. The water was much appreciated.”

“It was no bother.” Her Mom reaches over and pats Liz on the hand. “Are you feeling okay this morning?”

“Fine.” Liz says, “How are you guys?”

“I have a headache.” Her Dad grumbles, and Mom pats him on the shoulder.

“Yes yes, we all know.” She says.

Liz smiles, and then remembers she never said goodbye to anyone at the party. “Did you say to Betty that I went up to bed?”

“Yes, don't worry.” Her Mom cracks the top of his egg. “She says that she hoped you felt better, and she'd call you in the week.”

“Aw, thanks.” Liz eats more toast. “She wasn't mad?”

“Nope.” Her Mom says, “She was perfectly happy.”

“Good.” Liz says, and then yawns. “I might go for a walk today.”

She feels smelly and gross at the moment, and she needs to avoid all social contact for a few hours, but she doesn't want to outright tell her parents that.

“Aw, that'll be nice.” Her Mom says, “Do you want to take the dogs?”

“Take Sassa, he's doing my head in.” Her Dad says, and Liz realises that Sassa is underneath his feet, licking his ankle. “He needs to have a good run.”

“I can do that.” Liz says, and puts her hand underneath the table to stroke Sassa. “Sassa? You wanna go for a walk?!”

Sassa jumps up excitedly, and the whole table shakes. Her Mom's egg cup falls over, and she groans, rescuing it. Her Dad groans louder, holding his head.

“That fucking dog.” He says, “I'm going to give him to PETA if he's not careful.”

“How dare you.” Liz says, as Sassa tries to get onto her lap. “Sassa- No- You're too big.”

“He's got a brain issue.” Her Dad says, and Liz tries to push Sassa away. “Take him out Liz. You'll give us both some peace as we clean up.”

“I can help clean up.” Liz says, and her parents give her a look. “What?”

“You're terrible at cleaning up.” Her Mom reminds her. “No, you take the dog out, and we'll do the cleaning.”

“Fine.” Liz says, and shoves more toast in her mouth. “Come on you dopey dog. Let's go out.”

It's fucking freezing outside, but Liz doesn't really care. Her jacket keeps her warm enough, and doing exercise will get her blood pumping. Sassa dances about on his lead, stopping to pee on every blade of grass, and Liz sighs at him.

She walks him up to the Joan Lee memorial park, a huge stretch of land that is very easy to get lost in. It's dog friendly, apart from the children's play area where Liz used to go as a child, and then as a teenager. She has fond memories of sitting on the swings with Betty, eating ice cream, and sometimes drinking vodka.

Liz lets Sassa off the lead the moment they're inside, and Sassa goes tearing off into the woods, eager to catch up on all the new smells he's missed. Liz walks after him, hands shoved in her pockets, and with her headphones plugged firmly in her ears. She's listening to BOS' latest album, and singing badly and quietly under her breath.

Airport systems still cannot deal, with umlauts over O and E. Spend your time at border gates, as strange men decide your fate.

Liz's been walking for about twenty minutes when she spots a man coming towards her. He's dressed all in black, hood up, and Liz's skin starts to itch.

“Sassa!” She calls, and Sassa bounds towards her happily. “Come!”

Sassa runs into her, and then sits down hard, looking up at her expectedly. Liz fishes a treat out of her pocket and gives it to him for being a good boy and listening to her. He must sense something's wrong, because he stays by her side as they walk past the man in black. Or maybe he just wants another treat.

“Good boy.” Liz whispers when the man is out of earshot. “What a good doggy you are.”

Sassa barks happily, and sniffs her hand for any more food, before racing off again. Liz watches him fondly, and then sets off after him.

An hour later and they're still walking around the park. Sassa still has bundles of energy left, and so Liz finds a broken tennis ball in the grass and throws it for him. Sassa thinks this is the best game he's ever played, and they spend ten straight minutes playing fetch, until Liz's arm starts to ache.

“I need to sit down.” She tells Sassa, and Sassa barks. “Yes! Yes I do!”

There's a bench a little way away, and Liz starts to make her way towards it. Sassa carries the broken tennis ball proudly in his mouth, and keeps turning to Liz to show her he's still got it.

“Clever boy.” Liz tells him, and she could swear he smiles.

