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by cowardice or courage

Chapter Text

Erica Forman is a miserable waste of oxygen.

Her father reminds her of this fact every day. He wanted a son. It's not a secret, even if her mother pretends it is. But Erica wonders if he really would have treated her any different, if she'd been born a boy. She'd still be a dumbass, wouldn't she?

Erica's sister reminds her of this fact, too, whenever she's home from college. Her sister who doesn't try at school (Erica tries, so hard) and doesn't try to please their parents either (so hard) and yet she's still the favorite. (Not that Erica's bitter. No, not at all.)

It's simply the laws of nature. Laurie has a glittering smile and perfect hair, and Erica has bitten-down fingernails and sarcasm. Laurie got every scrap of charisma and good looks their parents had to offer, so by the time Erica was born, there was none left for her. At least, that's her highly scientific theory.

Erica needs theories to explain things. Otherwise, the world is nothing but pain and suffering with no logic in it.

Anyway. Erica isn't sure if she even wants to be attractive the way Laurie is. The way that makes boys drool in her wake and girls call her a whore.

Erica wears the plainest clothes out of whatever Kitty throws at her during fits of motherly fashion intervention. She keeps her hair in a bland bob, so she doesn't have to mess with it, besides tucking it behind her ears when she's nervous. Her posture is terrible because she stands like she wants to fold up into nothing. (If only she could.)

She always shoves her hands into her jacket pockets, even though her mother chides her, "Stand nicely, Erica, dear. And would it hurt you to put on a little makeup?"

Every day Erica thanks God for her friends, who make her miserable existence just about bearable.

1. Don Pinciotti, school heartthrob who only hangs out with Erica because they're next-door neighbors and have been friends since forever.

(Except that it turns out he has an inexplicable, illogical thing for her. But that's a new development. Erica doesn't have a theory to explain it yet.)

2. Michelle Kelso, gorgeous, goofy, always down for a good time, and attached at the hip to 3. her type-A boyfriend Jack Burkhart, of Napoleonic height and disposition. Trailed by 4. Fez the exchange student, who insists that Fez is the only shortening of her unpronounceable name which she'll accept, ignoring all counterpoints re: how it sounds like a guy's name in English. Or a kind of hat.

And then there's 5. Hyde. Stephanie Hyde.

(Who hates the name Stephanie, and tolerated 'Stephie' when she was younger, but now only goes by Hyde, for reasons which are unclear but somehow need no explanation.)

Erica wishes she could move through the world like Hyde does. That's why she's basically always watching Hyde, from the corner of her eyes. Taking notes. Hyde does everything with ineffable confidence, taking up all the space she likes, stretching, smoking, sitting like a boy...

(Hyde dresses like a boy, too. Hyde does everything like a boy, but better, so much better, because it's Hyde, and sometimes her smirk makes Erica feel like she's been set on fire.)

They're alone in the basement, listening to records. Erica sits on her hands, on the couch. Hyde sits in her chair, legs splayed wide, hands interlocked behind her head. She's been cutting her own hair since they were 14, buzzing the back and sides, leaving the top long to flop over onto her forehead, in a tumble of soft, frizzy golden-brown curls.

"Hyde?"

"Yeah."

"Have you ever kissed anyone?"

Hyde stiffens for one millisecond, then answers without any change in tone, "Yeah."

"Really?" Erica can't conceal her surprise. She can't picture Hyde kissing. It's like... an equation that doesn't compute.

Hyde + boy = ??

Hyde + ?? = ????

Before she can stop herself, Erica blurts out, "Who?"

"Nobody you'd know."

Erica furrows her brow. "Hyde, we go to the same school and we've been friends since we were six. Who could you possibly be kissing that I wouldn't know?"

Hyde shrugs a shoulder. "I go to bars."

"Oh, yeah? What bars?"

"Grown-up bars. Not around here.”

It gives Erica a prickly feeling in her stomach, to picture Hyde going off to faraway ‘grown-up bars,’ to lock lips with parties unknown. Hyde’s always had that aura of ‘I’ve got cooler places I could be’ but Erica never considered it might actually be true.

“So, what, you lead a double life? Why have you never told me about this?” She smiles, so it doesn’t come out like an accusation. She wiggles her hands, mocking, “Where are these mythical ‘grown-up bars’?”

Hyde wiggles her hands right back, matches Erica’s tone. “In the mythical land of Milwaukee.”

“Oh. Milwaukee. Okay.” Erica crosses her arms. “Well. If you take me along next time, I may forgive you for keeping this secret from me.”

Hyde laughs. Her face drops. “Yeah. That’s not happening.”

"Aw, c’mon. I could handle it. I can be cool.”

“Right. Like that time we tried to sneak in to see Carrie and you stole Laurie’s perfume to pass for 17? Only you used so much that people complained and they kicked us out anyway?”

“I didn’t know you’re supposed to ‘walk through the spray!’”

Hyde chuckles. “I don’t think your sister knows, either.”

The record is over, but Hyde doesn't get up to flip it. Erica doesn't, either. She stares at the table, at the ruins of their Monopoly game.

"So… would you say you’re good at kissing?"

"What is this, a fuckin’ survey, man?"

"I'm just..." Erica sighs. "Don asked me out."

Hyde’s eyebrows shoot up. For a face as schooled as hers, that’s the equivalent of a 9.0 on the Richter scale. But she just nods.

"Attaboy Don," she deadpans.

Hyde is not one to gush and squeal. Ever. (She gets excited about music and stuff like that, but her joy is always somewhat contained, as if to fit within a predetermined space.) Erica likes that about her.

But… well, this is a pretty big deal, isn’t it? Ask any girl at Point Place High, they’ll tell you Don is a real catch. And it’s the first time Erica has ever been asked out. By anyone.

She swallows, and says lamely, "I want to be prepared, that's all."

Hyde turns her head, and looks straight at Erica. Or as straight as it gets with her sunglasses on. "You're askin' me to teach you how to kiss?"

Erica's throat goes completely dry. All she can do is nod.

Hyde scoffs, and slides down in the chair, tilts her head back. "Only way to learn is to do it."

Hyde's neck stretches out when she tilts her head back. Solid neck leading into the sharp, stubborn tilt of her jaw. Erica's pulse thuds hard.

The words get stuck, for some reason. That’s why she stammers when she pushes them out.

"So? Will- will you teach me, then?"

Hyde lowers her head, looks over. Then, slowly, she stands up.

Erica tries to be cool, but ends up scrambling to her feet. She faces Hyde. She can't breathe.

She's never kissed anyone before. That's why she's so nervous. She wonders if this will still count as a first kiss if it's just practice, since they're just friends, because what the hell else could they be, and would Don care and what if someone walks into the basement right now and-

Hyde takes off her sunglasses.

Her eyes flicker to Erica's mouth, and ohgodohgodohgod, this is really going to happen. Erica shuts her eyes, braces herself.

But then Hyde claps a hand on Erica's shoulder, almost knocking her over. Erica blinks her eyes open.

Hyde smirks.

"Sorry, Forman. But I don't know anything about how to kiss boys."

And then she leaves. Leaves Erica standing there with her mouth agape, trying to figure out what the hell that was supposed to mean. In the end, she gives up, and flops down onto the couch.

Try as she might, Erica will never find a theory to explain Stephanie Hyde.

Chapter Text

Erica lays on her narrow twin bed, and reflects.

She survived. Her first (and probably last) date with Don.

It was so… weird. They’re best friends, so it wasn’t awkward like stranger-awkward. It only got awkward at the end, when they were lying on their backs on the hood of the Vista Cruiser, parked in the driveway.

A tension had filled the air between them, sucked all the words away. Erica knew this was it. The moment of truth. Now or never.

Don got up and said goodbye, and then he turned back around. He kind of sidled up next to where Erica was still on the hood. He looked down at her mouth, and Erica knew what he was going for.

(So weird.)

She’d been nervous, but a very different kind of nervous than with Hyde in the basement. It was nauseous and heavy, filled her with lead instead of butterflies.

Don kissed her.

Erica kissed him back.

And it was… kind of nice, she guessed. It was warm. And wet. But mostly, all Erica could think was, this is it?

Seriously?

Then it hit her, that she was kissing Don Pinciotti, Don, who always beat her at hoops, and she always beat him at chess, and this was how their friendship would end? Mushing their mouths together?

That had been the final straw.

She’d started to laugh.

Once she started, she couldn’t stop. Helpless, hysterical, bubbling up her chest. Don had pulled back, and the shocked expression on his face only made Erica laugh harder, and then he’d started laughing, too.

When they finally straightened up, they’d looked at each other and decided, then and there, that it simply was not going to happen between them.

At the time, Erica had been filled with an overwhelming relief.

But now, now that the adrenaline has faded, she lays on her bed and wonders.

Everyone says Don is a dream guy. Tall, hunky, sweet, patient. And he is, all of those things. Plus, he likes Erica. (For some reason.) He even gets her weird sense of humor.

(Kisses are supposed to be magical. Kelso waxes poetic about making out with Jack. How it makes her down there go all tingly. Kisses are supposed to make you feel something.)

If Erica can’t feel anything with ‘Dreamy’ Don, then what on earth is wrong with her?

✖︎

That night, Erica dreams.

Don is there. He’s dressed like a shipwreck victim, in a tattered shirt and pants. Erica is just in her pajamas. Oh, and apparently this dream is taking place on a pirate ship. For no reason whatsoever.

But something’s wrong. Don’s hands are tied behind his back, and so are Erica’s, and there’s a crowd of pirates all around them, leering and taunting. Fez and Kelso are both wearing eyepatches, lifting up enormous mugs of grog and roaring along with the rest, “Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss!”

The pirate captain is her father, of course, wearing a tri-pointed hat with a feather. “What’re you waiting for, Erica? Go on, kiss the neighbor boy. You won’t ever be able to hook a better fish than him.”

“Oh now, Captain Red, don’t say that.” His first mate is Erica’s mother, in a ‘piratess’ corset and petticoats. She gives Erica a look. “Although, sweetie… he isn’t wrong.” She laughs nervously.

Erica struggles to break free of her bonds. “But- I don’t want to!”

“Come on, Erica,” Don pleads. “We’re meant to be.”

“Yeah, meant to be best friends!”

Her father pulls a big shiny cutlass out of nowhere, and points it at her. “Kiss Don, or you’re walking the plank, dumbass!”

“Fine.” Erica steels herself, and steps up onto the plank. “Wait!” She turns around. “Before I go… what’s the combination for Davy Jones’ locker?”

Just then, a figure comes swinging down from the mast on a rope, snatching up Erica by the waist. The two swoop through the air, to land gracefully on the deck.

“That was a terrible joke, Forman.”

Erica breaks into a grin. “Hyde! You saved me!”

Hyde grins back, her arm still tight around Erica’s waist. “Whatever.”

She’s dressed like Robert Shaw from Swashbuckler, and against all odds, the red jumpsuit with a deep-V neckline looks good on her. She could make anything look good.

Erica feels so warm and tingly where Hyde is touching her. She talks without thinking, the way talking always works in dreams.

“You know what I have to do now, right? The grateful damsel in distress always gives her hero a kiss.”

Hyde lets go, and steps away from her. “I’m not your goddamn hero,” she snaps.

“Hyde, c’mon, I didn’t mean-” But before she can finish, the ship starts rocking beneath them.

“Ay, no!” Fez swoons into Kelso’s arms. “It’s the kraken!”

A tentacle slithers onto the deck, and wraps around Erica’s ankle. “Hyde, help!” she screams.

Hyde shrugs. “Hey, this is your stupid dream. Fight your own monsters.”

The ship continues to shake, as more tentacles rise up out of the water. The monster roars in Laurie’s voice, shrill and piercing, “What is wrong with you, Erica?”

“God, you’re such a freak!”

Erica wakes up, panting, in a sweaty tangle of bedsheets. Her pillow is lying on the floor.

She flops back onto the bed, breathing heavily, and shuts her eyes. Heat pools low in her stomach. The image of Hyde in that open-chested shirt flickers under her eyelids, slowly fading. Erica clenches her hands into fists.

Freak.

✖︎

A week later, they’re all in the basement, watching TV. The only person missing is Don, stuck helping out his dad at the store. Kelso is painting her nails, having ignored all their collective protests at the smell.

She pinches the brush between the wet-nailed fingers of her left hand, trying to paint her right. "Damn!" She sighs loudly. "Can someone do my right hand?"

There's a beat of silence. Erica looks down at her own bitten, unpainted nails. Then over at Hyde, who makes a face like yeah, right. Fez is busy poring through Red's latest issue of Field & Stream with great interest.

"I'll do it," says Jack. They all shoot him a look. "What? I have a steady hand and a keen eye."

"Thanks, baby." Kelso beams, and holds out her hand. She tosses her head, setting her glossy, winged-out hair a-flutter.

Erica bites her lip. “Kelso, don’t take this the wrong way, but... why do you hang out with us, instead of with- well, the pretty girls?”

"Ey!" Fez bursts. She flips her hair over her shoulder. "Speak for yourself, Erica."

Kelso considers Erica's question. “I tried, once. They’re nice and all, but man, I got so hungry.”

Erica furrows her brow. “What?”

“They never eat! It was like- hanging out with a bunch of monks on hunger strike or something."

"This is true," Fez says solemnly. "So many American women are scared of food. It is one of the greatest tragedies of this country."

Kelso nods. "Amen."

Erica frowns. "Okay, but in all fairness, Kelso, you have the holy-grail metabolism that lets you eat whatever you want and still look like Cheryl Ladd."

"Don't buy into it, man," says Hyde. "It's the patriarchal-capitalist agenda. Step one, make women feel like shit about their bodies, step two, sell them stuff to look pretty like the advertisements." She concludes, with soapbox gravitas, "Stick it to the Man, eat a hot dog."

Hyde's cheeks always get a little flushed when she talks political. Erica catches herself staring, and looks away.

"Hey!" Kelso jabs a finger in the air, nearly taking out Jack's eye. He glowers at her, capping the bottle of nail polish. Kelso doesn't notice. "'Stick it to the Man,' wouldn't that be a great name for a restaurant? Like Hot Dog on a Stick, but- revolutionary!" She nods, with an open grin. "You could sell hot dogs and popsicles."

"You might have something there, Michelle," says Jack, eyes glinting. "I'd be your first investor."

Erica smirks. "Yeah... I think you're not quite grasping Hyde's anti-capitalist critique."

"Anti-cappy-what?" Kelso cocks her head, confused for a second, before she shrugs. "Aw man, now I just really want a hot dog."

“Ooh!” Fez points at the TV. “Gilligan’s Island is on.”

Gears of memory start to shift in Erica’s mind. Shipwreck. Ship. Pirate ship... oh god-

She freezes. She doesn’t even have to look over at Hyde for her face to flush hot with guilt. She doesn’t know what she’s guilty of, exactly. But the guilt is there, burning her from the inside out.

Kelso gives her a look. “You okay, Erica?”

“Um.” She gulps. “I have to- go swab the deck- I mean, sweep the garage!” She scrambles off the couch, and takes the stairs two at a time.

No matter how fast she dashes out of the basement, she can’t escape the churning, dizzy feeling in her stomach. The feeling that wasn’t there with Don.

“Go away,” she mutters at it savagely.

(For all the good that will do.)

Chapter Text

Hyde is the first one through the basement door. She throws down her schoolbag, then gives it a ferocious kick, sends it flying across the floor. Erica hangs by the wall and watches, scared.

Not of Hyde. (Never.) More like scared for her.

"Dammit!" Hyde makes her hands into fists, and grinds them into her forehead, face flushed red and twisted in pain. Erica genuinely doesn't know what to do. She has never seen Hyde like this, before.

But it's better to focus on Hyde, on an exterior problem, than to allow any space for how she feels, inside. (Angry. So angry. All twisted-up and swirling and scared.)

If Erica stops to think about that, then she might start crying. And never stop.

"Hyde..." But it was a mistake to say her name, because it's like a lever that makes all the emotion rise up, and clog Erica's throat.

"Fuckin' dyke."

"Hey. You leave Hyde alone."

"Aww, look. The dyke has a little lezzie girlfriend."

"Forman. Don't-"

"Say, Tom, why don't you go shove your hockey stick up your ass?"

"I'm sorry," Erica lets out, in a shuddering breath.

This snaps Hyde out of it, enough to lower her hands, and stare at Erica.

"What the hell are you apologizing for?" She bites the words off, quiet but burning.

"For- for-" Erica swallows hard. She's determined not to cry. (Hyde isn't crying. Although it's hard to tell for sure, with the sunglasses.) "For talking back. It's my fatal flaw. And I always make it worse, I talk back to my dad and I make it worse, I talk back to that asshole today and I-"

"Shut up, Forman." Hyde doesn't sound angry anymore. She just sounds tired. "Please. Shut up."

"Okay." Erica sinks down onto the couch. She wishes it would swallow her whole. "I'm shutting up."

Rough, strange hands.

Erica shuts her eyes. She doesn't want to see it again. She doesn't have a choice. It replays and replays: Tom grabbing Erica's shoulders, sneering down at her, and Hyde moving faster than light, driving her fist into his chin.

Crack.

"Stephanie Hyde. Principal's office. Now."

Hyde paces back and forth, jaw cocked at a volatile angle. Erica folds her arms over her stomach and stares at the empty TV screen.

"This really is perfect," Hyde mutters. "Just the freakin’ cherry on top of the goddamn sundae. A weeklong suspension, and Edna's skipped town again, so looks like I'll be living on saltines for a week.”

Erica lifts her head. "What?"

Hyde stops pacing.

"Your mom is gone?"

"Not gone gone," says Hyde, with a certainty that masks a shakiness underneath. "She does this all the time. She leaves for a while and comes back."

"Hyde..." Erica treads softly. "Is school lunch the only meal you eat?"

Predictably, she bristles, closing up. "Just- forget I said anything, okay? That isn't what's important here."

"Okay, what is important, then?"

Hyde rips off her sunglasses. Her eyes are red. "That he- you- you didn't-"

(Hyde is always so smooth, too smooth, always ready with a quip, a burn, some wise insight.)

She can't speak.

"I didn't what, Hyde?"

At last, it bursts out of her. "You didn't correct him."

Erica narrows her eyes. "I... what?"

"Didn't you hear what he called you? Do you know what it means? Do you need me to draw you a picture, or go get a dictionary-"

"What, 'lezzie?'"

"Yes," Hyde growls. "As in 'lesbian.'"

The word is a lightning bolt down her spine.

Erica doesn't even know how to respond. Somehow it feels like they're having an argument. Hyde isn't just mad at Tom, mad at the world, she's mad at Erica. And they're supposed to be on the same side. It makes Erica mad, too. She gets to her feet.

"Hyde, he called you worse."

Dyke.

"Yeah, but it's different."

"How is it diff-"

"Because I am one!"

Silence floods the basement like water. Erica is trapped in it, suspended several inches from the floor. She can't breathe. Her lungs burn. The rest of her goes limp and cold.

"Oh, Jesus, Jesus Christ." Hyde buries her face in her hands. She stands horribly, horribly still.

Part of Erica just wants to hug her. Another part wants to run up to her bedroom and scream into her pillow. And part of her wants to crawl into a hole and die.

She can't imagine what Hyde is feeling.

Erica's knowledge in this area consists of cryptic comments her parents sometimes make, "those odd people," and photographs in the newspaper of said 'odd people,' women and men and not-quite-either, screaming at police officers. Plus very fuzzy gossip at school. (Usually surrounding Hyde.) She's always dismissed it.

