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Lanterns

Chapter Text

As we walk out
Without question, without doubt
In the light that we have found
It is finally clear
Our day has come
And we'll stand for who we are
We are ready, we are young
We have nothing to fear

Lanterns – Birds Of Tokyo


Chapter 1

Ruby

Whoever it was that invented the beeping sound that alarm clocks make must not have been loved as a child. Nobody comes up with something that evil without deep-seated childhood issues.

The harsh, discordant beeping of the aforementioned alarm clock reverberated around what passed for my bedroom, the curtains hung at my windows and the carpet on the floor doing nothing to deaden the noise. It was so loud that I half-expected either of my neighbours to start banging on the walls telling me to shut the damn thing off. I yanked one of my pillows out from under my head and slammed it down over my face in an attempt to block out the noise. No such luck. I lifted the pillow back off my face and proceeded to glare at my alarm clock, my gaze fixed firmly on its glowing red digits.

“Oh would you shut up?” I croaked at it, as if it weren’t just an inanimate object and could actually comply with my order. It kept right on beeping at me, of course, just as it did every morning until I got fed up with it enough to finally hit the off switch. Which, like every morning, took me the grand total of one minute. I resisted the ever-present temptation to fling it across the room once it had been silenced, instead giving it one final baleful look before reaching for my mobile phone. It immediately started vibrating in my hand, the opening credits music from Doctor Who blasting from its speaker and Lis – Mobile on its screen. I bit back a sigh and answered it. “Hello?”

“Oh good, you’re up.”

“Good morning Lisbeth, how are you today?” I said pointedly.

I could almost see Lisbeth scowling at her phone – and by extension, scowling at me – before she spoke again. “You like Hanson, right?” she asked.

“That’s a stupid question,” I replied as I pushed myself upright, my right hand acting as a lever against my mattress. “You know damn well that I’ve liked them since Year 7.”

“Well, I have a spare ticket to their show at the UniBar tonight if you’re interested. I think it’s their last show of the year.”

“I thought they already did a tour this year.” This was said as I attempted to manoeuvre myself toward the side of my bed without jarring my joints more than they had been already. I hadn’t even been awake for five minutes and I was already aching. I squeezed my eyes shut as pain rocketed down my legs. The sooner I could get my daily dose of painkillers into me, the better. “Because I definitely remember seeing them at the Hi-Fi and the Enmore in the middle of September.”

“That was just the capital cities,” Lisbeth said. “They’re winding up their New South Wales regional tour tonight.” I could almost see her raise an eyebrow at me. “And you call yourself a fan. Didn’t you know they were going to be touring again?”

“Bite me, Lis.”

“No thanks, I already ate,” was Lisbeth’s cheerful response. “But anyway, the show’s at eight – I can pick you up at six if you like so we can grab dinner on the way.”

“You don’t need to pick me up that early,” I reminded her. “The uni’s like ten minutes over from me in case you’d forgotten.”

“Two words – Crust Pizza,” Lisbeth said. “And Cold Rock for dessert before we make tracks to the uni for the show.”

I considered this for a few moments. “Okay, either you got paid early or your Austudy went up massively,” I said. “Because usually there’s no way you’d be suggesting Crust Pizza or Cold Rock. I know how expensive they both are.”

“It’s called a job, Ruby. So are you coming tonight or not?”

I let out an almost inaudible sigh. “Okay, yes, I’ll come. Anything to get out of this place for the night.”

“Sweet,” Lisbeth said, sounding pleased with herself. “See you tonight, then.”

“Yeah, see you tonight,” I echoed. We both hung up at almost the same moment, and I tossed my phone down to the end of my bed. The temptation to just crawl back into bed with my heat pack was extremely strong, but I knew very well that if I didn’t take my medication soon I would find it more than a little difficult to function that afternoon, let alone that evening. I let out a quiet sigh and eased myself to my feet, wincing the whole way, and stood still for a few moments to make sure I wasn’t about to fall over. Only once I was absolutely certain I would be able to move without my knees giving out on me did I leave the side of my bed and draw open the screen that closed my ‘bedroom’ off from the rest of my caravan.

I was probably the first person to admit that a younger version of me would never have considered calling a caravan park home. Not in a million years. In my very limited experience it was a place of last resort, a dumping ground of sorts for people who couldn’t find a house or flat to rent, or a temporary home for those who were waiting for their place on the lengthy Housing NSW waiting list to come up. But after having called site 159 at Bellambi Beach Caravan Village home for the last six years, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. It was a little cramped – my caravan had just enough room for a double bed, a little kitchenette that consisted of a pantry, a microwave, a stovetop and oven and a refrigerator, a tiny wardrobe, a small kitchen table set close to the left-hand wall and a bench seat along one side of the table – but I also had an annexe that doubled as a lounge room and a little bathroom built onto the side of the annexe, both of which served to make my little home feel a lot bigger than it really was. It wasn’t perfect, but it was mine for as long as I was able to keep up with my rent – that much had been made clear when I had signed the lease – and that was all that mattered to me.

I had my breakfast made in almost no time – three Weet-Bix with plenty of milk and raw sugar, zapped in the microwave, and a banana sliced on top – and set out on my kitchen table. I normally reserved this sort of breakfast for winter mornings, but the thermometer I’d mounted on the outside of my kitchen window a few years ago indicated it was fairly chilly outside. So even though it was the beginning of December and therefore should have been beginning to warm up, I felt perfectly justified in a hot breakfast this morning. Beside my bowl was a glass of orange juice, a spoon and the two pill packets that contained my daily doses of medication. I gave the pill packets a half-hearted glare as I sat down at the table. I hated that I needed to be on medication just to be able to function normally each day, but I considered the alternative of being stuck in bed almost constantly to be far less preferable. At least this way, I was able to go into town or over to the beach whenever I wanted or needed to.

A knock sounded at the front door of the annexe right as I swallowed my second pill for the day. Moments later I heard the clicking of nails on linoleum as my assistance dog, a black Labrador named Sadie, came up into the caravan and looked at me expectantly. “Yeah Sadie, I heard it too,” I told her, and gave her a scratch behind the ears before getting back to my feet. “It’s probably Mrs. Canning from across the road bitching that I had the TV turned up too loud last night.”

Somewhat to my surprise, it wasn’t the aforementioned Mrs. Canning. I figured it was too early in the day for her to be bitching and moaning about the evening activities of one of the caravan park’s youngest tenants. Instead, it was one half of the couple who lived to my immediate right.

“Hi Loretta,” I said once I’d opened my front door. Loretta and her husband William were probably two of my favourite people in the whole of the Village – I considered them to be surrogate grandparents, given that both sets of my grandparents lived interstate and I therefore got to see them very rarely. Loretta in particular was always coming up with ways of getting me to stop being such a hermit, her favourite being to take me grocery shopping whenever she was headed over to the shops in Corrimal. I never had the heart to turn her down, even though I had a car and my licence and was therefore quite capable of getting myself out to the shops.

“Good morning Ruby,” Loretta said with a smile, one I readily returned. “I was wondering if you were doing anything today.”

I shook my head. “Nothing beyond planting myself on the lounge with my heat pack and watching really trashy daytime TV.”

“Oh dear, is your knee bothering you again?” Loretta asked, sounding concerned.

“Just a little bit. I think it’s going to rain again soon. I can deal with it though. What did you have in mind?”

“Grocery shopping in Corrimal for an hour or so,” Loretta replied. “Then lunch at the Palm Court Hotel if you like – my treat.”

“You don’t mind treating me to lunch?” I asked. “I don’t mind paying my share.”

“Of course I don’t mind,” Loretta assured me. “You keep your money. I’m sure you need it to buy Christmas presents.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” I agreed. I’d actually already bought Christmas presents for my friends and everyone in my family, but Loretta didn’t necessarily need to know that. “What time were you thinking of heading out?”

“Let’s say…” Loretta trailed off, and I knew she was considering her answer. “How does ten-thirty sound? The Palm Court’s restaurant opens for lunch an hour after that.”

“That sounds good to me,” I replied. It worked in my favour nicely – I still needed to have my breakfast and write out a shopping list, and I also wanted to have a shower. A sneaky glance at Loretta’s watch gave the time as a quarter to eight. I would basically have an hour and a half to get everything done, but in all honesty it didn’t take me that long to wash my hair. “So I’ll see you at ten-thirty, then.”

“See you then, Ruby,” Loretta said with one final smile, and she turned to head back to her own caravan. I closed my front door once she was out of sight and headed back to my breakfast.

I was ready for my shopping expedition with Loretta in what seemed like no time at all. My hair was squeaky clean and tamed enough to be pulled back into its usual plait, I’d dragged my well-worn jeans and my favourite T-shirt out of my wardrobe, and my shopping list was written down in my notebook. Right as I finished stowing everything I needed in my handbag, I could see Sadie sitting next to the lounge and watching me almost expectantly. “You want to come too, Sadie?” I asked, knowing full well that I could get away with it and that Loretta wouldn’t mind. Her answering bark was all the response I needed, and I grinned. “Stupid question, right?” I said, speaking rhetorically, and went to fetch Sadie’s jacket and lead and my walking stick from up in the caravan.

Loretta was sitting on the wooden bench outside her and William’s front door when Sadie and I arrived next door at the time we’d agreed. “Is it okay if Sadie comes along?” I asked her.

“Of course it’s okay,” Loretta assured me, as I reckoned she would. “She looks very smart today. Shall we head out, then?”

“Sounds good to me,” I agreed. “Sadie, car,” I commanded, dropping her lead and shifting into what I called my ‘handler mode’. Loretta had the back door of her car open by now, and Sadie immediately darted forward, lead trailing behind her the whole way. She hopped up onto the car’s back seat and sat up, patiently awaiting my next command. “Down,” was my next command, accompanied by my left hand moving sharply downward. She immediately lay down on the car’s back seat, just as she’d learned during the time we had spent training together. “Good girl,” I said to her, giving her a scratch behind the ears, and closed the back door once I’d made sure her lead wasn’t trailing outside the car.

The drive between the caravan park and Corrimal Court was relatively uneventful, save for the odd traffic jam, and soon we were wandering around Woolworths collecting our groceries for the week. I had tied Sadie’s lead around the top rail on the right-hand side of my trolley so that she could keep pace alongside. Not surprising for a Thursday morning, the supermarket was pretty much packed with people, and reminded me exactly why I tended to do my grocery shopping on a Tuesday morning instead.

“Have you made any plans for Christmas?” Loretta asked as the two of us wandered down the bread aisle.

“I’ll probably spend the day at my parents’ house,” I replied. I paused in front of the loaves of bread, studied them for a few moments and picked up a loaf of multigrain. “I haven’t really thought about it yet, though. Odds are I’ll get things sorted next week sometime – shouldn’t take me too long.” The loaf of bread went into my trolley, next to a six-pack of English muffins, and I gave Loretta a smile before leading the way down the aisle.

True to Loretta’s word, as soon as we had finished and paid for our shopping – three litres of orange juice and a box of frozen raspberries had been the last items on my list – we loaded our groceries into Loretta’s car and headed next door to the Palm Court Hotel. “Now don’t forget, this is my treat,” Loretta reminded me as we headed inside, bypassing the poker machines and heading straight upstairs to the pub’s restaurant. “You pick whatever you like, and don’t worry about paying me back later on.”

The restaurant was quiet, with just a few people seated at its tables – considering it was mid-morning on a Thursday, I wasn’t surprised – and so Loretta and I were seated quickly. Sadie had lain down under our table at a command from me, her lead tied around one of the table’s legs, and I soon set about deciding what I wanted for lunch. Knowing Lisbeth as well as I ought to have by that point, the two of us would end up stuffing ourselves at dinner – I therefore didn’t want to have too much for my lunch. The trick therefore would be figuring out what meals on the menu would constitute ‘too much’ and steering well clear of them.

“I think I’ll have the chicken Caesar salad,” Loretta decided, setting her menu down as she spoke.

“I have no idea what I want,” I admitted. There were a few things that appealed to me, but nothing really stood out as something I might want to have for my lunch. “Chicken pad Thai,” I decided after a little bit of thought. I wasn’t all that keen on egg or tofu, but I was hungry and I figured I could just eat around them. Besides which, I hadn’t had Thai food in a while – it sounded like a nice change from what I normally ate of a lunchtime.

Once the waitress who had seated us had taken down our orders and headed off to the kitchen, I decided the time was right to ask Loretta something I hadn’t asked of anyone in a few months.

“Loretta, I was wondering if I could ask a small favour,” I said, feeling a little bit hesitant. I wasn’t entirely sure why I felt this way, but I definitely didn’t like it much.

“Of course you can, Ruby.”

I gave Loretta a small smile. “I’m going to a concert tonight,” I said. “One of my friends has a spare ticket and she talked me into coming with her.”

“Who are you going to see?”

The hesitant feeling returned, but this time I knew exactly why I felt that way. Even after fifteen years, making this sort of musical confession wasn’t taken well by many people. “Hanson,” I replied, feeling my ears beginning to burn.

“Oh, those brothers from Newcastle?” Loretta asked, and I nodded in relief. I should have known Loretta would never have made fun of me. William, on the other hand, was a different story entirely.

“Yeah. They’re playing at the UniBar at the university tonight, and I don’t want to take Sadie with me – it’ll be a bit too loud for her. Could you and William watch her for me?”

“I don’t see why not. When were you planning to head out?”

“I have a friend picking me up at around six-thirty,” I replied. “I have no idea what time I’ll be home though, the last time I went to a Hanson concert it didn’t let out until after eleven at night. It probably won’t be until eleven-thirty at the absolute earliest.”

“Well, William at the very least will still be awake around then. You have my mobile number?” Loretta asked, and I nodded. “Good. You send me a text when you’re on your way back, and we’ll have Sadie ready for you to take home.”

“Thanks Loretta,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”

“It’s no problem at all,” she assured me.

Late that afternoon back at the caravan park, I stood in front of the long mirror that ran along the wall above the sinks in the ladies’ amenities block, staring at my reflection. Lisbeth was due to pick me up in roughly half an hour, though I had absolutely no intent of heading out to the carpark until I knew she was on her way.

For some unfathomable reason, it had taken me hours to decide what I was going to wear tonight. It normally wasn’t so difficult for me to decide – I pretty much lived in my jeans and various T-shirts, and that was what I tended to wear out to concerts. Instead of falling back on my usual concert uniform I had emptied out my wardrobe, the storage boxes and the two suitcases I kept under my bed, and had pawed through all of my clothes in search of something halfway decent to wear. Evidently my subconscious had decided that since tonight was Hanson’s final show of 2012 (according to Lisbeth, anyhow), I needed to make an impression – and that said impression meant I needed to wear a skirt of all things.

“This had better be worth it,” I grumbled to myself as I tried to yank the hem of my skirt down to my knees. That in itself was an exercise in futility, not to mention that because I had opted to be sensible and wear leggings under my skirt a little pointless. Over my skirt and leggings I wore a maroon T-shirt with an intricate Celtic design on the front worked in black velvet. A black knitted cap and my cranberry Converse sneakers rounded out my outfit for the evening.

There really was no point in hanging around staring at my reflection for the rest of the afternoon, I decided, so I gathered up the clothes I’d worn out to Corrimal along with all the paraphernalia I had brought up to the amenities block with me. It was time for me to head back to my caravan and finish getting ready for the concert.

My phone’s text message tone sounded off just as I finished packing my handbag with everything I would need for tonight – camera, my mobile phone’s powerbank and cord, hairbrush, my little pocket notebook, a couple of pens, wallet and my keys. As I’d expected, the text message in question was from Lisbeth. Leaving woonona now – be there in 10 mins or so. I clicked back to my phone’s home screen, locked it and slipped it into my handbag, and looped my handbag’s strap around my neck so it sat on my left shoulder. Sadie was already next door with Loretta and William, so all I needed to do was grab my walking stick and one of my cardigans, lock up and head up to the carpark.

Lisbeth arrived right on six-thirty, her car pulling into an empty space in the carpark not far from the reception office. I looked back over my shoulder from reading the notices that had been posted on the office’s noticeboard just in time to see Lisbeth sticking her head out of the driver’s side window of her car. “Move your arse Ruby!” she yelled. I gave her the finger in response and headed over to her car.

“Looking to try cracking onto Zac tonight, are we?” I asked when I spotted what Lisbeth was wearing. She wore all black – a short black skirt with a row of sequins along the hem, a sleeveless black top, and gladiator sandals. Her short, dark brown hair was pulled back under a headband that had a black rose sewn onto it. “You know damn well he’s taken.”

“I could say the same for you with Taylor,” Lisbeth retorted.

“Taylor isn’t married though,” I said airily. “That’s the difference.”

Lisbeth scowled at me in response and put her car into reverse gear. “I put your ticket in my handbag,” she said as she reversed her car out of its parking space. “Don’t let me forget to give it to you when we get to the uni, I’d hate for you to miss this.” She looked sidelong at me for a brief moment. “You look great, by the way.”

“Thanks, Lis,” I said with a smile. “So what do you think we should expect from tonight? Especially as it’s the last night of this tour.”

“I couldn’t honestly say,” Lisbeth said with a shrug. “I’ve never been to the last show on any of their tours. Almost got to go and see them in Freo back in September but…” Here Lisbeth shrugged. “Couldn’t afford my ticket, my airfare and however much it would cost me to stay in a hotel for a couple of nights, so I didn’t bother.”

“I’d have thought they’d play their last show in Newy, though,” I said. “Seeing as that’s where they’re from and all.”

“Yeah, I did too.” We had stopped at the intersection of Rothery Street and Cawley Street by this point, waiting for a gap in the traffic so that Lisbeth could drive around the roundabout. The traffic was unusually heavy for a Thursday evening, but I put that down to there being quite a few Hanson fans living in Wollongong who were attending tonight’s concert. “But I’m not complaining if it means I get to see them one more time before they go on their summer break.”

“No complaints here either.” My phone chimed, its tone signifying that my Twitter timeline had just been updated. In among the new updates, I saw once I had pulled my phone back out of my bag and checked my Twitter app, was one from Hanson. “They just finished sound check,” I said, paraphrasing the tweet for Lisbeth.

“Sweet,” Lisbeth said. “Maybe they’ll actually start on time tonight.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I said, putting my phone away as I spoke. “Three words Lis – Hanson Standard Time.”

“Good point,” Lisbeth conceded.

We arrived at Crust Pizza at around five minutes to seven, after Lisbeth had spent ten or so minutes attempting to find a parking spot a couple of streets away in Wollongong City Council’s carpark, to find that the restaurant was absolutely packed. Here and there I could see the odd person wearing Hanson T-shirts, which led me to believe that just about everyone who was attending tonight’s concert had had the same idea as Lisbeth and I.

“Oh this is just fucking marvellous,” Lisbeth groaned as we joined the queue that snaked out of the restaurant’s front door. “Remind me again why I suggested this?”

“Because you’re too cashed up for your own good?” I teased her.

“Funny, Ruby.” Lisbeth raised herself up onto tiptoes in an attempt to peer over the heads of everyone in line in front of us. “I think we’d be better off just getting a takeaway pizza and heading up to McCabe Park or something. I don’t like our chances of getting a table. There’s too many people here.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” I agreed. “We’d never make it to the uni on time otherwise.”

It took what felt like hours for our place in line to even make it inside the restaurant. I had been staring at my phone, catching up on Twitter and Facebook, when the unthinkable happened – both of my knees gave out on me at almost exactly the same moment. I didn’t even have a chance to steady myself. My phone and walking stick both went flying off to parts unknown as I hit the deck, landing squarely and very hard on my backside.

“Holy shit Ruby, are you okay?” Lisbeth asked as she crouched down next to me.

“I think so,” I said, wincing as I tried to stand up. My knees refused to work, however, which I immediately took as a very bad sign. “Okay, bad idea. I’m not okay.”

“I think that may be the understatement of the year,” Lisbeth said. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Do you want me to drive you home?”

“Fuck no. I didn’t get dressed up just to spend tonight on the lounge watching TV. I don’t give two shits if I have to sit down for the whole show, I am not missing out on it.” I sighed. “I should have brought my wheelchair instead of my walking stick. Should have guessed this would happen.”

“Do you want me to go back to your place and get it?” Lisbeth asked as she helped me back to my feet. Someone had found a chair by this point, and I sank down onto it gratefully.

I shook my head. “I’ll be right. I just need to sit down for a bit. Did you see where my phone and walking stick got to, by the way?”

Before Lisbeth could answer me, a pair of hands came into my line of sight – one held my mobile phone, looking surprisingly unharmed after its impromptu trip through the air, and the other had a firm grip on my walking stick. “I think these might be yours,” a very familiar voice said.

“Holy shit,” I heard Lisbeth whisper behind me. She sounded positively awestruck, and when I looked up I realised exactly why.

Standing in front of me, holding my mobile phone and walking stick and looking just a little concerned, was Taylor Hanson.

“Yeah, they’re mine,” I said once I’d found my voice. “Thanks.”

Taylor grinned, and he handed my phone and walking stick over. “No worries. You okay? You took a bit of a tumble there.”

I nodded quickly, only regretting the movement of my head for a moment. “I’ll be okay. S’like I told her, I just need to sit down for a little bit.” I jerked my right thumb over my shoulder at Lisbeth. “Not the first time it’s happened.”

“Yeah, but it’s the first time you’ve fallen on your arse in front of a hot guy,” Lisbeth said, and I immediately reached back and smacked her. “Ow!”

Taylor seemed to take Lisbeth’s remark in stride, much to my relief. “Are you coming to the show tonight?” he asked.

“Yep,” Lisbeth replied. “Been looking forward to it since the regional tour was announced. This one here though” she poked me in the shoulder “had no idea until I gave her a bell this morning.”

“Not my fault I’ve been busy with TAFE,” I grumbled.

“Uh-huh,” Lisbeth said, not sounding quite convinced of my excuse. “Likely story, Ruby.”

“Well, it’s good to hear that you’ll be there,” Taylor said. He sounded pleased that we’d be at the concert. “I should head out – it was good to meet you both.”

“You too, Taylor,” Lisbeth said. He gave us one final smile before heading off through the crowd that packed the restaurant.

“Holy fuck,” Lisbeth said in awe once Taylor was gone. “Please tell me I didn’t imagine that.”

“You didn’t imagine it,” I said. I held my walking stick almost reverently – it had nearly faded, the cold of the aluminium replacing the warmth that had leached into it, but I could still feel where Taylor had held it. I took hold of the handle, gripping it firmly, and used it for leverage against the floor as I pushed myself back to my feet. My knees still felt a little shaky, but I wasn’t about to fall arse over teakettle again anytime soon. “Come on, let’s get our dinner. I’m fucking starving.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Taylor

As per usual, the first words out of Luke’s mouth when I finally made it back to his car were less than polite.

“You took your sweet fucking time,” he grumbled as I climbed into the front passenger seat of his four-wheel drive.

“Oh, keep your fucking hair on,” I shot back. “I’m here now, aren’t I?” The four-wheel drive’s engine roared to life barely a minute after I had pulled the door closed behind me, and I scrambled to do up my seatbelt. I managed to lock my seatbelt into place seconds before Luke flicked on the right blinker. “Jesus Christ Luke, you can’t wait until I have my belt on?”

“Considering we were supposed to be back at the uni half an hour ago, nope,” Luke replied. By now he’d eased the four-wheel drive into the traffic that flowed along Crown Street, heading toward Corrimal Street. “And by the looks of this traffic, everyone’s dinner will be stone motherless cold by the time we get back. I don’t much want to be in the same room as your brothers when they find out all the pizzas need to be reheated.”

“Not my fault they wanted something other than what’s at the UniCentre,” I said with a shrug. “I would have been perfectly happy to stay at the uni and have Subway or Thai for dinner, but nope – it was pizza or nothing with that lot.” I let out a quiet sigh. “At least once tour’s over, I won’t have to deal with them until Christmas.”

“You going up to Newy for it?”

“That’s the plan, yeah. Whole clan’s meeting up at my parents’. Should be interesting.”

“Good interesting or bad interesting?” Luke asked. The set of traffic lights up ahead turned orange as he spoke, and the four-wheel drive came to a stop not far from the rear bumper of a Holden Kingswood.

I shrugged and looked out of the windscreen, taking in the traffic that flowed along Market Street. “Haven’t decided yet.”

I ended up spending the remainder of the drive back to the university running through scales and chords in my head. The final show of every tour up to this point had always been the most memorable, and I intended for tonight’s to be no exception to that little rule. I could only hope that it would be memorable in a good way, though if either of my brothers cottoned onto what I was planning to do next year before I had the opportunity to tell them it had the potential to be entirely the opposite. And that was not something I wanted to happen.

The car park nearest to the UniBar was absolutely packed when Luke and I arrived back at the university. “Told you we should have taken the Shuttle,” I said as Luke attempted to find a parking space for his car. “At least that way you could have kept the parking space you had before.”

“Yeah, okay smartarse,” Luke shot back. He finally spotted a lone parking space in the ticketed section of the carpark – neither of us being University of Wollongong students, we couldn’t park in the section reserved for permit holders – and swung the four-wheel drive into it. Said parking space wasn’t too far from the UniBar, which meant we would be able to get everyone’s dinner inside before it cooled down more than it probably had already. “You got a spare five dollars I can borrow? I’ll pay you back.”

“Pretty sure I do.” I worked my right hand into the pocket of my jeans that held my wallet, pulled it out and thumbed it open. “Here you go,” I said, handing Luke one of the five dollar notes I had stashed in there.

“Thanks mate.” Luke flashed me a grin and tucked the money into his pocket. “Come on, we’d better get dinner inside before that lot starts a riot.”

The backstage area at the UniBar was nothing short of barely-controlled chaos, I discovered once I had followed Luke inside. The public area of the building itself had been quiet, with just the bartenders present, but I figured that was because the afternoon crowd had been kicked out to make way for the evening’s concert attendees. I almost wanted to slam my hands over my ears to block out the worst of the noise, even though that would have meant half of the pizzas Luke and I had bought for dinner would go tumbling onto the floor. Instead, I drew in a deep breath and let it out as a shrill whistle.

It did the trick. In almost an instant everyone stopped talking and looked over at Luke and I. “Dinner time,” Luke announced somewhat unnecessarily, lifting his half of the pizza boxes up a little bit.

“Oh it’s about damn time,” a voice said behind me, and I looked back over my shoulder to see Zoë standing in the doorway. She was eyeing the pizzas with a suspiciously devious look in her eye.

“Zoë Genevieve Hanson, you watch your mouth,” Mum said as she came up behind my little sister. “That’s not very ladylike.”

Mum,” Zoë groaned.

“Don’t ‘Mum’ me, young lady,” Mum scolded. “Or you’ll be on the first train back up to Newcastle.”

“Sorry,” I clearly heard Zoë mumble about a second before she went wandering past me. She wore a bright pink wristband around one of her wrists that had UNDERAGE printed on it in large black block letters. I bit back a smirk – as the only one of my siblings who was under the age of eighteen, she didn’t have much of a choice in wearing it if she wanted to attend tonight’s show, and I knew her well enough by now that the first chance she got she’d be ripping it off. With my mother present to watch her like a hawk, that wasn’t going to be anytime soon.

“How are you doing, Taylor?” Mum asked me as I followed Luke over to a couple of long trestle tables that had been set up. At one point or another someone had dug up some paper plates and a stack of serviettes, and I set my pizza boxes down near them. The remainder of the tables were covered mostly with bowls of junk food – potato chips, M&M’s and jelly snakes featured prominently – along with cans and bottles of soft drink, water and various types of alcohol. While I considered my answer to my mother’s question, I grabbed a plate and a serviette, nicked two slices of Hawaiian from their box, and topped it all off with a bottle of water.

“I’m good,” I replied finally. “Definitely looking forward to being able to sleep in tomorrow.” I bit into one of my slices of pizza. “Can I talk to you for a bit?” I asked.

“Of course you can,” Mum replied.

“In private?” I nodded over at Isaac and Zac, who were deep in conversation with our backing musicians. “I don’t want those two to find out until I’m ready to tell them.”

‘In private’ turned out to be one of the tables outside the bar under its awning. There were a fair few people milling about on the pavement outside, some of them waving when they saw Mum and I walking out into the sunshine. I waved back and followed Mum over to an empty table.

“I’m going back to school,” I said without any preamble whatsoever once the two of us were sitting down.

Mum was clearly taken aback by my little admission. “What about the band?” she asked, shock evident in her voice. “I thought this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life.”

“It is,” I assured her. “But I don’t have anything to fall back on if we decide not to do it anymore. Okay, yeah, I have my HSC, but that’s not really going to get me anywhere. Especially if I decide to do something that isn’t related to music.” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out a much-abused envelope that I had been carrying around with me for the last month. I’d read the letter inside it so often that I had pretty much memorised it. “I got sent this at the start of November.”

While Mum read the letter I picked at my pizza, a summary of the words contained on that single sheet of white paper whirling around in my head. Dear Taylor, thank you for your application to study Certificate IV in Design part-time at Wollongong College – you will be notified of the outcome of your application within the next eight weeks. Part of me was hoping I wasn’t accepted into the course – I was not looking forward to my brothers’ reactions when I dropped it on them. I could only hope that the potential of them being pissed off at me would be lessened when they found out I’d be doing it part-time, but I doubted it.

“When will you find out if you’ve been accepted?” Mum asked as she folded the letter up and slipped it back into its envelope.

“Hopefully just before Christmas,” I replied. “Odds are I’ll tell them on Boxing Day. I can tell you right now that they’re not going to like it, and I’d rather not ruin Christmas for everyone if I can help it.”

“Oi Taylor!”

Mum and I both looked back at the door of the bar to see Zac sticking his head out of it. “Isaac wants to get one last practice in before the show kicks off,” he said. “Better get back in here before he chucks a spaz or something.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said, and set about eating my dinner as quickly as I could without choking on it. “Guess I’d better get back in there,” I said to Mum once I’d finished off the last bit of pizza crust.

“I’m proud of you,” Mum said right as I scrunched my serviette up into a ball and folded my plate around it. “I know things haven’t exactly been easy for you,” she continued when I eyed her quizzically. “You’ve been through a lot, more than any one person should have to deal with.”

“Don’t remind me,” I muttered. Unbidden, my left hand drifted up to my right collarbone, to the scar (hidden at that moment beneath my T-shirt) that rested just above it. The memories attached to that particular scar weren’t exactly positive, and it seemed as if all my old wounds, internal as well as external, opened up all over again whenever someone mentioned what I had spent nearly three long years going through. Even if it was just in a roundabout way.

The stagehands had been hard at work while I’d been outside with Mum, I could see when I headed back inside. The stage at the rear of the bar had been set up with my piano and acoustic guitar, Zac’s drums, the rack that held Isaac’s guitars, and the instruments that would be used by our backing musicians. A high stool that looked suspiciously like one of the barstools from the bar itself had been placed in the centre of the stage, and I figured that was where the evening’s opener would be sitting during their time onstage. My brothers, for their part, were seated on the edge of the stage, bent over what I recognised as Zac’s laptop.

“So are we going to practice or not?” I called out as I walked through the empty bar. “Seeing as Zac dragged me away from talking to Mum and all that.”

“Yeah, hang on,” Isaac said without looking up from the laptop. “Do you mind doing Name to kick things off?”

“You know I don’t mind,” I replied. I climbed up on the stage and sat down next to Zac, and studied the screen of his laptop. He had iTunes open with what I figured was that evening’s set list in a new playlist. It was more or less the same set list we’d used during the current tour – an even mix of songs from all five albums and our two EPs, along with a few cover songs that we switched out for each show. “I reckon we should do at least one Christmas song,” I said. “Seeing as Christmas is coming up and all that.”

“Name one Christmas song that you can play right off the top of your head without having to learn it all over again,” Zac said. He glanced at me briefly. “And no, the Christmas songs you did for choir in primary school don’t count.”

I scowled at him. “Okay, fine, no Christmas songs. What other covers are we doing then? Aside from Name that is.”

“I was thinking-” Isaac started, Zac interrupting with “Did it hurt?” and earning himself a whack over the back of his head. “Under The Bridge for one of them,” Isaac continued as if he hadn’t even been interrupted.

“The Chili Peppers song?” I asked, and Isaac nodded. “Okay, sounds good – you want to do that one?”

“Yeah, works for me,” he replied.

“I can do One Way Road,” Zac volunteered. “You know, the John Butler Trio song?”

“Yeah, we know who it’s by Zac,” I said absently. “Don’t need to state the obvious.” I watched as Zac clicked back into his main iTunes library, found the songs the three of us had decided on, and copied them into the concert set list. “So that’s all sorted then, I take it?”

“More or less,” Zac replied, setting his laptop aside on the stage. “Come on. We’d better get a bit of practice in – that lot out there will start a riot if we go out onstage sounding like we’re strangling Ave’s cat.”

“Lovely analogy, Zac,” I said, completely deadpan.

We ended up spending the next three quarters of an hour doing a very quick and dirty run-through of our set list, paying particular attention to the three songs we had chosen to cover that evening. They weren’t songs we normally performed onstage, at least not during our national tours – the general consensus for our regional tours, though, was that all bets were off and more or less an excuse to do whatever the hell we liked. Tonight seemed to be no exception to that little unwritten rule.

We had just finished going over the chords for Name, having shifted ourselves backstage around five minutes earlier, when a shrill, very loud whistle met my ears. I winced as the sound slammed against my eardrums and looked back over my shoulder to see our tour manager, Caroline, standing in the middle of the room with her ever-present clipboard in hand, microphone headset hanging around her neck. Silence replaced the noise that had formerly filled the backstage area, and I hid a grin – she had trained us very well over the last few years.

“Listen up everyone!” Caroline barked out, sounding very much like a drill sergeant. I could almost picture her standing there in camouflage gear, rifle in hand and a slouch hat sitting at an angle over her dark hair.

“You think she was in the army in a past life?” Zac whispered to Isaac and I, and I bit back a snicker.

“Quiet,” Isaac hissed.

“We are at T-minus fifteen minutes before the lads take the stage,” she continued, her English accent much more pronounced than it normally was. “We have a full house out there tonight – I’m sure you can hear them through those doors over there. They are all hyped up and very excited, so let’s give them a show to remember, okay?” She indicated the trestle tables with her free hand. “I need someone to get those tables packed up and all the rubbish cleared away within the next five minutes. Techs, make sure you have all the monitors and whatnot sorted – we had issues last show, as I’m sure you’re well aware, so let’s make sure they don’t happen again. Stagehands, I want you out there checking over instruments, making sure mic stands are sturdy, et cetera. Liaise with the lighting and sound crews if you need to.” She glanced down at her clipboard. “Right, we have a lot to do in the next quarter of an hour, so let’s move it – you all have your jobs to be done. If you run out of things to do, come and see me and I’ll give you something to occupy your time until the show starts. Everyone clear?”

Murmurs of assent echoed around the room, and I got to my feet. “I’m going to go and get changed,” I said, dusting off the knees of my jeans as I spoke. “Meet you two back here in five?”

“Yep,” Zac replied, evidently having the same idea as me. I went over to the side of the room, where I’d left my backpack earlier that day – among other things that I’d needed that day, it held a change of clothes for tonight’s show. Once I’d picked it up off the floor, I unzipped its back pocket and took out the clothes I’d packed in there that morning – a plain black T-shirt and a short-sleeved grey button-down shirt I planned to wear over the top. I hadn’t bothered with bringing another pair of jeans to change into, it would have left no room in my backpack for anything else. I’d figured that I could take my button-down off if I got too hot onstage, which based on past shows was almost a foregone conclusion. Once I’d changed into my clean shirts I stowed the T-shirt I’d been wearing in my backpack and zipped it back up again.

The minutes before the three of us took the stage seemed to crawl past. At the very beginning, when we were just starting out as an a capella act playing the Byron Bay Bluesfest, the Newcastle Regional Show and the Mattara Festival every year, and even during our first tours of Australia, Southeast Asia and New Zealand in 1997 and 1998, the time before each performance had seemed to fly past in almost the blink of an eye. That had all changed in 2002. Now, it seemed like I subconsciously wanted to appreciate how lucky I truly was to still be here.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Dad settling himself down in a chair next to me. “Just thinking about all the crap that happened when I was at uni,” I said with a shrug.

“Well, that’s very random,” Dad said. “What’s brought this on?”

“Just…” I picked at a loose thread on my shirt. “Before it all happened, everything seemed to go by so fast. I barely had a spare moment to think before each show, let alone worry about what was going on in here.” I tapped my chest with my left hand, right over my heart. “Things are a lot slower now. I just hate that it took going through almost three years of sheer hell for that to happen.”

“I think your mother would definitely agree with that,” Dad said. “I know I do. But look at it this way. You survived, right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, wondering just where Dad was going with this.

“And you’ve had seven good years since then, if I’m not mistaken.”

I nodded slowly. I had had seven very good years – no major health scares, with the worst illness I’d suffered being a nasty case of the flu the winter just past – and for that I was thankful. “Yeah, I have.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “I suppose I’m just a little worried that it could all happen again, but a hell of a lot worse than it was the last time – Dr. Torrens did warn me about that, but she didn’t tell me when or how bad it could be. Just that I needed to be on the lookout for anything…well, anything out of the ordinary. And I haven’t noticed anything like that, not yet anyway.”

“How about you not worry about that right now? If you’re still concerned in a few weeks, make an appointment to see her when you come up to Newcastle for Christmas.”

“Okay. Thanks, Dad.”

“Anytime, Tay.” He clapped me on the shoulder briefly and got to his feet. “Come on, your brothers are giving us both the evil eye – you’d better get over there.”

I let out a quiet laugh. “Probably a good idea.”

True to Dad’s word, Isaac and Zac were giving me just a bit of the evil eye when I finally made it over to where they were standing near the stage doors. “Oh lay off,” I sniped at them, taking my place in our little circle. “I was talking to Dad, all right?”

“Yeah okay, don’t get all narky at us,” Zac said. He touched the monitor in his right ear briefly, and I realised somewhat belatedly that I wasn’t wearing mine yet. I immediately unbuttoned my shirt and shrugged it off my shoulders, just in time for footsteps to come up behind me.

“Lovely to have you join us, Taylor,” one of the sound techs said dryly, and I rolled my eyes. “Shirt up please,” she requested, and I lifted the back of my T-shirt up just far enough so that the wires for my own monitors could be threaded up my back and through my collar. I caught the monitors as they landed on my left shoulder and quickly shoved them in my ears, the reassuring weight of the receiver settling into one of the back pockets of my jeans once they were in place. My shirt went back on, and I did up the buttons as quickly as I could without having to unbutton and do it up all over again. “Good luck with the show tonight, guys.”

“Thanks, Gina,” Zac said.

In the last few minutes before we were due to hit the stage, I found my thoughts drifting back ten years to 2002, the year that had seen my life and those of everyone in my family thrown into complete disarray. I’d had to drop out of university not even a year into my degree, the recording of our third album had been constantly interrupted as I’d spent what had seemed like endless months in and out of hospital, and I had grown rather acquainted with the interior of the first-floor bathroom at my parents’ place. It wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat any time soon, as much as I knew the possibility was there. I could only hope it was a few decades away, if it even happened again.

“Ready, Tay?” Zac asked barely seconds before we walked out onto the UniBar stage.

I nodded quickly. “I’m ready. I feel like I’m going to throw up any minute, but I’m ready. Let’s do this.”

An almighty wall of noise slammed into me as I led the way out onstage, blinking against the bright floodlights that lit up the stage. I gave the audience a wave and headed over to my piano, picking up my acoustic guitar from its stand and slinging the strap around my neck so that it rested on my left shoulder. As we had decided earlier, we were starting off with our version of Name by the Goo Goo Dolls. I had guitar and vocals on this one, so I fished my guitar pick out of my pocket and readied myself to sing like I never had before. The first chords of the song sounded, an intro for Zac’s drums and Isaac’s bass, and once my cue came I began to sing, giving the song my all.

“And even though the moment passed me by…I still can’t turn away…‘cause all the dreams you never thought you’d lose…got tossed along the way…and letters that you never meant to send…got lost or thrown away…

“And now we’re grown up orphans that never knew their names…we don’t belong to no one, that’s a shame…but you could hide beside me, maybe for a while…and I won’t tell no one your name…and I won’t tell ‘em your name…

“And scars are souvenirs you never lose…the past is never far…did you lose yourself somewhere out there…did you get to be a star…and don’t it make you sad to know that life…is more than who we are…

“We grew up way too fast…and now there’s nothing to believe…and reruns all become our history…a tired song keeps playing on a tired radio…and I won’t tell no one your name…and I won’t tell ‘em your name…I won’t tell ‘em your name…I won’t tell ‘em your name…

“I think about you all the time…but I don’t need the same…it’s lonely where you are, come back down…and I won’t tell ‘em your name…”

Cheering and applause filled the room at the end of the song, and I grinned before sketching a small bow. As I straightened up my gaze landed on the bar, zeroing in on two people in particular – the two girls I had bumped into in Crust Pizza on my way out to Luke’s four-wheel drive, Ruby and her nameless-for-the-moment friend. The downlights that illuminated the bar itself lit Ruby up from behind, her light brown curls turning golden, and for a few seconds I couldn’t breathe. I’d thought Ruby was pretty in the pizzeria earlier, but now? She looked gorgeous. And I knew deep down inside that I had to talk to her again. I didn’t care when it happened, or even how, but I would have moved Heaven and Earth to make sure I had my chance.

“Whoa, whoa, easy there,” I heard Isaac say in my ear, his hands on my shoulders. “You okay mate?”

“I’m fine,” I said quickly, all of a sudden feeling lightheaded and a little dizzy. Holding your breath will do that to you, that ever-present voice in the back of my head taunted me, and I gave it a mental clip around the ear. “Come on, before that lot starts a riot.”

“If you’re sure,” Isaac said, sounding a little worried, and I nodded. “All right. But you let me know if you need to take some time out, okay? And you should probably sit down before you pass out.”

“Yeah, good idea,” I mumbled. Isaac let go of my shoulders, and I backed up until I felt the backs of my legs hit my piano bench. Only then did I feel safe sitting down, and I let out a quiet sigh of relief. I had a feeling the set list was going to be quickly reworked so I could get my act together before I had to sing again, and I knew that Twitter and Facebook would be alight with tweets and status updates within a minute about how I had nearly passed out onstage all because the most gorgeous girl I had ever seen had caught my eye all over again, but somehow it didn’t bother me.

And as the next song kicked off, and my hands found their way instinctively to the keys of my piano, I knew that nothing was going to bother me ever again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Ruby

Taylor Hanson just stared at me. Holy shit.

That was pretty much all it took for the teenie version of me that still resided in some animalistic part of my brain to wake up. My rational side was insisting – though admittedly not all that vehemently – that it probably hadn’t been me specifically, but every other part of me was drowning it out.

He had looked straight at me. Me. There were easily a couple thousand people crammed into the UniBar, most of them female (though I had seen a few guys dotted through the crowd), and yet it was me he had zeroed in on. Nobody else.

“He keeps looking at you,” Lisbeth said in my ear as the guys launched into the second song on the set list, Waiting For This.

“Yeah right,” I said. “There’s shitloads of other girls he could be staring at, why would he look straight at me and not any of them?”

“Because you’re gorgeous and you know it?” I scoffed at this. “You are!” Lisbeth nodded toward the stage. “Okay, yeah, he could stare at any girl in this bar. He could have any girl he wanted – there are millions of girls in Australia who would quite happily throw themselves at his feet. But you saw what happened a couple minutes ago – he saw you, and you pretty much took his breath away. That is one hell of an achievement if you ask me.”

“Hmm,” I said noncommittally, and turned to face the stage properly. Lisbeth and I hadn’t exactly staked out the best spot in the bar – there were quite a few people at least a head taller than me standing directly in my line of sight, making it somewhat difficult for me to see just what was going on onstage. “I’m going to see if I can get a bit closer to the stage,” I said to Lisbeth. “I can’t see shit from back here. Come with me?”

“Yeah, may as well,” Lisbeth said. She raised herself up on tiptoes and scanned the crowd in front of us. “There’s a space about three rows from the stage that’s got nobody in it – I think we should aim for it.”

“You’re only saying that because you want to get close enough to eye off Zac,” I said.

Lisbeth didn’t say a word in response to this, instead stepping away from the bar and beginning to make her way through the crowd. I tightened my grip on the handle of my walking stick and followed her, sidling my way past people with an ‘excuse me’ here and a ‘thank you’ there to be polite. The crowd tonight was very laid-back, a far cry from one of the two Hanson concerts I’d gone to in September – I had witnessed three fans ganging up on a fourth during intermission at one show, purely because she had wanted to return to where her friends waited for her. Tonight, nobody seemed to mind that Lisbeth and I had been at the bar since the doors had opened – for all they knew, we could have just been at the bar for the briefest of moments, and wanted only to get back to our place in the crowd. And it seemed to work in our favour, because nobody argued with us or tried to stop us.

It didn’t take us very long at all to reach the spot in the crowd that Lisbeth had spotted. We had a far better view of the stage now, and I didn’t need to get up on tiptoes just to see what the hell was going on. And now that I could see properly, I realised that Lisbeth hadn’t been lying when she had said that Taylor kept looking at me – because that was exactly what he was doing. Around ten seconds after Lisbeth and I had moved from the bar to our new spot in the crowd, I could quite easily see Taylor take his focus off the entire crowd and start scanning the faces of everyone present (or so I figured anyway), almost as if he were looking for someone. The instant his gaze landed on me, he smiled at me – a smile I returned readily. His eyes lit right up, his smile widened, and I swore I could see the faintest hint of red creeping its way across his face. He ducked his head a little before looking away again.

“I think he likes you,” Lisbeth said during a lull in the music.

“Bullshit. He’s only met me once, and I didn’t exactly make the best impression on him. I fell on my arse practically right in front of him, remember?”

“He likes you,” Lisbeth said, self-assurance in her tone. “I’m positive. You saw the way his eyes lit up when he looked at you just now.” She dropped her voice into a whisper. “Ruby and Taylor, sittin’ in a tree,” she sang quietly. “F-U-C-K-” I elbowed her hard in the side before she could finish her rhyme, and she shot a wounded look at me.

So not funny, Lis,” I said. “Lay off will you?”

“Spoilsport,” Lisbeth said, her voice barely audible. I rolled my eyes and proceeded to lose myself entirely in the music.

I have long maintained that one of the hallmarks of an amazing live show is that you’re having so much fun, you don’t notice the passage of time. It was therefore something of a surprise to check my watch after the final song, a raucous cover of the John Butler Trio’s One Way Road, to find that it was a quarter to midnight. I hadn’t even realised it was past my bedtime, I’d been having that much fun. It had been a while since I’d voluntarily been up this late.

“How awesome was that?” Lisbeth said happily as we followed the crowd out of the bar and into the courtyard outside. Here she poked me in the shoulder. “And you were going to spend tonight watching TV, weren’t you? Wasn’t that better than a night on the lounge in front of the idiot box?”

“Yes, okay, it was,” I agreed. “I’m going to be feeling it the next few days though.” I gave Lisbeth a small, tired smile. “Thanks for inviting me along, Lis.”

Lisbeth returned my smile. “No worries, Ruby. Come on, I’ll take you home.”

“Good, because I’m not catching a taxi home and I don’t have any other way of getting there,” I said. It was a mark of how tired I was – I wasn’t normally so sarcastic. Lisbeth thankfully didn’t say a word in response – we had been friends for so long that she knew I didn’t mean it when I got snarky around her – but merely gave me another smile, slung an arm around my shoulders and led me across the courtyard through the milling crowd.

The next morning, as soon as I woke up, I immediately regretted my night out. I was aching all over, more than I usually did of a morning. This ache was bone-deep, to the point where I was barely able to move – it had been a very long time since I had last felt so horrible, and it wasn’t a feeling I liked. Nobody in their right mind would like it.

I had been debating burying myself beneath my quilt and going back to sleep when my phone rang, the ringtone I associated with my oldest sister sounding from its speaker – Kingdom Come by The Civil Wars. It took a little bit of effort, but I managed to extricate myself from my blankets just far enough to grab my phone and answer it. “Hello?”

“Jesus Christ Rue, you sound like shit,” Taleah said, sounding a little shocked. “You okay sis?”

“I’ve been better,” I replied. The small amount of effort I had put into reaching for my phone had exhausted me, and I was on the verge of falling asleep once again. “One of my friends dragged me out to a concert last night and I’m really regretting it right now.”

“I bet you are,” Taleah said sympathetically. “I was going to ask if you wanted to come shopping with me today, but I guess you’re not much up to it.”

“Not really,” I said. “Unless you feel up to pushing my wheelchair around the shops.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll pass on that,” Taleah said, her tone teasing, and we both laughed. “Do you feel up to some company anyway? I’ll bring over some really trashy movies to take your mind off everything.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Of course not. Matt’s at work all day, Brodie’s at school until three, and Zaidee’s at Mum and Dad’s today. I’ve got the house to myself and I’ll be bored stiff with nothing to do.”

“Okay.” I bit back a yawn. “I think I’m going to go back to sleep until you get here – you know where I keep my spare keys, yeah?”

“I think so, yeah. See you when I get there, then?”

“Yep.” This time I didn’t even bother stifling my yawn. “See you soon.”

The next thing I was aware of was the edge of my mattress dipping down toward the floor, almost as if someone was sitting down on it. When I cracked my right eye open, it was to see Taleah sitting on my bed near my knees. She gave me a smile once she saw I was awake. “Good morning Sleeping Beauty,” she said cheerfully, at which I scowled. “Well someone’s in a pissy mood this morning.”

“I’m sick, Lee,” I reminded her. “Plus I haven’t had my breakfast or my meds yet so what the fuck do you expect?”

“Yeah, okay, don’t get narky at me. What d’you usually have for breakfast?”

“Depends on how cold it is,” I replied as I worked to sit up, moving carefully so I didn’t jar my sore joints any more than was absolutely necessary. “Usually either Weet-Bix or cornflakes.”

“Well, the thermometer in my car said it was about eighteen degrees when I got here,” Taleah said. She got back on her feet and carefully eased me back to sit against the headboard of my bed. “Cornflakes then?”

I nodded. “Can you get me some orange juice as well?” I asked, reaching for my phone as I spoke.

“Yeah, of course I can.”

While Taleah was sorting out my breakfast, I alternated my attention between catching up on Twitter on my phone and counting out my medication for the morning. I bit back a sigh when I realised I was running low on both my antidepressants and my anxiety medication, which meant a trip to the doctor was imminent so I could get new prescriptions for both. I quickly tapped out of my Twitter app and into my phone’s calendar, input a reminder for Monday so I could make an appointment, and resumed scrolling through my timeline.

“That friend of yours is an idiot,” Taleah said offhand right as I was reading a tweet from The Daily Telegraph’s account. “She knows what’s up with you, doesn’t she?”

“More or less,” I replied. “Okay, yeah, I feel like death warmed over this morning. But I feel like that most days anyway before I get my meds into me. And it was worth it anyway, I got to see Hanson one last time before they went on their summer break. Got to meet Taylor in Crust Pizza as well,” I added offhandedly, almost as an afterthought.

“You met Taylor Hanson?” Taleah asked as she brought my breakfast and a glass of orange juice over to me on a tray, sounding a little surprised. “How did you manage that?”

I waited until my breakfast tray was sitting on my lap before I answered my sister. “Fell on my arse while Lis and I were waiting in line to order our pizzas. My phone and walking stick went flying and he found them for me. Complete fluke.”

“Lucky bitch.”

I cracked a small smile and busied myself with taking my medication.

My phone chimed just as I finished chasing the last cornflakes around my bowl with my spoon, the chirping of birds signifying that my Twitter timeline had been updated. I left my phone alone until I had drained the milk from my bowl. “Can you grab my laptop for me?” I asked as I unlocked my phone. “It’s in the annexe, next to the TV.”

“Yeah, no worries,” Taleah said. She got up from her seat near my feet, picked up my breakfast tray, and headed off to retrieve my laptop. She was back less than a minute later, Sadie at her heels. I felt around for the power point I knew was right next to the headboard of my bed and plugged in my laptop before opening its lid and turning it on. “Bit early for it though, isn’t it?” she asked as she climbed up onto my bed and settled herself beside me.

“Maybe, maybe not,” I replied, going back to scrolling through my Twitter timeline while my laptop was firing up. “If I know the guys as well I should by now, seeing as I’ve been a fan of theirs for, what, fifteen years now, they made a video or something after the concert last night and stuck it up on their website. And I want to watch it before I do anything else.” I waved my phone at Taleah and went back to going through Twitter.

Sure enough, I was right. Once I was caught up on Twitter, the very first thing I did was open Firefox on my laptop and click on Hanson.net in my bookmarks. Right there on the main page of the site was a post with an embedded video that, according to the timestamp right below it, had been posted at one o’clock this morning. “Nailed it,” I said triumphantly, and clicked on the header to open the video’s post.

“I want to read the blog post first before you start the video,” Taleah said, so I scrolled down the page to let her read it. It was short, only a couple of paragraphs long, and had been posted by Taylor.

Thank you to everyone who came to the show tonight at the UniBar at UOW. It was fantastic to see so many come out to our final show for 2012. Thanks also to our opener, Eliza Crossley, for getting the crowd hyped up tonight and during every show on the NSW/ACT regional tour. Eliza can be found on Triple J Unearthed if anyone is interested in checking out more of her music.

We are taking a break over Christmas and New Year’s to spend time with our families and friends at home in Newcastle. We’ll be back in 2013 – we have a lot planned for next year, so stay tuned to our Twitter and Facebook for more info. Until then, we hope you all have a great Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year.

- Taylor

Once Taleah had finished reading, I scrolled back up to the video and clicked ‘play’ to get it started. The video started off with just a black screen that had intermittent flashes of light pulsing across it, along with the occasional explosion as a soundtrack. The first sound that wasn’t an explosion was Taylor’s voice.

“Zac, stop being a fucking pyro,” he snapped, sounding rather annoyed. I couldn’t see him in the video so I could only guess he was the one holding the camera. “You’re going to piss off my neighbours if you don’t knock it the fuck off!”

“Yeah Zac, and aren’t those illegal anyway?” Isaac asked.

“Got ‘em when we went to Canberra last month,” Zac said, sounding oddly proud of himself. “Come on Tay, I can’t do this back up in Newy. Let me have my fun yeah?”

“I don’t exactly live out back of Bourke, Zac,” Taylor said. “Now lay off with the fucking fireworks! I’ll have the cops around here faster than I can blink, and I like not having a criminal record so fucking quit it!”

“Fuck, okay!” There was one last explosion and flash of light, and the camera spun around to face the side of what I guessed as a garage. Standing in front of the camera were Taylor and Isaac, both still dressed in their stage outfits, though it looked as if Taylor had lost one of his shirts in the interim. “You’re a fucking killjoy sometimes, Taylor.”

“Well pardon me for wanting to stay on good terms with everyone else in my street,” Taylor retorted. “Get over here you fuckwit.” He looked as annoyed as he sounded, and I could quite easily detect an undercurrent of weariness in his voice.

“He looks absolutely exhausted,” Taleah said sympathetically.

“Yeah,” I agreed. I shushed Taleah when she went to say something else, wanting to hear what the guys had to say.

“So this is it for 2012,” Taylor said. “We’ve had one hell of a year – we’ve played to countless people all around the country, seen some incredible sights, and I think we even made Twitter go into meltdown once or twice.” All three of them laughed. “We have even more on the cards for 2013. A bunch of interstate regional tours for those of you who couldn’t get here to New South Wales or Canberra to see us, a potential trip across the Ditch, and maybe – just maybe – beginning to record our next album. Don’t quote me on any of that, though.” He grinned at this.

“For now though, we’re going to spend another few days here in Wollongong so we can unwind and relax,” Isaac said, picking up the thread. “If you see any of us out and about, you know none of us bite so come over and say hi if you feel like it.”

“Well, we don’t bite hard,” Zac interjected, and all three of them burst out laughing.

“We’re due to head back up to Newcastle sometime around the tenth for our Christmas break,” Isaac continued. “Thank you to everyone who came out to the UniBar over at the uni tonight for our last show of the year – we hope you all had as much fun watching as we did onstage.”

“And to the girl who nearly made Taylor here keel over from forgetting to breathe, the idiot,” Zac said, giving Taylor a good hard whack to the back of his head, “text him or something before he goes even more ‘round the twist than he is already. His mobile number’s 0491-”

Before Zac could finish reciting Taylor’s mobile number for all and sundry in Hanson fandom to hear, Taylor slapped a hand across his brother’s mouth. “If you’ll all excuse me, I need to go and kill Zac now,” he said. “Have a good Christmas everyone – we’ll see you all in 2013.”

“Yeah, if we don’t all get blown up on the twenty-first we will!” Zac yelled from behind Taylor’s hand, his voice very muffled. There was laughter from Taylor and Isaac, and the video ended.

Beside me, Taleah let out a laugh of her own. “So what exactly happened last night?” she asked me as I closed the new tab my bookmark had opened. “Obviously someone made an impression on Taylor, if he nearly passed out onstage.”

I swallowed hard. “Me,” I said quietly. “I think Zac was talking about me.”


“Merry Christmas!”

I didn’t pause in my self-appointed task, that of topping and tailing the green beans my mother intended to cook as part of Christmas lunch, at the sound of my oldest brother announcing his arrival. As with every Christmas since I had been able to remember, the day was being spent with my family – my parents, my brothers and sisters, my aunt and uncle on my mother’s side of the family, my nieces and nephews, and my cousins – at the house in Woonona where I’d grown up. The house was very close to the railway line and roughly five minutes on foot from the beach, so the soundtrack of my childhood had been the rattling of passenger, freight and coal trains along the nearby train tracks, accompanied by the crashing of waves on the beach. It was part of the reason why I had chosen to live where I did now – Bellambi was the next suburb south from Woonona, and therefore felt a lot more like home than elsewhere in the Illawarra might have. Not to mention it didn’t cost me much in petrol to drive over to my parents’ place.

“Merry Christmas Troy,” I said without looking up from the large plastic bag of beans set out on the kitchen bench in front of me. Topping and tailing was somewhat mindless work, but it kept my hands busy and my attention focused. The slightest slip of my knife, I knew very well from experience, would result in a finger cut down to the bone and a whole lot of blood, and it was not something I wanted to go through twice.

“Is that all I get?” Troy asked from behind me. “Just ‘Merry Christmas Troy’?” He sounded vaguely offended, but I knew very well that it was all an act. “Where’s my hug?”

“You’ll get your hug when I’m done topping and tailing these beans,” I informed him. “Go bug Taleah or something, she’s out in the yard with Brodie and Zaidee.”

“No, I believe I’ll take my hug now,” Troy said, and he spun me around on my bar stool to face him. He grinned, his smile lighting up the green eyes he shared with me, our dad and our youngest sister Gabrielle. “Hey little sis.”

