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Death of a Party

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I awoke, as usual, to the sensation of warm sunlight on my back, but something was different this morning. Turning away from the brightness assaulting my sleep-fuddled eyes, I found myself confronted with the wall of Alex's naked back. Alex... Lying back, I stared at him in a mixture of disbelief and elation, counting the dark moles on his skin. He was awake, staring off into the distance with a preoccupied and serious expression, and for a terrible second, I was gripped with fear. Had it all been a mistake? Was he regretting it already? 

Not knowing what else to do, I tentatively reached out and ran my finger down his shoulder blade, circling the moles carefully as I rubbed at the muscles of his back. He rolled over to stare at me with a cautious expression, but my smile was transparent as I gazed up at him with open adoration, wrapping my arms around him and burying my face in the hollow of his neck, kissing him softly then working my tongue up towards the lobe of his ear. I moved higher, and my mouth found his, kissing slowly and softly, nibbling gently at his lips.

When I finally pulled away, the trepidation was gone from his eyes and he simply smiled at me with placid and completely contented affection. Without a word, our bodies seemed to find each other, sliding together like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I swallowed him hungrily, a little sore, but still moist, moving gently and lazily towards climax. He was learning the secrets of my body almost instinctually, rolling my hips forwards and pushing at just the right angle with the flat of his palm. Abandoning myself to pleasure, I felt my clitoris quiver then slowly undulate towards orgasm, my breath a long slow hiss escaping between my teeth.

Alex grinned proudly, kissed my eyelids, then rolled me back, taking the two halves of my arse between his hands and kneading as he pushed deeper inside me. His breaths grew shorter and shallower, then stopped for almost a minute, then ejected with a long low moan as I felt him shudder inside me. Slumping back against me, he kissed me again softly and pushed away the sweaty tendrils of hair that clung to my face.

For a long time, we just lay there, tracing circles on each others' skins with our fingertips, then I moved, sitting up and searching for something on the nightstand. Alex watched me curiously, then grinned as I pulled a cigarette out of his pack, lit it and handed it to him. He smiled, took a deep breath and then shook his head slowly as if to say 'how did you know I was thinking of them?' Smiling mysteriously, I shrugged and twined my fingers in the dark strands of his hair. 'You're a walking cliche. I just know you too well.'

But as he smoked, his face grew dark again, his eyes filling with concern with every drag until finally it spilled over into words. His deep, low whisper of a voice seemed unnaturally loud in the quiet stillness of the island morning. 

"Now what?"

My face fell. That was the one thing I hadn't wanted to think about, the one thing I'd forcibly refused to let cross my conscious mind. For the past twelve hours, it had been absolute heaven to not give the slightest thought to the future, to drown myself in the moment, sinking into physical pleasure and emotional release. But the words hung in the air like the early autumn mist with its inclement threat of rain.

Turning away from him, I hung my head, furiously twisting a strand of my own hair between my thumb and forefinger. "I don't want anything to change... between us," I eventually offered. "I want everything to just stay just exactly the way it is right now."

He reached out, laying his long elegant hand on my shoulder and brushing the hair out of the way so he could see my eyes, slowly welling up with tears. "I understand..." he sighed. "But we can't stay here on Iona. It's the end of the season. The proprietress asked if I had come to take you home."

Of course... she was too sweet to ask me to leave, but I was keeping them open. "I can't... I don't have a home any more," I reminded him, the words so familiar it had almost become a soothing mantra to repeat them.

"Yes you do. With me. When two converging paths finally intersect the entire world feels like home," he quoted.

"No," I corrected. "Where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect the whole world looks like home, for a time."

Alex laughed. "German was never my strong point. But the sentiment is the same. I'll be your home."

"I don't really want to go back to London right now," I replied, pointedly ignoring what he was trying to imply.

Cocking an eyebrow at me, he pushed his unruly forelock out of his eyes and smiled. "We don't have to go to London, then. Anywhere in the world that you want. I'll take you there."

I ventured a half smile from under my curtain of yellow hair, my sharp tongue darting out before I could stop myself. "So what - is this where you swoop down like a knight in shining armour and carry me off to live in luxury in the South of France?"

Alex grinned and rose to the bait, sitting up, and circling me with his arms. "The Riviera is lovely this time of year."