Because queers are bad, and Hyde is good (so good, everything good) - ergo, Hyde can't be queer.

"Okay. Well." Hyde straightens, sniffs. "Good talk. I'll just- leave you alone forever, now. Cool? Cool."

She's halfway across the basement before Erica catches up to her, puts a hand on her shoulder, spins her around.

"Hyde-"

She doesn't finish. Words are pale and inadequate in comparison to her arms wrapped around Hyde's shoulders, tight enough to squeeze the air from both their lungs.

It isn't comfort, exactly. It hurts.

Hyde's heartbeat drums against Erica's chest, all of her still and unmoving except for her heart. Erica's beats just as fast. She presses her face into the collar of Hyde's jacket and inhales cigarettes and stale weed and sweat. It should not smell good to her but it does, so good, because it's Hyde.

Erica holds onto her like this, painfully tight, for a long time. Neither says a word. If Hyde wanted to escape, she could. Erica is hardly the epitome of strength.

So she must not want to, because she doesn't move. She doesn't hug back, but that's okay. Erica senses that would be asking a lot.

At last, Erica speaks up. "It's okay." The words come out hoarse and raw.

Hyde stiffens. "I don't need you to tell me it's okay."

"Well, too bad." Erica injects some of her usual snark into her voice. "I already did. So, there."

Hyde's shoulders start to shake. For one stunned second Erica thinks Hyde is crying, before she hears that raspy, cackling laugh. Erica loosens her grip, and before she knows it, she's laughing, too, still hanging onto Hyde's shoulders. Tight, gasping laughter, spinning out the frayed ends of their nerves.

It fades quickly. The air is too heavy, and they're both breathing sort of hard. Hyde steps back, out of Erica's reach.

"So, are we-" she stammers, again, so unlike herself, and doesn't look Erica in the eyes. "Are we cool?"

"Yeah." Erica smiles. "We're cool."

"Good. Now I can chew you out for that dillhole stunt you pulled today."

"Hey!" Erica shows her palms. "I thought we were cool!"

Hyde points a finger at her. "We are cool. What you did was not."

"I already apologized, didn't I? Besides, I was defending you." Erica crosses her arms. "You should be grateful."

Hyde laughs, but there isn't any humor in it. "Oh, you defended me? Yeah, you were a real white knight, Forman. The way you froze up like Bambi in the headlights the second Tom put his hands on you." She's not smiling anymore. Her face is flushed, eyes shining. "The way you were gonna just let him-"

She stops.

Finally, Erica sees it. The fear that Hyde is so skilled at concealing. She'd been just as scared as Erica was. Scared for Erica. It was harder to tell, because Hyde's fear came out like anger, like a fist, in the angle of her shoulders, putting herself between Erica and Tom without a moment's hesitation.

"Erica..." Hyde starts, and that's how Erica knows it's going to be bad, because Hyde never calls her by her first name. "Maybe it's a good thing I got suspended," she sighs.

"Okay, now who's the dillhole," says Erica sharply.

"I'm serious." Hyde rubs her brow. It makes her look like she's 26, instead of 16. "I think it would be a good idea if we... spent less time together. In public, I mean."

Erica's face screws up, confused. "What?" She pantomimes knocking on Hyde's skull. "Hello? Is that you in there, Hyde? Since when do you care what other people think?"

"I don't," Hyde snaps. "I am who I am, and I'm not ashamed. Hell, the way I look, I might as well tape a sign to my back. I'm okay with that. I can defend myself. But you-" She swallows. "You didn't sign up for this shit. You shouldn't have to deal with it."

"But then we'd be letting them win," says Erica weakly.

"Well, sometimes that's what you gotta do. Don't you think I wish I could wipe the floor with every jackass who's ever called me a four-letter word? But I don't, I rise above it, and live to fight the system another day. It's called picking your battles."

Erica stares in wonder at her friend, and realizes just how much Hyde has changed over the last couple years.

14-year-old Hyde was at war with everyone. Would pick a fight at the slightest provocation, and fight dirty, too. 14-year-old Hyde would have laid Tom out merely for looking at her funny.

15-year-old Hyde was sullen and moody, mostly silent, still prone to breaking things. She would disappear for whole weekends, claimed she was going 'camping.' But she always came back. And slowly, after many solo 'camping trips,' she became happier, more relaxed, more at home in herself.

And now, as if the dust has settled, 16-year-old Hyde is self-contained, reserved. Cautious. And Erica can't quite say why, but there's something heartbreaking in that.

She clenches her hands into fists, and speaks from deep in her gut. "Dammit, Hyde, no. I won't do it. You're my friend, and I'm not going to let Tom or anyone else stop us from talking to each other in public."

It's Hyde's turn to stare in wonder, at Erica. Her brow furrows. "Look, I appreciate the sentiment, man. Believe me, I do. But you really don't understand what it's like."

Erica nods. "I know, but I can try to understand-"

"No!" Hyde throws out her hands. "That's just it. I don't want you to understand. I don't want you to know."

Erica falls silent. She crosses an arm over her stomach, to grip the other. She stares at the ground.

Hyde stares into nothing. She takes a deep breath, lets it all the way out.

"I think I need to go," she says.

Six short words. They drop like bombs in Erica's chest.

Of course, Hyde could have meant 'go' as in leaving the basement. Going to her house. But that is not what she meant, and Erica knows. There was something heavy in her voice, something distant and hardened. (Not hard as in mean. No. Hard with the burden of grown-up decisions.)

"Go?" Erica repeats, numbly. Her ears start ringing. "Go where?"

"Away."

Panic spreads through Erica, and she grabs Hyde's hand, though she knows, instantly, it was a mistake. "Please, don't. Hyde- please."

"Let go 'a me." She rips her hand out of Erica's. She runs her fingers back through her hair, making it go fuzzy and wild. "It won't be forever. Probably. I just- I need to go."

"Probably?" It comes out shrill and hysterical. "Probably not forever? Are you crazy? Or, are- are you punishing me, is that it?"

"No, I'm not-" Hyde scowls. "News flash, Forman, this isn't all about you."

"Oh, of course not. I'm just a background character in the drama of everyone else's lives. I always forget. But the minute I stand up and do something, the universe reminds me that I'm supposed to shut up and sit back and just let things happen to me."

Hyde gives her a look, like what are you talking about? She shakes her head. "Whatever, man." She turns away, and crosses the room to pick up her schoolbag, and sunglasses from where they dropped to the floor.

"You know what, Hyde? You know what this really is?" Erica lets the words fly, her voice warm, panic pushing it outward to fill the room. "You're leaving me just like your mom leaves you."

Hyde stops, halfway to the door. She goes very still.

Oh, God. Now Erica's really done it. She knows she should stop, but no, she makes it worse. (She always makes it worse.)

"Deep down, you want to be the one who leaves." Her voice is waterlogged, hot tears dripping from her chin. "You want to hurt me."

Hyde turns around. Erica waits for her to get mad, start yelling. But she doesn't.

She smiles.

"You know what, Forman?" The smile drops, and she finishes in a leaden voice, "Fuck you."

She puts on her sunglasses, and leaves the basement. The door slams shut behind her.

Erica sinks to her knees, and that's when the sobs really start, and she is helpless to stop them.

Chapter Text

Hyde is gone.

At first, Erica entertained hopes that maybe she only said it to make a point, which would be a jerk thing to do, but forgivable. At least, Erica would be willing to forgive if Hyde forgave her, too.

Then, the day after their big argument, Erica drove over to Hyde's house, and pounded on the door. She had waited on the porch, yelling through the door at intervals, for about 20 minutes, before she noticed that there was a window open.

She slipped through. Searched each room methodically, even though the truth was obvious the moment she'd stepped foot inside. There was no one there. Erica felt like the world's most depressing detective, collecting clues. Hyde's favorite jacket was gone, along with her schoolbag.

Erica was about to leave when she saw it. A piece of notebook paper skewered on the TV antennae. She ripped it off, and her eyes ran over Hyde's familiar scrawl.


Ma -

I'm gone. Safe, just had to go. Call Jen's if emergency.

- Steph

Erica let the note flutter to the floor. She ran out of the untidy, cigarette-infused living room, tumbled back through the window. She collapsed to all-fours on the ground outside, and heaved, tasting bile in her throat. All that came out was a pathetic string of spit.

She staggered upright, wiped her mouth, and drove home.

Since then, several days have passed, and it has slowly sunk into her. Starting in her chest, spreading out to her limbs, making every step difficult and heavy.

Hyde is gone.

(And it's all Erica's fault.)

"Erica, how is your little friend Stephanie? I haven't seen her around lately."

Erica swirls her spoon in her cornflakes. She doesn't even have the heart to correct, like she usually does, "It's Hyde, Mom."

"She got suspended," Erica says flatly. It's not a lie. (Just not the whole truth.)

Her mother's mouth purses, in both disapproval and worry, a combination that she has nailed. "Oh, dear. What happened?"

Blood rushes in Erica's ears. "I don't know. I, uh, I wasn't there."

Kitty gives her a shrewd look, one that says Erica is not off the hook, but she'll let it slide for now. She shakes her head. "I do wonder how she gets by, with that mother of hers."

Her father snaps the newspaper, and grunts. "Stephanie Hyde? Eh, she's a tough girl. She can take care of herself."

"But Red, she shouldn't have to. She's still a child."

"Can we talk about something else, please?" Erica is staring hard at her cereal, and it's turning blurry in front of her.

"Well, you tell that Stephanie she is always welcome in this house."

Erica looks at her mom, who is spreading jam on her toast with brisk efficiency. Erica fights a strange impulse, to snap, Oh, really, Mom? And what if she's a lesbian? Would she still be welcome?

"Mm." Her father gives Kitty a look, then licks his thumb, to turn a page. "She's a little odd, isn't she? Stephanie."

"What do you mean by 'odd,' Dad?" The question comes out sharper than Erica meant.

He looks at her, in both disapproval and warning, a combination he has nailed. "I mean, she's odd," he snaps. "She dresses like a boy."

Erica rests her spoon on the table. The fight rises up her throat. "She wears jeans and t-shirts. I wear jeans and t-shirts." This is a gross oversimplification. Most of Hyde's clothes are baggy, most of Erica's are tight. But she's making a point. "I don't see what's so 'odd' about it."

"What's the matter with you?" Red gestures to Erica's cereal. "Shut up and eat your breakfast."

"No." Erica has lost her patience. "I want to hear exactly why you think Hyde is odd."

"He didn't mean it as an insult, dear," Kitty soothes. "It's just, well- she is odd. But she's a nice girl. And we've known her since she was as tall as this table! Gosh, I remember how the two of you used to steal all of Red's tools out of the garage and play treasure hunt with them. Oh, that was just a hoot." She laughs, then falters under Red's look, and goes back to poking her eggs.

Erica's heart warms, for one instant, at the memory. Then the pain comes rushing back, worse than before.

"I have to go to school." She stands up, and takes her bowl to the sink.

"But you didn't eat one bite of your cereal!"

"I have to go, Mom."

"Oh, no you don't. Breakfast is the most important-"

Erica silences her mother with a glare. She lifts the cereal bowl to her mouth, and drains the milk. It spills over the sides, drips down her chin, makes a mess on her shirt. She doesn't care. She dumps the bowl in the sink, and bangs through the swinging door as loud as she can.

Through the door she hears her mother's voice, a bit nervous, "You know, Red- Erica is a little odd, too."

And Erica smiles bitterly.

✖︎

Then, just when things couldn't get any worse, Laurie arrives. Right on cue.

The week drags on (the worst week of Erica's life, no contest) and Laurie still won't leave. The truth comes out: she flunked out of college. Of course. Under any other circumstances, Erica would be beside herself with delight that Laurie has done something to demote her status in the eyes of their parents.

But she just can't make herself care.

Even Laurie notices. She swaggers into the living room, with her usual greeting. "Hey, freak." She takes a pillow and smacks Erica on the head with it. "Move over."

Erica scoots, to make room on the couch. Laurie sits down, and snatches the remote off Erica's thigh. She changes the channel, and challenges Erica with a smirk. Erica doesn't even look away from the screen.

"What, no protest? What is your problem?" Laurie puts on a fake grin. "Did Mom and Dad finally save up enough for your lobotomy?"

"Shut up," Erica says, without feeling.

Laurie's face morphs into something almost approaching concern. "Geez. Now that I'm stuck at home, the least you could do is be your usual freak self, so I have some entertainment."

Erica doesn't respond.

"Where are all your freak friends?" Laurie chatters on, obviously trying to provoke some reaction. "Where's Hyde? Has she gotten herself thrown in jail, yet?"

Erica clenches her jaw. "She left."

"Oh, really?" Laurie doesn't take it seriously. She never takes anything seriously. "Did she go off the grid at last? To a free-love commune? Or maybe she's more the cult type."

"Shut up," Erica growls.

"You need to work on your comebacks, because that one's pretty stale."

Erica stands up. "Yeah? Well, you need to work on- your... your face!"

She storms away, stomping up the stairs to her bedroom. She slams the door behind her.

"You know what, Forman?"

Erica slides down her door, folding up into nothing. (Or as close as she can get.) She hugs her knees, forehead pressed into her arms, to make a dark cave where no one can see her, not even herself.

"Fuck you."

✖︎

The mood in the basement is somber. Like it's been for the past week and a half.

"Hey, who wants to play Monopoly?" Kelso tries.

Silence.

Don sighs, leaning his elbow on the arm of the couch. "It's kinda boring without Hyde here to make up a bunch of weird rules about rent control and property taxes."

"Her rules don't even make sense," says Jack.

Don shrugs. "That's what makes it fun."

"I have a fun game," Erica snaps. "It's called, 'Let's Quit Talking About Hyde.' Ready, set, go."

"Geez, Erica. Relax." Don gives her an uneasy sideways look.

Fez frowns at Erica. "You have been getting more and more grumpy ever since Hyde left. It's like you are trying to bring her back by embodying her spirit."

Erica crosses her arms, and sinks down lower on the couch. "You lost the game," she mutters.

"You know, Erica, you were the last person to talk to Hyde. Did she say anything about where she was going?"

"You've asked me that a hundred times, Michelle." Erica has begun calling Kelso by her first name. The person who started calling her 'Kelso' was Hyde, and it feels wrong to continue the tradition. "And my answer is the same. No, I have no idea where she is." She scowls. "And you lost the game, too."

Jack smooths out a crease in his slacks, and sniffs. "Well. Her suspension ended 4 days ago. If Hyde doesn't come back in the next 6 days, she'll be un-enrolled."

"I'm sure she'll come back soon," says Don. He doesn't sound very sure.

"Now everyone's lost the game!" bursts Erica with bright, false cheer. "Congratulations, that lasted, like, one minute."

Kelso looks up at everyone from where she's sitting on the floor, her doe eyes big and shiny. "You guys... don't you think we should, like, tell someone about this? Not to be a snitch, but- Hyde could really be in trouble."

Erica's stomach churns. She has tried not to think about that possibility, and she's been mostly successful. Until now.

Fez gasps. "What if she's lost in the desert!"

They all shoot her a look.

"You know the Wisconsin Desert is super small, right?" says Don. "And not at all close to here?"

"We have a desert?" Kelso is shocked.

Fez waves a hand. "In the movies, whenever someone gets lost, they wind up in a desert. It's just how it works."

No one can argue this logic.

"Michelle is right," says Jack. "Someone should report Hyde missing to the police. Or we should tell an adult, so they can do it."

The word 'police' turns on a little red warning light in Erica's brain. Being- the way Hyde is... well, it isn't a crime, exactly. (But- Erica thinks about the newspaper stories, with the pictures of angry people screaming at police officers. She thinks about how when Hyde is scared, she gets angry.)

Erica says carefully, slowly, "I don't think Hyde would want us... to send the police out looking for her."

"Of course she wouldn't, she's Hyde," Jack dismisses. "But it doesn't matter what she wants. What matters is that she's safe."

Everyone looks at him, surprised.

He crosses his arms. "Alright, so Hyde and I have our differences. Ideological, religious, political... fashion differences. But that doesn't mean I don't care about her wellbeing." He frowns. "Besides, without her around, there's no one smart enough for me to debate with."

Don gives him a flat look. "Wow, Jack," he deadpans. "That was... almost heartfelt."

"Thank you." Jack smiles.

Kelso gets up, and goes to stand behind Jack's chair, resting her hands on his shoulders. "I'm with Jack. We should call the police."

"You guys, I'm telling you, that's a bad idea," Erica insists, but it sounds weaker and weaker, even to her own ears.

"I agree with you, Erica," says Fez. "Police are not always the best way to go."

Erica flashes her eyes to Don. The deciding vote. He looks pained.

"I..." He beetles his eyes between Erica and Jack. He sighs. "I'm sorry, Erica. But I think Hyde's safety is the most important thing."

Erica doesn't bother to argue that Hyde's safety is precisely the reason she doesn't want to involve the police. They wouldn't understand.

"It's settled then," says Jack. He stands up, and he seems proud to have provided the solution. "We'll go upstairs and tell Mr. and Mrs. Forman, right now."

Erica sits frozen on the couch. She screws her eyes shut.

Out of nowhere, it hits her. Divine inspiration. A memory from several weeks ago, when she asked Hyde to teach her how to kiss. And Hyde talked about the 'grown-up bars' she went to. Only now, in retrospect, Erica realizes that these bars are probably more than just bars. They're places where- people like Hyde go. Maybe, just maybe, Hyde would feel safe in those places.

"Where are these mythical 'grown-up bars'?"

"In the mythical land of Milwaukee."

Erica scrambles to her feet, whirling around, to hold up a hand. "Guys, wait."

Jack, Kelso and Don stop in their tracks, already halfway up the stairs.

Erica can't fight a sudden smile. A delicate hope stirs in her chest.

She says, breathless, "I think I know where Hyde is."

Chapter Text

"Milwaukee?" Jack is unconvinced. "What makes you think Hyde would be in Milwaukee?"

The relief Erica felt moments before, having diverted them from calling the police, rapidly deflates. She's come up against a major flaw in this plan: the risk of revealing things to the group that Erica isn't sure Hyde would want them all to know.

She takes a deep breath, and conjures some of Hyde's spirit, to guide her. Be cool. "Something she mentioned offhand, about a month ago. She has... friends there, I think."

"And do you have their addresses?" Jack prods.

"No."

"Okay, any phone numbers?"

Erica says heavily, "No."

"Do you even know their names?"

Erica tries very hard to hold onto her hope, flickering like a candle in a rainstorm. "No," she says, at last.

"Milwaukee is a lot bigger than Point Place," Jack points out, oh-so-helpfully. "A lot. It's a real city."

"Yeah, I know, I've been there before," says Erica, irritated. "It's not on Mars."

Don descends the stairs. "Are there any other clues you can remember?"

"Um." Erica hesitates. "Yeah. Hyde met these friends in bars. Kind of... 'underground' bars."

Jack rolls his eyes. "Why am I not surprised?"

Kelso breaks into a grin. "So what you're saying is... we're gonna go bar-hopping, while we look for Hyde?" She punches a fist in the air. "Alright!" She bounds back down the stairs.

"Wait, wait, wait." Jack follows his girlfriend, palms lifted. "We're doing what?"

"Ooh, yes, I am very much in favor of this plan, too," Fez puts in, with a wiggle of her tight wrap skirt. "We might have to go undercover as sexy dancer girls."