Little sis?” I asked incredulously. “First of all, Troy, I’m not even two years younger than you, and second of all I’m only three inches shorter than you. If anything I should be calling you little – put me down!” I shrieked when Troy lifted me up off my bar stool and high into the air. My bare feet kicked out at him, coming dangerously close to his midsection, and he eyed me with one eyebrow raised.

“Watch where you’re putting those, Rubes,” he warned. “I might want more ankle biters one of these days.”

“Joshua Troy McCormick, put your sister down!” Mum shouted from the doorway that separated the dining room from the lounge room. “She’s not eight years old anymore!”

“Yeah Troy, I’m not eight years old anymore,” I said, parroting our mother.

“That’s quite enough from you too, Ruby,” Mum said. Troy lowered me back down onto my stool, giving me an apologetic look, and I fixed a mock glare on him before smiling and returning to my previous task.

“Sorry, Mum,” Troy said. “Just trying to have a little bit of fun. I hardly ever get to see her these days.”

“I’m only over in Bellambi, Troy,” I reminded my brother. “Not like I pulled an act like our grandparents and fucked off interstate.”

“Language, Ruby,” Mum scolded, a lot more mildly than she might have when I was younger. “Troy, go and ask your sisters to come inside and help with getting lunch ready – your dad will be wanting some help with the barbecue as well, if Ben isn’t already.”

“When’re Aunt Dee and Uncle Max getting here?” Troy asked before he headed off to do as he was asked.

“Your aunt said they’d be here at eleven or so,” Mum replied as she walked around to the kitchen side of the bench. “We’ll open presents once they’re here. Go on and find your sisters please.”

Once Troy was on his way to fetch Taleah and Gabrielle, Mum put her hands over mine to still their movement. “You don’t look very well, Ruby,” she said, and I looked up at her. Her grey eyes held nothing but sympathy – she knew how much I hated being sick.

“I’m fine,” I tried to assure her, but she raised an eyebrow at me. I sighed. “I’m just tired. Didn’t sleep all that well last night, my painkillers wore off early. Kept me up almost all night.”

“Why don’t you go and have a lie down?” Mum suggested. “Your sisters and I can handle all of this. You need to rest.”

“If you say so,” I said, and Mum nodded. “Okay. But you’ll let me know if you need a hand?” I asked hopefully.

“We won’t,” Mum assured me. “Once your aunt, uncle and cousins get here I’ll have more than enough hands.” She patted my right hand. “Go on, off you go. Watch Austar if you like.”

“Okay. Thanks, Mum.”

I had been lying on the lounge in my parents’ lounge room for roughly twenty minutes, flicking between Channel V, MTV Classic and MAX, when a riot of light brown curls decided to obscure my line of sight. “Gabbie,” I sighed in frustration. “I can’t see, can you move your head please?”

“Sorry Rue,” Gabrielle said apologetically, and she shifted down toward my feet. Green eyes identical to my own met mine, though my sister’s eyes peered out at me (and by extension, the world) through the lenses of what looked to me like very expensive glasses. “Didn’t see you there.”

“S’all right,” I grumbled. “Nice specs.”

“Thanks,” Gabrielle said. She grinned. “Bought them for myself for my birthday – figured that if I have to be stuck with the bastard things, I may as well look hot wearing them.”

“Don’t you have contacts?”

“Yeah, but the script’s wrong and they give me the irrits. Have you ever tried putting something in your eye intentionally?” Gabrielle shuddered. “I only wore them when I wanted to dress up or it was Formal night. And once my script changed, I just never bothered getting new ones. I like it better this way anyway.” She hitched her left shoulder up in a half-shrug. “If I see something I don’t like the look of, I can take off my glasses and voila, I don’t have to see it anymore.”

“Well if that works for you,” I said, and she nodded. “I don’t envy you much though. I’d hate to wear glasses all the time.”

“I don’t envy you much, either. How’ve you been lately anyway?”

“Honestly?” I asked, and Gabrielle nodded again. “I’ve been better. I’m thinking of going to see my doctor before TAFE goes back to see if I should get the dosage of my meds increased or change to something completely different.” I shuddered at the thought of switching to a whole new lot of medication, and the hell that I knew would follow for the next three weeks as I grew accustomed to them. “It was tough enough getting used to the ones I’m on at the moment. Switching meds and getting used to the new ones would be a bitch and a half.”

“Well you never know, it might help a lot,” Gabrielle said, the voice of reason as always. “Are you still going to be doing Library Services at TAFE?”

“Yep,” I replied. “Going for my Diploma this time. It’s one year full-time but I’ve got special permission to do it part-time over two years. So it’ll take me twice as long as everyone else in my class to do it but to be honest, my health is more important. I might even end up taking longer than that to do it if I think I need to.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Before either of us could say much more, we both heard Mum calling Gabrielle’s name. “I think I’m being summoned,” she said apologetically. “You okay in here on your own?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I assured her. “I’ve got the TV and my phone for company. Kind of wish I’d brought my laptop but…” I shrugged as best I could while I was lying down. “I can’t be fucked driving home just to grab it, and there’s no way I’m walking all that way. I’d collapse from exhaustion before I managed to make it halfway.”

“Well, if you need anything give me a yell,” Gabrielle said as she got to her feet.

“Will do,” I said, and snapped off a salute. Gabrielle gave me a smile and wandered off out of the lounge room.

I ended up spending most of that day dozing. It wasn’t until late afternoon that I woke up completely, to find a crocheted blanket covering me from my shoulders down to my toes and one of the end tables set near my head. On the end table was what I could only assume was a dinner plate – I say assume because it was covered with one of the enamel dishes my dad used for serving barbecued sausages or fried onions whenever we had a family barbecue, and therefore I couldn’t tell what was beneath it without picking said dish up.

“Mum?” I called out a little cautiously, not entirely sure if there was actually anyone in the house aside from me. They could have been out in the backyard or over at the beach for all I knew.

“Oh Ruby, you’re awake,” Mum said as she came into the lounge room. “Are you feeling better?”

“Yeah,” I replied as I worked to sit up. I was still tired, but I did feel better than I had that morning. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Well…” Mum came over and sat down next to me on the lounge. “Your aunt, uncle and cousins have gone home – they left your presents for you, seeing as you weren’t awake to open them with everyone else – and Taleah and Troy have gone over to the beach with their respective families for a swim and a bit of beach cricket. They’ll be back for dinner later. And Gabbie and Ben are helping your dad clean up in the kitchen.” She indicated the dish sitting on the end table. “Your lunch is under there – it might need to be heated up though, I’m not entirely sure how long it’s been sitting there.”

“Oh, thanks,” I said, suddenly feeling hungry, and reached for it – the enamel dish was warm to the touch, which led me to believe it hadn’t been sitting there all that long. Either that or it had, and someone had zapped it in the microwave for me. Under it was my Christmas lunch – peas, green beans, carrots, roast potato and pumpkin, sweet potato, and the all-important turkey. I let out a somewhat involuntary moan of anticipation and grabbed the knife and fork that the dinner plate had been hiding. “Oh man that’s so good,” I said happily once I’d eaten the first bite of sweet potato.

Mum smiled. “I’ll leave you to it then. Did you want any cranberry sauce?”

“Yes please,” I replied. “Mum?” I asked once I’d eaten a little more.

“Hmm?”

“Would it be all right if I stayed here tonight? I’m not sure I can make it home without falling asleep.”

“Of course you can.”

“Thanks, Mum.”

Mum’s sole response was to squeeze my left shoulder briefly before getting back to her feet and heading into the kitchen, leaving me to my late lunch.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Taylor

“Tay?”

I looked back over my shoulder to see Avery standing behind me in the doorway of the sunroom. I had been standing on the small verandah that overlooked the swimming pool in my parents’ backyard for what felt like ages, leaning on the railing that surrounded it and watching the rain falling from the sky. She looked a little worried, which had me instantly on my guard. Whatever she wanted to talk to me about, I knew it couldn’t be good. “Yeah?” I asked warily.

“Um, Zac and Isaac want to talk to you,” she said. “They’re in your old practice space and they don’t look all that happy.”

“Great,” I mumbled. I knew right away why my brothers were pissed off at me – somehow they had found out about my plans for next year, though how they could have found out without someone else telling them I had no idea. Unless… “Those fuckwits went through my shit, didn’t they?” I asked, anger beginning to burn deep inside me. There was no other explanation.

“I don’t know,” Avery said. “But I think they might deck you if you don’t get down there right now.”

I managed a small smile for my sister, turned around to face her and drew her into a hug. “Thanks, Ave,” I said. “Better warn Mum to have the first aid kit on standby, yeah?”

Avery let out a small laugh. “Yeah, okay.”

My brothers were waiting for me downstairs in our old practice space, just like Avery had said, and as I walked down the short flight of steps past the doorway of Dad’s workshop I could see that Zac in particular looked practically ropeable. I had no doubt I was in for one hell of a lecture from both of them.

“What’s this about you applying to TAFE for next year?” Zac asked the instant I had closed the door behind me. My brothers were sitting on the futon lounge my parents kept downstairs, both of them staring at me with undisguised fury in their eyes. There was no doubt about it – they were well and truly pissed off at me.

“Who said I applied to TAFE?” I asked evenly, claiming a bar stool for myself as I spoke.

“This did,” Isaac replied, holding out a white envelope with the blue, white and black Illawarra Institute of TAFE emblem and my name and address on the front – the same envelope I had been carrying around with me for nearly two months.

“Where the hell did you find that?” I asked, allowing a tiny smidgen of anger to colour my tone. “You’d better not have gone through my backpack Isaac, or I fucking swear to God-”

“So what if I did?” he shot back, interrupting me.

“That’s private! You wouldn’t like it if I went through your shit!” I glared at him, and felt a small surge of satisfaction when he shrank away a little. Both of my brothers – hell, my entire family – were well aware of my temper and knew that I could out-glare our mother given half a chance. I had demonstrated my ability to do so on more than one occasion. “Yeah, I did apply to TAFE for next year. I haven’t heard anything back yet though, so you don’t have to worry. I probably didn’t get in so what’s your fucking problem?”

“Our problem is that you didn’t talk to us about it!” Zac burst out. “If you’d told us you were thinking about going to TAFE, we’d have been behind you one hundred percent.”

I wouldn’t have been,” Isaac muttered. “You already dropped out of uni, what the hell’s the point of going to TAFE?”

“You know exactly why I dropped out, Isaac,” I snapped at him. “Don’t you fucking dare blame that on me. It is not my fault that my own body decided it wanted to fuck up my life and land me in hospital for almost nine months.” Here I raised my voice. “And nor is it my fault that I ended up stuck on fucking chemotherapy for nearly three fucking years!

“Neither of us ever said it was your fault, Taylor,” Zac said, ever the peacemaker. “We know it wasn’t. Nobody is blaming that on you.”

“Well he seems to think it was entirely my fault,” I muttered, feeling very mutinous. I jerked a thumb at Isaac, and he gave me the finger. “Oh, that’s fucking mature. How old are you again?”

“Cut it out, both of you,” Zac ordered, sounding eerily like Dad. “Why didn’t you talk to us about this, Tay? We could have worked something out.”

I shrugged, well aware it was a non-answer. “I don’t know. I guess I thought you’d both tell me to forget about it. You both know why I decided to go to uni, right?”

“So you’d have a backup in case the band ended,” Zac replied. “Is that why you applied to TAFE?”

“Yeah, it is,” I replied. “I just…I don’t want to be left without any options, you know? My HSC won’t count for shit if I have to get a ‘normal job’.” I made air quotes around the last two words as I spoke. “I’m really just hedging my bets a little. I honestly want to do music for the rest of my life – that bit hasn’t changed – but if it turns out I can’t then at least I’ll have something to fall back on.” I dropped my gaze down to my bare feet. “It’s just…this is something I need to do for me. Nobody else.” I shrugged. “That probably doesn’t make sense to anyone aside from me, but that’s why I’m doing it.”

I slid down off my bar stool and shoved my hands into the pockets of my cargo pants, and started pacing across the room. “I’m working off the assumption that I didn’t get into the course I applied to do. I was told I’d hear something within eight weeks, and it’s been almost that long. But if I do get in, I’d only be doing it part time. The course runs four days a week if you’re doing it full time, from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon, but odds are I’d only be in class for two of those days. I had to get special permission from the department head to apply as a part time student. Rest of the time I’d be free for doing band stuff.”

“So what did you apply to do, then?” Isaac asked. A lot of the anger had vanished from his voice, but I could tell he was still a little pissed off.

“Design, at Wollongong TAFE,” I replied. “Look, it was either go to TAFE or apply to join the Army Reserve. I was torn between the two, to be completely honest with you. And I didn’t think either of you would appreciate it if I rocked up here and told you both that I was being shipped off to East Timor or the Solomon Islands, or wherever it is the Army sends their reserves these days. At least this way, I’m still at home and I can come up here whenever you want or need me to.” I stopped pacing for a few moments. “And before either of you ask why I’m not doing it at Newy TAFE, keep in mind that I haven’t lived up this way since” I counted backwards to make sure I had the year right “2006. It’s better for my sanity if I stick relatively close to home. Besides, Hunter Institute wasn’t running the specific design course I wanted to do. It was either going to be Lidcombe, Nepean, St. George, Wollongong or the Design Centre in Enmore, and Wollongong won out.”

I ran my hands through my hair, suddenly feeling very defeated and tired. “I don’t expect either of you to understand my specific reasons for doing this. We…” I let out a quiet sigh. “We’re probably going to have a fair bit of downtime coming up. The regional tours don’t take up all that much time, and neither would that tour of New Zealand we’re planning to do next year. I’d just be sitting around twiddling my thumbs most of the time, and you both know very well that I don’t like being bored. I’d probably end up getting my ear pierced again or something like that just so I had something to do.”

“Yeah, and that was such a good idea last time,” Zac snarked.

“Fuck you Zac,” I said, grinning at him so he knew I was kidding. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you what my plans were for next year. I should have discussed it with both of you before I submitted my application, not months afterward. I know that. But it’s like I said – I’m doing this for me, not anyone else.”

“So long as you tell us when you get accepted into the course, we won’t hold it against you,” Zac said, holding up a hand when Isaac opened his mouth. “And before you say anything, you will get in. They have rocks in their collective heads if they knock you back. You have absolutely nothing to be worried about.”

“I thought I was supposed to be the optimist in this band, not you,” I said as I opened the door of the practice space and led the way upstairs.

“Yeah, well, things change,” Zac said from behind me. “And anyway, I’m not being optimistic. I’m just telling you the truth.”

And as it turned out, Zac was right.

The oldest daughter of one of my neighbours was sitting on the front steps of my house when I arrived home from Newcastle the next afternoon, with what looked like a bundle of envelopes clasped in her lap. As I walked back down the side of the house from the carport, carrying my backpack by one strap over my right shoulder and the long strap of my duffle bag over my left, I saw her climb over the wrought iron railing and jump down into the garden. I winced as her feet came dangerously close to kicking the heads off some of the flowers on the grevillea bush that a previous tenant had planted there.

“Watch the feet Kelsey!” I called out to her.

“Sorry Mr. Hanson!” Kelsey called back. “Did you have a good Christmas?”

“I did, yeah,” I replied. “And how many more times do I have to tell you that it’s all right to call me Taylor?”

“Mum and Dad said it’s rude to call adults by their first names,” Kelsey said. She rocked back on her heels a little, hands clasped behind her back, and studied me. “And I don’t like being rude.”

I bit back a laugh. “Would it help if I told you that Taylor is my middle name?” I said. “It’s not my first name – Jordan is my first name. My mum and dad just thought my middle name suited me better.” Kelsey shook her head at this, and I shrugged. “Oh well, worth a try.” I peered over Kelsey’s shoulder at her little collection of envelopes. “What’s that you’ve got there?”

“Mum and Dad got your mail for you while you were away,” Kelsey replied, and she handed the envelopes to me. A bright pink hair elastic was wound around them to keep them together. “They said they’ve got the key for your letterbox when you want to come and get it.”

“Thanks, Kelsey,” I said, and she gave me a wide smile. “I’d better get all of this inside – you say thank you to your mum and dad for me, okay?”

Once Kelsey had disappeared back inside her house, I walked across my front lawn to the front path and up my front steps. I had never been more relieved to be home – the drive between my parents’ house in Adamstown Heights and my house in Corrimal had been a lot more exhausting and hair-raising than usual, and I had vowed almost as soon as I had reached the bottom of Bulli Pass that the next time I was catching the train up. I dropped my backpack and duffle bag right inside the front door and pulled the screen door closed, leaning against it once it was locked and closing my eyes for a little while.

My mobile phone vibrated in my pocket right as I started to drift off, startling me back into full awareness and almost making me fall over. I’d completely forgotten I’d left it on silent during my drive, not wanting to be distracted. I straightened up and fished my phone out of my pocket, unlocking the screen to find a text message from Mum – Did you get home okay? I answered it one-handed as I walked through to my lounge room, the bundle of my mail in my other hand.

Just got home, yep. Never driving that far again in one afternoon. I’m catching the train next time. I sent the message and sat down in one of the armchairs in my lounge room, setting my phone aside so that I could go through my mail. Most of it was the normal mail I got near the end of each month – bills for my insurance, landline, internet and mobile phone, a notification that I had mail in my post office box waiting to be collected, even a few Christmas cards that had arrived after I’d left to head up to Newcastle. One of the envelopes caught my eye – it was identical to the envelope the confirmation of my application to TAFE had come in, and I nearly dropped it. This was it – the letter I’d been waiting for since the beginning of November.

“Okay Taylor, calm the fuck down,” I scolded myself when I realised I was on the verge of having an anxiety attack. “It’s not the end of the world if they’ve knocked you back.” I gave myself a mental smack across the back of my head, took a deep breath and ripped the envelope open, unfolding the single sheet of white paper that was inside. “Here goes nothing…”

Dear Taylor,

10412 Certificate IV in Design Part Time at WOLLONGONG COLLEGE

Congratulations on your successful application. You have been offered your first preference shown above. Details of the outcome of other preferences are shown at the end of this letter.

I stopped reading after the first full paragraph – those first few lines told me all I needed to know for the time being. “Holy shit,” I whispered, staring at it. “Holy shit” My right hand started shaking as I picked my phone up again, unlocked it and dialled my parents’ home phone number.

“Hello?” my youngest sister said to answer the phone at the other end of the line.

“Hey Zo, it’s Tay,” I said, doing my best to keep my voice from trembling. I hadn’t been so nervous in at least the last three years. “Can I talk to Mum please?”

“Yeah, hang on,” Zoë said, before yelling out, “Mum, Taylor’s on the phone and he wants to talk to you!

“Way to wreck my hearing Zoë,” I muttered. “It’s not like I need it for anything…”

“Good afternoon Taylor,” Mum said a minute or so later.

“Hi Mum. I got a letter from Wollongong TAFE while I was up in Newcastle – my next door neighbour dropped it off when I got home.”

“Oh? What does it say?”

I swallowed hard before I answered. “I got into the course I applied to do,” I said. “I-I start classes on the fourth of February.”

“That’s wonderful Taylor! Congratulations!”

I grinned, even though I knew very well my mother couldn’t see it. “Thanks, Mum.”


After New Year’s, everything ramped up into high gear. Were this January in any other year, I would be spending my summer break surfing, wandering around the markets in Wollongong every Friday, catching the train up to Sydney and down to Kiama or Gerringong once or twice, and getting a hell of a lot of reading done. Instead, I was spending it getting ready to pick up my education almost where it had left off more than ten years earlier.

One Tuesday in mid-January, roughly two weeks before classes began, I was on my way home from the beach after my usual early morning surf when my phone rang. I bit back a curse and pulled over outside the newsagency on Murray Road so I could answer it. One glance at the screen revealed Zac to be on the other end of the line.

“Good morning Zac,” I said to answer my phone.

“Hey Tay. Listen, are you busy today?”

“Not really. I had planned on making a trip to Officeworks to stock up on things for TAFE, but that can probably wait until tomorrow. Why?”

“Well, Isaac and I are on our way down there – we just got to Central station about ten minutes ago.”

“You’re what?” I asked. “What happened to giving me advance warning?”

“What, this isn’t advance warning?”

“You have got to be kidding me,” I muttered. “Zac, advance warning is at least two days. You’re giving me barely two hours.” I tipped my head back against the driver’s seat headrest and stared at the roof of my car. “Okay, what train are you two planning to catch down here?”

“Not sure. Hang on, I’ll ask Isaac.” There was a brief period of quiet before Zac’s voice sounded in my ear again. “Train leaves just before ten to seven. Gets to Corrimal at around twenty-five to nine.”

I chanced a glance at the clock in my car’s dashboard – it read 5:50am. “Jesus Christ Zac, how early did you two leave Newy?”

“How early did you get up this morning?” Zac asked, answering my question with one of his own.

“I asked first.”

Zac let out a sigh that sounded very put-upon. “We caught the two-forty-seven from Kotara. How long have you been up?”

“About an hour and a half. It’s good practice for when I start TAFE.”

“You get up at four-thirty in the fucking morning?” Zac asked, sounding shocked. “Who are you and what the hell have you done with my brother?”

“Yes Zac, that’s how early I get up. I’m not lazy like some people I could name.”

“Ha-fucking-ha.” I could almost see Zac scowling at me. “Anyway, we’re going to go wait for Hungry Jack’s to open so we can grab some breakfast before we head down your way. I’ll text you when the train’s leaving the station.”

“Yeah, no worries. I’ll see you two in a couple of hours.”

True to Zac’s word, my brothers arrived in the Illawarra at around twenty-five minutes to nine. Their train rolled into Corrimal station at thirty-three minutes past eight (at least that was the time on my phone when I checked it), and I got up from my seat on one of platform two’s bench seats as the train doors opened. They were among the first off the train, and were two of the only passengers who weren’t toting surfboards and bicycles or dressed in work or school uniforms.

“You went surfing this morning, didn’t you?” Zac asked almost as soon as he was within my earshot, his tone almost accusing.

“Why else do you think I get up before dawn?” I replied, not even bothering to ask how Zac knew I’d been for a surf. Both of my brothers knew me well enough that a surf was the sole reason I would willingly consider dragging myself out of bed before six o’clock. It took a hell of a lot for me to get up earlier than that for any other reason, with coffee being my main incentive. “I’m not enough of a masochist to do it for any other reason.” I eyed my brothers each in turn. “So exactly how long were you planning to be down this way? Considering it takes you, what, at least five hours to get here on the train, I can only assume you’re not planning on heading back home today.”

“A couple of days, probably,” Isaac replied. “Would be a bit of a waste of a trip to turn back around again this afternoon.”

“Well no shit Sherlock,” I snarked. “Come on then. I want to get back home before the traffic gets too bad.”

Back at my place, I put the kettle on to boil while Zac and Isaac dropped off their gear in the spare bedroom. The house I was renting had two spare bedrooms, but I had used one of them as a home office ever since I’d moved in and I had absolutely no intent of shifting my desk and everything else I kept in there out for a few days. And because only one of the spare bedrooms actually served that particular purpose, it meant one of them would be stuck sleeping on the lounge. I wasn’t envious of whoever it was that ended up drawing the short straw, not in the least.

“One of you is going to have to sleep in the lounge room,” I informed them once they’d come into the kitchen. “Lounge is comfortable enough, it’s one of those futon things Mum and Dad have back at their place.” I took the jar of coffee and the plastic canister of sugar down from the cupboard above the stove and the milk out of the fridge, setting them down on the bench before grabbing my own coffee mug out of the draining rack next to the sink and another two from the same cupboard as the coffee and sugar. A dig around in the cutlery drawer produced three teaspoons. “I’ll try to be quiet when I get up tomorrow morning, but I can’t make any promises.”

Once the kettle had boiled and I’d made coffee for the three of us, I fetched my iPad, stylus and Bluetooth keyboard from my bedroom and joined my brothers at my kitchen table. “I think we should work out when we can tour,” I said, typing my password to unlock my iPad. “It’s entirely possible that I’m going to have a fair bit of leeway, what with being a part-time student and all – I plan to talk to my teachers about it during my first week of classes, but I don’t see why they’d have any issues with me taking a few weeks off here and there. I can probably submit my work online – I’ll just have to make sure I have credit for my mobile broadband, that’s all.” I opened up Chrome and tapped on the bookmark for the TAFE student calendar. “But just in case I can’t take any time off during term, we need to work out here and now when I will be free to tour.”

“When do you have time off, anyway?” Zac asked.

“Same as the public schools, basically,” I replied. “Except that I get an extra week for winter break, and classes let out for summer at the end of November. And I start classes a week later than the public schools do. But my autumn and spring breaks will be the same.” I quickly scanned the 2013 term dates. “Okay, basically I’m off for autumn between April thirteenth and the twenty-eighth, winter between June twenty-second and July thirteenth, and spring between September twenty-first and October sixth. My last day of classes for the year is November twenty-ninth.”

“I think we should hit Victoria first, during your autumn break,” Zac said. “Spend a couple of weeks playing shows down that way.”

“What about Anzac Day though?” I asked. “We need to make time for that.”

“So we go to Melbourne for a couple of days during the tour and go to the dawn service there,” Isaac said. “Problem solved.”

“I’d rather go to the service in Martin Place, but whatever,” I said with a shrug. I tapped out of Chrome and pulled up my iPad’s calendar, typing Victorian regional tour in for the second half of April. “Okay, winter break next – I’m thinking Queensland. It’ll be nice and warm so we won’t be freezing the whole time, and we can probably play a few outdoor shows while we’re up that way. I’m sure there’s a festival or two we can hit, and there’s Triple J’s One Night Stand as well. I reckon we can work something out with them.” I paused, thinking. “Maybe fit a promo tour of New Zealand in after the Queensland tour?” I hedged. “Just Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington probably, we wouldn’t have enough time for more than that.”

“Be a bit cold there in winter, wouldn’t it?” Isaac asked.

“We can always rug up a bit,” Zac said. “And it wouldn’t be any colder there than it is here anyway. I think it’s worth considering. We haven’t been across the Ditch in a few years so we’re overdue for a visit anyway.”

“Okay, so Queensland and New Zealand in June and July,” I said, flipping through to June and noting this down in the last week of that month. I did the same for the first half of July. “I think we can hit South Australia in September and October, and save Western Australia, Tasmania and the Territory for next year. We’re not going to have time for them this year – and yes, I know that’s entirely my fault,” I said before either Zac or Isaac could say a word. “But at least this way we’re not going to be rushing things.”

“I think we can fit in a proper tour of New Zealand near the end of this year as well,” Zac said. “You said it yourself, Tay – you’ll be finished TAFE for the year at the end of November. We start our summer break around the tenth of December, so that gives us nearly two weeks where we’ll have nothing scheduled. Perfect opportunity for a decent trip around New Zealand.”

“Works for me,” Isaac said.

“You just want to go skydiving again, you maniac,” I mock-accused. “So that’s all sorted then?”

“Yeah, guess so,” Zac replied. I quickly checked over each note I’d made on my calendar before clicking back to my iPad’s home screen and locking it. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

“You just did,” I replied.

“You know what I mean.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, okay, you can ask me something.”

“Why exactly do you live here? Why not right in the middle of Wollongong?”

This was a question I’d been asked more times than I cared to remember. Nevertheless, my immediate response was to point toward the wall of the dining room, against which was my upright piano. “You hear that?” I asked.

“What, the train going past?” Isaac asked, and I shot him a look. “What? That’s what I can hear.”

“Other than that,” I said, trying not to sound exasperated. “You hear the surf? How quiet it is here? That’s why I live here. Okay, yeah, I could be living on Cliff Road and have the beach right across from my place, but I’d have cars and buses going up and down the road at all hours. I don’t want that. I lived in the city for twenty-one years – that’s long enough. I might have to cross a very busy road and a railway line to get to the beach, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a small price to pay for peace and quiet.”

“Fair enough,” Zac said with a shrug. He then eyed me with one eyebrow raised. “And what about that girl at the UniBar show? You know, the one who you looked at and she almost made you keel over in front of nearly two thousand people?”

“What about her?”

“You quite obviously have a thing for her. She got a name?”

“Far as I know she does,” I replied. “Zac, don’t you dare,” I warned when I saw Zac grab my iPad and flip the case open.

“What?” he asked, sounding defensive. “I only want to get on Facebook.”

“Yeah, and you’re going to hunt for that girl the first chance you get. I only know her first name anyway – she didn’t tell me her last name.”

“Oh, so you did meet her before she caught your eye,” Isaac said. “Come on then, spill – what’s her name?”

“It’s not going to do you much good,” I said. “She probably doesn’t even live around here.”

“Tay, come on,” Zac wheedled.

“You sound like you’re seventeen Zac, not twenty-seven,” I informed him. “You’re both going to bug me about this until you go back home, aren’t you?”

“You know damn well we will,” Isaac replied.

I let out a sigh. “Ruby,” I said. “Her name’s Ruby.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Ruby

When my alarm clock went off at stupid o’clock on the first day of TAFE for 2013, I wanted to throw it at the wall.

“Go away go away go away,” I moaned into my pillow. I really didn’t want to get up and face the world today, even if it was just for an orientation session that morning. Even knowing that I could come home straight afterward and crawl back under my quilt didn’t make me want to get out of my nice, comfortable bed. Orientation meant half an hour of sitting in a classroom with my classmates from the previous semester (and more than likely a few new faces), followed by what always seemed like hours stuck in line at campus administration waiting to renew my parking permit and student association membership. And being as the entire student population of Wollongong TAFE attended campus on the first day of classes, it was going to be one long, horrible morning.

But as with most things concerning me and my education, I really had no choice. Blowing off TAFE would mean I would have no idea where I was meant to be at any given time once classes actually did start. And that would have been a disaster in more ways than just one. There was nothing else for it – I had to get out of bed.

“I hate Mondays,” I mumbled as I eased myself upright.

I was dressed and ready to head out to North Wollongong in what seemed like record time, for me anyway. It was ironic, really – most days it took me an hour or so to get ready in the mornings, owing to how slowly I tended to move so that I didn’t jar my usually already-sore joints, but whenever I was going out of a morning or afternoon I managed to get ready in a fraction of that time. Once I was dressed in my jeans, one of my favourite T-shirts and my sandals – if I was going to be stuck in line after orientation, then I was going to be comfortable while I did it – I collected everything I was going to need that day and slipped it all into my handbag. I had absolutely no intent of being out any longer than I needed to – all I needed to do was go to TAFE, pick up my timetable for the year, renew my parking permit and student association membership, and I could come back home.

But as usual, nothing went to plan that day.

It took me a few minutes longer to get to TAFE than it normally did, owing to my decision to get off the Northern Distributor and onto the F6 in Keiraville rather than in Fairy Meadow – I had my wheelchair with me that morning, and I had absolutely no intent of parking in the Lysaght Street carpark and then wheeling myself all the way across campus. The Foleys Lane carpark was a hell of a lot closer to where I needed to go, and it wouldn’t be so hard on my shoulders. Much to my dismay, I discovered once I’d driven past the guard post on Northfields Avenue, it seemed that a full third of the students enrolled in classes this semester had had the same idea as me – there didn’t seem to be one free parking space. “Oh this is just bloody marvellous,” I groaned. “Fucking unbelievable…”

It took another minute, but I finally found a disabled parking space near the rear of campus, next to the campus function centre, and swung my car into it. I had to smile when I saw the car next to mine – a dark blue Mitsubishi Lancer that had customised Sydney Roosters numberplates, along with a Hanson sticker on the rear bumper. I had seen those stickers around Wollongong a fair bit in the last few months, especially since the end of the September tour, but this was the first time I’d seen one on a car at TAFE. Whoever it was that owned that car, they had just scored major points with me.

Orientation had well and truly begun by the time I finally made it to the computer lab at the very end of A Block’s second floor corridor. “Sorry I’m late,” I apologised, feeling my face beginning to burn as roughly twenty pairs of eyes stared straight at me. “Couldn’t find a parking space.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right,” the teacher at the front of the lab said. “What was your name?”

“Ruby McCormick,” I replied.

“Ruby McCormick, Ruby McCormick…ah, here we go,” she said, and I realised she was checking my name off on the class roll. “Could I get you to stay back a few minutes afterward, so I can go over your timetable with you?” she asked.

“Yeah, of course,” I replied.

“Thanks, Ruby. Now, as I was saying…”

Somewhat to my relief, orientation was more or less painless – it was mostly just a rehashing of everything I’d found out in orientation at the beginning of the previous year, and was therefore things I knew already. It was even more of a relief to get my first look at my timetable for the year and discover that even though I would have to be at TAFE three days a week, all of my classes were scheduled in the afternoon.

“I’ve informed all your teachers about your particular disability,” the teacher said once we’d gone over my timetable together. “They’ll likely want to have a chat with you after each of your classes this week about anything you’ll need to make the most of your time here.”

“Okay,” I said. “Is there anything in particular I’ll need to tell them about?”

“Nothing I can think of.”

“Okay, thanks.” I gave the teacher a smile and turned myself around to head out of the lab, and from there down the corridor to the lift.

It wasn’t long after orientation ended that it happened. I was always careful when I was in my wheelchair – my reflexes weren’t the best, and if I didn’t pay attention to where I was going or what I was doing it could turn into a rolling weapon without much warning. And that was exactly what happened as I was going past the library, on my way to the end of the very long line that snaked its way up from campus administration – I ended up bumping somewhat forcefully into the back of another student’s legs, sending them sprawling onto the paving.

“Oh Jesus Christ, I’m sorry!” I apologised as they got back to their feet. “I really should learn to watch where I’m going.”

“It’s all right,” they said as they dusted themselves off, before turning around to face me with their hands out, palms thankfully ungrazed. “See? No harm done.”

“Still, I’m really sorry,” I said as I looked up at them. “Oh shit,” I whispered when I realised just who I had knocked over.

Standing in front of me once again, just like in Crust Pizza back in December, was Taylor Hanson.

“Ruby, right?” he asked me, and I nodded. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“I could say the same for you!” I said, feeling a little shocked. “I-I didn’t know you were a student here too.”

“First day today,” he said, sounding proud of himself. “You going to admin?”

In lieu of an immediate answer, I quickly scanned the line of students before me. “Not yet, I don’t think. Line’s kind of long. I might wait until later on this week. It won’t be as busy then.”

“Yeah, I think you might be right,” Taylor agreed.

“Did it hurt?” I said automatically, realising very belatedly what had come out of my mouth and almost immediately feeling myself go bright red.

Much to my relief, Taylor laughed. “I think I like you, Ruby. No, it didn’t hurt, but if it ever does I’ll let you know.” He raked his hair back off his face, tucking it behind his ears. “There’s no way I’m spending the next half an hour standing in line with all that lot” he nodded toward the long line before us “and anyway, I’m hungry.” He studied me briefly. “Want to come and have lunch with me?”

“Sure,” I said without even thinking about it. It was good timing, really, being close enough to lunch time anyway, and I knew that if I didn’t eat something soon I was going to end up with a raging headache before long. “I usually go over to the uni to eat if I haven’t brought my lunch with me, the canteen here is overpriced and it just kinda sucks. It’s only really good if you’re desperate or you forgot to bring your lunch from home.” I rubbed at my forehead with the heel of my right hand. “And I’m not normally that desperate.” Taylor let out a chuckle at this. “Uni’s overpriced too but the food’s a lot better.”

“The uni sounds good to me,” Taylor said. “I might let you lead the way, I have no idea how to get over there from here.”

“Suits me,” I said with a shrug. “Is it okay if we make a quick detour to my car first, though? There is no way in hell that I’m attempting to haul this up the ramp to the bridge across the freeway.” I gave the left rear wheel of my wheelchair a good hard whack. “At least not while I’m sitting in it.”

Before too long I had swapped my wheelchair for my crutches, making sure my keys were safely in my handbag before closing the boot of my car. I didn’t much like the idea of having to call the NRMA to get my keys out of the boot. I adjusted the strap of my handbag over my left shoulder and gave Taylor a smile. “Well then, shall we?”

“So what are you studying?” Taylor asked as we began our walk to the university.

“Library Services,” I replied. “Right now I’m a library assistant – I got my Cert Three last year. Once I’ve got my Diploma at the end of next year I’ll be a library technician. I’m hopefully off to uni after that. What about you?”

“Design. Figured I should have something other than my HSC to my name – I did pretty well in it, but that was eleven years ago and it’s not going to count for much. Hence the reason I’m here.” He shrugged. “Figured it was as good a time as any to pick things up where they left off. More or less, anyway.”

“You went to TAFE before?” I asked in surprise. We had reached the top of the spiral ramp now, and I started to lead the way across the bridge.

“Nah, uni. Wollongong Uni, actually. I made it something like a semester and a half into a Creative Arts degree before I had to drop out.”

I let out a low whistle. “Impressive. I made it a year and a half into an English degree before I dropped out of uni. Got sick so…” I shrugged. “Bit hard to go to lectures and tutorials when you can barely get out of bed.”

“Don’t remind me,” Taylor said quietly, his voice barely audible over the cars driving along the F6 below the bridge. I frowned briefly before giving a mental shrug – it was obviously something he didn’t want to talk about with someone he barely knew, and if I was being honest with myself I couldn’t really blame him. I didn’t like talking about my own illnesses with people I barely knew – I didn’t even like talking about them with people I did know – so I could hardly expect him to do the same.

Pretty soon the two of us had made it to Out To Lunch, one of the cafés in Building 17 at the university. There wasn’t much of a line waiting to be served, thankfully – I’d be able to sit down fairly soon and give my left knee a rest. I shifted all of my weight onto my right side and breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

“You all right?” Taylor asked, sounding just a little concerned.

“I’m fine,” I assured him. “Knee’s just acting up again, that’s all.”

And that was when he did something completely unexpected.

“Look, why don’t you go and save us a table outside?” he suggested. “Tell me what you want for lunch, and I’ll get it for you – you can pay me back later on. Deal?”

“You don’t mind?” I asked, and he shook his head. “You are an absolute angel,” I said, trying not to sound too grateful. “I’d love a toasted ham, cheese and tomato sandwich, and an orange juice. I’ll see you in a bit, yeah?”

His response was a smile, and he waved me off. I grinned back and headed outside to find a table for us to sit at.

I had been sitting at a table in the courtyard outside the Student Central building, left leg propped up on one of the bench seats perpendicular to the one I was sitting on, when he emerged from Building 17 carrying two paper bags under one arm, a bottle of orange juice in one hand and a paper cup of what I could only assume was coffee in the other. I waved at him so he could see where I was sitting.

“I didn’t know you went to uni,” I said once Taylor had seated himself.

“Yeah, I kind of wanted to keep it a secret,” he said with a shrug. “If it got out, then it got out, but I wasn’t about to deliberately tell the world that I was continuing my education. It didn’t really have time to get out anyway, as it happens. I’m going to try and keep TAFE a secret as well.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” I promised. “People around here are pretty good about that sort of thing, anyway.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” Taylor said. “I don’t expect that anyone will care that much that I’m here, unless there’s some seriously rabid fans either at TAFE or here at the uni. Well, aside from you of course.”

“I’m not really that rabid anyway. I did see a car with a Hanson bumper sticker when I got here, though, so there’s at least one fan here other than me and my friend Lisbeth.”

“Is Lisbeth the one you went to the concert with in December?”

I nodded, and swallowed the bite of my sandwich I’d taken before I answered. “Yeah, that’s Lis. She’s the one who dragged me out to the show that night. Which was a hell of a lot of fun, but I really regretted it the next day. How the hell do you do that just about every night? I’d probably drop dead from exhaustion after an hour.”

“You get used to it,” Taylor replied, not looking up from tearing a piece off his croissant. “First concert we ever did at the Newcastle Regional Show, I was absolutely exhausted by the end of it. Then again, I was nine so I don’t think anyone really blamed me. I don’t think much of it anymore – it does tire me out, but I’m usually more wired than anything else.”

Five or even ten years earlier, I could never have imagined that one day I’d be sitting in a courtyard at the University of Wollongong and having lunch with Taylor Hanson. And yet that was what I spent an hour and a half doing that Monday morning. I could almost hear my inner teenie squealing and see her tick off one of the items on my teenage bucket list. I was almost surprised at how easy it was to talk to him.

“So what days do you have classes?” Taylor asked as we were heading back to TAFE, having finished our lunches.

“Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, all in the afternoon,” I replied. “What about you?”

“Tuesday and Thursday, all day.”

“Interesting,” I mused, an idea beginning to take shape in my head. “Listen, how would you like to have lunch together on Thursdays? I’ll probably rock up to TAFE at around a quarter to twelve – you can meet me in the canteen when you go for your lunch break if you like.”

“I thought you only went to the canteen if you were desperate,” Taylor teased.

“I like their pizza, okay?” I said defensively. “And the hot chips sometimes but that’s it.”

Taylor laughed. “That sounds good to me.”

“So I guess I’ll see you again on Thursday, then?” I said hopefully. Oh Christ, I sound like a teenie, I moaned mentally.

“Sure thing,” he agreed.

And sure enough, we did see each other again on Thursday. I had just set myself up at one of the tables closest to the vending machines with my lunch, a carton of chocolate milk I’d bought from the canteen and my laptop when the familiar sound of plastic scraping against linoleum sounded right next to me. “Come here often?” a voice said in my ear, and I looked up from scrolling through Tumblr to see Taylor sitting down next to me.

“Every so often,” I replied with a shrug, before grinning. “Nice to see you again.”

He returned my smile before unzipping his backpack and taking out his own lunch. “So how’s classes been so far?”

I shrugged. “Kind of boring, really. I know I’m studying to be a library technician but do I really need to learn about the Statute of Anne? Who the fuck comes up with this shit?”

“The Statute of what?

“Copyright bullshit,” I explained. “French copyright law from 1710 to be exact, says that an author gets all royalties from their work up until their death, and their estate gets it for five years after that. It’s seventy years after death now, but whatever. It’s fucking boring.”

“Oh I don’t know, that sounds kind of interesting.”

“Fine, you can come and sit in on my classes then and see how you like it,” I grumbled. “I’d be bored stiff within about a minute if I couldn’t get on Facebook and Tumblr on the TAFE wireless.”

“Or you could, you know, pay attention in class,” Taylor teased.

“Fuck you,” I retorted, but I gave him a smile so he knew I was kidding. “I bet your classes aren’t all that interesting, either.”

He shrugged and took a bite out of his sandwich. “They’re not bad,” he said. “Just basic stuff for now – it’ll probably get more interesting later on. I think we get to go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art at some point, so that’ll be fun.”

“Hey Ruby!” Lisbeth yelled out from behind me, and I waved her over without turning around. With her, I could see when I looked back over my shoulder, were Ella and Anthony.

“Missed you in class this morning,” Lisbeth said nonchalantly as she, Ella and Anthony took seats around the table.

“You know damn well that I only go to class in the afternoons,” I reminded her.

“I’m kidding,” Lisbeth said. “Who’s your friend?”

“Taylor Hanson,” I replied as if it were no big deal, though I did have to wonder why she hadn’t recognised him when she sat down. And it really wasn’t. Though it didn’t stop Lisbeth acting like all her Christmases had come at once.

“What the actual-” she started to say, and I leaned across the table and slammed a hand over her mouth before she could finish her sentence.

Don’t,” I warned. “Act your age for once Lis, all right?”

“Sorry,” she said from behind my hand, her voice muffled. I raised an eyebrow at her, silently asking “Are you going to behave yourself?”, and she nodded.

“Didn’t know you two were mates,” Lisbeth said once she could talk properly again.

“Just met on Monday,” Taylor said. “Ruby bashed into me with her wheelchair and knocked me over. Still haven’t forgiven her for that.”

“Shut up,” I mumbled into my sandwich. “I said I was sorry.”

“I’m kidding, Ruby. Nice to see you again, Lisbeth.”

“You too,” Lisbeth said with a smile. “This here is Ella” she nodded at Ella, who gave Taylor a smile and a wave “and this bloke here is Anthony.” Rather than nodding at Anthony, she poked him in the side.

“‘This bloke here’,” Anthony said, rolling his eyes. “Way to deflate a guy’s ego, Lis.”

“Just trying to keep you from getting too far up yourself,” Lisbeth said nonchalantly. “You a student here too, Taylor?”

“Yeah, just started here this week. I’m doing Design. You three are in Ruby’s course?”

Ella nodded. “Yep. We did our Cert Threes all last semester – Ruby started hers at the beginning of last year, though. We’re all going for our Diplomas this year.”

“Awesome.” Just then the sound of Yoda telling one of us that we had a new text message sounded off, and Taylor took his phone out of his pocket. “Back in a bit you guys,” he said once he’d read the message he’d just received. “If I can find somewhere with decent signal that is,” he muttered to himself as he walked off toward the doors at the rear of the canteen.

As soon as Taylor was out of earshot, Lisbeth about rounded on me. “You never told me that Taylor Hanson was a student here!” she hissed at me.

“Keep your fucking voice down,” I snapped. “The way you’re acting right now is exactly why I didn’t tell you, Lisbeth. I promised him I would keep it to myself, and I intend to keep doing just that. And I’d appreciate it if the three of you would do the same. I like being friends with him, so can you just keep your fucking mouth shut please?”

“So you’re actually friends with him, then?” Ella asked. She sounded a little surprised.

“Well, sort of,” I hedged. “We had lunch together on Monday, and I suggested to him that we keep having lunch together on Thursdays. It’s the only day that we’re both here. And obviously he didn’t blow lunch off, so I can only assume he wants to keep hanging out with me.”

“Sounds like you’re friends with him to me,” Anthony said with a shrug.

“I like you, Ant,” I said, and Anthony grinned. “Let’s just hope it stays that way. You know this was one of the entries on my bucket list when I was fifteen, right?”

“Mission accomplished, I’d say,” Ella said.

I picked up one of my carrot sticks out of their container and pointed it at Ella. “Mission well and truly accomplished, you mean,” I said, and popped it into my mouth. “Only took me, what, thirteen years?” I eyed Lisbeth, crunching my carrot stick as I did so. “And if you behave yourself around him, he might let you be friends with him too.”

“What’s this about me?” Taylor asked as he sat back down next to me. I hadn’t even seen or heard him coming back to the table.

“Jesus Christ, will you wear a bell or something?” I asked. “I was just telling Lis here that she should behave herself around you, that’s all.” I leaned in close to Taylor and stage-whispered in his ear, jerking my thumb at Lisbeth as I spoke, “She’s one of the rabid ones you need to watch out for. Crazy that one is.” I twirled a finger near my own ear and let out a whistle that indicated I thought she was nuts.

“Fuck you Ruby!” Lisbeth laughed.

“No thanks, I’m not a lesbian,” I snarked, and we all burst out laughing. I glanced quickly at the clock in my laptop’s taskbar and closed its lid. “Well this has been fun, but I want to go to the library before class so I’m outta here. Meet you three up there?”

“Meet you up there,” Ella said – Anthony and Lisbeth each raised a hand in acknowledgment without looking up from their respective lunches.

“I’ll come with you,” Taylor volunteered, and he started packing his things away in his backpack. “I want to get my library card sorted out anyway.”

“When do you have to be back in class?” I asked as the two of us headed out of the canteen and into the courtyard out front.

“Half-past twelve.” Taylor glanced briefly at his watch. “And it’s a quarter past twelve now so I’ve got another fifteen minutes yet.”

“The library’s going to be busy, just a heads up,” I warned him. “It always is during the first week of classes for the year. There’s easily a few hundred new students every year, so the librarians are going to be flat out the next few days. You might be better off waiting until after classes let out for the day, they won’t be as busy then.”

“I might do that then.” He cracked a smile at me. “How’d you turn into such an expert on this place?”

“Student here since 2011,” I replied. “That’s how.” I settled my laptop a little more securely on my lap. “Anyway, if you still want to come to the library with me…”

“No, I’ll come. I didn’t really get much of a look at it on Monday. I actually went in there to get my library card sorted but it was too busy – thought I’d try again later. I’ll probably get it done on my way home this afternoon.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.”

We were both quiet as we headed down the path toward A Block and the library. Taylor broke our silence as we reached the fork in the path.

“Thanks, Ruby.”

“For what?” I asked, deciding it would a good idea to put my brakes on. The left fork of the path sloped down a little steeply toward the library, and I didn’t particularly want to go flying down it and out of my wheelchair.

“Just…” He raked a hand back through his hair. “You’re the first person in, well, years who didn’t completely freak out when you realised who I was. Both on Monday and back in December. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that.”

“We’re all people,” I said with a shrug. “Okay, yeah, you’re a celebrity, but I’m fairly certain that doesn’t matter here. You’re here to learn, and that’s all the teachers really care about. So long as you do your work and actually make an attempt at learning something while you’re here, I’m fairly certain they couldn’t care less about anything more than that.” I ran the palms of my hands along my wheelchair’s hand rims. “McCormick,” I said suddenly.

“Pardon?”

“That’s my last name,” I explained. “McCormick. I know Lis didn’t say it back in December, and I figured you didn’t have anything to go on until now. Other than my first name that is.”

“Oh, I see.” Taylor gave me a smile. “Well, it’s nice to finally meet you properly, Ruby McCormick.”

I returned his smile. “You too, Taylor Hanson.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Taylor

“So how’s TAFE going so far?” Zac asked me that weekend. My first week of classes – which, being as I only went to TAFE twice a week, didn’t really count as a week per se – had gone off more or less without a hitch, and because I’d stayed back after classes on Tuesday and Thursday to do my homework the weekend was mine to do with as I pleased. And I had opted to spend it catching up on my reading.

At least, that had been the plan up until lunchtime on Saturday. Zac had decided to ring me right as I’d planted myself on the lounge with the book I’d been given by a fan at the beginning of the September tour – Four Fires by Bryce Courtenay. I had already finished it twice, and was about to begin my second re-read. Once my phone had started ringing, though, and I’d seen whose name had popped up on its caller ID, that particular plan had gone right out the window.

“It’s going okay,” I replied. “You remember that girl you and Isaac were pestering me about last month? She goes to the same TAFE as me.”

“Oh really? She doing Design as well?”

“Nope. She’s studying to be a librarian. Her name’s Ruby McCormick.”

“How’d you find that out if you’re not in the same course as her?”

“We bumped into each other outside the campus library on Monday. Well, I say bumped,” I amended. “More like she ran into me with her wheelchair and knocked me over.”

“Jeez, you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Whacked my knee on the pavers but no harm done. Anyway, she’s really nice. Pretty, too.”

“Aww, is Taylor in love?” Zac teased.

“Shut up Zac. I barely know her.”

“Never stopped you before. What was the name of the girl you were going out with when you were in Year 11? You know, that chick from Kotara High?”

“Natasha,” I replied. “And that was stupid of me anyway, she only wanted me because I’m in Hanson. Most girls only want me because of that. Ruby, though, she’s a fan but she’s not rabid about it. You know? Once she got over the shock of seeing me at TAFE, we got on well enough. Had lunch together and everything.”

“Are you sure you don’t like her?”

“Okay, maybe I like her a little bit,” I relented.

“Knew it,” Zac said slyly. “When’s the wedding?”

“Zac, I am this fucking close to hanging up on you,” I warned. “Stop fucking shit-stirring already.”

“Okay, okay, sorry. It’s been a while since you’ve been out with a girl, that’s all. I was starting to think you’d gone a bit, well…” He trailed off, and I knew he was attempting to come up with a way to finish his sentence that wouldn’t piss me off.

“A bit what, Zac?” I asked, my tone promising a world of pain the next time I saw my brother if he didn’t explain himself. “I’m going to count to five…”

“A bit bent, okay?”

“Jesus, Zac…” I scrubbed my free hand over my face. “Zac, just because I haven’t shagged a girl since high school doesn’t mean I’ve gone off them! It’s a lack of opportunity, not a lack of attraction. I still like girls, okay?”

“Yeah okay, don’t get all aggro at me. What are you doing this weekend?”

“Reading, mostly. Did all my homework already, and I already went for a surf this morning. Might end up changing my mind tomorrow but it’s not looking all that likely. So, reading it is.”

“Sounds a whole lot less exhausting than what I’ve got planned. Jack’s decided he wants a cubby house. Saw the one at his preschool his first day there and decided he wanted one for the backyard at home. Wouldn’t let up until I promised to build him one.”

I snickered. “Oh, you poor baby. This is what happens when you have brats, you know. I’d have thought you’d have figured that out when Isaac’s kids got old enough for preschool.”

“Oh, pull your head in. It wouldn’t be so bad if he just wanted one like the one Dad built for us when we were kids – you know, that little hut up on stilts that had a ladder up to it?”

“Yeah, I remember that one,” I said sourly. “I broke my arm falling off that fucking ladder. So he wants a castle then?”

“Pretty much.”

I snickered again. “Suck it up Zac, you signed up for this when you knocked Kate up,” I reminded him.

I swore I could see Zac rolling his eyes at this. “I might let you get back to it then. I know how you get when you get stuck into your reading.”

“Smartest idea you’ve had in years,” I snarked at him. “See ya Zac.”

“See ya Tay.”

We hung up, and I put my phone on silent before opening my book and attempting to get lost in its pages. I wasn’t exactly successful.

“This is ridiculous,” I groaned, resisting the temptation to fling the book across the room. I had a rough idea of why I couldn’t concentrate on reading, and there really was only one way I was going to solve this particular problem of mine.

In almost no time at all I had changed out of my jeans and T-shirt into shorts and a singlet, dug my joggers out of the depths of my wardrobe, and tied one of my bandannas over my hair. I hadn’t been for a run in months – going for a surf every morning was usually the extent of my athletic endeavours – so I was definitely going to need to ease back into it slowly. At the same time, though, I wanted to push myself and see just how far I could get. My iPod went into its armband, which I strapped around my upper left arm, my phone, wallet and keys into my pockets, and I slid my sunglasses onto my face before leaving the house.

“Good afternoon Taylor!” called out my neighbour from number twenty-eight as I walked past the end of their driveway. I lifted my sunglasses up with one hand to see who had called out to me, squinting against the bright February sunlight.

“Hi Mrs. Daniels!” I called back. Mrs. Daniels was standing in her front yard with the garden hose in hand, the hose’s spray nozzle pointed at the base of one of her bottlebrush trees.

“Off for a run?” she asked me, and I nodded.

“I need to think,” I replied. “Already went for a surf this morning so a run’s the next best thing. Going to see how far I can get.”

“Well, good luck.” She gave me a smile and aimed her hose at me. I ducked out of the way before she could spray me with water, returned her smile and let my sunglasses drop back into place.

Somewhat surprisingly, I found it easy to settle back into my running rhythm. It was just me, the road beneath my feet, music from my iPod flowing into my ears through my earphones, and the warm summer sunshine on my bare arms and shoulders. I loved surfing – I wouldn’t have set my alarm for four-thirty every morning, rain hail or shine, if I didn’t. Sometimes, though, I needed to wear myself out so that I was almost too exhausted to think, and going for a run suited that particular need nicely.

I finally stopped running at the end of Towradgi Road. Being a Saturday during summer the sports fields in Towradgi Park behind me along with the rock pool in front of me were packed with people, something that cemented itself when I paused my iPod. INXS was immediately replaced by the sound of waves on the rocks at Towradgi Point, water splashing and children’s laughter from the rock pool, and cheering from the sports fields. Almost as soon as I had stopped running I bent forward, hands on my knees, and tried to catch my breath. I’d only run two and a half kilometres but it felt as if I’d been running ten times further than that. One thing was for sure – I would definitely be feeling it in the morning. It was worth it though, because my mind was clearer than it had been in weeks.

But as I began my walk over to the rock pool so I could sit down on the edge with my feet in the water, one thought in particular popped back into my head. Ruby.

I liked her. That much I knew for certain and was willing to admit to myself. I had only spoken to her a few times but that had been more than enough for me to figure out a few things about her. She was smart as a whip – considering she was studying a Diploma-level course, I wasn’t exactly surprised by that – just sarcastic enough to be entertaining, and she had a good head on her shoulders. The fact that she was absolutely gorgeous was just a fringe benefit. It didn’t even bother me that she was a Hanson fan. Were Ruby anyone else – her friend Lisbeth, perhaps – I would have been extremely wary of becoming friends with her, but somehow I knew it wouldn’t be a problem. There was just something about her that made me want to get to know her better.

My phone vibrated in my pocket as I walked away from the rock pool about fifteen minutes after I’d sat down. I shifted my joggers from my right hand into my left, and flipped my earphones out of my ears before I answered my phone. “Hello?”

“Jesus Christ, it’s about damn time you answered,” Isaac said, sounding rather annoyed that I hadn’t answered my phone right away. “What the hell took you so long?”

“If you must know,” I said as I walked up the grassy and sandy slope toward the cycleway, “I went for a run and I put my phone on silent. You know I can’t talk while I’m running. I guess I forgot to turn the ringer back on when I was finished.”

“Only you would go for a run in the middle of summer,” Isaac said with a chuckle.

“Well, you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen.”

“Yeah, and you’re neither.”

I rolled my eyes and sat down at one of the picnic tables to put my joggers and socks back on, anchoring my phone between my ear and shoulder so I could continue the phone call. “So what do I owe the pleasure of a phone call from my big brother this afternoon?” I asked.

“Mum wants to know what you have planned for your birthday.”

I bit back a sigh. “Of course she does. She does know there’s still more than a month until then, right?”

“Tay, you’re turning thirty-”

“Jesus Christ Isaac, I know how old I’m turning! I don’t need a reminder of how old I am or of the fact that I very nearly didn’t make it to my thirties.” I closed my eyes briefly. “All I really want to do for my birthday this year is spend it with family and a few friends. That’s it. I don’t want a huge production for it. And I have to go to class on my birthday this year so I can’t really do much on the actual day anyway.”

“Mum’s not going to like that, just warning you.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not my problem. I’d rather she focus her energies on Jess’ twenty-fifth, not my thirtieth. Twenty-five’s a more important birthday anyway.” My shoelaces now securely tied in double knots, I got back to my feet. “I’ll probably come up for the weekend after my birthday, though – she should be happy with that.”

“Fair enough. What’d you go for a run for, anyway?”

“Needed to think.”

“Of course you did. You planning on doing the City To Surf this year?”

“Yeah right,” I scoffed. “I’m not stupid.”

“Just thought I’d ask.”

“Yeah, whatever.” I glanced quickly at my watch. “Anyway, I need to start heading home – I ended up running all the way out to Towradgi Point so I’ve got a bit of a walk ahead of me.”

“You ran all that way?” Isaac asked. He sounded just a little shocked that I’d run so far from my place. “You’re insane.”

“It’s not that far. Two and a half kilometres from my place, that’s it. I walked more than twice that far to get to school after we moved out of Broadmeadow. You should try it the next time you come down here.”