"Both of us have pasts and lives we have to get back to," I reminded him. He grew suddenly very quiet. Were it not for the constant motion of his hand in my hair, I would have assumed he was asleep. "You're supposed to be touring the States again in a few weeks. I'm supposed to be god knows where right now - I'm not even sure if I had a band any more..."

He cut me off. "We're not thinking about that right now."

I turned to look up at him as the pale rays of dawn crept over his face, illuminating the long bridge of his nose and the bone of his cheeks, but leaving his eyes two dark shadows. "Shall we just run away?"

"Isn't that what you've been doing?"

"Where do you want to go?"

"I don't want to go back to London, either. Let's just run away."

Neither of us had spoken of it until then, but as soon as the words had passed our lips, they took on a life of their own. Like undercover spies, we crept from the hotel that morning, only just realising the heady freedom of being on the lam, AWOL, incognito, refugees from fame. Staying in a hotel under an assumed name had seemed like a harmless prank before, but now it took on a huge significance. It was all so appealingly romantic, as lost causes invariably are.

Hand in hand, we took the ferry back to the mainland, found a bus to Glasgow, then hailed a taxi to take us to the airport, not sure where we were going to go, but with a thrilling sense of adventure firing our imaginations. We would just get on the first flight we could get tickets for, casting our fates to the wind, adrift with the simultaneous euphoria and fear of early explorers. 

What started out as a joke ended up a few days later with Alex and I standing, arms entwined, staring out at the clear waters of the Mediterranean from the balcony of a hotel in Nice. Never in my life had I known such happiness; such perfect contentment. For the first time in months, I felt truly alive, joyful and bursting with health, free of the gnawing knot that had gripped my stomach for the past few months; since the Glastonbury Festival, really. I'd stopped eating, and lost so much weight that my menstrual cycle, never particularly regular to start with, had gone into hiding and stopped entirely. But now, with my belly full of fine cheese and croissants, the hollows under my eyes were disappearing along with the stress.

Day merged into night without my really noticing anything except the dazzling glint in Alex's eyes when he smiled at me. During the warm haze of the day, we would lie in the shade of beach umbrellas, reading to each other, one resting the spine of the book on the other's back as we dozed. I loved the lilt of his voice as he read poetry in French, taking care to translate what I didn't catch, patiently correcting my pronunciation as I repeated it back to him.

"Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d'ete:
Le grand soleil, complice de ma joie,
Fera, parmi le satin et la soie,
Plus belle encor votre chere beaute;
Le ciel tout bleu, comme une haute tente,
Frissonnera somptueux a longs plis
Sur nos deux fronts heureux qu'auront palis
L'emotion du bonheur et l'attente;
Et quand le soir viendra, l'air sera doux
Qui se jouera, caressant, dans vos voiles,
Et les regards paisibles des etoiles
Bienveillamment sourirount aux epoux."

I smiled, staring up at him, practically in tears until he stopped and asked me what the matter. "Too sentimental for you?"

Shaking my head, I shrugged. "No - it's just... no one has ever read poetry to me like this before."

"Well..." I knew what was forming in his mind before he even said it from the glint in his eye, but mercifully he changed his mind before he could insult my taste in former lovers. Putting down the volume of Verlaine, he leaned over and kissed my shoulder, then started to recite in English.

"Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory-
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken-
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved's bed-
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on."

Turning away so that he would not see the tears welling up in my eyes, I quietly reminded him. "I hate Shelley. He wasn't drowned. He was pushed."

"I know. You've told me often enough. 'Oh beauty! Oh joy!'" he teased. "Useless, soppy Romantic that he is. I'll make you appreciate him yet."

Not knowing what else to do, I sat up abruptly, sending the book flying and wrapped my arms around his neck, burying my face in the soft hollow at the nape of his neck. Anyone else would simply turn away at my sarcasm and my jibes, but Alex teased me right back, recognising the affection that I was so terrified to show hidden underneath.

"You just can't stand it, can you?" he laughed.

"Stand what?"

"The fact that I'm right about Shelley."

"What's there to be right about? He's crap. I'll take Byron or Keats over him any day," I shot back, punching him playfully.

"Yeah, yeah, come on, let's fight," he taunted, grabbing my arms and holding them as I tried to hit him. "Come on... Byron was an over rated pervert..."

"You're talking about perverts, who's just been reading me Verlaine's love poetry..." Breaking out of his grasp, I reached to slap his face, but he caught my hand just in time and held it to his cheek, his eyes shining. Our fight forgotten, he cupped my hand in his and brought the palm to his lips, kissing it gently.