Fez and Kelso immediately begin preparations for such a mission, bumping hips with each other and giggling.

Don puts a hand on Erica's shoulder, and squeezes. "If you think this is worth a try, then I'm in."

"Thanks, Don," she says, grateful.

Jack crosses his arms. "I don't know about this..."

"You don't have to come, Jack." Erica gives him an unfelt smile.

"Oh, no. If Michelle's going, I'm going." He lifts his chin. "Plus, my father, Jack Burkhart Sr., is a very successful lawyer. Something tells me that connection might come in handy, on this particular adventure."

"I sure hope not," quips Erica. Don gives her a look, and she adds, "But thanks, Jack. I think."

"Let's go tomorrow night," says Kelso. "That should give me and Fez enough time to polish our dance routine."

Erica waves her hands. "No. No dance routines. This is serious."

Kelso and Fez both employ their best pouts and puppy-dog eyes, in unison.

"No." Erica remains firm. "We're going there to look for Hyde, and nothing else. We're not going to dance. Or drink. Or have any fun whatsoever."

"Yeah, good luck with that," says Don wryly. He turns serious. "But we have a bigger problem. What are we going to tell our parents, about where we're going? They'll never approve of us going to Milwaukee all by ourselves, at night. Your dad might actually chain you to your bed," he adds to Erica.

Jack pipes up. "My parents never care where I am. So just say you're all coming over to my house after dinner, 8 pm. For a... Friday night soiree."

"What if our parents call yours, asking for us?” says Don.

"Oh, my parents never pick up the phone, even when they're home. So yours will just get the answering machine. It'll probably confuse them so much that they'll give up and assume you're there."

Erica frowns. "Why do you assume none of our parents have answering machines?"

Jack raises his eyebrows. "Do they?"

Silence.

He makes a pursed-lips face, to rest his case.

"Okay." Erica finds herself fighting a smile. "Sounds like we have a plan, then."

She ignores the worry coiled tight in her stomach. That even if they manage to find Hyde (a real needle-in-a-haystack miracle) - she won't want to come back to Point Place with them.

(She probably hates Erica's guts. Forever and ever. Erica couldn't exactly blame her, if she does.)

But the hope keeps flickering. And Erica holds on, weak as it is, because it's all she can do.

✖︎

The hour-long drive to Milwaukee is tense. But it's an excited kind of tense, especially with Kelso, Fez and Jack in such high spirits, dressed to the nines, singing along with the radio. Erica tries to relax a little, and join in, but she can't. Her stomach feels like it's being put through a meat grinder.

They're already driving through Milwaukee (and Jack wasn't wrong, it might as well be New York City, compared to Point Place) by the time Erica dregs up enough courage to broach the heart of the matter.

She finds an open spot on one of the busier streets, and sets about parallel parking into it, while she tries to think of what to say.

"Okay, you guys, listen..." She swallows. Her hands are white-knuckled on the steering wheel, as she glances behind her, to back up. "These bars we're looking for... They're kind of, um-"

"Lesbian bars?" supplies Don.

Erica nearly hits the car behind her. She slams the brake. "Wh-what?" She whirls to Don, mouth agape. "You knew?"

Don gives her his best how-clueless-are-you look. "Uh... yeah? You didn't?"

The rest of the car is quiet. Erica jerks her head around, to give Kelso a questioning look.

She giggles. "Um, Erica, it's not like she hides it."

"And you... you don't mind?"

Kelso frowns. "Well, duh. If I did, why would I hang out with her?" Her how-clueless-are-you look rivals Don's.

Erica turns to Jack, sitting in the middle of the backseat. He gives a cavalier shrug. "One of my uncles is gay, and I have nothing but admiration for him. He's one of the most well-dressed men I've ever met-"

Erica waves him off. "Yeah, uh huh, shut up." She turns to the last member of the group. "Fez?"

Fez throws up her hands, with a huff. "What are we debating? Look, I don't care if Hyde is a lesbian, or a Martian, or whatever. She is our friend. So let's get out of the car and go find her!"

Erica turns back to face front, and lets out a breath. A weight she didn't even know she was carrying has rolled off her shoulders, and she feels ten times lighter.

She pulls the emergency brake. "Yeah, okay." She grins. "Let's go find Hyde."

✖︎

Erica soon realizes that this is going to be a lot harder than she thought.

The first four bars they try are... definitely not gay, or lesbian, or any type of 'underground' bar at all. They are mostly full of men, and cigarette smoke so thick it makes Erica's eyes water.

She finds herself thanking God that Don and Jack are there with them. She doesn't even mind when Don puts a protective hand on her shoulder, to ward off the stares, and mumbled comments that Erica wishes she could un-hear.

They are all but shoved out of the fifth bar, a particularly dim and smoky one (which they thought might be more of the 'underground' nature, but it wasn't, at least not in the way they'd hoped) when they failed to produce ID on request. Even though Erica explained they weren't there to order anything, just looking for a friend.

They re-group on the curb outside, dusting themselves off.

"Damn!" Kelso pulls out a compact, to check her hair, scowling. "I wish we had some fake ID. Drinking would make this a lot more fun."

Jack steals her compact, to check his own hair. "When you're right, you're right, Michelle," he gripes.

Erica frowns, tugging at the sleeves of her jacket. "Come on, you guys, that's not what we're here for. We're-"

"Yes, yes, looking for Hyde. But can't we look for Hyde and get drunk off our asses?" Fez offers.

"No!" Erica throws out her arms. "We can't!"

Don turns to Erica. "You know... I've been thinking. Gay and lesbian bars might not- advertise themselves, on the outside. With signs."

Erica groans. "Then how the hell is anyone supposed to find them?"

"Word-of-mouth?" Don shrugs.

"Oh, I got an idea!" Kelso lights up. "Let's stop someone on the street, and ask them where the gay bars are!"

Erica turns to her, puts on a fake smile. "Great idea, Kelso! Let's play that out. Best case scenario, they laugh in our faces. Worse case scenario? They take us into an alley and beat us up."

"Geez, Erica. You're such a cynic."

Erica shakes her head. (The ghost of Tom's rough grip on her shoulders still haunts her.) "I'm not a cynic. I'm realistic."

"Yeah, right," Jack scoffs. "If that was true, we wouldn't be on this ridiculous goose chase."

"We can't give up yet." Erica says it as much to herself as to anyone else. She sets her jaw. "Let's keep walking in this direction. This seems to be... well, the rougher part of town. Maybe we'll have better luck here." She starts off down the street, and the rest follow.

✖︎

"We've been wandering for over an hour, Erica." Fez kicks a can down the sidewalk. "This is getting us nowhere."

"Except lost," Kelso puts in. "And cold." She pulls Jack's woolen navy pea coat tighter around her shoulders.

Jack shoots her a look. His teeth are chattering. "Oh, you're cold? What about me?"

"Well damn, Jack, I can't control the weather!"

"We're not lost," Don assures them. "I memorized the address of the block where we parked the Vista Cruiser. So you all can thank me later."

Jack cocks an eyebrow. "Uh huh, and do you know how to get there from here?"

Don frowns. "Uh..."

Kelso cups her hands around her mouth, and hollers, "Hyde!" Her voice echoes down the street. Several tough-looking men turn to stare at her, but she doesn't notice. "Hyyyde!"

Fez joins in. "Hyyyyyyyde!"

"Would you two shut up?" snaps Erica, breaking the sullen silence she's stewed in for the past twenty minutes. "She's not a dog. She won't come running at the sound of her name."

Kelso plants her hands on her hips, and glares. "D'you have any better ideas, huh?"

Erica falters, swaying on her feet. She's so tired. Dread weighs like a boulder on her chest.

"Maybe if we could just find somewhere to sit down for a minute..." she starts weakly.

"Yes, like how about a cab. We could all sit down inside it, direct the driver to wherever we parked the Vista Cruiser, and then go home," says Jack.

Erica can't deny the idea has its appeal. She grinds to a halt, and the rest of them follow suit. They linger on a street corner, out of momentum, and at a loss.

Don steps apart from the group, to peer down the street. At that moment, a pasty-skinned blonde woman in high heels and a white leather miniskirt wanders up behind him. "Hey there, you lookin' for some fun?"

Don's face flushes scarlet. He turns, and gapes at the woman, wide-eyed.

She takes a step back, with a husky laugh. "Oh, baby. I'm sorry." She waves a hand. "Didn't see how young you were."

"That's okay," says Don, in a faint voice.

She takes in the group, and their downtrodden state. Her pale eyebrows pinch together. "You kids alright?"

Erica bobs her head, hands shoved in her jacket pockets. "We're fine. Thank you, ma'am."

The woman's eyes go soft. "You don't look fine. Are you lost?"

"As a matter of fact, Miss, we are looking for someone." Fez steps up to her, hands clasped together, with an earnest expression. "Please, can you tell us where the lesbians are?"

Erica jerks Fez back, and clamps a hand over her mouth, hissing, "Dammit, Fez!"

"It's alright." The woman's smile warms. "Listen, if that's what you all are lookin' for, try Castaways South, over on 2nd Street. It's the most popular bar like that I know of. I think it's mostly men and queens, but women sure aren't turned away. At least that'll get you on the right track."

Erica flushes with relief. She listens attentively to the woman's instructions on how to get there, what the building looks like, where the entrance is. They all thank her profusely, and Don, still red-faced, tries to offer her a dollar for her trouble. She waves him away, "I don't charge for directions, baby."

Even though it's another 15 block walk, they set off with spirits lifted, their purpose renewed.

"See? What'd I tell you?" Kelso crows at Erica. "All we had to do was ask!"

Chapter Text

They have some trouble finding Castaways South.

Like Don hypothesized, there's no sign, the windows are all blocked up (except for one tiny square) and the door isn't easy to spot, either. People are going in and out, though. People who look... different from the patrons of the bars they tried before.

Erica, Don, Kelso, Jack and Fez spend several minutes lurking some twenty feet from the entrance. Watching. Stalling.

"Alright. If all of you are too chicken to go in, then I will be the first," proclaims Fez.

She sweeps her hair over her shoulder, and saunters up to the door, pausing only to flash a look that says Well? over her shoulder.

Erica takes a deep breath. "Here goes nothing."

Inside, they're hit by a wave of disco, a warm pulse that fills the air, along with the swirling, mesmerizing movement of people. All kinds of people. Mostly older than Erica and the gang, in their twenties and thirties. A lot of them are dancing, men dancing with men, and women dancing with women (not as many, but still) and simply dancing all together.

There are women made-up lavishly, in beautiful hairdos and dresses. Erica realizes, with a jolt- they're what she's heard called 'female impersonators.' There has to be a better name than that, surely (they're not impersonating anyone, they're unique unto themselves) but she has no idea what it would be.

And the women dancing together- none of whom are wearing dresses- they're the most mesmerizing of all.

Erica knows she shouldn't stare. But she can't stop. At their hands on each other, at their mouths laughing, talking, brushing past each other's ears. Women in loose blouses and tight pants, loose jeans and leather jackets. Short hair teased up, or shaggy around their ears, or long down their backs.

A woman sits on a table with her legs wrapped around another woman's hips. She holds a cigarette in her mouth, while the other lights it, and they're talking low, staring at each other like nobody else exists.

Erica stands stock still. She can't look away.

"We'll look for Hyde on the dance floor," Fez volunteers. She and Kelso rush to answer disco's irresistible call, specifically 'Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel.'

"I should help them," says Jack, and follows the girls eagerly. Kelso pulls him in, with her hundred-watt grin, and soon he's fallen prey to disco, too.

Don got dumped with everyone's coats. He holds them in his arms, and doesn't budge from Erica's side.

Erica feels like something earth-shattering has happened to her, and she can't begin to explain why, or how. She's been ripped open, some new, unnamed part of her laid bare. But Don is still there beside her, with an armful of coats. His eyes are wide, but to his credit, he barely bats an eyelash at the scene before them. Erica smiles up at him.

He returns it, cheeks dimpling. "I'll keep an eye on the coats. And their owners," he says, nodding his head towards the dance floor.

Erica nods. "Listen, Don- thanks. For being here." (Hopefully he knows what she means. Here, in the bar, but also here, in general. In Erica's life. In spite of everything.) "You're a good guy."

"Yeah, I know." His eyes glint. "Now go and find Hyde."

✖︎

Erica has something she likes to think of as 'Hyde radar.' (A side effect of basically always watching her.) She can pick up the pitch of her voice, the slightest hand gesture or shrug, without even needing to see the whole of her. Erica knows Hyde by her energy, her velocity and volume.

She scans the crowded bar, wandering around the fringes. Up at the bar itself, she asks the bartender if he's ever served anyone matching Hyde's description. He gives an apologetic shrug.

Dammit.

Off to one side of the dance floor, a small constellation of women drifts loosely, draped around a handful of tables, or leaning up against the wall, drinking and talking. Erica swallows hard, tucks her hair behind her ears. Untucks it.

She looks down at herself. The outfit that was fine when she was getting dressed, back in Point Place, now seems so wrong. Childish, even. A thinly-striped blue, white and orange shirt with a little white collar, and high-waisted light wash jeans. Oh, well.

She takes a deep breath, and holds it in her lungs, as she walks over.

The couple she saw earlier are the first in her line of sight. The act of striding up to them saps all her confidence, and leaves nothing left when she opens her mouth. "Hi, um, sorrytobotheryoubutI'mlookingforsomeone?"

The woman with the cigarette turns. Short, dark waves frame her tawny face. She gives Erica a puzzled, but not unfriendly, look. "What? Didn't catch a word of that, sweetie."

Her waist is encircled by the arm of the other woman, her girlfriend ('her girlfriend,' two words whose combination makes Erica feel dizzy and light) who has deep brown skin and a full Afro. She regards Erica, expectant, then with a flicker of recognition.

"Hey, this your first time?" The answer must be obvious, because she chuckles. "It's okay. Everyone gets tongue-tied. You here by yourself?"

Before Erica can respond, the short-haired woman smiles. "I'm Deb, and this is Vicky. What's your name?"

"Erica," she manages without stammering, a feat in itself.

"Well, Erica, you've come to the right place. Castaways is a good first bar." Deb pulls a 5-dollar bill from the back pocket of her jeans, and hands it to her girlfriend. "Go get the kid a drink. And another one for me, while you're at it."

"No," Erica finally finds her voice. "No, I'm fine, thanks. I'm not- I'm not here for myself. I'm looking for someone." She takes a breath. "She ran away a week and a half ago, and I think she might be here. In Milwaukee, I mean."

They nod, knowing. Erica doesn't have to explain any more than that, clearly.

She gives the same description she gave the bartender, and adds, "She goes by Hyde," voice lifting in hope.

Their expressions are blank. Erica's heart sinks.

"Yeah." She ducks her head, hands clenching into fists. "It was a long shot, anyway."

It hits her, then, that she could ask every single person in the bar, and still come up empty. Hyde probably isn't even in Milwaukee, at all. (Such a stupid, hopeless plan.) She could be in California, by now. Or on a mountain in Tibet. Or lost in a desert, or dead in a ditch-

"Wait." Vicky narrows her eyes, thinking. "I've seen her. Yeah." She snaps her fingers, and points at Deb. "She was here last weekend. With Mel and Joan, and... the other one. Y'know, the high-school kids that move in a pack?"

"Oh, yeah." Deb nods, turning to Erica. "Yeah, she was here."

"Really?" Erica can't help but grin. "Oh, man. That's great, that's- fantastic." Her grin fades. "Wait, last weekend? So... you haven't seen her since?"

They shake their heads. Erica's heart plummets back to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

"Aw, sweetie." Deb's brow crinkles. "You look so worn out. C'mon, sit down over here. You sure you won't let us buy you a drink?"

"Oh, I would love a drink," Erica says bitterly, "but I can't." She sinks down into the chair, and manages a weak smile. "Water would be nice, though."

Vicky laughs. "I'll go see if they have any."

Deb sits down next to Erica, takes another drag on her cigarette. "So." She blows out the smoke. "Your friend ran away from home, huh?"

Erica nods, wrapping her arms around her stomach.

"Lemme guess. Came out to her parents?"

"No." The one person Hyde technically 'came out' to was Erica, now that she thinks about it. She shakes her head. "Hyde- she doesn't really have parents. Her mom is... around, but she's also kind of not around, even when she is around. You know?"

Deb nods. She knows.

"I understand why she ran away. Kind of. But-" It bubbles up her throat, all the hurt she's kept shoved down. Deb is looking at her with soft eyes. So Erica lets it out. "She just left- without telling anyone where she was going, what her plan was. Not even... her friends."

The unspoken truth sticks to the underside of her words, prickly in Erica's mouth. Hyde probably would have told her where she was going, if Erica hadn't been such a jerk. If she hadn't busted out with the one thing she knew would cut Hyde the deepest.

At that moment, Vicky returns, with two beers and a glass of water, all balanced deftly in her hands. Erica takes the water, and thanks her.

Deb says to Erica, "I'm sure she misses you, too."

"Oh yeah, I bet." It comes out harder than she meant. She tosses back the water as if it's bourbon, and slams the glass down with a grimace. "Back home we're going pretty much insane with worry, she's all we can talk or think about-" Erica breaks off, realizing the 'we' is a bit of a front. "I can't sleep, I can't eat, and meanwhile she's out going to bars with her cool Milwaukee friends. Yeah, she must be real broken up." Her voice climbs, teetering on the cliff's edge. "We left things on an argument. And if I can't find her-"

Erica stops. She blinks back tears, and swallows hard, staring at the table.

Deb lifts an eyebrow, and shares a look with Vicky. "Alright." She turns back to Erica. "You better tell us the whole story."

So she does.

She tells them how she's known Hyde since forever, how they've stuck up for each other so many times, and it always made their friendship stronger. Until it didn't. Until a week and a half ago.

Erica stutters over the word that started it all. But somehow, it's such a relief to let it out, into the open air.

(None of their friend group was there to see what happened. They only know the part where Tom grabbed Erica, and Hyde punched him. They don't know what started it. They don't know what happened after.) So Erica makes a full confession to two perfect strangers, who listen quietly and sip their beer, nodding and shaking their heads in all the right places.

When she's done, Erica feels shaky, scrubbed raw. (But so much better than before.)

Vicky laughs softly, and shakes her head. "Damn. So glad I'm not in high school anymore."

Deb shoots her a look.

She lifts a hand. "I don't mean to make light," she says to Erica. "I'm just remembering what it's like. Everything feels like the end of the world. Every argument is a declaration of war. It's all so apocalyptic."

Erica nods. That's a fairly accurate depiction of high school, from her experience.

"You and this Hyde, you've just hit a rough patch. You'll work it out." Deb stubs her spent cigarette in an ashtray, and smiles a knowing smile. "It sounds like you two really care about each other."

For some reason, the way she says it makes Erica's heart jump. "So... I should just go home, then," she says, a bit defeated. "And wait for her to call." More like pray.

"Oh, no," says Vicky. "You should definitely keep looking."

"Yeah, we're pretty tight-knit here. You're bound to run into someone who knows her, knows where she's staying. And honestly, it's just the sweetest thing that you're out here looking all over town." She turns to her girlfriend, with a smirk. "Would you have done this for me?"

"In a heartbeat." Vicky grins, and kisses her. Nothing more than a soft, quick, closed-mouth kiss. But Erica still flushes hot, and averts her eyes. It's the first time she's ever seen two women kiss on the mouth. As lovers, and not as a joke.

