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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.

Chapter Text

"Beth... when did you get here..." I stuttered.

"Jesus, you nearly gave me a heart attack! It would be more appropriate for me to ask you the same question," she countered, clutching her hand to her chest. "I got back to New York yesterday morning. Who else do you think brought the mail up?" she asked, indicating the pile of NME's on the couch beside us. "Where the bloody hell have you two been?"

"Erm... Scotland... the South of France... the Upper East Side..." I sputtered, looking to Alex for confirmation.

"I thought as much," she sighed, sinking down to the opposite chair, the colour draining back into her face. "When I read that article in the NME, I put it together. God, are you alright, Kate? The way you just took off after the concert, you scared us. Especially after..." Her voice trailed off. "I'm sorry, we didn't know about Jeremy," she mumbled quickly, peering at Alex intently, as if she were afraid that if she took her eyes off him for a second he would disappear.

"I didn't know about Jeremy!" I insisted. "He was alive when I left him. And I fucking left him... I told him it was over and I walked out."

"Good for you!" interjected Beth, then looked embarrassed, rapidly trying to recover her tact. "I mean, well..."

"I know what you mean," I laughed nervously, anxiously squeezing Alex's hand. Relaxing slightly, he draped his arm around my shoulder as he leaned back, but did not let down his guard.

"So what about... well... I mean, are..." She stumbled over her own words as she tried to spit it out. "You two, are you..?"

"Yes," I replied succinctly, sparing both of us the indignity of the question.

"Well, woo-hoo! Good for you! It's about time!" she exploded, standing up to slap me a high five, then sitting down just as quickly, covering her mouth with her hand before anything else could slip out. Alex raised an impeccable eyebrow at me with a mischevious grin, but mercifully did not comment.

"So what's the story, with... the Charms?" I managed to squeeze out somewhat guiltily.

"Well," she sighed, taking a deep breath. "The rest of the tour was cancelled, obviously... I honestly don't know what's happening with the band. If we even still have a band... Emma was pretty upset about it. I just wanted to know that you were alive. You really scared us. You could have called or something, you know!" she added, her voice a tangle of relieved concern and almost resentful annoyance.

"I'm sorry," I whispered, hanging my head. "I wasn't exactly thinking straight at the time. And then, the longer it was, the more scared I was to..."

"It's my fault, really," conceded Alex. I whirled on him, narrowing my eyes to say 'Keep your story straight,' and he shrugged. 

"Nice try, Alex, but I've known Kate a lot longer than you have, and nothing on this earth can make that girl do anything she doesn't want to do," interrupted Beth incredulously.

"It's all my fault. I twisted his arm and made him run away with me," I countered, about to try out our new story on her, but she rolled her eyes.

"I don't believe that for a minute, either. But it doesn't matter. No one's blaming anyone here. There's no blame anywhere. No blame..." Her voice trailed away distractedly, and suddenly very large cracks appeared to be opening up in her confident and assured outer persona, as if her personality were stretched to the breaking point as she anxiously twirled the plastic grocery bag she was clinging to.

"Beth, shall we go in the kitchen and make a pot of tea?" I suggested gently. "Alex, excuse us for a minute..."

"Oh. Girl talk. I understand," he nodded assuredly. "You want to go off and discuss me without my hearing."

"Arrogant twat," I shot back with a playful punch, and led Beth off back into the kitchen, Clinking cups and kettles in the familiar clink of domesticity. "What's the matter, Beth... what happened?"

"Oh god... where do I start?" she sobbed as soon as she was out of Alex's earshot. "Everything's just gone terribly wrong, all at once. Everything just blew up as soon as you left."

"Emma?" I asked, nervously. She and Beth might be best friends, but their fights were legendary.

"No, for once, it wasn't Emma. I mean, sure, we fought a bit, but you know, nothing out of the ordinary. She's deliriously happy, actually. She and Klaus - oh god, you don't even know this. That German bloke she met at Glastonbury, they've had a thing going on, all this time. They got a flat together in Berlin. I think that she was actually relieved that the tour was over, so she could be with him. It was Maddie, of all people who flipped out. All the things she was saying... god, about how we were betraying the band by cancelling the tour, that she didn't want to go back to New York. And then when I just casually asked her why, rather than answer she just blew up at me and started yelling at me about Gary, saying how could I do that with him? Didn't I take the vows of matrimony seriously? Didn't fidelity mean anything to me? I mean, she really laid into me over it. Just completely out of all proportion."

I bit my lip, nodding quietly. "That makes sense, actually. Guilty conscience."

"What?" gasped Beth.

"I don't know for a fact. I mean, I was off in the long grass with Tristram at the time, but I'm pretty sure that Maddie was unfaithful to Carlos at Glastonbury."

"What?!" Beth gaped openly. "I don't believe it! Maddie? Someone in the press was spreading nasty rumours about her and some Scottish actor, but I didn't pay any attention."

I shook my head. "We have no privacy, do we?"

"Oh god... no wonder." She perched on the edge of the counter and chewed her nails as if contemplating this. "Oh, fuck, have I made a mistake?"

"What is it?" I probed. "Is this something to do with the band at all?"

She shook her head, spitting out the words as if it were physically painful to even articulate them. "I... I gave Gary an ultimatum..." Her voice trailed off and she stared intensely down at the linoleum of the floor. When the normally vocal and outspoken Beth grew this quiet, something was definitely wrong.

"What do you mean, an ultimatum?" I ventured cautiously, lowering my voice to just under the steady patter of boiling water.

"I told him that I'd had enough of sneaking around and lying for him and pretending that I didn't feel it when I did feel horribly and utterly and indefensibly jealous... I told him that he had to choose between me, and his wife."

"Oh shit!" I interjected, somewhat more audibly than I'd intended.

She ploughed on, unable to stop speaking now. "I know... I can't believe it. I feel like I've ruined everything. I mean, even if it was all true, what he told me, I mean, it's just not fair of me to ask him to leave his family... to leave his beautiful daughters..."

"It's not fair, what he's been doing to you," I countered.

"He never lied to me. He never lead me on. He was totally honest about this from day one, that this could never be more than an affair, that he had to stay with his wife for the sake of the kids, that he would not and could not leave them. And I just... I got greedy. I told him he had to choose between them and me. And now I've totally screwed it up; I know it. He's called my bluff, and now I'm left with nothing. I just completely ruined what we did have."

"But Beth, when you look at it, what did you have?" I tried to reason, but she was beyond reason.

"I'm in love with him. I didn't realise just how deep I was in with him until I no longer had it. I just didn't think, when I got into it in the first place. It was just... well, I mean... it was Gary Goode!" she exclaimed. "It was like every fan fiction story I used to fantasise about when I was 14, come to life. Gary Fucking Goode from AbSynth just comes in out of nowhere, riding on this white horse, like a fairy tale prince, and sweeps me off my feet. Except in that story, Gary didn't come with a wife and three exquisite children. You know, whatever Maddie might have said, I'm not an immoral person. I'm not some vicious homewrecker. I don't know what came over me. Well, yeah, I do... God, what was I fucking thinking? Gary just walked into my life and all sense of propriety or even sense went flying out the window." She paused as I fiddled with the kettle and poured out three cups of tea.

"I think you've made the sensible choice to remove yourself from the situation as soon as you realised it was out of control. Beth, you can't beat yourself up for it. Anyone else could have lost their head in the situation."

"Oh, don't get all smug and pious with me," she shot back. "Just because you were Miss Goody Goody and just sat around and whinged about not sleeping with Alex because he had a girlfriend doesn't mean you can condescend to me now."

"Beth!" I turned, shocked at the outburst.

But rather than spite, her face seemed twisted with genuine agony. "I'm sorry, that wasn't called for. I don't mean to lash out at you."

"It's OK, I understand. You're upset," I replied quietly, putting milk and sugar in Alex's tea and carrying it out to him. As he looked up inquisitively, I told him "We'll just be a few minutes more." He nodded, took the tea and returned to his contemplation of my bookshelf before pulling out a coffee table art book.

I returned to the kitchen to find Beth distractedly spearing her teabag. "It's just god, I didn't think this was going to hurt this much... I just kept telling myself that it wasn't real. That it was just some puppy love crush come to life - that it couldn't hurt me. I don't know; somehow I managed to convince myself to believe it! I think it was the coke, I guess... it makes denial a whole hell of a lot easier sometimes."

"Are you off it, now?" I asked carefully, feeling curiously like a mother hen.

"Yeah, cold turkey. I think that's part of why I'm so fucking on edge." As if to prove her point, her hands jittered alarmingly, nearly spilling her tea into her lap. "But I just have to... to figure out who the hell I am under all this." She paused, gesturing around her at the scattered accoutrements of the pop star lifestyle that seemed strangely out of place in her typical Lower East Side tenement kitchen. "It scared me, when..." Suddenly, she stopped, looking up at me with obvious embarrassment.

"Do you mean Jeremy?" I finished for her. She nodded. "I don't mind. You can talk about him. It doesn't bother me. It might even do me some good."

"It fucking scared the shit out of me. I mean, we sort of knew about him, but we didn't realise it had gotten as bad as it had, you know? I mean, we all started out about the same time, didn't we? We got high with him at our record release party where we met him all those months ago. God, it seems like so much longer, doesn't it? And then I count back on my fingers and realise just how short a time it took Jeremy to travel from being on top of the world to being..." She shuddered visibly at the memory. "I know it sounds really selfish, but there was this tremendous sense of 'There but the grace of god, go I.' It could have been me. It could have been you. After he died, for a scary week or two, I actually thought, you know..."

"That I was dead?"

"Yeah." She shook her head slowly, thoughtfully. "I mean, I just started to think, that maybe you'd been into it, as well. I mean, we'd both been off in our little worlds. I started to kick myself for not paying more attention."

"God, you think you're kicking yourself? Oh Jesus..." My voice threatened to give out. For the first time, I was actually starting to feel something in that numb little void to which I'd banished all thoughts of Jeremy. "I knew, a lot earlier than anyone else that he was doing smack again. I mean, I was with him all the time - it would have been impossible for me not to have known. His manager asked me flat out if Jeremy had been shooting heroin, and I lied to cover him."

"Well, I didn't trust Eric further than I could spit him, either," Beth agreed.

"Thing that I didn't know was this wasn't Jeremy's first habit. He'd been into it before. It was much longer than I knew. The label sent him to rehab when his band got signed, but as soon as he was out from under their sight, he just fell right back into it."

"Oh shit..." Beth gasped. "But, I mean, how were you to know? We were all doing it at first, weren't we? It just seemed so innocent. A little bit of fun, a little bit of powdered energy to get you through a difficult gig. But as my mother used to say, 'it's all fun and games until someone pokes their eye out.'"

I giggled slightly. "Your mother did not say that."

"She did." Under the rising flood of hysteria, Beth suddenly smiled. "It's all fun and games till someone pokes their eye out." She started to giggle, then overflowed into an earthquake of laughter. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"It's pretty morbid, isn't it?" I agreed. Her laughter was infectious, starting as an uncontrollable hysterical outburst, but fading into a simple release of tension.

"Oh god..." suddenly she stopped giggling and stared at me, her eyes huge and liquid as if she would be on the verge of tears if she stopped laughing, even for a moment. "It's not really funny, but it's true."

"You have to laugh sometimes. Better than crying, isn't it?" I observed, then tenderly wrapped my arms around her shoulders. "You made the right decision. I know it doesn't feel like it right now, but it was the best choice of the options you were faced with. I know right now it just doesn't seem fair, but you have to protect yourself."

"I know. I just wish it didn't hurt so damn much." She paused and took a long sip of her tea, blowing on it to cool it. "And I just wish there wasn't naive, stupid little girl deep down inside me who honestly believes that he's going to come running after me. Because I know he's not."

"There are no fairy tale princes in shining armour, riding white horses to our rescue. Certainly not any more, in fact, I'm beginning to doubt there ever were," I sighed.

Beth gaped at me as if I'd just committed heresy. "Bite your tongue. You and Alex seem perfectly happy together. Wasn't it all so terribly romantic, him you following you to the ends of the earth, like some white knight?"

I nearly burst out laughing again at the thought of Alex on a horse. "Happy, perhaps. But a white knight? I think not."

Suddenly, she grew very tender, needling me gently in the ribs. "I'm sorry, Kate. I didn't mean to jump down your throat earlier about him. Whatever happiness you two have, you completely deserve. I'm just being a jealous bitch."

"It's fine," I assured her. "If you're coming cold turkey off cocaine, I'm going to be wearing a flameproof asbestos jacket around you for the next few weeks."

"Look - I'm not addicted!" she insisted. "I can do this!"

"Oh, I've heard that before," I teased, then realised how serious she was and lightened my tone. "I know you can. I'm right here for you, no matter what you need." Her lip quivered as she gazed back at me, her eyes growing moist as if she was about to break into tears at any moment. Not knowing what else to do, I wrapped my arm about my shoulder and pulled her close, hugging her gently. It was strange, the way I'd always thought of myself as so weak and so flighty, yet now the world was falling down I seemed to be the one holding everyone else up.

After a long time, Beth stopped her gentle sobbing and looked up, rubbing her red rimmed eyes. "I'm sorry..." she kept apologising, glancing around her kitchen in distress. "God, look at this place. It's a disaster. I'm not even unpacked yet."

"I know. I can see. You haven't even listened to your phone messages yet," I commiserated.

She looked at me strangely. "Yes I have," she insisted.

I shrugged. "When I tried to call earlier today, there was about two or three minutes of beep before I could leave a message."

Jumping down off the edge of the counter where we'd perched, she wandered out into the other room, pushing past Alex, now deeply involved in a book called The Symbolist Generation, to hit the play button on the ansaphone. "Beth, this is Gary..." blared a clipped British voice, muffled by the static of a bad long distance connection. "Please call me when you get in to New York..."

"Fuck You!" interjected Beth, lunging at the machine and hitting the delete button with unnecessary force.

The machine blipped and skipped to the next message. "Hullo, Beth, it's Gary again. I know you have to be there by now..." There was another click and a beep as Beth erased that one. "It's Gary. Please call me..." Click. Bleep. "It's me again. I don't know where you are..." This time there was an edge of desperation creeping into his voice. Click. Bleep. "Beth, just let me know that you're alive before I start calling the airline to make sure there wasn't a crash." Click. Bleep. "Beth, please..." Click. Bleep. "Hi, erm... it's Kate. I'm back in New York..."

"Well, obviously..." Beth smiled with relief as she skipped that message, though her face was still drawn and pale.

"Don't you even want to hear what he says?" I ventured.

"No! He has nothing else to say that I want to hear," she replied with utter finality.

Alex stared clandestinely over the top of the symbolists, obviously dying with curiosity. "Was that Gary the Good? How is Gary, anyway?" he ventured rather tactlessly.

"I hope he's fucking miserable!" spat Beth, glaring at the telephone as if it were the object of her discontent. "I hope he curls up and dies. A horrible death."

"Oh. That's, erm... nice," cringed Alex, retreating back behind his book as I shot him a warning glance.

"Fuck, there's nothing to drink in this house," lamented Beth, stalking about the room as if looking for something on which to vent her anger. Suddenly she stopped, fixing the butterfly impaling eyes on Alex and I. "Do you lot want to go to Brownie's? I could do with a good, stiff drink right now."

Before I could point out the dangers of swapping one addiction for another, Alex piped up. "Actually, that would be lovely. I have some pleasant memories of that establishment," he reminded me, nudging my leg gently with his.

"You're thinking of the Lakeside Lounge, on Avenue B. Brownie's is the next Avenue over. God, do I have memories of that place," I sighed. "And not all of them good," I added under my breath.

"Not all of them bad, either," Beth contradicted, looking at me warmly. "Wasn't our first gig with you there?"

 

____________________ 1995 ____________________

 

"Brownie's?" sighed Beth irately. "I fucking hate Brownie's. This is just the last straw!"

"It wouldn't be so bad if they tore the ceiling out, put in better monitors and raised the stage," added Emma diplomatically. 

"I'm not talking about the acoustics," snarled Beth, throwing down her microphone with a loud pop that must have made the soundman's hair stand on end. "I'm going to talk to the manager." 

"What's going on? What did I miss?" Despite taking a taxi I could barely afford over from the engineering lecture that had run perilously late, I still walked into our soundcheck to find it already in progress. "Is this about what they did with the ad?" 

"No, we thought that was pretty funny, actually," supplied Maddie, switching over from the floor tom she was pounding on to the snare. "I like The Charms. I think we should change our name. Honestly. Charm School Dropouts never fits on anyone's bill." 

"The Charms, like the Lucky Charms," laughed Emma, twiddling the knobs on her amp. "Can I borrow your tuner, Kate?" 

Beth came storming back over from the bar, bearing several glasses of dubious origins. "Some fucking freaking major label just stormed their way in tonight, and pushed some band they are interested in signing onto the bill ahead of us so they can perform for a bunch of Record Company Assholes." 

"But we've had this booked for months now!" I whined. Damn - my first time headlining at Brownie's, I was not planning on letting anyone come between me and Lower East Side stardom. "Pass the coke and shag the groupies - to hell with record executives!"

Beth shrugged, then dug in her bag. "Oh, I've got a present for you, Kate! Something for your bathroom reading collection." 

"Oh, super!" I giggled as she pulled out a dog-eared second-hand copy of 'Up And Down With The Rolling Stones.' My bathroom was notorious for its collection of trashy tell-all rock bios. 

"Bass, please," blared the sound man's voice from the monitors. 

Slinging my beloved hollowbody Vox over my shoulder, I started to lazily thumb the bassline to "Under My Thumb." 

"Oh! Stop it!" teased Emma, covering her ears with her hands. "You can take the girl out of the garage band, but you can't take the garage band out of the girl!" 

Beth took a few more deep swigs of her soda and stepped up to the microphone, and our soundcheck began in earnest, bashing our way through a few measures before we were rudely cut off by the soundman. "OK, that's good," he interrupted. "Now we've got to get your stuff out of the way for the main band." 

"No - I still can't hear Emma in the monitor!" snarled Beth, beginning to take on that annoyed prima donna tone that meant she was ready to deck the soundman. "Emma, you have to sing louder." 

The other band were filtering in, piling their equipment in front of the stage. Watching with interest, I stared at two rather lovely young men manhandling a large amp with "The Jackson Bollocks" stencilled across the front. The taller of the two, rather attractive in a conventional way, with reddish brown bangs hanging in his face, was gesturing wildly towards the bar, while his friend, of whom I could see nothing but the seat of a pair of leather trousers and a mop-top of bleached blond hair, did his best to ignore him. 

"Ha, ha, we've lost Kate," teased Emma, needling me in the ribs as she handed me back my tuner. "Skanky Ho Boy at three o'clock." 

"Look, you two - we have a soundcheck to do," reminded Beth. "Can we have less of the sample track in the monitors, and more of the vocals?" 

"You're going to have feedback," warned the soundman in a patronising tone. 

"No worries, we love feedback," called out our tall, auburn-haired observer. "The Jesus and Mary Chain are my favourite band. Go right ahead and feed back all you like!"

Beth glared at them, but they'd clearly got my attention now. Playing along with the song, I found my gaze absorbed by the blond man watching the stage from the floor. He was utterly adorable, in a tartish heroin addict sort of way - kind of like a thinner Brian Jones, with terrifying cheekbones and smouldering harlot's eyes. When the soundcheck was finished, I unplugged my bass, nestled it into its case and stored it backstage, and climbed back out to the stage to find Skanky Ho Boy examining the top of my amp. 

"I'm sorry, is this in your way?" I asked nervously. 

"No, you can leave it. It's fine where it is," he replied in an incredibly soft-spoken voice. "I've read that. Good book," he added, pointing to Up and Down With The Rolling Stones, which I'd casually left on top of the amp. 

"Oh... yeah..." I stuttered, a little embarrassed. Damn... I'd always made of habit of carrying Andre Gide's Immoralist around in my gigbag just in case I ran into a cute boy I needed to impress, and now I was caught out with a trashy rock bio. Typical. Seizing it off the amp, I pushed the cabinet back against the wall and out of their way.

But Beth was not so amicable. Charging straight up to the tall man, she faced him off, and imperiously announced "I don't care what label is paying for this - we've had this night booked for months now, and we are headlining." 

But rather than being properly intimidated and cowed by this display of moodiness, the man fell down to his knees, threw his arms up in the air and loudly proclaimed "Yes! Thank you god! Yes! My entire life I have dreamed of opening for an all-girl garage band! Yes! It's the Carrie Nations! I am beyond the valley of the dolls!" Seizing her hand, he kissed it with loud slobbering noises. "Anything you like, my darling." 

"Oh." For the first time in her life, it seemed as if someone had actually beaten Beth at her own melodrama. Emma was bent over double in an attempt not to burst out laughing. Backing down, Beth jumped off the stage and called to us. "So do you guys wanna walk down and get sandwiches at Katz's deli or what?" 

"Actually, I think I'll stay and watch the opening band," I replied with a grin, gesturing towards the lovely blond mop-top on the stage. 

"We have lost you for the evening, haven't we?" sighed Emma, rolling her eyes and grabbing Beth around the neck. "Just remember we do have to play at some point, yeah?"

Settling down at a corner of the bar, I started in on my free drink tab for the night. They rushed through their soundcheck, then disappeared with some obvious label people in suits. As the bar filled up with people, I saw several bottles of rather expensive champagne disappear towards the backstage area. Resisting the sudden urge to go check on my bass case, I stayed glued to my seat, and ordered another gin and tonic, turning the chapter to skip to photos of Brian's bad acid trips. By nine o'clock, the place was nearly packed - whoever these people were, there must have been a huge buzz about them, as nothing could persuade the denizens of the East Village to leave their lairs before 11pm on a Saturday night under normal situations. 

Cringing, I saw Lawrence, a vaguely unsuccessful music journalist who seemed to have adopted us, shifting his bulk through the door to the club. I tried to hide, but there was no avoiding him. "Hey, Kate," he greeted in his characteristically unctuous schmoozing voice. "What's going on?" 

"Not much," I muttered, glancing around for an escape, but saw none. Hell, if he was going to attach himself to me, I might as well get some benefit out of it. "Buy me a drink?" 

"Sure. I'm here on the Alternative Press tab, tonight," he boasted, flagging the bartender down. "Hey - how did you guys swing the Jackson Bollocks as a support act?" 

"I've never even heard of them," I shrugged, gesturing to the bartender to make it a double gin. 

"You've never heard of the Jackson Bollocks?" His tone of voice made it explicitly clear that if you didn't own every scratched and battered 7" on some obscure label you could simply kiss your indie cred goodbye. "Bollocks Rule, OK? is one of the best albums of the year. I was just talking to William from Mirage and he said they were sure favourites to open for them on their tour later this year." 

Yes, and we are all on first name basis with major British artists, aren't we, Lawrence? "Oh. I didn't know that. Their guitarist is kinda cute." 

"Yeah, Peter Hagstrom? He looks like he's right up your alley, hunh hunh hunh." Lawrence was one of those sort of people that was completely blind to satire - Beavis and Butthead was genuine pop culture to be emulated, as far as he was concerned. But a blast of noise from the stage thankfully interrupted him mid-sentence. So they did indeed like their feedback. 

After less than half a song, Lawrence bent over and shouted in my ear. "Hey, they sound just like..." and continued with a list of half a dozen obscure British Indie bands. 

Ignoring the Chinese water torture of Lawrence's running commentary, I concentrated on the band on the stage. Actually, I had to admit they were pretty good - catchy pop with a definite Velvet Underground psychedelic texture bent. The blond guitarist, Peter, was hunched over his guitar, looking as if he bore the weight of the world on the angular bones of his shoulder blades, while their diminutive female keyboardist jumped up and down in time to the music. Their singer, seemingly unable to cease talking, even for a minute, chatted continually with the audience, heedless to whether or not a song was playing or not.

As soon as the music stopped, Lawrence launched fresh into his usual spate of namedropping and self congratulation, but I just couldn't stand another minute of it. Seeing Peter cart his amplifier off the stage, only to stand, looking somewhat lost, in the middle of the floor of the club, I spied my chance for escape. "Can you excuse me for a minute? I want to say hi..." 

Slowly approaching him, I cautiously tapped him on the shoulder, but he smiled up at me expectantly. "Hi... that was great. I really enjoyed it," I enthused half-heartedly. "Are you playing again in New York any time soon?"

"Erm... I don't actually know," he stuttered, looking around him desperately. 

"Oh." I replied dumbly. Smooth move, Kate. Way to look like a total groupie.

But as I started to back away, he flashed an utterly heavenly smile, wrinkling the tip of his nose mischeviously. "Wait! If you give me a minute to put my gear away, give me your phone number and I'll call you when we're in town again." 

"Erm... I have to start setting up soon myself," I hesitated. 

He nodded his head, then saw one of his bandmates heading back towards the hallway where the gear was stashed. "Wait for me, OK?" 

As I walked back towards the bar, Lawrence slid out of nowhere, attempting to corner me between the bar and a pair of students. As if in salvation, I suddenly spied Beth coming in from the back of the club. Waving anxiously, I caught her attention. When she saw Lawrence, she grinned evilly, then ambled over, half closing her eyes and scratching her arms lazily. "Hey, man, what's up?" she drawled, eyeing him from between slitted lids. 

"Hey, Beth. You missed a great set. I'm going to try to interview them if I can get through to the label..." started Lawrence, but Beth cut him off with a yawn and an impatient gesture. "Where ya been, anyways? 

"I had to meet a too dear friend of mine on Lexington Avenuuuuue," she slurred in an utterly deadpan caricature of Lou Reed. "Come on, Kate. I scored some Espadrille..." 

"Oh, man..." Lawrence's eyes opened wide, as he drew closer, asking in an exaggerated stage whisper. "Are you two doing drugs?" 

"Yeah, man, Espadrille," repeated Beth. "You want some?" 

He glanced around nervously as if doing something completely illicit, then bent in closer to accept a clandestine pill from Beth. "Aw, thanks, man," he panted, swallowing it without looking at it twice. 

"Come on, we gotta go..." insisted Beth, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me backstage. As soon as we were around the corner, she cracked up in hysterical laughter. 

"What the hell did you give him?" I demanded. "Espadrille? An Espadrille is a kind of shoe!" 

"He doesn't know that!" she giggled uncontrollably. "I gave him a birth control pill. It'll make his chest hair fall out and his voice get squeaky." 

"Not like anyone will notice," I sniggered. 

Grabbing my hand, she pulled me towards the back room. "Come on, we're starting soon. It's late enough as it is." 

Before I could protest, we were onstage. Damn, that double gin and tonic had gone to my head a little more than I had planned, but I suddenly realised I had skipped dinner. The dizzy euphoria was taking over my brain as I skipped up and down in place, then boldly approached my microphone. "Shit, I don't have a drink. Can someone be a doll and get me another gin and tonic." 

Beth shot me a nasty glance. "Come on, we agreed. No getting drunk before we go onstage," she hissed, but I shrugged and smiled prettily at the young man who had brought me my request. 

The sample track started, blaring in my monitor, but I just took huge swig of my drink and set the glass down on my setlist, uprighting myself just in time to catch the opening riff. It went off like clockwork, song after song spinning into the smoky haze of the club. Despite everything, this was what made it worth it. The shitty clubs with the horrible bathrooms, the long hours of temping, the missed lectures, the unpaid bills piling up at home - none of it mattered when I was up on the stage, feeling the waves of applause roll over me, peering through the spotlights at a smiling and cheering crowd. OK, so they were only a mob of unappreciative record company assholes schmoozing at the bar, but there were enough of our friends to raise a ruckus and sing along with the choruses. 

"Hey, kids, we have an added treat for you tonight. First of all, we have..." pulling a bag out from behind the monitor, Beth held it up in the air. "Fortune Cookies!" Only a couple of brave souls came up to the front of the stage, so I contented myself by lobbing the rest of them into the audience. "Second, we have a contest for you tonight. If you can answer our question correctly, you win..." 

"A date with your bassist!" screamed someone from the bar. 

"I heard that!" I shouted back, lobbing a fortune cookie at them, which beaned the offending party directly in the head. As he turned around, I realised it was the singer from our opening band. "Oh shit..." I giggled, and covered my mouth with my hands. The blond boy was sitting next to him, snickering madly, so I threw another fortune cookie, which he deftly caught. 

"No, you win a copy of our first single," corrected Beth with a pout. She was still slightly annoyed at me when we finally got off stage half an hour later. "Since when did you become the reigning sex symbol of this band?" she teased, but her voice covered a genuine jealousy. Ever since I'd joined the band two months earlier, there had been something standoffish about her I could never quite figure out. I had clicked with Emma and Maddie almost immediately, but there was some strange competitive streak in Beth that I could never quite suss out.

But drunk as I was, my tongue was fairly loose, so I shot back "Well, everyone knows Maddie's practically engaged, Emma's antisocial, and quite frankly, men are intimidated by you." 

"Intimidated?" she mused quietly, as if thinking this over for the first time. "Do you think I'm intimidating?" 

"Yeah," I muttered, dismissively, not really wanting to get into the conversation now. "Do we have any more drink tickets?" 

"You've already drunk yours? Well, fine. Go get your admirers over there to buy you one," she snorted petulantly and walked away. 

I stared after her for a moment, then shook my head and looked over at Maddie. "She's always like this after a gig. Don't take it personally," warned Maddie, pressing the last of her drink tickets into my hand. 

Brushing Beth's odd behaviour out of my mind, I pushed my way through the crowd, accepting praise with a brief nod and a smile, before heading directly to the bar. "Double gin and tonic!" I yelled over the noise of the sound system. "And make it strong this time!" 

"Why? You're already drunk. You have your accent back," retorted the bartender, nonetheless filling the glass over halfway full of Tanqueray before splashing in a dash of tonic water. As I handed him my drink ticket, he waved it away. "Someone already paid for it." 

Glancing around for my benefactor, my attention was caught by something shiny on the bar. Someone was pushing what looked like a fortune in front of me. Bending in closer, I read "Accept the next offer you receive." 

"You've got to be joking! What kind of fortune cookies did Beth get?" I laughed, then looked up at the face of my benefactor, only to realise that it was Skanky Ho Boy, smiling shyly from under his blond bangs. "Hey! It's you," I slurred, rather too familiarly prodding him on the shoulder. 

"Hey! It's me," he repeated, extending a cautious hand to shake mine. "Peter Hagstrom." 

I shook enthusiastically, my inhibitions loosened by the gin. "Kate Gordon, Bass-Felching Bombshell!" I announced proudly. If I was going to be playing the role of sex symbol in the band, as Beth had accused, I might as well enjoy it. 

"So, are you from around here?" he ventured, rather awkwardly, as if searching for a topic of conversation. What, was this gorgeous creature actually shy? 

"Oh, yes. I live in the bar," I expostulated drunkenly. "After last call, I crawl off and sleep in one of the booths. We play here every night. We're chained to our amplifiers. They beat us if we don't perform - it's a real sweat shop." Bending in closer, I whispered in his ear "Call the police. Now!" 

He giggled nervously, not sure if I was joking or not. "Oh." 

"No, I'm joking," I assured him. 

"No, she's not," called back the bartender, pouring Peter a shot of vodka. 

"What I meant was, are you from New York?" 

I nodded. "Not originally, but I study architecture at the Cooper Union." 

Peter stepped back and looked me up and down, taking in the loud paisley micro minidress and the knee high go-go boots. "You sure don't look like an architect," he grinned. 

"And what is an architect supposed to look like?" I shot back. "An ugly square post-Bauhausian building? I feel a bit more like the Chrysler Building today, myself." Raising my arms over my head, I formed my best impression of a skyscraper. "All shiny and lit up! Skyscraper, I love you!"

He laughed again, a somewhat perplexed expression crossing his face. "You were going to give me your phone number," he reminded me, wisely changing the subject before I could lecture him on Art Deco skyscraper construction methods, the subject of the lecture I had slept through for most of the afternoon. Ripping the back off a book of matches, he scrawled his own number, then handed me a pen. 

"503 - where the hell is that?" I wondered out loud, reading the unfamiliar area code. 

"Portland."

"Maine?"

"Oregon." 

Stepping back, I looked him up and down, taking in the skin tight leather trousers, the retro-60's ringer T-shirt and the bleached bowl cut. "You sure don't look like you're from Oregon. Aren't you supposed to be dressed in some grunge flannel shirt and baggy ripped jeans?" 

"OK, I deserved that," he admitted with a wry smile. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Emma waving at me from the stage, gesturing to my amp. "Well, it was nice to meet you, Pete from Oregon," I giggled, climbing off the barstool. Damn - why did he have to live so far away? I'd probably never see him again. 

"We'll be back in New York in a few days," he informed me, as if sensing my doubt. "I'll call you..." 

Sure you will, Pete from Oregon, I thought to myself, skilfully avoiding Lawrence as I wandered backstage to collect my gear. Too bad - he was very pretty. "So where are we going for our aftershow party?" I teased, wheeling my amp off the stage. 

"Don't you have to work tomorrow?" accused Emma. 

"I took the day off," I retorted casually. 

"You're going to lose that job," sang Maddie as she loosened the screws on her drumkit. 

"Yes, yes, you're gonna lose that job," chorused Emma, coiling her cable. 

"I'm a temp. The whole idea of being a freaking temp is that you can come and go as you like," I countered, somewhat defensively. "Is Carl picking us up in the van?" 

Maddie shook her head. "Not till later. Jesus Sugarpussy had a gig at some college uptown. He won't be swinging by until about 4am." She glanced at her watch, checking the time, but it was only 1:30. "If you want to take your bass and leave your amp, that's cool with me." 

Craning my neck, I tried to see if Peter and his bandmate were still out at the bar, but the place was slowly emptying. "No, babe. I might as well wait with you." 

After two more hours of drinking our profits, I was already practically asleep by the time they dropped me off in Brooklyn. Pressed up between Maddie and the window, drooling on her shoulder as I napped, I was rudely awoken by the familiar bump and scrape of the Williamsburg Bridge. This was going to be a bad hangover, I could tell already, from the blurry vision and the furry tongue. 

"See you next Saturday," I called out as I stumbled up onto the curb. 

"We have a gig Thursday, remember?" called back Maddie. 

Thursday - oh, fuck. There went my lecture on the Dutch Colonial architectural heritage of New York. "Thursday, then."

Chapter Text

____________________ 1997 ____________________

 

With a vague sense of foreboding, I followed Alex and Beth down Tenth Street towards our old regular watering hole. Brownie's was closed in the late afternoon, so fter a brief argument, nostalgia had won out and we were headed towards the Lakeside Lounge. Our favourite bartender, Arthur, was working there, greeting us warmly and plying us with booze, though I let the two of them drink the place out of brandy, settling down in the corner of the bar to nurse a coke instead. "What's with this?" demanded Beth, pointing at the incongruous glass of cola beside her and Alex's snifters of Remy Martin. "We should not be sober at a time like this. Alex and I have ever intention of getting plastered, don't we, Alex?" 

"Absolutely," agreed Alex, clinking his glass against mine.

I shook my head. "No, I can't. My stomach's just been dodgy lately. Remember what that half a glass of wine did to me in Nice? I threw up three times the next morning. I feel sick enough all the time as it is without adding alcohol to the equation," I complained.

"That's OK. You make as much sense sober as you do drunk," teased Alex, bending over to kiss my forehead, but Beth stared at me with that motherly expression she adopted when she was concerned.

"It's nothing. Just residual stress left over from the tour and everything," I insisted, then leaned in closer to confide, "You saw how run down and sick I was by the end of that tour. My hair stopped growing. I lost so much weight I stopped getting my period..."

Beth's eyes widened as if she was just realising something so obvious I'd been oblivious to it. "Kate, I think you and I should have a little conference in the ladies room..."

"No, enough of this going off in the other room to have your little girl talks," protested Alex.

"Actually, Alex, this might well involve you!"

"What are you saying?" I objected, forcibly refusing to be dragged out of my little ball of denial.

"Don't be stupid, Kate," she blurted out. "Sick all the time, especially in the morning, missing periods - that's not stress. You're probably pregnant."

Alex blanched, gagging on a mouthful of brandy as an expression of pure panic passed over his face. "Oh Jesus," he spluttered, turning to me, his eyes huge. "You don't think you're... we're..."

I stared resolutely at the tiny bubbles making their way up from the bottom of my glass to break on the surface, in direct opposition to the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. The ugly truth I'd been avoiding for months now spread its tendrils through my conscious mind. Of course. It was so simple I hadn't thought of it, couldn't think of it before. But now, unlike those secrets that fade and lose their power in the harsh light of observation, it had begun to take seed and grow, as if its very mention had crystallised it into being. Despite the obvious guilt in his eyes, there was no way it could be Alex's - this had been going on for months, and Alex and I had only been sleeping together for a few weeks. 

My mind shuffled as I counted the months back on my fingers. Jeremy? Thinking back to the weekend in Japan, I remembered our few clumsy attempts at sex and realised that it was unlikely that the foreign object growing in my belly had anything to do with him, either. Which meant... the strange events of the night on Glastonbury Tor came rushing back with new importance. Tristram and I had both been tripping our faces off, wrapped up in an unconscious re-enactment of some prehistoric fertility ritual. Well, what if it had worked? No, that was ridiculous. It was only a superstition. For a second, the image of Tristram's white-haired friend laying her hand on my stomach flickered unbidden into my mind. The girl has something she needs to tell you. That was what she'd said, but how the hell could she have known?

"Oh, fuck..." were the only words of wisdom that escaped my lips as I lowered my head. Alex's hands were shaking as he pulled a cigarette out of his pack and tried to light it.

"You should see a doctor before you jump to any conclusions..." added Beth, somewhat alarmed at the accuracy of her guess.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," I repeated in some sort of bizarre mantra, pressing my fingers to my temple. "But it makes so much sense. Of course..."

Alex's voice broke in, low and musical despite the ugliness of the words he was saying. "You can get an abortion. I don't care how much it costs, I'll pay for it. We'll find you the best doctor in New York and get this taken care of..."

I whirled to face him, my eyes livid. "Get this taken care of?" I repeated, astounded at his lack of sensitivity and his outright presumptuousness in even assuming that he could just make the decision for me, just like that. "It's probably not even yours, Alex," I spat before I could even think what I was saying.

For a second, I could swear I almost saw a breath of relief pass over his face, but it was almost immediately replaced first by shock, then jealous anger as he speculated whose it was if not his. "You mean it's Jeremy's, then? Well, you should do the world a favour and eliminate that streak of piss from the gene pool."

"Alex!" exclaimed Beth sharply. "No matter what Jeremy may have been, that's still no way to speak of the dead!"

As he fell to silent brooding, I simmered between disbelief and rage at the entire unfair situation, until it finally overspilled into anger at Alex. "It's not Jeremy's, either," I informed him with a quiet and controlled voice that belied the emotion behind it. "As a matter of fact, if I am pregnant, I'm 90% sure it's Tristram Thornaby-Gore's."

The statement hit him like a slap in the face. For a moment, he just sat there, blinking, then slowly rose, turned on his heels and fled, striding out to the street and rapidly disappearing around the corner. I sat in shocked disbelief, staring after the open door, then cautiously turned back to Beth. 

"Fuck 'em. Fuck 'em all!" she hissed, gulping down the rest of her brandy and pushing it forward for a refill.

"I shouldn't have said that," I sighed quietly, sipping at my coke.

"He deserved it. He was being an asshole," Beth observed.

"I should have been more tactful. What a thing to say to someone - we've only been together a few weeks, but I'm pregnant and it's not yours." I felt utterly alone and abandoned. The words babbling out of my mouth were the only thing keeping me from complete and total hysteria. "I don't even know if I really am, but it's the last thing I need right now, and knowing my luck, the last thing I need is what I always get." Staring at the full snifter of brandy the bartender had deposited in front of us, I pushed it away. "Drink that before I do! Where the fuck has Alex gone?"

"Kate, if he's going to behave like that, you don't need him. It's just you and me, now, kid," Beth sighed, throwing her arm around my shoulders in drunken compassion as she knocked back another swig of brandy. "You, and me, and baby makes three..." she added, slurring the melody.

"What if I'm not?" I ventured morosely. "What if there's something horribly wrong with me? What if it's really some hideous cancer eating me out from the inside? Didn't that happen to one of the Queens of England? Mary, Queen of Scots or someone like that? She thought she was pregnant, but when she hadn't given birth 2 years later, they cut open her pregnant looking stomach to deliver a C-section and found that she was riddled with tumours..."

"Kate..." interrupted Beth. "If this is going to turn into one of your long, rambling conspiracy theories, just stop right there..."

"Alex likes my long, rambling conspiracy theories," I offered dumbly. Alex would have remembered exactly which queen it was, when she ruled and even the name of the courtier who was rumoured to have impregnated her.

"Oi! How much do I owe you, frilly blouse boy?" Beth yelled out, flagging down the bartender.

"Fifteen quid, luv," Arthur parroted back in imitation of a British accent. "You've spent too much time in England, Elizabeth - you're starting to talk like one of these jokers," he added, gesturing towards me and the empty seat where Alex had been sitting.

"Fifteen dollars?" gasped Beth. "That's an outrage. Damn, I could buy my own bottle of brandy for that." 

Opening my handbag, I peeled off a ten and handed it to her for our drinks. "In fact, I think we should do that."

"Whassa matter, Kate? Our booze not good enough for you now?" he teased.

"No... I can't drink," I replied, cautiously testing out the words for the first time. "I'm pregnant."

"Y'are?" exclaimed Arthur. "Well, congratulations! Drinks are on the house, ladies!"

"Oh, fine - Kate gets free drinks," complained Beth with mock indignation, leaving him a tip as she climbed down from the barstool. "Right, where's the nearest liquor store?"

"Beth, you're not serious are you?" I eyed her with concern as we headed for the door.

She turned around, her face dead serious. "Don't worry about me. For once in my life, I think I utterly and absolutely need to get good and plastered right now. I think it would be the best and only thing I can do right now. Just this once, I promise."

Heading down Avenue B, I saw a tall, dark figure in a V-necked jumper loping up towards us. As he drew closer, the vague features materialised into the familiar forelock and cheekbones of Alex. "Oh, are you going already?" he stuttered awkwardly, hanging back a little to observe me carefully.

"And where the hell have you been?" ejected Beth forcibly, but I quieted her with a gesture.

"Erm... I ran out of cigarettes," he explained, innocently holding up a fresh pack. "And, erm... I stopped at a chemist's..." Tentatively, he extended a Duane Reed bag towards me.

"What is this?" I inquired, fearing the worst, but trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice.

"Well, we might as well find out for sure before we go making any hasty or rash decisions, right?" he argued, as rational and sensible as ever.

"I'm going to the liquor store," Beth told us, excusing herself as quietly as she could. "I'll see you two back at the apartment..."

As she hurried off, I stood, quietly looking Alex up and down, trying to gauge his intentions. Shifting nervously from foot to foot like a horse, he lit another cigarette and chain-smoked furiously. "Do you want to leave?" I finally asked him, as directly as I could manage without being totally blunt.

"No!" he insisted. "It's just..." He sighed deeply, looking around helplessly for anything else on which to focus his attention. For someone as intelligent and well spoken as Alex, he seemed to find it incredibly difficult to articulate his emotions. "It's just all a bit much, so soon," he finally offered in a breathy and laboured whisper, as if he was afraid that the very pavement of the street would overhear us.

"And how do you think I feel?"

"I don't know..." he paused, intently examining the plastic wrap of his cigarettes for a moment before finally meeting my gaze, his dark eyes troubled. "Something fairly similar, I would imagine." 

I nodded gravely, my thoughts in turmoil, wishing only that he would encircle me with his long arms and tell me everything was going to be all right. As if hearing my thoughts, he moved closer, tentatively reached out to touch my shoulder, then gave in and pulled me closer, wrapping his arms around me and crushing me against his chest, gently stroking my hair with his hands as he leaned his cheek against the side of my head. Poor private and discreet Alex, this must be killing him, showing his affection so publicly, out on the corner of Tomkins Square Park. But he seemed reluctant to let me go, and I had to admit the thumping of his heart in my ear was soothing.

"So what do you want to do?" I finally murmured, feeling safe and secure again, wrapped in his arms.

"Let's find out exactly what we're dealing with before we jump to any conclusions. It says on the packet that you have to take it first thing in the morning. So let's wait until then."

As I stood, staring up into his earnest face, I was suddenly overcome with a fit of giggles at the image of Alex in the pharmacy, not only buying something even higher than tampons on the feminine scale of cringeworthiness, but standing and examining the directions on it as well.

"What are you bloody laughing at?" Alex demanded, somewhat annoyed, finally letting me go so we could head off through the park.

"You actually went and bought a pregnancy test for me?" He nodded, perplexed. "Alex, you're a prince among men."

We found Beth curled up on the sofa, clutching her favourite teddy bear as she stared disinterestedly at the television. "Oh, thank god you're here," she exclaimed, jumping off the couch and running into the kitchen. "Do you want a drink, Alex?"

"Of course..."

She returned bearing two glasses full of ice, a bottle of Malibu Rum and a bottle of coke. "I didn't want to start drinking before you got here, cause if you drink by yourself, that means you're an alcoholic."

"No, you're only an alcoholic if you get sad when you drink," he assured her, taking the glass from her and staring at it dubiously. "This is piss weak. Put a little more in there, would you?" He paused to fill the glass, then sipped at it. "You sure you don't want some, Kate?"

"I want some, but I'm not going to." I felt wracked with guilt enough already about all the substances I'd necked in the past few months without consciously adding any more.

"It'll make you feel better. And given you're probably not going to keep it, anyway..."

I rolled my eyes, but Beth turned on him sharply. "Alex, knock it off."

"What?"

"Stop trying to pressure her into an abortion. She hasn't said what she wants to do yet."

"I'm just saying, it would be what's sensible." He nursed his drink, his eyes flashing. "Besides, I thought you lot were feminists. Aren't feminists supposed to be pro abortion?"

"I am a feminist," Beth insisted, it was almost like a point of honour with her, with all of us. "But as a feminist, I'm pro-choice. And that means her choice, not yours."

Alex snorted defiantly. "Oh, you feminists are always so keen on women's choices, but you never conceive that the man might get a say in it."

"She's already said, you're not the man," Beth tossed back. She was getting quite drunk very quickly, and was turning to a spiky, nasty drunk.

Simmering with anger, Alex lit his thinking cigarette. "Well, is he going to pay for it, is what I want to know?"

"Please, stop it," I begged. "Can we just not get into this?"

"You have to think about the cost sooner or later."

It was something I was trying very hard not to think about it. "I'll raise it by myself if I have to."

"There's help available," Beth assured me. "There's welfare and things. Hell, you're a British citizen, aren't you? The English are much more progressive, when it comes to that kind of thing..."

Alex snorted loudly. "So it comes down to this. We end up paying for it, one way or another. It's my insanely high taxes that support that system."

"You're a millionaire, I think you can afford it," Beth tossed back.

"Yes, it's my job to support every indigent slag of a single mother that gets pregnant in order to scrounge a free council house. I mean, do you know what kind of lifestyle you are volunteering for, if you want to be a single mother?"

I tried to focus on the television, tried to drown his voice out of my head. All of these things I had been doing my best not to think about, but I would have to think about them, and soon.

"And what kind of lifestyle do you think that is, Mr. Jones?" Beth's voice was like ice, her eyes beyond butterfly-impaling, into dagger territory.

"Everyone knows it's bad for children to be raised by single mothers. Poverty, crime, drug addiction, psychological problems - not to mention the drain on the economy, paying for them."

Beth drew back, glaring at him. "My father left when I was 3. I was effectively raised by a single mother."

"Yes, but your father was a millionaire, wasn't he?" Alex shrugged, not realising what dangerous territory he was getting into. Beth almost never talked about that side of her family.

"He paid for my food and my school fees, that's about it. You see, my mother was the third of his four wives, and by that point, he had got hip to pre-nuptual contracts."

"Well..." Alex tried to backpedal with humour. "There you go, Beth. I mean, look at your lifestyle. Singing in rock bands, taking cocaine, sleeping with married men... hardly the poster child for family values, are you?"

He said it in the same casual, teasing, joking manner that he took the piss out of his mates in the Groucho Club, expecting her to laugh it off the way that Damien or Keith would, but she narrowed her eyes at him and practically hissed "Get out."

"What?" he protested, all wide-eyed innocence, suddenly realising that he had gone too far. "Oh, come on, Beth, I'm clearly joking. Don't take offense..."

"I said get out."

"I'm really sorry," I mouthed as he scrambled sulkily for his jacket, seemingly offended that she'd taken offense at his rudeness.

She shook her head, either too angry or too drunk to talk about it, but grabbed my hand and squeezed it on the way out. "Be safe, OK? Call me tomorrow."

Alex, already halfway down to the street, was simmering. "I can't believe she threw me out, for that."

"You fucking idiot... I mean, I knew you were tactless, but that... that takes the cake, Alex."

"What?" Digging in his jacket, he lit another cigarette and sucked at it petulantly as he walked. "It's true, isn't it? Single mothers are the greatest cause of poverty in children. You can't be serious about becoming one."

"Correlation and causation, Alex," I tried to protest, but it was difficult having an argument with him when he was drunk, and I was completely sober. "You don't think it's more likely that poverty causes single motherhood, instead of the other way around?"

"Pish posh," scoffed Alex, wrapping his arm paternally around my shoulders and hurrying me along. "Exactly why you should want to avoid it. Whatever happened to 'protect and preserve the Common People, but god forbid I should ever have to live like one' eh?"

A chill went down my spine that was nothing to do with the brisk autumn air. I had been joking in that conversation, at least I thought I had, but I was starting to wonder about my boyfriend. "I meant, culturally," I snapped icily.

"God, don't you get all offended at me. Hang on, I have to stop at a cornershop, I need to get some strong liquor."

"Cornershop won't help you in this city, you need a liquor store."

"A what? Where can I find one of those?"

"It's too late, anyway, it's past ten. If you're lucky the Bodega on 2nd Avenue will sell you some beer."

"Barbaric country."

 

____________________ 1995 ____________________

 

I woke, as usual, with a splitting headache, disturbed by the whir of my room-mate's blender. Fucking hangover. I was seriously beginning to wonder if the band was turning me into an alcoholic. Crawling out of my bed and emerging from behind the paisley hanging which separated my room from the rest of the loft, I found my housemate, Doris, spooning some foul looking fruit concoction into a glass.

"Want some of my smoothie smart-drink? It's full of beta carotene and fresh pineapple juice," she chirped, pointing to her vile concoction. 

"I think my body would go into anabolic shock if that stuff even touched my mouth. Where's the Alka Seltzer?" 

"I don't think we have any. You had the last of it after your last gig," she pointed out, settling down on the couch with a bowl of bran flakes. I couldn't wait until this current health kick was over and she'd go back to her junk food eating ways.

"Damn." Proceeding directly to the source of the problem, I grabbed a bottle of beer from the back of the fridge and popped the top. 

"That'll only make things worse," warned Doris. 

"You didn't come to our gig," I ventured. 

"I'm sorry, something came up," she lied, though I could see from the pile of plates on the coffee table that she had stayed in. 

"Are you coming to the one this Thursday? It's the CMJ Festival - it's kind of important," I pleaded. 

"Oh, is that the thing where all the people in suits come down from record companies and clog up the clubs with their $80 passes so that no one else can get in?" 

"That would be the one," I growled, somewhat annoyed. The beer was not doing the trick yet. "I'll put you on the guest list," I offered. 

"I can't, anyway. We're going camping this weekend - didn't I tell you? I'll be gone Thursday through Sunday. I'll be taking the laptop." 

Well, thank heaven for small mercies. At least I would have the place to myself for the weekend. Practically exploding with laughter, I inhaled half my beer as it foamed over the top of the bottle. "Fucking cyber-hippies, off in the woods with your laptops," I giggled, trying to imagine Doris and her friends sitting around a campfire all lap-linked together. "What are you going to run it off?" 