Walking barefoot in the waves, we spent long hours on the beach at sunset, slowly watching the stars reveal themselves, naming as many constellations as we could remember. Then all he would have to do was look at me slyly, and I would throw my arms about his neck and slide my tongue between his lips. I could never get enough of him; never get enough of the sensation of his body between my legs, until we became notorious with the hotel staff for being the last guests to arrive for dinner. We would try to be dressed and ready in time, but as soon as I saw Alex in his dinner jacket, I would be unable to resist the urge to pull him back down onto the bed, rolling on top of him and pulling down the zipper of his formal trousers with my teeth.

At first Alex was somewhat surprised, but pleasantly complied, even when I woke him at dawn for a brief but particularly energetic bout of lovemaking. "You know," he told me afterwards, lying back and catching his breath. "I'm a Scorpio cusp, and we're supposed to be nymphomaniacs, but I have never in all my life been woken up at 5am by a girl demanding sex before," he observed.

Narrowing my eyes, I wrinkled my brow and turned away petulantly, not really wanting to dwell on the prior sexual experience of either of us.

"No, no, don't get me wrong," he protested, pulling my face back towards him and kissing me tenderly. "I'm not complaining. Far from it, believe you me!"

I twisted the thoughts around in my head, unable to articulate my discomfort. "No, it's not that," I finally sighed quietly. "I just... I'd rather just..." I stuttered, words failing me. "Can't we just start over from scratch - tabula rasa? That first time in Iona... can't it be as if we were both virgins, and there was nothing, no one before each other?"

Alex exhaled in a long breath, the first indication of single dark cloud in our tent of blue sky. "It would be nice. But I just don't think these things work that way," he replied quietly and rather too formally.

For a long time, there was silence, just the long, slow and even sound of his breaths in his dark. "I suppose you're right," I eventually conceded, turning back to him and clasping my arms tight around his chest, clinging to him as I was afraid to let go. "What are we doing here, Alex?"

"Running away," he reminded me.

"But are running away from something," I mused. "Or towards each other?"

"Hush," he told me, smoothing my hair away from my forehead and kissing it gently. It was such a simple gesture, but it calmed me, stirring some deep memory of childhood.

We had not been there a week when the rising panic threatened to overcome me again. Sitting on the hotel's balcony, eating breakfast, I stared out to sea while Alex read the newspaper. The early autumn wind blew with an unseasonable chill, playing insistently with the hem of my dress, as I slowly realised that we could not stay there much longer.

"Alex..." he looked up as if he had been expecting me to speak.

"You want to go home, don't you?" I nodded slowly, without speaking. "I'll go with you."

"Alex, your band... you're supposed to be on tour in Greenland or Iceland or somewhere right now, aren't you?" I protested.

"No, I'm not!" he snapped with a finality that indicated he did not wish to discuss it further.

"What happened?" I probed, as gently as I could, reaching out to stroke the long elegant hand that lay on top of his newspaper.

"The tour was..." he stumbled over the words. "Delayed." With a long and emotionally loaded sigh, Alex folded his newspaper, tossed some francs on the table and stood up. "Shall we go to New York?" I pouted and looked away. "See, you don't want to deal with your band, either, do you?"

"It's not my band I don't want to deal with," I explained patiently. "It's everything else. Touring... The fucking press..." I stopped myself before I could say 'Jeremy' but the knowing expression in his eyes indicated that he understood.

"See, it is exactly my band that I don't want to deal with," he countered, pausing to let it sink in. He didn't have to elaborate. I had seen it all firsthand, the joking and teasing jibes that had slowly turned vicious, the brotherly affection that was rapidly turning into some hideous sibling rivalry.

"We're being horribly irresponsible," I protested weakly.

"I'm sick of being responsible. I'm sick of being an adult. For once I want to do what I want to do, and what I want to do right now is go back to New York with you, see your apartment and..."

"I don't have an apartment," I reminded him.

"Then I'll help you find one."

Somewhere in the back of my mind flickered the thought that this was the first concrete plan for the future we had made together. It was somehow reassuring to make plans, but the idea of living together scared me. Panic gripped my mind - Jesus Christ, I was doing it again, wasn't I? Completely losing my head and just running off with another man.