Deb turns back to Erica. "Listen. You should try The Leaded Shade, just a couple blocks over, on 1st Street."

"There's also Sugar Shack," puts in Vicky.

"Oh, yeah. Definitely try there."

Erica manages to get their recommendations down, and the directions, repeating back to them until she's memorized it all solid.

"Thank you both, so much." Erica can't tell if it's the warm atmosphere, or a lack of oxygen, or what, but she gushes, "You are my heroes. I'm not even kidding."

"Aw, glad we could help." Deb reaches out, and squeezes Erica's shoulder. She perks up. "Oh! Vic. Pen, paper."

Vicky produces a pen from her back pocket, and shrugs. "No paper, sorry."

"No paper? What do I keep you around for?" Deb teases, and uncaps the pen. "Here. Give me your arm, sweetie." She takes Erica's wrist, and writes a phone number on her forearm. "If you get lost, or need help, or anything at all, this is my number. Don't wash it off."

Erica stares down at it. She's pretty sure her cheeks are stuck in a permanent blush, now. She gets to her feet, and Deb stands, too, throwing her arms around Erica. "Oh, I'm a hugger, sorry," she laughs, pulling back to hold Erica by the shoulders. "And you're just so damn cute. I got a feeling your friend Hyde will be very glad to see you." She winks.

Erica can't say she shares the same premonition, but she smiles anyway. "Thanks again. For everything."

"Good luck," says Vicky, lifting her beer in a salute.

As Erica turns away, her ears catch a few familiar voices singing along to the music at a not-so-sober volume. "Burn, baby, burn!"

She groans. Oh, no.

✖︎

A few long, frustrating minutes later, Erica manages to break through the crush of people on the dance floor.

Kelso, Fez and Jack are in the middle of their 'routine,' which they perform with a loose-limbed zest that can only mean one thing. Erica grabs Kelso and Fez by their collars and drags them off the dance floor, knowing Jack will follow.

"Heeyyy," Kelso whines, squirming away. "Leggo."

"The hell, Erica?" Fez jerks herself out of reach, and pouts. "You- you threw water on the disco inferno!"

"I'd say you were already plenty soaked," Erica bites out. "What part of 'no drinking' did you fail to understand?"

Jack almost crashes into them, stumbling on his feet. Erica braces him before he falls. He points a finger at her. "Hey. Look. We were thirsty from all the dancin', and the walkin' we did before, so we jus' ordered iced teas."

"Iced tea?" Erica furrows her brow. "You're telling me you got drunk off iced tea?"

"Apparen'ly it's from Long Island." Fez grins wide. "I wan' to go to this island. They make the best iced tea I ever had."

Don appears. "Hey, what's going on?" He takes them in, and bursts out laughing. "Oh, shit."

"Don!" Erica throws up her hands. "You said you would watch them! What the hell happened?"

"I'm sorry!" He tries to stop laughing, with limited success. "This guy came up and started talking to me-"

Erica pinches the bridge of her nose. "You do realize he was probably chatting you up, right?"

"No, he wasn't." Don pauses. "Okay, maybe a little. But I didn't want to be rude. And he just wanted me to join his softball team."

Erica narrows her eyes.

"Oh, 'sthat what they call it?" Jack snorts.

"No, you jackass-" Don waves a pastel yellow flyer in their faces. "It's a gay softball league, for men and women. It's a real thing."

Erica scowls. "Well, while you were being recruited for gay softball, you let our idiot friends get completely trashed."

"I'm not trashed." Jack lifts his chin. "I am always sophicatish-" His dark brow knits. "Sophifishica-"

Kelso and Fez have drifted away, cooing with a glammed-up group of people Erica still doesn't have a name for, admiring their dresses and soaking up compliments in return. Erica pulls them back.

"Alright. Listen up, dumbasses." (Sometimes embodying her dad is the only way to cope.) "Hyde isn't here. But I do know two other places we can try, and they're not far."

"It's getting kinda late, Erica." Don glances at his watch. "My curfew is 12:30. That's in 15 minutes. And however much I'm late, my mom makes me spend that much time watching soaps with her." He makes a face.

"How about this, then." Erica takes her jacket from him, and digs into the pocket. "You take Jack, and go find the Vista Cruiser." She tosses him the keys. "Bring it to the Sugar Shack, at 135 East National Avenue. We'll meet you there in half an hour." She shrugs her jacket on. "I'll take Kelso and Fez with me. Splitting them up minimizes the drunken chaos potential."

Don blinks, then bobs his head. "Yes, ma'am."

Before the rest of the group can mount any protest, Erica is already throwing their coats at them, and herding them out the door.

"Damn!" Kelso bursts. "Who're you and what'd you do with Erica?"

Fez nods, in baffled awe. "This is not the helpless little lamb we know an' love," she says, as they stumble into the bracing night air.

Erica finds herself fighting a smile. The warmth of the bar floods her veins, a newfound force running through her.

"You're damn right I'm not."

Chapter Text

The second bar they try is the much quieter, classier Leaded Shade. The hostess is unable to give them any leads. She even goes to fetch the owners, but they don't recognize Hyde's description either.

Then Kelso and Fez knock over the coat stand. The three of them are kindly but firmly asked to leave.

They make their way to the Sugar Shack. Erica walks a few paces ahead, Kelso and Fez trailing behind, singing at the top of their lungs. Erica fists her hands in her jacket pockets, head ducked, thinking.

Worst-case scenarios are Erica's bread-and-butter. They keep her sane. If she can imagine the absolute worst thing, down to every last horrible detail, without losing her mind... then odds are she can survive it, if it happens.

An hour ago, the worst-case scenario was that Hyde was dead. (Which, to be honest, she couldn't really imagine without losing her mind.) But new evidence has (mostly) ruled out that possibility. If Deb and Vicky saw her here in Milwaukee just a week ago, alive and whole, then she probably still is.

Now the worst-case scenario is different.

It goes something like this: Erica steps into the Sugar Shack, and the bar falls silent. The floor creaks. She's the Stranger in Town in an old Western. (The Sugar Shack is now the Sugar Saloon.) Somewhere in the distance, a horse whinnies. Erica wears her hat tipped down over her brow, two guns strapped to her hips, and a long black coat with the collar turned up.

(Maybe this worst-case scenario isn't so bad, after all. At least she's got a cool outfit.)

Sitting down at the end of the bar is Hyde. Her eyes cold as ice, face like stone. She's got a leather vest with a fringe, and when she turns in her stool, her Sheriff's badge glints in the light of high noon, filtering through the grimy windows.

Erica takes off her hat, and sets it down on the bar.

"Well, well, well," Hyde drawls. "If it isn't Forked-Tongue Forman. You've got a lotta nerve, showin' your face 'round these parts."

Erica's coat billows as she draws it back, to rest a hand on the butt of her pistol. "I been huntin' you a long while, Hyde. It's time we finished this."

Just then, a shapely redheaded girl in a plunging corset swans up. She plants a kiss on Hyde's cheek, leaving a scarlet mark, and grins at Erica, as Hyde wraps an arm around her waist.

"Oh, you didn't hear? I got a sweetheart, now." Hyde smirks. "We're fixin' to settle down here in Milwaukee Junction, her and me. And if you've got somethin' to say about it, well." Hyde stands up, and draws her pistol, aiming for Erica with cool intent. "You can say it to my gun."

"Erica!"

She snaps her head up with a jolt. Kelso is standing in front of her, head cocked in mild concern. She points across the street.

"Oh. Yeah." Erica gulps, nodding. She recognizes the description Deb and Vicky gave her. "That's the place."

"You were gonna walk right past it." Kelso gives her a shove, giggling. "An' you call me space cadet."

The Sugar Shack is not very big, but it's pretty much full to bursting. Unlike the others they've tried, there's only women. A dizzying and dazzling array of women. A jukebox blasts "Bennie And The Jets" from one corner. Voices weave and interlace over the music, a kaleidoscope of sound to match the movement of bodies, hands, heads tossed back in laughter.

The air is warm and thick. Erica shrugs off her jacket, trying and failing not to gawk. Someone in charge of an informal coat check appears, and they surrender their coats.

The music changes to something a bit more up-tempo. Kelso and Fez drift toward the dance area, like magnets, but Erica grabs their arms.

"Nope. Not doing that again. You two are staying with me."

"Ugh." Fez stomps her foot. They've sobered up a little from walking, but not a lot. "Yes, mother," she simpers.

A girl just a few years older than them comes striding up, all cropped black hair and mole-speckled skin and swagger.

"Hey." She looks Erica up and down, and grins. "Wanna dance?"

Erica's mouth drops open. Her brain emits one long dial tone.

"What?" Kelso bursts. "How come you asked her?"

Erica snaps out of it, to shoot her a look. "You have a boyfriend, Kelso."

"Well, yeah, but I expect to be asked!" She flips her hair. "I'm irresistible." She states this like a fact of nature.

The girl cocks an eyebrow at her, bemused, then looks back to Erica. "So... is that a no, or...?"

Erica cannot believe this is happening. She stammers, "Yeah, uh- I mean- yes, it's a no. No."

The girl shrugs, completely unfazed, and turns to walk away.

"Wait!" Erica puts a hand on her shoulder, and immediately snatches it back when she turns around. "Um. I'm looking for someone. She's my age, short golden-brown hair that's really curly on top, wears a pale denim jacket with a sherpa lining, and sunglasses all the time, even indoors?" The description comes out in a practiced rush. She pauses, and adds, "Kind of a smart-ass?"

The girl chuckles, but shakes her head. "Nope. Sorry." Like a light turning on, her grin flashes. "I can maybe help you out, though." She beckons with a hand. "C'mon."

"Whoa, uh- what-" Erica whirls to Kelso and Fez, and tells them, "Wait here, okay?" before she scrambles to follow this mysterious person.

The girl spins around, walking backward for a moment without running into anyone, by some dark magic. "You can call me Liv, by the way."

"Erica," she supplies, hesitant. "Um, what are we doing, exactly?"

"Relax, I'm not luring you into a closet or anything. I'm just gonna ask if we can use the loudspeaker, to broadcast your missing-person announcement."

"No, no. No, thank you." Erica's whole body twinges with anticipatory embarrassment. "I can't do that."

Liv slows down, frowning. "Oh. Well. Okay." She shrugs. "Just thought it'd be easier than asking everyone in the bar one by one."

Erica bites her lip. At last, she groans. "Okay," she lets out heavily. "Fine."

Liv shoots her a dry look.

"I mean, thank you." Erica offers a smile. "Sorry. It's been a long night."

Liv talks to an older lady sitting up at the bar, and quickly gets it all arranged. She beckons Erica over, to a machine sitting on the lower counter behind the bar. Someone pulls the plug on the jukebox. Silence descends. (Just like in Erica's worst-case scenario.)

The older lady, probably the owner, presses a button on the machine, and her voice echoes through the space. "Pardon the interruption, ladies. We've got a gal here looking for somebody." She nods to Erica. "Go on."

Erica bends over the machine. "Um. Hi." She waves.

Everyone in the bar is staring at her.

She swallows. "I'm looking for my best friend. She goes by Hyde. She ran away from home 12 days ago and we're all just... really worried about her." Erica gives the same description that she could now deliver backwards in her sleep. She even adds the smart-ass part, sparking a ripple of laughter. "So if anyone here knows her, or knows where she might be, please um- yeah. Come forward. Reward is my eternal gratitude, plus..." She digs in her pocket. "75 cents and a stick of gum." More laughter. She smiles. "Thank you."

The music starts back up, and the bar returns to normal. Kelso and Fez come bounding over, bursting about how cool that was. Liv sticks around to chat with them, and listens with amused interest to Fez and Kelso's rambling, non-linear account of their evening.

Erica doesn't contribute much. She looks out at the bar, waiting. Several women catch her gaze, and offer sympathetic looks, but no one comes up to surrender any information about Hyde.

Five minutes drag past. By that point, it's clear that no one is going to come over. Liv claps a conciliatory hand on Erica's shoulder. "There's a lot of people here from out of town tonight. Man, that's some crap luck. You've really been looking all night?"

Erica nods. She feels numb.

Liv pushes her lips together in an oh, well smile. "Hey, least you can say you gave it your best shot."

"Thanks for your help," says Erica miserably.

They wait for Don and Jack at the end of the block, under a streetlight's unforgiving glare. It's now a full twenty minutes past when they agreed to meet. Erica refuses to think about what could have happened to them. Three missing friends might just send her over the edge.

She sits on the curb with her head in her hands. Kelso and Fez sit next to her, crunching their way through an enormous bag of cheesy puffs they bought at a nearby 24-hour convenience store. They offer it to Erica several times. She just shakes her head.

If only she had a way to get a message to Hyde. Even just two words: I'm sorry. No, five words: I'm sorry. Please come home. Maybe she could hire a skywriter. Or go on the radio. Or publish an ad in the Milwaukee Sentinel. Write a note in her own blood and perform some ritual to transmit her words into Hyde's mind-

A note. Erica snaps her head up.

The note.

A scrawled handful of words on a piece of notebook paper, stuck on the TV antennae in Hyde's house.

'Ma - I'm gone. Safe, just had to go. Call Jen's if emergency. - Steph'

Erica jumps to her feet. Kelso and Fez blink up at her, in bleary alarm.

She blurts, "Be right back," and darts up the street, to the Sugar Shack. She heads straight for the owner.

"Excuse me, ma'am, do you know of anyone who lives around here named Jen?" She pauses, then adds, "Probably a lesbian?"

The woman smiles, thinks a moment. "I know a few. But the closest one is Jen Bianchi. She owns a cafe, Jen's Place. Lives above it with her wife. That the Jen you're thinking of?"

"Maybe." Hope stirs in Erica's chest. "Can you tell me how to get there?"

"I'll do you one better. I'll write it down." She pulls a pen from behind her ear, and jots down directions on a memo pad. She tears it off, and hands it to Erica. "There you go. It's a cafe, though, not a bar. She won't open much before 9 am tomorrow morning."

"Thank you, thank you." Erica shoves in the note in her pocket, presses her hands together. "I'll come back and buy everyone a round, if this pans out."

At the end of the block, the Vista Cruiser is idling, the most beautiful sight Erica's ever seen in her life. She runs up and throws her arms around Don. He hugs her tightly.

"Sorry we're late," he says. "Some guy insulted Jack's sweater so we almost got into a street fight-"

"Whish I would've won, for th'record," Jack interjects, before he goes back to sucking on Kelso's face like they haven't seen each other in months.

"Whatever. You're here. It's okay." Erica hops behind the wheel, and slams the door. "Now hurry up and get in, all of you."

"We're going home, right?" says Don, sliding into shotgun.

"Sure." Erica gives him a half-smile. "Right after we try one more place."

✖︎

Unlike most of the other establishments they've tried, Jen's Place proclaims itself with a prominent sign, in old-timey cursive lettering. It looks dinky but cute, red-and-white checkered curtains pulled shut inside the windows.

Erica barely turns off the engine before leaping out of the car, to run up and try the door. It's locked. She pounds on it. The rest of the gang slowly clamber out, and follow her over.

"Uh... I don' think they're open." Jack helpfully points to the 'Closed' sign.

"Did I miss something?" Don asks. "Why would Hyde be here?"

Erica doesn't bother to answer. She taps her foot. "C'mon..." She pounds on the door again, harder.

Silence.

"Jack-y... 'M tired." Kelso slumps into him. "Hol' me."

Besides being a full head shorter than her, he's in no state to support her weight. They stagger to the side, crashing into Fez. The three of them burst into giggles.

"Erica?" Don eyes her. "Don't you think we should-"

She ignores him. She sets her jaw, and marches over to the curb. She looks up at the windows above the cafe. She digs in her pocket, and pulls out three quarters, all the money she has on her.

"Erica..." Don uses his concerned, slightly condescending voice. "What are you doing?"

"I'm not- giving- up." Erica speaks through gritted teeth, and punctuates her words by hurling quarters at the second-story windows. Two of them actually 'plink' against the glass. Maybe desperation improves her hand-eye coordination. Maybe she should try having a mental breakdown every day, before gym class.

She turns to the group, and holds out a hand. "Coins. Give them to me. Now."

They blink at her, wide-eyed, before scrambling to dig through their pockets. Fez hands over a little silk drawstring purse. Most of the coins inside aren't even US currency. Erica thanks her, and starts throwing them at the windows as hard as she can. She curses her weak arm strength.

Don clears his throat. "Um, Erica, I don't think this is..."

Something in her eyes must shut him up, because he doesn't finish.

A sound echoes from above, as one of the windows cracks open. Erica holds her breath as it rolls up.

A heavy-set woman in her 50s or 60s sticks her head out. She has tan skin and silvery hair, buzzed short like a man's. "What's goin' on, huh?"

"Sorry, um." Erica's resolve wobbles, under the woman's piercing eyes. "Are you Jen Bianchi?"

She furrows her brow. "Depends on who's askin'."

Another middle-aged woman with a pale, elfin face joins her at the window. She peers down at the group. "You're not here to make trouble, are you?"

"No, no." Erica lifts her hands. "I'm really sorry to bother you so late. We're looking for Hyde, Stephanie Hyde? We're her friends, from Point Place." Her shoulders droop. "Please, we've been out looking all night. Is she here?"

The short-haired woman considers them, silent. Finally, she says, "Wait there."

They both disappear from the window. Erica's heart hammers in wild hope. (Though they could just as easily be calling the cops.)

"Hey, look! I foun' a quarter!" Kelso beams, like she just won the lottery.

Fez pops up from the sidewalk. "So did I!"

"Guys, those are the coins Erica was just-" Don waves a hand. "Never mind."

Erica has no idea how they're all holding together so well. (The alcohol probably helped, in Fez, Kelso and Jack's case.) Erica feels like any moment she might crumble into dust. Or burst into tears. Or both. She scuffs at the sidewalk, her stomach twisting itself into new and exciting knots.

"What the fuck, Forman."

Erica jerks her head up. She sucks in air so fast, it gets stuck in her throat.

Hyde. She's here. She's whole, and alive, sticking her upper half out of the window with her hands braced on the sill. She's wearing a button-up pajama shirt several sizes too big, and a scowl.

"Hyde," Erica breathes. Her hands are shaking. She can barely speak loud enough to be heard. "Oh, thank god."

Luckily, the rest of the group is not lacking in volume. "Hyyyde!" Fez and Kelso sing, in unison. Kelso jumps up and down, nearly falling over. "We found you!"

Hyde throws out a hand. "What the hell are you guys doing here?"

Erica sets her jaw. After everything she's been through tonight, she's earned the right to demand what she really wants. The universe always punishes her for wanting, for taking, for talking back. Well, screw that.

She plants her feet. In a fierce yet wobbly voice, she says, "We're here to take you home, Hyde."

Hyde is at a loss. She stares at Erica, mouth agape. "You... what?" Her brow crunches up. "It's fuckin' 2 o'clock in the morning!"

"Yeah, well," Erica sputters. She was expecting an argument, just not such a practical one. "It's been... a night."

Hyde flicks her eyes over to Don. She gives him an upward nod. "Heya, Don. How are you."

Don chuckles. "Not bad. How about yourself?"

"I'm just peachy." She looks to Jack. "Why are you here? I don't even like you."

"Feelin's mutual. I'm here b'cause Michelle's here." He raises a finger. "Also, legal support."