"Stephen's got a solar cell," she explained. "We're going to network them all together and play Dungeons and Dragons," she added, apparently in all seriousness. 

"Well, go kill an elf for me," I told her proudly, swinging my arm. 

"I am an elf," she sighed long-sufferingly. Doris and I had been housemates since art school, but our lives had taken very different turns somewhere down the road. 

This was just too much for 10am. Giving up on the beer, I poured the remnants down the drain and crawled back to bed to sleep off my hangover. 

Wednesday evening, I was sitting on my bed, playing with my four track. I had been working at my evil day-job for eight hours, but was desperate to get my newest song demoed for the next rehearsal, so I had swallowed a couple of Blues and was settling down with my trusty drum machine, when Doris called my name loudly, startling me out of the amazing guitar texture I was laying over a synthesised drum beat. "What is it?" I demanded testily. 

"Phone for you." I looked up from my four track to see her disembodied arm appear from between the door and the wall, holding her cordless phone.

Cursing whomever was unlucky enough to disturb my work, I pressed rewind and prepared to do the whole take over again. "What?" 

"Kate?" crackled an unfamiliar voice from down the wire. "It's Peter. From Brownie's?" 

"Oh, hi. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you," I stuttered. I had honestly never expected to hear from him again. "Where are you?"

"Not really sure. Ohio, I think. Could be Cleveland?" he mused. "What's that noise in the background?"

"Sorry, I was just four tracking," I apologised, turning the machine off. "I've been trying to get this one guitar riff right for about 2 hours and I just can't do it." 

"I'm surprised you have the patience. I know I don't," he observed. 

"I have this amazing obsessive compulsive streak when it comes to recording," I confessed. "Oh, OK, I suppose the speed has a little bit to do with it." 

"Ohhhh..." he responded knowingly. 

I started talking utter blue streaks, babbling on and on about recording and guitars and effects pedals - oh god, someone just shut me up - but speed always seemed to have that effect on me. What else would get me through these marathon days of work, school and the band? But rather than being uncomfortable, he seemed quite happy to let me just jabber away, occasionally agreeing or adding his opinion, seemingly relieved not to have to keep up. When I started in on the vast technical difficulties I was overcoming, duplicating the sound of a 12 string with two 6 string overdubs, he merely laughed. 

"You know, I've got a 12-string you can borrow," he offered. 

"Yeah, but that does me whole hell of lot of good, off in Cleveland, or wherever the hell you are." 

"Actually, that's why I'm calling you," he finally remembered. "We're coming back to New York this weekend for this CMJ festival thing. I wanted to know if you wanted to get together..." 

"You are not!" I interjected, and we compared itineraries. As it turned out, they were driving down the next afternoon, to be in town by Thursday night, so I excitedly asked him to come down to the Mercury Lounge. "We're playing with The Jesus Sugarpussy. We're talking about touring with them in the autumn - we were going to call it the Pussy School but their label was having none of it. Damn majors, killing all our fun." 

"Hey, don't knock major labels. They're great for picking up the tab on expensive bar bills."

"Oh, well thank you, I'll remember that when they're knocking my door begging us to sign a record deal." I cackled uproariously at the very thought. Record labels and getting signed to a deal were as much a fantasy to me as Doris and her elves. "Why yes, Joe Forester, I would love some more champagne!" 

 

----------

 

By Thursday, I was a complete wreck, giggling like a schoolgirl with a crush, far more nervous about seeing Peter than I ever was about a gig. Or perhaps it was merely some sort of transference resulting from my trepidation at playing such a prestigious festival. Even by 8 o'clock, before the venue had even opened, the front bar was swarming so densely with people that I could not see the door. Padding out to the door, I would peer out at the street in hopes of catching site of the blond mop, then retreat back to the dressing room. Off in the corner, our famous scenester friends, The Jesus Sugarpussy, were holding court, chatting with about half a dozen reporters about their upcoming tour. Everyone seemed to be getting signed lately, like some kind of feeding frenzy in New York. And now even The Jesus Sugarpussy were getting their turn.

Their sudden success had taken everyone - most of all the band, themselves - completely by surprise. They had been the hip, downtown band since the late 80s, mixing a noisy, debauched New York Dolls take on glam-rock with the raunchy, street-wise hip-hop that they had grown up on. Although they'd released a couple of cult albums on indie labels, they'd been known far more for generating controversy than their music. They'd been on PMRC hit-lists for their lyrics and album art since their first record. Then, at the height of the Gulf War, they'd done an infamous photo shoot for a British music paper, dressed up as "Terrorists" - for which they had been banned in several midwestern states they'd never actually even played in. And suddenly a tiny band from the Lower East Side were making headlines across the country - albeit for all the wrong reasons. There really was no such thing as bad publicity in those days.

But then Kurt Cobain had namedropped an early single as one of his favourite songs of all time, and Beck and Thurston Moore had played one of their more infamous videos while VJ-ing on 120 Minutes ("Spanish" Tony Sugarpussy played a South American dictator, Carlos "The Jackal" Sugarpussy played a CIA hitman, and Rob "The Chairman" Sugarpussy dressed up as a crooked Cardinal, counting money to pay both of the others off) . And suddenly they'd found themselves wooed by major labels expecting another grunge sensation, and signed for a meeeeeeeeeellion dollars, as Rob had put it, grinning from sideburn to sideburn the night we'd all toasted their success with champagne, down at Max Fish.

Rob had always been the most grounded one of them - he'd worked at a couple of indie labels before they'd been signed and knew what to expect - but the major label thing had definitely gone to his head a bit. But then again, after six years of slogging in the clubs of New York, who could blame him, really? It was all of our dreams come true. But "Spanish" Tony, Maddie's beautiful and incredibly talented, yet slightly insane older brother, had responded to the situation by penning a witheringly sarcastic and biting satire called "Slacker Rock Party Anthem." The satire had flown straight over the heads of everyone except Beck and Thurston Moore - who had stopped speaking to them, believing it to be about them - and the irony-drenched college kids it was actually aimed at thought it was completely serious, and were buying it by the score, sending it shooting up the Hot 100, even while expecting the Jesus Sugarpussy to be everything they themselves loathed.

The Sugarpussy had closed ranks, retreated back to the Lower East Side scene that had nurtured them, and found they no longer fit in, with jealous cries of "sell-out" echoing in their ears. And so Tony, in one of those brilliant creative flashes of his, turned his back on the whole thing, and reinvented the band's entire image yet again. Gone were the ripped jeans and leather jackets and the keffiyeh scarves. Now they wore suits - old-fashioned, ill-fitting thrift shop suits - to distance themselves from both the flannel-clad grunge hoards and the leather-jacketed Lower East Side garage bands they'd once inspired. With their trademark long, slicked-back black hair, Tony and Carlos came across like 1920s gangsters, but Rob, despite his rockabilly quiff and bushy sideburns, looked oddly like a tattooed banker. And in the corner of the Mercury Lounge, they looked both completely out of place - and yet had the casual air of confidence as if they owned the joint.

"Oh my god, they're being interviewed for MTV!" Beth sat and watched, utterly entranced. "Is that Jerry Liar from Melody Maker there? That could be us, you know," she whispered in reverent hushed tones.

"Funny, Tony doesn't look like he's enjoying it much," I observed, glancing over and catching his eye. He rolled his eyes at us and made a face, then rejoined the reporter with a resounding riposte which was sure to be bleeped before going out on the air. 

Our Emma yawned and stood up, stretching. "I'm going out for a breath of air." 

"Don't you even think of drinking before the show!" warned Beth. "This could be the most important show of our careers. I don't want anything to jeopardise it!" 

"I'll go with her," I volunteered, unable to take the stifling atmosphere of backstage any longer. It was like listening to 20 Lawrences, only magnified tenfold, and with genuine connections to boot.

As soon as we were out of Beth's sight, Emma loosened up slightly. "Oh, the pressure," she laughed, rolling her eyes. "All the more reason to have a drink, don't you think?" 

"Oh, I whole heartedly concur," I agreed, squeezing in next to her at the bar. 

"Two shots of tequila, Amy!" she barked across the crowded room, and the bar manager nodded and came ambling down the aisle with the bottle. 

"On the house, girls," she laughed.

"Is it my imagination, or are we on a first name basis with every bartender in this neighbourhood?" I laughed as she deposited the two shots and my usual glass of gin in front of me. "Oh, well alright - twist my arm," I shrugged, knocking back the liquor, shivering slightly and taking a big gulp of the beer. "But if Beth asks, its seltzer water," I warned Amy. 

"You know, Beth really has to learn to loosen up onstage. The audience can tell if she's nervous," complained Emma. 

"They're like dogs," I agreed. "If they smell fear, they'll go straight for the neck. That's why we must fortify ourselves," I agreed, clinking my glass against hers, revelling in the familiar warm sensation as the tendrils of alcohol spread their way down my spine. Glancing around, I pulled my pillbox out of my purse and surreptitiously swallowed another Blue. 

"What was that?" demanded Emma. 

"Espadrille," I giggled. "Want one? Supposed to be better than steak." 

"You're mad, messing with that shit," snorted Emma with the moral superiority of a society matron. 

"Oh, leave me alone. I've been up since 8am inputting test results into a fucking database, so don't tell me what I shouldn't do. Besides, look at you putting away the tequila." 

"That's different," she huffed. 

The door into the concert hall swung open and Maddie's head appeared in the gap. "Come on! They'll be letting people in, soon. We have to get ready!" 

Quickly swallowing the last of our drinks, we obediently trooped back towards the stage to tune our guitars and do the last few quick adjustments. Pacing nervously back and forth between the backstage door and the soundbooth, I eyed the crowd as they filtered in, searching for any sign of Peter. It had been nearly a week since I saw him last - what if I couldn't remember what he looked like? No, that was ridiculous, I'd know that snub-nosed smile anywhere. 

After about ten minutes, the room was so crowded that I could no longer see across it, so I gave up and waited backstage with the rest of the band. Separating himself from the gaggle of journalists, Maddie's brother Tony, the bassist from the Sugarpussy, walked over and tapped Maddie on the elbow. "Hey, good luck, kiddoes," he whispered, flashing us both his marvellous rock-star smile.

"Thanks," I smiled wanly. "I'm nervous as fucking hell..." 

"Don't be," he assured me. "They'll love you girls. They better love my little sis, or I'll kick their motherfucking asses! And hey - here's something to cheer you up." 

"What?" I called back as the lights went down and I was swept off towards the stage. I had been hoping it would have been drugs, as Tony always had the best drugs - way better than my paltry little Blues - but it was too late for that now. 

"The label finally backed down, and said we could take you along as our support band. It looks like Pussy School is go!" he shouted across the crowd. 

"Really?" I gasped, and looked back to see him giving the thumbs up from behind the soundboard. Picking up my bass, I did a little dance of excitement as I plugged it into the massive bass cabinet I had borrowed off him.

"Oh my god, can you believe it?" gushed Beth. "We're going to support the Jesus Sugarpussy on their first major label tour! Can you imagine... if we got signed?"

Three pairs of eyes looked back at her, agape with wonder and longing, and three sets of fantasies drifted across our minds.

"If we got signed, we could record the most amazing album, which would blow people's minds, and redefine music forever. We could be on the cover of Spin Magazine.. . the women who saved rock'n'roll." Emma's eyes were huge.

"Never mind that," sighed Maddie, rolling her eyes as she made her way back behind the drumkit. "Just give me the money. I want decent equipment, a proper road crew... oh, and to never have to work another shitty dayjob again in my life."

"Fuck that shit," I laughed, swigging the remains of the bottle of champagne I had pilfered from the Sugarpussy as I walked by. "I just want to drink champagne and snort cocaine off the chests of male models in the back room of the Luna Lounge. That's all I ask out of life."

Beth glared at all three of us, not sure whether to get angry or burst into laughter, but she had no time to reply, as Maddie had triggered the sample track for our first song, and the band was swinging into action like a well-oiled machine. Swaying to the music, I scanned the crowd for any signs of Peter, then gave up and just resigned myself to the insistent beat of the song. As I sucked down more gin and tonic, the speed suddenly started to hit me, spinning me up into the ether until I no longer knew or cared where I was except that my hands were moving up and down the fretboard of my bass. Every detail of the crowd seemed sharpened, focused, hyper-real, like a photorealistic painting. It wasn't until about the fourth song finally ended that I realised the man standing in front of the stage trying to get my attention was Peter. 

"Hey, you made it!" I gushed, kneeling down on the side of the stage to talk to him while Beth chatted up the crowd between songs. 

"I'm sorry it took so long. I can't stay, either. Courtney's just got himself kicked out of the bar." 

"What? How?" 

"He was just being, well, himself, and the bartender thought he was trying to pick a fight. I turn around, and there's this huge bouncer just laying his hands on Courtney's shoulders and saying 'You! Out - now!'" he explained desperately. 

"Can't you just stay, and let him go somewhere else?" I begged. 

"I don't think that's wise. He's as high as a kite..." he grinned sheepishly. As I saw how dilated his pupils were, I realised they both must be. "How long do you think your set will be? I'll come back and get you and we'll go somewhere else..." 

Scanning the crowd for the Sugarpussy, I wavered guiltily. Beth was hissing at me, trying to get my attention, but the next song was starting already. Although I really wanted to see them again, Peter was smiling so disarmingly that I found myself agreeing against my better judgement. Standing up, I missed my cue to start the song, and ended up slightly off time for half of the first verse, ignoring the nasty glares that Beth was sending my way. 

But after a few minutes, the entire exchange was forgotten, and I was caught up in the music again, twirling around maniacally, jumping up and down in place, and aiming karate kicks at Maddie's drumkit. Although it was perhaps not the most technically proficient show we had ever performed, it certainly made up for any lack in terms of energy. As if spurred on by my antics, Beth suddenly decided that she had to outdo me, climbing out onto the monitors to interact with the crowd, playing games with the front row, dodging back and forth between the grabbing hands. Catching my eye, Emma grinned at me, obviously amused by the entire performance, then wandered over and kicked Beth softly in the rump, knocking her off balance. For a moment, Beth wavered, as if she was going to fall into the crowd, but she scrambled to her feet and ran over to tackle Emma before the two of them fell into a giggling heap with a blast of feedback at the conclusion of the song. 

As we filed off stage, Peter caught me by the arm. I had practically forgotten about him in the rush, so I guiltily pulled him backstage with us. How long had I waited to use that line? "Do you want to come backstage?" 

"I can't stay long," he explained. "Courtney is raking a journalist over the coals at this Japanese place a few blocks away." 

Rob Sugarpussy appeared out of nowhere, clutching his beat-up telecaster close. "Are you staying to watch the rest of the show?" he asked. "It's going to be fucking crazy tonight!" He gestured over towards Tony, who looked practically electric, shaking with energy and god knows what else as he cranked up the knobs on the bass cabinet I'd been using.

"I don't know..." I stuttered. "I wanted to, but..." Helplessly, I gestured towards Peter. 

As he glanced over at my crush, Rob's startlingly blue eyes sparkled mischeviously. "Go ahead, I see your groupie - have fun!" he whispered as he passed. "You'll see us often enough in the next few months!"

Chapter Text

____________________ 1995 ____________________

I packed my bass back into its case and followed Peter out to the curb as he hailed a cab. So he'd come all the way back from wherever they got to by cab? Now I was flattered. "How was the show?" he asked, nervously making conversation as we slid off up the Avenue. 

"It was a disaster, musically, but the audience seemed to like it," I shrugged. "It was punk rock, as Emma always likes to say." 

Peter grinned and nodded enthusiastically, but did not reply, letting the conversation slip into awkward silence for a few minutes as we cut up Seventh St. and across to St. Marks Place. As I followed him into Dojo's, I was greeted with the rather unexpected sight of an obviously plastered Courtney holding a portable tape recorder up to a visibly rattled Lawrence. 

"Pete! You found her!" exclaimed Courtney as he saw us slide over to the table and sit down. "We'll have to get another bottle of sake, then!" 

"Erm, hi, Kate..." stuttered Lawrence, relieved to see what he thought as a sympathetic face at last. 

"Sake - oh, let's!" I agreed, sitting down opposite them and surveying the mounds of food scattered across the table. "After all, it's on the AP tab, right?" 

"Erm..." Lawrence's head rolled about on his fat neck as he mentally tabulated his overblown expense account. Even with whatever meagre reimbursement AP was going to give him, this feast obviously cost more than he could possibly make from the article. 

"Do you want some lobster?" offered Courtney jovially. 

"No - I'm a vegetarian," I demurred, helping myself to a sip of his sake. 

"Allright, I've had enough to eat, then," Courtney suddenly decided. "Do you know any good bars, Kate?" 

"We could play the 7B/Sophies game," I suggested helpfully. 

"What's that?" 

"You go to Sophies, and you stay until they play The Jam. Then you have to walk up to 7B, and stay there until you hear The Jam. Then you go back to Sophies, and you..." 

"Stay until you hear The Jam!" completed Courtney. "That sounds good! Come on, Lawrence - you're buying the first round." 

Groaning slightly, Lawrence pulled out his trusty Visa card and negotiated with the waitress while Peter and I exchanged grins. But as Lawrence reached to pick the tape recorder off the table, Courtney snatched it away and resumed his barrage of questions. "So, Lawrence, what made you take up the glamorous lifestyle of the Rock Critic?" he asked with a completely straight face. 

As the two of them charged off down the street, Courtney darting out ahead to talk to strangers, and Lawrence waddling slightly to keep up, Peter and I lagged behind. "We all hate him," I snickered, gesturing to Lawrence. "He's the most pompous twat on the Lower East Side - which is quite an accomplishment. I'm so glad Courtney's doing this..."

"That's funny, he was boasting about knowing you, earlier," mused Peter, flashing that marvellous smile. 

"Where's the rest of your band?" I probed. 

"Divide and conquer," he explained mysteriously, then giggled. "We're here on MVC Records' tab, while RCA flew the other half of the band out to LA. We hope to have had as many free dinners and complimentary cocktails as we possibly can consume by the time we get signed." 

"But MVC are based in LA, and RCA are based in New York," I protested. 

"Exactly. We're playing hard to get, cause after all, they serve free drinks on aeroplanes, don't they?" 

"Good plan," I agreed, pushing open the door to Sophie's and making my way to the bar, only to find Courtney and Lawrence already ensconced at a table near the back. 

"We've got drinks for you," called Courtney, waving us over. "Vodka Collins for you, and a gin and tonic for you..." 

Lawrence was beginning to look seriously worried. Although he was far too nervous of jeopardising his standing with his new-found friends, he was obviously annoyed. "You gave my tape recorder to some girl on the street. I can't believe you gave my tape recorder away." 

"She was really cute," defended Courtney. "It's chivalrous to give things to cute girls." 

"I can't believe you just gave my tape recorder to a complete stranger. Do you know how much that thing cost me? She'll probably sell it for drugs!" 

"Great! We're all for drugs. I like drugs as much as the next guy." 

"Hey, Kate, do you have any more of that Esperadil?" inquired Lawrence, clearly eager to show off his familiarity with drugs to his cool new best friends. Peter threw me a strange look, but said nothing, getting up to investigate the juke box in the back. 

"Isn't that a kind of shoe?" Courtney ventured, but I shot him a warning look and quickly shook my head. 

"Yeah, that was great stuff, man, I was messed up for days," Lawrence drawled.

"I'm sure you were," I replied quietly, trying very hard not to crack up. 

"So how do you know Kate?" cut in Peter, sliding in next to me at the table with a wink, obviously trying to catch Lawrence in some kind of fib. 

"Oh, we go way back," started Lawrence, but he was cut off by the opening strains of "Going Underground." 

"You cheated!" protested Courtney, pointing a bony finger at his guitarist. 

"I cheated," shrugged Peter smugly. "Drink up - it's the rules." 

Standing up, I leaned my head back and emptied the contents of my glass down my throat in a single gulp. Courtney applauded wildly. "Such grace, such style. Ten points! Come on - let's go!" 

"I haven't finished my drink yet!" protested the hapless journalist. 

"Well, come on," entreated Courtney, picking the glass off the table and finishing it for him. As the four of us stumbled out into the cool night air, Courtney spontaneously burst into Bohemian Rhapsody. "I see a little silhouetto of a man..." 

"Scaramoush, scaramoush, can you do the fandango," added Peter in a ridiculously low basso. 

The sudden burst of movement seemed to stir the alcohol already coursing through my bloodstream, and I realised just how drunk I was as I burst in without thinking to supply the soprano on the chorus. The last of the "Gallileo, Gallileo, figaro's" was dying down as we turned the corner onto Avenue B and filed into the dimly lit interior. Commandeering the booth at the end of the bar, we ordered another round of expensive drinks on Lawrence's tab and resumed our conversation. I was plastered, but not too plastered to notice that Peter had squeezed in next to me, gently resting his arm along the back of the chair. Distracted, I turned for a moment to catch him staring at me out of the corner of my eye, but as soon as I looked, he turned away and resumed his study of the television blaring soundlessly above the bar. 

"So you never told us, how do you know Kate?" continued Courtney. 

Lawrence stuttered, glanced at me, then continued, in a fairly low voice he reckoned I would not hear over the music. "I've known Kate since before she was in The Charms. Actually, I introduced Kate to Beth." 

"Wrong." I leaned in closer, to whisper to Peter. His face was so near that the hairs of his sideburns, dark under the dye of his hair, just brushed against my nose. But rather than move, he seemed to crane his head closer, until my lips were practically touching his earlobe. "I met Emma first, actually, at a gig at Under Acme. I didn't meet Beth until a few days later - we were at a Primal Scream show - I was tripping my face off, and she had glitter all over her face. I couldn't take my eyes off her."

"I used to be a big fan of Kate's old band, the Fortune Cookie Five. I've been into all her bands - the Half Wits, Bottomless, the Steaming Dryers - all of them." 

"Wrong. The first time he saw me play, was a few months ago, with a Stooges tribute band called Psychedelic Funhouse. I was completely pissfaced - I couldn't play a note all evening - I was so drunk that I just got up on stage and slowly started taking off my clothes until I was dancing around buck naked," I confessed. 

"Really?!" I had definitely piqued Peter's interest now. 

"Yeah, I used to have a videotape of it somewhere. My friends used to embarrass me with it on the odd occasion."

"I'd love to see it!" he disclosed a little too excitedly to be of a purely musical interest, then looked away sharply. Was that flirtation? I studied him carefully, but his surface cool hid all emotion. Well, I certainly hoped so. It had taken him long enough. 

"Yeah, I was talking about joining them at one point..." blethered Lawrence from across the table. 

That was just the last straw - I really couldn't take any more from him. "Yeah, you were talking to yourself. We never said a thing about it," I snapped back with a little more spite than I had intended. 

"Ooh, I believe you have been fact checked!" preached Courtney, waving his finger at Lawrence like a teacher admonishing a misbehaving student. Lawrence stopped, shot me an evil glance and proceeded to turn bright red. "Another round?" suggested Courtney playfully. 

"I don't think so," replied Lawrence, very quietly, glaring at me. "I think the interview is over." It suddenly dawned on me that I had never seen him angry before. He was always stepping on other people's toes, obliviously ruffling feathers and bruising egos, but I'd never seen anyone dish it right back to him before, and he was not reacting well. Standing up and collecting his things, he extended his hand towards Peter, his voice controlled but wavering. "It was nice to meet you, Peter. Courtney..." With a furious glower, he passed over me. 

"Ooh," laughed Courtney, leaning over the table towards us. "I don't think he likes us." 

Peter smiled wryly, took another drag of his cigarette then stubbed it out in the ashtray, leaning back in the booth, studying me carefully from under his long lashes. "Well, there goes our free drink ticket," he sighed. 

"We'll have to go back to the hotel and put it on Capitol's tab," agreed Courtney, sprawling his long torso across the table in a tangle of skinny arms and greasy hair. 

'But we haven't heard The Jam yet," I protested drunkenly. "We can't leave. It's the rules." 

"Fuck the rules," drawled Courtney from under his elbow. 

"But I have to hear The Jam," I repeated with the idiot insistence of the very drunk. "I wanna go back to my house and listen to The Jam." 

"I wanna go back to your house and listen to The Jam," agreed Peter quietly, raising one eyebrow and studying my reaction carefully. I smiled wolfishly, flicking a blond strand out of my eyes, then raised my hand to my mouth, parting to lips slightly to petulantly suck on a nail. For a gorgeous second, the moment just hung there, the tension so thick as to be tangible, sending a tiny shiver of electricity down my spine. 

Courtney glanced up from the table, looking back and forth between my face and Peter's, and some unspoken hint of communication must have passed between them, as Courtney suddenly sat up, rolled his neck about his shoulders and sighed. "Oh, Jesus. I'm going back to the hote alonel, then." Standing up, he collected his jacket off the chair and threaded his arms through it. 

"We'll walk back to the subway with you," I offered gallantly. 

"I'll meet you outside," sighed Courtney, slinking off to the men's room. 

Taking me by the hand, Peter guided me past the drunken mods bouncing up and down in front of the bar, and pulled me out onto the windy street corner. Pulling up the collar of his flimsy jeans jacket against the cold, for a moment, he just stared at me, then moved in closer, shielding me from the wind. His breath was warm on my cheek as his face drew nearer, then suddenly his lips touched mine, tentative and questioning at first, becoming more insistent as my mouth parted. Wrapping my hands around his neck, I tangled my fingers gently in his hair, sucking his tongue hungrily into my mouth, nipping teasingly with the edge of my teeth. As he pressed up against me, I could feel his hips grind against mine in unspoken longing, the leather of his jeans hard against my stockings. 

"Hey, come on!" from behind us, Courtney's voice pulled us unwillingly apart. "Which way is the subway?" 

Reluctantly, I pointed back along Seventh Street. "Three blocks that way, and seven blocks north..." 

"Fuck that," sighed Courtney, walking out onto Avenue A and flagging down a cab. "Catch you kids later! Don't do anything I wouldn't doooooo..." he called through the open window as the car pulled off up the road. 

Peter grinned at me, taking my hand as we crossed the road. "Is he always like that?" I asked incredulously. 

"Actually, this was an off night for him, believe it or not," he giggled, forcing me to break into a trot to keep up with him. "Where are we going?" 

"Williamsburg... we have to find the L train..." Damn, I could not believe this - the thought that I was about to drag a complete stranger back to an empty apartment was slowly beginning to work itself into my drunk and drugged brain. For a moment, I panicked, wondering if we should have gone back to the hotel with Courtney. No, that was even worse - alone in a hotel room with two complete strangers? Glancing over at Peter, a prickle ran up my spine. Perhaps I felt safer with him... no, that wasn't it at all. There was a spark of danger in those smoky grey-blue eyes, and that was what made him all the more enticing. 

As we padded down the stairs to the subway, I dug in my purse for tokens, and dashed for the train, catching the doors just as they were closing and propelling ourselves into the "antisocial seats" at the end of the car. 

"Wow, that never happens," I giggled, letting him pull me down next to him, draping my legs over his lap with casual familiarity as he wrapped his arm around my shoulders. "You must be good subway luck. The L stands for the 'Late' train." 

"Mmm, perhaps," he agreed, pulling my legs between his and pushing his hands between my knees before bringing his mouth down on mine again with renewed interest. 

"Wait, wait," I giggled, pulling away slightly, dizzy and confused, slightly embarrassed but nonetheless excited by the curious eyes of the other passengers. "This is really important! I have to know!" 

"What?" sighed Peter, leaning back against the corner of the car, pushing his hand further up my thigh, under the hem of my dress. 

"It's probably the single most important question you have to ask a bloke..." 

"I've been tested," he interrupted defensively. "I'm HIV-negative."

"No, no, no!" I protested. "Who's your favourite Beatle?" 

He burst out laughing, leaning forward to kiss the tip of my nose. "My favourite Beatle? That's the single most pressing issue you can think of?" 

"It's very important," I defended. "You can divide the entire personalities of the world into four basic archetypes that way." 

For a moment, he cocked his head as if thinking, then pushed his fingers further up my skirt, searching insistently until he ran his middle finger along the seam of my tights. Even through the thick cotton, he could feel the moisture already, smiling suggestively and arching that one eyebrow. "George," he eventually replied, tickling me slightly and leaning forward to push his tongue into my mouth. The train lurched to a halt, and I pulled away sharply. "What now?" he demanded impatiently. 

"This is my stop!" Giggling, I took him by the hand and pulled him up the stairs towards my apartment. Leaning against the door jamb, he looked around suspiciously as I unlocked the deadbolt and let him into the poorly lit stairwell of the warehouse where I lived. "Charming neighbourhood, isn't it," I laughed, flicking a switch that flooded the cement walls with a harsh glare of a bare electric bulb. "It used to be a brewery once. Somehow appropriate, eh?" Trotting up the stairs, I fumbled with the keys and let him into the loft, pausing to plug in the Christmas Tree lights strung over the room. 

He grinned as he looked around, just taking everything in. "Wow..." I always loved the effect that this apartment had on people the first time they saw it. Bathed in the warm glow of the twinkling fairy lights, you didn't notice how filthy everything was. The hulking shapes of the decaying antiques we'd pulled out of other people's trash assumed a magical presence in the half light, while the Indian scarves hanging from the roof lent the place the decadent atmosphere of a harem. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling with psychedelic art nouveau posters, pieces of paisley fabric and scraps of paper just pasted together in no apparent sense of coherence. On the far wall, surrounding the television (which was itself set up as a Santeria altar) was a floor to ceiling collage of cereal boxes. "Wait till you see the bedroom," I promised, taking him by the hand and leading him back towards a threadbare oriental rug which separated my bedroom from the rest of the loft. 

"I'd love to," he responded, jolting out of his daze and smiling, as if suddenly remembering why he'd come here. Pushing back the rug, I led him back into the tiny alcove where I slept. Here, the ubiquitous scarves were draped lower, creating a cosy canopy, from which was hung a fishnet where I pinned all my assorted costume jewellery. When I plugged in the fairy lights, a thousand tiny rhinestones caught and reflected the glinting coloured light. "Reminds me of that film, Performance..." he observed, walking over to touch the dangling jewels. "What do you think?" he asked, holding up a pair of huge silver Moroccan earrings up to his face. 

"Very fetching," I agreed, lighting a stick of incense, kicking off my shoes and climbing up onto the low platform of the futon, sitting down cross-legged in the centre. Perching on the edge of the bed, he pulled off his boots, then spread himself out alongside me, staring up at me with huge liquid eyes. "Let me paint your nails," I pleaded, plucking his hand off the bedsheet. Watching, entranced, as I painted his nails silver to match mine, he smiled up at me, stopping to kiss me, and reaching to run his fingers through my hair. "Stop, it's still wet!" I giggled, twisting out of his grasp and picking the bong off the windowsill. While his nails dried, I dug a plastic bag of pot out from under the bed and filled the bowl, sprinkling it with cloves to mask the scent. 

He accepted a couple of deep breaths then turned towards me, playing intently with the hem of my dress, pushing it up over my knee and running his hand along the inside of my thigh. Leaning over, I twined my fingers in his tangled hair and leaned back against the bed. Pushing the dress higher, he tugged at it then yanked it up to my shoulders, laying bare my stomach and my breasts, snug in the lace of my bra. With a satisfied moan, he ran his callused hand over my stomach, cupping my breast in his hand then pushing the lace out of the way as he bent to take my nipple into his mouth. Probing lower with his hand, he circled my stomach gently, brushed his fingertips over the top of my thighs then snuck under the waistband of my tights, tangling his fingers in my public hair, then wandering lower. With a sharp intake of breath, I let my legs part, feeling him slip between my outer lips, already slick with anticipation. 

Growling playfully, he looked up at me, wrestling with my nipple like a puppy, moving his body closer along the bed. Reaching over, I desperately clawed his jeans jacket off, then pulled his shirt over his head, running my fingers down the muscles of his bare back, tempted to just dig my fingers into his skin. Running my fingers down his spine, I rubbed my face in his hair, leaning over to slide my tongue down the lobe of his ear. Groping at the soft leather of his trousers, I cupped his bony buttocks in my hands, kneading softly at the muscled backs of his thighs, then moving my fingers around his hips, grappling with the zipper of his trousers. Lifting my hips off the bed, I let him seize my tights and my knickers, and slide them down my thighs, kicking them off and delighting in the feel of his pants against my bare legs. I moaned softly as he pushed his fingers further inside me, then found his mouth and hungrily sucked his tongue between my teeth, groping around inside his pants for his penis. 

Inside the leather, nothing but skin hindered me as I pulled him free of the lining, grasping his cock firmly in my hand, running my thumb gently along the underside of his head. A tiny bead of fluid glistened on the tip, so I took the precious drop between thumb and forefinger, squeezing gently to milk the last drop, then raised the stolen bounty to my mouth. The lower half of my body felt like it was on fire, a warm longing glow centred somewhere around the tip of his thumb, sliding gently back and forth over my clitoris. Pulling his penis between my legs, I rubbed it back and forth between my thighs, until he moved his wrist slightly, letting it slip behind his hand into the soft folds of my outer labia. Sighing in frustration and need, I angled my hips, trying to slip myself around him, but he laughed and darted out of my way, teasing with the head of his cock, then pulling it back. 

"Please..." I moaned softly, sucking at his tongue then twisting my head to sink my teeth into the soft hollow of his neck. Running my hands along his back, I tried to cup his buttocks between my palms and guide him where I wanted, but he abruptly caught my hands, pinning them above my head. For a moment, he looked around desperately, as if searching for something in my room, then apparently changed his mind and slumped forward to suck at the hollow of my armpit. "Please..." I breathed. "At least put your fingers back...' Lifting my hips off the bed, I tried to rub up against him, pressing the wetness of my sex against his belly. 

With a satisfied snort, he wrapped his arms around my waist, raising me up off the bed, then pushing himself slowly and torturously inside me. Stifling a cry, I bit my lip and caught my breath as he started to thrust inside me, pressing with the flat of his hand against my stomach so that I could feel him from both sides. Reaching back, he took my ankles in his hands and pushed them forward until my feet were just about level with his shoulders, bearing down on me with the full weight of his wiry body, slamming me roughly against the mattress. Trying to cry out in anguish, I found my mouth full of him, as he sucked my tongue between his teeth. I rose to meet his strokes, moving my hips from side to side until he ground against the walls of my vagina. Clawing blindly, I dug my fingernails into his shoulders, feeling skin tear as my grip slipped, but he stiffened sharply, his face twisted into an almost rapturous grimace. 

"I'm sorry," I panted, feeling something wet beneath my fingertips. 

"Do that again!" he barked, grunting with satisfaction as he tensed his muscles to push further inside me. Slightly afraid of hurting him, I ran my fingernails teasingly down his spine, pushing my fingers between the crack of his buttocks, searching for his ass. "Harder!" he ordered, slamming wildly against my hips so hard that I could hear the wooden slats of the futon slapping against the wall. Wrapping his arms around my shoulders, he pulled me closer, crushing me against him as if he wanted to crawl inside me. Barely able to breathe, I cried out, digging my nails into his back with all the strength I could muster and raking his skin open. He gasped loudly, then bit his lip and held his breath, pushing two, three, four more times, so deep inside me that it hurt, then opened his eyes incredibly wide, staring past me as if barely seeing me. 

Clenching my muscles tightly around him, I concentrated on the building wave of pleasure, then sank back into orgasm, letting the sensation wash over me like a cold sweat. A long, low moan passed his lips, then he slumped back against my chest and fell silent. For a moment, we just lay there, his head resting on my breast, catching our breath, then he cocked his head to one side and smiled. "I can feel your heartbeat." 

 

____________________ 1997 ____________________

 

I awoke the next morning to hear Alex talking softly on the phone. "I'm in New York," he sighed, then paused as if waiting for the reaction from the other end of the line. "Yes, I'm with Kate. She was upset over Jeremy's death, and asked me to meet her here... No, I didn't tell anyone out of respect for her - she asked me not to reveal where she was..."

Putting my hands over my ears, I stole from the bed and padded off to the bathroom, shutting the door to block out the sound of Alex destroying my reputation to save his own career. Fussing with the wrapping of the kit, I sat on the toilet and waited for the results. Wow, pregnancy tests sure had changed in the few years since my last missed period. Where were the cups, the chemicals, the convoluted processes of the chemistry experiment? All I had to do was piss on a stick and it would tell me everything? Fantastic.

The window of the wand showed one small blue bar, and one great huge blue bar, so thick and dark it was almost purple. What the hell did that mean? Were the bars supposed to change that quickly? I stared at the instructions, squinting my eyes to try and stop the words dancing before my eyes. No, the words weren't dancing, I was crying. Two bars mean that you are pregnant declared the tester kit. No, there was no arguing with that.

Pregnant.

If I had thought that I'd be sad or upset or depressed, I was shocked at how good I felt. Pregnant. I grinned through my tears, a great giddy rush of emotions and hormones and the weird sense that I was no longer just a me, I was a we. I'd not been prepared for how good I'd feel. Pregnancy was supposed to be something awful and scary and terrifying, not something that made me feel ditzy and goofy and strangely elated... 

Oh, how I wanted this baby. It wanted me, I could feel it, even the morning sickness rising in the pit of my stomach was a sign of how much he, she... it... needed me. We could be a family! We could be a real family, me, and this little tiny baby taking root deep in my stomach, and...

Alex.

The bottom fell out of my world. He'd made it clear he wanted no part. How could I ever explain to Alex how much I loved this baby? How much I needed this baby? This was my second chance, this was my wake-up call, this was a reminder of how precious life was, my life, and now my kid's life. I had to explain. We could do it, I didn't know how, but we could do it.

I swept the whole mess into the rubbish bin with a deep sigh and returned to the bedroom to wait for Alex to get off the phone. As he exchanged pleasantries, he was actually smiling, so whatever it was, it must have been good news.

Hanging up the phone with a grin, he turned back to me worriedly, but smiled when he saw the joyous and contented expression on my face, settling back into the bed and hugging my stomach. "Looks like we both have news for each other," I observed quietly. "What does your management say?"

"It worked," he shrugged. "They understand. The American tour is too lucrative to give up at this point - even Damon sees the logic of that, no matter how angry he is. Rather than fly back to England, I'm meeting them for the first date of the tour in..." Picking up the pad by the phone, he perused his scribbled notes. "Rhode Island, wherever that is."

"What, so soon?" I stuttered. "Don't you need to rehearse or anything?"

He shook his head, grinning as he thumped his chest passionately. "It's from the 'eart wiff me! We just got off a major tour a few weeks ago - we'll be fine."

"Oh god..." I stared off into the distance, unable to meet his eyes. What had I been expecting? It just seemed so unfair, being given everything I ever dreamed of, only to have it all taken away so soon.

"You can come with us," he assured me, loping over to me and sitting down next to me, thrusting his head into my lap with a ridiculous puppy dog expression. "We don't even have to go through that 'separate rooms' charade this time," he teased, tugging affectionately at my hair.

"There's something you're forgetting," I reminded him.

"What?" Suddenly, his face fell.. "Oh. Your news."

"I am."

There was a long pause as the two of us lay next to one another, avoiding each other's eyes, until Alex's voice cut through the silence. "You are what? Pregnant?" I nodded. "You can't come on the tour, then, not like this, it wouldn't be..."

"But it's all the more reason to stay near you. I don't want to be alone, in case something happens to my baby..." I protested.

"What do you mean?" asked Alex, the panic slowly rising in his voice. "I thought you were going to get it taken care of..."

"I didn't say that..." I wailed pathetically, desperately fighting back the tears of frustration and helplessness welling up inside me. "God, Alex... I don't want to, I can't go through with that..." I had been about to say again, but I realised he knew nothing of my life before I'd met him. I just wanted him to take me in his arms, to tell me that he wanted me, he would take care of the baby, and that everything would be alright.

But rather than wrapping his arms around me, he pulled away, hiding his face in his hand. "You have to get this taken care of, and you have to do it soon."

"It's not that simple," I protested, slumping back against the futon, staring up at the scarves hanging from the ceiling as if the whirling paisley patterns held the answers to all our problems. I had felt so good when I had found out that I was pregnant, I had assumed that Alex would be caught up in the hormonal euphoria, but why would he? It wasn't his child.

"Kate, your situation is so unsure right now. You don't know where you'll be in a year..."

I sat up. "It doesn't matter where I am. I'll be with you... won't I, Alex?" He turned away, refusing to meet my gaze.

"You've made it quite clear this has nothing to do with me," pointed out Alex, his voice quavering.

"But it has everything to do with me, and, so long as you're with me..." I tried to reason desperately.

"Look, don't ask this of me," Alex interrupted, standing up and pacing around the room, running his hands through his hair, then digging in his pocket for his cigarettes. "I don't even know where you and I stand. Don't ask me to bring some child that's not even mine into the equation."

"What do you mean, you don't even know where you and I stand?" I demanded, beginning to grow more than a bit emotional. "Do you love me, or don't you?"

"Jesus Christ, Kate!" he exploded. "We've been shagging or whatever for a couple of weeks now - don't even think of asking me to plan my whole future for the next 18 years around you and a baby. I can't even begin to answer that now."

"Shagging or whatever for a couple of weeks?" I repeated, barely believing what I was hearing. "Is that all this means to you?"

"No, it's not all it means," he stuttered.. "I'm just saying I don't know what it all means right now." Pulling the last cigarette out of the pack, he lit it and crumpled the box into a little wad which he hurled against the wall. "I need more cigarettes," he observed in a very tight and controlled voice.

"Whenever anything gets too much for you to handle, you need more cigarettes," I spat. Shaking his head, he picked his jacket off the floor and pulled it around his shoulders. "Don't you even think of leaving, Alex. We're not through."

"This conversation is over," he told me very quietly and headed for the door.

"Alex!" I snapped sharply, and something in my voice must have stopped him, for he paused, putting his hand to his head and turning very slowly. "Alex, please..." I added, softly, desperately. Padding back over to the bed, he sat down and lowered his head to my lap, wrapping his arms around my waist. Twining my fingers in his hair, I held him tightly as if I was afraid to let him go.

After a long pause, he spoke again. "Kate, would you be horribly offended if I asked you not to come on the first few dates of the tour?" I exhaled sharply, but did not reply.

"Is this the end?" I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. This was it, he was leaving me. After everything we'd been through to get together, it was over so easily? It couldn't be. "Are you trying to tell me that we're through?"

"No, no, Kate, it's not like that. It's not about you at all, it's my band. It's going to be hard enough, getting back into the swing of the band... I just don't want to make things... worse, with them. I don't expect it'd be too nice for you, either. Let me soften the blow. We can meet back up in New York in a few days, but... I just need... some time, do you understand what I mean?" His brown eyes were huge, questioning, as he looked up at me. It wasn't quite a lie, his eyes were clear, but I could tell it wasn't exactly the whole truth, either.

I took a deep breath and slowly counted to ten before replying. "Actually, I think perhaps a little time apart would be a good thing. It'll give us both time to get some perspective on what we're doing. I mean, we have spent the past few weeks living in each others pockets... That's not healthy for any new... relationship." Not knowing why I was so hesitant to use the word, I let it fall out of my mouth and just hang there.

"Relationship," mused Alex. "Is that what this is? I suppose it's true. People don't have love affairs anymore - they have Relationships."

"Well, is that what this is? Just a love affair?" I probed, knowing full well that I should back off and not press the issue, but it was killing me, not knowing what to even call what we were doing. How could this happen? What was happening? In the space of 24 hours, had I gained a whole new life, only to lose Alex? Alex stiffened in my embrace, and I knew I had gone too far. "Well, I suppose that's what the time apart will help us decide," I hastily added.

"Please... I think at this point, the best option for both of us - for you and the child, would be to get... an..." His voice trailed off as if he was afraid to say the word after Beth's blast at him the previous night.

"I don't want to have an abortion, Alex..."

"Why not?" he asked quietly, rolling towards me, his eyes glittering with tears of frustration.

Fighting the rising tide of memories, I tried to steady my voice as it all came spilling out. "About two years ago, I had an... affair with someone. I was madly in love - or rather, madly obsessed and infatuated, but he... He didn't feel the same way, obviously, because he walked out on me." Reluctant to dredge up the memories, I shrugged in a disjointed manner that I hoped seemed casual. "I was pregnant. He disappeared before I even had a chance to tell him. It was a really difficult time in my life. I was unemployed, and considering dropping out of school, but the band was really starting to take off and the last thing I needed was a baby." I paused, taking a deep breath before it got worse. "I had been doing... well, this guy and I had been doing a hell of a lot of drugs. Acid, coke, speed, you name it. The kid didn't have much of a chance to start with..."

"So what happened?" implored Alex, his eyes huge as he reached out and encircled me with his arms.

"I had it... taken care of, as you so tactfully put it." Despite my best efforts, the anger and hurt I had been trying to keep down was rising in my voice. "I had an abortion, Alex. A friend of Beth's knew this doctor up in Washington Heights who would do it for $300. I had to borrow the money from my brother, but I couldn't tell him what it was for. He disowned me when he found out. Beth went with me and held my hand, or I never would have been able to go through with it. It was a shoddy little office with torn leather on the examining table, and weird stains on the wallpaper..." I shuddered at the memory.

Alex exhaled, his breath a long low hiss of discomfort.

"The doctor barely spoke English, he didn't understand me and he didn't care. He did it with a local anaesthetic cause they didn't have a license for general. Something went wrong, I was having awful cramps. It hurt like hell. They sent me home with a maxi pad and a prescription for antibiotics in case I got an infection because I had no insurance and I didn't have the money to be admitted to a proper hospital. I nearly passed out on the subway back to Beth's apartment cause we couldn't afford a taxi. I was so weak... I was bleeding for days. I didn't want to go home; I just lay on Beth's couch and cried..."

"Beth is a good friend to you," he observed, gently stroking my hair, crushing my head against his chest, though I refused to cry.

I nodded dumbly, unable to talk any further. The memories were rushing up unbidden now, threatening to overspill my mind and come pouring out of my mouth without stopping. "Peter never even knew I was pregnant," I repeated. It hurt to even say his name. "So I can't blame him for that... he was already gone by that point. He just walked out and disappeared, without an explanation or even a goodbye. That hurt more than abortion did. But do you understand now why I don't want to go through that again? My life is so much better now, I'm more settled, I have a decent place to live, and a good career, and enough money, and I want this baby."

"I understand," he sighed, brushing his hand against my cheek to wipe away the tears I hadn't realised had started to run down my cheeks. "I'm not walking out on you, I promise," he intoned in a very low voice. "I just need some time to figure things out. I understand now, and I won't ask you to... Whatever decision you make is yours, but you have to respect that whatever decision I make is mine."

Chapter Text

____________________ 1995 ____________________

 

Pulling my blanket over my head to block out the morning sun streaming through the flimsy Indian silk I had hung over the windows, I rolled over to find my favourite spot occupied by another warm body. For a second, surprise flickered across my half conscious mind, and I groped to recall the events of the previous night. CMJ... The Mercury Lounge... amphetamine... several large glasses of gin... Peter. Struggling to open my eyes, I pulled the covers down and blinked against the bright light. There he was, lying next to me, his bleached hair splayed out across my pillow, his nail varnish smeared, but looking even more beautiful than I'd remembered.

"Good morning," I managed to croak, my voice ragged from the pot I'd smoked the night before.

"Hey!" Grinning widely, he leaned over to kiss me, rubbing his nose against mine before flopping back on the futon, reaching up with his foot to sound the bells of my Chinese windchimes. 

"This place is so beautiful," he sighed. "This would be a great place to trip." 

"I have some, you know," I offered with a faint smile, trying desperately of any way to prolong his visit. "Do you want to?" 

For a moment his face wavered as he thought it over, then he nodded his head and gazed back at me. "What are you doing today?" 

"Nothing," I lied. Well, it was true now - there was no way I was going to make it in to work, four hours late as I was at this point. 

"Let's do it," he urged. "Court and I were going to go to the Museum of Modern Art to look at their Pop Art collection. How fucking great would that look on acid?" 

"Better than this flat?" I sighed. I didn't want to share him with anyone, not even his bandmate.

"Can't stay in bed all day," he laughed softly, kissing me, then letting his gaze sweep downwards, across my bare breasts. "As appealing as the thought is..." He shifted slightly, then made an unmistakable slightly uncomfortable movement. "Erm, where's your..." 

"Round the corner, and at the other end of the kitchen," I told him. Climbing out of bed, he picked my dressing gown off the back of a chair, laughed slightly as he wrapped around his slight shoulders, then headed out past the curtain. 

Lying back on the bed, I stared at the pile of his clothing lying on the floor, barely believing what had happened the night before. Picking up his tiny black T-shirt, I pulled it over my head, feeling it fit like a glove, then pulled the jeans jacket around my shoulders, fighting the impulse to jump around the room gloating. Suddenly, I heard the patter of running feet, then Peter burst back into my room and took a running leap onto the bed. 

"Kate! your bathroom is lined with silver foil!" he gushed excitedly. 

"Yeah, we did that after we saw 'Chelsea Girls,'" I confessed. "We thought it would make it look like The Factory." 

"It does." Lying back and looking around, he nodded with satisfaction, then turned back to me, running his finger down the seam of his jacket, then wrapping his arms around me. 

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..." Blushing as if I'd been caught doing something illicit, I wriggled out of the jacket. 

"No, don't worry. I think it's pretty sexy when girls wear my clothes." What a double edged sword that statement was. The way his eyes lingered on the fabric stretched over my breasts certainly made me feel sexy, but the plural in the subject raised an unpleasant spectre, not of jealousy, but of feeling somehow cheapened, just a generic face in the crowd. "Did you say you had acid?" he suddenly remembered, his eyes lighting up with mischief. 

"Mm-hmm," I responded, extracting myself from his embrace and climbing out of bed. Stopping for a moment, I picked his leather trousers of the floor, then slid them over my own hips with a wink. Parting the folds of the rug, I padded out to the main room of the loft, then suddenly froze, doing a double take as I caught sight of my reflection in a huge, gaudy Rococo mirror. Wrapped in his leather trousers and tatty denim jacked, I suddenly realised why he looked so strangely familiar. With his mussed blond head, he could be my twin. Pushing the strangely onanistic implications out of my mind, I shook my head and strode out to the kitchen and dug around in the fridge for a while, pushing aside a leftover curry and the remains of last night's six pack. 

Feeling someone rubbing up against my rump, I heard a voice behind me, and turned to see Peter, clad in a pair of my leggings, laughing at the contents of my fridge. Besides the takeaway curry and the six-pack of beer, the only groceries were a half gallon of milk, some sugar and a can of coffee grounds. "Well, aren't you little Miss Homemaker?" he teased. 

"Leave me alone - I'm poor," I defended as I pushed the lone bottle of milk out of the way to reveal a little plastic baggie filled with a shred of blotter paper. 

"Jesus Christ, is that half a sheet?" Peter blurted out. "You don't have the money to buy groceries, but you have half a sheet of acid in your icebox?" 

I grinned evilly, digging in the rubble on top of the cabinet. "Yeah, cyberhippies. They smell funny, but they have great drugs. Cheap, too. I think they make it themselves in a lab up in the Adirondacks." Tearing a square off, I held it up to him on the tip of my finger. He extended a long, pink tongue and claimed it, sucking my finger into his mouth to lick the paper off. 

As I moved out of the way to take a square for myself, he rummaged around looking for food. Taking the takeaway box, he opened it, held it up to his nose and made a face. "Ugh... Indian food. Not for breakfast, thank you." Suddenly he turned, fixing me with an evil glint in his eye. "That's it." 

"What's it?" I inquired, hopping up to perch on the edge of the sink. 

Moving over towards me, he pushed himself between my legs, wrapping his arms around my waist and kissing me. "You smell like a fucking curry." 

"Shaag poneer," I giggled, flicking a bleached hair out of my mouth. 

"Shag... mmm..." mused Peter, sinking down to his knees and rubbing his face against my crotch, chewing the leather between his teeth. "You taste like a fucking curry." Rubbing his unshaven face across my belly, he pushed his shirt out of the way to nip at my breasts. "Come on, give me my pants back," he begged, pulling at the zipper. 

