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Fractal The Future

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For the first time in months, Anna McFly felt like she was on top of the world. Weeks of practice and gruelling training had led her to this moment. After weeks of sleepless nights and stress and worry, listening to her parents gripe at her for making so much "racket" in the garage, this was it. The moment of truth.

With a "ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!", they were cranking out the sweet sounds of the Eighties. Her throat was almost raw from practicing this cover night and day, but she thought that only helped "The Power Of Love" sound even more authentic. Well, as authentic as it could when it was coming out of the mouth of a teenage girl.

They were playing for the judges – assessors of their talent or some such – but Anna only had eyes for one person. Her friend and strongest supporter, Jennifer Punzel, was watching from the sidelines of the gymnasium and biting her lip in excitement.

On top of the world.

But, like everything in her life, it wasn't destined to last. "Thank you!" the teacher said into the megaphone as the last strain faded out. "Thanks, that's all we need. We'll be in touch."

"What, Mr Lewis?" Anna yelled out as the feedback squealed. She glanced over at Merida, who shrugged helplessly as she tried to turn off her amp.

"I'm afraid it's just too darn dated. Can't you play anything from this millennium? It's a good song but the other kids at the dance won't know it."

Frowning, she grumbled under her breath, "It's younger than you are, you old coot." Running a hand through her fiery red bangs, she called out to him. "You said anything goes – within reason. This is within reason!"

Still, he shook his head and repeated, "Thank you, Ms McFly. We'll be in touch."

Rolling her eyes, she pulled the guitar strap up and over her head as Mr Lewis went off to chat with the other teachers. "If it was good enough for my parents, it's good enough for these jerks."

"Told you we should do something by Panic or Florence," Merida hissed at her as they started packing up their gear. "People act like they want retro but they don't really."

"Well, I think you sounded great." It was Punz, her rock, her BFF. Always positive even when nobody else was.

Anna gave her a grateful smile, her cheeks perhaps a little pinker than she wanted them to be. There was silence for a few moments before Punz gave a little jerk, eyes widening as she tore them away. "So, uh. They finally reopened that café. How about we go and get a celebratory pick-me-up? My treat." She smiled and Anna couldn't help but return it.

Of course Merida ruined the moment. Anna hadn't even noticed that she'd left to put away her instrument and grab her bag.

"Oi, you two still here? Hurry up or get a room, I don't really care which. I just wanna eat."

This time, Anna was positive her cheeks were basically on fire, and she scowled in a dismal attempt to hide it. Punz looked a little mortified.

"Merida!" Anna hissed. "We're not- we don't- we're just friends."

Merida rolled her eyes. "Easy choice then, eh? Hurry up!"

Grumbling yet again, Anna stalked off, taking the strap off her guitar as she walked. There was no reason to get so upset at Merida for coming up to them – and telling them to get a room meant nothing. This was high school, after all. Everything was about dating and sex, and teasing your friends about it. And it was always funnier when it had no basis in fact.

If she didn't want to get teased, then she shouldn't have taken so long. Simple.

Still, she found herself glancing up at her friends a few more times as she put away her guitar, watching Punz say something to Merida and Jane that had them snorting, grinning and arguing. Even though she couldn't hear what was being said, it still brought a smile to her own lips.

Of course, it was impossible to miss Merida's eye-roll when she looked to see what was taking so long. Shaking herself, Anna quickened her pace, and within a few minutes had returned to her friends.

"Finally ready to go?" Merida's voice contained only a little bit of snark and a whole lot of 'I'm going to give you so much shit later'.

"Sure," Anna replied with a grumpy expression, more a 'don't say a fucking word' than anything else.

When Punz noticed her suddenly sullen mood, she did the only thing a best friend could do and linked arms with Anna, beginning to lead their small group towards the door.

Ah, to hell with Merida. This was worth it.

~ o ~

The Café 80s was one of those abysmal joints that banked heavily on nostalgia to bring in customers. Neon lights, vintage movie posters, New Coke on tap, Michael Jackson pumping out of the jukebox. There were even a few old-school arcade cabinets in the corner, like Centipede or Wild Gunman. It was ridiculously over-the-top.

Anna loved it. Jennifer liked what Anna liked, and the rest of the band tolerated it because they were all into retro music and it sort of went with the territory.