“I think I’ll pass.”

“Lazy bastard. Talk to you later mate.”

“Yeah, see ya.”

We hung up, and I slid my phone back into my pocket. I hadn’t been lying to Isaac – I did have a fair way to walk to get home. Two and a half kilometres wasn’t far in theory, but when that distance was spread out across two suburbs it was more than a little daunting. I wasn’t about to catch the bus or a taxi home, not without having a shower first, so there was really only one option left to me – if I was going to get home anytime soon, I had to start walking.

With the prospect of a shower and a nap in my very near future, I stuck my earphones back into my ears, hit play on my iPod again, and set off on my walk home.


When I walked into the canteen at TAFE the following Thursday, half-expecting to see Ruby already sitting at our usual table, I found myself just a little disappointed that she wasn’t there. Lisbeth, Ella and Anthony were, though, and I figured I could find out from them where she was.

“Is Ruby all right?” I asked Lisbeth as I sat down at the table across from her.

“She’s not feeling well,” Lisbeth replied. “Texted me yesterday morning to tell me that she wouldn’t be here at all this week. Hopefully she’ll be back on Friday, but I wouldn’t count on it.” She gave me a smile. “It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it definitely won’t be the last. Ruby, well…let’s just say it’s complicated. And I’d love to tell you what’s going on with her – all three of us would” here she gestured to herself, Ella and Anthony “but I know for an absolute fact that she would be very angry with us. She’ll tell you when she’s ready. And before you ask, I have no idea when that will be. She hates talking about it unless it’s absolutely necessary, so it’ll probably take her a couple of months at the very least.”

“But she will tell you, though,” Ella added. “It’s obvious to all three of us that she considers you a friend. It’s just a matter of time, really.”

“She does?” I asked, feeling just a little surprised.

“Yeah,” Lisbeth said. She pointed the tines of her fork at me. “Don’t ask me or Ella how we know that, we just do. Call it secret women’s business.”

“I have three sisters, Lisbeth, and I lived in the same house as my mother for just over twenty years. I know all about secret women’s business.” I cracked a smile at Lisbeth. “But say no more. I’ll let Ruby tell me in her own time.”

I had expected the rest of that day to be as lazy as the morning had been, or as lazy as it was possible to be when you were holed up in the campus auditorium with thirty-odd other Design students, watching a documentary about the history of design in the 1940s. When my phone vibrated in my pocket as I was heading back upstairs to the art studio in Q Block where my Thursday afternoon class was held, I quickly realised that the rest of the day would be anything but lazy.

“Hey Isaac,” I said to answer my phone. I’d stopped in the corridor outside the art studio to take the phone call, knowing that the teacher who taught that class frowned upon her students using their phones in the studio. “What’s up?”

“Are you busy this afternoon?” Isaac asked.

“Uh, yeah,” I replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I’ve got art class in a few minutes.”

“Can you skip it? We need you to come up to Newcastle as soon as possible.”

“Isaac, what’s going on?” I asked, suddenly worried. “Did something happen?”

“In a manner of speaking. Have a look at the entertainment section of The Daily Telegraph’s website the first chance you get, all right? This could be really bad for us.”

“Okay, now you’re starting to scare me,” I said. “Can you please just tell me what the fuck is going on?”

“You’re not going to like it,” he warned.

“I don’t care. Tell me.”

There was a lengthy silence on Isaac’s end of the line. “Someone found out that you started going to TAFE, and they leaked it to the media. There’s already rumours going around that the band’s about to break up.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. Now do you see why you need to skip class this afternoon?”

“Yeah, I do,” I replied. I sighed and closed my eyes. “Okay, I’ll tell my teacher that I need to take a rain check on class – I’ll be on my way up there as soon as I can.”

“Let me know what train you’re catching from Sydney – I’ll meet you at Kotara when you get here.”

“Yeah, no worries. I’ll see you tonight.”

I hung up and tipped my head back against the nearby wall. “Well this is just fucking wonderful,” I muttered. There went any hope I had of being relatively anonymous at TAFE until graduation. My teachers and classmates all knew who I was, but none of them cared all that much. There was no way I was going to ignore it and hope like hell that it all just blew over, because I knew that would never happen. I knew the media all too well for that. Unless they found something new to latch onto soon, they’d be harping on about this for weeks. Never mind that there were at least two people who wouldn’t let me take this lying down. There really was only one thing I could do now.

“Rhea, can I talk to you really quick?” I asked my art teacher once I was inside the studio.

“Of course, Taylor,” Rhea replied. “Is everything all right?”

“Not exactly.” I resisted the temptation to bite down hard on my bottom lip. “I need to go home – there’s been an emergency with work and I have to do a bit of damage control.”

“Oh yes, of course,” Rhea said. “Don’t worry about any homework – I’ll ask one of your classmates to pass on any notes to you the next time you’re in class. I’ll see you next Thursday.”

“Thank you,” I whispered gratefully. I turned around and headed back out of the studio, just barely holding myself back from pelting hell-for-leather down the corridor to the lift. As I walked I had to force myself to stop thinking about the potential ramifications of what had happened – I especially had to force myself to stop thinking about just who could have done it.

The first thing I did as soon as I got home, before I had even checked my answering machine, was get on my laptop and log into my Hanson.net account. On any other day I would have just given the list of new private messages I’d received since the previous evening a quick glance and make a note of which ones I wanted to reply to later, but the subject line of the top message caught my eye right away – Ruby from TAFE. Something told me I needed to read it straight away – I figured that it had to be important if Ruby had hopped online to tell me something, rather than waiting a week to tell me at TAFE.

And as it turned out, I was right.

Taylor,

I saw what The Daily Telegraph posted on their website this morning – normally I wouldn’t go poking around in that particular section (because it’s all garbage and that shit rots your brain), but my sister Taleah told me I needed to see it. I have no idea how they found out but I will swear to you right now – IT WASN’T ME. I would never betray you like that – I don’t do that to my friends. It wasn’t Lis, Ella or Anthony either – I’ve known Lis since primary school, and Ella and Anthony since high school, and I know for an absolute fact none of them would do something like that. I know you wanted it kept a secret and I’m so fucking angry that someone had the hide to do this. I had to retype this at least three times because I’m shaking so much – that’s how pissed off I am.

If there’s anything you want or need any of us to do – I’m talking about the general Hanson fandom here, the ones who aren’t panic merchants at least – let me know and I’ll rally the troops. We’ve got your back mate. :)

- Ruby

Even though I should really have been getting myself ready to head up to Newcastle, I didn’t even hesitate in replying to Ruby’s message. However late I left Corrimal, I was still going to get to Newcastle late that evening so it didn’t really matter all that much.

Ruby,

I’m in the middle of getting ready to leave for Newcastle for an emergency band meeting (one of the ONLY bad things about living in Wollongong, I’m usually the one who has to do all the travelling) so I have to make this quick, but thank you – you’ve made me feel a little better about all of this. I’ll probably see you next Thursday – if I’m allowed to, I’ll tell you what’s happening. I can’t make any promises, but I should be able to talk my idiot brothers into letting me tell my friends at the very least. That’s what friends are for, right?

- Taylor

As soon as the message was sent, I hopped straight onto the CityRail website in search of a few trains that would get me up to Newcastle in a reasonable amount of time, making a note of the stations and times before texting them to Isaac. Am catching 3:18pm train from corrimal, then the 5:15pm from central and the 6:38pm from gosford after that. Gosford train gets to kotara at 7:55pm. Almost as an afterthought, I added to the end, Can you please get me some macca’s before you pick me up at kotara? I won’t have time to eat at central or gosford and it’s way too early to eat dinner before i leave.

Isaac’s answering text landed in my phone’s inbox just as I was shoving everything I needed for the weekend into my backpack. It was short and mostly to the point. Yeah no worries. Just a heads up, nessa and joel have called a short meeting for tonight.

“Damn it,” I muttered when I saw the bit about the meeting with our manager and one of the representatives of our record label, Liberation Music. There was no doubt in my mind whatsoever that I was going to need a lot of coffee and nerves of steel to make it through tonight’s meeting without falling asleep and with my sanity intact.

By the time two-thirty rolled around, I was ready to catch my train to Sydney. There was almost an hour until my train arrived at Corrimal station, but I had decided to walk there and so the earlier I left the better. Besides, if my train ended up arriving early – something I doubted very much would happen, I knew CityRail all too well for that – then I wouldn’t be stuck at the station for an hour waiting for the next one. Once I’d done a quick scout around my house to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind, I switched on the kitchen light so it looked like there was someone still at home and headed out, swinging my backpack onto my right shoulder as I left the house.

Leaving my place now, I tapped into a new text as I walked down my street, in the opposite direction to that which I took when I was going for a run. That particular direction would have taken me to Towradgi station, rather than Corrimal – even though Towradgi station was technically closer to my house, I had no intent whatsoever of spending more time on the train than I absolutely had to. Four and a half hours was a long time to be spending inside of what was essentially a glorified tin can on wheels. Text you when i get to central.

I ended up spending the vast majority of my travelling time that afternoon and evening writing a draft blog post that I intended to post at Hanson.net once it got the approval of Isaac and Zac. I had a feeling either one of my brothers would be working on something to release to the media in the wake of that day’s developments, so I didn’t feel the need to do so. I only took breaks when I was waiting for my connecting trains at Central and Gosford, and I didn’t stop working until the familiar automated announcement came over the PA to let the train’s passengers know that the train was approaching Cardiff station. My stop would be coming up in around five minutes’ time, and I didn’t particularly want to be scrambling to collect my bits and pieces when my train rolled into Kotara. Knowing my luck, if that happened I wouldn’t actually manage to leave the train until it was in Broadmeadow. And seeing as I would risk a fine from the transit police that had been patrolling the train since Wyong if I did stay on past Kotara, it was better for my bank account if I got off the train at my intended stop.

Night had just fallen when the train rolled into Kotara station, four and a half hours after my departure from Corrimal. I scanned the platform quickly as I stepped off the train, spotting Isaac sitting on one of the bench seats a few metres away with what looked for all the world like a McDonald’s takeaway bag next to him.

“Vanessa and Joel are insane,” I told him once I was certain I was within his earshot. “What the fuck were they thinking calling a meeting for tonight?”

“Hello to you too,” Isaac said pointedly as he stood up. “And I don’t know what was going through their heads. They probably forgot that the three of us don’t all live in Newcastle anymore.”

I scoffed at this. “As if. They both know damn well how long it takes me to get up here. I am going to need a shitload of coffee if I’m going to stay awake for however long this fucking meeting will end up going for.”

“Mum had the kettle going when I left to pick you up,” Isaac said, before handing the McDonald’s bag to me. “You still like Quarter Pounders, right?”

I grinned. “You know I do. Thanks, mate – you’re a lifesaver.” I unfolded the top of the bag and peered inside at its contents – the aforementioned Quarter Pounder, and a red box of French fries. It wasn’t the healthiest dinner, but it would do well enough for the time being. And really, by that time I was hungry enough that I would have eaten anything that was put in front of me.

Isaac returned my smile. “Come on, before they send out a search party,” he said, and set off toward the station exit.

“Fucking search parties,” I muttered, and hurried after Isaac so that he didn’t leave me behind, eating some of my fries as I went.

Zac, Vanessa and Joel were waiting for us downstairs at my parents’ house when we arrived, in our old practice space – Zac was nursing a mug of coffee almost as big as the one I was carrying, while Vanessa and Joel both had unusually serious looks on their faces. “So what’s going on?” I asked, my tone almost nonchalant. It probably wasn’t the best tone to take right now, but it was pretty much the only way I had of masking how infuriated I was that some idiot had decided to make my life just a little more difficult than it already was. Not to mention it was an attempt at hiding just how tired I was.

“Pull up a seat, Taylor,” Joel said. “We just want a bit of a chat for now – we’ll save the serious stuff for tomorrow. I can tell that you’re not much in the mood for that.”

No shit, I wanted to say, but I held back. Were it just Joel in the room with us, I could have gotten away with it – he had been our manager for nearly eighteen years, and therefore the three of us had a little more leeway with him that we might not have had with anyone else. Vanessa, on the other hand, tended to take things a lot more seriously. And being as it was getting on past eight o’clock at night, I knew it was best not to piss her off – she probably wanted to get things over and done with as much as I did. I was just about ready to drop as it was.

“All we’d like to know for now is if you have any idea who might have leaked your attendance at TAFE to the media,” Vanessa said. “Is anyone in your classes aware of who you are?”

“They all are,” I replied. “As are my teachers. I had to explain everything to the head of the faculty I’m studying under in order to be approved to apply as a part-time student. And I know it sounds stupid, but I am absolutely certain that none of them would have dobbed me in to the press.”

“That sounds a little hard to believe, if you’ll excuse my scepticism. You’ve only been in class for two weeks, correct?”

“Basically, yeah,” I replied, wondering just where Vanessa was going with this.

“Vanessa, take it from me,” Joel said, and I found myself suddenly grateful that he had taken it upon himself to explain. “Taylor’s intuition is always spot-on. He is never wrong about anyone and their intentions, and if he felt that anyone in any of his classes had that sort of intent toward him then he wouldn’t have said a word to them. It’s more likely than anything else that someone overheard and thought they could score some points with someone in the media by telling them what Taylor was doing over the next couple of years.”

“Well, they weren’t wrong there,” I muttered just loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. “How exactly are we going to deal with this?”

“We can talk about that in-depth tomorrow morning,” Joel replied. “But it’s probable that we’ll work up a press release and put it out at the beginning of next week. We’ll let the three of you deal with your fans and the rumours that are already circulating.”

“Oh, they’re circulating all right,” Zac said. “Didn’t take them long either.” He drained the remainder of the coffee from his mug and eased himself to his feet. “I need to head home. Promised Jack and Rosie they’d get a bedtime story tonight.”

“See you tomorrow then,” Joel said. Zac raised a hand in acknowledgment and wandered out of the room, disappearing upstairs. “We might leave things there for now, then. Taylor here looks like he’s about to drop, anyway.”

I let out a rusty-sounding chuckle. “Considering I’ve been awake since four-thirty this morning, I’m surprised I’m still standing,” I said. “Hell I’m surprised I didn’t fall asleep on the train up here.” I raised my mug in a salute of sorts. “I’m going to go and crash. See you in the morning.”

“Good night, Taylor,” Vanessa said with a smile, while Joel merely mirrored my salute.

Upstairs in the kitchen, I finished off my coffee and listened to the sounds around me. My parents watching TV in the lounge room, the tinny sound of music drifting out of Zoë’s headphones as she did her homework at the kitchen table, the occasional creak of the walls and foundation as they settled, cars driving along the street outside, trains rattling past on the nearby railway line. If I listened carefully I could hear the Tasman Sea in the distance, waves crashing on the stretch of sand that lay between Merewether Beach and Dudley Beach. It all made me smile, despite how exhausted I was.

Before I wandered off to bed, I walked up behind Zoë and took her headphones off her head. She jumped easily half a foot in the air before twisting around to look at me. “Jesus Christ Taylor, you scared me!” she hissed at me.

“Sorry, Zo. Wasn’t going to get your attention any other way.” I punctuated this with a shrug. “Anyway, just thought I’d say goodnight.”

“Oh, okay. ‘Night, Tay.” She said this with a smile, which I mirrored.

“‘Night, Zo.” I bent down, pressed a kiss to the top of Zoë’s head, and slipped her headphones back into place. “Love you sis.”

“Love you too,” she murmured in reply. I smiled again and headed out of the kitchen and through to my bedroom, closing the door behind me.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Ruby

I rubbed my left eye with the heel of my left hand and squinted at the orderly lines of black text that marched their way across the screen of my laptop. One of the only downsides to TAFE was that even as a part-time student, I still had homework that needed to be done. Right now I was up to my metaphorical elbows in my homework for my Friday afternoon class, and it was giving me one hell of a headache. That the Hanson fandom was currently in turmoil wasn’t helping matters. The last time I’d ventured onto the forums at Hanson.net, a full third of the new threads I’d seen had been almost nothing but panic over the rumours that Hanson were on the verge of breaking up. About half of the remaining new threads served only to make fun of the fandom’s all-too-common panic merchants. All it really did, aside from making my headache worse, was remind me that while I loved Hanson with all that I was, most of the fans just pissed me off.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” I mumbled. There was no real point in continuing with my homework, not when my head was pounding as much as it was. I had to get ready for TAFE anyway – a glance at the clock in my computer’s taskbar revealed the time as 10:35, which gave me just under two hours to have a shower, get dressed and shove everything I needed into my backpack. Considering that on Wednesdays I was only in class for two hours it was a ridiculous amount of effort, and I was seriously considering taking the day off. Especially as I wasn’t back to what I considered normal.

Almost as soon as I had left my caravan to head up to the amenities block with everything I needed for my shower, my phone and the keys to the ladies’ and my caravan in hand, the decision of whether or not I should blow off TAFE was made for me. A dizzy spell hit me just as I was locking my front screen door, and my feet very nearly went out from under me. The only reason I didn’t fall right on my backside was because I had one hand holding onto the steel grating over the flyscreen in the door.

“Jesus Christ, not again,” I groaned as I hauled myself back upright. The dizzy spells were beginning to happen a lot more frequently than they had previously – before now I averaged one every six months, if that. This was my second in as many weeks. One thing was for sure – I wasn’t going to TAFE today, and possibly not even the rest of the week. My dizzy spells tended to lay me out for a few days, and last Wednesday’s had been no exception. There was no doubt in my mind that today’s would be exactly the same.

“You all right, Ruby?”

I risked looking over to my right, at the owner of that voice – one of my next door neighbours from site 160, Trent. He was looking at me with the sort of concern he usually reserved for his wife and daughters, and judging from the surfboard he had propped up against the exterior of his family’s caravan he was heading off for a surf.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I replied. “I just…” I bit back a sigh. “Can you help me get back inside? I don’t think I can move without falling over.”

“Yeah, of course,” Trent said, and he came over to where I was still clinging to my front door. He slipped an arm around my back to hold me up. “You can let go now, okay? I’ve got you.” I let go of the door with a sigh of relief – my hand had started to cramp up from the sheer effort of supporting my entire weight with just my fingers. “Give me your keys and I’ll let us in.”

In almost no time at all Trent had my front screen and glass doors unlocked and opened, and had guided me back inside to sit on the lounge in my caravan’s annexe. I immediately shifted onto my back and tipped my head back against one of the lounge’s armrests. “Is there anyone you want me to call for you?” Trent asked after he’d ducked back outside to collect the bits and pieces I had dropped on the ground.

“Yeah, my mum,” I replied without looking away from the ceiling. “Her number’s under ‘Mum’ in my phone.”

“On it,” Trent said, and soon I was hearing his side of a phone call I always dreaded having to make. “Hi Mrs. McCormick, my name’s Trent Fowler – I’m one of Ruby’s neighbours…she’s fine, but she had a bit of a dizzy spell this morning. I thought I should let you know…yeah, of course. I’ll let her know.” He hung up and handed my phone to me. “Your mum will be over in a little while,” he said.

“Thanks, Trent,” I said quietly. I would have spoken at my normal volume, but right then I felt as if the world would shatter if I didn’t keep my voice down.

“Will you be okay on your own?” Trent asked from somewhere behind me.

“I’ll be fine so long as I don’t have to sit up anytime soon,” I replied. “Thanks, Trent.”

“No worries, Ruby.” Trent’s hand brushed over my hair, and soon I heard my front doors slide open and closed.

The first thing I did as soon as I was alone was send Lisbeth a text message. Not coming to tafe today. Had a dizzy spell when i was going to have a shower and i think it would be better if i stayed home.

A few minutes after I’d sent the text, my phone rang in my hand – according to my caller ID, Lisbeth was on the phone. “Hey Lis,” I said to answer my phone.

“Hey, you all right?” Lisbeth asked.

“Aside from feeling like my head’s going to fall off if I try and sit up, I’m fine,” I replied, rubbing at my eyes with my free hand as I spoke. “I’m going to try and come in tomorrow but I’m not going to promise anything.”

For a few moments Lisbeth didn’t say a word, and I was almost certain the line had dropped out. “I’m going to skip this afternoon’s class,” she said at last.

“Lis, don’t-” I started.

“It’s a bludge class Ruby, Ian won’t care if I don’t turn up. I want to talk to you anyway.”

“About what?” I asked, my tone unintentionally suspicious.

“Taylor was asking about you last Thursday, that’s all. I think he was kind of worried and a little disappointed that you weren’t at lunch.”

“He was?” I asked.

“Yeah. See, I told you he likes you.”

“We’re friends Lis, of course he’s going to be worried. And anyway it’s too early for you or anyone else to say if he likes me or not.”

“You do like him, though,” Lisbeth said slyly.

“I do not!” Even as I denied this, though, I could feel my face heating up. “Lis just fucking quit it already, okay?”

“Okay, okay, jeez. But we are going to have a chat about it this afternoon, all right?”

“Oh fine. See you this arvo.”

“Atta girl. See ya.” And with that she hung up. I listened to the end-of-call tone for a few moments before hanging up.

I had been staring at the ceiling from my spot on the lounge for roughly half an hour after Lisbeth’s phone call, counting the little glow-in-the-dark stars that a previous tenant had stuck up there, when someone knocked on the screen door and called out my name – Mum. “It’s open,” I called back.

“You are going to be the death of me someday, Ruby,” Mum said as she walked past where I lay on the lounge, over to my desk to fetch my computer chair. “What happened exactly?” she asked as she dragged the chair over so she could sit level with me.

“I was going to have a shower,” I replied. “Fucking dizzy spell hit me right as I was locking up.” I closed my eyes briefly. “I had one last week as well but at least that one decided to hit before I went outside.”

“Are you feeling any better?”

I risked a nod, and felt more than a little relieved when the room didn’t start spinning again. “A little bit. Dizziness is mostly gone now. My head just hurts.”

“Do you think you’ll be up to going to TAFE tomorrow?” Mum asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know, to be completely honest with you. I probably won’t decide until tomorrow morning.”

“Well, if you do decide to go, can you promise me a few things?”

“I suppose so,” I said warily.

Mum seemed to ignore my tone. “Get a lift with Lisbeth,” she said. “I really don’t think you should be driving anywhere at the moment. And take Sadie with you.”

“I don’t have class until the afternoon, though,” I protested. “Lis gets there at like eight-thirty, and my classes don’t start until twelve-thirty. I’d just be wasting my time hanging around.”

“Your TAFE has a library, does it not? You can do your homework until you go to class – I’m sure you have something due soon, you’re doing your Diploma after all. And I want you to go and see your doctor again soon.” Mum reached down to my head and tucked a few locks of hair behind my right ear. “I know you hate all of this, Ruby. Really, I do. I’m only looking out for your wellbeing.”

“I know, Mum. I just hate feeling like an invalid.”

Mum gave me a smile and got up from her seat. “You sit tight. I’m going to make you a cup of tea.”

I returned her smile. “Thanks, Mum.”

While Mum was up in the caravan, I decided it was worth risking sitting up and hopping back on my laptop for a little while. I was going to have to sit up anyway once Mum had made my tea and brought it into the annexe. The first thing I did once it had loaded onto my desktop and connected to the caravan park’s wireless network was open up Firefox and click on my bookmark for Hanson.net. There was no way I was going to poke around in the forums again any time soon – all I’d get out of that was ten fewer IQ points and an even worse headache than I already had – so instead I loaded up the site blog. Its newest entry was a band effort, posted just a few hours earlier.

Last week, a newspaper in Sydney that we are not going to name posted on their website that one of us had started attending TAFE. In the wake of all the rumours that are currently floating around on the Web, we have only the following to say:

Yes, Taylor is currently attending a TAFE college somewhere in New South Wales. We had hoped to keep this under wraps for as long as possible, preferably until the end of the course he is studying, but unfortunately it seems this wasn’t to be. The rumours that are being spread are not true – we are not going to be breaking up anytime soon. We have made plans to tour in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and New Zealand this year, along with Tasmania, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Southeast Asia in 2014. We are also planning to begin recording our sixth album sometime during the next twelve months. We would not be planning any of this if we were about to split up. The three of us are wholly committed to our careers as musicians and to the band. Walking away from nearly twenty-one years as musicians is not a decision that we would make lightly, and it is a decision we hope that we never have to make.

As to what Taylor is studying and where, revealing that information is entirely up to him and nobody else. All that anybody needs to know is that everyone in the band or associated with us is fully supportive of his decision to continue his education.

In the words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC.

- Isaac, Taylor and Zac

“‘Don’t panic’,” I muttered. “Yeah, like that’s going to do any good. Won’t stop everyone being panic merchants over the whole thing.”

“What are you grumbling about this time?” Mum asked as she came down the steps from the caravan, carrying two mugs of tea – she held my exploding TARDIS mug in her left hand, and in her right hand was the blue-and-yellow striped mug that I’d bought from one of the terrace shops on Collins Street during my last visit to Kiama. I took my TARDIS mug from her and wrapped my hands around it, relishing its warmth against my palms and fingers.

“Taylor Hanson goes to my TAFE,” I replied. “And some idiot decided they were going to tell The Daily Telegraph about it. Once the news got out all the really flighty twits in fandom freaked out that the band was going to break up, which of course they’re not.” I sipped my tea carefully so that I didn’t burn my mouth. “They wouldn’t be touring this year if they were going to break up.”

“Don’t call them twits,” Mum chided. “And how do you know he goes to Wollongong TAFE?”

“Aside from him being dobbed on in the Telegraph? I ran into him with my wheelchair first day of term. Told me he was doing Design while we were heading over to the uni for lunch.”

“I hope you apologised for that.”

“Of course I did. And anyway, he can’t have been all that broken up about it because we’re mates now.” I couldn’t help but grin when I said those last four words. Three weeks since we had finally met properly and I still couldn’t believe that I was actually one of Taylor Hanson’s friends. I knew it would sink in eventually, but for the moment I was going to revel in that particular little bit of knowledge.

Lisbeth, it seemed, was as good as her earlier word. No sooner had I finished my cup of tea that there was yet another knock at my front door, and Mum got to her feet. “Were you expecting anyone in particular to come over today?” she asked as she walked to the front door.

“Yeah, Lis called me earlier and said she was blowing off class, though she wasn’t actually supposed to drop around until this arvo. She said she wanted to talk to me about something.” I shifted forward a little and set my empty mug down on the coffee table. “Though why she couldn’t talk to me on the phone about it, I’m really not sure.” I looked over at the front door just in time to see Lisbeth walk inside. “I thought you weren’t coming until this arvo?”

“Hello to you too,” Lisbeth replied. “And Jen said we could leave for lunch early if we wanted to, so I did. I got Ella to let Ian know I won’t be there this arvo.” To my mother she said, “Hi Mrs. McCormick.”

“Hello Lisbeth. You do know you can call me Trish, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I know. I just feel weird calling you that, though. Force of habit, I suppose.”

“That’s fair.” Mum glanced briefly back at me. “I might leave you girls to talk, then. Ruby, where do you keep your laundry basket?”

“Bathroom,” I replied. “Laundry key’s on the rack next to the front door.”

“Your mum still does your laundry?” Lisbeth asked in a low voice once she was sitting next to me on the lounge.

I shrugged. “Sometimes. I don’t expect her to do it, but she does it anyway. Usually only when I’m feeling a hell of a lot worse than usual. Rest of the time it’s my responsibility.” I settled back into the lounge and eyed Lisbeth. “So what did you want to talk to me about?”

“You need to tell him,” Lisbeth replied. “And you need to tell him soon.”

“Tell who about what?”

“Taylor. If anyone’s going to have even just the faintest idea of what you’ve been going through for the last eight and a half years, it’s him.”

“No he won’t.” My tone was almost resigned. “How could he?”

Lisbeth opened her mouth to say something before closing it with an audible click of her teeth. “You really do live under a rock, don’t you?” she asked, and I raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t remember all the drama that went on in 2002? I’d have thought that you of all people would have paid attention to it all.”

“I was too busy trying to make it through Year 12 and the HSC with my sanity intact, Lis,” I reminded her. “I’m still not entirely sure I managed it, seeing as I’m still friends with you.” I raised an eyebrow after I said this, an indicator that I was joking.

Lisbeth shook her head in seeming disbelief. “One of these days Ruby, you and me are going to sit down and we are going to watch Strong Enough To Break together. Maybe then you’ll realise why Taylor would understand all too well what you’re going through.”

“I will tell him, Lis. Just not yet. He’ll find out when I’m ready to tell him.”

But as I soon discovered, just because I wasn’t ready for certain people to find out certain things about me didn’t mean that the universe wanted to wait for me to be ready.

The next morning I was feeling a lot better than I normally did after one of my dizzy spells, something I hoped had a lot to do with the fact that after Mum and Lisbeth had left the previous afternoon, I had taken my laptop and Sadie up into the caravan and gone back to bed. I could only assume I looked better as well, for that was the first thing that Lisbeth commented on when she picked me up on her way to TAFE.

“You look a lot better,” she said as I climbed into the front passenger seat of her car after letting Sadie into the backseat. Normally I wouldn’t have listened to my mother when she asked me to do something, but I did have to concede that she had a point in asking me to get a lift with Lisbeth. “How’re you feeling?”

“Much better,” I replied as I did up my seatbelt. “Definitely not as shaky or dizzy as yesterday, that’s for sure. I’m still going to take it easy this morning, though – I’ll probably hang out in the library until lunch time.”

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” Lisbeth agreed. She put her car into reverse and backed out into the carpark. “Wouldn’t want you keeling over right in the middle of campus in front of everyone.”

“No, definitely not.”

The three hours between arriving at TAFE and heading up to the canteen for lunch passed by mostly without incident. I sat in the library’s lounge area with my Kindle, crutches close at hand and Sadie curled up at my feet, and worked my way through the first ten or so chapters of A Game Of Thrones. All morning since arriving at TAFE I’d had a mild headache building up behind my eyes, but I was putting that down to not having eaten much for breakfast that morning. I usually did end up with the mother of all headaches if I didn’t eat properly. And being as it wasn’t all that irritating yet, I persevered in my reading until just before noon. Only then did I mark my place in my book, slip my Kindle into its case and from there into my backpack, and haul myself to my feet. “Come on Sadie,” I said, slipping my arms into the cuffs at the top of my crutches and curling my fingers around the handgrips.

Lisbeth and Ella met up with me as I left the library, Sadie trotting along beside me. “You’re here early,” Ella said as the two of them fell into step on either side of me, Lisbeth being careful to give Sadie enough space.

“I got a lift with Lis this morning,” I replied. “Mum kinda insisted, she didn’t want me driving after yesterday. Anthony not here today?”

“Nope,” Lisbeth replied. “That brother of his dragged him off to go surfing up at Byron Bay for the weekend. Two days early, mind you.”

“Of course he did. He’s going to have Kath coming down on him like a tonne of bricks next Friday arvo if he isn’t careful.”

Taylor was waiting for the three of us in the canteen at what had become our little group’s regular table, typing away on a Bluetooth keyboard set up in front of what I figured was his iPad. “You want anything from the canteen Ruby?” Ella asked as I sat down next to Taylor, propping my crutches up against the table next to me.

“Yeah, Hawaiian pizza if they have any.” I dug my wallet out of my backpack and took a five dollar note out, handing it to Ella. “If they don’t can you get me some hot chips?”

“Yeah, no worries. Anyone else want anything?” Ella asked, and when Taylor and Lisbeth both shook their heads she wandered off to get lunch for me and herself.

“So what’re you doing?” I asked Taylor, seeing that he was still typing away.

“Tour stuff,” he replied without looking up. “We’re going down to Victoria during autumn break so I’m sorting out where we might end up playing shows.”

“Where in Victoria?” Lisbeth asked.

“So far I’ve got Ballarat, Shepparton, Geelong, Bendigo and Mildura. It’d be a hell of a lot easier if the wireless here wasn’t complete bullshit and I hadn’t left my modem at home.”

It wasn’t until Ella came back to the table with my pizza and a sandwich for herself that it happened. I had just ripped open the plastic wrapper around my lunch when I started to feel very light-headed, spots of light popping up in my vision. “Hey, you okay Ruby?” Lisbeth asked, though I could barely hear her over the buzzing in my ears. It sounded almost as if a couple of very angry bees had taken up residence there. “You look really pale.”

“I-I think so,” I replied, cursing my voice for shaking so much. Liar, the little voice that lived in the back of my head said.

“You definitely are not okay,” Taylor decided. Out of the corner of my right eye I could see him studying me. “Right now you look almost exactly the same as I did nearly eleven years ago.”

“I’m fine,” I said stubbornly, and I made a half-hearted attempt at standing up. Unfortunately that was right about the time that my body decided it was going to betray me, and instead of falling back into my seat I fell on the hard linoleum floor, landing squarely on my backside. “Ow!”

“Yeah, you’re definitely not okay,” Ella said. “I think you need to go home – you don’t look well at all.”

“Ella, I’m fine,” I started to say, just as my head started spinning. I quickly shut my eyes so that I couldn’t see the canteen revolving around me. “Oh for fuck’s sake, not again,” I groaned, now realising that this was yet another of my dizzy spells. “I knew I should have stayed home again today…”

“Easy there, I’ve got you,” I heard Taylor say through the buzzing in my ears. I could feel someone wrapping an arm around my shoulders and helping me back to my feet as he spoke. “I can drop you home if you like – Ella’s right, you should be at home right now.”

“You don’t mind?” I asked. “I mean, you’ve got class this afternoon – I don’t want you to miss it.”

“I don’t mind a bit,” he assured me. “My teacher won’t mind either, and I can email her later on to explain why I wasn’t in class.” I cracked one eye open right in time to see him smirking at me. “And hell, you can finally tell people you had Taylor Hanson sitting in your lounge room.”

“I should probably come as well,” Lisbeth said. “If I know Ruby as well as I should by now, she’s in no mood or state to play navigator. And it can be tricky to find her place, it’s a little out of the way.”

“I am here, you know,” I said irritably as I slipped my arms back into the cuffs of my crutches.

“Yes Ruby, we know,” Lisbeth said. She picked up my backpack by its handle with one hand, carrying her own backpack over one shoulder, and took Sadie’s leash into her other. “Where are you parked, Taylor?”

“Lysaght Street carpark. Bit of a hike but I was running late this morning.” He shrugged. “Lost track of time while I was out having a surf.”

The walk from the canteen to the Lysaght Street carpark was a slow one, mostly because I knew without much doubt that I would fall over if I walked too quickly. As the three of us walked Lisbeth and Taylor talked with one another, their voices barely louder than the sounds of Wollongong TAFE and its surrounds on a Thursday – classes in the various blocks we walked past, birds flying overhead and perched in the trees around campus, students in the playground of Keira High School, and cars driving along the nearby Princes Highway. When we finally made it to Taylor’s car, parked near the Lysaght Street campus entrance in the shade of a tree, I did a double take.

That’s your car?” I asked, instantly recognising it. Taylor’s car was a dark blue Mitsubishi Lancer with customised Sydney Roosters numberplates and a sticker reading Hanson: better than your band since 1992 on the rear bumper. In other words, it was the same car that I had parked beside at the very beginning of term.

“Yep,” Taylor replied. “What, not what you expected?”

“It’s not that – I parked beside it on orientation day.” I let out a quiet laugh. “I would never have expected you to have a Hanson sticker on your car, that’s for sure. I bet it throws people right off.”

“That’s the whole point.” Taylor grinned and unlocked his car. “Come on. You can have a lie down in the back if you like, Ruby.”

I didn’t end up lying down during the drive up to Bellambi, but I did keep my eyes closed the whole way. I had gone via this particular route so many times that I didn’t even need to listen to Lisbeth playing navigator – I could tell what streets she was telling Taylor to drive down based solely on the turns he made. Left onto the Princes Highway from Lysaght Street, drive around the roundabout at Mount Ousley Road, keep going on the Princes Highway until Towradgi Road and hang a right, hang a left onto the Northern Distributor, hang another right onto Rothery Street, and lastly turn onto Bott Drive. I could tell that we had arrived at the Village when Taylor slowed down to drive over the speed bump in the caravan park’s driveway.

“Here we are,” Lisbeth said. “Ruby, is your keycard in your wallet?”

“Yep,” I replied without opening my eyes. “Front pocket of my backpack.”

I didn’t open my eyes again until the car had stopped outside my caravan. “Keys are in the same pocket as my wallet,” I said as I popped open the left passenger door and swivelled myself around so that I could get out of the car. One thing was for sure – there was no way in hell that I was getting out of bed for anything short of a cyclone over the next few days. Going to TAFE today had been a very bad idea.

The very first thing I did as soon as I was inside the annexe was sit down on the lounge, letting out a sigh of relief the second I was off my feet. Sadie for her part had lain down on the floor next to my feet, and I reached down to unclip her leash from her collar. “Thanks for the lift home, Taylor,” I said.

“No worries,” Taylor said. He was standing right in the middle of the annexe, looking around at everything in what passed for my lounge room – my TV, Blu-ray player and stereo on their long, low cabinet against the opposite wall (along with all my movies, TV show box sets, video games and my Wii console in the compartments underneath), the tall rack that held all of my CDs, the air conditioner up high on the wall, my other kitchen table with its mismatched chairs that usually only saw use when I had friends over, my desk with my laptop, wireless modem for my mobile broadband and all my TAFE notebooks in their folders set out on top, and my coffee table with books, a couple of DVD cases, coasters, a silver lantern that had a tealight candle inside and a clear glass vase that held four fake gerberas. “So this is your place then?”

“Yep,” I replied. “It’s not much, I know, but it’s home.” I reached up to the side of the caravan and banged on it. “My bedroom and kitchen are up in there.”

“I’m going to go for a wander up to the café,” Lisbeth said a little suddenly, and both Taylor and I looked at her. “You two need to have a talk.”

“Okay then,” Taylor said, sounding very uncertain. “And it’s not something we can talk about with you in the room, is that right?”

“Well, it’s something that Ruby won’t talk about if I’m in the room. She’ll make me explain it all.” Lisbeth rolled her eyes somewhat theatrically at this before looking at me meaningfully and raising an eyebrow. “I’ll probably be back in half an hour or so.”

Neither Taylor nor I said a word until Lisbeth had left for the Village’s café. All of a sudden I was feeling extremely nervous – the only other people who knew about this, I had known them for years already. I had known Taylor for all of three weeks. “So what do you need to talk to me about?” Taylor asked at last, and I looked up at him.

“Something I absolutely hate talking about unless I can’t get out of it,” I replied. “And Lisbeth is going to be very cross at me if I don’t tell you before she gets back. You might want to sit down – it’s a bit of a long story, but I’ll try and give you the abridged version.”

“Must be serious then,” Taylor commented as he sat down beside me.

“Yeah, that’s an understatement.” I picked at the right knee of my jeans. “I’m sick,” I said, deciding to come right out with it. “I have an illness called chronic fatigue syndrome – I was diagnosed about halfway through 2004.”

“Your second year of uni,” Taylor said. To me it sounded as if he was beginning to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. “I remember you said that on orientation day.”

“Damn you have a good memory. Yeah, it was my second year of uni. I got sick just after New Year’s 2004 though – one morning I just couldn’t get out of bed. It was mostly bone-deep exhaustion but all my joints were on fire as well. I kept falling asleep in my lectures and tutorials as well once uni went back. I eventually had to drop out because I just couldn’t concentrate, plus I was taking far too much time off to make it worth the effort. Of course there’s no specific test for CFS so my doctor had to test me for every single illness under the bloody sun just to narrow things down. I got tested for multiple sclerosis, lupus, the flu, even leukaemia.” As I said this last word I was almost certain I could feel Taylor stiffen up a little beside me. “It wasn’t any of those, though. It was one hell of a relief when she finally told me exactly what it was that I had.”

“I bet it was. I take it that’s why you have to use crutches or a wheelchair to get around.”

I nodded. “Pretty much, yeah. My walking stick as well, my left side is a little weak. I can’t really walk more than a few metres without any of them. It sucks, but I’m dealing with it as best I can. Lots of medication for one. That’s probably the worst part of it all – I can handle the exhaustion, the occasional dizzy spell and my left knee giving out on me all the time, but I’m practically a walking fucking pharmacy. Anytime I go away on holiday my handbag fucking rattles.” Taylor laughed at this, and I shot him a dirty look. “Hey, it’s not that funny!”

“It kinda is,” Taylor said, still snickering. “Remind me to tell you why later on.”

“Oh, I definitely will.” I glanced at him. “So you’re okay with all of this?”

“Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I just don’t tend to tell many people unless I know them particularly well, because I never know how they’ll react. Some people in the past just automatically assumed I was putting it on. Hell even Centrelink did at first when I was trying to get on the disability pension, the bastards. They changed their tune after I walked into the Wollongong office with Sadie and my crutches in tow.” I gave Sadie a scratch behind the ears with the toe of my right sneaker. “Sadie’s my assistance dog – helps me with things I can’t do easily on my own, especially when I’m stuck in bed. Gets my phone for me when it rings, lets me know if there’s someone at the door, that sort of thing. And she’s a complete sook as well, aren’t you Sadie?” I asked her, and she looked up at me before giving me her version of a grin.

“Thanks for telling me, Ruby.”

I smiled. “No worries, Taylor.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Taylor

One of the things I like most about living on my own, and a fair distance from most of my family at that, is that I’ve actually been able to establish some semblance of routine for myself. Things can get very unpredictable when all nine of us are within close proximity of one another, and it’s even worse on tour. Coffee tends to be my best friend and my saving grace at times like that.

But my family being what it is – nine crazy Novocastrians with a penchant for springing surprises on each other when we think things need to be livened up – my routine never quite stays that way for very long. Especially when it’s Avery doing the livening-up.

The train rolled into Corrimal station right on schedule, gliding to a stop alongside platform two just after ten past twelve, and I got up from my seat as the doors opened. A blur of blonde hair, blue denim and black hurled itself at me moments later, causing me to reflexively open my arms wide. It slowed down just short of knocking me off my feet, but not far enough to keep from knocking the wind out of me.

“Jesus Ave,” I managed to croak out once I could breathe again. “What’s the hurry?”

“Missed you,” Avery said cheerfully. She gave me a wide, sunny grin, her smile reaching all the way to her eyes.

“You missed me,” I scoffed. “Uh-huh. You just want a free lunch.”

“I can get a free lunch at uni anytime I like, dearest brother,” Avery said, and she stuck her tongue out at me. “Speaking of, I’m hungry and I haven’t eaten since I left Central. What’s for lunch?”

My immediate response was to poke Avery’s side before slinging an arm around her shoulders. “I think you’ll like this place,” I said as the two of us walked down the platform toward the station exit. “The website’s a little suss but it looks interesting enough.”

“You’ve never been there before, have you?” my sister asked.

“Nope. First time for everything, right?”

The Northern Distributor was mostly devoid of traffic – it being midway through Monday, I wasn’t exactly shocked by this – so it wasn’t long before we arrived in Wollongong. The carpark on Kenny Street, on the other hand, was absolutely packed with cars. “You should have met me at Wollongong or Fairy Meadow instead,” Avery said as I drove up to the roof of the carpark and started hunting for an empty parking space. “Could have caught the Shuttle in and you wouldn’t have had to pay for parking.”

“Shut up,” I grumbled. I finally located a spot right next to the door that led down into the Gateway and pulled the Lancer into it. “And don’t even tell me I should have parked in the Woolies carpark, that’s a scam anyway. I don’t care if it is practically across the road from the mall.”

“Wasn’t going to say a word,” Avery said. Out of the corner of her eye I could see her raising her hands before herself in seeming self-defence.

The Gateway and Crown Street Mall outside were teeming with people – store employees and office workers, students from the local high schools, TAFEs and the university, parents with their kids (or so I assumed), and a busker outside of David Jones playing their guitar for the lunch time crowd. “So what is this place called?” Avery asked as we walked past the Amphitheatre stage and turned right into Church Street. A short walk down the hill past the chess board and the little arcade of shops brought us to an alley with a half-open wrought-iron gate partly barring the way in.

“The Hideaway Café,” I replied, leading the way into the alley past a steel staircase that went up the side of the nearby arcade and a bunch of potted plants.

“Fitting name for it.”

I hadn’t been lying to Avery earlier – I’d never been here before. The closest I’d ever got before now was walking past its alley along Church Street to get to the mall, the Greater Union cinemas on the corner of Church Street and Burelli Street, and occasionally Woolworths if I couldn’t be bothered waiting until I got a little closer to home. It was really just curiosity on my part, and I could only hope I wasn’t going to regret it. I knew that Avery would get her own back the next time it was her turn to pick where we had lunch if this particular café was anything less than spectacular.

“Mum wants to know what you have planned for your birthday this year,” Avery said once a waitress had taken our lunch orders, and another waitress had brought our drinks to our table.

I glanced sharply at Avery over my coffee. “I told Isaac already that I don’t want a massive production for my birthday, Ave,” I said, keeping my tone even. “I’m only turning thirty – Jess is turning twenty-five this year, that’s a hell of a lot more important than thirty. Mum should be focusing on her instead of me.”

Avery shrugged and sipped her own drink – a peppermint mocha frappé. “I don’t think Mum believes you, to be honest.”

“She never does,” I muttered.

“Can you really blame her, though?” Avery put her glass down on the table and looked right at me. “She didn’t get to put on a party for your twenty-first because you were stuck in hospital. Remember?”

“Can you not remind me about that, please?” I asked, my voice pained.

“Sorry.” Avery gave me an apologetic smile. “She just wants to make up for you not getting a twenty-first birthday party. That’s all.”

“I still don’t want a major production for it. Dinner out at a restaurant or something, I can live with that, but I’m drawing the line there.”

“That’s all Mum was planning on anyway, I think. What was that Italian place you like up in Newy?”

“Northern Star Café,” I replied. “It’s in Hamilton.”

“Thought so.” She grinned at me, a little evilly I thought, and I was immediately on my guard.

“What exactly are you planning, Avery Laurel?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at her as I spoke.

“None of your damn business, Jordan Taylor,” she retorted, using both my first and middle names as I’d done with her. “You’ll find out when your birthday gets here.”

“The Saturday after my birthday, you mean,” I corrected. “I have class on my actual birthday.”

“Well that sucks. You can’t blow it off?”

I shrugged. “Probably, but I like my Thursday classes. And I don’t really want to deprive my friends of the opportunity to embarrass me at lunch.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Avery said, evidently remembering something. “Mum said that if you want to invite a few friends from TAFE up, her and Dad are okay with it.”

“Even if they’re fans?” I asked, my tone dubious, right as a waitress brought our lunches out to us – Avery’s Tandoori chicken wrap, and my Moroccan chicken burger. “Thank you,” I said to the waitress as she set the two plates down on the table.

“You’re friends with fans?”

I shrugged and bit into my burger, swallowing before I spoke again. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because a lot of your fans are rabid screaming teenie fangirls?”

“Ruby isn’t. Lisbeth is a bit but Ruby yanks her into line whenever she even comes close to that point.” I toyed with the fries on the side of my plate. “I kind of like Ruby,” I said quietly.

“But you haven’t told her yet because you’re too chickenshit,” Avery said.

No, I haven’t told her because we haven’t even been friends for a month yet. I don’t want to scare her off.”

I could tell that Avery wasn’t quite convinced by this. “Bullshit. You’re shit-scared of what she’ll do if you tell her that you like her.” She picked up one of her fries and pointed it at me. “That excuse of yours about not wanting to tell her this early is a cop-out. You remember how Isaac and Niks met, right?”

“Of course I remember, I was there,” I reminded my sister, and mimed chucking a guitar pick at her head.

“Yeah, and they went out on a date the next evening. Remember?”

“He’s always been braver than me around girls though,” I said. “Plus he doesn’t tend to attract the crazy ones. I do, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Avery shrugged. “I suppose that’s true.” She then proceeded to study me, her head tilted a little toward her right shoulder. “You really are freaked out about what she’ll do if you tell her that you like her, aren’t you?”

“Just a little bit,” I admitted. “It’s just…we’re friends. And I don’t want to wreck that.”

Avery was quiet for a little while as she ate her wrap, alternating bites with sips of her frappé. It was almost as if she was considering what I had just said. “Why don’t you tell me about her? Like, what drew you to her in the first place?”

“You know, I don’t think I should be discussing my love life or lack thereof with my little sister.”

She scoffed at this. “I’m hardly little, Taylor. I’m like ten centimetres shorter than you. Come on, spill.”

I didn’t answer straight away, choosing instead to finish off my burger. “She didn’t freak out on me,” I said when I had finished eating. “Not when we met in Crust Pizza right before the last Wollongong show, and not at TAFE on my first day. Her friend Lisbeth did, but she didn’t. Plus she’s smart and she makes me laugh. The fact that she’s absolutely gorgeous, that’s just icing on the cake.”

“She sounds like one hell of a girl,” Avery said, her tone contemplative.

“Yeah, she is,” I agreed.

“You going to invite her to your birthday? Seeing as you’re friends and all that.”

“I want to, yeah. I’m just not sure how Mum and Dad would react to it, though. I know you said they’re fine with me inviting friends from TAFE, but when you consider at least two of those friends are fans…” I shrugged.

“So ask them. Ring Mum up when you get home, see what she says. I really don’t think she’ll say no.”

I let out a quiet sigh. “All right, I’ll call her. But if she tells me not to ask them I’m blaming you.”

I was as good as my word. Late that afternoon, almost as soon as I got home from dropping Avery off at the train station, I fished my phone out of the pocket of my jeans and dialled my mother’s mobile number.

“Good afternoon Taylor,” Mum said to answer her phone.

“Hi Mum. I was wondering if I could ask you something.”

“Of course you can, Tay. You know you can ask me anything.”

I took a few moments to very carefully consider what I was going to say. “Avery told me that you said I can invite a few friends up to Newcastle for my birthday this year,” I said as a sort of preamble.

“I did say that, yes. Are there a few friends you want to ask?”

“There’s four that I definitely want to ask – I’ll have to see about the rest in class tomorrow.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “There’s just one problem, though.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Um…” I hesitated for the briefest of moments. “Two of them are fans.”

“I see,” Mum said. She didn’t say anything for a little while after that. “Taylor, stop pacing.”

“What?”

“Stop pacing,” she said, sounding faintly amused. “I can hear your shoes squeaking on the floor.”

I stopped mid-stride right in front of the kitchen sink, completely unaware I’d even been walking around my kitchen. “How did you even hear that?” I asked.

“I’m your mother,” Mum replied. “Now, these two friends of yours who are fans – do you trust them?”

“As much as it’s possible to trust someone I’ve only known for three weeks. One of them is kind of rabid around me, like she never really grew out of being a teenie, but the other is pretty much sane. Ruby yanks Lisbeth into line whenever she gets out of hand.” I almost started laughing when I remembered what Ruby had done the first day I’d had lunch with her and all of her friends. “When Lisbeth realised who I was at lunch on my second day at TAFE, Ruby leaned across the table and slammed her hand over Lisbeth’s mouth. She barely knew me at that point, and she was already protecting me.”

“I think I like this Ruby,” Mum said, and I grinned. “If you want to invite them that’s fine by me, and I’m sure your dad won’t mind. Is there anywhere in particular you want to have dinner?”

“Not particularly. Just make sure it’s somewhere with wheelchair access, Ruby has a bit of trouble with stairs.”

Before we finished our chat roughly ten minutes later, Mum asked me about something I hadn’t even considered since meeting Ruby.

“Tay, I know this isn’t something you like talking about, but do Ruby and Lisbeth know?”

I didn’t need to ask Mum what she meant – the unspoken meaning in her words was clear. “Lisbeth probably does,” I replied. “She’s pretty clued-in. Ruby, though…I don’t know, to be honest. I’d have to ask her.” Knowing my luck though, she has no idea, I thought resignedly.

And as it turned out, I was right.

The next time I saw Ruby at TAFE was more than a week later. Rather than eating in the campus canteen as I normally did, my destination that Thursday lunchtime was the library – my art class was due to meet there after lunch, and so I felt it was worth my while getting there a bit early. I was walking across the pavers to get to the library itself when I saw Ruby wheeling herself through the nearby breezeway, Sadie keeping pace at her side.

“Ruby!” I called out, and was greeted with a tired smile when she looked over at me.

“Hey,” she said once she had drawn level with me. “Thought you’d be in the canteen with everyone else.”

“I have class in the library this arvo,” I explained. “Figured I’d eat here instead. Feel like joining me?”

“If it means I don’t have to drag myself up that hill, I’m all for it,” Ruby replied. “I…” She took her hands off her wheelchair’s hand rims and dug them into her closed eyes. “I don’t even know why I came today. I should be at home in bed right now.”

“You definitely don’t look well. You want me to drop you home?”

Ruby shook her head. “Not yet. I got a taxi here, didn’t trust myself driving – if Lis can’t drop me home after class I’ll consider taking you up on it.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” She smiled at this. “Come on, let’s go inside. I want to ask you something.”

The two of us bypassed the library’s café area entirely – its chairs weren’t all that comfortable, and there wasn’t a lot of room for Ruby’s wheelchair – instead heading into the library itself. The library had two lounge areas barricaded off from the main floor area, both of them set up with two lounges and a coffee table apiece, and we ended up hanging a left into the nearest one as soon as we had gone through the security gates. “Okay, what did you want to ask me?” Ruby asked once we were settled side-by-side on one of the lounges, Sadie keeping guard over her mistress’ wheelchair.

“My parents are having a birthday party for me next Saturday evening in Newcastle,” I replied as I unwrapped the tinfoil from around my sandwich. “And I was wondering if you’d like to come.”

“You want me to come to your birthday party?” she asked, and I nodded. “Wouldn’t your family have a problem with that? Considering I’m a fan and everything.”

“That’s what I thought at first. But I rang my mum last Monday afternoon after I dropped my sister off at the train station. Both she and my dad are totally fine with it. I did get a little of the third degree over it, though – Mum wanted to make sure I trusted you and Lis before she gave me the okay.”

“You trust me?”

I was a little taken aback at Ruby’s tone – she sounded more than a little uncertain and shocked. “I trust you,” I told her. “Remember what you did at lunch on the first Thursday of term?”

“I made Lis shut up.”

“Yeah, by slamming your hand over her mouth. And that’s when I knew I could trust you.” I twisted myself around so I was facing Ruby side-on. “You barely knew me, and you were already protecting me.”

“Most fans would do the same,” Ruby said, sounding almost dismissive.

“Honestly? I don’t think they would. It’s like…” I trailed off, allowing my gaze to drift over to the magazine display that encircled the lower half of the stairs up to the library’s first floor. “Over the last sixteen years, for the most part people have only liked me for what I am. They don’t really care about who I am. Since Middle Of Nowhere came out, I’ve been able to count on both hands the number of people who have been able to look past the fact that I’m a celebrity.” I placed particular emphasis on that last word, my tone sounding unintentionally distasteful. “It’s made it a little difficult for me to get to know other people – I can never be totally sure that they don’t have an ulterior motive.”

“That has to suck.”

I smiled wryly. “That is a massive understatement. Most of my friends, we went through primary and high school together. One of my best mates is a rare exception, we met at uni.” I picked at the crusts of my sandwich. “So how about it? I really do want you to come – Lisbeth, Ella and Anthony as well if they like. I want my friends there, and you four are my friends so…” I shrugged.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Ruby asked, before giving me a smile. “I’d love to come.”

“Awesome. I’ll let my mum know this afternoon when I get home.”

The two of us were quiet for a little while, allowing the sounds of the library on a Thursday at lunchtime to surround us – the librarians checking out students’ books, DVDs and CDs, a teacher overseeing their class at the computers in the information commons, a study group clustered around a table just past the reference section, even the photocopiers under the stairs working overtime to print out one thing or another. A quick glance at my watch revealed the time to be ten past twelve – I had twenty minutes left before my classmates would descend on the library, so I was going to enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasted. Ruby broke our silence just as the second hand on my watch swept past the twelve.

“Can I ask you something?”

“‘Course you can.”

I watched as Ruby twisted the hem of her T-shirt around her fingers. “A couple of weeks ago, Lisbeth told me you would have some idea of what I’ve been going through for the last eight and a half years. What did she mean by that?”

Were it anyone else asking me this question, I would tell them to look me up on Wikipedia and consider the subject closed. But Ruby was different – she was my friend, and so she deserved to hear it from me. “We should talk somewhere quiet,” I said as I scrunched the tinfoil that had been wrapped around my sandwich into a ball.

‘Somewhere quiet’ turned out to be upstairs in the library, at the long table right in the middle of the large space between two shelves of DVDs. The first thing I did as soon as I’d sat down with my back to one of the shelves was take my iPad out of my backpack, flip its case open and unlock it.

“I don’t really like talking about this,” I said as I opened my photos app and tapped the Albums button. “For me it’s like your chronic fatigue is for you, if that makes any sense.”

“No, that makes complete sense,” Ruby said. I managed a small smile and busied myself with hunting through the album marked 2002. Once I’d found the photograph I was looking for – one of me sitting up in a hospital bed, a dark blue CanTeen bandanna tied securely over my bare scalp and four long, thin plastic tubes snaking out of the collar of my T-shirt – I set my iPad flat on the table for Ruby to look at. She automatically bent down over it, her hair swinging forward over her shoulder. “It’s a little confronting, I know.”

“Who is it?” Ruby asked as she studied the photograph.

“Me.”

Ruby’s head snapped up so fast I thought she was going to end up with whiplash, and she stared at me. “That’s you?

I nodded. “Yeah. I was nineteen when that one was taken.” I ran my left thumbnail along the edge of the table. “How much of 2002 do you remember?”

“You mean aside from the fact that it was hell on wheels for most of it?” she asked, her tone obviously rhetorical, and I let out a quiet laugh. “Not a lot aside from the HSC, if I’m going to be honest with you. I do remember seeing something in the paper about you being in the hospital for a little while, though. There were all these rumours flying about that you’d got yourself landed in a psych ward or something like that, but that was mostly from the idiots I went to high school with.”

“Oh that’s charming,” I said, unimpressed by this but not entirely surprised.

“Understatement of the century, that is.” She eyed me for a little while. “The bit about you ending up in hospital wasn’t a rumour though, was it? I mean, this photo” she tapped the edge of my iPad’s case “was obviously taken in hospital, so I’m guessing not.”

“No, that bit was true. I was in hospital for…” I trailed off and frowned, mentally counting up the months I’d been stuck in hospital at first. “Almost nine months to begin with.”

Ruby let out a low, quiet whistle. “Bloody hell,” she said softly.

“Yeah.”

“Is it okay if I ask why? I mean, if that’s not too forward of me.”

“No, it’s not too forward of you. You’re one of my friends – you deserve to know why.”