"Nope... you gotta get 'em off me," I teased, wriggling away from him. Taking me at my word, he caught me under the knees, lifting me slightly to peel them off. But rather than putting them on, he lowered his head, rubbing his nose in my pubic hair, then parting my labia with his fingers, probing inside with his tongue. "You're a sick boy," I laughed, tangling my fingers in his greasy hair. "That must taste horrible..." 

"Mmm-mmm." He shook his head, grinning psychotically, pausing only to look up at me with a wicked expression. The sensation was strangely pleasant, like being licked by a kitten with its thick sandpapery tongue, sending little rivulets of pleasure up the base of my spine. Shuddering slightly, I caught my breath and leaned back, closing my eyes as he pushed his tongue inside me, then pulled back to run a broad swath along the length of my sex, stopping to flick the tip over my clitoris. 

Suddenly, he climbed to his feet, catching me by surprise as he brought his mouth down on mine and pushed his cock inside me with almost violent force. Leaning back against the cabinet, I wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling his face between my breasts, crying out as he bit my nipples. "Stop it!" I insisted, trying to wriggle out of his grasp, but he had my nipple between his teeth, stretching my breast to the point of pain. "Peter! Stop it! You're hurting me!" I wailed, but he showed no sign of hearing me, thrusting with redoubled energy. "Pete! Stop!" I finally yelled, lashing out and slapping him in the face. He fell back against me, gasping for breath as he came. Panting, he pushed my hair out of my face, kissing my eyelids, my cheeks, my forehead, pressing his lips against me again and again. Opening his eyes, he stared back at me, his pupils huge and clear, the corners of his mouth turned up in an utterly angelic smile. 

We showered together, standing in the steam until the hot water ran out, soaping each others hair and scrubbing each others skin, flicking the water at each other playfully. My vision was definitely starting to warp and bend now, sending crazy shadows across the room and playing tricks with the lighting and the drops of water. When I finally climbed out, I wrapped a towel around myself, but Peter pulled it off, wiping the condensation from the foil and staring at the twisted bodies reflected from the wrinkled surface. 

"Look at those drowned rats," I laughed, grabbing a towel and throwing it over his head, rubbing his hair vigorous before sliding it down to his shoulders. 

"Shit, I left everything back at the hotel..." he sighed, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he stared at the thick growth of stubble. "No razor, no toothbrush, no nothing." 

"You can use my toothbrush, and I have girly razors..." I offered. 

"What the difference between a girly razor and a boy razor?" he wondered. 

"Girly razors are pink, and they cost more," I laughed, digging under the sink for a fresh Lady Bic. Taking it from me, he eyed it suspiciously, then shrugged, trying to work up a lather with the soap. "Let me shave you," I begged, hopping up onto the counter beside him. 

"Hell no. You're tripping your face off." 

"So are you." 

"It's my face; I know it better," he replied sensibly, pulling a face to get at his upper lip. I don't know how he was managing to do it; even looking in the mirror, his skin was rippling and undulating. "Ouch," he winced, obviously not doing as good a job as he'd claimed. Reaching out, I ran my finger over the cut, touching the crimson drop with the tip of my finger, then raising it to my mouth. For a moment, we stood there, our eyes locked, his nostrils flaring as if simultaneously excited yet terrified. Bending over, I kissed him gently, then drew away. 

Turning to the mirror, I started to apply my make-up, then turned back to him, brandishing my eyeliner pencil. "Let me paint your eyes..." 

He shook his head as if shaking off a chill. "What, are you trying to turn me into a girl?" 

"No, he's a man, a male and female man..." I recited in a fake German accent. "Haven't you ever had a female feel?" 

"No! I feel like a man! A man's man! All of the time!" he completed, laughing as he reached out to circle me with his arms and kiss my nose. 

"Look up," I told him, and he complied, afraid even to blink as I ran the pencil along the outline of his eyes, finishing up with a dab of mascara on his ridiculously long lashes. "It's not fair," I sighed. "Mine never come out this good..." Turning to look into the mirror, he stared at the twins that gazed back, then grinned, looking down at his organ, half stiff against his bare thigh. "You couldn't..." I gasped. 

He shrugged and shook his head. "Naw, probably not. For a while at least," he added, reaching out and slapping my ass with a towel as I bent over to pick his trousers off the floor. 

"Can I wear these?" I asked hopefully. 

"And what am I going to wear?" 

"You can borrow some jeans. You're about the same size as me." Skipping back to my room, I dug through my wardrobe, stopping to press the play button on the CD player. A slow, druggy drone spread out from the speakers, mixing with the incense I'd lit to form an almost tangible presence, beckoning me into the welcoming sparkling cave of my room. 

Several hours - minutes? days? - later, Peter returned to my room to find me sitting in an enormous pile of clothes, picking through paisley dresses, rubbing my fabric against my cheek and delighting in the sensation of the polyester. Taking a pair of plain black jeans from the bottom of the pile, he pulled them over his hips then dug for a shirt. 

"You have more clothes than any human being should be allowed to own," he laughed as I held up a black velvet shirt embroidered with gold and silver thread in winding patterns. Taking it from me, he slid it over his head, distracted by the embroidery. "It's an awfully pretty shirt, Turner. Awfully pretty. How much you want for this shirt?" he teased, picking a beaded necklace off the floor and twining it round my neck. 

"I've got another one of those somewhere," I remembered, abandoning the closet for the boxes of costume jewellery on the chest of drawers. "Oh here - this is nice. Wear this one," I told him, draping it around his neck. 

"Fucking hippies..." he laughed, pretending to claw it off. "I'm wearing fucking beads. I draw the line at patchouli oil - don't even think of coming near me with that," he laughed as I menaced him with a bottle of scented oil. Giggling madly, I pushed him down on the bed and spilled a drop on his exposed stomach. "Oh, you bitch..." Chasing after me, he caught me around the waist and tossed me back onto the bed. "Oh, you've asked for it... now I'm going to have to..." he warned, menacing me with the buckle of his belt. 

"What, tie me to the bed and beat me with your belt?" I teased, prodding his crotch with the tip of my socked foot. "I might enjoy that..." Suddenly, he rolled off me, standing up very abruptly and turning away. "What's the matter?" 

He shook his head, looking around wildly. "I should call Court. We were going to go to MoMA today, remember? Shit... can I borrow your phone. Wait - you do want to come, right? I mean, to the gallery?" he stuttered, awkwardly trying to change the subject. 

Following him out to the living room, I showed him the phone, then curled up behind him, perching on the back of the sofa, gently kneading the knots in his back. "I know," I bent over to whisper in his other ear as he dialled. "You want me to tie you to my bed and beat you with your belt." 

"Shut up," he insisted, batting me away with the back of his hand. "Hullo... can I have room 713, please? Stop it!" he hissed as I ran my fingers up his spine, letting my fingernails scrape against his skin. Grabbing my foot, he hauled me down off the back of the chair, pulling my leg onto his lap and hugging it to him, rubbing my toes gently. "Hey, it's Peter. Do you still want to do the gallery thing this afternoon?" he asked, angling his head as I nibbled along his neck, just under his hairline. "We're in... where are we? Williamsburg?" I nodded. "Brooklyn, I think. Dunno, really. We'll meet you there in about an hour, OK?" 

"An hour?" I asked as he hung up the phone. "We better get moving, then." 

"Mmm," he mumbled, turning around to run his hands up the inside of my thigh, massaging the soft leather. Twisting around in my grasp, he climbed on top of me, pushing me down and kneading between my legs with his hands. "Don't do that to me when I'm on the phone." 

"Stop it," I whined as my body started to respond to his touch, arching my back to meet his hips. 

"Oooh, stop it," he mimicked, tickling me under the ribs. "When I'm busy, you can do what you like to me, but now I can't turn it around?" 

"We've got to leave this apartment in about five minutes if we want to make it uptown within an hour," I warned. 

"Five minutes is plenty of time," he boasted, unzipping his jeans and digging around inside to produce his achingly erect penis. 

"We'll never get out of here in time," I whined, seizing him in my hands and pulling him towards me. 

"Time me!" he snorted, glancing at his watch, then clawing my pants off my hips and pushing inside me. I winced as he passed my chaffed and sore lips, but the sensation of him inside me was too insistent to resist. Grabbing a chunk of his hair, I bit into his shoulder and hung on as he started to move, stabbing sharply, quickly building up speed and intensity. His breaths grew shorter, panting and shallow, then he inhaled sharply and held it. A few more thrusts, then a low moan and a strangled cry, and he rolled off me, smirking as he pulled up his pants, blew on his fingernails then brushed them against his shirt. "Three minutes and fifteen seconds," he announced proudly, looking down at his watch. "Just the length of the perfect pop single."

"Bastard," I hissed jokingly, lobbing a pillow at his head, but then allowing him to take me by the hand and pull me to my feet. Little rivulets of paisley spun about the room as the blood rushed to my head, spurred on by the sudden burst of movement. The huge rushing peak had worn off, but we still had hours left before the trails of colour and sound would stop ricocheting across my vision. 

As if reading my thoughts, he loped over to the fridge. "Can we bring some more with us?" 

"So long as you carry it," I snorted. "I'm not getting arrested on your account." Tearing off a bit of tinfoil, he wrapped several more hits into a little package and hid it in the change pocket of his pants. "Oh, that's the first place they'll fucking look if you get caught," I dismissed. 

"Well, I don't plan on getting caught, do I?" he retorted, playfully batting me on the back of the head. 

 

We emerged into the bright light of 53rd St., blinking against the early afternoon sun, distracted by the trails the cars left down Fifth Avenue. Arm in arm, we made our bleary way to the entrance of the museum, giggling and slithering off the walls as we walked to our appointed meeting place in the bookshop. 

"What the hell are you two on?" demanded Courtney, looking us up and down as we sniggered at the postcards. 

"Do you want some?" offered Peter. 

"Hell, yeah!" Digging in his pocket, Peter turned away, hiding behind a shelf as he pulled a tab out and held it up to his friend. Courtney looked around nervously, then clandestinely licked it off his finger, grinning like the cat that ate the canary. "What the fuck are you wearing, boy?" he demanded, tugging at the sleeve of the velvet shirt. "You look like Brian fucking Jones. Are you back on your college hippie trip?" 

Peter grinned sheepishly, throwing me a pained look. "I spent a semester in Tangier my sophomore year," he explained, as if rather embarrassed by the whole thing. 

"Your last year," guffawed Courtney. "You smoked so much dope while you were there that you got kicked out of college the next semester. God, you even smell like a fucking hippie." 

Peter shrugged and dug around in his pocket again, pulling out the rest of the package, taking one himself, then proffering a little white square to me. Moving over towards him to block the view of the curious shop assistant, I wrapped my mouth around his finger, swallowing it all the way to the second knuckle, then slowly withdrawing, sliding my tongue along the underside. He grinned, biting his lip, while Courtney shifted uncomfortably and rolled his eyes. "Come on, you two," he sighed. "We've only got a few hours now cause you two couldn't get out of bed." 

"We weren't in bed," I teased, threading my fingers through Peter's hand as we strolled out to the lobby. 

"Oh?" he snorted incredulously. 

"No, we were in the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room..." I drawled, smiling sideways at Peter. With nothing but coffee and LSD in my stomach, the second tab was hitting even faster than the first. The angles of the gallery looked all wrong, but the DeChirico's looked perfectly proportional, so three dimensional that I felt I could climb into the twisted landscape. Lingering by the Italian futurists, I stared into the whirling vortexes of colour and motion, feeling myself sucked into the thick folds of the paint. 

"Come on, where are the Jackson Pollocks?" demanded Courtney, dashing from room to room, peering in excitedly, ignoring the disapproving looks of the Downtown Art Police. 

"Never mind the Pollocks, here's the Kandinskys..." quipped Peter, taking me by the hand and stopping in front of a fanciful Miro, wrapping his arms around my stomach and leaning his head over my shoulder to stare at the birdlike creature caught in the lines. 

"Close, but no Chagall!" called Courtney from the next gallery, startling a group of French tourists. 

"Help me, I am stuck with the Beavis and Butthead of the art world," I sighed, pausing to stare into the large eyes of the cow. 

A sudden spate of laughter from an adjacent room warned us that Courtney had found his objective. Almost afraid of what we might encounter, we found him sitting on the floor in front of a large drip painting, his eyeballs practically resting on the canvas, muttering to himself. "Better leave him alone - I think he's having a religious experience," Peter whispered, taking me by the hand and guiding me out of the room. "It's not a pretty sight - you don't want to see this." Turning the corner into the next gallery, he let out a strangled cry himself. "Oh god, make a dash for it - it's the Colour Field painters. On the count of three, run for the Pop Art!" 

Staring at the broad, blank coloured canvases, I found myself entranced by the streams of tiny gods and goddesses twining in and out of the brushmarks. "Actually, I kind of like them, now... I wish they always looked like this," I sighed, pausing to stare into the 'lugubrious flatness' that the placard boasted. 

"No, no, come through here," urged Peter from the next room. I trotted through to find him utterly entranced by a giant soft fan. "I feel exactly like that right now," he informed me, slumping over in mimicry. 

"Did you ever see the soft toilet at the Guggenheim?" I giggled. "I feel like that sometimes." Pausing to stare at the rubber of its giant blades, I found myself completely absorbed in the pattern of the dust against the shininess, only to be interrupted by a spate of giggles from behind me. Turning around, I saw that Courtney had rejoined us, and the two of them were cracking up over a Warhol silkscreen of a carcrash. "Hey, turn around," I warned and the two of them turned to confront an entire wall of Campbells Soup cans. 

"Aaaaarrrrggggghhhh..." Clutching his head, Courtney turned and ran out of the room, provoking a storm of cackling from Peter. 

Wandering over to him and wrapping my arms around his waist, I whispered in his ear "What is wrong with him?" 

Peter sniggered. "I gave him both hits at once. He must be peaking right about now." 

"Oh shit... perhaps we should find him?" I suggested, feeling the rising panic of the chemicals in my own bloodstream. Peter merely smiled placidly and led me off towards the next gallery. Wandering from room to room, we watched the passing scenery in quiet contemplation, occasionally whispering our thoughts to each other, but mostly just standing hand in hand in front of whatever caught our fancy, watching the lush colours of the paint writhe and undulate. For nearly twenty minutes, we sat staring at one painting depicting bizarre African animals and foliage. "Do you ever have nights like that?" I wondered out loud. "You go out to a bar or a club, and that's what you see? All these weird people with these weird customs, just totally foreign to you, even though it's the culture you're supposed to have grown up in?" 

Peter turned to stare at me queerly. "What do you mean?" 

"I don't know. Do you ever just feel... alien? Just detached from everyone around you. Like you are speaking the same language as them, and using the same words, but somehow the rules of their grammar just elude you? All their customs, the way they dress, the sports games and the movies and the television shows that they discuss around the water cooler at work - it's as alien to you as some foreign culture." Pointing to the blue-black skinned woman with breasts like melons peering out from behind a palm tree, I sighed "I probably understand her about as much as I understand my boss." 

"So why do you continue to do it if you hate it so much?" 

"Sorry, but Capitol Records aren't exactly knocking down my door to fly me about the country on their tab right now," I snorted. "What else am I going to do? Wait tables, be a shop clerk? Shit pay, shit hours, shit customers? Thank you, no. At least being a corporate indentured servant pays better. I just wish I didn't feel so much like an anthropologist trying to pass for a native in some bizarre foreign culture." 

Peter actually smiled in understanding at that. "After I dropped out of college, before the band took off, I was working the night shift at this gas station out in the middle of nowhere. Can you imagine what the truckers used to think, coming in off the road from Montana and finding this weirdo with bleached hair and tight pants sitting with his Chelsea boots up on the desk, reading Dostoyevsky? Talk about culture shock." 

"Weren't you frightened?" 

He shook his blond mane. "I kept a sawed off double barrelled shotgun in plain view behind the counter. Anyone who fucked with me, I pulled it down and pointed it at them, and they quieted down pretty quickly. It wouldn't have hurt them, but these grizzled old motherfuckers just didn't want to have to explain being pumped full of chicken shot by some panty-waisted faggot in eyeliner." He grinned evilly, his eyes twinkling from under his bangs as I giggled at the image. Somehow the idea of him brandishing a gun was sending tiny shivers of anticipation down my spine. 

"Do you still have it?" 

"What?"

"The shotgun..."

"What do you want to know that for?"

"I just do." 

"I have a couple. And a few handguns I got from my granddad. I collect them, actually," he informed me proudly. Images crowded my head, forcing themselves into my mind unbidden. "What? Don't look at me like that..." 

"Can I see one sometime?" I pleaded, hooking my finger through the loop of his belt. 

"Hell, no! A gun is not a toy," he replied indignantly. I pouted and turned away, starting to walk slowly towards the next room. "No, Kate, I'm serious..." Suddenly we stopped, seeing a familiar figure sitting on the floor of the next gallery, gazing up at Van Gogh's Starry Night with a transcendent expression of utter rapture. "Court... are you in there?" Peter called, walking over to him, laying his hands on his friend's shoulders, then waving one hand in front of his face. "Courtney..." 

Suddenly, he snapped back to alertness. "Oh my god... Pete... I saw it... I understand..." he stuttered incoherently, waving his arms in the air, smiling blissfully. Untangling his gangling legs, he stood up, stumbling over to the painting and pressing his face towards the canvas. "The cypress trees... the loneliness... the wonder and the terror..." 

"Please step away from the art!" barked the museum guard. "Sir, if I have to ask you one more time, you will have to leave!" 

Trying very hard not to break out into total hysterics, Peter and I each took an arm, leading him out to the passage. Courtney stumbled slightly, splaying out his fingers as if he was an invalid. "Alms for the poor, alms for the poor," he croaked, lunging for a pack of tourists. "Will no one help the poor widow's son?" 

"Stop it, or we'll take you to the Freemason's headquarters and leave you there!' I hissed. 

"I'm hungry," whined Peter. "I've had nothing to eat all day. What time are we meeting the record label?" 

"What do you mean, you're hungry?" rasped Courtney, back on his cranky old man trip. "What about all the pussy you've eaten this morning!" he snapped loudly, for the benefit of a passing group of teenage girls in catholic school uniforms, who tittered and blushed appropriately. 

Barely able to control myself, I snargled quietly behind my hand, trying to keep from breaking into complete hysterics. Now that he mentioned it, I realised that I hadn't eaten anything but alcohol or coffee or chemicals in nearly two days, and my head was spinning with hunger as well as the drug. 

"We can't possibly sign with any label that's going to let us starve to death," pointed out Peter sensibly. 

"You got a point there, judge," mused Courtney, then made a break for a pair of Japanese tourists getting their photo taken in front of a Picasso. "Please step away from the art!" he barked, and they scurried away quickly, dragging their children behind them. "Mmmm, it's been over 5 hours since we last mooched something. Time is a wasting!"

 

____________________ 1997 ____________________

 

Not knowing where else to turn, I found myself dragging my weary feet back down to the East Village. I stopped for some bagels, then rang Beth's doorbell, praying that she was home. "Who is it?" sighed a weary voice in the intercom.

"Kate..."

"Come on up," she offered, then buzzed me in.

The pregnancy was already taking its toll on me. There had been a time when I took all four flights of stairs at a sharp clip, but now I found myself stopping, panting, on each landing. The door was unlocked and ajar, so I pushed it open, blinking slightly at the scene that greeted me. Looking suspiciously as if she had slept there, Beth was lying on the couch, staring with disinterest at the television blaring across the room. Without the scarves and posters that I had hung, the room looked depressingly bare, the dirty white walls slightly stained with yellow ribbons of cigarette smoke above where she habitually kept her ashtray.

"I brought breakfast," I offered, gesturing with the bag. "Bagels, cream cheese and two hazelnut coffees with cream and sugar."

"Oh," grunted Beth, barely looking up.

"Herbal sourdough - your favourite... and veggie cream cheese. I'll go in the kitchen and get some plates and knives," I offered. Padding into the kitchen, I found the dishes unwashed and the trash overflowing with takeout containers and empty wine bottles. When the hyper-neat and clean conscious Beth stopped caring about household chores, something was definitely wrong. Depositing the bag on the kitchen table, I washed a few things, dried them hurriedly and headed back out to the living room. 

"What are you watching," I ventured by way of conversation, settling down on the couch next to her.

"Reruns of Melrose Place," she snorted, flicking the remote to turn the sound down. "It's crap. Our lives are more of a soap opera than these people's..."

"Tell me about it," I sighed, slicing open a bagel. Staring at my bagel, it must just have occurred to Beth that she was hungry, as she sat up and started to hack at one of her own. "Here I was hoping you'd cheer me up, and you're in worse shape than I am, it seems."

At least that elicited a smile. "Oh god, Kate - where did things go so wrong?" she finally moaned. "A few months ago, we were in the best band in the world, we had the world at our feet, and I had the man of my dreams, or so I thought. And now, I'm single, I'm unemployed and I'm sitting here on the same damn couch watching the late movie turn to the early show cause I can't sleep." 

"Well, first off, switch off the bloody television," I teased, digging on the table for the remote, then flicking the box off. Moving over to the rickety rack that held her stereo, I turned it on, then started to dig through her boxes of records.

"What are you doing? I was watching that," Beth protested.

"No you weren't. Ah, here it is. I can't believe you've still got two of these! You know, Maddie doesn't even have one." Pulling a dog-eared copy of the Charms' first single from her box of band memorabilia, I deposited it on the turntable and cued it up.

As the opening chords of The Boy Hairdresser floated through the flat, Beth held her hands over her ears. "Oh god, take that off, it's terrible!"

"You know, it's really not. It's actually quite charming. Sure, you and Emma aren't even singing in the same key, but it's still got something." The words cut through the haze of stale cigarette smoke. Hold me between your fingers like a prayer, a puff of smoke, laughing at my empty hands and wonder where the time goes...

Beth merely snorted in derision, though I could see her foot starting to tap along with the rhythm of the song. "You even think of playing the B-side and you're..."

I laughed and flipped it over, ignoring her protests, bopping my head appreciatively as Emma's guitar riff filled the flat. "This song is fucking great, I always wondered why it wasn't an A-side in its own right."

"We couldn't afford to put out two singles," Beth shrugged. She was actually starting to get into the get into the spirit, padding across the room to join me in poking through the box. "Ooh, look at this. I bet you don't have one of these, do you?"

"What is it?" I demanded, craning my neck to look, but it was a white label record.

"The 12" of the American release of Flavour of the Week," she explained proudly. "It's got the most appalling extended club remix on the B-side. Emma hated it so much, she wouldn't even have one in the house." 

After about a minute and a half of it, I could see Emma's point. "The British version had different B-sides, didn't it?' I observed, pulling that record out of its sleeve and chucking it on the turntable. "My So-Called Life! I love this song! The bassline is so much fun to play... why did we never do this live?" I bounced up and down in place along with the cheerful punky drumbeat.

"Maddie could never quite get all the words in while playing the drums," Beth sighed. "Remember, I used to try to sing it, but it never sounded as good. It is a fantastic song, though, isn't it?" Although she hadn't wanted to listen to our old records in the first place, she already had the next single out, cueing it up on the turntable like a professional DJ. "Ha-ha, How about this?"

The beer-hall stomp of These Are The Days echoed through the flat. "Oh god," I groaned, covering my ears with my hands, then relented. "I always used to hate this song, but you know, it's really not so bad." I paused as the verse ended and the middle eight began, then exploded into laughter. "It's still a fucking awful guitar solo, though."

Beth sniggered evilly. "Emma used to say that her idea of hell would be having to play this guitar solo over and over and over again until her fingers fell off..."

"What are the B-sides?" I wondered out loud. "Tear You Down, that's a great fucking song. Again, should have been an A-side... And The Astronomy Mod, har har har! Alex always used to think that was written about him!" I must be in a good mood, if I could mention Alex without wincing.

"If only he knew... whatever happened to that guy it was really about, Al what's his face...? Christ, I can't believe that I can't remember his surname any more. You and Emma used to go on and on about how beautiful he was."

"I can't remember either," I giggled. "Isn't that amazing? We were so crazy about him that we wrote the damned song about him, and now I can't even remember his name."

"Typical," snorted Beth. "But, really, that's how it works, isn't it? The songs that you write about the crush are invariably a hundred times better than the idiot that inspired them." She flashed me a wry smile, then returned to digging through the box of records. "Oh wow, look at this!"

"Wow, indeed! You have the vinyl of the album? I only ever had the CD." I stared at the artwork blown up all large, the four girls staring moodily from the shadows, the colours all posterised and psychedelic. Was that photo only taken a year ago? It seemed like another lifetime.

"Shall we listen to it?" Beth suggested naughtily, as if trying to push some kind of drugs on me. "Do we dare?"

"I'd rather not. I'm sick to death of it," I confessed.

"When was the last time you listened to it?" she bullied, moving towards the stereo with it, though I tried physically to block her, giggling and laughing as she tackled me and pushed me out of the way.

"Come on," I protested as she succeeded in getting it onto the turntable. "We played it every night for how many months while we were on tour?"

"I know, but seriously. When was the last time you sat down and listened to the album, all the way through?" she probed.

"Not since the record release party, I don't think. God, by the time it was mastered, I never wanted to hear it again."

"All the more reason to listen to it!" insisted Beth, flopping back down onto the couch and picking up her discarded bagel, smearing it thickly with cream cheese. I listened, transfixed, to the lead track, a single I'd heard and played so many times that I'd grown numb to it, hearing the way that the harmony vocals twisted together, the way that the guitar and bass chased each other, the casual cattiness and sarcasm of the lyrics.

I almost held my breath as we listened to the album, song sliding into song, neither of us daring to talk until the album was over. We'd had such arguments about how it had been sequenced, but in the end, the flow was perfect. Songs I'd never wanted to hear again suddenly seemed fresh and beautiful, sparkling like cut gems. This was something special that we shared, yet it was something I'd very nearly thrown away. And for what?

As the album built to its conclusion, the squalling feedback faded, and the last plaintive chords of Serenity and Rage echoed through the flat, Beth finished her mouthful of bagel, then dug on the coffee table for her cigarettes, lighting one thoughtfully, almost post-coitally. "Oh - sorry," she apologised, waving the smoke away from my face.

"It's OK, I'm used to it, living with Alex."

"Hrrmmm," she grumbled, and I wondered if she'd forgiven him the comments of the previous week. "Where is he, anyway?"

"On tour." I wondered for a moment if he felt the same way, playing his own band's songs, fresh and new after months of neglect.

"And you're not with him?" 

I shook my head slowly. "He needed... space. He needed time to think about us... about my kid..." I took a deep breath as the realisation spread across Beth's face.

"Oh my god..."

"You were right. I'm pregnant." Despite everything that had happened with Alex, I was still so elated that I couldn't stop the stupid grin from spreading across my face.

"What are you going to do?" She sat up, my good mood turning strangely contagious as she bounced up and down on the couch. If anything could snap her out of her depression, it was the prospect of a baby, and she was so excited that anyone looking at the pair of us would have thought she was the mother to be. "Are you going to keep it?"

"God, I want to. I want to so much..." I gushed, hugging my stomach. I'd even started to sit and stand differently, thrusting my hips and my belly forward, as if aware of my tiny passenger.

"So what's the problem?" cried Beth, clapping her hands together excitedly. "You know, you can figure out a way, we can plan our tours carefully so you or Alex are always home with..." When she saw the expression lurch across my face, her face fell. "Oh no, don't tell me..."

"Alex doesn't want it. He still thinks I should get..." I had trouble even saying the word. "Get an abortion."

"No, no, no," Throwing her arms around me, Beth squeezed me so tight I thought I'd throw up, morning sickness or no. 

I leaned towards her, falling into her embrace as I let the tears flow. They'd been building up for days now, I could no longer keep the sobs inside. "I can't go through that again," I wailed, great heaving sighs exploding into her dressing gown. "I can't do it."

"You don't have to, no, no, no," Beth cooed, stroking my hair. "Look, Alex will come around, he loves you, I know he loves you more than anything else on earth. It's a big scary thing for him, but he loves you, just give him a bit of time to get used to the idea, and he will come around."

"Do you think so?" I asked, sitting up, and staring at her. "Because I never expected to feel like this. I never expected that I could want this baby so much. It wasn't like this last time. Last time, I was so scared, and I felt so helpless, and I just wanted it all to go away. But now..."

"Things were different then, they're different now. Alex will make a good father, I know that he will."

"But what about me? What kind of mother am I going to make?" I dissolved in another wail of sobs as the confusion overwhelmed me. "What do I do, Beth? I don't have the first clue about babies. I mean, how do you do it? Where do you start? Do babies come with manuals?"

"Well, first, you need an obstetrician," decided Beth, taking charge of the situation. "Let me call my mom and ask her for Dr. Bob's office... wouldn't that be so cool, if you had your baby delivered by the same doctor that delivered me?"

 

A few days later, I had an appointment. Beth had volunteered to go with me with such enthusiasm that I was starting to worry.

"So what are you going to name your baby?" she asked, making faces at the adorable infant beside us in the waiting room.

"Haven't thought yet," I confessed, staring at the baby with mixed panic and attraction. In another 5 or 6 months, I would have one of those myself. Get me out of here, I'm not ready, I'm too young, I'm not finished being a baby myself...

"I think she likes you," laughed the mother as the infant reached for the plastic beads around my neck.

"Here, you want to play with them?" I offered, pulling them off and handing them to the child, who immediately tried to stuff them into her mouth. "They're just so bizarre, babies," I observed, retrieving my jewellery. "Like little space aliens, with their huge heads and tiny bodies. And the way they're constantly studying everything, like they're memorising it..."

Beth giggled, and the mother looked at me oddly, but rather than being offended, she smiled long sufferingly. "First child?"

"Yes... does it show?" I stuttered nervously.

"Here, do you want to try on mine?" she teased, holding out the squirming, drooling little package.

"No... not particularly," I protested, but before I could object, she had thrust the child into my arms. I stiffened, terrified of the strange sensation. Where the hell were those maternal urges that were supposed to kick in hormonally when children came within ten feet of otherwise rational women? I felt scared, even vaguely repulsed by the creature wiggling out of my grasp, and the baby must have felt the same way, as she immediately let out a loud wail.

"No, no, not like that," asserted Beth, relieving me of my burden and gently rocking the child until she calmed down. "See, it's so easy... There, there, aren't you adorable?" she cooed.

"I never know what to do with them. God, I feel sorry for whatever child has the misfortune to be born to me," I observed.

"Don't worry, everyone's nervous the first time," assured the mother, taking her daughter back "When the time comes, you'll know what to do, believe me."

An hour later, I pried Beth away from the babies in the waiting room and dragged her off to the pharmacy to fill the prescription for the super-mega-vitamin pills which would counteract my latent anaemia. "Can we go baby shopping afterwards?" she burbled happily, her mood vastly improved from the languor of the morning.

"Baby shopping?" I asked in a panicked voice.

"Oh yes. Baby clothes, baby furniture, baby bottles, baby toys, baby books..." she rattled on, oblivious to the horror in my eyes. "Children's books are just about the coolest thing in the world..."

"I never realised it was all so complicated," I sighed, so overwhelmed that I just wanted to sink down to the curb and cry on the sidewalk. "You know what you're doing - I don't. Maybe it should be you having the brat and not me. You're so good at organising other people."

"Bite your tongue!" retorted Beth, perhaps a little too quickly. "Babies are great when they are someone else's and they go home at the end of the day. I like being the doting aunt, though."

"Well, you have practice, then. I mean, you have nieces and nephews, right?"

Beth frowned. "I have cousins, on my mother's side, and their kids all call me auntie. I suppose I have nieces and nephews on the other side, too - in fact, I know I do. I see them in People Magazine every now and then."

"Is that weird, seeing your family in the press all the time, but never in the flesh?" I probed.

"I dunno, it's the way it's always been, I guess it seems normal to me."

"Is that why you were always so obsessed with getting in 3AM Girls and Public NME?" I wondered aloud.

Beth frowned. "I never thought about it that way. But I suppose it might be. Like, maybe I just wanted them to read about me, the way I read about them. But... my father's never even mentioned the band. I suppose it's part of the deal, that I don't play on his connections, and he doesn't play on mine. But..." She paused, pretending that she was wiping mascara from her eye. "I dunno. Just for once, it would be really nice to have him be... well, proud of me."

I put my arm around her shoulder. "I'm sure he is, he just doesn't say. My dad, you know, he never says anything. But I get emails from him every now and then, sending me clippings or links to reviews he's read in the paper. So I bet he is proud."

"Stop it. You're going to make me cry, and then my mascara really will be ruined," Beth sniffed, then threaded her arm through mine. "Come on, let's hit the shops. I am an expert at this. I organised my cousin Alice's baby shower all on my own, and she had twins."

"Oh great," I moaned. "That makes me feel really confident." But at the sight of the store towards which she was dragging me, I utterly balked. Rows of frilly pink and blue objects covered in cutesy depictions of fluffy animals stared back at me in such profusion that I thought I would go into hypoglycaemic shock. "No, I can't do it," I stuttered, stopping dead at the door, unable to cross the threshold. 

"Where are you going?" protested Beth, forced to break into a trot to keep up with me.

"48th Street!" I insisted, flagging down a taxi. "I'm going to look at guitars. I understand guitars. Babies? Babies leave me completely confused and overwhelmed!"

"You are a boy. Honestly," Beth sighed and gave me that look, but merely shook her head, saying nothing as I dragged her into Sam Ash, demanding that they take down every vintage Jazz bass off the wall for me to try out. This was where I felt comfortable, where I felt like I belonged, not in paediatricians offices and children's clothing stores. The staff fussed over us, treating us with the deferential respect owed pop stars of our status, though I noted sarcastically that before we were successful, we couldn't have gotten noticed if we'd picked up a guitar and walked out the door with it.

"So what did happen to our band, anyway?" I sighed, looking up at Beth as I lazily thumbed out the bass-line we'd been jamming on at Glastonbury. 

"I don't know," sighed Beth distractedly, pausing to stare longingly at a keyboard that a clerk was carrying by us.

"Has anyone heard from Maddie? Does anyone know where she is? Did she come back to New York?" I probed.

Beth shook her head slowly as we moved towards the back of the store, distracted by the lure of high-end recording equipment. "I think she stayed in London. Amy has her phone number, but she says Maddie won't speak to me."

"Kind of ironic, isn't it, that the two of us who wanted to come back to New York so badly ended up staying in Europe, and the anglophile and the Brit are in New York," I interrupted.

"She's separated from Carlos, you know. I called his apartment once, looking for her, and boy did I get a mouthful. Carlos blames me for all this, corrupting influence that I was, getting her mixed up in the shady world of rock music which destroyed her sense of morality and so on and so forth..." 

"As if Carl hadn't been hip-deep in the shady fucking world of rock music since before I even met you guys... He doesn't think The Jesus Sugarpussy corrupted anyone, at all, ever? If anything, Maddie never would have learned how to play drums and joined a band if she hadn't been trying to impress him," I snorted.

"That's it, isn't it? Blaming me means he doesn't have to blame himself," Beth sighed. "But at the same time, I see his point. It's not like we didn't know. We saw everything that The Jesus Sugarpussy went through, and we just went ahead and made the same fucking mistakes ourselves. Like we learned nothing from them."

"We did not make the same fucking mistakes as The Sugarpussy, alright?" I protested. "If we were them, we would still be endlessly fucking fiddling with a fucking album, two years later, burning major label money in an expensive studio, when we've released our album and toured the world, twice."

"I meant, with the fucking drugs and the stupid bickering... but, well, mainly the drugs."

I frowned, feeling more than slightly uncomfortable on this subject. Tony's addiction was something I'd only really been tangentially aware of, the subject of endless gossip and allegation in Lower East Side clubs. Fuck, I'd even taken drugs with him once or twice on tour, but it'd been speed, pills, the usual kidstuff. If he'd done harder stuff - which I knew he must have done - he'd hid it really fucking well. Maddie had once tried to talk to me about it, when Jeremy was at his very lowest, but I'd been too stressed and too deep in denial to respond.

"Not that I think that Maddie and Emma wouldn't happily spend two years in a studio, arguing over whether a sample should go bleep or bloop, but... well." Beth paused, staring at a digital sampling workstation with obvious lust.

"Look, as far as I can recall, the Jesus Sugarpussy broke up because Carlos quit. Not because Tony got addicted to smack and spent six months in rehab, not because Rob got addicted to very expensive effects processors and spent two years mixing and re-mixing the album, but because Carlos walked out. He seems to have conveniently forgotten that. And you seem to have forgotten that I... well, I know I walked out, but I never quit. I walked out on Jeremy, not on The Charms."

"Well, like husband, like wife. And now Maddie has walked out. And she won't even talk to me to tell me why."

"Maybe she'd talk to me," I reflected. "I'm one of the few people who knows the whole story of what's going on, after all..."

"Would you try?" begged Beth. "Cause, god, I miss her... Emma, at least, calls me every few days. I hate it when we fight... I hate the future being so uncertain like this. I mean, for how many years now, has this band been our entire life?"

I nodded slowly, now caught up in the shiny silver hardware of a mixing board. "I know. I hate not being in a band. I feel naked, like I have no identity. I don't know who I am if not in relation to the band. If someone asked me who or what I considered myself, I'd say 'bassist for the Charms' before pretty much anything else."

Beth laughed loudly. "You are such a boy. So many of my female friends have told me that they feel the same way if they're not in a relationship."

I snorted derisively. "Do you know what? I hate being in a relationship." Beth paused and looked at me oddly, her eyebrows knitted. "No, I'm serious. I hate it. It just makes me feel so... trapped. It just sucks the joy out of whatever emotion you felt for the person you're in the relationship with, and makes it feel like a duty and not a gift."

"Are things going that badly with Alex?" she probed quietly.

"No, but I'm just scared. Things are different now between us..."

"Well, of course they are. But aren't they different-better?"

I paused. "I'm not sure. I mean... we never used to fight like this..."

"Oh yes you did!" interrupted Beth. "Don't look at me like that. You were always bickering. It was like being around two children. Alex would get all bent out of shape over whomever you were dating and you would tell him he was a prig and there'd be some huge fight, and then you'd buy each other antique books to make up for it. You forget, Kate, I was there."

Feeling like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders, I suddenly started to laugh. "I suppose you're right. This is nothing new. Stupid petty fights just feel worse when you're in love with the person." Brightening noticeably, I flagged down a salesperson. "Hi . Can I ask you a few questions about this ProTools software here?"

I went home with a lighter heart and a lighter wallet, without a single article of baby paraphernalia, but with several thousand dollars worth of recording equipment and sound editing software, to be set up in the spare bedroom. So much for the nursery... the baby hadn't even been born yet, and I already needed more space.

Chapter Text

____________________ 1997 ____________________

 

How did I hate Roseland? Let me count the ways, I thought to myself, standing at the ticket booth arguing with the clerk about the guest list. If Alex had managed to forget to put me on the guest list in the four days since I had last seen him, heads would roll. The opening band was already halfway through their set, though the infectious pop songs filtering in through the doors sounded strangely familiar.

"My name is Kate Gordon," I repeated, for about the umpteenth time. "I should be on the Slur guest list."

"Oh! Slur - why didn't you say so?" burbled the moronic ticket clerk. "I've been looking at the Jackson Bollocks guest list."

For a second, my heart felt like it had stopped beating, and the insult froze on my lips. "Did you say the Jackson Bollocks?" I repeated incredulously. The music from the theatre changed to a hauntingly familiar riff, and I suddenly found my thoughts transported back two years to that dingy club in the East Village. Taking the laminate pass from her, I slipped it around my neck and pushed through the doors into the hall, squinting my eyes to peer past the crowds of kids at the four figures on the stage.

Off to stage right, in precisely the same place Alex would be standing in half an hour, his face turned downwards as if he bore the weight of the entire world on the sparrow-like shoulders that supported his SG, lurked none other than Peter Hagstrom, the father of the aborted child I'd cried about to Alex less than a week before. Of all the opening slots of all the tours of all the bands in all the world, why had he picked Alex's? Circling the hall, I made my way over to the VIP lounge, unable to take my eyes off him. Seeing Graham sitting by himself, I nodded a greeting and padded over to him, smiling apologetically, as if unsure of my reception. Had I really not spoken to any of them since that fateful festival in Leeds? But rather than shunning me, he grinned broadly and gestured to the empty seat next to him.

"Graham... how are you?" I stuttered, leaning over to whisper over the steady drone of feedback issuing from the stage.

"Oh, you know... could be better, could be worse..." he shrugged, nibbling nervously on his fingernails. "So I hear congratulations are in order?"

What? How could he know? Alex and I had sworn to tell no one of my pregnancy until he'd reached a final decision. If he had told his bandmates, did that mean that he had reconciled himself to becoming a father?

Graham must have noticed me blanch, as he stammered awkwardly. "See, I knew you two were going to get together in the end. I'm very happy for you two..."

"Oh..." So much for my dreams of the happy family. I was about to ask if he knew where Alex was, when we were cut off by a wave of applause as the song ended and my attention was yanked back to the singer with the broad chest and the short unkempt auburn hair.

"Since we're in New York, we'd like to dedicate this next song to a special New Yorker for whom it's rather appropriate..." he drawled, blinking his catlike eyes.

"Lou Weed!" screamed someone in the front row, eliciting a smile.

"Not quite. This song is for Jeremy Kane. It's called Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth."

For a moment, I felt as if I'd been kicked in the stomach. Courtney Tyler, that was his name. Hardly believing that I'd ever found him even vaguely attractive, I stared at him with mixed revulsion and suspicion. What right had he to say the slightest thing about Jeremy when he, Peter and I had spent several weekends running around New York ingesting every substance we could get our hands on and... well, I didn't want to think about the rest. I'd been in love with Peter... infatuated at the very least. But Courtney? I could find no excuse for that. If I was so numb and so completely guilt free and done with grieving over Jeremy, why did every word seem to twist in my stomach with the sick ache of nausea at the mention of his name?

"Kate, are you OK?" Graham was tapping me lightly on the shoulder, but my eyes and ears remained fixed on the stage.

"I never thought you'd be a junkie because heroin is so passé. I never thought you'd get addicted just to be cooler in such an obvious way..." burbled the chirpy pop song.

Stumbling to my feet, I wasn't sure which upset me more. Let everyone think it was just grief over Jeremy - the truth was I was crying for myself, for the broken heart I thought I had forgotten, for the months of uncertainty and then the slow realisation of abandonment when Peter had simply walked out of my life without so much as a phone call, and most of all, for the child in my belly and that other child that was never born. "I need to find Alex," I stuttered by way of explanation, bolting towards the backstage door.

Running straight for the nearest bathroom, I splashed my face with cold water and did my best to fight the rising disquiet in my stomach. Although it was way too soon for the baby to be kicking, the slow twist of heartburn was enough of a reminder of my pregnancy. The mascara smeared eyes that stared back at me looked frightened and cornered, like a wild beast. Shaking the blonde tendrils back into my face as some sort of symbolic protection, I took a deep breath and headed back out, only to hear the roaring applause of the set's end ringing from the stage. I looked around desperately, but the off ramp from the stage blocked my way back to the VIP Lounge, and Courtney and Peter were headed down it, laughing and joking and comparing notes on the gig.

Catching sight of me, Courtney froze, and then blinked. "Oh shit..."

"What?" Peter laughed, looking at him, then followed his gaze. As recognition dawned, the smile slowly slid off his face. "Kate?" he managed to choke out. "Kate Gordon?" Padding closer, he gazed at me as if he were afraid that if he took his eyes off me for a moment I would disappear. We stood awkwardly apart, both of us trying to gauge the other's reaction. I smiled tentatively and extended my hand, then immediately felt silly for making such a formal gesture. He returned my smile cautiously. God, how could I have forgotten the way his nose crinkled as his mouth creased into a smile? I'd once loved that gesture, pressing my lips against the tip of his nose... Not even sure of who had initiated the gesture, I suddenly realised that we were hugging each other tightly, his arms wrapped around my waist, my arms thrown about his neck as I clung to him.

"Oh my god, Kate... I didn't realise you were here. If you had told us you were coming to see us, I never would have made that crack about Jeremy..." In Courtney's universe, there was not the slightest doubt that I could have been there for anything other than his benefit.

"Kate..." Oh god, not now... At the worst possible moment, Alex's low voice drew nearer as he loped down the ramp from the VIP Lounge towards the backstage area. "Ah, here you are."

"Alex..." Guiltily, I pulled apart from Peter, though he seemed reluctant to let me go. Recalling the last few conversations we'd had before Alex had left for the tour, I reminded myself that we hadn't exactly parted on the best terms as if to assuage my guilty conscience, but the suspicion with which he eyed Peter actually made me feel a swell of something akin to security.

"Hello..." Alex greeted, the low whisper carrying an almost tangible dislike for Peter as he looked him up and down, sneering at Peter's tangled blond mop, his mascara blackened eyes and his glittering nail varnish. "I didn't know that you knew this..." he paused, as if searching for the appropriately withering putdown.

Still totally unaware of any connection, Courtney plunged headlong into the vacuum. "Oh, Kate's an old friend... or rather, should we say an old flame of Peter's. If I didn't know you better, Pete, I'd think you were still carrying a torch..."

"Shut up, Courtney," I warned, sidling away from Peter with an apologetic glance towards Alex, whose expression had deepened to a glower.

"Oh, it's true. Do you know he still carries a photo in his wallet of you and him from the session we did at the Harvard Club?"

"Shut the fuck up, Court!" agreed Peter, casting his friend a desperate expression as I snaked my arm around Alex's waist and kissed him reassuringly.

With a snort, Alex wrapped his arm around my shoulder and stared at Peter smugly. I knew that expression. I had hated it on Jeremy, I had hated it on Tristram, and now, seeing the same look of proud possession twisting Alex's beloved features into an evil sneer, well, it turned my stomach.

As Peter looked back and forth between Alex's face and mine, I saw something flicker across his eyes and then die. Biting my lip, I wanted to cry out... But what did I want to say? Sorry, you've made a mistake - you've got it all wrong - I'm not really with this man that I utterly adore; that I've trashed my entire life and career to have? The very idea was absurd. Peter had been a fling - a very lovely and very intense fling two years ago - but he had walked out. He had disappeared without a trace, without ever even knowing about the child he'd nearly fathered. Taking Alex by the hand, I pulled him off towards the backstage area, but Courtney called out after us.

"Hey - we're doing a photo shoot in the park tomorrow. Why don't you two come along? Kate, it's someone you might know... Em Evesham... remember her?"

The name sounded terribly familiar to me, but Alex stiffened as if he'd seen a ghost. "Em Evesham... oh, she's a famous photographer! I'd love to come. We've been trying to get her to do a video for us for ages," I gushed.

"I bet you we snag her first," laughed Courtney.

"Oh yeah?" I shot back, recovering a bit of my old spirits, though all the colour had drained out of Alex's face. "Beth's been working on Gary to give her Evesham's number. We've been dying to work with her..."

"We're not going!" snapped Alex.

I whirled to face him. "What?" I snarled, barely believing what I was hearing. What nonsense was this, that he would presume to tell me that I couldn't spend the day with an old friend?

"I do not want you working with Em Evesham!" he insisted, practically digging his fingers into the flesh of my hand, he was holding it so tightly. "Thank you, Mr. Tyler, but we have other obligations awaiting us tomorrow."

As we shuffled away from them, I turned on him. "What fucking right do you have to tell me who I can and can't work with? This isn't about this photographer at all, is it? It's about Peter, isn't it? If I want to go off and catch up with an old friend, it's my business. There's a large piece of my mind that I'd like to give him. So don't you ever start pulling that Jeremy Kane bullshit with me!"

The realisation suddenly spread over his face. "That was... that Peter?" I nodded slowly as the blood drained out of his face, turning him an even whiter shade of pale. "I have half a mind to..." he growled menacingly.

"Alex, it's my business, and not yours. I need to talk to him and I'm going to talk to him tomorrow at this photo shoot with this Em person!"

Alex's face grew red with fury again. "We're not going and that's final!"

"I'm going with or without you, Alex," I threw back in his face. "If you want to come, that's fine. If you don't, then don't."

For a moment, the two of us stood staring each other down angrily, but a familiar voice rang out from the direction of the stage. "Alex... we've got a gig to do, when you can get around to it..." drawled Damon sarcastically, but when he caught sight of me, he stopped abruptly. He saw me; I knew that he saw me. The shock registered on his face, and he paled slightly, but his eyes slid over me, and he refused to acknowledge me, a deliberate snub.

Stiffening, I forced myself to take the situation in hand. Drawing strength from a deep breath, I wrapped my arm around Alex's waist and tried to present a united front. "Hullo, Damon." He muttered something inaudible, then fled. Alex looked after him for a moment, then shook his head, looking back at me with a plaintive expression. "He really hates me, doesn't he?"

"Look, Kate..." ventured Alex, his voice softening to the familiar Alex that I loved.

"No, you don't have to say anything," I sighed, resting my head against the comforting hollow of his neck. "I know why... it just hurts. I mean, we used to be friends." But that seemed a long time ago, now.

Wrapping his arms around my neck, Alex kissed my face reassuringly, then excused himself to rejoin his band, leaving me to fend for myself in the mine field of the backstage area. The VIP area was filled with journalists, who by some freak chance, had not seen me coming in. The anonymity could not last long, I knew, but I was hesitant to submit to the inevitable probing that awaited me in regard to Jeremy's death. Why did I come back to this den of vipers? Why didn't I just stay in seclusion, safe and secure? The roadies all greeted me with friendly nods and hearty backslapping, so I hung back in the wings, carefully keeping out of their way, but also skilfully avoiding the press.

Alex, that was the reason why. As he walked onto the stage, grinning at the warm roar of a reception from the crowd, I knew that this was where he belonged. With a debonair shrug, he acknowledged the front row, then slipped his suit jacket off his shoulders and picked up his bass. Was that for their benefit or mine, I wondered as he cast me a subtle wink. Somewhere in the South of France, I'd told him how alluring he looked in a well cut Italian suit, and he had accused me of being a closet AbSynth fan, and now what was he wearing on stage? Settling back onto an equipment case, I did my best to stay out of sight, trying to watch the show with a casual detachment. With a guilty start, I caught myself slipping into admiration of more than just his playing. Cut it out, Kate, I told myself sharply. You can make all the noises about credibility that you like, but deep down under it all, you're just one big groupie, aren't you? This is how it all started with Jeremy, remember? But no, the other half of personality leapt to my defence. This is totally different. I love Alex for a million other reasons, really I do. Shaking my head, I wrestled with myself for a moment, then moved back to find another more distant vantage point. It was just too odd trying to reconcile the multitude of bickering voices crowding my conscious mind, being simultaneously angry at Alex as the lover with whom I shared my everyday ups and downs, yet utterly in awe of him as a performer, drawn and attracted by the nonchalant charisma he oozed on stage. No, they were not the same person, and I could not treat them as such. Pulling myself to my feet, I headed back towards the VIP area, hoping that I could clear my head without attracting too much attention.

Slipping into a table at the back, I ordered a virgin orange juice from the waitress and tried to look at anything except the stage. Casting my eyes around, my gaze slid over the various Important Persons gathered like vultures over a fresh kill. Music journalists, radio personalities, record company people, MTV VJ's - this was not a good place to be if you were trying to avoid media exposure. I sipped my drink as unobtrusively as possible and tried to look unassuming, but I had already attracted someone's notice, and a couple of people were staring at me, as if trying to place my face. Please, let the media's attention span be as short as it was rumoured; let them have forgotten me, and Jeremy and everything involved with us, and moved on to the next flavour of the week already...

"Kate?" Shit, too late. I slouched down in my seat, pretending that I hadn't heard, but the voice was insistent. "Kate Gordon?" Without waiting for an invitation, he sat down next to me at the table. "Oh my god, Kate, how are you?" 

Don't pretend you give a fuck about me. You're just looking for the big scoop of your career. "As well as could be expected," I grunted, glaring at him with a don't-fuck-with-me scowl.

