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West & Vega: The Untold Jori

Chapter Text

“Tori. You’re back.”

Some people might have thought the day Tori Vega showed her face at Hollywood Arts High School was the day my world started to change. But the truth is, it was that second day. The day she came back.

Entitled little shits showing up at Hollywood Arts for a free ride was nothing new. As much as Eikner loved to tout the high entrance standards, the truth is they’d let in anyone who paid enough money or who checked a certain box to make the school look all progressive and edgy. Because if there's one thing Tinsel Town loves, it's pretending to be progressive in the hopes of making more people like them. Most of us had to bust our asses to get in the door, but once in a while Eikner would pull a Hollywood-style sweeps month rating stunt; you know, some big ridiculous thing that’s intended to draw a larger audience, like killing a major character or blowing up a primary setting or whatever. He was notorious for that, and I couldn’t stand him for it.

Vega was one of those. I could smell it on her. She checked a lot of the boxes, actually. She was pretty, she had some legit talent, and she was half-latina. But none of that mattered to me. She was a stunt, and I handled her like I handled all the other stunts that came through the door. I don’t always go for the jugular; sometimes I like to give people the rope and have them hang themselves with it. But that leggy beanpole was so woefully naive she was practically begging for the hazing.

Putting her hands on Beck didn’t help. Again, not a new thing. Beck was— is —a total hottie. I was used to girls (and guys) tripping over themselves around him. I played that part up a bit, but I’m not stupid. I knew it was an accident, her spilling coffee on him. I knew she was trying to be the nice, friendly, new girl and help out. But every villain needs a solid motivation, and I didn’t care enough to reveal any real reasons I might have had for treating her like that. She probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.

Vega coasted into my school because she was an allegedly “impressive” last-minute replacement for her even more talentless sister, Trina. I was at the showcase. I saw her sing. I also saw that dress she wore. It must have been a last-minute thing because it seemed like it was made for someone about a foot-and-a-half shorter than her. Okay, so she totally had the legs for it, which I'm sure worked in her favor on some level. Short as she was back then, those legs just went on and on and on…

Anyway, I showed her. When Sikowitz made me the captain of the improv exercise, I brought her right in. She was clueless. I made her crawl around like the little bitch I knew she was. She went for it, though. She tried. That just pissed me off more, and I gave her an espresso bath. Even Sikowitz didn’t have anything to say about that. She ran off, and I figured that was it. I’d get some dirty looks from Andre and Cat, and maybe a lecture from Beck, but I didn’t care. I could handle that. It was worth the trade-off.

But then, Vega did something I didn’t see coming.

She came back.

I remember when she walked in the next morning…blue and purple top, dark skin, her hair straight and hanging down like a dog with its tail between its legs. Humbled, afraid…but goddamnit, she was there. She showed up.

At first, I just felt rage. Blinding rage. How dare she? How dare she come back? They never come back! To be honest, I was also pissed at myself for not seeing it. I hate being surprised.

A hundred other things flashed through my brain. I started plotting my next move. There was no way I would accept this pampered brat staying at my school, that I worked so hard to get into. I guess that was the birth of “evil” Jade.

But the thing is, I’m not evil. Never have been. Those are idiotic constructs anyway, good and evil. People are what they are, which in my experience are just varying degrees of assholes. No one ever listened to my perspective. Granted, that’s because I never really shared it openly. I never thought anyone was worth the time, I guess. Why should I show who I really am? No one deserved to know me, not the “real” me, to use a stupid cliche.

If anyone did know the real me, they’d know that the moment Tori Vega came back to my school, my acting class, for that second day…it wasn’t just rage I felt. It would take a long time and a lot of gross soul-searching before I’d come to grips with it. And even then, there would be a lot of kicking and screaming and crying and misery and frustration and terror.

But those kinds of stories are the best kind, right?

Well, buckle up, kids, because this one is mine.

Chapter Text

So, time to get you up to speed.

You’ve not experienced true humility until you’ve been forced to fill elaborate coffee orders for a group of self-serving, pretentious, talentless assclowns who are so far up each other’s asses they can’t be bothered to remember your name (even though they can remember twelve different ingredients to dump into their disgusting lattes). But that’s the life of a studio PA at Paramore Studios.

My life.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s better than where I was.

My mom kicked me out right after high school ended. No surprise there. My dad and his latest wife (this year's model was called Debbie) offered to take me in if I got a “real” job. He’d warmed up to the idea of being a creative for a living after he’d seen a play I wrote and produced in high school, but he still insisted on a backup career, something to sustain me in case I never got a break. I was at least glad he was willing to take me in at all; usually, he cuts ties with anyone he has to call the police on.

Progress, right?

So, I tried to get what he considered a “real” job. It didn’t go well. I wasn’t made for a “real” job. Or any job where I have to answer to some pig that can’t keep his eyes off my boobs for ten seconds while he bitches at me about how his customers “don’t like being called brainless idiots.”

News flash: if you don’t want to be called a brainless idiot, don’t be a brainless idiot.

That was the last time I’d ever bother working in a toy store.

The final straw was my boss, Dan, and his constant, creepy behavior. Staring at me like I was a piece of meat. I let it go for a while because I was hellbent on proving to my dad I could stick it out. Unfortunately, my silence led the creeper to think I was okay with his disgusting behavior and he started getting handsy.

You don’t get handsy with me, or you won’t have hands.

Only one person on this planet was ever allowed to touch me in any way.

Okay, okay, I already know what you’re going to say and you’re right. There have been two. But let’s not go there, yet. Still getting you up to speed.

Apparently, explaining to Dan that if he continued to try and “accidentally” grab my ass with his fat sausage-fingered hand, he would no longer have said hand, is considered a “threat.” I disputed that too. I told him I wasn’t threatening him, I was politely notifying him of the consequences of his actions.

Guess he couldn't take a hint, since he fired me.

But it’s cool. I hated working retail. I didn’t like working for self-congratulating film execs much better, but at least it was in my industry. I took the gig because I thought maybe I could network, meet people, and possibly get someone to put up the money for my baby, my feature horror film that I’d written my senior year: Unburied. Sadly, after a few months at the studio, it didn’t seem likely that would ever happen.

Until the meeting with Grim Productions.

Les Valeris was one of the bigwigs at the studio. He was a disgusting, lecherous creep with an army of shirt-tucking yes-men whose sole purpose was to keep their lips planted on Les’s enormous ass at all times. I’m not sure how there was room for them, because half the people in Hollywood were vying for a position at those ample cheeks.

It wasn't uncommon for smaller studios to seek funding from Paramore and other large production houses. They'd put up a percentage of the budget in return for their investment back, plus a certain percentage of the box office or the back-end. This allowed smaller production companies to reach beyond their grasp and take on riskier ventures. Oftentimes the big boys would bully the smaller studios into accepting shitty deals, though once in a while they were reasonable.

Grim Productions, founded and run by Elizabeth Hannah, was one of the newer companies, and one of my favorites. They did primarily horror films, and I owned the entire library. Their films were really well done. Smart, not schlocky. I loved schlocky horror too, but Grim did some very impressive work with loads of subtext.

I didn't know much about Elizabeth Hannah beyond her reputation of being a total badass. I liked her the moment I met her. She made eye contact, she was courteous, she treated me like I was a human being and not a nameless servant or a pair of tits and ass to ogle. I've got thick skin. I don't go home and cry when people are assholes to me. If I did that, it's all I'd have time for. Did you ever count? There are a lot of assholes out there. But when someone bothers to show a bit of respect in this industry, you tend to notice and remember that. I knew Elizabeth wasn't in her position because she fell ass-backward into it, or because she was an entitled little princess whose daddy ran things. This was a chick who clawed and fought her way to where she was. In an industry dominated by entitled elitists, that was something I legit admired.

The course of the meeting bore out my assumptions, too. I got to sit in on this one to take notes for Les since his receptionist had called off that day. Let me tell you, I've never had so much fun in a board room. Elizabeth took no shit. None. Her company had optioned a new screenplay by Jay Malloy, a hotshot screenwriter whose last few films had made a ton of money. She was here to ask for a sizeable chunk of the budget; more than most companies would ask for. And she wasn't planning on leaving without it.

“I don’t think you’re hearing me,” she said at one point. “If I could put up sixty percent of the budget, I’d have done it. This is why we’re here.”

“Look, sweetheart,” Les said, reaching out and touching her hand. “You’ve gotta offer us something else here if you want us to cover sixty percent. You’re an unproven company and you’re trying to fund a movie way outside of your wheelhouse.”

“But the script is—“

“Yeah, yeah, the script is good. I’ve optioned three of Malloy's scripts myself. But if this thing bombs, we’re the ones taking the bigger hit. We need to offset that risk. I’m sure you get what I’m saying.”

He smiled and it made me nauseous. Elizabeth pulled her hand promptly away from old pervy Les. “I think I do,” she said. “And you can kiss my ass. If you want something legitimate, some evidence we can handle it, then I’m sure I can provide that for you. But if you’re implying what it seems like you’re implying, you can go straight to hell.”

Les’s brow flattened. He looked like a toddler who got told no. I expected a tantrum (that man could pitch a serious fit) but he managed to piece together a shred of class for a few minutes.

“Fine,” he said. “Bring me something else you’ve done, something that shows your little shithouse has the chops to handle something bigger. Then we’ll talk again.”

He stormed out, his yes-men right behind him, leaving Elizabeth and me alone in the room. I was ready to follow, but something told me to wait. I don’t get that often, the whole inner-voice intuition thing, so when it did hit me I tended to listen.

“Um…excuse me,” I said. Elizabeth looked up at me.

“Yes? Jade, was it?”

Holy shit, she remembered my name. “Yeah. I'm just an assistant here so I know it's not my place to say it...but what you just did kicked ass. He pulls that same crap on so many people and I’ve never seen anyone put him in his place like that.”

“Really? I'm surprised no one's tried to smack that smug little grin off his face by now." She motioned for me to sit next to her. "Can I let you in on a secret?" I nodded. Her calm demeanor cracked a bit, and she let out a nervous, breathy laugh. "My heart's beating through my chest. I didn't think that was going to work! I thought for sure he was going to throw me out.”

It felt significant to me, that she shared this. "It was a hell of a gamble," I said. "I think you might have made his testicles re-ascend."

Elizabeth laughed, loudly. Loud enough to draw some attention from outside the board room. "Thanks. I needed that." She looked me over then, but not in the leery, creepy way that most execs did. I felt like my value was being measured by someone who was actually worth listening to. "You think the old bastard will mind if you take a lunch break?" she asked. "I haven't eaten yet today and I'm not real familiar with this part of town. And you're the only one in this studio that I don't want to punch in the face."

Oh, this woman. She was my people. I smirked at her, but it was one of my playful smirks. You know the kind. "I don't know, give me a chance and I might change your mind about that," I said. Another laugh. That was good. She had a great sense of humor. And given the kinds of movies her studio made, there was probably a dark side in there somewhere, too. "Actually, I could do with some food. How do you feel about robots?"

Chapter Text

Very few people I know love food as much as Samantha Puckett. I don’t know how she eats so much and still keeps that amazing figure. I suspect it has something to do with being Cat’s roommate…well I guess that’s girlfriend these days. I love Cat like a sister but it can be exhausting and occasionally a little nauseating trying to keep up with her. She’s a sweetheart, but people like me can only handle sweet in small doses.

But when Sam throws her endorsement behind something food-related, you know it’s gospel. And one of her favorite haunts in LA was Bots.

It’s not a classy place. Probably not the kind of place you’d take an executive from a film studio. But something told me my new pal Liz would be into it. Turns out, I was right. She was like a kid at Christmas. Ordering from a PearPad, picking appetizers from a little Roomba-looking thing with a tray, and of course, the human-sized robots that brought out your meal. It was all clearly beyond her, but she enjoyed her state of disbelief.

“Those have to be costumes,” she said as the big red robot rolled by. “Or maybe someone’s in the back with a remote control or something.”

“Maybe,” I said before downing a slider. Sam was right, those things were damn good. “The first time I was here, my friend and I broke that red one. The blue one had to wheel it to the back.”

Liz shook her head as the blue robot in question cleaned off the table next to us. “I love living in the future,” she said with a chuckle. Then she turned her attention to me. “So, tell me about yourself. How’d you end up taking coffee orders for that windbag?”

My shoulders tightened a bit. I hated sharing backstory, especially with someone I just met. I felt like I could trust her with it, but it still raised my blood pressure to have to share anything about myself. “Eh, you know. Couldn’t really cut it in the ‘real’ world. Figured the movie business sounded like fun.”

She arched an eyebrow at me like she knew something. Which, of course, she did. I wasn’t surprised in the least, I’d seen her tapping away on her PearPhone while I was driving us to Bots and figured she was checking up on me. “I see,” she said. “So this isn’t you?”

Liz flipped her phone around and showed me a small write-up about a play I’d done in high school, Clowns Don’t Bounce. Not my best work, I admit, but it definitely got some attention.

“So you Googled me?”

Liz smiled. “You Googled me too. As soon as we sat down.”

She wasn’t wrong. “Busted. I’m just not a fan of backstory. Sometimes the wrong people get ahold of it and…well, unfortunate things happen.”

“Do you think I’m the wrong people?”

“No, I really don’t. Just a reflex at this point. But yes, that play was mine. Not one of my best, but it got plenty of attention, as you can see.”

Liz nodded as she nibbled on a fry. “Yeah. Maybe it was the real blood.”

“That was a weird hiccup,” I said. “I relied on my friend’s brother to get me the fake stuff but apparently she didn’t clarify the part about it being fake. It was all I had, so I just went with it.”

“Understandable.” There was an awkward pause. “What’s your goal in the industry? What are your plans?”

Well, that one caught me off guard. I hate being caught off guard. “I guess I’d like to make movies,” I said.

“Oh, come on, I asked for your goals, not a line on a resume. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What makes you think slumming with that creep is worth your time and energy? You don’t strike me as someone who would put herself through that without a solid reason.”

I appreciated Liz’s bluntness, even if I was getting annoyed with all the personal questions. Technically it was all still backstory. I gave it some thought, absently stirring a fry in the pool of ketchup on my plate. “I’ve got a feature I wrote my senior year. It’s my baby, I guess. If I could get it made before I die, I guess I’d die pretty happy. But beyond that, I need to create. I need to write, to sing, to express myself. That’s what drives me. To take all the shit that’s swirling around in here and give it at least a little bit of a voice.”

I glanced up to find Liz’s eyes on me. She wasn’t eating or drinking. She was entirely focused on me. I looked back down to my fry and the massive glob of ketchup that had accumulated on its end.

“I appreciate your candor,” she said. “I know what you’re getting at. You have to do those things. Those creative needs, they’re like air and water. If you don’t meet them, you wither away.”

Oh, this woman.

We ate in silence for a few moments. I played back over our conversation thus far, looking for any hidden meanings, words between words, to try and figure out where to take things from here. It’s not every day you’ve got the head of a production company eating cheese fries with you. I didn’t want to waste my chance. Besides, I’d answered plenty of questions. It was her turn.

“So, what’s your plan?” I asked. “You said you’ve got a short script but no way to get it made right now?”

Liz nodded and took a sip of her tea. “Yeah. It’s something I wrote when I was probably your age. I wouldn’t call it my baby, but I was proud of it at the time. It’s a little sappy I guess, one of those doe-eyed, optimistic stories about a naive girl finding her way in the big city.”

“Ah,” I said, understanding. “A little different from the usual.”

“Well, back then I wasn’t sure quite who I was. I wrote what I knew. Not quite an autobiography, but some of my personal struggles are in there. It’s not my favorite thing, but it’s what Les is looking for, and a bit more in line with the feature.”

“So trite, cliched, made for the drooling masses?”

Liz laughed a bit. “Pretty much. Or to use the industry term, it’s more mainstream.”

“That sounds so much more palatable. Why not direct it yourself?”

“I know my talents,” Liz said. “Directing isn’t one of them. I can tell a decent story. I can manage all the moving parts. But the details of the project? What lens to use, what angles? Not my thing.”

I downed another slider. I might have to get another order to go, I thought. These things were so much better than they had any right to be. Somewhere between the first bite and the last bite of that beefy goodness, an idea hit me. It was probably a bad idea. If I had taken a few seconds to think it through, I’d have never opened my mouth. So whether it was a food high from the sliders or sheer desperation or an even crazier sense of connection with Liz, I blurted it out. “Why not let me direct it for you?”

Liz chuckled dismissively. “You gonna do it for free? Because, you’ll recall, the problem here is a lack of money.”

“Sure.”

Liz’s smile disappeared. “You’re serious?”

Her skeptical expression caught me off-guard. Maybe I overestimated her goodwill. Oddly enough, a thought came to me. The words of my acting instructor, Sikowitz, and a lesson he had taught us our senior year when we were putting together our reels. Never work for free. This industry runs on people wanting to know what’s in it for them. If you’re not looking to get paid or get something out of it, they won’t trust you.

“Look, I know you don’t have any money to put into it right now,” I said slowly. “But if I did this pro bono and it works, if it gets you the funding for your big feature, would that be worth funding my feature? I can shoot it low budget. And trust me, it’s definitely the kind of thing Grim produces all the time. Just with my own little spin on it.”

My eyes were confident, my smile was genuine, but from the neck down I was a wreck. My stomach tied itself into a knot and my right foot was shaking so bad I thought the table would start trembling. I curled my toes in my boots and dug them into the bottom, trying to focus all of the nervous, anxious energy into those ten little contact points as I waited for Liz’s answer. I could see the wheels turning. I hoped I played my cards right.

“You’ve got a lot of guts,” she said. “You’ve known me for an hour. That’s not an easy ask.”

I shrugged. “If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing. But you know that.”

A cautious grin tugged at her lips. “All right, Jade. Tell you what. Let’s exchange screenplays. Send me yours and I’ll read it tonight and consider it. And I want you to really look at mine. It’s nothing like your play, or like anything else we’ve done at Grim before. If you believe you can make it work, and if I think your script is worth investing in, we’ll talk next steps. What do you say?”

It was literally all I could do not to leap out of my seat and dance around like an idiot.

“I say that sounds like a damn good plan.”

Chapter Text

So, I guess it’s time to address the proverbial elephant in the room: Beck. Things have always been weirdly complicated with him. Most people look at us as a couple and wonder how the hell I managed to land a guy like him. What they don’t know is that I’ve asked myself that same question millions of times. I can never come up with an answer. I seriously don’t know what he sees in me. Maybe he’s secretly a masochist or maybe he really loves a challenge. We’ve had some hellish fights over the years. We’ve broken up more than is probably normal. But we pulled through it. We weathered quite a bit.

Then he moved.

He got a really great opportunity, a free ride at the New York Film Academy in South Beach, Florida. It was everything he was hoping for. So I told him to go. He asked me to come with him, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to. I’m a west coast girl, born and raised in the depraved insanity of Los Angeles. I didn’t want to leave it. I couldn’t. Even for Beck. I don’t know why. It just didn’t feel right. It was one of those rare flashes of insight.

We didn’t break up. Neither of us wanted to part on those terms. We kept in touch through texts and video chats. We still shared our big life news with each other. But it was different. We both sensed it, I think. Relationships are a big commitment, especially when you’re in that weird state between being a kid and being an adult. Long-distance relationships were even tougher. They could work. I just wasn’t entirely convinced ours was. I guess I could have fixed it and left for Florida, but I didn’t. Make of that what you will. 

Despite the slowly expanding gulf between us, Beck was still the first one I texted when I heard back from Liz. She called me the morning after our meeting at Bots and said that she loved my script and that her production company would be “thrilled” to produce it.

I’d read her script, Searching for Sara, as well. It wasn’t my usual area of interest, not by a long shot. But Liz was a damn good writer. I’d have been an idiot to pass it up. The character’s voices were all distinct and clear, and there was a lot of subtext packed into the twenty pages she’d sent me. Her lead role, the titular Sara, jumped right off the page. She was, of course, ridiculously pretty, but in that humble, cutesy, small-town way, as if she didn’t really know it herself. She was slender, with flowing brown hair and dark skin. She had a persistent (one might say relentless) optimism about life and her chance at happiness. Things came easy to her for most of her life, so of course, the big dramatic moments of the film were when she actually had to fight for something. And in the end, she doesn't get it. In fact, she faces an unthinkable loss. It was daring. Not what I expected.

Liz’s writing was so vivid, it felt like I knew Sara before I even finished my first read-through of the script. By the end of my second read-through, I had an actual voice in my mind and a vague impression of what she might look like. After a third read-through, it occurred to me why this girl seemed so insufferably familiar, and it made me a little nauseous.

When I texted Beck to let him know about the gig, I attached a copy of the short and a little message: Might get to direct this. Does the MC remind you of anyone?

A few hours later, his reply confirmed it: Congrats, that’s awesome! It’s a great script. MC reminds me of Tori. Thinking of casting her?

I was relieved that it wasn’t just me. But there was no doubt, Sara and Tori might as well have been the same person. The irony of it all wasn’t lost on me. My first big opportunity to direct and the specter of Tori Vega was right there with me. I didn’t want to cast her, but even if I didn’t, there’s no way I wouldn’t be reminded of her in every one of Sara’s lines. Just when I thought I was rid of that perky beanpole and her incessant optimism, she follows me in this weird form. I had no interest in reconnecting with her so soon. Or at all. The very thought of putting up with those ridiculous cheekbones, or that radiant, infectious smile, or her dark skin and huge, gorgeous eyes, or those long legs…

Dude. Stop. What the hell are you doing?

I physically smacked myself across the face.

Bad Jade. Bad! Jade!

Another smack and I had shaken myself out of it. Where the hell did that come from? I went from bitching about her to thinking about her fit, slender, flawless body in a matter of seconds. No. Just no.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard Cat’s voice, from a conversation we’d had months ago.

“Ever since Tori came along, you’ve started acting more like a friend. And I’ve seen how you look at her sometimes. It just seems like maybe you feel more for her than you let on.”

I had nearly wrecked my car when she said that. As far as I was concerned, I felt nothing but contempt for Tori. The intensity of said contempt ebbed and waned over the years, but it was ever-present. Which was great, because it had always kept her on her toes around me. She never knew which version of me she’d get so she was constantly walking on eggshells, trying not to piss me off. But it also led to her making overtures toward me now and again, moments where she’d do something so ridiculously, incredibly kind, it actually made me stop and realize that despite my best efforts, there was something about her I was drawn to.

Like the time she took the fall for giving me a black eye, which I faked, to get her in trouble, even after she found out I had faked it. Or the time she refused to kiss Beck during one of our break-ups because she didn’t want to hurt me. She didn’t know it, but those were big moments between us. Those were the things I’d never, ever forget. Those were the things that made me really think about my feelings for her.

They were also the things that pissed me off because they made me realize I had feelings to think about. Up until Vega showed up, I had a nice, simple life. I worked hard at school, I hung out with my boyfriend, and I got to express myself all the time, through song, through acting, through directing. Then she crashed into my pleasant existence and suddenly nothing was simple anymore. I couldn't stand her because of that. And yet, there was something about her…

It killed me to try and sort through it. I was overthinking things. She had flashes of being all right, and I admit I had moments of weakness where I may have let it seem like I liked her. But I didn’t. I absolutely didn’t.

Stop lying to yourself, idiot.

I was ready to smack myself again, but I heard the key jiggle in the lock as my dad stepped in. He seemed surprised to see me. I could tell, because he stopped moving for half a second when he saw me sitting on the couch, my PearPad in hand.

“Why aren’t you at work?” he asked in his typical flat, no-BS tone. He started shuffling through papers on the coffee table.

“I took a leave of absence for a month. I got hired for a side project. Wanted to get started on it.”

“A leave of absence? Whatever for? And what sort of side project?" He moved to the end table next to me and continuing his search.

“Directing a short film for Grim Productions. I had to take the leave from Paramore while working on it. It's a legal thing, I guess.”

I could hear his eyes roll. “Grim Productions? That sleazy horror movie company?”

“They’re not sleazy,” I said harshly. “And if this goes well, it could lead to more work with them. So it’s a good, long-term investment.”

“Only if you do well.”

I took a deep breath. I had too much to do and fighting with the old man was the last thing on my mind. “Obviously,” I said through gritted teeth. “Look, I’ve heard all this before. Can I just work on this please?”

He picked up an envelope from the stand he was searching. “I was just here for this. I’m heading back to work.”

He tucked the envelope into his jacket pocket and disappeared out the door. I didn’t really expect much else. He was a man of few words and even fewer emotions. I’m pretty sure he was half-android, at least when it came to dealing with me. He had plenty of affection for Debbie. At least she didn’t have a yappy dog. Small favors, right?

I went back to the list of actors I’d collected. I’d worked with most of them before and knew they’d be up to work for next-to-nothing. I didn’t have a budget to speak of, so the cheaper, the better. I wasn’t that far into the list when my phone rang. I was glad to see Beck’s number; it had been a few days since we actually talked. I answered on speakerphone.

“Hey,” I said. 

“Hey.” It was great to hear his voice. It was so soft and calming, I felt the tense muscles in my back loosen up. “So you didn’t respond to my text. Figured I’d see how it was going.”

I winced; he was right, I hadn’t replied. “Yeah, I know. I was going to.”

“No, you weren’t. You were going to leave it hang there for a few hours and then ask me something else to change the subject.”

He knew me so well. That was both reassuring and very irritating. “That still counts as a response,” I said.

“You don’t want to ask her, do you?”

I groaned. I really didn’t want to deal with the questions. Beck should have known better. “What do you think?”

“I think you know she’s perfect for the part.”

“Oh, of course she is,” I snapped. “She’s always perfect for everything.”

“That’s not true,” he said. I could almost hear the smirk on his face. “I wouldn’t cast her in any of the films or plays you’ve written. She’s definitely not perfect for those.”

I huffed and crossed my arms, wishing he were there to be distracted by the cleavage.

“You just crossed your arms, didn’t you?”

Damn, he was good. “No,” I said.

“So what’s the big deal? Just don’t cast her. Maybe there’s someone else out there who’d do good with it. What’s your budget?”

“Zero dollars.”

“Ouch. Maybe I could use some context. Why are you doing this? The script was really good but it's not your usual thing.”

“I guess I didn’t give you any details. So the screenwriter, Liz, she’s also the head of Grim Productions.”

“I love those guys,” Beck said. “She wrote this?”

“Yeah. She’s is trying to make a deal with Paramore to get funding for a script she optioned from Jay Malloy.”

“Nice. He’s really good.”

“Yeah, but Grim’s never done a mainstream movie. Paramore wants to see they can handle something like this before they’ll commit.”

“Ah, I get it,” Beck said. “So this Liz hired you to direct her mainstream short.”

“Exactly.”

He was silent for a moment. “Has she seen your work?”

“Yes,” I said quickly. “She thinks I can handle it.”

“What do you think?”

“Of course I can,” I said, sounding about as convincing as Cat would before a physics test. The truth was, I was nervous about it. This frustration over finding a lead was, realistically, a small issue. One any other director would be able to get over quickly. I mean it’s a no-brainer. Suck it up and work with someone you don’t like so you can get the project done. But here I was, stumbling right out of the gate.

Beck knew it, too. I could hear it in his voice. “Uh-huh,” he said. “You sure?”

“No. Not at all. Damn you for making me say it.”

“You’ve been thinking it or we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

“What’s the big deal? Why can’t I just call the little princess and tell her I need her?” Wait, that didn’t sound right. “To be in my movie,” I added quickly. Too quickly, and not quickly enough.

“Right,” Beck said slowly. There was something in his tone I didn’t like. “Look, you’ve always been kind of…mixed up about Tori. Sometimes you seem to be okay with her, sometimes you want to ruin her life. Naturally, you’re struggling with it. Weird, maybe. But pretty normal for you.”

“What do you mean mixed up?” I asked indignantly. “I’m not mixed up at all. I can’t stand her. I don’t want her involved with this.”

“Okay,” Beck said in a way that suggested he didn’t believe a word of it. “Then don’t involve her.”

“Fine. I won’t.”

“All right.” I could hear him take a breath. “Look, I hate to cut it short, but I’ve gotta go,” Beck said.

“Already?” I tried to hide my disappointment, but I doubt it worked.

“Yep. Gotta get to class. I’ll call you later if you want.”

“Sure. I mean…if you’re free.”

“Cool. See ya.”

“Yeah.”

And then he was gone. I stared at the blank screen for a few minutes. Something inside of me felt every bit as vacant as the screen. I hated the distance. I hated how we were drifting.

And I hated feeling sorry for myself about it.

I flipped open my contacts and scrolled down to the Vs. There were only two: Cat Valentine and…and the one I didn’t want to hit. A wave of nausea hit me. It came out of nowhere and passed almost as quickly.

Oh my god. What the hell was that?

I took a deep breath. My thumb hovered over her name. My hand shook as I tried to force it down.

Come on, Jade, hit the damn name!

My chest felt tight and it got tighter every time my thumb dropped.

What the hell is wrong with me? You’ve talked to her hundreds of times, press the damn…

I realized as my thumb finally hit her name that I’d been holding my breath. Everything spun for a second as I gasped for breath. I barely registered the rings. But I heard the voice when it picked up. Vega’s voice.

“Jade?”

Shit.

Chapter Text

“Jade? Are you there?"

My throat felt like I swallowed a bucket full of gravel and washed it down with hot lava.

“Jade I know it’s you. Prank calls don’t really work when I’ve got your number programmed into my phone.” She had that high-pitched squeak to her voice that she always got when she was nervous or upset. At least I was getting in her head as I fumbled over myself to try and speak.

Say something, dumbass!

I cleared my throat. It was like coughing up thumbtacks. “It’s not a prank,” I snapped. “I had something caught in my throat.”

“Oh. What?”

My stupidity.

“I’m eating a sandwich if you must know.” The tightness in my chest came back the moment I lied to her. Are you seriously having an anxiety attack over this? You’re pathetic.

“Well I’m glad you’re not choking,” Tori said, the squeaky edge fading a bit. “So, what’s up? I’m surprised to hear from you.”

“Not half as surprised as I am to be calling you.”

“Why are you calling me? Did you lose a bet?” 

There just enough snark in her voice to both impress and annoy me. Snark was my thing, but Vega wore it pretty well sometimes. “I’m getting to that,” I said. “Geez. Are you in a hurry? Can’t even ask me how I’m doing or anything? Just cut right to the chase?”

She sighed. Was that irritation I heard in her voice? “Hi Jade, how have you been?”

“None of your business.”

Okay, the irritation in that sigh was unmistakable. “Gee, I didn’t see that one coming.” The high-pitched edge was back. “Well as much fun as this has been, I need to go and…do literally anything else right now. It was nice hearing from you—“

“Wait,” I said, not without a hint of aggression. And by a hint, I mean a lot. “I need to talk to you about something.”

I heard a soft whimper, the same one I heard a million times over the years. She brought it out anytime she was bracing herself for something she didn’t think she’d like. Just a short, sad, weird little noise. It was honestly kind of cute.

I hated cute. Usually.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m listening.”

“An interesting opportunity fell into my lap recently,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “I’m directing a short film for this small production company.”

Just like that, the dark clouds were gone. Tori practically squealed at me. “Oh, that’s so awesome! I’m so happy for you!” Despite all the shit I just gave her, there was genuine enthusiasm in her voice. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. How could she be so happy for someone that just dumped all over her?

It was that insufferable something about her. I couldn’t get away from it, even on the phone.

You know what it is, Jade. “I’m not done,” I shot back impatiently, trying to drown out my inner voice. “The film is just to prove that the studio can handle a mainstream production, since they usually do horror movies. After reading the script…well…” Come on, Jade. Spit it out. You’ve worked with her before.  “I think you’d be perfect for the lead role.”

A long silence fell between us. All I could hear was a faint ringing in my ears that came and went with each rapid heartbeat.  Why isn’t she saying something?   She’s going to say no. She’s going to laugh at me. Ha, ha, Jade. Real funny. No way.

“What’s the role?”

“Does it matter? It’s the lead.”

“Yeah, it kinda does,” she said. “How do I know you’re not setting me up for something I can’t do? Are there stunts? Songs? Who’s the girl?”

They were all perfectly reasonable questions, but of course, my reaction to them wasn’t. I knew it. I struggled with “reasonable” when it came to Tori. I bit back all the scathing remarks I wanted to throw her way, opting to try and end the conversation as quickly as possible.

“Fine,” I huffed. “Her name is Sara and she’s pretty much you when you first came to Hollywood Arts. Smart and pretty and completely clueless.” I regretted that the moment I said it.

“Aww,” she cooed. “You thought I was smart and pretty?”

I swear to chrysler, I couldn’t have chosen a worse way to describe the character. I was off my game. Way off. “As usual, you’re missing the point. Focus, please. Sara’s basically a cake eater who’s had everything delivered to her on a silver platter. So the central conflict is that she has to grow beyond that, to fight for something she wants that can’t just be handed to her. And ever since I read the script I just…I can’t see anyone else but you in the part. Believe me, I’ve tried. Like, a lot.” I paused briefly to let that sink in. Time for the closing pitch. It had to be personal. “I don’t know what you’ve got going on right now with school, but it would mean a lot to me if you’d come out for a week or two and be in this thing. I’d consider it a personal favor. I’d even owe you one.”

It was a decent performance. Except that somewhere in my head, I knew it wasn’t really a performance at all. I meant every word of it. And it irritated the hell out of me. You see why she’s so frustrating to me? Everything is so damn complicated with her.

The silence returned between us. I was crawling out of my skin by this point. I stood up and started pacing. My palms started sweating. Every second felt like ten or twenty.

Why won’t she answer? Just tell me no and get it over with.

“If it’s that important to you, then okay. I’d love to do it.”

I stopped pacing. The edges of my mouth twitched and before I knew it I was wearing a smile. A stupid goddamn smile.

“Okay. Cool,” I said as nonchalantly as I could.

“I can transfer the credits I’m taking this semester to online options, so long as you can promise me I’ll have some time to work on my assignments while I’m there.”

“Jeez, already making demands,” I quipped. I broke out the movie star voice Tori hated so much. “Golly, will you need anything else during your stay? Licorice or soda pop or happy unicorns?”

Tori’s reaction never disappointed. “I still don’t talk like that!” she whined. “But now that you mention it, I’d like my dressing room to have four bowls of M&Ms separated by color.”

“You’re joking.”

“You want me to be in this thing or not?”

I wanted to tell her, “not” and call her bluff. I wanted to tell her I saw through her shit and that she could take her M&M’s and...

But no, I needed her.

For the movie.

I needed her for the movie. So I let it go. Part of me even smiled inwardly at her persistence. Demands like that were way out of character for her. Maybe she was learning something. “Fine,” I said. “Anything else your majesty?”

“Yep. I expect a hug when I see you. An emphatic, excited one. No friendly punches in the arm.”

“How about a friendly punch in the face?” I muttered with a groan. Tori’s preoccupation with hugs drove me nuts.

They only drive you nuts because you like them. Which is why you always let her—

Have you ever wanted to punch your own inner monologue? I have. Especially at that moment.

“What was that?”

Out came the movie star voice. “I said I just can’t wait to give you a big old squeeze!”

“I’ll believe it when I feel it,” she said flatly. “When do you need me out there?”

I took a quick look at the calendar on my PearPad. “Can you be here by next Friday? Does that give you enough time to do what you need to do for your credits?”

“Sure, that works. I guess I’ll see you then. I’ll send you details about my flight when I have them. Send me the script when you can.”

“All right.” I hesitated and the silence stretched between us again.

“Anything else?” she asked.

I felt like I should say something more, but I didn’t know what. “I, uh…I mean…what you’re doing…”

“You’re welcome, Jade. See you soon.”

The call ended, but I kept the phone to my ear. She knew that I was trying to thank her. She knew it, and she responded without making me say it. God help me, I appreciated her insight even as I resented the fact that she had it.

You see? Complicated. Way too complicated.

“Looking forward to it,” I said absently to no one in particular.

It was the damnedest thing, though. I really was looking forward to it.

What the hell is wrong with me?

Chapter Text

Of course I was running late.

Why? Well, partly because traffic in Los Angeles sucks and it gets worse every year. And partly, maybe, because it took me two freaking hours to decide what I was going to wear.

It’s not common knowledge, but I put a lot of effort into my appearance. I like to feel confident, and that effort sometimes helps. Some days, no makeup and baggy clothes are what I need to feel like I can take on the world. Other days it may be a bit of eyeliner, a touch of lip gloss, and a low cut top that shows off my girls. Mother Nature blessed me with these 32Ds, so it’d be a crime against nature not to show ‘em off sometimes. But it’s never to impress people. I don’t care what people think of me. It’s all about the power trip. I like power.

But for those two hours, I felt completely powerless. Nothing fit right. Nothing looked right. The tight stuff was too desperate. The baggy stuff was too sloppy. Nothing was working. And I was left with one very irritating question: why the hell did I care?

It brought up a topic I didn’t want to deal with: Tori Vega.

Denial is a lovely state. The grass is green, the sky is blue, and if anything unpleasant tries to stick its ugly nose in, all residents get free blinders to keep them from seeing any harsh reality that tries to intrude upon their delusions. Oh, and there are no taxes! The downside? Crushing anxiety, violent mood swings, and brief periods where the blinders fail and all the ugly truths come pouring in.

I was never a stranger to crushing anxiety or violent mood swings. But all of that was magnified when it came to Tori. If you haven’t figured it out by now, my feelings about her have always been complicated. In those brief, fleeting moments when my blinders failed, I would admit that I respected her tenacity and persistence. I admired her willingness to be nice to everyone, no matter how awful they are to her. I could even respect her tendency to be an opportunist. I mean, we all want what’s best for us, and Tori’s drive usually pushed her to come up with crazy inventive ideas.

In an especially weak moment, I’d even admit that she was kind of okay-looking. All right, I always thought she was pretty. Or maybe, possibly, beautiful…if I was feeling particularly sappy. Okay, okay, I was attracted to her. A lot. But come on, who wouldn’t be? I mean god, have you seen those legs?

I buried all of that, though. Or I tried to. Once in a while, it would slip out. A comment about her looks. Or letting her touch me in some way without threatening dismemberment. Hell, sometimes I even touched her; a hand grab here and there or dragging her by the wrist into the janitor’s closet at school. Though now that I think back on it, there was some twisted symbolism there.

On a normal day, I’d sooner beat you with the blunt end of my scissors than admit to any of this. But this wasn’t a normal day. It had been months since I’d seen Beck or had any kind of human contact, so my conflicted emotions were riled up worse than normal. Which is why it took me two freaking hours to find an outfit.

In the end, I settled on a gray tank top and a snug pair of dark jeans. I added my black faux leather vest that didn’t quite reach my waist. A long necklace with a silver charm drew the eye to the top’s plunging neckline, so I went with a bra that boosted the girls a bit and created a nice line of cleavage. A hint of dark eyeliner, a bit of gloss, and the two-hour ordeal finally ended with me still not quite satisfied. That was about as good as it was going to get.

Then I embarked on my next ordeal: driving to the airport. That was just mindless enough to let me obsess over why I put more effort into getting dressed for this than I did the last time I saw Beck. I didn’t care what anyone thought. So why did her opinion matter? And what possible reason would she have to care anyway? The beanpole was straight as an arrow so far as I knew. Even Cat dating Sam had thrown her for a loop. She was happy for them, it just seemed to weird her out a bit. Kind of strange for a girl born and raised in LA, but whatever. I personally didn’t label myself or limit myself. Sam and I were a lot alike in that regard. I had no interest in the baggage of a label and I didn’t owe anyone any explanation for anything. I happen to believe it’s people you fall for, not a race or a gender.

But I hadn’t fallen for Tori, so why the hell was I making such a big deal out of her homecoming? It was stupid and none of it made sense. I hate doing things that don’t make sense, unless I’m doing it just to be unpredictable. Which I’ve done.

So yes, I was running late. But if you’ve ever flown anywhere, you know that the airlines are almost always late for everything. I was reasonably sure I still had time. That didn’t stop me from driving a little aggressively. I mean, I would have done that anyway, but at least with being in a hurry I felt kind of justified about it.

Of course, that all ended as I approached the absolute nightmare that was LAX. The pickup system was overly convoluted and I the off-ramps and roads surrounding the terminals had surely been designed by blind oompa loompas with no understanding of traffic flow. On top of that, there were people everywhere. Cars stopping. Cars cutting into traffic. Cars that start to pull off, realize they’re idiots, and try to cut back into the same spot. Honestly, places like that leave me with the strong impression that the human race is doomed.

After throwing out more middle fingers and f-bombs than I’d ever given in one sitting, I finally made it to terminal five. There were so many people clustered around, it was almost impossible to see anyone. But even through all of the crazies and the mouth-breathers and terrible drivers, I spotted Tori. I took in the sight as I slid into the parking lane. She leaned against a pillar next to her lone suitcase. She wore a white button-down blouse with frills on the sleeves and a swooping neckline with no buttons from the neck down to the bust. If she had cleavage, there’d have been an eyeful with a top like that.

But that neck. Slim, smooth, as endless as her legs, framed snugly by her brown hair with—were those blond highlights? Oh god. Wow.

Speaking of her legs, they were on full display in a pair of high-cut denim shorts with some tasteful rips. A cute pair of silver and black boots capped off the look. And what a look it was.

I hadn’t laid eyes on her in almost six months. That’s not a lot of time apart. But seeing her there, with the bright LA sun catching the white in her blouse making it almost glow, I actually found myself unable to think for a minute. And the way the glow contrasted with her dark skin…holy shit.

All kinds of thoughts popped into my mind…most of them involving that neck…and those ridiculous legs…and…

“Hey, hey, hey!”

I caught the movement in my periphery and slammed on my breaks. Ahead of me, a terrified-looking woman was scrambling into her open trunk. My car was just a few inches away from hitting hers by the time I stopped.

Shit. Real smart, Jade.

I threw the car in reverse and backed up a foot before the jackass behind me blew his horn.

“Kiss my ass,” I muttered. I got out and slammed the door, glaring at the guy behind me. It was some pretentious-looking blond-haired douchebag in an oversized red truck his rich daddy almost certainly bought for him.

As I passed by the woman I’d nearly hit, I felt her eyes digging into me.

“You almost hit me,” she said.

I kept walking. “Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

“Excuse me?”

I turned and smiled sweetly. “I’ve got one in the trunk if you’d like a demonstration.”

She backed away from me, put her last suitcase in her trunk, then slammed it and hurried to the passenger-side door. As I turned back to Tori, I found her staring at me with a blank, wide-eyed stare that just screamed, Jade, you almost killed someone!

“What?” I asked.

“Jade, you almost killed someone!”

Bam. Called it.

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. At worst I’d have broken her leg. Maybe. And anyway I didn’t, so quit being all judgmental.”

I didn’t care much for the look she gave. She seemed to be conferring the responsibility of the near-miss on me as if her leggy ass had nothing to do with it.

Well, are you going to tell her you were gawking at her?

I sighed and turned back to the trunk lady. The car was still waiting to pull into the driving lane. I pounded on the window. She turned to see me smiling at her and panic set in.

“Go, go, go!” she screamed to her driver. “She’s back!”

“Sorry about almost hitting you,” I said.

The car shot over into the driving lane, to the blaring horn of the guy they cut off. I turned back to Tori and found a smile waiting for me that set those irritatingly perfect cheekbones aglow.

“Thank you,” she said. “That was really nice.”

“And it almost caused another accident. Win-win.”

“Ha, ha. Now get over here. Give Tori a squeeze. Come on, you owe me one.”

She threw her arms out. I rolled my eyes, but between you and me, it was for show. She pulled me into a tight embrace and for a split second, I was afraid to move. Something about being held in those lanky arms, crushed against that small but firm bosom, getting lost in all that hair…damn it, it did something to me. My stomach flipped. There were tingles in places I wish there weren’t.

“Not feeling the squeeze,” she whispered.

I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her close. My heart was racing. It had been so long since I let anyone touch me that this simple little hug had me crawling out of my skin. I squeezed her tight, gave her the hug she had always wanted from me, and I enjoyed every second of it. From the smell of her hair to the feel of my nose against her neck, I was overtaken by a heat I wasn’t expecting. So overtaken, I felt the girls start to wake up a bit. I wasn’t wearing the right kind of bra to cushion against hard nips, so I reluctantly let Tori go.

“Wow,” she said breathlessly, her chest heaving. “That felt like you actually missed me.”

I’d have done it again just to hear her gasping for air like that. The heat radiating between us was intense, drawing me in like a fucking magnet. I lingered close to her and swallowed hard, hoping she didn't notice the fact that my chest was heaving as much as hers.

“Think what you like, a deal’s a deal,” I said. My throat was dry. “I’m officially off the hook for it.” But god, how I wanted to be back on the hook…

“Well, I enjoyed it. Is that new perfume?”

“Sure. It’s called The Souls of my Enemies. Care to add yours?”

Her smile faded just a bit. “I’ll get my suitcase loaded.”

“Good, do that.”

She stepped away and I took a minute to collect myself. My face was hot to the touch and my heart wouldn’t stop racing even after a few deep breaths. What the hell was that? Wow.

I stepped out into the driving lane briefly to get back in the car. The terminal (or my head) was still spinning. So of course, I didn’t see the dick in the red truck pulling out. I caught the red blur in my periphery. He laid into his horn. I was so startled, I couldn’t even muster the self-awareness to flip him off. He slowly drove by with some other obnoxious little shit in his front seat. The new guy formed his first two fingers into a “v” and stuck his tongue between them. The blond douche cackled next to him. “Hey honey, invite us next time! We’ll make you famous online!”

He peeled out and drove off. I glared at the piece of shit, my hands balled into fists. No way he was getting away with that. “Hurry up!” I hollered to Tori, then slid behind the wheel. I was ready to chase him, but by the time Tori got in, he was long gone and there was a quarter-mile tangle of traffic between us. I wheeled on Tori. “How long does it take to put one suitcase in a trunk?”

“Gee Tori, nice to see you, glad you’re here, thanks for rearranging your life to be in my movie for free.”

I shot her a look as I threw my car into gear. I broke out the movie star voice. “Golly, miss Vega, thank you so much, you’re just the peachiest, keenest actor in the whole wide world!”

I jerked my car out into the first driving lane.

“I don’t talk like that,” Tori groused. “Can you at least try not to kill us before we even start filming?”

“Fine,” I grumbled. I made a mental snapshot of the truck and its idiot driver then slowed down a little. I felt Tori’s eyes on me and glanced over. I swear I caught her staring at my chest, but her eyes flicked right up to mine when she saw my head turn. She was smiling again. My palms were sweating. “What?”

She seemed ready to say something, but she turned away instead. After a long moment, she said, “It’s just nice to be home. Even if I am afraid for my life right now.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re so dramatic,” I said. “I’m not even speeding now. I mean if you want, I can really put you in fear for your life.”

“I’m good, thanks. Unless there’s a shovel in your backseat.”

I can’t believe she remembers that, I thought. Then again, it was one of my more unforgettable moments.

“Oh, no, it’s not in my backseat.”

“Good.”

“It’s in the trunk. I’m surprised you didn’t see it when you put your suitcase back there.”

She smiled for half a second, but I still caught her giving me a sidelong glance, as if she weren’t entirely certain I was kidding. “Right,” she said nervously. “I definitely didn’t see it back there. Of course, I wasn’t looking for it.”

“Good to know.” I gave her my best wicked grin. “I’m kidding, Vega. Jeez.”

“I know,” she said, completely unconvinced.

“I need you for my movie,” I reminded her. “I’m hardly going to kill you before it’s done.”

She seemed to relax a bit. “Good.”

Four…three…two…

“Wait, whaddya mean before!?”

God help me, I missed this girl… What an awful revelation.

Chapter Text

“Mmm, I’ve dreamed of this for months,” Tori groaned lustily. She seemed to lose herself completely, eyes closed, licking her lips. “Oh, god.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I knew what was coming next. I wasn’t disappointed.

She erupted into a massive coughing fit.

“Spicy! Too spicy!”

Tori grabbed her water and drank straight from the glass, ignoring the straw.

“Pretty sure that’s what extra spicy means,” I said as she tried to fan her tongue.

I hadn’t gone to Karaoke Dokie since I graduated, but Tori had a craving for their “famous” buffalo nuggets and begged for that to be her first stop now that she was home. I didn’t have a better idea, so that’s where we went. It was weird being back there with her, honestly. My brain wasn’t sure what to make of it. I associated that place with high school, not with being a working adult. And Tori’s presence just added more confusion. It was an odd line to cross.

“It’s like eating lava rocks,” she said, fishing an ice cube out of her glass and rubbing it on her tongue. Part of me laughed because she looked ridiculous and part of me shifted in my seat because Tori had kind of a long tongue and I was already struggling to contend with my…whatever it was I felt towards her. I pushed aside any and all thoughts of her tongue, its length, its dexterity, what she might do with it…

Oh, good job, Jade. What are you, thirteen?

I was relieved when she stashed her tongue and just started sucking on the ice cube. I tossed her an extra napkin to dry her hands. She shot me a curious glance. “What, you’re not going to make fun of me for this?”

“It’s tempting, but no. I’m more worried about you frying your vocal cords before we make the movie.”

“I didn’t think of that. These are so good, though.”

“Here, try it this way.” I grabbed one of her nuggets and dipped it in my ranch dressing, then offered it to her. She took it hesitantly and tried it.

“That’s good. And it’s not as hot.”

“Yeah, it’s magic. Or something.” I slid her the rest of the ranch. She reached for it and our hands brushed for a second.

It was one of those idiotic moments you see in every lame romance movie. That gentle touch, that unspoken, accidental connection that is completely innocent but somehow profoundly transformative. Before I could comment on how insipid it was, she pulled her hand away.

“Sorry,” she said quickly.

“You should be. Now I have to wash my hand.”

A grin lit up her face. “Do you know how boring it is without you around to keep me on my toes?”

I had to fight to keep from smiling at that. “Do you know how great it was to not constantly be annoyed by you?”

“Oh, please. You know you’ve missed me.”

Absolutely. A lot.

“Not even a little.”

Tori wasn’t buying it. “Yes, you have. You’ll admit it before I go back.”

“I really won’t.”

“We’ll see.” She dipped another nugget in the ranch sauce and took a bite, groaning again as it went down. I shifted again.

“Do you two want some privacy?”

She laughed. “I’m sorry. The food out east is just…it’s not great. I’ve missed these.” Our eyes connected. “I’ve missed a lot out here, actually.”

I looked away, grabbed my water, drank a bit. I struggled for another smartass remark, but nothing came. I settled for anything that would break that moment.

“Hear from Cat lately?”

“Yeah, we text all the time," Tori said. "She’s really nervous about her show. Opening night’s in a few weeks.”

“I’m sure she’ll do great. That director guy seemed pretty impressed with her.”

“Do you blame him? She was amazing.” She hesitated for a moment. “And so were you. Going with her, playing for her audition." I didn't respond; her comments hung between us for an awkward beat before she continued. "I actually got a phone call from Sam before I left. She wants to try and get us all together for it. I guess she’s got some big thing planned for Cat. She got them their first apartment or something. She wants us to come be part of the surprise.”

I gave in and let a smile out for that. Sam Puckett was such a badass, but she had an enormous heart and it belonged completely to Cat. I’d never met a girl more whipped. She’d become a good friend of mine almost as soon as we met. Cat had tried to keep us apart because she thought we’d kill each other, but we were so much alike we ended up getting along great. After a rough patch at first (Cat got very jealous), the three of us ended up hanging out a lot.