But as my head reeled with a sudden attack of uneasy self doubt, Alex turned to me and squeezed my hand. "It's going to be OK, Kate... I don't know how, but it's going to be alright somehow."

-----

In dark sunglasses and silly hats, we landed at JFK in a bright autumn day, eschewing taxis for the long ride into Manhattan on the A train, holding hands and making faces at one another in the windows. Alex contemplated growing a moustache as extra disguise. I told him I'd abandon him to the subway system if he even thought about it. 

"Hush! We are undercover spies!" insisted Alex with a completely straight face, raising his eyebrows to impart the full seriousness of what he was saying, though his eyes sparkled with fun. Sitting slumped low in our seats, our heads together, whispering conspiratorially, everything we did seemed like an adventure.

We checked into a hotel, and immediately started to comb the newspaper for vacant apartments. Although it was ostensibly 'my' apartment, Alex was starting to take more and more of an interest in it. Days slid by in near idleness as Alex started to affect the snobbishness of a native New Yorker, refusing to even deign to look at apartments outside of Manhattan. "Only rats live in boroughs," he sniffed, as I tried to sell him on Hunters Point or Williamsburg. But when he decided that I should live in SoHo, so that he could have the same address in both cities, I turned and fixed him with a nasty glare.

"Whose apartment is this?" I finally snapped. "I wouldn't be caught dead living in SoHo with all the yuppie bistros and hideous art galleries."

"Damien had an art show there," he pointed out.

"Precisely."

"I thought you liked Damien."

"I do. But I don't like the sort of people who like him and don't understand what a joker he is."

For every neighbourhood he suggested, I turned up my nose. If he was going to play borough snob with me, I was going to fling it right back in his face. And so the process dragged on and on until we finally caved and called in an agency. A smart, snippy young man took us around a string of flats, but it wasn't until the second day of looking at shoeboxes that I finally walked into a place I felt could ever feel like home. Before I could think about it too hard, I finally found myself signing the lease on an old, cavernous two bedroom apartment on the top floor of a brownstone on the Upper East Side. Even with the rent control, it was still more money than I had ever thought I would spend on living quarters, but when I stood in the front parlour, staring out the long narrow windows that overlooked East 83rd St., I finally felt like I'd come home.

The first evening we spent there, sitting on the floor in the middle of the front room, it felt almost cinematically perfect, eating Chinese food out of the boxes cause we had no plates, by the light of candles because the electricity hadn't been turned on. Despite all Alex's initial complaints about the neighbourhood and what a long walk the flat was from any subway line, he soon decided he actually liked it when I told him "It's near all the best Museums."

"I took you to mine," he reminded me, grinning as he tickled me. "You've still never taken me to yours." For a moment, the memories flooded back That afternoon was a mere few months ago, the two of us wandering around the Science Museum, trying so hard to pretend that nothing was happening between us. Alex's smirk was widening, as if remembering some particularly amusing incident.

"What?" I demanded, pushing his hair out of his eyes.

"You kissed me in the restaurant," he whispered, widening his eyes knowingly.

"I suppose I did."

"You fancied me then, didn't you?" he bantered, poking me with his foot.

"I remember that day... we looked at the deep field photography for hours," I rambled uncomfortably.

"Don't try to change the subject," he teased, holding me down and starting to tickle me under the ribs. "Confess... you claimed you'd been joking in the press about wanting to shag me. You meant every word of it, didn't you?"

"Stop it!" I insisted indignantly, trying very hard not to laugh as I playfully fought him off. "Cut it out or you'll end up in the tofu!" Grabbing his arms, I managed to gain the upper hand, pushing him over and straddling his chest. "Ooh, Now you're in for it," I threatened, picking up the nearest cartoon of greasy, slimy stir fry and holding it inches above his head.

"Don't you dare..." 

For a moment, I vacillated, toying with the idea of pouring the garlic sauce all over his face, then conceded, extracting a pea pod and feeding it to him before bending over to kiss him on the nose. Our lips met and soon the food was forgotten as we started to explore each other bodies with our fingers.

But after a few moments, Alex stopped and sighed. "You don't have a bed, do you?"

I shook my head. "Not here... I have a futon down at Beth's, and other assorted furniture still in storage somewhere in Queens..."

Alex quietly murmured something about renting a van and resumed the path of his mouth down my neck, but I hesitated, distracted. As soon as he realised my attention was elsewhere, he pulled back and stared curiously into my eyes. "What's the matter?" When I did not answer, he pushed the corners of my mouth into a smile with his fingertips. "It's your band, isn't it?" 