"I'm terribly sorry. I heard about Jeremy Kane's unfortunate... death. Please, let me offer my condolences..." I mumbled my thanks and tried to edge away from him, but he was as persistent as a dog with a bone. "I'm from Spin Magazine. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions about..."

"Yes, I would mind very much," I spat, but he ploughed on, regardless.

"Just a few questions. There are a lot of unanswered doubts about Mr. Kane's death, and your subsequent disappearance..."

"I really don't want to talk about it!" I practically snarled.

"Perhaps now is not a good time. How about I give you my card, and you call me, and we set up a formal interview for..."

"You didn't hear me, did you?" I snapped back, taking the card he had pressed into my hand, ripping into several pieces and throwing it back at him as confetti. "I don't want to talk about it. Not now, not ever. Now leave me alone, please, I am trying to watch the concert."

"But..." he protested, trying to regain control over the situation. My outburst had attracted the attention of several other people standing around us, who were beginning to take more of an interest in the anonymous blonde girl huddled in the corner, and the journalist obviously saw his scoop slipping away from him.

"Please leave me alone," I repeated firmly, staggering to my feet and pushing past him, but I had gotten no further than a few steps when another person accosted me.

"Miss Gordon?"

"Kate, what can you tell us about?" interrupted another one from the other side. Suddenly, I found myself boxed in by a growing pack of the press. Placing my hands over my ears, I panicked and tried to dash for the exit, but someone blocked my way. "Tell us about Jeremy Kane's alleged..."

"Leave me alone! I don't want to talk about Jeremy Fucking Kane..." I growled as menacingly as I could, though to tell the truth, I was terrified myself, as the pack threatened to become a mob.

"Hey, clear off - give the girl some room!" demanded a voice at my shoulder, and someone took my elbow and guided me free of the crowd, pulling me outside into the clear and refreshingly damp air of the night. "Are you OK?"

I turned to thank the unlikely saviour of Peter Hagstrom, eyeing me concernedly from under his blond fringe. "Well, that was far too poetic a way to die," I quipped, trying to cover my fear and the sudden cloud of racing thoughts with a pathetic attempt at humour.

"What was that about?" he wondered, casting a suspicious eye at the backstage door we'd just stumbled through to make sure we'd not been followed.

I shook my head slowly. "You got about an hour? It'd take ages to explain."

"I'm not going anywhere till after your... boyfriend's band gets offstage," he shrugged. The way he said the word, it almost sounded as if there were quotations around it, as if it was a fact he wanted me to confirm or deny. I said nothing, catching my breath as I stared at him. "Do you want to go get a cup of coffee?"

Fighting the urge to retort something nasty, I shook my head, and pushed my fringe out of my eyes, a motion he echoed subconsciously. "Are you sure? You look pretty shaky. I wouldn't recommend going back in there any time soon." A cup of coffee actually sounded like a fantastic idea, but the truth was I just didn't particularly fancy going anywhere with him. The delicate truce with Alex was still too tenuous to risk this way. "Come on, Kate, I don't bite," he added with a faint edge of a smile.

"Yes, you do," I shot back, flirting without even meaning to, almost out of habit.

"I seem to remember it was you doing most of the biting," laughed Peter. A shy but slightly wolfish grin slid slowly across his face, but he backed away perceptibly. "Do you want to go back in, then?"

"Not particularly," I sighed, unable to take my eyes off him. From inside, I could hear the roar of the crowd as Slur's set drew to a close. No, I couldn't let Alex catch me out here alone with Peter, I thought nervously, then immediately chided myself for thinking such a thing. Alex had no hold over me; if I wanted to spend the entire evening chatting innocently with ex-boyfriends in dark alleys, that was my own business.

"Come on," he urged. "You really look like you could do with a good hot cup off coffee," he urged, then added, "I'm buying..."

"I can afford my own coffee now," I tossed back, spiritedly, following him along 53rd St. towards the reassuring red and blue neon of a deli. "I'll treat you."

"Ooh, now that's a change," he teased, opening the door and stepping back to allow me to pass him. "You always used to make me pay for everything."

"Well, that's cause you were the big indie rock star and I was the starving artist, and now my band is bigger than yours," I retorted, feeling myself slipping so casually back into the familiar patter of bickering. "Two coffees, one milk and sugar, one just sugar, please."

Peter smiled, leaning back against the counter as he surveyed me carefully. "How the hell did you remember that?"

"I have an amazing memory," I boasted. "Practically photographic. How else do you think I managed to become such an incredible encyclopaedia of useless trivia?"

He shook his head. "That you are."

I paused, warming my hands on the steaming cup, suddenly stuck by the absurdity of the situation, exchanging pleasantries back and forth with a man who'd left me reeling, a shattered and devastated wreck, only a few years ago. "I have to go. Alex will be wondering where I am," I suddenly stuttered, making a dash for the door and fleeing before the tears could catch up with me.

By the time I got back to Roseland, I was out of breath, panting slightly, flashing my pass at the staff and pushing my way past the crowd of kids milling around the backstage door. For a moment, I panicked, looking around the smoky room filled with barracuda journalists, then felt flooded with relief as I caught sight of Alex, standing chatting with someone towards the back of the room. Pushing my way over to him, I caught him by surprise, snaking my arm around his waist, then reached up to kiss him. For a moment, he stiffened, and he looked ready to snarl at the invasion of his personal space, then the snarl twisted into a smile of delight as he recognised me and bent over to press his greeting onto my lips. His conversation forgotten, he wrapped his arms about my waist and kissed me enthusiastically, nearly spilling my coffee.

"Where have you been?" he finally asked.

"I went to get a cup of coffee," I explained guiltily, gesturing towards the cup.

"I thought you weren't supposed to be drinking coffee while... you know," he cautioned worriedly, with a glimpse down towards my belly, as though it was difficult for him to say the word.

Shrugging, I sipped defiantly at the sweet liquid. "I've cut down."

He had no time to reply, as a fan cut between us. "Great show..."

"Thanks." I saw his eyes glaze over with boredom, but he held his tongue politely until the moment had passed. "Remind me again why I do this?"

"Because all of your teenage dreams have come true and turned to nightmares," I teased back, kissing him on the nose. He pulled an exaggeratedly pained expression and swallowed the last of his beer. Suddenly, I caught sight of Peter entering from the other side, still clutching his cup of coffee as he scanned the room for familiar faces. "We don't have to stay here, you know," I suggested, trying hard not to sound pleading.

A mischevious light sparked in Alex's eyes. "We can't skip out on the meet and greet. Damon would kill me..."

"What are they going to do? Fire you?" I made a contemptuous face, glorying in playing the role of devils advocate Damon had already assumed I was. "Let's go back to the hotel. Come on. You know you want to..."

He grinned evilly, deposited his empty beer bottle on the nearest table, picked up a full one, then took me by the hand and lead me proudly out of the room, walking straight by Damon with a look of pure defiance on his face.

Hand in hand, the two of us ran giggling out into the street and hailed the nearest passing taxi, ignoring the jealous glances and catcalls of the crowd of kids milling around outside. "So where do you want to go?" he asked with a playful grin.

"I don't know. I don't really feel like going home, though."

"You never do, do you?" he laughed softly. "I think that's why I love you so much. Always up for anything." He moved forwards, towards the cab driver. "Times Square, please..."

"That's only a few blocks away," I pointed out, my parsimonious side aghast at the idea of spending money on a cab when we could easily walk, until I realised with a start that Alex has just said that he loved me. Well, it was a joke, wasn't it?

"A woman in your condition shouldn't be walking," Alex teased, patting my stomach as he sipped from a beer bottle that I hadn't noticed him sneak into the taxi.

"What are you doing?" I fussed, trying to sound annoyed, though I was secretly giggling at his boldness. This was Alex at his most infuriatingly loveable, fresh off stage, giddy and slightly drunk with the music and the adulation. "Are you mad? You can't drink in a car."

"You! No drinking in my cab!" snarled the driver in agreement.

"It doesn't matter, we're already here," shrugged Alex, magnanimously tipping the man almost twice what our ride had cost. "Hey, guess what - we're staying at your favourite hotel. You know - that big one with the elevators that you always called the Death Star."

I blanched as the taxi pulled into the drive and an immaculately dressed bellboy opened the door and took my hand as I climbed out. There was no way Alex could have known about the memories here, especially after the way he had reacted toward Peter back at the venue. We must have passed it in traffic a million times, and usually I giggled at my private in-joke, but as we bundled into the glass elevators, I was suddenly overcome by nostalgia for those wild, insane early days I had spent running around the city with Peter. 

 

____________________ 1995 ____________________

 

Flagging down a cab, we piled into it in a tangle of arms and legs, falling over each other. Courtney whispered an address, then fell back into the dark of the back seat, digging in his jacket pocket for a plastic bag full of white powder. Digging his little finger in, he pulled out a tiny amount under the tip of his fingernail, and raised it surreptitiously to his nose. With a joyful cry, Peter seized the bag from him and repeated the process. Studying the driver suspiciously, I stared back and forth between the two of them, but he either didn't notice or didn't care. 

"Want some?" offered Peter, holding it out towards me. 

"What is it?" I asked distrustfully, eyeing it with trepidation. 

"Oh please, Sister Cocaine, lay your cool hands on me..." replied Courtney, his knuckles whitening as he clutched the back of the seat in front of him, his eyes popping out of his skull. 

Staring at bag, for a second I wavered, wondering if it was wise to be mixing such wide varieties of pharmaceuticals, then caved in to peer pressure, scooping up a few grains on a tentative fingertip and raising it to my lips. It tasted nasty; slightly acrid, like aspirin, but Peter urged me, "No, take more than that. You have to snort it or you won't feel it as quick." 

Throwing caution to the wind, I dug my longest fingernail into the shimmering powder, then inhaled, gagging slightly as it scraped down the back of my sinuses. For a second, I felt nothing, then it was as if the world had exploded in a blinding dazzle of colour and sound. My head felt like a balloon, rising towards the ceiling as it heightened the LSD still coursing through my system, sending tendrils of sound spinning across my vision in some bizarre sensory synaesthesia. Peter was laughing a stream of orange and red zig zags across the back of the seat, and when he touched me, pushing his hand gently between my legs with the firm grasp of ownership, it was like a thousand violins humming inside my eardrums.

"Are you in there?" I heard his voice ask, echoing down a long corridor, but when I turned to look at him, his skin was dazzling white, shining with pearlescence, more beautiful than I had ever seen a human being look, like a fallen angel, with his shimmering blond hair and blackened eyes. Broadway was flashing by like a giant human videogame. 

"Oh my god, stop the cab!" screamed Courtney suddenly, and the car squealed to a halt. 

"Whassa matter? Whassa matter?" babbled the cabdriver, turning around with an expression of panic on his face. 

"I loooooovvve Times Square..." drawled Courtney, leaning back in the seat to admire the view. 

"Fucking junkies! Get out of my cab!" snarled the driver indignantly. 

Peter laughed, thrusting a ten dollar bill at him, then bundled Courtney out of the cab, onto the median, where he promptly crumpled up into a ball, staring entranced at the neon signs flashing around him. "I fucking love New York City!" he announced to the night air. 

Barely able to stand, I crouched down next to Courtney, staring into the wide black pools of his eyes, but he pulled me down next to him, throwing his arm about my shoulders. "We should find somewhere to sit down," I observed, trying to find some modicum of sense under the layers and layers of hallucinations. Looking up, I saw the Marriott Marquis looming above. "We should go to the Death Star!" 

"The Death Star?" repeated Courtney incredulously. 

"Yeah, call your record company guy and tell him to meet us at the Marquis, under the clock. They got a revolving restaurant up there..." 

Staggering to a payphone, Courtney dialled the number and barked his instructions. Shaking my head to try and clear it, I breathed deeply of the night air, but my thoughts refused to conform to any sort of rationality, bouncing around the cage of my skull like a restless animal. "We're on," announced Courtney. "We'll meet him under the clock." Threading his arm through mine, we tottered across the road. "Why do you call it the Death Star?" he asked. 

"You'll see," I promised him, looking around for Peter, who suddenly appeared on the other side of me, unwrapping a stick of gum. Slithering past the doorman, we made our way to the elevators, and rode them up to the eighth floor, stepping out into a fairly conventional high end hotel lobby dotted with comfortable leather couches and matte black coffee tables. "Just follow me inside, and don't look up till I tell you to."

"I still don't see why you call this the Death Star," Courtney whined as I guided the two of them towards the circle of sofas in the centre of the room. Flopping down onto the soft leather, I pulled Peter down on top of me, then pointed up. 

"Look up. Now."

The lobby extended up as far as the eye could see, 50 stories into the air, with light bedecked elevators whizzing up and down a central pillar. 

Courtney squealed with delight, leaping off the sofa and staring up into space for a moment, then turned around, leaping up onto the coffee table with an evil grin. "Join me, Luke! I am your father!" he yelled out, grabbing Peter by the hand. 

Peter giggled, pulling his other hand inside the cuff of his shirt and clutching it to his chest. "No! I will never join you!" 

At that moment, I noticed a worried waitress making her way over towards our table, so I put my hands over my mouth and announced in my best megaphone drone "Please step away from the art!" 

Courtney cracked up, jumping down from the table and turning to confront the waitress with his most disarming smile. "Is there something I can help you with?" she asked carefully, trying not to sound too suspicious, in case we turned out to be genuine rock stars and not casual junkies off the street. 

"Yes, we'd like a bottle of Dom Perignon, and three glasses, please," Courtney replied without batting an eyelid. "And what sort of cigars do you have?" 

The flustered woman looked back and forth between the three of us, her eyes lingering on Peter, lying with his head on my lap and his boots up on the other end of the sofa. "Erm..." 

At that moment, right as Courtney was drawing himself up to his full height and indignation, a man in an impeccably cut Italian silk suit sprouting a tiny slick ponytail from the back of his balding head appeared at the other end of the room, waving broadly as he approached us. "Courtney! Peter!" Pumping their hands warmly, he clapped Courtney on the back, then turned to the waitress. "Get my boys whatever they want. And a glass of cognac and a Cohiba for me, please." 

The woman nodded, cowed into compliance by his immediate presence. This was the genuine article - a smooth, suave record company executive of the old school 80's excess variety. DeLorean, hot tub, cocaine nose job, call girls on demand, whatever you want, nothing too good for my boys up front, and barracuda sharp teeth underneath. "So how are you enjoying the city, boys? I'm sorry I couldn't meet you at the gallery. A slight problem with AbSynth - their bassist was threatening to quit again, but I think we've talked him, or rather, his wife, out of the idea." 

"It's OK, we found a tour guide," Courtney gushed, accepting the drink at his elbow and lighting his cigar off the candle on the coffee table. "Have you met Kate?" 

"Charmed, I'm sure," he replied, daintily shaking my hand, producing a shower of giggles from Peter and I. "What?" Rather than being offended, he merely smiled puzzledly. 

"I'm in a band called the Charms," I explained. 

"You'll be taking them out for champagne and caviar in another six months, I'm sure," nodded Courtney appreciatively. 

The A&R man turned and looked me up and down, then cocked his head. "The Charms - I've heard of you. Didn't you play with The Jesus Sugarpussy a couple of days ago?" I nodded, surprised that he knew. "Yeah, we've heard good things about you. We'll keep our eye on you." Peter turned around and grinned at me, elbowing me appreciatively, and I felt my ego, already swollen from the bizarre combination of drugs I had ingested, literally expand another inch, pressing against the confines of my skull. "Some champagne, Kate?" 

Why not add another stick of kindling to the already raging fire? "Thanks." Sitting up, I tried to push Peter off my lap, but he seemed disinclined to move, staring up at the elevators as they flew back and forth on their gossamer wires, wrapping his arm possessively about my knees. 

Picking Peter's legs off the couch, Courtney flopped down next to us, leaning over against me, practically crushing Peter. "Can we get a room?" 

"If you like," shrugged the A&R man. "Are you not happy at the Soho Grande? I thought you'd like the neighbourhood." 

"I'm hungry, I wanna eat," whined Peter, sitting up to pour himself a glass of champagne. 

"I'm horny, I wanna fuck your girlfriend," teased Courtney in an imitation of his whine, prodding him in the ribs and making him spill wine all over his shirt - my shirt, really.

"We can introduce you to some nice ladies later," suggested A&R man. In my hazy, drugged unreal state, the full implication of this statement did not hit me for a few minutes. "Do you want to go upstairs and have some supper, perhaps? Your manager should be meeting us up there shortly." 

Courtney and Peter exchanged looks - this was what they'd been waiting for, apparently. Settling back into the sofa, I stared up at the balconies above us, overcome by a strange wistful jealousy. This just wasn't what I wanted, tagging along on someone else's ride to fame - it was like being offered a glimpse of everything I'd ever wanted, but being unable to actually hold it. Never mind the horror stories I'd heard about major labels, wining and dining bands on their tax credit expense accounts, only to drop them a few months later as a write-off - this was what I wanted. 

Raising the glass of champagne to my lips, I drank a silent toast only I would understand. Please, let it be me, please... let it be me. As the honey gold liquid fizzed over my tongue, I suddenly realised what all the fuss was about - this wasn't wine; this was like drinking light straight out of a neon tube. Heady and strong, it burrowed its way down my throat, sinking immediately into my empty stomach and swirling my head around until I no longer knew which way was up. 

Jerking back to the present, I realised Peter was shaking me. "Do you want to go upstairs and eat now?" 

"Eat?" The word sounded foreign to me. "What, like that thing normal people do three times a day?" The A&R man laughed as if I'd just told an incredibly funny joke. "But what about the champagne?" I protested. 

"We can call up and have another bottle waiting for us," offered the A&R man. 

"What, and leave this lovely stuff here? I don't think so," I protested, swooping down and seizing it off the table before following them to the elevators. 

Peter giggled, helping himself to a swig straight out of the bottle, then handed it back to me, hooking his thumb through the belt-loop of my jeans as we made our way to the elevators. "Wait, I see some associates of mine," interrupted the A&R man. "Go ahead up and enjoy yourselves - I'll be up in a few minutes," he told us, excusing himself to go over to the front desk to talk to three more men in identical suits. 

"I love this place!" gushed Courtney, pushing his way into one of the express elevators and pushing the close button before any of the tourists milling about could join us. "Kate, it's lovely... Oh wait a minute - this is going to go straight up, isn't it?" I nodded, staying close to the interior of the glass elevator. "Wait a minute - here..." digging in his jacket, he pulled out the coke again and handed it round. "Wait - you gotta time it right so that it hits you right as you start to go up... OK, now hit the button..." 

For the second time that evening, I inhaled deeply, fighting the urge to sneeze as the lift lurched skyward. For a moment, I felt the dizzying ache of my fear of heights, then suddenly the drug hit my bloodstream, swinging me up, higher, higher, faster and faster, building momentum as we flew past the balconies at an alarming rate. For a terrifying moment, I thought we were going to fly straight out through the top of the building, sailing up over the skyscrapers of New York in a dizzying arc, but it finally slowed and stopped, and the doors slid open to disgorge us into an enormous, open circular room. 

The expressions on our faces must have been priceless, as the smartly dressed yuppies waiting to go downstairs stared at us with a mixture of fear and amusement as we stumbled out of the elevator, clinging to each other for support. 

"Wow," muttered Peter quietly, taking the bottle of champagne from me and taking a long swig before passing it to Courtney. "I wanna do that again." 

"Party of four for MVC Records?" inquired an unctuous Maitre D' gliding over from his rostrum to whisk us away somewhere before we could frighten away any more customers. "Right this way, please." 

"Five, actually. Do we have a window seat?" asked Courtney excitedly. 

"But, of course." 

"I can't feel it spinning," protested Peter. "I thought there would be this amazing centrifugal force." 

"I can feel it spinning," I giggled faintly. Or perhaps it was just my head, still not fully recovered from flying up through the roof of a building. 

"Can you make it go faster?" urged Courtney. 

"No, no, no, don't be silly," laughed the Maitre D' in the most condescending of tones. "It would put the guests off their food. Over here, please, sirs..." We were off in a remote section of the pie-shaped room, hidden from view by a large potted palm tree. 

"Is this real?" I wondered out loud, pinching the leaves to make sure. One of them broke off in my fingers, oozing sap, so I quickly stuffed it back into the pot. 

"A fresh bottle of champagne?" offered an obsequious waiter, relieving me of the bottle that the three of us had managed to empty in about ten minutes. 

I stared at the menu, though for some reason, between the champagne, the acid, and the coke, I had somehow lost the urge to eat. Everything was some sort of meat dish, boiled, poached, roasted or braised in brandy, but Courtney and Peter didn't seem to mind, ordering two of everything that caught their eye. "What's the matter?" asked Peter, moving his chair closer so he could drape his hand across with my thigh with casual ownership. 

"I want shaag poneer..." I whined, surveying the menu with distaste. 

"Shag..." repeated Peter, raising his eyebrows suggestively and tickling me in the ribs. 

"Hey!" called Courtney, beckoning the waiter back over. He obviously enjoyed any opportunity to make a fuss or bother someone. "There's no vegetarian food on this menu." 

"Erm... we can specially order something from the kitchen?" he suggested in an obviously affected French accent. "What would the young lady desire?" 

"May I please have a goats cheese and spinach omelette... with french fries?" I asked in the clipped tone that always seemed to be exacerbated when I was drunk. I could practically see his skin crawl at the latter, but he bowed obsequiously and scurried off to see what he could do. Staring out the window, I let my eyes slide down the long, slanted, bright streak of Broadway that diagonally cut through the tracing of ordered streets in their latticework across the island. "Contrary and wilful, no wonder everyone loves Broadway," I mused out loud, to no one in particular. "Wandering where it chooses with total disregard for the rules and regulations of urban planning. The Avenues, with their long, marching lines of identically spaced intersections - I feel nothing towards the Avenues. But Broadway... I can relate to Broadway. I can understand Broadway." 

Peter turned to me with that wolfish grin. "I feel like Broadway tonight. Bright and shining and going my own damn way." Hooking his foot under the leg of my chair, he pulled it towards him slightly, running his hand up and down my thighs under the cover of the tablecloth. 

Courtney was unusually quiet, staring out at the lights with a self satisfied smirk. Bereft of an audience, it seemed odd to see him so self contained. I had half expected him to go on performing, to go on babbling, even if left in a room by himself. Turning to Peter, he flashed him a vague grimace. "God, this is it, isn't it? We're really gonna do this. We're really gonna sign our lives away to The Man. A major label fucking record deal." 

"Top of the world, Ma," replied Peter. 

"Are you scared?" 

Peter shook his head. "Nerves like a rock," he boasted, holding out his hand, which shook only slightly from the combination of drugs and strong wine. 

"I'm terrified," confessed Courtney. 

"Of what?" I asked. "You've got the entire world spread out at your feet right now." 

"I feel like I'm sitting at the top of a roller coaster, at that scary point, just before you fall, looking down at the crazy winding, wild ride ahead of us." 

"I love roller coasters," Peter shrugged. "Are we going to go on the Coney Island Cyclone while we're here?" 

"I think they close it for the winter," I told him, then turned back to Courtney. "Enjoy it. Think of all the shitty clubs, the smelly vans, the crappy sound systems, and shut up and drink your champagne and lick all the corporate anuses thrust in your face." Grabbing the bottle out of the stand, I refilled my glass, unable to stop pouring the liquid gold down my throat. 

"I'll drink to that," Courtney laughed, taking the bottle from me and refilling his own glass. Across the room, the elevator doors slid open, and the A&R guy and another man I assumed was either their manager or another record company asshole came walking towards us, deep in conversation. Something flickered across Courtney's face, and I could almost hear the slate clicking behind his eyes: Lights, camera, action... 

"Courtney, Peter, erm..." He paused for a moment, searching for my name. "Kate... how's the food. I hope you've started without us." 

As if a switch had gone off in his head, Courtney launched straight back into his mile a minute talking, gabbling happily with the new man, slipping into his performing role as easily as slipping into a change of clothes. He was like a chameleon, the way he changed before my eyes, silly one minute, crude the next, smiling and congenial and performing like a trained monkey the next - I found myself wondering if he even had a true personality of his own under all the layers and layers of personnas. 

"You're awfully quiet," observed Peter, squeezing my thigh affectionately under the table. "Are you alright?" 

"I feel... I feel..." I replied slowly, choosing my words carefully. "I feel like my own thoughts are moving so fast, so far ahead of everything else that it's like the rest of the world has slowed down, crawling almost to a complete stop. Like this platform we're sitting on - it's revolving so slowly you can't even feel it, until you look out five minutes later and realise that you're not looking at the same buildings..." I played nervously with my food. A few minutes ago, I'd been ravenous, but now I felt disinclined to do anything with my omelette except move it around my plate into orderly little piles.

"Why do you think they call it speed?" Peter giggled. His food lay equally untouched on the plates in front of him

"It's not the drug," I insisted. "The whole fucking world is moving too slowly for me!"

"Hey," he assured me, taking me by the hand and rubbing my fingers gently. Turning his head, he gestured towards the stationary bar in the centre of the building that was currently drifting by us at a few feet an hour. "Wanna get some air? All this spinning is doing my head in." I followed him away from the record company discussion gratefully, settling at the barstool next to his. "Two gin and tonics," he called to the bartender. "And put it on the tab for table 22 over there..."

"Thanks," I mumbled as I sipped my drink. He always paid. Or, at least the record company always paid. "When the hell do I get to have a record company pay my expense account?" I grumbled.

Peter merely laughed, pulling me between his legs and kissing me. "Is that why you're sulking? You are jealous, aren't you?"

"I'm sorry," I mumbled, settling into the leather V of his lap. "I'm being selfish, aren't I? I don't want to spoil things for you. I mean, this is the day that your dreams come true, isn't it? You're probably been waiting for this your whole life. Like girls are supposed to dream of weddings, musicians dream of signing a record deal."

Nodding, Peter took a swig of his drink then grinned. "Yup, I'm pretty content with the way things are right now. I'm about to sign a six-figure record deal, I'm drinking in a fucking kick-ass restaurant in New York City with someone else picking up the tab, and I've got the coolest girl in the whole city sitting pretty in my lap. I'd say things are pretty fucking good for me."

I blushed as he tried to kiss the tip of my nose, but something about what he had said irked me. "But what if I don't just want to be the pretty girl sitting on your lap? Fuck it, I don't want to be an ornament on someone's arm. I don't want to be famous for who I'm shagging, I want to be famous for what I do, for who I am. Call me petty, but I want to be the fucking rock star."

"Trust me, you fucking well will be," Peter laughed. "Are you fucking kidding me? Don't sulk, Katie. It'll be you soon enough, I've seen your band, I've seen you play. The first time I saw you walk out onto that stage, you were just soundchecking and you blew me away. So believe me, you are going to be famous for what you do." He paused. "Though I hope you're still shagging me, when you are," he added with a lecherous smirk. "Now pardon me, but let's go back down to that table so I can count the zeros on the advance they are offering us. I'm buying the champagne this time, but next time - you'll be buying it, and I'm gonna hold you to that."

Chapter Text

____________________ 1997 ____________________

 

The doors closed with an understated swoosh and then the lift took off, shooting high into the artificial night of the giant hollow hotel, the pixie lights on the balconies sparkling like stars as they slid past.

"I love this hotel," laughed Alex drunkenly, his face plastered against the glass, peering down into the enormous gulf of the open floors below us.

"Hmmm," I mused quietly. My stomach moved uneasily, pulling me sharply back to reality from the hazy films of my memories. Peter was gone, Peter was a memory, Peter was nothing to me now, and this was the man I loved and adored.

A chime sounded and the lift slid to a stop, the doors sliding open with the same polite whoosh. Taking my hand, Alex charged out of the elevator, only to stumble slightly, nearly toppling over and taking me down with him, but righting himself, miraculously, without spilling a drop of his beer. "Mind the gap," he intoned seriously, turning back to me with a mischevious expression.

"Be careful!" I admonished quietly, patiently following him along the balcony. I had never had much of a head for heights, and my pregnancy seemed only to exacerbate the queasy feeling in my stomach as I peered down into the murky depths of the 50 or so floors below us.

"Ha-ha!" he laughed raucously, seizing me around the waist and pulling me towards the edge. "Is my little Katie afraid of heights? Scared I'm going to lead us both over the edge?"

"Cut it out!" I snarled, twisting out of his grasp and heading back to the relative safety of the balcony. "What room are we in, anyway?"

"Hang on," chirped Alex, digging in his jacket pockets, apparently unaware of my annoyance. "Oops!" he gasped with a surprised expression, holding his hand over his open mouth. "I think I've lost the key."

"Bloody hell, Alex!' I exploded, leaning back against the wall and glaring at him in complete and utter irritation. "You are going back and getting it, then! I am not risking my life with you in that elevator again!"

Alex rolled his eyes and sighed deeply, his shoulders rising and falling noticeably as he pulled the slip of plastic out of his trouser pockets. "I was joking, you know," he finally imparted as he pushed open the door to our suite. Kicking off his shoes, he ran and jumped onto the king-sized bed, sprawling his long frame across it lazily. "You know, you were a lot more fun back when you used to drink."

I stopped in my tracks, still holding the door half open as if contemplating simply turning around and walking back out of it. All sorts of horrible retorts crowded my tongue, fighting for expression, but I beat them back into quiet submission. Barely noticing me, Alex idly flicked the television off and on, lit a cigarette, then headed over to the wet bar to pour himself a drink. "You know, I think you were a lot more fun when I used to drink, as well," I muttered, low enough to pass for talking to myself, but just loud enough for Alex to hear.

Alex turned around slowly, staring at me with a shocked expression that slowly faded to bemusement. Placing the empty glass back down onto the counter, he started to laugh, gently at first, then shaking with mirth. "Touché, dear!" he finally conceded, padding over and gently encircling my waist with his long arms, brushing his lips across the top of my head.

I wanted to struggle and protest, to pull away and assert my independence, but he held me firm until I raised my face to stare defiantly into his deep brown eyes. Greeting my annoyance with a warm but drunkenly fuzzy smile, he brought his mouth down on top of mine, pushing my lips gently apart.

"I've missed you, you know," he whispered, moving his mouth lower, burying his face in the soft hollow between my neck and shoulder. Pressing his hips against me, I felt him moving slowly and rhythmically, as if dancing to some music only he could hear. Despite how wrong the whole scenario felt, the force of habit and affection found me wrapping my arms around his neck and returning the embrace, sliding my fingers up into his hair.

His mouth tasted like beer and cigarettes, reassuring in its familiarity, but still not entirely pleasant, so I broke it off abruptly, pulling away from him and retreating back towards the bed. He followed me with his eyes, at first, smirking sensuously, then followed me physically, lying down beside me, his face pressed against the nape of my neck, curling his long body against the curve of my back. Probing with his long fingers, he snaked his arm around my waist, up under my shirt, searching instinctively for my breasts. As his finger closed around my nipples, I could no longer resist, moaning slightly as his teeth grazed my skin just under my hairline. His other hand was pushing my skirt off my hips, sliding my tights and my knickers out of the way, playfully curling his fingers in my hair before pushing lower, bringing forth tiny beads of moisture with his light and darting touch.

Forgetting the annoyance of a scant few minutes ago, I shifted slightly, rubbing my body against him until I could feel his penis stiffen between the two halves of my arse. A slight movement of his hips, and he was between my legs, rubbing back and forth between my outer labia until he was slick with my moisture. As he took the skin of my neck softly into his mouth, his teeth grazed my flesh, sending little pinpricks of excitement down my spine towards my swollen clitoris. He was playing with me, pushing insistently against my inner lips, hard enough for the pressure to build into a torturous yearning, but never quite hard enough to push inside.

I tried to twist around in his arms, to bring my face nearer to his so that I could kiss him, desperate to hungrily suck his tongue into my mouth, but he held me fast, raking his teeth down across my shoulders so hard that there would be a bruise in the morning. So that was his game - he was marking me, possessing me, reasserting his ownership. For a moment, my pride cried out in protest, and I tried to slip from his grasp, but as he slid inside me, I lay still in surrender, letting him latch onto the back of my neck with his lips and his teeth. I held my breath, almost afraid to move, captivated by the pressure of his penis inside me. Flattening his palm against my sex, he pushed softly with his hips, squeezing my clitoris between his hand and his penis, the pressure mounting until it was practically unbearable. I had to move, or I would have come instantly, the sensation flooding up my spine until my head spun.

No, Alex, it's not that easy, I thought to myself, dancing away from him and catching my breath, wiggling against him playfully, but never quite slowing to a discernible rhythm. He snorted in protest, moving his hand and trying to catch my hips, finally holding me still as he started to thrust, his long, clean strokes pushing my body back to the plateau of sensation I had stepped back from. No longer fighting, I started to move with him, up and back, adding a little twist of my hips to catch him as he pulled back. He released the hold his teeth had on my flesh, kissing my neck, my shoulders, my back before rolling me onto my stomach, crawling on top of me, forcing his legs between mine. 

As he propped himself up on elbows, he slammed himself into me, pounding my hips into the mattress almost violently. Twisting my face around, I returned his kiss greedily, letting him probe his searching tongue into my mouth, swallowing him, sucking until I was afraid I was tear it out by its root. When he snaked his hand between my legs, seizing my clitoris between thumb and forefinger, I could no longer withstand the onslaught, relaxing and letting orgasm roll through my muscles, going limp as a rag-doll in Alex's arms. Not satisfied with the results of his labour, Alex shifted again, grabbing me about the torso and pulling me off the bed, his hands on my shoulders and his elbows in my ribs, pulling me backwards until my entire weight was balanced on his groin. His breaths grew short and deep, panting, then he emitted a strangled cry, throwing his arms about my waist and squeezing until I thought I would pass out.

For a long minute, the two of us knelt there, catching our breaths. A light sweat had broken out across my skin, and the slight breeze was raising all the hair along my arms. When Alex moved, I shivered reflexively. He laughed, running his finger along the contour of my shoulder.

"What?" I demanded somewhat breathlessly, pulling him down on the bed beside me and spreading the blanket across our semi-clad bodies.

"You're going to have horrible lovebites tomorrow," he chuckled softly, bending down to softly kiss the bruised flesh.

Yeah, just in time for the photo shoot where Peter would be sure to see them. Biting my tongue, I resisted the urge to accuse him of having done it on purpose, and merely shook my head disapprovingly, settling down and slipping into sleep, wrapped securely in his long arms.

 

____________________ 1995 ____________________

 

It was well after noon when I finally awoke, my face pressed up against Peter's shoulder blades and my arms wrapped tightly around his stomach, but it took me several moments to realise that the ringing in my ear was the phone. Shaking Peter gently yielded no response, so for another minute, I tried to ignore it, then gave up and picked it up. "Hullo?' I croaked, my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth.

"Kate?" bleated Courtney's voice from the other end of the line. "Tell Pete to get his lazy ass down here this second. We've got a photo shoot in five minutes!"

"I'll try..." I moaned, then put the phone down and shook Peter harder. "Pete..."

"Leave me alone..." he grumbled, rolling away from me and pulling the pillow over his head.

"Pete, you have to get up," I urged, resorting to drastic tactics, snaking my hand under his thigh and sharply squeezing his chapped and sore penis.

"Ow! Jesus Christ! Watch it!" he yelped, practically leaping out of bed. "What are you trying to do? Kill me?"

"Well, it got you up, didn't it?" I shrugged. "Come on. You have a photo shoot in five minutes."

"Oh, shit..." he swore, suddenly running about the room and picking his clothes off the floor. "Em Evesham. Fuck. What did you do with my leather pants?"

"They've got to stink, Peter!" I laughed.

"So what? You can't smell them through the film," he pointed out, pulling on the embroidered velvet shirt he seemed to have permanently borrowed from me. "Fuck, Court's been telling us about this for ages. Where's your eyeliner?" Running his fingers through his hair, he tried to force some order on the unruly tufts, then gave up, re-applying a line of kohl under his eyes. "No time to shave... it looks OK, though, doesn't it?" he implored, turning around.

It just wasn't fair. Twenty seconds out of bed, unwashed, unshaven and shagged out, he still managed to look like sex incarnate. "You look fine," I assured him, taking my comb and brushing his fringe down into his eyes. "Perfect. Who's Em Evesham?"

"She's this hot new photographer from London," he informed me. "This was quite a coup to score her. She's red hot right now - she's been working for all the cool record companies, shooting stuff for AbSynth's big comeback tour... she did stuff for Slur... Gulp... all the huge British bands." He smirked, holding out the pair of jeans he'd been wearing the day before and another black T-shirt towards me. "Now even more people are going to think we're Limeys... oops, sorry, no offence intended," he added with a smirk.

"I can't come..." I protested lamely. There was something terribly important I was supposed to be doing today, but for some reason it had slipped my mind.

"There'll be free food at the shoot..." he offered by way of encouragement.

Throwing caution to the wind yet again, I shrugged and pulled the jeans on, pausing to feel something flat in the pocket. Pulling out a tiny packet of foil, I put my hand over my mouth and giggled. "Shit, I forgot this was in here. Is there any left?" Opening it tentatively, I squealed to find several squares of paper left. "You want one?" I offered, licking one off my finger and holding the package out to him.

For a moment he wavered, then shrugged. "Rock'n'roll; why not?" Grabbing a pair of sunglasses off the chest of drawers, he took my hand and led me out to the hallway. I had felt self conscious and awkward about coming with him, but as soon as I saw the crowd of people waiting down in the lobby, I felt better. Apart from the other band members, who had flown in from LA on the redeye, their manager, the A&R man and a couple of other assorted hangers on were milling around. Peter introduced me proudly to his bandmates, Eric, the drummer, tall and solid with beatnik glasses and a head of curly hair, and Zia, the petite keyboard player with peach-coloured hair and a mischievous smile like she was perpetually up to no good at all. They looked me over, then gave Peter a knowing smirk, but still, it made me feel kinda proud, the way he looked at me when they were around.

"Nice of you to finally join us, Pete," their A&R man drawled with a knowing wink. "Feeling a little under the weather?"

"Not at all, not at all."

"Come on, we don't want to keep Ms. Evesham waiting - she's a very busy woman," barked their manager, herding us all out towards the sidewalk, and organising with the bellboys to find us enough taxis. As usual, I seemed to find myself in cab squeezed between Peter and Courtney.

"Where is this shoot anyway?" I wondered as my stomach grumbled audibly.

"It's in some swank gentlemen's drinking club in midtown," shrugged Courtney, and I suddenly realised that he was draped in some Victorian dandy's smoking jacket and a formal tuxedo shirt. He grinned eagerly as the car stopped and our scruffy gaggle were admitted to the hallowed halls of the infamous Harvard Club. "Wow, look at this place," he gushed, running around like a small child, stepping up onto the fireplace to pose beside a stuffed elephant's head.

"Courtney, behave," warned their manager sharply.

Reigned in, Courtney threaded his arm through Peter's elbow and escorted him over to forest of directional lights and tripods arranged around a wine red velvet chaise lounge. "Come Thebathtian, they think we're thavages," he lisped, grabbing a bottle of the prop wine off the carved walnut table and taking a swig. Peter laughed, propping his feet up on the table as their drummer squeezed in beside him, nibbling on the prop grapes. A stylist came over and tried to brush his hair, but he batted her away.

"Don't eat those! They're covered in wax!" bellowed their manager, swooping over to relieve Eric, now spitting them up onto the plate. "Can we get some make-up over here?"

"Can we do something about these racoon eyes?" suggested the make-up artist, attacking Peter's face with a powderpuff. "You look like a panda bear."

"Fuck off," retorted Peter, and she moved on to Courtney, trying to beat his wiry auburn hair into some sort of submission.

"Do you have anything left?" demanded their keyboardist quietly, lighting a cigarette and poking Courtney in the ribs.

"Back pocket," he instructed, shifting so that she could reach back to pull out a small baggie filled with white powder. Looking around, she removed the cut glass decanter and crystal goblets from their tray and started to lay out lines of coke on the mirrored bottom.

Suddenly the woman with the long, unruly curly dark hair, who had been darting back and forth between the camera and the lights, exploded. "Look! I thought I made it explicitly clear, there were to be no drugs on the set!" she demanded, swooping over to their manager to demand an explanation.

"Yo, calm down, woman," drawled Zia, rubbing powder from her nostrils and handing the tray to Peter, who immediately vacuumed up another two lines.

But as he was handing it to Courtney, their manager intercepted it. "OK, now, please. You've heard Ms. Evesham. No drugs on the set. Zia, please hand over the rest of it."

"What - will I get it back after class, Principal Skinner?" she squeaked insubordinately, then unwillingly surrendered it.

"Courtney..." Pulling a face, Courtney dug in his pocket and removed a small vial of pills and handed them over. "Peter..." Smiling innocently, Peter shrugged and raised his hands. "Peter, now." Rolling his eyes, Peter dug in his front pocket and produced the foil wrapped hits of acid that I had shoved there only a few minutes previously. Slumping his shoulders dejectedly, Eric handed over a nickel bag of pot and some rolling papers. "My god, are you a band or a walking pharmacy?" he asked, putting on a good show of being enraged for Ms. Evesham's benefit, though I swear to god, he was the one who bought the lines of coke last night.

"Uptight bitch," Zia muttered under her breath, looking around the room until her eyes rested on the table full of food. "Hey, what's you name... Kate! Can you grab a bottle of wine for us?" Happy to be a part of it in some way, even just as a gopher, I ambled over to the table, picked up a bottle of wine and brought it over to her. "Oh, you're a sweetheart. Got a corkscrew?" Digging around on the table I found one and tossed it over. "Do you want a glass?"

"Of course," I replied, without stopping to think of the effects on wine on a stomach full of nothing but two hits of acid slowly waiting to dissolve. "There's cheese and crackers over here, too. Want some?" I offered, shoving a few pieces in my mouth, then bringing the plate over.

"Jesus Freaking Christ!" exploded the photographer.

"What?" protested Zia right back. "We're not supposed to eat or drink, either?"

Throwing her hands up in the air, the photographer snapped "I can't work under these conditions!" and stormed off, overturning a few lights as she went.

"What the fuck is up her ass?" wondered Courtney. "She says we're not being professional, then behaves like that. What's up with that?" He paused for a moment, then asked. "Can I have my coke back, now?"

Avoiding the technicians darting to pick up the scattered equipment, I took off after her, feeling vaguely guilty as being the cause of her upset. Padding around the corner, I found the ladies room and gently pushed the door open, to find her bawling over the sink, running the water and continually splashing it over her face. "Excuse me, Ms. Evesham..." I ventured, knocking quietly at the door.

"It's Em," she snapped, pulling a towel off the rack and wiping her face dry.

"Em, are you alright?" I asked quietly, closing the door behind me and tiptoeing over to her, reaching out to touch her elbow. "I'm sorry if I encouraged them... they can be a bit... high spirited..."

Shrugging my hand off, she jumped about a foot, then suddenly collected herself, straightening her back and pushing her mane of hair out of her face. "I'm fine... I'm be OK," she breathed, turning to study the damage in the mirror, wiping her smeared eyeliner from her cheeks with a paper towel. "God, I really made a fool of myself back there, didn't I?"

I shrugged. "I dunno... I guess people expect artists to be moody and difficult. The Jackson Bollocks certainly are. I guess it's good for them to get a taste of their own medicine," I expostulated.

"God, pop stars, you don't have to tell me about their moodiness," she snarled, then caught herself. "I'm sorry; I'm just going through a really bad patch right now. I'm not always this psychotic, I assure you. What's your name, again?"

"Kate..." extending my hand, I shook hers gingerly.

"You're not in the band?"

"Not in this band anyway," I sighed. "I guess you could say I'm sort of, well, with Pete, I suppose."

"Oh, one of those," she laughed, then pulled a horrified face when she realised what she'd said. "No, I didn't mean it like that! Like, I know what it's like to be in a relationship with someone and not really able to say whether it's, you know, a relationship, or some crazy passionate sex fling..." Putting her hand over her mouth, she stopped herself. "God, I'm just putting my foot in it left and right, aren't I?"

"Crazy passionate sex fling sounds just about right to me," I nodded, grinning widely to show that I wasn't at all offended.

Settling down into the powder room sofa, she pulled out a compact and started to fix her smeared makeup. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to just blow up like that... I've just come out of... a rather bad... well, crazy, passionate sex fling, for lack of a better word, with someone who was an alcoholic and a complete cokehead. Some friends of mine brought me to New York so I could forget about him, and then the first job I take, it's all right back in my face. The drinking, the drugs... I just over reacted; I'm sorry."

At that moment, there was a knock on the bathroom door, and Zia stuck her head in nervously. "Erm... hi... erm, Ms. Evesham? They're making me come in and apologise," she peeped in an almost inaudible voice. "I'm really, really sorry..."

"Don't worry about it," laughed Em, waving her hand in front of her face. "In fact, I could seriously do with a glass of wine myself right about now."

As Em pushed past her, Zia turned and fixed me with an utterly perplexed look. "Weird fucking chick... What's up with her?"

Taking her by the elbow, I pulled her back out to the club. "Man problems..." I replied vaguely.

"Oh, say no more!"

Returning to the photo shoot, some jealous little tiger inside me started to growl as I saw Peter and Courtney sitting up on the edge of the chair, chatting with an attractive woman. Peter's eyes were lit up with delight, smiling that devastating smile at her, twisting my emotions around like a knife in my chest. Damn, was that the acid kicking in already, heightening every sensation. Unsure of where I stood, and nonetheless unsettled by the casual suggestion I'd brushed off from Em, I stared at him with suspicion he must have felt.

Em coughed from behind the camera. "Can we clear the set so we can get back to work, please?"

"Hey, no wait - just chatting with a new friend," urged Courtney, throwing his arm around the girl's shoulders. I sighed an audible exhalation of relief that it was Courtney she was interested in. "It helps loosen me up..." 

"I don't think you lot need to be much looser," laughed Em. "Now can we get to work?"

Retreating to a safe distance behind the camera, I wandered around the hallowed halls of the fabled Harvard Club as unobtrusively as possible, taking in the opulent wood carving, the hunting prints and the rows and rows of impeccably dressed studious young men and women lined up in rows in the photographs. Feeling a vague flick of guilt, I wandered on, spying unseen on the few yuppies dropping in for lunch. The older man, with the tweed jacket and the little round glasses could have been my grandfather, bent over the desk in the study writing some academic treatise. In another 40 years, that's what my brother would look like. One of the yuppies, a young woman in her mid-twenties, looking barely out of college smiled and waved at him. That's what I should be, I reflected, staring at them as though through a one-way glass. I should be some young, smart, assertive executive with an Ivy League degree, not some slacker hanging out in the East Village, playing at being a rock star or a junky.

She smiled sweetly and kissed him on the cheek. Her grandfather? An old friend of the family? Former professor? But to my surprise, he pulled out his wallet, peeled off one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred dollars, and surreptitiously handed it to her. She glanced around nervously, pushed the money down inside her shirt, then took him by the arm and guided him towards the elevator. As the doors closed behind them, I saw her bend over to kiss him, pressing her fresh young lips against his withered old flesh. I shook myself, shivering as I realised what I'd just seen. A high class call girl meeting a john - that was all. With a start, I mentally chastised myself for ever even envying their appearance of success, and meandered back over towards the photo shoot.

Em had the camera off the tripod now, circling in for closer angles, and better shots, following them around as they moved about the room. As soon as a roll of film was done, she handed the camera back to her assistant without missing a beat and resumed with a new one. Studying Peter carefully, I envied his poise and his calm assurance. The others hammed it up, mugging it up for the camera, making love to the camera as the phrase went, but Peter hung back, projecting an indifference that somehow demanded your attention, as if he didn't care whether you looked at him or not, which was somehow sexier than all the posturing and posing in the world. Resting his elbow against the mantelpiece, he yawned slightly, then turned back to the camera with a profoundly pissed off look that I could almost see smouldering through the lens to the film itself.

"Ooh, that's great, Pete, give me more of that," directed Em, but he tossed his hair out of his eyes and turned away.

"I'm hungry, I need to take a break," he announced, climbing down from the fireplace and wandering over to the table to pick at the cheese.

Bouncing over towards him, Courtney picked up a piece of bread and menaced him with it. "It's too small, for the meat..." he teased, obviously having the time of his life, but Peter shook him off, placing a mound of food on his plate and retreating to a chair by himself.

Padding after him, I perched on the arm of his chair, twining my fingers in his hair. "What's the matter?" I probed.

"Nothing," he snorted, chewing silently and staring resolutely off into the distance, then shook his head and proffered the plate of food to me.

Picking around the cold cuts, I sandwiched a piece of bread and several pieces of cheese, then tried to change the subject. "This place is beautiful, isn't it?"

"It's alright," he shrugged.

"It's nicer than my brother's club," I observed. "My brother's university has this poky little brownstone in Murray Hill. It's nothing like this. This is just sheer opulence and conspicuous consumption," I rattled on, lost in my private world of might-have-beens. At least that raised a smile. I paused, watching him chew his food. "What is it, Peter?"

"Nothing." Shrugging, he glowered straight ahead, but said nothing. "This is just stupid bullshit, is all."

I stared at him. This was my dream - beautiful clothes, expensive photoshoots in exotic locations, shot by arty photographers flown over from England for the occasion - all the perks of a major label contract - and he was calling this stupid bullshit? Not knowing what else to try, I slipped my fingers down the inside of his shirt collar and moved closer to his ear. "Hey! Did you ever get head in the bathroom of an Ivy League University Club?"

Grinning evilly, his mood broke and he looked up at me with the glint coming back to his eyes as he grabbed my hand and pulled it towards his mouth to kiss my palm. "No, but I think I'm about to..." Taking me by the hand, he looked around, then started to wander off in the direction of the washrooms.

"Hey, where do you two think you're going?" demanded their manager, blocking our progress. For a moment, I contemplated saying I'm going to suck him off in a vacant corner of the club,' but wisely changed my mind. "You have fifteen minutes to finish the shoot, and then you have to go off to an interview. If she's distracting you, she goes."

Em looked up from her camera. "It's OK, Mike. I've got more than enough material at this point."

"For some reason, call me crazy, but I just don't think it's a good idea to let these two clowns go wandering about the Harvard Club unescorted." As he turned to address her, Peter made a motion with his head, and we took off down the hallway and headed for the elevator, making it into it just as the doors closed.

"Brasserie, that sounds good," laughed Peter, hitting a button at random, then wrapping his arms about my neck to kiss me. The doors opened on a deserted floor, so we padded out, hand in hand, glancing left and right to make sure no one was around. "I don't think it's open for lunch," he observed, as we came out into a huge open barroom decorated to look like it was straight out of some Edwardian robber baron's idea of the middle ages. Walking over to a dark corner, he looked around nervously, then leaned against a carved table, running his hands around my neck and pulling me closer, kissing me deeply, pushing his tongue into my mouth. For a few moments, I returned his kiss, then pulled back, sinking down to my knees and looking up at him with a lascivious smile. 

Rubbing my face against the snug leather of his trousers, I felt him growing hard beneath my cheek, so I pulled at the buckle of his belt, unzipping his pants and digging his cock out with my fingers. Without taking my eyes from his, I stared up at him, reaching out my tongue and running it tormentingly along the rim of his penis, bending forward to twist into the tiny hole at its head to suck out the few pearlescent drops that hung there. He inhaled sharply, digging his fingers into my hair and holding my face there as I parted my lips and let him slip just inside my mouth, closing my lips around its tip, running my tongue down the underside before pulling away, letting my lips catch on the sensitive rim. Taking his balls in my hand, I massaged them gently, rubbing them without squeezing, until he pushed my face towards him with his hands.

"Harder," he urged. "You can squeeze harder."

Slowly increasing the pressure, I started to pull them slowly, as if milking a cow, taking his whole penis into my mouth, gagging slightly as it hit the back of my throat, but not stopping until I'd sucked him completely inside. Moving my head backwards and forwards, I slid my lips and tongue along the length of his shaft, catching him with the edge of my teeth every now and then, just to remind him who was in control, despite the firm grip he had on my hair. He was panting harder now, bucking his hips to push himself into my throat, but I held firm, sucking him deeper and deeper, pushing with my tongue against the sensitive underside. 