It helped bring Cat and me closer too. It’s true, she was a bit airheaded and she had some bizarre issues, but she also had the most genuinely good soul out of anyone I’d ever known. We got close. Very close. Closer than I would generally admit to, at least for a very short time during our senior year. It was kind of a big deal for both of us, really, but in the end, things went back to normal. Mostly. I grew to love her like a little sister. I hated to see her go, but she deserved her opportunity in New York, and I knew Sam would take care of her and watch out for her like I had tried to. I genuinely loved hearing that Sam wanted us to come out and share in Cat’s big show.

“That sounds amazing,” I said. “We should definitely plan to go. I think we can wrap the short by then.”

Tori’s big, round eyes got wider. “Really?”

“Once again you seem surprised when I want to support my friend,” I groused.

“No, no, it's not that at all,” she said. “I'm just...I'm happy you want to go. It will be nice to spend some time...with everyone. You know, get everyone back together. But I'm not surprised you wanted to help. I've never forgotten what you did for her, Jade. It’s what finally convinced me you’re a—“

“Don’t say it.”

“A good person.”

“You said it. Now I have to hurt you.”

“You need me for your movie.”

“I need most of you for it. No one will notice if you’re missing a few toes.”

Tori’s confident smirk faltered for a moment. “Still not buying it.”

There was a time when I would have pushed the issue and tormented her until she backed down or admitted she was wrong. I’d have made her fear for her life. Yes, I even would have gotten her to quit the very movie I needed her in just to prove my point. But I found myself not wanting to push it that far. It had been a long day already and I wasn’t in the mood for it. It wasn’t surrender, I told myself, just a strategic redeployment of mental resources.

If you buy that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.

The silence continued as Tori downed another buffalo nugget, to much less fanfare than her previous few. I could see the wheels turning behind those enormous eyes. She was up to something. A very subtle smile crossed her lips.

“Let’s do a song,” she said.

“Go for it. I’ll sit here and laugh at you. I mean clap. No…I mean laugh.”

She leaned closer. “No! Both of us. Come on, it’s been forever since just you and I did one!”

“Yeah, and I’m okay with that,” I said. “The only reason I did it the last time was because of those eggheads that were hitting on us.”

Tori’s smile faded as her face began the slow transformation into the notorious Pouty-Tori. I braced my ears for the whining. “Do I really need to go find a few guys to come hit on us? I doubt it’ll be that hard, those two in the corner have already been looking this way.”

I glanced over to the corner to see a couple of guys that looked more like children than anywhere close to our age. “Those kids? Really?”

“They’re seniors. I recognize them from last year.”

I looked closer. Tori was right, I did vaguely remember them from Hollywood Arts. Why the hell did they seem so young? Or did I really just feel that old already? For chrysler’s sake, I was only six months out of high school. I was way too young to feel so old.

I glanced back at Tori. Her hopeful eyes sought out mine and we connected. She saw the surrender on my face before I’d even made up my mind.

“Pick a song,” I said. “If it doesn’t suck, I’ll get up and sing it with you.”

She smiled to herself…it was a devious smile and it spread across her face like a grinch about to steal a vaguely non-denominational winter holiday.

She hurried up to the deejay, they spoke for a few seconds, and his face lit up.

Oh, god. What have I done?

He put on a track as Tori grabbed a mic and stood center stage. The music started with a thick, tense guitar riff. When Tori began singing, it wasn’t her typical, pop-princess style voice. It was guttural, raw, and damn sexy. She ran her hands through her hair and flipped it around as she growled out the lyrics to Halestorm's "I Miss the Misery." She couldn't have chosen better, and it made me a little angry and vulnerable that she knew me that well.

I've been a mess since you stayed
I've been a wreck since you changed
Don't let me get in your way
I miss the lies and the pain
The fights that keep us awake-ake-ake
I'm tellin you!

Tori started swaying her hips and moving towards me. I was transfixed. Her innocent demeanor seemed to evaporate with every sway of her hips.

I miss the bad things
The way you hate me
I miss the screaming
The way that you blame me!

Her endless legs marched towards me. Our eyes connected, and my heart felt like it stopped or skipped or something. I’d never seen such a visceral look in her eyes.

I miss the bad things
The way you hate me
I miss the screaming
The way that you blame me!

Tori reached the edge of the stage. She smiled, but it wasn’t her usual smile. It was more like a sinister, deliciously wicked smirk. She swayed down to her knees and her hand reached for me.

Miss the phone calls
When it's your fault
I miss the late nights
Don't miss you at all!

I reached out. Her hand closed around mine and I was pulled right out of my seat and onto the stage. I barely noticed, I was so drawn to whatever this energy was. There was some movement and a mic was thrust into my hand. Tori winked at me and then her attention turned to the crowd.

I like that kick in the face
And the things you do to me!
I love the way that it hurts!
I don't miss you, I miss the misery!

The energy in the room was insane. The energy on the stage, between Tori and me, was…I don’t even fucking know. It wasn’t like anything I’d felt before. All I could do was squeeze the mic and hold on tight.

Just know that I'll make you hurt
(I miss the lies and the pain what you did to me)
When you tell me you'll make it worse
(I'd rather fight all night than watch the TV)
I hate that feelin inside
You tell me how hard you'll try
But when we're at our worst
I miss the misery

Tori nodded to me and stepped aside so I could take center stage. I can’t describe the unspoken connection as we sang, but it was there. Like we didn’t need words, like the music was pulling both our strings. I gripped the mic like it was my life.

I miss the bad things
The way you hate me
I miss the screaming
The way that you blame me

Tori slid up next to me. I felt her back press into me, her hips swaying. She slid down to the floor. I felt the movement and matched it.

I miss the rough sex
Leaves me a mess
I miss the feeling of pains in my chest!

My body was practically on fire as I felt hers against me. I spun away from her, slipped out of my vest, and on inspiration, I threw it around her waist and pulled her over to me. Our bodies pressed together for a moment. The smile on her face had all kinds of meaning hidden behind it. I only saw it for a second before she spun away, taking my vest with her, but I swear I saw a flash of hunger.

I barely had the presence of mind to think,  what the hell is happening here? 

Miss the phone calls
When it's your fault
I miss the late nights
Don't miss you at all!
I like that kick in the face
And the things you do to me!
I love the way that it hurts!
I don't miss you, I miss the misery!

Tori spun back towards me, trapping me in my vest and pulling me towards her. The final notes of the song echoed for a moment before they were drowned out by the crazy applause. I barely heard it. I was too busy staring at Tori.

What the hell did you just do to me, Vega?

Tori’s smile gradually returned to normal as she glanced back at me.

“Still got it,” she said breathlessly, her chest heaving just inches away from me. “I think they like us.” Tori’s face dripped with sweat. It beaded down her graceful neck and all over her chest, its scent mingling with her perfume. I nearly bit through my tongue. Everything inside of me was on fire.

“Yeah. Sure. They did.”

She pulled back and handed me my vest. “Thanks. That was fun.”

She took the mics and returned them to the deejay. I realized I was still standing there, staring after her, watching the sway of her hips and those damned legs. 

Snap out of it, idiot. Get down there.

Eventually, I did.

It took me at least twenty minutes and three glasses of water to come down off the high of being on-stage. I missed it. Hollywood Arts had given me a lot of opportunities to get up and sing like that, but I hadn’t done it once since the graduation after-party, when Tori, Beck, Andre, and I sang a cover of NeedtoBreathe’s Shine On, as kind of a send-off for Cat. Leave it to Tori to pick a song about shining. But this, the karaoke…damn. It was cathartic, and I missed it in ways I didn’t even realize it.

Even after that first twenty minutes, I felt sweaty and gross. Tori, for her part, seemed to have recovered gracefully. Her hair was a little messier now, with slightly damp strands hanging down in front of her face. Of course, all it did was make her more attractive. I had to avoid looking at her too much; my body was already at its wit’s end after that dance. Nights like this, I really missed Beck being around. I mean I didn’t strictly need him, but one can only get excited about self-care so much before it gets old. And I’ve always been very hard to please.

Tori downed another nugget and groaned.

“So where are you staying?” I asked, loudly and awkwardly, trying to cover up the lusty sound of her food porn. “Your mom’s?”

For the first time since she got here, Tori frowned. And for the first time in my life, I didn’t like it. I knew right away that I hit a sore spot.

“No. I can’t stand that place ever since my dad moved out and Gary moved in.”

It took me a minute to remember where I’d heard that name before.

“Gary? Wasn’t he your dad’s partner or something?”

“Ex-partner for the past couple of years. I got the vibe my mom was into him for a year or two before anything happened. I just don’t get how you can do that to someone. Especially when you’re married. And you have kids together. It’s seriously messed up.” She trailed off and blinked away the beginnings of a few tears. “Sorry. But no, to answer your question, I’m not staying with my mom.”

My mind was every bit as wrecked as my body. I wanted to reach out to her and try to comfort her. I knew what it was like, coming from a broken home. It sucked. And I definitely related to being endlessly pissed at your own mother. I struggled to keep from reaching across the table and putting a hand on hers, or offering her some comforting words. 

Don’t judge me. I just couldn’t do it. It was risky shit. And really, my desire to reach out was probably born out of the intensity of singing together. Raw emotions that got kicked up and turned on in the heat of the moment and hadn’t faded yet.

Besides, I hated opening up. I let myself be vulnerable in front of Tori before and it never ended well. The last thing I wanted to do was go back down that road. 

So I didn’t. I tried to keep the conversation moving.

“So then what, you’re staying with your dad?”

She shook her head. “He’s not in LA anymore. He started his own firm, he’s a private investigator now. I’d love to see him but he’s three hours up the coast. I might swing up that way before I go home. I got a cheap hotel for my stay this time. I think it’s called the ‘Come on Inn’ or something.”

I’d heard of that place. It had a pretty terrible reputation, actually. Bad location. Bums and rats. No AC. It was a shit hole, to put it nicely. No way Princess Tori would last there.

“Just crash at my place,” I said. “That hotel is a dump.”

For a second, it looked like Tori might be reasonable. Gratitude flashed across her features but it faded, replaced with a bizarre awkwardness I’d never seen from her.

“Oh…I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” she said. “Your mom doesn’t like me.”

“My mom kicked me out. I live with my dad.”

“She kicked you out?”

“Pretty much the second we graduated. It’s fine, I hated living with her anyway. My dad took me in, believe it or not. And I doubt he even remembers you. So just stay there, it’s a lot better than some run-down shit hole.”

I saw signs of a struggle going on behind her eyes. She seemed to want to say yes, but something was stopping her. I could tell before she opened her mouth that she was going to refuse. 

Something came over me. That old irrational, blind rage that she used to inspire in me almost every day. She was going to make up some dumb excuse and shut me down. In light of what we’d just experienced, that really pissed me off. Never mind that what “we” just experienced might have been all in my own, misguided, sexually frustrated mind. I didn’t care. I got angry.

“Okay. Never mind. Offer rescinded. Enjoy rooming with the rats.”

“Jade, don’t take it like—“

“Like how?” I snapped. “I’m offering you a free place to stay and you’re choosing a hovel in the worst neighborhood in LA. It’s cool. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it there. Definitely way better than staying with...” I stumbled right at the finish line. Good job, idiot. Staying with who? A friend? Can’t let her know that.

“With who?”

“Forget it,” I said. I was ready to leave. I could feel the red in my cheeks and if one more person said something to piss me off, I knew I’d lose my shit on them. “Let’s just go,” I said. “I’ve got some things to get ready before tomorrow anyway.”

“Jade, I’m sorry. I really didn’t—“

“You don’t have to be sorry. Save that for someone who gives a shit.”

Tori recoiled at that, and I realized that I just genuinely hurt her.

Like, well and truly hurt her.

Damn it! This is why I didn’t want her out here.

I kept my yap shut for the rest of the meal. We finished our plates in silence, until our waitress came back and I asked for the bill. I planned on buying Tori’s lunch but she insisted on separate checks. I didn’t argue.

By the time I dropped her off at her hotel, a full forty-five minutes of thick, miserable silence had gone on between us.

She unloaded her suitcase and stopped by the driver’s side door.

“Thanks for getting me at the airport, and for the song. What time tomorrow?”

“Seven. Just meet me at my place, we’ll drive to the site from there. If that’s all right with you.”

“Sure, just—“

I threw the car into gear and sped off, leaving her standing in the parking lot of the Come On Inn. I had a death grip on the steering wheel as I made the left to go back to my dad’s.

That sucked, I thought. It was too damn much to think about. I guess I could have let her explain why she didn’t want to stay at my place. But why? Why did I even care? She’s a big girl. She can choose where she wants to stay. If she wants to catch hepatitis from a mattress in a dump like that, it’s her choice. Right? Right?

I shouldn’t have cared. But I did.

And that fucking sucked.

Chapter Text

I bet Mary Harron didn’t have these problems on-set.

Then again, I doubt she ever worked with a group of cheap amateurs. 

I’d called just about everyone I could think of from Hollywood Arts to help me crew this short. I advertised on a few reputable crew job websites. I had pieced together what seemed like a pretty solid group, on paper.

Until none of them showed up.

I tried to call them. Most of them didn’t answer. No one replied to my voicemails. I was irate. Who the hell commits to doing something and then just decides, y’know what, I don’t need to bother showing up for that. And not just one. No, all six.

All. Six.

I vowed that if I ever happened to cross paths with any of these flakes on the street, they would not forget the encounter. And they’d think twice about standing up anyone else.

But vows of future violence, relaxing though they were, would not help me get my film off the ground. There was no one else to call, unfortunately. Anyone respectable would want money (as they should), but I had nothing left in my bank account. When my mom kicked me out, she also stopped with the monthly allowances. So all that money I had to burn at the end of my senior year—buying Cat her dress, flying us all to New York—was long gone. My dad was no help either. And I had pulled out everything I’d saved up from work to be able to at least provide food and snacks for my cast and crew for the next two weeks.

In short: I had no money, no time, and no crew. So I did something I never, ever wanted to do. I used someone’s crush on me to get them to come help me out.

Sinjin Van Cleef was a weirdo. He made regular weirdos seem almost normal. Dude was tall, skinny, almost bird-like. He was also kind of a creeper, one of those guys who’d get real close to you just to sniff your hair. I had the displeasure of experiencing that a lot back in school. I hated it, and really didn’t like Sinjin much, but I was that desperate. I called him and he was at our shooting location within an hour. He had his own gear and knew it inside and out, so if nothing else I had someone at least a little reliable on my camera.

He brought his oddball friend Burf to help out.

If Sinjin made regular weirdos seem normal, Burf made Sinjin seem normal. I really can’t say anything else about the guy. Sinjin had him running sound. And by “running sound” I mean dropping the boom into every. Single. Shot.

“Cut! Again! Burf, I swear to chrysler, if you drop the mic into the shot one more time I’m going to replace you with a tripod and a boom arm!”

“We can do that?” he asked with far more enthusiasm than he’d shown in the past six hours. “Why didn’t we just do that in the first place?”

I felt my cheeks start to burn, again.

“Why didn’t…are you…because a tripod can’t press record you… Y’know what, screw it, that’s lunch. Be back in an hour!”

Burf dropped the boom pole and tried to run off, forgetting that he was wearing the audio recorder harness. The boom pole lurched along behind him, dragged by the $80 XLR cable. I had never actually been so close to beating someone within an inch of their life as I was at that moment. And that includes the skank who tried hitting on Beck at Karaoke Dokie.

“Sinjin!”

He had already seen Burf’s mistake and was on his way to get the boom. “On it, boss!”

I balled my firsts up for the hundredth time and dung my nails into the palms of my hand. It took everything I had not to explode and start smashing the equipment. Then I’d have been famous for very different reasons.

It was six hours into the shoot day, and we’d been shooting for maybe three of those hours, thanks to the crew canceling on me. I was scrambling to make shot lists on the fly based on the notes I’d sent to my 1st AD, one of the losers who didn’t show up. The 1st AD is supposed to keep the crew on track throughout the day using a shot list and schedule. But they didn’t send me any of that before they bailed, so it was up to me to cobble it together.

At least we were in a decent neighborhood. My old teacher, Erwin Sikowitz, had recommended his friend’s house for the exterior of Sara’s house. Since it was a beautiful day, that was the first scene on the schedule. Well, one of the schedules. Since you can never be sure what the weather’s going to do, you always try to get the outside stuff done first, but you have to be ready with a backup interior location in case of bad weather or smog or whatever. For the most part, it wasn’t an issue in LA; I mean, that’s why Hollywood is where it is. Bad weather is pretty rare. But I was running as close to a professional production as I could. I had to. I needed to prove to Liz I could do it.

In case you’ve been napping so far, the day wasn’t off to a good start.

Tori was still on her mark in the middle of the driveway. She offered me an encouraging smile. There was something very sweet and genuine about it, and I felt some of the tension start to loosen. It was weird. Usually, Beck was the only one who could do that.

I almost smiled back, but when I made the connection between her smile and Beck, a fresh wave of frustration washed over me. Instead, I stormed off, away from the set. I needed to walk.

I regretted how I handled things the previous night with Tori. I’d been needlessly mean. Some people would say that’s normal for me, perfectly in character. They’d be right. But that wasn’t something I could be if I wanted this film to be successful. I knew that going in, which is why I didn’t want to involve Tori in the first place. She always complicated things.

I’d gone home so worked up, I could barely think straight. I stood in the shower under cold water for fifteen minutes. My lips were almost blue by the time I was done. Do you think it helped? Would I even ask you that if it did?

I tried to call Beck, but he was already asleep. Stupid time difference.

So I crawled into bed and tried to doze. My brain refused to settle down. So, much as I didn’t want to, I tried to work out my frustrations single-handedly. Well…not literally. Both hands were involved. And every time I finally got into a groove, every time I felt like I was moving toward some relief, something would draw my attention and I’d completely lose it. My dad came home. Then his wife came home. Then they were watching some stupid comedy and she had the most obnoxious laugh. Nothing kills an orgasmic buildup faster than suddenly hearing Fran Drescher’s spirit animal cackling like a hyena down the hall.

Even after they quieted down, I just couldn’t make it happen. My brain kept flashing back to Tori; seeing her for the first time at the airport, dragging me up on stage with her, pressing up against her. I tried to purge those images from my mind. I needed some release, but I didn’t want it to be Tori’s face in my mind when it happened.

Or maybe it was worse than that. Maybe I  did  want it to be Tori’s face in my mind when it happened.

Either way, after an hour of effort, I was more frustrated than ever. I gave up and tried to sleep again. It worked about as well as it did the first time.

I ended up watching The Scissoring on my phone. That, finally, was the thing that calmed me down enough to sleep.

I woke up to a text from Tori at 6:00 AM asking me for the address. She apologized for bothering me so early and mentioned that she tried to ask me about it as I drove off the previous night. So my first conscious thought of the day was about how terribly last night had ended. That set the tone.

Aside from an awkward “good morning,” Tori and I didn’t speak much on the way to the set. Once we got there, and I ranted and raged over all the worthless no-shows, I explained to everyone the modified game plan for the day. Tori tried to ask a few questions about the character, but I didn’t respond with much. I told her I trusted her to know the character well enough to make the decision she thought was right.

Then, I cut after the first take (which, you’ll recall, was three hours behind schedule) and told her she did it all wrong and it should have been handled differently. She responded that she tried to discuss it with me first but I refused to talk to her.

It got worse from there, but I’ll spare you those details. Let’s just say that after all that effort, we’d gotten through maybe three setups. The schedule called for seven total, so we had a lot of ground to cover after lunch. It was November, after all, and even though the weather was still beautiful in California, the sunset was still coming hours sooner than it would have over the summer.

My ringtone went off. Liz was calling.

Shit. Why now?

I put on my best bullshit face. Even though she wouldn’t be able to see me, she struck me as the kind of woman who could still tell from the tone of your voice what your face was doing.

“Hey, Liz!”

“Jade! How’s your first day going? Hope I didn’t interrupt a take.”

I forced a laugh. It felt weird and gross. “No, I just called lunch a few minutes ago. As for how it’s going…” I tried my best to put a spit shine on what was a pretty terrible day so far. “It’s coming together. The crew’s starting to gel. Still on schedule.”

“Good, good,” she said. “Any big scenes today?”

“On day one? No. We’re knocking out some of the exteriors at Sara’s house. Didn’t want to put too much weight up front while everyone’s still learning how to work with each other.”

Liz was silent. I swallowed hard and hoped the bile I felt churning down below stayed where it was.

“That’s smart scheduling,” Liz said at last. “Sounds like you know what you’re doing. Listen I hope you don’t mind but I’d love to stop over and see you in action today. Would that be all right?”

No. No, no, no, no, no, no no! For the love of Jerry Chrysler, no!   “That sounds awesome, I’d love for you to come by.”

“Great. Keep at it! You’re my gal. Er…woman. Or whatever you prefer. You’re her! Text me the address and I’ll be there in a few hours.”

“You got it. See you soon!”

The call ended. I took a deep breath to try and calm down. It didn’t work.

“Fuck,” I muttered. “Fuck. Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!”

“Are you okay?”

“Fuck!” I spun around. Tori stood behind me. She kept a safe distance, as if she were scared I might have swung at her. Honestly, at that moment, it was probably a good call. But behind a very superficial look of fear, I saw genuine concern in those dark brown eyes.

“That’s seven. Wanna go for eight and make it even?” I could tell from her tone and her smile she was trying to be funny. But she was concerned, and she had risked injury to come talk to me. It was at once comforting and infuriating. Comforting because…well I guess because it let me know she gave a damn about the production, at least. But that she knew me so well to come try to talk when I was upset left me feeling naked and vulnerable, and I  hated  feeling naked and vulnerable in front of her. I had let it happen too many times over the years.

“What do you want?” 

“To check on you. You seem really stressed.”

“I’m fine,” I snapped. “It’s not your job to check up on me.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m not here because it’s my job. I’m here because…”

Her voice trailed off. I glared at her, waiting for her to finish her sentence. She seemed to withdraw into herself a little under my scrutiny.

“I’m here because I want to help. I want this movie to be a success.”

“And you think I need you for that?”

She sighed. “No, Jade. That’s not what I mean. I mean yes, you need me to be in it, or else you wouldn’t have asked me. But I want it to succeed for your sake. I love acting but music is really my passion so if this didn’t work out, it’s okay for me. But this is a big chance for you and I want to help make it happen  for you .”

“Why?”

She faltered. “Why does it matter? Look we both know you don’t  need  me. But you  have  me. I’m here, and I want to help. Whatever that looks like. Whatever form it takes.”

A thick fog seemed to settle over my head.  You don’t need me,  she had said. And I hated myself for wondering how untrue that statement was.

“Liz is coming,” I said. “She’ll be here this afternoon. And she’s going to see that no one showed up. She’s going to see that I can’t do this, and she’s going to send me packing.”

“No, she won’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

“No, but I know you  can  do this. Jade, you’re the toughest, most talented woman I know. Your vision for this movie is so strong. Liz isn’t coming to judge you for having the right size crew or running a flawless shoot, she’s coming because you blew her away with your other work and she wants to see you in action. This is  your  set.  You  run the show. And I know you’re not going to let a bunch of losers who didn’t show up shake you. And you’re not going to let some producer throw you off either. You’re Jade fucking West and this is your movie.”

I struggled to process everything Tori said. It was the first time I’d ever heard her drop an f-bomb, and she did it with such passion and conviction and determination, I was stunned into silence. I wanted to hug her for sure. I’m pretty sure there was a whole list of other things I wanted to do to her after that, though it may have just been the whole “innocent girl drops an f-bomb” trope getting me excited.

The longer the silent glare went on, the more Tori seemed to shrink back into herself.

“So…am I fired? Jade? Say something.”

I let the silence hang there as I drew in a slow breath. “I don’t think there will ever come a day where I can say this without a stomach ache. But you’re right. And I needed to hear it.”

“Don’t worry,” Tori said, her effortless smile returning. “I won’t tell anyone you admitted that.”

“Good, because if you did, you really would be fired. I’m going to take a walk and try to figure this out. You should head back.”

“Okay. Enjoy your walk.”

Tori turned, and so help me, I didn’t want her to go. The idea of her not standing there felt…wrong. Before I could stop myself, I called, “Hey, Vega.” She turned back. I stumbled over words that wouldn’t come out. “You…you’ve done good today,” I said at last. “I mean it’s been mostly easy scenes, but your performances…you’re kicking ass.”

She smiled silently, then turned and walked back to the set.

Chapter Text

My walk was cathartic in some ways. It’s always good to put some distance, either physical or proverbial (or both) between yourself and your problems. It gives you a different perspective. Sometimes it even leads to figuring out a solution.

This wasn’t one of those times.

But it did provide the much-needed benefit of a mental reboot. Tori was right, I reflected as I spun my scissors around my finger. I was Jade fucking West. And Jade fucking West was wracked with chills every time she thought about Tori saying that. Damn, that girl could get inside of my head. If she knew how much…and if she were as sadistic as I was…she could really screw things up for me.

But she brought up a good point. I’d never let all the stupid shit that happened bother me back in school. I mean yes, I get it, the “real world” has “real consequences” that are scarier than a bad grade. But I should never have let that rattle me. I shouldn’t have let it turn me into a passive, sniveling wimp.

I knew it was Tori’s presence that had me so off my game. But it was also Tori’s presence that made me realize that and rise above it. I’ve said it a hundred times, she always made things so much more complicated with me. But complicated or not, it was working. Embracing that, and Tori, might be the only way forward. It was only for another couple of weeks anyway. I could handle that. You can handle anything if you know it’s in the short term.

So when I finally turned back toward the set after roaming this upscale neighborhood—and getting weird looks from the residents who probably assumed I was there to stab them with the scissors I was twirling—I was at least a bit more confident in my abilities. I still had no idea how I was going to pull this off without a better crew. I figured step one would be to let Burf go, or find him an easier job. It took longer to fix his mistakes and redo the work than it would just to do the work without him. I had enough stands to rig up something for the mic, and I could just run the sound recorder myself.

A little more than an hour had gone by when I returned. I was going through the plan to get it right in my head before explaining it to everyone when I noticed the first strange thing: a familiar grey-silver sedan parked well up the street from the set. I’d recognize it anywhere, I’d ridden in it a dozen times. It was surrounded in the front and back by a few other cars that hadn’t been there before. I noticed a few extra bodies roaming around the set as well.

Tori was talking to a number of these extra people as I got closer. She saw me coming and said something to one of them. He turned, and my heart leaped out of my rib cage. I knew his laid-back, friendly grin anywhere.

“Andre!?”

He hurried to me and opened his arms for an embrace. “What’s up, twisted sister?”

I hated touching people, but if Andre had come out to help with this thing, he earned a hug. A quick one.

“What the hell are you doing out here? I thought you were in Seattle working with PeazyB.”

“True chiz, I just got back last night. Peazy decided to put his recording on hold so he could fly to the Galapagos Islands and look for evolved turtles or something. Between you and me, I don’t think the guy’s got a full deck if you know what I’m sayin.”

“So how’d you know we needed help?”

Andre nodded to Tori, who was still talking to the others. “Your girl there saw my post about being back. She called me up and asked me if I could come help run sound.”

It was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. A lot of weight. Like, three sweaty fat guys' worth of weight. If I ever showed emotion, I’d probably have been near-tears. “So Vega did this.”

“Well, she got me here. I don’t know who these other people are, but I guess that dude there, Simon, is going to run the boom while I handle the recording.” He pointed to a young guy I didn’t recognize. The kid was tall, probably a head taller than Andre, with lanky arms that hung at his side. He was staring at Tori, hanging on to every word she said. I smelled a crush.

I didn’t blame him. Hell, in light of all this, I felt my own eyes getting a little doe-y when I looked at her; especially when she caught me staring. She didn’t do anything, but as her gaze returned to the group, her cheekbones were glowing just a bit.

“You all right?” Andre asked. “You seem a little distracted.”

“Fine,” I said quickly. “Hey, thank you for being here. I, uh…I really thought I was screwed.”

Andre chuckled. “Not with that girl in your corner,” he said, nodding at Tori. “She’d walk through fire for you. For any of us.”

He wasn’t wrong.

I squeezed Andre’s arm. “Sinjin can show you where Burf left the audio gear. You may wanna check the XLR on that boom, he dragged it about fifty feet.”

“Already handled. I’ll be ready in five.”

I amend my earlier statement: it was like four sweaty fat guys' worth of weight had been lifted. With Andre on audio, I knew we’d be golden.

I took a moment to glance around my set. Earlier today it had been so empty. So dead. But now it was thriving. Well, that’s an overstatement. It wasn’t dead anymore, at least. It looked like it was ready to be resuscitated. And at the center of it all was the person I hadn’t even wanted involved.

Tori waved me over to meet the crew members. My poker face was on-point. Even though I could feel my knees shaking under the immense gratitude I felt, not a soul on that set knew it. Maybe.

“And here’s Jade, the director,” she said loudly enough for me to hear. The half-dozen or so people turned. They wore enormous smiles and their eyes seemed cartoonishly wide. I tried to smile at them, but I’m pretty sure it just came off as a less mild form of my usual resting bitch face. When I reached Tori, I kept my back to the others and spoke softly.

“What’s going on?”

“I found you a crew.”

“I see that. How?”

Tori pulled out her phone and handed it to me. I found a cheap website, obviously a template but the graphics were replaced with…

Wait. Was that  Cat?  The header image featured a fairly impressive Photoshop of Cat from my play,  Well Wishes , next to a header that read  The Unofficial Jade West Fan Club.  Running down either side of the page were images of two of the clowns from  Clowns Don’t Bounce . The centerpiece of this front page was a beautiful black and white screen grab of me laying in a bathtub from my short film,  Pop Goes the Evil .

“What the hell is this?”

“Your unofficial fan club!” Tori squealed. “Isn’t it awesome? You're like a pretty big deal with the macabre mob here.”

That’s a fun name,  I thought, as I scrolled through the page to the comments. There were dozens of crazy things. People analyzing (and over-analyzing) every element of everything I’d ever done. It was freaking weird. Kind of disturbing.

I love things that are weird and disturbing.

I glanced up to Tori, who looked at me with the constipated excitement of a kid waiting to tear into his Christmas gifts.

“So the ‘macabre mob’ behind me are the people behind this crazy fan group?”

“Yep.”

I shook my head. I just couldn’t wrap my head around this. How had anyone seen my work? They were just school projects.

“How’d you get them here so fast?”

“Are you kidding? They idolize you. We just lucked out that so many were local. I turned down a few that wanted to fly in from Pittsburgh. And ten guys from Iceland.”

“Iceland? Really?” 

“Apparently you’re all the rage in Reykjavik.”

“Rake-the-what?”

“It’s the most populous city in Iceland. That’s a thing I know now.”

I scrolled through the page again, taking in some of the comments. “Vega…” I handed her phone back. She took it, and our hands touched briefly. I thought back to the previous evening and smiled. She smiled too.

“Is this all right? It just hit me when I was walking back that maybe there were other places we could look for people you could trust, and—“

I placed a single finger over her lips. I probably shouldn’t have. They were silky smooth, and it felt like I was sticking my finger in an electrical outlet. I was at a complete loss for words. My hand fell away. Our eyes connected, and I could see hers nervously seeking some kind of approval.

You are so amazing,  I thought.  I hate that I think it, but…I do.

Tori’s eyes softened and her silky smooth lips turned upwards. I think she got the message.

And there goes my stupid heart again.

I turned back to the group, my arms raised in a dramatic flourish. They’d been waiting to meet their hero. Who was I to deny them that great honor?

I’m kidding. I put on my best bitch face and stared them down until they didn’t know what was happening. The moment one of them tried to speak, I interrupted.

“Okay, people. If you’re going to work on a Jade West film, I need to know where your talents are. So let’s start there.”


Liz showed up right at the final shot of the day. It was a rather dull shot, too, just a simple dolly that followed Sara’s car as it pulled into the driveway. Tori insisted on doing the “stunt” herself (technically anything that isn’t simply walking can be considered a stunt on a film set). After everything she’d done, I had no issues with letting her do it. She may have been a late-blooming driver, but she was good.

Liz strode onto the set as we were resetting the shot for another take. She wore a pair of hip-hugging jeans and a black leather jacket. She honestly looked like just another member of my makeshift crew of fanboys and fangirls. The  macabre mob,  Tori had called them. I felt like that name should stick. 

“I need to talk to her,” I told Sinjin, who had been freed up to serve as my 1st AD. Turns out he was pretty good at it. “Make sure everything gets reset. And send Tori over.”

“You got it, boss,” he said as he turned to the crew. “Why isn’t the car ready? And you! Move that reflector!” 

I may have started the day thinking Sinjin was a weirdo, but I was ending it thinking he was a weirdo with some mad organizational skills and a knack for bossing around underlings. He used a slightly different kind of fear to keep people in line, I think, but it was effective.

Liz greeted me with a firm handshake that quickly became a surprise one-armed embrace. I held back from pushing her away. Clearly, if I were going to function in Hollywood, I’d need to learn to not be utterly reviled when people touched me (aside from the obvious exceptions).

“How’s it going? Sorry I’m so late. Kept getting caught up in meetings, most of which could probably have been e-mails. What the hell is it with people wanting to sit in a room that stinks of coffee and BO for three hours to talk about nothing?”

“It’s cool. And I don’t know, I hate meetings. And BO. Coffee, though…”

Liz chuckled. She saw something behind me that drew her eye. “Oooh, is that our star? I’d love to meet her.”

“That’s her,” I said as Tori closed in on us. “I told her to stop over.”

“She’s cute.”

I grunted. “Sure if you’re into…endless legs…perfect cheekbones…silky skin…amazing voice.” Liz raised an eyebrow. She seemed ready to say something, so I quickly added, “Oh, I hate that girly shit. I have a boyfriend. Did I ever mention that? I do. His name’s Beck.” I left out the fact that Beck also had long legs, great cheekbones, and surprisingly silky skin. And not the worst voice, either.

I motioned for Tori to hurry the hell up. If she got the message, she showed no signs. She made a gradual, dramatic approach, batting her eyelashes and smiling for Liz. The fact that she looked so great as she did it just irritated me even more.

“Hello,” she sang as she joined us and offered Liz her hand.

“Liz, this is Tori Vega. Tori, our producer, Liz.”

“It’s so nice to meet you,” Tori said.

“Likewise,” Liz said. Her eyes drank in Tori. I picked up on some scrutiny. “You know, I feel like I’ve seen your face around before. Oh! You sang at the Platinum Music Awards a few years ago!”

Tori’s cheekbones lit up. She cast a nervous glance my way. I shrugged. She didn’t need my permission to talk about that. I was over it; she did me a solid, so I did her one. Quid pro quo. Not like there was any subtext or hidden meaning behind it.

Right?

Remember, I’ve got that bridge for sale… 

“I did,” Tori said. “Seems like ages ago. That was my sophomore year.”

“I remember it was a big deal because of your age,” Liz said. “I usually hate awards show. Bunch of self-congratulating do-nothings. But I do like watching the live performances. I really liked your song, actually. Too many people in this ridiculous town have no appreciation for the country that let them get so absurdly rich. I loved seeing someone your age sing about the good things.”

Tori nodded, her smile never cracking for an instant. She was so good at being charming.

Because she IS charming , I thought.  It comes to her as natural as breathing.

“Thank you,” she said. “My dad’s parents came from Puerto Rico, but he had other family members that were from Cuba. His parents moved here when he was a kid. They understood what it meant to be able to come here and have a say in how things are, so my dad brought us up the same way. He always told my sister and me, it’s not perfect, nowhere is, but it’s the best thing going, no matter what anyone else says.”

I wasn’t sure if she was embellishing things for Liz’s benefit or not, but it worked. Liz was positively glowing. “That’s a wonderful story. Your dad sounds like a great man.”

“He is,” Tori said, and the pride in her voice was absolutely genuine. I’d met David Vega once or twice. Didn’t spare much of a thought for him, but I could see the impact he had on Tori and my respect for him grew quite a bit.

Liz turned back to me. “Well Jade, what’s left on the schedule?”

“We’re resetting for the last shot; just a dolly-in on the car from Scene 6.”

“Oh, did I miss all the rest?” Disappointment echoed in her voice. I hated to let her down, but the fact was she came very late. The crew was surprisingly efficient once they understood their responsibilities, and a couple of them had worked on sets before which cut their learning curve down a bit.

“I thought we had that last shot, too,” Tori said. “That one you were thinking of adding.” Her eyes were intense as they found mine and I knew right away she was trying to get me to follow along with something. I raised an eyebrow to let her know I got what she was doing, but had no idea where she was going with it. “You remember, Scene 43. The last shot. You wanted to try and catch the sunset tonight.”

This woman. This. Woman.

Scene 43 was the last scene in the film and it was going to be the most challenging for Tori. See, the script ended on kind of a cliffhanger. Sara’s central conflict is to get this guy she’s in love with to reciprocate her feelings. It’s tacky, but it’s the kind of schlock the mainstream buys into. And like I said before, there’s a ton of subtext in Liz’s script about the nature of love and all that. The ending is kind of a mindfuck though, because even though she gets the guy, the film ends with a phone call that he was killed in an accident on his way to see her. She realizes that if she hadn’t won his affections, he’d still be alive.

It’s an emotional shot, a slow dolly in on Sara. It’s not something I’d have put on the schedule for the first day because it’s so heavy. But Tori was right, the sky was going to be lit up beautifully in about half an hour. It would be a gorgeous shot if we could pull it off.

I had spent most of these first few days fighting against her, resisting her, wishing she weren’t there. But she proved I could trust her. And if I read her face right, she felt like she could pull it off. I swallowed my pride and nodded.

“Right. I mean look at that skyline. It’s going to be amazing.”

Liz glanced back and forth between us. “That’s a big moment for a first day. I thought you were just doing some lighter stuff.”

“That’s what we’ve done so far.” I looked at Tori. “But she can handle it.”

I’d seen Tori smile about a hundred times since Liz got here, but the one she graced me with for saying that nearly stole the breath from my lungs. I had to look away or I might have gotten dizzy from the lack of air. This entire day had been one surprise after another, and amazingly not all of them were terrible.

“Well,” Liz said excitedly, “You’re the boss. I can’t wait to see it!”


“I don’t know how you did it,” I said. “But that might be the best shot I ever put on film.”

Tori giggled. “Okay, okay, stop. It’s weird hearing you saying nice things. Especially so many.”

I turned left. We were three blocks out from Tori’s hotel. My hands were still shaking from our last shot of the night. Tori had absolutely crushed the emotional scene. I wouldn’t have expected a seasoned actor to do so well on such short notice, but she nailed it. Liz had been in tears. Liz!

When she left the set, she nearly suffocated me with a very emotional hug. “I chose the right person for this,” she had said before leaving. It had made my night. My week. Maybe my year.

“Don’t tell me what to do,” I said to Tori. I feigned a bit of anger, but I was in too good a mood so my performance fell flat. “Unless you want to walk back to your hotel.”

“There, that’s better,” she said with a laugh.

Loathe as I am to admit it, I stole a few glances at Tori as I drove her back to the hotel. I don’t know why. Maybe my brain was just fried. Or maybe it was being reprogrammed. Because when I did look at her, she seemed different. Or I saw her differently. Like how you can create two different visions of an actor by lighting them from different angles.

I couldn't shake the vibe that this day had been significant in some way.

Then again, I was really tired and might have just been looking for hidden meaning where there wasn’t any.

I finally pulled into the parking lot of the Come On Inn. Half the bulbs in the sign were burnt out, and so were half the bulbs in the parking lot. I hated the idea of Tori staying there again.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay somewhere else? This place—“

“I’m fine right here,” Tori interrupted. “Can we please not go down this road again?”

“Fine,” I said. Honestly, I was still kind of pissed about her attitude. But I wasn’t going to give her any crap for it. If the shoe were on the other foot, I probably wouldn’t want to stay in the house of someone who tormented me all the time either.

All that did was make me upset with myself for the endless torment.

I just can’t win.

Tori slid out of the car. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Hey Vega,” I called after her. She turned. “How’d you do it? How’d you pull off that scene? I mean you had Liz crying.”

She hesitated and looked at me, then beyond me, her brown eyes focusing on something in the distance. It was a harsh transition from her giggles just moments before. “I’m not so sure you want to know.”

Her words and her tone were both ominous. The hair on my arms stood on end, but my gaze remained fixed on her. “Well if I didn’t before, I definitely do now.”

She took a deep breath, as if bracing herself for whatever was to come. "Okay," she said slowly. “Honestly, I just imagined what my life would be like...if you hated me forever.”

She raised a hand in farewell and disappeared into the hotel. I barely noticed it. Those words spun around in my brain over and over.

What. The. Fuck.

Chapter Text

All things considered, I felt pretty great. After three weeks worth of long days on set and in the editing bay, endless hours of sound mixing, and watching the same moments over and over and over again, it was finally time for our movie premiere.

Shorts don’t often get that honor in Hollywood, but Liz insisted. She rented out a small theater for us and a few family and friends. She even invited the press, though we had no way of knowing if anyone would show up. She also took Tori and me out to shop for a premiere night dress, which she paid for herself. I wasn’t entirely comfortable taking the handouts, but Liz tends to get her way. And I’d helped people in that state before, so I figured it was karma or something coming back my way.

I went with a floor-length dark purple gown that hugged all my curves. The plunging neckline revealed a little more of the girls than I would normally prefer, but it was tasteful. The slit in my dress was subtle; it helped me move more easily without showing too much, which I liked. But from the right angle, someone might catch a glimpse of my right leg up to about mid-thigh. Sexy, but subtle. That was always my preference. Add in some highlights that matched the dress color, and I was satisfied. Oh, all right, I looked freaking hot. But I was humble about it.

I didn’t see the one Tori decided on. She wanted to keep it to herself for some reason. I was fine with that. I had no doubt whatever she chose would be amazing and she would pull it off with grace and style and blah blah blah.

Oh. Yes, Tori was still in town.

Originally she came out to film the role and then leave. Stepping in and helping find the crew gave her a sense of ownership, so she felt like she should stay to see it through. She also felt a sense of ownership from being the star, as any quality actor should. This was her baby, too. She wanted to see it through. Fortunately, she was able to finish up her classes online prior to the Thanksgiving break. That break was fast approaching; it kicked off the very next week after our Friday night premiere.

Even though nothing more was said about her comment from that first night of shooting, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I wondered if she truly believed I hated her, or if it was just a hypothetical situation she cooked up to tap into those emotions. If it was the first thing, then she was way off. I never hated her. I didn’t like her much, and we've spent a lot of time exploring why. But hate? Never. In fact, the more time I spent with her, the more I felt...

Well anyway. If it was a hypothetical situation to tap into her emotions, then I wondered why my approval carried such weight. Believing I hated her brought out intense sorrow out and propelled her to the best performance she’d ever given. 

I was exhausted with this. After three weeks of the emotional insanity, the back-and-forth, I was ready for it to be done. I just wasn’t sure what “done” meant in this case. I tried to back off my harsh criticism and complaining, at least a little. I listened to her on-set and found she had a lot of great ideas. The more time I spent...

It was a battle against my inner nature, but when Jade fucking West picks a fight, she wins it. Even if it’s against herself.

We’re getting off-topic. Liz’s final, amazing surprise for us was picking us all up in a limo. Oh, man. It was gorgeous; a pink Hummer with tons of room in the back and stocked to the brim with food and drinks. She had already picked up Sinjin and Andre by the time she got to my place. Then we grabbed a few more members of my “macabre mob” before heading to the Come On Inn to get Tori. Our ride drew a lot of attention in that neighborhood, not all of it good.

Much to my confusion, we drove right past the hotel.

“Liz, that’s where Tori’s staying,” I said.

“That’s not the address she gave us. She’s up in the Hills. Visiting family, maybe?”

“Oh. Yeah, maybe.”

No maybe about it; I knew the route we were driving, and I knew it would take us right to Tori’s old stomping grounds at the Vega residence. Well, whatever her mother went by these days. It would have been pretentious to keep the name Vega after she cheated on the poor guy. The limo pulled to a stop out front. Liz was about to text Tori, but I waved her off. 

“I’ll get her,” I said.

I slipped out of the limo and made it to the porch. I checked my hair, smoothed my dress out, then wondered what the hell I was doing. When the time came to ring the bell, my hand didn't want to close the last bit of distance.

Really? Just ring the damn bell, idiot.

It took a minute, but the door eventually swung open. Tori stood on the other side.

My face didn’t twitch. But the rest of my nervous system went haywire.

She wore a silver sequined dress that left her right shoulder bare. It was floor-length with a prominent slit that ran all the way up the left side to what surely must have been half an inch shy of her panty line. Unlike the slit in my gown, this one was a primary feature, made for someone with the legs of a goddess.

In other words, made for Tori Vega.

Her hair was partly done up, with much of it tumbling over her shoulders and down her back, with just a few strands to frame her face. She had refreshed the highlights in her hair, creating a two-tone look that was pretty damn amazing.

Thank god for this poker face, I thought as my heart jackhammered against my ribs. 

Tori, on the other hand, didn’t have a poker face. She eyed me from head-to-toe, and I knew she liked what she saw. I mean, who wouldn’t?

“Wow, Jade,” she said. “You look…so gorgeous.”

The blood rushed to my face. My cheeks were on fire. Oh god, she can see it. She can see it!

“Thanks,” I said. “So do you, too. Also.”

Smooth, Jade. Real smooth.

Bless her, Tori didn’t acknowledge my rambling. She looked past me to the car. “Wow. That is one pink Hummer. I can’t believe she did this for us.”

“You know Liz,” I said. The awkwardness of this moment was killing me. “I’m surprised we’re picking you up here. I thought you weren’t planning on visiting your mom.”

That dialed the awkwardness right up to a twenty.

“It’s a long story,” she said. “I wasn’t planning on it.”

I wanted to ask her more about this story, but the limo’s horn tore through the quiet of the neighborhood and sent both of us jumping out of our skins and instinctively reaching for each other’s hands. I gently pulled mine away.

“We should probably go,” I said.

“Good idea.”


Liz had a talent for understatement. She told us she was renting out a “small” theater for our premiere festivities. Turns out, she had rented the freaking Regency Bruin Theater in Westwood. If you’re from LA, you know that this is a “small” theater in the same way that the shark from Jaws was a “small” fish.

“Shut the fridge,” Tori exclaimed as we pulled to the front of the theater. The place was lit up, with the film title, "Searching for Sara," and our names sprawled all over the marquee. A dozen photographers gathered around near a red carpet.

Holy shit, Liz. What did you do?

“Vega, please, watch the language. My virgin ears can't take it.

“Shut up,” Tori said playfully. “Liz, this is amazing!”

“I said you guys deserved the full experience. So here it is. Enjoy it.”

Oh, we enjoyed it.

I was surprised at how many photographers turned out. I wondered how many Liz invited. She tried to make it seem so low-key, but she put a ton of effort into everything.

I don’t talk a lot about my dreams, but stepping out onto the red carpet at the premiere of one of my own films has always been one of them. I stood there at the far end as the photographers lined up, ready to take their pictures. It was really happening. I took a step, then held back.

I turned and motioned for Tori to go ahead. “You’re the star. You should go first.”

My knees shook at the smile she graced me with. She glanced down the carpet, then back at me.

“There’s no way I’m taking this walk without you.”

She grabbed my wrist and pulled. Before I knew it we were walking down the red carpet, side by side, posing for pictures, smiling, waving. Eventually, we made our way into the theater.

The smell of popcorn and candy washed over us as we stepped through the doors. I breathed it in. “I love that smell so much,” I whispered.

“Me too,” Tori said. "But it's even better smelling it here, because they made it for our movie."

We were greeted by a small army of ushers decked out in freaking tuxedos. They showed us to the theater and guided us to our reserved seats, then took our orders from the snack bar. Everything was so perfect. I rarely tip my hand and let on what I’m thinking, but even I couldn’t keep the amazement from my face.

Tori noticed. She leaned over as we were ready to sit down.

“I’ve never seen you glow like this,” she said. “It suits you.”

I didn’t have a response. Because it was at that moment I realized Tori had slipped her hand into mine, and she was still holding it. Her cheeks flushed as she gently pulled it away.


“I’ve never seen an ovation like that,” Liz said for the dozenth. “Not even for The Darkest Night and that was our highest-grossing feature.”

Liz had, of course, gone a step beyond even the premiere and rented out a club nearby for an after-party. She had invited some of her industry friends and was intent on introducing me to as many people as she could. An hour into the party and I had more business cards stuffed into my purse than I’d ever even seen in my life up to that point.

The club was flashy. It had a large bar and a dining room, which was informally split into a section close to the dance floor, and a section further removed from the noise. I recognized some soundproofing set up on the walls back there to help dull the chaos and allow for quiet chats. A large dance floor made of color-changing LED lights thrummed in the center of the room, just off the deejay’s elevated booth. The music was loud, and dozens of people were already on the dance floor. It looked like a lot of fun, but Liz had other plans for me, at least for a while.

As she shuffled me from table to table, I noticed Tori facing a similar fate. At least a dozen people were gathered around her, asking for autographs, headshots, an e-mail address or phone number. I could see she was getting tired of it, but not once did she let her admirers know it. She graced every single one of them with her gorgeous smile, looked them in the eye, gently touched their arms. She was a pro, a true celebrity already. Old Hollywood class with breathtaking modern beauty. I couldn’t help but stare in awe.

She caught me staring and smiled, then threw her gaze over at the crowd people gathering around, as if to say, can you believe this?

I made s similar gesture at the latest duo Liz had introduced me to. I know, right? This is nuts.

Tori wrinkled her nose at me, then nodded over to the quieter area, away from the crowd. There was a lone table with a pair of empty seats just begging for our asses to sit on them. Wanna bail?

I checked the seats, then nodded. Absolutely.

I politely excused myself (well, as politely as I could) and made a break for the table. Liz seemed to notice the exchange with Tori. A shitty grin crossed her face and she winked at me as I hurried off. What was up with that?

I reached the table first, as Tori had a few signatures to finish up. I heard her promise to find everyone else before the end of the night and thank them for all the love they showed her. Her smile finally faded as she sat across from me.

“I’ve got hand cramps,” she said, rubbing her wrist. “This is amazing but wow is it tiring.”

“Tell me about it,” I said. “Fame is not for the faint of heart, darling.”

We shared a laugh at the absurdity of the comment, as if a successful short film suddenly made us celebrities.

A waiter appeared and deposited two fruity-looking drinks in front of us. “Courtesy of Miss Hannah,” he said, then disappeared again. Liz just smiled and waved from her spot near the bar.

I picked up the drink and smelled it. There were a lot of different fruit scents at play, but somewhere under them was the sharp sting of…

“I think this is alcohol,” Tori said.

I took a sip. “Yep. Sure is.” I took another sip. Well, I say sip…it was more of a guzzle.

“Jade!”

I put my drink down and laughed. “What? Do you honestly think this is the first time I’ve had alcohol?”

Tori seemed to remember who she was talking to. “I guess not. Doesn’t she realize we’re…”

“What? Mature for our age?” I winked at her. “Like this is your first time drinking.”

She glanced around as if to see if anyone was within earshot. “Maybe not,” she said.

I couldn’t hold back a wicked grin. “What? You mean Saint Vega has a dark side? This, I have to hear.”

“I’m not gonna tell you about it,” she said.

“Aw, come on,” I urged. “Give in to peer pressure.”

Tori’s face lit up. “Is Jade West finally admitting that I’m her peer? Shall I call hell to see if they’re buying snow shovels?”

“That’s the second time you’ve dropped a swear this month. I expect they’re getting a blizzard about now.”

Tori laughed that freaking divine laugh. I took another drink and tried to ignore the effect it was having on me. (Her laugh, not the drink, though both were making me a little warm.) She brought her drink closer, smelled it once more, then took a tentative sip. “That’s good. Wow.” She took a long drink, then set her glass down. She slowly dragged her nimble tongue across her top lip, then her bottom, collecting errant drops of the fruity beveragge. A flash of warmth radiated out from the pit of my stomach.I struggled to take my eyes off of her, but I couldn’t do it fast enough. She saw me, but misread why I was staring.