Hyde gives him a flat smile. "Gee. Thanks, Jack." She turns her head, to nod toward the last two members of the group. "Kelso. Fez."

"Hyde, Hyde, let down your hair," Kelso croons, then dissolves into giggles.

Fez lifts her hands, in her best dramatic pose. "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Hyde is the sun."

The two collapse in a fit of hysterical, snorting laughter.

Hyde points at them in disbelief. "Are they drunk?"

Erica sighs. "Like I said, it's been a night."

Hyde pulls her head back in, and turns away from the window, talking to someone they can't see. After a moment, she sticks her head out again. "Okay. I'm coming down to let you morons in." She jabs a finger at Erica. "If you chipped the glass on any of the windows, you're paying to replace 'em. Got that?"

Erica tries to quell her nerves, bubbling like champagne in her bloodstream. She feels lightheaded.

"Got it," she says, and braces herself for whatever might happen, when Hyde opens the door.

Chapter Text

Kelso and Fez pile onto Hyde, squealing, the instant she opens the front door of the cafe.

"Get offa me," she complains, but there's a grin in her voice. She exchanges an ironic handshake with Don, gives Jack a nod. She flicks her eyes to Erica's. Almost like she expects her to try for a hug, too.

Erica wants to. But she doesn’t.

Hyde clears her throat, and rubs the back of her neck. "Uh." She gestures. "Go ahead and sit down anywhere, I guess."

The inside of the cafe is even cuter than the outside. Cherry-red vinyl booths contrast against the black-and-white speckled linoleum. Little vases of fake yellow flowers brighten up every table.

Hyde pads around, barefoot, like it's her living room. Her pajama shirt is half-tucked into a pair of jeans she no doubt pulled on just to come downstairs. Her hair is all frizzy and slept-on, and she moves slow, heavy, a little groggy. Her too-long sleeves crumple in her fists, as she rubs her eyes.

Erica has to look away, and remind herself how to breathe.

The silver-haired woman leans against the counter, in a plaid robe over a button-down shirt just like Hyde's, and appraises the group of teenagers stumbling into the cafe.

Hyde turns, and gives her a nod. "Go on back up to bed, Jen. I'll take care of this."

Jen nods in return. "Come wake me if you need me." She turns and shuffles away, disappearing through a door.

"You guys gotta be quiet, alright?" says Hyde sharply. "Penny is a light sleeper."

Penny must be Jen's wife. It's weird to hear Hyde talk about these people, these total strangers, as if she knows them like family. But then, she probably does. This isn't the first time Hyde has stayed here, if her mom knows how to reach Jen, like the note implied.

Kelso grabs Jack, and slides into a booth. "Checkitout, we got the whole place to ourselves." She laughs as if this the funniest joke anyone's ever made. "And Hyde's here! We're all together again. Bitchin'." She grins.

The rest of the group joins them in the booth. Hyde sits next to Fez, across the table from Erica. Hyde's eyes keep catching in hers, then darting away.

"You'll never believe the night we've had," Fez tells Hyde, throwing an arm around her shoulders.

Hyde leans back, quirking an eyebrow. "I'll bet," she says dryly.

Jack, Kelso and Fez all try to tell the story at once.

"Firs' we went to all these normal bars- well, normal like... y'know-"

"-then Don got propositioned by a-" Jack leans in, "woman of the night-"

"She tol' us where t'find the lesbians!"

"I asked 'er. It was me. I asked."

"We were burnin' up the dance floor-"

"-Long Island iced tea, you gotta try it, oh man..."

"An' later we went to the Sugar Shack, an' a girl asked Erica to dance!"

"Dammit, Fez!" Erica lunges across the table, but Fez leans out of reach, grinning mischievously.

Hyde raises her eyebrows. Her mouth twitches in amusement, plus something Erica can't quite recognize. "You got picked up at Sugar Shack?"

Erica's cheeks flush hot. "What? I did not get 'picked up.'" Her stomach does a flip, as Hyde keeps staring at her, with that curious look.

Don's eyes are big. "But did- did you... What was your answer?"

"No. 'No' was my answer." Erica crosses her arms. "I was a little preoccupied, remember?"

Jack's face is insufferably smug. "So... you would have danced with her, if you hadn't been busy looking for Hyde?"

"No, I mean- Hold up! Why am I being interrogated?" She tosses out a hand toward Hyde. "She's the one who should be under investigation."

In an instant, all traces of amusement are wiped from Hyde's face. "Oh, is that why you came here, and woke us all up at 2 am? To 'investigate' me?" Her voice is cold.

"No," Erica moans, dropping her head into her hands. "Why do I ever open my mouth..."

Fez pipes up. "We jus' wanted to find you. We were out looking for-" She furrows her brow, glaring at the clock on the wall. She waves a hand. "A long-ass time."

"Erica is the only reason we came to this place. We were about to give up, and go home." Don flashes Erica a look. "She was dead-set on finding you. It was a little scary, to be honest."

"She's been insufferable," Jack huffs. "Not just tonight. The whole time you've been gone, walking around like a zombie, biting everyone's head off over the tiniest things."

"But now we found you, so you c'n come home, and it'll all go back to normal," says Kelso dreamily, chin propped in her hands. Her eyelids flutter.

Hyde pulls in a breath, her mouth firming into a line. "Uh, yeah." She raps on the table, and smiles. "How 'bout I go make you guys some coffee, to revive you for the drive home?"

Don nods. "Yes, please."

There's something about the way Hyde says it, 'the drive home' - like it has nothing to do with her. Erica shoots to her feet, when Hyde gets up.

"I'll help."

Hyde tips her a sideways look, but says nothing.

She goes behind the counter, through a swinging door. Erica follows. She realizes she never took off her jacket, so she does, but it seems presumptuous to set it down in the kitchen, so she just holds it, arms wrapped around her stomach.

Hyde skids around the kitchen with ease. She plucks a coffee filter from a box on one shelf, a can of grounds from another, without even looking where her hands are going. She clearly spends a lot of time in here.

"Guess you don't need much help," Erica tries to joke.

Hyde doesn't respond.

Erica has to say something. (Anything. Anything to get Hyde to look at her.)

"So, this is where you've been the whole time, huh?" Again, the lamest possible thing she could say.

Hyde leans up against the kitchen counter. She nods.

"Jen seems nice," Erica offers.

Out of nowhere, Hyde snaps. "That's it? You're gonna stand there and make small talk?" She's finally looking at Erica, but it's unclear whether that's better or worse than before, when she wasn't. "After you came all the way here, and, and-" She throws out a hand, to indicate the cafe beyond the wall. "Brought the whole fuckin' Mystery Gang along with you?"

"What makes you so sure it was my idea?"

"Because." Hyde chuckles without humor. "This is just like you, Forman. You are so melodramatic. You never let anything go."

Erica blinks. "That's what you want me to do?" She tries not to feel like she's been punched in the stomach. "Just... let you go?"

"Oh, cut it out," Hyde bites. "Quit acting like a martyr."

"I'm not." (Especially since she doesn't know what the word means.) "And melodramatic? Me? I'm not the one who ran away from home without so much as a backward glance. We've all been worried sick. We didn't know if you were alive, or-" She doesn't finish. She doesn't need to.

Hyde barely covers a wince. Erica is pleased, in a twisted way, to see she struck a nerve. That she got past the walls of 'Fort Hyde,' even if it was just one arrow.

She keeps going, softer, "It's been five days since your suspension ended. If you miss another week of school, you'll be kicked out."

"So now you're my truant officer?"

Erica doesn't take the bait. (She's too tired.) "I came here to make sure you were okay... and to apologize." She takes a breath, and holds Hyde's eyes in hers. "I'm sorry for what I said. I should never have gone that far. And for the record, I don't think you're anything like your mom."

Hyde stares hard at the wall. "You think that's the reason I left. Don't you."

"No, I just said-"

"I mean, you think I left because you 'hurt my feelings.'" Hyde gives it air quotes, her voice mocking. She scoffs. "Trust me, you didn't. You don't have that power over me. Nobody does."

In that moment, something in Erica breaks. Maybe because it's late. Because she's exhausted. (Maybe because she looks at Hyde, her sleep-mussed hair, and oversized shirt, and she wants to crawl into bed with her and spend eternity huddled against her chest, listening to her heartbeat.)

Somehow, and wouldn't this be just Erica's luck - knowing what she wants is worse, so much worse, than not knowing.

She gives Hyde a taste of her own bitter medicine. She shrugs. "Whatever you say."

Hyde narrows her eyes. "Look, Forman. This may be difficult for you to wrap your head around, but my leaving had nothing to do with you. You didn't factor into my decision, at all."

Erica swallows, but doesn't let her face flicker. "Sure," she says lightly. "I believe you."

Hyde lets out a harsh laugh, a horrible sound. "I don't give a fuck if you believe me or not." She shakes her head, but her cheeks are pink. "I left because I just really hate Point Place. That's it."

Erica doesn't say anything. Simply stares at her, impassive.

"I have a life here in Milwaukee." Hyde takes down a tray and fills it with six mugs, her movements jerky, though careful not to make too much noise. "And it's better than my life in Point Place, in pretty much every way. I have a job, here in the cafe. I have friends. And plenty of free time, to do whatever I want, by myself. Read, go on walks, whatever."

"Sounds like you have yourself convinced."

Hyde whirls around. She takes two steps, bringing her face inches from Erica's. Her eyes are pure blue flame.

"Quit trying to mess with me," she snarls. "It's not gonna work."

Erica smiles. "Whatever you say."

For a few breathless seconds, they're locked in orbit, as the kitchen spins around them, and Erica's face slips, eyes flickering to Hyde's mouth, breath tumbling warm and uneven from parted lips.

Hyde jerks away, jaw clenched. "I can't do this," she mutters.

"Well thank god, because neither can I," Erica lets out with a breath, her shoulders dropping. "How do you keep that up? It's exhausting."

"What?" Hyde furrows her brow. "What are you talkin' about?"

"Hyde. I can't be like you. I can't play it cool." All of Erica's emotion surges to the surface, seeping into her voice. "I want you to come back to Point Place with us. We've missed you so much it's pathetic," she says with a weak, helpless laugh. "I've missed you."

Hyde says nothing for a long moment. She drops her eyes, and mumbles, "I'vemissedyoutoo."

Erica smiles. A real one this time.

The air has shifted, and somehow the conversation seems to be over. Hyde picks up the finished pot of coffee in one hand, and balances the tray of mugs in the other.

"I could take one of those-"

"I got it." Hyde backs out through the swinging door, and adds, "Half-n-half's in the fridge."

So Erica follows, carrying her jacket and a carton of half-n-half, like a total idiot. It felt like she and Hyde were just on the brink of something there, but now she has no idea where they stand. She tosses her jacket over a chair, and rejoins the others.

Fez, Kelso and Jack are pretty much crashing by this point. They make soft, appreciative noises over their coffee. Don dumps several sugar packets into his, and tosses a handful to Erica without her even needing to ask. Hyde is drinking hers black, so Erica tries it. She makes a face. Hyde snorts. Erica shoots her a withering look, as she adds two sugar packets and plenty of half-n-half to her mug.

It's almost normal. Almost.

"So..." Hyde starts, looking down into her coffee. "It's late. And you guys have a long drive back to Point Place."

"You're not coming, then?" asks Don.

Erica slams a hand on the table, making them all jump, and splatter a few drops of coffee.

"Listen, Hyde." She aims a finger at her. "You may think you're better off in Milwaukee but what're you going to do without a high school diploma, huh? Are you going to make coffee and wait tables for the rest of your life? And- and you could get a job in Point Place! So, sure, maybe it doesn't have any cool bars and is objectively a shithole but it's our shithole, and you can't just-"

Hyde lifts a hand. "Forman. Take a breath, or you'll pass out." Her mouth quirks up on one side. "I'm coming back."

"Oh." Erica deflates. She's breathing hard. "Okay. Good."

"Just not right this second," Hyde clarifies. "I need to get my stuff together, say goodbye to Jen and Penny. Maybe some other people. I'm not about to vanish in the night."

Erica bristles. "You mean, the way you left Point Place?"

"Cut me, like, an inch of slack, will you?" Hyde snaps. "I'll take the bus home within the next couple days."

"Before school starts on Monday?"

"I'll get there when I get there." Hyde stands up, throws out her hands. "Jesus, why are you being so anal about this?"

Erica gets to her feet. "Because I don't trust you!"

She squares her shoulders with Hyde's, jaw set hard. They stare each other down.

Fez murmurs, "Are they going to fight, or kiss?"

Erica ignores her. She says, without looking away from Hyde, "Don, you take the Vista Cruiser, and take everybody home. I'm staying."

Hyde scoffs. "Like hell you are."

"Uh..." Don waffles.

"I'm just going to make sure you follow through on your word," says Erica evenly.

"Well, you're not staying here."

"Then I'll sleep outside. I don't care." Erica feels frayed, like a bare wire. She's simply lost her cool. She dropped it somewhere on the street, during the hours they spent wandering around, clinging to threadbare hope. "I'll sleep outside, and follow you wherever you go. I'll haunt you like a ghost."

Hyde turns away, rubs her face with her hands. "This is a nightmare," she groans.

Don lifts a hand. "Um, I hate to interrupt- whatever this is. But I'm almost up to two hours of soaps with my mom, now. Three by the time we actually make it home. So..."

"Fine." Hyde turns back, with a bitter smile. "You win, Forman. Stay here and haunt me all you like." She adds under her breath, "I'm used to it by now, anyway."

Before Erica can consider what that might mean, Don emerges from the booth. "Okay. Guess that's settled. Keys?" Erica hands them over. Don gestures between her and Hyde. "I really hope you can work this out. Because no offense, but if Hyde comes back and you two are like this all the time, then I'm running away to Milwaukee."

Jack, Kelso and Fez follow him out of the booth, bleary-eyed and yawning.

"Seeya guys at home," says Kelso, with just a flicker of a question in her voice.

"See you at home," Erica reassures, and accepts Kelso's floppy, listing hug. Fez throws her arms around both of them. Then the two hug Hyde, and she even hugs them back, fighting a smile.

Finally, they all stagger out of the cafe, and the door jingles shut behind them.

Hyde and Erica are alone.

It should be awkward and terrible. But it isn't, not really. They're both spent, subdued, unable to meet each other's eyes, much less keep up a shouting match. They slide back into their previous seats, across from each other in the booth. Erica sighs, and blinks at her coffee.

"Alright," Hyde says at last. "I gotta ask. How the hell did you find me?"

"Luck." Erica smiles wryly. "That, and my own anal-retentive nature."

She explains. How she stopped the rest of the group from calling the police, and all she had was a single throwaway comment Hyde had made about "the mythical land of Milwaukee." The rest of the story spins out from there, the long dreary hours traipsing the streets, before finding their way to Castaways South, and the places after that. How close Erica came to giving up, before she remembered Hyde's note-

"Wait, wait," Hyde cuts in, brow knit. "You broke into my house?"

"Not exactly. There was a window open. Technically, I was trespassing."

Hyde shakes her head, in disconcerted awe. "You really are something else."

Erica finishes, "So I asked the Sugar Shack owner if she knew anyone named Jen, and she directed me here." She swallows a yawn, blinking hard. "And there you have it."

Hyde gives her a warm, lopsided smile, the kind that makes Erica's heart flutter. (And has for a while. She just never connected the dots, until tonight.)

"Let's go back to the part where you got hit on at Sugar Shack. 'Cause man, I wish I'd been there to see your face."

Erica groans, covering her eyes. "I'm never going to live that down, am I?"

"Is that a phone number on your arm?" Hyde grabs Erica's wrist, before she can pull it out of reach. Her eyebrows shoot up. "Was this the girl who asked you to dance?"

Erica's face is on fire. "N-no, it was someone else-"

Hyde cackles, her face crinkled in mirth. "Damn, Forman."

"It wasn't-" Erica's face only gets hotter. "She wasn't- um, 'picking me up,' she was just helping me. She had a girlfriend."

"Uh huh." Hyde is still grinning at her. She releases Erica's wrist, a beat too late.

Erica can't help a smile. "I'll admit it was pretty funny, though. Kelso got all offended that she wasn't asked." Erica pantomimes her hair flip. "After all, she's irresistible."

Hyde cracks up again. She wipes her eyes. "God, Kelso is so straight you could line up a pool shot with her. She'd never get asked."

"You mean, you can tell?" Erica's stomach flips again.

Hyde snorts. "Yeah. I'd say... 98% of the time, I can definitely tell."

"How?"

She shrugs a shoulder. "Call it a sixth sense."

Erica goes back to staring into her coffee, willing her cheeks to cool. Her skin is crackling with nerves, and yet she feels like she might pass out any second. Her inhibitions are dangerously low. It's safest not to look into Hyde's eyes, or at the curve of her mouth... or Erica might do something she'll regret.

Hyde finishes her coffee, and says, "So, uh. Jen and Penny have a couch upstairs you can crash on. Unless you really wanna sleep outside."

"A couch sounds great," Erica murmurs. "Thanks."

Hyde gathers all their mugs onto the tray, and picks up the empty coffee carafe. "I'm gonna just run up and grab the keys, to lock the front door. You can wait here."

Erica nods.

She listens to the rhythm of Hyde's bare feet padding away, a soft, comforting sound. Fatigue slams into her sideways, and her eyelids droop. She folds her arms on the table, lays down her head on top of them.

Her wrist tingles with the ghost of Hyde's touch, as she drifts into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Erica dreams.

Hyde is carrying her, bridal-style, up a steep stone staircase within a castle turret. She's dressed like Robin Hood, with a bow and a sheath of arrows slung over her back. Erica knows, the way knowing always works in dreams, that they've just survived a risky escape, and Hyde is carrying Erica to safety.

But it feels so real. So warm. Erica takes advantage of the opportunity, and snuggles close, winding her arms around Hyde's neck. She nuzzles her face into Hyde's shoulder.

"Mmm... Hyde?"

"Yeah. I'm here."

Erica smiles. "I don't care what you say." She talks without thinking, in the freedom of dream-speak. "You are my goddamn hero."

Hyde chuckles, and it vibrates in her chest. "I dunno, Forman," she says softly. "I think you might be mine."

✖︎

Erica wakes up slow, contented, stretching out her limbs and humming before she even opens her eyes. She's warm and snug under several layers of blankets, in a strange bed.

Her eyes snap open.

She bolts upright, and clunks her head on the sloping wall above. "Ow!" She rubs her skull, and blinks, bewildered.

She's in an odd little shoebox-sized room, with a sum total of two pieces of furniture: a bed tucked up under the slanted wall, and a dresser shoved against the window. Golden morning light filters through the gauzy curtains.

Erica is still wearing last night's clothes. Last night. Slowly, it comes trickling back. If Erica didn't know better, she'd say it was one long, convoluted dream. Did she really make an announcement about Hyde over a loudspeaker to a crowded bar? Did she hand Don the keys to her beloved Vista Cruiser and tell him to drive away without her? (Not that she doesn't trust him, but still.)

Oh, god. Erica didn't go home last night. Her parents are going to go ballistic. And they don't even know the half of it. Not only did their 16-year-old daughter go out to bars, she went to gay bars, and came to the earth-shattering realization that she, in fact, is gay. And possibly in love with her best friend.

Erica laughs to herself. A halfway-hysterical, helpless laugh.