For a second, I thought I heard the elevator ding, but pushed it out of my mind until I heard the steady click clack of footsteps along the wooden floor. I tried to twist my head around to hide my activity, or at least see who it was, but Peter held me firm, clutching onto my hair and forcing me to finish. His breaths grew shallow, then stopped, in the pattern that was becoming terribly familiar, as he thrust wildly a few more times, then his cock spurted inside me, pumping thick, hot and slightly salty ejaculate into my mouth. Without thinking, I sucked instinctively, swallowing it without stopping to taste it. Peter exhaled sharply, catching his breath as he loosened his grip on my hair, then let his head fall back against the wall.

From across the room, I heard the sound of someone slowly clapping, so I jerked my head out from under Peter's fingers and turned to see Courtney, watching us with a smirk, calmly contributing his standing ovation. "Bravo! Encore!" he laughed, gesturing as if to undo his own belt.

"Fuck off," I shot back, scrambling to my feet as Peter slowly rearranged himself back inside his leather wrapping and zipped his trousers, his face plastered with an enormous grin.

"Come on, everyone's waiting for you," sighed Courtney, reaching out to slap me on the ass as I passed by him on the way to the elevator.

"Stop it! I mean it!" I snarled back, turning to fix him with a nasty glare. His face flickered, glowing with a slightly ominous orange luminescence in the halflight. No, it was just the acid finally kicking in, I reflected, slumping up against the glass mirror in the elevator, studying Peter's reflection. He was still grinning like a fool, lost in some transcendent state of bliss, snickering to himself. "What's so funny?"

He shook his head, unable to articulate his mirth and burst out snivelling like an imbecile. The laughter was insidiously contagious, and I found myself cracking up just looking at him until we were both falling over ourselves like fools. Courtney looked perplexed, even irritated. "Come on, what's so hysterical? The sex couldn't have been that good. You're not on anything. I saw you give it up like everyone else."

"Too late," I confessed. As the elevator sank, the acid suddenly hit me all at once, the world compacting into a tiny, sinking, imploding room. Time slowed, collapsed in on itself until it felt like Peter and I were walking in slow motion across the long corridor between the elevator and the front door. Faces slid by me as if in a dream, or an amusement park ride, flashing for a moment then disappearing out of the corner of my eye. Wrapping my arm around his waist, I clung to him for support until he was practically dragging me along the hall, slithering off the walls.

Em's face appeared out nowhere, sliding close and slurring "Kate, are you alright?" as if run through a phaser pedal.

"Fine, beautiful, better than beautiful..." answered Peter for me.

"God, we better get these two to a fucking cab before they attract any attention," swore Courtney, prevailing as the voice of reason for once in his life. "What the hell are you on?" he demanded, flagging down a cab and pushing us into it.

"Two hits..." I wondered vaguely, staring intently at his nose as it undulated and seemed to detach itself from his face, growing and warping.

"Three," added Peter.

"Are you fucking mad?" Courtney exploded. "We've got a gig to play tonight! All we've got to do is pull off the trained sea lion act one more time, and we're in, do you understand? If we can get through tonight, you can lock yourself in a studio for the next two years and shovel all the pharmaceuticals you can get your hands on down your throat, but we have to get through tonight first!" Unable to comprehend the severity of the situation, or perhaps because of it, Peter burst out laughing again. "And you didn't save me any!" added Courtney with indignant vehemence.

Grinning like a Cheshire Cat, Peter dug around in his pocket for a while, then pulled out another scrap of paper. "I didn't give it to Mike - are you kidding? I shook it loose into my jeans," he explained, holding out the tiny square of paper.

Courtney stared at it. "Like I'm going to swallow some bit of paper that's been floating about in the pocket of the jeans you've just spunked all over."

"Suit yourself," shrugged Peter, starting to withdraw the offer.

"I hate you!" sighed Courtney, seizing it off his hand and placing it on his tongue.

Leaning forward across me, Peter grabbed Courtney by the shoulders and places a big, wet, slobbery kiss right on his mouth. "I love you too, honey!" he teased in a mock-50's sitcom voice.

"Get the fuck off me..."

Laughing hysterically, Peter wrapped his arm around my shoulders and snaked his tongue into my ear. "He's jealous... Why don't you give him a big kiss?"

"Fuck off," I tossed back, but Courtney stared at me, his lips turned up in a faint smile that made me vaguely uncomfortable, though with repulsion or attraction, I could not tell.

The cab slid to a stop outside a fancy restaurant, where presumably, some other record label or glossy magazine was going to wine and dine us. I could not believe my luck, getting caught up in their whirlwind. During a regular week, I never ate out, barely able to cover the Ramen Pride noodles that formed the core of every impoverished student's diet. In a thin, plaintive whine, I heard my voice assert "I want a major label to take me out to dinner..."

Peter laughed dryly, without humour. "Soon, baby, soon. I promise you."

Closing my eyes, I slumped against his shoulder, tuning out the steady hum and chatter of the conversation. With a vague protective air, he wrapped his arm about me and pulled me closer, huddling back into the darker corner of the booth. The rest of the world might as well not have existed; I felt such an enormous sense of peace listening to the steady throb of his heart and feeling the warmth of his body. 

Chapter Text

____________________ 1997 ____________________

 

It was strange to wake up in a hotel room in my own city. After the few brief weeks I had been living in the apartment on East 83rd St., it had started to actually feel like home. But the heavy weight of Alex's arm around my waist felt reassuringly familiar. At least that seemed like a good sign - no matter how angry Alex and I were towards each other, we were still able to make love and fall asleep in each other's arms. Groggily, I realised that the ringing in my ears was the telephone. 

"I did not make a request for a wake-up call," grumbled Alex, pulling the covers over his head and burying himself beneath the blankets, leaving me to answer the phone.

"Hey, Kate - it's Courtney!" burbled the voice on the other end of the line. "You guys coming to the photo shoot this morning?"

"I don't know..." I stuttered. "Where is it?"

"Em, sweetie, where is that shoot?" he called, and a woman's voice rang out in the background. What, had he worked that fast? "No, baby, don't get dressed yet. We've got plenty of time..." What was this in aid of? The fucking bastard was just rubbing it in. "We're meeting at the fountain in Central Park. The one near the boathouse."

Alex was stirring beside me, opening one eye and peering out from beneath the pillow. "I don't know if we're up to it."

"Oh come on... Pete will be very disappointed if you don't show..."

"Pete's already disappointed me in more ways than you'll even know, so I guess that makes us even," I muttered under my breath.

"What's that? Sorry, I didn't hear you. Em just turned the shower on. Hang on; let me close the bathroom door. What was that?"

"What, are you screwing the photographer already, Courtney? How appropriate... Why don't you leave out the middleman and just fuck the camera?" Both Alex's eyes snapped open and he raised his head, suddenly completely alert.

"Oh, you wound me, Kate! Come on - it'll be good, catching up on old times."

"I don't know..." With a cursory grunt, I put the phone down and rolled over to see Alex climbing out of bed and digging on the floor for his clothes. "What, you want to go now?"

"You're the one who wanted to go," shrugged Alex, picking up a cleanish pair of jeans and heading for the bathroom.

Damn bastard. Resisting the urge to pick something up and throw it after him, I lay back and rubbed my eyes, then scoured the complimentary gift basket for something to soothe the gnawing bile in my stomach. When my fruitful search revealed a packet of soup crackers, I retreated to the bed to slowly munch on them, defiantly dropping crumbs everywhere to annoy Alex.

Without an explanation for this sudden change of heart, Alex and I dressed in silence, grabbed a couple of bagels on the street and walked up to the Park, though his footsteps seemed to get slower and slower as we neared the fountain. "Oh - the snackbar's open," he observed distractedly. "I'm going to get a cup of tea. Do you want anything?"

"Coffee would be nice," I agreed.

"I'll meet you over there?" he offered, letting go of my hand and heading in the opposite direction. The shoot was easy enough to find - four pop stars and a flustered woman trying to keep a series of cameras straight. Em Evesham... I had met her before, but for some reason I had forgotten how beautiful she was. As Courtney pranced around her, batting his eyelashes and flirting madly, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of something odd. What was that about? Courtney had meant nothing to me, if he wanted to go slagging around with everyone in New York City, that was his business. It was Em I felt sorry for, but then again, she looked like a woman who could take care of herself. Tall and shapely, with legs up to her neck, her face framed by a cloud of unruly dark hair, she nonetheless managed to project a cool attitude of "don't fuck with me" that made me think that perhaps Courtney didn't stand a chance.

I tried to sneak up on them unobserved, but Courtney caught sight of me from the corner of his eye, let out a squeal and ran over to me, throwing his arms around my neck. "Kate! You made it!"

"We made it." Suddenly Alex was beside me, glowering at Courtney with tangible dislike as he handed me my coffee. To assuage his jealousy, I wrapped my arms around Alex's neck and kissed him gratefully, letting my lips linger gratuitously against his for Courtney's benefit. When I finally drew away, the confident and happy light had returned to Alex's eyes.

"Come and meet my Em," effused Courtney, taking me by the arm and dragging me over towards the fountain where she perched, getting a better angle of Peter's annoyed glare.

Alex seized me by the other arm, his eyes desperate with a pleading look I could not understand. "What?" I practically snarled, with an angry flash of my eyes that made him back down, shrugging slightly as he let my arm drop. Staring after him for a moment, I gave up and let Courtney pull me over. "Since when is she your Em, Courtney? What, did you order her from a catalogue?"

But the lovely woman with the cloud of Pre-Raphaelite hair merely laughed, holding out her hand for me to shake. "Nah, I'm only the flavour of the week." Now this was a woman that could take care of herself if she could joke about it like that. "Do you get that joke too often?"

I smiled, trying to like her, though something odd about the way Alex looked at her put me definitely at unease. "Much too often. Kate Gordon."

"Em Evesham. Charmed."

She and Courtney giggled like lovestruck teenagers over her pun, but I rolled my eyes. "That one's even more annoying. Come on, hit me with them all. Charmed, I'm sure. This Charming woman... when you put it all together, there's the model of a charmless man..." I rattled off the long list of silly puns the press had used about us over the years.

Courtney wrapped his arms around her waist, grinning from ear to ear. "Told ya we'd get her before you did. We'll win the bet yet..."

She turned, her grey eyes flashing. "I was a bet?"

"Just a minor one, darling. It was just over whose video you were going to do first."

"I don't do videos," she replied disdainfully, still contemplating Courtney with an indignant expression.

"Hey, lighten up, here - let's smoke a joint," offered Courtney by way of consolation, pulling out a bedraggled spliff from the pocket of his jeans. Em narrowed her eyes disapprovingly, but Courtney ignored her, offering it towards me.

"I can't..." I stuttered, staring at it longingly.

"You're kidding! You quit drugs?" teased Courtney. "You, the woman with sheets of acid in her fridge? Peter used to swear that he's never seen anyone do a rail of coke as fast as you!"

Shuffling awkwardly, I bent closer, trying to keep my voice low. "I can't. I'm pregnant."

"Congratulations!" Courtney grinned widely, throwing his arms open wide to pull me into a congratulatory embrace, then paused. "Good news, yes?"

The statement hit me like a slap in the face. It should be good news, the blessed event and all that. This should be one of the most special times in a person's life. A mother was called expectant for a reason - the whole word 'Expectation' was loaded with happiness and mom and apple pie. But why did I feel so anxious? As I looked over at Alex, his shoulders hunched as he kicked distractedly at the gravel, pretending not to notice any of us as he chewed at his hangnails, I felt his unwillingness like a lead weight in my belly. "You try starting a relationship when you're pregnant with another man's child..." Suddenly I cut myself off, afraid I'd already mistakenly revealed too much to Courtney. Em had perked up as I said this, staring at me with an expression that looked disconcertingly like relief.

"So..." ventured Courtney, his eyes flashing with gossip. "Do you mind if I ask whose..."

"Yes, I mind very much," I snapped. There was only so much I was going to let slip in the course of one conversation. I'd said too much already. Craning my neck, I saw Em head over in the direction of Alex, and strained to see. Suddenly, I was seized with the idea that there was some other sort of connection between them that I had forgotten. Feeling ignored, Courtney shrugged and skipped over to the rest of his band, mock punching his drummer in a friendly joust before bounding over to hover around Em some more.

Backing away from them, I padded over to Alex, still actively pretending to ignore Peter, who was standing less than ten feet away from us, watching curiously. Reaching out a tentative hand, I touched Alex under the chin, pulling his gaze towards me, but his eyes smouldered with annoyance. "You told them, didn't you?" he hissed, gesturing towards Em and Courtney with a curt nod.

"I didn't know it was a state secret," I seethed back.

"Jesus Christ..." he muttered. "She probably thinks it's mine..."

"And what if she does?" I tossed back.

With an annoyed glare, he dismissed me, throwing his jacket over one shoulder in an impetuous gesture as he thrust his other hand into his pocket and stormed over to talk to her. Well, fuck you, Alex Jones. Just go over and set her straight, why don't you? But instead of talking to her, he stood on the other side of the fountain, watching her guardedly, as if pretending that he wasn't. The altercation had attracted Peter's attention, and he was staring at us strangely. As soon as he saw Alex storm off, he detached himself from the rest of the band and trotted over to me, his expression hopeful.

"I'm glad you came..." he ventured quietly, extending a gentlemanly greeting and kissing me lightly on the cheek. "I really didn't think you were going to..." 

I shrugged, feeling awkwardly silent, playing distractedly with the glittery nail polish peeling off my ragged nails. What the hell do you say, after two years? How do you put it into words, the longing, the disappointment, once you've healed and moved on... or had I moved on? As I stared at his face, mentally tracing the line of his sideburns to the mole beneath his left ear, I felt a flicker of something that was supposed to be dead a long time ago. "I didn't think I was going to, either," I finally sighed, after a long and awkward minute of silence. "I decided that perhaps, it was better if I just confronted it all and talked to you... though perhaps somewhere as... public as this wasn't the smartest idea..."

"Kate..." he pleaded, his eyes desperate as he took both of my hands in his.

Jerking them away from him, I shot a wary glance in Alex's direction, but Alex had busied himself with the cameras sprawled out over the park bench. Something about the scene bothered me, but I couldn't put my finger on it until Em walked over and started to talk to him. He seemed to brighten, rummaging through her bag with more than a casual familiarity, and I suddenly realised that they must have known each other far better than he was letting on. If he was a total stranger, surely Em would be furious at this blatant invasion of her privacy, but she smiled and reached out for one of the cameras. Dragging my eyes away from him before anyone noticed the scowl forming on my lips, I looked back to Peter, who was shuffling away from me with a dejected slump to his shoulders.

"Hey..." I ventured cautiously.

He turned, his shoulders still slumped but his eyes eager. "What?"

"Where are you going?"

"We have a photo shoot, remember? Not exactly the best place to talk," he reminded me with more than a hint of smugness.

"Pete..." I sighed and rolled my eyes awkwardly, searching for the words, then flopping down onto the nearest bench before my weak and trembling legs gave out. "After two years, what am I supposed to say? Is there anything worth even bothering to say at this point?" came rolling out of my mouth in a torrential downpour.

Peter stared at me, slightly shell-shocked, then slowly walked over to the bench, sitting down beside me. "I suppose I was wondering if you were going to bring it up..." Digging in his back pocket, he pulled out a pouch of tobacco then dug in his wallet for rolling papers. As he wrestled with the rolling papers, the wallet fell open to a photograph of two blond heads nestled in a sumptuous oxblood leather chair. I craned my neck to get a better look, but Peter abruptly shut the wallet with a guilty expression.

"So Courtney wasn't lying..." I laughed dryly, trying not to let even a hint of sentiment creep into my voice.

He shook his head, staring off distractedly as he sealed the cigarette with a broad sweep of his tongue, and for a moment, I felt a vague twinge in the places that tongue had once explored. Replacing the wallet and the bag, he pulled out a lighter and sucked deeply on the fag. After a long breath, he seemed to relax slightly, allowing himself to watch me out of the corner of his eye. 

"I wrote you a letter, you know, explaining everything," he finally admitted after a protracted silence, playing with the fraying seam of the rolling paper. "I never knew where to send it. I never had your address. I still have it somewhere, tucked into my diary, you know. Perhaps you should read it some day... not that it makes much of a difference now... But I never forgot you. You were the coolest girl I'd ever met. You were everything I ever wanted... New York, art school, drugs, cool 60s art films, Anita Pallenberg references and all... Jesus Christ, you were so smart, and so hip... you rearranged my world." I followed his eyes, off towards Alex, laughing with Em over a camera that seemed to be bleeding shredded film.

I turned back towards him, my eyes beseeching him for an answer. "I was so fucking much in love with you!"

He turned back towards me, his eyes widening as if the thought had never dawned on him. "You were...?"

"Why did you never call me?" I charged on. "I phoned you and phoned you. I left a million messages you never returned, until the ansaphone stopped holding them, and then a few months later, your phone was just disconnected."

"I... I..." He sucked even harder on the cigarette. "Anything I say is gonna sound like such a lame excuse..."

"Try me!"

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. "We were on tour for about ten months out of twelve that year. You know how it is. We were so fucking naive back then, we thought that getting signed to a major would be the happily ever after, the payoff, the end of all our hard work. We had no idea it was only going to be the start of the longest, hardest slog of..."

"You were working so hard you couldn't even find a phone?" I protested.

"I lost the match book cover with your phone number on it. By the time I got back, so many people had come and gone through my apartment... one of my friends had borrowed my answering machine and never bothered to tell me if there were messages on it when he took it..."

"That's it?" I snarled with two years of penned up frustration. I stared at him in utter disbelief. After every horrible situation I'd imagined, after all the time I'd spent flogging myself for offences, real or imagined, that I might have committed against him, after emotionally beating myself up countless times for my inability to sustain the relationship, the truth was that he had simply lost my phone number? 

I didn't know whether to descend on him like a storm of furies, beating him about the head and shoulders or just laugh at the ironic randomness of the universe. Taking a deep breath, I exhaled slowly and noisily from between my clenched teeth. Glancing over at me for the first time since his impromptu confession, he reached out, as if about to stroke my hair, then apparently changed his mind and offered me a cigarette instead.

Staring down at the smouldering paper clenched between his glitter-painted nails, I felt an unmistakable pull. Once upon a time, it would have been marijuana in the fag he offered me. How much easier it would be to just dissolve everything in a puff of thick and pungent smoke... But I shook my head firmly, pushing his hand away. "I can't. I'm pregnant," I finally divulged, hoping my voice was not as shaky as my hands. Peter's jaw dropped in disbelief, then his eyes flickered across the fountain to Alex. "And before you even ask, no, it's not Alex's. Though I wish to god at this point that it was," I spat, following his gaze across to Alex, now deeply engrossed in his conversation with Em.

Peter's eyebrows climbed up his forehead as he leaned forwards to look me square in the face, though I tried to freeze my expression to as emotionless a blank as I could manage. "Jeremy?" he demanded with the self-righteous moral indignation of a man who had found something to distract him from his own guilt. "That little shit killed himself, knowing full well that he had a... responsibility towards a child?"

"Jeremy didn't know..." My voice trailed off, distracted by a chorus of unborn voices clouding my head, not least of which was the dramatic irony of Peter's statement. "It's not Jeremy's, either," I found myself droning, already sick of the explanation.

"Then... whose?"

"That's an awfully personal question, Peter, and not one I particularly think you have any business asking," I shot back, then tried to soften my voice, a bit shocked by the harshness of my tone. "He doesn't know yet, so I don't feel at liberty to discuss it with anyone else before him."

"Why haven't you told him? A man's got a right to know if he's a father," pontificated Peter, in utter innocence of the precariousness of his moral high ground. "A man has a responsibility to his own kids."

Biting my tongue, I looked away, practically shaking with rage and frustration. "It wouldn't be the first time I've been abandoned by a man while I was pregnant," I finally pointed out very softly, no longer caring if I sounded like the biggest slag on earth.

"That's just wrong," asserted Peter with laudable morality permeating his indignation. He paused, unsure of how to phrase the question. "Do you... have other kids, then, or did you..." His voice trailed off as he studied me with surprisingly genuine concern.

"I had an abortion. I didn't have much of a choice," I cried quietly, no longer able to keep the tears from spilling out of my eyes. "You know, if it happens once, you can convince yourself it's a stupid mistake. Twice? And you have to start taking some sort of responsibilities for your actions." The words were spilling from me uncontrollably now, without allowing Peter time to answer, though I was defending myself from questions he hadn't asked. "Things are different now than they were then, you know? I have plenty of money, I'm slightly more stable, though sometimes I wonder how much... I mean, I was just a kid myself then, really - I was really young, in my early 20s, I had no job, the band was just taking off, I had dropped out of college to go off on tour, I just couldn't..."

"Wait a minute," interrupted Peter as the realisation slowly dawned on him "When was this?"

I turned to meet his demanding gaze with red-rimmed and teary eyes. "About two years ago."

"Then..?" His voice cracked as he stubbed the cigarette out on the ground.

"Yes, Pete. It was yours."

The words just hung in the air as he raised his hands and covered his face, bending over to rest his head on his knees for a moment, crumpling up like a deflated ball. "Oh god," he moaned, letting out a strangled cry. When he finally raised his head, tiny rivulets of eyeliner were streaked down his cheeks. "Oh god, Kate... If I'd known..."

"If you'd known, then what? What would it have changed? What would you have done?"

"I'd have..."

"You'd have what?" I stared at him as he wrung his hands, watching his flimsy lie fall to pieces under the slightest pressure. "You lied. You didn't just lose my number, did you?"

"Kate, I didn't even know if you wanted me to call you," he finally confessed. "After that last weekend we all spent together, I thought..."

I knew what he thought. I'd thought it myself a thousand times, I'd regretted it a thousand times. So it was me. It was what I'd done; what we'd all done. "I'm sorry," I sputtered through the tears. "I know what you must have thought. I thought you wanted me to do it... I was so in love with you, I was obsessed with you - I'd have done anything you asked..."

"You thought I wanted you to...?" He shook his head, staring at the sky, then back at me. "I was totally fucking in love with you, why would I have wanted to share you with my best friend?"

"Then why didn't you say something? Why did you go along with it? Why didn't you stop it...?"

"Why didn't you stop it? Nobody held a gun to your head, and made you fuck him..." he snapped, then wrapped his arms around my shoulders in apology as he realised how awful that had sounded. 

"Actually, yes he did... In fact, it was your gun, if I recall correctly," I laughed half-heartedly, though it was the dark, unfunny laugh of someone who had already lost too much to care.

For a moment, Peter actually smiled, almost laughed, but then the pain flooded through, and he started to sob. "I'm sorry, oh god, I'm so sorry. I was too stupid to even see that you loved me. I panicked.  I got scared you might be just using me to get to Court. I didn't know I got you pregnant. I just didn't know any of it."

"Would it have made a difference if you'd known?" I demanded. "What would you have done if you'd known? What would it have changed?"

"Just stop, please stop... I feel like shit enough as it is. You don't have to tell me what a fucking asshole I've been, cause believe me, I know... I've kicked myself for what happened so many times... for letting things get so crazy, and then for just walking out on you without an explanation. And now I'm kicking myself harder, knowing what else I lost. You and me? A baby? Things would have been so different..."

I held myself stiffly apart from him, refusing to just melt against him the way I wanted so desperately to do. Clutching my head in his hands, he stroked my hair gently, holding me as I tried to wriggle away from him until I gave up fighting. It wasn't until I felt his chest heave uncontrollably that I realised that he was crying, and he was holding me to comfort himself as much as me.

"Kate..." Alex's voice snapped behind me. I tried to pull away, but Peter was clinging to me like a frightened child. 

"Pete, let go!" I finally hissed, but Alex sneered at him derisively.

"No need to bother on my account." His tone was clipped, tense, but his face was utterly guarded. That ice wall of emotional impenetrability had snapped down over his face. "Kate, I just wanted to tell you that I was going back to the hotel now. Will you be meeting me for dinner, or should I not wait up for you?" His voice was as flat as his facial expression, but it was like looking at a dam holding back a powerful river - you couldn't see the danger, but you could feel the electricity in the air as he stared at Peter with palpable hatred.

The meaning of this statement flew straight over the top of Peter's head as he sat there, dazed, trying to recover his composure by rubbing his eyes, but only succeeding in making himself look more stunned. Neither of us could talk, neither of us knew what to say or do.

"Alex, it's not what you think..." I sputtered. Or was it? What exactly did he think it was? Peter was an old friend comforting me through a difficult pregnancy. Hell, I'd got more sympathy from Peter over the baby than I'd ever got from Alex.

Alex sneered at us both with an expression of pure, unveiled contempt, then shook his head and started to stalk off. Extracting myself from Peter's grasp, I stood up and started to go after him, but Courtney suddenly came running over. "Hey, Kate..." Wrenching my eyes away from Alex, I stared at Courtney without the slightest comprehension of what he was saying. 

"What?" I blurted out, not wanting any further documentation to add to Alex's fears by appearing to be upset or bothered in the slightest. Peter stood up abruptly, wiping his face and trying to force some order onto his ruined eyes. 

"Come to dinner with us, we can talk it over there..." Courtney was burbling on about something, but I couldn't hear what he was saying, concentrating only on the direction in which Alex's back had retreated. 

"I don't think so," I replied icily. When I looked around again, Alex, had disappeared. Damn Courtney and his bad timing. If this had cost me my relationship with Alex I would never forgive him. Hell, this was becoming a bad habit with him if he'd already cost me my relationship with Peter...

"Sorry, kids, we're out of film, anyway," sighed Em, fussing with a temperamental Nikon. "Alex seems to have jammed this one. Besides, gosh, look at the time. I have to be in South Jersey by nightfall and traffic is against me..."

"Ah well," shrugged Courtney, apparently completely nonplussed by the idea that the woman he'd been locking lips and god knows what else with for the past day and a half was about to leave. "Shall we go to dinner, then? Kate, you will come to dinner with us, right, even if Em won't?"

I pulled myself together quickly, shocked by Courtney's rudeness. Well, if he was going to be such a boor, I was at least going to try to make some overture of friendship and show her that not all musicians were self obsessed pigs intent on using personal relations to their career's advantages. At least, that's what I told myself as I headed resolutely towards her. But as I approached her, I realised that I didn't have a thing to say. "Ms. Evesham?" I ventured awkwardly. "Do you, erm... have a card? Even if you don't do videos, the Charms would still like to work with you."

"Great," she laughed, digging through her cavernous canvas photographer's bag until she fished out a somewhat bedraggled business card, her smile reassuring me that she wasn't offended by the clumsy approach. "I was beginning to think that you hated me. My agent has called yours a few times." Handing me the card, she grinned mischeviously "Besides, I might just do a video for you if it would piss Courtney off."

There was something endearing in her manner that set me at ease, so I laughed. "Last night that good?"

"He's just so damn full of himself!" Em observed with a girlish giggle, glancing over at the man walking away from us.

"I know," I retorted evilly as several not so flattering memories of Courtney flitted across my mind.

Suddenly the whole situation seemed oddly awkward, and the laughter stopped as our eyes met. What are you supposed to say to someone who's only link to you is that they've just had a one night stand with someone you had a one night stand with, two years ago? It seemed obvious we had very similar taste in men. And there was still that little nagging doubt in the back of my mind that there was something about her... something about her and Alex that I had forgotten or chosen to ignore. There had been talk of working with her before, but something always seemed to come up, though the more I looked back on it, the only thing that had ever come up was Alex's objection. Feeling emboldened by her friendly self-depreciation, I blurted out "Any idea why Alex keeps trying to talk me out of working with you?"

Suddenly she looked up from her cameras, meeting my gaze with what seemed like mildly offended surprise. "Oh?"

"I always thought he didn't like you," I blurted out. "No offence..."

"None taken..." She stared at me questioningly as I tried to worm my way out of the increasingly awkward conversation.

"But then you were talking today..." Laughing and flirting, as well. I knew that look in Alex's eyes. "Do you know him?" I ventured, trying very hard not to make it look totally obvious that I was grasping for the connection I had forgotten.

"Erm, yes. We dated for a while," she replied utterly matter of factly, without a moment's hesitation.

"Did you?" I blanched, feeling as if I'd been hit in the face.

"Don't worry, obviously it didn't mean much to him if he didn't tell you," she replied nonchalantly, almost sarcastically.

"Erm... yeah," I stuttered, trying to catch my breath and still the dizzying tight sensation in my chest. "We don't talk about our pasts much." That was only a half lie. Although my past seemed to be an open book in terms of criticism and negative reflection on my personality, Alex never said a word about his. To this day, we'd never even mentioned Mimi, let alone his emotional life before he'd met her. "Anyway, thanks," I added, gesturing to the card. "We'll give you a call."

"I look forward to it."

Liar, I thought as I walked away. You don't look forward to it any more than I look forward to going back to that hotel and confronting Alex with his hypocrisy in getting upset over Peter, while he'd spent all afternoon talking, in fact flirting with his ex-lover. 

No, I reprimanded myself. It wasn't fair to be angry at Em for Alex's little lapse of memory. It was Alex who deserved my anger, and I was so angry I could spit. All the guilt I'd felt over Alex catching me in a misunderstood embrace with Peter evaporated, and for a moment, I considered just running off on them, taking a cab to be back at the hotel to scream him. What right had he to start pulling this jealousy act over Peter when he'd been practically drooling all over an ex he'd never even bothered telling me about? 

"Kate, are you coming to dinner?" repeated Courtney insistently, oblivious to the tiny exchange he'd just witnessed. He paused to embrace Em and kiss her fondly before following the rest of his band back towards Fifth Avenue without a backwards glance.

My stomach lurched sickeningly, and I realised that I had to eat soon. My feet were killing me, my ankles swelling alarmingly. But the last place I wanted to be was out on a drinking binge with a gaggle of decadent pop stars. I didn't even have the energy for the coming argument with Alex. I just wanted desperately to be at home, taking a hot bath with smelly salts, and soaking my feet, preferably followed by a massage.

Wisely sensing my distress, Peter pulled me aside. "Kate, do you not want to come to dinner with us? If you're tired, I can just get you a cab to go home..."

I nodded sulkily, narrowing my eyes at him. "I think I should just go home. But I don't need a cab. I live quite near here."

"Do you want me to go with you?" Peter offered.

"I'm with child, not a child," I snarled, then relented, realising I shouldn't be taking my anger at Alex out on an innocent bystander. "Whatever."

"Where are you lot going? I'll meet you at the restaurant," inquired Peter of his bandmate.

"Or back at the hotel tomorrow morning," cracked Courtney, then wisely stopped when he saw the look I shot him. "The Angry Monk, on Second Avenue? We'll probably eat there, then head down to Max Fish for a drink or two."

"You don't have to do this," I sighed as the rest of the band climbed into a taxi and pulled off down Fifth Avenue.

"It's the least I can do," he shrugged.

"That's exactly what I mean. I don't need anyone's pity," I pointed out.

"It's not pity," he assured me with a faint smile. Standing back slightly, I observed him cautiously. Despite his unkempt appearance, his torn jeans and his dishevelled hair, he nonetheless had the polite air of a gentleman, holding out his arm. Relaxing slightly, I threaded my arm through his and set off up Fifth Avenue. Simple though it was, the gesture made me feel somehow safe and secure. With a wry smile, I remembered how much Alex hated it when I took his arm, dismissing it as clingy, possessive and paternalistic, even though I thought that would have appealed to his Victorian sensibilities. With a start, I suddenly realised what a turnabout this was. Ever since I'd met Alex, he had been some sort of golden ideal to which all other men had been compared, but now I actually had him, the perfect mask was slowly cracking.

"What?" asked Peter suddenly, as if sensing what I was thinking.

"I didn't say anything," I stuttered, startled.

"For the first time in two days, you actually looked genuinely happy, but then all of a sudden, your face just fell and you looked miserable again. I wondered if it was something I did."

"No, it wasn't you at all," I sighed, squeezing his arm gently and smiling. With a nod of my head, I gestured across 83rd Street and guided him towards the tall and stately brownstone I now called home. "This is it - we're nearly there."

"You're moving up in the world," noted Peter with a smile, looking about the neighbourhood, taking in the luxury cars lining the pavement. "This is quite an improvement over that loft in Brooklyn."

"Oh, you missed the Roach Motel in Queens," I laughed, casting my mind back over the various poorly heated and ill kept residences I'd inhabited over the years. "Not to mention the closet in the East Village."

"I rather liked the loft in Brooklyn," he breathed softly, almost nostalgically. "Some good memories there..."

"Do you want to come up?" I offered, twisting the key in the lock and swinging the door open. There was not a hint of sexuality in the invitation; the truth was that I simply did not want to be left alone with my thoughts. "I can make you a cup of tea. I can even get you a drink, if you'd like. I think Alex got a bottle of wine last week..."

He wavered briefly, looking back and forth between me and the darkened hallway, then shrugged and followed me inside. "All right. For a bit, I suppose. I don't drink any more, though, so make it a just a cup of tea." He paused, to my astonished gaze, then smiled proudly. "I've been clean and sober nearly a year now, actually. It's made a big difference." 

"Congratulations," I replied, not knowing what else to say. If I weren't pregnant, would I be able to say the same thing?

In silence, we trudged up the stairs, but as soon as I threw open the door into my Aladdin's Cave of an living room, he burst out laughing. "You just recreate the same apartment wherever you go - only the building and the neighbourhood get nicer."

"Can I take your coat?" I asked, grinning with pride. Since Alex had been away, I had spent the past few days unpacking the boxes I had rescued from storage and decorating the place with my assorted knick knacks. The few things that had been lost or broken during the move, I replaced with finds combed from the local antique shops. That was of the nicest things about having more money - I could afford a higher calibre of bauble.

Wriggling out of his jeans jacket, he handed it to me, and as I hung it on a large brass hat stand, padded about the living room, examining each new object with a snort of delight. "You have an elephant foot umbrella stand!" he exclaimed as I returned to the room bearing a teapot and two cups.

"It's an antique. My Granny sent it to me from Africa," I declared with a grin. Alex had eyed it with a mildly horrified disdain and tried to banish it to the hall closet, but I had rescued it. "Come on, I'll give you the grand tour. This is the kitchen... this is the bathroom - the sink actually works, believe it or not, though I still don't have a dishwasher. I suppose they figure if you're rich enough to live up here, you can afford a maid. Two bedrooms, one of which will eventually be turned into a studio at some point," I chattered on, sounding disconcertingly like the real estate agent that had shown it to Alex and me. 

"Or a nursery," added Peter, looking up at me with an expectant smile, but I changed the subject, moving on to the back bedroom.

"Wonderful views of the neighbours' gardens. I think I'm going to plant window boxes in the spring."

The darkening room was suddenly bathed in the soft light of myriad Christmas tree lights, and I turned to see Peter sitting on the edge of my bed, staring rapturously up at the earrings and assorted jewellery hanging from the canopy of paisley scarves above my bed. "I always loved your room..."

"How did you find the plug?" I laughed. "Alex always ends up tripping over things in the dark because he can't figure out how to turn them on." As soon as it was out of my mouth, I realised how unfair it was. Alex couldn't live up to the memory of a ghost any more than anyone else could live up to some perfect exaggerated image of Alex. Especially when the ghost was sitting on the edge of my bed, reaching up to sound the soft tinkle of the Chinese windchimes hanging from the unused light fixture. I paused, urgently aware of his presence, his slightly smoky smell, staring at him with an almost palpable desire. The last time he'd rung those chimes, we'd been lying naked on my futon, waking together for the first time.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that," he observed, clambering off the bed and distancing himself from me, but it wasn't until he stood up that I realised how forward he had been in draping himself across my bed. With an uneasy feeling, I backed away from him towards the relative safety of the living room. "Do you want me to go?" he queried nervously, finishing his mug of tea and placing the empty cup on the elaborately inlaid Moroccan coffee table.

Setting down into my favourite perch, a carved wood and red velvet throne of a chair, I watched him cautiously as I sipped my tea. "I'm not going to sleep with you, if that's what you mean."

Peter suddenly burst out laughing, totally diffusing the tense sexual atmosphere. "That's not what I meant at all," he protested, drawing nearer, and perching on the edge of my chair's footstool. "Oh god no..." He caught himself, as if afraid of scaring me by wanting me, yet equally afraid of offending me by not wanting me. "I mean..." He started to giggle again nervously, turning slightly red in the face.

After everything we'd done, after all the explorations of unconventional sexuality and drug-induced debauchery we'd engaged in during that brief time, I realised I'd never actually seen him blush or look flustered before, and to tell the truth, it was utterly adorable. "What do you mean, then?' I ventured playfully, feeling at ease again.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" He shook his head with a lascivious smirk. This was the Peter I had known, that I had fallen for, the flirtatiously teasing troublemaker. "Would it be all right if I got myself another cup of tea?"

"Don't push it," I warned, kicking impetuously at the footstool on which he perched. "No, help yourself; there's sugar in the kitchen and the milk's in the fridge, though you may have to dig for it behind all the vegetables."

"Vegetables? You keep actual food in the house now? I remember when you had nothing but a sheet of acid in your fridge," he teased with a clucking tongue.

"You might say I've become more domesticated," I called after him. "I can bring home the - well, vegetarian - bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you're a man," I sung seductively, then caught myself. Watch it Kate, I told myself. What do you think you are doing? This is not a safe person to flirt with. Closing my eyes, I leaned my head back against the chair and tried to clear my thoughts. No, this wasn't right, no matter how angry I felt towards Alex, or how insecure I felt about the future. Whatever game I was playing with Peter was only going to make it worse. Dragging myself to my feet, I padded back out to the kitchen to find Peter staring at a snapshot of Alex and I lounging on the beach in the South of France that I had clipped to the fridge for no apparent reason. 

I stared at the photo. Alex and I looked so happy, we looked so content, staring into each other's eyes. That was the Alex that I was in love with, not the jealous monster who had spent half the afternoon growling at me as we danced around our ex lovers.

"Peter... I'm sorry. Maybe you should..." I ventured uneasily, but he finished the sentence for me.

"I should go?" I nodded slowly, slightly relieved. "I think you're right," he agreed, putting his teacup down carefully in the sink and padding back out to retrieve his jacket from the hat stand. Wrapping it around his shoulders, he stared at me with a hesitant longing, as if he was reluctant to leave the house. "Are you coming to any more gigs on the tour?"

"It's up to Alex. He didn't want me along on the tour. Said that he needed to get things straight in his head," I sighed by way of explanation, hoping that my voice did not sound as bitter as I felt.

He shook his head slowly, his face clouded. "God, Kate, if things were different..." he sighed softly, but I reached out to place my finger on his lips. 

"But they're not different," I sighed.

"Go see Alex. Go and talk to him. You love him, I know that you do," he sighed, adding under his breath. "And he's a lucky man." Catching my hand in his, he pressed his lips against my palm, and threw his arms about my waist, squeezing me so tight I could barely breath, then fled down the stairs as fast as his feet would take him, pausing only to look up at the landing on his way down.

Chapter Text

____________________ 1995 ____________________

 

Perched on a stool, I blankly stared off into the mirror behind the venue's bar, barely noticing the wide-eyed lunatic staring back from the glass as I nursed my gin and tonic. The euphoric rush of the drugs we'd taken earlier had worn off, leaving me quiet and contemplative, tracing vague shapes in the bubbles of my drink. From the stage, I heard the blare of feedback and turned to catch Peter and Courtney horsing around with their guitars. 

Bars were boring, there was no question about it. Sometimes I thought the entire reason I had joined a band was to have something to do while I was out, instead of sitting and soaking up booze, pretending that the idle chatter of the human shells around me interested me in the slightest. But it wasn't my band playing tonight, it was Peter's, and I was stuck, waiting at the bar, the useless ornament not needed at the present time. Burning with jealousy at the thought that it was all happening to them, and it would never happen to me, I turned away from the stage and back towards the bar.

Someone had pushed their way over next to me, but I did my best to ignore them, slumping over on my barstool in an attempt to collapse in on myself. The club was completely deserted except the band and the staff - why the hell was this person elbowing in next to me?

"What band is playing tonight?" the twittering voice asked again, and I realised she was addressing me.

"The Jackson Bollocks," I replied disinterestedly, avoiding her gaze.

"Oh. Do you think they'd be interested in..." her voice trailed off suspiciously and I turned to look at her. Terribly thin, with pinched cheeks and hungry eyes, she looked more like a little lost boy than a dealer, her short greasy black hair plastered back across her forehead.

"What are you holding?"

"I don't have anything right now. This guy... across the park..." Turning around, she gestured back in the direction of Tompkins Square. "He's got crystal meth - he's got speed, but he wants twenty more than I've got."

"Get the fuck out of here. How gullible do you think I am?" I snorted, picking up my drink and turning away from her.

"Please, I'm desperate," she added, her blue eyes glittering in the near dark.

The noise on stage suddenly stopped, and I heard the patter of feet as Courtney took a flying leap off the platform and bounded over to us. "What's new, pussycat?" he demanded, putting his hands on my shoulders and leaning over between us.

"Do I look like I have a spare $20?" I continued, ignoring him.

"I do," interrupted Courtney, indignant at being left out of the conversation. "What for?" Smiling up at him gratefully, the girl explained the situation, smiling at him disarmingly. Under the dirt and the faded black clothes, she was actually rather pretty, with a delicate face and large, pixie-like eyes. "Oh, yeah, we're interested."

"Don't be a fucking fool," I sighed. "If you give her money, don't let her out of your sight."

Turning back to me, she shot me a nasty glare, but Courtney grinned at her. "I'll go with you," he offered gallantly.

An hour later, we were all pressed into the tiny backstage cubicle, laughing and whooping at the idea of ingesting all sorts of nasty things. "This is probably cut with rat poison," I muttered with disbelief as Courtney produced a baggy filled with dubious claggy white powder.

Holding a pinch to his mouth and tasting it hesitantly, he made a face and shook his head, shaking some out on top of a magazine and dividing it into lines with a thin subscription card. "Smells fine to me!" he pronounced, scrunching his nose as if he were about to sneeze, then shaking his head violently. "Wow..." For a moment we all stared at him as his eyes bugged out. Clutching his hands to his throat, he started to gag soundlessly, then crumpled to his knees, his back heaving.

"Courtney..." I ventured warily, moving over towards him. With a vague gurgling noise, he sank to the floor, twitching slightly, but no one else seemed to pay much attention. With a terrified expression, the girl with the black hair started to edge back towards the door. "Courtney, are you alright?" sinking down to my knees, I tried to roll him over onto his side, reaching for his jaw and trying to pry his mouth open before he swallowed his tongue. "Fuck..." With remnants of the acid still coursing through my veins, I was beginning to panic.

"Mouth to mouth, baby!" he suddenly yelped, springing to life and pulling me over on top of him, laughing hysterically.

"Are you..." Suddenly realising I'd been had, I tried to wriggle out of his grasp. "You fucking asshole..."

"I can't believe you fell for it," he guffawed, grabbing me around the waist and pulling me back down.

"One of these days, you're actually going to inhale rat poison, and then no one is going to believe you," pointed out Peter, picking up the magazine and helping himself to the rest.

"Hey, Lucy, come on... help yourself," he called to the girl with the black hair, grabbing it out back out of Peter's hands. Courtney was just like that - within ten minutes of meeting a pretty woman, he knew her name, knew her entire history, knew exactly what to say to get her into bed with him. "Did I scare you?" She nodded shyly, cupping her hands around her face as she bent down to inhale the drug. "Watch that speed freak, watch that speed freak, gonna shoot it up every night of the week," he sang, then reached out to ruffle her hair. The colour was returning to her face, her eyes lighting up as she raised her head, flaring her nostrils to draw a cleansing breath. No, she wasn't just pretty, she was starkly beautiful, I suddenly realised as she offered it to me.

Smiling, I nodded "Thanks" and bent down to snort it. It was rougher than the cocaine, burning my nasal passages horribly as it went down, but the high was like a blinding white ray of light cracking me between the eyes like icepick. Wheezing slightly, I felt the room around me spin and dilate, the blood rushing like wind in my ears. From the stage, I could hear the last notes of the opening band resound across the halls, then they said their good nights, trooping back towards us.

"Give me another hit," laughed Peter, then rubbed his nose conspicuously as he shook his hair out of his eyes. Wrapping the bag around itself, he shoved it roughly into the back pocket of my jeans, then headed for the stage.

"Come on, do you wanna dance?" yelled Lucy in my ear, grabbing me by the hand and pulling me back out into the corridor, running back out past the bathrooms to the floor of the club, shouldering her way past the forest of audience members to the clear patch in front of the stage. With the blood pounding in my ears, I could barely stand still, jiggling up and down excitedly in time with the piped in music. 

As Peter shuffled out onto the stage, picking up his guitar, again I felt that wave of jealousy, as tangible as a slap. That should be me up on that stage, I thought to myself. What the hell am I doing here, running about on his arm like some sort of groupie or ornament? This isn't who I am. I'm the girl on the stage, the girl with the guitar, the girl under the pretty lights. As if echoing my thoughts, Peter peered out into the lights, shielding his eyes with his hands in a familiar gesture, searching the audience, though for what, I couldn't tell. His eyes slid over the crowd until they rested on me, then he shrugged and smiled, turning back towards his amp and shaking it roughly to coax a ringing plume of feedback from it.

Shaking my head to clear my thoughts, I started to move in time to the poppy drumbeat. Behind me, someone I vaguely knew from the music scene tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a gin and tonic with a thumbs up. "When are the Charms playing out again?" he asked with a puppy dog smile of devotion.

I grinned, taking a huge gulp of the gin and turning around to talk to him. "Next Friday, at Continental," I yelled in his ear over the rising storm of guitar from the stage. Now this was more like it, I reflected as he nodded and grinned, finishing half the drink in one gulp. "We're touring soon, with the Sugarpussy," I added, feeling my head swell, and finished the drink in one more swig, upending it to suck the slice of lime from between the icecubes. "Thanks for the drink," I laughed, handing the empty glass back to him.

"You want another one?"

"Why not?" I shrugged, starting to bop back and forth to the insistent beat. From onstage, Peter was glaring down at us, striding up to the monitors to peer out into the gloom, smashing his fist against his guitar menacingly. "Actually, better not..."

"Kate, come on! Dance with me!' insisted Lucy, coming up behind me and draping her hands over my shoulders, trying to twist me around and force me to move to the rhythm. Feeling the warmth of the gin wrapping around my already fuzzy brain, I started to hop back and forth with her, grabbing her by the hands and swinging my hips in a lazy circle. As the music sped up, we circled faster, drawing together then moving apart, laughing and throwing our heads back as we shimmied, shaking our shoulders and hips with glorious abandon. 

The music changed again, faster and driving again, discordant guitars straining against the drumbeat and she started to move again, pulling away from me sharply and starting to skip in place, her chin swaying back and forth like a swimming fish. Peter was watching us from the stage, his eyes half closed, smiling slyly despite himself, his fingers teasing the strings of the guitar the same way they'd teased my body so many times in the past few days.

Round and round, Lucy and I danced, chasing and retreating, our fingers twined together. The room spun - I could see nothing else but Peter's eyes, hear nothing else but his guitar, growling and moaning and wailing along with the music. 

"Come on," Lucy whispered, gesturing back towards the backstage with her head. "Let's do another line. We can be waiting for them when they get offstage."

Darting to the side of the stage, she retrieved her jacket, then took me by the hand and led me off. Barely believing what was happening, I followed her without questioning, clinging to her hand as she pushed through the crowd towards the corridor leading back behind the stage. Glancing around to make sure no one had followed us, she darted back to the tiny room we'd been in before, slightly quieter now that the door to the stage was closed.

Without stopping to think, I pulled the baggy out of my back pocket and handed it to her, watching, entranced, as she laid out another two lines of the rough, grainy powder on top of the dog-eared copy of Rolling Stone and daintily bent over to inhale one then pushed it over to me, wiping her nose. I imitated her, then wisely wadded the plastic bag into a ball and stuffed it back into my jeans. 

For a second, I felt nothing, then the same blast of blinding white energy hit me and I nearly fell over, grasping at her shoulders for support. I clung to her, barely able to stand, my head spinning. As she wrapped her fingers around the back of my neck, twining her fingers in my hair, I could feel her breath hot on my face. With a knowing smirk, she moved closer, brushing her lips against my cheek, then moving down, across my neck, nuzzling the soft hollow below my ear. Laughing softly, she kissed me, nuzzling up against me softly and biting the soft flesh of my lips, sending bright blue sparks across my field of vision. For a moment, my mind reeled, and I pulled away. 

"What are you doing?" I sputtered.

"Come on," she shrugged. "They're busy. We might as well get better acquainted..." Not sure of how to respond, for a moment I contemplated pushing her away, then shrugged and let a strange new sense of recklessness take over. Shifting my head slightly to the side, I rubbed my cheek against hers, slowly but cautiously searching for her lips until my mouth found hers. Her lips were amazingly soft and giving, as luscious piece of fruit, yielding gently as I nibbled at them, her mouth tasting of cigarettes and gin, with a faint metallic aftertaste of danger.

Suddenly the door opened, and the lights flicked on overhead. Before I could stop to think, the room was full of people, laughing, joking, commenting on various highlights and disasters of the set. "Oh my god..." filtered Peter's voice from across the room.

"Pete, you lucky dog," whistled Courtney, hooting and hollering. I pulled away, shocked; blushing guiltily, but he came up behind me, pressing himself against my ass and rubbing himself against me, leaning over my shoulder to grab Lucy around the neck and kiss her.

"Stop it!" I protested, wriggling free of both of them, but Lucy merely laughed, wrapping her legs around his waist. It didn't seem to make much of a difference to her, either way.

"Kate..?" she tittered softly, peering around him as if wondering where I'd gone.

Peter simply stood, playing idly with his hands, picking the varnish off his nails, watching me with a coolly appraising expression, neither angry nor happy, but undeniably turned on. "I'm sorry," I stuttered awkwardly. "I... I..." I didn't have a clue what I'd been doing, let alone how to explain it to him. But he shook his head, unperturbed, as a grin slowly spread over his face. 

Zia's head appeared at the door to the stage. "What are we going to do for the encore... oh shit, Courtney... come on, you can do that later..."

Reluctantly, he pulled away from Lucy, following the others back to the stage, leaving her and I staring at each other from across the room. "Come on... are you not into Courtney?" she drawled slowly, lazily scratching her skinny arms. "He's kinda cute, don't you think?" Glancing around, she turned back to me. "Got any cigarettes?"

I shook my head. "I don't smoke."

"Too bad," she sighed, climbing off the counter to dig in the jacket Peter had draped across the chair until she came up with his Marlboros. Helping herself to one, she lit it, drew a deep puff, then moved back towards me, hooking her finger through the loop of my belt and raising her face to try to kiss me again. "What?" she demanded when I turned away. "Oh, don't try to tell me you don't swing both ways..." she shrugged, as she watched me wrestling with my sexuality. "Your boyfriend clearly wants us to go back to the hotel room for a threesome."

Did he? I didn't know what Peter wanted from me. Sex, obviously, but anything else? I didn't know where I stood, I didn't know what I was to him, if I was anything at all, or if I could just be exchanged with Lucy or any of the hundreds of girls that must throw themselves at him across the country every night.

The noises from the stage had stopped, and I heard clapping and whistling as the band shuffled offstage. Lucy tried to kiss me again, but it wasn't right... I couldn't explain. It was something private, something special and mysterious, not some party trick to be played out for Courtney as he waltzed into the room. Strutting imperiously, as if he owned the place, he swaggered over to us, catching my hand as I pulled free of Lucy's embrace.

"Come on, let's go back to the hotel," he suggested, wrapping one arm around her waist and threading his finger through the loop of my jeans that Lucy had only just let go of. I moved away from him, feeling Peter's eyes on me, but Courtney just shrugged and manoeuvred Lucy towards the door.