I unbuttoned my shirt and shrugged it off my shoulders, letting it hang over the back of my chair, and hooked a finger over the collar of the T-shirt I was wearing underneath. Pulling down on my collar exposed my right collarbone and the scar just above it. Even after nearly eight years it was still very visible – a slightly raised, oval-shaped mark about the same size as my index fingernail that was a couple of shades lighter than my normal skin tone, sitting maybe a hair’s breadth above my collarbone.

“I had a central line for nearly three years,” I explained once my scar was covered once more. “Needed to have chemotherapy for about that long, and it was either get one of those put in or be jabbed with needles at the beginning of every cycle.”

“You had cancer?” Ruby asked, clearly shocked.

I nodded. “Non-Hodgkin lymphoma to be exact. It…I would not wish it on my worst enemy, let’s put it that way. I’m lucky to still be here – it very nearly killed me.”

“Jesus Christ,” Ruby whispered. “I never realised…” I watched her bite down hard on her bottom lip. “Clearly I’ve been living under a rock for the last decade and a bit.”

“Clearly,” I echoed. “I was diagnosed at the end of July 2002, a week after I went back to uni after my winter break. I got sick a couple of months before that, though. Second Tuesday back at uni, I passed out right in the middle of my Performance Skills class and woke up in Emergency at Wollongong Hospital right as my head was being stitched up. I’d whacked my head on the edge of my desk and split it open.”

“Ow,” Ruby winced. “I’m guessing that’s why you dropped out of uni.”

“Pretty much. I couldn’t exactly go to classes while I was stuck in hospital – some of my classmates did bring my assignments with them when they visited, but I couldn’t focus on my work. Decided just before Christmas that year that I was going to drop out and try again another time.” I shrugged. “Didn’t happen, but it doesn’t bother me. I like TAFE better.”

Ruby smiled at this. “What happened after you got out of hospital?”

“Moved back in with my parents, up in Newcastle. I’d been in Wollongong Hospital until then. For want of a better word it sucked, and not just because of the chemotherapy either. My family visited as much as they could, but there’s something like two hundred kilometres between here and Newcastle – it’s a long way. Soon as I got turned loose I jumped at the chance to go home.” I gave a one-shouldered shrug. “I still had to spend time in hospital up in Newcastle, but it was mostly as an outpatient. Only had to be in hospital overnight a couple of times once I went home. Plus I was a lot closer to my family so it didn’t bother me as much.” I studied Ruby for a little while. “You really didn’t know?”

She shook her head. “I live under a rock, remember?” She managed a tiny smile at this.

I echoed her smile with one of my own. “I made remission in May 2005, and I ended up spending the next five years looking back over my shoulder – there was always a chance that it’d come back when I least expected it. Still is, really, but I’ve been very lucky over the last seven years – I haven’t had any major scares, and I caught a really nasty case of the flu off one of my sisters last winter but that’s it. I’m still here, and I’m very thankful for that.”

“I’m glad you’re still here, Taylor,” Ruby said.

“Me too, Ruby. Me too.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

Ruby

“Hey Ruby, check this out!”

I looked up from perusing the table in the middle of the store that was laden down with notebooks of various sizes and colours, along with quite a few jars of pens and pencils – I particularly liked the look of one notebook that had a multi-coloured glasses-wearing cat on the front – at Lisbeth. She was holding up a book with a brown leather-look cover that had The Coffee Snob embossed on the front in gold. “You should get this for Taylor for his birthday. It’s perfect.”

I burst out laughing. “If you’re sure he wouldn’t take it the wrong way,” I said once my laughter tapered off.

“Like hell he would.” She started flipping through the book. “He’d get a kick out of it. We all know about his addiction to Gloria Jean’s and Starbucks – he can use it to make notes on every coffee he drinks over the next however many months it lasts him. I’m not sure how many pages there are in it.”

“How much is it?” I asked.

“Seventeen dollars,” she replied, and I sucked in a breath through my teeth. “Yeah, I know, but it’s perfect for him. I’d get it but I’m not going to his party so…” She shrugged apologetically. “Stupid Woolies.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll get it for him. Give it over.” I held out my free hand, the one that didn’t have a tight grip on the handle of my walking stick, and Lisbeth came over and handed the book to me. “What else d’you think I should get him?”

“Well a birthday card, definitely…” Lisbeth trailed off as she wandered over to the display of greeting cards, next to the sales counter. I picked up three notebooks for myself – the cat notebook I’d been staring at when Lisbeth had interrupted me, another with a blue, pink and white marbled cover, and a third that had a surfer, a lifeguard’s stand and 1993 on the front – and followed her. “Shame he’s not turning eighteen, this one’d be perfect.” She held up a black card that had 18ohshityeah on the front in neon pink script.

“Or a chick,” I added.

“Yeah, that too.”

We ended up leaving Typo without finding a good birthday card for Taylor. I did, however, have my three new notebooks and part of his birthday present, while Lisbeth carried a metal plaque of the Eiffel Tower that had a map of Paris in its background. “Where to next?” Lisbeth asked.

“Rebel Sport,” I decided.

“Why Rebel Sport?”

“Because he likes the Sydney Roosters,” I said with a shrug. “What?” I asked when I saw Lisbeth staring at me.

“How is it you know what footy team he goes for, something he’s only mentioned in interviews once or twice, but you had no idea he had cancer for almost three years until he told you?” she asked.

“Keep your fucking voice down,” I hissed. “His car has Roosters numberplates, for one, and besides which his phone case is a Roosters one. That’s how I know.”

“What’re you going to get him, then?” Lisbeth asked as we headed toward the lifts.

“A scarf, probably, maybe a hat if they don’t cost too much. NRL gear isn’t exactly cheap.”

Outside of Crown Central, Crown Street Mall and in turn the Gateway were absolutely teeming with people. “We should probably hurry up,” Lisbeth said as we rode the escalator down to level two of the Gateway. “This place closes in an hour.”

“Yeah and it’s not going to take me a bloody hour to find what I’m after,” I said. “Give me some credit. It’s not like he’s one of my brothers and I have no idea what I’m going to get him other than an iTunes gift card.”

“I’d have thought he went for the Knights, though, seeing as he’s from Newcastle,” Lisbeth mused. By this point we had stepped onto the escalator that would take us down into Rebel Sport. “Not the Chooks.”

“Doesn’t mean shit,” I said. We hopped off the escalator and walked through Rebel Sport’s security gates. “I’ve lived in Wollongong my entire life and you never saw me going for the Steelers. Or the Dragons for that matter. It’s been the Roosters since I was six and old enough to know what football was.” I grinned at this – I liked knowing that I went for the same football team as one of my favourite musicians.

Rebel Sport’s NRL section was right near the front of the store, on the left-hand side of the level one entrance. While Lisbeth poked around in the racks of team jerseys, I arrowed straight for the hats and scarves. It soon became clear that for this season at least, the amount of half-decent Sydney Roosters scarves and baseball caps was fairly thin on the ground. I bit back a quiet sigh and picked the only promising-looking scarf up off its shelf. “Hey Lis?” I called out, and held up the scarf for her to see – it had white, red and dark blue stripes of varying widths and a dark blue border, with a small Sydney Roosters emblem near one of the ends. “What do you think?”

“Really?” she asked, her tone dubious.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” I pulled a face at her and shoved the scarf back on its shelf. “So much for that, then.”

“What about Dymocks?” Lisbeth asked as we headed out of Rebel Sport, toward the escalators that led up to and down from level two. “They’d probably have some books or DVDs about the Roosters. Or maybe the ABC Shop, I think he likes Red Dwarf.”

“Yeah and that probably costs a shitload of money. You’ve seen how much they want for Doctor Who and Torchwood, right? Bloody BBC jacks up the price.” I gave my Typo bag a little shake. “I might get him some chocolate to go with the notebook – I’ll duck into Woolies on my way home tomorrow or something. I saw Darrell Lea’s version of Jaffas in there last week, I reckon he’d like those.”

“So we’re done then?” Lisbeth asked, and I nodded. “Sweet. Come on, let’s go get some dinner – there’s an Indian place near Woolies I want to try.”

Our shopping done, we headed upstairs and out of the Gateway, walking down the Mall toward Church Street. Soon enough we had crossed Burelli Street at the intersection outside of the Greater Union cinemas, and from there it was a short walk to the Indian Home Diner. We ordered our dinner – butter chicken and basmati rice for me, and chicken biryani for Lisbeth – and took seats at one of the restaurant’s tables. “So how are you and Taylor getting to Newcastle this weekend?” Lisbeth asked once we were settled.

“The train,” I replied. “It’s exhausting me just thinking about it.”

“You’re not driving?”

“Nope,” I replied. “We were messaging on Hanson.net last night and he told me driving between Wollongong and Newcastle, for him anyway, is absolutely hair-raising. Especially with the drive up and down Bulli Pass. Though how that’s worse than Macquarie Pass or Mount Ousley, I have no idea.” I shrugged a little. “It’ll take us longer than driving, but at least going by train we can get up and stretch our legs every so often. Can’t really do that driving unless you pull off to the side of the highway.” I pulled my handbag up onto my lap and rooted around in it for my notebook. “So basically,” I said as I found my notebook and started flipping through it for the train times that Taylor and I had agreed on, “I’m going to stay over at his place Friday night, so we can get an early train from Towradgi on Saturday morning – it’s the closest station to where he lives.” I found the page in question and traced my finger along the lines I’d written our train times on. “We’re catching the five thirty-eight from Towradgi to Central – that gets us to Central at eight past seven – and from there the eight-fifteen to Kotara. That’ll get us to Newcastle at around ten to eleven.”

“That’s insane,” Lisbeth said.

“Yep,” I agreed. “Either his mum, his dad or one of his brothers is going to meet us at the train station in Newcastle, and I think one of his sisters is catching the train with us from Sydney.” I scrubbed a hand over my eyes. “I am so not looking forward to the trip home. Depending on how late his party goes, I’ll probably be getting home at some ridiculous hour of Sunday morning. It’ll take me days to recover.”

“I reckon it’ll be worth it,” Lisbeth said right as our meals were brought to our table. She picked up the fork that had come with her biryani and poked the boiled egg off to one side of her plate. “I mean, you’ve never been to Newcastle before, have you?”

“Nope.” I started folding the rice into my butter chicken as I spoke. “First time for everything, I suppose. I might end up staying longer than one day if I like it there.”

“I’ll expect plenty of photos.”

“So long as you promise not to spread them all over Tumblr,” I replied. “Or Facebook for that matter.” I eyed her briefly and forked some of my dinner into my mouth.

“I wouldn’t do that Rue, you know that,” Lisbeth said. She sounded very defensive.

“I’m trying to protect one of my friends Lis, can you blame me?”

“No, I suppose not.” Lisbeth gave me a smile. “It’s nice being friends with him, isn’t it?”

I mirrored Lisbeth’s smile. “It’s very nice,” I agreed. “I just hope nothing happens to fuck things up. I might like things to go a little further someday.”

Lisbeth’s smile turned into a very wicked grin. “You like him!” she almost crowed. “I told you months ago that you liked him, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, okay, I like him,” I admitted, feeling my face beginning to heat up. “But you are going to keep your mouth shut about it until I work up the nerve to ask him out!”

“Changed your tune pretty bloody quick, didn’t you?” Lisbeth’s tone this time was very sly, and I loaded my fork with some of my dinner with the intent of flinging it at her. “Okay, okay, I’ll shut up about it,” she said hurriedly, her hands raised in surrender.

“That’s more like it.” I smirked at Lisbeth and went back to eating my dinner.

On Friday afternoon after TAFE, I didn’t go straight home as I usually did. Instead, I stayed on the Princes Highway beyond my usual turnoff onto Towradgi Road, hanging a right into Thurston Crescent in Corrimal just as I passed by Baden Powell Park. Taylor’s house was the second on the left after a hairpin bend – it was a white house with a red tile roof set a little way back from the street, with his Lancer parked in the driveway under the carport. I pulled my car in behind it and cut the engine.

“You are full of surprises, Taylor Hanson,” I said with a quiet chuckle.

Taylor met me at his front door after I rang the doorbell, armed with a chef’s knife that looked wickedly sharp. “Hey,” he said cheerfully.

“Hey yourself,” I replied as he let me inside. “Can I let Sadie out into the backyard? She needs to work off some of her energy before she settles down for the night.”

“Yeah, go ahead – back door’s in the sunroom at the back of the house.” He shut the front screen and wooden doors behind me once I along with Sadie and my backpack were completely inside, and I gave him a smile before leading Sadie through to the back of the house.

Once I had let Sadie outside, I quickly ducked back into the front hall and tucked her lead and jacket into my backpack, and glanced back into the kitchen before pulling out a neatly-wrapped parcel and an envelope. I could hear Taylor singing to himself as he worked in the kitchen, and I leaned on the piano that sat against the dining room wall so I could listen, keeping the parcel and envelope hidden behind my back.

“I’m standing here on the ground…the sky above won’t fall down…see no evil in all directions…resolution of happiness…things have been dark for too long…don’t change for you…don’t change a thing for me…”

“I didn’t know you liked INXS,” I commented, and Taylor broke off singing to look back over his shoulder at me.

“I love INXS,” he said. “First band I ever remember liking – my dad is mad about them.”

“What’s your favourite INXS song?”

Taylor put his knife down on the chopping board he was using and turned around to face me, brow furrowed in seeming concentration. “Shine Like It Does,” he said eventually.

“Good song,” I said, and was rewarded with a grin. “Come over here, I have something for you.”

“Well, if you insist,” he said, stepping away from the kitchen bench and over to the table and chairs that sat in the middle of the dining room.

“It’s either you get it now or you wait until tomorrow night,” I said, and waved the parcel teasingly just above my right shoulder. “And I know which one I’d rather.” I waited until he was just inside my reach before holding it out to him. “Happy birthday for yesterday.”

Those four words made Taylor’s eyes light right up. “Thanks,” he said with a wide smile, tearing the envelope open as he spoke. I put my hands behind my back and crossed my fingers, feeling suddenly nervous – the closest I had got up until now to wishing any member of Hanson a happy birthday was sending out a tweet on each of their birthdays. I honestly had no idea what Taylor would think of what I had bought him, and I could only hope he liked them. “Oh, sweet!” he said once he’d unwrapped my birthday present to him – the coffee journal from Typo, a package of Hershey’s Kisses, and a teddy bear dressed in a miniature Sydney Roosters team uniform.

My nervousness melted away in an instant. “So you like them?” I asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.

“Yep,” he replied. “Okay, this is awesome,” he said with a chuckle as he flipped through the coffee journal. “Where did you find this?”

“Typo,” I replied.

“This is brilliant, really.” He set the journal down on the table next to the teddy bear. “Thanks, Ruby,” he said, before enveloping me in a hug. The teenie that lived permanently in the back of my head started screaming He’s hugging me Taylor fucking Hanson is HUGGING ME, and it took every last smidgen of self-control I possessed not to let that side of myself take over.

“You’re welcome, Taylor,” I replied as I hugged him back. “So what are you cooking?” were the first words out of my mouth once we had broken apart.

“Honey soy and garlic chicken stir-fry, vegies and noodles,” Taylor replied as he went back over to the stove. “Before I get into it though, is there anything you can’t eat? I don’t want to make you sick or anything.”

“Nope, nothing. You want a hand?”

He looked back over his shoulder at me. “Only if you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind at all. I hardly ever get to cook unless I’m over at my parents’ – my kitchen is fucking tiny and I really only have enough space to cook some noodles or to heat up a tin of soup or spaghetti sauce.” I flashed him a grin. “What can I do?”

Taylor’s immediate response was to point at the refrigerator with the blade of his knife. “Second shelf from the top, packet of hokkien noodles – there’s a plastic jug in the cupboard over the oven, put the noodles in it.” With his other hand, he flicked the switch on the electric kettle that sat next to the stove. “Once the kettle’s boiled, fill the jug with water.”

“On it.” I walked up behind him, raised myself up on my tiptoes and opened the cupboard above the oven. It took a bit of blind rooting around but my right hand finally closed around the handle of the jug that Taylor had said would be in there. From there it was just a matter of finding the noodles in the refrigerator, tipping them out of their packet into the jug, and waiting for the kettle to boil.

The two of us worked in a companionable silence for almost half an hour. Taylor’s kitchen was tiny, something like three paces across, so the two of us worked back-to-back – Taylor at the stove, poking chicken pieces around in a frying pan, and me at the short stretch of kitchen bench between the refrigerator and the wall chopping up vegetables.

“Can I ask you a quick question?” I asked once dinner was on the table.

“Yeah, sure.”

I stabbed at my bowl of chicken, vegetables and noodles with my chopsticks. “Why do you live in Corrimal? I’d have thought you lived in Wollongong.”

Taylor chuckled quietly. “My brothers asked me that question a couple of months ago, did you know that?” He twirled some noodles around his chopsticks and shoved them in his mouth. “It’s quiet here,” he replied finally. “I did look at a few places on Cliff Road, but they have buses and cars going past at all hours – that wasn’t worth having the beach practically across the road. It takes me a little longer than I’d like to get to the beach for a surf, but it doesn’t bother me all that much. Besides which, I lived most of my life in the city – I needed a change of scenery.”

“That’s fair enough. This is really good, by the way.”

My comment on Taylor’s cooking was rewarded with a grin. “Thanks, Ruby.”

“No worries.” I mirrored his grin and continued eating my dinner.


“Hey Taylor! Over here!”

The voice that had yelled out at Taylor and I, I saw when I looked over at the destination board just inside the ticket barrier, belonged to a very tall young woman dressed in jeans, a bright pink T-shirt and sandals, her blonde hair pulled back in two low pigtails. From the way that Taylor started walking faster upon hearing his name called out, I figured this had to be one of his sisters.

“Ruby, this is my sister Avery,” Taylor said to introduce us. “Ave, this is my friend Ruby McCormick.”

Avery stuck out a hand. “Nice to meet you, Ruby,” she said, and I shook her hand. I watched as she glanced at Taylor with one eyebrow raised, and I could have sworn he gave his sister an almost-imperceptible nod. “We’ve got something like an hour until our train, d’you guys want to go and grab some breakfast?”

“Just as long as it’s not bloody Hungry Jack’s,” Taylor said.

“Fuck no,” Avery said. “Definitely not Hungry Jack’s. There’s this café on Crown Street in Surry Hills that I go to sometimes, especially if I have time before uni – it’s not too far from here. And hell, Mum said we don’t even need to be in Newy until at least two o’clock so we can take it easy if we like. There’s another train at a quarter past ten that we can catch instead.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said.

True to Avery’s word, the café wasn’t far away at all. A walk through the Devonshire Street tunnel up into Elizabeth Street, followed by a left turn into Crown Street from Devonshire Street at the lights near the Actors Centre, brought us to a dark grey building with a sign reading fouratefive above its front door. I bit back a laugh at the café’s name once I caught sight of its street number, 485 – it was a very clever play on words. I figured it had to have opened for the day’s trade very recently, as there weren’t many people sitting at its tables. The three of us claimed a table near the front window, Sadie settling herself at my feet, and set about deciding what to have for breakfast.

“What are you doing at uni?” I asked Avery once I had decided what I was going to have for breakfast.

“Honours in Fine Arts at UNSW,” Avery replied. “Major study’s in painting and drawing.”

“Nice. Sounds a bit like what Taylor’s doing at TAFE.”

“Sort of,” Avery hedged. “Fine Arts is a fair bit more in-depth than what Tay’s doing, plus I want to get my Diploma of Education after I’ve finished this year – I need my degree for that.”

“She wants to be an art teacher,” Taylor added. “Ever since she was little.”

“I can speak for myself, thank you Taylor,” Avery said, her tone a little sharp, and she got up from her seat. “I’ll go order for us, okay?”

Once Taylor and I had told Avery what we wanted for breakfast and handed over enough cash to cover our individual orders, she wandered over to the sales counter. “So Avery wants to be a teacher?” I asked Taylor.

He nodded and started playing with a sugar packet from the jar on our table. “Like our mum. Mum teaches Music at Merewether High, so Ave’s pretty much just following in her footsteps.”

“What about the rest of your sibs?”

“Well…” Taylor leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling above us. “Jess is a dance teacher, Josh is doing his Foundation Diploma at AFTRS, and Zoë’s still in high school – she’s in Year 9 at Kotara High. I think she wants to go to NIDA when she’s finished Year 12.”

“Sounds like a pretty creative family.”

“We have our moments,” Avery said as she returned to the table. “Runs in the family pretty much, at least on our mum’s side. Most of Dad’s side of the family lives in the US, and we’ve never met them so I can’t say for sure.” She cracked a smile. “Our parents are a little crazier than most, but even they draw the line at dragging seven kids on a fourteen-hour flight across the Pacific. They won’t even tackle the Sydney to Auckland run with all of us.”

“Josh is a little shithead so can you really blame them?” Taylor said. “He was bad enough in the back of the Kombi, imagine him in a plane cabin for three hours. He’d drive the flight attendants up the wall.” He got up from his seat. “Excuse me.”

Almost at the second that Taylor was out of earshot, Avery leaned across the table and eyed me. “If Taylor finds out you heard this from me, he’ll smack me,” she said quietly. “But he told me that he likes you.”

“Really?”

She nodded. “He hasn’t had a girlfriend since he was in Year 11, so far as I know anyway, and he hasn’t had a lot of time to go on dates the last eight or so years. Between spending nearly three years in and out of hospital, and the next six or so after that either recording or out on tour…” She shrugged. “Bit hard to pick up chicks when you’re flat out doing this that or the other.”

“Charming, Ave,” Taylor said dryly as he sat back down at the table. “Mum would belt you if she heard you talking like that.”

“She’ll only find out I was talking like that if you tell her, Jordan,” Avery retorted, using what I knew to be Taylor’s first name, and I bit back a snicker when he flinched at hearing it. “Oh grow up, it’s your name isn’t it?”

“Yeah, and you know damn well I only get called Jordan when I’m in deep shit, Laurel,” he snapped. “So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t particularly like being called by my first name.”

I had a feeling Avery was about to snap out another retort of her own, but her potential argument with her brother was forestalled by the arrival of breakfast – Avery’s French toast and peppermint tea, Taylor’s bacon and scrambled eggs and coffee, and my muesli and a banana smoothie. It had been quite a while since I had treated myself to this sort of breakfast, and so I was going to enjoy it while it lasted.

“So how did you two meet, anyway?” Avery asked as she cut a bite from her French toast and loaded it with some of the mascarpone and rhubarb from her plate. “I know you go to the same TAFE, but there has to be more to it than that.”

“Last night of the regional tour,” I replied. “We kind of bumped into one another at Crust Pizza in Wollongong before the concert. He ended up spending most of the show that night sneaking glances at me.”

Avery let out a snicker. “So you’re the girl who nearly made him pass out on stage!” she almost crowed. “And here I thought Zac was exaggerating.” She gave me a grin. “Nice one, Ruby.”

“Yeah, okay, let’s all laugh at Taylor,” Taylor said darkly. “One of the prettiest girls I had ever laid eyes on had caught my eye all over again, can you really blame me?”

The second Taylor said this, a sort of fluttery feeling took up residence somewhere in the region of my stomach, and I found it almost impossible to hide a smile. I couldn’t hide the blush that I knew was rising on my face, though.

Taylor Hanson – the lead singer of my favourite band and one of my friends, not to mention someone who I had crushed on for all of my teen years and subsequently spent nearly all of my twenties lusting after – thought I was pretty. In his own words, I was one of the prettiest girls he had ever seen. It was almost enough to wake my inner teenie up again. But I damped that down, and instead got up from my seat. “Excuse me,” I managed to choke out before snatching up my walking stick and fleeing the café.

I really had no way of telling how long I’d sat on my backside on the footpath outside the café, backed up against the wall between fouratefive and the organic health food store next door, but when I finally looked up it was to see a very concerned Taylor crouched in front of me.

“Hey, you okay?” he asked, and I nodded. “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you. I didn’t mean to.”

“You didn’t embarrass me,” I assured him. “It’s just…you think I’m pretty.”

“Well, it’s true,” he said with a shrug. “You are pretty, Ruby. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say you’re gorgeous. You did take my breath away, after all.” He cracked a grin. “Not many girls have ever been able to do that.” He reached over and tucked a few stray locks of my hair behind my ears, his trailing fingertips sending sparks hurtling down my spine and out into my extremities.

“But why me? Why not some other girl you spotted in the crowd?”

“Because those girls aren’t you. That’s why.” He shifted out of his crouch and settled himself down on the hard footpath next to me. “Okay, yeah, I guess I could pick any girl, but they wouldn’t be you. I like you Ruby, okay? Nobody else, just you. To you, I’m not Taylor Hanson the celebrity. I’m just Taylor. And I like that – I like that you can see beyond who I am on the surface, and that I can be myself with you. I don’t need to put on an act around you. It’s a good thing, trust me.”

“I like you too,” I admitted. I looked up at the clear blue sky above us, through the leaves of the oak tree that stood just a few metres away. “I guess I have since December. I just…I haven’t wanted to admit it to myself since then, or to anyone else for that matter. Thought I’d get laughed at.”

“I would never laugh at you, Ruby,” Taylor said. “Not unless you did something to make me laugh. And even then I’d be laughing with you, not at you. Okay? I can promise you that much.” He eased himself back to his feet with a quiet groan. “Ugh, I’m getting old,” he groused as he reached down to help me up.

“Thirty is hardly old,” I said once I was on my own feet with the handle of my walking stick firmly in hand. “A little terrifying, yeah, but not that old.” I looked him up and down briefly. “I’d have to say you don’t look a day over twenty.”

He grinned. “Come on, let’s go and finish our breakfast,” he said, and slung an arm around my shoulders. “Otherwise that sister of mine is going to remember she takes after both me and our dad, and that she has a bottomless pit for a stomach. She’ll eat both of our breakfasts when she’s done with hers if we don’t stop her.”

I let out a laugh at this. “After you, then.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Taylor

When our train arrived at Adamstown station just before ten minutes to one that afternoon, spilling Ruby, Sadie, Avery and I along with a handful of others onto the platform, it was to find Zac and Zoë waiting for us. The two of them were sitting under the awning of platform two’s station building, Zoë perched on the backrest of the seat that faced our train with her bare feet on the seat’s bench and Zac next to her. I sneaked around behind the two of them and put my hands over Zoë’s eyes. “Guess who?” I said quietly right in her ear.

“Don’t know, it’s lost its tag,” she said, and twisted herself around just as I uncovered her eyes. The blue eyes she shared with me, Jessica and our dad lit right up when she saw me. “Tay!” she squealed, and launched herself off the bench seat into my arms.

“Hello Zoë,” I said, laughing as I spoke. “Miss me did you?”

“Yep,” she replied. “Okay, you can put me down now,” she said, her tone taking on a sense of warning. Instead of putting her down, I threw her over my right shoulder and carried her out onto the platform. “Put me down!” she shrieked.

“Nope,” I said, and walked back over to Ruby and Avery, Zoë’s feet kicking out in front of me and her hands beating on my back the whole way. “Ruby, this is my baby sister Zoë,” I said, introducing the two of them.

“I’m fifteen Taylor – I’m not a baby anymore!” Zoë shouted practically right in my ear.

At these words I let Zoë slide back down onto her feet. “You may not be a baby anymore, but you will always be my baby sister,” I told her, ruffling her hair. “Zo, this is my friend Ruby McCormick – we go to TAFE together.”

“Hi Zoë,” Ruby said, holding out the hand that didn’t have a tight grip on the handle of her walking stick. Zoë took Ruby’s hand in hers and shook it quickly.

“Mum said to bring you guys back to the house soon as we picked you up,” Zac said as he came up beside me. I saw him grin at Ruby. “You’re Ruby, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Ruby replied with a nod. “Zac, right?”

“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” Zac replied. “Come on you lot, sooner we get back to the house the sooner we can have lunch.”

Once we left the station, it was just a short drive through to where my parents lived on Toohey Crescent in Adamstown Heights. The house that Zoë and my parents still called home was a two-story redbrick house with a terracotta tile roof, a self-contained flat beneath the main house that my brothers and I had commandeered for our band practices not long after we had all moved in, and plenty of room for all of my immediate and extended family whenever we all gathered for Christmas and various birthdays. As we piled out of Zac’s ute into the front yard, I watched as Ruby looked up at the house – she looked like a deer caught in headlights, and I nudged her gently. She looked over at me, wide-eyed.

“You grew up here?” she asked. “Bloody hell, this is really nice…”

“Kind of,” I hedged, and began to steer her away from the driveway. “We moved here in 1999 – lived in Broadmeadow up until then.” I waved in the vague direction of my old neighbourhood. “I’ll show you our old place if you like. But until I moved down to Wollongong, then yeah this was home. My parents and Zoë still live here, mostly because it’s really close to Zoë’s high school.”

“And then there’s all the nephews, nieces and cousins that turn it into a madhouse every birthday and Christmas,” Zoë said as she led the way up the front path. “No way we’d all fit into the old house, that place was tiny. Not that I remember it but I’ve seen pictures.”

“Are you sure I should even be here?” Ruby asked me in an undertone. We had stopped walking at the bottom of the stairs that led up onto the front verandah, leaving Zac, Avery and Zoë to barrel their way inside. “I mean, there’s the fan thing to consider here. Your parents know about that, right?”

“Ruby, my mum was the one who said it was okay to invite you – she’s fine with it. My dad is too. If they weren’t okay with it they’d have said so.” I shrugged. “And besides, Mum wants to meet you.”

“Come on you slowpokes!” Zoë yelled at us from inside the house. “I’m hungry and Mum won’t let me in the kitchen until you get in here!”

“Yeah, yeah, hold your bloody horses!” I yelled back, before giving Ruby an apologetic smile and leading her over to the side gate.

Mum was holding court in the kitchen when Ruby and I finally made it inside, the two of us having taken a detour through the backyard so that Ruby could let Sadie off her lead. She looked up from buttering bread for sandwiches as the two of us walked into the dining room, smiling as soon as she spotted us. “There you two are,” she said. To Ruby she said, “You must be Taylor’s friend from TAFE.”

Ruby nodded. “I’m Ruby McCormick, Mrs. Hanson.”

“Call me Diana,” Mum said. “Otherwise I’ll start thinking you’re one of my students and I’ll end up setting you homework.” I snickered at this, and Mum pointed the butter knife at me. “Watch it mister. I don’t care if you are thirty now, you’re not too old to be put over my knee.”

“Sorry Mum,” I apologised, before stepping away from Ruby’s side and walking into the kitchen. “So where’s everyone else?” I asked as I opened the refrigerator.

“Your dad, Isaac and Josh are at the restaurant getting everything finished for this evening,” Mum replied. “Kate and Nikki are helping out with that. Jess and Chris are playing babysitter for the little ones back at their place, so that they don’t get caught underfoot.” There was a short pause. “Don’t even think about drinking the milk straight out of the carton, Jordan Taylor,” she said in warning, and I paused in opening the carton of chocolate milk I’d found in the refrigerator door. “Either use a glass or put it back.”

“I can’t get anything past you, can I?” I asked, and managed to quickly skol some of the milk before putting the carton back in its place.

“I’m your mother, of course you can’t,” Mum replied. “Get the chicken and the cheese out please – Ave, can you duck out to the yard and pick a couple of tomatoes?”

In almost no time at all, we had all sorted out our respective lunches and seated ourselves at the dining table. “Now, Ruby,” Mum said, and I glanced sidelong at Ruby. “Do you have anywhere to stay this weekend? I know it’s a fair hike back down to Wollongong from here.”

“I’ll probably see if any of the motels around here have any vacancies,” Ruby replied. “I didn’t want to impose on anyone.”

“Ruby, you are more than welcome to stay here,” Mum assured her. “You won’t be imposing on us.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ruby open her mouth, and Mum held up a hand. “Ruby, I know that you’re a fan of my three eldest. Taylor told me when he asked if it was okay to invite you to his party tonight. He trusts you and considers you a friend, and that’s enough for his dad and I to trust you as well.”

“If you’re sure,” Ruby said, her tone sounding dubious.

“Ruby, take it from me,” I said as I picked a sunflower seed out of my sandwich and popped it into my mouth, “if I trust someone, then Mum and Dad do as well. Intuition’s always been pretty spot-on. If Mum says it’s okay for you to stay here for the weekend, she means it.” I tapped my right temple and went back to eating my lunch.

“Okay. Thanks, Mrs. Hanson – I mean, Diana,” Ruby amended quickly. “That’s going to take a lot of getting used to.”

“You think that’s going to take getting used to?” Zac said, and I let out an almost silent groan of embarrassment. I knew exactly what story Zac was about to tell. Even after seventeen years it was still too humiliating to even think about it. “Taylor’s very first day of Year 7, he’s in Music class and he calls her ‘Mum’ instead of Mrs. Hanson in front of the entire class. He almost changed schools after that.”

“Thanks so much Zachary,” I mumbled. “You just ruined ten years’ worth of counselling.”

“You went to Merewether High?” Ruby asked, and I nodded.

“Yep. Isaac, Zac and I all did. Jess, Josh and Ave went to Kotara High instead.”

“Yeah, we’d have had the shit teased out of us if we went to Merewether,” Avery said. I scowled at her, and she gave me a sickeningly-sweet smile in response. “Plus do you really think Mum would have let us walk halfway across Newy just to get to school every day? I’m still shocked she let you walk there. When you actually went to school that is.”

“That’s enough out of you three,” Mum said sharply.

“Sorry, Mum,” Zac, Avery and I all said, not quite in unison.

After lunch, and once the table had been cleared, Ruby and I went back out to Zac’s ute to collect our backpacks. “Your mum’s really nice,” Ruby said as I uncovered the tray of the ute. “I’m kind of surprised she’s letting me stay here for the weekend, though. I mean, she doesn’t even know me.”

“She honestly doesn’t care that you’re a fan, Ruby,” I said, and I reached for the shoulder straps of my backpack. “Really, she doesn’t,” I assured her when I saw the worry that had crept onto her face. “She’d have nixed the whole idea of me inviting you if she did. As far as she and my dad are concerned, we’re friends and that’s enough of a reason to have you stay over.” I hauled my backpack out of the tray, carefully lowering it to the grass so that my laptop and iPad didn’t get jostled, before reaching for Ruby’s backpack. “And before you ask, you’ll get to meet my dad later on too. Probably at the party unless he comes back to the house before we all head into town.” Just as I lifted Ruby’s backpack out of the tray I heard a car coming up behind me, and I looked over to my right to see Dad’s car pulling into the driveway. “Speak of the devil,” I said.

“Speak of the what now?” Ruby asked, and I turned her around to face the windscreen of Dad’s car. “Is that your dad?”

“Yep,” I replied. “Hey Dad,” I said as he came up alongside the tray of the ute.

“Hey Tay,” Dad said. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Ruby – we go to TAFE together,” I replied, putting an arm around Ruby’s shoulders and gently drawing her forward as I spoke. “Ruby, this is my dad.”

“Hi Mr. Hanson,” Ruby said quietly, sounding shy all of a sudden.

“Hello Ruby,” Dad said with a smile. To me he said, “Is your mother inside?”

I nodded. “Yep. Last I looked she was in the kitchen.”

Once Dad had headed off inside, I eyed Ruby with one eyebrow raised. “He’s just my dad, Ruby – you don’t have to be shy around him.”

“He might be ‘just your dad’, Tay,” Ruby said, making air-quotes as she spoke, “but in Hanson fandom he’s a bloody legend. Same goes for your mum. I’m just a little intimidated right now, that’s all.”

“I guess I can understand that. I’ll probably feel the same way if I ever meet your parents.” I cracked a smile and hoisted myself up onto the tray of the ute, propping my feet on the rear bumper. “You know what, Ruby?”

“What?”

“I think tonight is going to be very interesting.”

‘Interesting’, as I discovered roughly five hours later, did not even begin to cover it.

For my birthday dinner that evening, my parents had booked out the party room at the Cantina Nelson Bay, a Mexican and Italian restaurant at Nelson Bay Diggers. It was big enough to hold my immediate and extended family and more than a few of my friends – considering how massive my extended family was on my mother’s side, not to mention on my father’s side, this was a good thing – and had seen Ruby looking a little shell-shocked when we’d arrived just after six. She’d gotten used to it fairly quickly, though, and I had seen her talking animatedly with Jessica once we’d all ordered.

Once we had all finished eating and the dinner plates had been cleared away, the overhead lights dimmed and two of the kitchen staff came into the room. One of them carried an absolutely massive chocolate mud cake that, I saw when it was set down in front of me, had (at a quick glance) thirty metallic blue candles dotted around the edge and Happy 30th Birthday Taylor piped on top in what looked like white chocolate. The other carried a tall stack of plates that had a sharp knife on top.

There was one particular tradition that had been a fixture of birthdays growing up in my family, and that nine times out of ten had resulted in a frantic game of kisschasey around the backyard as Isaac, Zac or I chased down the nearest girl. Over the last fifteen or so years our collective enthusiasm for this little tradition had waned somewhat. But as I took up the knife to cut the first piece out of my birthday cake, once I’d made a wish and blown out the candles, I spotted the evil gleam in Zac’s eye that told me he was most definitely up to something. I repeated four words over and over in my head as I slid the blade of the knife through the cake. Don’t touch the plate, don’t touch the plate, don’t touch the plate, I thought frantically, and winced when I heard the unmistakable sound of steel striking china.

“You have to kiss Ruby now!” Joshua crowed, which set everyone else in the room off laughing.

“I do not!” I retorted, even though I knew that he was right.

“That’s the rule, Tay,” Mum said, sounding apologetic, and I fired off a glare in her direction. “You touched the plate with the knife, you have to kiss the nearest girl that you’re not related to.”

And the nearest girl that I’m not related to is Ruby, I realised. This definitely wasn’t the way I’d wanted kissing Ruby for the first time to go. Knowing that my brothers would have a particularly devious punishment in mind if I refused to kiss Ruby, I swallowed hard.

“You don’t have to kiss me, Taylor,” Ruby said, and I looked over at her. She gave me a small smile. “Not if you don’t want to.”

“Oh believe me, I want to,” I assured her. “It’s just…this isn’t how I imagined our first kiss.”

Ruby didn’t say anything in answer to this. Instead, she tapped her left cheek and raised an eyebrow at me. It took me maybe half a second to figure out what she was telling me to do, and I leaned in and quickly kissed her.

“Now was that so bad?” she asked with a grin.

“Never said it would be,” I replied, and proceeded to cut the rest of the first piece of cake – it was raspberry-chocolate ripple underneath all the icing, I could see as I eased that first piece out onto a plate. “Okay, who wants cake?”


“I’m sorry about what happened last night.”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Ruby fix me with an inquisitive look. The two of us were sitting in Dixon Park out at Merewether, watching waves crash on the shore of the nearby beach. On the ground between us, the butcher’s paper held down with my wallet and phone, two bottles of water and Ruby’s handbag so that our lunch didn’t blow away on the wind, was a few dollars’ worth of hot chips from the takeaway place on Ridge Street. Mindful of the fact that we had to catch a train back to Wollongong the next morning, I had borrowed Mum’s car and taken Ruby on a quick tour of my hometown, making a point of showing her the parts of the city that only someone who had grown up in Newcastle would know about.

“It’s all good,” Ruby said. “I have brothers as well. Those two can be real dickheads.”

“So how many brothers and sisters do you have?” I asked, roughly half a second before I popped a couple of hot chips into my mouth.

“Four. Two sisters and two brothers – Taleah and Troy are twins and the oldest, and after me are Ben and Gabbie. So it’s almost as big a family as yours.” She frowned slightly. “Actually, scratch that. I’m pretty sure I don’t have nearly as many cousins as you do. Your family is insane.”

“Just a little bit, yeah. That wasn’t even my whole family though. Most of my cousins on Dad’s side of the family live in the USA. I’m not actually sure how many there are but I know it’s a lot. Two of Dad’s brothers and their families are here and that’s it – rest of them hightailed it back to Oklahoma about twenty years ago. Plus a lot of my mum’s side, we’re spread out all over the east coast.”

“I bet family reunions are interesting.”

I let out a chuckle. “That’s one word for it. We get together out west every few years around Christmas – it gets particularly crazy around that time.” I picked up one of the bottles of water, uncapped it and drank down a few mouthfuls. “Picture your average rugby league team, minus the substitute players, and then multiply that by about twenty – that’ll give you a rough idea of how many of us there are on Mum’s side.”

I could almost see the cogs and wheels turning in Ruby’s head as she worked this out. “Holy shit,” she whispered.

“Yeah. And my family isn’t even the biggest of the lot. One of Mum’s brothers has nine kids.”

She let out a low whistle. “Bloody hell.”

“Mmm-hmm. What about your family though?”

“Other than my mum and dad and my siblings?” Ruby asked, and I nodded. “Mum’s side, I just have an aunt and uncle and three cousins, plus my grandparents. Taleah and Troy also have a couple of kids each. Dad’s side is the crazy one – Dad’s got three sisters and four brothers, plus my other grandparents, and on that side I have practically a metric fucktonne of cousins. I’m not even sure how many there are – I stopped counting after my Aunt Kim and Uncle Ian had their fourth kid.”

This time I let out a proper laugh. “Your dad and my mum would get along well, I think,” I said, earning a smile from Ruby. “Hey, can I ask you a question?”

“So long as I can ask you one as well,” Ruby replied.

“Yeah, no worries.” I pulled at a few blades of grass. “Were you named after a Rolling Stones song, by any chance?”

“Yeah, I was actually. My dad named me after Ruby Tuesday – it’s his favourite Stones song.” Here she broke briefly into song. “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday…who could hang a name on you…when you change with every new day…still I’m gonna miss you…” She shrugged. “Mum drew the line at using ‘Tuesday’ as my middle name, though. I got Therese as my middle name instead.” She dabbed her right index finger at a few patches of chicken salt on the butcher’s paper and stuck her finger into her mouth. “You don’t have to answer this by the way, since I know it’s not something you like to talk about.”

“If anyone else was asking me, I wouldn’t want to talk about it,” I admitted. “But I don’t mind it when you ask me.”

I could have sworn I saw Ruby go slightly pink when I said this. She fidgeted a little before she spoke again, twisting the hem of her T-shirt around in her hands. “After you made remission, did you do anything to, you know, celebrate?”

“Not right away,” I replied. “I was too terrified that it was going to come back at first – I think I was more relieved that I’d survived, to be honest. But when I made it to five years I definitely celebrated. And when Mum found out what I did she almost belted me.”

“What did you do?”

Instead of answering out loud, I pulled my T-shirt off over my head and turned my back to Ruby. On the back of my left shoulder was the reason Mum had gone off her head at me – my first and probably my last tattoo.

“It’s Japanese,” I explained. “Seizon-sha – it means ‘survivor’.” I felt a shiver race its way down my back as Ruby traced the lines in the kanji characters with a fingernail.

“May sixth 2005 – is that the day you made remission?” Ruby asked.

“Yep,” I replied, pulling my T-shirt back on as I spoke. “I got the full all-clear five years after that. Went out and got my tattoo a week later. I’m not totally sure how Mum found out, but she threatened to get the wire brush from Dad’s workshop and scrub it off. I had to promise her that I’d never get another tattoo for as long as I lived to get her to back down.”

It wasn’t until after we had finished our lunch and driven back into town that I worked up the nerve to ask Ruby something I’d had on my mind for at least the last month. Almost on impulse I had turned right off Glebe Road onto Gordon Avenue instead of heading toward home, our route taking us to one of my favourite places in all of Newcastle – the Cold Rock Ice Creamery in Hamilton.

“I hope you like ice cream,” I said as I parked the car outside the noodle shop across the street from Cold Rock.

“I love ice cream,” Ruby said. “If you give me a spoon I will quite happily eat almost half a one-litre tub of Sara Lee rocky road in one sitting. Well, any ice cream flavour really, except for liquorice,” she amended, “but rocky road’s my favourite.”

“Peanut butter’s mine,” I said. We crossed Beaumont Street once I’d locked the car, making sure to look out for any cars, and joined the short line of people that snaked its way out of Cold Rock onto the footpath outside. “Hokey pokey a close second. The hokey pokey has to be the one from New Zealand Natural though – nobody else can make it as well as they can.”

The line moved quickly – surprising for a Sunday afternoon – and we soon had our ice creams in hand. I had gone for my usual – peanut butter ice cream with Maltesers and choc-chip cookie dough in a waffle cone – while Ruby had rocky road with raspberries and gummy bears. Once we had paid for our ice creams we left Cold Rock and headed down Beaumont Street, crossing Cleary Street at the zebra crossing as soon as there was a lull in the traffic. At some point between Cold Rock and the intersection of Beaumont and Lindsay Ruby’s left hand found its way into my right, with neither of us realising what had happened until we went to cross Lindsay Street. She quickly snatched her hand away from mine, and over the rims of my sunglasses I could see her turning bright red. “Sorry,” she said quietly, her voice barely audible over the afternoon’s traffic.

“No, it’s okay,” I assured her, and took her hand into mine once more.

It wasn’t until we got to the Wesley Uniting Church on the corner of Beaumont and Denison that we decided to start walking back to where I’d parked the car. Before we started our walk back, though, I sat down on the low wall that ran around the church on two sides and stretched my legs out onto the footpath. Ruby joined me after a few moments, and I pushed my sunglasses up on top of my head so that I could see her better.

“So what do you think?” I asked.

“I can see why you love it here,” she said. “It…it’s wonderful. I can’t believe I’ve never been here before. I almost wish we didn’t have to go home tomorrow.”

“Reckon you might want to come back?”

She nodded. “Oh, definitely. I might even go for a ride on the ferry next time.”

“I knew we forgot to do something. Next time, yeah?”

“Next time,” she agreed.

The two of us were quiet for a little while, watching people walking past and cars driving along the street. It took me around five minutes to finally get around to saying what had caused the detour in the first place.

“Ruby?”

“Yeah?”

“D’you want to go out with me?”

“Like boyfriend-girlfriend?” Ruby asked. She sounded a little startled by my question, and I wasn’t entirely sure I blamed her for it. I supposed it wasn’t every day that a girl had someone famous asking her out.

I nodded. “Yeah. I really do like you Ruby – I wasn’t just saying that yesterday. And I want the whole world to know it.” I cracked a smile at her. “So what d’you reckon?”

She seemed to think this over for a little while. “Yeah, okay.” She let out a quiet laugh. “Taylor Hanson is my boyfriend. I never thought I’d ever get to say that.”

I didn’t say anything in response to this. Instead I leaned over and, for the first time, kissed Ruby properly. She tasted like chocolate and raspberries, and it wasn’t long before she started to kiss me back, her hands on my shoulders. “Wow,” she breathed when we finally broke apart.

“My thoughts exactly,” I agreed. “So, us?”

Ruby nodded. “Us.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Ruby

I have a boyfriend. An honest-to-God, real-life boyfriend.

That was the primary thought on my mind as the 8:33am train rolled out of Adamstown station, bound for Sydney. Avery had already left Newcastle the afternoon before, due to having an early class this morning and not wanting to miss it, leaving Taylor and I to travel back to Sydney by ourselves. We had claimed a set of seats facing one another on the lower level of the second carriage from the front – I was facing forward, not wanting to risk a nasty case of motion sickness, with Taylor sitting facing me. Between us on the floor lay Sadie, keeping guard over my walking stick and our backpacks.

“God I hate the train,” Taylor mumbled as our train picked up speed.

“Try catching the train between Sydney and Casino, and a coach between Casino and Surfers Paradise,” I said without looking up from my Kindle. “Then tell me how much you hate the train.”

Taylor looked up sharply from his iPad and stared at me. “Why the fuck would you do that?”

“Because it was cheaper than flying?” I smirked at him. “Did it for Schoolies Week at the end of Year 12. Bunch of my friends and I caught the train from Woonona up to Sydney, hopped on an XPT from Sydney to Casino for a shade under twelve hours, then caught a coach the rest of the way. We did exactly the same in reverse to get home. I’d never do it now because it’s exhausting and it’d make my chronic fatigue flare up something awful, but when you’re eighteen anything’s an adventure.”

Taylor laughed. “Oh, it’s an adventure all right.” He closed his iPad’s case and put it aside. “When I did Schoolies, it was something like ten of us crammed into a friend’s Kombi van because that was the biggest car that would hold the lot of us. We went up the coast to Byron Bay for two weeks of surfing, wandering around the markets and laying around doing sweet fuck-all. I got sunburned to within an inch of my life and ended up with a shitload of little blisters all over my shoulders and back. I’m lucky it didn’t scar.”

“You went to Schoolies?” I asked, feeling a bit surprised at this.

“‘Course I went to Schoolies. I wasn’t that deprived growing up. Zac’s the one that wasn’t allowed – his plan was to go to Nimbin for a week and do nothing but smoke pot the whole time.”

“Charming. I’m just surprised because, well…you’re famous, that’s all. Weren’t your parents worried about that?”

“Nah. They don’t give a crap about that. The way my mum and dad see it, the celebrity bullshit is just a means to an end. I hate it, but if it means I can share my music with the world then I’m not going to moan about it and neither are they.”

Well, that was a bit of a revelation. Taylor hated being famous. I couldn’t say I blamed him – I’d probably hate it too were I in his position. The idea of spending my entire adolescence and the rest of my life thereafter in the spotlight sounded like hell.

“So when are you going on tour again?” I asked, deciding to change the subject.

“Second half of April,” Taylor replied. “Hitting Victoria during autumn break – it’s easiest that way because I don’t have TAFE and Isaac’s oldest is off school then as well.” He flipped his iPad open again and tapped at the screen for a little while. “We’re planning to fly into Avalon on April thirteenth – tour kicks off in Geelong and that’s the closest airport.” He glanced up at me. “You want to come?”

“Me?” I asked. “You want me to come on tour?”

“Why not?” He grinned. “It’ll be brilliant. I’ll have to work, yeah, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a bit of fun the rest of the time. Plus you’ll get to go to the shows for free. Can’t complain about that.”

“It’s tempting,” I mused. “How long do I have to decide?”

“Let’s say…a week? Liberation’s organising everything and they need final numbers by then so they can book flights and hotels.”

A week to decide if I wanted to go on tour with Hanson was pretty reasonable. My first instinct was to say yes straight away, but I also had my health to consider. There was always a risk of a flare-up, especially if I was overly stressed out. Taylor knew about the chronic fatigue but he didn’t know everything I did – there hadn’t been a need for him to know before now. If I did come on tour, then that was going to need to change pretty bloody quickly.

“If I do come, I will warn you – my parents are going to want to have you over for dinner before we all leave,” I said. “They would anyway because we’re going out, but this is going to make them want to meet you a lot sooner than they would otherwise.”

“Oh, I think I can handle meeting your parents,” Taylor said. “Especially seeing as you handled meeting mine as well as you did.”

Just as Taylor finished speaking, my phone’s message tone sounded off. “Good thing we’re not in a quiet carriage,” I remarked as I rescued my phone from one of my pockets and unlocked its screen. The message, it turned out, was from Lisbeth. How was newcastle? she’d asked, and my first instinct was to just give her a straight answer like I normally did. I quickly squashed that down, however, and typed out a reply with a slowly growing smirk on my face.

Newcastle was good. Reckon i might go back for a longer visit one day. Also i have a boyfriend now :p

I sent the message and clicked back to my phone’s home screen. “Lis is probably going to call me as soon as she reads my message,” I said, before taking a quick glance around the carriage we were sitting in – there was only one other person present, and they had headphones on. I therefore figured they wouldn’t have much of an issue with what I was about to do. “I’m going to stick it on speaker, okay? She’s probably going to screech at me at some point and I’d really rather not subject my hearing to that.”

“Fine by me,” Taylor said. He’d gone back to reading on his iPad by now. I set my phone on the seat next to me, picked up my Kindle again and went back to reading.

True to form, my phone rang barely five minutes later. I picked it up with just a cursory glance at the screen and tapped the Speaker icon before answering. “Hello Lis.”

“What’s this about you and a boyfriend?” Lisbeth asked.

“I’ll give you three guesses who it is but you’re only going to need one,” I said.

“Hi Lisbeth,” Taylor said, flashing me a grin that I immediately mirrored.

“No way,” Lisbeth said in what sounded like disbelief, evidently having realised who I was now going out with. “No freaking way!

“Yes freaking way,” I replied. “He asked me out yesterday arvo.”

“You lucky bitch,” Lisbeth said, sounding envious. “I can’t even tell you how jealous I am.”

“Just make sure you keep it to yourself,” Taylor said. “For now at least, anyway. I don’t think Ruby wants every nutcase in fandom after her, and I definitely don’t.”

“I swear I’ll keep my mouth shut,” Lisbeth promised – a promise I knew she would keep if she didn’t want me ripping her a new one. “So are you guys on your way back now?”

“Yep,” I replied, and glanced out the window to see where we were. “Train just stopped at Cockle Creek.”

“Right, that tells me a lot,” Lisbeth said.

I rolled my eyes. “We’re still near Newcastle – we don’t get back to Sydney until just after eleven.”

“Ugh. I still don’t get why you didn’t drive.”

“Because only a lunatic drives all that way,” Taylor said. “I already did it twice over Christmas and that was enough to last me a lifetime.”

“Fair enough.” There was a beeping sound in the background on Lisbeth’s end of the line. “I’m being summoned – I was supposed to start my shift ten minutes ago. I’ll see you at TAFE, yeah?”

“See you Lis,” I said, with Taylor echoing me half a second later, and Lisbeth hung up.

The rest of our journey back to Sydney passed without incident. Very few people came to sit in our part of the carriage, and virtually nobody attempted to sit down with us or ask to flip Taylor’s seat in the opposite direction. I could only assume they had spotted the blue jacket that Sadie was wearing and decided it wasn’t worth the effort. It suited me down to the ground – I hated it when people tried to sit down next to me on the train, and if I could keep them at arm’s length so much the better.

Our train rolled into Central station right on schedule at five minutes past eleven. As soon as Taylor, Sadie and I were well clear of the train doors I went digging around in my backpack for my very tattered copy of the current CityRail South Coast timetable. “How badly do you want to get home?” I asked as I flipped through the timetable, searching for the next train down to Wollongong.

“I wouldn’t mind eating first,” he replied. “And by that I don’t mean Hungry Jack’s. They fuck up my order every time.”

“Mine too,” I said, earning myself a grin from Taylor. “Okay, so taking into account that we’re going to have to find somewhere to eat…” I found the page I was after and traced a finger down one of the columns. “Okay, there’s an all-stops train just after twelve-thirty that will take us straight back to Towradgi, or we can catch an express an hour later but it means changing trains at Thirroul and waiting a few minutes for the next Port Kembla train. Up to you.”

“The express,” he replied immediately. “No way in hell am I sitting on a train any longer than I absolutely have to.”

“The express it is then.” I closed the timetable, shoved it back into the shadowy depths of my backpack, and once I’d taken a tighter grip on the handle of my walking stick started off down the platform toward the Grand Concourse.

Our search for somewhere to eat lunch led us to Market City in Haymarket, within a stone’s throw of the University of Technology Sydney’s Markets campus. “So what are you in the mood for?” I asked as we rode the escalator up to the shopping centre’s first floor. “I was going to get some Chinese, I usually get either that or Thai whenever I’m here.”

“Chinese sounds great to me. I haven’t had it in ages.” The two of us stepped off the escalator and into Market City’s lunchtime crowd. The shopping centre’s first floor was absolutely packed with people, to the point where I was accidentally hitting people in the shins with my walking stick every few steps. “Used to be my once-a-week treat when I was at uni.”

“What about Friday night?”

“I think that was Japanese,” Taylor replied, his tone thoughtful. “I’ve never been able to work that out for sure.”

Market City’s food court, we found once we had exited the lift onto the third floor, was just as packed as the first floor and even noisier. “I’ll go find us a table,” I almost shouted right in Taylor’s ear, and dug my wallet out of my backpack. “Can you get me some honey chicken and rice?” I asked, handing over a ten dollar note.

“On it,” he shouted back at me, and headed off through the maze of tables toward Eastern Experience. I watched him go for a few moments before starting my hunt for an empty table.

It didn’t take him long to find me once I’d set myself up at the end of one of the long tables outside of Asagao. I looked up from scrolling through Twitter on my phone just in time to see a plate piled high with golden, sticky-looking battered chicken pieces and white rice being put down in front of me. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you are an angel,” I said happily as Taylor handed me the change from my ten dollar note. He flashed me a smile and sat down across from me with his own lunch – sweet and sour chicken from the looks of things. “Holy crap your lunch looks good,” I said enviously.

“You can have a bit if you like,” he said. “So long as I can have some of yours.”

“Deal,” I said immediately, and pushed my plate closer to Taylor’s.

That afternoon, my first destination after leaving Taylor’s place wasn’t Woolworths so I could pick up something for my dinner. Instead, I bypassed Corrimal Court entirely, choosing instead to head north along the Northern Distributor to my parents’ place. By some stroke of luck my mother’s Barina was parked in the driveway – it meant I wouldn’t have to drive all over Woonona trying to find her.

“How was Newcastle?” Mum asked once the two of us were set up in the kitchen with a cup of tea apiece and the biscuit tin. I could see her studying me over the rim of her mug, grey eyes fixed on my face.

“It was good,” I replied. I stuck my hand into the biscuit tin and rooted around until my fingers closed over a chocolate Monte. “Taylor’s family is nuts though – it’s almost as big as Dad’s. Hell of a lot noisier though. Freaked the hell out of me on Saturday night.” I dipped my biscuit into my tea. “He asked me out yesterday,” I added.

“Who did?”

“Taylor. We got ice cream from Cold Rock and went for a walk, and right before we headed back into town he asked me to be his girlfriend. And I said yes.”

“I should hope so!” Mum said. She sounded very pleased by this little development. “He lives around here, doesn’t he?”

I nodded. “Yeah, in Corrimal. And yes, he knows you and Dad are going to want to meet him. I warned him about that this morning.” Almost as an afterthought, I added, “Considering he asked me to come on tour with Hanson over our break from TAFE, I’m guessing you’ll want to meet him very soon.”

“Oh, that we will. When does tour start?”

“April fourteenth, but we’d be leaving for Avalon on the thirteenth.”

“I see.” Mum seemed to consider this. “I’ll have a talk with your dad about it and let you know for sure when we want the two of you over for dinner, but let’s say April sixth. Okay?”

“Okay,” I replied, before adding, “He likes Italian food.”

Mum gave me a smile. “I think we can work with that.”


“April six.”

Those two words had an unintended effect. As soon as they left my mouth Taylor choked on his sandwich. I reached over and thumped him hard on the back so that he could breathe again. “Thanks,” he said, his voice a little strained. “What’s this about April six?”

“My parents want you to come over for dinner that night. I told them we’d be leaving on tour on the thirteenth, and my mum said for you to come over on the sixth.”

“Okay, I’m scared now.” He put his sandwich down on the table in front of him. The two of us were in the TAFE canteen for lunch, something we hadn’t done since before we’d gone to Newcastle. “Does this mean you’re coming on tour?”