“What? One drink isn’t going to kill me.”

“Unless your mom finds out.” Oh, right. We picked her up at her mom’s. I'd almost forgotten about that. Well, time to poke the bear. “Speaking of, why were you at your mom’s?”

Tori took another long drink. “Would you believe I missed her?”

“Nope.”

She scrunched up her nose and pouted. “Dang it.”

“Look I don’t really care,” I said. “I mean, I’m a little hurt I guess, since I kept asking if you wanted to crash with me.”

Tori waved down the waiter. “Can I get another one of these? Thanks.”

“Make it two,” I added. Hey if they weren’t going to ask, I wasn’t going to tell.

“Okay. I didn’t want to say anything about this because I knew you’d be mad and, honestly, I don’t want you to be mad at me.” Her words pained me. They revealed what an ass I’d always been to her. I mean, I knew I was an ass to her. It was by design. But somehow I missed the impact it was having. Or I just didn’t care.

But you did care, Jade. Maybe not always, but eventually.

“Well now’s the time to share it, because I’m in a really good mood.”

She took a deep breath. “Fine. I ran out of money.”

“Which is why I kept offering for you to stay with me. I knew sticking around so long would wipe you out.”

She looked away. I didn’t like the frustration creeping into her face. Especially if it was there because of me.

“That’s not why I ran out. I’m broke because I used my hotel money to pay for the crew.” 

I stared in silence at her. I probably looked angry, even though I wasn’t. Well, not really. Not very. 

“I wanted to make sure you’d have what you needed to make the movie, and that’s the only way I could think of. I mean the people who helped are all crazy about you and your projects. But they had jobs and stuff. I had to give them something for their time.” Tori polished off her first drink just as the waiter brought our next pair. “Most of them still lost money on it, but at least getting paid meant they would show up. Y’know?” She took a drink from her new glass, then looked back at me. I was still staring, still processing, and probably still resting bitch facing. “Jade, please say something.”

I was overwhelmed. She stayed with her mother so she could pay for a crew. Oh, Vega. You sweet, sweet idiot. 

I did something uncharacteristic. I reached across the table and took Tori’s hands in mind. I squeezed them gently. I smiled at her.

“Thank you.”

Tori looked down at our hands, then back to my face. “I keep waiting for the part where you try to break my fingers.”

I let go of her. “You put yourself through that so that we could make this movie. We’re sitting here right now because of you.”

Tori let a very tentative smile creep across her lips. “My friend needed help. So I helped. It’s what I do.”

“Better than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Tori took another, hefty drink then looked at how far down her second glass already was. “Maybe I should slow down on these.”

Three drinks later, Tori had forgotten all about slowing down. I kept pace with her and had a decent buzz going. I felt the ambient stress just drift away. I was more relaxed than I had been in months.

“Do you think we should go back to mingling?” I asked.

“I don’t know if I want to sign more autographs,” she said, slurring half the letters. “I’m not even sure I could spell my name at this point.”

“That’s easy,” I said, trying not to laugh like an idiot. “It’s T-o-r-y.”

“I! It’s an I, not a y! How do you not know that by now?”

“I never paid attention,” I said, impressed at my ability to lie through my teeth even when I was half-drunk. “I’m just messing with you. I know how to spell it.”

“You should. You should totally know how to spell the name of your biggest enemy.”

Even in my slightly inebriated state, that comment bothered me. “Okay, listen Vega.”

“I’m listening, West.”

I tried to form more words, but that didn’t seem to work. I looked into her eyes and just…lost it. I lost my train of thought. I lost the whole damn track. I fell into those enormous, brown pools. The only thing that still worked, so far as I could tell, was my hearing. Because I heard a song come on that I liked, and I felt a very strong urge to get up and move around to it. Whatever that was called.

Ooo, you were really really good last night
Ooo, I could do that twenty some more times
And I, I know better than to play alone then you came along
And I, oh I'm thinking maybe I should call you but no

“We’re dancing.”

Right! Dancing, that was it.

I grabbed Tori’s hand and pulled her to her feet. She laughed and nearly fell. I regretted choosing heels for a second since it made the act of walking while drunk more challenging than it should be. But we made it unscathed to the dance floor.

'Cause now's not the time to be hasty
Oh my God, oh goodness gracious
I'm so damn close I can taste ya
And I hate that

I kept her hand in mine as we started dancing. There were a lot of people already out there, so we stayed close to each other. The first few moments were awkward as we found our rhythm despite the room spinning. At least, it was spinning for me.

I'm conflicted
This addiction's got me twisted on you
I'm conflicted, contradictive
Got my body confused
I'm yes or no, I will, I won't
I'm conflicted and addicted
So come over and make up my mind

Gradually, we found something that resembled a groove, swaying back and forth, facing each other. Those moments were light-hearted, full of mutual smiles and laughs. But underneath it all, deep down within me, there was a heat that was rapidly burning outwards.

Ooo, you're looking really really good tonight
Ooo, I bet you wore that just to blow my mind
And I, I meant never when I swore you off but you turn me on
And I, I was thinking maybe I should kiss you but no

Being that close to Tori, watching her body moving in time with the heady, chest-thumping beat, was surreal. Our eyes met as we moved, and something passed between us. There was a connection in that look, an old, old connection that we saw with fresh eyes. Or drunk eyes. Whatever it was, I slid closer to her. I let down my poker face just enough to let her know I wasn’t playing.

'Cause now's not the time to be hasty
Oh my God, oh goodness gracious
I'm so damn close I can take ya
And I hate that

Tori took the hand I was holding and raised it, then spun around into me, her back pressing into my front. I felt her hips sway downward, her ass pressing into my stomach, her back pressing into my chest, her fingers interlaced with mine. She straddled my leg when she reached the bottom and ground against it. Her dress fell aside, exposing her entire leg.

I'm conflicted
This addiction's got me twisted on you
I'm conflicted, contradictive
Got my body confused
I'm yes or no, I will, I won't
I'm conflicted and addicted
So come over and make up my mind

The smell of her hair and perfume mingled with the slowly building sweat. I was drunk all over again on that scent. I slid my hand down her bare arm and slipped my fingers between hers so that I held both of her hands. We swayed like that, grinding down to the floor and back up once, then again.

I'm yes or no, I will, I won't
I'm yes or no, I do, I don't

Actual beads of sweat slipped down my neck, between my breasts. My hair was getting damp. The heat between us grew excruciating, a beautiful agony that was more potent than any alcohol. Every part of my body tingled with desire.

Ooo, you were really really good last night
Ooo, you always seem to know just what I like
And I, I'm gonna quit you for the millionth time
And I swear this time
But I, I was thinking maybe just one more wouldn't hurt

Tori let go of one of my hands and slowly turned in my embrace. We were barely inches apart. My dress kept me from taking too wide a stance, but Tori’s easily fell aside as she straddled my leg again. It grew taught against her modest breasts, tormenting me with a glimpse of their perfect form. The look in her eyes was visceral. Animalistic. Her lips curved upwards in a seductive grin that was practically begging me to kiss her. It took every bit of self-control I had to hold back. I was crawling out of my skin, near stupid with desperation, wondering if she wanted more, wondering if it was the alcohol or genuine desire.

I'm conflicted, this addiction's got me twisted on you
I'm conflicted, contradictive
Got my body confused
I'm yes or no, I will, I won't
I'm conflicted and addicted
So come over and make up my mind
So come over and make up my mind
Now come over and make up my mind

The song ended with my our bodies maybe an inch apart, our chests heaving, our eyes staring into each other, seeing something we had never seen before.

Tori broke the gaze and smiled nervously. “Is it warm in here?”

I swallowed hard. “Little bit, yeah.”

“I may need another one of those drinks.”

“Just one?”


If you’re curious, we each had three more.

It didn’t phase me much. I was sneaking into my mom’s liquor cabinet from a fairly young age. I’d had my first hangover before I even met Tori. Don’t get me wrong, enough of it still knocked me on my ass, but I knew how to handle it. And for the most part, all it did was make me a little more talkative and, believe it or not, less aggressive. And probably a bit horny.

Otherwise, that dance…that fucking dance…that wouldn’t have happened. Especially not in a club full of potential future coworkers and a handful of our friends.

After having a few more drinks, Tori and I bade our farewells to Liz, thanked her for the amazing experience, and walked out into the chilly night air. I called a cab and had them take us to my place because Tori insisted she couldn’t show up at her mom’s place drunk.

“Then I guess you’re out of options, Vega,” I said. “You’re coming to my place, like it or not.”

“You’re sure your dad won’t care?”

“I’m sure that I won’t care if he does care.”

Tori looked at me with this adorably confused face. Clearly, it was beyond her drunk brain.

“Okay. I think.”

It was after one in the morning when we got to my place. The house was quiet; everyone else was asleep. I grabbed some water from the fridge and guided Tori to my bedroom.

Very few people have gained access to my inner sanctum. Oh sure, I did some Slap vids in school, but if you’re seeing it on a screen, are you really seeing it?

The truth is, only two people outside of my family had ever set foot in my room: my best friend, Cat, and Beck.

But technically, this was a different room. Still my sanctum, still mostly the same furniture and whatever. But still, no one had seen inside this room except me. And, y’know, my dad. Sort of.

Tori smiled as she crossed that threshold. “I can’t believe I’m actually in your room,” she said whimsically. “It’s not booby-trapped, is it?”

“Nah,” I said, playfully shaking my breasts at her. “I’ve got too much booby to trap.”

She laughed. “Jade! I didn't need to see...those. I mean, you can't miss them, but jeez. And now I've made it really weird.”

I offered her a hand as if we were meeting for the first time. “Hello, I’m Jade, have you ever met me? Of course it’s weird. I’m weird. And don't you forget it.”

“You’re not as weird as you let on,” she said. She slipped out of her shoes and groaned with the effort. “Why are the cutest shoes always the most painful to wear?” She staggered over to the small loveseat and sat down. Even in the darkness of my room, which was only lit with a handful of LED strip lights tinted purple, her dress shimmered with every movement. When she sat, the slit to her dress fell open, revealing the entirety of her perfect leg. I eyed it up and down, and that tingling that had been so persistent during our dance revved right back up.

Keep it in your pants, Jade. Jeez.

I tried to kick off my shoes, without success. After three kicks, Tori took notice. She reached out and caught my foot right in the middle of my fourth kick. Given her state, it was an impressive move.

“Did you forget about the buckles on these?” she asked.

“No, I was trying to kick you.”

“Well, your aim’s off.” She undid the buckle and slid my shoe off. “Give me the other one.”

“I’m perfectly capable of taking my own shoes off.” She smirked at me as if daring to try it. So much for my poker face. “Okay. I’m letting you help because I choose to.”

I balanced on my other foot and Tori unbuckled my shoe. My recovery from this one was less graceful and I ended up falling next to her in the love seat. We both exploded in a fit of drunken, exhausted laughter. Eventually, it faded and we just sat there next to either, shoulder to shoulder, my right leg touching her left.

“Tonight was pretty amazing,” she said wistfully. “The limo, the movie, the party.” She glanced over at me. “The dancing.”

Chills wracked my body at the mention of it. “Yep,” I agreed. I stifled a yawn. “And the alcohol. Don’t forget that.”

“I’m not so sure how amazing that was,” Tori said, yawning even though I stifled mine. “If I wake up without a massive headache, we’ll go with amazing. If not…”

“Oh, we barely had any,” I said. “We only had like two or four or eight.”

“That’s a lot for me,” she said.

Silence fell between us and I felt sleep beginning to take hold. I caught myself about to snore and tried to shake it off.

“Vega. You awake?”

“I think so.” She pushed her hand in front of my face. “Pinch me.”

I tried to, but hell if I could figure out which of her three hands to pinch. I got annoyed, so I grabbed one of her hands with mine, then pinched it.

“Did you feel that?”

“I think so.” Her fingers slide between mine and she raised our hands. “I feel this, too. You didn’t let go.”

Oh, I felt that too. I felt it right down to the tips of my toes.

“We should change. These dresses were too expensive to sleep in.”

I rose on unsteady legs and pulled Tori up with our held hands. She rose to her feet and fell forward, her head landing on my left side, just above my breast. I laughed at the familiar moment. “Easy there, Walter. I thought we were over this.”

Tori lifted her head in bleary-eyed confusion. “Who’s Walter? I’m Tori.”

“Sure you are. Come on.”

I stepped back and made sure Tori had her balance, then turned to my dresser. I dug through it and found an old t-shirt for Tori. I didn't want to risk a good one on hangover vomit. I tossed it on the bed, then grabbed one of my tank tops and headed for the door. I tried to get my zipper started as I walked, but the damn thing was stuck.

Of course.

I turned back to Tori, who couldn’t even seem to find her zipper. She just spun in a circle like a lost puppy until she nearly fell over.

Why am I not recording this?

I stopped her from spinning. “Hey. Here, see if you can get what this is caught on.” I turned around. Tori whimpered and tweaked the zipper until she worked it free. I felt her hand on my back as she worked. The heat from her touch spread quickly up and down my spine. I felt the zipper come loose and slide down slowly. Agonizingly slow. Tori's fingers brushed against the bare skin of my back in the process. It was like dumping kerosine on an open flame.

Oh god…please don't do that... I stepped away and turned.

“I was playing with that,” she pouted. “Your skin is soft. It felt nice.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” I muttered as I turned her around by the shoulders. It took a minute for me to find the zipper under the frilly sleeve on the one side of her dress. Once I found it, I gathered her hair and brushed it all to the other side of her head. My hands were shaking. My breathing was shallow. I slowly slid the zipper down, over her shoulders, down her back, all the way to her waist. As it slid off her shoulder and fell, she turned her head towards me..

“What?”

She turned fully around, her dark eyes glistening as they met mine. I fell into them again, into the endless dark brown pools. Just below my eye line, her breasts were free of the dress. My throat was dry. My heart was racing. My hands and knees were shaking. I tried to lick my lips but it didn’t help. What did she want? What was she doing?

“Jade,” she said. It was barely a whisper. A gentle, beautiful grin tugged at her lips.

I was terrified. Words came to me. Crazy, insane words that I had no business even thinking, much less saying. But I was drunk. Or at least that was a convenient excuse.

“Vega…” I began slowly. “Vega, I lo—“

She kissed me.

Her lips, those full, soft, luscious lips that I’d so often caught myself staring at, that, in the most secret places of my mind and heart, I had wanted to touch and kiss for years, finally reached out and pressed into mine. My world went white, an explosion of sensation, a melding of that long-repressed dream and its sudden reality.

Without conscious thought, I responded, pressing my lips into hers. I inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of her skin, of her hair, of a dozen drinks and cherry lip gloss. I took it all in and made it mine as our lips connected for a second time. Her mouth opened against me; mine followed. By our third kiss, I slid my tongue over her lips and pushed it gently between them. Hers reached for mine, embraced mine, mingled with mine, over, under, each breathless second sending spasms through my entire body.

Our tongues danced for an eternity. Kiss bled into kiss, her tongue in my mouth, then mine in hers, then back again, gasping for moments of air in between because neither of us wanted to stop. Tori groaned softly into my mouth. I groaned much less softly into hers. Her hands caressed my face, my neck, under the edge of my bra. I matched her, running my hand down her graceful neck, her slender arms, brushing against her breasts. If I could have peeled my own skin off and climbed inside of her, I would have.

The room started spinning as Tori pulled me backward toward my bed.

Oh my god, is this really going to happen? Oh, god…

As Tori hit the bed, she fell limp in my arms. There I was, hunched over her, seconds away from climbing on top of her, and she crashed.

Are you kidding me?

I realized the room was still spinning.

Oh, shit. Oohhh shit. The booze.

I stood up slowly to keep from falling over—or worse, vomiting on Tori’s sleeping form. My body was raging from head to toe as I stood above Tori trying to work out what to do. Her dress was still bunched up at her hips. For that matter, so was mine. The reality of what had happened spun in my mind with the reality of what might have happened. My inner thighs were on fire. If I had balls, they'd have been bluer than a fuckin smurf.

“I should have cut you off a couple of drinks sooner,” I mumbled.

I finished taking off my dress, black stockings, and the highly uncomfortable low-cut bra. I slid into my tank top and a pair of the snug shorts I often slept in.

I gazed at the sleeping, half-naked form on my bed. Vega, what the hell did we just do?

Resigning to my fate, I carefully slid Tori’s gown the rest of the way off. I tried my best not to look at her, which, given my mental state, was a huge challenge. The few glimpses I got of Tori’s body confirmed what I’d suspected for years: she was literally flawless. A year ago, I’d have been seriously pissed that one human being should be this perfectly hewn. But tonight, I was just pissed that I couldn’t spend time exploring that perfection.

So I did my best to dress her in my old t-shirt, while trying not to ogle her. If our positions had been reversed… Well, who am I kidding? If our positions were reversed, I’d probably have been pissed off if she didn’t ogle my unconscious body.

I gently turned her so that she was laying properly in the bed and covered her up. I thought about climbing in next to her, but in the end, thought the better of it. I grabbed one of my pillows and a blanket and collapsed on the love seat, where I drifted off to sleep reliving every. Fucking. Second. Of that kiss.

Chapter Text

I was in that strange state, somewhere between asleep and awake.

I’d fallen asleep with the taste of Tori’s lips on mine, the smell of her skin all over me, the touch of her hands still fresh on my body. I woke up a few times and gazed at her sleeping form on the bed. My body ached to be close to hers. My higher brain functions had given up, leaving only primal desire.

It was in that strange half-state, with only a vague awareness of time or place, when I felt slender fingers slide their way up my right thigh. Their slow movement and gentle pressure were sweet torture.

I let out a gasp as I tried to force my eyes open. Tori lingered above me, her hair raining down between us, her eyes dark and intense. She eyed me up with a hunger that sent chills down my spine. Or maybe they were from her fingers; two of them reached the bottom edge of my shorts and slipped underneath, sliding down between my thighs.

I clutched the loveseat cushion. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Tori; the look in her eyes made me wet, but her touch drove me over the edge. Closer…closer…I had no doubt she could feel what she was doing to me.

Then her fingers withdrew. I looked at her murderously. She smiled, slid her fingers up to her lips, and took them into her mouth. Oh my god, the groan she made…

Then she teased her fingers around my lips. I could barely hold myself back. I tried to catch them, but she pulled them away, sliding them down my neck, over my breasts, down my stomach, under my shorts, straight into my underwear. That’s where she slowed down.

Every breath made me wetter, every inch closer made me more frantic.

She smiled at me, leaning closer, gently brushing her lips against my cheek, teasing her tongue over my lips but never actually kissing me. I was utterly at her mercy as she tormented me above and below.

When her finger finally traced over the outside of my wet lips, I groaned. Loud. The moment she slid inside of me, I squeezed my eyes close and threw my head back. My breaths came in short gasps as she pushed her finger deeper, then dragged it back out, barely touching my clit before doing it again. She gradually built up a rhythm. I opened my legs and began grinding against her thrusts.

Her lips ventured to my neck. She kissed me, then pulled my skin between her teeth in a soft bite that sent a huge rush of moisture all over her fingers.

“Oh my god, Vega…”

It was like she was inside my brain. Everything I craved, she granted me.

“Oohhh, god.”

 A second finger inside of me. 

“Mmmm. Look at me, Vega…”

A harder bite on the neck. 

“Look at me!”

Her thumb on my clit. 

“I’m close…look at me…!”

Faster. Faster.

“Vega, please!”

My breaths and groans crescendoed into a scream that might have woken up half the block. My muscles tensed and released as Tori’s fingers continued their terrible, incredible work. I wanted to look her in the eyes as it hit me, but that’s the one thing she denied me. So I closed my eyes as my body spasmed and rocked through the biggest orgasm I ever had.

Why didn’t she look at me?

I was still trembling. I felt Tori’s fingers inside me, but her presence was gone.

What? Wait…

I blinked. Tori was still in my bed, her back to me. She had barely moved since I covered her.

What the hell?

I moved my right arm. My hand was stuck. No, not stuck. It was buried in my shorts. Those amazing fingers I’d felt had been my own. That explains a lot.

It all may have been a dream, but the orgasm had been real enough, judging by how wet everything was.

Damn it. Now I have to do laundry.

A hint of sunlight poured in around my dark curtains. It was early, but it was daylight.

I rose on shaky legs. My stomach heaved and I thought I was going to throw up. Once it settled, I grabbed some clean clothes and staggered into the bathroom. All the alcohol seemed to have waited until that exact moment to come out. After the longest pee of my life, I took a quick shower to get the crud out of my hair and smeared makeup off my face.

I went through the motions, but my mind was on Tori and the kiss we had shared.

Things had changed. They’d been changing for a while, I guess. Ever since graduation, really. Even back then, Cat started dropping hints that she thought I was into Tori. I denied it repeatedly, but…I don’t know. Maybe she had been right. Maybe she had just seen something I’d missed. Or maybe she was secretly a witch who could tell the future. That would have been badass.

It’s one thing to talk about that stuff in private. It’s one thing to think about it or acknowledge it. But it’s a completely different thing to take action on it. Last night we had taken action on it, action that made my midsection burn anytime I thought too much about it.

You can explain away things like the dance, or the karaoke song we’d done the first night she was back in town. But you can’t explain away shoving your tongue halfway down someone’s throat. That’s a definitive direction. No room to play with denial.

Things had changed, all right. Or they were still changing. We were in that weird state of limbo between how it was and how it was going to be.

I felt awful and amazing. I felt terrified and energized. I felt like I wanted to crawl under my bed, and I wanted to run around the streets shouting and screaming.

So much of my life had been defined by Tori since she showed up at my school. All the anger and frustration and hidden tension and subtle looks and teasing and tormenting. It was part of my identity.  Our  identity. That had changed now. 

How much of it was the alcohol? Did Tori want anything more from this? Did I? What about Beck?

The more I thought, the more frustrated I got. This entire situation was out of hand. It made no sense. I couldn’t stand her, except when I could. I hated being around her, except when I wanted to wrap myself in her stupid, soft arms. I didn’t like her except when I…

When you what, Jade? 

I almost said it last night, the second before she kissed me.  Almost . But the fact that she cut me off didn’t change that the thought was there. It was impossible, but it was there.

Damn it all.

I turned off the shower, dried, dressed, and returned to my room. I could smell coffee from the kitchen and figured someone else was up. I thought it best to avoid them, just in case that scream I let loose hadn’t just been in my dream.

My stomach growled, and I realized I hadn’t eaten much the night before. Probably why the drinks kicked my ass.  Guess I’ll wake her up and we can go get some breakfast.

No such luck.My phone rang. I grabbed it and my heart sank.

Beck.  Shit. Speak of the gorgeous devil with great hair.

“Hey, babe.”

“Hey,” he said. “How was the premiere last night?”

Amazing. Incredible. I made out with Vega. How was your night?

“Oh, it was, uh…it was pretty awesome,” I said as I sank into the love seat. As much as I missed Beck, I didn’t want to talk to him just then. I wanted to wake up Tori and figure out what the hell was happening.

The thing about Beck is that we’d been together so long, my poker face didn’t work on him anymore. He knew before I even finished talking that I was keeping something from him.

“What happened?”

He might be calling me out, but I was still going to make him fight for it.

“What do you mean?”

“Pretty awesome? What are you, a fifth-grader?”

The joke was on him; I didn’t talk like that in fifth grade. I did get suspended for swearing at a teacher twice. Oh, and once for breaking some little shithead’s nose. He had it coming.

“The premiere was great. She rented out the Regency Bruin.”

“Seriously!?” Beck said. “That’s amazing! That’s a big deal. I wish I could have been there.”

“She threw an afterparty for us, too. She shoved Tori and me in front of every big connection she had. I lost track of how many contacts I made. Tori signed so many autographs her wrist was sore. It was nuts.”

“Still waiting for the part where you tell me what happened.”

My heart thudded in my ribcage. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell him what had happened. 

But…maybe I could spin things a different way.

Lucky for me, when I make mistakes, I make a lot of them. And no, that’s not me saying the Tori makeout thing was a mistake. It’s just that when I go off the rails, I go way off. I had several poor decisions I could blame my awkwardness on. But the biggest one, and the one Beck would most likely buy, was the alcohol.

I sighed loudly, tried to make a show of it. “I might have had some booze last night,” I said.

“Again? Jade…”

“It wasn’t my idea. Liz sent over some drinks for Tori and me. I seriously don’t think she knows how old we are.”

“Tori? Tori Vega had alcohol?”

I glanced over to the bed where Tori’s breathtaking form slept peacefully. “Yes, Tori had alcohol.”

“What was that even like?” he asked.

“ It made her even more obnoxious if you can believe that.” A pang of guilt shot through me mid-sentence.  Ew, what was that?

“I doubt it was that bad.”

“Think what you want. She ended up crashing here because she didn’t want mommy to know she was naughty.”

The bile rose in my stomach. I thought it was the booze until another pang of guilt rocked my chest. I realized how much I hated saying those things about Tori. It was making me nauseous. And the fact that it was making me nauseous also made me nauseous.

“Go easy on her. She’ll probably have a huge hangover this morning.”

“I’ll think about it. How are things over there?”

It was Beck’s turn to get quiet. His silences always made me nervous. “Actually, I do have some kinda bad news.”

I choked back my anxiety. “Oh?”

“The film I’m in is having some issues. They had to add a few shooting days. So I won’t be able to make it home before the trip to New York.”

With everything that had happened in the past day, Cat’s show had fallen off my radar completely. I was excited to get to see her, and now, being on the other side of my short film, maybe I could properly look forward to the trip.

Well, maybe.

Beck was supposed to come home for a few days first so we could have a chance to reconnect and spend some time together before the trip.

“So you’re sticking me with Vega all by myself? Dude. Not cool.”

“I’m really sorry. You know I’d be there if I could.” His tone was sincere and adorable. This wasn’t the first time those things saved him from my wrath. “Besides, I thought Andre was going too?”

I groaned. “No, he got called back up to Seattle. Peazy canceled his little expedition, so he’s going back there today or tomorrow. I think he’s just going to fly out with Freddie for Cat's show.”

“Man, tough break,” Beck said. “Aren’t Cat’s neighbors coming though? The kid and the big guy?”

“Dice and Goomer. Yeah, I forgot about them.”

“So it won’t just be you and Tori.”

“You’re not helping.”

“Not trying to,” Beck said with a laugh. “I gotta run, it’s my call time. I miss you.”

A pang of guilt shot through my chest.

“Me too.”

I ended the call and leaned back on the loveseat, staring at my television across the room. This trip was going to be messy. Someone was going to end up getting hurt. My mind kept running in circles. I had such a long, long history with Beck, all of it stressful and tumultuous. And a not-as-long history with Tori that, up until about ten hours ago had been purely platonic. But also stressful and tumultuous.

And maybe not always purely platonic. On this side of that earth-shattering kiss, I was at least ready to admit that I’d always found Tori attractive. Honestly, from the moment I saw her on stage in that crazy short dress, I felt drawn to her. I buried it for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that it pissed me off to find such a walking cliche so damn hot. But I’d learned over the past few weeks she was a lot more complicated than that. Not a cliche at all.

Tori wasn’t the only girl I’d ever been attracted to. I went through kind of a thing during one of my many breakups with Beck, and Cat was really there for me. That led down a very interesting path that neither of us has ever talked about openly (under threat of death). Things had grown between us since then, and I didn’t think of her that way anymore. I mean, I could appreciate how pretty she was without wanting to rip her clothes off. Again.

Sorry kids, that's another story. But if you're good, maybe I'll share it sometime.

I watched Tori as she slept. Listened to her breathing. Wished I was up there next to her.

The peaceful moment was broken by my stomach growling again. If I didn’t eat soon, I’d start to get hangry.

“Vega. Wake up.”

She mumbled under her breath.

“Come on, princess. Shake off that alcohol. I need some food.”

She rolled over to face me. Her eyes fluttered open. “What time is it?”

“I don’t know. 9ish.” Softer, I asked, “How’s your head?”

“I’m scared to lift it,” she said. But lift it, she did. Slowly. She sat up, and as she did, she realized she was wearing one of my shirts.

“I don’t remember putting this on.”

My spine tingled as I thought back to the previous night when I slid her dress off.

Don’t get worked up, you just got off,  I thought. Ha. Easier said than done.

“You fell asleep.”

She raised a confused eyebrow at me. “So you stripped me?”

“I can't take all the credit.” I shot her a playful wink. "You helped a little."

The look on her face made my heart stutter, but not in a good way. She seemed genuinely confused as she peeked under the blanket.

“I’m not wearing pants.”

My apprehension grew alongside her confusion.  Oh…oh, shit. What if…?

“You were in a dress. I just put the shirt on you, I thought it would be less intrusive. What’s the last thing you remember?” I asked, trying to hide the tension…fear, even…in my voice.

Tori rubbed her eyes. “Um…I remember we drank a lot. We danced at the club. Came back here. I remember you couldn’t get your shoes off. I tried to help you and you fell next to me.” She winced. “Yep. There’s the headache.”

Once again, my heart was in my throat. I hadn’t expected this. I didn’t want to believe it. “That’s the last thing you remember?”

Tori strained, thought a bit more, then nodded. “That’s it. Why? Please tell me I didn’t do anything stupid.”

My throat was suddenly dry. My stomach heaved a bit. I wanted to slink under my bed and curl up and die. Tori must have seen my face and thought the worst.

“Jade, what did I do?”

You set my entire being on fire.

You made me rethink everything I am.

You made me worse and better.

“You, uh…” I stumbled over the words. Then I forced a smile. Or, tried to. “You couldn’t find your zipper when you were changing. So you ran around in a circle like you were chasing your tail.”

Tori seemed pained for a second. “You didn’t record it, did you?”

“No. You’re lucky my phone was on the stand.” I cleared my throat. “So…do you want to shower here or do you want a ride home?”

Her eyes lingered on me for a moment, as if she were searching for something. The probing gaze made me uncomfortable, and I looked away.

“Home, I guess,” she said at last. “Can I hang onto the shirt? And maybe borrow some pants?”

I tossed her a pair of shorts. “Just keep ‘em. I don’t wear them anyway.”

I slipped out of the room and closed the door to give her some privacy. Two steps later I fell against the wall. My eyes were damp. My heart thudded like a rock in my chest. I dug my nails into the palms of my hands until it hurt. The flash of pain brought focus.

Man up, girlie. She was drunk. She made out with you. Not the first time that’s happened with someone. You don’t even like her anyway.

I dug deeper. Gritted my teeth. Now it hurt.

You knew she wasn’t into you. You’ve treated her like shit for years, in the face of everything she’s done to help you. She doesn’t fit in with your world and you sure as hell don’t fit into hers. Let it go.

The door opened behind me. I unclenched my fist and glanced behind me.

“Ready?”

“I’ll manage.”

She’ll manage,  I thought.  You’ll manage too, Jade. Just shove her back into the box and forget about her.

Ha. Easier said than done.

Chapter Text

I never did get breakfast that morning.

I dropped Tori off at her mom’s house. We had kind of an awkward goodbye as she slid out of my car.

“Thanks for the ride,” she said. She tried to force a laugh, but it just came out...odd. “You know how to show a girl a good time.”

“Too bad you forgot it,” I mumbled with more than a hint of spite.  Shit, why did I say that out loud?

“What?”

“I said yeah, it was a good time. Life-changing, even. The premiere, I mean.” I was glad to be wearing a pair of sunglasses because my poker face was not functioning.

“It sure was.” She hesitated as if she were waiting for something. “Well…text me later. Maybe we can hang out or something.”

“I will.”

I didn’t. I drove back home and crawled into my bed, where I fully intended to spend the next twelve hours or more. Once I got comfortable I realized the pillow and sheets smelled like Tori. I angrily got out of bed, ripped off all the sheets, then grabbed the pillow and blanket I’d used on the loveseat, climbed back in, and tried to find that sweet spot again.

For the first hour or two, I didn’t think about anything at all. I couldn’t. I just stared vacantly at whatever wall I happened to be facing. My mind was empty. Or maybe it was processing things in the background. Either way, I just remember staring off into space until well after 1:00 PM. And the only reason I was aware of the passage of time was that my dad opened my door.

“How did your premiere go, Jade?” he asked simply.

I raised my head and blinked against the intrusive light from the hallway. “It went great. Made a lot of possible connections. Everyone liked the movie a lot.”

God help me, he smiled.  Smiled.  “Excellent,” he said. “I…I’m sorry I had to work. I would have liked to have seen it.”

Great. On top of everything else that was going on, someone apparently replaced my dad with a clone.

“I’ve got a copy here. Maybe we can watch it when you’re off.”

“That would be fine,” he said. He made to withdraw but stopped. “You’re in bed without sheets.”

“I know.”

“That’s not good for the mattress.”

“Know that too. I’ll take care of it. Thanks, Dad.”

He nodded and closed the door.

I spent the next couple of hours sulking. Sighing. Feeling sorry for myself, as if I were the only person to ever read more into a drunken make out session than was actually there. For chrysler’s sake, I’d done it before myself. Boohoo, poor Jade.

It wasn’t really just about making out with Tori. It was that I let my guard down. I let her get inside of my head. Okay, maybe she had always been inside my head, but I let myself think that maybe it was going somewhere. That she could be interested in me in some way beyond her weird desire for me to think of her as a friend.

Thinking about Tori made me crawl out of my damn skin. I wanted so badly to be with her and I wanted so badly to have her completely out of my life, and yet if I spent half a second thinking about either of those options, I hated them both. The circular bullshit was enough to make me completely lose my shit.

This was the first time I’d let myself be vulnerable in years, and I somehow still managed to get burned.

It wasn’t intentional. It’s not like getting that drunk was responsible of us. And the circumstances that led to the kiss were oddly specific and probably wouldn’t have ever happened in any other scenario. But still…I let myself go soft, and I was reminded right away why I never let myself go soft.

I continued in this self-indulgent cycle until around 5:00 when Liz called me. I didn’t want to take the call, but I had to. I couldn’t just ignore Liz. Not her. Anyone else, sure, but not her.

“Jade! How you holding up? Quite a party, huh?”

Oh, yes. Positively transformative.

“It was amazing, Liz. Thank you so much for making that happen. I felt like a real director.”

“Honey, you  are  a real director. I got so much great feedback last night. What are you up to today? You and Tori hanging out?”

Pain lanced through my chest at that. “No, we’re not. Just me at home right now.”

“Perfect. Up for a drive?”

Oh god no, that sounds horrible.

“Um…sure. Where?”

“You’ll see. Text me your address, I’ll swing by and get you.”


Liz roared up to my place in a vintage ’67 Jag E-Type convertible, top-down. It was the only thing that had me excited at all for this drive she wanted to take. I mean, who just went for a drive anymore? I get that Liz was older than me, but not by that much. I don’t even think she was my dad’s age. The notion of “going for a drive” seemed antiquated.

Let me tell you, the E-Type was a work of art, a real sexy machine. Her 1967 was in pristine condition. I spent some time around cars thanks to Beck fixing them on the side, and I picked up a thing or two. There are very few rides out there that would get me hot and bothered, but Liz had somehow managed to find one of them. I guess it didn’t surprise me. She was like a slightly older, way more successful version of me. 

To be honest, I hoped I looked that good when I got to be her age too, however old she was.

“How’s it going?” she asked as I slid into the front seat. 

My excitement at sitting in the car momentarily overshadowed my gloom and soul-crushing agony. “Been better, been worse,” I said with a shrug. “This is a badass car.”

Her smile was all pride as she pulled the car back out into the street. “It was my dad’s. It means more to me than most of the people in my life. That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth.”

“Oh, no, I get it. I’ve got something like that.”

“A car?”

“No. The actual scissors used in The Scissoring. They were a Christmas gift from my best friend.”

“Nice,” Liz said. “I love that movie. One of my favorites.”

“You have great taste.”

She laughed. “So did Tori get those scissors for you?”

Her question threw me. “Tori? No. Cat Valentine. The girl that started in Well Wishes.”

“Oh, right, the redhead. Sorry, I just assumed after seeing you and Tori last night that she was your BFF.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I didn’t. But Liz was shrewd. She didn’t look at me, but I still felt her eyes on me. “Not responding is a response, you know.”

I shifted in the seat and looked out the window. We were heading south, toward Torrance Beach, a name I remembered only because of The Shining. “Sorry,” I said. “No, Tori isn’t my best friend. Not even a friend at all.”

“Ah. Interesting.”

“Why is it interesting?”

“You just seemed really close, is all. You held hands on your carpet walk, you sat together for hours, and that dance, from where I sat…well, I wouldn’t dance with someone who wasn’t at least a good friend like that.”

I sighed. “It’s complicated. And honestly, not my favorite topic. Sorry.”

“Fair enough. Not my business anyway,” Liz said. “How about some greasy burgers, overpriced milkshakes, and a gorgeous view?”

My stomach had been growling for the past eight hours. To say I was hungry was an understatement. “Sure, why not.”

“Good. I know a place down the Palos Verdes. Right by the beach.”

The rest of the drive down the coast was spent in silence. Or at least, we didn’t talk. Liz turned on a classic rock station and I lost myself in some very old, very cathartic tunes. I had a front-row seat to the sun as it dipped lower in the western sky, and once we hit the Palos Verdes South, it was nothing but ocean for a few miles. We stopped at Liz’s burger joint in Rancho Palos Verdes, not far from the Terranea Resort, and got our food to go. She continued eastward along the coast and pulled off near a sign that read Sacred Cove View Trail.

From there, we walked south a little way, until the trail opened up into a spectacular view of Sacred Cove, a little inlet between Inspiration Point to the east and Portuguese Point to the west. By the time we sat down to eat, the sun was kissing the horizon.

Kissing. Damn it.

The view was breathtaking. I spent so much time in the city, surrounded by mouth-breathers and people I couldn’t stand, I forgot how gorgeous it was just twenty or so miles from home. The air was warm, but the breeze was just a little cool as it tickled my skin. And the burgers were divine. That may have just been the insane hunger talking, though.

Yet despite all the transcendent beauty around me, the only thought in my mind was Tori Vega, and her stupid, gorgeous smile that put everything around me to shame, and pissed me off to no end.

“You know, you really surprised me,” Liz said. “I usually don’t like being surprised.”

“How did I surprise you?”

“I knew you’d do well with my script,” she said. “I mean it wasn’t complicated. But what you read into it was great. I wrote it to be kind of a bit of fluff with a surprise, sad ending, but you saw more. You saw themes in between the words that I honestly never intended, and you brought it out on-screen. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Talk about being surprised.

I thought Liz’s script was brilliant and layered with subtext. I tried to bring that out and make sure the audience could see it all as well. But for Liz to tell me she didn’t actually include any of it…I was floored. Stunned.

“I’m, uh…I’m not sure what to say. I just tried to bring out what I thought you had put into it.”

“You did,” she said. “But you’ve got a gift for seeing even beyond that. That’s what I meant earlier when I said you’re already a ‘real’ director. You’ve got the eye for it. And a lot of people saw it. I know you did this short to get some money for your baby. And if we’re able to impress Les with this, you’ll definitely get that. But I’d be surprised if you didn’t get some other offers from other places, too.”

I heard her words, and they excited me. My brain wanted to leap out of my head and run around screaming. My head was usually in the lead, but today it was being dragged down by the weight in my chest. I forced a smile, a big one, but I don’t think Liz bought it.

“That’s amazing,” I said. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Eh, what’s to say? It’s only a potentially life-changing thing. No biggie.”

Okay. Sarcasm always made me laugh. I’m not completely heartless.

“Sorry,” I said. “I guess I’m just tired from last night.”

“I get it. Romantic troubles are the worst.”

“Tell me about it.”

Wait, what?  My head snapped to Liz. She wore a very smug smile as she looked out over the beach.

“I’ve been there, Jade. I know it when I see it. You’re whipped.”

I wasn’t even mad; more like in awe of the fact that she slipped one by me so perfectly. I had rarely ever been caught so off-guard. “You’re really good,” I said. “I did not see that coming.”

“And you hate it when you don’t see things coming. I know. I do too.” She was quiet as she sipped her shake. “So was I close to the mark? Is it Tori?”

I didn’t know what else to do or say. I didn’t really want to talk about it. But I knew there could be some value in bouncing ideas around off of people. “Yeah,” I sighed. “It’s Tori.”

“Long story?”

“Not really. Just your classic tale of girl meets girl, girl hates girl, then doesn’t hate girl, then makes out with girl when they’re both drunk and one of them doesn’t even remember it.”

“Oh, that old chestnut,” Liz said with a sympathetic chuckle. “I know it well. Sort of.” She allowed the conversation to breathe for a moment. “Why didn’t you like her?”

“Who knows. Part jealousy, I guess. I busted my ass to get into my high school and they let her in after a single performance at a showcase. I always had to bust my ass for things she was freely given.”

“Ah. Well, that’s everywhere you go. Someone always has it way easier than you do.”

“I know. And to be honest, she proved over the years that she deserved it all. She earned it. But no matter what I did to torment her, she still tried to be my friend. I got her in trouble, I screwed up her prom…and yet the next day or the day after, she’d be doing something nice for me. She saved my relationship with my boyfriend. Hell, she saved my ass on this film. She ended up paying for the crew we used. I didn’t even know it until last night.”

“So the more you wanted to hate her, the more you found you couldn’t. Which probably just made you angrier.”

I was in awe at the wisdom of the woman next to me. “Exactly.”

Liz remained silent for a few moments, seemingly deep in thought. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want, but…did your folks fight a lot when you were little?”

“All the damn time. Until they divorced. Yours?”

“Same,” Liz said. She took another drink. “It’s not easy for people like us. We’ve seen too much. For me, for a long time, love was just negative attention however I could find it. I looked for it and I gave it. I was nasty to my friends. To my boyfriends. I thought that’s what it was. Y’know? True love isn’t real. I saw how mom and dad treated each other. That wasn’t a fairy tale, it was a nightmare. But it was all I knew. You get me?”

I understood every word. She might have been describing my own life. “I’ve never heard it put in that way before,” I said quietly, my mind still trying to grasp it all. “But yeah. I mean…shit. I get it.”

The sun was halfway below the horizon and the water exploded into a gorgeous swirl of red, yellow, and purple. I rubbed my arms as I felt goosebumps prickle up them. The silence stretched between us for a while, and that was all we needed. It was a balm on my soul in ways I couldn’t imagine to just sit in the presence of actual, honest-to-goodness  understanding

“Liz?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you married?”

She smiled. “Yep. Ten years. Almost eleven.”

“How? I mean…after what you just said about love and all…”

She drained her milkshake completely. “I said ‘true love’ isn’t real. Like, the kind of shit they read to kids in fairy tales or those ridiculous Dingo movies. Love is real, honey, it just looks different. Maybe for some people, it's warm fuzzies and rainbows. But for people like us? It’s ugly. It’s dirty. It’s hard work. It looks like late-night arguments; like kicking and screaming and crying and misery and frustration and terror and tears and heartache. But it also looks like patience. Like crying together. Like being there no matter how ugly things get. We grew up knowing nothing but conflict. Sometimes, we just want someone to scream it out with us and still love us when it’s over.

"And we're going to fight it. Y'know? Because we’ve seen all the bad shit. We know it can fall apart. So even when we think we’ve got something real, we’re going to push it away and mistrust it and refuse to believe it. Because it doesn’t happen to people like us. That's what our experience teaches us.” She turned to face me. I met her gaze. “But it does, honey. It does. We just have to be willing to fight for it. We fight ourselves, our nature, our instincts and fears and anxieties. We fight our default programming that tells us love is bullshit. Because it’s not. It's just not what we expect it to be. So you have to ask yourself…is that what Tori is? Is she worth that struggle? Is she the reason Jade West is willing to take on Jade West and win?”

Never had a single question terrified me so much.

There was no alcohol here to save me now. Nothing else to blame it on. If I said it here and now, it was for real.

“I….I don’t know. Maybe I don't want to love her.”

“Whether you do or not isn't really up to you, though. We can't choose who we love, just what we do with the feelings. Sounds like you’ve got soul-searching to do.”

I felt Liz shift as if she were about to stand.

“What if she doesn’t love me?”

Where did that come from?

“Then I guess she doesn’t,” Liz said. “We can’t control it.” She offered a hand. I accepted and let her pull me to my feet. “For what it’s worth, though, people—even good people, like she seems to be—don’t usually go through all she’s gone through for someone without a reason. I’m not saying her reason is that she loves you. But I guess I’m not saying it isn’t. Are you going to see her over Thanksgiving?”

I nodded. “We’re going to New York for the opening of Cat’s musical.”

Liz smiled. “New York, huh? It’s a magical city. Especially at night. It’s where my husband and I fell in love. Maybe you’ll figure it out during your trip. Just be careful. You remember what they say about being caught between the moon and New York City?”

“What do they say?”

Liz shook her head sadly and put her arm around my shoulder. “Oh, Jade. Come on, let me introduce you to Christopher Cross.”

Chapter Text

“Vega? What the hell are you doing here?”

It’s not that I wasn’t happy to see her so much as I was pissed off that she was there. She stood outside the door with a suitcase behind her and what looked like a homemade pumpkin pie in her hands. She wore a breathtaking smile that made me forget I was pissed off at her for being there in the first place.

“Your dad invited me,” she said.

“Oh. Wasn’t that nice of him.”

“I brought pie.”

She presented it to me. I didn’t move. I didn’t take it. I just stood there, in her way.

After a moment, she lowered her arms. “Um…can I come in?”

I sighed. “I guess. Just wait here for a minute.”

I turned away and stormed off toward the kitchen. My dad was pulling the turkey out of the oven. To say his place smelled amazing would be a gross understatement. I hated holidays and family and family holidays, but I was seriously jonesing for some stuffed bird corpse right about then. It may have softened my initial anger at Tori’s unexpected arrival.

“Dad, why did you invite Tori?” I asked sharply.

He stuck the thermometer into the bird. “I thought you might like someone besides Debbie and me to eat with,” he said. “Her parents went to South Beach for the holiday. I also thought it might be easier on you if she were here, so you didn’t have to pick her up before leaving for the airport later. Is there a problem?”

Damn him, he even had a great reason.

“No, not…not really. I just wasn’t expecting it, that’s all. It caught me off-guard. But I guess it makes sense.”

He read the thermometer and smiled. “Perfect.” He looked to me…no, looked  at  me, as if he were struggling to understand my frustration. “So I should have let you know first. All right. I apologize. I won’t do that again.”

The sincerity in his voice was overwhelming. I felt my eyes getting damp.  Shit, Jade, keep it together.  “Thanks,” I said. “And it was thoughtful of you to invite her. I appreciate that.”

He smiled almost imperceptibly. “Debbie, the bird is ready!” he called. I left the kitchen so he and Debbie could finish up their work.

I had been surprised when my dad had suggested an actual family Thanksgiving dinner. It was the first time he’d called the three of us a “family” since I’d moved in. I wasn’t entirely sold on Debbie yet, but she seemed to be helping him make positive changes when it came to our relationship. A piece at a time, he was becoming a real dad.

I expected it all to fail, to go up in smoke. I mean, everything always does, right? Maybe he’d wake up one morning after drinking and just forget all the progress he made.

Okay, I might have been projecting my own insecurities a bit.

I found Tori sitting on the couch, holding her pie in her lap. I chuckled and rolled my eyes. “Give me that,” I said. I handed it off to Debbie as she rushed down the hall to help my dad, then sat in a recliner chair opposite Tori. I kept my eyes on my phone, but I could feel Tori’s were on me.

I hadn’t talked to her since I dropped her off Saturday morning. She had texted me to see about hanging out a few times during the week, but I always kept the answers brief and made up an excuse. I wasn’t ready to see her. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to. I’d gone over my conversation with Liz a dozen times since that evening, and I wasn’t any closer to understanding if Tori was the one I was ready to go to war with myself over.

But obsessing over it alone all week hadn’t got me any closer to figuring it out. Maybe I could just…try talking to her. Maybe this was a good thing and not the nightmare I just assumed it would be.

“It smells great in here,” Tori said. She was usually so good at small talk, but I think I threw her off her game. She seemed afraid of what my reaction would be.

“Yeah, I’m kind of surprised,” I said. “Based on experience, I figured we’d be having Chinese food down the street while the fire department dealt with the charred turkey remains. But whatever they’re making in there at least smells edible.”

Tori giggled. Oh, it was so stupid and so adorable. It made my blood pressure rise and my heart flutter.  Why am I always such a damn train wreck around her?

Maybe there was something to what Liz said about not accepting what I found. I was so used to shit going sideways in my life, I rejected everything good. My dad taking me in, this whole Thanksgiving dinner thing, Tori…all things I assumed would eventually fall apart.

“I thought maybe you were mad at me about something,” Tori said. I could see her wide eyes and the hint of worry they contained. A year ago I might have enjoyed watching her squirm. Now, not so much.

“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what else to say. “No. Not mad. You know what I look like when I get mad.”

“Then why didn’t you want to see me this week?”

I shifted in my seat. There was no real pressure behind the question or in her look, just confusion; an innocent searching for answers. I knew that but it still made me uncomfortable.

“I don’t know. Does it matter?” I asked, trying not to let on how impatient I was quickly becoming.

“Kind of,” Tori said. “Maybe. I don’t know. I mean, we had this incredible time at the movie premiere. Or at least I thought we did. And we had that…that dance.” Despite her dark skin, I could see her cheeks flush when she mentioned our dance. Mine got warm as well. “I guess I thought that maybe we got a little closer. Y’know? Like maybe things would be different after.”

She was right on every count and I hated it. My mind was at war with itself, all right; part of it was screaming at me to tell her the truth, to tell her we made out, to tell her I was falling…well to tell her I didn’t hate her. And part of me was screaming to get over it, move on, let it go. It wouldn’t work out, she wasn’t interested “like that” so just forget it.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said. “We got drunk, we had fun. It was an emotional night.”

“So that’s it? It was just booze and emotions?”

I shrugged. “Is it that unusual?”

“I don’t know. I never drank that much before. But I do know that I liked how it was between us that night. I liked it that we got along, that we had a good time.”

My heart was racing. Oh dear chrysler, I wasn’t ready for this discussion.

“I mean, it was all right. I guess.”

Jade, just tell her. Tell her now.

Or don’t. Let it go. Forget it.

I leaned forward in the chair. “Vega…”

She looked at me with those huge eyes, and my voice caught in my throat. I tried to dislodge it, but it wouldn’t budge.

My dad chose that moment to appear in the doorway. “Girls, dinner is served.”

Damn it, Dad.


What a surreal fucking night.

Dinner had been incredible. My dad and Debbie had cooked maybe the best Thanksgiving dinner I’d ever eaten. Granted, I hadn’t eaten many of them since my parents split up and neither had been real big on family togetherness in the first place. But the food was great. Even the conversation was kind of fun. My dad had a few glasses of wine and loosened up for once. He laughed. He smiled. He talked to Tori. He listened to me. He was a completely different man from the one I’d grown up resenting. God help me, I was starting to think that maybe he really was changing. Debbie was doing a real number on him.

And if he could change, maybe I could too. My eyes wandered from Debbie to Tori.  What if, Jade? What if she’s your Debbie?

I tried to push that thought out of my head. It was far too soon in their relationship to know how things would play out with my dad. Debbie might fail. She might get bored and leave. Labeling Tori as “my Debbie” might prove to be a curse. But the concept behind the label, that maybe Tori would be the one to soften my jaded, angry, bitter heart, was so cliche that I was pissed off for entertaining the notion even for a second.

That wasn’t how it worked. I knew that for a fact.

Even Liz got married. Even she found someone who…

Shut the fuck up, Jade.