I nodded sullenly. The thought of Beth and the time I'd spent living at her apartment just brought back all the rushing memories of our band, and the friends I'd abandoned. We'd drawn so close, sharing that tiny flat in the East Village, that we felt more like sisters than mere friends or bandmates. "I just walked out when Jeremy died..." I sighed. " Hell, they don't even know if I'm alive. I can't do this to them."

"So call them tomorrow," he shrugged with an understanding smile. "Your band is your life - I know that. God forbid I should come between you and them. They're probably going mad with worry - I remember the papers were all ablaze with news of your disappearance. God knows what they'll make of mine, if they'll put two and two together..."

"What do you mean, your disappearance..." I probed. Alex grinned foolishly, as if he had just let slip something he shouldn't have. "I thought you said the tour was delayed. You did tell them where you were going, didn't you?" 

He shook his head sheepishly. "No, I just walked out. Just like you."

"So all this business about being 'spies' and 'undercover' - you're serious, aren't you?" He nodded, twisting his lips into a half-pout. "Jesus Christ, Alex, you just skipped out on a major world tour without telling anyone? You'll be sacked!"

"Well, what about you?" he shot back by way of defence.

"Extenuating circumstances!" I sputtered. "And after everything else that's happened, I don't think my being fired would be the worst thing right now." He smiled smugly and crossed his arms. "Don't even take that attitude with me. It's not anything like the same."

"So call them," he replied self righteously.

Too frightened to call our manager Amy, I stared blankly at my telephone the next morning. Perhaps there'd been a mix-up at the telephone company and it hadn't been turned on... But when I raised the receiver, the dial tone blared in my ear. Closing the book, I lost my nerve and found myself dialling Beth's phone number. Of all of the band, I'd been the closest to her. She'd understand... or at least, I hoped that she would. But the phone rang and rang until the ansaphone picked up, the beep of unlistened-to messages so long that I wondered if it was even worth leaving one of my own.

"Hi... it's erm... it's Kate," I stuttered. "I'm... I'm back in New York again. I was just calling to... well... erm... for a start, I left a bunch of my crap at your apartment and wanted to pick it up. And erm... oh boy. The band... well, I guess I just wanted to know where we stood. Call me when you get this." I put the phone down and turned to see Alex studying me with that coolly amused half smile of superiority that signified that he knew I was full of shit but wasn't going to say anything. "What?"

"You chickened out," he observed, turning away to hide the half smile that was breaking into a grin.

"So if it's so easy, you call Damon, then," I shot back. He did not find that amusing, turning away with a pout. "I still have the spare key. We could go down and see what we can bring back in a taxi," I offered in a conciliatory tone.

He nodded but did not reply, sitting down on our sleeping bag as he pulled on his worn out shoes. Though he threaded his fingers through mine as walked down to find a cab, I could feel some immeasurable distance between us, as though his thoughts as well as his eyes were shielded by his dark sunglasses. I hated it when he was like this, but did not press the issue.

Walking down tenth street towards Beth's apartment, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Beth and I had skipped drunkenly down this block dozens of times, giddy on our way back from the studio. As I climbed the endless stairs towards the top floor, I half expected to open the door to find Beth and Emma sitting on the couch drinking beer and make rude comments at the television.

"Doesn't look like there's anyone here," observed Alex superfluously as we tripped over a pile of mail. "Actually, I've been curious to see where... and how you lived..." Casting his eye about the place, he stood, taking in the riot of coloured scarves hanging from the ceiling. "I take it you did the decorating in here," he giggled, picking up my little statuette of Ganesha off the television. "No wonder you and Tristram Thornaby-Gore hit it off." Looking around, he noticed the christmas tree lights and searched until he found the plug, flicking them on. "Wait a minute... no wonder it looks so familiar. You shot one of your videos here, didn't you?"

I shook my head, flipping through the pile of mail and picking out my letters. "No, that was my old place in Queens... I don't think you ever saw it..."

"No, you stayed over at our hotel, if I remember correctly," he replied with a suggestive wink, kissing the top of my head as he brushed past me into the big, open kitchen that had always been the heart of the apartment.