For a few seconds, Peter and I were alone. "Do you want to go back to the hotel?" I asked, very quietly, almost praying he would say no. We could go back to my loft, we could hide away from the rest of the world in my little paisley room, wrapped in each other's arms. For a moment, Peter hung back, studying me, then grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair, seized me by the hand and took off through the crowd after him. We were going, because Peter didn't live in a world of rat-infested lofts and bare fridges, he lived in a world of posh hotels and fancy restaurants, where women threw themselves at him, and record companies picked up the tab and cleaned up the mess.

"Nice of you to join us," laughed Courtney as we finally caught up with him, stepping into a cab outside. Lucy clambered in after him, giggling as she straddled his lap. Pushing over, I had to squeeze against her leg to let Peter in. "Soho Grand," he told the driver, then grinned at Peter. "What's the matter, you wanted them both to yourself?"

"Yes..." he hissed, crossing his arms and sulking petulantly.

"We can all share, can't we?" he asked Lucy, who giggled and leaned over to kiss me, then reached out and ruffled Peter's hair. The green-eyed beast of jealousy raged inside me as he leaned forward, and stared at her, then grinned, and pulled her face towards him, kissing her roughly. For a moment, I panicked, then saw Courtney leering at me hopefully out of the corner of my eye. Turning to face him with a challenging glare, I felt Lucy slip off his lap, laying across me as she wrapped her arms about Peter's neck. I hesitated, feeling something rise in the back of my throat. As Courtney leaned over, and ran his hand across my breast, I did not push him off, raising my face towards him and letting him push his mouth against mine, his sausage sized lips engulfing mine.

The cab pulled up outside the hotel and we all fell out onto the sidewalk, giggling madly as Courtney peeled off a wad of bills and thrust them through the window. Wrapping one arm about Lucy's waist and the other about mine, he threw back his head and let out a howl. "God, rock'n'roll!" he hooted to the night sky, grinning as the bellboys rushed to open the doors for us. Standing across the elevator, Peter lit a cigarette, staring at us as Courtney bent over to kiss first Lucy, then me. As the doors opened, I pulled away from them, stalking over to Peter and taking his hand in mine, raising it to my lips to slowly suck each of his fingers. Whatever she could do, I could do better, I thought to myself, pushing him against the wall and shoving my tongue down his throat as Courtney fumbled with the keys.

As the door finally swung open, Courtney and Lucy spilled into the room. "Oh my god, look at the size of this place!" she gushed, wandering over to the wet bar and pulling out a bottle of vodka.

"I bet it's bigger than your whole apartment," sniggered Courtney with a wink at us, but the reference flew straight over the top of her head.

"Are these your guitars?" completed Peter, flopping onto his bed and pulling me on top of him.

"By the way, which one of you is Pink?" I added and Courtney cracked up, rolling onto the bed beside us, running his hand up the back of my thighs.

Across the room, music blared out of the speakers as someone found the stereo and pressed play. Slow, sinuous guitar chords spread through the room. "There's margarita mix in here. And tequila, too! Do you want me to make margaritas?" she offered.

Hooking his leg over mine, Courtney pulled me towards him, knotting his fingers in my hair and jerking my face towards his, thrusting his tongue into my mouth roughly. As he climbed on top of me, he forced my legs open, rubbing his hands up and down the length of my torso, pushing my shirt up out of the way and grappling with the zipper of my jeans. 

Lucy padded back from the bar, bearing two glasses full of a murky greenish liquid. "There's only two glasses, we'll have to share," she sighed, balancing one glass on top of Courtney's head before creeping around to the other side of the bed to hand one to Peter.

Seizing it before he could turn and spill it, I sat up and took a sip. "Jesus Christ! Did you put any mix in the tequila?" I gagged, swallowing what felt like a mouthful of fire.

"It said to mix two parts to one," she shrugged.

"I think they meant two parts mix to one part tequila," pointed out Courtney, wrinkling his nose as he took a small sip.

"Tastes fine to me," Peter laughed, sipping his, then handing it back to Lucy to pull his shirt over his head. Lying beside him, she started to gently lick his nipples, circling downwards towards the tufts of dark hair escaping from his trousers.

"Your pants smell like curry," she mumbled as she buried her face in his leather clad crotch. Peter laughed and looked up, catching my eye with a wink. I tried to laugh with him, but the green eyed beast inside me was roaring with jealousy, wanting to grab her by the hair and rip her face away from him. Dragging my eyes away from him, I swallowed another draught of the tequila and turned back to Courtney with redoubled efforts, wrapping my legs around his thighs and latching my mouth onto his. He responded eagerly, wrapping his arms around my waist and lifting me bodily off the mattress, carrying me over to the other bed. "Can we do another line?" I heard Lucy's voice ask from across the room.

"What a good idea..." Courtney agreed, climbing off me, grabbing my pants by the ankles and pulling them off, digging about in the pockets until he found the packet. Pulling a tray off the wet bar, he cut four lines and sucked one up hungrily before passing it around. Absorbed in the drug, I didn't even notice him rooting around in Peter's luggage until he climbed back onto the bed and I felt cold metal against my thigh.

"Jesus Christ, what is that?" I hissed, jumping back about a foot.

He grinned evilly, holding up a small, evil looking Luger. "You want to play with Peter's gun...?"

"Stop," I seethed, glancing over to see Peter lying with his arms folded behind his head, his eyes closed and his lips parted, totally lost to the world as Lucy wrapped her taut mouth about his cock, stroking back and forth in long, clean lines. Courtney raised one eyebrow, rubbing the gun up my thighs and pushing it between my legs with an evil smirk. "Don't do this... You're sick!"

"You're wet," he observed, massaging the gun back and forth until it rested inside my outer labia. Clinging to his neck, I wavered between intense fear and unbridled excitement, terrified of what he'd do next. Reaching down, he parted my inner labia with his fingers and pushed the muzzle of the gun just inside my vagina. Exhaling sharply, I dug my fingernails into his shoulders, afraid to even breathe, but nonetheless fiercely aroused. The metal was cold and alien against my sensitive flesh, but I was so numb from the chemical cocktail that it felt innocuous, almost exquisite as he slid it up to the barrel inside me. Slowly twisting it, he nuzzled his nose against my neck, then drew back to study my reaction. The gun was growing warm inside me, catching me in unexpected places, sending little tiny rivulets of sensation up and down my spine, and my face twisted and contorted in voluptuousness as I twined my fingers in his hair, pulling his face towards me and kissing him ravenously. Moving my hands lower, I pushed his jeans off his hips, wrapping my legs about his knees and drawing him towards me.

Slowly, torturously, he pulled the gun out from the sheath of my vagina and rolled on top of me, sliding perfectly into the space between my hips, grunting slightly as he slipped inside me. Raising the gun to my head, he held it up to my lips, urging "Come on, lick it clean. It's bad for the gun to put it away dirty."

Squirming, writhing and panting, I wrapped my lips around it, sucking the pungent moisture from the metal. He raised himself up onto his elbows, dropping the gun back down onto the mattress, and slamming his hips into me with added violence, knocking the headboard against the wall with the force of his lunges. There was nothing I could do except hold on for the ride, raising my legs out of the way until he seized them and threw my ankles over his shoulders, twisting and bucking his hips.

"Shit..." I muttered, trying to still the galloping headboard by grabbing and holding it.

"Fuck it," snorted Courtney, picking me up and moving my body without even bothering to withdraw, dragging me down to the other end of the bed, away from the wall, dropping my head over the foot of the bed. "Oh god, yesss..." he hissed, obviously pleased with the new angle, bending down to rake his teeth across my neck, then propping himself. "Sit up! Hold onto my shoulders" he ordered, climbing to his knees and pulling my legs about his waist. 

Knitting his eyebrows together, he grinned, leaning backwards, and found the gun under his hand. With a cavalier expression, he picked it up, cocked it and aimed it jokingly towards the television, just level with my head on the opposite wall. Closing his eyes and moaning as if he was about to come, he rested against my shoulder, the fingers of his hand contracting as he climaxed.

Suddenly the television exploded in a shower of glass and metal splinters, sparks flying everywhere. "Jesus Fucking Christ!" he blurted out, leaping away from me, his semen spurting across the bedclothes in a perfect arc.

Across the room, Lucy sat bolt upright, vaulting off the bed and across the room in a single fluid motion. "Are you fucking insane?" she shrieked, unable to stop screaming, covering her mouth with her hands, grabbing her coat off the floor and backing towards the door. A flurry of leather and dirty hair and she was gone.

Courtney sat in shock, staring back and forth between the smoking ruin of the television and the gun he had dropped into the stained sheets. Slowly, as if rising up out of a deep slumber, Peter raised himself up to his elbows, rubbing his eyes and staring at the television, then back at Courtney and I, crouching half naked on the bed. "What are you doing with my gun?"

"I didn't know it was loaded," stuttered Courtney, his hands shaking as he tried to pick it up. "I swear to god, I didn't know."

"Of course it's loaded," retorted Peter matter of factly. "What's the point of having a gun in New York City if it's not loaded? What - is the mugger going to stop and wait while you put the bullets in?" I started to shake uncontrollably, realising the danger I'd been in. I'd had a loaded gun inside my mouth. I'd had a loaded gun inside my... one false move and I could have been dead. "Never mind the fucking gun, what are you doing with my fucking girlfriend?"

Courtney was still breathing heavily, his hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. "What do you think I was doing with your fucking girlfriend?" he rejoined, climbing off the bed and padding over to the television.

"Don't go near there. You've got no shoes on," warned Peter, climbing off the bed and trying to buckle his trousers over his swollen erection. Picking Courtney's boots off the floor, he shook them out and handed them to him. "Careful, there's broken glass everywhere," he warned, poking around in the shattered and twisted frame of the TV. "What the hell were you doing? Pissing bullets?"

"No, ma, I just masturbated and shot the cat!" replied Courtney with a wide grin. Calming down slightly, he finished the half glass of margarita left in one gulp. Peter started to giggle loudly, with his hand over his mouth. For a moment, Courtney just stared, then started to giggle with him, getting louder and more rambunctious until all three of us were just laughing, in relief or hysteria, I couldn't tell. Falling onto the bed, he wrapped his arms around me and clung to me until Peter flopped down beside me.

Turning around, Peter stared at my back. "Shit, Kate, your back is cut up pretty bad. You must have been hit with a piece of flying glass when it exploded." Craning my neck, I twisted around to try to look at it, but I could feel nothing. Running his fingers down my spine, Peter winced audibly as he pulled something out of my skin and handed me a tiny piece of bloodied glass. "You had a piece still stuck in you. Man, that's going to hurt tomorrow!" Bending down, he leaned over and kissed the flesh of my back.

"I can't feel a thing..." I murmured. I could feel a vague wetness that I assumed was blood, and I felt the tiny circles of his tongue on my spine, but I felt no pain. Leaning backwards into his embrace, I rubbed my bare ass against the hard lump in the front of his pants. He had called me his girlfriend, I suddenly realised. Nothing else mattered, not the skinny addict who had gone fleeing off down the hall, or the unfamiliar man pressed along the length of my front, playing distractedly with my nipples, or the shards of glass all over the floor. Peter had called me his girlfriend. 

Twisting my head around, I searched for his mouth, panting slightly as he pressed himself against me, rubbing himself against my buttocks. I had been so aroused for so long, but had been interrupted before anything could happen with Courtney. It wasn't really sex since I didn't come, I told myself in rationalisation, even though his penis was still pressed against my stomach, sticky with our mingled fluids. Peter was wriggling out of his leather jeans, wrapping his hands around my chest as he kicked off his boots and let everything slide to the floor. Their elbows bumped together, and Courtney giggled nervously, but neither of them moved as Peter tentatively parted my legs and urged himself inside me. Lowering his hands, he tangled his fingers in my pubic hair, pushing the flat of his palm against me while Courtney gently coaxed life from my nipples. Latching his mouth over mine, he sucked and nibbled at my tongue while Peter buried his face in my shoulder, nipping gently at my neck. 

Wrapped between the two of them, no longer caring whose mouth was whose or whose hands were whose I found myself slipping into orgasm like slipping into a warm bath. My body was exhausted, my lips chapped, but the pressure of Peter's hand coaxed life from my sore sex with the slightest flick of his hips. A tiny ripple of stimulation crawled up my body, pulsed a few times and then lay still. A few more jabs and he moaned softly and sucked the skin of my neck into his mouth with a slight cry, then his breaths grew even and shallow again.

 

____________________ 1997 ____________________

 

Closing the door slowly, I bit my lip as I padded back to my favourite chair, then reached for the phone and my address book. With a heavy heart, I dialled the number of Alex's hotel and asked for his room. The phone rang and rang, its futile electronic bleep droning in my ear until he finally picked up on about the sixth or seventh ring.

"Yes," he growled, his voice thick with wine or sleep, probably both.

"Alex?" I asked tentatively. Well, who else would it be, you ninny?

"Kate? Where the hell are you?"

"I'm at home."

"What the bloody hell are you doing there?"

"Come over..." I pleaded softly.

He paused, sighing heavily. "I was taking a nap."

"Sleeping off the drink you acquired on the way home?" I teased.

"Don't start with me, woman," he warned.

"Right now, I wish I could join you. But I can't, so why don't you join me?"

Another long pause and a shuffling noise as if he was sitting up. Suddenly paranoia clutched at my heart - what if he hadn't been alone? "All right, you win. I'm on my way. See you in a bit."

Suddenly overcome by an intense burst of guilt, I quickly washed the teacups in the sink in an attempt to eradicate all traces that Peter had been over, and sat down to wait for Alex. Surely it didn't take this long to get a cab, I thought to myself, but when I looked at the clock, I realised it had only been a few minutes. Picking a magazine off the table, I flipped idly through the pages, but the British art scene held no interest for me at that particular moment.

Finally, after an interminable eternity, there was the slow tramp of footsteps up the stairs, a click in the lock, and then the door swung slowly open, to reveal Alex, rumpled and unshaven, blinking against the harsh light of the hallway. "Hi," he greeted, shuffling in and closing the door behind him. Tentatively, he extended a bouquet of flowers that looked as if they'd been wilting in the back of someone's car for several hours. "Got anything to drink?" 

I smiled cautiously, the guilt and the hostility draining out of me as I sniffed at the dahlias. "The bottle of wine you bought last week," I ventured. "It's in the kitchen."

There was a muffled cry of surprise from the kitchen, then silence, not even the clinking of wineglasses for several minutes. After about five minutes, when he hadn't come back, I padded in after him, to find him staring at the contents of my sink, holding my teapot in his hands.

"What are you doing with my teapot? I thought you wanted wine."

"I thought tea would sober me up, but..." His eyes drifted back down to the contents of the sink.

"OK, fine, let's make a pot, I could do with a cup of tea."

"Why were there two teabags in it, when I tipped it out?"

Guiltily, I froze. "I don't know, maybe I wanted an extra cup of tea."

"You said you were cutting down, because of the baby. And why are there two mugs standing on the draining board?"

"I only own two mugs, Alex. And I'm quite sure that I drink more than one cup of tea in a day." My excuses were getting too complicated, but then again, his line of questioning was ridiculous. "What are you getting at? What is all this about?"

"You don't make a whole pot of tea when you're by yourself," he accused softly. "I've seen you do this a hundred times. You always make it in the cup unless you're making it for both of us. I notice it every time, because I always tell you that it tastes better when you make it in the pot."

"That's ridiculous," I snorted, remembering the petty squabbles of a dozen mornings. "It tastes the same whether it comes from a cup or a tea."

"But that's the thing, you only ever make a pot when someone else is with you."

"Do you have any idea how crazy and paranoid you sound right now?" I retorted, trying to go on the offensive to cover my guilt.

He stared at me with anger slowly boiling behind his deep brown eyes, brandishing the teapot which confirmed his doubts. "He was here, wasn't he?" he finally squeezed out from between clenched teeth.

"Who?" I stuttered.

"That little painted Nancy Boy. What's his name? Pete." He spat the syllable out as if it were something distasteful caught between his teeth.

"Peter came over briefly, yes. I invited him up for a drink because he was kind enough to walk me home when I wasn't feeling well."

Alex closed his eyes and raised his hand to his forehead for a moment, as if steadying himself before slamming the teapot forcefully down on the kitchen counter. "Why did you fucking lie to me?"

"I'm not lying! And be careful!" I insisted, leaping up to check that he hadn't cracked the tiles.

"I've seen you do this before, Kate. You forget - I know you! I watched you use these same lines with Jeremy while you were screwing around with Tristram Thornaby-Gore... I bet you used these same lines while you were screwing around on Peter with Little Lord Fauntleroy Tyler or whatever his name is."

"What?!" I hissed, wondering how the hell he had known about that.

"I suppose you're going to deny that, as well, are you? Would you be denying that you ever shagged Tristram if I hadn't caught you at it?"

"Where did you hear about Courtney?" I demanded. Fucking Courtney, he just couldn't keep his mouth shut, could he?

"What does it matter where I heard it - it's true, isn't it? You're just pathologically incapable of being faithful to anyone," he snarled, throwing himself into the chair opposite me, his eyes suddenly lighting on the hated elephant foot umbrella stand.

"I want to know where you heard it because I want to know how much of the truth you heard, and how much of Courtney's fabrications, exaggerations and outright lies you heard!" Alex remained silent, glowering at the elephant foot. "Yeah, I shagged Courtney, as you so eloquently put it," I finally admitted. "But you don't know the circumstances."

"I can't think of any circumstances in which infidelity, especially infidelity with a man's band mate and best friend is excusable."

"What, even in a threesome he invited you to join?" I tossed back.

Alex stared, as if his eyes would pop out of his head, his mouth open, grasping for words. Shit, I wished I hadn't said it quite like that.

"It was a crazy time in all of our lives. When Peter and I first got together, we were doing a phenomenal amount of acid and speed and god knows what else. We were just pushing everything to the limits, disarrangement of the senses, experimentation of all sorts. And yeah, part of it was sexual experimentation, and part of that was..." My voice trailed off. Though I felt no reason to be ashamed of my past, it seemed so degrading to spell it all out in black and white like this. "It was an orgy, for lack of a better word," I finally confessed, feeling so cheapened and degraded. "It wasn't anything like an affair. It only happened once. Peter was there, watching the whole time - in fact, I think Peter was getting sucked off by Courtney's girl du jour at the precise moment. Is that enough, or do you want to hear more?"

Alex sat stock still, refusing to move from his chair, unable to even drag his eyes away from the elephant foot. "I think that's more than I ever wanted to know about your sexual past."

The anger simmering underneath my surface finally exploded. "Oh, and you would just prefer to keep your entire history a complete secret, so that I can spend an entire afternoon making a fool of myself in front of your ex-girlfriend without knowing while she laughs at me behind my back?"

Alex inhaled sharply, his knuckles tightening around the stem of his wineglass, conflicting emotions that even I could not read flickering across his face. When he finally spoke, his voice was tight, stretched to the point of breaking. "I don't see what that has to do with anything." He paused, swallowing the rest of his wine in one gulp, as if he couldn't go on with the conversation without a drink. "Besides, you are the one who insisted on going," he reminded me, bringing his cracking voice back under control.

"I didn't know she was your ex-girlfriend!" I spat. "That changes everything!" He smiled, a dry, smug, humourless smile that seemed to revel in the hypocrisy of my indignation. Infuriated, I found myself unable to stop. "It's not funny, Alex! I'm sick of it. Sick of the way you're always acting so smug and holier than me because, yes, I've made some mistakes in my life and I've slept with some people that I shouldn't have, when we have never, ever even so much as mentioned Mimi Mei, or your 15 year old groupies, or Em Evesham or any of the other slags you seem to have shagged over the years."

As soon as the words were out of my mind, I knew I had gone too far. Alex's eyes flashed with a furious spark I'd never seen before. If I'd thought nothing could ever break through that glazed, blasé expression, I was totally wrong. 

"I don't want to hear you breathe another word about Em Evesham. You little slut... you have no right!" he spat, with a violence I'd never imagined possible, grasping for words; I'd never actually seen him speechless before.

What had he called me? A slut? Had he actually defended his ex-girlfriend in the same sentence that he hurled that epithet at me? How fucking dare he! Some raging frenzy of jealousy and anger passed across my vision in a mad rush, and before I knew what I was doing, I had leaped out of the chair and across the room, throwing myself at Alex, hissing like a cat and scratching at his face with my broken fingernails. "You fucking asshole! You degenerate, duplicitous, hypocritical bastard!" Alex struggled against me, for a few moments, trying to divert the blows, but I felt my fingernail catch skin. "Don't you ever fucking compare me to that bitch again!"

Suddenly Alex's eyes flashed bright with an anger I'd never seen before. I had wanted some sort of response out of him, but I was not prepared for this. Dropping his paltry efforts of defence against my blows, he lunged upwards, seizing me about the throat, my entire head held immobile by one powerful hand. "There are some things in my past that are not open to criticism, even from you, Kate Gordon!" he growled.

For a moment, the words just hung there in the electrically charged air. I was terrified, feeling his fingertips digging into my windpipe, not quite sure of what he was capable of, but the wild look quickly drained from his eyes as he regained control of himself, and he let me go, whirling away from me. Storming to the door, he flung it open, but I ran after him. "Alex, please..." Slumping his shoulders as if hardening his heart, he slowed, but did not stop. "Alex, please, don't leave. Not like this." He stopped, and stared up at the ceiling above him, but did not turn to face me. I fought to keep my voice steady, but tears were inclement at any moment. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that. I'm just... I'm just so scared and so frightened. I don't know what's happening any more." My face was burning, my throat raw where he had seized me, but all I knew is that if he walked down those stairs, he wouldn't come back. "Alex, please," I repeated, the hiss of the last syllable degenerating into a sob as the hysteria lurking just below the surface overspilled into a great heaving paroxysm of confusion and rage all topped with a fear of abandonment. Sinking down to my knees, I started to cry, softly at first, then giving up all pretence at dignity, just started to bawl. Although I could hear his footsteps drawing nearer up the stairs, I refused to raise my head, attempting half-heartedly to push him away as he crouched next to me.

"Kate..." he sighed, so near I could smell his cigarette. The bastard could smoke at a time like this? Damn him. I could barely breathe as it was. "Katie, I'm sorry..." cupping my chin in his hands, he pulled my face towards him, forcing me to look at him. "I should not have exploded like that... I apologise," he stuttered, regaining control of his wavering voice. "I just happened to spend the best part of an afternoon sitting in a hotel bar talking to her..." My heart thumped against my ribcage, all my worst fears confirmed. He hadn't been alone when I called... The smiles over cameras at the fountain were suddenly transformed from innocent flirtation into a serious threat by my over-active imagination.

"You fucking bastard..." I hissed, thudding my fists ineffectually against his chest.

"No, you dolt, we were talking about you!"

"So you discuss me with your ex-girlfriends now?" I spat.

"Kate, just stop..." he sighed, taking my hands in his and attempting to pull me to my feet. "Why are you acting like this?"

I wanted to turn and spit 'Why am I acting like this? You're the one who's being unreasonable' back in his face, but something about the sensation of his arms about me calmed me. Against my better judgement, I found myself leaning against him, wrapping my arms around his waist and slumping my head into the hollow between his shoulder and his neck. "I don't know Alex, I don't know. I haven't been thinking clearly since... you know... pregnancy hormones or something - you know..." I found myself burbling out over the tears, clinging to his neck and drinking in the deep smoky musk scent of his hair.

Pulling me closer, he wrapped his arms around me, smoothing my hair down with his hand. "It's all right... everything's gonna be all right..." he sighed, brushing his lips against my cheek. Still smouldering with anger and frustration, I found myself nonetheless giving in to him, turning my face towards him and meeting his kiss with my own lips. "Come on, let's go inside..." he begged, pulling me to my feet and leading me towards the door. "We wouldn't want your neighbours to think that I'm beating you or anything..." he added with a smirk. 

I smiled despite myself. Even at his most frustrating, all he had to do was flash that marvellous grin and drop one of his deadpan retorts, and I melted like butter in his mouth. Soon we were touching each other urgently, kissing each other again and again, but it felt more like a dog marking his territory than a genuine display of affection. With what he probably fancied was a seductive smirk, he lead me back towards the bedroom, cupping my face in his hands and showering my eyelids with a flurry of kisses. But just as I started to let myself go, allowing my body to respond when my mind wouldn't, Alex stumbled and swore. "Where the hell are the lights in here?"

"At the head of the bed, dear," I sighed, long-sufferingly, stooping down to perch on the edge of the bed to plug them in. Totally unbidden, the image of Peter sprawled across the futon sprung into my mind, his head cocked to one side, his eyes lit up in wonder.

"Why can't you get a normal lamp like everyone else?"

I paused, counting to ten before I replied. "If I was normal, like everyone else, you wouldn't want me, would you?" I finally managed to retort in a civil tone.

He smiled, sinking down beside me and pulling his shirt over my head then slumping back against the mattress, pulling me on top of him. "You have a point." As he pushed his fingers under the hem of my shirt, slipping the fabric out of the way to caress my breasts, I felt my body betray my fuming frustration, and bent down to kiss the soft skin of his stomach.

Chapter Text

____________________ 1997 ____________________

 

Waking before Alex, I slipped softly from his arms and threw a few changes of clothes in a backpack, suddenly feeling the call of the adventure that the beginning of a tour always seemed to precipitate, no matter whose it was. Pausing for a moment, I stared down at his face, bristling with stubble, dark against the pillow. With a slight sense of nostalgia, I traced the line of his cheek, longing for those simpler days when we'd had conversations instead of arguments, exchanged smiles instead of glares... when we'd had a special friendship and not a relationship. 

As if feeling my gaze upon him, he shifted slightly, his eyelids twitching, and then he opened his eyes and smiled radiantly. "Good morning." 

"Hey." I grinned and leaned over to kiss him, suddenly filled with a overflowing sense of affinity for this man lying in my bed. "Do you want a cuppa tea?" I offered charitably.

"That would be lovely," he assented.

Retreating to the kitchen, I collected my thoughts as I brewed the tea, then returned to the bedroom bearing two cups on a tray. Alex pulled the pillow out from under his head, and propped himself up against the headboard to accept the tea. Placing the tea on the floor to cool, I perched at the foot of the bed, hugging my knees. "What time do we meet them at the bus?"

Alex raised his eyebrow with a smile. "You're coming with us to Boston tomorrow night?"

What, you trust me around Peter that long? was on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed it and nodded meekly. "If you want me..."

"Of course I want you. Don't be silly..." he sighed softly, bending over to kiss the exposed flesh of my knee. "We should leave soon. We should really get going if both of us are going to get through the shower," he observed, finishing his tea and balancing the cup on the dresser. "Do you mind if I go first?"

Shrugging non committally, I swallowed my tea and flopped back onto the bed, staring up into the paisley. Yes, dear, lovely cuppa tea, dear... when did we start acting so damn... married? I'd wanted it to be all flash and passion and those wonderful all night drunken conversations, and now it was reduced to arguing over who got to shower first. Throwing the covers back, I climbed out of bed and followed him to the bathroom. I tried the door, scared for a moment that he had locked it, but the handle gave with a soft click and I slipped into the steam. Shrugging my dressing gown off my shoulders, I snickered madly at his tuneless rendition of "Hold Back the Rain". So my Alex was a shower singer; I would never have guessed. Although I might well love the boy to distraction, his singing voice left a lot to be desired. Parting the shower curtain for a moment, I slid in behind him as he rinsed his hair under the steady jet of water, grateful that he hadn't seen me. As his voice slid up the octave for the chorus, cracking hideously, I took the bar of soap from the dish and started to lather his back.

He turned slowly, a slightly embarrassed grin dusted over his lips as he peered back at me, though he did not stop singing. "So what if the words aren't rhyming? Did you think that it's just a game? Well, I probably didn't even say that right, and I really don't give a damn..." With a pitying smile, I reached for the shampoo and squirted some of it into my hand, then started to rub it into his hair. He tilted his head back, leaning into it as I scrubbed his scalp vigorously. "That feels nice," he informed me in a soft purr, wiping the soap from his eyes and turning around to smile at me. Although he was trying so hard to look romantic, with the cap of white foam covering his head, he looked so ridiculous that I burst out laughing. With mock annoyance, he took a handful of bubbles from his head and dabbed it on my nose. I responded by standing up on my tiptoes, reaching up to kiss him and smearing the bubbles back onto his own face. In a moment, it had degenerated into an all-out war, as we flicked water and soap bubbles back and forth at each other, giggling like children. I tried to flick him with a washcloth, but he danced out of my way, his slim hips slipping out of my grasp.

"Stop, stop, truce," I finally conceded as he managed to grab me by the shoulders and held me under the water.

"My turn then," he claimed, picking up the shampoo and massaging it into my hair. I closed my eyes, leaning forward, delighting in the sensation of his fingers gently working tiny circles on my scalp. "Ooh, look at that," he gasped.

"What?" I demanded, opening my eyes in alarm.

"You've got fleas," he giggled, mimicking a monkey searching through its mate's fur, then raising an imaginary nit to his mouth. "Mmm, tasty."

"Stop that," I huffed, slapping his rump sharply. "Monkey!" He laughed and started to flay his hands about in a limp-wristed imitation of my girlie slaps, spraying water everywhere. "Cut it out!" I insisted, putting up a good imitation of being cross, though his ebullient mood was infectious. I tried to grab him, to stop him from flicking water at me, but he twisted around in my grasp, slick as a wet otter. Before I knew what had happened, he had pushed me up against the tiled wall of the shower, his arms around my waist, his hips crushed against mine, his mouth moving back and forth across the sensitive skin of my neck. Suddenly breathing very heavily, I reached up and wrapped my arms around his neck, curling my fingers in his hair as his playfulness turned to urgency. I could feel him between my thighs, our bodies fitting together almost instinctually as he pushed inside me. A slight gasp, a tiny sigh, and I leaned back against the cold, slick tiled wall, trying to find a footing on the edge of the tub.

Abruptly Alex let out a yelp and leaped backwards, crashing through the shower curtain. A wave of freezing cold water followed, raising goose bumps on my skin as I dove forwards, wrestling with the antiquated fixtures until I managed to divert the flow of water to the main tap and then turned it off.

"Jesus Christ!" exclaimed Alex, shivering naked and wet in the middle of the bathroom floor. For a moment, he stared down at his abruptly shrivelled organ, then grinned back up at me apologetically. "So it's true; the effects of the proverbial cold shower."

Unable to control myself, I started to giggle at first, then was soon quaking with laughter. "I'm sorry," I finally choked out between gales of hysterics. "I suppose I forgot to warn you about the hot water heater."

 

Still in a giggly mood, Alex and I took a taxi back to the hotel to meet his band mates. Although Damon fumed as he saw me follow Alex onto the bus, he sat far from us and said nothing, curtailing his expressions of annoyance to the occasional glare. Locked in our own little world, Alex and I ignored everyone else, settling down with the New York Times crossword puzzle between us.

"Four letter word for foolish person.." mused Alex, nibbling thoughtfully on the end of the pencil.

"Alex," I sniggered without missing a beat. 

He paused, glaring at me over the top of the paper, then pulled an exaggeratedly pained expression before grinning. "Beginning with D..."

"Dolt."

"Thank you... Six letter word for remorse ending in E-T?"

"Regret?"

He suddenly stopped, his lips parted, his teeth resting on the soft rubber of the eraser as something that looked like pain flitter across his face, but he shook it off and turned back to me with a formed smile. Although we prattled back and forth for the rest of the drive between Boston and New York, I just couldn't shake the odd sensation that something was not quite right. Half sitting, half lying, snuggled up against his chest, I could feel the tenseness of his muscles underneath his shirt. When we finished the crossword, he sat staring wordlessly out the window, still chewing on the end of his pencil, lost in thought for what seemed like hours.

"Alex, what's the matter?" I finally sighed, sitting up and looking him directly in the face, though he refused to meet my eyes. This long a silence between us was unusual in the extreme.

"Nothing," he shrugged, a terrible expression, almost approaching disgust, darkening his features for a moment before he looked away and patted me disinterestedly on the arm.

"Alex..." I probed, refusing to be put off. I knew every whim, every mood of this man well enough to tell when something was bothering him, but the warning look he shot me caught me completely by surprise. I'd never seen that glower directed at me before, but I knew damn well what it meant.

Throwing him a slightly wounded glance in reply, I pulled away, climbing to my feet and heading back towards the bathroom. As I splashed cold water on my face, I glanced around the tiny lavatory, wondering why it looked so familiar as I reached instinctively for the paper towels. Well, of course; it was the same pink bus I'd grown so used to while I was their roadie on the previous tour during the early summer. How different things had been then... Alex and I had been utterly wrapped up in each other, almost inseparably close, thinking out loud, finishing each others' sentences. Yet now we were actually an official Item, we barely had two words to say to one another. Alex had grown sullen and withdrawn, and I was confused and defensive. 

Staring at the girl in the mirror, I sucked in my stomach, then realised with more than slight irritation that the bulge in my tummy was growing impossible to hide. I didn't like it when Alex was a closed book to me; it reminded me of those nail-biting, confused early days when I'd first known him. Except then he'd simply been putting up an arrogant and intimidating front simply out of instinct - now it was almost as if he was making a conscious effort to shut me out. As I wiped the smeared eyeliner from my cheek, I took a deep breath, pausing for a moment, leaning my head back against the wall.

For a long time, I stood there, staring myself in the eyes and trying to gather what was left of my courage to out and confront Alex, then headed back out to the seat where we'd been huddled, only to find that he was gone. Glancing around, I realised that the bus had pulled to a stop on a narrow backstreet. Dammit, I hadn't been gone that long - had no one had the decency to tell me that we had arrived?

"Where are we?" I asked the driver with a slight edge of panic, pulling my backpack from underneath the seat.

"We're at the venue. We were running late, so they decided to get to soundcheck first."

Stiff and cranky from the long road trip, I was in no mood to hang around a theatre waiting for them to finish wrestling with the monitor speakers. "Do you know what hotel we're staying at? I'll take a cab."

The driver shook his head. "Better ask the road manager."

What the hell was that about? The bastard bloody well knew, but was just being difficult. This had something to do with Damon, I knew it. Had he instructed everyone to treat me like a groupie, right down to refusing to allow me to know the name of my own hotel? For some reason, I wouldn't even put that beyond him. With an utterly withering glance, I stormed down the stairs of the bus and out onto the street, digging in my bag for my laminate.

Striding into the theatre, I looked around wildly for a friendly face. The band's personal assistant, Siobhan, was buzzing around with a clipboard, simultaneously directing the band and chirping into a cell phone that seemed to be eternally glued to her ear. "Come on, we've got an interview with a local paper in ten minutes - photo session for AP immediately following. Do we have the guest list yet? ...you need how many photo passes? Yeah, they'll be at the door."

Reckoning it was best not to disturb her, I marched directly up to where Damon was standing watching the speakers being loaded in and fixed him with a no-nonsense glare. "What hotel are we staying at?"

He rolled his eyes and started to walk away without even bothering to look at me. "I don't have time for this right now."

Gritting my teeth, I turned to catch a familiar face connecting the wires behind Graham's amp. "Roger, do you know where we're staying..."

He looked up with a friendly face, and opened his mouth as if to answer, then caught the nasty glare that Damon shot his way and shook his head. Jesus Christ! What was this? The crew had once accepted me as one of their own, including me in their boys club camaraderie. Had the ranks closed that quickly, now that I was perceived as the traitor? Where the hell was Alex?

Padding across the stage and down the stairs into the rows of empty seats, I caught sight of a familiar face strolling in from the lobby. Oh Christ, no, not Peter. I tried to dodge away from him back towards the stage before he spotted me, but he had already caught sight of me. For a second, he looked around nervously, as if scanning for Alex, then smiled and quickened his pace toward me.

"So you decided to come after all," he observed with a smile that actually looked genuine.

I nodded slowly, casting a backwards eye towards the stage. "Yeah... though I'm already beginning to wish that I hadn't," I added under my breath.

Grimacing in commiseration, Peter patted my arm gently. "So how are you feeling?"

Shaking my head slowly, I stared at him. "Fine..."

"Is there anything you need?"

I blinked at him in disbelief. This considerate, caring, kind man was not the Peter Hagstrom I'd known. Then again, how many times had I seen the Peter Hagstrom I used to know sober? And time and distance after an unhappy ending had a way of exacerbating a person's worst qualities.

"If there's anything I can get you, just let me know," he offered gallantly.

For a moment, I bristled, tempted to shake off his concern, but something genuine in his eyes stopped me. For a moment, I wavered, then stopped myself. "Actually, have you seen my errant boyfriend?" I wasn't sure exactly who I was trying to remind of the fact - him or myself - but his face shifted perceptibly.

"Um, yeah. I think he's in the can. You want me to go get him?"

Before I could respond that it wasn't necessary, he had bolted in the direction from whence he had come. A few moments later, Peter emerged from the door, his shoulders slumped, his head turned down so that I could not see his face, followed shortly by Alex, his face a stormcloud, his eyes narrowed as he stared daggers at the back of Peter's head.

Oh god, no, don't start this again, please... I prayed silently, but Alex said nothing as he strolled towards me and stopped, looking me up and down with an unreadable mask of an expression. "Why didn't you tell me we were here?" I ventured, trying unsuccessfully not to sound nagging. "You could have come and got me."

"You were in there for hours. I assumed you wanted to be alone."

What if something had been wrong? What if I'd been sick? What if I was having a miscarriage and bleeding to death in there? A million recriminations fought for expression, but I bit my tongue and swallowed my annoyance. "No one can seem to tell me which hotel we're staying at."

Alex's eyebrows knitted even closer together, forming an angry black line across his forehead as he pulled his pack of cigarettes out of his front pocket. Lighting his cigarette, he ran his hand through his hair and glowered up at the stage with such animosity that I wondered what the atmosphere had been like before I joined them. "That fucking cunt..." he muttered, then shook his head. I'd never seen Alex very angry for very long - usually he simply couldn't be bothered with an argument. "I don't actually know myself. I'll find out. In the meantime, get me a pack of cigarettes, and a cup of tea?"

It wasn't a question; it was practically an order. Deep breath. Ram back teeth more firmly into fleshy part of tongue. If Alex was going to say anything to Damon, I didn't particularly want to be around, anyway. "I'll see what I can find," I sighed, and looked up at him expectantly. Alex merely nodded curtly and headed back up towards the stage. Oh. So on top of everything else, I was expected not just to be his gopher, but to pay for everything as well.

Slumping my shoulders, I turned on my heel and headed towards the front door of the venue. Without even stopping to think, I pushed open the door and stepped out into the bright autumn sunlight, blinking as I peered up and down the street in search of a deli. At first, I didn't even notice the long line of kids stretching out along the side of the building - it was the odd noise that attracted my attention, like the simultaneous exhaling of a hundred held breaths.

"Oh my god, it's Kate Gordon," squealed a teenage voice, and the line exploded into a cacophony of high-pitched chatter. The first kid who had spoken first broke free of the gaggle, dashing over beside me and breathlessly declaring "Oh my god, it's really her. Kate! Where have you been? Is it true?"

A friend joined her, and then another, and suddenly I was surrounded by teenagers, all asking a thousand questions simultaneously, thrusting pens and tickets and scraps of paper towards me. "Where have you been? Is Jeremy really dead? Have you read his suicide note? What happened?" I tried to move back towards the safety of the building and found my escape route cut off by a growing mob of fans. Something hit me in the face - a carelessly wielded CD or a magazine - and I felt the panic rise up in my throat.

"Can you please step back? I can't breathe," I asked as politely but firmly as I could, trying carefully to push my way through the crowd, but it seemed as if I was surrounded by an impenetrable sea of faces and arms. "Please... leave me alone!" As the chorus of voices grew louder and more insistent, I was suddenly afraid for the first time. Someone had a hold of my sleeve; someone else's fingers were in my hair. A hand like a claw grabbed at my beaded necklace and started to pull, choking the breath out of me. My head was swimming, I could not make out individual faces in the swirling mass of hysteria. No longer caring if I hurt anyone, I started to push, clawing my way blindly back towards the door. Locked. Ignoring the kids clamouring in my ears, I pounded on the door until it swung just wide enough open to let me through, ducking under someone's arm as he pulled it closed behind me.

"Jesus Christ..." swore Peter's soft spoken voice from above me as I slumped down to the floor with my head against the door. "What the hell is going on out there? I didn't realise your fans were so vicious."

"They're not my fans," I sighed, rubbing my neck where the unseen assailant had clutched at my beads. "They're Jeremy's fucking fans."

"Are you hurt?" he asked compassionately, squatting down beside me, and gently laying his hand along the weal on my collarbone. Bright and angry and red, it looked disconcertingly more like a lovebite than a bruise.

"I'm OK," I panted, catching my breath, then started as his finger brushed against the injury. "I think I've probably done worse to you in the past..." I added with a weak smile.

He blushed, his face turning bright crimson all the way to the tips of his ears as he looked away with an embarrassed grin. "Erm... probably." For a moment, there was an awkward silence, then he started to giggle nervously. "Those were crazy times, weren't they?"

"I've been through crazier." I paused, then reflected on the present situation. "Hell, I'm going through crazier right now..."

Glancing up at the lock to make sure it was properly fastened, he nodded in agreement, then slowly helped me to my feet. "Do you want me to try and find a first aid kit? They've got to have an icepack around here somewhere..." I acquiesced weakly, following him though to the office, where Fozzy, the head of security for the tour, was conferring with a pair of enormous bouncers.

"Oh my god, Kate, what happened to you?" demanded Fozzy in an alarmed tone as he looked up to see me limping into the office, dishevelled and bruised.

"An altercation with several over-eager Rocket Pops fans," explained Peter, pulling a chair over for me. "Do you have a first aid kit around here anywhere?"

The two bouncers exchanged looks, "Better call in for reinforcements," observed the first.

"Let's go observe the situation first," concurred his partner as he dug in a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a chemical ice pack and tossed them lazily to Peter.

"Kate, you are to stay out of sight backstage for the course of the show. I don't even want to be able to see you from the audience - for your own safety," warned Fozzy, shaking his finger at me in warning before following the bouncers.

It wasn't as if I'd planned on being anywhere else, but the paternalistic tone of his voice irked me, especially when combined with the attitude of the rest of the crew. "Ja volt, mein commandant," I spat at his retreating back, then winced as Peter daubed at a scratch with rubbing alcohol. "Ouch, careful, Pete!"

"Sorry." I softened as he worriedly bit his lip, pressing the icepack against my shoulder.

"No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't snap. I should be thanking you."

He shook his head. "You're welcome."

"Any time you want to give up your position with the Bollocks and become a full time bodyguard, you've got a job," I joked.

"As if you'd allow anyone to guard you," he retorted, playfully flicking my nose with his forefinger. "More likely, I'd need to be guarded from you."

I stiffened at the sudden informality, realising that we'd fallen into the old flirtatious habit far too easily, then stood up awkwardly, brushing imaginary lint from my jeans, but Peter didn't move away.

"Are you sure you're alright? They didn't hurt the baby? I mean, we could call a doctor if you're the slightest bit anxious..." he suggested carefully.

He sounded so worried that I felt like throwing my arms around his neck and hugging him to assure him that I was fine, but I merely shook my head, then changed my mind and planted a quick kiss on his cheek. For a long moment, neither of us moved, our faces inches apart, his breath warm on my cheek, then I pulled away. "I have to find Alex..."

"Of course, I'm sure he's terribly worried," he muttered distractedly at the floor.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" I growled defensively.

Peter paused, studying me carefully. "Exactly what I said," he finally conceded, but I could see the spark of that unhealthy curiosity light in his eyes. "Are things... you know, OK... between you?" he probed cautiously, as if more afraid of the reaction to the question than the answer.

"We're fine!" I snapped, a little too defensively to be convincing, then nervously added. "Why do you ask?" We were fine; of course we were perfectly happy and content. How could I possibly be giving off the impression that Alex and I could possibly be anything but the very picture of happiness and contentment?

"Just curious..." he responded with a puzzled expression. "You just seem a bit. Well, if I didn't know better, I'd say bitter."

I stared at him resentfully. How dare he just walk into my life after two years and read my emotions as if he hadn't been away a day, destroying the last vestiges of my peace of mind with a single ill-turned phrase? "I assure you, we are perfectly happy, and perfectly content," I replied coldly, pulling away from him and edging off the desk. "Thank you for helping me."

"You're very welcome," he chirped, following me out of the office and down the lobby towards the theatre, bobbing like a puppy dog at my heels.

Go away; leave me alone! I thought to myself as we passed through the swinging doors into the auditorium. The last thing I needed was to give fuel to Alex's moody delusions by letting him catch Peter and I locked in another private conversation, or to feed Peter's suspicions that Alex and I were having problems by letting him see us fighting over him. But it was too late - as soon as Alex heard the door slam shut, he glanced up, and as his eyes came to rest on Peter and I, the features of his face twisted into a darkened glower.

With a casual nod, he handed his bass to a roadie then clumsily leaped down off the edge of the stage. Completely ignoring Peter, he loped over to me and eyed me calmly. "Do you have my fags?"

"Sorry, no..." I apologised, suddenly recalling the tea and cigarettes which had been the object of my brief jaunt outside.

"Well, where have you been, then?" he drawled sarcastically, eyeing me from under his fringe as he pulled out the last of cigarettes, crumpled the empty packet into a ball and hurled it with unspoken animosity into the scaffolding under the stage.

Before I could speak, Peter interrupted with barely contained contempt. "For your information, your girlfriend just nearly got trampled by an over-eager gaggle of Rocket Pops fans..."

At even the slightest mention of Jeremy, Alex seemed to boil over into fury. "I will thank you to stay out of this," he snarled, seizing me by the hand and dragging me off before I could protest.

"Alex!" I finally exclaimed as he dragged me to a stop backstage. "Alex, I nearly got killed out there! Do you even fucking care?"

"I do not want you talking to him!" he fumed, as if he hadn't even heard me. "I do not want you talking to any of the Jackson Bollocks - they are a bad influence! But I especially do not want you talking to Peter."

I stared at him blankly, so angry I could barely speak, but he must have mistaken my silence for an affirmation as he got himself a drink from the cooler of beer backstage. I wanted to scream If it wasn't for Peter, there might not be enough left of me to forbid, but when I opened my mouth to contradict him, my throat was so dry that I could not even croak out a denial. Sinking down to the nearest chair, I lowered my face into my hands for a few moments, then stood up abruptly and tried to slip from the room.

"Where do you think you're going?" demanded Alex.

"I'm going back to the hotel, Alex." I'm going back to the hotel, and then I'm calling a travel agent and booking the soonest flight back to New York that I can get.

Donning a pair of sunglasses and covering my hair in a baseball cap, I defiantly procured the name of the hotel from Siobhan, then dodged out the back door of the theatre and managed to flag down a cab without attracting any attention.

 

"What do you mean there are no available seats from Boston to LaGuardia tonight?" I whined down the line as I perched on the edge of the bed, feeling lost, lonely and dwarfed by the width of the king size mattress. "What about JFK?"

"Sorry, ma'am, it's a very popular commuter flight," droned the travel agent in my ear. "We could put you on standby and see if anyone cancels, but you would have to go down to the airport and wait. The next available seat isn't until 3 days from now."

"Three days?" I sighed. In three days, the tour would have wound halfway to the Midwest. "How about Newark?" If I was considering flying in to New Jersey, I must be desperate.

"There's a seat in business class the day after tomorrow," she offered, but I shook my head.

"No... thanks for your help, anyway." Lowering the phone back down to the receiver, I slumped back against the pillows and stared up at the ceiling. How did I manage to get myself into this situation, trapped in a tourbus with a band that despised me, facing nothing but stony jealous silence from the man I had come to be with, while the only sympathetic face was someone I'd sworn a long time ago to hate? Kicking off my shoes, I peeled off my jeans and my bra, and buried my face in the pillow, resolving to simply ignore the situation the best way I knew how, by simply closing my eyes and sleeping through it.

 

-----

 

I was awoken some time later by a soft, muffled knocking at the door. Thinking Alex had forgotten his key, I padded to the door without bothering to dress and swung it open abruptly, twisting my face into the most perturbed expression I could manage, only to be surprised by the somewhat timid form of Peter hiding behind a plate laden with fresh fruit and sandwiches.

"Oh, hi..." I stuttered, stumbling backwards into my room, grabbing futilely for my jeans for a few moments before deciding that the best way of preserving my dignity was to simply get back into bed. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm sorry... I hope you don't mind. I noticed you didn't come to dinner with us, so I thought you might be hungry and brought you up some things from the backstage spread." Shutting the door, he advanced nervously and placed the plate on the edge of the bed.

My mouth watered at the sight of two perfectly ripe navel orange balanced between bunches of grapes, but I still eyed him suspiciously. "Alex has forbidden me from speaking to you," I informed him flatly, hoping that the sarcasm showed through in my voice.

Peter smiled, rolled his eyes and tossed his hair out of his face. "I know. He told me so himself in no uncertain terms."

"And you are still here," I observed. He said nothing, settling down in the chair opposite me before reaching out and taking one of the oranges, peeling it slowly and purposely. The smell of citrus made my stomach growl with longing, so I hesitantly reached out and took the other one, turning it over and over in my hands before making a tiny slit in its peel with my thumbnail. "Why are you taking care of me?" I finally asked as I slipped the first succulent segment into my mouth.

"Well, someone has to, and Alex obviously isn't," he shrugged.

"That's not fair, Peter!" I moaned. "You don't know what's... things are... things are... he's not usually like this, Peter. I don't even know what's going on with him at the moment." Why was I struggling so hard to defend him when I was so angry myself? Peter merely sat on his chair, saying nothing, but smiling enigmatically as he peeled his orange. "He's feeling awkward enough because of the situation between me and his band. He was insecure about my pregnancy to start with - and then you show up? What's he supposed to think?" Peter shrugged and shook his head, still smiling but saying nothing. "What?!" I demanded, growing angry at his sphinxlike silence.

"You obviously care about him, the way you support him."

"Of course I care about him!" I growled.

"I just hope he cares about you as much you care about him."

For a moment, I contemplated throwing the carcass of my orange at him and screaming at him to get out, but if it hadn't struck such a chord of insecurity deep inside me I wouldn't even have been bothered by it. "He does. He just doesn't know how to show it except by being a stupid, jealous boy," I finally snapped.

Peter shook his head slowly. "I don't know. If it were me..." His voice trailed off as he chewed his orange.

"If it were you, then what?" I spat. "You'd take care of me? You'd whisk me off and marry me, and raise some other man's baby to make up for the baby I aborted?" The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I couldn't even tell if I was just hurling them to hurt, or if there was a part of me that really meant them.

Peter stood up abruptly and pushed the last segment of his orange into his mouth before sweeping its peel into the rubbish bin. "I can't roll back time, Kate. That's something I learned at AA, you can't unmake mistakes. But you can try to repair the damage with people you've harmed."

"Is that what you're doing, just repairing damage?" I snapped back.

Peter rolled his eyes and pulled himself to his feet, shaking his head. "Well I've been trying, that's all. If you don't want me to..."

I paused for a moment, suddenly terrified at the prospect of being left alone, abandoned in some strange hotel room. "Peter..." He turned back to me as if expecting the reply. "Please don't leave. I didn't mean to snap at you like that. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

"OK." He nodded and sat back down in his seat, raising up his Chelsea booted feet until they were resting on the foot of my bed. "So the hell have you been? The last time I saw you, you were a scared little girl from New York City, about to start off on your first regional club tour. Now you're sharing hotel rooms with some of the biggest names in rock. How did you get here from there?"

I bristled at the implication that after all the hard work I was nothing but a groupie. "What is that supposed to mean?" I growled defensively. Peter merely shrugged again and blinked his grey-blue eyes knowingly. "I've worked bloody hell this past year to get where I am now!"