The internal back-and-forth was getting cartoonish. I expected little versions of me in a devil and angel costume to pop up on my shoulders. Ah, who am I kidding, it would be two devils with me, one would just be a little more evil. And they’d both look hot as fuck in black and red leather and a hot little pointy tail sticking out.

After dinner, we opted to hang out in my room. My dad tried to convince us to watch some holiday movie in the living room, but I took a hard pass. I admit, the family togetherness was pretty cool over dinner, but I didn’t want to overdo it. So I found myself mindlessly scrolling on my phone while Tori took in my room.

Not going to lie, I felt kind of exposed. She was looking at all the shit on my shelves and walls, and it made me feel kind of vulnerable as if I were opening myself up to her judgment. To her credit, she seemed more curious than anything. Especially when she laid eyes on my tall dresser, which contained my two favorite things: my signed steel book director’s cut of The Scissoring, enshrined in a glass case and backlit with a small LED light source, and a plastic case containing that sacred pair of scissors Cat gave me for Christmas.

“You really like this movie, huh?”

“Figure that out all by yourself, did you?”

She waved at the dresser. “I mean, you’ve made it pretty obvious, even for me. What is it about this movie you love so much?”

I wrestled with how to properly answer that. You’d think it would be simple, but you’d be wrong. My love for that movie went well beyond my appreciation of it as a great horror film. It had to do with my life at the time I first saw it. The feelings it inspired in me. The impact it had on me. To me, it was more than just a movie. It had been an experience, one that I recaptured every time I watched it.

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“You don’t think I’ll get it?”

“I didn’t say that. It’s just…it’s not only the movie. I mean, it is; I love it for all the reasons anyone loves any movie. It speaks to me. It’s really well done. But there’s more to it.”

Tori gazed at the case again. “It’s memories. Better days. Simpler times.”

A chill crept up my arms and down my back.  Holy shit, she does get it.

“Yeah,” I said dumbly. “That too.”

No one had ever understood that. Not even Beck.

A smile tugged at Tori’s lips and I knew she had an idea. “Can we watch it?”

I stared at her, waiting for a punch line or some sign that she was joking. When I didn’t answer, she turned and made the most adorable face, with her lower lip stuck out and her long lashes batting at me. My pulse quickened even as my mind screamed at me to look away.

Is it getting warm in here?

“Please? I really want to see it.”

In a way, it felt like she was asking me to read my diary (if I had one) or watch old home movies or something. She wanted to see The Scissoring. She wanted to…to see a part of my soul.

It was a stupid thought. I mean, millions of people had seen the movie. It was a huge hit. There were entire conventions in honor of it.

But this was different. This was  Tori , wanting to see my favorite movie. With  me .

Maybe for her, it was just curiosity. I doubt she understood the gravity of what she was asking. Yet when our eyes met, I saw something there that made me think she knew exactly what she was doing.

“It’s, uh…it’s pretty scary,” I said, tripping over the stupid words.

“I know. I’m sure I’ll scream and have nightmares. But I want to see it.”

I just couldn’t say yes. “Why?”

“Because you love it.”

Oh, damn it.

Half an hour later, we sat together on my love seat, each with a piece of Tori’s homemade pumpkin pie. The lights were dim. The movie was playing.

The pie was amazing. Of course it was. I doubted Tori knew how to do anything that wasn’t perfect. Usually it annoyed me, but it was so ridiculously good that I just didn’t care. It didn’t hurt that everything else about the day had been perfect. Dinner. Tori’s presence. And now we were watching my favorite movie together. A year ago, I’d have been disgusted that I could find these things so much fun. But I did.

Okay, I was nervous, too. I probably paid more attention to Tori’s reaction to the movie than I did the movie itself. At least, that’s how it started. About twenty minutes in, she seemed hooked. She asked me questions. She followed the story.

“I feel so bad for Tawny,” she said. “It’s not right how Alexa just showed up and took all her friends away.”

“I know,” I said, poking her with my elbow. “Fucking new girls always ruin everything.” I could see by the light of my television that Tori was about to defend herself. “I’m kidding,” I said. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”

“Don’t you mean panties?”

I winced. “I hate that word.”

“Do you? Oh.”

The shitty grin on her face made me laugh. “Well played, Vega.”

As the movie continued, I felt Tori slowly sliding closer to me. My heart rate was already up from watching the movie, but it went up even higher as I felt her body inching closer to mine. 

Things turned intense on-screen. Alexa murdered Tawny; she stabbed her after school one day while Tawny was working on her dress for homecoming…right in the heart, with a pair of glistening, silver scissors. Then she buried her in the woods behind the school…a place that had been set up earlier in the film as having mystical powers due to some Native American curse or something. Tawny’s sorrow and fear at the moment of her death were so strong, her spirit was able to stay within the rotting corpse. As weeks went by, her emotions turned to anger and hatred. Eventually, she was able to animate her own corpse and she dug herself out of the grave with the very scissors that had been used to kill her.

Tawny’s first kill was Jessica, a perky and super pretty but kind of dumb cheerleader who was always, always smiling. It wasn’t pretty. Tawny started by cutting off Jessica’s middle fingers. The moment her scissors bit into Jessica’s finger, Tori shrieked. She buried her face in my shoulder.

“Is it over?” she asked, her voice trembling.

There was a sickening crack as the scissors cut through the last of the bone.

“Yep. It’s over.”

Tori picked her head up just in time to see Tawny slide part of the scissors into Jessica’s mouth, right at the corner of her lips, and start to cut into the soft tissue of her cheek. She did it on both sides, cutting a Joker-like frown into the pretty cheerleader’s always-smiling face.

“Oh, god!”

Tori threw her arms around me and buried her face in my shoulder again. She was a little further over, and the side of her forehead brushed against my boob. The brief but firm contact sent a chill down my back.

“Don’t be shy,” I muttered.

She realized what happened and daintily slid back, much to my disappointment.

“Sorry,” she said. “I just…ew. The mouth thing.”

I wanted to tell her I didn’t mind, that she could go ahead and put her head right back where it was. Or move it over a bit more, maybe. 

I wanted to, but I didn’t.

“It’s fine,” I said. “This movie won so many awards for its special effects. It doesn’t get any better. You sure you want to finish this?”

Tori glanced at the screen, then at me. “As long as I can do that any time it gets too gross, I’ll be fine.”

“Fine,” I said, faking irritation. “I’ll protect you from the scary pictures on the screen.”

“My hero.”

She slid closer to me. I swallowed hard. It was almost impossible to focus on the rest of the film. I didn't mind a bit.

Best holiday ever.

Chapter Text

My last trip to New York had been a little rushed. Cat asked me to go with her to an audition the night before she was due to leave. I agreed, for a few reasons. First, because I was worried she wouldn’t go otherwise. She had, or thought she had, a falling out with her new girlfriend, and it paralyzed her with anxiety. I didn’t want her to miss out on this amazing opportunity. Second, she was my sister and I wanted to support her however I could. And third, it got me away from my mom for a few days while at the same time let me piss away some more of her money.

It was a whirlwind trip. We landed the day of the audition, hurried off to the theater, did the audition, saved Sam and Cat’s newly formed relationship, then flew back that night. No time for much of anything else. 

This trip would be different. We planned on staying the entire weekend so we’d have plenty of time to see Cat’s show, hang out with our friends, and do some sightseeing before we left.

The plan was to meet in the LaGuardia airport as early as possible Friday morning, then hustle over to Sam and Cat’s new apartment. Sam planned on surprising Cat with the place a little after lunchtime. We were at the mercy of the airlines and holiday weekend travel to make it on time. Once we all met up, we’d rent a big ass van and just drive to Sam and Cat’s place.

Of course, it wasn’t just Tori and me. Sam had invited their old neighbors, Dice and Goomer. We all booked tickets for the same flight to make sure we got there together. I was surprised when Dice showed up to wait with us. He’d grown maybe two feet since I’d last seen him. His hair was still ridiculously awesome, all curly and thick. He was sprouting a few on his face too, and when he said hello I was surprised to find his voice was deeper. Seemed like the boys had finally dropped.

Unfortunately, the first thing he said with his deep voice was to Tori: “Are you a parking ticket? Cuz you’ve got fine written all over you.”

Yeah. He actually said that.

In an uncharacteristically protective moment, I stepped in and explained the concept of statutory laws and how, as a minor, he could get Tori in a lot of trouble. I think it scared him; he avoided me the entire flight and didn’t talk to anyone but the big guy.

The big guy. Goomer. This guy was cool; a six-foot-four beast of an MMA fighter with a huge list of wins against some very tough guys. Very few people physically intimidate me, and Goomer might have made that list if he weren’t literally the dumbest person I’d ever met. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the guy. He’s a lovable teddy bear that could go grizzly bear in half a second. But put him next to Cat, and Cat, bless her simple heart, would look like Bill Jobs or Steve Gates or one of those crazy smart tech guys that seem determined to turn themselves into supervillains.

Come to think of it, Goomer kind of gave off some villain sidekick vibes. You know, like the dumb ones who don’t realize they’re working for the bad guy. Like that one movie about the snotty prince who got turned into an alpaca or whatever, the dumb oaf in that, voiced by Patrick Warburton, I think.

Okay, I’m getting off-topic.

So, flying west to east is a huge mindfuck with the time zones. To get to New York at 9 AM Eastern Time, we had to leave at 4 AM Eastern Time. If you do the math, that’s 1 AM in Los Angeles. So we boarded the plane in the middle of the night, tired and bleary-eyed, and a little more than three hours later, we landed at 9 AM. 

If you’ve never done it before, it really screws with your brain and with your body’s internal clock.

The flight itself wasn’t bad. Mostly smooth, not a lot of turbulence. I fell asleep for most of it. Tori and I had only slept for maybe an hour before leaving. I planned to crash around 11 but the movie had just ended and we stayed up talking about it for a while. 

I was impressed with Tori’s take on it. She picked up on a lot of the subtext. She felt the same way that I did; that Tawny was really the existential hero of the story, even though she was technically the “villain.” Kind of like how Carrie White was really the hero of Carrie. It just made sense. We got into a conversation about what really makes a monster and decided that Alexa was much more of a monster than Tawny.

It didn’t take long after settling into my seat and watching the earth receded beneath us for me to close my eyes and fall asleep.

Hours later, Tori nudged me when we were approaching New York. As my eyes opened, I realized my head was on her shoulder. I sat bolt upright, my face probably six shades of red.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Hope I didn’t drool on you.”

Tori was smiling. “Nope,” she said.

“Why didn’t you shove me off of you?”

“I dunno. I just woke up myself a few minutes ago. And you looked so cute and innocent sleeping there.”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I scowled at her. “It’s been a nice flight so far. Please don’t make me injure you.”

Dice and Goomer were in the row behind us, along with some older woman who was traveling by herself. Before I had dozed off, I heard her asking him all about his muscles and height and his fight record. As I woke back up, it seemed like the conversation was still going on. The woman seemed very fascinated with the size of Goomer’s…well…everything.

Every. Thing. And she wasn’t shy about asking.

I mean, I don’t entirely blame her. Even I was curious.

Sadly, neither of us got an answer. The art of double entendres was lost on Goomer. Hell, the art of single entendres was lost on him.

We filed off the plane, got our baggage, and settled in to wait for our friends. According to the flight updates, it looked like Beck would be the first to arrive. Robbie was twenty minutes after Beck. Then finally, Andre and Freddie Benson would land in about eighty minutes. I’d gotten a text from Andre that Carly Shay was with them, too. That surprised me. I thought she’d gone back to Italy with her dad after our graduation. Not that it mattered to me. Cat was the one that been scared of Carly stealing Sam away, but that didn’t happen. So far as I knew, Cat and Carly were friends now.

Dice and Goomer wandered off to find a gift shop or something, leaving Tori and me to nervously wait for Beck’s flight. I couldn’t sit still. I kept bouncing my legs or crossing and uncrossing them. I got up and paced around a bit, then sat down and repeated the cycle with slight variations maybe nine more times.

“You okay?” Tori asked after I got up for the tenth time. “You seem nervous.”

“I’m not nervous,” I snapped. Then I panicked. “Why? Do I look nervous? Like, do I seem like maybe I’m jittery?”

“A little bit,” she said gently, in that calming tone.

“Who asked you!?”

“You did.”

“I know!”

Tori grabbed me by the shoulders. Her touch was like a current of electricity, lighting me aflame. I couldn’t even scream at her for doing it because everything inside of me wanted her to do it. God help me, I yielded to her, looked her in the eyes. I’d have done anything she asked at that moment. She kept talking to me in that slow, gentle tone.

“It’s okay. You’re just excited because it’s been so long since you’ve seen him. It’s fine to feel that way. Don’t fight it. Embrace it.”

The only thing I wanted to embrace at that moment was her, and it drove me nuts. I had a boyfriend! He was going to be with me soon, and then…

And then what? I’d forget all about Tori and how close we’d gotten? I’d melt into his arms and that would be it? What about when he went back to school. What about when  she  went back to school?

See, dumbass? I tried to warn you. It always goes sideways. And the sweeter it is before, the worse it feels after.

I instinctively put my hands on Tori’s arms. “You’re right,” I said. “Thanks. I’m going to go pay for the rental van at least. Maybe find a coffee shop.”

“Right,” Tori laughed. “Because if there’s one thing you need right now it’s even more caffeine.”

“I’ll get decaf.”

“No, you won’t.”

She knew me well.

The rental car kiosk wasn’t far from where we were waiting. It was a great distraction for the whole fifteen minutes it took. They handed me the keys and directions to the lot and that was it. 

I passed a Dunkin Donuts on the way back so I stopped off and got the biggest iced coffee they had available. I sipped at it and scrolled absently through my phone. I barely noticed it when someone sat across from me. My brain registered the presence, but it wasn’t until I caught the gentle smell of her perfume that I realized it was Tori. The scent filled my brain with intense images and sensations from the premiere night when we danced and made out, and even images from last night, when we watched the movie in my room. My body shook with chills for a moment, completely beyond my control.

“What was that?” Tori asked with a giggle.

“I’m cold,” I said. At least my poker face was working today. I didn’t even look up from my phone.

“Really? It’s kind of warm in here to me.”

“Good for you. You’re not the one drinking iced coffee, though.”

A thick silence fell between us. I was ready to grab my AirPods, but Tori started up again. Something was different in her tone. The gentleness was gone, replaced with an air of heaviness that made me anxious.

“Jade, I think we should talk. Is that okay?”

I wonder if she saw the absolute panic that shot through me.

“That depends,” I said. “If you’re going to tell me that you secretly hated the movie…”

She laughed and her eyes lightened for just a moment. “I loved it, honest,” she said. “I’m actually kind of mad about that. I thought I’d be able to rip it to shreds and instead now I’m a fan.”

“Tawny’s army of freaks grows ever larger,” I said, quoting a line from the movie. Tori nodded her agreement.

“I’ll probably show it to my sister, just to freak her out. And my dad will probably like it.” Her eyes darkened again. “Anyway, do you think we could talk for a minute?”

I glanced beyond her, and my eyes landed on Beck.

The weight in my chest was instantaneous as if someone dropped a rock on me and now I was sinking. I forced the biggest smile I could, and I tried my damndest to make sure it seemed as warm and welcoming as my Beck smiles always were.

“Sorry, Vega. Raincheck?”

I was on my feet and hurrying over to Beck before she could respond. He smiled wide and met me halfway, pulling me into an embrace. He kissed me, and it was like going home again. The smell of his cologne and his skin, the taste of his lips, it was all so familiar.

And completely alien.

Like going home again but finding your house has been remodeled.

My heart sank. I ended the kiss a little soon and hugged him again. Even the familiar feeling of his arms around me was different.

Or maybe it was me. Maybe I was different.

“I’ve missed you,” I said.

“Missed you more,” he said. I looked into his eyes, and I knew right away he could feel it too. Something was off.

Shit. Beck, you were my last hope to forget all this.

“You all right?” he asked.

“I am now,” I said with a smile. “It was just a long flight. A long night. A long weekend. I don’t know. But I’m fine. Honest.”

He didn’t believe me. I didn’t either.

Chapter Text

The walk to the rental was heavy on awkward.

Beck held my hand the entire time. I let him because I hoped that at some point during the walk, something would happen. Some spark would rekindle the energy we always shared when he was around and this weird alternate reality we were stuck in would come crashing down. But that didn’t happen. Nothing happened. I might as well have been holding my own hand, for all the emotions it stirred within me. Hell, after that insane orgasm I’d given myself that Saturday, holding my own hand was more exciting anyway.

Pffft, you know the only reason that shook you up is that you were dreaming and you thought it was Tori.

Shut up, Jade.

I was genuinely happy to see Beck. And everyone else for that matter. Our reunion was boisterous as a dozen hugs were exchanged by everyone else. I observed and offered fist bumps where appropriate. As we walked, Robbie regaled us with stories about his job as a glorified daycare teacher (he and Rex put on shows for a child care center in a casino, which I have to admit was pretty cool). Andre shared stories about how ridiculous PeazyB was and the absurd things he would decide to rush off and buy. It was like he was trying (and failing) to be weirder than Kanye.

Carly and Freddie mainly kept to themselves, although I did try to talk to Freddie a bit. I knew him only slightly better than everyone else since I’d been around when Cat tried to use him to make Sam jealous, way back before they finally admitted how crazy they were about each other. To hear Sam tell it, that was the experience that made her realize how much she loved Cat.

It was so adorable I could vomit.

The rental van was…churchy-looking. It was a maroon Ford Econoline with tinted windows. It was also about five years past its prime, with rust spots and dents everywhere. It was old and beat up and kind of creepy.

I loved it.

“Look at this thing. I wonder if it was ever used in a murder. It just has that look, doesn’t it?”

Beck kissed the side of my head. “I’ve really missed your eccentricities.”

I bit back the annoyance I felt at the kiss. “Eccentricities? Wow. Big words. Guess you’re learning something down there.”

“I knew big words before. Some big words. A few. Maybe.”

“Don’t strain yourself, babe,” I said, pinching Beck’s cheek. “Who’s going to be my navigator so I can keep this beast on the road?” And suddenly, our massive, chatty group was completely silent. “Really? No one?”

Beck leaned in. “I think they’re scared of giving you bad directions.”

“Scared?” I turned to the group. “Seriously, you’re all scared of me?” I looked at Carly. “Even you? I barely know you.”

Carly paled and gingerly stepped behind Freddie. “I’m no good at navigating. Or at being screamed at. I’ll just start crying and then everyone else will feel bad, and—“

“Yeah, I get it,” I said. My irritation was showing, but I didn’t care. This was a stupid thing to get hung up over. “Fine, I’ll just do it all myself.”

I turned to the van, but before I could slip inside, I heard Tori’s voice. “I’ll do it.”

I fought back a smile before turning around. “You sure?”

Tori nodded, but she didn’t make eye contact with me. “I’ll be fine, Jade. Just text me the address we’re going to.”

I smiled at her confidence, until I noticed Beck’s eyes on me. I tried to change it to a scowl, but based on Beck’s reaction I don’t think I succeeded. He followed me as I rounded the front of the van.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Fine,” I snapped. “Why? And why do you keep asking me that?”

“Well, for one thing, that face you just made makes it seem like you’re constipated. And I don’t keep asking you. I’ve asked you twice.”

“Which is two times too many,” I groused. “Just…forget it. I’m just irritable. It was a long—“

“Long flight. Yeah, you said that.”

“Then quit making me repeat it. Can we just go, please?”

Beck wanted to say something else. I could see it in his eyes. But he held back. “Sure,” he said. “Let’s go.”

I watched him walk away without another word.


The quickest route to the Upper East Side was 17 minutes but for some reason I seriously cannot fathom, it had tolls. Tolls! I insisted Tori find a different route. She did, or thought she did, via the Queensboro Bridge. Of course, the GPS app she was using didn’t have all the latest construction zone and road work data loaded, so what should have taken us 21 minutes ended up taking twice that long.

I wasn’t in a great state of mind. My emotions were out of control. I couldn’t calm down, I couldn’t sort through my stupid feelings and figure out what they were so I could maybe a grip. It was just an endless barrage of emotional bullshit washing over me and through me, confusing me, infuriating me, making it impossible to get a moment’s peace. Add to that Tori’s trouble finding ways around the dozen or so road closures and it was a huge powder keg waiting to go off.

“I thought you were up for this,” I growled at Tori.

“I was! I am! I just…the construction zones aren’t on here, okay? Cut me some slack!”

“If we aren’t there before Cat and Sam, then the surprise doesn’t really work, does it?”

I felt Beck’s hand reach for my shoulder from the seat behind me. “We’ll get there. Relax.”

I pulled away from him. “Don’t tell me to relax,” I said. I slowed down as I approached yet another closure sign. “How the hell is anybody supposed to get anywhere in this goddamn city? There’s another closure!”

Tori was tapping madly on her phone. “I know, I’m working on it!”

“Vega…!”

She waved her arm. “Make a left!”

“Left where?”

“A left! Right there!”

She waved her arm at an alley I had already driven by.

“Right there?” I snapped. “You mean the thing I just drove past!?”

Tori glanced back, then at me. Her eyes were wide with frustration and more than a hint of fear. It tore me up to see it and of course, that added to my frustration.

“Stop yelling at me!” she pleaded. “I’m trying to update the route! I barely have a signal here!”

My phone buzzed. I sighed and pulled over while Tori kept messing with the GPS. The text was from Sam: “Leaving the hotel. Be at the apartment in about ten minutes. Did you make it?”

I mashed out a quick reply. “Trying. Construction zones everywhere. Terrible navigator.”

“Okay,” Tori said uncertainly. “I think I’ve got it,” Tori said.

“You think? I can’t deal with  think  Vega. I need to know.”

“I’m doing my best,” she said with more than a hint of impatience. “Make a right at the end of the block and then another right. That will get us back to the alley that will take us to the bridge.”

After sitting through three more traffic lights that didn’t want to change even though no one was coming the other way, we finally got turned around and I was able to get across the Queensboro Bridge. Traffic thinned as we drove through Lennox Hill, but Fifth Avenue was a little busier. Black Friday sales were still going on all over the place, so there was a lot of stopping to let pedestrians cross.

I hated shopping as it was, but shopping in New York? On Black Friday? Never. No thanks.

We pulled up to the apartment building on Fifth. I was pretty damn impressed. The place was huge with this gorgeous, neo-gothic architecture. Spires and gargoyles. Lots of sharp angles and finials. It reminded me of the penthouse from Ghostbusters, but that building was across the park on the west side. Still, the rent in this place must have cost a fortune. I wondered how the hell they could afford it.

“All right, everyone but my crackpot navigator, get in there. It’s apartment 2009. Some guy named Chet is holding the key for us, just give them my name. We’ll park and get there as soon as we can.”

I got another text from Sam as everyone was heading out.  About to park.

I responded:  Same, I sent everyone else in. Tori and I will be up ASAP.

I turned to Tori, who braced herself for more screaming. I hated that she did that. “Do you think you can find me a parking garage?”

“Um...sure?”


Seven blocks.

That’s how far we had to walk. Seven. Blocks.

Have you ever walked around New York? Seven blocks aren’t just seven normal-sized blocks. It was more like…like seven miles. And to top it all off, I had to wait while Tori insisted on buying overpriced flowers from a street vendor to give to Cat. “It’s the least we can do for showing up late,” she said.

Whatever. She was so obnoxious and so right, and I just wanted to smack her. Or kiss her. Or…something.

Seven blocks!

I was at least thankful that I didn’t sweat often. Almost never, in fact. But it was an oddly warm day in New York, especially for November, and if you missed it the first time, we did have to walk Seven. Damn. Blocks.

Tori couldn’t seem to settle on whether or not she wanted to apologize or bitch about my driving. The experience was a microcosm of our entire relationship, played out over that walk. I felt a headache creeping into the back of my neck by its end.

The apartment building was even more stunning from the sidewalk. It felt like the entire building was plucked out of Transylvania. I doubted I would be so lucky as to encounter the hellish undead legions of the night within its walls, but it was a fun thought. 

We entered through a set of golden-framed doors into a huge lobby filled with trees and greenery and the strong scent of…well, nature, I guess. As if someone had plugged in a few hundred “evergreen forest” air fresheners and turned on some industrial-strength fans.

We made our way to a bank of elevators. There were quite a few of them, which meant our wait was at least somewhat short. Surprisingly, the ride up was quick as well; we were the only passengers.

“Jade, I’m sorry,” Tori said. “I didn’t mean to get so bitchy at you.”

“Good,” I said. “You should be sorry.”

The numbers dinged by. 13. 14. 15.

“In my defense, you’re not very easy to navigate for.”

I shrugged. “Never claimed I was.”

“You said some pretty mean things.” I shrugged again. It occurred to me that Tori was waiting for some kind of response. When she didn’t get one, she cleared her throat. “Aren’t you sorry?”

The pain in the back of my neck shot up into my skull. I sighed.  I am not in the mood for this crap.

“Sorry for letting you navigate, maybe,” I said impatiently. I regretted it the moment it slipped out.

18. 19. 20.

Finally!  I hurried out into the hall. 

Tori was half a step behind me. “You know, I thought things had changed between us lately, but I guess I was wrong,” she said.

The remark shot my blood pressure through the roof. I saw red everywhere. I wanted to wheel on her and tell her she had no idea just how fucking much things had changed between us. That it killed me to be standing there fighting with her. That it was all my fault because I couldn’t keep my shit together with Beck there. Because I looked at him and felt absolutely nothing, but I looked at her and I felt rage and fire and passion and frustration and every fucking thing that made life worth living.

Instead, I drew a deep breath, then walked to the door for 2009 and pressed the doorbell. I turned back to Tori.

“Okay, look, just because you’re a shit navigator doesn’t mean things haven’t changed between us.”

I thought it was a reasonable thing to say. Rage flashed behind Tori’s eyes, raw, intense, visceral…and kind of sexy.

“I’m a  shit navigator!?"

I heard the door creak open, but I was captivated at Tori’s newfound sense of anger. The more heat she gave out, the more my blood started to boil. My breathing turned shallow. What the hell was this? 

“I can’t help it if you don’t know how to follow directions!” she snapped. “I told you, ‘turn left here.’ That meant ‘here’ not at the next intersection!”

My eyes narrowed and my voice raised. Were my hands sweating? Seriously? “I’m pretty sure you could have been just a little more specific. Waving your arms around at me wasn’t exactly helpful, either. You were supposed to be my navigator, not a freakin ballet dancer."

Tori stepped towards me. “Well excuse me for trying to help—“

A third voice entered the fray, and somehow it was louder than both of ours together.

"Will you please stop arguing like an old married couple!?"

Cat stood in the doorway, her modest chest heaving as she shot both of us exasperated looks. Twice in five minutes, I was floored by the sudden outburst of a normally quiet, laid-back person. Clearly, New York had been good for Cat. Or maybe it was Sam that gave her a bit more backbone. Either way, hearing Cats mousy voice go into hardcore rage mode was enough to dissipate some of the tension between Tori and me.

Tori moved in first, drawing Cat into a tight squeeze. “Hey! Congratulations on your opening night!” She left Cat with the flowers in hand as the redhead stood aside so she could enter. 

“Aw, thank you! They’re so pretty! Come in!”

Tori hurried off to join the others as Cat turned to greet me. I noticed she kept the flowers between as she smelled them, almost like an unconscious shield against my wrath. I wasn’t surprised. Cat knew I loved her like my sister, but she also knew that sometimes, things got ugly between sisters.

I stood there, looking at Cat, keeping my poker face up. Yet my eyes were drawn to Tori. She stood near Beck, who glanced out and smiled at me. It occurred to me then, as my own mind screamed its frustration in silence, that I was going to crack before the end of the weekend. I needed help. I needed perspective. I needed… something .

So I turned to my sister.

“Sorry about yelling at you,” she said quickly.

I grabbed her shoulders. “Okay, I seriously need your help,” I said as quietly as I could. Unfortunately, the nervous energy came out as me shaking Cat with every word. “Something is seriously, seriously wrong with me.”

Cat’s confusion knew no bounds as she tried to stop her head from bouncing. “What do you mean? What’s wro—“

I saw Tori’s eyes dart towards us. I grabbed Cat and pulled her out into the hallway so fast, she almost dropped her flowers.

“If you repeat what I'm about to tell you to anyone, I will have to drown you in the nearest body of water. Clear?" The words were brutal, but Cat knew I’d never hurt her. At least, I hoped she knew it.

"Yikes. Harsh, but clear."

Laughter came from within the apartment. I glanced over Cat’s shoulder at the group, which had broken up into smaller groups. Carly, Sam, and Freddie were chatting together. Beck and Andre. Tori and Robbie.

"I don't know what witchcraft you used to figure this out so long ago, but you were right, okay? You were right." 

Cat nodded sagely as if she understood. “Oh. Okay,” she said. Then the confusion set in. "Can you maybe refresh my memory on what I figured out?"

I glanced back into the room. Tori was looking right at me. I froze up for a minute. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t speak it into existence like that. Once I did…I could never unsay it. Once it was out, it was out.

I reached over and pulled the door closed, then turned back to Cat. My mouth went completely dry. My heart was in my throat. I took a deep breath and slowly said, “I’m in love with Vega.”

Holy fucking shit. I said it. I meant it.

I’m in love with Vega.

I’m in love with Vega!

The elation I felt was staggering, as if the weight of the entire world had lifted from me...only to be replaced by an all-encompassing fear and existential terror at the implications of admitting that...that...

I’m in love with Vega. Oh, god.

The smile that crossed Cat’s face was priceless. It was the sort of transcendent smile that she got when she’d talk about how much she loved Sam.

“Shut the fridge!” she cried. “Jade, that’s amazing! Did you tell her?”

“No, I didn’t tell her,” I said in a harsh whisper. “Are you kidding me? Why would I tell her?”

“Well…why wouldn’t you?”

Cat’s question was so simple and so complicated. I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out for a minute. My mind went through every lame excuse and lie I’d been telling myself for weeks.

“I…well, I mean…there’s Beck, for one thing.”

“Oh. Right. Are you guys still together?”

“Technically.” I sighed and rubbed my exhausted eyes. “I don’t know, Cat. I love the guy, I really do. I always will. But it’s different now, y’know?”

“I get it.”

I turned back to her. “You…do?”

She smiled, and my heart melted. All these months in New York and she was still the sweetest soul I’d ever met. “Yeah. Feelings change sometimes. Remember, I used to love Robbie in that boyfriend-girlfriend kind of way. But it changed. Now I love Sam in that way. But I still love Robbie. He’s still one of my favorite people. But I’m not meant to be with him. Sam’s my person.”

I thought back to all the discussions Cat and I had shared about Robbie and Sam. Something about what she said made sense. “I just don’t know if Tori is my…my ’person’ though,” I said. “I mean from the moment you told me you were in love with Sam, you knew. There was never a doubt in your mind that you wanted to be with her. I don’t have that. I have tons of doubts. You told me once that Sam makes you feel safe. Tori terrifies me. That’s the opposite of feeling safe.”

“Kind of,” Cat said. “When I’m afraid of something, I don’t really hide it, though. You guys know me. I never have to hide who I am. You know I can be a ‘fraidy cat.” She stopped and giggled. “It’s funny, 'cause that’s my name. But I guess I mean that you can’t feel safe around anyone unless you’re okay feeling not safe. You don’t ever let on when you’re afraid or vulnerable. You hide it under all that anger. So how can you know if Tori can help you feel safe when you can’t even feel not-safe with her?”

I had to reach out and lean against the wall to keep the hallway from spinning. My head was outright pounding. Everything Cat said made sense to me. Every damn word. How can you know if someone makes you feel safe unless you let your guard down? Even a little? Cat never apologized for who she was. She was right, we always knew what she was feeling.

But me…no. No way. I spent years building up walls around myself, preventing people from getting through and seeing how I really felt. And the walls between Tori and me were so tall and so thick that she never got through, no matter how hard she tried.

And she tried.

“I think I get what you mean,” I said at last.

“Good,” Cat said. “I’m not sure I’ll remember what I said but I’m glad it helped. You just have to let yourself be vulnerable. Like you did with me that one time…” Cat paled as she said it. “Sorry. I know I’m not supposed to talk about that.”

I tensed up at the mention of it, but let it go. No one overheard. And Cat wasn’t wrong. That moment of weakness I showed her years ago was long since over, and it led to the close friendship we shared now.

“It’s okay,” I said. “But what if Tori  is  my person? What about Beck?”

Cat shrugged. “Beck is a great guy. He’ll understand. It might hurt him because you’ve been together for so long, but I don’t think he could ever be mad at you for being honest. That’s the one thing we all love about you.”

I realized at that moment how much I missed having Cat around. A pang of guilt shot through me as I wished I had treated her better over the years. “You know…I’ve been an ass to you a lot. You don’t deserve it. You’re one of the sweetest, smartest people I know.”

Cat blinked at me. Her eyes were suddenly wet. She closed the gap between us and threw her arms around my neck. I wrapped mine around her waist, squeezed her, and lifted her off the ground. She giggled like a madwoman.

“I’m so glad you came,” she said as I let her down. “Now let's go! We can hang out for a little bit before I have to report for my call time.”

Cat dragged me into her apartment. Even as I sat on that gaudy blue couch from  That’s a Drag , even as Beck put his arm around me, I knew what was coming up next. And it made me a little nauseous.


We spent a few hours catching up with Sam and Cat and everyone. It was one of those warm-hearted reunions that made you ache for days long gone. When we were in school, I couldn’t wait to get out and away from everyone. Six months later, I wished we could all be together again. I missed them all. Even Robbie.

It’s a crime that there’s no way to know you’re in the “good old days” while you’re still actually in them. Even then, I wonder if it’s ever possible to appreciate the people you’re with enough that you won’t look back with regrets or longing for those times again. All I know is that I missed that room full of losers, and it made me sad that we only had a couple of days together.

Tori was quiet. I couldn’t tell why. I hoped that I didn’t hurt her too badly with the stupid things I said. At one point, while Andre was telling us one of his PeazyB stories, she caught me looking at her. Her brow furrowed a bit. I didn’t know what else to do, so I crossed my eyes at her. Her look of confusion was priceless. I did it again. Then a third time, but this time I stuck my tongue out and tried to touch my nose with it. I didn’t even get close.

That did it. She smiled her adorable, breathtaking smile. Then she crossed her own eyes and stuck out her tongue. I watched in awe she touched the tip of her nose with it. My mouth was agape when she uncrossed her eyes.  Holy shit,  I thought.  That is freakish. And kinda hot.

She wrinkled her nose at me, then turned her gaze back to Andre. I became lost in my thoughts for a while, and soon enough it was time to head to our hotel room so Cat could get ready.

We struck out on our seven-block return walk to the van. My earlier anger and frustration had mellowed, dissolved into a weird haze of melancholy and nostalgia and anxiety. I walked next to Beck, just behind Tori and Andre. The two of them were talking about maybe writing a song over the weekend. I hoped they did; those two were the best collaborators I’d ever seen when it came to making beautiful music.

Tori had the route to the hotel loaded by the time we got in the van. She got us there with no trouble at all. It took half an hour or so to check in and get up to our rooms. Honestly, I didn’t notice the passage of time. My melancholy had grown into a disconnected fog. My head was drifting ten feet above my body as if I were looking at the events from a distance.

When Beck and I finally got settled into our hotel room, I simply crashed on the stiff couch and stared out the window. It was a gorgeous view of the harbor, high enough up so that we didn’t really see the boats and pollution that clung to the docks. The sun had dropped low in the western sky, so much of the harbor was dark, lit only by the lights of incoming ships and spotlights on the docks. Liz had said New York was a magical place, but I didn’t feel any magic. I just felt…heavy. The weight of inevitability, perhaps.

I watched Beck getting out his dress clothes for the show, rushing about in his little white tank top undershirt. He’d been my person for so long. He’d been my first real relationship, the first person that I loved. I thought that would last forever. But I knew it couldn’t. And I couldn’t let it languish for another second.

I swallowed against a very dry throat. I let the moment breathe. I wanted to make sure I was really ready, because there was no going back.

“I think we should break up.”

Beck was digging through his suitcase, looking for something. He didn’t stop. Didn’t acknowledge what I’d said. He just kept digging and digging. I let the comment hang there for a good couple of minutes. He didn’t respond.

“Did you hear me?”

He stopped. His shoulders sagged.

“I heard you.”

An oppressively thick silence fell between us.

“And?”

Beck slowly turned. His face was impossible to read.

“And…what?”

“What do you think?”

He sighed, then sat on the edge of the bed right across from the couch. “What am I supposed to think? My girlfriend of over five years, who I haven’t seen in six months, wants to break up.”

Something about his tone didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t blurt out the first thing that popped into my mind, but I did blurt out the second. “Gee, thanks for the recap.” He glared at me. “What? All right. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”

His gaze softened. “Wow,” he said. “You used the ’s’ word. That’s new.”

My turn to glare. “And now I’m thinking of an ‘f’ word. Care to guess what it is?”

Beck raised his arms as if surrendering. “Easy, I was just trying to lighten the mood. The truth is, I’m impressed. I mean, the drive over here notwithstanding, I see a difference in you. I don’t know what’s been going on with this movie but it seems like you’ve grown a bit. As a person, I mean.”

I groaned and let my head fall back on the couch. “Don’t say shit like that. It makes me nauseous.”

“Yeah, well, the truth can be sickening sometimes.” Beck walked over to the mini-fridge and pulled out a can of soda. “Why do you want to break up? Almost six years…that’s a lot of history.”

“I know,” I said, thinking back over some of the things we’d been through. “Not all of it good. But most of it.”

“Most of it,” he agreed. “So the question stands. Why?”

I couldn’t look at him. I stared at the floor, the ceiling, the walls, anything I could find but Beck. “I don’t…I mean…it’s just something that…”

Beck rose from the bed and slid next to me on the couch. He gently brought his hand to my face and turned mine so I was looking at him. If anyone else would have done that, they’d have a broken or missing hand. But I didn’t resist. I owed him that much. And when I saw his eyes, I realized…he was expecting this. There was pain there, yes, but also something I hadn’t expected to see: understanding.

“Why?”

I swallowed again. My throat was so scratchy. Beck offered me a sip of his soda. “I don’t know, Beck,” I said. “I’ve just felt it building since you moved, I guess.”

“So it’s the distance?” His voice remained soft and calm, a source of strength as I felt mine wavering.

“No. I mean, maybe. But you offered a way for me to fix that. You invited me to move with you.”

“And you didn’t want to.”

“It just wasn’t my path.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I think we’ve been on different paths for a while now.”

A wave of relief coursed through me, though it was almost impossible to feel it amidst the pain and confusion at the moment. 

“I didn’t want it to go this way,” I said. “I thought…I hoped we’d be forever.”

Beck smiled sadly at me. “Jade, you’re a force of nature. Y’know? Being in love with you is like being in love with the wind. Sometimes, it blows in the right direction, and there’s smooth sailing and everything’s perfect and you can’t imagine a time when it’s not perfect. But sometimes it changes direction, and god help you if you’re in the way.” A tear finally slipped out of his eye. He let it fall. “I knew it wouldn’t last. But I’m thankful that you came my way for so long.”

I reached a shaking hand out to wipe away his singular tear and in the process, lost control of mine. His words were just so damn perfect. All of the guilt and sadness and pain I’d been pushing away came out all at once and I broke down and wept like a fucking crybaby.

Beck folded me in his arms and held me close, even as he wrestled with his own sorrow.

“What are you crying for?” he asked gently. “I’m the one who just got dumped like a chump.”

I laughed through my tears and smacked him in the shoulder. “Asshole.”

He kissed my head. “And now I’m getting insulted and beaten, too. Jeez. Just can’t catch a break.”

I’m not sure how long I stayed in Beck’s arms, but it felt like an eternity. I held on to every moment. I wanted to remember what the last time wrapped in those arms felt like. When I finally calmed down, I sat upright, blew my nose, and tried to compose myself. My heart ached for Beck; his poker face was almost as good as mine, but I knew he was hurting.

“I’ll always love you, y’know,” I said. “You’re one of the most important people in my life and I never want to lose you.”

“You can’t escape the wind,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “I’ve tried before. It never works out.” He hesitated, then drew a deep breath. “I guess the only question I have is…are you going finally fess up to how you feel about Tori, or are you going to keep dragging it out?”

My jaw dropped. I gazed at Beck in utter shock.

He smiled sweetly at me and closed my mouth. “Babe, I’ve known you forever. I know when you’re into people. You’ve been into Tori since day one.”

“And you never said anything to me?” I asked, incredulous.

“What was I going to say? Oh, hey, I know you’re into the new girl, maybe you should get her number?”

I playfully shoved him. “I don’t know. Ugh…now I’m completely embarrassed.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want you to think that I made this decision about us because of Tori. I don’t even know if I want to say anything to her.”

“I never would have thought that,” he said. “This thing with us has been a long time coming. It would have happened sooner or later. And this thing with Tori has been a long time coming too.”

I sighed and rubbed my temples. “I know. It’s been hell. Literally hell.”

“I’ll bet. I’m not telling you what to do, but we’re here for the weekend, and then she goes back to college, right? So if you're going to say something, maybe sooner would be better?”

“Maybe. Why? You have an idea?”

Beck smiled. I winced.

Oh, what have I done?

Chapter Text

I love theater.

It was my first love, even before I got into film production. The first thing I ever wrote was a stage play, which I got to direct myself before I went to Hollywood Arts. It’s part of the reason I got in. Two of my three biggest projects were stage plays, and both of them featured Cat.

The show was an original off-broadway production called Ginger in July. Crane wrote the play and the music and served as director for this debut run. It opened at 59E59 Theaters. I’d never even heard of the place before, and if it weren’t for the drab white and blue sign in front I probably wouldn’t have known the building was a theater at all. There was no flashy sign or marquee, no colorful lights, just a typical New York office building that derived its name from its address at 59 East 59th Street.

The lack of originality in the name and design of the building was made up for by the classy, modern interior. Sure, when I think of theaters, I think of sweeping arches and neo-gothic architecture. This place had none of that, but it worked for what it was. Besides, this was an off-Broadway show. Gotta have room to grow, loftier goals, nicer theaters to shoot for.

Cat’s show was in Theater A, the largest of the three auditoriums with just under 200 seats. And every single one of them was full. I was so excited for Cat, I couldn’t stand it. And the anticipation helped soften the ache in my chest over the break-up.

I knew it was for the best. Beck knew, too. It was kind of annoying how well he took it. But he had always a patient guy. You’d have to be, to put up with my crap for almost six years. He didn’t want to trade seats for the show, either. I thought it might be weird still sitting together, but he was cool with it. We talked and laughed and joked. It was the most fun we’d had together in a long time. I felt lighter with him than I did earlier in the day, maybe because the weight of expectation had been lifted.

The one bizarre thing he did was try to get me to go sit by Tori. She was a row ahead of us and a few seats down. Robbie had drawn the ticket next to her. Even over the murmur of the pre-show crowd, I could hear him still talking about his job in Vegas. Tori was gracious as always, smiling and nodding while mostly burying her boredom.

“You know, I’d understand if you wanted to switch seats with Robbie,” Beck whispered.

“What? I’m not doing that. Why would I do that?”

He smirked. “I don’t know. To save your princess from boredom?”

I punched his arm. Hard.

He winced and grabbed it. “Okay. I might have deserved that. I’m just trying to help.”

“I don’t need help.”

“Help with what?”

Samantha Puckett sat down on my left.

“Hey, Sam,” I said.

“Hey. Help with what?”

“Nothing.”

The pretty blond raised a skeptical eyebrow. I would have, too. I wasn’t the best liar, sadly, and my powers of anger and intimidation did not affect Sam. She and I were too much alike to be rattled by each others’ threats of violence. Hell, she’d probably enjoy it. I probably would too.

Beck leaned over. “I’m trying to encourage Jade to be honest and confess her feelings to a certain someone she happens to be madly in love with.”

Sam’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I thought you two were dating?”

I covered Beck’s mouth before he could say anything else. “First of all, I never said I was ‘madly in love’ so let’s not overstate things. Second, we recently broke up. And third, Beck, if you lick my hand again I’m going to strangle you with your tongue.”

I pulled my hand away and wiped the saliva on his shoulder. He laughed and turned his attention back to the stage. There was movement under the curtains, a good indicator people were getting in place. The show would probably start soon.

Sam’s confusion had swiftly changed to sympathy. “Sorry about the break-up,” she said softly. “That sucks.”

“Thanks, but it’s fine. It’s been over for a while, I think. We just realized it was time.”

Despite my efforts to keep quiet, Beck must have heard. “Well, one of us realized it.”

I playfully smacked his shoulder. “Quiet, you. The women are talking.”

Sam and I shared a laugh. “So who is it that you aren’t madly in love with?”

I rolled my eyes. I didn’t want word of any of this getting out until I knew what the hell I was going to do.

Sam saw my hesitation. “Don’t sweat it, I don’t actually care. I was just curious.”

And that, folks, is why Sam and I were such good friends. I leaned in closer to her. “It’s Vega.”

To my surprise, Sam smiled. Like, a huge smile. “Ha!” she laughed. Then softer, “Cat was right! I’ll be damned!”

I sank deeper into my seat and covered my eyes. “Oh chrysler. She told you?”

“She’s been telling me since we moved out here that she thought you had a thing for Tori. I’ll be honest dude, I didn’t see it at all. Like…not at all.”

“Right? It was buried so deep. How the hell did she know?”

“Honestly, you and I are so much alike, I always thought if you ever went that way, you’d be into Cat. Y’know? We both have that weird alpha need to protect her. And she’s so damn adorable—“

“Nope, not into Cat,” I said quickly. Maybe a little too quickly. “I mean, I love her like a sister. Anything else? No. Ew.” I didn’t see the need to complicate my friendship with Sam or her relationship with Cat by mentioning anything that may or may not have happened in the past between Cat and me.

Sam didn’t seem to take notice. “So what’s the deal, then? You gonna tell Tori?”

“Oh, sure. I hate feelings. I hate talking. I hate being awkward. But you’re asking if I want to do something that involves all of those things, with someone who would probably assume I was making fun of her or setting her up for some cruel joke.”

Sam chuckled. “Gee, who’d have thought all those years of treating her like garbage would have had any consequences.”

I glared at Sam, whose smile just grew wider. “All right, Puckell,” I said, using the incorrect last name that Cat often used. “Point made. But if you’re trying to help, you’re failing miserably.”

“So you’re asking for my help? Interesting.”

There were precious few moments in our friendship that I wished Sam responded to fear. This was one of them.

“I didn’t say I was asking for help. I thought you were offering.”

“Ah. Okay. Got it.”

Silence grew between us. I half-expected her to offer some advice anyway, but that was not Samantha Puckett. Puckell. Whatever. 

I was getting antsy. I started tapping my finger on my knee. Swinging my foot.

“Okay, fine, if you  were  to offer help, what would you say?”

Sam laughed. She turned and met my gaze. “I’d say that you should do what you do best.”

I was confused. “You think I should punch her?”

“No—“

“Psychological torment?”

“Will you let me finish? You said you hate talking about your feelings. I get that, it’s tough. There’s no script to follow so you can end up saying any stupid thing and ruin it. So don’t talk about your feelings. Sing about them.”

That…made sense. So. Much. Sense.

“That way,” Same went on, “the song is like a script. You’re only saying what’s written. You just have to find one that says what you want to say. Or something close enough that she’ll get the point.”

A devious smile crept across my lips. “Like Cat did for you at the prom.”

A noticeable chill rocked Sam’s shoulders at the mention of Cat’s super sexy prom serenade.

“Thanks for the reminder,” she muttered. “I’m already crawling out of my skin today.”

“Well, let’s just call it even for making me practically beg you for advice,” I said.

“Touche. Now listen, the club I made reservations at for the afterparty has this really cool deejay. He’s a friend of mine. If you figure out a song, I’ll text him and make sure he has it.”

The muscles in my neck tightened. “I didn’t say I wanted to do this tonight. In a club of all places! In front of everyone!”

“Okay, okay,” Sam said. “You seem worried she won’t take it seriously. I thought maybe doing it this way would show her you’re serious. It’s still taking you way outside your comfort zone for her.”

I rubbed my eyes. What was I doing? Was I seriously going to consider this?

I thought back over the past month. Over our karaoke song…our dance at the movie premiere…and it hit me what song I needed to sing.

“All right, Sam. Let’s see if your friend has this one.”


Cat’s performance was amazing. She took what was, at best, a mediocre script and elevated it in amazing ways.

The story was cute, I guess. It was a play on words, because it followed a redhead girl named Ginger as she spent a summer semester studying abroad and fell in love with a guy who didn’t understand English. It was full of your typical romantic, fish-out-of-water tropes and beats. But the music is where it really shone, and Cat’s vocals were absolutely breathtaking.

Sam had made us reservations at an under 21 club. Much like the theater, it had a highly creative name: < 21. That’s right. That’s the “less than” symbol. How the hell do you even pronounce that?

It was a cool place, though. There was a coffee and juice bar, a dining area, a good-sized dance floor, and a lounge not far from the deejay’s booth. Sam had managed to get the lounge reserved for just us. It was like a trendier version of Starbucks, with big sofas and cushy chairs.

By the time I arrived, there was one seat left: the center couch cushion. On one side of the couch, Tori. On the other, Beck, wearing the shittiest smirk.

“Hey. Saved you a seat,” he said.

I glared at him all the way to the cushion. As I sank into the couch, I caught the scent of Tori’s perfume. My mind flooded with images of our dance and that damn kiss, and suddenly I was warm and my stomach was doing summersaults.

Tori acknowledged my presence with a tentative smile. “I love your dress,” she said.

“Thanks.”

I had gone with a form-fitting deep blue dress that reached about mid-calf. The spaghetti straps were two different lengths, so the left side of the dress sat higher up on my shoulder while the right side plunged way down below my underarm. A modest slit on the left reached the middle of my thigh.

“Um…I like yours, too.”

Tori smiled, still with a touch of hesitation. “Thanks.”

The truth was, I could barely keep my eyes off of her. She wore a strapless black gown inlaid with crimson designs, the most stunning of which looked like a blooming rose that was situated between and below her breasts. The intricate design work flowed into other elegant shapes down to her waist, where it billowed outward like a slim ball gown.

I glanced over at Beck, who was in the process of rolling his eyes at me. He leaned in and whispered, “This is sad. You’ve got no game.”

“Shut up,” I said. “I’m ready to throw up as it is.”

Beck shook his sad sadly. We fell into some conversation then, as we waited for Cat and Sam to arrive. I barely heard any of it. As the evening wore on, the hint of anxiety spread from my neck and back, gradually growing to encompass the rest of my body. I couldn’t keep my legs still. I couldn’t take a deep enough breath. I bit my lip. I had to put my coffee down because my hands were shaking so bad it was visible. My stomach was nauseous. Eventually, I quit talking altogether and just sat and stewed in my nervous energy until I couldn’t physically take it.

I stood up and started walking toward the door. I felt a presence behind me almost right away.

“Jade, what’s wrong?”

It was Beck.

I held up my trembling hand. “This is what’s wrong. I can’t do this. I can’t.”

He took my hand in his. “You’re overthinking it.”

“You’re goddamn right I’m overthinking it! Sam’s not here yet, Cat’s not here yet, and I’m just sitting there next to her and I can’t even look at her! And I can’t stop looking at her! I’m going to be sick.”

“Jade—“

“So help me if you tell me to calm down, I’ll rip off your arm and beat you with it.”

Beck pointed behind me. “Sam and Cat are here.”

I winced.  Fuck.

The pair was already walking towards us.

“I need to talk to Bobby,” Sam said. “We may have a hiccup.”

My heart sank even lower.

“A hiccup? What kind of hiccup?”