Suddenly, Sassa goes completely still. Liz stops too, looking around over the horizon to see if she can spot a rabbit or something that's caught his attention. Sassa drops the tennis ball, and then starts running.

Liz picks up the discarded tennis ball and shoves it in her pocket. “Sassa!”

Sassa doesn't listen. Instead he goes bounding off over a hill, big smile on his face. Liz shakes her head, moving towards the bench, but then she hears a scream.

Instantly she's alert. She forgets everything, and runs towards where Sassa disappeared, going into military mode. Civilian? Fellow soldier? Casualty?

Sassa comes into view when Liz clambers over the top of the hill. He's dancing around a body on the grass, and Liz swallows hard, before running down the hill to see who it is.

“Sassa!” She calls, sharp, and the figure turns its head towards Liz.

It's a girl. Or, Liz thinks it's a girl. A girl. They're lying on the floor in the mud, pushing Sassa away with one hand whenever he tries to lick their face.

“Can you move your stupid dog?!” They push Sassa away again, who excitedly spins in a circle, and then goes back to licking.

“I could do.” Liz says, still trying to assess the situation. “Are you alright?”

“Perfect.” The figure says sarcastically, “Your dog?”

Liz studies them for a moment. They've got brown fluffy hair scraped back into a pony tail, and they're wearing a denim jacket with patches hand stitched into it.

Sassa spots something in the grass. He rushes over to it, gives it a sniff, and then picks it up in his mouth. A notebook.

“Hey!” The girl says, “That's mine!”

“He's just trying to give it back to you.” Liz says, but the girl looks indignant, trying to sit upright.

“Give.” She says, holding out her hand, and Sassa looks at Liz for permission.

“Give it.” Liz says, and Sassa gently drops the notebook into the girl's hand, and then sits down. “Good boy.”

“Your dog is a maniac.” The girl says.

“Did he knock you over?” Liz asks. The girl still hasn't made any effort to get up, and she's lying in mud.

“No.”

Liz looks at her. “Do you need help getting up?”

“Fuck off.” The girl says, but it makes Liz laugh.

“Didn't your parents tell you to be polite to strangers when they're trying to help you?” She asks.

The girl glares. “Didn't your parents tell you to not to fucking bother people?” She snaps, and Liz is slightly taken aback by that.

There's a moment of long silence.

Liz looks down at the girl's legs. Her right foot is twisted the wrong way round, and Liz suspects she's slipped in the mud and injured herself. How long she's been lying there, she doesn't know.

“Do you want me to help you?” Liz asks again, “Just to get you upright?”

The girl looks up at him, and then at her foot. “Alright then.” She says.

Liz steadies herself on the ground, getting good balance. She holds out his hand for the girl, and she takes it, and with one movement, she pulls her upright. She clings to her hand tightly, getting herself stable, and then lifts up her right foot, like Sassa does when he's injured a paw.

“Do you want me to take you to a doctor?” Liz asks, and the girl shakes her head.

“I'll be fine.”

“I don't think you are.” Liz says, looking at the way she's holding her foot.

“Are you a doctor?” The girl asks, and Liz shakes his head. “Then I don't need your opinion.”

“Fine.” Liz says, “You can hop home.”

“I will.” The girl replies. She goes to put her foot down, and then whimpers loudly, and lifts it up again.

“Come on.” Liz says, “Let's call someone, or I'll carry you.”

“I'm 9 stone.” The girl snaps back.

“And I'm 11 stone, I didn't realise this was a competition.” Liz replies, equally sarcastic. “You can't get home by yourself.”

“I can.” The girl says stubbornly, and Liz rolls her eyes. “Don't roll your eyes at me!”

“What is your problem?” Liz asks, and the girl laughs sarcastically.

“You're a soldier.” She says, “Sorry if I don't want a murderer walking me home.”

Liz lets go of the girl's hand so abruptly that she almost falls over. She hops several times to gain balance, and then manages to steady herself. Liz shoves her hands into her pockets, picking at loose skin on her thumb. There's a long, draining, silence.

Sassa can tell something's wrong and bounds over to them, nudging Liz's arm. Liz looks down at Sassa, who looks back up at her, licking his lips.

It takes a while for Liz to regain herself, pulling her left hand out of her pocket to rub Sassa's head. Sassa makes a whining noise, shutting his eyes and nuzzles his head against her palm.

“Did I fuck up?” The girl asks. Liz shrugs. “I'll take that as a yes.”