I nodded. “Yep. I cleared it with my doctor on Tuesday – she said that so long as I’m careful and take things easy, it shouldn’t be a problem for me to come.”

“Awesome. I’ll let our manager know when I get home – he’ll pass it on to Liberation.” Here he looked at me inquisitively. “And I’m guessing that there’s a few things I should know about, right?”

“That’s an understatement.” I put my own sandwich down next to Taylor’s. “Basically, if I get too stressed out I’ll have a flare-up, and if I push myself too hard I’ll crash within the next couple of days. I can usually tell when I’m about to have a flare-up – I’ll get a really bad headache on both sides of my head, I’ll feel like throwing up, and all of my joints will start hurting. If all three of those things happen within half an hour to an hour of each other, I need to go and lie down somewhere dark straight away. Usually I’ll feel better after about forty-five minutes, but occasionally it can take a few hours. It really depends on the day and how hard I’ve been pushing myself.”

“And I thought I had it bad when I was going through chemo,” Taylor commented. “Is there anything I should do when that happens?”

“Make sure I’m not disturbed. And if you see that I’m about to have a flare-up and I haven’t noticed, make sure I go and have a lie down – drag me away from whatever I’m doing if you have to.” I picked up my sandwich again and took a bite. “I’m also on some pretty heavy-duty medication that I have to stay on track with. If I miss even just one of my doses, I’m going to feel pretty ratshit all day. So you might want to keep an eye on that as well. Everyday meds are Andepra and Neulactil – Andepra for the depressive and chronic pain aspects of the chronic fatigue, and Neulactil for anxiety. I also get migraines sometimes – I take Relpax whenever I feel one coming on.”

“You weren’t kidding when you said your handbag rattles.”

I shook my head. “Nope. It sucks being on medication, but it keeps me sane and helps me live a relatively normal life. I’d be bedridden without it.”

“I sort of know what that’s like, though it’s not as bad as yours,” Taylor said. He unsnapped a black wristband from around his left wrist and handed it to me. Attached to one end of the wristband was a steel tag with a symbol of a snake wrapped around a staff embossed on it. “Turn it over and read the back,” he added quietly. I did so, and found five lines of text engraved on the tag’s other side.

Taylor Hanson
MDD / SA / CIPN; history of seizures
No penicillin or NSAIDs
Zoloft 100mg / Endep 10mg
Contact Diana Hanson 0491 570 157

“Damn,” I said softly. He nodded mutely and took his wristband back, putting it back around his wrist one-handed. “How long?”

“I’ve had anxiety – that’s what the SA stands for, social anxiety disorder – since I was in Year 8, which I guess is ironic considering what I do for a living. It was a bitch and a half during the School Certificate and the HSC, though. I’m still surprised that I got the results and the UAI that I did. Depression didn’t rear its ugly head until a whole year after I’d made remission.” He shrugged a little. “Personally, I’m kind of glad it was depression and not anything more serious. I was freaked out that it’d come back.”

“I can’t say I blame you,” I said. “I’d freak out too.” I earned a small smile for this. “What about the seizures?”

“They were a side effect of one of the chemo drugs I had to be on. I only ever had two, and I haven’t had any in more than ten years, but I don’t see any harm in telling people just in case.”

He went quiet after this, and I was intelligent enough to figure out that this was a topic he wasn’t exactly keen on discussing in great detail. Not that I could blame him much. Instead, I changed the subject.

“Okay, so, tour,” I said. “How exactly is it going to work?”

“I’m going to pass your email address on to our manager this afternoon – his name’s Joel Somerton. He’ll tell you everything you need to know. But basically we’ll all meet up at T2 at Sydney Airport around lunchtime on the thirteenth and fly down to Avalon in the late afternoon. It’s usually pretty painless, even with four kids hanging around.” He cracked another smile. “We’ve got things down to a fine art now, though, so unless the traffic’s really shocking we shouldn’t have any problems. I can pick you up from your place that morning if you want.”

“You don’t mind? I know it’s a little bit out of your way.”

“Don’t mind a bit.” Here he glanced at his watch. “I need to head back to class. See you later on, yeah?”

“Definitely,” I agreed, and I leaned in for a quick kiss. He flashed me one last smile and gathered up his lunch before wandering off out of the canteen.

The very first thing I did before shoving my lunch box and drink bottle into my backpack was send Lisbeth a text message. Going on tour w/ hanson in vic over easter break, want to help me decide what to pack this arvo?

Lisbeth’s response arrived so quickly that I had barely made it out into the courtyard outside the canteen before my phone chimed at me. HELL YES. Did you drive today?

Nope, taxi, I replied as I headed along the path that led across campus, wheeling myself along one-handed. Couldn’t be fucked driving.

I could almost see Lisbeth snickering at this. Ok. I’ll drive you home today and we’ll get your packing list sorted.

Lisbeth was as good as her word. As soon as our teacher turned us loose she was leading the way down the corridor to the lift, with Ella and Anthony sneaking their way into the lift car just before Lisbeth jabbed the close door button. “Did Taylor really invite you on tour?” Ella asked as the lift began its descent to ground level.

“Yep,” I replied without looking up from my phone. “We’re leaving for Geelong on April thirteenth. He gets to meet my parents first though.”

“Oh, that’ll be fun,” Anthony commented. “Wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall for that.”

“They’ll like him,” Lisbeth said, sounding very confident.

“You hope they will,” I said. The lift doors opened onto the breezeway, startling the elderly tabby cat that was the unofficial campus pet. I unlocked my wheelchair’s brakes and led the way out of the lift, leaning down to my right to give the cat a quick scratch behind the ears as I passed. “Though Mum seemed to be pleased that Taylor and I are going out. I can’t promise she’ll feel the same way once she meets him.”

My phone’s email notification tone sounded just as Lisbeth was driving off campus, and I opened my Gmail app to find an email from Hanson’s manager, Joel.

Hi Ruby,

My name is Joel Somerton, and I’m Hanson’s manager – Taylor would have told you that you’d be hearing from me soon. This email is just to catch you up on all the tour info – I’ll be sending out a few more emails between today and the evening before we leave, so be prepared to hear a lot more from me in the weeks to come.

You likely know the basics of our departure from Sydney, but I’ll repeat them here for your records – we’re scheduled to fly down to Avalon Airport in Victoria on April 13, on the 4:10pm flight with Jetstar. Flight number is JQ617, and our scheduled arrival time at Avalon is 5:50pm. I’ve passed your details on to Liberation, and they’ll book you onto both of our flights (the first flight to Avalon and the second from Albury back to Sydney at the tour’s conclusion) and forward your tickets to you via email. The tour will begin in Geelong on April 14, and will also be visiting Ballarat, Bendigo, Horsham, Echuca, Shepparton and Albury-Wodonga. You’ll have more or less complete freedom to explore each of the towns and cities we visit, but there will be a few rules you’ll be asked to follow – we’ll go over those as a group in Sydney.

As far as your baggage allowance for our flights, you’ll be allowed to check in one 20 kilogram suitcase, and will be able to carry one backpack or messenger bag and a handbag or camera bag onto the flight itself. Taylor has mentioned that you use a wheelchair, which you will be able to check in without it impacting on your baggage allowance. Odds are you’ll have the opportunity to do laundry somewhere along the way, so I would only pack enough clothes for a week. This is entirely up to you, of course, and is only a general guideline.

I think that’s all for now. If you have any questions or just want to clarify something, feel free to shoot me an email. Otherwise, I’ll see you in Sydney on April 13.

Cheers,

Joel Somerton
Liberty Entertainment Group, Sydney

It didn’t take Lisbeth and I long to get to my place. The very first thing Lisbeth did as soon as I’d let us into my caravan’s annexe was set herself up at the table with one of her notebooks and a biro. “Okay, first things first – how big’s your suitcase?” she asked as she flipped her notebook open and uncapped her biro.

My immediate response wasn’t verbal. Instead, I went up into the caravan and over to my bed, and dragged out the smaller of my two suitcases from underneath. Both of them were packed almost to bursting with my winter clothes. I unzipped it, dumped out the clothes and took it down into the annexe.

“I’ve got two but I’m not dragging a dirty great big suitcase around Victoria,” I said as I set the empty suitcase down on the floor. “Reckon I’d be able to shove a week’s worth of clothes into here?”

“If you roll them all and wear your jeans down to Victoria rather than packing them, yeah,” Lisbeth replied as she eyed my suitcase. “And aren’t you going for two weeks?”

“I’m planning to do laundry at least once,” I replied. “Better put washing powder on the list so I don’t forget it.”

Between the two of us we managed to work out a halfway decent list of clothes that I could wear down in Victoria without putting myself at risk of freezing my backside off. One of Lisbeth’s sneakier inclusions, I could see that she had jotted down in her right-slanted running writing, was Hot outfit to wear on a hot date with loverboy, which she earned herself a smack over the head for. “What was that for?” she asked as she rubbed the spot where I’d hit her, sounding wounded.

“I am not going to pack that!” I said, pointing to the item in question.

“Yes you are,” Lisbeth shot back. “We’ll go to Pitt Street Mall a few days before TAFE lets out for break and find you something gorgeous to wear.” She leaned forward over her notebook and eyed me. “Rue, you’re dating Taylor Hanson-

“I’m well aware of that.”

“And I can almost guarantee that if he gets the chance, he’s going to take you out on a proper date during tour,” she continued as if I hadn’t interrupted. “Therefore you need something hot to wear on said date.”

“You’re mad,” I muttered. “I have plenty of perfectly good clothes, Lis.”

“I know you do, but you need at least one really nice outfit. Can you please just trust me on this?”

I let out a quiet sigh. “Fine. But nothing too short or see-through,” I warned her, and she grinned – she’d won this round.

“Have I ever steered you wrong?” she asked, before adding, “No, wait, don’t answer that…”

I snickered at this. “Yeah, because you know exactly what I’m going to say,” I teased, and earned a throw pillow to the face for my troubles.

In that moment, I decided to trust Lisbeth’s judgment. She really had never steered me in the wrong direction in all the years we’d been friends. And really, I ultimately had her to thank for Taylor and I ending up together – the least I could do was trust her on this.

One thing was for certain – spending two weeks in the company of Taylor and his brothers was going to be very interesting indeed.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

Taylor

I glared at my reflection in my bathroom mirror, willing my hair to behave itself for once. Right now it made me look like I’d only just dragged myself out of bed, which couldn’t be further from the truth. No matter what I did to try taming it, it stubbornly remained sticking up all over my head. Part of me wanted to break out the clippers and just shave it all off, but that would have brought back some entirely unwelcome memories that I didn’t particularly want to dredge up.

In the three weeks since returning to Wollongong from Newcastle, I had been busier than I’d been in ages. TAFE was winding down for the term and I had three assignments due, one for each of my three subjects, and I was also busy with rehearsals for the Victorian tour. Said rehearsals took place over Skype for the most part – it wasn’t ideal, but it was the easiest way for the three of us to get some work done without having to waste valuable practice time on travelling. We were now one week out from the beginning of tour and things were coming together nicely.

There was also my relationship with Ruby. We had been out on our first proper date just over a week earlier – dinner at Aqua in North Wollongong, and seeing OZ: The Great and Powerful at the movies afterward. We were both busy outside of TAFE – me with getting ready for the tour, and Ruby with her homework and various doctor’s appointments – so for the most part we usually only saw each other once a week. We were content with that, though, and it worked well for us. Anything more than that would have been more than a little overwhelming.

And tonight, I was meeting Ruby’s parents. In all honesty I was more than a little nervous – I had gone through the ‘meet the parents’ routine a couple of times before, but it had always been very informal. Ruby had told me over and over again not to worry, but I couldn’t help it – it was a remnant of the social anxiety disorder that had been plaguing me for more than a decade.

I had just managed to finish taming my hair when the doorbell rang, and I bit back a particularly potent swear word. Ruby was likely at the door and I was nowhere near ready to go. I quickly glanced down at myself – jeans, light blue short-sleeved button-down shirt that I’d left untucked, and bare feet was currently the order of the day, though I did have my sneakers and a pair of socks sitting on one of my kitchen chairs. I carefully ran my fingers through my hair and gave my reflection one last cursory glance before leaving the bathroom and heading for the front door.

Sure enough, Ruby was waiting at the front door when I finally opened it. She was dressed much the same as she had been for the final show of the New South Wales regional tour, with jeans in place of the black skirt and leggings she’d worn that night. Her green eyes lit right up the second I opened my front door.

“Damn you can scrub up nicely when you want to,” she commented, before getting up on tiptoes for a quick kiss. “Ready to go?”

“Just let me put my shoes on,” I replied, before giving her a quick smile and ducking back into the kitchen. I had my socks and sneakers on in short order, and snagged my phone, keys and wallet from the top of my piano before heading outside and locking up. “So where exactly do your parents live?” I asked as I followed Ruby down the front steps and over to her car – she drove a dark purple Suzuki Ignis that, I could see through the driver’s side window, had been fitted with hand controls.

“Woonona,” she replied, hitting a button on her car key to unlock her car as she spoke. “Pioneer Beach Estate to be exact – I grew up practically right on the beach.”

“Nice,” I commented.

She shrugged. “I suppose, if you like hearing trains rattling past at all hours. Was nice being so close to the beach, though. Whole reason I live in Bellambi now – it’s close to the beach and it’s not too far from my parents’.”

As Ruby drove us the five or so kilometres to her parents’ place she told me a little more about her family, with particular emphasis on those family members who would be at her parents’ house that evening.

“My parents’ names are Colin and Patricia – Mum likes to be called Trish, though. My brother Benjamin – call him Ben, he doesn’t like being called by his full name – still lives at home, but odds are he’ll bugger off not long after we get there.” She pulled up at the traffic lights at the intersection of Towradgi Road and the Northern Distributor. “Rest of my sibs have moved out. Gabbie’s in Stanwell Park with her girlfriend, Taleah lives in Austinmer, and Troy’s up in Helensburgh.” The traffic light for our lane turned green and Ruby drove forward through the intersection, heading for Pioneer Road. “I told my mum you like Italian food,” she added, and I nodded to confirm this. “Oh good,” she said, sounding relieved. “Nothing you can’t eat?”

“Nothing that I know of,” I replied. “I couldn’t eat eggs, chicken or bananas for months after I finished chemo, but that’s mostly because a lot of the time that was all I could really eat during treatment and I was sick of the sight of them.”

Ruby let out a chuckle at this. “I can imagine.”

Home for Ruby’s parents and youngest brother was a redbrick house with a red tile roof and a double garage on Pat Geraghty Place in Woonona. The driveway in front of the garage was empty, and Ruby pulled her car in right next to the path that led to the front door. “Remember what I said,” she said as I followed her along the path. “Ben will do his best to intimidate you, but my parents are really easy-going. You have absolutely nothing to worry about.” She gave me a smile before ringing the doorbell.

“Ben, get the door please!” an unfamiliar female voice yelled from inside the house. Seconds later the front door opened, and I found myself faced with a very tall, very blonde young man. This, I figured, was Ruby’s youngest brother.

“Mum, Rue and her boyfriend are here!” Benjamin yelled back into the house, before stepping aside to let Ruby and I through the front door.

“He has a name, Ben,” Ruby said sharply as she toed off her sneakers and kicked them next to the front door. I followed her lead, untying the laces of my sneakers before pulling them off my feet. “Ben, this is my boyfriend Taylor – Tay, this is Ben.”

“In the kitchen Ruby!” the same voice from before called out. I quickly shook Benjamin’s outstretched hand, not missing the way he squeezed my hand so hard I thought he was going to break it, before following Ruby through to the kitchen. Someone I figured was Ruby’s mother stood at the stove, wielding a wooden spoon in one hand and guarding a couple of saucepans. She looked back over her shoulder at us. “There you two are,” she said, and laid her spoon across one of the saucepans. “Taylor, right?” she asked as she wiped her hands off on a teatowel.

I nodded. “That’s me, Mrs. McCormick.”

“No need to stand on ceremony, it’s Trish,” she said, and gave me a cheerful smile. At that moment I was struck by how alike she and Ruby looked – their hair was the same colour, they had the same sort of smile, and they were roughly the same height. I figured Ruby had probably inherited her eye colour from her father, though. “Rue, your dad’s been out in the backyard for the last half hour – go track him down for me?”

“On it,” Ruby said, snapping off a salute, and gave my hand a quick squeeze before wandering off out of the kitchen.

“Okay, so Ruby has said you like Italian food,” Trish said, and I nodded. “Excellent. Any specific preferences?”

“Nope,” I replied. “I’ll eat pretty much anything – I’m not picky. Not allergic to anything edible either.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear that.” She picked her spoon up again and gave the contents of one of the saucepans a stir. “It’ll be a little while before everything’s ready, so how about you tell me a bit about yourself?”

Instead of answering straight away, I climbed up on one of the bar stools that lived underneath the overhang of the kitchen bench. “Well, I’m from Newcastle originally. My dad’s job meant that my family got moved around a bit when I was younger, though – spent most of the first five years of my life in Mount Isa, up in Queensland, and Port Hedland in Western Australia for a couple of years after that.”

“How long have you lived here in Wollongong?”

I quickly worked out just how long I’d called Wollongong home. “Almost eight years all up. Lived here for just over a year between 2002 and 2003 while I went to uni, and moved back here for good in the middle of 2006. It’s a lot different to Newcastle but I love it here.” I twisted the ring I wore on my right hand around my finger. “Everyone else in my family – my parents, all of my siblings, my niece and nephews – they’re still up in Newcastle.”

“Needed a change of scenery?” Trish asked.

“Something like that.”

Ruby reappeared in the kitchen a few minutes later, followed by someone I knew could only be her father, and I immediately slid down off my bar stool. “Dad, I would like you to meet my boyfriend Taylor Hanson,” Ruby said. “Tay, this is my dad.” I couldn’t help but note the pride in Ruby’s voice as she introduced her father to me.

“Call me Colin,” Ruby’s father said, holding out one of his hands for me to shake. “Ruby’s told us so much about you – she’s very taken with you. Has been for years, isn’t that right Rue?”

Dad,” Ruby groaned, before shooting me an apologetic look.

“It’s okay Ruby,” I said, before shaking Colin’s hand. “It’s good to meet you, Colin.”

“If you three are finished gossiping, I need someone to set the table,” Trish said from her spot at the stove. “Dinner will be ready soon.”

“I’ll do it,” Ruby volunteered, and headed over to the refrigerator. She opened the cupboards above it and took down four placemats. “Just four places?”

“I think so, yes,” Trish replied. “Ben, are you going out?” she called out.

“Yeah, in a little bit!” Benjamin yelled back.

“Four places,” Trish confirmed. “Cutlery is in the dishwasher.”

“I’ll help,” I offered. “I don’t mind, really.”

Ruby’s response to this was to hold the placemats out to me. I gave her a smile and went to put them out on the table.

Dinner that evening was agnolotti (filled with spinach and ricotta cheese, I discovered when I cut open one of the agnolotti in my bowl) with a sundried tomato sauce, and garlic bread to go with it. “I bloody hate spinach,” Ruby mumbled, picking at her dinner with a disgusted look on her face.

“It’s not that bad,” I said. “You can barely taste it.” As if to prove my point, I speared some of my pasta with my fork and popped it into my mouth.

“Well, at least someone appreciates my cooking,” Trish said, her tone teasing. “Now, the two of you are heading off to Geelong next Saturday, right?”

I swallowed my mouthful of pasta and nodded. “Yeah. We’re all booked on the ten past four Jetstar flight to Avalon from Sydney. We get back to Sydney on the twenty-ninth. I can write out the tour itinerary if you’d like me to.”

“We’d appreciate it,” Colin said. “Ruby, we just want to make sure we have an idea of where you’re going,” he said when Ruby opened her mouth. “Just in case something happens while you’re away.”

“I’m not a fucking child,” Ruby grumbled. “I’m almost twenty-nine for crying out loud.”

“No, but you do have a fairly serious chronic illness,” Trish reminded Ruby. “We’re just watching out for your wellbeing. And watch your mouth.”

“Taylor knows what to do when I have a flare-up or a crash, or if he notices I’m about to have one,” Ruby said. “He also knows about my meds and that I need to stay on track with them. I will be fine, Mum. Dr. Marsden would have nixed the whole thing if she didn’t think it would be a good idea for me to go.”

“We’re not trying to stop you going,” Colin said. “And we know Taylor will look after you when he isn’t working. We just want you to be careful, that’s all.”

Ruby let out a quiet sigh. “Yeah, I know.” I found one of her hands under the table and gave it a squeeze. “It’s just…this is my first proper holiday since I got sick. I don’t want anything to screw it up.”

“Nothing’s going to screw it up,” I assured her. “I’ll make sure of it.”

She looked at me. “You promise?”

I lifted her hand up and kissed it. “I promise.”


A week later, I found myself standing at the front door of Ruby’s caravan. My car was parked next to the kerb, something made possible by Ruby loaning me her spare keycard for the caravan park’s security gate – it would make it a lot easier for Ruby to load her gear into the boot of my car, for one.

The first time I’d come here, nearly two months earlier, I’d been concentrating on making sure Ruby got inside rather than having a proper look at the exterior of her little home. Now that I had that luxury, I was taking full advantage of it. The caravan and its attached annexe were the same off-white colour, and there was a small garden planted at the front of the annexe. Right now it was a riot of tiny pink and white daisies. A sign next to the front door made me laugh out loud – it read All Guests Must Be Approved By The Dog, and had images of paw prints surrounding the text. Hanging from the roof of the little verandah outside Ruby’s front door was a set of windchimes.

I fished my phone out of my pocket, unlocked it, and opened the text message that Ruby had sent me the night before. Spare keys in fake rock in garden – rock has a purple paw print on it. Let yourself in if i don’t answer. :)

Ruby answered my knock with a wave and a toothbrush hanging out of her mouth, light blue foam dripping its way down her chin. “Almost ready,” she said around her toothbrush. “Have a seat, I won’t be long.” She gave me a grin and ducked into the bathroom that I knew was attached to the side of the annexe, and I sat down on the lounge to wait for her.

She was as good as her word. Barely five minutes after she had vanished back into the bathroom she came back out, carrying a bundle of clothing under her left arm and dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt that had an elephant on the front. Her feet were bare, and she had pulled her hair back into a neat plait.

“We’re getting the train from Wollongong, right?” she asked as she pitched the clothing bundle into the laundry hamper I could see sitting just inside the bathroom door. “Because I called them a little while ago and told them to expect us.”

I nodded. “That’s the plan. I’m going to park my car in the carpark next to the station – I’ve done it a few times for tour, it’s better than being ripped off for parking at the airport.”

“Okay, sweet.” She ducked up into the caravan, coming back out with a pair of socks and her sneakers, and sat down next to me to put her shoes on. “And we’re meeting everyone there, yeah?”

“Yep. Isaac said he’ll meet us just after the ticket barriers at the station,” I replied. “Everyone else will be near the Jetstar check-in desks.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see Ruby’s hands shaking a bit as she tied her shoelaces. “Hey, you okay?”

“Just a bit nervous,” she replied, and clenched her hands into fists to stop them shaking. “I’ve never been on tour before.”

“It’s just like being on a road trip, really,” I said to reassure her. “Except that I’ll be working about half the time.”

“That’s not why I’m nervous.” She was quiet for a little while. “Taylor, I know what my fellow fans are like. A lot of them are catty bitches, to be blunt. There’s been catfights at almost every Hanson show I’ve ever been to. If they find out we’re going out they’re going to have a field day. I-I don’t want that to happen.”

“I’m going to do my best to make sure it doesn’t,” I assured her. “I’ll pull Joel aside when we get to Sydney and talk to him – he should be able to keep things from getting too far out of control. Okay?”

I could almost see the wheels turning in Ruby’s head as she considered this. “Yeah, okay.”

We hit the road not long after that. Ruby’s suitcase, crutches and folded wheelchair had fit nicely into the boot of my car alongside my suitcase, and the rest of her gear – her backpack and a long black garment bag labelled with her first and last names – went in the backseat with my own backpack and the case that held my DSLR. Just about all of my instruments, all save my harmonica and tambourine, were already on their way down to Geelong – with everything that I needed to keep track of, adding my guitars, piano and keyboard was just asking for trouble. “Sadie’s at my parents’ for the next couple of weeks,” Ruby said as she stuck her disabled parking permit to the inside of my car’s windscreen. “I don’t think it’s fair on her if I take her on tour with us – if I’m stuck in bed and you’re off doing interviews or rehearsals, there’s nobody to walk her.”

“I’m sure either Kate or Nikki would have been happy to do that,” I said.

Ruby gave me a smile. “I’ll remember that for next time.”

My phone rang just as I was pulling my car away from the kerb, Eye Of The Tiger blasting out of my phone’s speaker. I caught Ruby raising an eyebrow at me out of the corner of my eye as I tapped on the speaker button to answer my phone. “Hey Isaac.”

“Hey Tay. Just checking in to see how things are going,” Isaac said. I could hear the unmistakable sounds of Sydney’s Central station in the background – announcements over the station PA, trains arriving and departing, and passengers milling around on the platforms.

“Just leaving Ruby’s place now,” I replied, and put my car into drive before heading up to the caravan park entrance. “We’re planning on catching the twelve-forty-two train from Wollongong – we’ll probably get to the airport at around twenty-five past two. You’re getting the train as well, right?”

“That’s the plan,” Isaac replied. Almost to confirm this, I heard Nikki yell out in the background of the phone call, “James Monroe Hanson, you get away from the edge right now or so help me you won’t be able to sit down for a week!”

“Kids being brats again?” I asked as I wound the driver’s side window down so I could swipe Ruby’s keycard at the security gate.

“You have no idea. Nikki is this close to dumping the boys on the next flight to Brisbane so they can spend the next two weeks with her parents.”

I bit back a laugh. “She’d do it too.” The security gate went up, and I drove out of the caravan park. “Any word yet on how Zac’s getting there?”

“He reckons he’s driving. I haven’t seen him here yet so unless he catches a later train that’s probably still his plan.”

“He’s mad. You’d never get me driving there. I like my money where it is, thank you very much.”

We kept up our conversation the whole way into Wollongong, only stopping when I pulled my car into a disabled parking space on the ground level of the train station carpark. “I’d better go, we’re at the station and our train’ll be here in” I eyed the clock on my car’s dashboard “about twenty minutes. We’ll see you in a couple of hours.”

“See you then,” Isaac replied, and the two of us hung up. I looked over at Ruby and gave her a smile. “Well then, shall we?”

The time between getting to the station and catching our train went by almost in the blink of an eye. We bought our tickets to the Domestic Airport station – a full-fare ticket for me, and a pensioner’s ticket for Ruby – Ruby checked in with the stationmaster to let them know what train we were planning on catching, and settled in to wait near the ramp up to the station’s kiosk. Ruby had positioned herself next to the end of the bench I sat on, still in her wheelchair, with her suitcase sitting beside her and her backpack’s straps looped over the handles on the back of her wheelchair. Her crutches were balanced on one of the footrests, and her garment bag was folded neatly in her lap. The bright April sunshine shone on the wheelchair’s frame, making the paintwork gleam – like her car, Ruby’s wheelchair was purple, but a much brighter shade that almost glittered in the sun. “It’s your favourite colour, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Pardon?”

“Purple. It’s your favourite colour. Right?”

Ruby nodded – she seemed pleased that I’d noticed. “What’s yours?”

“Blue.” I tugged on the hem of my T-shirt – it was a deep, dark blue, almost black. “Like my shirt.”

“You look good in blue,” Ruby said. “Brings out your eyes.” At this she went bright pink and ducked her head a little.

Anything I might have said after this was interrupted by the announcement of our train’s imminent arrival over the station’s PA. “The next train to arrive on platform one goes to Bondi Junction via Wolli Creek. First stop North Wollongong, then Thirroul, all stations to Waterfall, Sutherland, Hurstville, Wolli Creek, Redfern, Central, Town Hall, and then all stations to Bondi Junction.

“That’s us,” Ruby said, her voice sounding a bit strained. Almost on cue, the stationmaster came over to us – they carried a folded-up portable wheelchair ramp by its handle.

“All right there?” she asked us, and Ruby nodded. “The stationmaster at Wolli Creek will meet the two of you on platform three when your train arrives – they’ll take things from there. Okay?”

“Okay,” Ruby replied with a nod, one that I copied. “Thanks.”

“No worries.” The stationmaster gave us a cheerful smile and walked over to where the train was pulling up alongside the platform, unfolding the ramp as she walked. Ruby unlocked the brakes on her wheelchair and made her way over to the train, leaving me to handle both of our suitcases, my backpack and my camera case. I managed to finish loading our gear onto the train about half a second before the carriage doors slid closed, and hurried over to sit down next to Ruby before the jolt of the train could knock me off my feet.

“Still nervous?” I asked Ruby as the train started heading up the line toward its next stop.

“A bit,” she admitted. “And it’s not just the fans I’m worried about now either.” She started twisting the hem of her T-shirt around in her fingers. “What if your brothers end up deciding they hate me?”

“Ruby, they don’t hate you. Okay, yeah, they’ve teased me about you – I copped a hell of a lot of shit off Zac because you almost made me pass out onstage” Ruby went pale when I said this “but I know they like you. You’re an easy person to like.”

“They’ve only met me once,” Ruby mumbled.

“Yeah, and you made a really good impression on them.” I started playing with the tail of Ruby’s plait. “Just be yourself around them. They know you’re a fan, and they’re totally fine with it.”

“If you say so,” Ruby said.

“I do say so. Believe me, if neither of them liked you they would have said something. Zac definitely isn’t shy about telling people he doesn’t like them. Neither of them have said anything like that, especially not to me.” I pushed a few stray locks of hair behind Ruby’s left ear. “I promise Ruby, they like you. They like you a lot.”

“I hope they still like me when the tour’s over,” Ruby said quietly. “That’d make things really fucking awkward otherwise.”

I let out a quiet laugh. “No kidding.” She smiled at this. “But aside from being nervous, you’re looking forward to the tour?”

“Yeah, I am. Never been to Victoria before. Plus I get to go to a bunch of Hanson concerts for free, and I get to spend time with my boyfriend. How could I not be looking forward to it?”

I grinned. “Right answer.”

I settled back into my seat and watched the scenery go by. As much as I liked going to TAFE and being relatively anonymous, it was always good to get back out on the road. My music was what gave my life its most basic of meanings – I would be a very different person without it. I was intelligent enough to acknowledge that.

“Tay?”

“Hmm?”

“Thanks for inviting me on tour.”

I smiled and leaned over to kiss Ruby. “You’re very welcome.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

Ruby

I crossed my arms on the windowsill of my hotel room and leaned forward, propping my chin on my wrists. In the distance I could see the lights on the Ferris wheel down near Corio Bay as it spun lazily, and when I looked down over the windowsill I could see cars driving along Myers Street, headlights slicing through the darkness. It was late, and I was exhausted after what had felt like one of the longest days of my life, but I needed to take a few moments for myself before I went to bed. In the morning the Victorian regional leg of the Shout It Out tour was due to begin, and with it would come the inevitable insanity that always accompanied a Hanson tour. Only this time, I wasn’t just part of the teeming masses of fans that packed concert venues and tagged along to television and radio stations. I was part of the inner circle as well. And if I was being honest with myself, that scared me just a little.

“Ruby?”

I looked back over my shoulder at Taylor. He was sitting on the edge of one of the two beds in our hotel room, squinting at me through the lamplight. “Yeah?”

“‘S late,” he said tiredly. “And I know you’re tired.” He yawned, covering his mouth with one of his hands. “C’mon, bedtime – got an early start in the morning.”

“I hate early mornings,” I grumbled as I got up from my perch at the window and wandered across to my bed, being careful not to bang my shins on the coffee table that sat between the lounge and the room’s writing desk.

“Yeah, I know. I hate them too.”

I eyed him with one eyebrow raised. “So says he who wakes up at half-past four two mornings a week to go surfing before TAFE,” I said.

Taylor’s only response to this was a half-hearted scowl, before getting to his feet and planting a kiss on my forehead. “Get some sleep.”

I smiled and returned his kiss. “‘Night, Tay.”

The next morning, what woke me wasn’t the alarm on mine or Taylor’s phones, either of our ringtones, or traffic meandering its way through the streets of Geelong. It was my phone’s message tone, blasting its way into my ear from under my pillow.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” I mumbled without opening my eyes. I had no idea what time it was, only that it was the next morning. “I’m going to kill whoever it is that’s texting me…”

“It’s probably Kate,” Taylor said from somewhere near my head, and I finally forced an eye open. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, fully dressed and nursing a mug of what I guessed was black-as-pitch coffee. He gave me a smile when he saw me squinting at him. “Good morning sunshine.”

“Why would it be her?” I asked as I rubbed at my eyes with the heel of one of my hands. “And what time is it anyway?”

Instead of answering me straight away, Taylor held up a finger as he drank some of his coffee. “Kate asked me for your mobile number yesterday,” he said at last. “She and Nikki have lunch together on the first day of each tour – I guess they thought you’d like to join them. I mean, you don’t have to,” he added hurriedly. “But I’m going to be busy with interviews most of today, and sound check isn’t until like three o’clock this afternoon. Don’t want you to feel left out.” He checked his watch. “And it’s just gone six-thirty.”

“No, it’s fine,” I assured him. “I don’t mind.” I reached under my pillow and felt around for my phone so that I could read the text message that had just arrived – and just like Taylor had said, the message was from Kate.

Hi ruby :) this is kate, zac’s better half. Nikki and i were wondering if you’d like to have lunch with us today – there’s a café down by the bay that we like going to whenever we’re here for tour. Would love to get to know you a bit better. :)

Kate’s text message left me feeling a little stunned. My original plans for the day had mostly involved going for a wander around Westfield Geelong for a few hours, and then hiding out in mine and Taylor’s hotel room watching really bad movies on the hotel’s in-house movie channel until Taylor got back from sound check. I hadn’t wanted to feel like I was intruding on anyone else’s plans. But now it seemed that people I barely knew and had only met once before yesterday actually wanted to include me in what they were doing.

“You look like a deer caught in headlights,” Taylor commented.

“Kate and Nikki want me to have lunch with them,” I said. “They…they want to get to know me.”

Taylor grinned. “Thought so. You’ll like them, I promise.” He finished off his coffee and got up from his bed, and took his coffee mug into the bathroom. I soon heard the tap running, followed shortly by his phone’s text message tone sounding off. “Okay, I need to head off,” he said as he came out of the bathroom. He dropped the coffee mug next to the kettle and started gathering all the bits and pieces I figured he needed for the day. “I’ll see you after sound check – you need anything, you text me. Okay?”

“Okay,” I replied with a smile, one that he returned before heading out into the corridor. I waited until the door had closed behind him before replying to Kate’s text message.

That sounds great, I typed into my phone. Let me know where and when to meet you – i’ll see you then :)

My reply sent, I eased myself upright and got out of bed, and started getting ready for my day out.

Kate and Nikki were waiting for me outside the Wharf Shed Café when I arrived just after midday, both of them waving to get my attention. I waved back and headed over to them, skirting my way around a somewhat scraggly-looking pine tree so that I didn’t drive my wheelchair right into it. As soon as I put on the brakes I started massaging my wrists, working at the sore joints with my thumbs.

“Are you all right?” Nikki asked, and I nodded.

“Wrists just hurt, that’s all,” I assured her. “Wouldn’t be surprised if it’s going to start raining soon.” I finished working at my wrists and gave the two of them a smile. “Well then, shall we?”

The first thing that Nikki asked almost as soon as we had placed our lunch orders, much to my relief, wasn’t the same question that almost every member of the Hanson family over the age of eighteen had asked me since Taylor and I had met.

“Have you ever been on tour before?”

“Nope,” I replied. “I spent the weekend in Sydney during last September’s tour but that’s the closest I’ve ever got. This makes it a bit hard to chase bands around the country.” I poked the seat cushion of my wheelchair.

“I can imagine,” Kate commented, and Nikki nodded. “You know what the fans are like, then?”

“Considering I am one, yeah,” I replied, feeling just a little defensive of my fellow fans.

“Oh we are too, don’t worry – it’s how we met them.” Kate nodded toward Nikki. “Isaac chucked one of his guitar picks at Niks here during a show and smacked her in the forehead with it.” I snickered at this. “She’s still got it – wears it as a necklace.” At these words Nikki lifted a leather cord from beneath her shirt, onto which had been tied a shimmery green guitar pick with a hole punched through it and the Hanson symbol printed on both sides in white.

“What Kate is trying to say, Ruby,” Nikki said as she hid her necklace away again, “is that dealing with the fans as a fan is one thing. Dealing with them as one of us, that’s something else entirely.”

“I figured it would be.” I dropped my gaze to look at my hands. “I’m actually kind of scared of them now, if I can be honest with you. I know exactly what they can be like, and when I imagine what their reactions will be if they ever find out that Taylor and I are going out…” I tried my best not to shudder.

“Joel should have everything under control,” Nikki assured me. “That’s assuming that Taylor’s actually told him?” I nodded to confirm this. “Good. Caroline and the security crew will probably get filled in before tonight’s show as well.” I looked up just in time for Nikki to give me a smile. “I know Taylor very well, Ruby – he’d never let anything happen to you.”

It wasn’t very long before our lunch orders arrived – Nikki’s Greek salad, Kate’s chicken wrap and my chicken risotto. We had also ordered a pizza to share between us. “So do you have any advice for me?” I asked as I started picking the cauliflower and zucchini out of my lunch. “Seeing as I’m part of the inner circle now.”

“The inner circle, I like that,” Nikki said. “Never thought of calling it that before.” She speared a cube of feta with her fork and popped it into her mouth. “Okay, first bit of advice – don’t let the fans get to you. I don’t have to tell you that they can be extremely catty.”

“They can smell fear,” Kate added. “Not even kidding.” She picked a bit of chicken out of her wrap. “A lot of them will be even nastier than usual if they ever discover that you and Taylor are going out. One of Taylor’s best friends – her name’s Sophie, you’re bound to meet her at some point if you haven’t already – knows all about it. She was on the receiving end more than once, and she never even went out with him. They just assumed she was. She doesn’t like fans very much anymore, as you can probably guess.”

“I never thought they could be like that,” I said, feeling just a little bit shocked.

“Kate, don’t scare her,” Nikki admonished. “They’re not all like that. But a few are, so just watch your back.”

“Got it. Anything else in particular I should be aware of?”

“A couple of the really clued-in fans will notice that you’re part of our group fairly quickly,” Nikki said. “They might try and talk you into letting them backstage, or they might try weaselling where we’re staying or the flights we’re on out of you. They might even follow you around if they think you won’t notice. Be friendly with them if you want to, but don’t get too close to them. If you’re in any way worried about what they’re doing, tell Joel, Caroline or one of the security crew. They’ll handle it.”

“Now you’re starting to freak her out,” Kate said. She bit into her wrap. “Ruby, all you have to do is use common sense. Tell one of us where you’ll be at all times, keep your phone charged and on you, don’t tell your whole life story to strangers, and don’t go off at night by yourself. That’s all.”

“I’m starting to wish I hadn’t left my dog at my parents’ place now,” I commented. “I have an assistance dog,” I added when I saw both Kate and Nikki raise an eyebrow at me. “If someone was after me, she’d do her level best to lick them to death.”

That little comment seemed to do the trick. Both Kate and Nikki burst out laughing, and I grinned. This touring thing was turning out better than I thought it would.

Later on that afternoon, I had just stepped out of the shower when I heard the door of the hotel room open and Taylor’s voice calling out. “Anyone home?”

“In here!” I called back, and quickly wrapped a towel around myself before going to stick my head out of the bathroom door. “Bathroom’s free if you want to have a quick shower.”

“Oh, thanks.” He gave me a smile and waited for me to step out of the bathroom before following me down the short hallway into our hotel room. “How was lunch?”

“Good. Kate and Nikki are really nice.”

“Told you they were.” He grinned and started going through his suitcase, eventually dragging out his Sydney Roosters hoodie and three shirts – a black T-shirt with i void warranties in white lowercase text on the front above a row of what looked like screwdriver heads, a plain white T-shirt, and a dark blue short-sleeved button-down shirt. He left his hoodie and the black T-shirt on his bed and started heading toward the bathroom. “Oh, before I forget – what pizza do you like?”

I paused in digging through my own suitcase in search of something to wear to the show and looked back over my shoulder. “Pizza?” I asked hopefully.

“Yeah, pizza,” Taylor replied with a chuckle. “What do you like on yours?”

“Hawaiian or Margherita,” I said. “Either one’s fine by me.” Taylor nodded and headed into the bathroom, and I resumed my search for a concert outfit.

By the time Taylor was finished in the bathroom, I was ready to go – I’d decided on my usual concert uniform of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, and was just pulling my still-damp hair back into a neat plait when the bathroom door opened. “I hope you didn’t use up all of the hot water,” I called out as a cloud of steam billowed out into the room, my tone teasing. Taylor’s response to this was a smirk as he came over to sit down on his bed, snagging his boots and a pair of socks from his suitcase on his way past.

“We’re due at The Playhouse at four-thirty,” he said as he put his socks on. “Van’s leaving from out front at twenty past – we can go with everyone else or I can call us a taxi. Up to you.”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind walking,” I said, fully prepared to be knocked back. “I went past on my way to Westfield this morning, it’s not that far.”

“You sure?”

I nodded. “I could do with the exercise. I’d want to get a taxi or the van back though.”

“Works for me. I don’t much fancy the idea of walking back here in the dark anyway.” He quickly slipped his feet into his boots and laced them up. “Oh, before I forget – Caroline asked me to give you something,” he added as he went over to the desk and started digging through his backpack. From the very front pocket he drew out a purple lanyard with a white plastic card about the same size as my driver’s licence hanging from it. The side that I could see had the Hanson symbol and Shout It Out – Victoria Regional Tour 2013 printed on it in black. “This is for you – it’ll get you backstage at all the shows during the tour,” he said as he handed it to me. On the card’s other side were my name, my photograph and the words Access All Areas. “Security shouldn’t give you any trouble while you’re wearing it – if they try to start anything though, tell Joel or Caroline. All right?”

“All right.” I wound the lanyard around the card and slipped it into one of my pockets, glancing at my watch as I did so. “It’s a quarter past, d’you want to head out now?”

“Yeah, might as well. You got everything?”

I did a very quick check of my handbag to make sure I had everything I would need, nodding once I had checked that both my phone and powerbank were fully charged. “Yep, got everything.”

Even with how slowly we walked so that I could keep up, not to mention the number of roads and streets we had to cross, the two of us still managed to beat everyone to the Geelong Performing Arts Centre. The venue for that night’s show, The Playhouse, was just one of the theatres that made up the complex. It was a modern-looking sandstone brick and glass building that, I could see as Taylor and I made our way up Little Malop Street, already had a long line of people waiting out front. I instinctively tightened my grip on Taylor’s hand as we neared the head of the line, thankful at that moment that I was not only walking on Taylor’s left side, but that I was almost a whole head shorter.

“Hi Taylor!” a few of those lined up called out.

“It’s okay, they’re harmless,” Taylor said to me quietly, before saying in his normal tone of voice, “Hey guys! Looking forward to the show?”

“No shit!” someone called out, sending everyone else into fits of laughter. I let out a snicker of my own at this, and Taylor grinned.

“Glad to hear it – any special requests for tonight?”

“Can you play Yearbook?” another voice piped up. “Please?” This seemed to be a very common request, for a wave of murmuring started rippling through the lineup.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Taylor replied – it wasn’t a promise, but at the same time it wasn’t an outright refusal either. “I’d better get inside before I get yelled at. You guys have fun tonight, okay?”

“We will!”

I didn’t let go of Taylor’s hand until we were inside the building, safely away from prying eyes. The second the door was closed behind us I dropped his hand and went to lean against the nearest wall. I tipped my head back against the wall and closed my eyes. “I’m pathetic,” I mumbled.

“Why would you say that?”

I opened my eyes and looked over at Taylor. He had joined me next to the wall, backpack hanging from one of its straps from his left shoulder. “Because I’m one of them,” I replied. “I shouldn’t be freaked out by them. But look at me – I walk past them once and all of a sudden I’m scared witless.”

“You want the truth?” he asked, and I nodded. His immediate response was to push the left sleeve of his hoodie up to his elbow so I could see his medical ID bracelet. “I used to freak out all the time around them. Still do sometimes. Social anxiety is a bitch.” He shook his sleeve back into place and straightened up. “Come on.” He gave me a smile and headed off in the direction of that night’s venue. I watched him go for a few moments before fishing my pass out of my pocket and slipping the lanyard over my head.

Backstage at The Playhouse, I hung back near the doors at first and watched as Taylor got caught up in the crowd that filled the green room. That he was at ease around all of those people had me feeling a bit stupid that I’d been freaked out by a few fans hanging around outside.

“Bit of a madhouse, innit?”

I looked over to see a tall, dark-haired woman coming up beside me. “Just a bit, yeah,” I replied, and shoved my hands in my pockets. “Is it always like this?”

“Pretty much. When the family tags along it’s even crazier.” The woman held a hand out. “Caroline Wright at your service – tour manager and general wrangler of the lads when Joel isn’t around.”

I shook Caroline’s hand. “Ruby McCormick.”

“Taylor’s girlfriend! I was wondering when I’d be meeting you.” Caroline gave me a bright smile. “Well, it’s very nice to meet you at last, Ruby – Taylor told us all about you during the last tour planning meeting. Seems he’s very taken with you – he can barely stop talking about you.”

“I…I’m kind of taken with him too,” I admitted. “My nan would say that I’m smitten with him, actually.”

“Certainly seems that way to me. I’d better go and start getting everyone on schedule – you enjoy the show tonight, okay?”

“I will,” I said, and Caroline gave me one last smile before heading off, taking a whistle out of a pocket as she walked.

Before too long, the backstage insanity turned into organised chaos as everyone was given their various jobs to do. I’d had no idea before tonight how much went into getting a Hanson show running smoothly and on time – someone was dispatched to go and pick up dinner from a local pizzeria, the sound technicians were put to work making sure all the sound equipment was working properly, the stagehands had to check that everything that would be used onstage that night was in good working order (it seemed that nobody wanted a repeat of the little incident at the Enmore Theatre in 2006 that saw Taylor’s microphone stand taking on a life of its own), and the lighting technicians were sent out to the front of house to check the lighting rigs. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the road crew – they probably worked just as hard as Taylor and his brothers did, if not harder.

Before I realised it, it was almost time for Hanson to take the stage – which meant it was time for me to get my ticket off Caroline and go find my seat in the theatre. Before I did that, though, I went off to find Taylor. He had hidden himself away in one of the dressing rooms about half an hour earlier, and as I walked down the corridor I could hear him playing a song on his acoustic guitar. I knocked on the door of his dressing room to get his attention. “Tay?”

The door opened after a few seconds, and Taylor stepped out into the corridor with his guitar in hand. Over the collar of the T-shirt he was wearing under his button-down I could just see the scar above his right collarbone. “Yeah?”

“It’s almost showtime.” I jerked a thumb back down the corridor. “I’m just going to find my seat – thought I’d come find you first though.”

“Oh, right.” He gave me a smile, one I could instantly tell masked his anxiety. He was like a tightly-wound spring. “I’d better get a move on then, don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

“Break a leg,” I offered, and gave him a quick kiss. “For good luck,” I added.

The house lights were beginning to dim by the time I finally made it to my seat, in the third row of the stalls on the right side of the theatre. “Sorry,” I whispered as I narrowly missed out on stepping on a few toes. It was with an immense feeling of relief that I collapsed into my assigned seat and took a couple of deep breaths. The show hadn’t even started and I was already beginning to feel worn out.

As the beginning of Hanson’s first song for the night rang out through the darkness, I immediately felt all my weariness drain away. It was the song Taylor had been playing before I’d interrupted him – our shared favourite INXS song. The lights went up right as Taylor began to sing.

“This is the power since time began…every single hour that we have known…and from each moment, all that is left…sleep of the innocent, just one desire…

“Shine like it does…into every heart…shine like it does…and if you’re looking…you will find it…

“This is the story since time began…there will come a day when we will know…

“Shine like it does…into every heart…shine like it does…and if you’re looking…you will find it…

“Shine like it does…into every heart…shine like it does…and if you’re looking…you will find it…

“You will find it…you will find it…you will find it…you will find it…”

Cheering and applause went up from the crowd as the song ended, and Taylor sketched a little bow. “Good evening Geelong!” he said into his microphone. “How are you all doing tonight?” There was another wave of cheering, and he grinned. “That’s what I like to hear.” He swapped guitars for his red electric and played a couple of chords. “Let’s see how many of you know this one,” he said, and began playing the intro for Dancin’ In The Wind.

I grinned happily and settled back into my seat. I was probably going to regret this in the morning, but I didn’t much care. I was getting to see my favourite band play a show in a city I had already fallen in love with, and I could secretly hold the fact that I was dating the lead singer – someone I knew for a fact millions of women in Australia and New Zealand would jump given half a chance – over the heads of everyone else in the room. For just one night, all was right with the world.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

Taylor

“So what are you doing the next few days? Aside from going to the dawn service on Thursday that is.”

I paused in zipping up my suitcase and looked back over my shoulder at Zac. He was sitting on the lounge in mine and Ruby’s motel room, tossing what looked like a Koosh ball up into the air. I had the sneaking suspicion he’d nicked it from one of my nephews. It was the morning after the fifth show of the Victorian tour, which had seen us play to a packed house at Shepparton’s Eastbank Centre. Two shows remained, one in Echuca and another in Albury, after which we would be flying back to Sydney.

For now, though, we were taking a short break, as we did every tour. It was just coincidence that this tour’s break coincided with Anzac Day.

“Ruby and I are going to Melbourne,” I replied, going back to closing my suitcase. “Driving down just after lunch. One of her friends let it slip that Ruby likes Josh Groban, so we’re seeing him at the Palais tomorrow night.” I gave him a pointed look over my shoulder. “Don’t you dare tell Ruby that though, it’s meant to be a surprise.”

Zac stopped throwing the ball and held up his hands. “It’s in the vault.”

“I hope you realise I’m blaming you if she finds out,” I said. I picked up the lock for my suitcase off the bed, snapped it into place on the zipper and spun the combination wheels with my thumb. “We’re going to go for a wander down Chapel Street at some point as well, and if she’s up to it we might hit the dawn service. What about you?”

“Kate and I are heading up to Echuca early,” Zac replied. “She wants to visit her parents, and the kids want to see their cousins. Not too sure what Isaac’s got planned but I think I heard Nikki say something about going to Brisbane.”

“Twenty bucks says they come back without Rhett and James.”

Zac grinned. “You’re on.”

“Gambling again, boys?” Ruby said as she came back into the room, her arms laden down with clean laundry. She dumped it all on her bed and set about rolling her clothes up so they would all fit into her suitcase.

“Tay reckons Isaac and Nikki will come back after Anzac Day without Rhett and James,” Zac said, nodding over at me. He got up off the lounge. “I’ll leave you to it then. See you at lunch, yeah?”

“See you then,” I said.

“So what are you taking a break over Anzac Day for?” Ruby asked as she rolled a pair of socks up and tucked them inside one of her joggers.

“We do it every tour,” I replied. “Have done since our first proper tour in 1998. Mum and Dad made it a condition of us being signed that we would be allowed enough time during recording, touring and promotion to get our schoolwork done.” I picked up one of Ruby’s T-shirts – it was dark grey with the Doctor’s TARDIS on the front and You Never Forget Your First Doctor in white lettering underneath – and folded the sleeves back before rolling it. “The rule during tours was always that we blocked off at least five days in a row every month, and we’d spend most of our waking hours catching up on school. If we didn’t have any work to get done, we’d use the time to get back to just being kids. We all nailed the School Certificate exams, plus Isaac and I both got high marks in the HSC, so it definitely worked.”

“Sounds like it,” Ruby said. She sounded impressed by this. “So you’ve just kept on doing it?”

I nodded. “Yep. After…” I closed my eyes for the briefest of moments. “After I finished chemotherapy, and once we got back to touring, we kept on blocking off time so that I didn’t get too worn out. It was always up to me how much time we set aside. It’s just normal for us now. We decide before tour how much time to block off and when, and when the time comes we split off and do our own thing for a little while. Gives us a chance to recharge our batteries and refocus.”

“That’s brilliant. I wish I’d thought of something like that when I was at uni. Might have actually finished my degree.”

I grinned at this and continued helping Ruby with her packing.

After lunch, we split up. Zac, Kate and their kids headed up to Echuca to visit the Tucker clan, while Isaac, Nikki and their boys headed back to Avalon to catch a flight to Sydney. As soon as Ruby and I were alone in the carpark of Shepparton McDonald’s, we looked at each other over the roof of the car I’d hired at Avalon Airport. “So, road trip?” I asked.

“Stupid question,” Ruby replied as she pulled open the front passenger side door and got into the car. “What do you think, Einstein?”

I opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the wheel, closing the door behind me. “Just thought I’d ask,” I said with a shrug, and programmed our destination into the car’s GPS. As I did this, Ruby went digging through her backpack and came up with a familiar-looking CD. “Hey, I didn’t know you liked Imagine Dragons.”

I earned a grin for this comment. “I love them,” Ruby replied. “Not as much as I love Hanson, but they’re still freaking awesome.” She cracked the CD case open and popped out the CD inside, and slid it into the car’s stereo. Half a second after I turned the key in the ignition the opening bars of Radioactive spilled from the stereo speakers, with Ruby letting out a cheer beside me, and I found myself mirroring Ruby’s grin. I didn’t know quite what, but something told me that this was going to be a very different break – and for all the right reasons.

Our road trip south through country Victoria almost flew past. Imagine Dragons’ Night Visions was followed by Powderfinger’s Dream Days At The Hotel Existence, by which time we were just passing by Essendon Airport. “So where are we staying while we’re here?” Ruby asked as Drifting Further Away ended.

“It’s a surprise,” I replied. I looked over at Ruby for the briefest of moments as we passed under the overpass near the airport and gave her a smile. “I think you’ll like it, though. It’s pretty spectacular.”

It didn’t take long for Ruby to realise what I meant by ‘pretty spectacular’. As I drove down Normanby Street the Crown Casino complex came into view, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Ruby’s mouth drop open. “Holy…” she whispered, sounding awestruck, and I grinned. That had been more or less my own reaction when I’d come to Melbourne for the first time sixteen years earlier. She looked even more surprised when I pulled the car up outside the Crown Towers and cut the engine. “No way,” she whispered, and I held back a laugh when I saw that her eyes were almost popping out of their sockets. “No freaking way!

“Oh yes.” I unbuckled my seatbelt and reached into the backseat for my backpack. “I need to go and get us checked in – you want to come with?”

Ruby shook her head. “I’ve never been within cooee of a place like this before, let alone inside one. I’m too worried that I’d break something.”

I didn’t laugh at this – I’d felt the same way my first time here. “Fair enough,” I said, and gave Ruby a smile that she quickly mirrored. “I won’t be long.”

Once I’d checked us in and parked the car in the carpark below the Towers, we took the lift with all our gear up to the fourteenth floor. The second I opened the door to our hotel room, Ruby’s mouth dropped open again. “Oh wow,” she whispered in what sounded like awe as she got her first look at our home for the next four nights. I hung back near the door as she got up out of her wheelchair and started a circuit of the room, her right hand trailing over every surface within her reach. Once she reached the bed she fell backwards onto it and let out a laugh. “This is incredible,” she said, sounding content. “I feel like a princess right now.”

“Well, that was pretty much my intent,” I said as I walked up to the end of the bed. “Especially seeing as our one-month anniversary was last Wednesday.”

Ruby’s eyes widened for just a second. “Shit, it was too. How did I forget that?”

“I thought it was me who was supposed to forget,” I teased her as I sat down next to her.

She stuck her tongue out at me. “Do you do this every tour? Stay in places like this?”

“Only during album promo and our national tours. Most towns we go to on our regional tours don’t have this sort of place. Liberation does try to put us up somewhere nice whenever they can, though.” I traced some of the embroidery on the quilt cover with a finger. “There’s only one bed, that’s the thing – I can crash on the lounge if you’re not up for sharing.”

“Fuck that. I’m not making you sleep on that” she pointed at the admittedly rather uncomfortable-looking lounge with her right foot “for the next few nights. Bed’s big enough for both of us, and we’re both adults – it won’t kill us to sleep in the same bed.”

“Sure, if you’re okay with it,” I said, and Ruby nodded. “I will warn you though, I’m a bit of a restless sleeper and apparently I talk in my sleep.”

“I’ll tie you to the bed then,” Ruby teased, and I scowled at her. “And I can always buy earplugs the next time we’re near a Woolies or Coles.” Here she toed off her sneakers and socks. “I have cold feet,” she said. She raised her left foot up in the air and wiggled her toes at me. “I’ll try and remember to wear socks to bed, though.”

“So what do you think of Melbourne so far?” I asked.

“It’s…” She trailed off, and I figured that she was thinking. “It’s different. I’m not used to seeing trams everywhere.”

“They’re pretty useful though. We probably won’t need the car at all until we leave – we can just catch trams anywhere we want to go. Or walk, it’s up to you.”

“What are we doing while we’re here, anyway?”

“It’s completely up to you. I do want to show you Chapel Street, though – I think you’d like it.” I got back to my feet and picked up my backpack from where I’d dropped it at the end of the bed. “And we’re going to the Palais tomorrow night,” I continued, unzipping my backpack and digging around in it as I spoke. My left hand closed around the Ticketmaster envelope that had arrived in the mail right before we’d left on tour, and I handed it over to Ruby. “Open it.”

The look on Ruby’s face when she took the tickets out of their envelope, I knew, would be one of my favourite memories for quite a while.

“Josh Groban tickets,” she said, sounding stunned. “We’re going to see Josh Groban tomorrow night.” She stared at me. “We’re going to see Josh fucking Groban?

“Yep,” I replied. “Little birdy let it slip that you like him, so…”

I didn’t get to finish my sentence, because at that moment Ruby pushed me down onto my back and straddled me. “I have the best boyfriend in the universe,” she said, and started kissing me like her life depended on it. “Seriously, how did I get so lucky?” she asked when she paused for air. “You take me to Melbourne to stay in a fucking five star hotel, and you get us tickets to see Josh motherfucking Groban.”

“Right place at the right time, I guess,” I said with a shrug.

“Did I ever thank you for finding my phone and walking stick?” Ruby asked. “I don’t remember.”

“I think you did, yeah.” I propped myself up on my elbows and kissed Ruby again. “For which you are most welcome.”

We were quiet for a little while after that, with just the noise of cars and buses making their way through Southbank drifting up from the streets below disturbing our silence.

“So what are we doing this arvo?” Ruby asked. “And tonight for that matter?”