"I could eat a fecking ostrich," Merida groaned, almost knocking Jane over in her haste to grab a booth and order.

Anna just rolled her eyes, following behind her friend. "Yeah, you always say that, but who ends up finishing your fries half the time?"

"Not today!"

Out of the way and in the corner, the booth was the perfect place to watch the comings-and-goings of the restaurant. Anna always sat against the wall. It gave her a perfect view of a faded poster of some eighties band with a bangin' hot chick, and it never failed to cheer her up; Aimee Mann was life.

Or, it would have had Anna actually been able to concentrate on anything other than their less-than-stellar performance – not even that. The reaction to their performance. They sounded great, she knew it. Too bad the stupid teachers had no clue.

"Aww, don't mope," Punz said when the other two girls went to order. "You were fantastic today, and I bet you're only going to get better. Still think you guys should cut a demo."

Anna quirked a small small, head coming to rest on her friend's shoulder. "Thanks. It just… I was really looking forward to playing at the dance."

"Guess you'll have to find an actual date like the rest of us plebs," Punz commented airily.

Wait, was that…? Did Punz want to go with her? She lifted her head and opened her mouth to ask if perhaps Jennifer didn't have a date already, and would she maybe like to go with Anna – just as friends, if that was what she wanted! But then her eyes met Punz's, and she couldn't finish her question. They were so intense, flicking between her own. Even if Anna's mind hadn't completely emptied at their faces being so close together, she doubted she'd have the voice to ask anyway.

'I'm such a chicken,' she admonished herself as she took in the couple of freckles on Punz's nose, her sparkling green eyes. The very slight buck teeth that people made fun of her for back in junior high – earning them a punch to the face from a very overprotective Anna. Because she thought they were adorable. Everything about Jennifer Punzel was adorable and should be protected at all costs.

It was just when Anna started wondering if Punz was going to lean over and finally – finally make a move – that an unhinged looking woman in frumpy old clothes came up to them to shake a can in their face. "Donate to the 'Dell Valley Clocktower Preservation Society'? Any amount you could give would go to opposing the Mayor, that so-called 'progressive' Tiana Rose-Wilson, and her initiative to desecrate a piece of history! We believe it should-"

"Um, listen," Anna chuckled a little awkwardly, finally finding her voice. It was still a little weak, and she coughed before continuing. "I feel for you, I do, but… we're kind of in the middle of something?"

"Don't be mean," Punz hissed under her breath. Then she reached into her purse and rummaged around for her spare change. "Will this help?"

"Of course," the woman said, beaming at the both of them as though Anna had never tried to shoo her away. "Here, don't forget to take a flyer."

Nodding, Anna took it while Punz put the coins in her collection jar and the woman left. Then she folded the flyer and flicked it over to Punz.

"Phew," she muttered, "You know, sometimes I wonder why a marshmallow like you wants to hang around an asshole like me."

"Huh," Punz commented. When Anna lifted an eyebrow in confusion, she continued, "Why does a marshmallow like me want to hang around with an asshole like you?"

Anna's mouth opened in mock-offense, and Punz giggled and poked her in the cheek. "I'm sure there's a reason," she said, leaving little doubt that there was. Anna felt a red flush creeping up her neck and she looked away.

"W-well maybe I could try and be a little less, y'know…"

"Rude?"

"Hey!"

But Punz was still smiling, and maybe she was a little pink, too. Anna bit her lip. Maybe the moment was right, and this was no time to be a coward. Sucking in a breath, she leaned forward, just a little bit.

"Hey…" she repeated, more softly. It was Punz's turn to lift an eyebrow. "Do you…" she trailed off. She'd lost her nerve, as she knew she would, but that was okay. She just had to find it again. Punz didn't try and speak, even as the words died on Anna's tongue –hell, she didn't even ask what Anna had wanted to say. She just kept looking at her with those same round eyes, open and encouraging.

"Yes?"