“Not a big one,” Sam said. “I’ve got it under control. Relax. Or, y’know, freak out. Whatever works for you.”

Sam hurried toward the deejay’s booth.

Before I knew it, Cat was pulling me into a huge embrace. “Sam told me what you’re doing! Jade, I’m so excited for you! This is the best night ever!”

I heard her words, and something happened in my mind. I pulled out of her hug just enough to see her face. “Cat, this is  your  night,” I said. “Your show was amazing. You were perfect. Why are you so excited about this? I can’t even go through with it.”

Cat’s warm smile reached out and embraced me all on its own. I felt the love and support radiating from her. “First of all, thank you,” she said. “I’m happy you loved the show. But…I’ve got lots more shows. I’ve only got one Jade, and one Tori, and one chance to see them together and happy. That’s more important.”

I tried to fight it, but I couldn’t. My lip quivered. The goddamn tears slipped right out faster than I could wipe them away. “You seriously have no idea how incredible you are.”

Cat’s cheeks rose to the same color as her hair. “Don’t go getting soft on me, Jade West. Save it for your girl over there.”

Sam returned, with Andre just behind her. She was tense but didn’t seem overly worried.

“Okay…so Bobby doesn’t have the song,” she said. “But he does have a keyboard, and Andre knows the song. I didn’t want to make the call. Jade, it’s your choice.”

My eyes flicked from Sam to Andre. “So you know?”

Andre chuckled. “Girl, I’ve known for weeks. Since like, day two of your film shoot. I don’t know if you realize this but you aren’t the most subtle person in the world.”

Beck elbowed him gently. “I’ve known longer.”

Andre raised an eyebrow. “Man, that’s just weird. But look, twisted sister, it’s up to you. You know I’ve got you.”

I felt crushed under the weight of everything. Beck, Andre, and Sam stared at me, waiting for a decision. I very nearly panicked. 

Cat took my hand. I met her gaze. Saw the smile on her face and the encouragement in her eyes. For her, it was like everything was over already, like she could see a happy ending, plain as day. I drew strength from her confidence and my heart rate slowed. I could breathe again. I knew what I had to do.


The mic was shaking in my hand. I breathed deep. I called on every theater trick I’d ever learned to calm my nerves.

The current song ended. Sam’s friend Bobby took to his own mic.

“So, some of y’all may not be aware that we’ve got some special guests in the house tonight. Give it up for the cast of Carl Crane’s new show, Ginger in July!” I doubted anyone in the crowd had the slightest clue who Carl Crane was, but when a deejay shouts that someone’s in the house, you just yell and scream and applaud. “And we also got some old friends of mine that I bet some of you remember from this little web show a few years back. Carly Shay and Sam Puckett from iCarly are in the house tonight!”

That just about blew the roof off the club. The love people had for Carly and Sam was still crazy strong, even though they’d been off the web for years. I couldn’t see them from where I was waiting, but I could tell from the swell in applause when they stood up and waved.

“Now, my girl Sam has a special request tonight. She’s asked if we could slow things down for a minute and let her boy Andre Harris and her girl Jade West handle this next song. You may not know Andre’s name yet, but you’ve heard his tunes sung by Beyonce, PeazyB, and a hell of a lot more. And from what I hear, you’re about to see a whole lot of the name Jade West all over Hollywood. Get up here!”

Andre walked up the steps and joined Bobby. He slipped behind the keyboard, already looking at home. I left my hiding spot behind the booth, flipped the mic on, and took up a spot right in front of Bobby’s setup. 

There were a lot of eyes on me. The club was easily at capacity. Hundreds of people stared at me in total silence. None of them had a clue who the hell I was or why the hell I’d been given the privilege of singing here tonight.

I didn’t care. It didn’t rattle me. I was Jade fucking West. There was only one person on this planet who rattled me.

And she was looking at me too. 

Tori was confused, but wearing a supportive smile. I waved at her. She wrinkled her nose at me and returned it.

The opening notes of Halestorm’s  Rose in December drifted down from Andre’s keyboard. I took one last deep breath, tuned out the emotional noise, and focused.

I've taken all this time
Standing in the snow
And I'm so afraid
of what could fall from my lips
Afraid of what I know

It was a fight to keep my voice steady as I sang out the most fucking difficult, frightening, honest words I’d ever sung. I focused on Tori. I let myself get lost in those endless goddamn eyes. A sense of peace took hold, and my voice grew in confidence.

But still I carry on
Following my heart
Things could let me down
and I could be betrayed
But love never lies...so…

Tori’s smile spread further across her lips as I slowly made my way over to her. I felt my eyes growing damp.

Let me be your rose In December
And I'll be standing here, until spring comes and the snow melts away
Let me be your rose In December
I'll stand here forever, loving you, as a rose in December

Tori looked over to Beck as I grew closer. I think maybe she thought I was singing to him. But my eyes didn’t waver.

Cool, autumn days
When everyone else walked away
They told me to forget, and to spare myself the storm
But, I knew you were worth the wait

All of our friends watched as I reached out for Tori’s hand. She looked around, her smile slowly becoming more confused. She still accepted my hand and I pulled her gently to her feet. My heart was pounding out of my chest as I knew the lyrics I was about to sing.  Oh, god…I’m going to fuck it up...

And as the snow fell
Landing on my heart

I can’t do it , I thought.  I can’t.

Burying my emotion
but still I stand here frozen

My vocal cords strained. My voice trembled. This was it. Please don’t let me screw this up…

Because I know I love you
oh, I love you...so…

My voice held. It did better than that. It expanded, grew louder, stronger. It filled the lounge, the dance floor, the club. In my periphery, Cat jumped up and started clapping. Then Sam. Then Beck. Then the entire fucking room.

Tori finally realized what was happening. She gasped and covered her mouth in shock. I could see tears welling up, and I got nervous.

Just a little further… Come on, Jade…

Let me be your rose In December
And I'll be standing here, until spring comes and the snow melts away
Let me be your rose In December
I'll stand here forever, loving you, as a rose in December
As a rose...
As a rose in December…

Andre played perfectly. And despite how terrified I was, I crushed it. In all the years I’d sung, I never put so much raw emotion into a song. It was the best performance of my life. Or it should have been.

Tori stood trembling before me, her hand still covering her mouth. She wiped away the tears that were falling. Looked at me. Looked at Beck.

“What…what the hell is this?”

Her eyes landed squarely on me. Looking for an explanation. Looking for something I was too afraid to give.

“This…this is me. It’s me trying to…um…”

My face was on fire. All those eyes I didn’t care about before bore into me. I felt exposed. Terrified. Humiliated.

I’d envisioned Tori smiling at me. Understanding what I was trying to say. Relieved, maybe, to finally hear it all laid bare. Instead, she stared at me like she didn’t even know me.

My body shook. Maybe it was fear. Maybe it was fury. Either way, I had to go. I had to leave before it exploded.

Say something, you idiot!

“This was…this was a mistake.”

I stumbled backward into Beck. I felt his hands on my shoulders as he tried to steady me. I pulled in the other direction and shoved him away.

I heard voices as I struggled to get out of the lounge area. Cat. Beck. Andre. Sam. Robbie. Carly. Dice. Goomer.

But not Tori.

I couldn’t see anything through the tears that were pooling in my eyes. I moved towards the door, amidst a blur of motion and lights. I shoved. I pushed. I screamed. I threw the door open so hard I heard a crack. Once I was outside, I ran. I don’t know how far. A block or two, maybe, until I couldn't breathe anymore. I doubled over, my hands on my knees, the street and all of the people around me spinning, spinning out of control. When I stopped shaking and finally caught my breath, I slowly stood. Waved for a cab. Choked out the address for our hotel.

When I reached the safety of my hotel room, I tried to calm down.

I didn’t. I couldn't.

It was too much. Everything had gone wrong. I gave up Beck. I fucked things up with Tori. I humiliated myself in front of god knows how many people.

The rage came on all at once. I felt like I left my body, like I was looking in on myself from the outside. I took it all out on anything I could get my hands on, until I couldn't physically move. I collapsed somewhere on the floor and cried until I fell asleep.

Chapter Text

There was a knock.

I think there had been several, but there was one in particular that I know I heard, because it was followed by a voice.

“Jade?”

My stomach heaved.  Tori.

My head throbbed. I was on the floor, between the bed and the window. Something was underneath me. Bedsheets?

Shit. Those are curtains.  

I slowly looked up and found the lovely red drapes half torn down. I was partially wrapped up in them, with a lamp from the nightstand near my feet. I managed to get myself untangled and replaced the lamp. It still worked, and its dim light revealed the horror of the rest of the room.

The sheets were on top of the dresser. The desk chair was across the room. The couch was on its top. The coffee table was…well, it was hanging out of the bathroom. It looked like a tornado had hit the place.

Not a tornado. Just a force of nature.

Another knock at the door. “Jade? Please let me in.”

She was still there. I clenched my hands into fists and dug the nails into my palms. Damn it. “No,” I said, but it was barely audible. The screaming had left my throat parched and sore. I wandered over to the mini-fridge next to the fireplace and pulled out a water bottle. I coughed as it ran down my aching throat.

I moved through the mess, stepping around the fallen desk chair and over the busted room phone.  Guess I won’t be calling for room service,  I thought bitterly. I reached the door and looked out the peephole. Tori was on the other side, still looking gorgeous in her black and crimson gown. The only thing was that her eyes seemed bloodshot.

She placed a hand on the door, unaware I was watching her.

“Jade, please.”

“Why?”

She heard my voice and her eyes widened. She leaned closer to the door. I couldn’t see her face anymore.

“Because I want to talk to you and I’d rather do it face to face.”

I turned and leaned against the door. My eyes pooled with more unshed tears; my heart rattled in my chest. 

“I don’t want to see you right now.”

A moment of silence dragged on for so long, I thought she left.

“I know that I don’t deserve to come in,” she said slowly. Her voice cracked and wavered. “But I’m hoping you’ll find it in your heart to let me.”

I slid down to the floor and rested the back of my aching head against the door. I wanted to let her in. And I wanted to open the door so I could slam it in her face. “Joke’s on you. I don’t have a heart.”

“Come on, Jade. I know that’s not true.”

“It’s true,” I snapped. I was losing control and I knew it. “I mean, I  had  one. Earlier tonight. But see, then I did something really stupid. I made the mistake of showing it to you and sharing it with you. And then it got stepped on and spit on and completely fucking broken.”

The tears fell. I wiped them away quickly, as if I were afraid someone would see them.

Get it together you damn baby.

“I am so, so sorry. What you did was the most beautiful thing anyone’s ever done for me.” Her voice cracked again, bad this time. “I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought you were singing to Beck at first, but…then you reached out and took my hand. And I thought, oh god what is she doing? Beck’s right there, what’s happening? I freaked out, and I’m sorry.”

“Well that fixes everything,” I grumbled.

“No, it doesn’t. It’s just a stupid word, and it doesn’t even come close to how I really feel. There’s no excuse for what I did, and I’m not trying to give you one. But Jade, looking back at…at  us , can you blame me for being a little mixed up?”

More fucking tears. Because she was right, and I knew it. It wasn’t just on her. I’m the one who taught her to doubt me. Me. My stupidity. My confusion. 

“No, Vega. I can’t blame you. In fact, I don’t. That’s what pisses me off the most. I get it. I’ve been horrible to you since the day we met. And it was all bullshit. Because the more I tried to convince myself that I didn’t like you, the more I knew I did. The harder I pushed you away, the closer I wanted to be. And that confusion and loss of control scares the shit out of me.”

I heard her ragged breaths as she tried to get her crying under control. “I’m scared too, Jade. Scared of what I feel, scared of what might happen. But I ran from it. You didn’t. You had the courage to face it. And that’s given me courage, too. So please…let me in so we can talk.”

“I can’t,” I said through clenched teeth. “Not after tonight. I can’t.”

“Please.” She was trying to keep it together, but her voice cracked with desperation.

“Vega, just go.”

“No. Not until you let me in.”

My patience, what little I had, was slipping. “There’s nothing you can say that will make me open this door.”

Tori drew in a deep breath. “I…I lied the other day. I remember our kiss. I remember every second of it.”

Goddamn it.

I struggled to my feet and unlocked the door. I glared at her, not even trying to hide the pain and confusion. “Look me in the eye and say that again,”

Her eyes darted all around me as if she were scared to repeat herself. She took a shaky breath. “I remember our kiss. It was amazing. It still gives me butterflies when I think about it.”

I swallowed hard. The slightest tinge of a smile pulled at my cheek, but it didn’t last. I took in the sight of Tori, so radiant in her gown, her gorgeous features red and swollen from tears I didn’t want her to have.

Shut the door, Jade. End this now and get over her.

My hand tightened on the doorknob, and I stood aside. Relief washed over Tori’s pretty face as she walked into the room. It turned to concern as she saw the disaster I’d left in my wake.

“Wow,” she said. “Were you robbed or something?”

I slammed the door behind me. “I redecorated. I mean who the hell hangs drapes over windows? And that lamp obviously looks better on the floor.”

I brushed past her and moved to the fireplace. I grabbed another bottle of water from the mini-fridge and threw it at her, maybe a little harder than I should have. She reacted quickly and caught it, but she got the message.

“Thanks. I probably deserved that.”

Since I had flipped the couch during my rage-infused tantrum earlier and didn’t especially feel like fixing it, I climbed up into the massive bed and sat with my back against the wall.

“Why did you lie about the kiss?”

Tori looked away from me. I recognized the look of shame on her face. She slid up onto the bed next to me and straightened out her gown. In the king-sized bed, she felt worlds away from me.

“I wasn’t going to,” she said slowly. “I woke up with a terrible headache. I felt really awful. I took some painkillers. But I remembered the kiss. And I remember pulling you towards me. God, all I wanted in that moment was…”

Her cheeks were bright red. She smiled to herself and looked away from me.

“Anyway, I remembered that I kind of crashed on you. I felt so bad. I was all set to talk about it, but you were still sleeping. So I dozed off. When I woke up again, you were in the shower, so I waited some more. Then Beck called.”

I winced. I knew what was coming next, and it made my head and my heart hurt worse.

“Oh, shit. All those stupid things I said to him…”

Tori nodded. “I mean, it was pretty normal stuff. I especially liked the part that I was even more obnoxious when I was drunk.”

“Tori—“

“It’s fine. I figured that maybe it had just been the booze. That you either didn’t remember the kiss or didn’t want to.”

I squeezed my eyes shut against a fresh pool of tears. “I was just saying what he expected me to say. I didn’t mean any of it.”

“Well, I didn’t know that. Not until you were singing to me tonight.” She wiped her own eyes as fresh tears appeared. “I should have just been honest, but I didn’t want you to be mad at me. And I really didn’t want to screw things up with you and Beck. I thought maybe if you believed I was too drunk to remember, that you wouldn’t feel like you needed to tell Beck and mess things up with him.”

I turned slightly to face her. “You did that for me?”

Her innocent smile stole my breath away. “Always.”

All the pain and darkness of the past few hours, all the frustration and ambiguity of the past few weeks—shit, the past few years—began to slowly fade. It was a strange feeling to look upon Tori without being weighed down by all of that. I saw her with fresh eyes and a fresh heart. We connected in a way we never had, and all without a single word. No walls, no barriers, no lies, or dancing around the truth. My heart swelled in a way I never felt before. My hands shook, but not out of fear or angst.

What’s happening to me?

I looked away from her. “So what, does this mean you’re all into me now?” I asked, letting just a hint of a smirk find its way to my lips. “Because if that’s the case, y’know, I think maybe…I’d be cool with that.”

Tori laughed that musical laugh, and my stomach flipped. She reached her slender arm over to mine and took my hand in hers. Her fingers slid between mine and that simple, honest touch sent my heart soaring. We slid closer together. She took my hand in both of hers and squeezed it against her, then gently kissed the back of it. The touch of her soft lips on my skin sent chills in every direction.

“Is that a yes or what? I’m not getting any—“

As I spoke, she cupped my cheek and turned me to face her. Our lips connected. It was like kissing the softest silk and pure electricity at the same time. I breathed deeply, took in the scent of her skin and her hair. Gradually, our lips parted, our mouths opened, and my tongue found hers eagerly waiting to embrace. The kiss was sparked of a slow-burning fire that slowly consumed my entire body.

A soft groan escaped Tori’s lips as the urgency between us escalated. An ache grew between my thighs, a desperate plea for Tori's touch that drove me into a frenzy. I hiked my dress up to my hips and straddled her as she rested her back against the wall-mounted headboard. Her lips curled upwards in a smile against my kisses. Her cheeks were so soft under my hands as I pulled her closer and welcomed her tongue into my mouth. Her left hand rested on my hip, her right on my bare thigh. This one gently crept between my legs unnoticed, until I felt the pressure against my slit.

Oh god, the touch. My breath caught in my throat. I pulled away mid-kiss as primal groan escaped my lips. "Ooohhhhh god." Tori smiled--smirked, really--at me. The desire in her eyes was chilling. She pressed into my slit again. "Oh, fuck," I gasped as I sharply inhaled. I gasped for air as Tori pressed into me a third time. Her hand disappeared and I looked to her with sheer desperation in my eyes. I wanted her to touch me. I needed her to touch me. I kissed her again and ground my hips into her, desperate to feel her fingers pressing into me again.

Instead, her hands slid down my back. My entire body trembled as my zipper loosened and my dress came free. I let it fall from my shoulders. Tori's hands were warm against the bare skin of my back; her caresses were like fire. She slid up my back and unclasped my bra. With no straps, it fell effortlessly between us, and suddenly my breasts were completely exposed before Tori.

I sat up straighter as her hungry eyes drank in the sight. And they were so very hungry. The way she looked at me, the way her hands caressed my breasts, sent a surge of moisture between my legs. The desire in her eyes filled me with warmth, and when she finally pressed her lips against them for the first time, I couldn't help but groan. Her slender fingers roamed across my breasts, touching every inch. Her cool lips were a balm as they encircled my nipples, coaxing more breathy gasps from my lips. As Tori took my nipples into her mouth, I ran my hands through her hair, pulling her closer to me. "Vega," I gasped. Hearing her name seemed to spur her onward.

She focused her efforts on my left breast, sucking my nipple into her mouth and massaging the rest with her hand. Her left hand did the same. I rested my right hand on her left, sliding my fingers between hers, then resting atop hers, guiding them to my nipple. Using Tori's fingers, I squeezed, pinched, and tugged at my nipple on that side. Without a word, Tori understood. Her gentle touch turned aggressive. My body quivered under the assault, sending electric currents through my breasts. "Oh god," I gasped. "Harder, Vega."

She bit me. She covered her teeth with her lips, took my nipple in her mouth, and bit down. I nearly came on the spot.

"Oh, fuck!" I cried out, partly in surprise and partly in ecstacy.

Tori was a fast learner. She was all over my breasts, squeezing, pinching licking, nibbling, biting. I grew wetter with each moment, and the dull ache between my legs became a desperate throb.

All at once, her hands and lips were gone. Her weight shifted underneath me and she pushed me, hard. I fell backwards, catching myself on my elbows as Tori slid out from under me and rose to her knees. She eyed me up and down, a lusty grin spreading across her lips. She took hold of my dress and pulled, hard, yanking it off of me in one swoop. She undid her own, and my mouth watered as she slid it off, slowly exposing her bra, then her abs, and finally her lacy black underwear. Her bra came off next and oh my god, her breasts were perfect; flawless skin, dark round nipples hard and begging for my lips.

She lowered herself between my legs, eyeing me like a cat ready to pounce. She crawled slowly up my body, leaving long, wet kisses on my thigh, my abs, between my breasts. Her breasts pressed against me as she crawled along, her rock-hard nipples dragging across my bare skin. She lifted herself on her arms and dangled them in front of my face. I reached for them and managed to pull one of those perfectly-formed nipples into my mouth for just a second before she pulled them away from me.

I groaned in frustration and Tori giggled in response. She giggled! She was becoming quite the little sadist, it seemed. She nibbled at my neck and slid her left hand down my body; from my neck, over my breasts, down my stomach. She slowed down at the top edge of my underwear. Inch by agonizing inch, she sslid her fingers under the waistband...slowly, so very slowly, they slid down. I opened my legs wider in anticipation of a touch that just wouldn't come. I started squirming, moving my hips around, praying for her fingers to finally reach the raging fire between my legs.

Tori nibble her way back to my lips and teased a kiss that she refused to grant. I tried chasing her, leaning up, but she pulled away. Her fingers reached the folds of my lips and stopped. I was gasping desperately, writhing in anticipation. When my eyes connected with hers, she smiled.

“Beg me,” she said. I leaned up to kiss her, but she pulled away again. "Beg me."

"Please," I said. "Please, Vega."

Surprise flashed across her face, quickly swallowed by lusty desire. She kissed me long and hard, and slipped her finger inside of me at the same moment.

For the second time that night, I nearly came on the spot.

Tori was relentless. She slid a second finger inside of me as she kissed me, kissed me, kissed me everywhere could reach: my mouth, my neck, my breasts, back again. Not a second went by that Tori’s fingers weren’t working their magic inside of me, nor her lips working their magic all over me.

My own body was in constant motion. I began grinding against her fingers as they thrust ever-deeper; I dragged my nails down her slender back; I kissed whatever I could reach for as long as I could. I might have been content to keep that up for hours, but Tori’s fingers shifted and suddenly her thumb was rubbing my clit.

The heat within me reached critical mass. My body went rigid, my muscles tensed. I placed my hands on her face. “Oh god, Vega…look at me…please…”

Her enormous eyes found mine. They were filled with hunger, with lust…and somewhere, deeper, behind the carnal, visceral desire…with love.

I clamped down on her fingers as my entire body shook violently. Our gaze didn’t break, not for a second. Every spasm, every twitch, every bit of ecstasy was on full display in my eyes, and Tori couldn’t look away. I came harder than I ever had, as wave after wave of pure delight rocked my body. As it finally began to pass, Tori kissed me again. Her tongue wrapped around mine and suddenly there was another spark between my legs; Tori’s relentless fingers picked up speed, her thumb mercilessly assaulting my aching clit. To my incredible surprise, my muscles stiffened again.

"Oh my god, what the fuck is happening...? Oohhhh, fuck, Vega..."

Again my body shook as I came for the second time. I screamed into Tori's neck and sank my teeth into her. She groaned at that and tried to pull away, but I held her close. As the orgasm finally faded, my body twitched, spasmed, and went limp. Tori's face contorted in surprise.

"Wow," she said.

“Wow is not the word for it," I said breathlessly. "Oh my god. Oh my god. Twice, Vega. Never in my life...twice! Fuck. Get over here.”

Even as my body complained against the movement, I pulled Tori close to me and kissed her. I slowly sat up as she straddled me. We kissed there like that for what seemed like an eternity. I held her close, felt her bare skin against mine, heat and sweat mingling between us. When I recovered enough strength, I pushed myself up to my knees, which forced Tori onto her back, her slender legs spread before me. I kissed down that flawless body, finally relishing the chance to take her nipples into my mouth. My hands explored every inch of her, and my tongue did the same as I slid it down those amazing abs. I kissed lower and lower, relishing the taste of her skin.

I would normally have tormented her a little more when I reached her underwear, but my mind was barely my own. After the breathtaking orgasms she’d just given me, the only thing on my mind was tearing off her lacy black underwear and burying my tongue inside of her. And that is what I did.

Oh, I played a little. After tossing her underwear aside, I nibbled my way up her thighs. But she was so wet and I didn’t have to go very far before I got just a small taste of her. That small taste lit a fire within me, and I had to have more. I caressed the silky folds of her lips with my tongue, taking in the taste and scent of her before going all-in. I stretched my tongue as far as I could, pressing deeper inside of Tori.

“Uhhhh…oh yessss…”

I was captivated not only by the taste of Tori’s sweetness but her sexy, primal groans. I wanted more! I had to taste more, I had to hear her those groans again. I caressed every inch of naked flesh my hands could reach, while focusing on driving my tongue deeper, finding those hidden places that would coax out more of those sexy noises.

Tori’s hands ran through my hair, and every time I found a hidden spot, her fingers would stiffen and she’d pull my hair. This drove me onward even more. Fresh waves flowed from between her legs as I struggled to keep up, wanting, needing every drop. When at long last I slid my tongue to her clit and pressed a pair of fingers inside her, the gasping and groaning reached a fever pitch.

“Ooohhh, yessss. Jade! Jade! Fuck, that’s sooooooohhhh my god….”

Hearing Tori drop an “f” bomb might have made me hotter than anything else. I drew her clit between my lips, gently biting down and rubbing it. I felt the spasms building in her thighs. She grabbed a handful of my hair and ground her hips into my face. Her body shook and she screamed. “Jade, oh my fucking god!”

I could barely breathe, so great was the force of her orgasm and so tight was her grip on my head. She squeezed her thighs together as she came, further trapping me. I didn’t care. I could have drowned at that moment and died with a huge smile on my face.

Tor’s grip loosened and her muscles relaxed. I kissed my way up her body, stopping just short of kissing her lips. She wasn’t having that; she pulled me to her. We kissed deeply, and she groaned as she tasted herself. When we were out of breath from the kissing, I collapsed next to her.

We stared in each other’s eyes, our bodies entangled, caressing each other’s sides and backs. No words came to mind. Just contented, happy, exhausted smiles. I couldn’t believe I was there, finally, with Tori Vega wrapped in my arms.

She kissed my forehead. “You know that song you sang tonight? The part you sang after you pulled me to my feet?”

“Yeah.”

Tori kissed my nose, then smiled her beautiful smile. “I love you too.”

I kissed her again, because I couldn’t do anything else. Because I didn’t want her to see the tears of joy that suddenly pooled in my eyes. Because I knew at that moment what it felt like to be exposed and vulnerable, but protected and safe. I knew at that moment what it meant to be home. And I never wanted to leave it again.

Chapter Text

The memories came rushing back.

Tori’s lips. Her sighs. Groans. Muffled screams.

As my mind and body woke up, my heart pounded with excitement. It was morning. A new day. A new world, really. For weeks now, my world had been in flux. Uncertainty and fear and frustration cast a shadow over everything. But today was different. That dark, uncertain world was gone.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s beauty in darkness. And there’s darkness in beauty. Was there a better explanation for why Tori and I fit together so perfectly?

I couldn’t wait any longer. I forced my eyes open. I had to see her.

She was next to me, on her left side. I wondered if she’d moved at all during the night. Her gorgeous eyes were already open and staring at me. God help me, I blushed under the attention.

“How long have you been staring at me?”

“I don’t know. Wasn’t keeping track. You’re so peaceful when you sleep. I’m not used to seeing you so calm.”

“That’s not a creepy thing to say at all.”

Tori scrunched up her nose at me. “Are you still going to try and torment me all day?”

I feigned thoughtfulness. “Well…not all day.” I flashed her a devilish grin. “And I promise, you’ll enjoy the kinds of torment I have in mind.”

Tori shook and her cheeks turned bright red.

I smirked and broke out the movie star voice. “Tori Vega, did you just get a chill?”

“I don’t talk like that,” she said. A shifty grin crossed her lips. “Is it weird that I’m wondering what you’d sound like, talking in that voice, if I did…this?”

Something shifted under the sheets between us and I felt one of Tori’s fingers sliding its way between my legs.  Oh my god, she’s serious…

I smiled. This girl had a twisty side I’d never seen before. It was going to be such fun exploring that.

“Oh my goodness, whatever are you trying to do to me?” I asked in the voice. I rolled over and let my legs fall open, granting Tori access. I felt like an idiot, but the goofy grin on her face was more than worth a little humiliation. Besides, after last night, I figured I could stand a bit of embarrassment with her.

She ran her fingers up and down my slit. It didn’t take long for my breathing to shallow under her touch. The girl had some kind of damn radar or instinct; she knew exactly how to touch me.

“Oh, my,” I gasped, still keeping the voice going. “You’re very good at that. Ooohhh my stars.”

Tori leaned up on her other arm and kissed my cheek. “You’re adorable.”

“Tell me something I don’t knooowww,” I said, almost losing the voice at the end because Tori brushed against my clit.

“Okay,” she smiled, leaning down to my ear. “You’re about to scream a lot louder.”

She disappeared under the sheet, leaving her one hand to roam over my breasts.

“That sounds delightful,” I said. “But just what is it you’re doing down—oh my goodness gracious, is that your tongue?”

I heard a disembodied giggle rise from under the sheets. It was most definitely Tori’s tongue, and it was most definitely slipping its way inside of me. As gifted as she was with her fingers—and let me stress, her fingers were by far the most skilled I’d ever encountered—her tongue was even better. I knew it was on the long side, but it was less the length and more the intuition that had me grabbing a fistful of bedsheet. I’ve got a few hot spots that drive me a little crazier, and Tori managed to hit two of them purely by instinct. But she was paying attention, too. When she felt me jump or gasp or swear, she’d remember that spot and revisit it.

“Ooohhh, my goodness. You are just the bee's knees! Whoooaaa gosh!” It was getting tougher to keep the voice going, and when she slid her fingers inside of me, I damn near lost it completely. “Ooohhh, fuck! That wasn’t very ladylike but yoouuuu ohhhh!”

Tori moved her tongue to my clit and started thrusting harder with her fingers. I was gasping for air. I ripped part of the fitted sheet off the bed. My body was shaking. I squeezed my breasts with one hand and grabbed a handful of Tori’s hair with the other. I ground her face into me as I felt the first bit of tension creep in.

“Oh, god…oh, Tori…Oohhh!”

I came hard, arching my back and screaming into the ceiling.

Half a second before the orgasm hit, I heard a strange sound; a beep, as if someone were using a key card to get into the room. I didn’t think anything of it or the click of the door handle.

But as I screamed through the orgasm in that ridiculous voice, I glanced over in the direction of the door and found Beck, Andre, Sam, and Cat standing there, staring. 

My feral cry from the orgasm very quickly transitioned from, “oohhh” into, “oohhh shit!”

Tori’s tongue slid off my clit, sending chills all through me. She was still thrusting her fingers, which left me trembling and gasping. In front of everyone.

“Oh, look, sweetheart, we have uninvited guests!”

Yes, I said it in the movie star voice. When Jade West commits, she commits.

“What?” came Tori’s reply. She pulled her fingers out and crawled up my body. I glanced at her as she emerged from under the sheets, then nodded at our assembled friends.

“Oohhh, shit,” she said, then she slid back under the sheet.

The guys and Cat covered their eyes and turned away. Sam, who had been on her phone at first, glanced up. Saw me. Looked around the room and took in the mess from my tantrum the night before. Looked back at me.

“So did she have to sign an insurance waiver before you guys went at it, or…?”


After several profuse apologies from Beck for using his keycard unannounced (since that was technically “our” suite), our friends agreed to do a coffee and donut run to give us a chance to clean up and put the room back together. Sam was the last one out the door. She turned back before stepping out, glanced back at the room, then at me. “I don’t want it until you’ve showered but you’ve earned a high five for that shit,” she said.

Sam Puckett, ladies and gentlemen. She’s good people.

I laughed and pushed her the rest of the way out the door. Tori finally climbed out from under the sheets. She slowly stood and stretched her long limbs. Her hair was an unkempt mess, her makeup was smudged, her eyes were red, and she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

“Do you think they know?”

“Probably a safe bet, yeah. Are you okay with that?”

She walked—limped, really—over to me. And then, in her best impression of me doing an impression of her, she said, “I’m just peachy-keen about it, sugar lips.”

Holy. Shit. I mean, I’ve always known that stupid voice sounded nothing like her, but she nailed it. Perfectly nailed it.

“You are such a dork,” I said, pulling her close to me.

"Yeah? Is it dorky to admit that I kind of liked it when you called me Tori instead of Vega?"

"Not at all, Tori. So from now on, Tori, I'll introduce you to everyone I meet as my girlfriend, Tori." She laughed at the comment, but I could see a bit of extra moisture creeping behind into her eyes. I didn't realize how much it meant to her. "If that's okay with you, Tori." She giggled and nodded, then pulled me close. We kissed, and I caught a taste of myself on her lips. There are fewer ways to rev my engine as quickly as that, so I broke it off right away.

“What’s wrong?”

“If that would have gone on any longer, we’d never get this place cleaned up,” I said.

Tori pressed her body against mine in dramatic fashion. “Maybe we should start with cleaning ourselves up,” she said, squeezing my ass. “Care to join me in there?”

She turned to lead me into the bathroom but stopped short when she saw the coffee table jutting out.

“Okay, how did you even do that?”


We managed to shower and get the place cleaned up before anyone got back, and without ravaging each other. Well, almost. I did convince Tori to slide up onto the sink in the bathroom while I returned the favor from earlier. If I thought that girl had a long body before, seeing it from my knees in front of her changed my perspective even more. She just went on and on forever.  The girl is a goddess,  I thought.  Plain and simple.

And it was very tempting to let our hands and lips wander as we stood in the shower. But let’s be real, folks, shower sex is just not very fun and the water creates a lot of weird friction and dry skin. But running my hands all over that flawless body with a soapy washcloth certainly brought back the aching. Given how much time she took doing the same to me, I expected that was true for her, too.

I mean, we did have a lot of lost time to make up for.

But we managed to finish the work a good ten minutes to spare before the boys, Sam, and Cat showed up. Tori used the complimentary bathrobe to walk across the hall and get some fresh clothes from her room. She brought her suitcase over with her and I swear to chrysler my stomach fluttered.

Oh my god, we’re a couple. We’re actually a couple. Holy shit.

“So since we’re a thing now, does that mean we have to have one of those combined names?”

Tori laughed as she pulled on a pair of snug hip-huggers. “What?”

“A couple's name.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “How bout Jori?"

“That’s just your first name with one letter of mine on it,” I said.

Tori moved to my side and sat on my lap. She wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed my forehead. “Well, yeah. I put your letter first on purpose.”

“Why? Because I’m a bigger star?”

She playfully smacked my shoulder. “No. Because Jade came first.” She laughed at what I assume was a joke, but I didn’t catch it right away. “Get it? Huh? Because last night you  came  first? Huh? Funny, right?”

Oh, this girl. Such a dork. Such a keeper.

“Okay. Jori it is, I guess. Sounds better than ‘Tade’ anyway. Tade sounds like some pretentious hipster that works at Starbucks and misspells your name on the cup on purpose.”

Tori smiled and my breath caught in my throat. She was so beautiful. How could I ever had been so mixed up about her? I reached up to pull her into a kiss, but a very loud knock at the door interrupted us before our lips got anywhere close to each other.

“We’re here,” Andre said. “So please get dressed.”

“We won’t come in until you open the door!” Beck said.

“Screw that,” Sam mumbled. “Did you see that room? Aren’t you guys even a little curious?”

Tori rolled her eyes and slid off my lap. I admired the sway of her hips as she hurried to unlock the door.

Why did it take you so long, Jade? How were you so damn stupid for so long?

Andre and Beck walked in and laid out the donuts on the desk. Cat and Sam handed out everyone’s coffee from a pair of drink carriers. I grabbed a Boston Cream and sat back in the chair next to the fireplace. Tori took up a spot on the floor right in front of me, resting her head against my leg. I loved just sitting there, touching her.

“So, uh, I guess y’all made up then?” Andre asked awkwardly. “Never mind. I don’t need to know details. I just wanna make sure you’re all in a good place before I show you this.”

Something about his voice made me apprehensive. “Show us what?”

“So you haven’t been on any social media sites this morning?”

When a Xennial or a Millenial asks you if you’ve been on any social media sites, it’s a pretty good sign there’s something very bad going around. I hadn’t looked at my phone since the previous night. It was tangled up in the comforter I’d thrown off the bed. I had tossed it on my nightstand when we were cleaning and hadn’t bothered to look at it.

“Just show them,” Beck said.

 “All right. Here.”

Andre handed me his phone. Tori slid up on my lap for a better view. The video was of me, singing to Tori at the club. “Oh my god, my ass looks huge,” I mumbled.

Tori squeezed my leg. “Your ass is perfect,” she said. “And you sound amazing. Wow.”

“I don’t get the big deal, it’s just me singing. Tons of people saw that.”

“Just watch until the end,” Beck said.

Whoever had recorded the video kept it rolling through the entire song and its aftermath. I watched in horror as my face contorted into a confused, embarrassed rage after Tori questioned my song. I barely remembered my reaction, I just knew I stormed off in a cloud of unshed tears, shoving my way through people.

I saw it all unfold. Beck had tried to help me. I shoved him so hard, he fell into the chair behind him. I stormed off roughly in the direction of whoever was filming the video. I knocked down two people as I was storming off, then walked right into whoever was filming. I screamed something unintelligible at them, and suddenly the camera was on the ground, shooting the ceiling.

“Did you see that?” a feminine voice said. “She knocked me over. Who was that?”

A face quickly appeared on the screen as a hand grabbed the camera. The video ended.

My face was on fire. My hands shook. Tori took one of them in hers and gently kissed it.

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “What do you need? Do you want to hit something?”

“There’s always a sock full of butter,” Sam offered.

Cat squeezed Sam’s hand. “Sweetie, butter socks aren’t always the answer,” she said. “We’ve talked about this, remember?”

“True,” Sam said thoughtfully. “You could try pickles, but the brine would get everywhere.”

Cat put a finger over Sam’s lips. “Sam, I love you so much, but you should really stop making suggestions,” she said. She leaned in and kissed Sam.

“I’m fine,” I said softly. The rage was bubbling below the surface, but the touch of Tori’s hands had stemmed it. I was still going to strangle whoever had posted the video, but I felt like I could keep my anger under control until we figured that part out.

“Okay.” The trust and faith she showed in me felt wonderful. The rage faded almost completely. I brought her hand to my lips and kissed it.

“Do we know who posted it? I mean, who would ever care that it’s out there?”

Andre took his phone back and started tapping. “I found it on a few pages from people we went to school with,” he said. “Give me a few minutes, I’ll find out where it came from.”

My phone vibrated on the nightstand. Sam was the closest; she reached over and grabbed it.

“Someone named Liz?”

“That’s my producer.” Sam tossed me my phone and I answered. “Hey, Liz.”

“Jade! I thought something had happened. Why haven’t you answered my texts?”

My heart sank. I glanced at my screen and saw over twenty unanswered texts from Liz.

“I’m sorry. It’s been a really weird twelve hours, Liz.”

“No kidding. I’m sure whatever happened after you bowled over whoever shot that video was very, very weird.”

I winced at Liz’s tone; she seemed kind of pissed. My heart sank further knowing that she’d seen the video.

“You saw that?”

“Fifteen million people have seen it in six hours. That’s half the population of Texas, Jade.” She sighed. “Look, what happened isn’t my business, but a few of the local papers out here picked up on this. And some of them were the ones who had such great things to say about your film. This doesn’t do you or your leading lady any favors. And if it gets back to Les…”

Goddamn it, why can’t shit just go right for once?

“I’m sorry, Liz. I had no idea anyone was filming us. We’re trying to find out who posted it. Maybe we can get them to take it down.”

“It’s out there, honey. It’s not going anywhere. But I guess it couldn’t hurt. Just keep a low profile, okay? Let’s hope Les isn’t social media savvy. I’ll try to get out ahead of it. When are you coming home?”

“Flying back tomorrow night. I’ll be there on Monday for the meeting with Les.”

“Good. Be safe, you see then.”

The call ended. I stared at the floor for a minute, then stood up so quickly, I almost dumped Tori on the floor.

“Shit!” I said.

“She knows?”

I rubbed my eyes. I felt a headache coming on. “She knows. A lot of people know. Apparently, it got picked up by some of the outlets that covered the premiere.”

“So you’re famous?” Cat asked.

Poor, sweet, innocent Cat.

“Not in a good way,” Sam said. “If a lot of people see that video, it will make it tougher for the people she works for to get the funding they need for that movie.”

“Which means Jade won’t be able to get the money for  her  movie,” Tori added. “At least not with Grim Productions. Jade, I’m so sorry. This is my fault.”

Tori wore her sadness and worry openly. I moved to her. “This isn’t your fault. I’m the one who did things this way. I’m the one who lost my temper. I’m the one who pushed over the asshole making the video.”

“But if I’d have reacted differently—“

“Stop it. You reacted the way you did because of me. There’s no blame to share here, all right? It’s on me. And anyway, what good does it do to blame anyone? It’s not going to fix it. That’s what we need to focus on. Okay?”

Tori nodded, and the worry dissipated. She pulled me into a tight embrace. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Hey Beck,” Andre said. “Look at this. This chick look familiar to you?”

Andre handed Beck his phone. He squinted at the screen. “Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Cat?”

Cat hurried over and looked at the phone. Tori and I exchanged worried glances.

“Ohmygosh, it’s Sam!”

“What!?” Sam took the phone. “Cat, I’m already in the video. See?” She scrubbed ahead again. “You’re right though, that chick does look like me. Just a lot dorkier.”

“Could it be Melanie?” Cat asked.

“No, she’s working for the Peace Corps, she’s nowhere near New York right now.”

Cat whimpered. “You didn’t get bit by a triplet, did you?”

I was used to Cat saying strange things. That might have been among the strangest.

“What?” I asked. “Bitten by a triplet?”

Sam groaned and rubbed her eyes. “I’m never going to live that down, am I? No sweetie, I promise you, I don’t have a triplet out there. It’s just me and Melanie. And she’s nowhere near here. And she has better hair than that chick.”

I took the phone and looked. The image was frozen on one of the final frames of the video, where the owner of the phone picked it back up after I pushed her down. It was blurry, but it really did look a lot like Sam, except for the thin brown hair and stringy bangs.

I saw her face and I knew it, but hell if I could remember where from.

Tori pressed against my side as she looked at the phone. She gasped and pulled it away. “Oh my god.” She looked at the guys, then at me. “Is that who I think it is?”

Andre nodded. “Sure looks like it.”

“Who?” I asked. “Who is it?”

Tori looked back at the phone. Her dark skin seemed to pale. “Ponnie,” she said. “Crazy Ponnie.”

Chapter Text

In the years I’d known Tori, or any of our friends from high school, it was a rare occasion for something serious to befall us. We got into our share of trouble, but it usually wasn’t anything dire. So my concern for Tori was dialed up to fifty when I saw the haunted, fearful look in her eyes.

“Who the hell is Ponnie?” I asked.

Tori swallowed hard. I guided her to the chair I’d been in and she sat down.

“You don’t remember back at Hollywood Arts, that time I kept insisting there was a girl in our class named Ponnie but she kept disappearing on me?”

I thought back. So much weird shit happened daily in that school, I had a hard time connecting to this particular event. It was Cat who actually jogged my memory, as her mousy voice squeaked out, “It was during the, uh…eyebrow incident.”

Now  that  I remembered. Cat had accidentally ripped off my eyebrows while trying to “help” me wax them. Her personal grooming was impeccable so I figured she’d be able to give me a hand. I ended up shaving her head to get back at her. Eventually, I felt pretty terrible about it, especially since my eyebrows grew back a lot faster than her hair.

“Okay, that I remember,” I said. “But I was pretty pissed off then. I kind of remember you being all freaked out about something but I chalked it up to you…” I trailed off. I hated that I thought this way back then. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought it was just you wanting attention.”

“That’s what everyone thought,” Tori said, thrusting out her lower lip in an expert pout.

“Yeah, but we were wrong,” Beck said. “There really was a girl stalking her. Fawn Liebowitz.”

Sam burst out laughing. Like, hard. I had my suspicions as to why, but no one else seemed to get it. “What, you guys don’t know where that name’s from?” she asked. Silence. “Toga! Toga! Toga! Nothing? A room full of film students and no one's seen Animal House? It’s a Jon Landis classic.”

Everyone else shrugged and mumbled. I knew what she was talking about, but I was much more concerned with how afraid Tori was. “I’ve seen it,” I said. “Fawn Liebowitz isn't even really a character, though. Otter just name-drops her to get a sympathy date with her roommate.”

“Yeah, but still, what are the odds?” Sam said. “I mean it's pretty obscure.”

“So you’re saying it’s a fake name?” Andre asked.

“Maybe,” Sam said.

“Or maybe her parents were huge John Belushi fans with an unfortunate last name,” I added.

Tori still seemed shaken. “Sikowitz is the one who called her Fawn,” Tori said. “I guess it could have been fake.”

I took Tori’s hand. “What did she do that has you so spooked?” Tori paled, and I quickly added, “You don’t have to tell me if it’s going to worry you.”

She took a breath and squeezed my hand. “Thanks. But I’m okay. First, she tried to pass herself off as some unpopular kid that we never noticed. She got me to feel sorry for her, like we were all jerks for ignoring her. But she kept disappearing on me, so everyone thought I was just being crazy. Then she came to my house to deliver Chinese food. She kicked me and dumped the food all over me and told me to get out of her school. She hid inside the pop machine and tried to grab me. I finally went to my mom and she got Gary and the police involved and they caught her at school. That’s when Sikowitz told us her name. Or the name he knew her by. She tried to tell me that I took her spot at Hollywood Arts, that they kicked her out to make room for me. But Sikowitz said that’s not true, she got kicked out because of her behavior. They were supposed to arrest her then but she got away from them. She ended up stealing the police car that Gary assigned to take Trina and me home.”

My entire world went red. “This bitch tried to kidnap you!?”

Tori nodded. “Thank god Trina was coming home with me. I was never so thankful that she knew karate.”

“So the cops still arrested her?” Beck asked.

“After Trina beat the hell out of her, yeah.”

I squeezed Tori’s shaking hands. “I had no idea any of that happened,” I said. “I don’t know what this crazy bitch is doing here, but we’ll find her. I promise.” I looked at our friends. “No one fucks Tori but me.” It took me a minute (and the silent stares of our friends) for me to catch the faux pax. “Okay, I obviously meant to say  with . No one fucks  with  Tori but me.”

Cat giggled. “Technically wouldn’t both be—“

Sam gently covered Cat’s mouth before she could finish the sentence. Cat shot her a dirty look and tried to pull Sam’s hand away. She strained and grunted but Sam’s hand didn’t budge. She mumbled something at Sam that I couldn’t understand. Sam seemed mortified.

“You’re only supposed to talk like that when it’s just us,” she mumbled softly.

Cat grumbled and crossed her arms.

“Andre, can I see that picture again?”

He nodded and tapped on his phone a few times. My phone went off, then one-by-one so did everyone else’s. “Sent it to everyone in case we need it,” he said.

I took a closer look at the image. The frame where she was picking up the phone showed her face and a small bit of her neck and shoulders. The outfit looked familiar. I knew I’d seen the color of the top before. The collar, in particular, looked familiar; angular, sharp, like something out of the Matrix. The only thing that threw me off was that its shoulders were greenish, but the sleeves were black.

I closed my eyes and thought back. Where else had I seen that? Where? Where?

I remembered the crowd. I spent most of the evening in the lounge until I sang. Not many guests came into the lounge area because we had it reserved. Just the…

Oh shit, that’s it!

I flipped through some pictures on my phone. I’d taken a few of everyone, including one of Andre flirting with a waitress at the club. She had on the exact same top: a black top with the distinct collar and a green vest.

“I think I’ve got it. Look.”

I showed the picture to the group. Andre smiled. “Oh, yeah. Christine. I gotta remember to text her today.”

“Gross. But look at what she’s wearing.”

Andre smirked. “Believe me, I saw what she was wearing. Can you send me this pic?”

“Andre! Keep it in your pants."

"My pants?" Andre asked indignantly. "You wanna talk about my pants? Did y'all forget the state you were in when we showed up this morning?"

"Oh, god," Tori mumbled, slinking deeper into her chair.

"I'm pretty sure that's what Jade was saying."

I loved Andre, but he was fast approaching a line he didn't want to cross. I reached over and grabbed him by his shirt collar, twisting it so it tightened a bit around his neck. "Just look at the picture of Fawn compared to this.”

I let go of his shirt. He brushed it down. "All right, all right. Damn." Andre took his phone out and brought up the image. Side-by-side there was no doubt: the crazy bitch was a waitress at <21.

“Well that should make finding her a lot easier,” Beck said.

“Bobby spins there all the time,” Sam said. “He can probably get us a copy of her schedule. I’ll text him right now.”

I turned to Tori. “See? We’ll take care of this, I promise.”

Tori didn’t seem comforted. She rose from the chair, grabbed my wrist, and pulled me across the room, to the door.

"Okay, are we ever going to stop dragging each other around by the wrist when we want to have a private conversation?" I asked. "There's no janitor's closet in our room."

If Tori found any humor in my remark, she didn't show it. “Is this a good idea? I don’t want to start something that could get ugly. Fawn is crazy.”

“We aren’t the ones starting it,” I said softly. “She did, by posting that crap. And really, she started it years ago with what she did to you.”

“I know but…that girl is freaking scary. She was locked up.”

“And now she’s out. Which means they let her go when she’s clearly still in need of help, or she broke out. Either way, that's not right.”

“Jade, I don’t want you to get hurt.“

The fear and concern in her eyes were so overwhelming and genuine I nearly melted. I'd never, ever experienced someone worrying about me like this, and to be honest, I had no idea how to handle it. “Oh, babe, come here,” I said, pulling her into an embrace. She wrapped her arms around me as if she were holding on for dear life. “I don’t want you to be worried about this. But that bitch hurt you, tried to kidnap you, and now she’s trying to ruin our careers. She may not know it yet, but she’s going down. And not in the good way.”

Tori pulled back to look me in the eye. “But—“

“But nothing. Look...the fact that you're worried about me...it's everything to me. I don't know how to process it, to be honest. But I just found you. Really found you. I'm home now. I'm not going to risk losing that. And I'm not going to let this girl wreck what we're trying to build." I offered Tori my most sincere and confident smirk. "Besides, who am I? Come on, you’re the one who said it first.”

Tori rolled her eyes, and a reluctant smile finally appeared. “You’re Jade fucking West.”

“That’s right. And Pony or Fawnie or whoever whatever she goes by now is gonna rue the day she fucked with my girl.”

Tori blushed. “Your girl, huh? Is that what I am now?”

“Damn right,” I said. “Not like I own you, obviously. But you’re my girl, and I’m yours. If...that's what you want.”

The fear melted away, replaced with a massive smile. “I never thought I’d hear you say that to me,” she said. "Of course that's what I want." She leaned in and kissed me. Her silky lips sent my knees quaking. If we had been alone in the room, she would already have been on that bed and her clothes would have been scattered all over the room. She finally pulled her lips away, but remained close to me. "I’m really glad you asked me to be in your movie.”

I licked my lips and could taste Tori's fruit-flavored lip gloss. “I’m glad you said yes.”

“And I’m glad there’s a bathroom right there because I’m going to puke,” Sam said with a shitty grin.

Tori and I blushed and stepped away from each other. "And this is why we need a janitor's closet," she said.

God, I love this woman.

“I just heard back from Bobby. He’s there tonight at 7:00 and there’s an F. Liebowitz on the schedule for the same time. That’s probably our nut job.”

“Okay, perfect,” I said. “You guys don’t have to come if you don’t want.”

“Have you met me?” Sam asked. “You think I’m going to pass up the chance to hit a bitch? You know I’ll be there. Carly and Freddie, too.”

“We’ll be there,” Andre said. “No way we’d let you two do this alone. I’m sure Robbie’ll come too.”

I felt such genuine affection for this group of weirdos at that moment. They were the true definition of friends, and I felt lucky to have them all in my corner. “Good. I’ve got some thoughts about what to do. Let's get together around 4.”

“Why can’t we go over it now?” Beck asked.

I looked at Tori and smiled. “Because no psycho bitch is going to ruin this trip for us. We’re in New York City, and I’m taking my girlfriend out on a proper date.”

Tori’s cheeks glowed brightly. She looked bashfully at the floor, then at me. My heart stuttered at her smile. This was going to be fun.