That's when she sees the sunglasses on top of the dresser. The shelf on the wall at the foot of the bed, crammed with books: all poetry and politics. Plus a hundred other little clues that mark the room. Erica picks up the pillow and buries her face in it, trying to catch Hyde's scent.

"Mornin'."

Erica drops the pillow. "Hi!" She flashes a nervous grin.

Hyde leans against the doorframe. She's fully dressed, bright-eyed. "I changed the pillowcase for you, by the way."

"Yes, it's um- a very nice pillowcase." Erica deftly changes the subject. "How did I get here? I don't remember climbing the stairs."

"I carried you." Hyde smirks. "You were pretty beat."

Erica's face heats. "Oh." She swallows. "But this is your room, isn't it? Where did you sleep?"

"I took the couch. I didn't mind." Hyde raps 'shave-and-a-haircut' on the doorframe. "You hungry?"

As if on cue, a distant waft of frying bacon hits Erica's nose. Her stomach growls loudly.

"Guess that's a yes," Hyde laughs. "You can shower first, though, if you want."

Erica can feel last night's grime sitting on her like a second skin. "Yes, please."

She follows Hyde down a narrow hallway padded by a long woven rug. Everything about the apartment is cramped, yet filled with cozy touches. They pass the living room, where Hyde slept. It's crammed with houseplants, flowers, and piles of books, empty mugs littering every spare surface. A typewriter sits on a desk by the window, surrounded by stacks of paper.

It's unlike any living room Erica's ever seen. Certainly nothing like her own, all tidy and coordinated. This is a room meant to be lived in.

"Penny's a writer," Hyde explains. "And they really like plants."

"It's beautiful," Erica murmurs.

In the bathroom, Hyde explains the trick to getting the water temperature just right, and indicates the neatly-folded pile of clothes on the toilet seat, some of Hyde's own, in case Erica wants to change. There's even a spare toothbrush for her - Jen and Penny always keep one on hand, because friends-in-need crash here often. Then Hyde leaves, with another knock on the doorframe. (Nervous habit? Morse code? Who knows.)

It's a relief to get clean. Erica washes away all the stress and confusion of last night, rinses the stale anger out of her mouth.

The Led Zeppelin tee hangs off her shoulders, tucked into the too-big jeans with a belt to keep them cinched around her waist. It gives Erica a strange thrill to be wearing Hyde's clothes.

Breakfast is incredible. The cafe is mostly full, and Erica can see why. She eats two of everything: two eggs, two perfectly crispy slices of bacon, two warm biscuits with butter and strawberry jam. Hyde watches in awe and amusement, sitting up at the counter next to her, sipping coffee.

"Thank you so much, Mrs. Bianchi," says Erica, once her plate is scraped clean. "And again, I’m sorry for waking you up at such an ungodly hour last night.”

She waves a hand. "Please, call me Jen." She considers Erica, thoughtful. Dark, keen eyes read her like a book. "Hyde told me the whole story. Sounds like you had quite a night."

Erica nods. "We were really worried about Hyde. I'm just glad she was in such good hands, all along."

Hyde shoots her a sideways look, like you brown-noser. Erica sticks out her tongue. Hyde chuckles, shaking her head.

"You hold onto this one, Hyde," says Jen, as she wipes down the counter. "Lookin' everywhere in town for her butch like that, then showin' up all 'I'm here to take you home.' I didn't even mind getting woke up, just for that."

Her butch. Erica's ears burn. "What?" she says faintly.

Hyde's face is bright red, glaring daggers at the older woman. "She's straight, Jen."

No, I'm not. The words warm Erica’s throat, but they don't make it out.

"Oh." Jen lifts her silver brow. Her mouth twitches. "My mistake."

Hyde picks up her empty mug, and Erica's plate, and wordlessly takes them through the swinging door into the kitchen. Erica scrambles after her.

"Behind ya, Ray." Hyde slips past the cook, and Erica follows. The man looks up, smiling, before turning back to the griddle.

Under the hiss and snap of oil, Erica asks Hyde, "What did Jen call you?" The word is still ringing in her ears.

Hyde is cool as always, sliding the dirty dishes onto a rack. "Nothing. Don't pay any attention to her. She's... old-fashioned."

Through the service window in the wall, Jen calls, "I heard that."

Hyde winces. "Love ya, Jen," she calls back.

She says it so easily. Erica has never heard Hyde say 'I love you' to anyone, her whole life. Not once.

"I've got some stuff to do. You can come along, if you want. Or whatever." A bit of last night's hardness is in her voice again. She doesn't say anything about her promise to come back to Point Place.

Erica bites her tongue. "Sure, I'll come."

Hyde grabs a stack of paper napkins, a tub of knives and forks, and a clean rag. "First up is the thrilling task of wrapping silverware. But Jen doesn't mind if I do it in my room."

"That does sound thrilling," Erica jokes, then hears herself, and blushes.

As they leave the kitchen, Hyde calls out to someone across the cafe in greeting. Erica thinks she might recognize a few faces from the bars last night. Hyde waves to a couple others who call her name, before going through the door, back up the stairs to the apartment. Erica follows, marveling.

Hyde is different here, in this alternate universe. "The mythical land of Milwaukee." Her voice is louder, her eyes are softer. Her smile comes easier.

Once they reach her room, Hyde drops to her knees beside the bed. She sets the tub of silverware on it, and spreads out the clean rag. She lays down a napkin diagonally, stacking a knife and fork in the middle, before wrapping them up with fluid, practiced hands. Erica watches, before she tries to do the same. (And fails miserably.)

They wrap for a few minutes in silence, before Erica blurts, "Hyde, are you- are you a butch?"

She laughs. "Uh. Yeah." She opens her mouth, then closes it, then opens it again. "Don't use the terminology, okay? Just- trust me. It's complicated."

"How is it complicated?"

"Well, most older folks are butch or femme. But most younger people are neither. It's... controversial. Some people argue that being butch or femme isn't feminist, 'cause it's reproducing the dynamics of a straight couple." Hyde shrugs. "Personally, I think it isn't as clear-cut as that."

Erica’s head is spinning. “So… Jen and Penny are- butch and femme?”

Hyde nods.

Erica raises her eyebrows. “They certainly don’t look like any- um, ‘straight’ couple I’ve ever seen.”

Hyde laughs again, and her eyes sparkle. “No. No, they don’t.”

“So do you have a- a girlfriend, or a femme, or whatever?”

Hyde’s face closes up. “Not at the moment.” Her voice is edged.

Erica bites her lip, with a guilty flush of relief. She lets the subject drop. Her gaze drifts, to the words scrawled in pencil on the wall above the bed, quotes and song lyrics. A light dawns.

"This is where you went, isn't it?" she asks softly.

"What?"

“On your ‘camping trips.’”

“Oh.” Hyde nods, with a faraway smile. “Yeah.”

Erica’s throat tightens. She can’t explain how it makes her feel, knowing that Hyde had this place, this beautiful place, and never told anyone about it.

(Hyde had this place, and Erica had nothing.)

Some of this must show on her face, because Hyde frowns.

“Hey... what’s wrong?”

Erica shakes her head. “It’s- I don’t know. You’ve kept this huge part of yourself locked away from- well, all of us. All your friends back home.” From me. “I know why you did it. I just wish you didn’t have to.”

Hyde nods. “Yeah. So do I.”

A long silence thickens the air.

The room is small, and they're kneeling close, but not touching. (Hyde avoids touching Erica. Almost to an extreme. That's why those rare moments, like when she grabbed Erica's wrist last night, feel so electric.) Hyde has gone distant and distracted, idly fingering a napkin in her hands. Her fingers move slow along the creases.

Erica shuts her eyes, and breathes in. But that's no help either, because Hyde smells so good. Like coffee and bacon and something else, subtle and smoky, that's only her.

Dammit. Erica clears her throat. “Did I ever tell you what happened on my date with Don?”

Hyde rolls her eyes. “You don't have to tell me.”

“No, I-" She swallows. “I want to.”

Hyde turns her head, with an exasperated look. (And oh, it just makes Erica want to kiss her even more.)

She takes a deep breath, and lets it out. “He kissed me.”

“Congratulations."

“I’m not finished.” Erica keeps her voice steady. “He kissed me, and you know what I did?”

Hyde takes the wrapped silverware bundles, dumps them back into the tub. “I’m on pins and needles.”

“I laughed. I just- totally cracked up. Because it felt so- so weird, and stupid, and it didn’t give me butterflies or whatever I was supposed to feel. That’s why we didn’t end up boyfriend and girlfriend.”

Hyde is quiet. So quiet she might not even be breathing.

“I should’ve realized, then, but as you know I have a reputation for being a dumbass, and pretty clueless in general, so I guess what I’m saying is- it took me this long to finally figure it out.”

“Figure what out?”

“That boys don’t give me butterflies. But, um... well." Erica bites her lip. “Girls do.” At least one girl.

Hyde turns. “What are you saying to me, Forman?”

“C’mon, do I have to draw you a picture?” She lets out a tight, breathy laugh. Blood rushes so loud in her head, she can barely hear the words leave her own mouth. “I’m… like you, Hyde. I'm a lesbian. And, uh, I like you. Like- a lesbian.”

Oh, god. Ohgodohgodohgod. She didn’t mean to add that last part. (Brain to mouth: what the hell?)

What has she done?

Hyde blinks, unmoving. Then her face hardens. She shakes her head. “If you’re messing with me right now, I swear-”

Anger sears through the chill of rejection. Erica stands up. Before she can contain it, her voice is spilling over, too big for this tiny room.

“Is that seriously what you think of me? I rip open my chest and show you my heart and you think I did it to mess with you?” She turns away, and spits out, “Go ahead and forget it, then.”

“Wait-“

Hyde scrambles to her feet, to grab Erica by the arm, and tug her back. Erica spins around. Momentum brings them inches apart, and they freeze like that, half a breath from collision.

Hyde searches Erica’s face. Her eyes blaze, so blue and bright that at last Erica understands why she wears those sunglasses all the time. Otherwise she’d go around setting things on fire, just by looking at them.

Like she’s doing to Erica, right now.

Without thinking, Erica lifts her free arm (Hyde still hasn't let go of the other one) and cups her hand to the side of Hyde’s neck. (She loves Hyde’s neck. If that makes her weird, so be it.)

Hyde lets out a shaky sigh. Her pulse throbs into Erica’s palm, hummingbird-fast.

They’re stuck. Getting dizzier and dizzier off each other’s breath. Erica realizes, with some irritation, that Hyde is never going to make the first move.

So she does.

There's no guide to follow. Erica goes by instinct instead - wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue, curling her fingers into the soft, short hair at the nape of Hyde's neck, before finally, finally, closing the space between their mouths.

It's light, and soft, a question waiting for an answer. They both stop breathing. Everything stops.

Then Hyde starts kissing her. Really kissing her, sure yet gentle, kissing all the breath from Erica's lungs. Kissing new colors into existence. Kissing like Erica didn't know kissing could be.

And clearly she's gone through life half-numb, because until this moment, she had no idea how much her body could feel. The back of her neck burns hot and cold. Which shouldn't even be possible. (But then again, she's kissing Hyde, so... nothing is impossible.)

Hyde breaks them apart. She lets go of Erica's wrist, and takes a step back, a bit unsteady. They're both fighting for air, but Hyde looks like she might pass out.

Erica's chest twinges in worry. "Are you okay?"

"Am I okay?" Hyde echoes, eyes big, staring at nothing. "Am I okay." She laughs. "To be honest with you, I'm freaking out here. Just a little."

"Like- good freaking out? Or bad freaking out?"

"Good. Really good." She closes her eyes. "Too much good."

Erica smiles shakily. "So... you like me like a lesbian, too?"

"Jesus Christ, yes. Yes." Hyde half turns away, running a hand through her hair. She laughs again. "Forman, I've wanted to kiss you since seventh grade."

Erica's eyes fly wide. "Seventh grade?"

Hyde covers her eyes. "Fuck. I didn't mean to tell you that."

"That's... four years!"

"I know," she groans.

Erica chuckles. "Hyde." She steps close, tugs at Hyde's hand, to pull it away from her face. "Hyde," she says again, soft, coaxing her eyes upward.

Erica could just tell her, it's okay, but she kisses the words instead.

And this time, Hyde touches her.

Oh. This is what Erica has wanted for so long, before she even knew. She makes a soft, embarrassing sound, leans into Hyde's hands like a cat. Warmth like sunlight on her shoulders, moving slowly down her back, so slow, their bodies drawing together like magnets. Hyde tastes like coffee, just a little bitter and chocolatey. Erica probably tastes like her breakfast, but Hyde doesn't seem to mind.

Her hands stop halfway down. Erica feels those four years of want, in Hyde's soft, hesitant grip on her waist. So she smiles into Hyde's mouth, and pulls away. She tugs Hyde by the hands, down onto the bed.

They sort of crash into each other, jostling the tub of silverware. Hyde grunts, annoyed, and shoves the tub unceremoniously onto the floor. They both giggle. Erica lays back, and Hyde hovers over her, on all fours. She kisses her breathless all over again.

All Erica can think is, this is what it's supposed to feel like.

Hyde pulls away. "Oh, hell," she sighs, and flops over, onto her back. She's breathing hard. "Pinch me, Forman."

Erica giggles at Hyde's expression, dazed in joy and disbelief. She reaches over, and obliges.

"Ow!" Hyde rubs her arm. "It's a figure of speech, dammit!"

Erica laughs, and so does Hyde, as she rolls back over and props herself up on her elbow, to gaze down at Erica.

"Have you ever dreamed about me?" Erica asks, curious.

Hyde blushes, and looks away. She doesn't answer.

"Well. I've dreamed about you."

"What?" Hyde's mouth twitches, caught between embarrassed and pleased. "No way."

"Yes, way!"

"Yeah, right."

Erica tells her about the pirate dream.

Hyde is doubled up laughing for several minutes. When at last she recovers, wiping her eyes, she says, "My god, that has to be the most idiotic fantasy I've ever heard."

"Shut up!" Erica grins, and shoves Hyde's shoulder.

Hyde smirks. "So, you want me to go track down a red jumpsuit and wear a big sword? 'Cause I'll do that for you, if that's what you really want..."

Erica pushes Hyde back down on the bed, and swings one leg over her, to trap her there. Hyde makes a funny sound in her throat. But she doesn't try to escape, so she must not really mind.

"Now you're my prisoner," teases Erica. "And you have to share an embarrassing dream you've had about me."

Hyde shakes her head vehemently, eyes squeezed shut.

"Aw, c'mon, it's only fair."

Hyde throws an arm over her eyes, pained. "Forman... five minutes ago I was still suffering under the illusion that you were straight. Gimme time, okay?"

Erica pulls her leg back, and smiles. "Okay. We have time."

But as soon as she says it, a clock starts ticking in her chest. (Or maybe a bomb timer.) Ticking down the seconds until they have to go back to Point Place. To her parents. To school. To whatever this will mean, the two of them together, outside of this room, beyond this moment.

The longer they wait, the worse the explosion will be, when Erica walks through her front door.

She opens her mouth to say something, about going back. But before she can, Hyde gets up, and holds out her hand.

"There's someplace I want to show you," she says. "C'mon."

Erica slides off the bed, and takes Hyde's hand. (A miracle in itself. The last time they held hands was probably back in 5th grade.) She follows.

The truth of it is, she'd follow Hyde just about anywhere.

Chapter Text

"Hyde, will you just tell me where we're going?"

She flashes a grin over her shoulder. "But that would ruin the suspense."

Erica frowns, and hastens to keep up. (Her hand aches to be clasped in Hyde's. Even though they only held hands the twenty seconds it took to descend the stairs, letting go the moment they stepped outside the cafe. And for good reason... but still.)

The Milwaukee River lies ahead of them, glistening in the midday sun. An enormous metal apparatus stretches across the water, an odd bridge that skims the river's surface instead of arching above it. Train tracks run along the bottom, the spine of its huge steel ribcage. A little roofed hut perches on top.

Hyde clambers up a gravel slope, to the train tracks that lead into the metal beast.

Erica stops, and shakes her head. "Oh, uh uh. No way. We are not climbing onto that thing. Whatever it is."

"It's a swing bridge. A trestle. It's perfectly safe, trains use it."

"Trains use it? Oh yeah, that sounds safe."

"Relax. They don't come through very often, anymore."

"Very often?" Erica squeaks.

Hyde points upward, at the hut. "See? There's no one even manning it right now." She looks into Erica's eyes. "I won't let anything happen to you. Promise."

Erica sighs, and scrambles up onto the tracks. She looks over both shoulders, but no one is around to yell at them. There's hardly anyone out in this part of town at all, at the industrial river's edge, far from the parks and the shopping districts. Erica gazes up at the welded monstrosity before them. There's something oddly beautiful in it, rusted and mighty.

"C'mon," Hyde calls. She's already on the trestle, walking along the frame, easy as strolling down the street. She grabs onto one of the side supports, and tilts her body at a dangerous angle. "Forman..." she sings, teasing. She bites her lip. "I'm so lonely out here."

Erica's whole body blushes. This, she realizes, is Flirty Hyde. An entirely new kind of Hyde, one she is ill-equipped to resist.

That's how she winds up stepping onto the steel frame, before she can talk herself out of it. She inches along, clinging to the side supports, even though it's broad enough to walk normally. She'd almost have to try to fall off. (Like Hyde seems to be doing.)

Hyde stops halfway across, and leans against a beam, to watch Erica's progress. Her lips twitch with suppressed laughter.

Erica shoots her a glare. "Shut up."

Hyde laughs, shows her palms. "I didn't say nothin'."

"Oh, you were coming through loud and clear."

She reaches the middle at last, and lets go of the cold steel, to wrap herself around Hyde instead. Hyde chuckles. She enfolds Erica in her arms. They hold on tight for a minute, simply absorbing each other's warmth. Hyde's breath tickles Erica's neck, and she shivers.

"Is this why they put a ruler between couples at school dances? I think I've just discovered five hundred new nerve endings."

Hyde's only reply is to kiss her on the ear.

Erica sighs. "Five hundred and one."

"Why do you think I stopped touching you, back in junior high?" Hyde pulls away. "That's what I felt like, all the time. I thought you were gonna kill me."

"I just figured you were too 'grown-up' and 'cool' to hold hands with me anymore."

"Well, that too."

Erica shakes her head, with a laugh. "God, I can't believe that a month ago I asked you to kiss me, and you still thought I was straight."

"Uh, if I recall, you asked me to teach you how, so you could kiss Don."

"Right." Erica tilts her head. "Though to be fair, I still thought I was straight at that point."

"Luckily you came to your senses." Hyde smirks.

She ducks through a gap in the side supports, and swings herself down to sit on the steel railing, feet dangling over the side. Erica follows, crouching down cautiously, to sit next to Hyde. The water looks cold. But Hyde is warm. (So warm.) Erica snuggles close, and takes this opportunity to admire her profile. The tilt of her jaw, the soft curl of her mouth.

Hyde flicks her gaze over, and makes a face. "Don't look at me. The view's out there." She points ahead.

Erica turns, and lets out her breath. "Oh."

It's hardly tranquil, or picturesque. But from this vantage point in the middle of the river, the water stretches out like a rippling, silver-dappled carpet before them, into a horizon that bristles with activity and noise, construction cranes and the buzz of traffic, the city skyline of Milwaukee that lies upriver.

"Wow," says Erica.

Hyde interlaces their fingers, and nods. They stare out at the river. No words are necessary. The miracle of their kissing palms says more than enough.