"Oh, stop it..." I laughed, then suddenly stopped short as I sifted through the NME's at the bottom of the pile. A huge photo of familiar features topped with a mop of cherry red hair adorned the cover of the 'Reading Festival Special Edition.' "Festival Marred By Tragedy - Jeremy Kane 1970-1997" declared the lurid red headline splashed across the bottom of the page. Sinking down to the couch, I hurriedly flipped through to the page and read the article.

Jeremy Kane, the 27 year old singer and guitarist with American punk band, the Rocket Pops, was found dead in his Leeds hotel room Monday morning. Although the Rocket Pops had not been slated to perform, Kane was there to watch the performance of his girlfriend, Kate Gordon of the Charms. The cause of death was listed as Heroin overdose, though it remains to be determined whether it was accidental or intentional. Police report that a note was found near the body, but refuse to divulge its contents until they are able to locate Gordon, to whom it was reputedly addressed. Sources close to the couple report that they had been arguing about Gordon's friendship with Alex Jones of Slur, though others point to Kane's heroin habit as the root of their disagreement. (Kane was a heroin addict who recently discharged himself from an unsuccessful detoxification following his collapse at the Glastonbury Festival earlier this summer.) 

Kate Gordon was last seen by a group of fans who gave her a lift back to her hotel late Sunday afternoon, but failed to report to an interview later that evening, or to a scheduled gig in Scotland the next day. The remainder of The Charms tour has been cancelled until further notice, assumedly due to the disappearance of Gordon, though their management have yet to confirm this.

The Rocket Pops management have issued the following statement: 'We wish to express our deepest sympathy to the Kane family and to Kate Gordon over this unfortunate death' but have declined to comment further until more information is made available to them.

It went on for several more pages, talking about Jeremy's career and the rise of the Rocket Pops, but I couldn't bear to read it, choosing to turn the page rather than look at the old photos of Jeremy with his arms clasped around my waist, his eyes sparkling as he laughed. He looked so vibrant and alive in that for a moment, I forgot he was dead, half expecting the phone to ring, his voice pouring down the line from some hotel room in Japan. But as I turned the page, I saw the Jeremy I had grown to hate, with his greasy hair, stained rather than dyed, hanging down over dull, listless eyes ringed with huge dark circles. 

Closing the paper, I threw it down on the table and picked up the next week's issue with a sickening sinking feeling. "New Developments in Kate Charms Disappearance" declared a banner above the headlines on the news page. The photo looked like a stranger with her gaunt face and haunted eyes - it took a few moments to realise that it was me, onstage at the Leeds show.

'Kate was breaking up with Jeremy. They'd had a fight the night before - he locked her out of their hotel room,' reports 'close personal friend' Graham Cooper. 'We sat up all night talking about it.' But when pressed for details, the Slur guitarist becomes silent. 'That's rather personal. I can't tell you that.' Added to details the News of the World has leaked about Jeremy Kane's alleged suicide note, this lends credence to a rather different picture of the events of that night. 

In a related story, tempers were reportedly flaring backstage at a Slur gig in Europe over the weekend. Observers report that Damon Adams and Alex Jones were engaging in a 'heated argument' over the setlist, although the fans that actually witnessed the event did not understand English well enough to relate what the two were actually fighting about. Alex reportedly stormed offstage after the gig, and took an early flight back to London, where he neglected to turn up for a television appearance a few days later.

All this, of course, adds to more speculation as to the whereabouts of Kate Gordon. Jones and Gordon have been linked in the press numerous times, romantically and otherwise, leading many to believe that the two are, in fact, together, though Slur's management have categorically denied the persistent rumour that Alex and Kate have eloped.

I stared at the page, re-reading the article twice, and wondering what the News of the World had printed. The news that Jeremy had, indeed, committed suicide evinced a complete lack of reaction. I wasn't the slightest bit curious about the note - in fact, I realised that I emphatically did not want to read it. For a moment, a vague sense of guilt flickered across my mind, but my eye caught the last paragraph again. So there were rumours that we had eloped? Suppressing a giggle, I held my hand over my mouth. "I should be so lucky." 

"For what?" Looking up, I suddenly noticed Alex standing in the kitchen doorway, holding a bottle of Emma's precious Brooklyn Lager.

I grinned at him expectantly as he padded across the room to sit next to me. "Apparently, you and I have eloped, according to the NME."

"Not quite," he replied, shifting somewhat uncomfortably as he sifted through the papers I had discarded, his eyes lingering on Jeremy's face. "So you saw it."