"And where is it you are now?" he asked mysteriously. "Where is your band? What happened to your tour? It was starting to all come true for you, just like I told you, way back in '95. You put out one of the best albums of the year, did a few tours that had all of the industry buzzing about how you were the best and brightest hopes of modern music, and then you just disappeared. You just threw it all away. And for what?" He waved his arms around, indicating the four walls of the hotel room, then turned back to me expectantly.

"If I hadn't turned around and walked out when I did, I'd have ended up like Jeremy... or worse," I protested. "You don't know what it was like, Peter, you just have no idea what it was like living in that fishbowl."

"And this fishbowl here is any better?"

"What fucking right have you to judge me?" I spat back, suddenly becoming really offended by his line of questioning. "Just because you knew me once, two years ago, you told me a few nice things about my band, and you just fucking walked out on me does not mean that you know me or what the hell I have been through. You haven't been here, Peter, you don't know what I've been through, and you have no right to judge me, OK?"

Peter shook his head, and sprung up off the chair, moving closer to me and settling down on the edge of the bed, reassuringly patting the lumps my legs made in the blanket. "No, no, Katie, that's not what I meant. Listen to me! God, when I first met you, I just thought you had such talent and such drive... you weren't going to let anything get in your way. No matter what happened, you just didn't care, you just didn't let it affect you, because you had that band and that was all that mattered to you. I know you've been through hell and back during the past few months... you've been through such shit lately that anyone else would just lay down and give up and die, but you're stronger than that."

"Oh, thanks for the pep talk, coach," I drawled sarcastically, pulling away from him.

"No, Kate, listen to me!" he insisted, grabbing my ankle and tugging my gaze back towards him. "You can't just give up like this and be a doormat for other jerks like Jeremy and Alex..."

"Alex is not a jerk!" I repeated stubbornly.

"Kate, remember what you told me all those years ago, when you were jealous because we were being courted by majors, and you were just along for the free meals? That you wanted to be famous for who you were, not for who you were shagging? Do you remember that?" I twisted away from him as if I'd been slapped in the face. "I'm sorry, Kate, I didn't mean to be so blunt..."

"No, you are absolutely right," I managed to choke through the tears that were streaming unbidden down my cheeks now, despite my best efforts to maintain some sort of composure. "It wouldn't hurt if it wasn't true."

Peter bent over to peer into my downturned face, tightening his grip on my ankle, and at that moment the paranoia struck. What if it wasn't real, this gesture of friendship and concern? What if this, too, was just another play on my sympathy, to try to coax me into his bed, or his press release, or whatever it was that these men always wanted from me? Maybe he'd thought I'd been serious about replacing our child. Kicking his hand off my leg, I buried my face in the pillows and tried to block him out, along with the rest of the world.

"Kate..." he pleaded with me. "Listen to me. The press and the public will be crueller than I am. Get yourself back out there, and remind them what you are really capable of."

"I don't care. I just don't care what anyone thinks any more!" I spat. "Please, just leave me alone, Peter. I just want to be left alone." No, I didn't really want to be alone, I desperately wanted someone to sit beside me and put their arm around me and tell me everything was going to be alright, but I didn't want to face this inquisition.

With my face pressed into the pillow, I could see nothing of the room, but vaguely I heard the unmistakable sound of key in the lock and the door swinging open. "What the hell are you doing in here?" barked out Alex's voice, taunt with surprise and anger. "I thought I told you to stay the hell away from Kate."

"I just..." stuttered Peter, reaching anxiously for an explanation, jumping up from the bed as if caught in the act. "I just... she was upset, and I thought..."

"You thought what?" demanded Alex as I raised my dishevelled head from the pillow. "Are you always in the habit of inviting yourself up to other people's hotel rooms to talk to their girlfriends while they are not present?"

"Alex, stop. It wasn't like that, he just brought me something to eat," I protested, hopping out of bed before I realised the suspicious appearance of my current state of undress.

Alex looked back and forth between Peter and my semi-nudity in a state of furious disbelief before finally exploding, pointing one long finger, curled in anger, at Peter. "You are off the tour. That's it. I want you off this tour as of right now."

Drawn by the noise, Fozzy poked his head into our room. "What's going on in here. Is everything under control, Alex?"

"Everything is most definitely not under control," reiterated Alex, his voice cracking with anger. "Call our management, get their tour manager in here - what the hell is he doing in my hotel room, in my fucking bed, molesting my girlfriend? I want him off the tour, and I want him off the tour now!"

"Alex, calm down," urged Fozzy. "Kate, are you OK?"

"I'm fine," I sobbed. "It's all just a big mistake. Peter, tell him! Fozzy, nothing happened."

"Alex, why don't we just go outside, walk down the hall, and you and Peter and I can have a little talk," suggested Fozzy diplomatically, shooting me an apologetic look as he dragged the two of them outside by the collars, like recalcitrant school boys.

Perched on the edge of the bed, I sat down to wait, rubbing my eyes with my hands as I tried to block Peter's advice out of my head. After a few minutes, Alex came back in, threw himself down in a chair and lit a cigarette, glaring at me with palpable distrust.

"So what happened?" I finally ventured, my voice shaking.

"They're off the tour. Siobhan will find another band to finish the rest of the tour with us." His hands shook as he raised his cigarette to his mouth.

"And what about the Bollocks?"

"They're going back to Oregon. I'm sure they can find another band to support that should be a little more suited for their lifestyle." Alex's voice dripped with sarcasm. "And what about you? What do you have to say for yourself?"

"He was worried about me, after the way I left, so he brought me something to eat. Nothing happened - all we did was talk..."

His face creased with anger and disbelief. "Nothing happened. All you did was talk," he repeated. "You're lying half naked in my bed with someone I have utterly forbidden you from even talking to, and I am supposed to believe that nothing happened."

Rather than try to defend myself, I went on the offensive. "You have no right to tell me who I can and can't talk to."

"Well, as your supposed lover, I think I do have a right to tell you who you can and can't sleep with! Oh, I'm sorry, that's right - nothing happened - did I interrupt you before you had a chance to consummate your reunion?"

"Alex, that's not fair!" I sobbed.

"No, this isn't fair! This isn't fair to me!" His voice was ragged, as if he was on the edge of tears, so I climbed out of bed and padded over to him, leaning over and stroking his hair rather than succumbing to the urge to scream at him, scratching and biting at him in anger and frustration. "No, don't," he insisted, batting my hand away.

"Alex!" Kneeling down in front of him, I tried to pull his face back to look at me. "You have to believe me. I can't lie to you - I've never been able to lie to you, you know that. Nothing happened with Peter. Nothing was going to happen with Peter. But you have to stop with this jealousy crap cause all you are doing is driving me away."

Alex suddenly stopped fiddling with his cigarette pack and looked directly up, directly into my eyes, as if searching there for the truth. Shaking his head, he wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me close, clutching me against his chest. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm being the biggest fucking cunt in the whole world right now, aren't I? I just..." He bent his head lower, resting his cheek against the top of my head for a moment as dry sobs shook his body. "I just get so scared, when I see him come sniffing around you like that. Because I love you so fucking much that I can't imagine what I would ever do if I lost you."

I nearly pulled away, my mind reeling. Why did Alex never tell me that he loved me until I was so angry at him that I was ready to just get up and walk out? And why did I still respond to that word? What was it about that one little syllable that made me instantly forget everything and just melt against him? He'd only ever used it with me before once, and I knew when he said it, that he meant it. Wrapping my arms around his waist, I buried my face in his lap and tried to stop crying.

Leaning over, he kissed the top of my head and smoothed my hair down, then put his hands under my chin, lifting my face so that he could peer into my teary eyes. His eyelids flickered closed and his face loomed larger as if he wanted to kiss me, but I pulled away, confused and unsure of how to react. Alex pressed on as if not sensing my disquiet, making his intentions and desires quite clear by reaching out one of his hands and running his long, elegant fingers up and down my bare thigh.

"Alex, no!" I sighed, rolling away from him.

"Come on.." he pleaded, following me with his eyes, running his fingers up across the exposed curve of my belly towards my breasts. I shook my head and climbed up off the floor, vaguely annoyed with my nipples for responding to his touch. "Why?" he demanded, suddenly annoyed when he realised that I was serious in my refusal.

"I'm just so confused, Alex, and I'm just so... unsure of what is going on." I grasped for words, unable to adequately express my agitation. Suspicion flickered in his eyes, so I blurted out "And no, it has nothing to do with Peter, so don't even think of saying it."

"You said it, not I," grunted Alex, rolling off the chair and stalking to the table to light another cigarette. Without meaning to, I coughed as the acrid sulphur of the match hit my newly sensitive lungs. His smoking had never really bothered me before, but now my stomach was doing flip flops at the smell. "Jesus fucking Christ," swore Alex, glaring at me as if I was the offending party. "I skipped out on the aftershow to come back here to see you, and it looks like I shouldn't have bothered. I'm going out."

I stared at him, shocked, not quite believing him until he had picked his suit jacket off his chair and thrown it around his shoulders, stalking towards the door. "Alex... Alex, don't leave." He ignored me, practically wrenching the door off its hinges as he jerked it back by its handle. "Alex, don't you dare walk out that door!" Jumping up off the chair, I followed him, standing out in the hallway in my bare legs. He pretended not to notice me, his jaw set, but his eyes glistened as if wet with uncried tears.

Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks. No, this wasn't right, running after Alex like a dismissed child, letting him have this much power over me. If nothing, else I still had my pride. Who the hell did he think he was, treating me like this? I wasn't some little snippet of an adoring groupie that he could demand sexual favours from and abandon when I was no longer convenient. He wasn't the only one that could run away when things got too difficult. Whirling around, I tried to run for the relative security of my room, but found that the door had swung shut and locked behind me. "Fuck!" I blurted out, grabbing the handle and tugging, but to no avail. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"

Glancing around the deserted hallway, I shouted for help, but everyone seemed to have disappeared off to the aftershow party. No, not everyone. A tousled blond head stuck itself out of one of the other rooms further down the hall. "Kate..?"

Oh god, no, not you again, I thought to myself. "Haven't you caused enough trouble for one night?" I spat at him, almost relieved to have an object on which to focus the mounting anger and frustration.

"Fine, then," shrugged Peter, starting to close the door. "If you want to spend the rest of the night sitting in a hotel corridor in your underwear, that's fine with me."

I snorted in disdain, and turned back to the door to try the handle, but it remained firmly locked. Rolling my eyes and swallowing my pride, I padded down the hall to Peter's door and knocked softly.

The door immediately swung open as if he'd been standing there waiting for me. "Do you want to borrow a pair of jeans? I'll go down to the front desk with you to try and get another key," he offered magnanimously, closing the door behind me as I slipped into his room..

As I peered into the gloom of the hotel room, my eyes lighting on his discarded items of clothing, I was suddenly overcome with nostalgia. Peter and I had always been exactly the same size, trading clothes back and forth with casual familiarity. Those leather trousers he was wearing - they had fit so snugly around my hips they had been like a second skin. "That would be great," I acknowledged softly, a little less proud than I had been earlier.

While he bent over, digging in his rucksack, I couldn't help but wonder if he still carried a pistol with him, then shivered with mingled horror and arousal at the thought of what we'd done with the gun. No, that had been Courtney, I reminded myself with a hint of admonition as Peter turned around and held out a pair of black jeans. "These should fit you. I think they're fairly clean. Only worn them once."

His skin brushed against mine when I took them from him, setting off a tiny charge of electricity, and I could have sworn his hand lingered against mine a little longer than necessary. Rather than move to go, I stood there, staring at him, noticing how the blue of his jeans jacket set off the colour of his eyes. He had changed, his face a bit thinner, his cheekbones more prominent and his hair more shaggy, but those eyes were exactly the same. Without thinking what I was doing, I leaned forward, and he did not move away, in fact he moved closer, his eyelashes fluttering as they lowered. I was going to kiss him gently but chastely on the cheek, but he seemed to change his mind, pressing his lips firmly against mine. 

At first, I was too shocked to respond, but my mouth seemed to part instinctively, admitting his searching tongue without a whisper of hesitation. As he pressed up against me, I let the trousers fall to the floor, wrapping my arms about his neck and pressing my hips against his, the leather warm and soft against the bare skin of my legs. He pressed back, moaning slightly as he started to move against me, rubbing himself between my legs, then raised his arms awkwardly, as if not sure what to do with them, before letting them come to rest around my waist. Letting go of his neck, I moved my hands lower, but he seized them, sliding them down his slight chest before plunging then down the waistband of his leather trousers.

He was already hard, the head of his penis straining towards me, but suddenly I pulled back, placing my hands firmly on my hips to push him away, then extracting my hands and holding them between us like a shield. "No, Peter, please stop. Don't do this to me."

I bit my lip, still wet with his saliva, and shot him a reproachful look before bending down to pick up his trousers, then ran from his room.

Chapter Text

-------------------- 1997 --------------------

I didn't realise that I was still wearing Peter's borrowed jeans until I was already halfway through Rhode Island, staring morosely through the window of a Greyhound bus. After obtaining a replacement room key, I had stopped back at the room long enough to reclaim my backpack, then I had taken a taxi to the bus station, catching the last bus to New York City by a margin of minutes. Still not sure why I had fled, I pressed my flushed face against the cool glass and tried to sleep, thoughts of Alex and Peter and everyone else still whirling around my mind.

What the hell had I been thinking? Who was that shameless hussy letting Peter snog her in the hotel room? No, it had been an almost instinctual reaction - revenge against Alex. If I was going to be accused of sleeping with Peter, and suffer all the negative consequences, by god, I was going to have the pleasure of it! No, I didn't want Peter, I certainly didn't love Peter. At this point, I no longer even trusted him. After all the pretense of saying he was trying to make things right with me, all he wanted was to get down my pants. And I'd almost let him. But I just wanted someone to put their arms around me, crush them against me like a little child, and tell me that everything was going to be alright again. By all rights, it should be Alex, but Alex was a closed book to me right now, wrapped up in his little wars with his band, and I was clearly on the wrong side of that dispute. 

Well, that's it, isn't it? I suddenly realised. How could I expect Alex to take care of me when his own life was in chaos? His words of a few weeks ago, which had seemed like a slap in the face at the time, suddenly rang filled with new meaning. "Don't even think of asking me to plan my whole future for the next 18 years around you and a baby. I can't even begin to answer that now." Perhaps it had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Perhaps the future he questioned so dubiously was not his love for me, but the band itself. In his little speech back in the hotel room, Peter had unintentionally stepped on the truth. Define yourself by your own accomplishments, not in relation to other people. Alex and I were so much alike in that regard - I thought of the conversation Beth and I had had, back while baby shopping. I had felt lost, without an identity, without my band. Kate Charms, that was who I thought of myself as. Beth had laughed at the time, and accused me of being "such a boy," but perhaps that was the key.

"It's become my surname," he had joked in numerous interviews. "Alex From-Slur." At the moment, I stood between him and his band, which essentially meant that I stood between him and his own identity. No matter how much he resented them at times, and fought and ran away from them, like he always did when he didn't want to confront something, if I placed myself on the wrong side of the Slur issue, it was not a fight I was going to win.

When I arrived, I dragged myself half asleep though the Port Authority Bus Terminal to the subway. After the insanity of the past few days, the lurching jolts of the 7 train and the long wait for the 6 train seemed almost reassuring. I climbed the long flights of stairs to my apartment, pausing on the landings to catch my breath, dropped my backpack on the floor and flopped down into the nearest overstuffed chair.

Glancing around the apartment, I took in the familiar sights with considerable relief, until my eyes came to rest on the blinking light of the ansaphone. Bloody hell, who even has the number here? I thought to myself. Beth? She knows that I am supposed on tour. Alex? He probably doesn't even know I'm gone yet. The Ob/Gyn? Yes, that must be it. The doctor's office. Leaning forward to reach the end table, I pressed the play button.

"Kate, it's Amy. Cooper. Your manager," she added, as if I could possibly have forgotten. "I finally managed to squeeze your phone number out of Beth, though she tells me that you are off on tour with Alex." She sighed deeply. "I have to read the NME to find these things out, it seems," she admonished in a disapprovingly maternal tone. "Please call me the moment you get this message.

"Several things are going on. But probably most importantly, Maddie is back in New York - she wants to talk to you, and only you, she insists, though she won't say what about. I think she's ready to come back to the fold - we are all holding our breath and crossing our fingers." I heard her shift some papers in the background. 

"There's also been some people buzzing around asking about Jeremy's death. I've been telling the press that you are not available for comment, but I have been contacted by someone from the British police - from Scotland Yard, can you believe it? - they'd like a statement from you about his death, but they say it's just a formality, as it's pretty much an open and shut suicide.

"Anyway, as I said, please give me a call, the moment you get this message, and I will try to get in contact with you through the Slur management - though they don't seem very keen on returning my calls at the moment. Wonder why that is. Talk to you later. Call me!"

Maddie. The last missing piece of the puzzle that was the Charms. Although I'd promised Beth that I'd talk to her, I'd been putting it off for weeks. I didn't really relish the thought of digging up old wounds, but I knew that we'd never be the Charms again without her. Glancing up at the clock, I noted that it was still only 5am. It would be another 4 hours before Amy even went near her office, and it was pointless to dwell on it now.

 

I awoke to the sound of the phone ringing, dragging me to consciousness through filmy layers of dreams, the voices of Jeremy, Peter and Alex all swirling together in my head as I dragged myself across to the other side of the bed and picked up the phone. "Hullo..?"

"Kate?"

I took a deep breath and bit my tongue before replying. "Alex."

"Where are you? I mean, you are at home now, obviously, but where did you go?" he begged, his voice sounding raw and strained.

"I took the bus home," I replied matter of factly, then relented and softened my voice. "What's the matter? You don't sound so good."

"A bit hung over," he confessed, sounding almost relieved to admit it. "OK, very hung over. I had a few too many bourbons at the aftershow party and came back to our hotel room feeling... erm... frisky. When you weren't there, I immediately went over to Peter's room, and erm.. made quite a bit of a scene, I am told."

"Oh?" My heart lurched uncontrollably as I thought of the circumstances under which I had left Peter's room, my face burning with shame.

"I am so terribly sorry," Alex intoned, slowly and cautiously, as if every word weighed several tons. "I am afraid that I owe you and Peter an apology."

"What did he say?" I asked nervously, trying not to let my voice shake.

"He said that he hadn't seen you since I so unceremoniously threw him out of our room."

Thank god, I thought to myself, as my breath whistled through my teeth. It didn't really matter if he was protecting me or himself, but he had saved both of us some awfully prickly explaining. The hotel had been deserted when I left his room - no one could contradict a thing.

"I feel like just about the biggest fucking prick on earth right now."

"It's OK, Alex," I assured him, so relieved that he had not caught Peter and I in a lie that I had totally forgotten about his own behaviour of the previous evening.

"You didn't have to leave..." he whined plaintively. "I miss you already."

I sighed deeply and closed my eyes. I did miss him when he wasn't there - I hated waking up alone in the huge double bed without the reassuring warmth of his body beside me. "I miss you, too, Alex. I just didn't want to stay where I didn't feel welcome. I didn't belong on that tour."

Alex growled defensively. "I wanted you on that tour. How can you say you weren't welcome?"

Sitting up, I rubbed my temples with my free hand. "Alex, you saw how the rest of the band and the crew treated me. Damon did not want me there and made it perfectly obvious. You... you..." My voice trailed off as I searched for words.

"I what?" demanded Alex.

"You were too busy wrapped up being jealous of Peter to notice how unhappy I was," came spilling out of my mouth before I could stop myself. For over a minute, there was silence on the other end of the phone, punctuated only by the sound of his breathing. "Alex..?" I ventured after the quiet had grown unbearable.

"I can't talk now. Goodbye." There was a click and the line went dead.

Letting the phone sink back into its cradle, I flopped back onto my bed, staring up at the billowing paisley scarves above my head, lit from behind by the morning sun streaming in through the floor to ceiling windows. Closing my eyes, I screwed up my face and tried to will myself back to sleep, but the phone bleated again. I sat up slowly, eyeing it for a few seconds before I picked it up. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry."

I snorted an acknowledgement, but did not reply.

"Look, you've got to understand. This is hard on me!" he insisted, his voice unnaturally high to the point of whining.

"It's hard on both of us, Alex," I finally countered.

"I'm sorry. I just miss you. I miss being with you, talking to you..." He had barely talked to me in the two days we had been together, but I let it slide. "They're not exactly being paragons of friendliness to me, either, you know. You're the only person who understands me. Who listens to me."

"So what do you want me to do, Alex?"

"We'll be in Canada the day after tomorrow. I've got a day off while Damon and Graham do promotional work. Of course I wasn't invited to that," he added bitterly. "Fly out and meet me - I'll pay for it, if you like. We'll drive over to Niagara Falls or something stupid and fun like that. They have a hall of fame dedicated to all the people who have tried to go over in a barrel. Do you know how many of them survived?" He was babbling now, a bad habit we both shared when we felt insecure.

For a moment, I wavered, tempted by the prospect of adding to my ever expanding encyclopaedia of trivial knowledge, but I shook my head. "Alex, I can't."

"Why not?" he demanded impatiently, like a little boy.

"Alex, I have my band to put back together, remember them? Maddie has finally resurfaced, and wants to talk to me, of all people, for some reason. We've got a lot of unresolved shit we have to sort out here. I can't just keep putting my band, my career, and well, my life, on hold for you."

There was silence at the other end for a heart-rendingly long time, and I heard the flare and crackle of a cigarette being lit, but then, finally, he sighed. "All right, I understand. I'm being selfish. Will you fly out and join me when you get a chance?"

"Yes," I agreed. "Though it might not be for months, you know."

"We'll probably still be on the road," he snarled.

"Alex," I cooed. "It's not that bad. You like to tour, you know you do. Whatever happened to eating the best pizza and drinking the most beer and talking to the prettiest girls all around the world?"

"I didn't know I was allowed to talk to pretty girls any more," he grumbled, though his voice had softened slightly.

Resisting the urge to throw back No, it's only you that has the obsessive jealous streak, I replied "So long as it's only talking, you can do whatever you like," in enough of a warning tone to reassure him that I was reassuringly jealous.

There was silence on the other end for a few breaths. "I miss you," he finally sighed.

"I miss you, too," I countered, with genuine emotion, but I was cut off by a muffled pounding sound.

"I have to go - that's them knocking at the door. I'll try to phone you later. Bye..."

"Bye... I love you!" I added, but the phone clicked, and I wasn't sure if he'd heard me or not.

 

I rubbed my eyes blearily, pushing the last tendrils of sleep from my mind. Well, that was it. I was awake now; I might as well call Amy. Dialling her number, I listened to the clicks, then heard a phone start to ring at the other end. 

"Cooper and Associates," bleated a pleasant voice on the other end. "How may I help you?" So Amy finally had a much-needed secretary? We must be doing well in the charts.

"May I speak to Amy? It's Kate."

"Kate whom, may I ask?"

I laughed nervously, not used to the formality. "Kate Gordon, from the Charms..."

"Just one moment please," she chirped, and then the line clicked and the sound of Muzak filled my ear.

Another click. "Kate, where the hell have you been?" barked Amy's voice from the other end of the line.

"Nice to hear your voice, too, Amy. How are you - how's your husband and the cats?" I purred back, completely deadpan.

"Yeah, OK, hi, how are you. Whatever. Do you have any idea of what kind of hot seat you have put me in - what kind of hell it is for a manager when her hottest property just suddenly disappears in the middle of a world tour? Not to mention slap in the middle of all this publicity over first Jeremy Kane, and then Slur? It's a publicist's nightmare, Kate!"

Rolling my eyes, I flopped back against my pillow and rolled my eyes. "Treat me like a baby; I will act like one," I told her matter of factly. "If you yell at me, I will put the phone down and simply go back on tour with Alex."

That calmed her down a little. "Alright, I won't ask questions. But we are going to have to sit down at some point and up with an official press release to explain where the hell you've been."

"Do we have to? Can't you just say I'm back and leave it at that?" I protested.

"It's not that simple, Kate. The papers have been calling me every day, sometimes twice an hour, clamouring for an interview with you now that you've been spotted at Slur shows with Alex Jones."

"All they want to do is ask me about Jeremy fucking Kane and I don't want to talk about it!"

"Well, they're not the only people who've been trying to talk to you about Jeremy Kane."

I sighed deeply. "I know. I got your message."

"I talked to someone at Scotland Yard. Scotland Yard - can you believe it?" she gushed, letting her hardass image down for a moment. We all knew Amy was addicted to mystery novels. "They want a statement from you, but they have assured me that all you need to do is write a description of the events of that night - times, places, the usual stuff, sign it, have it witnessed and notarised by a lawyer, and they'll consider the case closed."

"Set up the appointment. I can do that," I conceded. "So long as I don't have to talk to the fucking press."

"OK, good," agreed Amy, sounding actually rather relieved. "I'll just continue fobbing off the press. It's really none of their business, the fucking vultures. But Kate - I have something to ask you. There is a rumour going around that you are pregnant..."

"It's not a rumour. I am pregnant," I sighed.

"Well, if it's Jeremy's, then, legally, well there might be an inheritance..." she started to speculate, but I cut her off before she get any further.

"It's not Jeremy's." I was becoming so sick of this statement that I was just about ready to release a press statement just to get people to leave me alone.

"Oh. Oh!" The tone of her voice was transparent - so that was the reason you and Alex ran off together.

"It's not Alex's either. Can't you write a press release with words to that effect so that people will stop asking?"

"That'll only make them ask more. Are you at least going to tell me?"

"No. Not yet. He doesn't even know yet," I explained delicately. And if I have my way, he'll never know.

"God, Kate, you just bring new meaning to the words 'damage control' don't you?"

"Amy, I'm not in the mood. So what's this I hear about Maddie being back in the city?"

"She's staying at a hotel in midtown. Do you want her phone number?"

 

I stared at the phone for a good twenty minutes before dialling, trying to figure out what the hell I was going to say to Maddie, and then wondering why she had picked me out of all the band members to speak to first. Maybe because I'd been the first to walk out, maybe because she'd been fighting with Beth, maybe... who knew? I'd never find out what was going on until I talked to her. Finally, I stopped worrying about it, took a deep breath and just dialled the number.

"Hullo..." Maddie's groggy voice answered after about 4 rings.

"Maddie?"

"Kate! Hang on a second... let me just get my eye thingey off." There was the sound of shuffling in the background. "Kate, where the hell have you been?"

"I could ask you the same question."

"Well, erm... have you got all day?"

"Well, actually, yes..."

She laughed, but did not elucidate.

"What's going on, Maddie?" I probed. "I mean, this was a shock. You've always been the normal one, the sane one, the responsible one. Beth and Emma, sure, they fight like cats and dogs, but I never thought that you would flip out or leave."

"Maybe it was long overdue," she joked, but her humour hid something much darker. "Maybe I'm sick of always being the responsible one." She paused, as if taking a deep breath. "You ran off and left us, without even a word of explanation. I mean, we figured it out when the news about Jeremy was released, but then Beth and Emma just started in on each other, and I felt pulled in a million directions at once."

"I'm sorry," I managed to stutter. "I've been through a lot of shit lately."

"I know." There was a guilty silence on her end of the phone. "I'm sorry. Christ, I might not have liked him, but I didn't want him to die or anything..." She stumbled over her words awkwardly.

"I think that should be on Jeremy's tombstone or something," I tried to joke.

"No, I'm sorry, really I am."

"Thanks," I sighed. "But I really don't want to talk about him. Not now, maybe not ever." I wasn't sure which I hated more - dealing with the loser journalists with their fake sincerity trying to exploit him, or trying to express some sort of grief where I felt absolutely nothing, when people I knew expressed genuine condolences.

"Look, Kate, I can't be angry at you, because I understand all the pressure that you were under, all the shit that was going on in your life. We all do. But what I'm saying is, even if I understand your reasons, you still walked out, in the middle of a tour. Who do you think was left holding the bag? Me. You were off having your breakdown, Emma and Beth were too busy screaming at each other to deal with anything, and I was the only person left taking care of all the band's responsibilities.

"I'm always expected to be the responsible one, I'm expected to be diplomatic and try to balance everyone's personalities, keep Emma and Beth from murdering each other, keep the band together, but you know, I just couldn't do it any more. Not with everything going on with Carlos and..." She suddenly paused, as if she'd said too much.

"So what is going on with you and Carlos, anyway?" I ventured delicately.

Maddie snorted derisively. "OK, let's make a deal. I won't talk about Jeremy if you never mention that name in my presence again."

"That bad, eh?"

"Kate!" she growled in a warning tone, then relented. "Some day, I'll talk about it. Just not now."

"So what did you want to talk about, then?" I sniffed, somewhat hurt.

She paused, awkwardly. Obviously, the conversation was not going as well as either of us had hoped. "You know... stuff... like, the, erm, band..."

"Do we still have a band any more?" I asked cautiously.

Maddie paused, but I could hear the indecision, even in her sighs. "I don't know. I just don't know any more. I've been trying to think of anything but this for the past month, but I can't think about anything else. I don't know if I want to be in the Charms any more. There are a thousand reasons for us to just give up and break up now, and there are a thousand more reasons for us to stay together and keep going. Things had been going so well, but at the same time, things have been going so badly."

"What's been going badly? Cause it doesn't seem to me like it's the music or anything to do with the band itself that's the problem," I observed.

"I mean, that tour was fucking hell, I don't ever want to have to live through something like that again."

"Yeah, sure. I agree. The tour went really fucking badly in the end. But was that because we suck as a band and it's all doomed, or because Jeremy Kane, and Carlos Cerbone and everyone else and yes, even the band ourselves were making it a living fucking hell?"

"But it's stopped being fun, Kate. I used to love being in a band, it used to make me happy, and make my life worth living. But lately it'd started feeling like too much of a chore. It's started feeling just like a bad day job, only with ridiculous hours and I don't have anything fun to blow off steam at the end of the day any more. I just don't know if it's worth it right now."

"All your teenage dreams have come true and it's turned into a nightmare," I quoted under my breath. I'd never realised that I wasn't the only one feeling the strain and the pressure.

"Yup, exactly," Maddie commiserated.

"God, I was feeling that way for months," I confessed. "That's as much why I walked out as Jeremy's death. But you know what brought me around again? Beth and I sat the other afternoon, and we listened to all of our singles again. And you know, they're kinda good," I intoned proudly.

"Kinda?" laughed Maddie. It was the first genuinely happy sound she'd made in the entire conversation. "Your confidence in our abilities is earth-shattering."

"Our early songs were crap and you know it!" I insisted. "But no, even though the single was badly recorded, and we could barely play our instruments, the songs still had something."

"Well, thank god we've improved since the Boy Hairdresser days," Maddie giggled.

"Yes, exactly!" I persisted. "We listened to the next single, and it was much better. It practically sparkled. Even These Are The Bloody Days sounded good! And then we went and listened to the album, and my god! It sounds really arrogant to say this, but I really got caught up in it. I had forgotten what it sounded like. For a moment, I closed my eyes and pretended I was hearing it for the first time... by the end of the first side, all the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I love our music, and I want to keep on making it."

"But it's not the music that's the problem, is it?" sighed Maddie. "It's all the other shit around it." Her voice suddenly went very cold. "You talk about how much you love the music and the band, but I'm sorry, I'm just sick of the way you always seem to put this band and our music on the back burner to your relationships. That isn't easy to work around, you know."

"Ouch."

"I'm sorry," she immediately recanted, but she was not contrite. "That's not fair, but it's just the way I sometimes feel."

"No, that hurt, but I guess deserve it," I admitted. "I've not been 100% committed to the band, have I?" I thought, with a wince, of the way that I'd nearly sacrificed the band, and everything I cared about, in order to go running off with Alex. But when push came to shove, Alex had pushed our relationship to the back burner in favour of his band without a moment's hesitation. It had felt like a slap. But was it a malicious slap, or the sort of wake-up call slap that snapped me out of a hysteric fit? "I realise that now. And that was a mistake."

"And Beth... Christ. I really tore into Beth during the last argument, because of the way she's been carrying on with Gary. " Maddie paused. "Has she told you anything about that fight? I suppose she hates me now."

"She mentioned it, yeah. But I think she's more worried about you, than anything else."

"I was a bit harsh with her... She didn't really deserve that."

"Yes, but I know why. I mean, it might have been a good thing in the end. I think you gave Beth the impetus, or at least the courage... to tell Gary to get the hell out of her life."

"What?" That caught her by surprise.

"Well, she said she gave him an ultimatum - her or the wife and family. I'm sure you can guess which he chose."

"Oh my god! How's she taking it?"

"Better than could be expected. I think it's actually done her good - kicked her ass into making a lot of decisions about her life and her lifestyle. She quit coke, you know - though I'm not sure if that's more to do with Gary, or with Jeremy..." My voice trailed off as I choked back the bitterness.

"Does she... do you..." she stuttered over the words. "Are the Charms still a band?"

"That's really up to you, Maddie. If you want it..."

"Then it seems like I still have something, then..." she sighed.

"Maddie, what do you mean?"

"Oh god." I could hear laboured breathing on the other end of the phone. "Did you ever get to the point where you just feel like you have nothing left? When you've systematically destroyed every single part of your life?"

"Yup," I commiserated. Boy, did I know those days well, but I couldn't imagine the easy going, effervescent Maddie ever suffering from them.

"My marriage is in ruins, I have nowhere to live, none of my belongings except what I had in my tour bag when I walked out - I thought you had quit The Charms and it was over, like The Jesus Sugarpussy was over when Carl walked out..."

"I didn't quit. I just needed a break - from everything!" I paused, feeling my heart leap out of my chest as I listened to the sniffling on the other end of the line. "Maddie, where are you?"

"To tell the truth, I don't even know. Some fucking hotel in midtown that Amy booked for me. It's awful - I've always hated staying in hotels. It's so anonymous - like you don't actually belong anywhere."

"Maddie, you don't have to stay there. Get in a cab and come uptown. I've got an extra bedroom - you can stay with me until you get settled if you don't mind sharing a room with a few guitars and a recording console..." I offered.

"Mind? God, Kate, you're an angel. Are you sure I'm not going to be putting you out?"

"Actually, I've been kind of lonely here since Alex left. It'll be nice to have some company around the house."

"Alex?" she asked in disbelief. "So you two really..."

"Oh my god, you don't know?" I laughed. "Oh, god, so much has happened. Come on, get in a cab. I'll put the coffeemaker on and we'll sit down and have a long chat and a catch-up session."

 

I awoke to the sound of soft but insistent knocking at my bedroom door. "Kate..? Come on, we have to be at Amy's office by 10am!" rang out Maddie's voice, as bright and chipper as the sun streaming in through the curtains. Damn, I had to do something about those windows - silk saris might look lovely, but they did nothing to block out the harsh rays of the dawn.

"10 am?" I muttered, rubbing my eyes and sitting up, throwing back the covers and searching for my slippers on the floor. "Bloody hell, who was smoking crack when they came up with that idea?"

"Come on, I made you breakfast," giggled Maddie.

"Uuurgh," I groaned and stumbled to the door. "You know I can't eat when I first get up."

"Dry crackers," suggested Maddie, retreating back to the kitchen. The dining room table that normally held a few weeks worth of accumulated mail and other assorted junk had been cleared off and set for breakfast. "Eat dry crackers first thing, and you won't get morning sickness."

"It's not morning sickness - I've always been like this," I complained, though I changed my tone when I saw a glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee sitting beside the boiled egg and a slice of toast cut into soldiers. "Wow, thanks"

Maddie buzzed about the sink, talking excitedly about our plans to make a video as she drained out the saucepan then spooned her own egg into the other place setting and sat down beside me. I had never realised that Maddie was so domestic - no wonder she had been the first of us to get married. Then, I realised with a start that Maddie was no longer married. Or was she? I didn't really have the nerve to ask her if the documents for divorce had been filed or not. Noticing my contemplative expression, Maddie must have mistaken it for moodiness, and tried to cheer me up. "So, I mean, can you believe it?"

"What?" I asked, distractedly, jerking my attention back to the conversation I had clearly heard about a tenth of.

"Nick Moog."

"Nick Moog what?" This was as bad as living with Beth, except Beth had been cured of her AbSynth obsession by actually dating one of them.

"You know the director for our new video - the one we are getting up really early to meet," she reminded me with the patience of a school teacher. "He's supposed to be an associate of Nick Moog."

"Now I'm scared," I quipped, deciding to play along. "If any of us get tied to windmills, I'm so out of there!"

"Shut up!" protested Maddie, flicking me with a dishrag. "I love AbSynth videos. Now eat your egg before it gets cold!"

"Yes, Mum."

"Don't you Yes, Mum me. You're the mum, not me."

Despite my best efforts at procrastination, Maddie still managed to push me through the door of Amy's swank new midtown office about five minutes early. Damn, if Cooper and Associates - as they now seemed to be called - could afford new digs this plush, perhaps the Charms didn't really need the career boost of a big name director after all.

"Come on!" Maddie hissed as I ran over to sit down on a formidable black leather couch, rubbing my hands back and forth over it with a naughty expression.

"I want to have sex on this couch!" I ventured in a stage whisper. "Is this the height of opulence or what?"

"I'm surprised you haven't had sex on that couch yet," giggled Beth, two steps behind us. "I shouted for you to hold the elevator for me, but I guess you didn't hear me." Suddenly, she caught sight of Maddie, and froze. "Hi.." she finally ventured, after a prolonged moment of silence.

For a second, that deer caught in the headlights look of sheer panic crossed over Maddie's face, but she blinked it away and actually advanced a few steps toward Beth. "Hi. Long time no see," she finally squeaked out, and I realised that this was probably the first time the two of them had seen each other since their huge fight.

"Yeah," agreed Beth, crossing then uncrossing her arms awkwardly.

Maddie looked down at the neutral coloured carpet, then back up at Beth with a searching expression. "I guess, erm... I was kind of a... erm... shit to you the last time we talked," she finally conceded. "I should probably apologise or something..."

"Oh..." cooed Beth, walking over to Maddie and throwing her arms around her neck warmly. "It's OK, don't worry about it."

"No, I was such a bitch to you," protested Maddie, hugging her back tightly.

"It's OK, I understand. Don't worry." Beth assured her, nodding encouragingly toward me. Maddie smiled in return and glanced over towards me with a thankful expression. The most powerful emotions, we never needed words for - a single look could speak volumes in our emotional shorthand.

"So where's Emma?" wondered Maddie out loud.

At that moment, there was a loud crash, and the door slammed open. "Guten Tag," snorted a familiar ball of blue hair and energy as she stomped in, her Doc Martens tracking mud across Amy's tasteful neutral beige carpet. "Sorry I'm late, Klaus and I just got back from an early planning meeting for Yoko Ono's Bed-In For Tibetan Freedom. What's going on?"

"You just really enjoy what a fucking cliché you've become, don't you?" I teased as the four of us shuffled in towards the black slab of the secretary's desk.

"Speak for yourself, Brit Pop Sex Kitten," shot back Emma, slapping me heartily on the back in greeting. "Right, so where the fuck is Amy?" she demanded of the flustered secretary, obviously new and quite intimidated by what she thought was some gang of thugs fresh off the street.

"Ms. Cooper in with the director for the Charms' new video," she stuttered. "If you'd like to leave a message, I can make sure she gets it when she gets out of her meeting..."

"Yeah, can you tell her the Charms are here to film their new video?" chuckled Beth, her arm still reassuringly draped around Maddie's shoulder.

"Oh. Yes. I'm sorry, I didn't recognise you. Please go right in," stuttered the poor secretary, looking very much in fear for her job.

Laughing and joking, arm in arm, the four of us strolled into Amy's office. "Ah, you're here! Come on in," greeted Amy, smiling and standing up. Although her office had a sweeping corner view, she was still wearing jeans and a black turtleneck, and her new mahogany power desk was a sea of coffee ringed papers. "Girls, this is Em Evesham, your director. Ms. Evesham, these are the girls."

My jaw practically hit the floor when I saw Em turn around and smile at us sweetly. With her unruly mane of hair disciplined into a professional looking chignon, I hadn't recognised her. "Please, it's Em!" she insisted.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. Big name photographer, associate of Nick Moog - I had been so convinced that it was going to be a man that it even occurred to me that our director could be Em Evesham.

Noticing me staring wordlessly at her, Em winked. "Well, Kate, it looks like you won your little bet with the Jackson Bollocks."

Chapter Text

-------------------- 1997 --------------------

 

"What bet with the Jackson Bollocks?" demanded Beth, turning around to stare at me suspiciously. "When did you see the Jackson Bollocks?"

Oh my god, that was right. I had been so caught up in Alex, and then the whole drama of Maddie's return that I had forgotten to tell her about my tour adventures. "It turned out the Jackson Bollocks were the support act on Slur's tour..." I stuttered. "Or rather, they were until about a week and a half ago..."

"And Peter Hagstrom..." She didn't even complete the sentence, but I nodded affirmation. "So that is why you came home early," mused Beth thoughtfully. Em's ears seemed to prick up at the mention, her grey eyes flickering back and forth between Beth and I. "I can't imagine Alex was too happy about sharing a tourbus with the former love of your life..."

"Erm... no." I shot her a warning glance, narrowing my eyebrows and shaking my head, and she mercifully shut up.

"Actually, I just did a photo shoot with the Bollocks a few weeks ago," filled in Em. I noticed that she left out her involvement with Courtney Tyler. "Since Courtney seemed so certain that I would also do a video for them, I decided to take him down a few pegs by offering my services to you first." Her eyes flashed mischeviously, and I caught a glimpse of the fire and spark that must have attracted Alex to her. Trying to swallow my jealousy, I felt myself curiously intrigued, even charmed by her spirit. So Amy hadn't approached her - she had actually taken the bull by the horns and made the first move of reconciling with her ex-boyfriend's current lover. Well, that took guts, I had to admit. Or did she have an ulterior motive? Although part of me already had a sneaking admiration for her, the other half deeply distrusted the whole situation.

"Which fit very nicely into our plans," agreed Amy, seizing back control of the conversation. "We need some high profile career boost like this to help counteract some of the... scandals..." Although she was choosing her words very carefully, I couldn't help but notice the way her eyes swept over me as she pronounced the word. "...that this band has suffered lately. A new single and a new video by such a big name as yourself..." My, Amy could schmooze when she needed to. "Would be a great... distraction. Especially considering it's your first video, it will be guaranteed media coverage and heavy rotation."

"Actually, I wanted to make a special request," cut in Em, running her hands over the back of her head, nervously playing with the pins in her bun. "I know your record label probably chooses all this for you, and you don't have much control over it, but I hope you won't mind my saying that I really wanted to do something with Ice Cream Saturday. It's my favourite song on the album, really. I dunno - I listen to your album a lot in the darkroom, and I keep coming back to that song... Some friends of mine and I just drove down to the Jersey Shore last week, and it was the perfect soundtrack for that. Four girls, a convertible, it's just perfect."

Amy brightened. "Well, that is convenient - that was the song that Destructive had earmarked as the next single. With a video lined up, we could easily convince them to push it forward."

Moving forward on her chair enthusiastically, Em beamed brightly, and something inside me just died. Under normal circumstances, she was pretty, even beautiful, but when she smiled from the heart like that, she had that translucent, otherworldly beauty that made men stop and turn around on the street. "Oh, I'm so glad. That is just the perfect dumped by a pop star song..."

Ouch. How could she have possibly known? The song was about Peter, about how shattered and confused I'd been during those first few months after he disappeared, when I thought I saw him lurking in every subway station and every bar in New York City.

"It's got this great fuck off, I will survive big guitar riff and this big poppy sound, but underneath, there's just this... sense of sadness... It's a great contradiction of a song. I like the contrast between the music and the lyrics. That's exactly what it feels like, when I..." her voice trailed off as she looked at me sideways, noticing my obvious discomfort, but Emma picked up where she had left off.

"Well, thanks!" she gushed, actually flattered into politeness. "That's exactly what I wanted to get across with that riff. This lot are all so sentimental, and wallowing in their broken hearts, but then that guitar just comes in and says..."

"Grrrl Power!" chimed in Beth and Maddie in unison, in obvious satire of Emma's usual Riot Grrrl rants.

"Shut up, you lot. One of us has to be a feminist!" protested Emma indignantly.

"Let's have a bed-in for Tibetan feminism!" shouted Maddie, raising her fist and slapping Beth a high-five before collapsing into a gale of laughter.

I smiled long sufferingly, but did not join in their horseplay, studying Em carefully as I tried to piece in the missing half of her sentence. Dumped by a pop star? That was an odd phrase to choose. Who? Courtney? No, there had been no spark there - they were both just obviously using each other. Alex? To be honest, I knew absolutely nothing about their relationship. From the way Alex staunchly defended her honour and leapt to her defence, I strongly doubted that he had done the dumping.

"So, Em..." roared out Amy above the noise, quieting her unruly charges. "What did you have in mind for the video?"

"I wasn't exactly sure," stammered Em, a little intimidated by the raucous show that Emma and Beth routinely put new working partners through. "I thought I'd hear your ideas, and run with them. To be honest, it's my first video, and I'm still a little uncomfortable with the idea. I don't want to have to worry about ordering around a crew of people when I'm still not sure what I'm doing."

"Well, we've been through this before, haven't we?" sighed Emma, rolling her eyes. "Guinea pigs for fashion photographers wanting to direct."

Em narrowed her eyes and stared down Emma, immediately pegging her as the one to be intimidated and impressed. "I'm not a fashion photographer, actually. I simply can't be bothered with all that lights, camera, action nonsense. I take pictures of people, not of some overblown set and budget."

Emma quieted down and listened contritely. Em certainly knew how to deal with spoiled pop stars, and knew which buttons to push for which personality.

"My original idea was simply to follow you around with a hand-held movie camera, making a portrait of the band as much as the song. The same way I do a photo shoot. Capture you - your moods, your personalities, your spontaneous laughing fits." Beth and Maddie both guiltily snapped to attention, caught sniggering behind their hands like schoolgirls. "No, relax, be yourselves. It's nice to be able to work with a band who are able to laugh at themselves after years of dealing with Gary Goode and Nick Moog," she confided in a conspiratorial tone. That was it - in one sentence, she had convinced Beth and Maddie, as well, and they nodded appreciatively.

"You're never going to get genuine candids from this lot," laughed Amy. "They'll be far too busy hamming it up for the camera to ever give you anything spontaneous. But they're all natural actors - I think it's a great idea."

"And cheap," pointed out Em, ever thrifty.

Amy smirked. "That will be the way to Destructive's impecunious heart. They'll love you!"

"They already do," confided Em in a low voice. "I'm supposed to be going on tour with Mirage in a few weeks as their official tour photographer."

I shuddered at my none too pleasant memories of William Gallivant. "Good luck!" I snorted.

"Oh, I quite like them," confessed Em. "Though, oh yes, of course - the Slur rivalry."

I shook my head. "No. Alex loves them. Well, their music at least."

"I know," she giggled. "Though I half suspect he does it only to annoy Damon..." Suddenly she stopped, and eyed me warily. So there was going to be an unwritten rule between us? No talking about Alex?

"William was good friends with Jeremy Kane. He's never liked me much," I explained, my heart heavy at the mention of his name.

"Oh." Em's mouth formed a perfect round O of embarrassment at bringing up what she obviously thought was a painful memory for me. I felt like screaming; I was so sick of playing the perfect grieving rock widow.

"So what will you need, then?" ventured Amy, always trying to bring the conversation back to business. "A video camera? Film? Super-8?"

"I already have a hand held digital camera," Em explained with a wave of her hand. "A gift from a friend. Nick Moog, actually." Maddie just about turned green with envy.

"We haven't discussed your fee..." probed Amy.

"Oh." Em suddenly looked disoriented, as if vaguely nauseated at the thought of such indelicacies. "I hadn't thought about that. I don't have the faintest clue what I'm worth, really. How about I have my agent call you?"

"That would be super!" agreed Amy, flustered at the thought of having made such a faux pas, but relieved at the idea of dealing with another business woman like herself, and no more of these flighty artists that didn't like to talk about money. "When shall we schedule shooting?"

"Let me talk to my agent," offered Em, pulling out a cell phone and brightening at the prospect of getting down to work. "I'd like to start as soon as possible..."

"What, now?" protested Maddie. "But I don't have any clothes! Everything I own seems to be in storage somewhere. God, I'm going to have to go shopping for a new outfit..."

"Perfect. That's just the sort of thing I'm talking about," encouraged Em.

"Bloody hell, no!" exploded Emma. "We already have to put up with this image of us as some stupid fashion doll barbie band. We should go to a guitar shop or a record shop or something."

"Every fucking tour video in the world from Poison to Primal Scream has some picture of the guitarist in a music store somewhere strumming an acoustic guitar longingly," protested Beth. "Can't we do something different? Original?"

"I'm hungry. Can we go to lunch yet?" I broke in plaintively.

"You're always hungry," sighed Beth. "We have to have some shot of Kate just stuffing her face with junk food."

"Ice cream, of course," teased Emma. "It is Ice Cream Saturday, after all!"

"No way. How cheesy," I protested, then thought for a moment. "Cheese. Mmmm."

"Come on. You lot come back to the hotel with me. We'll figure it out when we get there," directed Em.

I don't know how Em managed to keep up with us, lugging that bread-box sized whizz-bang television camera with her, but every time I turned around she was at our elbow, gazing through the viewfinder with a practised squint. For the first hour or so, it had been really forced, with all of us acting up for the camera, but over the course of the day, we had slowly forgotten that we were even being filmed, until we relaxed, and stopped acting like the four headed cartoon monster that was the Charms, and started simply being ourselves. Em fitted right in, sharing our ebullient mood, giggling along with us, sometimes even browsing along with us when we hit a particularly interesting store. 

When we stopped at a street bazaar in Soho, she actually put down the camera for a minute and called out "Hang on, wait, wait! I'm looking at something."

"We're going to check out the records!" called back Maddie, dashing off to another booth, but I lagged behind, watching Em as she picked through a table of antique jewellery.

"Oh, look at these!" she gushed, holding up a pair of long, twisted snakelike coils to her ears and admiring the effect in the mirror.

"They are lovely," I agreed. "They mirror your hair, but set off your eyes perfectly."

"How much?" she asked the stall keeper.

"For you? Five dollah."

After handing over the cash, she skipped back to me with a triumphant grin on her face. "I just got an amazing steal. Look at that," she directed, holding out the earrings to my inspection. "Under the grime, I think they are real silver. Quite old, too. I wouldn't be surprised if they were from the 1920's."

"You never know what you're going to find, do you?" I agreed, then suddenly found myself distracted by the smell of a hot dog and pretzel stand out on the sidewalk. "Do you mind?" I asked, gesturing towards the stand with my head.

"You're taking your life in your hands if you eat one of those things," she warned.

"Oh, I would never eat the hot dogs. I'm vegetarian anyway. But the pretzels, smothered in mustard? Mmm, sometimes I'm tempted to just grab the bottle away from the man and pour it into my mouth." Laughing, the hot dog vendor squeezed an obscene amount of mustard onto my pretzel before he handed it to me.

"It's pregnancy. When my friend Tricia was pregnant with her first baby, she used to drink vinegar, straight out of the pickle jar," she commiserated.

"I just can't help it - I'm hungry all of the damn time! Thank god I haven't seriously started putting on weight yet. I just see the women in the gyno's office, and I just think, Oh god, no! Do I have to do that? Why does it all have to be so... undignified?"

Em laughed, her voice like the soft tinkle of her new earrings. Slipping into girl talk with her felt so easy - all the reservations of that morning had evaporated in the warm sun of the late Indian Summer. "The baby's still eating it, I'm sure. You've got wide hips, you'll carry easily."

"Wide hips, bane of my existence. I always wanted slim, boyish hips like Maddie, but no luck. I suppose the boys like them, though," I shrugged, then moved in close, confiding. "And it's doing wonders for my boobs!"

"You won't be able to pass for Peter much longer," she agreed.