"Alright." Erica breaks the silence at last. "'Fess up, Hyde. How many girls have you brought here?"

Hyde smiles, but shakes her head. "You're the first and only."

"But have you..." Erica falters. "You know."

"Hm, I dunno. Have I?" Hyde teases. Then, serious, "I've haven't dated. But I've met people, and-" She shrugs.

"Ah. Like a 'love them and leave them' kind of thing?"

Hyde snorts. "More like a, 'we're in this bar and you're making eyes at me so let's get outta here and see where this goes' kind of thing." She tips Erica a look. "You jealous?"

"No," says Erica hotly. She hesitates. "Okay. Maybe a little. But mostly I was wondering... what it's like."

Hyde pushes her lips together, brow lifted. "Uh- It's far out." She shrugs, with a laugh. "I don't know what to tell you, Forman. I don’t have that much experience. I just really like girls."

"Is that the only requirement? I don't have to perform some ritual by the light of the full moon, cut out a man's heart and eat it, or something?"

"Nope. But you can, if you wanna go for extra credit. I know how much you love extra credit."

"Shut up." Erica shoves her on the shoulder. She can't hold back a grin.

Hyde's eyes spark. "Why don'tcha make me?"

Erica grabs the front of Hyde's shirt, and pulls her into a kiss. Her mouth demands, steals Hyde's breath for her own, with a boldness that surprises even herself.

But if Hyde is different here, it follows that Erica must be different, too. Entirely unlike Point Place Erica in every way. A wild, reckless Erica, one who boldly kisses the girl of her dreams on a bridge in the middle of the Milwaukee River.

When at last they come up for air, Hyde's lips are pinked and swollen. She stares at Erica, dazed.

"Whaddyou know, it worked," Erica quips.

"Mm, wait a sec, I don't think it took," says Hyde. "Better try again."

She kisses Erica deep and slow. Mouths open, hearts pounding.

Hyde pulls away, and swallows hard. "We, um." She has to close her eyes, before she can form words. "We should stop."

Erica nods. (No one seems to be within eyeshot, but still.) She rests her head on Hyde's shoulder, breathes in her scent. She wishes this could last forever. Just like that, dread creeps in, like smoke along the edges of her mind.

She must be psychic. Hyde clears her throat, staring down at the water. Her face is somber and still. "Listen... there's something I have to tell you."

Erica tenses. Knee-jerk sarcasm is her first line of defense. "Well gee, that's not panic-inducing. At all."

Hyde draws her mouth into a line, still not meeting Erica's eyes. "My mom-" She lets out a breath. "My mom isn't coming back."

The words lance through Erica's chest. "Oh, god," she murmurs, and moves to touch Hyde, to comfort her. She stops, and asks the question, with her eyes. Hyde nods. Erica throws her arms around her, squeezing tight.

"I'm so sorry," she whispers.

"It's whatever, man."

Erica pulls back, and gives her a look. "It absolutely is not."

Hyde shrugs. "I always knew it was gonna happen. After my dad left, and she kinda- checked out. When I was younger it terrified me. But at some point I stopped being terrified, and I've just been... waiting."

Erica takes Hyde's hand, rubs a thumb across her knuckles. "When did you find out?" she asks, quiet.

"Couple days ago. She was calling the house, until they cut off the power. Then she thought to try Jen's, and surprise, there I was." Hyde's voice hardens, bitter. "She gave me this whole bullshit speech, how she's starting fresh, and I'm better off without her. Whatever. I stopped listening halfway through."

"Hyde...” Erica wishes she could make it better. Fill the deep, broken emptiness in Hyde's eyes. But all she can do is repeat, "I'm sorry."

Hyde shakes her head. "I'm the one who should be apologizing. I-" Her voice splinters. "I'm so sorry, Erica."

"No. Don't say that." She squeezes Hyde's hand, hard. "Don't call me Erica. That's your tell."

"My tell?"

"The last time you called me Erica, you were about to break my heart."

"Fuck." Hyde pushes out a breath, clenching her eyes shut. "I'm sorry. I wanted to have it, just for a little while." She tilts her gaze skyward, blinking fast. "I wanted to kiss you back, pretend we could be okay. Just for a few minutes."

Erica can barely hear, over the sick rush of blood in her ears. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Don't you get it? Do I have to spell it out?" Hyde's voice is raw, torn open. "I can't go back to Point Place. I have nowhere to go back to."

Erica goes still. Her face is numb. Slowly, she pulls her hand out of Hyde’s. She moves away, breaking all contact. Hyde doesn't protest, doesn't move. Simply shuts her eyes, jaw clenched tight.

"You lied." Erica's voice is cold and tinny. Strange to her own ears. "This whole time, you were never going to come back. You just let me believe it."

"I wanted to believe it, too. I wish I could come back, dammit. But Jen and Penny's is the only home I've got now." Her voice settles into a hoarse, hollow shape. "I'll probably transfer to South Division High, here in Milwaukee."

A long silence envelops them, wallpapered by the cry of Canada geese and the distant roar of traffic. Erica shivers, cold. Too cold to sustain her anger. It dissolves into guilt, a heavy sludge, like silt in her lungs.

"God, this is so messed up." Erica shakes her head. "I shouldn't be mad at you."

"You've got every right to be," Hyde rasps. "I left and didn't tell you where I was going. I lied about coming back. I've treated you like shit, and all I ever wanted-" She stops, and looks at Erica.

It's like her eyes have broken open. Everything she never shows is right there, at the surface, glistening. "All I want to do is protect you."

Erica flushes warm. "I know," she says, soft. (Because she does. Deep down, she's always known that.) "But if you thought your leaving would protect me, then that's pretty damn stupid."

"Well it doesn't matter, now." Hyde clenches her fists on her thighs. "None of it does."

Erica looks away. A dim future stretches before her, without Hyde. It's like the past two weeks, only longer. No listening to Led Zeppelin in the basement, no giggling in 'the circle,' no socialist Monopoly games. No one for Erica to roll her eyes with, at the absurdity of high school. At the world in general. And this new, wonderful together-thing would likely be strangled at the root.

Sure, they could visit. It's only an hour's drive. But it would never be the same. (They would never recover.)

Erica breathes in, steadies her voice. "What if... you came to live with me?"

Hyde lets out a humorless laugh. "Yeah, good one, Forman."

"I'm serious. In the overdeveloped maternal lobe of my mother's brain, she's basically adopted you already. She's told me multiple times that you're always welcome to stay."

"That's sweet and all, but." Hyde makes a face. "I don't think it'd be a good idea for me to live with your parents when I'm- not out to them."

Erica's stomach wrenches. "No. They would have to know, and be okay with it."

"Are you on something?" Hyde's eyes go wide. "Lemme try and picture that. 'Hey Mr. Forman, I'm a big commie dyke who's gay for your daughter. Oh, and could you please pass the salt?'"

Erica winces. "Okay, we'd have to break it gently. Maybe leave out your feelings for me. And the commie part. But if they don't accept you, they sure as hell won't accept me. Or us." She sets her jaw, even as dread coagulates in her stomach. "I'd rather know that, before I go back."

Hyde's brow knits. "So... you're gonna call them up, ask if I can stay, then pepper in the fact that I'm a lesbian, to see how they react?"

"Only if you're okay with it. Hey, if they react badly, it'll be moot anyway. You'll stay here in Milwaukee and you won't ever have to speak to them again."

"Jesus." Hyde blinks. "I guess. But that's pretty heavy. Are you sure this is something you want to do over the phone?"

"Maybe it'll be easier. And again, if it goes badly- I don't want you to have to deal with that, in person."

Hyde looks down at her hands. "Listen... I understand if you don't want to try and make this work." She lifts her eyes to Erica's. "You don't have to choose me over your family. You don't have to choose me over anything."

The answer sears her throat, ardent and true, before Erica barely even knows it herself.

"Hyde, are you for real? I was miserable after you left, I spent all last night searching high and low for you, I sent our friends away in the Vista Cruiser because I wanted to stay here. With you. I've already chosen you. And I'll choose you again, as many times as it takes to convince you that I'm sticking around." She smiles grimly. "You can't get rid of me so easy."

Hyde goes quiet. She turns her face away, covers her eyes. "Goddammit, Forman." Her voice is weird, kind of strangled. Her shoulders start to shake.

It takes a moment to sink in. Hyde is crying.

Erica has no idea what to do. So she goes by her gut. She draws close, looping her arms around Hyde, gently. She lays her head on Hyde's shoulder. Tears sting her own eyes, dampening the sherpa collar of Hyde's jacket.

After a while, Hyde's breathing evens out. She holds onto Erica's forearm, pressed into her collarbone, as if to keep it there. Erica can feel the tremor of her voice, when she speaks.

"Sorry." She clears her throat. "Don’t know what that was."

"I believe they're called emotions."

"Shut up," says Hyde, with a weak, husky laugh.

Erica smiles, as she lowers her arms, and pulls away. (She doesn't go far.)

Hyde takes a deep breath, lets it out. "Y'know, you talked in your sleep last night. When I was carrying you up the stairs."

Erica's face falls. "Oh, god. I did?"

"It was cute." Hyde smirks, before her mouth straightens out, serious. "You, uh. You called me your hero."

"Oh, god." Erica fakes a lunge forward, as if to dive into the river. Hyde laughs, and catches her waist.

"Quit it. I'm tryin' to be serious, here." Hyde holds onto Erica, looks her in the eyes. "I'm not a hero, okay? I know I act cool, but that's all it is. An act. I guarantee you I have no idea what I'm doing, ever, and I keep fucking up, and I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"No, it's not," says Hyde sharply. "I'm sorry I left like I did. It got heavy, and I checked out. It's a bad habit. Also probably genetic." She sighs. "And I genuinely thought you'd be safer without me around."

"Did I mention how stupid that was?"

"Yeah, you did." Hyde lets her grip slacken, one hand dropping to Erica's thigh. "But... well, I'd be lying if I said that Point Place doesn't get to me. It's- toxic, like..." She gestures vaguely. "Like low-level radiation, seeping into my skin, all the time. Sometimes I would think about how long we have to go 'til graduation-"

"Only two years," Erica counters. She resists the urge to grab Hyde's hand and put it back on her thigh, where it belongs.

“Two years of complete bullshit. And… yeah. Worse.” Hyde ducks her head. “Sometimes I got so down, I couldn’t see through it. But you know what I thought about, whenever it got like that?” She lifts her gaze back up.

“What?”

“You.” Hyde doesn’t elaborate. “I thought about you.”

Erica can’t help it. She snorts. “Because I’m such an optimistic and inspirational ray of light?”

“No, ya dillhole, because you are the opposite of that. Because you get it. You’ve always gotten it. That the world is complete bullshit, and there’s no point in pretending it isn’t.”

Erica lifts her eyebrows. “Gee, I guess that does describe my philosophy pretty well.”

“So, what I’m thinking now, is- whatever happens, whatever your parents say, I'll get through it. As long as you’ll be there.”

I’ll always be there. Anywhere, any time, no matter what.

Instead of saying this out loud, Erica simply cups Hyde's cheek, and kisses her.

And she tries her best to get the point across.

Chapter Text

"Hello?" Kitty answers the phone in a strained voice, one pitch higher than normal.

Erica leans against the glass of the phone booth. "Hey, Mom," she chuckles nervously. "It's Erica."

"Oh- oh, honey." Her breathy sobs send static down the line. She recovers, in order to launch a spitfire interrogation. "Where are you? Are you alright? Are you hurt? Tell me where you're hurt and I'll talk you through it. Unless you need to be amputated, you'll have to go to the ER for that-"

"Mom. I'm not hurt." Guilt slices through Erica's gut. "I'm fine."

"Oh, thank god." She hiccups. "Oh, honey. We've been so worried."

"Geez, Mom. I've been gone for less than a day."

"Well, we- yes, it's Erica," she says aside, slightly muffled. "No, you may not have the phone."

There's some rustling, and distant swearing.

Kitty goes on, clearer, “We were just shocked this morning when we saw the Vista Cruiser was home but you weren’t, so we went next door and Bob and Midge said that Don came home at half past 3 am last night but he refused to say where you were, claimed he was exercising his constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination by pleading the Fifth-”

Erica fights a smile. Good ol' Don.

Her father barks down the line, "I was about to exercise my constitutional right to put my foot in his ass."

"Red, give me back the phone," her mother growls. She huffs out a breath. "There. Now that I know you're alright-" Her voice goes shrill. "Where on earth have you been?"

Erica winces, jerking away from the receiver, too late. She bites her lip. "Um. It's kind of a long story..."

"Uh huh. It better be good."

Erica provides an extremely abridged version of events, starting when Hyde ran away- "Two weeks ago? So you don't tell your mother anything anymore?"- all the way up to where they found her- "A cafe, well, good, at least she was being fed"- and the latest revelation of Hyde's status as an orphan.

Kitty clicks her tongue. "The poor dear. Of course she has to come and stay with us." Distant grumbling ensues. "This is no time to argue over finances, Red. There is a child who needs our help and if you say one more word about grocery bills you're sleeping on the couch for a week."

Erica's heartbeat is thick in her throat. "Mom... there's something you need to know about Hyde. She-" Erica chokes on the words.

Just say it. Like ripping off a bandaid. A bandaid that represents all your parents' approval and acceptance and love.

Hyde is sitting on a bench a little ways away from the phone booth. She looks over, and lifts her eyebrows, encouraging.

Erica looks away, shuts her eyes. "Hyde is a lesbian."

"Sorry, dear," her mother says placidly. "I must have misheard. What was that?"

"Hyde is a lesbian," Erica repeats, louder. She wraps the phone cord around her wrist, tight enough to leave a mark. "She likes girls."

There is a long, horrible silence. Erica fights the urge to hang up the receiver. Or smash it into tiny pieces.

"Oh," Kitty says at last. "Oh, my. I guess that does explain a lot." She laughs, uncertain.

"Are you still going to let her stay?"

After a pause, her mother says briskly, "Well, what do you expect me to do? Let a poor motherless girl drop out of school and be banished to Milwaukee, away from all her friends? The fact that she- well, no matter who she likes, it doesn't change the fact that she needs someone to take care of her and I am the woman for the job."

Erica pulls her gnawed fingernail away from her mouth. "You're not going to try and make her- not be a lesbian, are you?"

Her mother huffs, offended. "Honey. Of course not. I don't know about any of that. All I know is how to be a nurse and how to be a mother, and right now Hyde is in need of the second." Her voice is hot. "Now, when are you two coming home?"

Erica's limbs weaken in relief. Then she tenses up again. "What about Dad? Do you think he'll let her stay?"

"Well, seeing as I'm no longer in control of this house, nobody ought to give a damn what I think."

"Red! How long have you been on the other line?"

"Long enough," he says gruffly.

Erica gulps. "And?"

Red heaves a breath. "Stephanie's a good kid. She's had a tough life, that's for sure. But she's capable, self-reliant, minds her manners. That's more than you and the rest of your dumbass friends can say."

Erica cracks a smile. "Thanks, Dad."

"But she better not bring any girls into the house." He hangs up.

"I knew it!" A voice pierces the line, with a cackle.

Erica smacks her forehead.

"Laurie," her mother scolds. "We did not install a receiver in your room so you could eavesdrop. Now, get off the line."

"But Mom, where is Hyde going to sleep? You're not going to let her sleep in Erica's room, are you?" Her devilish brain is whirring a mile a minute, as usual. "Because that means you should let me have guy friends in my room overnight. It's only fair."

"Has that rule ever stopped you before?" Erica snarks.

"Now, now, girls," their mother cuts in. "Laurie, hang up the phone." After they hear the click, Kitty says, with a strained chuckle, "She does have a point, Erica. I mean, it would be like letting Don sleep in your room, wouldn't it? Not that I'm implying anything. It just doesn't seem- well, decent."

Erica isn't about to argue. She and Hyde only just kissed for the first time today. Leaping right to sharing a room would be like... trading a match for a blowtorch. They might not survive it.

"We do have that junk room in the basement." Her mother's voice brightens. "We could fix it up, put the cot in there. Oh, it's a mess right now. I'll start cleaning right away."

Tears press at the corners of Erica's eyes. It's going to be okay.

It won't be easy. Just because her parents are (more or less) accepting of Hyde doesn't mean they'll react the same to Erica. Or to the two of them, together. There's still the question of how their relationship will fare in secret, while living in the same house. (They have a lot to work out.)

But they're going home. To Point Place. And maybe, eventually, they'll be okay.

Erica wipes her eyes. "Thank you, Mom." Relief warms her voice.

"Oh, you are not off the hook, young lady," Kitty says sternly. "We'll be having a conversation about your punishment once you get back."

Erica nods. "Yeah, fair enough."

They exchange 'I-love-you's, and Erica promises to be home before nightfall. She hangs up. A long breath shudders from her mouth, hands braced on the little metal counter, eyes closed.

There's a knock on the glass. Erica turns to see Hyde, her eyes wide in question. She jerks open the door of the phone booth. "Well?"

Erica smiles. She finds herself tearing up all over again, at the relief on Hyde's face. She throws her arms around Hyde's shoulders, and they hug each other tight enough to hurt.

"They're okay with it," says Erica, breathless. "Emphasis on 'okay.' But still- okay."

Hyde pulls back, still holding onto Erica's arms. "Even your dad?"

"Yeah. He really likes you. Maybe more than he likes me."

Hyde scoffs. "We'll see how long that lasts, once he finds out I seduced you."

"Hey, way to take all the credit!" Erica smacks Hyde's arm. "If anything, I was the seducer. If I'd left it up to you we'd still be frozen in your room right now."

Hyde chuckles, as she steps back, hooking her thumbs in her pockets. (Erica is already learning how to be careful in public. How they touch each other, how long they linger. She already hates it.)

"I told my mom we'd be home before dark. I assume that'll be possible?"

Hyde nods. "We'll take the 5:25 bus to Kenosha, and transfer to Point Place." Her gaze tilts away, thinking ahead. "We should get back to Jen's."

Erica starts to follow, before she jerks to a halt. "Wait. I need to make one more call."

Hyde raises her eyebrows, but stops, and digs in her pocket for another dime. She stands patiently, while Erica runs back to the phone booth.

She hesitates, her mind scrolling through the number she memorized, before it got washed off her arm that morning. She punches it in, and taps her foot while it rings.

"Hello?"

"Hi, um. Is this Deb?"

There's a pause. "Yeah. Who's this?"

"It's Erica. I was at Castaways South last night, looking for my friend Hyde? You and Vicky helped me out."

"Ohhh, Erica!" Deb's grin shines through the phone. "I was hoping you'd call! Vic, Vic, it's Erica."

Erica clears her throat. "Anyway, I just wanted to let you know- I found her."

"Oh, I'm so glad. I was casting good vibes for you, they must’ve come through. And you two worked things out?"

Erica is smiling so hard her face hurts. "Yeah." She swallows. "We, um, we're together now. Like- together together."

Deb lets out a shriek. "Congratulations! Aw, that is just too perfect. Vic, they're together." She pauses. "Yeah, okay. Vic says to tell you she's very happy for you two."

Erica's heart expands in her chest. She fiddles with the phone cord. "I owe you a huge thank you."

"You're welcome, sweetie. We barely did anything. But, okay, I have to confess- We may have told a few of our friends about you. No gritty details, of course. But word spreads fast around here, especially a story like yours. We heard they stopped the music for you at Sugar Shack?"

"Yeah..."