“What do you want to do?” I asked her. “All up to you, remember?”

“Chapel Street,” Ruby replied instantly.

“Chapel Street it is then,” I said. I earned myself a grin for this, one that I immediately mirrored, and got up to fetch Ruby’s sneakers and socks for her. “Make sure you bring a jumper or something, weather’s a bit unpredictable here.” Ruby paused in pulling on her socks and snapped off a salute. I watched her for a few moments before going to dig my own hoodie out of my suitcase.

Fifteen minutes later we were headed off toward the Casino East tram stop so that we could catch a tram out to St. Kilda Road. The sounds of Melbourne on a Monday afternoon drifted around us, and as we walked along Whiteman Street I had just one thought on my mind – that life couldn’t get much better than this.


“Ruby, can I talk to you?”

Ruby paused in winding her scarf around her neck – it looked warm, and had been knitted from yarn in various shades of purple – and looked over at where I sat on the bed in our hotel room. It was ridiculously early on Thursday morning, so early in fact that it was still dark outside, and the two of us were getting ready to head out to the Shrine of Remembrance for that morning’s dawn service. “Yeah, sure,” she replied, and came back to sit down next to me. “Everything okay?”

“Aside from my hand going numb again last night” I held up my left hand and flexed my fingers experimentally, not expecting much to happen “I’m fine. It’s just…” I gave my phone a little shake. “I need to go to Newcastle next week.”

Over the last couple of months since we’d met, and especially in the month that we’d been dating, I’d come to realise that Ruby had a remarkable memory. It meant one thing in particular right now – she was well aware of the significance of May sixth and what it meant for my continued existence.

“It’s eight years next week, isn’t it?” she asked, and I nodded. “Anything you need me to do?”

It took me a little while to answer. Ruby thankfully didn’t push me to talk, instead waiting patiently for me to figure out what I needed to say.

“I have to go to follow-up appointments every May,” I said at last. “For the rest of my life, basically. It was every few months for the first four years after I finished chemo, then every six months for a couple of years after that. It’s only once every twelve months now, thank goodness.” Ruby smiled a little at this. “Basically I have to have a bunch of tests done between the end of April and the start of May – my oncologist and my doctor get me to have blood tests, chest X-rays, CT scans and MRIs. It’s not fun in the least, I can tell you that much.”

“I bet,” Ruby said softly. I managed a small smile before continuing.

“Anyway…Dr. Emerson sends everything up to Dr. Torrens once he’s got all my test results and scans back, and sometime in early May I get the train up to Newcastle so I can see Dr. Torrens the next morning. I don’t usually have anything to be concerned about, but it doesn’t stop me worrying.” I traced the Sydney Roosters insignia on the back of my phone’s case with my right index finger. “I’m not likely to, but if I get some bad news, just…just be there for me?”

“Yeah, of course I can.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw her studying me. “Why’d your hand go numb anyway?”

“Bit of nerve damage,” I replied. “Its proper name is chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy – it’s one of the really annoying side effects of one of the chemo drugs I was on. It still flares up, especially if I’m really stressed out. Usually one of my hands or my feet will go numb, but I also get really bad nerve pain sometimes. I’m on medication that keeps a lid on the worst of it. It hurts like a bastard when I have pain flares, though.”

“Bloody hell,” Ruby whispered.

“Yeah. No pain flares at the moment, though, so that’s something at least. I’m just going to have to put up with my hand being numb until it eases off.” I gave her a small smile and eased myself to my feet, using my right hand to lever myself upright. “Come on. Time we were off.”

Two tram rides and a fifteen minute walk to the Kings Domain later, with a quick detour between stops to one of the flower shops on Little Collins Street to buy two bunches of poppies, we arrived at the Shrine of Remembrance. It was still dark – the sun wouldn’t be rising for another fifteen minutes – but even so I could see a large crowd of people gathered in front of the Shrine, all of them rugged up against the late April chill. “If you want to head off, doesn’t matter when, you just let me know and we’ll go,” I said as we found a spot in the crowd.

“Same goes for you,” Ruby replied. There was just enough light from the spotlights illuminating the Shrine for me to see Ruby giving my left side a pointed look. “I’m not kidding.”

“Didn’t think you were,” I said as I turned my attention to the Shrine, right as a hush settled over the gathered crowd and the dawn service began.

I had been to countless dawn services – when I was younger I would often tag along with Mum or Dad and Isaac to the Anzac Day dawn service at Cardiff RSL, and every year since moving to Wollongong I’d always tried to go to the dawn service at Martin Place up in Sydney or at the RSL in Corrimal. For all the times we’d visited Melbourne (or Victoria, for that matter) for tours during April, though, I’d never gone to a dawn service at the Shrine of Remembrance. I should have done this years ago, I thought as I listened to the choir singing Abide In Me.

The dawn service was over almost before I realised, the last strains of the national anthem echoing over the Kings Domain as the crowd began to disperse. “So what did you want to do for the rest of today?” I asked Ruby as I pulled my phone out of my pocket and unlocked it. “After we’ve been inside that is.” I nodded at the Shrine, knowing that Ruby had plans for her bunches of poppies that involved the Sanctuary and the Eternal Flame in the Shrine’s forecourt.

“I’d like to go to the movies later on,” Ruby replied. “But after we finish here, can we find an RSL or a pub and play a bit of two-up?” Here she ducked her head a little. “It’s sort of an Anzac Day tradition for Dad and I, and seeing as he’s not here I thought maybe we could do it together instead.”

“Yeah, of course we can.” I gave Ruby a smile, one that she echoed.

The Sanctuary opened at a quarter to seven. I ended up hanging back near the stairs that led down from the Shrine’s upper level, watching as Ruby laid one of her bunches of poppies against the Stone of Remembrance right in the middle of the Sanctuary. Right as Ruby eased herself back to her feet my phone vibrated in my right jeans pocket, and I eased it out and unlocked it to find a text message from Sophie. Eurovision party may 19 at your parents’, you in?

Why there? I replied, hitting SEND just as Ruby wandered back over, weaving through the crowd of people that filled the Sanctuary.

Sophie’s reply almost made me laugh out loud. Mine and mattie’s neighbours complained last year. We need somewhere soundproofed so we can yell at the telly.

“What are you smiling at?” Ruby asked as we headed back upstairs.

“Do you like Eurovision?”

Ruby grinned. “I love Eurovision. You should see Lis and I whenever it’s on, we spend a good four hours yelling and throwing popcorn at the TV. Annoys the shit out of our neighbours. We alternate years at each other’s places,” she explained. “Supposed to be having it at my place this year.”

“How would you like to watch it with some of my friends this year?” I held up my phone. “My friend Sophie is having a party at my parents’ place on May nineteenth. She just texted me.”

“Why there?”

“My brothers and I have our old practice space downstairs, in a flat underneath the house. It’s the only part of the house that’s soundproofed. I’m guessing that the plan is to have this year’s party there.”

“So they can all yell at the TV without pissing anyone off, right?”

“Pretty much.”

Ruby snickered. “That’s genius.”

Can i bring some friends? I asked, hoping like hell that Sophie would say yes. A Eurovision party was the perfect opportunity to properly introduce Ruby to my friends – she’d met them in passing at my birthday party, but with so many people around it hadn’t exactly been ideal.

Sure, Sophie replied not even a minute later. Almost at the same moment, Ruby said, “It’s probably not a good idea if I go to your friends’ party.”

“Why would you think that?” I asked.

Ruby hunched her shoulders a little as she looked down at the toes of her sneakers. “They won’t like me. Sophie definitely won’t, I know that much.”

“Of course they’ll like you,” I tried to reassure her, but she just shook her head. “Ruby, look at me,” I said, my tone unintentionally stern, and she looked up. “They will like you,” I said. “I promise. What makes you think they won’t?”

“Because I’m a fan, Taylor!” she almost shouted at me, her green eyes blazing. “And according to Kate, Sophie hates people like me!”

She had a point. Katie and Matthew were fine with Hanson fans if they weren’t too far over the top, and Luke didn’t like them all that much but at the same time he didn’t outright hate them. Sophie, on the other hand, did – she had for many years. I did understand why, but it didn’t mean I had to like it.

“She does, yeah,” I admitted. “But how about this. If you come to her party, I’ll make sure she’s on her best behaviour all night.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.” I gave Ruby a smile, one that she returned after a few moments. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Three evenings later I stood backstage at the Albury Entertainment Centre, listening to the crowd through the heavy curtains that blocked off the side of the stage with my eyes closed. Tonight was the final show of the Victorian regional tour – we were all due to fly back to Sydney in the morning. As much as I’d enjoyed being back out on the road, home was calling my name. It was going to be good to get back to Wollongong, and I knew that Ruby at the very least felt the same way.

“Hey.”

I opened one eye to see Zac standing a couple of metres away, a pair of drumsticks in hand. He had one eyebrow raised at me. “Don’t go falling asleep on us.”

“I’m not going to fall asleep. I’m just thinking.”

“About what?”

I didn’t answer right away, choosing instead to play with one of the buttons on my shirt. “It’s eight years in a week from tomorrow,” I said finally.

“You’re a bit worried, yeah?”

“How could I not be? This…” My voice faltered a bit. “I’m more than worried. I’m terrified, Zac. I’m absolutely fucking petrified that Dr. Torrens will tell me that there’s something wrong and she wants me in hospital as soon as possible. I…I can’t go through all of that again. Not after what happened the last time.”

“I don’t blame you, to be honest.” He didn’t say anything for a little while. “You’ve been feeling good though, yeah?”

“Aside from having another flare-up, yeah,” I replied. “I’m feeling great. Not any more tired than I usually am at the end of a tour.”

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Tay.” He gave me a smile, one I did my best to echo. “Don’t push yourself too hard tonight though, all right? If you need Isaac or I to take over for a bit…”

He trailed off, leaving me to pick up the thread, and I nodded. “I’ll let you know.”

“Good.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Still okay to kick things off?”

For a second or two I was tempted to make a sarcastic remark, but I held back. “Yeah, I am.”

And really, I was. By the time we took the stage not even five minutes later, the cheering and applause from the audience greeting us as we walked to our instruments, I was beginning to feel as if the energy that had been building up all afternoon and evening was going to explode right out of me. Once I reached my piano I closed my eyes for a few moments so I could ground myself, taking a couple of deep breaths before opening my eyes again and reaching for my guitar.

As the first chords of our version of the Kaiser Chiefs’ Ruby rang out, followed by Zac’s drums, I could have sworn the cheering grew even louder, and I grinned to myself right before I started to sing, the audience matching me word for word.

“Let it never be said that romance is dead…’cause there’s so little else occupying my head…there is nothing I need ‘cept the function to breathe…but I’m not really fussed, doesn’t matter to me..

“Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…do you, do you, do you, do you…know what you’re doing, doing to me…Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…

“Due to lack of interest tomorrow is cancelled…let the clocks be reset and the pendulums held…’cause there’s nothing at all ‘cept the space in between…finding out what you’re called, and repeating your name…

“Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…do you, do you, do you, do you…know what you’re doing, doing to me…Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…

“Could it be, could it be that you’re joking with me…and you don’t really see you with me…could it be, could it be that you’re joking with me…and you don’t really see you with me…

“Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…do you, do you, do you, do you…know what you’re doing, doing to me…Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…do you, do you, do you, do you…know what you’re doing, doing to me…”

The wave of applause that went up as the song ended almost knocked me off my feet. In the few moments before the next song I scanned the crowd, searching for Ruby, and found her up in the first row of the gallery. As soon as I spotted her I gave her a smile, just as I’d done the night we’d met almost five months ago – and just like that December night, she smiled back.

That one smile from Ruby was all it took for almost all of my worry about my upcoming appointment to fade away. It wouldn’t go away entirely until after I’d seen Dr. Torrens and she’d given me the all clear for another twelve months – it never did. And I was okay with that. I had to be.

You’ll get through this, I told myself as I exchanged my guitar for my piano bench. Just like you always do.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

Ruby

“Favourite movie?”

I leaned back against my pillows and studied the screen of my laptop, thinking. “The Breakfast Club,” I replied after a few moments, before doing my best Judd Nelson impression. “Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?”

Taylor’s laughter as it tumbled out of my laptop’s speakers was like music to my ears. “You and Jess should watch that movie together sometime. She loves it too.”

“What about you?” I asked, turning Taylor’s question back onto him. “What’s your favourite movie?”

Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” Taylor replied immediately. “I love all of the Pythons’ movies, but Holy Grail is definitely my favourite. Got that off my mum.”

“Your mum’s a Monty Python fan?”

“Yep,” he replied. He sounded rather proud of this. “Has been since she was in high school. Anytime I was off sick from school, she’d stay home with me and we’d watch Flying Circus or one of the movies together to keep my mind off things.” Here he put on an exaggerated French accent. “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

I burst out laughing at this, which earned me a smile from Taylor. “Okay, we’ve done TV, movies and music,” he said, bringing my attention back to our game of twenty questions. Right as he went to ask me another question (or so I figured anyway), a knock sounded at my front door.

“Hold that thought,” I said, doing my best to sound apologetic. “Someone’s at my front door. I won’t be long.”

Whoever it was I expected to be standing on my front doorstep, never in a million years would I have ever thought it to be one of Taylor’s brothers.

“Zac?” I asked, trying not to sound too shocked.

“Hey Ruby,” he said with a grin. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah, of course,” I replied. I unlocked and slid open the screen door, stepping aside so that Zac could come inside. “How’d you know where I live?”

“I know Taylor’s Hanson.net password,” Zac replied. I closed my front door after him, and darted over to the caravan so I could close its door – I had a feeling that Zac didn’t exactly want his presence advertised to his brother.

“I’m telling him to change his password after you leave,” I said.

“He isn’t here, is he?” Zac asked, sounding a bit anxious, and I shook my head. “Oh good,” he said, visibly relaxing.

“You can sit down Zac, I’m not going to bite,” I said, trying not to sound impatient.

At my words, Zac went over to my lounge and sat down right in the middle. I decided to sit down on the coffee table, facing him, and raised an eyebrow at him. “So we’ve established how you know where I live,” I said. “And I have a feeling that you want to ask me something. So spill.”

“You know how we’re going on tour in New Zealand in July, right? The week before you and Tay go back to TAFE after winter break?”

“I think I heard something about that, yeah,” I replied, wondering just where Zac was going with this.

“This is going to sound like a really weird question, but…you have a passport, right?”

“Yeah, but it expired about six months ago. I can probably scrape up the money to renew it.” That was when it clicked. “You want me to come to New Zealand with you?” I asked.

“Sort of.” Zac leaned forward a little and looked right at me. “Basically, if you can get yourself to Wellington by July tenth, I’ll make sure you have a ticket to our show that night.”

It didn’t take me long to catch on to what Zac was saying. “You want to surprise Taylor.”

“Yep.” He flashed me another grin. “He’s going to be all mopey and miserable seeing as his girlfriend is going to be over the Ditch for the week we’ll be in NZ. And to be completely honest with you, mopey-Taylor isn’t much fun to be around. So what d’you say?”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “I’m in.”

“Awesome.” His gaze flicked up to the door of my caravan. “Taylor isn’t here, but you’re still talking to him. Right?”

“Over Skype,” I replied. “He’s up in Newcastle – got that doctor’s appointment tomorrow.”

“Which he’s got absolutely nothing to worry about,” Zac said, sounding very sure of himself.

“Honestly, Zac? Keeping in mind that I only know what Taylor has told me himself, which is really very little, he worries about it because he almost died. I haven’t pushed him to talk about it because I know he hates it, but he told me that much at least. Therefore I can’t blame him one bit for being worried.”

Zac didn’t say anything in response to this at first. “I know he almost died,” he said finally. “You don’t forget something like that in a hurry. That was…it was the worst few weeks of our lives. I’d just rather focus on the fact that he survived, that’s all.” He shrugged. “I honestly don’t blame him for being worried, Ruby. Really, I don’t. None of us do.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear it.” I gave Zac a smile, one he mirrored almost right away.

After Zac left, I went back up into the caravan so I could continue Skyping with Taylor. “Sorry about that,” I apologised as I got myself settled again. “I’ve got this nosey parker of a neighbour across the road, she wanted to know where I’d been the last few weeks.” It was a blatant lie, and I felt terrible about lying to Taylor, but he wasn’t to know that.

“Those neighbours can be the worst,” Taylor said, sounding sympathetic. “I’ve got one like that a few doors down.”

“So you were saying before?” I asked, turning our conversation back to its former track.

We kept up our game of twenty questions almost until dinner time. “I only have one more thing I want to ask you,” I said, shifting my weight a little as I spoke. “And it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”

“You know I don’t mind it when you ask me,” Taylor said, his tone reassuring. “You’re my girlfriend, of course I don’t mind.” He cracked a small smile. “What do you want to know?”

“You told me back in March, just before your birthday, that when you were sick you almost died,” I said tentatively, and Taylor nodded. It wasn’t hard to tell that this was a particularly difficult subject for him – his eyes had gone dark, and I could clearly see that he had tensed up. “What happened?”

“Pneumonia,” he replied, and I sucked in a sharp breath. “It’s bad enough when you’re more or less completely healthy, but when your immunity is compromised, like mine was when I caught it…” He closed his eyes for a few moments. “I don’t remember much, really, only that I woke up in Intensive Care hooked up to a ventilator because I couldn’t breathe on my own. It took almost a whole week after I woke up before I was well enough to be taken off it.”

“Jesus Christ,” I whispered, and Taylor nodded. “I’m giving you the biggest hug I can manage when you get home on Tuesday. I think you need one.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it.” In the background I could hear Taylor’s mother calling out his name. “I’d better go – it’s dinner time.”

This seemed to be my stomach’s cue to start grumbling at me. “Yeah, me too. I need to feed Sadie as well. What’re you having?”

“Lasagne, I think. You?”

“Noodles, probably. Might even add some vegies to it if I can dig some out of the freezer.” I gave him a smile. “I’ll see you on Tuesday morning, yeah?”

“It’s a date,” Taylor replied with a smile. His next words seemed a little hesitant. “I love you, Ruby.”

“I love you too, Taylor.” I blew him a kiss through my webcam and grinned before closing the chat window.

The next day, May sixth, started with a text message from Taylor at around nine-thirty. Appt in half an hour. Think i might throw up from nerves if i don’t get this over and done with soon.

Don’t blame you, I texted back as soon as I’d read his message. I can be on the next train up if you want me there.

I’ll be ok. But thanks for the offer, appreciate it. :) Another text landed in my inbox nearly a full minute later. Do you want me to text you or something when i find out my results?

I had to think about my answer for a little while. The fact of the matter was that even though I was Taylor’s girlfriend, I hadn’t known him for all that long. We had really only just met three months earlier. As tempting as it was to find out almost straight away, he had family and friends who deserved to hear before me. Not to mention that I didn’t really want to find out in a text message – I wanted to hear him tell me.

Tell me when you get home tomorrow, I replied. I can wait until then.

Okay. :) I’ll text you when i’m on the train from central.

Now that it was going to be at the very least twenty-four hours until Taylor and I saw each other again, I knew I needed to find some way of distracting myself. And I knew exactly how to do that.

“Hey Gabbie,” I said when my little sister picked up her phone.

“Hey Rue,” Gabrielle said. “What’s up?”

“I need a distraction until my boyfriend gets back from Newcastle tomorrow,” I said. “Feel like going shopping?”

“Oh hell yes,” Gabrielle said, sounding excited at just the prospect of getting to spend a bit of money. “Wollongong, yeah?”

“I’ll meet you at the station,” I said, knowing that it was easiest for Gabrielle to get the train down. “What time do you think you’ll be getting in?”

“Hang on, lemme check…” There was a rustling of pages, and I knew Gabrielle was checking her copy of the South Coast timetable. “I can’t be arsed changing trains at Thirroul, so I’ll probably get the ten thirty-seven down. Gets into Wollongong at just after quarter past eleven.” She paused for a few seconds. “Lunch is my treat, okay? We’ll go to that Hideaway Café place in the Mall.”

“Sounds good to me. See you in an hour or so, then?”

“See you then,” Gabrielle said cheerfully, and we hung up.

The first words out of Gabrielle’s mouth as she got off the all-stops from Stanwell Park an hour and a half later were, almost as I expected, less than polite.

“You never told me you had a boyfriend!” she said, her tone almost accusing.

“Shh!” I shushed her. “Tell all of Wollongong while you’re at it why don’t you?”

“I’m your sister,” Gabrielle said petulantly. “You should have told me at least!”

“I told Taleah!”

Gabrielle snorted at this and crossed her arms over her chest, raising an eyebrow at me. “You told Taleah, right. I bet you told her to keep it in the vault, too.”

“No, but she’s kept it quiet off her own bat,” I snapped. “If I tell you can I trust you not to go telling the whole fucking world?”

“You know you can, Ruby,” she said, sounding almost wounded. “I know how to keep secrets.”

Instead of telling Gabrielle out loud who my boyfriend was, I dug my phone out of my pocket and opened Instagram. Taylor, as it turned out, not only posted on Instagram for the band but also had a private account that he had added me to at the end of the Victorian tour. “You do not tell anyone you’ve seen this,” I told Gabrielle as I found Taylor’s account in my followers list. “We’ll have all the nutcases in fandom after both of us if it gets out before either of us are prepared for it.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” Gabrielle promised – she knew I would rip her a new one if she did. Satisfied that my secret was safe with her, I found the newest photo of Taylor and I – a selfie that we’d taken during the flight from Albury to Sydney – and turned my phone around so that Gabrielle could see its screen.

It didn’t take long for the penny to drop.

“Holy fucking shit,” Gabrielle whispered. “You’re dating Taylor Hanson?

“I am,” I replied with a grin. “Now do you see why I want you to keep it a secret?”

My sister nodded hard, curls flying every which way. “Bloody hell Rue, how the hell did you manage that?”

“It’s a very long story,” I said as we left the station, Sadie trotting along beside me as we walked. “But short version is that we go to the same TAFE, and I accidentally rammed into him with my wheelchair first day of classes this year.”

“You lucky bitch,” Gabrielle said. “He’s been one of Cleo’s most eligible bachelors for the last few years running, you know that right?”

“I’m disowning you if they find out,” I warned her. We were almost to my car in the Lowden Square carpark at this point.

Gabrielle held her hands up in front of her, almost in self-defence. “It’s in the vault, I swear.”

Instead of wandering through Crown Street Mall as soon as we got there, Gabrielle led us straight to the Hideaway Café. “You said on the phone that you need a distraction because your boyfriend doesn’t get home until tomorrow,” she said once we’d given our lunch orders to a waitress, and I nodded. “It’s eight years today, isn’t it?”

“Did everyone know about that except for me?” I groaned.

“You’re such a bad Hanson fan,” Gabrielle teased, and I gave her the finger. “Charming.”

“Yeah, it’s eight years today,” I replied. I reached over to the jar of sugar sachets that sat in the middle of our table and tapped it with my fingernails. “He’s up in Newcastle seeing one of his doctors today, and he won’t be home until tomorrow morning at the earliest. Offered to text me as soon as he found out how his test results turned out but I said I could wait until tomorrow. I’d rather hear him say it.”

“I bet you’re regretting that now.”

“Just a bit,” I admitted. “I’m kind of worried to be honest.”

“I don’t blame you, Rue. I think we all worry about him sometimes. But you have more right than most people, I think – you know him. Not many people can lay claim to that.” She gave me a smile. “I have to hope he’ll be okay. He’s managed to make it this far, right?”

“I’ll introduce you to him soon,” I promised. “This weekend, if he reckons he’s up for meeting more of us. He’s met Mum and Dad, and Ben’s even tried to intimidate him, but that’s it so far. I reckon he’d like you.” Gabrielle went bright pink at this, and I hid a smile. “I’ll ask him tomorrow and let you know what he says.”

But as it turned out, I wouldn’t have to wait until the next day to see Taylor. Right as Gabrielle and I were leaving the café after lunch, my phone chimed and vibrated in my pocket. “I’ll bet you ten dollars that’s Taylor,” Gabrielle said as we headed up Church Street toward the Mall.

“Don’t need to bet, I’m pretty sure it’s him anyway,” I said as we stopped walking next to the chess boards. I worked my phone out of my pocket and unlocked it so I could read the message that had just landed in its inbox.

Coming home early – need to see you, Taylor’s newest text message said. Planning to catch the 10:11pm from waterfall, gets into towradgi 11:03pm. Meet me at the station?

“It is from Taylor, isn’t it?” Gabrielle said slyly.

“Shut up,” I mumbled as I typed out a reply. Of course i’ll be there, I told him. I’ll see you tonight. :) <3

And that was how, at five minutes to eleven o’clock that night, I found myself at Towradgi train station waiting for Taylor’s train to arrive. There were a few people waiting for the same train, and I had retreated into the weather shelter on platform two almost as soon as I had walked down the hill that led down into the station. I didn’t want anyone to see how scared I was – because for the first time in my almost sixteen years in Hanson fandom, I was truly scared. I knew that fear wouldn’t go away until I heard for myself that he was okay. It wasn’t a feeling I liked.

Taylor was one of the very first passengers off the train once it had rolled to a stop alongside the platform, only a couple of minutes behind schedule. As soon as I spotted him I was up off the bench in the shelter and running as fast as my bad knee and my walking stick would let me.

“I missed you,” I said once I was sure I was within his earshot.

“I missed you too,” he said, drawing me close and wrapping his long arms around me. I leaned my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes for a few moments. He took in a shaky breath. “It’s all good, Rue,” he whispered in my ear. “All clear – no NHL, no other cancer. I’m good for another year.”

“Thank Christ for that,” I said in relief, and felt the first tears sting at my eyes. Damn you, don’t you dare cry now, I snapped at myself.

“You aren’t crying, are you?” Taylor teased me.

“I was scared,” I mumbled into his hoodie. “You can’t blame me for wanting to cry.”

“No, I guess not,” he agreed. I felt him kiss the top of my head. “Come on. You can crash at my place tonight if you like.”

“Best idea you’ve had in weeks,” I teased him back, and allowed him to lead me out of the station.


“Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

Unlike the last time Taylor and I had paid a visit to my parents’, the driveway of their house was packed with the cars belonging to Taleah and Troy. The little yellow hatchback I recognised as belonging to Gabrielle’s girlfriend was parked alongside the kerb. I’d pulled my Suzuki in behind it and cut the engine, but hadn’t made any move to get out of the car just yet.

“I’m positive,” Taylor assured me. It was the Saturday afternoon after his doctor had given him the good news he’d been hoping for – I’d invited him to my family’s monthly barbecue the next morning, an invitation he’d accepted straight away. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Meeting my parents over dinner is one thing,” I replied. “Having the rest of my family inflicted on you all at once – and that includes my nieces and nephews – is a different story entirely. We’re a bit nuts.”

“Can’t be any crazier than my family,” Taylor said with a shrug. “And you know what they’re like.”

“True,” I conceded, and checked my side mirror before popping my door open.

The first person I saw when I opened my parents’ front door was my oldest niece, Troy’s daughter Monique. “Ruby!” she squealed as soon as she spotted me. She stopped short of running full-tilt over for a hug, though, and it didn’t take me long to work out why. “Is that your boyfriend?” she asked me, studying Taylor a little warily.

“Yep,” I replied. “His name’s Taylor.”

Monique’s eyes lit up. “I have a friend called Taylor!” she said happily. “We go to netball together.”

“At least she didn’t say it’s a weird name,” Taylor said once Monique had run off. He untied his sneakers and toed them off, kicking them over to sit next to mine. “I get that more often than you’d expect.”

“Well it kinda is,” I teased, earning myself a scowl from Taylor. “Though don’t let Monique hear you say that.”

“Ruby’s got a boyfriend!” was the first thing I heard Monique yell when Taylor and I stepped out onto the back patio. All conversation ceased nearly straight away, and I could feel my face slowly turning bright red as roughly fifteen pairs of eyes fixed themselves on Taylor and I.

“Monique McCormick, that’s enough out of you,” Troy scolded, and I watched as he got up out of his seat and came over to where Taylor and I stood. He held out a hand. “I’m Troy,” he said. “You’re Taylor, yeah?”

“That’s me,” Taylor replied. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him take Troy’s hand a little tentatively – I figured he thought Troy might try to break his hand – and shake it. “It’s good to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Troy said, sounding cheerful, which might have had something to do with the open bottle of Carlton Draught he had in his other hand. He raised said bottle in the air as a sort of salute before going back to his seat.

“Well, he likes me at least,” Taylor said, sounding relieved.

“Yeah, Ben’s the one you need to watch out for,” I said as I looked for somewhere for the two of us to sit. I eventually found a couple of free seats between Mum and Taleah, and led Taylor over to them. “Hi Mum. Hey Leah.”

“Hello Ruby,” Mum said, before leaning forward in her seat and looking past me. “And hello Taylor,” she added with a smile.

“Hi Trish,” Taylor said. He sounded at ease around my family already, which I took as a good sign.

“What, not going to introduce us?” Taleah said from two seats down, and I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes.

“You know who he is, Leah,” I said as I reached for the bowl of chicken Twisties that sat in the middle of the table. “I told you like two months ago.”

“It was six weeks ago, and yes you told me but I haven’t met him properly yet,” Taleah retorted.

“Oh, fine. Taleah, this is my boyfriend Taylor – Taylor, my sister Taleah.”

“Nice to meet ya,” Taleah said, before turning her attention to my other two nieces. “Brodie, Zaidee, stop throwing sand at your cousin!” she yelled back over her shoulder.

“So what do you think?” I asked Taylor in a low voice as the various members of my family resumed their interrupted conversations. “Scared off yet?”

“Well, let’s see,” Taylor said. He tried to pinch a couple of Twisties from the pile in front of me, and I batted his hand away. “I haven’t had anyone try to break my hand just by shaking it, nobody’s started screaming in my face, and your older brother likes me.” He finally managed to steal a Twistie, and he popped it into his mouth. “I’m definitely not scared off.”

“Not yet you’re not,” Ben said from his spot near the barbecue, next to Dad. “You haven’t seen Ruby’s old photo album yet.”

“He knows I’m a Hanson fan, Ben,” I snapped.

“Oh that’s right, you’re a muso aren’t you?” Troy said, and Taylor nodded.

“Yeah, been in a band for the last twenty-one years,” he replied. This produced low whistles of awe from Troy, my sister-in-law Abbey and my brother-in-law Matthew. “We’re on a short break right now though – hitting the road again at the end of next month, during my winter break from TAFE.”

“What are you doing at TAFE?” Abbey asked.

“Working on my Cert Four in Design right now. Keeps me from getting bored between tours, plus it’ll be nice to have something other than my HSC under my belt.” He nudged me. “That’s how Ruby and I met. First day of TAFE for the year, she knocks me over outside the library with that wheelchair of hers.” Laughter rose up around the table at this. “We’ve been going out since St. Patrick’s Day.”

Taleah shifted her chair backward and leaned over to me. “Hey, at least he didn’t tell the story of how you fell on your arse right in front of him,” she whispered, and I stuck my tongue out at her.

“I still could tell that story,” Taylor said, his tone teasing. “But Ruby will belt me one so I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

“Too right I will,” I said.

“All right, who’s hungry?” Dad called out, and we all looked over at the barbecue. Sitting on the low brick wall that halfway enclosed the barbecue were plates of sausages, steaks, chicken pieces, grilled tomatoes and fried onions. “Ben and Troy, help me get all of this inside,” Dad added, before picking up one of the plates and carrying it inside.

“Feel free to help yourself, Taylor,” Mum said as the rest of the adults got up from the table and began heading inside. She gave both Taylor and I a smile that we both readily returned.

Soon, I’d loaded a plate with various bits and pieces – a couple of sausages, some chicken, a generous serving of Mum’s potato bake and a handful of cherry tomatoes, among other things – and had gone back to my seat at the table outside. Taylor followed a few paces behind, his own plate laden with a bit of everything that had been set out on the kitchen bench and the dining table. “So where are you headed off on tour next, Taylor?” Mum asked as we all got started eating.

“Queensland,” Taylor replied. “New Zealand for a week after that – we’re planning on a longer NZ tour for the end of the year, probably sometime around the end of November.”

“Do you plan on going on tour again, Ruby?” Dad asked, and I nodded.

“If Dr. Marsden is okay with it,” I replied. “Not too sure about New Zealand yet, it depends on if I can get my passport renewed in time.” And if I can scrape together the application fee, I added silently.

“Better hurry up with that, then,” Taylor said. “It took nearly two months for me to get my new passport when I got it renewed last year.” He speared a cherry tomato with his fork and popped it into his mouth. “Their fault, not mine,” he added.

“It’s on my to-do list,” I assured him. “Along with a million other things, but it’s on there.”

Halfway down the table I heard Ben mumble something that I couldn’t quite make out, but that Taylor clearly did. The next thing I knew, he had stood up so fast that his chair had tipped over backwards, and he’d stalked off inside the house.

“Benjamin James McCormick, go to your room,” Mum ordered. “That was completely uncalled for and you know it!”

“But Mum-”

“No ‘but’s, young man! If I hear another peep out of you then you can forget about cricket training on Wednesday night!” Mum yelled. To me she said, “Go after him.”

It was clear to me who Mum was referring to, so I nodded and got up out of my seat. On my way to the front door I gave Ben a good hard whack to the back of his head. “You’re a real prick sometimes, Benjamin,” I snapped at him.

There weren’t many places to hide at my parents’, so it didn’t take me long to track Taylor down. He’d hidden himself away in the lounge room, not looking up from staring at his feet when I sat down on the lounge next to him. “I don’t think I like Ben,” he said after a few minutes of silence.

“I don’t like him much either, to be honest with you,” I said with a shrug. “What did he say anyway?”

“Don’t ask.”

“Fair enough.” I shifted myself around on the lounge so I was facing Taylor side-on, and studied him for a little while. “Ben’s going to be in his room for the rest of the night, if you want to go back outside,” I said cautiously, not entirely certain of how Taylor would react. “Or we can head off, it’s totally up to you. I don’t mind either way.”

“I don’t want to spoil things for your mum and dad,” Taylor started, but I shook my head.

“You won’t,” I assured him. “Ben always does this, it’s pretty much par for the course with him. Though I suspect this will be the last straw for Mum and Dad. I doubt they’ll tolerate this sort of bullshit from him for too much longer.” He looked over at me, and I gave him a smile. “Come on. I’m still hungry, and I bet you are too. Still haven’t worked out where you put it all, by the way.”

“Bottomless pit, remember?” he said as he got up from the lounge.

“Don’t say that around my mum. She probably already thinks you’re too skinny.” I let Taylor help me to my feet, reaching out to poke him in the ribs once I was standing. “Yeah, definitely too skinny.”

Ben was nowhere in sight, I discovered as Taylor and I returned to the backyard, and I let out a sigh of relief. “I apologise for my son’s behaviour, Taylor,” Dad said as he picked up my brother’s plate from the table. “He went too far this time. I’ll be having a word with him later on.” Taylor didn’t say a word, but merely nodded and went back to his seat.

“If Ben didn’t have half a foot and probably ten kilograms on me I’d belt him one,” Taleah said once I’d gone back to my dinner.

“Yeah, me too,” I agreed quietly.

I had just finished off the last of the potato bake on my plate when Troy tapped me on the shoulder. “Can I talk to you?” he asked quietly, and nodded toward the back fence. Without a word I popped the last of my cherry tomatoes in my mouth and followed him down to the end of the yard.

“What about?” I asked once we were out of everyone else’s earshot, and after I’d finished my tomato.

Troy didn’t say anything for a little while. “I approve,” he said finally. “He’s a good guy, Rue – I like him a lot.” He paused. “Even if he is a Hanson brother.”

“Don’t start that again,” I mumbled.

“I’m kidding, Ruby. I really do like him. He’s a lot different to what I expected. Just…be careful, all right?”

I didn’t even have to ask what Troy meant by this. Instead I nodded. “I will, Troy. I promise.”

Right as Troy went to head back to the table, I called after him. “Hey, Troy?”

He stopped walking right in the middle of the yard and looked back over his shoulder at me. “Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

Troy gave me a smile. “Anytime, Ruby.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

Taylor

“You did what?

“You heard me.”

“Un-fucking-believable.” The onscreen version of Sophie shook her head in seeming dismay. “What the hell did you go and start dating a Hanson fan for?”

With Sophie and I now living in different cities a couple of hundred kilometres apart, we rarely got a chance to talk face-to-face. Beyond calling each other on the phone, Skype was usually our best chance of having a proper chat. And that was exactly what we were doing that Friday evening.

“Isaac and Zac both dated and married fans, and I didn’t see you getting up in arms about it,” I said. I leaned back a bit in my seat, crossed my arms and raised an eyebrow at Sophie through my laptop’s webcam. “So what’s the big deal about me going out with one?”

“Probably because since day dot, you’ve attracted a bunch of nutcases who’ve only wanted you because of your last name. That’s why.” Here Sophie raised an eyebrow of her own at me. “Am I right?”

“Yes, but-”

“So therefore,” Sophie said, cutting me off, “it stands to reason that this fan you’ve gone and shacked up with is yet another nutcase.”

I scowled at Sophie, and she gave me the finger in response. “Charming. And for your information, not only have I not gone and shacked up” I made air quotes around these last two words “with anyone, but Ruby is most definitely not one of the crazy fans you hate so much. Besides which, you’ve met her already, and you liked her.”

Sophie frowned. “I have?”

“At my birthday party. I kissed her after I cut my birthday cake.”

“I didn’t know she was a fan.”

“Well, she is. And she’s already found out from Kate and Nikki how you feel about them. She’s worried what you’ll think of her now that you know she’s a fan.”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Sophie groaned. “And she’s coming to the party on Sunday?”

“Yep.”

“I’m going to have to behave myself, aren’t I?”

“If you don’t want me kicking your arse at Need For Speed Most Wanted, yep,” I said, and snickered when I saw the dismay on Sophie’s face.

“You know I’m shite at racing games,” Sophie grumbled. “Why can’t you beat my arse at Mortal Kombat?”

“Because I’m shite at fighting games. I want to have at least a decent chance at beating you for once. But seriously, please be nice to Ruby this weekend. I’d really like you two to be friends.”

Sophie let out a sigh that sounded rather put-upon. “Okay, fine. I’ll behave myself while you’re here.”

“Thank you.”

Sophie smiled at this. “So what train are you guys planning to catch up here?” she asked.

Rather than answering straight away, I pulled up the CityRail website on my iPad and found the timetable for the Central Coast and Newcastle railway line. “I still have to talk to Ruby and see what train she wants to catch to Sydney,” I said as I scrolled through the timetable, “but let’s say…” I found the weekend Central to Newcastle timetable and scanned it for a train that would get Ruby and I to Newcastle in plenty of time before the Eurovision grand final. “The two-fifteen from Central, it gets to Wyong at twenty-five to five. Then there’s another train from there at just before five to five, that’ll get us to Broadmeadow at a quarter to six.”

“Sounds all right to me.” Here Sophie frowned. “Isn’t Kotara closer to your parents’?”

“Yeah, but Ruby has a lot of trouble with stairs and I’m guessing she’ll be bringing her wheelchair this time. So getting off at Kotara is a really stupid idea. Plus the train we’ll be catching doesn’t stop at Kotara anyway. It goes Wyong, Morisset, Fassifern, Cardiff, Broadmeadow where we’ll get off, Hamilton, Wickham, Civic and Newcastle.”

“Fair enough.” I watched Sophie pick up her phone and start tapping at its screen. “Okay, I just put an alarm in my phone so I can remember to pick you guys up from the station. Make sure you text me when your train gets to Fassifern, yeah?”

“Will do. See you on Sunday.”

Sophie gave me a smile. “See ya Tay.”

Almost as soon as Sophie and I had finished our Skype session, I dug my mobile out of my pocket and texted Ruby. Skype? Want to work out everything for sunday if you’re up for it.

Gimme a minute, just got home from woolies, was Ruby’s reply a few minutes later. A couple of minutes later Skype chimed at me, and I clicked the Answer button. “Hey you,” Ruby said with a smile as soon as her face had popped up on my computer screen.

“Hey yourself,” I said. “I just talked to Sophie, she’s going to pick us up from the station in Newcastle on Sunday.”

“Awesome.” Here Ruby paused. “Does she know about me?”

“Yeah, but she’s promised to behave herself. I’m going to kick her arse on Zac’s Xbox at Need For Speed if she doesn’t.” Ruby snickered. “Are you okay with catching the two-fifteen from Central that afternoon? We can get a later train if you want to.”

“Yeah, that’s fine by me. What train were you looking to catch to Sydney?”

“You okay with changing at Thirroul?” I asked, and Ruby nodded. “In that case then…” I found my copy of the South Coast timetable and flicked through it until I found the weekend Bomaderry to Bondi Junction timetable. “Okay, there’s a couple we could catch. First one’s at just before twenty-five to eleven from Towradgi, we’d change at Thirroul and catch the five to eleven – that’ll get us to Central just before twelve-twenty. Or there’s another train from Towradgi to Thirroul at twenty-five to twelve, we’d catch the twelve o’clock from there and get to Central at one-twenty.”

“The first one,” Ruby replied. “It’ll give us plenty of time – we could even catch the tram down to Darling Harbour and have lunch there rather than at Market City.”

“I like the sound of that,” I said, and Ruby grinned. I grabbed one of my notebooks off the shelf above my desk, found an empty page and wrote down our train times. “So how you want to play things? I can pick you up from your place that morning, or you can stay over tomorrow night – it’s up to you.”

“Staying over at your place would be easiest on both of us,” Ruby replied. “Bellambi isn’t all that far from you, I know, but it’s still out of your way – I don’t want to put you out.” She went quiet for a bit, and I was almost certain I could see her fidgeting. “Plus I was hoping I could cook us dinner – I do a great spag bol.”

“You can definitely cook us dinner,” I replied. “This is probably a bit of a weird question, but do you like the footy?”

Ruby’s eyes lit right up. “I love the footy. Been going for the Chooks since I was six.”

“Really?”

“Yep, really.” She studied me for a little while. “So dinner and the footy, then?”

“Sounds like the perfect date to me.”

And it was. The next afternoon, Ruby turned up just before five o’clock with Sadie in tow, laden down with an overnight bag and a calico shopping bag that was full to the brim with groceries. “I wasn’t sure what you had in the kitchen,” she said once Sadie had been let out into the yard. She set her shopping down on the kitchen bench and started unpacking. “So I ducked over to Woolies on my way here and picked up a few things.”

I walked up next to Ruby and peered into her almost-empty shopping bag. “I’ll pay you back,” I offered, reaching for a bunch of parsley as I spoke.

Ruby waved me off. “Nah, s’okay, don’t worry about it. Call it thanks for cooking me dinner a couple of months ago.”

“Let me help at least.”

“Oh you can definitely help.” She pushed an onion over to me. “Peel and halve that, and chop it up really finely. I’ll do the garlic.”

Between the two of us, we got just about all of the makings for Ruby’s spaghetti sauce on the stove within half an hour. “Parsley has to wait until it’s just about ready,” she said as we cleaned up. “That takes an hour or so.” I watched her gaze flick down briefly to her watch. “Should be done at about six-thirty.”

“So are you looking forward to tomorrow?” I asked as I finished wiping down the bench.

Ruby didn’t answer at first. “Yes and no,” she admitted finally. “I’m looking forward to going back to Newcastle and watching Eurovision, but I’m nervous as hell because…” She trailed off.

“Because of the reputation the fans have,” I finished, and Ruby nodded. “Honestly, though? Sophie is literally the only one of my friends who has any real problem with the fans. Katie and Matt don’t mind you guys if you’re not too far over the top, which you aren’t anyway, and Luke doesn’t necessarily like the fans but he’ll tolerate them no problem.” I rinsed the dishcloth out and hung it over the kitchen tap. “But like I said yesterday, she’s promised to behave herself. She knows what’ll happen if she doesn’t.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.”

“Wouldn’t expect anything less.” My gaze travelled over to the whiteboard that was mounted on the fridge. Written on it in my slightly-untidy handwriting was State Of Origin G1 5 June, with an envelope that had come in the mail a few days ago held onto the fridge with a surfboard magnet next to the whiteboard. “Okay, another weird question – when’s your birthday?”

“June eleventh,” Ruby replied as she gave the spaghetti sauce a bit of a stir. “I’ll be twenty-nine. Which is just a tiny bit terrifying because I’ll be thirty next year, and that scares the crap outta me.” She eyed me over her shoulder with an eyebrow raised. “Are you planning something?”

“I am now. How would you like to go to the first State Of Origin game in a couple of weeks?”

Ruby dropped her spoon in the pot of sauce and turned to look at me with her eyes wide. “Are you serious?”

“Deadly,” I replied. “The way I see it, we both love the footy. I mean, we go for the same team. Which is awesome, by the way.” This earned me a smile. “It makes sense for us to go to the footy together.” I eyed her with one eyebrow raised. “You do go for New South Wales, right?”

“Of course I do,” Ruby said, sounding indignant. “I’m not a traitor.”

I held my hands up defensively. “Okay, okay, just asking. Zac and Nikki go for Queensland, that’s all – it’ll be nice to see those two even more outnumbered than they are already.”

This time Ruby snickered. “Oh, I bet.”

“So what do you say? You up for cheering on the Blues with me?”

“Hell yes I am. I’ve never seen a game live – I usually just watch on the TV. It’ll be fun screaming things I normally just yell at the idiot box.”

“It’s loads of fun. Very different to the broadcast games because there isn’t constant commentary, but the other supporters more than make up for it. You wouldn’t believe the sorts of things I’ve heard yelled out at Roosters’ home games.”

“If it involves any reference to the Warriors being a bunch of sheep-shaggers then I am way ahead of you,” Ruby said, and I burst out laughing. “I probably shouldn’t say that within earshot of their supporters but fuck me it’s funny.”

It wasn’t long at all after that before dinner was on the table. “So what’s the verdict?” Ruby asked once we were seated, each with a bowl piled high with fettuccine, spaghetti sauce and parmesan cheese on the table before us.

“Well it looks pretty damn amazing,” I replied, and proceeded to twirl some of the pasta and sauce around my fork. “And it tastes phenomenal,” once I had swallowed my first mouthful.

“Oh thank goodness,” Ruby said. She sounded very relieved. “I was hoping you’d like it.”

“You’ll have to give me the recipe later on.”

“Oh yeah, for sure.”

Soon enough, a comfortable silence had settled over us, one that was broken only by the scraping of forks against bowls, a car or two driving along the street outside and a train rattling along the nearby railway line. Neither of us spoke a word until we’d both finished eating. “You in the mood for some ice cream?” I asked as I got up from my seat at the table.

“Always,” Ruby replied. “What did you have in mind?”

I went over to my piano and picked up my wallet, phone and house keys from its top. “There’s a 7-Eleven about a kilometre south of here,” I said as I crammed my wallet into one of my pockets. “I was thinking we could walk down there, get some ice cream and walk back. Up to you of course.”

I clearly didn’t have to say any more than this, because when I looked up from putting my wallet away Ruby was waiting at the front door for me, arms crossed and one foot tapping on the floor. “Come on slowpoke, you want ice cream or not?” she asked, before grinning at me and heading outside. I let out a quiet chuckle and followed her, closing and locking the front door behind us.


“Tay!”

Even despite the sounds of nearby traffic, people milling around on the station platform and the crackly station PA, it was hard to mistake that voice for anyone else’s. Seconds later its owner slammed into me so hard that I nearly fell off the platform.

“Jesus fucking Christ Soph,” I croaked out as Sophie did her best to squeeze the life out of me. “You need to lay off the coffee, seriously…”

Sophie poked me in the side as she let go of me, and I pushed her hand away. “It’s nice to see you too, Taylor,” she groused. Her gaze slid over to Ruby, who was sitting in her wheelchair a couple of metres away with Sadie’s lead held tightly in her hands. “You’re Ruby, yeah?”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ruby nod. I could quite easily tell how nervous Ruby was, and I supposed I couldn’t really blame her. Not when I knew that Sophie didn’t like Hanson fans all that much. Though as far as I was concerned Ruby being my girlfriend trumped her being a Hanson fan any day of the week. “Yeah, I’m Ruby,” she replied, her voice shaking almost imperceptibly.

“I’m not gonna bite, don’t worry,” Sophie said, before smirking. “Unless you ask me to, that is.”

“Sophie, be nice,” I warned.

“I am being nice!” Sophie protested, and I raised an eyebrow at her. “Okay, fine, I won’t bite even if you ask me to. Mattie would kill me if she saw bite marks on anyone but her, anyway.” She stuck her tongue out at me. “So are we headed off? I left Katie and Matt at your mum and dad’s, they’re going to send out a search party if we don’t get back soon.”

“We’re going to the shops after that, right?” I asked, bending down to pick up my duffle bag as I spoke.

“Stupid question,” Sophie replied as she led the way out of the station. “We don’t have anything to eat or drink during Eurovision yet. Well, we do,” she amended as I followed Sophie to her car, a red Ford Festiva that she had been driving since her second year of university. “But I doubt your mum and dad would appreciate us rooting through the pantry.” She looked back over her shoulder at me for the briefest of moments. “Especially when you’re capable of putting away more munchies than the rest of us put together.”

“Good point,” I conceded.

It didn’t take long for Sophie to drive us back to my parents’ place, where Matthew and Katie waited for us on the front steps. As Sophie pulled her car in behind Mum’s little green Barina I could quite clearly see Katie holding herself back from running over to the driveway, and I grinned to myself.

“It is so good to see you,” Katie said once Sophie, Ruby and I were out of the car. She gave me a smile before pulling me in for a hug. “How’s TAFE going?”

“Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you know how TAFE’s going,” I said, earning myself a smack over the back of my head. “Oi! That hurt!”

“I want to hear it out of your mouth, Jordan Taylor Hanson,” Katie said, sounding eerily like my mother, and I scowled at her. “And I didn’t even hit you that hard, quit whining.”

“Do you talk to Ava and Jackson like that?” I asked as I rubbed the back of my head.

“They’re my kids, of course I do. Especially when they’re being little shits.” Here Katie stuck her tongue out at me. “Come on, spill. How’s TAFE?” Right before I could open my mouth to answer, her gaze shifted over my shoulder to where I knew Ruby stood. “And who’s this?”

I didn’t answer straight away. Instead I walked back to the car and led Ruby over to the front steps. “Guys, this is Ruby McCormick – she’s my girlfriend,” I said to introduce her.

“Isn’t she the girl who nearly made you pass out onstage in Wollongong?” Matthew asked.

“I also rammed into him with my wheelchair first day of TAFE this year,” Ruby said, sounding a little more confident than she had at the train station. Here she smirked. “Knocked him practically on his arse.”

This, of course, made Sophie, Katie and Matthew all burst out laughing. “Yeah, okay, let’s all laugh at Taylor again,” I grumbled.

“Oh come on Tay, lighten up,” Katie said once she had stopped laughing so much. “Ruby, I think I adore you. I wish I could have seen that.”

“I was pretty mortified after I did it,” Ruby admitted. She was turning pink as she spoke. “It was an accident, I swear – I’d never do it intentionally.”

“If we’re all quite finished laughing at me, we should probably head over to the shops,” I said. “Sophie’s right, Mum and Dad would prefer it if we didn’t go digging through the pantry.”

Ruby had soon let Sadie off her lead in the backyard, and once I had taken our gear inside we all headed off to Westfield Kotara. “I hope you don’t think you’re going for Denmark again this year, Taylor,” Sophie said as she reversed her car down the driveway and out into the street.

“I’m Danish, Soph,” I reminded her. “Of course I’m going for Denmark. Shouldn’t you be going for Slovenia anyway?”

“Can’t. They got knocked out in the first semi.” She put the car into drive and started heading down the street toward the turnoff into Rachael Avenue. “Haven’t decided yet who I’m going for tonight. I’ll probably throw a dart or something at that map your mum and dad have on the wall of the study.”

“So how is this going to work anyway?” I asked. “I mean, there’s no point all of us going to Coles and then the bottle shop. Especially if we’re going to be back before it all kicks off.” I glanced at my watch. “It’s just gone five past six, so we’ve got a bit less than hour and a half.”

“We worked it out last night,” Katie replied from her spot in the backseat, sandwiched between Ruby and Matthew. “Matt and I are going to hit the bottle shop while you, Soph and Ruby go to Coles.” I watched in the rearview mirror as Katie started rooting around in her handbag. “Made a couple of lists too. We’re going to have enough food and drink to feed and water a small army.”

The five of us split up once we got to Westfield, with Matthew and Katie heading over the other side of the shopping centre to the bottle shop that was next to Woolworths. “Katie gave me one of the lists,” Sophie said as she led the way over to Coles. She pulled a folded-up piece of paper out of a pocket of her jeans and held it up. “It shouldn’t take us too long to collect everything.”

“So how long have you and Taylor known each other?” Ruby asked Sophie as the three of us started wandering up and down Coles’ aisles.

“Nearly twenty-three years,” Sophie replied. She stopped pushing the trolley about halfway down aisle six and checked her list before pulling a 24-pack of Pepsi off the shelf. “Been best mates since just before Year 2 – he sneaked off on his bike one day during our summer holidays and rode all the way over to my place. He got in a hell of a lot of trouble for it, and I decided right then and there that he was my new best friend.”

Ruby let out a low whistle. “Damn.”

“Yep. Been through a lot together, us two.” She studied Ruby for a little while. “Did you really almost make Taylor pass out during a show?” she asked.

“Yep. We sort of bumped into each other at a pizza place before the show – I lost my phone and my walking stick, and he found them for me. Once the show got underway he spotted me in the crowd, and after he got his act together he spent the rest of the night sneaking glances at me. Didn’t see each other again for almost two months, which is when I knocked him over at TAFE. Rest is pretty much history.”

Sophie seemed to be taking this in for the rest of the time we were at Coles. It wasn’t until we had left the supermarket and were waiting for Matthew and Katie that she opened her mouth again.

“I’m impressed,” she said to me, her voice pitched so that I was the only other person who could hear her.

“Stop the bloody presses,” I snarked.

“I’m serious. She’s a lot more calm than I expected. Especially seeing as she’s a Hanson fan and all that.”

“They’re not all teenies, Soph.”

“I’m beginning to realise that.” She gave me a small smile.

“Thanks for not hating her on sight.”

“Well I did promise you that I would behave myself today. And I always try to keep my promises.” She pulled her ponytail forward over her shoulder and started playing with it. “Does she know about…you know?”

I nodded. “Told her a week before my birthday. She didn’t know before then.” I shrugged. “She has her own health issues so I don’t blame her for not finding out before now.”

“I can feel my ears burning!” Ruby called out as she walked up behind us. Sophie jumped almost a foot in the air, and I very nearly burst out laughing. Sophie’s response to this was to scowl and give me the finger.

Once we were all back at my parents’ and had demolished the pizzas we’d ordered for dinner, Ruby and I holed ourselves up in the kitchen while Sophie, Matthew and Katie went downstairs with a stack of plates and most of what we had bought at the shops. “Are you sure you’re okay with this, Mum?” I asked as I popped open the microwave. “Us taking over for a party, I mean.” As I said this last part, I tore open the wrapper around the popcorn and put one of the packets into the microwave.

“Taylor, you aren’t a teenager anymore,” Mum said, her tone faintly chiding. “Of course your father and I are okay with it. Just don’t break anything, and please try to keep all the noise downstairs.”

“Will do,” I said, snapping off a quick salute before closing and turning the microwave on.

Mum smiled and reached up to ruffle my hair. “And if you need either of us, you know how to get in touch. Zoë’s at a friend’s for a sleepover, and your dad and I will be home by midnight.”

Taylor! Get your arse down here, it’s about to kick off!”

“Yeah, yeah, hold your damn horses!” I yelled back. Sophie’s voice had been barely audible over the sound of popcorn popping in the microwave, and I’d had to raise my own voice just so she would have a chance at hearing it downstairs.

Mum let out a chuckle at this. “I’ll leave you all to it then. Have fun.”

“We will,” I said with a smile.

“The natives are about to riot,” Ruby said from behind me as Mum left the kitchen, and I looked back over my shoulder at her. She was perched on one of the chairs at the kitchen table, running a finger around the rim of the glass of water that sat on the table in front of her. “We’d better get down there.”

“Hang on, the popcorn’s almost finished…” Just as I finished speaking, the microwave started beeping at me. “Speak of the devil. Can you find a bowl or something to put all this in?”

“On it,” Ruby said. I nodded at the cupboards above the microwave, and moved aside just in time for her to come up beside me. A bit of digging around produced one of Mum’s big mixing bowls. “Will this do?” she asked as she held it up.

“Perfect,” I said, earning myself a smile.

The very first thing Ruby and I saw on the TV as we joined the others downstairs with the popcorn and a stack of glasses was the first Eurovision performance for the year. “Oh look, it’s Courtney Love’s little sister,” Katie said from her spot on the floor as I closed the door behind us. “Sweet, popcorn!”

And she can actually sing,” Sophie said. She grabbed a handful of popcorn out of the bowl and tossed a couple of pieces into her mouth. “Sounds a lot better than she did in last night’s preview too,” she added.

“So have we missed much?” I asked as I settled myself on the lounge and put the bowl of popcorn down in a clear spot on the coffee table. Ruby sat down next to me, drew her feet up onto the lounge and shifted herself closer to my side.

“Nah, just all the intro crap and Petra what’s-her-bucket opening the show,” Matthew replied. “Bugger-all really.”

“Awesome.” I leaned forward and scooped up a handful of popcorn.

During the first commercial break for the evening, after France, Lithuania and Moldova had performed, conversation turned to the topic of mine and Ruby’s relationship.

“So how long have you two been going out?” Katie asked over an ad for RocKwiz.

“Two months,” Ruby replied. “Since St. Patrick’s Day. We got ice cream and went for a walk, and just before we headed back to the car he asked me out.” A chorus of ‘aww’s rose up from both Katie and Sophie at this.

“Have you met Nikki and Kate yet?” Katie asked, and Ruby nodded.

“Yeah, they’re awesome. Gave me some really good advice about dealing with the fans now that I’m in the inner circle.” I felt her shift a little. “The fans scare me a little now, if I’m being honest. I was always a little nervous around them, but now…”

“Yeah they freak us out a little too,” Matthew said. “You do get used to it eventually, don’t worry. It helps that they’ve mellowed out a lot over the years. There’s still crazies out there but there aren’t as many as there used to be.”

“Shh, it’s back on!” Sophie said, and threw a Mintie at Matthew. “Shut up!”

"You could be nicer about it,” I clearly heard Matthew grumble over the commercial break ending, but he soon quietened down.

“So what do you think?” I asked Ruby quietly while Julia and Sam were interviewing some of the Eurovision performers.

“Of your friends?”

“Yeah.”