I snorted dismissively and gave him the one I'd just been reading. "What were you and Damon fighting about?"

"Oh. That." For a moment, that uncomfortable silence descended over us, then he shrugged, popped the top off the beer bottle and took a long draft. "Do you remember, on the last tour, how I would sit and get slowly pissed and whinge about Damon to you?"

"About how he was a dictatorial little control freak and never took you seriously? Yes, I remember very clearly."

"Well..." he paced his words slowly, as if trying to make a joke of it. "It was basically one of those jobbies, except I whinged at Damon instead of about him."

"Oh. Oh dear..." I sighed. As he spoke, I stared down at the cover of the latest NME: a photo of Slur torn so that Alex was on one piece and the remaining three on the other. "Slur In Crisis" declared the bold black headline. Draping his arm around me, Alex leaned in closer to read over my shoulder.

On the eve of the American tour that was supposed to be their greatest triumph, Slur have found themselves plunged into chaos. Bassist Alex Jones has been missing since walking out on a festival in Europe two weekends ago, forcing the band to cancel four gigs. There has been much speculation as to the status of the major American tour the band had planned for September, riding the wave of the Stateside success of the 'Track 2' single. 

'It's now or never with this single,' state sources close to the band. 'Slur have waited years to achieve this sort of success in America. I think they'll tour with or without Alex.' So far, their management have issued no formal statement, other than to confirm that all US tour dates are still scheduled as announced.

Popular opinion is that Alex has holed up somewhere with long-time friend and rumoured love interest, Kate Gordon of the Charms, though reports of the missing couple are conflicting at best. Various witnesses claim to have seen persons matching their descriptions in such disparate places as a taxi in Scotland, boarding an aeroplane in Gatwick Airport, frolicking on the beach in the South of France, and even as far afield as the Upper East Side of New York City.

"And we thought we were being so sneaky..." interjected Alex with a smirk.

Amy Cooper, the Charms' manager, can neither confirm not deny these reports, commenting only that 'We still have no word as to the whereabouts of Kate. Wherever she is, we want her to know that our thoughts are with her.' 

The remaining members of Slur, themselves, espouse support for this theory. Singer Damon Adams was reported in the News of the World as being overheard in Soho's Groucho Club loudly declaring "Those two (Alex and Kate) are probably sitting on a beach as we speak, shovelling cocaine up their noses.' 

Guitarist Graham Cooper has been somewhat more charitable. 'I hope for their sake that it's true, that they're off somewhere together shagging each others brains out. I honestly do think that they really love each other,' he adds with an uncharacteristically sentimental smile. 'I just wish they'd picked a better time to figure it out.'

However, many others are beginning to suspect that it is the timing that is of critical importance. Our inside source for the band reveals that 'Alex has been unhappy for quite some time with the direction that band has taken with the most recent album. Alex has always had the most "pop" sensibility in the band, and he felt that he was losing his voice within the band. He felt that the band was betraying their roots and deliberately altering their sound to appeal to the more commercially lucrative American audience. It's no accident that he's disappeared on the eve of a tour he didn't really want to go on to start with. I think Kate just provided a convenient excuse.'

I looked up from the page, reaching out to touch Alex's face. "Is this true?" 

He looked away, viciously pulling a cigarette out of jacket pocket and lighting it with shaking hands. "I want to know who said this."

"Does it really matter who said it? Is it true or not? Are you doing this on purpose? Are you trying to send the band some kind of message?"

Slowly, he sucked long and hard on his thinking cigarette. "I'm not really sure. Perhaps I might be, at least on a subconscious level. I hadn't really thought about it that much. I just wanted... to be with you." His voice choked up and he looked away, too angry to speak, so I clutched his hand in mine, scanning down the page to see if a name was given.

When confronted with these accusations, Adams sputters 'I think that's completely unreasonable! You're... you're basically blaming me for Alex being a headstrong and inconsiderate c-nt! I don't think that's fair at all! I mean, obviously, he's always been the 'pop' person in this band, and he might be feeling like he's getting the short end of the stick cause that's not what the general feeling of the band is anymore,' he finally concedes, then pauses for a moment. 'But we've always managed to keep a good balance. We've always had tension in this band but Alex has never missed a gig before this whole business with Kate F-cking Gordon...' 