"Well, you might be a little bit legendary, now. Hope you don't mind."

"Really?" Erica's eyes widen. "I mean, no yeah, that's- groovy." (Hyde might disagree.)

Deb laughs. "Good! Now I can update everyone with the happy ending. Best of luck to you two, and if you're ever in town again, call us up, okay?"

"Will do." Erica smiles.

She hangs up, and practically bounces out of the phone booth. Hyde gives her a look. "Who was that?"

"Just a couple I met last night. Oh and by the way, we may be somewhat famous. In the Milwaukee gay scene, that is."

Hyde frowns, one eyebrow quirked. "Forman... what did you do?"

"Nothing!" Erica shrugs, grinning, as she starts down the sidewalk. "I can't help that I'm legendary."

✖︎

When they get back to the cafe, Hyde breaks the news to Jen and Penny. Erica sits far enough away not to eavesdrop, as they each take a turn talking to Hyde behind the counter.

Penny grips both of Hyde's hands as she talks. Her eyes glint behind half moon glasses, with a sharpness somewhat belied by her frilly gingham apron. She gives Hyde a fierce hug, and kisses her on the cheek, leaving a lipstick mark. She licks her thumb to rub it off, chuckling.

Jen talks for much longer, voice low and serious. Hyde listens closely, nodding. Seeing them together, Erica notices the echoes of Jen in Hyde, in her stance, the tilt of her shoulders, quiet hands. At last, she and Jen embrace. There's something so intense in it that Erica has to look away.

Jen hands Hyde an envelope. Hyde tries to refuse, but relents after one stern look. Jen clasps Hyde's shoulder, with a nod, then lets go. Hyde rejoins Erica, considerably calmer, more centered, than before.

"How did you find them?" Erica asks.

Hyde smiles. "It's a long story. I'll tell you sometime."

It takes Hyde less than two minutes to pack up all her things. After that, the afternoon is theirs. A precious handful of hours to spend however they want. Hyde calls up her Milwaukee friends, and they meet in a nearby park.

Erica is incredibly intimidated (they are so cool, and she is so... not) but that soon evaporates. All three are nothing but smiles and hugs and exclamations of approval. Mel and Joan go to South Division High; Shelly dropped out the year before, and works in the clubs, behind-the-scenes at drag shows. (At last Erica has a name for the glamorous people she saw at Castaways South - drag queens.)

Erica feels guilty, remembering how jealous she was of Hyde's 'cool Milwaukee friends,' before. Hearing them talk, she realizes that she's the one to be jealous of.

"Back to Piss Place, huh?"

"Aw, we knew it was too good to be true."

"At least this time she bothers to say goodbye."

They're thrilled to learn Hyde was wrong about Erica being straight, and that the two are now together. They tease Hyde about it mercilessly, of course. (And Erica likes them more and more.)

Talk turns to people Erica doesn't know, peppered with slang she doesn’t recognize. She gleans enough to grasp just how much drama and division there is, within a community that she's only ever seen as a monolith, referred to in catch-all phrases.

Hyde and her friends are outcasts even among the outcasts, kind of. The political lesbians, for example, aren't all that accepting of those who are 'too butch,' like Hyde, or 'too femme,' like Mel, or of women like Shelly, who "was a victim of a tragic misunderstanding at birth," as she puts it. Erica is dismayed and confused. It seems cruel that Hyde and her friends should be shut out of the very circles that ought to welcome them.

"You sure you can't come out with us tonight, before you go?" Joan asks.

"You have to let us take Erica out!" Shelly pleads. "Ooh, we could give her a makeover." She pats Erica's shoulder. "Not that you need one, you're already adorable. But it would be so much fun."

"Another time," Hyde promises.

"I'm holding you to that, y'know." Erica nudges her, with a grin.

After a loving farewell, the three of them leave Hyde and Erica alone together, with a few hours left to kill. So Hyde takes Erica to all her favorite places around the city. Whenever they're far enough away from the crowds, they hold hands, and walk close to each other. Hyde buys them ice cream, and they take it down to the park by the lake.

(And they hang out alone all the time, but this is different. Like a real date. Hyde keeps looking at Erica and grinning for no reason. And Erica wishes it were possible to bottle happiness, because this one afternoon could last her for a decade.)

The chilly day and the ice cream are no match for the glow that envelops them, sitting on a bench in the park, trading sideways glances. Erica laps at her strawberry ice cream, swirling it into a point with her tongue. She looks over, and giggles at Hyde's slack-jawed stare.

"Your ice cream is dripping." Erica points.

Hyde's cheeks flush. She bites into her own chocolate scoop, instead of licking, before her tongue darts out to swipe over her lips.

Erica looks away, with a groan. "Whose idea was this?"

"C'mon." Hyde smirks. "There's one more place."

That's how they end up climbing the fire escape of an abandoned building, all the way to the roof.

Autumn wind lashes Erica's cheeks, but she feels warm, so warm. She runs her fingers through the softness of Hyde's hair, relishing in her blissed-out expression, eyes closed. The small, content sounds in her throat. Then Hyde takes Erica in her arms, and kisses her. Sweet, deep, aching kisses, that make Erica's whole being pulse with joy.

They almost miss the bus.

Once they're safely in their seats, leaning against each other as they catch their breath, Erica says, "Yeah. Definitely worth the trouble."

"What was?"

She rests her head on Hyde's shoulder. She smiles. "You."

Chapter Text

"Hey." Hyde's voice lilts, playful. "Hey, Forman."

"Just a second." Erica is busy stirring the bowl of spice cake batter. It's hard enough with Don trying to dip his finger into it every other second. She jerks it away from him. "What's next, Fez?" she calls over her shoulder.

Fez, the reader of the recipe, clears her throat with panache. "Stir until just combined. Don't overmix."

Erica frowns, and stops stirring.

"Hey guys," Kelso calls from over by the fridge. She holds up a can of Red's beer, with a bright grin. "What if we used booze in the icing, instead of milk?"

They all shoot her disgusted looks.

"Fine. Buzzkills." She pouts. "I wish Jack was here, instead of up on stupid Wilmot Mountain with his parents. He appreciates my genius."

Erica sighs. "Don, go stop Kelso from ruining the icing."

"But I'm helping you stir!"

"You are not!"

"Forman." Hyde is standing across the counter from Erica, in front of the floured ruins of the last batch of gingerbread cutouts. "Forman, guess what?"

Erica huffs, but her smile gives her away. (It always does.) She looks over. "What, Hyde?"

Hyde flicks flour into her face.

Erica freezes, with a scoff of indignation. She dusts off her cheeks, puts on her gravest scowl. "How. Dare. You."

Hyde grins, poking her tongue between her teeth, which she knows drives Erica crazy. "Whatcha gonna do about it?"

Erica sets her jaw. She lifts the mixing spoon, and splatter-paints a spray of batter across Hyde's face. Hyde blinks, wiping a glob away from her eye. She licks the batter from her lips. Her eyes spark.

"Now who's wasting the batter?" Don protests.

Hyde leans over the counter. She doesn't break eye contact with Erica, as she swipes her fingers along the side of the bowl, and smears the batter on Erica's cheek. Before Erica can retaliate, Don whisks the bowl out of their reach. So Erica comes around the side of the counter, sliding her hand along the flour-covered surface. She smacks a powdery handprint onto the front of Hyde's sweater.

"Do you two need a moment alone?" Fez teases.

Erica moves to scoop up more flour, but Hyde catches both her wrists. Erica can't hold back a grin, giggling, as Hyde tugs her closer. Someone's in a good mood today.

Hyde is rarely this comfortable showing affection in front of other people. Not even their friends, who knew before Hyde and Erica told them and were not only cool with it, but relieved. ("It was that or kill each other," as Don put it.)

Erica wipes a glob of batter off Hyde's cheek, and licks it off her finger, before kissing Hyde on the nose.

"How are my little bakers doing?" Erica's mother swishes through the kitchen door, cradling a large book in her arms. Hyde and Erica leap apart.

"Great!" Erica chirps, snatching the bowl of cake batter back from Don and stirring vigorously.

It's been three weeks since they told Erica's family. (The whole deal. Sitting everyone down in the living room. Holding each other's hands.)

Kitty had sobbed for several hours. Red simply left the room, silent, and steamed in the garage. Laurie was refreshingly blasé. In the end, Hyde and Erica decided it was best if Hyde stayed in Milwaukee for a while, to wait it out. Those were the hardest three days of Erica's life.

Then, on the morning of the fourth day, her mother sat down to breakfast and asked when Hyde would be coming home. And that was that.

It could have been worse. (It also could have been a lot better.)

Kitty bustles over to the sink, and wets a cloth, handing it to Hyde. She gives the two of them a soft smile. "You have batter all over your faces, dears."

Hyde flushes pink. "Thanks, Mrs. Forman," she says quietly.

"How's the icing coming? I need those cookies done soon if I'm going to bring them to Midge's party- Michelle."

Kelso stops, finger poised on the tab of the beer can. She grins.

Kitty arches an eyebrow. "You better put that back where you found it. My husband is no Einstein, but he can count to six."

Kelso nods, chastened. "Yes, Mrs. Forman."

"Uh, whatcha got there, Mom?" asks Erica.

"Oh! Yes! That's the reason I came in here. I was looking for my nice Christmas table runner and I found all these old photo albums. So of course I started looking through them, y'know, took a little trip down memory lane, and- Well." She looks at Erica, a bit misty-eyed, her smile pinching at the edges. "There's one I just had to show you."

She takes the book over to the table, and sits down. Everyone gathers around.

"There." Kitty points.

The photo is dated 1968, in Kitty's tidy nurse's print. Three tiny faces peer out of the past, slightly washed-out in the exposure, but unmistakable. Erica squats outside the wood playhouse Red built for her and Laurie, grinning, holding up two hands caked in mud and leaves. Hyde's wearing that feral, cocky smile she had as a kid, hefting a leather briefcase. Don is on all-fours, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

They all coo over the picture. Erica laughs. "What were we doing?"

"You were playing house." Kitty is laughing, too, but her eyes are bright and full. Her voice wobbles. "You were the wife, Erica, making a mud pie for little Stephie- sorry. Hyde."

"No." Hyde's smile is distant, a bit melancholy, staring down at the picture. "That's Stephie."

"See, she was the husband coming home from work, with her briefcase." Kitty smirks. "That was a habit of hers. I remember Red turning the house upside-down looking for that briefcase, only to find it in your little house."

"Wow. We must have been- what, eight years old? I don't remember this at all." Erica shares a look with Hyde. "Do you?"

Hyde shakes her head, chuckling. "No. But I believe it."

"Why wasn't I the husband?" Don asks.

"Well, clearly you were the dog," says Kitty.

Everyone laughs, as Don grimaces, nodding. "Of course I was."

Fez and Kelso continue poring through the photo album, Don looking over their shoulders. Kitty stands up. She blinks, sniffing, before she throws her arms around Erica, squeezing tight.

"Oh, goodness." She pulls back, wiping her eyes. "I love you so much, honey. You know that, don't you?"

"Yeah." Erica blinks back tears of her own. "I love you, too, Mom."

Hyde is standing awkwardly off to the side. Kitty holds out her arms. "Oh, come here." She pulls Hyde into a firm, insistent hug. "That goes for you too, dear. I love you."

Hyde returns the hug just as firmly, eyes clenched shut. "Love you too, Mrs. Forman."

"It's only- well, I get so worried." Kitty pulls away, rubbing her hands together in front of her chest. "Thinking about the two of you, and the way things are. But I know you take good care of each other." She glances over at the photo album. She smiles, nods to herself.

"You always have."

✖︎

They're up late in the basement on Christmas Eve. Erica lays perpendicular on the cot, flat on her stomach, feet kicked up in the air. Hyde sits on the floor with her back against the bed, reading. The house is hushed and calm. Usually, by this hour, Kitty would have called down the stairs to order Erica to bed. Seems they've been granted a reprieve.

Erica plays with Hyde's hair absently. She has to wonder what her parents think they're doing down here. (They probably try not to think about it.) But the truth is Erica and Hyde don't do anything at all, not in Hyde's room. They're still stuck in their pre-coming-out rule of 'no fooling around in the house.' (Unfortunately.)

"Geez, it gets colder than Laurie's soul down here at night." Erica rolls off the bed, standing up. "You can't sleep in this. I'm going upstairs to get you a blanket. Or four."

"You sound like your mom."

"Fine, you can freeze."

Hyde laughs, and grabs Erica's hand, pressing a kiss to her knuckles. (Erica's insides still spin whenever she does that kind of thing. It feels like a secret. Because Erica is the only one who knows that Hyde- stoic, cynic Hyde- has been a hopeless romantic all along.)

"An extra blanket'd be nice," she says. "Thanks."

Erica's father is in the living room when she comes in. He sits slouched in his easy chair, absently swirling a tumbler of whiskey, as he stares into space. Erica picks up the plaid wool blanket from the back of the couch, without making a sound. She's about to retreat, silent as she came, when he speaks up.

"Erica?"

She winces. "Yes?"

He looks over at her. "Sit down a minute." He gestures to the couch.

Erica sits down slowly, clutching the blanket to her stomach.

"I've been thinking," Red starts.

She braces herself. Here we go.

His eyes are a bit glazed, almost... tender. He's clearly had a few, but he's not drunk. "Y'know who Hyde reminds me of?"

"Um." Erica swallows hard. "Who?"

He speaks slowly, measuring every word. "There were these... women who worked at the plant. Not as secretaries. They were down on the floor, with the guys. And the way Hyde is- I mean, the way she carries herself, walks, talks. Doesn't talk. She reminds me of those women."

Erica doesn't say anything. She doesn't even breathe.

Red is distant, lost in memory. "They were damn good workers. Never made trouble. 'Course, they had to deal with twice the amount of shit everyone else did. The work itself was enough, but they got shit from the men, because- well." He tosses back another swallow of whiskey, with a grimace. "I always tried to keep it under control. No fights on my watch. I did my best."

A lump forms in Erica's throat. All she can do is nod.

Red sighs. "I long for a simpler world, Erica. I know that makes me sound old, but hell." He chuckles. "I am old."

He reaches out a hand. Erica puts her own hand in his, unbelieving. Red squeezes, and gives her a weary smile.

"I'm sorry," he says, his eyes set in hers. It's one of maybe four times total Erica has ever heard him apologize, in her entire life. His gaze is deep, conflicted. "I wish it were easier."

"So do I." Erica's voice is hoarse. "But thanks, Dad."

Kitty comes down in her night robe, and coaxes Red upstairs. She says to Erica, "Come up to bed soon, dear," but without much force. Erica nods. She drifts back into the basement on auto-pilot.

"The hell happened to you?"

Erica snaps out of it. She's standing in Hyde's room. Hyde is staring at her, brow knit.

Erica lays the blanket on the bed. "My dad just opened up to me," she says softly. "About you."

Hyde stiffens. "What did he say?"

Erica tells her, word for word. Hyde's face gets redder and redder as she goes on.

"What?" she bursts at last, eyes wide. "He really said that?" She shakes her head. "No way. You're making this up."

"How could I be making it up? I didn't even know there were women who worked down on the floor." Erica prickles, a bit defensive. "This is the first time he's ever mentioned it."

"And he said that I reminded him of them?"

Erica nods.

Hyde's mouth twitches against a smile. "What- that's- I am nothing like- I mean, they were..."

Erica blinks. "You know these people?"

"Sure. Not personally," she amends. "But I know about them. Jen worked at a plant up in Milwaukee, before the layoffs started. The butches were the first to be let go."

"So my dad worked with real-live lesbians." Erica sits down on the fold-out bed. “Who’d ever have thought.”

Hyde chuckles, and sits next to her. “We're everywhere, man." She leans back on her hands, smiling to herself, still pink in the cheeks. Erica kisses her jaw, cuddles into her.

"Guess my dad has his own code," Erica muses, tracing circles on Hyde's thigh. "All you need to do to get into his good book is work hard and toe the line, and not be a smart-ass. But the way he talked about- the butches in the plant. He almost seemed to admire them. And he connected them to you, so. I think it's a very good sign."

Hyde doesn't really seem to be listening. "I can't believe he said that," she murmurs. "They were, y'know- and I'm, like..." She shakes her head.

"Geez, just take the compliment, Hyde." Erica grins. "Although this 'aw, shucks' routine is very cute."

"Shut up, Forman."

Erica bites her lip. "Make me."

It's a stock line for them, now. With one stock response. But usually they deploy it in the safety of the Vista Cruiser, parked in some remote place on the outskirts of town, at night.

Erica knows they don't need her parents' approval. They never did. But she can't help that having it makes the house feel like a safe place, too. A haven, like the Vista Cruiser in the grey-glow dark of the suburban outdoors. She slides onto Hyde's lap, cups her hands to Hyde's neck. Warm, flushed skin, just begging to be nipped.

But Hyde holds back, muscles tensed. "Forman..."

"I know," Erica whispers. "It's okay." She giggles, trying to break the tension, "Since when did I become the wild one, and you the nervous one?"

(Even though she knows that, in her own way, Hyde has always been nervous. Careful, so careful. And a part of Erica has always been wild, wanting.)

Just like that, Erica gets an idea. She pulls herself off Hyde's lap, and walks out of the room. But not before pausing in the doorway, and tossing a look over her shoulder, brow lifted, mouth curled.

She turns away, and smirks as she hears Hyde scrambling to follow. (It really is that easy.)

And then it's just the two of them, in the basement. Just like always. Erica goes over to the turntable, flicking through the stack of records until she finds the right one. Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin. She puts it on, adjusts the needle to the exact gap in the grooves.

As soon as the song starts, Hyde smiles. The guitar is soft, drifting slowly through the chords, ringing with a slight reverb. It's low enough that it couldn't be heard upstairs.

"This is what we were listening to, isn't it?" Erica goes and stands by the couch. She beckons. Hyde comes over, faces her.

"So. Hyde." Erica grins. "Would you say you're good at kissing?"

Hyde grins back, ducking her head, before lifting her eyes to Erica's. "You tell me, doll."

Plant begins to sing, voice smoke-smooth, almost delicate. "It is the springtime of my lovin'..."

Erica shoves her hands in her pockets. Then takes them out again. (She's still so awkward at this stuff. But she tries.) "Would you teach me how?"

Hyde laughs. "Yeah, I think you've got it pretty much figured out."

"So little warmth I've felt before..."

"C'mon." Erica tips her a look. Just a little bit pouty, mostly flirty. "Play along?"

Hyde's eyes flicker with heat. She looks away, and lets out a slow breath. "You know these are, like, my two weaknesses. Led, and that look you just gave me."

"That's the idea." Erica perks up. "Wait. I know what's missing. Don't move." She leaps over the couch, dashes into Hyde's room. She comes back with the sunglasses. "Put these on."

She does. She pulls her shoulders back, lifts her chin, pushes her jaw out slightly. (The sunglasses effect.)

"Okay." Erica takes a breath. "Now. Will you teach me how to kiss?"

Hyde steps close. "Sure, Forman," she purrs.

The music swells. Strings paint in sweet and yearning hues above the guitar line. In no hurry whatsoever, Hyde takes off her sunglasses, tosses them onto the couch. She lifts Erica's chin gently.

Erica holds her breath.

(Months later, it still feels like the first time, every time. Like a miracle. Like something impossible, come true.)

"So." Hyde smirks. "First, you-"

They don't need any more words after that.

✖︎ E N D ✖︎