Chapter Text

First dates, man. Am I right?

There’s always tons of pressure to pick the right spot, or the perfect outfit or hairstyle. There’s a lot of weird pressure and most of the time we put it on ourselves. I guarantee you, whoever you’re going out with is doing the same damn thing.

It’s even weirder when you’re about to go on a first date with someone you’ve known forever. And made out with. And had sex with. And also used to torment daily and spent years being confused over how you felt about them.

First dates. Right?

If things hadn’t happened the way they did, I might not have even thought about it. It may have been premature to blurt out that she was “my girl” or my girlfriend. The fact was, she was going back to school when all this was over and I hadn’t even begun to ask myself if I’d be willing to follow her. There was still a lot to talk about, I guess.

I hate talking.

But then this idiot Fawnie shows up and screws things up.

It took me years— years— to figure out my feelings for Tori. I was still in the middle of accepting them. My emotions were out of control, my body felt all strung out. I was aching for her all the time, even when she was right next to me. The intensity of our connection, the goddamn mind-blowing sex, all of these things were spinning my brain right the fuck out of my head. So on top of the confusion and intensity, suddenly I’m in full protective mode because someone out there is trying to hurt her. It forced me into a mindset where I was pushed even closer to her before I had my mind sorted out.

I think that’s where the idea of taking her out came from. I wanted to get her mind off of things, get away from the hotel and do something fun. I mean, who knew when we’d be back in New York City together? And somewhere in my crowded, overclocked, overthinking brain, I think I knew that we needed to just be together. The circumstances that brought us together were so damn strange, we needed a bit of normal. Whatever normal is.

The problem was, I wasn’t good at dating. I had a boyfriend for years, but when we got together we weren’t “dating” because we were basically just kids in Jr. High. As the years went on, we’d hang out together at his place or mine, sometimes we’d catch a movie or go out to eat, but there was never a “dating” phase. I had no idea how to “woo” someone or ask them to be with me.

So while Tori and Cat returned to Tori’s room to get dressed, I asked Sam to stick around and help me figure out what to do. Andre and Beck agreed they wouldn’t be of much use and decided to go get some breakfast elsewhere. I could understand why Beck wouldn’t want to be a part of planning my date with Tori. I mean, he pushed me in her direction, but I still felt like maybe he was uncomfortable.

When they were gone, Sam plopped herself in the large armchair by the window. “So, I’ve got to know—even though I told Cat I wouldn’t ask—what the hell did you guys do last night? I mean this room was trashed.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said. “I did that myself last night when I got back.”

Sam raised an eyebrow in surprise. “I'm assuming it was in anger?" I nodded. "Nice. I’m still impressed. That’s a lot of destruction for one person.”

“Thanks. I think.” I unzipped my suitcase and starting rummaging through it, looking for some of the nicer tops I’d brought. I was glad I went with a few options with me, even though I wondered if any of them would work as I looked them over. Stupid first date jitters.

“So do you think this video thing will mess things up for your movie?”

I was trying not to focus on that, but I understood Sam’s curiosity. I shrugged the question off. “I don’t know. This industry is so screwed up. No one’s ever allowed to make a mistake or have a moment weakness or do something that some pansy-ass might be offended by. The freaking social media mob gets their knickers twisted one time and suddenly they’re all out to ruin your career. And even if you apologize, they still try to crush you because the apology didn’t meet their standards. Meanwhile, half the producers out there are nasty pedos with no morals at all, and the celebs who get all outraged with the social media mob are all enablers for their sick behavior.” I held up a snug green top and a grey top that dipped lower in the front.

“Hmmm. Grey one.”

I considered it and nodded. It was a good choice. Not as tight, but the plunging neckline and the right bra would put the girls right out there. I set it aside and went through the skirts and dresses I’d brought.

“I was only in LA for a few years but I get what you mean. Everyone loves to be a crusader for all these noble causes, but when they’re done lecturing all the little people they go right back to their private jets and pedo parties and pretend like they’re so amazing for doing their part to save the world.” I held up a layered black skirt. The attached belt had swirls and Gaelic-looking patterns interwoven in dull silver. “Hot. And cold. It’s only in the 40s today, you’ll definitely need leggings or hose or something.”

I sighed and set the skirt on the bed just below the top. I’d hoped to go bare-legged, but if it got too cold, I’d be miserable all day. “I wonder if I could get away with higher boots instead,” I mumbled.

“Why? Going for easy access to the goods?”

I didn’t even realize I said it loud enough for Sam to hear. My head snapped around when she said that and I felt my cheeks turning six shades of red. The moment Sam caught it, she burst out laughing at me.

“I’ve never seen you blush before,” she said when she caught her breath. “Sorry, West.”

I guess it was my dumb fault for mumbling too loud. I fished my black hose from my suitcase. If I was going to cover my legs, Tori would at least a nice view. Leggings were too thick and opaque, but they would have been warmer. I didn’t mind a bit of a chill if it gave Tori a better view of the legs I hoped would be wrapped around her head later.

Oh, damn. Was it getting warmer in there?

“So, any ideas on places to go? Have you and Cat done much out here?”

“A few things. I’ve been saving up to get the apartment so I’ve been kind of frugal. Which is a bitch. Doing stupid shit for money.”

Well,  that  had my attention.

“What kind of stupid shit?” I asked in the most judgmental tone I could pull off. “Should I be checking the celebrity tag at PornoHub?”

“Pffft, you wish,” Sam said with a smirk. “And don’t think there haven’t been offers.” I had no doubt. I didn’t mind admitting that Sam was a knockout. She had an amazing body, a great smile, and she was a total badass. In another lifetime I might have been into her, but her personality was too close to mine. We made great friends, but as a couple we probably would end up killing each other. “Mainly I’ve just been doing podcasts and local shows that want to talk about iCarly. And there are about two million podcasters in New York City alone, so…that’s a lot of telling the same stories over and over.”

“I wish I had your headaches,” I said with just a hint of jealousy. “You guys got to hang out and do your show from your own house and people are still talking about it all these years later. You guys practically coined the term ‘internet famous.’ And to still make money off of it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sam said. “Everything has its downside, though. I mean I loved the show and getting to be with Carly, but looking back on it, the shit we did was so weird. And I know that’s why it got popular, and that we were kids being kids but…I don’t know, maybe we could have done something better. Been better role models.” Sam shrugged. Clearly, she’d put some thought into this. “I mean I’m sure making movies has its downside, too. Or dating Vega. I mean I love Cat more than anything in the world, but she’s got those few things that I could live without. The honeymoon always ends, so to speak. And I’m sure that’s true for me with her.”

I pulled a pair of boots out of my suitcase. They were black leather and came up to my knees. I’d seen them affectionately dubbed “fuck me” boots, and it was obvious why. 

“Damn,” Sam said. “Are you trying to get her to jump you in the middle of your date?”

I lusty smirk crossed my lips. “I’m not  not  trying. And I don’t know, I think the downside with Vega has been wondering what the hell I felt about her for years,” I said. “That was a nightmare, and I’m still kind of waking up from it.”

“True, but dating Tori and being frenemies with Tori are two different experiences. You got the kinks worked out of the frenemy thing. Dating will have its own set of headaches to work out.”

“I guess, but we aren’t really dating,” I said, starting to feel a little overwhelmed.

“Not to be indelicate, but the way she was making you scream this morning, you’re either dating or you owe her a lot of money, because dayum.”

I sat down under the weight of all this information. It was a lot to take in, alongside everything else. Sam must have noticed my change in attitude because she hopped to her feet and started digging through my suitcase.

“Look, don’t let me get inside your head,” she said as she pulled out one of my bras. She fondled the cups a bit, then put it back and grabbed another. “You’ve got enough on your mind, I didn’t mean to add more to it.” She dropped the second bra and grabbed a third. She seemed satisfied with this one as she threw it to me. “Here’s what you need to focus on. Tori’s an amazing girl and she’s pretty much as smitten with you as you are with her. It doesn’t matter if you’re dating or not, it doesn’t matter if you’re frenemies or lovers or whatever. It’s all just labels and those don’t matter. What does matter is that you are seriously a hot ass bitch who is going to be smoking in this outfit, and that you’re going to go out with your gorgeous date and have a great time. And you’re not going to think about Fawn, or the movie, or any of the overwhelming emotional crap that’s weighing you down.”

I inspected the bra Sam had chosen. It was the one I had in mind when I settled on the grey top. “Well…where should we start? A picnic in the park?”

I was being a smartass but Sam jumped on the idea. “Yeah, those are great. But it’s all about how you arrive. And the musical accompaniment.”

I could see Sam’s wheels turning. She was invested now, and that lightened my load a bit.

“I appreciate this,” I said. “I’m not great at the whole dating thing. Beck and I never really did things like this.”

Sam shrugged. “It’s cool. I owe you one anyway, for kicking me in the ass when I needed it back during the prom. Now lets talk about this picnic.”


I checked myself in the mirror one last time. I looked good. Great, even. I knew I did. But I was so worried that it wasn’t good enough. The thought frustrated me. I never had that problem with Beck. I knew when I looked hot and he always thought so too. Why was I so neurotic about this?

I knew I shouldn’t be comparing the two. Beck and I knew each other from childhood, and we were very different people together than Tori and I were. But it was hard not to reach back to the only experience I really had.

Screw it, just go get her already.

I walked across the hall and knocked on Tori’s door. My heart was pounding like crazy already. Even though I showered that morning and put on deodorant and perfume, I still did a last-second pit check. Smoothed my hair down. Adjusted my bra. Tori opened the door just as I was pushing the girls up from underneath.

Shit.

I froze and looked up. She wore a red and black plaid skirt with black leggings, a snug black top with a swooping neckline that offered just the barest hint of cleavage, and her leather jacket. Her hair was down, brown and blond tresses flowing seamlessly into and around each other. I stood there like an idiot, my hands still under my own boobs, unable to get my brain back on track.

Her dark eyes roamed up and down my body, and her beautiful smile erupted when she saw the state of my hands.

“I thought we were going to at least get some lunch first,” she said.

I sheepishly pulled my hands away. “Sorry, just a last-minute adjustment.” My cheeks felt red hot, and I couldn’t look her in the eye for a few seconds. “You know how it is.”

“Not so much,” she said with a giggle. “Maybe on a slightly smaller scale.”

“Well…you know what they say.”

A few moments of silence passed as my brain shut down again.  Finish the sentence, idiot!

“Um…what do they say?”

That’s your cue, dumbass!

“Oh. Anything more than a handful is a waste.”

Tori stepped out in the hallway and closed the door behind her. She raised a skeptical eyebrow.. “People say that?”

“Sure,” I said. “I mean, I’ve said it. Once. Just now. That might be it. I’m really bad at this.”

Tori giggled again. “Yeah, but it's kind of adorable.”

“I hate adorable.”

She wrinkled her nose at me. “I’m adorable too. Do you hate me?”

Tori’s patience and flirty banner helped give my brain a minute to loosen up. “The jury’s still out on that one. Let’s go.”

I offered Tori my arm and she slipped hers through it. “Where are we off to?”

“You’ll see.”


“Oh my god, Jade! Are you serious?”

Tori stared, jaw agape, at the ride I secured for us: a gorgeous white open carriage with dark red seats. It was decorated for Christmas already, with bright red ribbons and greenery laced with gold tastefully placed along the outside. It was led by a single white horse with a red bridle. The driver wore a white tux with coattails and a red top hat with a green holly sprig. All in all it looked like something out of a Hallmark Christmas movie starring Candace Cameron or Amy Smart.

Tori threw her arms around my neck and squeezed the breath out of my lungs. “This is so cool!”

The driver removed his hat as we approached. “Ladies, my name is Cecil. Edward and I are pleased to be taking you around the city today. Please, allow me.”

He offered a hand to Tori and helped her climb aboard, then did the same for me. The carriage was spacious and the seats were surprisingly warm and soft. Cecil turned to us as we took our seats.

“Please remain seated while the carriage is in motion. If you’d like to stop anywhere during our journey, you have only to ask. I’ll do my best to adapt to any changes in the route you’d like to make. Do enjoy the ride.”

I settled in and Tori snuggled close to me as Cecil got us on our way. The day was bright and crisp. The open carriage and constant breeze made the trip a little chillier, but I didn’t mind; it was a good excuse for us to snuggle closer. The streets were lined with Christmas decorations already, all red and green and silver and gold. The weekend shopping crowd was out in full force. It was a charming scenario, and Tori’s wide-eyed wonder at every little detail was a joy to behold, even if I felt a little silly.

“This is amazing,” Tori said every few minutes. “I seriously can’t believe you did this. I never pegged you for a romantic.”

I chuckled. “I was just thinking how Hallmark Christmas movie all of this seems. But I’m glad you like it.”

She slipped her arm through mine and squeezed. “Nothing wrong with a Hallmark Christmas movie. Maybe you find it all cliche because you never had the right person to experience it with.”

Every time she smiled, the breath was stolen right out of my lungs. The fact that her gorgeous grin was all for me, that she was smiling like that  at me , left me completely dizzy.

“Maybe,” I said as smoothly as I could.

Cecil led us down 5th Avenue, all the way to Terrace Drive, which led into Central Park. He slowed to a stop just after we got through the gate and passed the information booth. Tori looked around. “End of the line?”

“Nope,” I said. “Just some lunch.”

I climbed out of the carriage and offered my hand to Tori. We walked through the field that led to Pilgrim Hill, a little grassy knoll with a hell of a view of the Conservatory Lake.

“Don’t we need food to have lunch?” Tori asked.

I side-eyed her as we walked. “Do you think I forgot about that? Just relax and enjoy the surprises.”

“There’s more than one?” she asked, excitedly.

I took her hand and our fingers interlaced. It was a short walk, but I was relieved when I saw the setup Sam and I had planned all ready to go. A huge, warm blanket, a basket of food, a bottle of wine, all prepared by Sam and Cat, who waved excitedly when they saw us approaching.

“Aw, what are they doing here? Are they joining us?”

“Sort of.”

Tori excitedly waved as we drew closer. “Ohmygosh, hi guys!”

Cat embraced Tori eagerly. “Hiii! Happy First Date! Come on, sit down! The food’s all ready!”

I shot a silent look of gratitude to Sam, who simply winked in reply. She’d managed to pull together everything she said she would…including another person neither of us noticed at first. Sam and Cat poured a glass of wine for us and opened up the basket as Andre joined us, his guitar strapped on. Tori practically squealed in delight.

“Andre’s here too?”

“Yep. Who better to serenade us in Central Park?” I poked Tori in the side. “Talk about your movie cliches.”

Andre smiled as he joined us and started strumming his guitar. “Ladies,” he said. “I’ve prepared a familiar tune for your listening pleasure.”

He started strumming. Tori and I shared a knowing look as we recognized the opening notes of one of Andre’s original songs, Song 2 U. He’d written it years ago, originally for a kiddie group we briefly put together. He revised it into a legit pop song that had done really well.

I don't wear designer clothes
I don't go to the finest schools
But I know I ain't no fool, baby
I may not be a star
I'm not driving the sickest car
But I know I can make you happy, baby

Tori rested her head against me as we nibbled on our sandwiches and sipped our wine. Cat couldn’t resist getting up and singing with Andre. She pulled Sam along with her. I could tell from the look on Sam’s face that the dancing was probably one of those things Sam could live without. But when she looked into Cat’s eyes, there was no trace of anything but genuine affection.

I don't know what you been used to
Never been with a girl like you
But I can give you a love that's true to your heart
Not material things

You can’t put two divas together where someone’s playing music and not expect them to join in. I tried to hold off, but Tori started swaying back forth. The smile on her face was priceless; it made me so content to see it. She hummed at first, then she started singing along.

I couldn’t resist either, and it didn’t take long before Tori and I were serenading each other.

I'll give you my song, these words to you
Sing you what I feel, my soul is true
I don't have the world, can't give it to you, girl
But all that I can do is give this song to you

When you’re a singer, sometimes lyrics can run together or lose their meaning in repetition, but somewhere in the lighthearted fun of singing together and the whirlwind of emotions still near the surface after the past day, these particular lyrics struck a new chord with me, no pun intended.

Yeah, I know you are blessed
But there's something you're missing, yeah
Your own melody (Oh, baby)
As I strum my guitar, you should know what you are to me
My everything, yeah

I slid closer to her and reached for her hand. We stood together and danced around our little picnic area like a couple of idiots. Sam and Cat joined us, and it became a little dance party. Sure we drew some looks from others in the park, but I didn’t care. Hell, even my grouchy internal monologue tried to cut in and bitch about how stupid I was being and that Jade West doesn’t act like a braindead, lovestruck puppy.

But there I was, acting like a braindead, lovestruck puppy. So my response to myself:  hey asshole, she does it now.

I don't know what you been used to
Never been with a girl like you
But I can give you a love that's true to your heart
Not material things

As the song neared its end, half a dozen people were standing around listening.

I'll give you my song, these words to you
Sing you what I feel, my soul is true
I don't have the world, can't give it to you, girl
But all that I can do is give this song to you

Andre waved to the onlookers as they clapped for him, then he, Sam, and Cat joined us at the blanket. “Man, that was supposed to be a serenade, not karaoke.”

“Well you picked a great song,” Tori said. “Thank you so much. This was really cool.”

“You both sounded great together, as always,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a lunch date of my own.”

“With the chick from the club?” I asked.

Andre frowned. “Nah. I'd rather be doing that, believe me. I'm meeting Beck and Robbie. See you at four.

“Thanks, Andre,” I said. “I owe you. Again.”

He waved me off. “We’re square. Just treat her right.”

Cat nudged Sam. “Let’s go for a walk and give them some privacy.”

Sam groaned. “I don’t wanna walk. It involves walking.” Cat gave her an adorable, wide-eyed look, and I saw Sam’s defense melt. “Fine, but I’m taking a sandwich.”

“Samantha Jeanette Puckell, don’t you dare, I made those for them.”

"That's not my name."

"No, but it sounds nice," Cat giggled. "Now come on, and I'll make you your own sandwich when we get home."

Sam groaned again as she let Cat pull her to her feet. She looked over her shoulder at us. “Women.”

In a serendipitous moment, both Tori and I replied, “Tell me about it.”

We shot each other bashful smiles. Before long, Sam and Cat vanished into the sprawling park, and we were left to finish our sandwiches in silence.

Tori chuckled to herself. “Isn’t it weird that all the girls in our friend group ended up with other girls, but none of the guys ended up with other guys?”

I finished off my sandwich and dabbed my mouth with a napkin. “Never thought of that. I guess it just means girls kick ass because everyone wants one.”

As gorgeous as the view was on our little hilltop, we did eventually finish our lunch and the time came to move on to the next stop. We cleaned up and returned to our carriage, now heavy one (mostly) empty picnic basket and a heavy blanket. Cecil took us a little further on Terrace Drive, then made a right onto West Drive at the Daniel Webster statue. We took in the gorgeous view of the Lake to the right, with the Bow Bridge in the distance (you know you’ve seen that one in movies, and for good reason).

For much of the ride through the park, Tori and I sat in silence. She snuggled up on my right side and held my hand, our fingers interlaced. I never imagined such simple contact could be so deeply fulfilling. As we approached the 79th Street Transverse, we came across what I guess was the modern equivalent of a barbershop quartet singing Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time.” We only caught a brief part of the song, but these guys were amazing. Soulful, right on key, good, strong, diverse voices.

“Did you ever imagine we’d end up like this?” Tori asked wistfully.

“I guess it depends on when you’d ask. In school, no. Never. Not in a million years.”

“Me neither,” she said, wrinkling her nose at me. I loved it when she did that. “How about, I don’t know, a week ago?”

“A week ago? Hmm. No. Never. Not in a million years.”

“Hey,” she said, making her pouty-face. “Really?”

“Don’t take it personally,” I said. “You have to understand what it’s like in my head, and even  I  don’t know that. You have been one hell of a battle up here. One I’ve tried really hard to avoid because it made me crazy. I don’t know what it’ll be like up here a week from now.”

I saw a hint of worry creep across her features. I brought her hand to my lips and kissed it gently.

“That came out wrong. I just mean that emotions are high right now with everything that’s happened. And it’s easy to get caught up in all of that. Especially here, I mean look at this. We’re living out a rom-com or something. Once it settles, my brain’s going to have to let go of that conflict whether it likes it or not. Because you’re here to stay. As long as you’re willing to put up with my bullshit.”

The worry in her eyes dissipated, replaced with a look of affection so profound it caught me off guard. “I’ve put up with it this long,” she said sweetly. “I don’t plan on stopping.”

I leaned in for a kiss as the carriage came to a stop.

“Sorry to interrupt ladies, but we’re at the next stop.”

Cecil had pulled us right up to the drop-off for the Rose Center for Earth and Space Science.“I’ll meet you back here in an hour,” he said as we climbed out.

Tori seemed confused. “A museum?”

“A museum. And a planetarium. Weren’t you kind of a nerd before you came to Hollywood Arts?”

She took my hand in hers. “Well yeah, but I didn’t know you knew that. I’ve always been a nerd, I just happen to be a nerd that can sing, dance, and act.”

“And boast.”

I probably deserved the playful smack I got for that one.

We spent twenty minutes or so looking at the exhibits. Every so often, little hints of nerdy Tori would crop up. She knew so many weird and obscure details about so much of what we saw, and we saw quite a bit: giant dinosaur skeletons, ancient fossils and rocks, samples of soil brought back from the moon. Most of it was on the boring side for me, but I didn’t mind because Tori was enjoying it.

Our final stop was the Hayden Planetarium, to see a presentation called “Eternity: Our Endless Cosmos.” We got in line early and scored some solid seats right in the middle. As we reclined in our chairs and the lights went out, I felt her fingers slip between mine. I swear as long as I live, I will never get tired of that feeling. She leaned in close and I kissed her forehead.

“This is so cool,” she said. “What made you think to come here?”

A vast starfield appeared above us and all around us. The narration began, talking about the size of the cosmos and the number of stars, with the all-encompassing stars around us shifting.

“This,” I said, waving at the starfield. “Hard to get a view like this in LA. And…” I trailed off. The words I’d put together in my mind sounded so lame and cheesy now that I was about to say them.

“And what?”

“Never mind. It sounded better in my head.”

“Jade, tell me. If this is why you brought us here, don’t waste the chance.”

I shook my head. “Just don’t laugh, okay? Because it really is just the dumbest thing.”

Her eyes glistened in the projected starlight. “I promise.”

I looked back up at the stars as the narrator discussed the number of galaxies that existed in our local group. I kept my focus up there; I was afraid if I looked at Tori, I couldn’t finish my thought. “When I was a kid, I always loved to stargaze. It’s stupid, because in my idiot little kid brain, I thought being a star, like being famous, meant that someday you’d get your own star in the sky. And I always wanted one, which is partly why I got interested in the arts. I mean, how dumb is that? And I didn’t think that way for long. But for whatever reason, stargazing, or seeing a show like this, it just makes me feel at peace. And kind of hopeful, a little bit. Like there’s always something to shoot for out there. But today it has a new meaning, too. Because…” I almost choked on the words. “I guess because I feel like…you’re a star. Y’know? I mean…you’re talented and beautiful and I know you’re going to be huge with whatever you choose to do. So in my mind, you’re already a star. And now, you’re kind of  my  star. So…I feel like I got my wish. I’d given up on it, honestly. But then you came along and gave me that hope again.”

Shit. I hadn’t expected to cry during that, but sure enough, a few tears slipped out. 

Before I could catch them, Tori was already wiping the one she could see away. She gently turned my head to face her.

"Oh, Jade." I wasn't the only one with tears in my eyes. "I'll be your star forever, if you'll be mine."

And there, drifting in our seats amidst the stars, unseen by the dozen other people around us, we kissed. It was deeper, more intimate. Both of us felt it, though neither of us fully understood it for a long time. But it was born there among the stars…and I knew it, because something in the recesses of my mind latched on to her promise: I'll be your star forever... 

Man...first dates...

Chapter Text

We emerged from the planetarium different. Or maybe with a different perspective. Things seemed more settled than they were. I felt more comfortable being with Tori. My nerves relented and I was able to enjoy her presence without obsessing over everything I said. She seemed more comfortable, too.

The sun was starting to turn downward. I had two more stops on our agenda before we had to get back to the hotel, and I hoped we’d be able to fit them both in without rushing through everything. If not, it was cool. I didn’t want that kind of pressure on our day. But if we were able to see it all, I’d call it a win.

No, telling myself that didn’t work. I was still nervous as fuck.

The first stop was Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. I went with this because Tori loved selfies and celebrities and this kind of brought them both together. Sam said Cat had really enjoyed herself, and even sent me a few of the selfies, the most confusing of which was a picture of Cat with the wax figure of Ariana Grande. I never realized how much those two looked alike…

Tori dragged me around from celeb to celeb, taking selfies and pictures of the displays. Her favorite was the recreation of The Tonight Show set with Jimmy Fallon. I took a handful of pictures of her sitting in the chair as a guest. She did a few serious poses, and a few ridiculous poses (like trying to kiss “Jimmy” on the cheek). We burned through maybe thirty pictures just on that one exhibit.

“You know you’re going to be on this show someday,” I said. “We could just wait and get the real thing.”

Tori’s cheeks positively glowed at that comment. She stood up from the guest chair and walked towards me, her skirt bouncing playfully. “Jade West, are you trying to flatter me in front of Jimmy Fallon?”

“I’m not trying, I’m succeeding. That glow in your cheeks kind of gives it away.”

She broke eye contact for a second and touched her cheeks, then slid her arms around my neck. “You know, I’m not the only one who could be on the real thing someday. You’ll get there too.”

I shrugged. “Eh. Maybe. I just want to tell my stories. And my stories aren’t usually the kind that get you on Jimmy Fallon. But I’ll see it when I go with you.”

That earned me a kiss on the cheek. We continued on our path, visiting Taylor Swift, Abraham Lincoln, Dennis Leary for some reason, Sly Stallone, Arnold, Will Smith, Lady Gaga, and more. The figures were so disturbingly life-like, at times it was really hard to tell if they even  were  figures. And in Jade’s twisted mind, that obviously means…

“This place is a horror movie waiting to happen,” I said. “They've done the 'wax figures come to life' thing to death already but never with celebrities. Could you imagine if someone actually got all these people to be in a horror movie and play their own wax statues that come to life and start killing everyone? It’d be amazing! In one scene you’ve got Oprah decapitating people, in the next you’ve got Taylor Swift stabbing people with high heels. It’d cost a fortune but I bet it’d make it all back.”

Tori had that look in her eye, that  you worry me, Jade  look that she shot at me when I’d talk about scissors or darkness or other fun things.

“Sweetie, you worry me sometimes.”

Bam. Called it.

“But you should write it! Maybe someday Grim could fund it. If, y’know, things work out.”

“I don’t know if I’d want that much responsibility,” I said. “I’d totally write it, but I don't think I could direct so many famous—“

Tori stopped walking and pulled me to a stop as well. “Why do you keep playing yourself down?”

I looked away, uncomfortable. “I’m not.”

“Yes, you are. You’re so talented, Jade. It doesn’t matter what kind of movie you make, you’re so good at it. I’ve seen horror movie directors on The Tonight Show. And the short we made for Liz did so well. And if you wanted to write and direct a movie where all these statues come to life, you could totally do it and it would be amazing. So stop acting like you’re not a gifted, crazy talented writer, director, actor, and singer. Because you are. And I happen to be your number one fan.”

I gazed at Tori, my mind racing amidst the shower of compliments.

“You really can’t help it, can you?” I asked. She raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “You’re so obnoxious.” Tori’s eyes narrowed, but I smiled before she could get angry. “I’m kidding. And…thanks for all that. I’m not sure if one impassioned plea will be enough to deprogram twenty years of crippling self-doubt—“

“I’ll say it every day if that’s what it takes.”

The sincerity in her eyes was beyond reproach, and it shook me up a little. “That’s quite a commitment,” I said.

“Got a problem with that?”

“How could I?”

I happened to glance behind Tori. I saw a vague figure in a white dress with…was that blood?

“Holy shit. Holy shit! Seriously!?”

I grabbed Tori’s wrist and dragged her across the room. There, in the corner, was holy ground. A replica of Tawny Walker Black, clad in her bloody white dress, shining silver scissors in her hand. I practically shrieked as I ran up to her. The detail was incredible. Every drop of blood, every shred of loose skin…all of it was flawless. The sculpt of horror veteran Danielle Harris, who played Tawny, was so lifelike I had to stop myself from trying to make out with it.

Seriously. Danielle Harris is my dream girl. (After Tori, obviously.)

“Pics! Pics!”

I thrust my phone into Tori’s hand and positioned myself just below Tawny’s scissors as if she were about to stab me with them. I made Tori take a dozen other pics with me in various positions around Tawny. I took a few of her as well and we did a few selfies together. I fully admit, I lost my cool and I didn’t care at all.

“Jeez,” Tori said as we moved on from the display. “If you act like that around the wax figure, I wonder how you’d react if you actually met the girl who plays her.”

I squeezed her hand. “Danielle Harris? Ohmygod, I’d kill to meet her. Like physically murder someone.”

Naturally, we walked right past a young family as I said that. The kids, two little girls, gasped, prompting the parents to stop and glare at me as if I’m supposed to tailor everything I say so I don’t offend their delicate ears.

Tori panicked and laughed it off for their benefit. “She’s kidding.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, she is.”

“I’d kill both of you in your sleep for the chance to meet Danielle Harris.”

“She’s kidding, kids. I promise.” Before I could refute her again, she covered my mouth and dragged me away. When she let me go, she was exasperated. Very much old-school Vega. “Jade, you can’t say stuff like that! You’ll traumatize their kids!”

I shrugged. “I’m sure mom and dad are doing a great job traumatizing them all by themselves,” I said. Tori looked like she wanted to argue, but she knew she had nothing on it. “You’ve got parents. Tell me I’m wrong.”

Her face shifted to pouty-Tori. “Even if it’s true, you don’t need to add to it,” she groused.

“What do you want me to do, go buy them a lollipop or something? I’m sure that would go over well with their parents.”

“I guess not,” Tori sighed. “I just wish you’d be a little more sensitive, that’s all. Not everyone has nerves of steel.”

“I don’t have nerves of steel. I just fake it really well. And I wish I hadn’t just admitted that. Shit.” I rubbed my eyes. “I just have an extremely practical worldview.”

“Which is?”

I shrugged. “Life’s a bitch, you suffer, you die.”

Tori stared at me, her probing eyes at once confused and irritated. “So all that stuff you said to me about having hope…”

“I do,” I said quickly. “I meant every word of that. I just…y’know, in the end, we all end up in a box in the dirt somewhere. That’s all I mean. How you get there is what matters, and you’ve made that journey much more tolerable for me. I’m sorry. Don’t let my nihilism bug you. Here, watch.”

I slipped away from Tori and moved quickly back to the family. The parents regarded me with guarded irritation as I got closer.

“Hi there. I’m sorry for that, I just got carried away because I saw a wax figure of someone I really like, and my girlfriend there commented about meeting her for real and I just lost myself. So, I’m sorry. I’d never hurt anyone for real.” I looked down to the kids, two young girls, all decked out in pink rainbows. “Okay? I’m just a weirdo, that’s all. I promise.”

The kids both laughed when I said that. “Weirdo,” one of them said. “She’s a weirdo!”

“I sure am. Glad you caught that part.” I stood and turned to walk away when I heard the mother mumble under her breath. “Damn right she’s a weirdo, talking about her girlfriend. Disgusting.”

I stopped in my tracks and balled my fists up. I was just about to turn around and unload on her when Tori joined me and gently took my hand.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”

“Did you hear what she said—?”

Tori placed a finger on my lips. It smelled so good.

“Are you ever going to see her again? Does it matter what she said?”

I wanted to argue with her, but I fell into those endless brown pools and my resolve crumbled. The desire to slap the freckles off her stupid face was just…gone.

Congratulations, Jade. You are totally whipped.

My scowl slowly turned into a shitty grin. I slid my lips around Tori’s finger and went down on it. I could see the chill shake her entire arm. She tried to pull it away but I grabbed her wrist and kept at it. Up and down, over and over, my tongue wrapped around her finger. She swallowed hard and tried to pull my hand away.

“Stop,” she gasped.

I winked at kept going. Her chest started heaving.

“Someone’s going to see!”

I shrugged and went back down again.

Tori looked around the hallway. Her eyes lit up. She grabbed my other wrist and pulled, dragging me across the hall to—you guessed it—a janitor’s closet. The door wasn’t locked so we quickly slipped inside. A small light bulb on a string barely lit the stone-walled room. Tori pulled me into a desperate kiss. I glanced at my watch; we didn’t have a lot of time, but to hell with it. This was happening. 

I took her wrists into my left hand and pushed her against the wall, pinning her arms above her head. I slid my right hand up her dress and down into her leggings and underwear. I was pleasantly surprised at how wet she was.

With very little pomp or ceremony, I slipped my finger into her folds gently, until it was good and wet, then slid that one inside of her while wetting another. She was already gasping and groaning and grinding against my hand. Every movement, every sound drove me mad with desire. I kissed her, wrapping my tongue around hers to try and keep her voice down.

I slipped the second finger inside of her and pulled the first back, using it to soak my thumb. I sought out her clit and began brushing against it as I thrust deeper inside of her with the other two fingers.

“Oh my god…Oh, Jade…”

I kissed her again to muffle her voice. Hearing her say my name like that made me wet, and I didn’t want to spend half the evening crawling out of my skin. She still groaned and gasped amidst my kisses. It didn’t take long before she tightened around me and clamped down on my fingers. I let her arms go and she wrapped them around my back, squeezing me tightly as she came all over my hand. Instead of screaming, she bit into my shoulder, which sent a huge wave of moisture between my legs.

So much for not crawling out of my skin for the rest of the night.

As she came down, she took my face in her hands and kissed me, nothing but gratitude and relief in her eyes.

“That was so wrong,” she said, still trying to catch her breath.

I winked and grinned. “But so right.”

I used the janitor’s sink to wash my hands. She smacked my ass.

“I’ll get you back for that.”

I smirked. “Oh, I look forward to it.”


I had no idea what to expect as Cecil brought us down 27th Street to our final destination. As it turns out, much like the theater that hosted Cat’s production, it was an unassuming building with a green-grey stone foundation. The side of the building boasted large silver letters, all in lowercase, that read, “Museum of Sex.” Above these letters, a clear glass window that appeared to be covered in brown paper from the inside and lettering that read, “Superfunland.”

Tori paled a little as Cecil brought us to a stop. “Museum of Sex? Jade!”

“What? It sounds awesome. And how can you be so squirrely about this after what we just did in the janitor’s closet back at the wax museum?”

Tori looked away. “I don’t know. That’s different. That was just us. If it’s you and me, I definitely feel more…comfortable. Otherwise, I get really embarrassed about sex stuff.”

I climbed out of the carriage and helped her down.

“Okay, I’ll tell you what. Let’s give it a try. If you feel too embarrassed we can leave, no problem.”

Tori eyed up the building with a healthy degree of uncertainty. I offered my hand and an adorable smile. She considered both for a few minutes, then reached out with her own hand.

The first exhibit was a history of the New York Disco scene in the 70s. Mainly this consisted of photographs that showed how sexual and erotic things could get back then, including some pretty blatant pornographic photos. Those were further in the back; the display seemed designed to draw you through some vaguely erotic imagery that became more explicit the deeper you went. Which made sense in a lot of ways, if you think about it.

An interesting pattern I noted on the men and women in the photos was the obscene amount of hair covered their bodies. Chest, stomach, back…it was like watching gorillas in action. The women were no better, with thick bushes that I wouldn’t touch with a weed eater. 

“Can you imagine going down on these chicks? You’d be picking hair out of your teeth for weeks.”

Tori buried her head in my shoulder. “Jade! Ssh!”

I laughed. “Now what? Do we need to leave?”

“No, it’s just…I don’t know. I guess some of these are pretty bad.”

“That’s all I’m saying. Who would do that to themselves? At least trim it or something. I mean I was maintaining the garden way before I was active.”

Tori looked around. When she was satisfied no one was close enough to hear her, she spoke. “Me too. But that’s only because I caught a look at Trina once right after she hit puberty and I did  not  want to deal with that much hair.”

“Gross. I’m surprised she doesn’t shave.”

“Oh, she does now. I assume she still does. I mean she’s had a lot of photoshoots with very little on and there’s no mound of fur sticking out. She used to clog the drain in our bathtub on a weekly basis.”

I winced at the image. “Come on, I don’t need to know all the details,” I said. I mean, I had to admit, Trina was cute, and she definitely had a nice body. She was shorter than Tori and a little thicker in the trunk, but if I didn’t know her and saw her walking down the street, I’d do a double-take.

Her personality was the headache. For a long time, she thought she was far more talented than she was. But getting held back a year at school seemed to shake her out of it. We didn’t notice, of course, because we were too busy being all wrapped up in senior year nonsense. But for our final showcase at the end of the year, Trina pulled through for us big time.

She was still really annoying, but she earned a bit of respect from me.

“So, uh…when did you become active? If you don’t mind me asking?” Tori seemed to hide her face behind her hair as if she were embarrassed for asking the question. I didn’t mind. I figured it would come up eventually and I wasn’t ashamed of anything.

“The first time I had sex I was sixteen, and it’s pretty obvious who it was with since I was only dating one person back then. First time I masturbated…geez, I don’t know. Ten or eleven maybe? We had one of those detachable shower heads back then and one day I realized it felt pretty good when I sprayed it…you know. I liked it so I just kept it there, moving it around, y’know? All of a sudden I was shaking and had this incredible feeling. I was too freaked out to tell my mom so I talked to the health teacher at my old school and she explained the, uh, ins and outs, so to speak. I was actually kind of pissed to find out some girls can start even younger. Imagine all that extra practice.”

Tori’s cheeks were suddenly fire engine red and she looked away from me. I laughed. “Let me guess. You were one of those, weren’t you?”

She nodded bashfully. “My mom said I was six. She walked in on me and I was kind of humping my pillow one night. By the time we had the talk years later, I’d probably already given myself hundreds of orgasms.”

“Impressive,” I said. “And lucky me. I knew there was something up with you. I mean holy shit, it was like you were inside my brain as well as my body.”

Tori blushed again. She pointed to a portrait of some poofy-haired white guy going down on a chick with a bush that was so thick it seemed like it was part of his hair. “Like that guy?”

I shuddered. “Ew. You’d need tweezers to pick all that out of your teeth.”

Tori winced at the imagery.

We came across the entrance for the secondary exhibit, a so-called carnival of erotica called Superfunland. “What do you think? Carnivals are fun, right?”

Tori raised a curious eyebrow. “Sometimes.”

“It can’t be worse than all the bushes in that first room.”

She took a deep breath. “Okay. Let’s check it out.”

We followed the hallway and descended into a neon acid trip of a tunnel, talking leisurely as we went. I knew this place was pushing Tori to the limits of her comfort zone. It wasn’t my intent to do that, but since we were here I figured I’d test the waters a bit more.

“So how about you?” I asked. “First time with a guy?” She hesitated, as if nervous about her answer. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want.”

“There is no answer,” she said. “I’ve never had sex with a guy.”

I did a double-take to make sure she wasn’t throwing out any vibes that she was messing with me. But she seemed genuinely embarrassed by it.

“No interest? Or no opportunity?”

“I had interest, at first at least. But it never seemed to work out. I mean I find guys attractive. Y’know, I’ve made out with a few, I’ve given a couple of blowjobs, but…the one time I thought I was ready for sex, it just didn’t happen. I just…couldn’t get anywhere. It was so embarrassing.”

That surprised the hell out of me. “That’s hard to imagine,” I said. “I mean I have very limited experience with your, uh…you know. But you don’t seem to have that problem anymore.”

Tori’s cheekbones were glowing. She glanced at the floor. “Not around you. Or when I’m thinking of you.”

Wait, what?  

“Thinking of me? So…have you ever masturbated while thinking of me?” I saw a quick chill shake her body and knew the answer.

“Maybe,” she said softly.

The size of my grin knew no bounds. “Don’t be shy about it,” I said. “I’ve done the same thing thinking of you.”

“Really?”

I leaned in closer to her. “Remember the night of our kiss? You had me so worked up I dreamed that you crawled over to me on the love seat and started rubbing me. It felt so, so real. It woke me up. And there I was, my hand down there soaking wet. That’s why I got up and showered a little early. I never made myself cum that hard before. All because of you.”

Tori was biting her lip by the end of my little story, a glassy look in her eyes. “I kind of wish I could have seen that,” she said. “Is that weird?”

My turn to sit through a chill.

“Nope. Knowing you want to see me do that is kind of a turn-on.”

She slipped her fingers through mine. “Well, maybe we can watch each other sometimes.”

“And suddenly, I want to go right back to the hotel.”

Tori squeezed my hand. “Good. Let’s just let that tension build.”

Oh, it built. It fucking built.

It didn’t help that we were walking through an actual, interactive exhibit. Superfunland was full of people, performers who were in various states of undress or almost undress. We passed a line of games that were basically little stalls full of glory holes with rubber dicks. The nameplate above the booths read, “Yank That Plank.” Apparently, the point of the game was to tug on the cocks as they popped into the room and pull them a certain number of times.

I poked Tori. “Wanna give it a shot?”

Tori playfully pushed my arm. “I’m good, thanks.”

A cute brunette dressed up like a circus barker approached us. “Ladies,” she said with a lusty grin on her face. “Care to try our makeout challenge, Lucky Lips? If your kiss is hot enough, you get a prize.”

Tori couldn’t even look the girl in the eye. I squeezed her hand. “Wanna try it? Could be fuuunnn.”

“People are going to stare at us.”

“Probably. But we might win a prize! I’ll even let you spin the wheel.”

She went back and forth a few times in her mind before settling on an answer. “Fine,” she huffed. “Just once.”

The brunette grabbed us by the hands and led us over to an elongated platform with metal-looking rods that were about waist-high. She guided us to opposite sides. “Grab the bar there. It’s got biometric sensors in it, so when you start, it’ll be able to tell how worked up you both get. If you set off the alarm, you’ll get to spin the prize wheel. Ready?”

Tori’s cheeks had been red for pretty much the entire visit here, but they were glowing like Christmas bulbs at this point. Our pretty barker hit a button nearby which dimmed the lights and turned on some crazy, sexy music. Tori couldn’t stop laughing.

“I don’t think I can do this,” she said.

“Just look at me. Focus on me.”

I looked at her with every bit of hunger and desire I could muster, which wasn’t hard because everything about this entire day had me worked into a near-frenzy. I was starting to wonder if I’d be able to go through with the unpleasant work of confronting Fawn later that night.

So I took all of that pent-up energy and focused it into my eyes, expressing it to Tori. Her smile faded as I leaned close to her. Our lips touched again. We’d been kissing all day, but every time my lips pressed against hers it was like something new. We started slowly. I teased my tongue along the outside of her mouth. Soon after she opened her mouth and our tongues danced together. As the intensity build, I found myself gripping the bar tighter. I had to resist touching her face, and that energy went into squeezing the bar.

I was only vaguely aware of when the prize bell went off, I was so wrapped up in Tori’s lips.

“Okay ladies, you already won,” the barker said. “Damn it, you’re making me jealous here.”

Tori and I slowly parted. I was confused when the clapping began; apparently some other guests had stopped to watch the show. Tori held my gaze, paying no mind to any of the onlookers. A smile crossed her lips, which she licked very slowly. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking…and I didn’t see it coming when she reached out, grabbed my face, and pulled me into another kiss.

I heard more clapping, but I didn’t care. I gave myself over to Tori’s lips.

I think she got over her shyness,  I thought.


We were finally on our way back to the hotel. Cecil was blissfully quiet, letting us just enjoy the ride. The sun was dropping further. It seemed darker than it was because of all the tall buildings. It was a brisk, chilly afternoon. I pulled out our picnic blanket so we could wrap ourselves up in it as we rode back to the hotel.

Tori was unusually quiet. She had a contented smile on her face as she leaned against me. I draped my right arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. Tori's hand rested on my thigh, just below my skirt.

"Jade," she said.

"Yeah?"

"Remember how I said I'd get you back?"

Her hand slid up my thigh, under my skirt. I bit my lip to keep from groaning when she pressed against me. The blanket obscured all of her movements; I couldn't even tell she was doing anything just to look down. But oh god, I felt it. She slid her hand down my underwear. I'd done my best to keep control of myself, but a simple brush of her fingers and the river was flowing once more.

"Well," Tori said with a naughty-girl grin. "Someone's excited."

"Are you really doing this?" I asked, my voice trembling. "Ohhhh god."

"Unless you want me to stop." She lifted her finger.

"Don't you dare," I said, probably with a bit more desperation than I intended.

Tori leaned closer and nibbled on my ear. "Beg me," she said.

There was another surge of moisture as the chills she brought to my ear traveled down my body. "Please don't stop," I whispered. "Please."

She nibbled at my neck and slid her finger back inside, adding a second one to it. I felt her eyes on me as she worked her magic. I fought hard to avoid showing any physical reaction to her what she was doing. It was damn near impossible. Her long fingers slid deep inside of me, reaching my innermost hot spots, working me into a frenzy. I started grinding my hips against her as much as I could without moving the blanket.

She brought her lips closer to my ear. "Don't you just wanna scream?" she asked. Her voice was so sexy at that moment.

"Mm hmm," I said through clenched teeth. I felt the buildup. It was going to be big.

Tori must have felt it too. "Look at me," she whispered. I turned my head and stared into those gorgeous eyes as the spams grew too much to bear. Something about her eyes, her smile in that moment, made it hard to look away. I came hard, everything below my neck shaking and spasming like crazy. I clenched my jaw shut, letting out only the quietest groans. Tori watched in pure fascination as every bit of pleasure I felt was on display in my eyes. There I was, somewhere on 5th Avenue in a horse-drawn carriage, with thousands of people everywhere around me, trying to keep from screaming as I came.

As the intensity subsided and my muscles relaxed, I continued to hold Tori's gaze. The lusty grin on her face was almost as contented as mine. "Oh my god, I"m shaking," I whispered. Tori's eyes twinkled. She slid her fingers out from under my dress, brought them up to her lips, and went down on them as I had earlier. Just like that, I started getting wet again. She closed her eyes as she was licking her fingers, so I chose that moment to sneak in a kiss, trapping her fingers between our mouths. I tasted myself on her lips and on her fingers. She groaned in surprise but quickly welcomed my tongue.

The carriage slowed, and I opened my eyes long enough to realize we were almost back. "Tori," I whispered between kisses. "We're almost there."

She opened her eyes as well, and sighed. "Too bad. That was really hot.

"Yeah it was," I said, settling back into the seat. She laid her head on my shoulder and sighed. Something felt off about it. “You okay?”

She nodded. “Just overwhelmed. This was all so amazing. I barely know what to make of it.”

“I hope you enjoyed it,” I said. “I’m not good at dating. Sam suggested a lot of these places.”

“But you asked her for help. Which is something you hate doing. I appreciate that. I really did love it all, Jade.”

“Even the sex museum?”

Tori giggled. “Especially the sex museum.” 

She sighed. Her statement felt unfinished, which made my anxiety level rise. “But…?”

“Just thinking about the future. School. Your movie. All that stuff.”

“Ick,” I said. “Don’t think about that crap. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Just for tonight. Pretend like this trip will never end.”

She squeezed her arm around me. “I’d love that.”

It was 4:10 PM when we disembarked and left Cecil for the last time. I left him as big a tip as I could afford and he was very gracious about it. Tori looked up at our hotel with uneasy eyes.

“Ready?”

“If we go up there, it means we have to talk about Fawn.”

“You don’t. I understand if you want to stay here. Hell, I’d prefer.”

Tori shook her head. “No one needs to fight my battles for me.” She looked at me with that grateful smile. “But I’m glad I’ve got you in my corner. Let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

Confession time. I’m not a very violent person.

I spent a lot of years cultivating a terrifying reputation through a combination of the world’s most natural (and scary) resting bitch face (thanks for the eyebrows, Mom), a very shrill and powerful voice, and a well-honed gift for psychological manipulation. At 5’7” I’m not what you’d call petite, so my frame and my size always helped make me seem more intimidating than your average girl. And some boys.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally into violence and darkness and all that. I love watching true crime documentaries and thinking of crazy ways to dismember characters in my stories. But I don’t like resorting to actual, physical violence.

But people  think  I do, and I’m cool with that. And don’t get me wrong, if I  needed  to get violent, I certainly could. I just didn’t like to. So when I sat down with Sam, Beck, Andre, Robbie, Dice, Goomer, Freddie, Carly, and Tori (Cat was getting ready for her second show), I was silently committed to finding a way to fix this problem that wouldn’t result in physically harming Fawn or anyone else.

It was a big ask. We were invading her place of work to confront her. She would have some degree of protection there, with her coworkers and being able to slip into the back places that we couldn’t. If her coworkers noticed that we were getting upset with her, they could easily step in and take her beyond our reach.

For that reason, we decided the best bet would be to canvas both entrances to the club and try to get to her before she got in the building. She technically hadn’t done anything wrong, so we couldn’t get the police involved until we knew if she had served her time or if she had escaped. To that end, Tori put in a call to her dad and asked if he could find out. He made no promises, except to let us know either way. Until we knew for sure, we’d have to be careful.

“Our best bet is the back entrance,” I said. “It’s a lot more isolated.”

“But we don’t know which one she uses, do we?” Robbie asked.

“No,” Sam said. “Bobbie usually uses the back one because of his gear, but a lot of the staff use the front door.”

My head was starting to hurt. “Okay…so we need eyes all around the building, and some way to know which door she’s using. Or maybe some way to make sure she uses the back door.”

“She doesn’t know us,” Sam said. “We should be the most visible. She could walk right by us and not recognize us.”

“Yeah but remember, Bobby called you guys out last night,” Beck said. “She might have seen that you were with us. And people still recognize Carly and Sam.”

“But not me,” Freddie said. “I can cover the front door.”

“So Carls and I can take the alley in case she comes in that way.”

“I’ll hang back there with you,” Beck said. “That’s a nasty-looking alley. Never know who else will be back there.”

Carly turned and smiled at Beck. I’d seen that look a thousand times over the years, from girls and guys both. She was even blushing a little. 

“Thanks,” she said. She absently reached out and took a few strands of Beck’s hair in her hands. “Gosh, your hair’s so pretty.” Sam nudged her and she let it go. “Sorry,” she said quickly. “It’s just kind of mesmerizing.”

Beck was used to that and handled it as graciously as he always did. “It happens,” he said with that easy charm. “Maybe I should sell tickets.”

“I’d buy one,” Carly said a little too quickly.

“Hey if you ever get famous, I’ll buy some of it off you,” Dice said. “People pay good money for a bag of celebrity hair.”

“The next question,” I said, firing up my irritated voice, “is what do we do with her once we see her? Tori, you’re the only one who talked with her last time. The rest of us barely remember her. Do you think she can be reasoned with?”

Tori shook her head. “She resisted the police when they arrested her and she stole a cop car. So I doubt it. I hate to be so pessimistic, but I don’t see her doing it out of the goodness of her heart.”

Sam stood up. “Maybe she’ll do it for the goodness of not getting hit with—“

“Please don’t say butter sock,” Carly cut in.

Sam seemed thrown off for a second. She sat back down. “I withdraw my suggestion.”

“What if we just took the phone and did it ourselves?” Andre asked.

“We can’t just steal her stuff,” Tori said. “She’d never give it up and we aren’t thieves.”

“We can give it back,” Andre said. “We just need to grab it and delete the video.”

“But how are we going to get it from her?” Robbie asked.

Sam sighed. “How about a sock full off…” She trailed off as Carly glared at her. “Baseballs?”