“I'm-” Liz says, “Yeah, you made a shit call.”

The girl looks at Liz. “Sorry.” She says.

“S'okay.” Liz nods towards the girl's leg from where she's straining to stand. “You want to lean on me again?”

“Please.” The girl rests her hand on Liz's shoulder, running her thumb across the material of the jacket. “A soldier, huh?”

“I left active service a month ago.” Liz says.

“Was Sassa your dog?” The girl asks, and Liz laughs.

“No chance. He's a family pet.”

“Oh.” The girl looks at Sassa who is sniffing a leaf. “He's a good boy.”

“Yeah, he is.” Liz says proudly. “He's helped me a lot.”

The girl reaches into her pocket using her free hand, wobbling a little on her leg. She pulls out a mobile phone in a bright crimson case, and hands it to Liz.

“Call my friend, his name is Flash. He's got a car and he can pick me up. I'd call him myself, but I can't balance holding the phone.”

“Admitting you can't walk home?” Liz asks slyly.

“I never admit defeat.” The girl says, and Liz laughs.

“Alright then.” Liz scrolls through the contacts on the girl's phone and comes across Flash. She presses the call button, and holds the phone up to her ear.

Flash answers almost straight away. “Heyo!”

“Hi,” Liz says, and hears Flash's breath hitch on the other end. “Your friend had an accident and she needs to be driven home.”

“What kind of accident?” Flash asks, and the girl says loudly so Flash can hear.

“I fell and twisted my ankle!”

“Badly.” Liz adds, “So she was wondering if you could come in your car?”

“Of course! Where are you at the moment?” Flash asks.

“Uh, the Joan Lee memorial park.” Liz says, “We'll walk towards the car park now.”

“Great, great.” Flash clatters something on the other end. “I'll be there in ten minutes tops.”

“Thank you.” Liz says, and ends the call.

“You don't hang around on the phone.” The girl says.

Liz shrugs. “Don't feel the need.” She pauses. “What's your name by the way? I never asked.”

“Oh!” The girl says, “Michelle.”

“Michelle.” Liz repeats. “I'm Liz.”

“Nice to meet you.” Michelle says, and smiles. “Let's go to the car park.”

Michelle can't walk to the car park so Liz has to carry her. It's easy, Liz's carried people before, it was even part of her military training. She's had to fireman lift someone in the desert before, and it was a lot harder than what she's about to do now.

“Right,” Liz says, “I'm going to lift you up. Don't scream.”

“I'm not going to scream.” Michelle says. She's got her hand wrapped around Liz's arm, holding herself upright. “Just don't- Don't be creepy.”

“I'm not going to be creepy.” Liz puts Sassa's lead between her legs to hold it firm. “Stay still.”

Michelle goes still, and Liz takes hold of her by her upper thighs. She lifts Michelle up flawlessly, and makes her lean against her shoulder, so the weight is off of Liz's arms. Michelle gives a slight squawk, but relaxes.

“You carry people a lot?” Michelle asks, and Liz nods.

“Yup.” She rescues Sassa's lead from between her legs and wraps it round her hand. “Sassa, come on!”

Sassa, who had been watching curiously, barks happily. He starts to walk, tugging on his lead, and then chokes.

“You're an idiot.” Liz tells him, and rolls her eyes. “Walk on.”

“He's good at commands.” Michelle says from over Liz's shoulder.

“He's a little shit.” Liz replies, and starts walking. “He's good at some stuff, but it depends on his mood.”

“I feel the same.” Michelle says, and Liz laughs.

“Yeah, me too.”

Liz continues walking, and then realises BOS is still playing from her headphones, she'd forgotten to take them off. Hounds is currently playing, a song that normally makes Liz weepy because it's Spiderman singing about childhood, and dying animals.

“Can you take my headphones out?” Liz asks, and Michelle makes a noise.

“I don't think I can get my arms up there.”

“Ah, don't worry. Just didn't want you to think I was ignoring you.” Liz says. Normally she wouldn't care, but there's something about Michelle.

“I don't mind it.”

They continue in silence. Well, silence for Michelle, singing for Liz. Liz can't help but whisper the lyrics under her breath, it's almost subconscious.

“I recognise those lyrics.” Michelle says suddenly. “Hounds, yeah?”