Ruby didn’t say anything at first – I figured she was contemplating her answer. “I like them. Sophie might take a bit of getting used to, though.”

“Yeah, I kind of expected that to be honest. But I’m glad you like them. I’m pretty sure they like you too.”

“Oi, quiet down in the back!” Sophie said, evidently having overheard Ruby and I. I threw a handful of popcorn at the back of her head before settling down to enjoy the rest of the show.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

Ruby

Platforms six and seven at Central station were a sea of sky blue dotted with maroon when Taylor and I disembarked from our train just before ten past five in the evening of June fifth. Almost as soon as we’d stepped onto the platform, a tiny sky blue blur slammed into Taylor’s knees. “Uncle Tay!”

“Hey Jamie,” Taylor said as he picked up his nephew. “Where’s your mum and dad?”

“Over there,” Jamie said, pointing back over his shoulder. Sure enough, standing near one of the columns in the middle of the platform were Isaac and Nikki. Taylor waved to them with his free hand and headed over. I trailed behind, Jamie studying me over Taylor’s shoulder the whole way. “Are you Uncle Tay’s girlfriend?” he asked me.

“Yep,” I replied with a smile.

“Why are you wearing blue?”

“Same reason you are, Jamie,” Taylor replied. We had reached Isaac and Nikki by now, and Taylor deposited Jamie onto a nearby bench seat next to Rhett. “I see my brother still hasn’t dragged you away from the dark side,” Taylor teased Nikki, who unlike Isaac and Taylor was wearing a Maroons jersey.

“Bite me, Hanson,” Nikki retorted, and threw the forks at Taylor.

“Nah, no thanks. Isaac would deck me if I did that,” Taylor replied. “Zac not here yet?”

“They’ll be here soon,” Isaac replied, before giving me a smile. “Hey Ruby.”

I returned his smile, before eyeing Nikki. “This is probably a stupid question Nikki, but why do you go for Queensland when you live in New South Wales?” I asked her.

“Same reason Zac does,” she replied. “I’m from Queensland. Born and raised in Brisbane.” She shrugged. “I like it better here in New South Wales though. Too bloody hot up there.”

“Fair enough,” I said, giving Nikki a smile that she quickly returned. “What train were we going to catch again?” I asked as I gave my watch a quick glance. Its display read 17:13 – almost a quarter past five.

“If Zac manages to get here sometime within the next decade, the twenty to six,” Isaac replied.

“I might duck out to the little girls’ room then,” I said. I took my wallet out of my shoulder bag and shoved it into one of my pockets once I’d checked that my ticket to the game was still safely inside, and handed my bag over to Taylor. “See you in a bit – and don’t you dare leave without me!”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Taylor said with a smile, one that I returned before heading down the platform toward the Grand Concourse.

I was just walking out of the ladies’ when I saw Zac, Kate and their two kids walking into the station from the Railway Square entrance. Like with Isaac and Nikki, Zac and Kate wore opposing jerseys – Zac wore a Maroons jersey, while Kate was dressed in the sky blue of New South Wales. “Oi you two!” I called out, waving at them. They promptly veered off in my direction, Kate greeting me with a hug as soon as they were close enough.

“It’s so good to see you again Ruby,” she said. “Looking forward to the game?”

“Oh yeah,” I replied as the five of us started heading down the Concourse toward the ticket barriers. “It’s my first live game so I’m really excited.”

“You’ve never been to a game before?” Zac asked. He sounded a little surprised.

“Nope, never,” I replied. I took my ticket back out of my wallet and showed the barrier attendant, leading the way through the wide gate once it was open. “And yes, I know how pathetic that is. What team do you go for?”

“North Queensland,” Zac replied. “And the Maroons in Origin.”

“Yeah, I can see that you traitor,” I teased.

“Bite me,” Zac snarked back.

“And get in trouble with your better half? Yeah, nah. Think I’ll pass.” I stuck my tongue out at Zac and headed off to rejoin Taylor, Isaac and Nikki. “Here comes trouble!” I called out as I got within their collective earshot.

“You took your sweet time,” Isaac said, holding his hand up for a high-five.

“There was a traffic jam on George Street,” Zac said as he returned the high-five. “Backed up traffic for ages. Would have got out and walked but these two would have got worn out before the game even started.” He reached down and ruffled Jack’s hair.

“Yeah, fair enough. Just text me next time, okay?”

It wasn’t long afterward that our train to Olympic Park rolled up alongside the platform, and I grabbed Taylor’s hand so that we didn’t lose each other in the rush to find somewhere to sit. “Good afternoon, this is the five-thirty-nine special event train to Olympic Park via Strathfield,” the guard was saying as Taylor and I finally made it onto the train. The carriage we were in was absolutely packed, so we had to stand in the vestibule against the trackside doors. “This train will stop at Redfern, Strathfield and Olympic Park. We will be departing in approximately fifteen minutes. Once again, this is the five-thirty-nine special event train to Olympic Park via Strathfield, stopping at Redfern, Strathfield and Olympic Park.”

“I’m starting to wish I’d brought my wheelchair with me now,” I said in an undertone to Taylor, resisting the temptation to slide down the doors so that I could sit on the floor. I knew there was absolutely no way I’d be able to get up again once we got to Olympic Park if I did.

Almost as if he could tell what I was thinking, Taylor’s response to this was to sit down on the floor. He shoved his messenger bag between the doors and his back and leaned against it. “What?” he asked when I raised an eyebrow at him. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”

“I’m not worried about you telling anyone,” I said. “I’m more worried that I won’t be able to get up again when we get to Olympic Park.”

Taylor held his hands up and waved them at me. “Hello, that’s what I’m here for,” he said with a grin. I rolled my eyes and slid down next to him, shifting myself close to his side.

“So which Roosters are playing tonight?” I asked. Taylor pulled his phone out of his pocket, unlocked it and opened Chrome.

“Um…Michael Jennings, James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce for the Blues,” he said, scrolling through what I guessed were tonight’s team lists. “No Roosters playing for Queensland.”

“Good. Reckon we’ll win tonight?”

“‘Course we’ll win. Blues’ll give Queensland a shellacking.”

I put my head down on Taylor’s shoulder, and he wrapped an arm around me. “Hope you’re right.”

The time between leaving Central and arriving at ANZ Stadium almost seemed to fly past, as did the time before kickoff. The atmosphere tonight was absolutely electric, almost on par with a Hanson concert, and I found myself wondering why I’d never gone to a live game before.

Ten past eight saw the players taking the field, both teams lining up in the middle of the field in readiness for the national anthem. I joined my fellow supporters in standing to sing the anthem, the sound of eighty thousand people in full voice making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Shortly after the anthem the players moved into formation, the whistle was blown, and the game was underway with Queensland taking first possession. “Tackle him!” Taylor yelled out beside me, and I very nearly burst out laughing.

It took just four and a half minutes for the first points to be scored, with Jarryd Hayne barging through Queensland’s defensive line to score a try for New South Wales. A thunderous cheer went up from the Blues supporters, with a conversion from James Maloney in his first Origin game bringing the scoreline to six points to nothing. “Atta boy Jimmy!” I cheered, waving the flag I’d bought from one of the stadium’s merchandise stands above my head.

Fifteen minutes later, the ball having changed possession through tackles and dropped balls so often I ended up losing count, James Maloney kicked a penalty goal to bring the scoreline to eight points to nothing, sending another cheer up from the Blues supporters. A second attempt at a penalty goal in the twenty-second minute went just slightly wide of the goalposts, but a try from Michael Jennings right under the goalposts and another conversion just minutes from half time saw the score rising to fourteen points to nothing. The first half of the game was rounded out when Paul Gallen went and punched Nate Myles in the face seconds before the half time siren, the on-field action devolving into one hell of a dust-up between the two teams. All around me I could hear my fellow Blues supporters cheering on the home team in the ensuing fight, and I just sat there and grinned. This was what football was meant to be, and I was loving every second of it.

“So what do you think so far?” Taylor asked after the half time siren had sounded and the players had left the field.

“Incredible,” I replied. “I can’t believe I’ve never gone to a game before.” I gave Taylor a smile that he immediately returned.

“Not a bad early birthday pressie, yeah?”

“Not bad at all.” I clapped Taylor on the shoulder and got to my feet once I’d dug my wallet out of my bag. “I’m going to get something to eat. You want anything?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

Before I found something to eat, though, I took a quick detour into the ladies’. A conversation between a couple of the game’s other attendees as they followed me in made me freeze momentarily, and I ducked into an empty cubicle so I could listen without being yelled at for overhearing.

“I swear I saw Taylor Hanson sitting in row ten just now,” one of them was saying.

“Oh come off it, you did not!”

“I did! And he had some girl sitting next to him.”

“Think they’re going out?”

“Maybe? I was on the same train as them coming here, saw them sitting together on the floor because there was nowhere else to sit. Don’t blame them, I wouldn’t want to stand for nearly half an hour either.”

“Lazy cow.”

“Oh shut up. Anyway, they were sitting really close together – she was practically in his lap the whole way here.” There was a pause. “If they are going out, I hope she realises how lucky she is. I wouldn’t mind sitting in his lap myself.”

“Pervert. Come on, we’d better go back. They’ve probably sent a search party out already.”

As soon as I heard the outer door open and close again, I cracked the door to my cubicle open a little and peered out, letting out a sigh of relief when I saw that I was alone again. That relief was soon replaced with a little bit of worry, and I bit down hard on my bottom lip. Tonight was my first time out at a major event as Taylor’s girlfriend, and people were starting to wonder who I was. I’d known it would happen eventually, but all the same it would have been nice to stay anonymous for longer than two and a half months.

Half time was nearly over when I finally returned to my seat, a cardboard box of hot chips in one hand and a carton of chocolate milk in the other. “Did I miss anything?” I asked as I sat down again, sticking my carton of milk between my knees as I put my wallet away in my bag.

“Nope, not yet. What’d you get?” Taylor asked, and I batted his hand away from trying to open my box of chips.

“You said you didn’t want anything,” I reminded him, before letting out a mock-resigned sigh. “But I suppose I should be nice and share my chips. I can’t eat all of them on my own.”

“I knew you’d share with me,” Taylor said with a smirk. The smirk faded almost as soon as it appeared. “You okay?”

I didn’t answer at first, choosing to eat some of my chips while I thought of how to tell Taylor about the little incident in the ladies’. “They know who I am,” I said at last. “Well, sort of.”

“Who knows who you are?”

“The fans. Couple of them saw us in the stands before half time – I eavesdropped on them in the ladies’.” I shrugged. “At least they were nice about it. Wish I could have stayed anonymous for a little while longer, though.”

The game soon resumed, with the Blues kicking off for the second half. Five successive changes in possession resulted in Queensland’s Cameron Smith crossing the line in the forty-eighth minute for what looked like a try. “That was not a try!” Taylor yelled, the other Blues supporters echoing his protests – protests that soon turned to cheers when the video referee concurred with the touch judges and ruled a no try.

“Suck on that Queensland!” I taunted the Maroons supporters, Taylor’s laughter as he heard what I yelled music to my ears. “Isn’t the whole point of Origin supposed to be scoring points?

“Don’t jinx it!” Taylor said, elbowing me in the side.

“I’m not jinxing it,” I said, only to eat my words fifteen minutes later as Darius Boyd crossed the line to score Queensland’s first try of the game – a try that was quickly followed by a conversion from Cameron Smith. “Aw shit,” I groaned as the touch judges’ flags went up.

“Yeah, thanks so much,” Taylor teased me, and I stuck my tongue out at him before returning my attention to the game.

Queensland’s first try and conversion of the game ended up being the only points they would score that evening. The ninety-seventh State of Origin game, the first of the 2013 series, ended up being won by New South Wales fourteen points to six – their first opening game win since 2008. If the stadium had had a roof, I was willing to bet that the resulting cheer from the Blues supporters would have lifted it right off.

“Holy fuck,” I said as the other Blues supporters celebrated around me. “That was amazing. I am so going to more games after this.” I gave Taylor a smile. “Thanks, Tay. Best early birthday present ever.”

He returned my smile before leaning in and kissing me, a kiss I returned in earnest. We were both so caught up in the euphoria of our team winning that I don’t think either of us really cared what everyone else thought of what we were doing. Not that I thought anyone else would have cared all that much.

We met up with Isaac, Nikki, Zac and Kate along with their kids outside the stadium after the game, all of us having sat in different parts of the stands. Rhett, Jamie and Jack all looked worn out but happy, while little Rosie had fallen asleep in Zac’s arms. “Chin up Zac, it’s only the first game,” I said to try and cheer Zac up a little, seeing that he looked disappointed. “Still two more to go. We might actually let you win the next one.”

Zac scowled at me for a few moments before giving me a smile. “You guys deserved that win,” he said. “Congrats.”

“Thanks, mate,” Taylor said. “You guys heading back to Newy?”

“Yep,” Isaac replied. “There’s a train from Strathfield at about five to eleven, we should be able to catch that one if we leave now. What about you two?”

“We’re heading back to Wollongong,” I replied. “Going to catch the train home from Redfern. We both have TAFE tomorrow but I’m seriously considering taking the day off. I’m knackered.”

“After that kiss, I’m not entirely surprised,” Kate teased me, and I felt myself go bright red.

“You saw that?” I asked, my voice a bit pained.

“The whole stadium saw that kiss,” Nikki said with a grin. “Nice one Tay.”

Taylor’s response to this was to sketch a bow before leading the way out of the stadium precinct and over to Olympic Park station. “I’m glad you had a good time tonight,” he said to me as we walked.

“I really did.” An idea jumped into my head just then. “Hey, idea – if the Chooks make it to the Grand Final, we should go and watch them play.”

“Yeah?”

“Definitely. Even if they don’t win, it’d still be a cracker of a game.”

Taylor seemed to be considering this for the remainder of our walk to the station. “Yeah, okay,” he agreed. “Sounds good to me.”

“Awesome.” We stopped walking just before the side entrance that opened onto the stairs leading down to platform one, and I raised myself up on tiptoes so I could kiss Taylor again. “I know I said this already, but thank you. This really was the best early birthday present ever.”

Taylor smiled and pulled me into a hug. “You’re very welcome, Ruby.”


The sound of the city waking up was what roused me on the morning of June twenty-second. It was so early that the sunrise was still hours away, with the only light that managed to penetrate the heavy curtains at the windows coming from the streetlights outside. Beside me Taylor was still asleep, buried under the quilt all the way up to the bridge of his nose.

It took one glance at the screen of my phone for me to realise why I’d woken up so early. Right there in the notifications panel was SIO Queensland Tour – VA505 7:10am.

“Bloody hell,” I mumbled as I rubbed my eyes. “It is way too early for this…”

“Ruby?” Taylor asked, sounding a bit hazy, and he opened one eye at me. “S’too early, what’re you doing up?”

“Flight’s in three hours,” I said as I sat up and pushed the covers back. “C’mon, we’d better get ready.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Taylor groaned. “I’m going to kill whoever it was that booked our flight this early…”

“Join the queue,” I said through a yawn, and turned on the lamp that sat on my night table. “I’m taking first shower.”

I felt almost human after my shower, the warmth of the spray soothing my aching muscles and joints. Feeling completely human would have to wait until I got my medication into me, which wouldn’t be for a few more hours, along with a cup of tea or two. Taylor slipped into the bathroom behind me as I was combing my hair, carefully separating my tangled curls. “Hey,” I said, giving him a smile. He smiled back after a couple of seconds and took the comb from me, running it through my hair a couple more times before starting to plait it. “I didn’t know you could plait hair,” I commented.

“Happens when you have sisters,” he said with a small shrug. “Made it a whole lot easier for Mum on school mornings if someone other than her could do it.” I handed him an elastic out of my toiletry kit, and watched in the mirror as he wound it around the end of my plait. “I’m a bit out of practice, though.”

“Oh I don’t know, it looks good to me,” I said with a smile. “Thank you.”

He leaned down a little and pressed a kiss just below my right ear. “You’re welcome.”

I cleared out of the bathroom shortly after Taylor had finished plaiting my hair so that he could have a shower, taking my pyjamas and my toiletry kit with me. It was almost four-thirty by my watch, and I silently cursed out whoever it was that had booked a flight before nine o’clock as I started packing away everything I’d unpacked the previous afternoon and evening. My toiletry kit, pyjamas and yesterday’s clothes went into my suitcase, the latter folded and bundled into my laundry bag, and I took out a pair of socks and one of my cardigans before zipping and locking my suitcase closed. My backpack was next on the list – into it went my laptop, the zippered case that held the cord and surge protector for my laptop and all of my chargers (all except for my phone’s charger, which was still charging my phone) and the cardigan I’d taken out of my suitcase.

Taylor left the bathroom just as I picked up the ziplock bag that held my medication from its temporary home on the writing desk. “Nearly ready,” I said as I checked that all three pill packets and their prescriptions were safely inside, and slipped it into the middle pocket of my backpack. “And I think I heard your phone go off about ten minutes ago.”

“Oh, thanks.” Taylor gave me another smile and went to grab his phone from where it had been charging since the evening before. “Shit, we’re running late. Everyone else is downstairs already.”

“Jesus Christ, how early did that lot get up?” I started moving a bit faster, tossing Taylor’s own ziplock bag of medication over to him as I went over to the bed. He caught it one-handed and dropped it into his backpack. “Okay, I’m ready to go,” I said as I zipped up my shoulder bag after checking everything was inside where it belonged.

“Do you want me to call Zac up here to give us a hand?” Taylor asked as I unfolded my wheelchair.

“Yeah, probably a good idea,” I replied. “I can’t handle my suitcase and my wheelchair, and you’ve got your hands full enough with all your gear.”

“Okay, hang on – fuck!” he swore loudly, and dropped his phone on the floor.

“You okay?”

“N-no, I’m not. Fucking n-nerve pain just f-flared up on me. Both hands this time.” He sat down hard on the bed and leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and started taking one deep breath after another.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

In response, he kicked his phone over to me. “Ring Zac and a-ask him to come up here. I need to take my p-painkillers too, they’re in my backpack.”

“What’s your password?”

“T-two nine eight t-three,” Taylor replied, his voice catching a bit, and I bit down on my bottom lip. He was clearly in a lot of pain. I quickly got his phone unlocked and found Zac’s number in his phone directory.

“Taylor, where the fuck are you?” Zac asked as soon as he picked up, sounding royally pissed off.

“It’s Ruby,” I said. “Taylor just had a flare-up, we need you to come up to our room. I’ll let you in.”

“Shit,” Zac swore softly. “Okay, I’m on my way. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

“Thank you.” I hung up and locked Taylor’s phone again. “Zac’s on his way. What do your painkillers look like?”

“White p-packet with a green stripe and Panadeine Forte on it. It’s in with my other meds.”

There was a knock at the door just as I was filling a glass with water out of the tap in the bathroom. I turned the tap off, leaving the half-filled glass on the vanity, and went to answer the door, finding Zac standing in the corridor with all of his gear in tow. “Sorry I yelled at you,” he apologised as I let him in.

“It’s all good. We’re running late, I don’t blame you for being pissed off.”

“Yeah, but…” Zac sighed. “I’m still sorry. Where’s Tay?”

“Just through there.” I nodded toward the main room, and ducked back into the bathroom to finish getting Taylor a glass of water.

“I told everyone else to go on to the airport without us,” Zac was saying as I left the bathroom. “We’ll catch up later.”

“Are t-they pissed off at me?” Taylor asked, his voice still catching a little.

“Yeah, they’re fucking ropeable because of something you can’t control,” Zac snarked. “Of course they’re not pissed off. They’re worried about you though.” He looked up at me from where he was knelt on the floor at Taylor’s feet. “You don’t have to hang around if you don’t want to, Ruby,” he said, taking the glass from me. “This is going to take a while.”

“I’m not leaving until he’s feeling better,” I said, my tone unintentionally stubborn. “If it means I have to catch a later flight, then so be it.” I sat down next to Taylor and put my right arm around his shoulders, stroking a circle with my thumb around the spot where I knew his central line scar was. “Is that okay?” I asked, and he nodded.

“Thank you,” he said quietly.

“You’re lucky I like you so much,” I teased him, and he smirked at me.

Taylor had soon taken his painkillers, and while he finished off the rest of his glass of water Zac set a timer on his phone. “So what happens now?” I asked.

“You get to distract Taylor for the next half an hour while his meds kick in,” Zac replied as he stood up. He held up his phone. “I’m going to call Joel and let him know how things are going.”

“Ask him whose stupid idea booking our flight this early was,” Taylor said, sounding tired. “I’m gonna kick their arse when I find out who it was.”

Neither Taylor nor I said anything for a little while. By the time either of us spoke, my watch read 05:07 – seven minutes past five in the morning.

“Feeling any better?” I asked.

“A bit,” Taylor replied. “Doesn’t feel like I’ve been shocked anymore at least. It just feels like it’s burning now.”

“Does it always feel like that?”

He shook his head. “Not always. It’s pretty bad, yeah, but my medication normally knocks it on the head. This is the worst it’s been in ages.” He let out a quiet, almost defeated sigh. “I think I need to go and see Dr. Emerson when we get back from New Zealand. I can’t rely on my painkillers the whole time. I’ll get myself addicted if I’m not careful.”

“You could go and see him today,” Zac said as he came back into the main room, still on the phone. “Joel said he can book us onto another flight if that’s what needs to happen.”

“I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” Taylor said, sounding uncertain.

“You won’t. Your health is way more important, Tay, and the fans will more than understand if we need to delay the start of tour a day or so. Sometimes you need to look out for number one, and this just happens to be one of those sometimes.”

Taylor seemed to be considering this for a little while. “Okay. Tell Joel to rebook us. Ruby too.”

“On it,” Zac said with a smile. “Joel? Yeah, can you book Tay, Ruby and I onto a flight for tomorrow? Preferably one after nine o’clock?”

My watch had just ticked over to twenty past five when I heard Taylor let out a sigh of what was unmistakably relief. “That’s better,” he said. “Just a dull ache now. I might actually get some sleep on the way home.”

“How did you two get up here anyway?” Zac asked as I got to my feet and stretched.

“Same way we did it for the last tour,” Taylor replied. He was working at the fingers on his right hand as he spoke. “We caught the train from Wollongong and then a taxi here.”

“Ever heard of driving?” Zac asked, and Taylor gave him the finger. “Lovely attitude, Taylor.”

“Bite me,” Taylor retorted, and went back to working at his fingers.

“You gonna be okay?” I asked him just before we headed downstairs. He didn’t answer me straight away, and nor did I expect him to.

“I think so,” he replied. He gave me a smile. “Thanks for staying with me, Ruby. I really appreciate it.”

I got up out of my wheelchair and drew him into a hug. “Anytime, Tay,” I said, and kissed him on the cheek. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

Taylor

“Taylor Hanson?”

I got up from my seat in the waiting room upon hearing my name and followed Dr. Emerson through to his office. It was all I could do right now to stay awake, my ridiculously early morning having caught up to me despite the two hour nap I’d taken right after getting home. The renewed pain in my hands and fingers wasn’t helping matters any.

“Take a seat, Taylor,” Dr. Emerson said. He closed the door behind me and sat down at his desk. I carefully lowered myself into the chair that sat at the end, against the right-hand wall of the office, and pushed the hood of my jumper back over my head. “What can I do for you today?”

“I had a flare-up this morning,” I replied. “Worst one in…God, years at least. I can’t remember the last time it was that bad. Hurt like hell to be honest with you.”

“I can imagine,” Dr. Emerson said, sounding sympathetic. “You’ve been keeping up with the Endep, though?”

“Yeah, but…” I rubbed the back of my head with my right wrist, wincing as the heel of my hand brushed against my hair. “It’s been wearing off a lot earlier than it should lately. I’m not sure it’s working so well anymore.”

“You’ve been taking it for how long now?”

“Nearly eleven years.”

“I see. It’s not unusual for medications to lose their effectiveness over time, and it’s entirely possible that’s what’s happened here.” He gestured for me to hold my hands out, and once I’d done so he carefully examined them, running his fingers gently over my knuckles. The whole time I did my best not to snatch my hands away, even though it hurt like blazes, knowing that Dr. Emerson was only trying to help. “Are your hands hurting at the moment?”

“Yeah, but not as much as they were this morning. I took some of my painkillers at about five o’clock – I’m due for another dose in an hour or so.”

“All right.” He let go of my hands. “Eventually I’d like to start you on a medication called Neurontin, but I can’t do that until we exhaust all other avenues first. You’re also taking Zoloft, correct?”

I nodded. “Hundred milligrams a day for depression and social anxiety.”

“In that case, if you’re willing, here’s what I’d like to do. I’d like you to taper off the Zoloft over the next four weeks, with the goal of stopping both the Zoloft and the Endep on the same day. Once you’re off both of those medications, I’d like to start you on Andepra for the depression and the neuropathic pain.” He started scrolling through my medical records on his computer. “I’d also like you to start taking Aropax again.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” I groaned. There weren’t many medications that I considered to be as bad as the chemotherapy I’d been stuck on for almost three years, but Aropax was definitely one of them. “There isn’t another medication I could take instead?”

“There are,” Dr. Emerson allowed. “But they pose a high risk of addiction when taken long-term. I don’t feel particularly comfortable having you take, say, Valium for longer than four weeks, and you would need to be taking it for much longer than that.” He studied me for a little while. “I can understand your apprehension at going back on Aropax, Taylor. Truly, I can. But at the moment, I feel that other than keeping you on Zoloft, it’s the best option for treating your particular…let’s call it your ‘brand’ of social anxiety. Not to mention you won’t need such a high dose to alleviate the effects the anxiety has on you.”

I sighed and leaned back in my chair. “If I do this, I’d like to wait until after tour. I don’t think I’d be much good to anyone if I started winding down on my meds at the moment.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem.” Dr. Emerson started typing away on his computer’s keyboard. “Where are you going on tour?”

“Queensland. Was supposed to be flying up this morning, actually. Flare-up kind of put paid to that. My brother Zac and I are making the trek tomorrow instead.”

“Sounds exciting.” Dr. Emerson soon had three prescriptions printed off. “Don’t feel that you need to fill these straight away,” he said as he slipped them into an envelope. “It’s up to you when you start tapering off your current medication, but I do want you to start eventually.”

“How long should I give the new medication?”

“Let’s say…six months. Once you’ve been taking them for that long, come and see me – we’ll have a chat then, and if you’re willing to continue taking them I’ll renew your prescriptions. If you decide before then that you can’t handle them, as long as it’s been at least three months, we’ll look into trying something else. All right?”

“Yeah, all right,” I agreed, though not without a small amount of apprehension. The envelope with my new prescriptions went into my messenger bag, and I stood up. “Thanks, Dr. Emerson.”

Zac was waiting for me outside the medical centre when I walked out a few minutes later. He was sitting on the footpath near the medical centre’s front door, back against the windows, and looked up from his phone as I dropped down next to him. “So what’s the verdict?”

“I have to go back on fucking Aropax,” I said, spitting out the name of one of my most hated medications as if it were something distasteful. Which it really was. “Dr. Emerson wants me to stop taking Zoloft and Endep. I’m starting a new medication for depression and nerve pain once I get both meds out of my system, and I get to start Aropax again at the same time.” I pulled my legs up under my chin, wrapped my arms around them and rested my forehead on my knees. “I can’t fucking win, can I?”

“Maybe it won’t be so bad this time,” Zac said, sounding a bit tentative. “I mean, you were still having chemo when you started on it, weren’t you?”

“Still had to take it for a year after I finished,” I reminded him. “And it was hell even then.” I let out a sigh. “I really hope you’re right.”

“You and me both, mate.” I looked up just in time to see Zac giving me a smile. “Come on. I left Ruby back at Corrimal Court, she wanted to go poke around in Jay Jays for a bit.”

Over at Corrimal Court, we found Ruby sitting outside of Woolworths with a few bags on the seat next to her – one from Jay Jays, another from Crossroads, and a brown paper bag from Baker’s Delight. “How’d things go at the doctor’s?” she asked as I sat down next to her.

“Not as well as I might have liked,” I said. “I have to switch meds soon.”

“Really? What for?” she asked.

“Endep’s not working as well as it used to. So my doctor’s taking me off that and Zoloft, even though the Zoloft’s still working properly, and I get to start taking Andepra for both depression and nerve pain.” I glanced down at the toes of my sneakers. “And I have to start taking Aropax again for anxiety. I was on it for three and a half years before I went on Zoloft, hated every second of it.”

“Ugh, that’s no good,” Ruby said, sounding sympathetic. She held out the Baker’s Delight bag to me. “Do you like scones? I got a couple of blueberry and white chocolate ones just now – you can have one if you like. Might help you cheer up a bit.”

“I’d love one. Thanks.” I opened the bag up and took out one of Ruby’s scones. “What else did you find?” I asked.

“I got us both something. But you have to close your eyes first,” she said. I did so, and soon felt something being pulled down onto my head. “Okay, open,” she added a few moments later.

Upon seeing my reflection in the little mirror that Ruby was holding up in front of my face, I reached up to touch the slouchy dark grey beanie that now covered my hair. It felt warm under my fingers. “Thanks, Ruby,” I said, giving her a smile. “Hey, you got one too.”

Ruby returned my smile. “Not quite the same one,” she said. Her beanie was light blue, a little less slouchy than mine and looked almost like something my grandmother would have crocheted for one of my sisters. “I’m glad you like yours.”

“I love it. It’s perfect.” I drew Ruby close and planted a kiss on her forehead.

“Get a room, please,” Zac said, sounding a little disgusted.

“Oh, pull your head in,” I retorted.

“I’m pretty sure you’ve done worse, Zac,” Ruby said as she got to her feet, helping me up once she was upright. “Don’t you have kids?”

Zac’s only response to this was to give Ruby the finger back over his shoulder as he headed toward the shopping centre exit.

Late the next morning, the three of us caught our rescheduled flight up to the Gold Coast, with Isaac meeting us at the airport. “How are you feeling?” he asked me as we all left the terminal building.

“Better,” I replied. I held out my right hand and wiggled my fingers a little. “Hands don’t hurt so much anymore. Still aching a bit though – I’ll take some Panadeine later on, that should be enough to get me through tonight.”

“Are you sure you should be playing, though?”

I shrugged. “Dr. Emerson didn’t say I shouldn’t. I don’t think I’ll be up to the guitar for a few days, though. I’ll stick to keys for now.”

“Good idea. If you need Zac or I to take over though, let me know – don’t want you pushing yourself too hard.”

I nodded and climbed into the back of the van that waited for us in the short term carpark, one of our roadies at the wheel. “Will do.”

After a quick detour to our hotel so that Zac, Ruby and I could drop our gear off, we headed over to the venue for that night’s show, The Coolangatta Hotel. As the name implied it was a pub in Coolangatta, a few streets away from the border between New South Wales and Queensland, and literally a stone’s throw from Coolangatta Beach. Tonight would be our second time playing at this particular venue – it was one of my favourite Queensland venues, and I always looked forward to playing shows there.

“Good to see you’re feeling better,” Caroline said once I’d made it backstage, giving me a smile that I quickly returned. “Ready for tonight’s show?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be. I just have to hope these don’t act up on me again.” I held up my hands. “Starting new meds in a little while so hopefully it won’t be as much of an issue soon.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Not until after tour though. I won’t be much good to anyone if I start tapering off my meds right now.”

“Very smart of you,” Caroline said, her tone approving. “Love the beanie by the way.”

“Thanks. Ruby got it for me.” I gave Caroline another smile and headed over to where Zac and Isaac waited for me, the two of them bent over Isaac’s laptop. “Sorting the set list out?”

“Yep,” Zac replied without looking up from scrolling through our master playlist of covers. “Just working out the covers then it’ll be done.” He glanced at me. “No guitar, right?”

“Just for tonight and Tuesday,” I replied. “I should be right once we hit Caloundra.”

“Okay then…” He went back to scrolling through the playlist. “How do you feel about doing Valerie?”

“Works for me,” I said. “I’d rather not kick things off though.”

“Yeah, no worries.” I watched as Zac made a note of this in his notebook. “Oh, I almost forgot – Mum wants you to call her.”

“When was this?”

Zac hitched one shoulder up in a half-shrug. “An hour or so ago, maybe? She texted me while we were on the way up here, didn’t get the message until I turned my phone back on and took it out of flight mode.”

“Yeah, all right. I’ll call her after sound check.”

I was as good as my word. As soon as sound check was over, I went out to the seating area out the front of the pub with my phone. From my vantage point I could watch the sunset, the sky turning shades of orange and pink as the sun dipped below the horizon.

“Hello Taylor,” Mum said to answer my phone call, and I let my eyes drop closed for a few moments. Mum’s voice always made me miss home a little, as much as I sometimes didn’t want to admit it.

“Hey Mum.” I scuffed the toe of my left sneaker across the floor. “Zac said you wanted me to call you.”

“I did, yes. How are you feeling after yesterday?”

I propped my left elbow up on the railing that ran around the seating area and rested my forehead on the palm of my hand. “Better, but not totally a hundred percent yet. I’m taking it easy for the next few days, I promise. Well, as easy as I can anyway.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear that.” I smiled at this. “Now, I want you to be honest with me here, and keep in mind that I’m your mother and I know when you’re lying to me. Do you feel up to performing tonight?”

I didn’t answer straight away. Part of me wanted to just hide out in my hotel room and watch really bad movies on Austar in an effort to distract myself, but there was a bigger part that was almost desperate to be out there onstage. I needed to be out there – I needed to feel the buzz of excitement from the gathered crowd, the hum of the strings of my guitar and the keys of my piano beneath my fingertips, my blood singing through my veins. To ignore that would be to deny an integral part of who I was.

“Yeah, I do,” I answered. “My hands still hurt but I’m going to take some painkillers before we go onstage.”

“I hope you don’t plan on doing that before every show,” Mum said. Her tone was a little disapproving. “That’s not the way to deal with it.”

“I know it’s not, Mum. My…” I let out a sigh. “The Endep’s not working properly anymore. Keeps wearing off too early – I’m pretty sure that’s why I had my flare-up.”

“Oh Tay,” Mum said softly. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.”

“Yeah, thanks.” I let my eyes drop closed again for a few seconds. “Dr. Emerson’s starting me on new medication after tour. Have to go back on bloody Aropax as well, seeing as I won’t be taking Zoloft anymore. New meds will help with the depression and the nerve pain but not the anxiety.” I forced out a laugh. “Lucky me.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ruby coming up beside me. She gave me a smile as she sat down. “Who’re you talking to?” she whispered.

“My mum,” I whispered back.

“When does tonight’s show start?” Mum asked.

“Off the top of my head…” I trailed off and squinted a bit. “Doors are at half past seven, opener goes on at a quarter past eight, and we start our set at half past nine.”

“Oi Taylor, what do you want on your pizza?” I heard Zac yell out to me.

“Hang on Mum,” I said, and lowered my phone from my ear as I turned around to face my brother. “Where are you getting it from?” I called back.

“Crust Pizza, it’s just down the street.” Zac pointed off to his right. “What do you want?”

“Hawaiian’ll do me.”

“Yeah, me too,” Ruby added. Zac gave the two of us a quick salute and headed back inside.

“I’d better go, Mum,” I said. “Nearly dinner time, and I still need to have a shower and get changed before the show.”

“All right. You have a good show tonight, and don’t push yourself too hard. Let Zac or Isaac take over if you need them to.”

“I will. I’ll call you after the show.”

Almost as soon as I’d finished my phone call, Ruby was getting back to her feet. “I’m heading back to the hotel,” she said when I raised an eyebrow at her. “I need to have a shower before the show as well. Come with me?”

“Nah, I reckon I’ll sit here all evening and freeze my backside off,” I snarked. “Yeah, I’m coming. Just let me tell that lot where we’re going.”

It didn’t take me long to track Isaac, Joel and Caroline down in turn and tell them where Ruby and I were going, and soon the two of us were walking hand in hand down Marine Parade. “Looking forward to tonight?” I asked as we crossed Warner Street.

“Yep,” Ruby replied. “First time going to a show in Queensland so that’ll be fun. Plus I like the opening band a lot – I looked them up on YouTube last night. Had Hold My Tongue stuck in my head ever since.”

Our hotel, the Mantra Twin Towns, was just a few streets away from The Coolangatta Hotel, so it didn’t take Ruby and I long at all to walk there. “You can have the first shower if you like,” I said as we stepped out of the lift onto the seventh floor and headed down the corridor to our room.

“You sure?” Ruby asked, sounding a little unsure.

“Totally sure,” I assured her as I dropped my copy of our room key into our room’s lock. “Just don’t use up all the hot water, okay?” I teased. Ruby stuck her tongue out at me, and slipped into the room past me once I had the door open.

While Ruby was having her shower, I took my iPad and my mobile broadband modem out of my backpack so I could check my email. Right at the top of my inbox was an email from Isaac with the final version of that night’s set list – a set list that, somewhat to my dismay, started with the cover I would be performing.

I know you said you didn’t want to kick the show off, Isaac’s email said, but the set list didn’t really work otherwise. We’ll make it up to you when we get to Rockhampton next week.

“You’d better,” I mumbled as I studied the set list, committing it to memory.

I had just finished memorising the set list when I heard the bathroom door open, and I looked up just as Ruby stepped out of the bathroom. She was towelling her hair dry as she walked over to where I sat on the lounge. “Bathroom’s free,” she said as she sat down next to me. “What’re you doing?”

“Just finished memorising tonight’s set list,” I replied. I set my iPad aside and gave Ruby a smile, one that she echoed from beneath her towel, and I got back to my feet. “You can have a look while I’m in the shower if you like.”

“You sure?” Ruby asked.

“Totally sure,” I replied, not looking up from digging through my suitcase in search of something to wear tonight. It didn’t take me long to decide what I was going to wear, and I headed off to the bathroom to have my own shower.

One thing I had learned over the last sixteen years was that no matter how much I might have wanted to, I could never predict when I was going to have an anxiety attack. I could feel them coming on, usually only around thirty seconds before one hit me, but that was it – and even worse was that nothing could stop them once they hit. I just had to ride them out and hope they didn’t last too long. The sole saving grace this time was that my latest attack decided to wait until I was out of the shower and fully dressed before it hit me.

“Oh fucking hell,” I groaned as the chill that always preceded one of my anxiety attacks settled over me. They were far less severe these days, but my medication couldn’t stop them completely. There wasn’t a lot that could, short of increasing the already high dosage of Zoloft I was already taking – something I was completely unwilling to do. I braced myself against the vanity, put my head down, closed my eyes and gritted my teeth, and waited for the shaking to stop.

“Tay?” The bathroom door opened, and I risked opening one eye just in time to see Ruby sticking her head in. “You okay?”

I shook my head. “Anxiety attack,” I managed to get out.

“Oh no,” she said softly. She slipped into the bathroom and up beside me. “Is it okay if I touch you?” she asked, and I nodded. I tensed out of sheer reflex as one of her hands landed on my back, and she started rubbing in small circles between my shoulder blades. Her other hand gently uncurled my fingers from around the lip of the sink. “That’s it, come on…”

Soon enough, Ruby had led me out of the bathroom and back over to the lounge. I sat down hard and bent forward over my knees with my head down, closing my eyes so I could focus solely on my breathing. The whole time Ruby kept on rubbing my back, not saying a word – the only thing keeping me completely grounded.

The anxiety attack finally eased off after what felt like an eternity, but was probably no longer than ten minutes. I drew in a shaky breath and let it out slowly as I straightened up. “Thank you,” I said quietly.

“You’re welcome,” Ruby replied, giving me a smile that I tried to return. “D’you want me to call your brothers and let them know what’s happened?” she asked, and I nodded.

“I’m going to go and have another shower while you’re doing that,” I said, and eased myself to my feet.

It was nearly six-thirty by the time Ruby and I finally made it back to The Coolangatta Hotel. Zac was waiting for the two of us at the stage door, looking a lot more worried than I’d seen him in a while.

“Are you all right?” he asked me, and I nodded. “You sure?”

“Yes Zac, I’m sure,” I replied. I was sorely tempted to be sarcastic, but I knew that it wasn’t the right moment for that. It would just end up in both Zac and Isaac yelling at me, and that was really the last thing I needed right now. “Please tell me there’s still some pizza left.”

“Yeah, there’s still some left. Don’t worry, we didn’t eat it all.” Zac gave me a smile as he opened the door so that we could all go inside. “Isaac wants to get in one last rehearsal once you’ve eaten, all right?”

“Yeah, all right.”

Just as Zac had said, an entire box of Hawaiian pizza was waiting for Ruby and I when we finally made it backstage. “I think it might need to be heated up,” Ruby said once she’d opened the box. “How many do you want?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at me, and I held up three fingers.

I didn’t say very much until I’d almost finished my dinner. “Ruby?”

“Hmm?”

I picked a piece of pineapple off my last slice of pizza and popped it into my mouth. “Thank you. For yesterday and today, I mean. It…it means a lot.”

Ruby gave me a smile. “You’re welcome, Tay. Thanks for trusting me with it.”

I returned Ruby’s smile. “Don’t mention it.”

Almost before I realised it, our opening band was completing their set – which meant that there was just half an hour until Isaac, Zac and I were due to go onstage. It also meant that I had just twenty minutes to settle my nerves and stave off the anxiety that I could feel slowly creeping up on me all over again. It had been a long time since I’d felt this anxious so close to a show, and it wasn’t a feeling I liked.

“We can delay the start of the show a little while,” Caroline said to me. The two of us were outside near the stage door, the anxiety finally having got the better of me barely fifteen minutes before the show was due to start. I was on my knees on the cold, hard concrete, fingers twisted up in my hair as I tried desperately to calm down. “If that’s what you need us to do right now, then we’ll do it.”

I shook my head. “I’m fine,” I said. “I just need a few minutes.”

“Right. And I’m Nefertiti.” She crouched down so that she was at my eye level. “Taylor, nobody is going to think less of you if we have to delay or even cancel tonight’s show. You’re dealing with quite a lot right now – I’m not surprised in the least that you’re feeling this way. It happens, and anyone who has a problem with that will just have to get over themselves.”

I didn’t say anything for a little while. “Ten minutes,” I said finally.

“All right. I’ll let your brothers know. Come back inside whenever you’re ready.” She gave me a smile and straightened up.

I finally managed to pull myself together five minutes after the show had originally been due to start, and headed back inside with my hands shoved into my pockets and my head down. “All right there?” Gina asked me as she met me halfway between the stage door and where my brothers waited for me, my set of ear monitors and their receiver in one of her hands, and I nodded mutely. “Just gotta get you fitted up and you can go, all right?”

Gina had me fitted out with my ear monitors in almost no time at all, leaving me free to join Isaac and Zac at the side of the stage. “We’re going to talk about this tomorrow, all right?” Isaac said, and I nodded. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” I replied. I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath and pushed aside the curtain that separated backstage from the front of house. “On three, yeah?”

“One, two, three,” Zac counted off, and I stepped out into the light.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

Ruby

“You think he’ll be all right?” I asked Nikki and Kate that evening, not even bothering to say Taylor’s name – it was obvious who I was talking about. The three of us stood on the balcony of The Coolangatta Hotel’s bandroom, not far from the bar, a spot that gave us a decent view of the stage. The opening band for the Queensland tour, a six-piece from Brisbane called Sheppard, had finished their set a few minutes earlier. The music that had been playing prior to Sheppard’s set had resumed after they had left the stage, intermingling with the chatter drifting up from the crowd that filled the dance floor. “I mean, that anxiety attack earlier really knocked him around. The flare-up he had yesterday can’t have helped matters much either.”

“You’d be surprised,” Kate said. She was leaning on the wooden rail that ran along the top of the balcony wall, a clear plastic cup of Bacardi and Coke in one hand. “He’s pretty resilient. Everything that he’s been through…” She trailed off, leaving the end of that sentence unspoken, but it didn’t need to be said – I knew what she meant. “He should be all right, though. If he needs to talk or anything, he’ll let you know.”

“All right,” I said, trying my best not to sound too doubtful. Were Taylor anyone else – one of his brothers, for example – I would have quite happily taken Kate’s response at face value. But knowing what I did about him, I knew better than to do that. I didn’t say anything more, though, choosing instead to lean forward with my elbows propped on the balcony railing, letting my hands dangle over the crowd below, and did my best not to worry too much.

But as it turned out, I had every reason to worry.

The screen of Nikki’s phone lit up not even ten minutes later, her message tone barely audible over the low hum of voices that filled the bandroom. “Oh you have got to be kidding me,” she groaned as she read the message that landed in her inbox.

“What’s up?” Kate asked.

“Taylor just had another anxiety attack,” Nikki replied. I watched as she tapped back out of her inbox and into her phone directory, and started scrolling through the list of names.

“Why don’t they just cancel the show?” I asked. “Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do?”

“Beats me,” Nikki replied with a shrug. “You’d think Taylor at the very least would know better.” She found the number she was after and hit dial, putting her phone on speaker, and Kate and I crowded a little closer to her so that we could hear better.

“Hey Niks,” were the first words we heard Isaac say once Nikki’s call had been answered.

“So what’s this about Taylor having another anxiety attack?” Nikki asked, getting straight to the point. “And why the hell haven’t you cancelled or even just postponed the show? Surely that’s better than just letting him go onstage. We both know what he’s like after it happens.”

There was a pause, and I could almost see Isaac running his free hand through his hair. “Tay reckons he can handle it. Told Caroline that he just needs ten minutes or so.”

“He’s a fucking idiot,” Nikki said bluntly. “Of all the utterly stupid-” She broke off abruptly and closed her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose between the thumb and index finger of her free hand. “Are you at least going to talk to him? He can’t keep doing this to himself.”

“Caroline and Joel want to have a meeting tomorrow before we head to Toowoomba. So yeah, I’m going to talk to him about it.” Isaac paused again. “I know he can’t keep doing this to himself, Niks. Believe me, I know. But you know what he’s like.”

“You’d think that he’d know better by now,” Kate interjected.

“Yeah, well, he might be smart as hell but sometimes he acts like he’s a complete idiot,” Isaac said. I could almost see him shrugging as he spoke. “This would be one of those sometimes.”

“I don’t like this,” Nikki said. “I don’t like this one bit.” She let out a frustrated sigh. “If he thinks he can handle it, fine. Don’t stop him from going onstage. Just make sure he knows I think he’s an idiot for it.”

“I’ll let him know, don’t worry,” Isaac said, sounding like he was trying not to laugh. “I don’t know how late we’ll be going onstage, that’ll be up to Taylor. We probably won’t be too late though. If it turns out he can’t make it onstage after all, I’ll let you know.”

“All right. Have a good show.”

“Will do.”

In the end, it was twenty-five minutes to ten before Hanson’s set began. During the twenty minutes between Isaac’s phone call and the house lights going down, I’d been able to hear the crowd steadily growing restless and more than a little impatient. Knowing what I did about the reason for the delay, every complaint that drifted up from the dance floor frustrated the hell out of me. Not to mention it made me wish they could all just be a little more patient. Any and all grumbling was soon silenced, though, as the opening chords of Valerie rang out across the bandroom, almost drowned out by the cheering that rose up from the dancefloor. And with each minute that ticked by, I slowly relaxed.

He was okay. Even despite his flare-up the morning before and the two anxiety attacks he’d been slammed with in the space of just a few hours that afternoon, Taylor was okay. I had never been more relieved than I was right at that moment.

“He’s all right,” I heard Nikki say as the first song of the set ended, relief evident in her voice.

“Thank goodness for that,” Kate said, before adding, “He’s still an idiot though.”

“You don’t think he’s hiding it?” I asked.

“It’s possible,” Kate allowed. “But I really doubt it. He has these…I suppose you’d call them tells. If he’s really, properly anxious, there are some things he can’t stop doing.”

“His hands, for example,” Nikki continued. “They shake pretty much constantly when he’s anxious, and he tends to clench them into fists so you can’t see it. Even though it hurts like hell sometimes.” She pointed down at the stage. “See, he’s not doing it at the moment. He tends to stutter when he talks as well if the anxiety is really affecting him.”

“He probably should have told you all of this himself,” Kate added. “But I definitely understand why he wouldn’t have. It’s like with all of the shit he went through back then. He hates talking about it unless he absolutely has to. So you know, don’t go getting narky at him for not talking to you about it. Okay?”

“I won’t,” I promised. I knew how that was all too well, and so there was no way I was going to get pissed off at Taylor. He had his reasons, just as I did, and I couldn’t fault him for that.

By the time the band left the stage so it could be set up for that evening’s acoustic set, I had all but forgotten that Taylor wasn’t at his best right now. The only indicator that anything was even remotely amiss was that every few songs during the first half of the electric set either Isaac would go over to Taylor’s side of the stage, or Zac would wave Taylor back to his drums. Even so, I wasn’t overly fussed – they were Taylor’s brothers and knew all about his various health issues, and I figured they were just making sure he was all right.

“How’re you holding up?” Kate asked Taylor around halfway through the short interval between sets. Joel had called Kate’s mobile, knowing that the three of us were hanging out together during the show, and had immediately passed the phone off to Taylor so we could talk to him. “And please be honest.” She glanced over at me. “Ruby will probably smack you if we find out you’re fibbing.”

“Too fucking right,” I said, and both Kate and Nikki burst out laughing. Taylor let out a chuckle of his own before answering Kate’s question.

“I’m okay. Feel like I’m going to fall over any second though.”

Kate, Nikki and I exchanged glances, the look passing between the three of us saying one thing loud and clear. None of us liked the sound of that one bit.

“Do you think you can make it through the rest of the show?” Nikki asked. “Because I am fully prepared to tell Caroline to pull the plug right now if you don’t think you can manage it.”

Taylor didn’t say a word for a little while. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone,” he said, sounding tentative.

Another glance passed between Kate, Nikki and I. “Tay, what does everyone keep telling you?” Kate asked. “Nobody is going to be disappointed if you have to pull out of a show because your health is being a twat. All of us – your brothers, the three of us, the crew, even the fans – we know how dodgy it gets sometimes. We know you can’t help it when your anxiety acts up, or you have a pain flare-up or whatever. It’s just how it is with you.”

“I wish it wasn’t,” Taylor said. He sounded frustrated, and I couldn’t blame him one bit.

“Yeah, we know,” Nikki said, her tone soothing. “Pain in the arse isn’t it?”

Taylor let out another chuckle, this one a little rougher-sounding than the last. “That’s an understatement.” He was quiet for a minute or so, and I could almost see him running the fingers of his free hand through his hair. “I think I can manage going back onstage,” he said finally. “I’ll sit down for the rest of the show. I really don’t think I could stand for the next hour or so anyway.”

“Good,” Nikki said. “Thank you. Promise me something else?”

“Sure.”

Please let Isaac or Zac take over if you need them to. The last thing anyone wants is for you to push yourself so hard that you end up getting sick. Especially this close to the beginning of tour.”

“You sound like my mother,” Taylor said, sounding more amused than anything else. “Deal.”

“I’m going to hold you to that. You do know that, right?”

“Oh believe me, I know.”

He kept his word. For the rest of the show he stayed off his feet, sitting first on a high stool during the acoustic set, and for the second half of the electric set on his piano bench with his right leg stretched out in front of him. Even from my spot on the balcony I could see that he was feeling more than a bit worn out. But he stuck it out for the last hour or so of the concert, only standing up at the end of the show so he could take his bow with his brothers and their backing band. The last thing I saw as the stage lights went dark was Taylor leaning mostly on Isaac and Zac as he limped offstage.

As soon as I’d made it backstage, I headed off to find Taylor. It didn’t take me long to track him down – after a quick check of the dressing rooms, the kitchenette and the bathrooms, I found him sitting against one of the walls in the pub’s rooftop garden. He had his eyes closed and head tipped back against the wall, his right foot propped up on his left ankle. He didn’t move an inch as I eased myself down onto the pavers next to him.

“How’re you feeling?”

He shrugged. “Tired and a bit sore. And my foot went numb on me halfway through the acoustic set. Wish it would stop doing that.” He eased an eye open at me. “What about you?”

“I’m fine. I wasn’t in the pit tonight so I’ll be all right in the morning. You’re the one I’m worried about right now.” I found his left hand with my right and intertwined our fingers. “Think you’ll be okay for the rest of tour?”

“Honestly?”

“Yeah.”

He went quiet again for a little while. “I think so. I just need to listen to myself more.” Here he tapped one of his temples, before letting out a quiet sigh. “I’m not looking forward to the lecture I’m going to get from Joel and Caroline tomorrow. It’s going to be almost as bad as one of Mum’s.”

“One of those, hey?”

“Mmm. Gotten more of those than I’d like to admit.” He gave me a small smile, one that didn’t quite reach his eyes, before easing himself upright. I let him lean on my shoulder as I got to my own feet so he could steady himself. “Come on. They’ll be wondering where we’ve got off to.”

The first person we came across on our way back inside was Isaac. He was talking to someone on the phone as Taylor and I slipped back inside, glancing up briefly as we made to walk past. “Yeah, that’s great…thanks mate. Bye,” he said to end his phone call. “You okay?” he asked Taylor.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Taylor replied, at which Isaac raised an eyebrow. “I am! I mean, yeah, okay, I’m absolutely knackered, I’m aching all over and my fucking right foot’s still numb, but aside from that…” He trailed off and shrugged, as if to say ‘no big deal’. “I just need to get some sleep.”

“Uh-huh,” Isaac said, not sounding quite convinced. “From the looks of things calling a taxi to get you two back to the hotel was probably the best idea I’ve had all day.”

“It’s a fucking ten-minute walk! No cabbie on Earth is going to take a fare that short!”

“You can barely walk right now, Taylor,” Isaac shot back. “That ten-minute walk is going to turn into half a bloody hour if I go ahead and let the two of you head back on your own. Never mind that it’s just about the middle of the night. Mum would have my head if I didn’t make sure you got back to the hotel in one piece.”

The second Isaac mentioned his and Taylor’s mother, Taylor’s mouth snapped shut. I’d had the feeling he’d been about to protest being told he couldn’t walk back to the hotel with everyone else – something I agreed with completely.

“He’s right, Tay,” I said. “I don’t think I can manage the walk back anyway. Not this late at night. And I’m fairly sure you can’t either.” I gave his right foot a pointed glance.

“Oh, fine,” Taylor grumbled. “But I want it known that I’m doing this under protest.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Isaac said. “Taxi’ll pick you two up from outside the surf club across the road in about twenty minutes. Make sure you text one of us when you’re back at the hotel.”

“We will Isaac, don’t worry,” I assured him. “Thanks.”

Taylor was quiet the whole way back to the hotel. It wasn’t until we were back in our room that he spoke.

“I’m not a fucking invalid.”

I poked my head back out of the bathroom, where I’d gone to get ready for bed. Taylor was sitting on the very end of our bed, almost looking as if he was glaring at his feet. “Beg pardon?” I asked, wondering just why he’d said that.

“You heard me.”

I left the bathroom and went to sit down next to him. “Yeah, I heard you,” I said. “I’m just wondering why you said it. We all know you’re not.”

“I just…” He let out a frustrated-sounding sigh. “I could have walked back here. It would have taken me fucking ages because yeah, okay, I can’t exactly walk properly right now, but I still could have managed it. I just wish Isaac could see that sometimes.”

“He did have a point, though,” I said, bracing myself for a loud protest courtesy of one Jordan Taylor Hanson. “Yes, okay, you could have managed it. I agree with you there. You’re as stubborn as they come, you’d have figured it out.” He smiled a little at this. “But look at it this way. I was up on the balcony with Niks and Kate all evening, and my feet and my left knee are caning. I can’t walk too far when they’re hurting that badly, so I can only imagine what it has to be like for you with your foot the way it is right now. I’m really fucking glad that Isaac called us a taxi, because I could not have walked back here. I know that much.”

He went quiet again, and I figured he was processing what I’d just said. “I’m not really supposed to put any weight on my feet when one of them goes numb, anyway,” he admitted at last. “So you’re right. Knowing me I would have broken something, and I wouldn’t have known until the numbness wore off.”

“There you go then.” I earned another smile for this. “Look, tell you what – my crutches are adjustable, and I don’t really need them at the moment. I can get by with just my walking stick. I’ll loan you them until we figure something out. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Sounds good to me.”

I gave Taylor a smile of my own before leaning in to kiss him. “I love you Jordan Taylor, no matter what. Don’t ever forget it, all right?”

“Yeah, I know.” He slipped an arm around my shoulders and drew me a little closer to his side. “I love you too.”


To everyone’s relief, the rest of the Queensland tour went smoothly. There were no more hiccups when it came to Taylor’s various health issues, which I guessed had a lot to do with what had happened during the meeting the morning after the Coolangatta show. While I hadn’t gone to the meeting, being as I’d felt I would have been intruding on the band’s inner workings, Taylor had filled me in afterward. Not only had both Joel and Caroline put their foot down, but so had his mother.

“So what exactly do you have to do?” I’d asked Taylor once he’d finished telling me about the meeting. We were sitting out on the balcony of our hotel room, taking a break from getting all of our gear packed. It was a spot that gave us a spectacular view of Coolangatta’s Main Beach.

“Stay on top of my meds, for one thing. Keeping up with the Zoloft isn’t a problem, I can’t really function if I skip too many days anyway. Plus the brain zaps are a pain in the arse.”

“I’m sensing a ‘but’ here.”

He’d nodded at this. “I’m supposed to keep up with the Endep as well, even though it doesn’t work all that well anymore. It takes most of the edge off, but that’s all it does these days. But seeing as there’s no way in hell I’m tapering off my meds until after tour…” Here he’d shrugged, as if to say ‘what can I do?’

“What about your painkillers? You could take them, right?”

“I could, except I’m only meant to take them for a few days at a time. I can’t take another dose until tomorrow morning. Codeine’s pretty bloody addictive. If the Endep was actually working properly it wouldn’t be an issue.”

“But seeing as the Endep’s gone and chucked a wobbly on you it’s a bit of a problem.”

“Exactly.”

“What else do you have to do?”

“Same thing you have to – keep an eye out for flares. The second I feel one coming on, I’m supposed to stop whatever I’m doing and tell someone. Have to let someone know if I need an extra day or two off as well.”

He’d gone quiet for a little while after this, and as always I hadn’t pushed him to talk. “You know how there’s at least a day’s gap between every show, like last tour?” he’d asked at last.

“Yeah,” I replied. “You used those days for doing interviews and crap like that.”

“‘Crap like that’, yeah.” This had elicited a quiet chuckle from Taylor, one that had made me crack a smile. “This tour is going to work a bit differently. Isaac and Zac get to do interviews, but I don’t have to if I don’t want to. And believe me, I definitely don’t want to do them. I’m supposed to be ‘minimising stress’” he’d made air-quotes around these two words “so I don’t end up having another anxiety attack, and interviews are about as stressful as it gets.”

“You seem pretty pleased about not having to deal with journalists and DJs this tour.”