I winced slightly, and Alex tightened his grip on my shoulder, squeezing me gently. "God, they're blaming me for this, aren't they?" 

"If anyone's to blame, it's that cunt," snarled Alex, thrusting his finger towards the photograph of Damon in the centre of the page.

Graham shifts uncomfortably. 'Well, he could at least have called us or something,' he adds quietly. 'Let us know where he is.' 

'Since when have you been sticking up for Alex?' demands Damon, turning to glare at his guitarist.

'Perhaps he'll turn up before the US tour,' suggests drummer Dave diplomatically.

'And we just take him back, like that - no questions asked, no explanation given. You think this is acceptable behaviour?' counters Damon.

'I'm sure he has a perfectly reasonable explanation.'

There is an awkward silence in the room for a few minutes, then Damon wisely changes the subject to other aspects of the upcoming tour. No one contradicts or interrupts as he speaks - already, Alex's absence seems a tangible presence in the band. Even interviewing the band is certainly not as lively without his quiet witticism and wry comments.

Speculation is running high as to who will be tapped to be Alex's replacement on the upcoming tour, but the band and their management refuse to comment. Possible candidates could include...

"I don't want to hear it!" snapped Alex abruptly, snatching the paper out of my hands before I could read any further. "They can't replace me..." 

"Are you quitting?"

"Certainly not!"

"Well, that's the message you're giving them."

He glanced away, biting his lip petulantly, then turned back to me, his eyes huge and liquid, as if he were about to start crying. "What do I do?"

"Call?" 

"Well, I certainly don't want to talk to Damon if he's being like this... And what the bloody hell do I say? He's got a point... They're not just going to accept me back without some sort of explanation."

I stared at him for a long time, watching the smoke curl around his fingertips, weighing the options in my mind. "Tell them that I asked you to. Tell them I called you up and begged you to come. You couldn't abandon a friend in need, and I didn't want anyone to know where I'd gone."

"But that's not true. That's the total opposite of how it happened," he pointed out.

"They don't need to know that."

He watched me carefully from under his dark fringe. "You'd do that for me? You'd take the blame?" He shook his head. "I can't let you do that."

"I can't let you be sacked over me."

He sat for a moment, contemplating the glowing tip of his cigarette as he weighed his options, then shrugged and looked away, unable to meet my eyes. How I adored this man; almost idolised him, yet he sat before me, weak, vulnerable and more than a little frightened. Reaching out, I wrapped my arms around his neck and drew him towards me, smoothing his hair as I clutched him to my chest, leaning down to rest my cheek on the top of his head. As I sat, resting his head in my lap, playing intently with his hair, conflicting emotions surged inside my head, threatening to tip over the fragile shell of my boat. A fierce passion caught in the back of my throat, and I suddenly knew what it must feel like when a lioness defended her cubs, even at the price of her own life. 

But in the pit of my stomach, I felt like I had just made some momentous decision, some Judas Kiss from my heart to my integrity. Selfishly, I knew that this could be professional suicide, at least as far as my personal credibility was concerned. But credibility? Who cared about that - it sounded like something Emma would say. But at the thought of Emma's face as we'd sat through those interviews where journalists asked only about my and Jeremy's love life, I cringed inwardly. That was the role I was letting myself be cast in, yet not even in a sympathetic light this time. I could just see the tabloid headlines now - emotional harpy American bitch stealing away the crown prince of BritPop.

But what had I expected, honestly? Alex and I hadn't thought about that; we hadn't thought about anything except how right it felt to be with one another. Neither of us had been the slightest bit concerned about what other people would think of it, and the why the hell should we have to, I thought viciously, clutching him tighter.

"We'll be alright," I told him, though my voice quavered, and I didn't entirely believe myself.

"I know," came his voice, muffled against my skirt. As he sat up, he gazed into my eyes with tenderness and alarming gratitude. "Whatever happens, it was worth it," he announced defiantly, bringing his lips forcefully down onto mine, surprising me with the urgency of his fervour. I kissed him back roughly, twining my fingers in his thick hair as I sank back down onto the futon.

Suddenly the overhead lights flashed on, the bright light blinding after the dimness of the tiny christmas tree bulbs. "Jesus Freaking Christ!" exclaimed Beth's voice, startlingly loud. Alex and I shot apart like guilty schoolchildren. "Kate... Alex!" Although it was obvious from her face that she'd expected him to be with me, her voice still registered shock.