“Yeah!” Liz adjusts her hold on Michelle's legs. “You like BOS?”

“Does anyone not like BOS?” Michelle asks, “They're my favourite band.”

“Mine too!” Liz can't help but grin. “We have something in common then.”

“A strange affection for Spiderman and his stupid mask.” Michelle says, and the way she says it makes it sound like she deals with Spiderman personally.

“I'm going to their concert on Saturday.” Liz says, “With my best friend. I can't fucking wait.”

“Oh, really?” Michelle sounds interested, “Whose your friend?”

“Just a girl. We were friends when we were younger.” Liz says, “She's called Betty.”

“Betty.” Michelle repeats, “You and your friends have very strange names.”

“Coming from a girl named after a snail?” Liz asks.

“A snail?” Michelle repeats.

“You know.” Liz says. “Michelle. Me shell?”

There's a beat of silence, and then Michelle snorts.

“Oh my god, shut up.” She says, but in a kind way. “This is a no pun zone.”

“Noted.” Liz says, and they fall back into an odd silence.

The car park is empty by the time they get there. Liz gently helps Michelle down to her feet, holding onto her arm to keep her steady. Michelle hops a couple of times, and then rights herself.

“This has fucked up my day.” Michelle says cheerfully. “Stupid foot.”

“What were you even doing there?” Liz asks, and Michelle goes a little pink in the face.

“Nothing much.” She says, and Liz raises an eyebrow.

“Sounds suspicious.”

“I-” Michelle starts, and then a car comes squealing into the car park. They both automatically leap out the way, and Michelle almost falls again before Liz hauls her upright.

“Jesus fucking Christ.” Liz says, and then the car drifts towards them, and comes to a dramatic halt.

“Flash.” Michelle sighs, and Liz looks at her.

“Your friend?”

“Yup.” Michelle says, as the car window is rolled down, and a boy sticks his head out. He smirks at them both.

“Alright ladies?” He asks sleazily, “Been in the wars have you?”

“Oh fuck off.” Michelle replies, and hops forward to open the passenger seat doors. She throws herself onto the seat, and then looks at Liz, and then at Sassa. “Flash, you can drop Liz home, can't you?”

“Oh, it's okay-” Liz starts, but Flash is already nodding his head.

“Course! Your dog good with cars?”

“Really good.” Liz says, and Sassa does a wee on a patch of grass. “Thanks Sassa. Helping the cause.”

Flash laughs loudly, and motions towards the back of the car. “Sit at the back with Michelle, I'll drop you guys off.”

“If you're sure?” Liz says, and then hauls Sassa up to put him in the car. Sassa sits down in the middle seat next to Michelle and licks her hand. Liz slides in beside Sassa, and shuts the door.

“We're all in.” Michelle says, already with her seat belt buckled. “Let's bounce kids.”

Liz snorts. “I'm older than you. I think.”

“How old are you?” Michelle asks.

“Twenty three.” Liz replies, “You?”

“Twenty.” Michelle says, “You're ancient.”

“Fuck off.” Liz says, and flashes Michelle a smile. It's weird. There's something about her that makes Liz want to laugh and joke about with her, even with their awkward first meeting. Liz wonders if Michelle feels it too.

“I'm twenty two.” Flash says, “Michelle, you have to listen to both your elders.”

“You both are mean.” Michelle complains, and leans back against her seat. “Just go Flash.”

Flash starts the car and instantly music comes blaring out of the speakers. Liz recognises it, but at the same time, she's never heard the lyrics before.

“Where do you live?” Flash asks from the front seat.

“Uh, Montpelier close.” Liz says, frowning. “What music is this?”

“It's Bringers of Spiders.” Flash replies, “You heard of them?”

“I love them.” Liz says, “But I've never heard this song before?”

“Oh yeah, that's because it's a demo track.” Flash says, as if it's obvious. “For Michelle to listen to.”

Liz looks over at Michelle. Michelle suddenly develops an interest in Sassa.

“Why do you get to listen to a demo track?” Liz asks, but Flash replies.

“She's the lyricist.” She says, as if it's obvious.

Liz feels like her eyes have just popped out of her skull. “Are you fucking serious?” She exclaims, “You're the lyricist for BOS?!”

Michelle goes slightly pink in the face, and then nods. “Yeah.” She says, “That's me.”