Sucking in a breath, Anna bit her lip and moved her hand. It came to rest atop Punz's where it sat on the table. She got to rub at the soft skin, using the distraction to lean a little closer. A blonde eyebrow lifted in a question, but still Punz didn't interrupt. Her face was flawless, and the only thing that seemed to exist were the two of them. Anna felt her heart beating like a drum in her chest. "Do you, uhh, maybe…" she tried again, finding her courage—

—before Merida and Jane dropped into the opposite booth bench, setting a basket of fries down in the middle of the table. Anna jerked her hand away and leaned back, heart thundering in her chest. Goddammit! Jane was clearly focused on her stomach, because she was already grabbing for the ketchup bottle, but Merida looked highly suspicious.

"Did we come back too early?"

"Wh-what?" Anna asked, trying to look like she had done nothing weirder than ask Punz what time it was. Probably failing because her hand had jerked back and both had shot away like they'd been shoved in opposite directions. "I mean, yeah, if you were getting more food than fries." Merida looked at her. "We were just talking!"

"They're going to bring out the rest," Jane said, oblivious. "Apparently, on a skateboard. It's really very fascinating, they seem to want to cram as much nostalgia in as is humanly possible."

The remainder of lunch was absolute torture. Punz was perfectly happy to discuss Mr Beaker's art assignment, leaving Anna to studiously ignore the stares from Merida. It was almost commendable how cool and composed Jennifer could remain under pressure or when in uncomfortable situations. This time, it simply fed into the insecurity that perhaps she was imagining things and Punz simply wanted to be her friend.

Not even the arrival of heaps of fast food delivered by high speed skateboarding waitress brought relief from Merida's interrogative gaze; Anna's hopes of talking to Punz about anything of consequence were dashed. Halfway through the lunch, she excused herself from the table to go to the bathroom, feeling a little more dejected than she knew she had any right to. Even if they hadn't been interrupted, chances were that she would have chickened out anyway.

Just as she had entered the short hall to the facilities, a welcome voice rang out behind her.

"Hey Anna, wait up!" Punzie looked… different when she approached. There was a spark in her eyes that was a little bit excited; perhaps hopeful. "You wanted to ask me something earlier?"

"N-no. Well yes. Maybe." When Punz simply looked at her, expectant, Anna caved. Biting her lip, she dragged a hand through her hair. "So, um, here's the thing. Dancing. It's happening, a-and since they probably won't let us play, I kinda need someone to go with. Like you said! Well, I mean, not that you… uhh…"

Punzie had closed the distance between them while Anna was busy trying to wrangle her unruly thoughts. She leaned forwards with a small, soft grin before reaching her hand around behind Anna's back. The redhead let out a whimper as she felt Punzie's hand trace a pattern on her back jean pocket before being very disappointed with its sudden withdrawal.

"Grandma's address and number. My phone's being fixed by the Geniuses at the mall right now, and we're staying there while they finish renovating my bathroom so we have to go back to the stone ages and use a landline. Pick me up at seven. Dress nice!"

When Anna's brain refocused on the present, she discovered that Punzie had scrawled a series of lines on the back of the Clocktower flyer, each as precious as gold dust to a horny teen. Her putting it in Anna's pocket was just a very nice icing on an even nicer cake.

"O-kay," she managed to sputter as she slipped it back into her pocket. Funny how she could normally be so confident – even "a cocky slacker" according to Vice-Principal Weselton – but Punz could turn her into a jellyfish with an almost-butt grab, soft words and a smile. "And did you think about… you know, the plans for after?"

"Driving up to North Lake?" Punz bit her lip, finally looking a little less than completely sure of herself. "We'll see if I'm ready. But I'm leaning toward 'hell yes'."

Anna's grin could have lit up the dark side of the moon. "Great! I mean… yes, that's… yes. Hope you feel ready when the time comes. Might even uh, have a little surprise for you…"

"Even if I don't, it's not because I don't like you," she reassured her, that same soft smile on her face. "It's just new. You and me, we've been friends forever, so changes are… weird." Then she nudged Anna and tacked on, "But this change… I don't think I'm gonna have a problem with. Also, nipple piercings aren't a surprise when you take me to get them because you're too chicken to go on your own."

And with that parting remark, the smirking girl backed away, returning to their table. Anna gazed after her for a moment.

"'M not a chicken…" she mumbled to herself.

It was only when Punz glanced back over to her that Anna remembered why she'd gotten up in the first place. Right, yes. Things to do. Ogling could wait until after. But she was on top of the world and nothing was going to knock her off that perch.

Nothing but a nuclear explosion.

To Be Continued…