“Sam! That’s so much worse than butter!”

“I could get it.”

All eyes fell on Dice. My instinct was that this was the worst possible option, trusting the plan to a kid who barely squeaked by puberty a week ago. “How?” I asked, making no effort to hide how skeptical I was.

“Magic.”

I groaned. “Any other ideas?”

“Hear me out,” Dice insisted. “I’ll draw her in with a street magic trick. I’ve got these augmented reality cards that you use your phone to interact with. Once she has it out, I’ll grab it and bolt.”

The kid was smarter than he looked, no doubt about it. “All right,” I said. “That has some promise. What happens if you can’t get it?”

Dice looked around sheepishly. “If the trick doesn’t work, I’ll…I don’t know. I’ll take something else from her. Does she have glasses?”

“She did when I saw her last,” Tori said. “And in the video, come to think of it. So yeah, that’s an option.”

“All right,” I said. I grabbed my laptop and brought up the club on Google Maps. “So let’s figure out who goes where.”

Everyone crowded around the laptop. “This is so cool,” Robbie said. “I feel like we’re in a movie.”

“Okay. Robbie, since she knows your face, you can be our remote lookout. The club entrance is here, but if you go across the street you’ll be able to see her if she goes to the front or the back. I saw a scaffolding over there where they’re doing some work on the building so you might be able to climb up to get a better look. Got it?”

“Got it,” Robbie said.

Dice, we can put you here on this corner. Once Robbie sees her, you can intercept her wherever she’s going. Try to delay her so we can get everyone to the right door. Freddie, you can watch the front door with Andre. If she tries to go in that way, stop her. Try to get her around to the alley.”

“Got it,” Freddie said.

“On it,” Andre added.

“Carly, Sam, and Beck, you guys cover the alley. Now it’s pretty long so hopefully, the far end won’t be a factor. But if she does get by you, we’ll need someone to get in the way.”

Goomer raised his hand. “I can do that,” he said. “I’m good at making people run the other way.”

Dice patted him on the back. “Yeah you are, buddy.”

“Cool. Tori and I will keep out of sight until we have her near the alley. Once we know she’s there, we all head there too. We want as many people as possible to keep her from running. Hopefully, she’ll get nervous with how many of us are there and back down. We just have to hope Tori’s dad will get back to us on if she’s wanted still. If she is, we can just call the cops and this’ll be over a lot faster. Questions?”

“One,” Robbie said. “How are we keeping in touch?”

I smiled at Robbie. “Oh, you’ll like that part. I need you to come with me over to the electronics store so we can grab some—“

“Walkie talkies!? Sweet! Let’s do it!”


The night had turned downright cold, with the wind coming in off the river. We had changed out of our date clothes and into something a bit more appropriate, namely jeans and heavier coats. It seemed even busier on the streets than it had been earlier as people rushed around, tripping over each other to get to those big holiday weekend sales.

We found a bench to sit on just outside of a small park about half a block from the club. Well…I say “sit” but Tori wasn’t doing much sitting. She couldn’t keep still. Her legs kept bouncing, her hands kept twitching, she kept standing up, walking around the bench, then sitting back down.

I just wanted to embrace her and calm her down, but I wasn’t entirely sure restraining her was the right answer. Her nervousness was making  me  nervous, though, so I had to try something. “I wish you’d relax,” I said. 

“I wish you’d stop telling me to relax, because then maybe I could relax!”

I caught her hand as she walked by. She pulled it away. “Do you think any person in the history of people has ever actually relaxed when someone told them to relax? Because I don’t think so!”

“Okay,” I said. “Then pace around and act like a crazy person. That’s cool, too.”

“I’m so glad I have your permission!”

Okay, that didn’t go well. Maybe my original idea will work.  I stood up and blocked her path as she came around the bench again. Her gaze was exasperated.

“Vega.”

“What!?”

I kissed her. She struggled at first, but her resistance faded. I gently pulled away from her. Her wide, nervous eyes were half-closed and a hint of a smile tugged at the edges of her mouth.

“Oh. That’s what,” she said wistfully. “Next time, maybe open with that.”

I took her hands in mine. “Gladly noted. Look, I know you’re worried. But it’s going to be fine. I promise.”

“How can you promise that?”

“Because I want it to be fine, and I’m going to make it fine, and I dare you to name one person who can get in my way.” 

Tori laughed at that. “Well…since you put it that way—“

My walkie-talkie lit up. “Guys, it’s Robbie. I see her. It looks like she’s heading for the front door. Do you copy?”

Tori looked at me, fear creeping back into her face.

“I’m on it,” Dice said. “Time to work some magic.”

“That’s a terrible pun, kid,” Robbie said.

“Don’t call me kid, doofus. I’ve got more facial hair than you.”

“Copy that.”

I gave Tori a reassuring look. “See, it’s going fine. Come on, we’ll start heading over.”

We walked hand-in-hand back across the street, listening to things unfold on the walkie.

“I’m so nervous,” Tori said. “Maybe we should call this off. I mean it’s not like this will make the video go away.”

I squeezed her hand in gentle reassurance. “If that’s what you want, we can. But what if she did escape? We haven’t heard from your dad yet. If she gets away with this, what else will she try and do? Who knows who else she’ll get mixed up in. I think we should stick with it. But if you say no, then we’ll stop.”

Tori took a moment to let that process. I could see her analytical wheels turning, weighing out the benefits and consequences. She turned to me with a bit more confidence. “You’re right,” she said. “So long as no one gets hurt.”

The walkie-talkie lit up again. “This is Andre. Freddie and I are moving closer to Dice just to help keep…wait, he’s got it! He’s got her phone! Oh, snap, she’s chasing him! Everyone in the alley, get ready!”

Tori and I exchanged concerned glances and took off toward the alley.

“Oh, damn!” Andre cried. “She took a butter sock to the face and got right back up! She shrugged off Sam… Dice is heading for Goomer… oh, shit! I think he got her!”

Tori and I broke out into a run. “I’m really glad we changed,” I said. “This wouldn’t be happening in that skirt and those boots.”

“Seriously,” she said.

By the time we reached the alley, everyone was there. They formed a circle around Fawn with Goomer in the middle. He held onto her and kept a forearm over her mouth to keep her from screaming too loudly. When she saw Tori and me, she bit his arm, then elbowed him in the gut. He staggered but didn’t lose his grip.

He’s a freaking tank.

“You!” she screamed. “What are you doing here?”

We breached the circle. Dice tossed me her phone. “It’s locked,” he said. “It’s got one of those face scan things.”

“Give it back,” Fawn said. “You don’t have any right to do this!”

I glared at her with my best resting bitch face. “Well you had no right to post that video,” I said.

“Technically, that wasn’t illegal,” Beck offered. My bitch-face turned on him, and he took a step back. “I’ll just be quiet.”

I sighed. “Thanks,  Beck ,” I said through gritted teeth. “Okay, so it’s not illegal. But it was a dick move to try and hurt Tori and me. Why?”

Fawn laughed. It was a spiteful, disgusting sound. “I don’t give a fat rat’s left nut about you,” she said. “I wanted to know why  she  was out here. I finally get out and get away from Los Angeles and on my second night at my new job, who shows up but the one who got me thrown in jail.”

Tori raised a confused eyebrow. She glanced at me, then at Fawn.

“Are you serious? Fawn, I didn’t even know you were out. We’re out here to support our friend Cat in her first musical. No one knew you were here, much less where you work.”

“Suck it, Debbie!” she snapped. “Give me back my phone and let me go!”

I wasn’t buying it. “So what, this was all just the world’s most improbable coincidence? We just happened to show up at your club, against all odds?”

“Yeah, right. You came out here to get back at me,” Fawn said, struggling against Goomer’s powerful arms.

I sighed. “Okay. Whatever. I mean, stranger things have happened. But you’re not getting this back until we delete the video.”

“Why do you even care?”

Tori stepped closer to her. “Because you might have ruined an opportunity for us,” she said calmly. “We were trying to—“

“Oh, poor baby. You just made my night! I hope I ruined everything for you.”

I stepped right up to Fawn and hung nose-to-nose with her. “Are you going to let us scan your face or not?”

She leaned in close to me…far too close for comfort. She was eyeing up my nose. A split second later, she lunged and tried to bite it. I was ready for it and took half a step back. As Goomer tightened his grip, she shot me a look of defiance. I admit my first instinct was to smack her stupid. Instead…I shrugged.

“Fine. Have it your way.”

I pulled the glasses right off her face and waved to Sam. “Miss Puckett, would be so kind as to put these on?”

Sam joined me and slid the glasses on. The resemblance was creepy. Extremely creepy.

Now that I think about it, both of these two kind of look like Sinjin’s sister…

I handed the phone to Sam. It was a long tense moment before we heard the telltale click. The phone was unlocked.

“This is so screwed up,” Sam said, glancing at Fawn as she struggled against Goomer. “Hey weirdo, was your mother named Pam by any chance?”

“Lick my loafers, Debbie,” Fawn spat back.

“Clever,” I said. “Dice, would you mind?” I tossed him the phone. “Make sure to get it from wherever else she uploaded it.”

“I sweat if you don’t let me go—“ 

“What, Fawn?” Tori asked. “What will you do? Will you try to hurt me again? Try to ruin my reputation and my relationships? Why? What is your problem with me? Of all the people at Hollywood Arts, why did you single me out to torment?”

Fawn glared. I could feel the anger radiating from her. “Because you’re one of those people who never has to work for anything,” she said. “It all just works out for you in the end, all the time. The rest of us work and scrape and bust our asses for scraps, and people like you come along and get a free ride.”

Her words sounded so familiar to me, and they made me sick to my stomach. I found my own hands balling up into fists. In two long strides, I was at Fawn. I grabbed the weird Matrix collar of her uniform and practically lifted her off her feet.

“Listen to me you bitch,” I snarled. “Tori Vega is many things, but one thing she is  not  is entitled. And for every thing that comes easy to her, there are other things that don’t. She’s worked harder than anyone I know to get where she is and to have what she has. It took me a lot of goddamn years to see her for the thoughtful, caring, selfless person she is. But I am not going to stand here and let you run her into the ground like she’s one of the no-account elitist pricks out there on the west coast.”

Fawn wasn’t moved. “She shot you down in front of the entire club and you’re still defending her. You’re as absurd as she is.”

I tightened my grip. “That’s right, I’m defending her. You know why?”

“Oh, please tell me.”

My fist tightened. I drew back to strike.

“Jade…” I heard Tori say. I felt everyone else moving in closer.

I looked back at Tori. She looked afraid, but through that fear, she smiled at me, as if to tell me,  It’s all right. Just let her go.

I raised an eyebrow.  You sure? I kinda want to hit her.

Her gentle nod confirmed it.  I’m sure.

The rage just melted. I wasn’t really angry at Fawn at that moment. I was angry at myself because I heard my own words and thoughts in what she said. But those thoughts were ancient history. It was a new day and a new world. I nodded to Tori, then turned back to Fawn. “Because unlike  you …Tori is worth my time.”

I dropped my first and shoved Fawn backward. She stumbled a few steps but kept her balance.

Dice handed me the phone. “It’s gone,” he said. “Locally, the cloud, her social media, everywhere I could. Some sites might have copied it, but what we can get rid of is gone.”

I tossed the phone back to her. She wore a murderous gaze on her face as she stared me down.

“No matter what you think, we weren’t out here for you. We’d all forgotten about you. And we’ll do it again. Just leave us alone.” To the others, I said, “We’re done here. Let’s go.”

We walked by Fawn, heading for the far end of the alley. We hadn’t gone far when I heard the scramble of shoes against pavement. Before I knew what was happening, I was thrown forward. I felt a pair of arms around my waist and realized the little psycho had tackled me. I got my arms up in time to protect my face from kissing the concrete. I tried to roll over as a hail of erratic, disorganized slaps, punches, and scratches came at me. I heard a dozen other feet scramble as everyone realized what was happening and turned around. But before they got to me, something crazy and unthinkable happened.

One of Tori’s endless, goddess-like legs struck out and kicked Fawn square in the shoulder. She fell off of me and hit the ground. I felt massive hands lift me to my feet and knew that Goomer was behind me.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah. Thanks. God, you’re strong.”

He giggled. “I know.”

Fawn got to her feet and charged at Tori. Goomer was ready to step in as Fawn threw a very lazy, wide right hand. With ridiculous speed, Tori brushed it aside and delivered a solid punch to Fawn’s jaw, then a kick right to her chest. Fawn staggered backward into the wall of the building and dropped right on her ass.

Tori remained in a fighting stance for a few seconds, until she saw that Fawn wasn’t getting back up. Everyone else simply stared, too shocked to speak or think or even take a breath. 

Until Dice broke the silence. “Holy shit!”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

“Dice!," Goomer gasped. "Language!”

“Did you see that, though!?”

Tori looked over at us at last, as the emotion of the moment passed. She smiled at me and brushed the hair out from in front of her face. 

“What. Was. That?” I asked.

“Trina taught me.” She looked at my face and my arm. “Oh, you got scratched up. Does anything hurt?”

I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the freaking karate kid. “I do have one problem,” I said softly.

“What is it?”

I looked up and couldn’t hold the smirk in. “I have never been so turned on in my entire fucking life,” I said.

“Jade, ssh!” Tori said, covering my mouth with her hand. “They’ll hear you!”

I gently moved her hand and kissed the back of it. “So? I just realized…it’s a good thing I never actually tried to start a fight with you over the years. I might not have won.”

Tori giggled. “Remember that the next time you want to give me a hard time about something. I might just kick your ass.”

“I might just like it.” She fell into my arms as I reached out for her. Once again, her smile took my breath away. “You are so incredible.”

“Yeah, yeah. So I’ve been told. You’re pretty amazing yourself.”

Our kiss was interrupted by Tori’s phone.

“Bet that’s your dad.”

“No bet here. I know how this goes.” She pulled it out and rolled her eyes, then swiped to answer. “Hi, Daddy! What did you find out?”

Tori turned away to talk, so I rejoined my motley crew of heroes: Goomer and Dice; I knew them least of all but they came through as if they’d always been part of the family; Sam Puckett, the badass with the butter sock; Beck, Andre and Robbie, always willing to help a few pretty girls; Carly and Freddie, who…well, they showed up and that’s what matters. 

“Thank you guys,” I said. “This could have gone really sideways, but you all showed up to help anyway. As far as I’m concerned, I consider each of you my friend.”

Robbie’s puppy-dog eyes lit up. “Even me?”

I had to laugh at the poor schlub. “Even you, Shapiro. Get over here.”

I’m normally stingy with my hugs. I normally hate people touching me. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Because when that’s how you are, and you take the time to hug someone, it means so much more. And I made it a point to hug every single one of them.

Except for Sam. She was cool with a fist bump.


As it turned out, Fawn really had broken out of prison. In fact, she put a few guards in the hospital in the process. Tori’s dad got the local branch of the Feds to us within an hour. After being questioned about what happened for three hours (we told them the truth, that we wanted to ask her to remove the video, that she tackled me, and that Tori saved me in self-defense), we were taken back to the hotel where a very relieved Cat was waiting to see us. Her second performance had gone well. Carl Crane’s new show was being heralded as one of his best and his leading lady one of the top new off-Broadway stars to watch.

Tori and I staggered to our rooms, sore and exhausted, but relieved. I unlocked my door, then turned to her. “Would you care to join me tonight?” I asked.

Despite her exhaustion, she smiled. “I was hoping you’d ask. Give me a few minutes and I’ll come over.”

I got cleaned up in the bathroom and took care of the few scrapes from Fawn knocking me over. I slipped into a snug tank top so I didn’t need to bother with a bra. I toyed with the idea of getting into my booty shorts to sleep in, but I didn’t bother with those either. It was a tank top and underwear kind of night. I settled in with a bottle of soda to wait for Tori.

She arrived fifteen minutes later, looking adorable in her glasses and a long t-shirt that reached down almost to the middle of her thigh. I made a mental note to get her to leave the glasses on one of these nights.

Well…however few we had left before she went back to school.

“Hi,” she said with a smile as I opened the door.

“Hi yourself,” I said and stood aside. I noticed she brought her suitcase with her. My lips twitched upward in a smile. “Planning to stay for a while?”

“For as long as you’ll have me.”

Despite everything we’d been through and all we had already done with (and to) each other, those first moments were awkward. I climbed up into the bed, to the same spot I’d been in the previous night. Tori slid next to me. I turned on the television and started flipping through channels, as Tori took my right hand into hers and started playing with it. She traced the outlines of my fingers, my palm lines, my wrist.

I landed on The Tonight Show and set the controller aside. “Kind of cool that you got to be on that set,” I said. “I can’t wait to see you on the real thing.”

“That would be awesome,” Tori said. We spent some time in silence, just enjoying each other’s presence with no rush or pressure, or expectations. It was Tori who eventually broke the silence. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

She turned slightly to face me. “Don’t you want to know why I’m thanking you?”

I shrugged. “You’re welcome no matter what it is. For our awesome first date. For dealing with Fawn. For making you squeal in the janitor’s closet. It’s all good.”

Tori covered her eyes at the mention of the janitor’s closet. “I appreciate all of that, but I’m talking about what happened with Fawn. What you said to her. How you acted. You defended me. All the things I thought you hated about me, you defended. And then you let her go without hurting her. I know how hard that was for you.”

“It actually wasn’t hard at all. I looked over at you, and all the anger I felt just disappeared. I mean…it’s like what Cat always says about Sam. You just…made me better.” Tori squeezed my arm and kissed my bare shoulder. “And what about you? You kicked some ass.”

“Maybe a little,” she said. 

“Maybe a lot. That was seriously sexy. You looked like Shelby Marx out there.”

“What’s so sexy about violence?”

Oh, boy. Where do I begin?   Probably best not to poke that particular bear.  “It wasn’t the violence. It was the strength you showed in standing up for yourself. Pushing back. All those years I gave you a hard time and you never did that to me.”

Tori shrugged. “I never would.”

“Even back then?”

“Never. I love you. Maybe I couldn’t recognize what it was back then…but I still knew it on some level. That’s why I kept reaching out to you over and over, year after year.”

Wait…what?  Was she trying to tell me…?

“Are you saying you were in love with me the entire time? From day one?”

“I’m saying I knew from the start you were going to be special to me. I didn’t know how. I didn’t even realize I was interested in girls back then. But I knew there was something there.”

I kissed her forehead. “I guess I knew it, too. That’s why you were so frustrating to me.”

“But worth it in the end?”

I smiled. “The jury’s still out.”

She smacked my arm. “Ass.”

We drifted into silence again, but my brain was still processing everything she had shared. “So if you didn’t know you were into girls when we met…when did you figure out? I mean…I didn’t, uh…pop your cherry, did I?”

Tori shifted under my arm. “No, you didn’t. Before us, I was only with one person.”

“Do I know this person?” She nodded. “Who was it?”

She shifted again, and I knew she wasn’t comfortable with this line of questioning. “It’s kind of a long story,” she said. “One that I want to share with you. But…maybe not tonight? If that’s okay?”

A small part of me felt anxious about that. What was so awful about sharing it tonight, y’know? But I knew Vega so well. There really wasn’t a spiteful, hurtful bone in her glorious body. So even though I didn’t fully understand the need to hold off, I accepted her answer.

“All right,” I said. “Whenever you feel comfortable. Just…can you answer me one thing?”

She met my gaze. “I’ll try.”

I swallowed against a dry throat. “It wasn’t…Cat, was it?”

Tori giggled. “No, it wasn’t Cat. I didn’t even know she was into girls until the whole Sam thing.”

That set my mind at ease tremendously. “Yeah,” I said. “The Sam thing. That’s how I found out, too.” 

I swallowed again, then took a drink from my soda. Tori swiped it from my hands and took a swig herself.

“I don’t want your germs,” I said.

“I think you’ve got them already. Like…all of them. Besides, I saved your butt tonight.”

“So?”

“So I get to finish your drink.” She took the bottle and took another swig.

“Look, lady, I’ve never been the damsel in distress, okay? I don’t know the rules.”

Tori laughed at that. “Oh, you’re no damsel. But you  are  in distress.”

“True. And you, my dear, are my hero. At least for tonight.”

“I’m not sure I can handle the pressure of being your star  and  your hero.”

I kissed her forehead and pulled her closer to me.

“Well too bad. You’re both.”

I’d love to tell you that things got hot and heavy again, that all that pent-up energy from seeing Tori kick some ass led to our long-awaited night of crazy, room-trashing sex. But, for that night at least, it didn’t. Eventually, we slid down under the covers, turned off the television, and fell asleep gazing into each others’ eyes. And in some ways, it was a far more vulnerable, intimate experience than a night of rowdy sex.

And for Tori and me, that night, it was more than enough.

Chapter Text

It was time to say goodbye.

Unlike the trip to New York, our return flights weren’t all departing from the same airport. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and a lot of people were flying home. We met up one last time at Sam and Cat’s apartment. We had lunch, we sat around, we listened to Cat talk about the Saturday night performance of her show, and she listened to everything that had happened to us. Dice and Goomer were the first to depart for John F. Kennedy. They managed to get an earlier flight back to LA than we did, with an airline I had never heard of and didn’t fully trust. I thanked them both for their help; we couldn’t have done what we did without them.

The Seattle crew were the next to depart, heading for LaGuardia. Sam and Carly bade each other yet another tearful farewell. They were getting really good at those. There was still some really weird tension between Freddie and Sam, but they put it aside. Andre and Robbie went with them; Andre would be returning to work with PeazyB and Robbie was to catch a connecting flight from Seattle to Vegas. I made sure to thank them all again as well. Without the strength of numbers, dealing with Fawn might not have gone as well as it did.

Beck was the last, outside of Tori and Me. When the time came, I walked him to the door of Sam and Cat’s apartment and stepped out into the hallway. The awkwardness was thick, and we both felt it. We weren’t together anymore. Nothing was pressing between us to keep in touch, at least not in that sense. The thought made me sad and maybe a little scared.

“So…this was an interesting trip,” he said.

“Just a bit.”

“It feels like it was a whole lot longer than just three days.”

Oh, did it ever. Felt more like a month. “Well, we had a lot of stuff to cram in, I guess,” I said.

The silence sat there, weighing down on us.

“I don’t want to lose you,” I said. “As a friend, I mean. Our history…it’s deep, and it means a lot to me.”

Beck smiled. “You’ll never lose me,” he said. “I’ll love you until the day I stop breathing. As a friend, if that’s what it has to be. A very angry, violent-tempered friend. Although I think I might actually be more afraid of Tori now. Man, this was a weird trip.”

“I love weird things.”

“I know. And I love that about you.”

He embraced me then, and for the first time that trip, I felt something in his arms. I felt warmth and affection for him. Platonic affection…but it was better than the emptiness I’d felt before. I knew in my heart I had made the right decision, and he seemed okay with it too.

“Call me sometime,” I said.

“You call me. I wanna know what happens with your meeting tomorrow.”

“I promise.”

“Try not to kick too much ass out there.”

“That I can’t promise.”

He chuckled and turned from me. I watched as he disappeared down the hall and the corner stole him from my sight. My heart ached a little for what had been lost and for all the changes, but that’s normal. It’s part of growing and moving on. Knowing that didn’t soothe the ache, but it gave me hope that one day in the future, only the ache would fade from memory, leaving just the good things behind. 

I went back into the apartment. Tori sat on the couch, chatting with Cat. When she saw me come in, her smile grew and my heart raced. I still had a hard time accepting what had happened between us. I was stubborn and very, very resistant to change. But I was getting used to this new reality, and the more I did, the more I liked it.

Which is why going home scared me so much.

So far this new reality only existed in New York. It was easier to accept it as normal because there was no “normal” out here. In LA, it had been all about the struggle, even after the kiss. We were taking this new scenario home and that’s where it would really sink in.

Or would it? Tori still had college. We hadn’t discussed what would happen next. We barely had time to take in what was happening in the moment. I knew her vacation was up. Her classes started up on Wednesday, meaning she’d be flying back home Tuesday. She had bought her return ticket the day I agreed to go to New York.

So between all that and the meetings with Les Monday morning, our homecoming wasn’t the delightful, happy event it might have been otherwise.

But never mind that. Right here, right now, Tori’s smile awaited me. I joined her on the couch, and we spent our last hours in New York with Sam and Cat, reminiscing about our days in school and talking about what the future might hold. When we finally bade them farewell, all of us were teary-eyed.

Cat pulled me aside as we were about to leave. “I’m so happy for you,” she said. “I knew you loved her. Whatever you do, don’t you dare let her go, Jade West. No matter what. She’s your person.”

“I know,” I said. “Thank you for nudging me in the right direction, even though I bit your head off for it.”

“It’s what I do. I love you both like sisters.” In a softer voice, she said, “And I love you even more than that.”

I looked away, the awkwardness of another big emotional moment taking hold. “Yeah…you know…I mean…me too.”

Cat threw her arms around me and I gave her a squeeze to remember.

Two hours later, we were on our way home. We chased the sunset the entire way; the massive orb remained elusive, just beyond the horizon, no matter how relentless our pursuit. The thought stirred something inside of me.

“It’s funny,” I said to Tori as I gazed out the window at the gorgeous sea of clouds below us. “It doesn’t really matter how long you fly or how far you go towards the horizon…you’ll never get there.”

Tori’s fingers slid between mine.

“Deep thoughts tonight,” she said. 

“I guess.”

“Are you worried about tomorrow?”

Yes. Absolutely. Terrified. Vulnerable. Exposed.

“Yeah, I am. Absolutely. I’m terrified. Vulnerable. Exposed.”

Wait, what? Did I just tell her how I actually felt? Oh, Vega. You broke my damn mind.

Tori laid her head on my shoulder and looked out the window with me. “Maybe we aren’t supposed to get there,” she said. “Maybe the horizon isn’t meant to be the culmination of our dreams. Maybe it’s just a reminder to keep dreaming. That there’s always more to come.”

My apprehension fled with those words. I settled back into my seat and laid my head on top of hers. We sat in silence for a few moments. Just having her next to me, having her hand in mine, was a balm on my soul. The worries still bothered me, but with Tori there, they felt less overwhelming. She made me…well, she made me calmer. More focused. She made me better.

“She’s your person,”  Cat had said. I understood more and more what that meant every day.

“Tori…I, uh…I was wondering…would you be willing to come with me tomorrow, to the studio?”

She smiled so sweetly at me. “Of course I will.”

Oh, yes. She was my person.


Fortunately, my car was in one piece in the long-term parking garage where I’d left it. Tori had asked me to drop her at her mom’s house. She had some things there she needed to pack up, and she wanted to try and talk to her mother. I guess seeing my dad making a real effort over Thanksgiving had inspired her in some way.

I understood. And she promised that she’d stay with me Monday night, which officially made that Monday the only Monday I ever looked forward to in the history of ever. Nevertheless, as we sat outside her mom’s house, the sun long since gone beyond the horizon, I felt a dull ache in my chest. I didn’t want her to go. I didn’t want to be apart from her.

“Thanks for the ride,” she said.

“Sure.”

“And for…I mean…wow. So much. Everything. Just all of it.”

I laughed. “You don’t have to thank me for anything. Then I'll have to thank you, and then we’ll end up sitting here all night drowning in gratitude.”

She giggled. “Okay. Then we’ll just agree: we’ve both been thanked, and we are both welcome.”

“Fair enough.”

She didn’t move. I could sense the weight of the moment bearing down on us. I wanted to do or say something to make it easier or to change her mind, but my brain just wasn’t working.

“I guess I should go in,” she said.

“Yeah. Probably a good idea.”

I felt her eyes on me then. “Is it weird that I don’t want to?”

I returned her gaze. “If it is, then I’m weird, too. I don’t want you to either.”

“Oh, Jade.”

She leaned in and kissed me deeply. My heart fluttered as I smelled her skin and tasted her lips. I could feel the urgency growing between us the longer our lips touched. Somehow, Tori found the strength to pull away. I could see the hunger in her eyes, and I knew it was reflected in mine. “I really do love you,” she said.

My heart soared even as it ached to kiss her again. “I love you too, Vega. Tori.”

She smiled sweetly, then slipped out of the front seat. She turned back to me. “Call me if you get lonely tonight.”

“You do the same.”

She pulled her suitcase from my trunk and I watched her glorious departing form. As she disappeared into her house, she turned and blew me one last kiss. I laughed and “caught” it, then returned one for her.

She’s such a dork,  I thought.  And I miss her already.


It was a restless night. My brain was on overdrive. I’d spent an hour talking to my Dad and Debbie about Cat’s show. I didn’t mention what happened with Tori, and I might have implied that everyone came along with us on our date. Discussing the trip left me wired. Hiding what happened with Tori did, too. After I’d answered their questions and spent some time with them, I took a long, hot bath with some essential oils. Debbie always recommended those things but I’d never tried them. I figured it would be worth it if they’d help me calm down.

They didn’t. Not really. I felt a bit more relaxed, but the thing I was missing in my bed was Tori’s slender, warm body next to mine. My arms desperately ached for her. I tossed and turned, read shit on my phone, looked at the pictures from our trip, but I couldn’t calm down.

When a text message from Tori came in, I was so excited I nearly squealed. It read,  up for a vid call?

I typed back,  Of course.

I grabbed my PearPods and slipped them in just as Tori’s call came. I sat up in my bed, propped the pillows behind me, and answered. There she was, smiling in the darkness of her old bedroom, glasses on, laying back against her headboard like I was.

“Hey beautiful,” she said, and I stumbled over my response.

“Hey to you, pretty lady,” I managed to get out. “Trouble sleeping?”

“Yeah, a bit,” Tori said. “I really miss you.”

I chuckled. “It’s only been a few hours.”

“I know.”

“Don’t listen to me, I miss you too. I spent the last two nights with you in my bed. I was kind of getting used to it. Maybe even liking it a little.”

Even in the dark, I could see her cheeks glowing red. “Yeah, I loved it, too. I’m…kind of wound up, actually. So I thought I’d call and…” Her face was bright red now and she started stumbling over her words. “I guess I’d like to know what you’re wearing.”

My cheeks started burning. “Oh really?”

“If, uh…y’know…”

“If I’d be into telling you that I’m wearing a little tank top with no bra, and black bikini underwear?”

Tori’s bashful grin was so adorable. “That sounds really nice.”

“Oh, it’s nice. Comfy, too. See?”

I turned on some of my LED lights, then turned my phone and kicked off my blankets to give Tori a look at the body that was aching for her so badly. I made sure to squeeze my arms in a bit to show off my cleavage.

Tori sighed wistfully. “You are so damn gorgeous,” she said. “I wish I was there to see it in person.”

“What about you? What’re you wearing?” I couldn’t actually see much of her, she had the phone pretty close to her face. When she heard the question, she smiled mischievously.

“It’d be easier to show you.” She ran her phone down the length of her body. I saw her soft breasts, her nipples rigid and begging for my lips. I saw her tone abs and strong legs. I saw her clean-shaven slit.

My body practically shook with desire. She was completely naked. By the time she returned the camera to her face, my upper lips were dry and my lower lips were so damn wet.

“Damn it, Vega,” I said. “As if I wasn’t having enough trouble sleeping.”

“So you like what you saw?” she asked, batting her eyelashes at me from behind her glasses.

“Of course I did, you goddamn goddess.” I realized, maybe, what she was hoping for here. I remembered back to our conversation at the Museum of Sex when I told her what happened the night of our kiss. “I mean, those nipples…god, they look like they’re ready for me to lick them. Just take one of ‘em in my mouth and started sucking while I rub and pinch the other one.”

Tori’s eyes turned lusty. “Mmm, that sounds nice. Rubbing and pinching like this?” She shifted the phone again and showed me that her hand was covering her breast. She massaged it, pinching her nipple between her fingers as she went. Then she cupped it from below, took her nipple between her thumb and forefinger, and squeezed.

She brought the phone back up so I could see the pleasure on her face.

“Just like that,” I said. The ache between my own legs was raging out of control. I let my free hand wander down my stomach and rub the outside of my underwear gently.

Tori was obviously still rubbing her breast; I could tell by the way her breathing was gradually turning shallow. “What else would you do if you were here with me?”

My heart was racing at this point. I’d never done anything like this before. I closed my eyes briefly and imagined myself in her bed, one breast in my mouth, the other in my hand. I imagined her tone abs just below them. I imagined the scent of her skin as I kissed down them. “Well,” I said slowly, “I’d start to kiss down your stomach. Leave a trail of wet kisses while I rub your breasts with both hands.”

“Mmm, that would feel so great,” she said breathlessly.

“Then I’d slide my hands down your stomach, and lower, to your hips. Still kissing downward. I’d kiss down your left thigh. Slide my hands under you, so you feel my thumbs pressing into your inner thighs. Then I’d kiss my way toward my thumbs. Maybe give your thighs a nibble.”

From the glazed look in Tori’s eyes and the way her phone started shaking, it wasn’t hard to guess what she was doing. 

“I like it when you tease me like that,” she gasped. “It makes me so wet for you.”

“Oh god,” I said, drawing in a sharp breath. “Are you wet right now?”

Tori managed to work a giggle in with her gasping. “Maybe.”

“Maybe? Maybe if I were there, I could kiss and nibble my way up your thigh and drag my tongue along your lips and see for myself how wet you are.”

“Mmmm, god,” Tori gasped. “I’d love to feel your tongue do that.”

“Not as much as I’d love tasting you,” I said. By now, my own hand was inside my underwear and knuckle-deep inside of me. I didn’t know how wet Tori was, but this was sure as hell doing a number on me. “Kissing all around your lips, slipping my tongue inside of you, tasting you as I explore your…” I trailed off, suddenly at a loss for words. I didn’t want to break the moment by being crass.

“My what, Jade? Say it…please…”

A fresh wave of moisture washed over me to hear her beg for it. “Tasting you as I explore your pussy.”

“Oh, god, Jade…” Her eyes rolled back. “Uhhhh…”

I felt a sheen of sweat on my forehead. That’s how fucking hot I was. “I’d slide my thumbs just inside of your slit, and let my tongue roam deeper inside of you…find every little spot to make you squirm…then I’d slide it to your clit.”

“Jade…ohhh…”

“And I’d slide a finger inside of you. And another.”

“Yessss…like this?”

She shifted the phone again, and I saw on the screen that she had her middle finger and ring finger buried deep inside of herself. She was so wet; it gleamed off the light of her phone and made me crazy with hunger for her. I swear I could have licked the screen of my phone at that moment, I wanted her so badly. Then the image was gone, replaced by Tori’s face, her eyes half-closed, her sensual mouth open in a series of gasping breaths.

“Just like that, baby,” I said, as I slipped a second finger inside of myself. “You’re so wet, I’d have lots to clean up, but I wouldn’t leave your clit for too long. My fingers dragging along your inner walls, finding all the places you love to be touched. My lips and tongue all over your clit…”

“Oh god, Jade…I’m almost there…”

“I’m so wet for you, Tori,” I said, my breathing turning shallower as my own fingers sped up. “All I want is to taste you again. To reach every part of you with my fingers.”

“Yessss…”

“To lick every inch of you…to nibble on your clit…”

“Oh god, Jade…!”

“To feel your pussy tremble as you cum all over me.”

“Oh, Jade! Ohmygod!”

Tori’s eyes rolled back in her bed and she did her best to stifle a scream as she went rigid. I could see her chest heaving. She dropped the phone, and all I saw was darkness for a second. When she grabbed it again, she wore a glazed, satisfied look.

“Ohhhh,” she gasped. “I had no idea that could be so hot,” she said.

As her climax faded, I slowed my own hand down. “Me neither.”

Tori’s mischievous grin returned. “I have quite a mess here,” she said. She held up the hand she used and waved. I could see it glisten against the light of her phone. The fingers she’d used were soaked. A dull throb erupted between my legs. “Since you’re not here to help me…” She smiled seductively at me and slid her fingers into her mouth, groaning all the while. She slowly pulled them out, then licked each of them in turn with her tongue, groaning all the while.

I sped my own fingers back up upon seeing that. “Tori, that was…oh god…”

“Did you like that?”

“Yessss.”

“What are you doing right now?”

I adjusted the phone so she could see that my hand was down my underwear.

“Mmmm, I wish that were my hand,” she said. “But if it were, you wouldn’t have any panties on.”

I winced at that word, but it didn’t stop me from setting the phone down and pulling off my underwear. I slid down on my bed and spread my legs a little more, then adjusted the phone so she could see what I was doing. My ring finger was buried to the hilt, reaching one of my hotspots, while my middle finger alternated between rubbing my clit and sliding inside. It was my go-to move when I needed a desperate release.

“Jade, that is so sexy. I wish I were there so I could help…I wish I were there so I could taste…so I could taste your pussy.”

While that word wasn’t quite the turn-on for me like it was for her, the fact that it came from her (mostly) innocent lips sent a wave of chills through my body. I brought the phone back and looked into her eyes.

“Would you like that? To feel my tongue inside of you? To feel my fingers reaching into you?”

“More than anything,” I gasped.

Although my eyelids were getting heavy with lust, I could still see Tori’s flushed cheeks and grin. “Maybe since you like to be in control so much, I’d just lay on my back and let you climb on top and sit right on my face.”

My knees trembled at the thought of riding Tori’s face, looking down and seeing her eyes staring back at me as ground my hips into her. I felt my muscles start to go rigid.

“Oh my god…Vega…”

“You could ride my tongue until it was raw, pressing yourself on me, forcing it deeper. Forcing it to press against your clit.”

In my mind, I saw myself reaching down and grabbing a handful of Tori’s hair. Imaging her tongue all over my clit. “Veggaaaaa…” I gasped.

“And as you would look down at me, you’d see nothing but hunger…you’d see my eyes begging for you to—“

“Fuck, fuck, fuck…I’m….oh, Tori!”

I came hard and fast, waves of warmth and pleasure exploding from my center and rocketing through my body. I did my best to keep my eyes on Tori, but it was a battle I couldn’t win; the intensity was too great.

Tori was glowing as I came down from the orgasm. “Oh, damn,” I gasped. “That was so hot.”

“I loved it,” Tori said. “Thanks for being willing.”

I laughed. “Any time. Literally any time. I will find a closet somewhere if I have to.”

Tori giggled. We both settled into our beds. The lusty contentment gave way to a hint of sadness in her eyes. “I don’t want to hang up.”

“Then don’t,” I said. “Let’s just…stay on the phone. We can talk. And if we fall asleep, well…then we fall asleep.”

Tori’s smile knew no bounds. “That sounds perfect.”

Chapter Text

We did fall asleep together. Well, sort of.

Tori had propped the phone against a few books so she could look at me without holding it. I did the same thing on my end with a stack of movies. We talked for a little while, mostly about nonsensical stuff. The stuff you talk about when you just want to hear someone’s voice and you don’t care what they’re saying.

Eventually, her eyes grew heavier and she dozed. I watched her sleep; admired the little facial twitches and sounds. She smiled a few times, giggled a few times. I hoped she was dreaming about me, that maybe we were on our next date together or something. I was content just to watch her doze until my own eyes grew too heavy and I finally fell asleep myself. I remember thinking,  when did I become such a lovestruck dork?

When I woke up the next morning, Tori was already awake. She was gazing at me like she had in the hotel room. I was exposed and vulnerable, but perfectly safe at the same time.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Maybe it will be once I get to see you.”

“Stop that,” she said. “If you’d have told sixteen-year-old me that you could be so sweet, she’d laugh right in your face.”

“So would sixteen-year-old me,” I said.

“You want to get breakfast?”

“I don’t think I should eat before the meeting. My stomach’s a little off from the flight. I could do coffee though. You could get some food if you want.”

Her eyes lit up. “Okay. I’ll get a shower. Can you come by and get me?”

“Only if you promise to think of me in the shower,” I said with my best naughty-girl wink.

“I haven’t stopped thinking of you for a single second. The shower won’t be an exception.”

My cheeks were warm.  She hasn’t stopped thinking about me. Damn it, why does knowing that make me so happy?

Oh, right. Lovestruck dork.


It seemed like an eternity since I’d been inside Paramore Studios. The last time I was here, it was as a PA. My leave of absence that I’d taken to work on Liz’s short was up in a few days. I was more than a little nervous about what Les was going to say if he realized that one of his PAs had directed a film for Liz. Nothing about my employment contract at Paramore forbade it, but Les was, as we’ve firmly established, an asshole.

I sat behind the wheel of my car in the parking lot of the studio’s offices. I sipped my mocha cappuccino and fidgeted restlessly. Liz wasn’t there yet and it was making me nervous. I knew she’d show up, I didn’t doubt it for a second, but I suspected I’d be nervous until she got there. Probably after, too.

Tori sat next to me. She reached across the seat and rested her hand on my thigh, which was rocking back and forth dramatically.

“Relax,” she said.

“I wish you’d quit saying that.”

Wait, why did that sound familiar?

“Now you’re stealing my lines.”

Oh, right. Park bench. New York. Day before.

“So you’re using my own amazing advice against me?”

“To be fair, it  is  good advice.”

I avoided looking at her because if I did, I knew it would calm me down. I didn’t want to calm down. I wanted to be nervous. I wanted to revel in my anxiety like a pig in a shit heap. It kept me sharp and focused. 

The car felt claustrophobic. I threw open the door and slid out. The air was temperate, the sun was bright. It was night and day compared to the cold weekend in New York. Maybe I could enjoy it later, but at that moment, I was too wound up.

Tori got out of the car and joined me on my side. She stood by patiently as I paced a hole in the parking lot.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

“No.”

“Scream about it?”

“No.”

“Hit something?”

“No.”

“Have sex in the backseat?”

I stopped my pacing and turned to her. She was wearing her shifty, mischievous smile but it still stole my breath. And my worry.

Damn it, she’s good.

She reached for me and took my hand, then gently pulled me closer.

“You’re going to crush it in there. He’s going to love the movie. He’s going to give Liz the money, and you’re going to get to make your movie.”

I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “So the offer of sex in the backseat was just a ploy to get my attention?”

A lusty smirk crossed her full lips. “Not necessarily. But we should probably wait until after the meeting.”

I leaned into her ear and gently kissed her. “I dunno,” I said. “Greeting Les with a bit of you on my breath might increase our chances.”

Tori turned into me. “That is both incredibly disgusting and kind of hot,” she whispered back. “But Liz is here.”

I hadn’t even heard her car pull up. She was halfway out the door by the time I turned. She wore tight black jeans and a leather jacket and boots with heels sharp enough to impale someone. Her walk of confidence was something to behold, a powerful stride with a fierce look in her eyes. She was ready for this. Seeing that was empowering. There’s no way Les wasn’t giving her the money. 

“I hope the old bastard’s got a Blu-ray player in that screening room,” Liz said. “But if he doesn’t, I’ve got it on a flash drive, and it’s in the cloud and on my phone. Can’t be too careful with him. I don’t want ‘technical difficulties’ to be a problem.”

Liz Hannah was not going to be fucked with today. My respect for her was at an all-time high.

“I’ve never seen him use that as an excuse, even for projects he didn’t like, but you never know,” I said. “You intimidate him too much.”

“Good. Let’s go intimidate him some more.” Her eyes flicked to Tori, who remained by the car. “And will our beautiful leading lady be joining us in there?”

Tori’s cheeks lit up. She shot me a look that said,  would that be okay?

I smiled back and nodded.  Of course it would. I’d love for you to be there with me.

“Sure,” Tori said. “Thanks for offering.”

“Honey, you earned the right as much as we did,” Liz said.

Tori’s hand slid into mine as we walked with Liz up the steps. Liz happened to catch the gesture. She leaned into my ear.

“About damn time, kid,” she said.

Yes, it was.


The lights came up in Les’s private screening room. It was a sweet setup, kind of a glorified home theater near the far end with a dozen or so reclining seats, a two-hundred-inch screen (and tons of super high-tech equipment I don’t know anything about). In the back, he had a sizable meeting table made from wood that probably cost more than my dad’s place surrounded by chairs that cost more than my car when it was brand new.

Les stood in silence as the credits rolled, then walked to the back and poured himself a bourbon from his mini-bar. He took his place at the head of the table. I was about to go up too, but Liz stopped me with a quick raise of her hand. After a few minutes, she started up and motioned for Tori and me to do the same. She sat at the opposite end of the table, across from Les, asserting her dominance. I swear if I were twenty years older and not madly in love with Vega, I would be all over this woman.

“Okay, Les,” Liz said. “Did I prove to you we could do it, or not?”

He took a sip of his bourbon, then swished the ice around a bit. “That was well done,” he said. His eyes fell on me. “I didn’t realize we were sitting on this kind of talent here at Paramore, otherwise I’d have made sure Jade was out there making movies for us instead.”

I nearly lost my poker face. A surge of pride flashed through my entire being. This nasty old bastard who’d spent more time looking at my ass than my face just admitted I should be making movies for his studio. The ego trip was ridiculous.

But it was also sickening because Les was a disgusting pig of a human being who would do and say anything to manipulate things into his favor. It was just as likely he was trying to flatter me for some other reason.

“That doesn’t answer my question, Les. Jade made that film under the employ of Grim Productions. She took a leave of absence from her non-creative role as PA here at Paramore, as required by your company’s guidelines.”

Les waved her off. “I’ve been in this business longer than you’ve been alive, Miss Hannah—“

“Mrs. Hannah, thank you.”

Les sighed. “ Mrs.  Hannah. I’m not trying to make a legal issue out of it. I’ll be honest, Jade, if you’d have come to me to pitch an idea, I probably would have ignored you. Everyone who works here wants a foot in the door to get in front of me, but most of them are talentless hacks. You’ve got something. You’re inexperienced, but the potential is there.” My heart was beating so hard I thought for sure everyone else in the room could hear it. “Mrs. Hannah, I know you don’t care much for me, and maybe you’re onto something with that. But I wasn’t always where I am. I remember being in your shoes, I remember struggling to be heard, to get someone to take a chance on me.” His eyes landed on Tori and me. “And you two…well, I’ve seen the video.”

My heart sank to my feet. Tori and I exchanged worried looks. I felt her hand on my leg under the table.

“The thing about this town is that it’s full of stupid bullshit like that. People trying to get famous by posting other people’s dirty laundry on the internet. I don’t care what all that was about. I’m just glad all this technology didn’t exist when I was your age. I don’t make decisions based on things like that.”

There are no words adequate to describe the relief I felt at hearing Les say that. I didn’t care about his opinion of the video, only that it wasn’t a factor in his decision. Tori’s hand slid into mine. She was just as relieved.

“I honestly can’t stand the kinds of movies you make over there,” he said to Liz. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make them, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be given the chance to expand your repertoire.”

Liz, Tori, and I exchanged confused, excited glances as Les stood up, went over to his bar, and poured more drinks. He brought them to the table on a small tray and placed one in front of each of us.

“I’m not going to give you 60% of the budget,” he said. Liz was on her feet half a second later, ready to argue. “I’m going to give you 80%— if  you’re willing to discuss giving Paramore an extra 2% on the back-end.”

As quickly as Liz stood up, she dropped back into her chair. The disbelief in her eyes was mirrored in my own.

“Eighty, huh?” she said. “Well…that’s….I think that’s reasonable.”

Les laughed. Well, I say laugh. It was probably closer to an evil cackle. “I’m glad you approve. And Jade, when your leave is over, I’d like to see you in my office. Maybe we can find a more appropriate job for you here. You shouldn’t be wasted on ordering coffee.”

Again, I was struck completely speechless. Tori’s hand squeezed my leg under the table, and the strength of her support surged through me.

“I look forward to it,” I said.

Les raised his glass. “So, Mrs. Hannah, we have a deal?”

Liz looked at us. Her poker face was on-point, but I knew her well enough to see the excited schoolgirl dancing for joy, buried in her eyes. She nodded and raised her glass. Tori and I raised ours.

“We have a deal.”


I managed to wait until we got outside before I screamed in excitement. It was a ridiculous, over-the-top shriek of sheer delight, nonsensical and dramatic. I grabbed Tori and pulled her tightly.

“You did it,” she whispered. “I’m so proud of you.”

We  did it.”

I picked her up and spun her around until I nearly fell. Then I kissed her. Her lips, her cheek, her neck, her ears, everything I could reach.

“Easy,” she said. “We’re not to the backseat yet.”

“Who cares?” I mumbled as I kissed her lips again.

“Liz might,” Tori gasped as I bit into her neck. “Since she’s right behind us.”

“Ah, damn it. Why does she keep cock blocking me?”

“I don’t think that’s the right term,” Tori said with a grin. “I’ve checked pretty thoroughly and I’m pretty sure you don’t have a cock.”

“Ha, ha, smartass. It’s a euphemism. 

I reluctantly let her go and turned to face Liz, who seemed equally delighted and not at all bothered at my attempts to ravish my girlfriend in front of her. She hurried to me and extended her hand.

“You did it, you did it, you did it! You’re a goddamn Queen!” she said. I accepted her hand and she pulled me into her one-arm embrace. “I’m proud of you, kid.”

“I’m just glad it worked,” I said. “I was really worried about that stupid video.”

Liz shrugged. “That happens all the time out here,” she said. “Besides, most of the negative press about it got swallowed up by the fact that the girl who released it was an escaped felon. Her arrest pushed the video out of the spotlight. You guys did great. And he offered way more than we needed. Which means I can do something right now that I was eventually going to do anyway.” 

Liz took a step back and her excitement morphed into a calmer, more professional demeanor. “Jade West, in recognition of your efforts in producing and directing the short film,  Finding Sara , and in securing far more than we needed for the budget of the Jay Malloy screenplay, I’d like to formally offer you a position with Grim Productions: specifically, I’d like to lock you into a three-picture deal; two of those pictures can be chosen completely by you. The third will be assigned by us, though you will get the opportunity to decline if you don’t like our choice. I know Les is going to offer you something similar, and you’d make a lot more money with him, but…I think we both know you’d be more at home with us. Still, it’s up to you.”

I was light-headed. I stumbled back and felt Tori’s arms around me. Her hand slipped into mine and she gently squeezed it. I stared at Liz, unable to fathom what she just told me. My mouth opened, but words just wouldn’t come up. I turned to Tori. My excitement was reflected in her eyes.

After a few seconds to catch my breath, I was able to move again. The ability to speak returned.

“I…I accept.”

Liz smiled. She offered her hand once more and we shook on it.

“I’m glad. Come by tomorrow whenever you’d like and we’ll get everything signed.”

“Um…if I can ask…what are we looking at for the budget for the first film? I’d only need maybe five hundred thousand, tops.”

“Pffft,” Liz said. “Think bigger, hon. That extra twenty percent you got us is all yours.”

“Twenty percent of what?”

Liz hesitated as she opened her car door. “Oh, that’s right, I guess I never told you what the budget for the Malloy script was. Jade, you’ve got twenty percent of eighteen million to work with on your first picture. And your salary is included in that. So, you do the math, hon. I’ve got a lunch to get to. See you tomorrow.”

Liz disappeared into her car and drove off. My brain tried to grasp that number. 

“Did she say…eighteen million?” I asked Tori, my brain refusing to try and figure out the math.

“Twenty percent of eighteen million. Oh god, what is that?”

She pulled out her phone and started tapping like crazy. When she reached a conclusion, she froze up.

“How much is it, Tori? How much!?”

“You’ve got…three and a half million dollars.”

My hands started shaking. How was this happening?  How the hell was this really happening?

“Say that again,” I said. I leaned against my car for support, in case I’d heard her wrong. Tori did the math again and nodded. “Three-and-a-half million dollars. That’s what she’s giving you.”

I knew that most movies cost a lot more than that to make. But to someone who has only ever worked on films with budgets in the thousands at best, that much money was overwhelming. Mind-blowing. Insane. Impossible.

“Tori?”

“Yes?”

“I need to sit down.”

“Me too.”


“I’m sorry, did you say three and a half million?”