“Oh my fucking god.” Liz stares at her, “You've written some of my favourite songs. You've met Spiderman!”

“I have.”

“What's he like?” Liz asks eagerly, “I don't care about who they actually are, but just, wow! That's insane!”

“Uh huh.” Michelle says, and then looks at her. “Listen, you can't tell anyone, okay?”

“About what?” Liz asks.

“That I write the songs. I don't want to be famous.” Michelle says, “I like my privacy.”

“Sorry,” Liz holds up her hands, “I didn't mean to interfere, I understand. But still. That's cool!”

“Thank you.” Michelle says. She's still got her notebook on her, and Liz looks at it.

“Is that your lyrics notebook?” She asks.

Michelle nods. “Yeah.”

Liz knows she'll be rejected if she asks to see. “Wow. You write everything down in there? All your notes?”

“Uh huh.” Michelle flicks through it, too quickly for Liz to see or read anything. “I prefer paper to computers. I like it old school.”

“Michelle's a hipster.” Flash says, “She likes everything to be old fashioned.”

“Oh shut up.” Michelle says, but there's no bite to it.

Liz sits back in her seat but she keeps looking at Michelle out of the corner of her eye. This person wrote Liz's favourite songs. This person has made Liz cry before without even knowing. This person is fucking incredible.

“So,” Flash says, “Nice jacket.”

“She's a soldier.” Michelle says before Liz has a chance to speak. “She's just come back. From the war.”

“Oh!” Flash says, sounding surprised. “You serious?”

“Yup.” Liz says, feeling awkward. “Just come back from Afghanistan.”

“Wow.” Flash looks at Liz in the rear view mirror. “Killed anyone?”

Liz swallows hard. “Don't really know.” She lies.

Sassa senses her discomfort and licks her knee. Liz pets him on the head, scratching his ears and his chin until she's recovered.

“How long were you away for?” Flash asks.

“Five years.” Liz replies, and Flash frowns.

“How did you do that?”

“What do you mean?”

“I thought people only got deployed for two years. How did you manage to do five?”

Liz looks down at her feet. “I got discharged.” She says, and then realises she might as well lie again. “Medical reasons. I got shot.”

“Oh shit.” Flash pulls up to a red light and then turns around. “Sorry mate.”

“It's fine.” Liz shrugs.

“Where did you get shot?” Michelle asks curiously.

“My leg.” Liz points to it. “It's okay. I mean, I limp but that's about it.”

“I'm sorry.” Michelle says, and the matter is dropped.

The ride to Liz's house is alarmingly short, and Flash honks the horn loudly as he turns into the drive.

“Can you fucking stop?” Michelle asks, rolling her eyes. “Christ, you're such a fucking embarrassment.”

She looks over at Liz. “I'm so sorry about him. Dropped on his head at birth.”

“It's okay.” Liz smiles. “Thanks for letting me ride back with you.”

“No problem.” Michelle replies, “Thanks for saving me.”

“Get it checked out at a hospital.” Liz says, nodding towards Michelle's foot. “Or at least put ice on it when you get home and elevate it.”

“Will do.” Michelle says, but when Liz makes to get out of the car with Sassa, she blurts out, “Stop!”

“What?” Liz asks, and Michelle hesitates for a second.

“You're going to the concert on Saturday, right? With Beatrice?”

“Betty.” Liz corrects automatically. “But yeah?”

“Well, I'll- I'll upgrade your tickets. As a thank you for helping me.” Michelle says, and Liz tries not to let her mouth fall open with shock.

“Shit.” She says, “Thank you.”

“It's no problem.” Michelle says, “Just tell the doorman your names, and he'll take you to different seats, okay?”

“Okay.” Liz says, star struck.

Michelle gives Liz a little smile. “Take care now.”

“Same to you.” Liz says, and helps Sassa, and then herself out of the car.

She stands on the path leading up to her house and watches Flash's car swivel round and shoot off into the distance. Liz clenches her fists tight with happiness, and then lets out a shriek of excitement when the car is out of sight.

She's going to be upgraded. She's probably going to see the band close up. She just met the lyricist. Liz can't help but grin.

Liz throws open the front door and marches inside. She drops Sassa's lead so he's free to run off, and he does so at once, launching himself towards the garden where there may be new smells. Liz goes into the living room, and finds her Mom sitting on the sofa watching television.