“Oh I am. I’m very pleased. We get to spend a bit more time together, how could I not be?”

“Oh, you’re such a charmer.”

There had, of course, been the odd question to begin with from journalists about why Taylor was deliberately making himself unavailable for interviews. Not that either of us were paying much attention to any of it. We’d read the newspaper articles and listen to the radio interviews, but that was about as far as it went. For my part, I was enjoying playing tourist with my boyfriend immensely. By the time the final show of the tour rolled around, the galleries of our respective phones, our Instagram accounts and the memory cards of our cameras – my little Panasonic Lumix compact, and Taylor’s Canon EOS DSLR – were packed full of photos. Our visits to the Japanese gardens in Toowoomba, Aussie World and the lighthouses at Kings Beach in Caloundra, Alexandra Park Zoo in Bundaberg, Rockhampton’s botanic gardens, and The Strand and the Great Barrier Reef in Townsville. I also had a separate memory card full of photos from each show on the tour that I was very much looking forward to sharing with Lisbeth, Anthony and Ella once I got home from New Zealand in July.

The final stop on the tour was the city of Cairns, up in Far North Queensland. After the show at the Cairns Convention Centre on the fourth of July, we would have a couple of days off to recharge our batteries before heading across the Ditch to Auckland. Cairns was also where we would be parting company with Sheppard – they’d gotten a fantastic reception at every show during the tour, and we were all looking forward to seeing what they got up to next. Dean and Zac had got on particularly well, both of them being drummers, and I’d spotted them comparing notes on their respective drumming styles many times before shows.

“Can I ask you a question really quickly?”

I paused in gathering up the bits and pieces I’d left scattered around backstage at the venue and looked back over my shoulder. Rehearsal and sound check had wound up a few minutes before, and we were all preparing to disperse to various parts of the Convention Centre precinct in preparation for that evening’s show. Zac stood behind me with his hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking uncharacteristically uncertain. It was a look that had me immediately on edge.

“Yeah, sure,” I replied a little warily.

“It’s nothing bad, don’t worry,” he assured me. “Famous last words, I know,” he added when I raised an eyebrow at him. “Just wanted to know what your favourite of our songs is.”

“You could always ask Taylor,” I said as I went back to shoving my things into my handbag. “He knows what it is.”

“Wouldn’t that be a bit weird though?”

I shrugged. “No weirder than my reason for not going to Auckland at the same time as the rest of you.” That was when it clicked. “Oh.”

“Yeah, ‘oh’,” Zac said, a smirk in his voice. “It’s part of the surprise. So I can’t exactly ask him, he’ll wonder why the fuck I want to know what his girlfriend’s favourite Hanson song is.”

“It’s on my Hanson.net profile, but I’ll tell you anyway.” I took my notebook and pen out of my handbag, flipped to an empty page and jotted down the title of the song in question. “How’s prep for tonight going?” I asked as I tore the page out and folded it over.

“It’s getting there. We’ve almost got the set list sorted – Isaac and I just need to decide on our covers and who’s going first out of the three of us.”

“Could always have a rock off for what order you go in,” I suggested. “Either that or draw straws.”

“We usually have a rock off, yeah. Only problem with that is Taylor knows what Isaac and I usually pick so he tends to win.”

I couldn’t help myself – I snickered, earning myself a half-hearted scowl from Zac. “Oh come on, it’s funny,” I said.

“What’s funny?” Taylor asked as he came up to Zac and I.

“How you always win every time we have a rock off because you always know what Isaac and I are going to pick,” Zac replied.

“Well stop being so damn predictable then,” Taylor snarked, and I snickered again. Zac gave us both the finger as he pocketed the piece of paper I’d given him. “Rue and I are ducking back to the hotel for a bit – see you when we get back, yeah?”

“I probably won’t be too far behind, but yeah,” Zac replied. “I’ll email you the set list once it’s finished.”

Taylor snapped off a quick salute at this, before leading me toward the stage door.

Back in mine and Taylor’s room at our hotel, the Rydges Tradewinds, I went digging around in my suitcase for an outfit to wear that night. “So what cover are you doing tonight?” I asked. I picked a short black skirt out of its pile and held it out at arm’s length. “Zac said just he and Isaac had to work out their covers, so I figured you’ve decided on yours.” I pulled a face at the skirt, tossed it to one side and looked back over my shoulder at Taylor. “Come on, spill.”

“Nope.”

“Pretty please?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “I’m not saying a word. You’ll have to wait like everyone else.”

“At least give me a clue?”

He seemed to consider this for a little while. I watched as he poked around in his own suitcase, presumably looking for something to wear onstage. “Okay,” he said at last, and straightened up. With the index finger of his right hand he traced out two letters in the air in front of him – an H and a backwards C.

“That doesn’t tell me much!”

“It should.” He went back to digging through his suitcase. “Anytime this band popped up on the car radio whenever we were on the road, in particular the song of theirs I’m covering tonight, you cranked the volume.”

I frowned a little. “Okay, that narrows it down a bit. Not by much though.”

He straightened up and gave me a smile. “You’re smart, Rue,” he said. “You’ll work it out.” Here he held up the clothes he’d picked out for the show – a navy blue short-sleeved shirt, and a pair of faded-looking jeans. “I’m taking first shower.”

By the time Taylor was done in the bathroom, I had decided what I was wearing to the show that evening. It was a little too warm tonight for my usual concert uniform, so I’d settled on a blue and white tie-dyed sleeveless dress, dark blue leggings and the nicer of the two pairs of sandals I’d brought with me. One quick shower later I was dressed and combing my hair so that I could plait it, Taylor coming back into the bathroom just as I put my comb down on the vanity. “You look nice,” he commented as I started plaiting my hair.

“Thank you,” I replied, giving his reflection a smile that he immediately returned. “You don’t look so bad yourself.” I pulled my hair over my shoulder so I could finish the tail of my plait. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

He didn’t answer right away, choosing instead to study me for a little while. “All things considered?”

“Yeah.”

“All right, I guess.” He held up his hands. “Hands are hurting a little, but it’s nothing I can’t deal with.”

“Head feel okay?”

He chuckled softly. “I think you’re probably one of the few people who could get away with asking me that. My head’s okay. Not about to have a meltdown anytime soon.”

“Good.” I wound an elastic band around the tail of my plait and shoved it back over my shoulder. “Looking forward to heading to New Zealand?”

“Yep. It’s awesome there – you’d love it.” He stepped aside so I could leave the bathroom. “Sure you can’t come with us on Sunday?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Wish I could.” I gave him what I hoped was an apologetic smile – I hated fibbing to him, but if Zac and I were going to keep our surprise under wraps it had to be done. “Ready to go?” I asked as I slipped my feet into my sandals and did up the buckles.

“Just about…” He grabbed his phone from the desk and disconnected it from its charger. “Okay, now I’m ready.”

After dinner at Iyara, a Thai restaurant just down the street from the hotel, we met up with everyone else back at the venue. The usual lineup had formed outside the convention centre, stretching what seemed like halfway down Sheridan Street, and as Taylor and I got closer I thought I could see a few familiar faces from previous shows. Hellos were exchanged for a few minutes, photos were taken and a few last requests for songs to be played were called out, and soon enough we were inside out of the early evening heat. Taylor headed backstage as soon as we were inside, leaving me free to track down Kate and Nikki.

“They don’t tell us what covers they do at their tour-end shows either,” Kate said after I’d told her and Nikki about the surprise Taylor had planned for that night’s show. I’d found them in the little café in the convention centre’s outdoor plaza – Kate had a carton of chocolate milk before her, while Nikki was sipping from a bottle of water. “I mean, they give us rough clues if we ask, but that’s all. So it’s not just you he’s screwing with.”

“What clue did he give you?” Nikki asked.

“The letters H and C, and that I crank the volume whenever the song comes on the radio. There’s a lot of songs I do that for, but I can’t figure out…” I trailed off as I realised exactly what song Taylor was covering during the show. “Oh, he didn’t.”

“Who didn’t do what?” Kate asked.

“I just figured out what song Taylor’s covering tonight.” I chuckled. “He’s full of surprises, isn’t he?”

“Oh, he is at that,” Nikki agreed. She finished her water and stood up. “They’ll be letting the crowd in soon, so I reckon we should go find somewhere to hang out during the show. Going to be a bit of a free-for-all tonight.”

The show that night was being played in the convention centre’s Great Hall, a space that tonight looked a lot like the Hordern Pavilion in Moore Park. Ringing the hall on three sides were row upon row of seats stretching toward the high ceiling, with the stage taking up the fourth wall. A couple of stagehands were doing last-minute checks of all the instruments as the crowd streamed into the hall and found places to sit or stand, with most of them staying on the dancefloor. I knew there was no way in hell I would be able to stand until Hanson started their set, so I led Nikki and Kate over to the seats nearest to the right side of the stage. A quick check of my watch gave the time as twenty minutes to eight. Sheppard’s set was due to start at eight-fifteen, and provided they weren’t running late Hanson would be taking the stage at around nine-thirty. Before too long the dancefloor was packed full of people, the low hum of voices that filled the hall adding to the anticipation that surrounded me. It was absolutely electric, and I was loving every second of it.

Sheppard’s final set of the tour was a rousing success. They had the crowd singing and dancing along with every song, including a cover of John Farnham’s You’re The Voice that nearly lifted the roof off the building. It made me even more determined to see them live again the first chance I got.

Just as intermission started, I heard my phone’s text message tone go off from within the depths of my handbag. “That’ll probably be Taylor,” Nikki said as I went digging through my bag for my phone.

“Either that or my mum or dad,” I said as I tapped the home button. In a dropdown on the home screen was a short text message from Taylor. Having fun?

Lots of fun, I replied. Sheppard were effing awesome. How are you?

It was a little while before I heard from Taylor again. Nervous. Shouldn’t be but i am.

Anxiety being a twat again?

Don’t think so. Don’t want to run for the hills so i think it’s just nerves.

“Watch my things for me?” I asked as I got up from my seat. Kate nodded and gave me a quick salute, and I made sure my pass was on its lanyard around my neck before heading out of the hall. As soon as I found a quiet spot I went through my phone directory, hitting dial once I found the number I was after.

“Hey Rue,” Taylor said once he’d picked up. Even if he hadn’t admitted he was nervous, I would have been able to tell anyway – his voice was shaking a little, something I could only pick up on because I knew him as well as I did.

“Hey Tay.” I debated for a moment or two whether it was worth sitting down on the floor, before sliding down a nearby pillar and stretching one of my legs out in front of me. “A bit nervous?”

“It’s that obvious?”

“Nobody else would be able to tell,” I assured him. “I just know you really well.” I could almost see him smile at this. “Want a bit of a pep talk?”

“You don’t mind?”

“‘Course not.” I shifted my phone to my other hand. “You know your music, right?”

“Like the back of my own hand.”

“Even the covers?”

He chuckled softly. “Yes, even the covers. I could probably play them in my sleep given half a chance.”

I let out a chuckle of my own at this. “Tay, I know you’ve probably heard this a million times already, but being nervous is completely normal. At least the anxiety isn’t being a twat, right? A bit of nerves is nothing you can’t deal with. You’ll be fine once you get out there.”

I had no idea if my little pep talk had even worked at first, not until Taylor spoke again. “Thanks, Rue,” he said, any and all trace of shakiness completely gone. “That helped a lot.”

“Thank fuck for that.”

He laughed. “I’d better get myself ready to go onstage. See you after the show, yeah?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.”

I made it back inside the hall after talking to Taylor just in time, the hum of voices and music surrounding me as I reached my seat. “All good?” Nikki asked as I sat back down again.

“Yep. Tay just needed a bit of a pep talk.” The house lights started to go down, as did the volume level, and I instinctively sat up straighter. “Oh, here we go…”

Unlike the tour’s previous shows, both the house and stage lights stayed down at first. Shadowy figures moved around onstage, and through the darkness I could just pick out the three of them moving to their instruments. It didn’t take me long to figure out that they were keeping the lights off on purpose.

It started with a guitar riff, followed by tambourine and piano. As the first drumbeat sounded the stage lights went up, followed by a loud cheer. The first sound that wasn’t any of their instruments or cheering was Taylor’s voice.

“Woke up this morning from the strangest dream…I was in the biggest army the world has ever seen…we were marching as one on the road to the holy grail…

“Started out seeking fortune and glory…it's a short song but it's a hell of a story…when you spend your lifetime trying to get your hands on the holy grail…

“But have you heard about the great crusade…we ran into millions and nobody got paid…yeah we razed four corners of the globe for the holy grail…

“All the locals scattered, they were hiding in the snow…we were so far from home, so how were we to know…there'd be nothing left to plunder when we stumbled on the holy grail…

“We were full of beans but we were dying like flies…and those big black birds, they were circling the sky…and you know what they say, yeah, nobody deserves to die…

“Oh I, I've been searching for an easy way…to escape the cold light of day…I've been high and I've been low…but I got nowhere else to go…there's nowhere else to go…

“I followed orders, God knows where I've been…but I woke up alone, all my wounds were clean…I'm still here, I'm still a fool for the holy grail…I'm a fool for the holy grail…”

An even louder cheer and round of applause went up at the end of Taylor’s cover of Holy Grail, one that I enthusiastically joined in with. He stepped away from his piano and sketched a small bow, one of the biggest smiles I had seen in a very long time on his face. As he straightened up I could see him scanning the crowd, his gaze finally landing on me. Once he spotted me, he gave me a smile – one I immediately returned. Just as we’d done the night we’d met almost seven months earlier.

In that moment, I knew everything would be okay. Taylor and I would be okay, no matter what happened. And for now, as I watched Taylor having the time of his life with his brothers onstage, that was all that mattered to me.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

Taylor

“Hey.”

I tore my gaze away from the window of my hotel room, from which I’d been watching ferries crossing Lambton Harbour for the last half hour, and looked back over my shoulder. Kate stood behind me, a glass of water in one of her hands. “Hey Kate,” I said, and went back to looking out the window.

“Everything all right?” she asked as she sat down next to me.

I shrugged. “I suppose. Just been a rough couple of days, that’s all.”

‘A rough couple of days’ was an understatement. We had all arrived in New Zealand on the seventh of July, our first stop being Auckland. I still wasn’t sure how, or even where – though I figured it had to have happened while we were still in Cairns – but at some point before we’d crossed the Ditch we’d each picked up a cold. None of us had escaped it, but Zac had been hit the hardest of us all and had managed to lose his voice the afternoon of the Auckland show. With Zac on strict vocal rest until after we got back to Australia at the end of the week, and not wanting Isaac to shoulder the entire responsibility of dealing with the press, I had somewhat reluctantly given up my break from doing interviews. And I was hating every second of it.

“We’ll be home in a few days,” Kate said, in what I recognised as an attempt to cheer me up.

“Yeah, I know.” I rubbed my nose a little. “How’s Zac holding up?”

“A tiny bit frustrated because he’s not allowed to talk, but he’ll live.” She nudged me. “What about you? You’ve been pretty quiet, everything okay?”

I shrugged again. “Still hate doing press, and this cold’s pissing me off. Plus I miss Ruby.”

“Ah,” Kate said, sounding like she completely understood. “That would explain it. When’s she supposed to be getting here?”

“Tomorrow morning. Not a very long trip for her, but she’ll be here and that’s the main thing. I’m going to be meeting her at the airport when her flight gets in.” My phone’s email tone sounded off, and I picked it up from its spot on the windowsill. The newest email in my inbox, it turned out, was a copy of the set list for that evening’s show. “Guess I should start getting ready to head out,” I said as I scrolled through the email.

“Me too.” Kate gave me a one-armed hug before getting back to her feet. “See you downstairs.”

“See ya…” My voice trailed off as I reached the halfway mark of the set list. Right after the last song of the acoustic set, in the blue text that marked it as one of my leads, was the title of a song we didn’t play all that often – Follow Your Lead.

“Everything okay?” Kate asked.

“Yeah, yeah, all good,” I said, and gave her a smile. “Just something a bit unexpected, that’s all. I’ll see you downstairs in a bit.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

As I got ready to head out to the venue for that night’s show, Wellington’s St. James Theatre, one of the only things I could think about was why either Isaac or Zac had added Follow Your Lead to tonight’s set list. It really was something we played very rarely – in five years, I could recall playing it live just twice. There wasn’t necessarily a reason why we’d be playing it tonight, but I had the feeling that one or both of my brothers were up to something.

It wasn’t long until I found out exactly what that something was.

A quiet, almost tentative knock sounded at the door of the dressing room I’d holed myself up in. “Yeah, come in,” I said without looking up from picking out chords on my guitar. Showtime was still another hour away, so I was taking the opportunity to go over a couple of the cover songs I wasn’t entirely sure about. Over my guitar, and over the distant music from our opening band, I heard almost noiseless footsteps on the carpet behind me, and I frowned a little before shrugging and going back to practicing. It took a small pair of hands settling themselves over mine, stilling the movement of my fingers, to make me look back over my shoulder.

Standing behind me, her arms around me and an almost shy smile on her face, was Ruby.

“Ruby?” I asked, hardly daring to believe what I was seeing. “But I…”

“Surprise,” she said.

I slipped my hands out from under Ruby’s and stood up, setting my guitar aside before turning to face her. “When did you get here?” I asked seconds before I drew her close.

“An hour or so ago,” she replied as she hugged me back. “Isaac picked me up at the airport. Zac was supposed to, but seeing as he’s sick…” She looked up at me. “Miss me?”

“You have no idea.” That was when it clicked. “So that’s why they put it on the set list!”

“Who put what on the set list?”

I fished my phone out of my pocket, unlocked it and opened my Gmail app, navigating to my Starred label before handing my phone to Ruby. “First message at the top,” I said.

It didn’t take her long to skim the email. “Oh, that!” She gave me another smile. “Zac and I have been planning this since the start of May. He said you’d be all mopey and miserable here by yourself.”

“I have been a bit,” I admitted. “I love it here, but it hasn’t been the same without you.”

“Aww, you’re such a sweetheart.”

“I try.” I leaned in and kissed her. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too.” She stepped back a few paces. “Play me something?” she asked, motioning to my guitar.

“Can’t wait an hour?” Even as I asked this I was picking my guitar back up, slinging the strap around my neck and settling it on my left shoulder. “Anything in particular you want to hear?”

“Nah. I just want to hear you play.”

“Famous last words,” I snarked, and Ruby gave me the finger. “Charming.” I thought for a second before starting to pick out the introduction of Shine Like It Does. Over the music I could hear Ruby singing quietly, her voice rising and falling alongside the chords of my guitar, and I smiled to myself.

My phone’s text message tone sounded just as I finished playing. “That’s probably Isaac,” I said as I fetched my phone. Sure enough, the newest message in my inbox was from Isaac – Up for a quick practice before showtime? “I’d better go. Isaac wants to fit in one last practice before the show.”

“I should probably go too. Go see if I can find my seat.” She rummaged around in her handbag and found her wallet, taking her ticket out and examining it. “I’m in, let’s see…” She squinted a little. “First row of the dress circle – seat A26.”

“I’ll keep an eye out for you,” I promised.

Ruby gave me another smile. “I’m going to hold you to that,” she said as she found her pass and slipped its lanyard over her head. “I’ll see you after.”

“See you,” I echoed, and waited for her to leave the dressing room before picking up my guitar and heading off after her.

Isaac and Zac were waiting for me in the theatre’s green room when I wandered in a few minutes later. Zac had a pair of drumsticks sticking up out of one of the back pockets of his jeans, while Isaac was busy tuning one of his guitars. “Zac, mate, you are a fucking legend,” were the first words out of my mouth as soon as I spotted them.

What did I do this time?” he mouthed at me.

“Ruby,” I replied as I sat down with the two of them. “She told me what you two planned. Thanks, mate.”

Zac grinned. “You’re welcome.”

I returned Zac’s grin and settled my guitar on my knees. “I’m still a little shaky on Better Be Home Soon,” I said, deciding to get down to practicing. “Reckon we can give that one a quick runthrough?”

It had been a very long time since I had barely realised what was going on around me during a show. It wasn’t that I didn’t pay attention, because I did. It was more a case of being so caught up in the music that I lost track of everything else. The world could have ended and I never would have noticed. And that was exactly what happened that evening. From the time I set foot on the stage until the end of the acoustic set, I was running off little more than adrenaline and sheer muscle memory – something that Isaac at the very least noticed.

“Everything okay?” he asked quietly as I went back to my piano for the second half of the electric set.

“Yeah, all good,” I replied as I shook my hands out, willing the feeling of pins and needles in my fingertips to settle down. A flare-up was the last thing I needed to happen right now. “Isaac, I’m fine,” I insisted upon seeing that he wasn’t totally convinced. “Worry about Zac for once, he’s the one who’s feeling crook right now. Not me.”

“He’s not the one who has a flare-up if he pushes himself too hard, though,” Isaac reminded me, and I closed my eyes briefly. “I’m just making sure you’re okay, mate. That’s all.”

“Yeah, I know.” I threw a quick glance at the audience. “Come on, we’d better get back to it.”

Back at my piano, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath so I could centre myself before I spoke to the audience. “So this is a bit of a rare one for us,” I said into my microphone. “We…we originally wrote it to raise a bit of money for the Leukaemia Foundation” my voice wavered a little on those last few words “and we often get requests to play it live. Tonight we’re doing exactly that.” A cheer rose up from the audience at these words, and I hid a smile. I cast my gaze up to the front row of the dress circle, where I knew Ruby sat right in the middle. “This is for someone very special here tonight,” I finished, placing my hands on the keys of my piano as I spoke. “They know who they are.”

After a few moments to make sure I had it right in my head, and after another deep breath, I moved my fingers into their proper places on my piano keys, shifted my right foot onto the sustain pedal, and opened my mouth to sing.

“Oh, I follow your lead…oh, I follow your lead…oh, I follow your lead…oh, I follow your lead…oh, I follow your lead…oh, I follow your lead…you know I follow…through the crossroads…

“Pick up your shoulders, you are not a child…don’t need no natural born soldiers, it’s not that kind of fight…there is no water that can wash off this disease…if you’ll just stand up then I’ll follow your lead…

“So get up and make it known…you’ll never take a chance alone…I’ll be there whatever your crossroads, oh…I know it will take some time, I know it’s gonna take its toll…all you gotta do is show me and I’ll follow your lead…oh, I follow your lead…oh, I follow your lead…you know I follow…through the crossroads…

“So pull off your blinders and pick up the pieces…it only gets harder the longer you deny…you will discover you got all that you need…leave it where you’re standing and I’ll follow your lead, oh…

“So get up and make it known…you’ll never take a chance alone…I’ll be there whatever your crossroads, oh…I know it will take some time, I know it’s gonna take its toll…all you gotta do is show me and I’ll follow your lead…I follow your lead…I follow your lead…I follow your lead…I follow your lead…oh, I follow your lead…I follow your lead…you know I follow your lead, no, no…

“We can build it up, build it up…build it up until it’s strong…we can build it up, build it up…build it up where you’re from…we can build it up, build it up…build it up until it’s strong…we can build it up, build it up…build it up where you’re from, oh oh oh…build it up, build it up…build it up, build it up…build it up, build it up…build it up, build it up…

“You know I’ll follow your lead, no, no…so get up and make it known…I’ll never take a chance alone…I’ll be there whatever your crossroads…I know it will take some time, I know it’s gonna take its toll…but all you gotta do is show me and I’ll follow your lead…

“So get up and make it known…you’ll never take a chance alone…I’ll be there whatever your crossroads…I know it will take some time, I know it’s gonna take its toll…but all you gotta do is show me…”

The cheer that erupted at the end of Follow Your Lead was one of the loudest I’d heard in a very long time. I let out a cheer of my own and punched the air triumphantly, relieved that I hadn’t screwed it up.

In the moments before the next song, I left my piano bench and went across to Isaac’s side of the stage. “We need to play that one more often,” I told him. “And not just because it’s Ruby’s favourite of our songs either,” I added. “They keep requesting it” I nodded a little toward the audience “so I reckon we should give them what they want.”

“Yeah?” he asked, and I nodded. “We can talk about it after tour, but I’m okay with that.”

“Awesome.” I gave Isaac a smile that he returned, and went back to my piano.

The show wound down just after midnight with a cover of Crowded House’s Better Be Home Soon that nearly brought the house down. I joined my brothers and our backing musicians at the front of the stage for our usual bow, and waved to the crowd as I headed backstage. The first face I saw as I stepped through the heavy curtains that marked the border between backstage and the front of house was Ruby’s.

“Hey, you okay?” I asked when I saw she had tears in her eyes.

“I’m okay,” she assured me. “Better Be Home Soon always makes me feel a bit weepy, that’s all.” Here she threw her arms around me. “Thank you,” she whispered in my ear. “That was amazing.”

I didn’t need to ask what Ruby was thanking me for. Instead I wrapped my own arms around her and hugged her back. “You’re very welcome, Ruby.”


“So how is this supposed to work anyway?”

“How is what supposed to work?”

“Switching meds.”

I looked up from my graphics tablet, on which I was beginning to draw the outline of a Siamese fighting fish, just in time to see Ruby give one of my packets of medication a poke. The two of us were sitting at the table in the annexe of her caravan – Ruby had been tapping away at the keyboard of her laptop with Sadie curled up at her feet, while I’d been working on a submission for the student gallery that would be held at the end of the year. Rather than go straight home after TAFE that afternoon, I’d bypassed my usual turnoff into Corrimal in favour of dropping in at Ruby’s. Today had been my first day of the second semester, just a couple of days after we’d flown home from New Zealand.

“You’ve never done it?” I asked.

Ruby shook her head. “Been on the same meds since Dr. Marsden told me I had CFS. She’s increased the dosages of a couple of them once or twice, but I’ve never had to switch or anything.”

“Some people have all the luck.”

She gave me a small smile. “Come on then, how’s it work?”

I tapped the save icon on the screen of my tablet with the point of my stylus. “It’s pretty complicated,” I said as I set my tablet aside. I reached for one of the packets of Zoloft and examined it – I’d gone to the pharmacy in Gwynneville during my lunch break earlier that day and filled a couple of my prescriptions. This one held my usual dosage of 100 milligrams. “You have to taper off really slowly – stopping it all at once can be dangerous, and Dr. Emerson wants me to be careful. Especially considering how long I’ve been taking all of it. Basically I have to take it down a quarter of my full dose every week for the next four weeks. I’m down to seventy-five milligrams of Zoloft from tomorrow morning, and seven and a half milligrams of Endep starting tomorrow night. Final week will be twenty-five milligrams of Zoloft and two and a half milligrams of Endep. Once that’s done…” I trailed off and swallowed hard.

“Yeah?”

“I can’t start my new meds for nearly a week afterward.”

Ruby’s mouth dropped open. “A week?

“Five days, but yeah. It’s called washout. So basically nearly a week of the anxiety, the depression and the nerve pain being complete bastards all at once. Not looking forward to that.” I drew in a breath and let it out as a sigh. “And then I get to start the Aropax again, and the new antidepressant along with it. I fucking hated being on Aropax.”

“That bad hey?”

I shrugged a little. “It works. Makes the anxiety fuck off at least. I just didn’t like how it made me feel most of the time. I couldn’t stop yawning for one thing, even when I wasn’t so tired I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and I ended up getting slammed with the worst motion sickness I’ve ever had. Made driving interesting.” I managed a half-smirk. “I had the shakes a lot too.”

“That definitely doesn’t sound like much fun.”

“It really wasn’t. I have to stick it out for six months at least, so I guess I’ll just have to see how things go.”

Just as I finished speaking, a knock sounded at the front door – it sounded almost frantic. Ruby let out a quiet sigh as she shifted her chair back and got back to her feet. “If that’s Mrs. Canning coming to bitch me out again I’m going to hurt someone,” I heard her mumble as she went to the door and slid it open. “Suze?” she asked, sounding a bit concerned. “Everything okay?”

“I’m really sorry to bother you Ruby-”

“Suze, it’s all right,” Ruby said to someone I figured was one of her neighbours. “I don’t mind. Do you want to come in?” The mystery neighbour must have nodded, because Ruby unlocked and slid the screen door open. A tall, young dark-haired woman stepped into the annexe, carrying one little girl on her hip with another hiding behind her legs. Even from where I was sitting, I could see that the girl who was hiding was covered in little spots. “Oh by the way, that’s my boyfriend Taylor,” Ruby said with a nod toward me, and I waved a little. “Tay, this is Suzannah, one of my neighbours.”

Suzannah gave me a small, almost hesitant smile. “Katie’s got another earache. I need to take her to the doctor’s, but I can’t take Chelsea with me,” she said to Ruby. “Don’t want her passing it on to anyone else. Trent’s at work though, and neither Mary or Sandra are home. Can you watch Chels for me for a little while?”

“Of course we can,” Ruby said. “It’s no trouble at all.” She looked over at me. “Tay, you’ve had chickenpox right?”

“Yeah, when I was three,” I said.

“Oh good. Otherwise I’d have to kick you out.” She stuck her tongue out at me, and I threw her the forks in response. “Come on Chels. I think my sister left a colouring book or two here the last time I watched her kids.”

“Thank you Ruby,” Suzannah said. “I owe you one.” Here she gave me another smile. “Nice to meet you Taylor.”

“You too,” I replied.

“Correct me if I’m wrong here,” Ruby said a few minutes after Suzannah had left. She was digging around in the drawers of her desk as she spoke. “But you had a shitload of chemotherapy. Right?”

“Roughly two and a half years of it, yeah,” I replied.

“And you said you had chickenpox when you were a kid.” I looked up from my drawing just in time to see Ruby give me a quizzical look. “Shouldn’t all the chemo you had cancel out your immunity to chickenpox?”

I let out a quiet chuckle. “Not quite. I think that only happens if you have to have a bone marrow transplant. I didn’t end up needing to have one of those done, so as far as I know I didn’t lose my immunity.” I fixed Ruby with a look of my own. “You’ve had chickenpox though, right?”

“When I was in preschool, yep. Suze wouldn’t have asked me to watch Chels if I hadn’t. She’ll probably end up asking me to watch Katie too if she comes down with it.” She found what she was hunting for – a thick colouring book and a plastic cylinder full of coloured pencils – closed her desk drawers again and went over to the lounge. “Feel like staying for dinner? I’ll order in pizza or something.”

“Sounds good to me.” I gave Ruby a smile, one she mirrored, and went back to my drawing.

By the time I had finished a rough outline of my drawing, a couple of hours later, Suzannah had returned from taking Katie to the doctor. “You’re a lifesaver, Ruby,” Suzannah said as Chelsea darted out the door to hide behind her mother’s legs once again. She sounded very grateful. “I owe you one.”

“It wasn’t any trouble. Chelsea’s a good kid. Let me know if you need me to watch her again. I wouldn’t mind watching Katie either.”

Suzannah gave Ruby another smile. “See you both later,” she said as she left, sliding the screen door closed behind her. Ruby closed the glass door a couple of seconds later and went back over to the lounge. Almost as soon as she had sat down she sank back into the cushions, closed her eyes and let out a sigh of what sounded like relief.

“You okay?” I asked her.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she replied. “Just…” She cracked an eye open at me. “If I ever say I want kids, please slap me or something. I love those two but bloody hell they wear me out.”

“Not a kid person?”

Ruby shook her head. “It’s not that. I like kids. But with all the bullshit I’ve got going on with me…” She shrugged a little. “Having a kid might not be a great idea.”

“I get that.” I left my graphics tablet on the table and went to sit down with Ruby. “I’d like a kid or two of my own, but…” I traced the seam on the right knee of my jeans. “I don’t want to risk passing my gremlins on to the next generation.” I tapped the side of my head. “Plus there’s a decent chance I can’t have them anyway.” I gave a shrug of my own. “And I’m actually okay with that.”

“Could always adopt later on,” Ruby suggested, and she gave me a smile before she dug her phone out of one of her pockets. “Anything in particular you feel like for dinner?”

“How about you surprise me?”

“Famous last words, those,” Ruby said with a smirk. She started scrolling through her phone directory until she found the number she was after. “Last chance to tell me exactly what you want for dinner.”

“Chinese,” I said quickly.

“Thought so,” Ruby said, sounding very pleased with herself, and she hit dial. “Hi, can I get a delivery to Bellambi please?...I’d like one honey chicken…” She covered the receiver of her phone. “What are you in the mood for?”

“Sweet and sour chicken,” I replied.

“Stupid question, I know.” She gave me a smile and went back to her phone call. “One crispy skin chicken with sweet and sour sauce, and one large steamed rice…fantastic. I’m at the Bellambi Beach Caravan Village – I’ll be waiting in the carpark. Thanks for that. Bye.” She hung up and slipped her phone back into her pocket. “It’ll take about half an hour,” she said.”Feel like going for a really slow wander up to the carpark? I need to check my mailbox anyway.”

“Sure.”

“Thought you might. Give me a minute.” She got to her feet and let out a long, low whistle. Sadie’s ears pricked, and she padded over to Ruby and sat at her mistress’ feet. “Sadie, get your lead,” Ruby commanded.

“You need to teach me how to do that,” I said as Sadie went up into the caravan.

“One of these days I just might,” Ruby replied. Sadie returned at this moment with her lead in her mouth, and Ruby pointed to a spot in front of her feet. “Bring it here,” she commanded, and leaned down to scratch Sadie behind the ears once she was within reach. “Good girl.”

It wasn’t long until we were headed off on our walk through the caravan park, Ruby leading us the long way around to the carpark. Ruby’s caravan was very close to the park office and in turn the carpark, and so rather than head left along Seaview Drive we headed right toward the intersection of Seaview Drive and Palms Way. Going the other way would have defeated the point of taking a long, slow walk. The sun had set half an hour earlier, leaving just the occasional street light to light our way.

“So how are you feeling?”

“How am I feeling about what?” I asked, about half a second before I realised exactly what Ruby was talking about. I stopped walking under one of the street lights and leaned against it with my head tipped back. “I’m nervous,” I admitted. “I don’t want to stop taking the Zoloft and the Endep. But I don’t really have much of a choice – they don’t work properly anymore. Not much point in taking medication that doesn’t work properly.” I gave Ruby a half-smile. “Would have been nice if they’d held out until summer break, though. The next couple months of classes are going to suck.”

Ruby stepped up beside me and wound her left arm around my back. “You know where to find me if you need to talk,” she said quietly. “Doesn’t matter what it’s about, even if you just want to rail against whatever deity it is you believe in. I won’t mind.”

“What the hell did I do to deserve you?” I asked, and Ruby shrugged a little. “You…you’re amazing, Rue. Thank you.”

Ruby gave me a smile and rested her head on my shoulder. “You’re welcome.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

Ruby

Whatever I thought was going to happen after Taylor and I had spent an afternoon watching Chelsea, waking up one morning a couple of weeks later feeling like my entire right side was on fire was not it.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” I whimpered as I tried to sit up, doing my best not to jostle my right arm too much as I moved. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in so much pain – it was almost searing, the pain radiating out across my ribs and down my right arm. Going anywhere other than the appointment I had today would be entirely out of the question if this kept up – I couldn’t drive one-handed, nor could I steer my wheelchair with just my left hand. Not unless I wanted to drive myself into walls or off the road.

I had finally managed to get myself sitting upright when my phone rang. I’d recently changed my ringtone to the chorus of Follow Your Lead, having been inspired by the song’s recent performance in Wellington, and I spent a few seconds listening to Taylor’s voice before reaching for my phone, tapping the Speaker icon on its screen to pick up. “H’lo?” I said to answer it, rubbing my eyes with my left hand as I spoke.

“Jesus Ruby, you sound like absolute crap,” Lisbeth said. She sounded rather shocked, and I wasn’t entirely sure I blamed her.

“I feel like absolute crap. Have for most of this week.” I pushed my quilt back with my feet and started shifting toward the side of my bed so that I could get up. “I swear I haven’t felt this bad since the last time I caught the flu.”

“I’m guessing you won’t be coming to TAFE?”

I almost shrugged before remembering that Lisbeth wouldn’t be able to see it. “I honestly don’t know. I have to go see Dr. Marsden this morning, so it’ll depend on how I feel afterward. I’m not liking my chances to be honest.”

“D’you want me to drop you there before class?”

“I’d love you to, but my appointment’s at ten-thirty,” I replied. “And I’d hate for you to get yelled at for rocking up late.”

“Yeah, good point,” Lisbeth conceded. “How are you planning on getting there though?”

“I’ll get a taxi. Shouldn’t be too hard to scrape together enough money to get myself there and back. No way in hell I’m driving.”

“Well, you could do that,” Lisbeth said. “Or you could save forty dollars and ask that boyfriend of yours to give you a lift.”

“I didn’t even think of that.”

“Twit.”

“I’ll twit you in a minute.”

Lisbeth snickered. “Sure you will.”

“Oh, bite me.” I glanced across at my alarm clock and its glowing red digits that read 8:30. “Okay, well, if I’m going to be ready to go out I need to get a move on. I haven’t had my breakfast yet, and the way I’m feeling it’s going to take me a good hour just to get dressed.” I swiped my left hand over my eyes in an effort to wake up a little. “I’ll text you after to let you know how things went.”

Almost as soon as Lisbeth and I had hung up, I opened my phone’s contacts and started scrolling through until I reached the Ts. I normally didn’t call Taylor on my phone, preferring instead to Skype or text him. But I didn’t have the energy to drag my laptop out, and I didn’t know if he was home or not. Never mind that I really didn’t think this was something I should have put in a text message. My thumb hovered over his name for just a moment before I tapped it, bringing up a second screen with his name, photo and mobile number. I took a deep breath before pressing the little green phone icon.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s Ruby.”

I could hear the smile in Taylor’s voice when he spoke next. “Hey you. What’s up?”

“Not much. Just got up.” I rubbed my eyes again. “I was wondering if I could ask a favour.”

“Yeah, of course you can.”

I closed my eyes and braced myself before continuing. “I have a doctor’s appointment at ten-thirty, but I can’t drive today and I’m not sure I have the money for a taxi. Could…” I swallowed hard, feeling suddenly nervous. “If you’re not busy, could you take me to my appointment and drop me back home after?”

“Sure,” he replied, and I instantly relaxed. “What time?”

“Quarter to ten?” I suggested.

“Quarter to ten it is.” I heard a quiet sort of rustling sound. “And I still have the keycard you lent me, so I’ll meet you at your van, yeah?”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll see you then.”

As soon as we had both hung up I slowly eased myself to my feet and padded the few steps through to my kitchenette, in search of breakfast, my medication and some Panadol to try and make a dent in the pain that was currently doing its best to drive me up the wall.

Try as I might, I wasn’t ready to go by the time there was a knock at my front door just over an hour later. I paused in poking one-handed through my wardrobe as Sadie came up into the caravan and nosed at my right ankle, and gave her a scratch behind the ears with my toes. “Yeah, I heard it too,” I told her. “Come on, let’s go see who it is.”

Taylor was standing a few paces away with his back to me when I opened the blinds over my front door. I watched him typing away one-handed on his phone for a few moments before unlocking the glass door and sliding it open. He paused and looked back over his shoulder at me, and gave me a small smile as he put his phone in his pocket – one that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Hey,” I said quietly as he came up to the door. “I’m not ready yet, sorry. Still trying to find something to wear.”

“You’re worse than my sisters,” he teased me as I unlocked and opened the screen door to let him in. “You look fine, honestly.”

I glanced down at what I was wearing – loose, long black pants, and a grey long-sleeved hooded shirt that had an elephant on the front, my feet still bare because I hadn’t been able to find my slippers that morning – before looking back up at Taylor with one eyebrow raised. “I’m still in my pyjamas, Tay,” I said. “And I am not going out to Woonona dressed like this.”

“Like I said, worse than my sisters,” he said, and I gave him a playful swat with my left hand. Fire erupted across my right side all over again as I moved a little too fast, and I let out a hiss of pain. “Hey, you all right?”

I shook my head. “My entire right side hurts right now. Like I’ve got a really bad sunburn, but it feels like it’s a lot deeper than that.” I resisted the very strong temptation to go poking at my side. “Feels kind of stabby as well.”

“Like it’s on fire?”

“Yeah, how’d you guess?” It hit me a split-second later just how Taylor would have known that. “Oh, right…”

“Yeah, not exactly a lucky guess,” he said dryly. He stepped a little closer and pushed my hair away from my face, tucking it behind my ears. “Honestly Rue, you look fine. But I don’t mind waiting if you still want to get changed.”

“I’m at least going to change my pants,” I said, and headed back up into the caravan.

Soon enough, I was ready to go – I’d changed out of my pyjama pants into my jeans, deciding that it wasn’t worth feeling like I was alternately being stabbed in the side or having searing pain shooting across my ribs to change my shirt, and shoved my bare feet into my runners. My phone went into a pocket once I’d unplugged it from its charger, and I gave my appearance a cursory once-over in the mirror on the inside of my wardrobe door before heading back down into the annexe.

“I’m ready to go when you are,” I said as I grabbed one of my hoodies from the top of the basket of clean laundry sitting on the lounge and pulled it on over my head. He gave me another smile and got back to his feet. I watched him head for the door before snagging my keys and wallet from the coffee table and following him.

The waiting room of the medical centre was fairly busy when Taylor and I arrived around ten minutes later, with a short line of patients lined up at reception. “I meant to ask this when you got to my place,” I said as we joined the end of the line. “How’ve you been feeling? I can’t imagine that this whole changing meds business is a lot of fun.”

“It’s really not,” he replied. “I’ve got two weeks left on the Zoloft and Endep, and a week of washout after that. I’m already counting the days until I can start my new medication.” He let out a quiet, almost humourless laugh. “Never thought I’d ever say that.”

“It’ll be worth it in the end,” I ventured hopefully. “If it means you stop having anxiety attacks and the nerve pain calms down, I mean.”

“I really hope so.” He held up a hand to show me he had his fingers crossed, an action I quickly mirrored.

The line moved quickly, much to my relief, and I soon reached the reception desk. “‘Morning Becca,” I said as I eased my Medicare card out of its slot in my wallet and handed it over to the receptionist. “I’ve got an appointment with Dr. Marsden at ten-thirty.”

“Good morning Ruby,” Becca replied, and gave me an apologetic smile. “Dr. Marsden is running a little late this morning – she’s a couple of appointments behind.”

“Oh, now you tell me,” I groused, though without any heat to my tone, and Becca let out a quiet chuckle. “That’s okay, I don’t mind waiting.”

“Okay, so we keep my boss happy,” Becca said once she’d swiped my Medicare card into her computer, “can you just confirm your name, your date of birth and your address for me?”

“If I must,” I said, doing my best to sound utterly put-upon, and quickly rattled off the information that Becca had asked me for. She was seemingly satisfied with this, and handed my Medicare card back.

“Take a seat – hopefully she won’t be too much longer.”

“Thanks, Becca.”

I could have laughed out loud at the look on Taylor’s face as we walked away from the reception desk – he looked very confused, and I wasn’t entirely sure I blamed him. “They know me really well here,” I explained as we sat down in the middle row of seats that stretched across the waiting room. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, so I’d be surprised if they didn’t. And I have to come here often enough these days that joking around with Becca and everyone makes it a bit more bearable.”

“I can understand that,” Taylor said. “I’ve never liked going to the doctor – maybe I should try that sometime.”

“It can’t hurt,” I agreed, and settled in to wait for my name to be called.

It felt like an eternity had passed by the time Dr. Marsden called out my name. By that time the searing pain in my side and arm had returned in full force, and it was all I could do to not start screaming. Instead I slowly eased myself to my feet, Taylor’s hand on my back the whole time, and the two of us followed Dr. Marsden down the corridor to her office.

“How are you feeling today, Ruby?” Dr. Marsden asked as soon as her office door was closed, and she’d taken a seat at her desk. I let out a quiet sigh of relief as I took a seat of my own.

“Not great,” I admitted. “I…I woke up this morning feeling like my ribs and my right arm were on fire.”

“That doesn’t sound good at all,” Dr. Marsden said sympathetically. “I had planned to get the ball rolling today on your usual tests, but I’m getting the impression that might have to wait a few weeks.” She motioned for me to hop up on her examination table, something I did very carefully once I’d shrugged out of my hoodie and handed it off to Taylor for safekeeping, so that I didn’t make my side and arm feel any worse than they already did. Though the way I was feeling, I was fairly sure that wasn’t even remotely possible. I eased my right arm out of my shirt once I was settled. “Now, where exactly are you feeling pain?”

“My ribs, on my right side – about halfway down” I let out a quiet hiss of pain as Dr. Marsden carefully ran gloved fingers over that spot “and my right arm, from about my elbow down to my wrist. It feels a bit stabby as well.”

“Have you taken anything to try and relieve the pain?”

I nodded. “Some Panadol when I had my breakfast. It’s worn off already though.”

“Hmm. How have you been feeling otherwise?”

“Like I’ve got the flu, though without all the coughing and sneezing everywhere. Hasn’t been fun.”

“I imagine not.” Dr. Marsden studied me for a little while. “You’ve had chickenpox?”

I nodded. “When I was in preschool. I did watch one of my neighbour’s kids a couple of weeks ago, though, when she had chickenpox – her mum didn’t want her infecting anyone else.” I considered this for a little while. “I don’t have chickenpox again, do I?”

“I don’t believe so. It’s possible to catch it more than once, but I’m fairly sure that’s not the case here.” She motioned for me to pull my shirt back down again. “I can’t be absolutely sure without a blood test, as you don’t have a rash yet. But based on the pain you’re experiencing and where it’s located, I’m fairly certain that you have shingles.”

From across the room, I heard Taylor suck in a sharp breath. “Ouch,” he commented. “Dad had that a couple of years ago,” he added at my questioning look. “It’s not fun.”

“No, it most certainly is not,” Dr. Marsden agreed as I eased myself down off the examination table and went back to my seat. “What I’m going to do, just in case that is what you have and to save you coming back here,” she continued, and started typing away at the keyboard of her computer, “is write you a prescription for acyclovir. I also want you to keep an eye on your ribs and your arm over the next couple of days. As soon as you see a rash appearing on either of those areas, which if you do have shingles should happen sometime in the next few days, you need to get your prescription filled and start taking it within seventy-two hours. All right?”

“All right,” I agreed. “What else should I do?”

“Alternate Panadol and Nurofen for pain, and once the rashes appear keep them covered for the first couple of weeks whenever you’re out and about. It should be healed after that.” Dr. Marsden gave me a sympathetic smile as she handed over my prescription. “As soon as you’re better, give me a call and I’ll set up an appointment to get your tests done.”

“Okay. Thanks, Dr. Marsden.”

I didn’t say a word as Taylor and I left the medical centre. We were halfway to his car before I opened my mouth.

“Shingles. Fucking shingles. It couldn’t be fucking chickenpox again, could it.” I let out an almost hysterical laugh. “I think I would have preferred being itchy as hell for a week.”

Taylor let out a laugh of his own, one much quieter than mine had been, before slipping an arm around my shoulders. “Come on, let’s get you home.”


The next two weeks were some of the most painful and uncomfortable I had ever experienced. Almost like clockwork, three days after my appointment with Dr. Marsden a bright red rash appeared in long stripes across my right side and down my right arm – not only did it hurt like hell, but each rash was peppered with tiny blisters. It took every bit of self-control I could muster to stop myself from running my fingers over them – that, and knowing they would only hurt more if I did. I was used to pain, as much as I hated admitting to it, but this pain was so much worse than what I felt day to day – a constant burning right beneath my skin, with an occasional stab of pain that somehow managed to break through my almost constant dosing of painkillers. By the time the rashes finally cleared up, almost three weeks after I’d gotten sick in the first place, I was miserable as hell and cursing whoever it was that had passed chickenpox on to me when I was a kid.

There was one thing, more than almost anything else, that made it so much more bearable, though – Taylor. Every Tuesday and Thursday while I was laid up, without fail, he would drop by on his way home from class, always with dinner for us to share. Some days I found a cardboard box sitting just outside my front door, one that was packed with clear plastic takeaway containers of food labelled with Taylor’s left-slanting, slightly-untidy handwriting – and as far as I could tell, all of it was homemade. There had even been a thermos of soup a couple of times. Even just cooking a pot of pasta or two-minute noodles had been beyond me a lot of the time, so knowing I had something I could just stick in the microwave for my dinner had been a massive relief.

“You’re looking much better,” Mum said from her seat at the kitchen table as I wandered into her and Dad’s kitchen one afternoon in the middle of August, my well-loved nanna trolley trundling along behind me. I also had one of my casserole dishes – this one was white-glazed stoneware, wrapped up in a dark blue teatowel to cushion it a little – cradled in the crook of my left elbow. As soon as I was within reach of the kitchen bench I put my casserole dish down on it and started unpacking my nanna trolley.

“I feel loads better,” I replied, and proceeded to shake back the right sleeve of my hoodie and hold my hand up, angling my arm so that Mum could see it. My shingles rash was almost gone – all that was left was a faintly pink stripe down my arm that still stung a little, but much less than it had a few weeks earlier. The rash on my ribs had healed completely, leaving a stripe that was slightly darker than the rest of my skin in its wake. “If I ever get it again I won’t be happy.”

“Well, let’s hope that doesn’t happen,” Mum said, and she set her coffee mug down and got to her feet. “What was it that you wanted my help with?”

“Baking,” I replied without looking up from unpacking one of my shopping bags. “I’d use my oven but it’s on the blink. And it’s supposed to be a surprise for Taylor, so…” I shrugged a little, hitching my left shoulder up toward my ear. “Can’t very well use his.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah. He was an absolute angel while I was sick, and he’s not well at the moment so I want to make things a bit easier for him while he’s laid up. If he’s anything like I am when I’m feeling crook, he’s not going to want to cook anything.”

Mum gave me a smile that seemed almost proud, and I ducked my head a little. “And let me guess,” she said, and I watched her survey the groceries that I’d already unpacked. “You’re going to make a pasta bake.”

“Yeah. He likes my spag bol, so I figure I’ll use that as a base.”

My spag bol, you mean,” Mum corrected, her tone teasing.

“That you taught me how to make,” I retorted, and stuck my tongue out.

“Yes, okay,” Mum said with a laugh. “I do have an idea, though.”

“Yeah?”

“His oven works?”

I thought back to the lasagne I’d had for dinner the previous Tuesday. “Pretty sure it does.”

“In that case, why don’t we leave the baking part until we get to his house? We can put it together here once the pasta and the sauce are cooked, and I’ll drive you over when that’s done. Sound good?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” I agreed. I surveyed everything I’d set out on the kitchen bench – half a kilogram of beef mince, a punnet of cherry tomatoes, a tin of diced tomatoes, an onion, a couple of cloves of garlic and a package apiece of spiral pasta and grated cheddar cheese, among the many other things I needed for making a pasta bake – before looking over at Mum and giving her a smile. “I’m ready to get started when you are.”

Soon enough my parents’ kitchen was filled with the mouthwatering aroma of spaghetti sauce – tomatoes, garlic, Italian herbs, and so many others I couldn’t quite pinpoint. It felt like home. “You don’t have to go into a lot of detail,” Mum said as I stirred the sauce, making sure it wasn’t sticking to the base of the cooking pot. “I’m guessing it’s probably a very private matter. But when your dad and I met Taylor for the first time, I got the impression that he was…” She trailed off, and I figured she was trying to work out how to put what she wanted to ask me.

“Like me?” I finished, inwardly wincing at the bluntness of my words.

“Yes, that,” Mum replied. She seemed relieved that I’d been able to put it into words.

“He is, a little bit,” I said. I set the wooden spoon I was using in a spoon rest, deciding it would be okay to simmer for a little while, and joined Mum at the table. “He has severe anxiety and depression. And he’s a cancer survivor – one of the chemotherapy drugs he had to be on damaged the nerves in his hands and feet, so he’s got peripheral neuropathy as well. And, well…” I ran a thumbnail along the edge of the table. “He’s between medications right now. His painkillers and antidepressants stopped working properly, so he’s had to taper off them so that he can start new ones. And he’s right in the middle of washout at the moment, so everything’s hitting him all at once.” I shrugged a little. “I just want to make things a bit easier for him, that’s all. Like he’s done for me.”

Mum gave me another smile and reached across the table to put her hand over mine. “I’m very proud of you, Ruby. He’s very lucky to have you.”

I gave Mum a smile of my own at this. “Thanks, Mum.”

It wasn’t too long at all before the pasta bake was ready to go into the oven. I spooned half of the sauce and cooked pasta into the casserole dish, covering it with a few handfuls of cheese, before following it up with the rest of the contents of the pot and more cheese. The lid went on after that and I wrapped the whole thing back up in the teatowel, ready for the ten-minute drive over to Taylor’s house. Just before Mum and I left, I sent him a quick text. Coming over for a visit if you’re up to it. :)

His response was short and to the point – a thumbs-up emoji and a smiley face. I sent a smiley face back and followed Mum out to her car.

Somewhat to my surprise, the face that greeted Mum and I after I’d rung Taylor’s doorbell wasn’t the one I expected to see. “Hey Mrs. Hanson,” I said when his mother answered the door.

“What did I say about calling me that?” she said, her tone playfully stern, and she raised an eyebrow at me as she unlocked the screen door.

“Sorry, Diana – force of habit.” I nodded back over my shoulder at Mum. “That’s my mum, Trish.” Here I raised my casserole dish a little higher. “Could we put this in the oven? It’s a pasta bake. Figured Tay wouldn’t be much for cooking right now.”

“Of course you can.” The screen door opened, and Diana stepped aside to let Mum and I inside. “He’s in the lounge room when you’re done in the kitchen.”

“I’ll get it in the oven,” Mum said, and she took the casserole dish from me. “You go and see Taylor.”

I gave Mum a smile that she returned. “Thanks Mum.”

Just as Diana had said, Taylor was in the lounge room. He was asleep on the lounge, covered from his shoulders down to his toes with a colourful crocheted blanket. One of his hands was dangling off the side of the lounge, fingertips brushing against the carpet underfoot, and I could see the sock-covered toes of one of his feet poking out from beneath the blanket. Propped against the side of the lounge closest to his head was a set of forearm crutches. I found a footstool and sat down on it close to the lounge, propping my elbows on my knees and my chin in the palms of my hands, and studied him.

In the six months that we’d known each other, not to mention the five months we’d been going out, I’d never had much of a chance to watch Taylor sleep. He didn’t really nap much, and during tours and whenever I stayed over he always woke up before I did. But now that I was getting the opportunity, I was going to make the most of it.

He looked so much younger when he was asleep. Out in public – but particularly during tours and at TAFE – he looked every bit his age. Even when it was just the two of us he still looked within a few years of thirty. But right now, he looked much closer to twenty. He had dark smudges beneath both eyes, with a faint hairline scar beneath his left eye and another along his hairline on the right side of his forehead, and he was frowning just a little in his sleep – an expression I recognised as pain, having seen it on the faces of my brothers and sisters often enough after they’d broken bones or sprained ankles. I bit down on my bottom lip – it was one thing to be in pain myself and to be used to it, but to see it in someone I loved hurt like hell.

I was just about to go and see what Mum was up to when he woke up, easing an eye open at me – one that was a tired, washed-out blue, almost grey. “Hey,” I said quietly, not wanting to startle him.

“Hey,” he replied, his voice sounding a bit scratchy, and gave me a small half-smile. He frowned a little again, but this time I could tell he was thinking. “Are you cooking something?”

“Baking,” I replied. “Borrowed your oven – your mum said it would be okay. Mine’s on the blink.”

“Well, that sucks.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” I sat back a little as he eased himself upright, keeping the blanket around his shoulders, and watched him run fingers through his messy hair. “How come your mum’s here anyway?”

“Making sure he doesn’t starve,” Diana replied from behind me, and I jumped a little in my seat. I hadn’t even heard her come into the room.

Taylor rolled his eyes a little at this. “I eat,” he retorted, though I could tell he didn’t really mean it.

“Yes, you eat. I’m aware of that.” Here Diana sat down on the lounge next to Taylor. “And I’m very glad that you do. But when you have flares it’s barely enough to keep a bird alive. You’re already far too thin – you need to eat more than you do.” She brushed Taylor’s hair back off his face and behind his ears. “I know you don’t have much of an appetite right now, love. I get that. And I know you feel sick because you’re in a lot of pain. But you need to eat something more than a handful of M&M’s or an apple. That’s not enough to keep anyone going.”

“I made you a pasta bake,” I piped up. “From scratch. The sauce at least.” I picked at the left knee of my jeans. “I know you like my spag bol, and besides you did a crapload of cooking for me when I was sick. My way of saying thanks.”

This time Taylor’s smile was bigger, lighting his eyes right up. “That sounds freaking amazing.”

I gave him a smile of my own. “Thought it might.”

“Do you think you might be up to eating some of it?” Diana asked, and Taylor nodded. “Okay. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.”

As soon as Diana had left the room, I hopped up on the lounge next to Taylor. “So how’re you feeling?” I asked.

He was quiet for a little while before he spoke. I swore I could see wheels turning in his head as he thought it over. “Sore, mostly. My hands won’t quit aching – just when I think they’ve stopped hurting it starts up all over again. Fucking nerve pain is a bitch.” Here he raised his right foot up in the air. “And my right foot’s gone numb again. Hence the crutches – I can’t get around right now without them.”

“That has to be a pain in the arse.”

“No kidding.” He closed his eyes and tipped his head back. “I’m tired a lot of the time too. And my head feels empty all the time – I can’t think, whenever I try for longer than a minute or so I lose my train of thought. I had to ask for extensions on all my assignments just so I can have even the slightest chance of getting them done.” He let out a quiet sigh. “I hate this, Rue. The sooner I’m done with washout the better, so I can start my new medication. The side effects are going to suck but it has to be better than this.”

It took me a little while to figure out what to say next. I didn’t want to say that I knew how he felt, because I didn’t. I didn’t want to tell him it would get better, because I knew that wasn’t what he needed to hear right now. So I settled for the one thing I knew would help.

“I’m always here if you need to talk to someone,” I offered. “I know I say that a lot. But you know…even if it’s the middle of the night and you can’t sleep, text me or something. I promise I won’t be mad if you wake me up. I might not give the greatest advice, but I’ve been told I’m a pretty good listener.”

He managed another small smile at this. “I know, Rue, and I appreciate it.” He slipped an arm around my shoulders. “Same goes for you, you know.”

I let out a quiet laugh. “Yeah, I know.”

“Good.” He shrugged the blanket off his shoulders and reached for his crutches. “Come on. I’m actually hungry for once. I reckon I could eat a horse and chase the jockey right about now.”

This time I let out a proper laugh, and I got to my feet so I could help Taylor up off the lounge. “Me too. You have no idea the amount of self-control it took to not go digging into that pasta bake.”

He grinned as he slipped his hands through the cuffs of his crutches, curling his fingers around the handgrips. “After you, then.”