For the first time in my almost twenty years of life, my dad’s jaw fell open.

“That’s the same reaction I had,” I said.

He looked to Debbie, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, and an equally amazed smile on her thin lips. She placed a supportive hand on his leg. My brain seized up for a moment, as I realized how many times Tori had made that same gesture for me. Even now, she kept a supportive hand on my lower back, safely hidden from my dad.

He rose to his feet and walked over to me. I could see the struggle behind his eyes as he reached me. “Jade, that is extraordinary. I am…I am so proud of you.”

He reached out for me but hesitated. I thought at first he was going for a hug, but he stopped and placed his hands on my shoulders. A gentle hand pushed me from behind; Tori’s way of encouraging me to finish what he started. I reached for my dad and he hesitantly returned the embrace. After a moment, I felt it tighten. His shoulders were shaking.

Oh my god, he’s crying.

I held him tighter and my own eyes were suddenly overcome with tears.

“I know I haven’t supported your creative efforts. I’m so glad you kept at them. I’m sorry for not understanding.”

“Oh, stop it,” I said. “Don’t go getting all squishy on me.” I squeezed him again. “Thank you for saying it, though. I’m proud of you, too.”

Our long embrace finally ended. My dad wiped his eyes. Aside from a bit of redness, you couldn’t tell he’d shown any emotion at all. I glanced between Debbie and Tori; they were both crying, too.

“What the hell, is someone cutting onions in here or something?” I asked, wiping my own stupid eyes.

“Jade, let us take you out tonight to celebrate,” he said. “Please. Anywhere you’d like to go.”

“Um…actually, Tori and I had plans tonight—“

“Tori’s more than welcome, too,” Debbie interjected.

“Of course,” my dad said. “I’d love to get to know my daughter’s closest friend.”

I hesitated. Panicked might be more accurate. My dad had no idea that Tori and I weren’t just friends anymore. I had no idea how he would react to the revelation, but it terrified me. After the way he had just put himself out there, I was too scared to risk him shutting down again.

“Right. That’s us. BFFs, lol. Right, Tori?”

Tori shot me a confused look. “Um…sure. Right.”

“Would you like to join us, Tori?” my dad asked.

Tori smiled graciously, but there was something behind it that made me think she was about to decline.

“Um…thank you, so much. But that’s okay. I don’t want to intrude. Jade, you can come by my place when you’re done. We can still hang out after.”

My heart sank through the floor. “Oh. You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. But thank you, Mr. West, for the offer.”


We went to Long Beach for dinner. I had a hankering for meat that would rival Sam Puckett’s, so I opted for Nick’s on 2nd. The food was amazing, but the night felt hollow without Tori. I was worried about her sudden desire to go back to her mom’s instead of coming with me. Was it because I had gone along with my dad’s assumption that we were just friends? Had that hurt her? Did she think I was embarrassed of her?

I sent her a picture of the ridiculous porterhouse I ordered. And of a bouquet of flowers that reminded me of her. They went unanswered. I started to get nervous. I stopped chatting with my dad and Debbie and kept checking my phone every few minutes. My dad didn’t seem to notice. But when he stepped away to use the bathroom, Debbie revealed that she had.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “You’ve been jittery for a while.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “I just…haven’t heard back from Tori since we dropped her off at her place.”

Debbie nodded in understanding. “You’ve known her for a long time?”

“We met when we were sophomores. She was invited to Hollywood Arts after she sang in our showcase.”

“That sounds impressive. Did you like her right away?”

I laughed. “That’s a complicated subject. I didn’t like her right away, no. But I guess I felt like there was something about her. It took a long time before we really became friends. She tried so hard, but I always shut her down.”

Debbie took another bite of her salad, then washed it down with a bit of lemon water. “I know what that’s like,” she said. “From both sides. But I guess when you’re meant to be with someone, those walls just break down, eventually.”

A week ago, Liz had gotten one by me in exactly the same way, just casually slipping a dangling carrot right into our conversation. I jumped on it then, but this time I saw it coming. “What do you mean, meant to be with someone?”

“Didn’t I see her hand on your back earlier? And on Thanksgiving, the way you both looked at each other. I may be older than you sweetie, but I’m not dead. She’s not just your best friend, is she?”

All this time, I had written off Liz as just my dad’s latest experiment. But she was a smart woman. Observant. And more than capable of handling the Wests, it seemed.

“You’re good,” I said. “I just wasn’t sure how Dad would handle it. He’s so old-fashioned about certain things. That’s why I went along with the best friend thing. But now I think I upset Tori, like I’m ashamed of her or something.”

“She doesn’t strike me as the type who would be hurt that easily. Especially if she really did try all that time to be friends with you. Maybe she just wants you to bond with your dad.” She took another sip of her water. “He’s trying, you know. I’m sure you can tell.”

“Yeah, that hug was…I mean, I dreamed of that when I was a little girl. I still can’t believe it. That is the most astonishing that happened to me, on a day where a producer gave me three million dollars to make a movie.”

Debbie laughed at that, and I found my comfort level with her slowly growing. “Oh, sweetheart, it took a lot to get him to that point and it still even surprised me. He talks about you so much. You know that?”

News to me.  “No, I honestly didn’t.”

“Part of what drew me to him was how much he boasted on his brilliantly creative daughter. He regrets how he was when you were a little younger. He’s such a practical man, you know. So analytical and methodical. Something spontaneous, that takes creative energy, it just gets lost on him. He never understood how it could be a viable career path. He wanted to support you, but he was afraid. It’s a cruel industry, and he didn’t want to see you suffer heartbreak. It had nothing to do with how talented he felt you were, it’s just that good people get screwed over so often. I think it was the play that made him fully realize. ‘That moment when the father kissed his daughter, and she woke up,’ he’d say. ‘I knew then I had done it all wrong. But all I could tell her was, it was excellent.’”

I laughed. “That’s word-for-word what he said. Which for him was a big deal.”

“I guess my point is, he loves you and everything you’ve done. You can tell him about Tori. He’ll love her, too. In his weird, stilted, awkward way.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder. My dad was back. He took his seat across from me. “I apologize, there was a line to use the restroom. What did I miss?”

“Oh, Jade was just telling me a bit about how she and Tori met.”

He smiled. “Yes, I remember the first time I met her. She helped you with your play, didn’t she? I remember you were somewhat ambivalent about your friendship back then.”

“That’s one way to put it.”

“Well, I’m happy you’re still friends. I look forward to seeing her performance in your film.”

The conversation trailed off as I checked my phone. Nothing.

Damn it, Vega, why won’t you respond to me?

I cut another chunk off my porterhouse and downed it, then took a sip of my own lemon water.

Deep breath, Jade. You can do it. She’s worth it.

“Dad, I need to tell you something.”

He looked up expectantly, a fork full of baked potato hovering over his plate.

“Tori’s not just my friend. I’m actually…I’m in love with her.”

The potato wavered for a moment above his plate. I expected the fork to go down, but when it moved, it was toward his mouth. He ate the bite, swallowed, then nodded at me.

“That’s excellent,” he said. “She seems like a sweet girl.”

Turns out, it was my fork that hit my plate.

“Really? You’re okay with it?”

My dad glanced at my plate, then to me. He placed his fork down and turned his attention fully to me. “I know that I seem awkward and stodgy and maybe old-fashioned. And I know I haven’t always been vocal in my support of you. But you are my daughter, and all I want is for you to be happy. If Victoria makes you happy, then I’m happy. And, frankly, relieved that you’ve found someone who loves you.”

My vision blurred as more fucking tears raced to slide down my face. “Damn it, Dad,” I said, wiping my eyes. “This is becoming a very bad habit.”

Debbie offered me a dry tissue from her purse.

“Did I do something wrong?” he asked.

“No. Not a bit. Thanks, Dad.”

He smiled. It was crooked and kind of weird-looking, but it was growing on me.


“Oh, hi Jade!”

Trina Vega’s surprisingly bright smile greeted me as she opened the door. I hadn’t seen her since graduation, but she was completely unchanged; still had a killer body with legs like her sister’s and a rack like mine. The one thing that seemed different was that her obnoxiousness was toned way down. Perhaps a leftover from our Final Showcase during our senior year. It was a pleasant change.

“Hey, Trina,” I said.

“Come on in. You look really nice,” she chirped. “Tori said your dad took you out?”

“Yeah, we went to Nick’s on 2nd.”

“Oooh, Long Beach. Nice. Congrats on the movie. If you ever need killer legs or a nice rack or a pretty face, call me, okay?” She laughed. “I’m teasing. I’d be too terrified to work for you. Tori’s in her room packing, you can go on up.”

My heart sank. “Packing?”

Trina nodded. “I think so. Our mom might be in there still, she went up to talk to her about something or other. But I’m pretty sure I saw her suitcase out.”

I rushed up the steps to Tori’s room, my heart racing. We hadn’t discussed what her plans were yet, but I’d hoped we could talk about this evening. She was originally due to fly back the next day, but I was hoping she’d consider staying.

Her door was open and, as I approached, I heard another voice. A little older, a little huskier. Her mother, Holly.

“I think you’re making the right decision, Tori. I know my support doesn’t mean what it used to, but…well, you’ve got it.”

“Thanks, mom. It does mean something, especially after all this.”

Tori stood next to her bed, folding clothes that she was putting into an open suitcase. She looked beautiful, wearing a long, playful dress and a thin top. I knocked. Tori seemed startled. Her mother greeted me with a warm smile. “Hi, Jade,” she said. “You look fabulous. Congratulations on your movie!”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Well, I’ll leave you two alone.”

She walked past me and closed the door to Tori’s room. I lingered close to it, not sure how to approach her. Was she upset? Mad? Hurt? Tori looked at me and smiled brightly. “How’d dinner go?”

“I’m sorry, Tori,” I said quickly. Tori stopped and looked at me. If I had been thinking straight, I might have noticed the confusion on her face. But I was too far gone for that. “I shouldn’t have gone along with the whole BFF thing, with my dad. I was just scared of telling him about us. Especially in that moment when he was so happy.”

“Jade, I—“

“But I did tell him. I told him over dinner that I’m in love with you and you know what he did? He ate a potato.”

Tori raised a confused eyebrow. “Um…yay?”

I stepped closer to her, my anxiety still scrambling my thoughts. “I’m trying to say that it didn’t bother him. In fact, he said he’s relieved! He’s just happy that I’m happy. And you know what? I  am  happy. I’m happy and I don’t know how the fuck to react to that, because I’ve never been happy, ever. And if I’d have known that being with you and admitting how I feel about you would have led to this, I’d have done it years ago. But I’m happy and I love you and I don’t want you to go back to school. Stay here with me, Vega. Tori. Please.”

Tori’s eyes wandered between her suitcase and me, and the confusion that I finally registered slipped away. “I don’t know where all this came from,” she said. “It didn’t bother me that you went along with the BFF thing. I figured you’d tell your dad when you felt he could handle it.”

Okay. Well, then. I guess it was my turn to be confused. “Then why didn’t you come with us?”

“I told you, I wanted you to have a night out with them. If I were there, I’d have distracted you. Plus, I had to come to talk to my mom about some things. She, uh…she kicked Gary out.”

I stepped closer to Tori. “Really? Why?”

“I don’t know. She said she just realized that she was a horrible person and she never wanted to be that way and she just asked him to leave. She told me about it yesterday. That’s partly why I wanted to stay here, she was kind of emotional about it. I don’t know if she’ll go back to my dad or not, or if he’d even want her back, but I guess it’s a step in the right direction. And so tonight…I felt comfortable enough to tell her about us.”

My heart raced. I sat on the edge of her bed. “Oh, wow. What did she say?”

Tori joined me. “She said she was happy for me. And then she made sure I wasn’t being, and I quote, ‘forced into this at scissor-point.’” We shared a laugh. I didn’t realize Holly had ever paid enough attention to Tori’s life to remember anything about her friends. Or frenemies. “But once I assured her that this was genuine, she was really happy. And she supports my decision to switch to online classes so I can stay out here.”

My breath caught in my throat. “Really? You’re going to stay out here with me?”

“Of course I am,” she laughed. “You think I’d want to leave after all that’s happened?”

“I didn’t know. We hadn’t talked about it. Then what’s with the suitcase? And why didn't you respond to my texts?”

"Oh, shit. I left my phone downstairs after dinner. I'm sorry." Tori smiled and slid closer to me on her bed. “Ah, yeah, the suitcase. Well you see, I was planning on staying with my beautiful girlfriend for a few days,” she said. “If that’s all right with her.”

“You sure?” I asked playfully. “I hear your girlfriend can be a bit unstable. Kind of a bitch. Super into horror and scissors and things.”

“True,” Tori said. “But she’s really, really good with her tongue. Like…insanely good.”

The heat had been building since before our meeting that morning, and it was close to erupting. “That sounds like a request to me,” I said, pulling Tori to her feet. I slid her in front of me so that my back was to her bed.

“Maybe not right this…oh, jeez! Jade!”

I slid to the floor, flipped up Tori’s dress, and sunk my teeth right into her thighs. I took in the scent of her skin and knew just by proximity that she was already wet. I nibbled my way up her thigh, slid the thin pink fabric of her underwear aside, and pressed my lips into her, probing into her soft folds with my tongue. After her initial struggle to get me out of her dress, her legs trembled and she fell forward, catching herself on her bed and giving me a better angle of entry. I ran my lips against hers and pressed my tongue deeper inside of her. 

With my free hand, I explored every inch of her legs, tracing it up and down the outside and inside, over her ass, back down again. The deeper I pressed into her, the more her knees shook.

“Ooohhhh, Jade…” she gasped. “I need to lo—“

I heard the twisting of a doorknob and the creak of a door, followed by the voice of Trina Vega. “Hey Tor, have you seen my—“ 

Tori tried to stand. She thwacked me on the back of my head through her dress to get me to stop. It didn’t work; I let my tongue wriggle its way deeper inside her.

“What are you looking foooohhh, god,” Tori said.

A moment of silence passed.

“Jade’s under your dress, isn’t she?”

“Kinda. Aaahhhhh, stop it!”

“You should probably lock your door.”

“I knooohhhh.” Her thighs were quaking. She squeezed her legs together, trapping my face between them.

“Have you seen my curling iron?”

“Dresser, right there.” I flicked my tongue once more and connected with her clit. “Ooohhh, right there.”

“Sorry to interrupt. Good job, Jade, she seems really into this.”

Since my face was trapped I threw my hand outside of Tori’s dress and gave Trina a thumbs-up. I heard the door close, and Tori’s hold on my face eased up. I felt her pull away from me. She hurried to her door and locked it as I stood up. Her face was redder than I’d ever seen it as she turned back toward me. “That could have been my mother!” she said.

“So? You said she was cool with this.”

“That doesn’t mean I want her to watch you…do that to me.”

I pulled Tori close to me. “Do  what  to you?”

Tori flushed even more. “You know. What you were just doing.”

“What was I just doing?” I asked, flicking my tongue across her lips, ensuring she got a taste of herself. She groaned, and her eyes turned glassy with lust.

“Licking my pussy,” she said in barely a whisper before forcing me back onto the bed. She grabbed the straps on my dress and pulled them down so I could slip my arms out of them, then reached behind me and in what had to be some kind of record, unclasped my bra. She kissed me again and pressed against my shoulders, pushing me onto my back. Her hands went right for my breasts, squeezing them as she had her own the night before. She was eager and aggressive, kissing and biting her way down my neck.

Her aggression continued as she pulled my nipples into her mouth, biting down on them with her teeth, not even curling her lips over them first. The first bite startled me and I inadvertently pulled her hair as I groaned. The hair-pull just spurred her on. Every squeeze, pinch, and bite were rougher than I was used to with her, and it drove me wild. By the time she continued down my stomach and pulled my dress off, I was thoroughly wet.

Tori threw my underwear off and nibbled her way up my thigh, dragging her tongue at times, and then her teeth. With every touch, my breathing shallowed. Her tongue slid inside effortlessly and she buried it deep, dragging it back out, then thrusting it back in, then encircling my inner walls.

“Mmm…Tori…”

I ran my hand through her hair, then grabbed two handfuls and started grinding into her face. I felt her lips curl up into a smile. She licked up the length of my slit, then found my clit. The moment she brushed against it was like fire. I pulled her hair and she gasped, then giggled.

Her lips wandered back down my thighs and she slid off the side of the bed. I raised up on my elbows to see what she was doing. She slowly stood, then pointed at me. “Stay,” she said.

“What am I, your dog?”

“No. Just stay there.”

She grinned mischievously at me and turned around. Her slender arms undid the zipper on her dress and it crumpled to the floor, revealing the pink cotton underwear and a white and pink bra. The bra was the next thing to go. She looked over her shoulder at me as she undid the clasp, then threw it at me.

It took everything I had not to climb out of the bed and go after her.

She swung her hips at me a few times and slowly, so very slowly, slid her underwear down. She threw those at me too, and they landed right on my head. I could smell her dampness on them and she knew it. She walked around her bed in long, sexy strides, using those endless legs to full effect. She came around behind me. I went to turn but she took my shoulders and forced me to lay down. She kissed me like that, upside down. I tasted myself on her lips, unleashing a surge of moisture between my legs.

Tori began to slowly climb onto the bed, kissing down my body as she went, dragging her breasts over my face, then over my own breasts, down my stomach. Her long, tone body had me trembling with desire. Finally, her slit was inches from my face as she continued to swing her hips, teasing me. She lowered herself down, then pulled back up, all the while her tongue tormented my slit, brushing against it, running its length, but never slipping inside.

I couldn’t wait any longer; I grabbed her hips and pulled her down to me. It was my turn to be the aggressor, as I impaled her with my tongue over and over. She fell against me at first but soon regained herself. She began her own assault, and I was filled with her tongue. Fingers slipped in and out, pressing deep within then vanishing for minutes at a time while her tongue continued its dreadful, wonderful work. She cast the same spell on my clit, as one moment her tongue would be on it, the next it would be between her lips, then her fingers would be rubbing it.

I kept hold of Tori’s hips, drawing her down to me as I plunged my tongue into her. I couldn’t get enough of her taste. I wanted to drown myself in her sweetness. Her gasps and groans drove me onward. I wasn’t sure which one of us was closer to release until I felt the telltale twitching of her thigh muscles.

Sure enough, Tori sat almost upright. She dug her hands—and her nails!—deep into my thighs as she ground her hips against my face faster and faster. “Oh, god…oh, Jade…Jade, Jade, Jade, ooohhhhh!”

When the explosion finally hit, it hit hard. She came all over my face. My face, not just my mouth. Her sweetness just kept flowing as her body shook. Her nails sank into my thighs, breaking the skin. I didn’t care. I was in paradise, trying to catch every drop, every bit of Tori’s juices as they flowed from her.

She collapsed, breathless, next to me. Yet even as she paused to regain her strength, her fingers found my slit again and began their thrusting. But I had other ideas.

I sat up and adjusted so that I was able to kiss her. I could see the lusty, contented look on her face as she tasted herself on my lips. 

“You know, you had a good idea last night,” I whispered.

Before she could respond, I straddled her face. Just as she had done, I teased her, sliding my slit closer to her, then raising it again. The hungry look in her eye grew desperate, and I finally lowered myself down. I settled in on my ankles so as not to put too much weight on her, then reached down and grabbed a handful of hair and started grinding against her. Her long arms touched every part of my body they could reach; my thighs, my ass, my back, my breasts. They were constantly in motion, constantly giving me a new chill.

Tori’s tongue was relentless as it assailed my clit over and over. I was so wet and so wound, and the look in her eyes was so full of hunger and desire, it didn’t take long before I felt my thighs start to quake. I leaned back and put most of my weight on Tori’s thighs so my hips could move faster and more freely. Tori’s tongue stabbed into me over and over while her thumbs furiously rubbed my clit.

“OOoohhh, Vega…! So close! Ooohhhh, yes! Tori! Uuuhhh yesss!”

Tori groaned hungrily as I erupted all over her face. My arms nearly failed as I rode out the orgasm, trying not to drown the poor girl.

At long last, I sat up and fell next to her. We lay there for hours, wrapped in each other’s naked arms, not saying a word. Just existing, utterly content.


I sat on my dad’s recliner couch, legs stretched out in front of me, with Tori laying against my side, under my right arm. We had just finished watching  Searching for Sara.  My dad had cooked dinner for us and insisted we watch it. “Dinner and a movie,” he called it. How could I resist that?

“That was so heartbreaking,” Debbie said. “Tori, you were fantastic. You really were. That last scene…how did you do it?”

Tori sat up next to me, her cheeks rosy from the compliments. “I just tried to connect to what she was going through. In that case, I just thought of something that would completely break my heart.”

A pang of guilt shot through my chest. I remembered very well what Tori said inspired her performance in that scene. I squeezed her close. “Something that’ll never happen.”

She leaned into my embrace and sighed contentedly. “What did you think, Mr. West?”

He turned to us. “Remarkable. Just…remarkable. Jade, you are so talented. I can see why this company is willing to invest so heavily in you. I was captivated. And Tori…Deb is right, your performance was wonderful.”

“Thank you both,” Tori said. “I’m so happy you guys liked it.”

“Jade, I have to ask,” Debbie said. “What are you going to do for your first feature?”

Before I could respond, Tori said, “Oh, she’s doing this amazing horror script she wrote last year. She let me read it. Well, forced me to read it. But it was so scary. It gets inside your head. It’s going to be—”

“Actually, dear, I’ve got something else in mind,” I said.

All eyes fell on me. Tori more than anyone was surprised. “I thought you were doing—“

“I will,” I said. “I’ve got three, remember? And yeah, I can do the horror script low budget, too. But I’ve been thinking about it and I want my first feature to tell a story that’s important to me. Even more important than my horror script.”

“That’s smart,” my dad said. “The more it means to you, the more invested you’ll be in its success.”

“Well if it’s not the horror story, then what is it?” Tori asked.

I took a deep breath. “Well…I mean, it might have some scary elements. Because it’s about one of the scariest things in the world when you think about it. It’s about a girl who comes from a screwed-up home, who spends her life searching for that missing connection but sabotaging herself every time she almost has it. Until one day, out of nowhere, this gorgeous woman walks into her life and sends her into an emotional spiral, until she realizes how much she loves her.”

“So, it’s a drama,” my dad said.

Debbie smiled. “No, silly. It’s a love story.  Their  story.”


A few hours later, I climbed into bed next to Tori. We were both naked, completely exposed, snuggled together underneath my comforter. We laid face-to-face, our hands and fingers interlaced before us. I gazed into those endless brown eyes, and a sense of peace flooded through me. I felt so completely defenseless and so completely safe.

“So,” she said.

“So.”

“You’re really going to tell our story in a movie?”

I smiled. “I really am. Kind of. The way I envision it, it’s not a direct adaptation. But everything I’ve learned during this journey, all the pain and sorrow and frustration and sadness…that all forms the basis of the heroine. And her journey isn’t going to be easy. Because she’s an idiot, and she is her own worst enemy. But who doesn’t love a story about a badass chick who overcomes her demons and lands the girl of her dreams? Right?”

Tori feigned thoughtfulness, but a hint of a smile worked its way behind her eyes. “A little mainstream for you,” she said, her eyes gleaming. “But I’ve got no doubt you’ll find a way to emotionally scar your audience anyway.”

“Aw, babe, you know me so well.” A moment passed. “And maybe you could know me better. Because I want you to be the lead.”

I expected a smile, but Tori seemed to go a little pale. “You want me to be…you?”

“Well, the ‘me’ analog. It’s not going to be me, it’s just a similar emotional journey.”

Oh, for the love of chrysler, was she crying again?

“I just…I don’t know what to say. All those years I tried to connect with you…and now I’ve done that and you’re inviting me to understand you in a way I didn’t think would ever be possible. It’s the most amazing gift I’ve ever been given. Yes, Jade, of course, I’ll do it.”

“Good,” I said, wiping away a stray tear from her eye. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else.”

I knew from the moment Tori kissed me that we would end up entangled in each other within minutes. As our lips melded and our hands roamed and our bodies pressed against each other, I wondered what the hell I did to deserve this woman. For as long as I tried to fight it, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Victoria Vega was my person. And I was so grateful.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure this looks okay? It feels too tight.”

Tori clucked her tongue at me. “It is tight. Have you seen your boobs? They’re not small.”

“My frequent upper back pain agrees with you. I just mean it feels snug in the hips.”

Tori took a step back and gave me a once-over. “I mean, it’s form-fitting, but it’s supposed to be. You look great. Seriously. Like, I’m having a real hard time keeping my hands to myself.”

My cheeks flushed.

“Tori,” Cat groused. “Stop making her blush, I can’t blend this right if you keep turning her cheeks red.”

“I’m not blushing. I don’t blush.”

“You didn’t use to,” Tori said. “And I’m sorry, Cat, but she’s just so—“

“Yeah, yeah, we get it, your girlfriend’s super hot. Jeez.” Cat rolled her eyes. After a moment, she leaned in closer. “You know I think you’re hot too, but she doesn’t have to keep bragging about it, and…ah, dang it! Now I made you blush!”

“I’m not blushing,” I insisted. Futilely, I guess. “It’s anger and rage boiling just under the surface and it’s going to explode any minute.”

Tori and Cat stopped what they were doing and exchanged glances. For a fleeting moment, I thought I had them. Then they laughed.

Shit. That sort of thing used to work. Stupid growth as a person.

Tori joined Cat and inspected my face. “Cat, it looks perfect. You did great.”

“Of course I did great. I’m good at makeup.”

Sam appeared out of nowhere with the bottle of water I’d asked for and planted a kiss on Cat’s cheek. “You’re good at lots of things, babe,” she said.

Now it was Cat’s turn to blush. “Sam, we’re not supposed to talk about private stuff here.”

As red as Cat turned, Sam turned equal shades pale. “I wasn’t. But thanks for saying that out loud.”

Carly Shay stepped out from behind me. “All right, hair’s done,” she said. “I did my best but you’ve got some split ends that need some TLC.”

“We’ve got a spa day booked next week,” Tori said. “She refused to go during the shoot.”

“Why would I go to a spa in the middle of my first feature film shoot?” I asked, for what felt like the millionth time. “Name one other director that does that.”

Admittedly, the shoot for my first feature,  I Love (Hating) You , was a massive challenge on every level. I had a bit more studio oversight from Liz (although not nearly as much as I would have had under Les at Paramore, had I opted to continue with them), I had to get to know my new crew, most of which were professionals who had worked in the industry for years. At first, I butted heads with pretty much all of them, but especially my cinematographer and 1st Assistant Director, both of whom had a stick up their ass over me. Why, you ask?

That’s the kicker. Because they saw me as a stunt, new blood who didn’t earn her place and fell ass-backward into her role because of a single, lucky performance. Oh, the irony was so thick you could slice it thin and serve it on crackers. The universe is a bitch sometimes, isn’t it? Tori may have been playing “me” in the movie, but behind the scenes, I very quickly understood what it had been like to be Tori when she first arrived at Hollywood Arts. And though it caused a ton of stress in the first month of production, I learned the lesson very well and it only served to drive Tori and me closer together.

Of course, I’m not Tori, and I didn’t stand for that kind of treatment on my own set. The day I fired my Oscar-nominated Director of Photography was the day I earned the quiet respect of the rest of the crew who, surprisingly, wanted to remain employed. Even Liz commended my decision, and she’s the one who recommended that jackass in the first place.

I’d love to say it was smooth sailing after that, but there’s no such thing on a film shoot. I did manage to pull it off, though, on-time and on-budget. Based on the most recent cut I’d seen, it was a solid effort. I had no idea how it would be received, of course. I, personally, loved it. But I was heavily biased since I was fucking the star pretty much every night. And oftentimes during the day. And on those really rough days, sometimes in between takes.

I mean, you would too, if the star was Tori Vega. Just look at her. Damn.

Post-production ran long. I approved the final cut a week ago, which made Liz a little nervous since the premiere date had been scheduled for two months and she didn’t want to move it. She found us a sweet spot in the release slate just before the summer blockbuster season began. Thanks to her connections, we were getting a national release, too. Which was awesome, and terrifying.

All of our friends had come to town for the premiere and presently most of them were crammed into the very modest bedroom of our new apartment. As much as I loved that my relationship with my dad had improved, his place was a little small for four people. We’d switch off and stay at Tori’s mom’s place a few nights, but eventually, we decided we needed our own space.

And yes, even though Liz had given me a generous amount of money from which to draw a salary, I was self-aware enough to know I’d probably waste it all if I took a substantial amount. In the end, I took enough to cover rent and utilities for the duration of the shoot and enough to make sure we had food, furniture, and stuff, and then left the rest in a high-interest savings account. (Did I ever mention I inherited my dad’s sense of financial responsibility?)

I deeply, deeply appreciate the presence of my closest friends during this huge night. Carly had offered to help with my hair, Cat with my makeup, Tori with my wardrobe choices, and Sam with anything that didn’t require a significant amount of movement. And it wasn’t just me; Cat and Carly had already spent two hours on Tori, who somehow looked even more stunning and radiant than ever before. She said she had a hard time keeping her hands to herself, but she didn’t know how hard I was holding back.

It was nearly time to leave, and as much as I appreciated everyone’s help, the bedroom was feeling a little claustrophobic. I broke out my “loud but not quite threatening” voice. “Okay…I love you all so much and I’m so glad you’re all here, but I need a few minutes alone or I’m going to go on a scissoring spree.”

Sam regarded me strangely. “A  spree ? How does that even work, logistically? I mean…I’m down, but I’d check with your girlfriend first.”

The room fell silent. All eyes were on me, then on Sam, then back.

I had to laugh. I seriously had to laugh. I’ve loved that movie forever and somehow, Sam Puckett was the first person to make the glaringly obvious lesbian joke out loud.

Before I could respond, Cat’s angry glare was already drilling into Sam. “Samantha Genevieve Puckett, whaddya mean you’re down?”

Sam flashed Cat her best smile. “That’s not my name. And I was kidding. Come on, how has no one made that joke yet? The movie name is literally your favorite po—“

Cat’s hand flashed out and covered Sam’s mouth. Holy crap, her cheeks were redder than her hair! “Okay, okay. No need to finish that sentence.”

“Out, all of you,” I said. “Please. I’ll see you in the limo. And…thanks.”

Carly, Sam, and Cat filed out, leaving just Tori and me. I stared across the bedroom room at the most beautiful woman on Earth and wondered for the trillionth time how it in the hell she was in love with me. She wore an elegant light purple gown with silver and gold patterns woven throughout. One shoulder was strapless, showing off her shapely upper body. Her hair was done in a side curl-up that showcased her graceful neck but left some playful bangs out to frame her delicate face.

It had been eighteen months…a year and a half since we started dating, and yet every time I looked at her, my heart raced, my eyes watered, and she stole my breath away. And here we were, about to depart for Mann’s Chinese Theater and the world premiere of our first feature film. As we had discussed ages ago, Tori played the lead role of Jane, and she had crushed it.

“So…here we are,” she said. “Are you ready for this?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea what it feels like to be ready for something like this. You?”

Tori shrugged. “I guess I don’t know either. I think it’s something you just have to do.”

I stepped closer to her. Took her hands in mine. “I’m glad you’re the one I’m doing it with.” Tori wrinkled her nose at that, and I realized it didn’t come out quite right. “Okay, maybe I should rethink that phrasing a little.”

Tori smiled and slid her lips close to mine. “Nah. The double entendre works just fine.”

She kissed me, gently so as not to ruin the hour of makeup. No sooner did our lips touch than there was a knock at the door.

“Ladies, the limo’s here,” came Beck’s voice.

“I guess we should go. Our public awaits.”

“To be continued.”


As amazing as the  Searching for Sara  premiere had been, this was so much more. The Chinese Theater is one of the most well-known venues in LA, and hosting a world premiere there was a big deal. I couldn’t dwell long on the thought because I got dizzy. The red carpet was full of major press outlets and celebrity hounds, there to get a look at the glitz and glamor of the world’s fakest profession. Members of my so-called macabre mob lingered on the carpet, hoping to snag a selfie with me, even though I hadn’t made a horror movie this time out. I took the time to greet them all; they had made the effort to come out, and I appreciated it more than they realized. It was a crazy, wonderful experience.

And by my side through it all was Tori Vega. Stunning, graceful, supportive, encouraging. None of this would have happened if not for her, and she deserved every bit of notoriety and fame that she received from it. Sometimes I’d look back and kick myself at how desperately I tried to avoid calling her about being in that short film. It felt like a lifetime ago. I looked back on myself at that time as petty and vindictive. I still was, I guess. That probably wouldn’t change. But I had at least developed a little bit of common sense.

As much fun as the premiere itself was (and it was great; the film got a standing ovation), the premiere party was the event I was most looking forward to. I had a special little something planned, and the anticipation was driving me out of my mind. Liz had booked a club not far from the theater, and our arrival there was met with almost as much fanfare. Inside there were small lounge areas all over the place, with three different dance floors and even a large stage area close to the bar. The deejay was currently set up there, but I had booked a live band as well, to help me in my plans for the evening.

Liz was waiting for me just inside the door. She greeted me with her trademark one-arm embrace. “Projections are looking great, Jade,” she said. “Even if we don’t hit them on the nose, you still might make back the entire budget by the end of the weekend.”

“That’s amazing,” I said.

“Tell me about it. Listen, I know this was just the first of your three pictures, and I know you want to do Unburied as your second. But I’ve got a thought about your third. Y’know, the one the company will select? I’ve invited someone here to discuss it, I’ll try to find you later tonight.”

“Sounds great. Thank you. And thanks for all this. You throw a hell of a party.”

I was happy to find everyone already congregating in one of the lounge areas: Carly and Freddie, Sam and Cat, Andre, Robbie, Beck, Dice, and Goomer. My dad and Debbie were in attendance, though they kept their distance so as not to “interfere with my fun.”

As Tori and I arrived in the lounge, Cat and Goomer were engaged in a conversation.

“Goomer, I don’t think it’s a very good idea for you to help him. I mean…he’s been in the hospital for years and I’m not so sure he’s better yet.”

“But he’s offering me a lot of money,” Goomer said. “He said he just needs help moving.”

“He doesn’t have any money, Goomer,” Cat said. “He’s been in a hospital for years.”

“Yeah, but his web show is really popular, Cat,” Dice said. “He’s been monetized for years now. He talks about it all the time. He’s actually really funny.”

I took a seat next to Sam. “What’s going on?”

“I’ve only been paying about fifty percent attention, but I think Cat’s brother’s moving and he wants to hire Goomer to help him.”

I looked to Cat. “Frankie’s finally out of his special hospital?”

“Yes,” Cat said. “He’s been home for a few months, but my mom says he’s still not quite right. He’s so focused on his web show now, it’s like his character kind of took over his personality.”

“I didn’t even know he had a web show,” I said.

“They helped him start it when he was in the hospital, to kind of get him focused on something more positive,” Cat said. “He calls himself Frankini the Grand. But he wants to get away from LA and go somewhere quiet.”

“Like where?”

“That’s the thing. I’m pretty sure it’s a made-up place. Swellview. Who would name a town Swellview?”

Carly laughed. “It does sound fake. Where is it?”

“I don’t know,” Cat said, exasperated. “I asked Frankie and he said it’s very close to Bordertown, and right next door to Neighborville and Rivalton. Am I crazy? Or does that all sound made up?”

“Aw, babe,” Sam said. “Yes to both questions.” She reached over and squeezed Cat’s hand. “Your folks are helping him too, right? So what’s the harm with Goomer making a bit of money?”

Cat shifted in her seat. “I don’t know. I guess it’s okay. But it still doesn’t feel right to me.”

“I’d listen to Cat, personally,” I said. The redhead looked at me with the sweetest eyes. “She’s got great instincts. She’s usually right about things.”

No one but Cat and me knew what I was referring to; that Cat had seen something between Tori and me long before either of us was ready to admit it.

“Thanks, Jade,” she said. “Goomer if you want to help him, then him. But be careful. My brother has a bad habit of corrupting good people, y’know?”

“I’ll be fine,” Goomer said. “It’s not like he’s secretly a villain who’s going to trick me into doing his dirty work for him. That would be crazy.” Goomer laughed at his own ridiculous thought, and the rest of us shared a chuckle as well.

“Jade, there you are.”

Liz was approaching along with another woman. She was short—so very short—with killer legs, long, raven-black tresses, and a gorgeous smile that—

Holy shit. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit, holy shit holy shit.

I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t look away. “Jade, I’d like you to meet—“

“Oh my god, it’s Danielle Harris. You…you’re Danielle Harris. Tori. Tori! Tori, it’s Danielle Harris. Why can’t I stop saying Danielle Harris?”

Tori rose up next to me and gently squeezed my hand, then smiled graciously at the gorgeous brunette standing before me. Star of The Scissoring, not to mention a dozen other legendary horror films. Danielle fucking Harris.

Danielle smiled at me, and her left eye practically disappeared into a tiny slit. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t breathe.

“Hi!” Tori said. “I’m Tori Vega. Jade will need a minute, I think. She’s a huge, huge, huge fan.”

Danielle laughed and accepted Tori’s outstretched hand. “Three huge's. That’s gotta be a record. It’s cool, though, I get that way too sometimes. I almost chickened out of coming over here, but Liz kind of insisted.”

I glanced at Tori. Drew strength from her smile.  You can do this, Jade. You can do this.

I offered my hand to Danielle. “Hi. Sorry. Jade West. I am…I mean, you are my all-time favorite actress. I once told a couple I’d be willing to murder them in their sleep for the chance to meet you. And I really wish I hadn’t told you that.”

Did her cheeks just turn red?  Ohmygod, she’s blushing? Danielle Harris blushes!?

She accepted my hand. “Thank you so much,” she said. “And believe it or not, that actually isn’t the strangest thing someone’s told me about wanting to meet me, so don’t worry. I just had to tell you how much I loved the movie. It was so refreshing to see a non-straight leading role that wins in the end. Big step for positive representation. And the story was fuckin awesome, dude. Not usually too into love stories, but you had me hooked.”

Liz laughed. “I told you it was up your alley. Jade loves to emotionally scar her viewers, even when she’s telling a love story.”

My voice seemed to get stuck in my throat again. “I…I don’t know what to say. Thank you! Oh my god, thank you. Um…would you like to sit down?”

“Actually, I think Liz wants to steal us away for a few minutes. You too, uh…Tori, right?”

“Right.”

Liz led us to a standing table near the bar where the two had apparently been chatting before coming over, judging from the empty glasses and the bags underneath.

“So,” I said, desperate to say something to my freaking hero, “Have you two known each other long?”

Liz chuckled. “I guess I’ll be dating myself a little here but yeah. I met her when she was a smartass kid on Halloween 5. I was a PA.  Her  PA, specifically.”

Danielle’s cheeks flushed again. “She was amazing. Looked after me like a parent. She still does.”

“That’s so cool,” I said. “I freaking adored you in those movies. I’m pretty sure you were my first girl crush.”  Ah, shit.  “And I really wish I hadn’t told you that.”

Danielle answered the comment with a sweet, sympathetic smile. “It’s okay,” she said. “Seriously. I hear it all the time. Usually from creepy dudes in their forties. It’s kind of nice hearing it from a gorgeous, kick-ass woman. Who, by the way, has a super hot girlfriend herself.”

Tori and I exchanged excited glances. I had to force myself to breathe. Danielle Harris just called me gorgeous and kick-ass.  Oh god, I’m going to faint. I’m going to faint.

“Well before Jade passes out due to a lack of oxygen, I’ll get to the point. Jade, I mentioned that I had an idea for your third picture. As it happens, Danielle’s been trying to find something to work on with Grim Productions for a while now. Between how well  I Love (to Hate) You  is projected to do, and with  Clearbrooke  still doing so well—which we know it would, that’s why we wanted to option it and thanks to you, we could—Grim Productions was able to pick up the rights to a few older properties recently. One of which Danielle has had a vested interest in for a long time.”

Liz nodded at Danielle, who pulled her bag from under the table. She produced a stack of papers.

“Liz said you were the only person who came to mind when I gave this to her. I haven’t fleshed it out a lot yet, but I thought maybe you could help with that. And I would love for you to direct, and for Tori to play the lead, opposite me.”

She handed me the stack of papers. I read the cover page and dropped the entire thing on the table. My hands were shaking so bad, they couldn’t stop. I grabbed Tori’s hand and squeezed it. She looked to me, then to the papers. She squealed and covered her mouth.

On that beautiful white sheet of paper were the most incredible words I’d ever read.

THE SCISSORING 2

A TREATMENT BY DANIELLE HARRIS

I tried so hard to regain myself, but my heart was pounding so violently, I legitimately thought I was going to need an ambulance. I felt Liz Danielle’s patient eyes on me as I very nearly had a mental breakdown right in front of them. All pretense of being professional was out the window. I fought like hell to keep my eyes from welling up, but it was hopeless.

“This…this is what you want me to direct?”

Both women nodded.

“I’m sorry, I need a minute.”

I stepped away from the table and ran to the bathroom, almost tripping over my heels. I paced like a madwoman, trying to catch my breath. Trying to keep the room from spinning. Trying to get my heart to calm down before it burst.

Tori came in at some point. She kept her distance, but I felt her eyes on me.

“This…this is a dream. This can’t be really happening. Right?”

She smiled gently at me. “I think it’s real, Jade. I’ve been pinching myself and I’m not waking up, so…I think it’s real.”

“Do you think they know?” I asked. “Do you think they know what that movie means to me? I mean…oh my god. How could I possibly continue that? What if I fuck it up? What if I ruin what it means to all the other fans? I can’t…there’s no way.”

Tori stepped toward me and wrapped her hands around my waist.

“You love that movie more than anything. You love it more than anyone I know. There is no one else in this world who would treat the movie, the characters, the mythos with as much love and reverence and respect as you would. This makes perfect sense, Jade. You’re the right person for this.”

There in Tori’s arms, my heart rate finally slowed. The weight on my chest lifted and I could breathe normally again. She was right. I knew she was.

Of course, that didn’t mean I was going to let her know that I knew.

“How do I know you’re not just pushing for this so you can land yourself that sweet lead role?” I asked.

Tori giggled. “You found me out,” she said. “That’s obviously what I’m after.”

I pulled her close to me. “Thank you,” I said. “A thousand times, thank you.”

Danielle and Liz were waiting patiently, reminiscing about old times and making jokes. I managed to compose myself before returning. I smiled apologetically as I arrived back at the table. I noticed the women had ordered drinks for Tori and me.

“Sorry about that,” I said. “I was not expecting this…and honestly, I may have freaked out a little bit. It’s just that…this movie, and your performance…it’s a huge part of why I started down this path. It inspired me to try out for Hollywood Arts. In my head, this journey I’m on and your movie…they’re linked together, forever. So for you guys to ask me to direct this…I just have no words. I am so touched and humbled and overwhelmed.”

Danielle reached across the table and put her hand on mine. “We know. I can’t always respond but I’ve read every single one of your comments and tweets over the years. And your amazing girlfriend told Liz how much the movie means to you. It means a lot to me, too. Which is why we—why I—trust you to take care of it and move it forward.”

Once I was able to mentally move past the fact that Danielle Harris was touching my hand, I finally brought myself to make eye contact with her. Then with Liz.

“Nothing would make me happier than to direct this movie,” I said. “I’m in.”

Danielle rushed around the table and pulled me into an embrace, and my heart nearly stopped. I returned it, completely overwhelmed by the touch of her skin and the scent of her hair. It excited me in ways I couldn’t express. I glanced over to Tori, as if to say,  This is amazing, but I still love you more.

Tori nodded.  I know. Enjoy it, babe.

I loved that woman.

Danielle released me from our embrace. “All right,” she said. “Please keep it between us for now.”

“I’ll be announcing it Monday after the weekend returns are in,” Liz said. “Optics and all that.”

“Our lips are sealed,” Tori said. “Can you come back and hang out with us?”

“I’d love to,” Danielle said, beaming.

“I’ll be there in a second,” I said. “I have to tell my dad.”


I finally convinced my dad and Debbie to join us. The entire thing was so far beyond either of them. They were excited to meet “the girl from that scissor movie Jade watches every night,” and Danielle was predictably gracious. She planted a kiss on my dad’s cheek and he nearly swooned on the spot. 

The next few hours were full of laughter, jokes, a few drinks, and the spiritual catharsis that comes along with spending time with the people you love the most. That, as I had come to learn the hard way, is what it’s all about. Dreams come and go, but the people in your life are the ones that help give it meaning. Not that you should define yourself or your life by any one relationship or any one person, but that you should surround yourself with people who celebrate you and cherish you for who you are, and for whom you can do the same.

It was an eclectic and unlikely group of misfits that I had become so goddamn fond of. Andre Harris, the most talented songwriter I’ve ever met. Robbie Shapiro, the sweetest and most genuine guy in the world. Beck Oliver, lover, friend, someone to be trusted through everything. Caterina Valentine, the purest and most decent person I’d ever met. Sam Puckett, the baddest bitch around with a hunger for meat second only to a zombie horde. Carly Shay, sweet, lovable, charming, and far smarter than most people gave her credit it for. Dice Corleone, amazing hair, awesome last name, and a true friend. Goomer, kinda brainless, a big teddy bear who would do anything for those he loved. Danielle Harris, incredible actress, and newfound friend. Liz Hannah, the woman responsible for bringing about pretty much everything I ever wanted. My dad and Debbie, the family I’d always wanted but never thought I’d have. And Tori Vega, pain in the ass-turned-love of my life.

That’s right, I said love of my life. I’d known it for a long time, and I was finally ready to do something about it.

It began when my band arrived and signaled to me they were ready. I leaned over to Tori. “How about we do a song together?”

Her eyes lit up. “You don’t have to ask me twice.”

We walked over to the stage area. The equipment was already set up, which is something Tori seemed surprised about. “What’s all this?”

I smiled. “I may have arranged for some live music.”

The band saw me arrive and joined us on the stage. Most of them were members of my “macabre mob.” The rest were friends of Andre. Tori knew this and eyed me with a hint of friendly suspicion.

“Did you plan this?”

“Would I do that?”

“Yes.”

“Then, yes.”

I pecked her cheek. “I’m pretty sure you know this one. It’s by the band that kind of started us down this path, way back at Karaoke Dokie.” I nodded to the band and the opening notes of Halestorm’s  Here’s To Us  drifted out of the guitar. 

“Tori and I are going to sing a little for you if that’s okay.” The crowd cheered. All of our friends made their way over to join us. “Thank you so much for coming out and supporting this movie. I don’t say it enough but I really do love you guys.”

I squeezed Tori’s hand once more and sang:

We could just go home right now
Or maybe we could stick around
For just one more drink, oh yeah
Get another bottle out
Let's shoot the shit, sit back down
For just one more drink, oh yeah

As I sang, I thought back on the insane journey that brought us to this unbelievable place, doing these unbelievable things. I couldn’t believe it had just started as a stupid production meeting.

Here's to us
Here's to love
All the times that we fucked up
Here's to you
Fill the glass
'Cause the last few days have kicked my ass

So let's give 'em hell
Wish everybody well
Here's to us
Here's to us

Tori join in for the next verse. Her voice soared. She sounded so incredible. Her vocals always touched something within me, and sharing the stage with her, singing with her, wrapping my voice around hers, was fucking spiritual. The crowd swayed and clapped and danced with us.

 

Stuck it out this far together
Put our dreams through the shredder
Let's toast 'cause things got better
And everything could change like that
And all these years go by so fast
But nothing lasts forever

Here's to us
Here's to love
All the times that we messed up
Here's to you
Fill the glass
'Cause the last few nights have kicked my ass

If they give you hell
Tell 'em go fuck themselves
Here's to us
Here's to us

I looked out over all of our friends. I was so damn lucky. I’d given them so much crap over the years, and they still stood by me. They lifted me up. They all made me better.

Here's to all that we kissed
And to all that we missed
To the biggest mistakes
That we just wouldn't trade
To us breaking up
Without us breaking down
To whatever's coming our way

Here's to us
Here's to love
All the times that we fucked up
Here's to you
Fill the glass
'Cause the last few days have kicked my ass

So let's give 'em hell
Wish everybody well

As we approached the final chorus and the wrap-up, my heart started pounding again. I flashed back to the beginnings of my relationship with Tori. Singing karaoke, the short film premiere, making out in my room, that first night in our hotel, the first date, everything. And every stolen moment, every gasp and scream and groan and laugh and smile from the past eighteen months.

Here's to us
Here's to love
All the times that we messed up
Here's to you
Fill the glass
'Cause the last few nights have kicked my ass

I moved to the front of the stage, where Sam was waiting. I reached down as if to squeeze her hand, and felt her press something small and hard into mine. I smiled at her; she returned it.

If they give you hell
Tell 'em go fuck themselves
(Go fuck themselves)
Here's to us
(Here's to us)
Here's to us
Here's to us…

The song ended. The crowd went crazy. Tori and I turned towards each other and embraced.

Oh god, this is it. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Don’t…

I stepped back from Tori but kept her hand in mine. She looked at me strangely.  Now what are you up to?

I smiled and winked.  You’ll see. Don’t be mad.

“Folks, this vision here is Tori Vega. She’s, uh…she’s obviously the star of the movie…” My voice was drowned out by the applause of the crowd. Tori’s face was redder than I’ve ever seen it. “And, for the past year and a half, I’ve also had the privilege of calling her my girlfriend.” More applause, and more than a few “awwws” that honestly made me a little nauseous. “But you know, the more I think of it, I’m not sure I want to call her my girlfriend anymore.”

Tori’s eyes were suddenly terrified, far more so than I had intended. “Relax, relax,” I said. “Tori, none of this journey would have happened without you. You’ve pissed me off. You’ve driven me crazy. You’ve inspired me. You’ve pushed me to be better, to do better, to reach farther. You’ve never judged me, even when I was a total asshole to you. Your patience and love astound me every single day, because even  I  get fed up with my bullshit sometimes. But you never do. And on a night where I’ve had to repeatedly ask myself why the hell so many good things are happening to a miserable cynical asshole like me, I’ve had to accept the reality that they’re happening because of you, and what you bring out of me.”

My voice started to crack. I took a breath. “I love you, Tori. And I don’t ever want to do this without you.”

I pulled the bottom of my gown up just enough to bend the knee, and slowly dropped down. The clamor in the audience began before my knee hit the stage. 

I took the thing Sam had given me—a jewelry box—and opened it, holding it before Tori.

On the stage, at that moment it was just Tori and me. The noise of the crowd faded. All I could hear was my heart, beating out of control against my ribs. 

Tori’s mic hit the stage as she covered her mouth with her hands. Her shoulders trembled and her eyes flooded with tears as she laid eyes on the engagement ring.

“What do you say, Vega? Wanna be my bitch forever?” I forced a terrified smile.

Tori’s hands were shaking as she lowered them. She nodded as the tears started falling.

The entire club exploded in cheers, but I couldn’t hear them. I didn’t care. In that one perfect moment, the only two people in the world that existed were Tori and me. And that’s all I ever needed.

I slipped the rock onto her finger. All of the trembling and emotion of the moment came out and she embraced me, causing me to stumble backward a few steps. Her arms encircled me, her lips covered mine, the scent of her skin flooded my nostrils. We kissed again and again…and to this day, we still haven’t stopped.

So…yeah. Now you know the real me. Now you know that the moment Tori Vega came back to  my  school,  my  acting class, for that second day…it wasn’t just rage I felt. Now you know all of the gross soul-searching it took before I came to grips with it. You’ve seen the kicking and screaming and crying and misery and frustration and terror. And you’ve seen that what started that day, in that silly little classroom in that performing arts high school, was really the greatest untold love story I’d ever known.

And now, I’ve finally told it.

After all, those kinds of stories are the best kind, right?