“Did you have a nice walk?” Her Mom asks, not taking her eyes of Jamie Foxx.

“What? Oh- Yeah.” Liz searches for her phone on the sideboard. “Where's my phone?”

“I think your Dad put it on the charge.” Her Mom says, and Liz rolls her eyes at his archaic language. “Why? Are you okay?”

“I'm fine.” Liz says, and then goes for the house phone, but that's missing as well. “Where are all the phones in this house?”

“I don't know sweetheart.” Her Mom says, still not looking at her. “Jamie Foxx is so handsome.”

“Uh, yeah he is.” Liz says, searching through the random shit her family have on the sideboard. “I need to call Betty. Right now. This instant.”

“Why?” Her Mom asks.

“I just met BOS' lyricist in a park.” Liz says, “And she upgraded my fucking tickets.”

“Why did she do that?” Her Mom asks, and then pauses. “And what did you do?”

“I saved her life.” Liz says, “Or there about. She twisted her ankle, and I got her home.”

“Aw, that was nice of you!” Her Mom says, as Liz starts opening random drawers.

“I know.” She says. “Where's Dad?”

“Upstairs I think.” Her Mom says. “Don't ask me what he's doing.”

“I wasn't going to.” Liz says, and leaves the room to go ask where the hell he's put her phone.

Her Dad is pacing up and down in the bathroom when she finds him, talking on the downstairs phone. He's making 'mm' noises at various points, whilst also looking slightly demented. Liz stops and stares at him, and when he turns around to face her, she holds out her hand to indicate she wants to talk to him.

“Two seconds,” Her Dad says, and holds the phone away from his ear. “You alright?”

“Phone.” Liz says, “Where is it?”

“In your bedroom.” Her Dad says, and when Liz goes to move away, “Do you want to speak to Jackson?”

“Not particularly.” Liz says, and escapes to her bedroom.

The phone is laying on the bedside table, and Liz jumps onto her bed to get to it. She unplugs it from the charger, and then flops back on the bed, scrolling through to find Betty's number.

The phone rings three times, and then Betty picks up.

“Hello?” She says, sounding slightly confused. “Liz?”

“You'll never guess what happened.” Liz says.

“You're right, I won't.” Betty says, “What happened?”

“I just met,” Liz pauses for effect, “BOS's lyricist.”

“You're fucking kidding me.” Betty says, “Where?!”

“In the park! And you'll never guess what she did?”

“Told you who Spiderman really is?”

“Sadly not.” Liz replies, “But she did upgrade our tickets to the concert on Saturday night.”

“Oh my fucking god.” Betty says. “No. Is this a joke?!”

“No!” Liz says, “It actually fucking happened. Holy shit Betty.”

“Holy shit squared.” Betty says, and they both pause for a moment, thinking it over. “I have to plan my outfit for Saturday night all over now.”

“You had your outfit planned?” Liz asks.

“Of course I did! I wanted to look cool yet effortless.” Betty says, and Liz snorts.

“What indie magazine did you read that in?”

“Shut up.” Betty says, “Kat told me that was a good look to strive for.”

“Well Kat sounds very pretentious.” Liz says, “Just stick on a shirt and jeans. That's what I'm doing.”

“What shirt?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.” Betty sighs, “Jesus Liz, for a girl you have shit fashion sense.”

“I've been in the army for five years!” Liz protests.

“That's no excuse!” Betty exclaims, “You should just have the knowledge. Like a sixth sense.”

“That's fucking stupid.” Liz says, “I'm going to wear clothes that are ugly whether you like it or not.”

“Then I won't be seen with you.” Betty says, and then pauses. “We should go shopping together to choose your outfit.”

“I'd rather be shot again.” Liz says politely.

“Then I'm coming over the night before the concert to assess your fashion choices.” Betty says.

“Are you my personal stylist now?” Liz asks.

“Yes. Because if you look like an idiot, then I'm not going anywhere near you.” Betty tells her plainly.

“And I don't want to go near you if your outfit can be described as 'cool but effortless'.” Liz tells her right back.

For a second Liz thinks that Betty will argue with her, but she just laughs.

“Fine.” She says, “But I'm still coming over to check you over.”

“Alright.” Liz replies, “But just don't turn me into something that isn't me.”

“I could never do that.” Betty says, and Liz can tell she's smiling.