The conversation suddenly paused like a car caught between gears. Peter was someone I had been specifically avoiding thinking about. Em must have seen it on my face - my emotions always were transparent - and changed the subject adroitly.

"So what are you hoping for - a boy or a girl?"

"I'll take what I get. Though I'm secretly wishing for a girl."

"I'm sure she'll be lovely."

"She'll be a freak. Between my colouring, and her father's she'll probably be an albino. With my luck, I'll have an ugly mutant baby."

I could see the curiosity in her eyes, but she bit her lip and held her tongue. "Nonsense. All babies are beautiful," she assured me.

"Of course. Cause they're so annoying, we'd drown them at birth otherwise."

"You are wicked!" exclaimed Em, covering her mouth daintily to hide her mirth. She was so cute and so precious that I wanted to spill everything on the spot, tell her all about the child and Tristram and everything else; just unload everything on a willing and sympathetic ear.

But we were interrupted a caterwaul of noise behind us, and we turned around to see the other three marching down the aisle of the flea market taking turns blowing into an antiquated army bugle. "Emma, what is that horrid noise? Put that back," I whined, covering one ear with the free hand that wasn't carrying the pretzel.

"I'm not putting it back; I've bought it. I'm going to learn how to play it," Emma insisted. "Badly. Klaus and I have a competition to see who can record the most unlistenable track of all time. Mine is going to be a duet for bugle and car horn that is going to make Metal Machine Music sound like dentist's office muzak!"

"Are you eating again?" demanded Beth, staring at the pretzel with abject horror.

"Actually, I'm rather hungry, too. Do you mind if we take a break to go get some dinner?" suggested Em, as I shot her a grateful look.

"All right," conceded Beth. "Actually, there's this great restaurant and bar just around the corner. It's called Bar 89."

"Do they have food there?" I whinged pathetically. I'm not going to sit there and starve while you lot booze it up without me!"

"Oh, I know the place," agreed Em. "Nick took me there once."

"Ah, no wonder!' laughed Beth. "It's so fucking 80's. He must have taken Gary, and then Gary took me."

Em turned around and smiled at her pleasantly, realising that the two of them had friends in common. "Gary? Gary Goode? Oh, that's right. John mentioned he knew you. I've baby-sat his kids. Where do you know him from?"

Beth suddenly turned very pale, staring intently down at her shoes. "Oh, I met him at some industry function over the summer. I don't know him well - we just got together for drinks once or twice," she lied, moving away from Em to talk to Maddie. I noticed with a wry smile that Beth kept her distance from Em for the rest of the night, as if suffering terrible throes of guilt.

A few minutes later, we were seated in the balcony of the most opulently minimalist 80's cocaine architecture fern bar I'd ever seen in my life. Beth, Maddie and Emma were toasting our new video with massive martini glasses full of chocolate paste and vodka while Em sipped demurely at a seltzer water with lime and I chomped down on a plate of strange nouveau cuisine vegetables smothered in the most mouth-puckering vinaigrette I'd ever tasted.

"Come on, Em, have a chocolate martini," urged Maddie, offering hers up for a taste. "It sounds disgusting, but they're actually amazing."

Em shook her head politely. "Thanks, but no. They smell... enticing, but I've sworn off alcohol for the time being. Besides," she added, patting me fondly on the arm. "Someone has to keep poor Kate company in her sobriety."

I turned to her with a grateful grin and squeezed her hand. "Do you want to try my salad?"

"Mmm. Those baby tomatoes do look good, if you don't mind."

"Go for it," I directed, pushing my plate nearer hers. "I've never been able to stand them. Slimy and gross. I can't help but think of them as alien seed pods..."

"What, for the space alien babies to hatch out of?" teased Beth with a wink. "What are you doing, Emma?"

"Trying to tie a knot in my cherry stem with my tongue," replied Emma with an expression of rapt concentration.

"Oh, that's easy!" laughed Maddie, pulling the cherry out of her drink and demonstrating. "Voila!"

"Hey, let me try!" cried out Beth, not to be outdone. "Wait a minute... wait a minute..." Her face twisted and contorted for a few minutes, then she pulled out her stem. "Ta-dah!"

Emma frowned, looking completely mystified as she merely pulled out a broken stem. "How do you do that? Waiter... can you bring us some more cherries?"

"Don't worry, Emma, I could never do it, either," I assured her.

Em laughed. "Really? I'm surprised."

I suddenly stopped and turned to fix her with a searching expression, trying to appraise if it was a catty remark or not. "Why?"

Blushing a deep red, she seemed flustered as she stuttered. "Oh, no, I didn't mean it like that. Oh, gosh, no."

"But Kate, I thought you were proud of the fact that you could make a man come without touching his you know what's," chirped Emma with a grin like an evil elf.

"Where did you hear that?" I demanded.

"I read it in an interview with the Rocket Pops."

Suddenly, I felt as if I'd been hit in the face. Just when I was trying to forget and live down my past, it always seemed to rise up and swallow me again. The unplanned pregnancy wasn't punishment enough - now I had to be confronted by Jeremy every where I turned. Feeling my face flushing with shame, I pushed back my chair and fled from the table towards the ladies room before the tears could start to flow in earnest.

Jesus Christ, what was this? I'd heard of 80's narcissism, but how was I supposed to sulk and lick my wounds in a bathroom stall with a clear glass door? Wretchedly, I stormed into one of the stalls and locked the door roughly. There was a low electrical hum and suddenly the door turned opaque, glowing slightly as if lit by a black light. Shocked out of my self pity, I stared at the door in awe for moment, then started to laugh. I patted my face quickly with toilet paper to dry the trails of my tears, then unlocked the door and stepped through it to marvel at the technological trickery, closing and opening the door several times in an attempt to discern the mechanism.

"Kate..." called out a soft voice behind me, and I froze like a guilty schoolgirl, turning around to see Em staring at me with an expression of gentle concern. "Are you all right?"

I nodded. "I'm fine, really," I affirmed. "That just shook me up a little bit. I just wasn't expecting it - just took me a little by surprise."

"It was a bit insensitive of Emma to bring it up, so soon after..."

I shook my head. "No, that's just Emma. We love her for her bluntness. If you're not used to it, it might seem a little rude, but she's great, cause she'll never lie to you." Straightening my hair in the mirror, I gestured back towards the club questioningly.

"No, can we just wait a few minutes, if you don't mind?" suggested Em, sitting down on a silver metal and matte black couch.

I shrugged, but complied, sitting down next to her. "If you like."

"I just need to gather my thoughts for a few minutes before..."

"Oh, I understand," I commiserated. "We can be quite overwhelming en masse, especially when drunk."

"I'm just a little sick of being around bad drunks," announced Em a little mysteriously, lighting a cigarette, then glancing at me and quickly shifting the ashtray, waving the smoke out of the air with her hand. "Sorry."

Then how did you ever manage to date Alex? Was the obvious question on my lips, but I swallowed it politely, changing the subject. "Didn't we meet in the bathroom of yet another symbol of 80's greed and affluence?" I wondered out loud, hoping it didn't sound as pretentious and overblown to her ears.

She laughed appreciatively. "Yes, of course. You're right. I had forgotten that. The Harvard Club? That's hardly 80's greed and affluence, though. More Great Gatsby than Bright Lights, Big City, really." Noticing my surprised expression, she drew another drag of her cigarette and explained, "English Major at University. I think I was the one running off in tears to the ladies room then, though."

Suddenly the vague connection that I had forgotten at the Jackson Bollocks photo shoot hit me full in the face. "The pop star... the one that you had just broken up with at that session... was it Alex?"

Her face did not register an obvious change, but her jaw was set so firmly that I couldn't read her expression. I wondered if I'd gone too far, but no - I simply had to know. If Alex wasn't going to tell me himself... 

"Yes." She fixed her gaze firmly on something about a million miles away. "I had recently broken up with Alex when I did that session with the Jackson Bollocks." Her voice was dry, emotionless, though whether she truly did not care, or whether she was simply incredibly good at guarding her voice and shielding her emotions, I didn't know her well enough to tell.

"Em, what happened?" I probed.

"He hasn't told you himself?" Was her pride just piqued, or was that a torch she was still carrying?

"No." My voice shook.

She shrugged. "I guess I never know what's on the table and what's not, with Alex. I mean, just over a month ago, he told me that you and he were just friends, when obviously you weren't..."

Was that an attempt to change the subject, or was that a warning? "Two months ago, Jeremy Kane was still alive, and Alex and I were just friends," I answered, trying to sound utterly nonplussed.

Sucking at her cigarette, Em studied me with those cool grey eyes, as if trying to judge whether I was telling the truth or not. Come on, Em you show your cards and I'll show mine.

"I suppose it doesn't really matter much now. You have a right to know this, even though you shouldn't be hearing it from me. Yes, I dated Alex for a few months. It was short but very intense while it lasted. And then, well... a mutual friend of ours managed somehow to convince Alex that I was having an affair with him."

"Were you?"

"I most certainly was not!" Her grey eyes flashed angrily at the mere suggestion.

"But he believed that you were, and in Alex's mind, that's all that matters," I filled in for her, feeling a pit open up in the bottom of my stomach, and all of my hopes and my dreams regarding our happy future together sliding into it. I stared at her, hardly believing what she was saying. Did Alex just feel compelled to relive out his worst moments with those that he loved, letting his own insecurity and jealousy drive away the people that truly cared about him?

She sucked deeply at the cigarette, eyeing it suspiciously, as if it were the first she'd ever seen. "Well, I did give him some reason to doubt me." My mouth dropped open. Em? Cheat? This Pre-Raphaelite paragon of feminine grace and innocence didn't seem capable of it! "Hardly that," she laughed, seeing the shock in my eyes. I rapidly resumed my best impression of a poker face. "I kept another secret from him, a big one, and he assumed wrongly when..." She searched hesitantly for the right words. "A mutual friend spun these drunken tales." She paused and finally flicked her eyes upwards towards me. "I'm bad at keeping secrets," she confessed. Noticing the horror in my eyes at the idea I could be confiding in an untrustworthy person, she rapidly added, "Only my own. And especially from Alex. He always read me too well."

"Not well enough, I guess," I shot back, speaking before thinking, as usual, then immediately regretted the challenging tone. I couldn't help it - I was unnerved. And yes, horribly jealous.

"I guess." There was no anger in her voice. If I wasn't mistaken, that might even have been a hint of admiration.

I paused for a moment, reconsidering her words before I let something like that slip again. She had mentioned a secret - her lips were quivering with it, like fruit ripe for the telling. "So what was the secret?"

She smiled at my bravery in asking. "I was raped. A long time before I met Alex."

"Oh, Emmie..." I sighed, reaching out to touch her in an unspoken gesture of silent solidarity, but she pulled away sharply. Her voice was clear; whatever pain there had been eased and soothed by years of therapy, I guessed, but now I understood the underlying sadness that gave her beauty that transparent quality.

She shook her head, acknowledging the sympathy, but dismissing the need for it, and trudged bravely back to the subject at hand. "At first I didn't tell him because I didn't think it was going to be any more than a one night stand, then it was, and I was too fucking happy to want to drag up those awful memories... and then it became too hard. I didn't want to ... ruin things. It was perfect, and I was worried that he would... treat me differently." She paused for a drag of her cigarette as she formed her next thought. It was Alex's gesture; I wondered if he had got it from her or vice versa. Or perhaps the two of them were just two peas in a pod, and I was the mismatched wild, impulsive fairy changeling - the irrational square root of a negative number that didn't quite belong in the equation. "So in the end I ruined things anyway. Damned if I did and damned if I didn't."

"Sounds more like Alex ruined things," I accused bitterly, thinking of the abuse he'd heaped upon the undeserving head of Peter.

Em nodded slowly, carefully, and I felt like I was being studied. "Alex has a horrible jealous streak. You've probably noticed." It made my blood run cold the way she said it. Was she psychic, or had she just been paying more attention to Alex and I at the photo shoot than she had let on? "So, for revenge, he went out, found the first common, cheap little bimbo that would have him, and..." Her voice trailed off as she pulled another cigarette out of the packet and lit it off the end of the first.

"So you left him, then?"

"Of course," she nodded. "Packed my bags and never looked back. Well, no, not really. Sat around in a bedsit flat in London watching television and eating Milk Trays for nearly a year, and then, finally, got on with my life." She took a deep breath. "So, in answer to your question, do I want him back? No, most certainly not!"

"I didn't ask!" I protested.

"You didn't need to, Katie. It's human nature." Patting my arm, she smiled to show there was no ill will.

Katie? No one called me Katie and lived - except maybe Alex. And Peter. I suddenly remembered that he had called me Katie back in the hotel room, and I had made not even the slightest attempt to contradict him.

She must have seen me narrowing my eyes at her, because she blushed and put her hand over her mouth, like she always did when she was terribly embarrassed. It was an insanely adorable gesture. "I'm sorry - did I just call you Katie? Oh, I'm terribly sorry. My best friend in London is called Katie. Kate Sutton."

"The fashion designer!" I suddenly recognised. "Sorry, but I'm bad with that sort of thing. Whatever the female fashion gene thing is, I seem to be missing it. But don't tell Beth though - she'd mug you for a Kate Sutton original."

"Don't tell Kate," she confided, "but I'm just as clueless as you are. I don't think most of my friends would be seen in public with me if Kate didn't check me before I went out in the morning!"

I laughed out loud. "You look fine to me." Boys and clothes; all the stuff that usually made me go cross eyed with boredom. But after the stifling world of tours and the music industry, it was such a relief to be having a normal, natural human conversation.

"So what about you and Alex?' she asked pointedly. I batted my eyelashes innocently. "No, come on - there have been rumours flying around for ages. You're together, you're not together, you're together... come on, give me the scoop!"

She had to be either brave, foolhardy, or completely over Alex to ask a question like that in such a friendly tone. "There were sparks since the first time we met," I confessed. "We were just always with someone else. I thought Alex might have been interested from the way he would throw these jealous little fits about whoever else I dated."

"Oh, he hated Jeremy Kane. I think he even told me as much, once."

"As if Mimi Mei was very much better!" I snorted.

"Could she have been more vapid?" Em agreed, provoking a storm of catty giggles.

"Oh, thank god - I thought it was just me being jealous. But then again, I never like fashion models," I sighed.

"I don't, either. But that woman was worse than most. Alex has bad taste in supermodels, did you ever meet Tabitha?" she added, leaning forward with a feline grin. I was slightly taken aback, my mind reeling, but I covered my shock with a blank poker face and shrugged. How many ex-girlfriends did Alex have waiting up his sleeve to leap out and bite me? "Tabitha's island, wish it were my land..." she sang in a perfectly clear choirgirl imitation of Alex's tuneless drone. 

Ah, the oft disparaged solo project. "I didn't even know Tabitha was real," I stuttered. There had been more than one supermodel in Alex's life? It only reminded me how little I sometimes knew about Alex's life. His thoughts, his dreams, his deepest secrets, he seemed totally willing to share with me, but the women whose beds he'd shared? That was completely off limits.

"She's just barely real. Every inch a Barbie doll."

"Seven feet tall with a 42DD chest?" I ventured, covering my discomfort with a steady stream of trivia, trying hard to think about anything but Alex and his constant lies and evasion.

"Precisely."

"It wasn't just Jeremy, though," I confessed. "He hated Tristram, as well, when we were dating..."

"Tristram? Tristram Thornaby-Gore from Crest?" probed Em, her eyes suddenly sparking with curiosity. "Tristram is a very pale-skinned blond," she suggested playfully. "I did a photo shoot for them. He was hell to light - practically disappears in strong sunlight. I had to dodge the rest of the band and burn his face in for 15 seconds to get any features whatsoever to show up."

I suppressed a laugh. "It wouldn't be the first thing he's been difficult about," I nodded, winking back at her. "Why, he's practically an albino, isn't he? Can you imagine what his child will look like?" I confirmed.

Em's jaw dropped open. "Wow. I mean, I would have sworn it was Peter Hagstrom's, from the way he was acting at the photo shoot." I bit my lip, trying not to burst out crying, but the tears were already swelling up over my cheeks. Noticing the change in my demeanour, Em put her hand over her mouth, then tentatively touched my shoulder reassuringly. "Oh my god, I'm sorry - what? I didn't mean to upset you. What is it, Kate?"

"There's no way you could have known." I shook my head, and accepted her comfort gratefully. "No, it's not Peter's." I looked up at her with big, liquid eyes. "Can you promise me that nothing I say leaves this room? I mean, Alex knows, but I don't want another living soul to hear it!" She nodded, making the teenage gesture of crossing her heart. "I was pregnant with Peter's baby once, a long time ago. Right after the time you first met me, tripping our faces off in an Ivy League Club. I had an abortion, and no one ever knew about it... until recently."

I tried so hard not to let my voice waver, but Em must have seen through the tough exterior, as she leaned over and actually put her arms around my shoulders, squeezing me gently. "Oh my god, Kate, I'm so sorry."

"Which might help to explain why Peter is being so nice to me... and why Alex is being so freaked out."

Drawing closer, she stared at me, her eyes darting from one side of my face to the other as if trying to measure or gauge me, then finally she sighed as if satisfied, though what she saw there, I could never guess. "Kate, don't push him. Alex, I mean. Left to his own devices, he will do the right thing in the end, but if you try to coerce him, he will balk every step of the way and refuse to do it out of sheer bloody-mindedness."

"I know. It's just hard for someone as strong-willed as I am to just sit back and wait."

"Well, you love him, don't you?"

I stopped and looked at her cautiously. Now why would she be asking a thing like that? Although I paused for a moment to consider her motivations, I could see it in her eyes that she interpreted it as doubt that I actually loved him. "Of course I love him," I replied quietly, stewing in the long silence that followed.

"Is it Peter?" she finally probed gently.

"No!" I blurted out immediately, then thought for a second. "Well, maybe... No! No, it's not Peter. Peter's a symptom. It's just unfortunate that he chose this time of my life to reappear." I ploughed on before I thought of the implications of what I was saying. "I mean, what do you do, when you think everything is OK, and you're finally settled and happy in your life, and then all of a sudden some ghost from the past reappears... What do you do when someone who was once such a huge part of your life at one point, and now they're supposed to be nothing - well, they just sort of resurface?" The corner of Em's mouth curved up in a bittersweet smile that I could not read. "Ironic that the video we've been shooting all day - Ice Cream Saturday - that song is all about me thinking it all over in my head, wondering what would happen, what I would do or say if Peter just suddenly reappeared out of nowhere. And now it's happening."

"How ironic, in more ways than one," she agreed mysteriously, then paused. "Do you love Peter?"

"No. Not at all," I replied without a moment's hesitation, then paused. "But just because something is dead doesn't mean it doesn't still have power over your life. That's what ghosts are about. The power of memories of the past still having effects on the present."

Biting her lip, Em turned away, her eyes glistening.

"You do still love Alex, don't you?" I ventured, almost afraid of her response.

She nodded, shaking her hair into her face as protection. "I expect that I will love him till the day I die. You don't just forget something like that. Perhaps it's force of habit, perhaps it's what you just called ghosts. But I'm not in love with him any more, if that's what you mean, and I certainly don't want him back." Climbing off the couch, she stalked over to a sink and splashed her face with water. "Come on - they're going to think we've fallen in or something."

Reluctantly, I followed her back out to her table, but I could hear Beth from across the bar. "Oh my god, can you believe it? He was so sleazy, it was like something out of a film. And then he says..."

"Come over here and hit me with your rhythm sticks!" There was an explosion of laughter after Maddie's voice.

"No, no, it wasn't like that at all. He was just, you know..."

"They all use the same lines, don't they? It's like they have this manual!"

"They do have a manual! I've seen it on sale at Barnes and Noble for $10! How To Pick Up Chicks In Bands. By Anthony Kiedis." The three of them burst into laughter and called out for another round of drinks, though the table was already littered with empty martini glasses.

"You lot are going to be sick if you keep slamming down chocolate martinis like that," I warned. "Those things are so rich!"

"We're fine so long as we don't mix," dismissed Beth with a wave of her hand as she turned back to their conversation. Nice to know I'd been missed.

"Hey, are you alright?" worried Emma. "I'm sorry, you know how I always tease you. I didn't mean to, you know, upset you or anything..."

"I know," I nodded. "I'm used to it. No offence taken."

"Look, guys, it's been fun, and I've really enjoyed working with you, but I really have to get back to the darkroom before it gets too late..." interrupted Em, checking her watch, and picking up her voluminous black bag from under the table.

"Em..." I ventured cautiously, but she would not meet my eyes. Something I had said must have genuinely unsettled her. Instinctively, my heart went out to her, but something in the way she bit her lip as she turned to the others told me to back off. Damn it all, the worst part of it was that I actually liked her. Why did she have to be Alex's badly-ended ex lover? Well, of course, Alex and I were so much alike that if he had found something in her to love, of course I would respond to the same thing.

In silence, I watched her pick her way across the crowded restaurant and push her way out to the street, where she stood, breathing heavily and staring up at the sky for a few moments before she dashed off in the direction of the subway.

Chapter Text

-------------------- Chapter 13 --------------------

It wasn't the ringing of the telephone that awoke me the next morning, for a change. It was a steady and insistent thumping, like the beating of a giant prehistoric reptile's heart, filtering through the walls from the bedroom next door. Pulling my pillow over my head, I tried to ignore it for a few minutes, then gave up, climbing out of bed and padding to the door of the spare room, my eyes puffy and my hair dishevelled. 

Like a bird in a giant, electronic nest, Maddie sat in the centre of the room, surrounded by electronic components and blinking lights, a pair of headphones half on, half off, as she nodded her head in time to the beat, occasionally twisting knobs and dials to add another layer of sound to the sonic maelstrom.

"Ha-hem," I coughed politely, folding my arms across the oversized Slur T-shirt I'd been sleeping in. Maddie looked up expectantly, then grinned. "Do you know what time it is?" I demanded.

"Erm... dunno," she shrugged. I'm still on London time, you see." I glared at her, but she smiled innocently. "Is all this stuff yours?" she queried, gesturing around the room at the piles of recording equipment I'd brought back from 48th Street only the week before.

"Yeah," I sighed, suddenly a bit intimidated by the banks of flashing processors. "Beth calls it my 'nesting instinct.' Most expectant mothers buy cribs and baby clothes. I buy recording consoles and samplers."

"This is fucking great!" enthused Maddie, pulling off the headphones and handing them to me. "My drum machine and my sampler synch direct to midi, so I can plug right into this thing. We could record live tracks over it, then mix down it on the computer or whatever... "

I smiled, glad someone had finally recognised the brilliance of my plan. "That was the idea... " Placing the headphones over my ears, I listened to the hypnotic soundscape that Maddie had running over the top of the insistent dance beat that had disturbed my slumber. "Mmm, that's cool," I agreed. "But did you see the built in effects loop?" Maddie shook her head, grinning eagerly. "Over here... " Pressing a few buttons on the computer, I adjusted a few faders, punched up the EQ and added a huge delay, perfectly synchronised to the beat, instantly expanding the wash of sound into a vast ocean.

Maddie nodded excitedly, tapping her fingers uncontrollably to the rhythm, sketching in accents and drum rolls with the pads of her fingers. "Shit... your neighbours would never let me bring my drumset in here, would they?"

I laughed. Down in the East Village, we wouldn't have thought twice about it, but I feared for my lease. "Don't you still have those sample pad thingeys?"

"Oh, those dreadful New Order sounding things?" she winced.

"No, think about it - if we could sample your own drum sounds off the master tapes from the last session - you know the ones at Cathedral Sound with the amazing live reverb?"

"I don't know," she grinned, though I could tell from the light in her eyes that she was getting ideas. "I mean, isn't that a bit sick, sampling yourself and playing yourself like a drum machine?"

"I would have thought that would appeal to your sensibilities," I teased, ducking to avoid the tape cassette she aimed at my head. "Come on, where are they? Let's dig them out and give it a try."

A few hours later, the two of us had tied ourselves into a veritable Gordian Knot of wires, cables and electrical cords. I sat by the computer with one hand on the record button, my bass in my lap and all of my pedals in front of me, while Maddie stood in the corner over by the window, her sample pads surrounding her in pale imitation of a real drumkit. All around us, banks of processors and synthesisers blinked their red and green eyes in time to the music that was spinning around us in dizzying spirals.

It honestly felt like it had been years since we just kicked back and played for no other reason than the joy of playing. By the end of the summer, we had all grown so sick of playing, that our performances had grown mechanical and lifeless. Glastonbury had been the only chance we'd had to stretch our musical legs in nearly a year. Although my fingertips were aching from lack of practice, and I could feel the blisters waiting to swell under my skin, I kept playing, caught up in the sheer joy of just following a melody wherever it would go. Maddie was beaming, lost to the music, her face shining with the exhilaration - I had forgotten the constant back and forth play that we indulged in onstage, the subtle signals and gestures with which we clued each other to flow from mood to mood seamlessly. Although we were a bit rusty at first, dropping notes and missing cues, by the end of the afternoon, we were moving like one unit again, bass and drum locked together in an unbreakable sinuous groove.

"Oh my god, did you record that?" demanded Maddie breathlessly, flopping down next to me on the floor at the conclusion of a fevered break of pure disco.

"I hope so!" I concurred, resetting the console to the beginning of the long, continuous track and pressing play. Music spilled out all around us, our unpolished hesitancy captured in pristine digital precision.

"Oh please, turn that off, it's awful!" lamented Maddie, flopping back against the side of her bed. "It always sounds so much better while you're playing it."

"No, wait, there's more. It gets better," I insisted, forwarding about twenty minutes into the track. Though the technique was still unpolished, the hesitancy was gone, replaced by the usual Charms brash confidence.

Maddie sat up, cocking her head sideways like she always did when she was concentrating on music. "That's not bad. With a little practice, that could be a nice piece... " With the punch of a few buttons and the whirr of the hard drive, I brought the track forward to a point of time about half an hour previous. Maddie started to drum along subconsciously on her mattress. "No, that is as good as we thought it was! Fuck, what the hell were we doing messing about in studios all that time, when we can do this right here? Oh, I can just hear it... boost that high-hat there, add some sort of tremolo sound here... " Moving towards the keyboard, she started to dial up samples.

"It is good," I agreed, "But goddammit, I'm hungry, and I need to eat."

Maddie nodded, acknowledging that she had heard it, but I had lost her to the fascinating world of her sampler. Padding out to the kitchen, I glanced at the clock above the sink, startled that it was already so late in the afternoon. How had that happened, considering Maddie had woken me at 8am or some ungodly hour? As I wandered over toward the fridge, I caught sight of the photo of Alex and I sitting on the beach, and smiled. Being with him, wrapped in his arms, lost in his eyes, was the same high, that same dizzy, breathless sensation, the same head spinning, heart pounding rush that I was unable to express in any way other than the music which had just escaped my blistered hands. Words were useless, even trivial by comparison. 

Even muted, through the walls separating the kitchen from the spare room, I could feel the ecstatic yearning, the longing and the release bound up in a single insistent musical phrase. Already, I could hear the vocal harmonies over the top, Beth and I accentuating the minor third in the top interval of a major chord to add that bittersweet touch of poignancy and fear of loss that undershot true rapture. Although I had no clue what Emma would add to the already treacle thick texture, well, that was the joy of working with Emma - you could never predict what the hell she would do until it was finished, and then it would seem simultaneously unexpected yet completely obvious. That guitar was the chaotic element, the random flung chances of fortune... 

As if in answer to the call of my emotions, the phone bleated across the room, and my heart leapt. "Alex."

"How did you know it was me?" came his surprised response.

"I was just thinking about you," I cooed, twisting the cord around my fingers.

"Were you?" He sounded pleased, almost proud.

"Um-hmm," I affirmed.

"And what were you thinking?" he probed flirtatiously.

"Maddie and I were just working on a song," I explained. 

"Well, I'm glad to hear that you're getting along again," he interjected.

"The bassline just sounded like something you might play. Very disco funk."

"Is that all?" he sighed, teasing me with the pretended disappointment in his voice.

I laughed, playing his game. "Well, no... You know why I like that beat, what that tempo is best for... "

"Dooo tell," he purred. I could hear the rustle of fabric in the background and imagined him settling back, stretching himself out along the bed.

I paused. Phone sex? Was that what we were reduced to? Leaning forward, I peered around the corner to make sure the door to Maddie's room was still closed, then carried the phone out into the living room, curling up in a ball in my favourite chair. Closing my eyes, I sank back into the soft cushions and started to describe the path of my tongue down, across his neck, grazing his shoulders before travelling downwards, flicking at his nipples before circling the soft skin of his belly, diving lower still towards the trail of curly, dark hair... 

"Stop it!" panted Alex, obviously audibly aroused. "You little minx! Now I'm all..."

"You've got ten fingers, use your imagination," I shot back, drunk on my own power.

"Ooh, you little minx! You're going to catch it when I see you again... " Catching himself, he grew very quiet momentarily. "I miss you so much... Being on tour again keeps reminding me of the summer... It only makes me realise how much I miss the way things were, then."

I paused, feeling emotions catching in the back of my throat. The torturous tour of the summer, being so close to Alex and yet unable to touch him had been simultaneously the halcyon days of our friendship, yet the end of the playful innocence. Had that really been the height of all we'd ever been, and all we'd ever be? No, I couldn't accept that, couldn't let it slide out of my hands. I loved Alex, he was mine completely now, body and soul. Why did it seem I could only ever truly enjoy one out of the two at a time?

"We've got another day off next week, over in California," he offered desperately, as if already expecting a negative reply. "Do you want to fly out? Meet me in San Francisco? We can get a hotel up in Sausalito, or in one of those little tiny places on the North Bay... "

I thought of the recording we'd just started, of all the commitments with the band and the rest of my life, but the arguments all died on my lips, listening to his shallow breathing on the other end of the line. "OK," I agreed quietly.

"OK?" echoed Alex, with what could only be described as intense relief. "You will?"

"Yeah," I promised him. "I can't come for very long, but I can come for a day or two. Tell me when and I'll book the flight."

 

I was a nervous wreck on the plane. In the weeks since I had seen Alex last, my stomach had started to swell perceptibly, and I felt self conscious and awkward. The recent encounter with Em, still svelte and lovely, had done little to bolster my self esteem, and to tell the truth, our conversation had unsettled me more than it had reassured me. Despite the long, intimate phone conversations, I felt the desperate need to see Alex, to touch his face, to look into his eyes and see the longing there. 

At Maddie's urging, I had completely overdressed, sliding a sleek, new black fake fur over a forest green velvet minidress. Its close-fitting bodice gave way to a lose Empire waistline, effectively hiding the tell tale bulge in my belly, its skirt daringly brushed the tops of my thighs, leaving my long legs bare save for thick black tights. Although I had started the evening with a new pair, by the end of the flight, a few unlucky collisions with the seat in front of me had produced several new holes. Goddammit, was I incapable of staying presentable for more than a few minutes? Oh well. Alex had always seemed to be fascinated by the ladders in my hose, eyeing them lasciviously before exploring them with his fingers.

After retrieving my luggage, I headed for the rental agency to pick up a car. "Would you prefer a compact or full-sized car?" chirped the girl at the counter helpfully.

For a moment, I nearly answered sensibly, then recklessness took over. What the hell? This was California, the land where dreams came true - I might as well act like it. "A full-sized car. A convertible, if you have one."

The girl at the counter paused, looked me up and down, taking in my obviously outlandish appearance, then smiled. "A Cadillac, perhaps?" she inquired with more than a hint of sarcasm.

"That will do nicely, thank you," I affirmed, with a sincere smile. Strolling out into the sunlight, my heart lifted, and I swung my weekend bag as I walked, pulling my huge vintage starlet sunglasses off the top of my head. The car was bigger than I had expected, obviously 1960's vintage, creamy off-white with a silver-grey top. Unlocking the door, I threw my bag into the back seat and settled down in the front, letting the leather of the upholstery engulf me. No - no roof, I decided and flipped the key in the ignition, searching for the appropriate switch on the dashboard. Choosing a likely candidate, I pressed a button at random and was rewarded with a the hideous sound of metal scraping against metal as the roof arched away from me into the sky, then neatly folded itself away behind the back seat. "Now, that's more like it," I announced to no one in particular, pulling the scarf from around my neck and wrapping it around my head to keep my hair from flying everywhere.

The engine purred like a giant cat as I pulled out of the parking space, a little cautious about driving such a huge machine, but a quick circumnavigation of the parking lot revealed that driving a car, like riding the proverbial bike, was something that one never forgot, especially with the power steering guiding the vast reptilian beast smoothly around the corners. Glancing at my watch, I checked the itinerary Alex had given me, and realised that I had exactly ten minutes to meet his plane at the next terminal. Flying in to town a day early to do publicity in luxury hotels while one's equipment was hauled across country in the tourbus? Now, that sounded like the lap of luxury. When Amy started to plan our next tour, that was an added detail that I was going to insist upon.

Although I tried to speed around the circuit road, I somehow managed to get stuck behind a bus, and pulled into the drive just as four familiar faces poured out the glass doors of the terminal. Alex glanced at his watch, then craned his neck to peer around the building, his face anxious. The moment could not have been more cinematically perfect if I had planned it. Honking jauntily, I pulled directly up to the curb in front of them and waved, smiling broadly.

Alex grinned wildly, then hopped into the car, throwing his rucksack into the backseat. For a moment, he just smiled at me from behind his dark glasses, then encircled my neck with his arms and brought his mouth down on mine, kissing me hungrily.

"Alex, what the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" demanded Damon's voice, a batsqueak of annoyance somewhere far in the distance.

Waving gallantly, Alex turned back to his bandmates. "See you at sound check tomorrow... "

"Alex, we have interviews, we have photo shoots... Alex, how are we going to do the radio show tonight without you?" blared out Siobhan's voice behind us.

I looked at Alex questioningly, but he shook his head and gestured for me to drive on. Hitting the accelerator pedal, full force, I screeched away from the curb, leaving them all behind in a cloud of dust. I barely dared to even breathe until we were out of the airport and out on the open highway, headed North towards the city. Distracted from the traffic, I studied Alex from the corner of my eye, but he was grinning, his face thrown back, his nostrils flared as if tasting the wind. Almost simultaneously, we caught ourselves staring at each other and burst out laughing, drunk on freedom and exhilarated by the boldness of our break.

"They're going to kill you tomorrow," I finally observed.

"I don't care - let them," shrugged Alex, stretching like a cat, and then laying his arm gently along the back of the seat behind me.

"So long as they don't arrest me for kidnapping you," I quipped, arching one eyebrow over the top of my shades.

"Well, you certainly look like a Hitchcock heroine, don't you?" he teased, running his hand gently over my scarf, pushing back the few blond wisps of hair that had escaped.

"You think so?" I sighed, disappointed. "I was going more for Bond Girl."

"Wrong car," Alex pointed out knowingly, then leaned forward to flick on the radio. Sunny pop music spilled out into the car, as bright as the mid day sunlight slanting down.

"Met him on a Sunday and my heart stood still, da-do-run-run-run, da-do-run-run," I sang along, taking my eyes off the road long enough to look over at him, beaming at me from across the car. "There is nothing better than a girl group anthem, a fast car, and a sunny day!" I insisted, tapping out the huge Motown drumbeat on the steering wheel.

Alex shook his head slowly. "What is it with women and their cars that makes them insist on girl groups? Everyone knows that a car is a very masculine symbol."

"So why does everyone refer to them as 'she' and give them feminine names?"

"That's ships!" insisted Alex with a smug grin.

I smiled back at him. Of course, he always had the flippant answer to everything. "So where are we going?"

"Anywhere you like. For the next 24 hours, you and I are free; the only people in all of San Francisco," he shouted back at me, leaning forward into the wind.

"I don't really feel like being in the city at all," I shrugged, watching the bay slide by to the right of us. "Let's drive up North, across the Golden Gate bridge, and look for Giant Redwoods. I feel the need to touch something living, something much, much older than me."

Alex nodded. "That was what I originally thought of, but then I suspected that you might want to go look at Haight Ashbury or something, seeing what a little patchouli soaked hippie you are," he teased, prodding me gently in the thigh.

I laughed. "You know me too well. But I did that the last time I was here with The Charms."

"I was trying to remember what it was we did after the show in June," he mused.

"Oh, don't you remember?" I reminded him. "We went to that chocolate factory near Fisherman's Wharf. Ghiradelli's, that's it. And we drank too much Taj Mahal beer at the Indian restaurant upstairs, and I decided that if we could choose our deaths, I would be thrown into those huge vats of chocolate. And that was when you got the idea that you could go swimming in them."

"But we were luckily thrown out before I could implement that plan," chuckled Alex.

"Good chocolate, though," I reminisced. "Is this the exit?" Glancing around at the signs, I swerved off to the side, causing Alex to clutch nervously at the side of the car. "What - you don't trust me? I happen to be an excellent driver, I assure you. Oh look! It's the little outlook park. You can stop, park your car and walk across. Oh come on, Alex, we have to do it!"

"But it's an awfully long bridge," observed Alex, staring dubiously at the bright red pillars of the bridge, just visible over the trees. "How do you get back?"

"Hmmm. Hadn't thought about that," I confessed, closing up the roof and climbing out of the car.

"There should be some sort of service, whereby you can leave your car on one side, walk across, and have someone drive your car over, so you don't have to walk back," Alex hypothesised.

"Actually, there is a bridge, in the Midwest - Minnesota, or Michigan or somewhere - that is so long and so high, that if you're scared to drive across, you can pay one of the bridge attendants to do it for you."

Alex stared at me in disbelief for a moment, then nodded. "You know, I've learnt from long experience with you, that the more outrageous one of your little stories sounds, the more likely it is to be true."

I stopped and turned to look at him, not sure whether I should be flattered or offended, but Alex's grin was so wide that I could not be angry at him for long. Throwing my arms around his neck, I reached up to kiss him on the nose, then pulled back slightly, just holding him and staring at him with a faint smirk playing around the outside of my lips. In his eyes, I saw nothing but delight and playfulness, pure and complete joy in the moment. This was my Alex, back again, despite all the fights and recriminations of the past few weeks; just me and him on the run, two lovers against the world. This was the way it was meant to be between us.

"Come on," he finally sighed, breaking off the embrace and taking me by the hand. "We've got a bridge to walk across."

"Oh wow," I gushed, stopping to read the plaques and investigate the cables holding the suspension bridge in place. "Look at the size of that wire - can you imagine if that was a bass string - what sort of amazing sustain that thing would have?"

"Awfully hard on the fingers, I would have thought," Alex quipped, reaching out to touch it with his free hand. Suddenly something in the distance caught his eye. "Is that Alcatraz?" I nodded. "It's tiny, isn't it? Who does its press?" 

I laughed at the familiar joke and pulled him onwards, pointing out other sites. "It's too bad you can't see Mount Palomar from here. They have an incredibly famous telescope and observatory there."

Alex grew silent for a few minutes, as if musing something, then stopped and peered over the railing, pulling me close against him to protect me from the gusts of wind sweeping in off the Pacific Ocean. "It's a shame, isn't it? The way we travel around the world, but we never get to see anything except backstage dressing rooms, studios and darkened bars. And no matter what city you are, anywhere in the world, all darkened bars look exactly alike."

"I suppose, it depends what's important to you," I shrugged. "Seeing a bunch of musty old piles of rubble, or interacting with other human beings."

Alex pulled back sharply. "Oh, come on. You're the one who's always insisting that we get out of the car to go look at some lumpy dump of half timbered wattle and daub that claims to be the Oldest Pub In Britain."

"Yeah, but what's important about that? The actual timbers of the building, or the fact that five centuries of human beings have eaten, drank, sung and slept there, washing down five centuries of common human dreams and common human disappointments while leaning against those timbers?"

"You seemed awfully fascinated in those warped and bending timbers while we were there, my dear little architecture student," noted Alex, bending over to kiss the top of my head. "And what about Oliver Cromwell's bed, then?"

I laughed at the memory; a little, tiny pub, about a day's journey from London, with a bronze plaque on the wall proudly proclaiming "Oliver Cromwell slept here." I had been struck as equally with the bizarreness of the claim, as with the fact that all up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the US, near sites of the old War of Independence battles, were antiquated inns proclaiming "George Washington slept here."

"Well, it wasn't the actual bed, Alex," I reminded him. "It's the desire to humanise the vast events of history - to see that something as huge as the English Civil War was ultimately controlled by a human being with the same needs as the rest of us - to eat, to drink and lay his head somewhere to rest."

Alex paused, then sighed. "Those aren't the only human needs. There's the need for contact, for familiarity. How do you maintain that, when you're in a different city every night? The only familiar faces are the ones you've been locked in a bus with for 24 hours a day until you're at each others throats. You step onto a plane in Texas, or wherever, and you get off a few hours later, a thousand miles away - and that's supposed to be normal?"

"That's America. Rootless, transient society," I philosophised. "They do their little things to try to control it, to make it more human, despite the vast fucking scale of their country. Did you ever wonder why - no matter where you go in America, it's all the same, cause they have the same shops in their strip malls from Omaha, Nebraska to Burlington, Vermont?"

"So that's why all McDonalds food tastes the same, whether you eat it in Times Square or Red Square," mused Alex with a wry smile.

"It's an attempt to keep something familiar, in the vast, frightening new world. Same reason immigrants used to name their cities after the place they'd just left. Look at all the place names in America - New York, New Hampshire, New London... "

"I hate the homogenisation, though. I don't find it comforting. I find it disorienting. Foreign countries should look like foreign countries."

"Did you ever wonder, what it was like, before the invention of television and red-eye flights and long distance phone calls, back when separate cultures really did have different cultures?" I pondered out loud.

"Probably ghastly," laughed Alex, taking me by the hand and walking on, seemingly unbothered by the fact we were suspended hundreds of feet above the cold, blue water of the Bay.

"Of course. You'd hate it. You couldn't get a decent cup of tea," I teased.

"You still can't get a decent cup of tea in the States," Alex shot back without missing a beat.

This was what I'd missed the most the constant back and forth banter, alternately philosophical and sophomoric, bouncing back and forth like a game of table tennis between the sublime and the ridiculous. It was what I loved the most about Alex - at what point had we stopped? It took over an hour and a half to walk across and back, even at a fast clip, but we were so engrossed in our meandering, nonsensically profound conversation to even notice. Pulling away from the car park, we headed north, speeding across the bridge.

"Amazing what you miss, when you're in a car," observed Alex, craning his neck to try to catch a glimpse of Alcatraz as the water slid by. "You walk across, and you can see every tiny detail, but in a car, you whisk across, you get only a vague impression of the superficial aspects of what is out there, and then on to the next thing."

"It's the ultimate soundbite culture, isn't it? Acceleration leads to condensation." Alex grew very silent, staring thoughtfully at the map in his lap, so I plunged headlong into the gap. "I remember a long time ago, when I was in high school, arguing with an art teacher. She had two paintings up next to each other, one a really intricate Hudson River School oil painting, so detailed you could see every leaf on every tree. And next to it, some abstract expressionist mess of green and blue and yellow and brown. And she asked the class 'Which one of these paintings is more realistic?' And of course, everyone piped up and said the Hudson River School painting. And she said 'Ah-hah! But when you drive along the Northway in your car, zooming alongside the Hudson, what do you really see out the window? This perfectly rendered landscape, or this green and blue blur?" Alex laughed appreciatively. "And of course everyone else in the classroom nodded, and scribbled in their sketchbooks like she's just said something incredibly profound - which of course she had. But then I realised - that was the problem, not just with Modern Art, but with modern life, as well."

"Modern art, well, it's rubbish, isn't it?" quipped Alex, raising one perfect eyebrow above his shades.

"Touché. But I just refuse to accept that that blue-green blur sliding past my windows is really life. You know that painter who painted the first landscape had walked down that path a hundred times, sitting in the same spot with his little stool and his easel and canvas. I want to know every fucking detail of life, not just the soundbites... Oh shit, was that the turnoff to Muir Woods?"

"I think it was," replied Alex, smirking at the apparent contradiction between my words and my lack of attention to the road.

"Damn!" I swore, pulling the car off the road and turning around with some difficulty. Eventually I managed to park the car and pay the admission, then took Alex by the hand and led him up the pathway into the forest.

"These aren't very impressive. These are just pine trees," sniffed Alex, looking about him dubiously.

"Wait until we get over the ridge," I promised. Suddenly, right in front of us loomed a huge, gnarled trunk, easily 10 feet across.

Letting go of my hand, Alex loped across to it, stood with his back to the bark, then looked up. "I feel dizzy," he confessed, staggering forward and turning around to stare several hundred feet into the air. "Wow. Makes you feel rather insignificant, doesn't it?"

"I love these woods," I sighed. "Come one, there's a grove of them just a few hundred feet this way. A whole bunch of younger trees growing in a circle around an older one that got struck by lightening and fell down. Part of the trunk is still there... it's like a cathedral." I ran off the trail into the untouched woods, forcing Alex to break into a trot to keep up with me, but eventually, he found me, standing inside the shell of the burnt-out tree, staring up at its towering progeny, framed against the sky. "It's so peaceful here... That tranquil feeling that you get when something has been the same for thousands of years."

"These trees were probably standing here when Oliver Cromwell was riding around England sleeping in half timbered inns," he observed, crouching down on the ground and picking up a clump of pine-like needles. Raising it to his face, he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.

"Probably even before then," I agreed.

"A thousand years old. Can you imagine being a thousand years old? All the time in the world to study those details you long for so badly. Think of the pace of life... Can you imagine what a conversation would be for a thousand year old? Just asking 'Hullo, how's your mum?' probably takes about 30 years." Settling down on the pine-needle carpet, Alex stretched his long legs out in front of him, grinning up at me from under his hair, his sunglasses pushed absent-mindedly to the top of his head, no longer needed in the dappled shade of the forest. "All our concerns and all our problems must just seem to trivial to them."

"Does give you a bit different perspective on things, doesn't it?"

"When you and I, and our children, and our children's children are just dust in our graves, these giants will still be clinging to these rocky slopes, whispering in the ocean breezes, just like they are now." He paused, cocking an ear to the faint rustling of the branches hundreds of feet above us. "Gives you just a slight glimpse of the eternal, doesn't it?"

Our children. Oh god, how I wished at that moment that the creature taking root and growing in my belly was half his, with those wise brown eyes and those long, slim elegant hands. He smiled warmly, as if fully aware of the significance of what he had just said, but remained silent, his raised eyebrows two inverted question marks at the base of his forehead.

Without speaking, I padded over to him, and lowered myself gently to the forest floor beside him. From this angle, too low to spot the break we'd climbed in through, the burnt out tree trunk looked like a giant circular room, open to the sky, private and utterly secluded. We'd got our wish - Alex and I seemed like the only lovers left alive in the world. 

With a flirtatious smile, he reached out and touched my cheek tentatively, then let his hand slip lower, unfastening the buttons on my coat, sliding it off my shoulders and spreading it out on the ground. Resting his hand gently on the nape of my neck, he started to pull me towards him, his eyelids drooping shut as his face loomed closer. I could feel his breath on my skin, warm and moist, and then his lips touched mine, his tongue sliding into my mouth with casual familiarity. I leaned back, sinking softly to the earth, acutely aware of the sharp pine scent of the earth and the dappled spots of sunlight across my face. Joined to me by the mouth, Alex bent over me, his other hand moving up my leg, searching with his fingers for the breaks in the fabric of my tights. A muffled murmur of pleasure indicated that he had found one. Pushing inside with his forefinger, the sensation of skin against skin was delightfully naughty. A slight ripping sound, and his whole hand was inside, moving up and down the inside of my shin. Pulling away slightly from our kiss, he grinned, nibbling his bottom lip with concentration as his fingers traced an unmarked road up the back of my thighs, no longer caring about the damage he did to my clothes.

"Alex," I hissed, raising my pelvis off the ground to slip them off my hips, but he shook his head, cupping my rump in his hand and pulling me toward him. Sinking back onto his side, he shifted his weight and drew one of my thighs over his with his free hand, exploring the newly revealed gulf between them.

I inhaled sharply as his finger furtively slid down towards my labia. Out here, in the open, exposed to the sky? Well, why not - we were easily half a mile from the trail, and the only signs of life around us were the birds, the squirrels and the undoubtedly uninterested trees. Kissing him in reply, I pushed his shoulders down against the forest floor and climbed on top of him, straddling him with my thighs. He grinned, extracting his hand from my ruined tights, and started to massage my legs, pushing impatiently at the hem of my dress.

For a moment, I hesitated, thinking of the tell tale swell in my belly, then took a deep breath, seized hold of my dress by the hem and slid it over my head in one fluid motion, tossing it aside lightly. In the coming months, I stood to get a lot fatter than this. Alex suppressed a tiny giggle, then, noticing my downcast expression, leaned forward and gently kissed the tiny pot belly, his face reassuring.

"No, it's adorable," he encouraged me, running his hands over my soft flesh, pushing my tights out of the way. "You look like one of those voluptuous and opulent Renaissance nudes that me and the other boys used to sneak off to the back of the library to look at."

I laughed out loud. Some magical spell had been broken by the sudden sound of his voice, and I felt more than a little self conscious at being so naked out in the open, but his words warmed my heart. A brief struggle and the remains of my tights and my knickers were wadded in a ball on the forest floor. Running his hands up my stomach, he cupped my breasts in his hands, squeezing gently, then moved back down, tangling his fingers in my hair and then kneading the flat of his palm against my pubic ridge. A tiny chill of a breeze caressed us both, raising all the hairs along the back of my neck and arousing my nipples, and I shivered uncontrollably, squirming slightly as I shifted my weight from side to side.

Alex's eyes shot wide open, and I realised I must have caught his penis, so I moved back and forth slowly, rolling him underneath me as I left a slightly sticky trail across his jeans. As his head flopped back against the earth, his eyes glazed over with pleasure, regarding me with obvious desire from under heavy lids. His shirt had ridden up slightly, revealing a path of dark hair headed south across his stomach into the waistband of his jeans, so I followed it with my fingertips, Popping the button of his jeans, I pulled the zipper out of my way like the peel of a banana and searched for the swollen fruit inside. Folding his arms behind his head, Alex raised himself slightly, watching with bemusement as his erect penis rolled out of the cocoon of restraining fabric. Happy to take control, I clawed at his jeans, grateful when he raised his hips slightly to allow me to tug them out of the way, but not wanting any further assistance. For a moment, I held his penis between my palms, sliding the loose foreskin up and down the shaft, reacquainting myself with every vein and every band of dark colour. In our weeks of play in the South of France, that single blind eye had become as familiar and as precious an old friend as Alex's knobbly knees and wiry forearms.

A single, tiny drop of pearly moisture bubbled forth, so I bent forward, and lapped it up with a single pass of my tongue, savouring the slightly salty flavour for a moment before bending over and engulfing his head in my lips. I ran my tongue torturously around the rim for a moment, but before I could let it slip along the sensitive underside, he tugged softly at my hair. Releasing my hold on him, I looked up expectantly.

"No," mouthed Alex quietly. "It's been weeks... I want to be inside you... now!"

With a triumphant smirk, I raised my body slightly, angled my hips, slipped him between my legs, then slowly, agonisingly slowly, lowered myself onto him, letting my weight and gravity guide him inside. I tried to move gradually, twisting my hips slightly as I raised myself just out of reach, then plunged back down, but Alex growled in the back of his throat, bucking like an impatient horse, following my body and thrusting wildly, impulsively. His hands were on my hips, guiding my motions, alternately pulling me towards and away from him insistently. I barely had a chance to catch my breath before he groaned and threw his head back, his jaw tightening, every muscle in his body clenched for a brief second. I knew that face, that strange grimace of total ecstasy.

"Alex!" I reprimanded him, almost hurt.

The guilty expression on his face almost made me laugh out loud as he quickly sat up and wrapped his arms around my shoulders, showering my face with kisses. "I'm sorry, oh god, Kate, I'm sorry," he panted contritely. "I just... it's been so long, I couldn't hold out any longer. I was so afraid I was going to just come in your mouth earlier... " He grinned so foolishly that I couldn't help but burst into laughter. "What?" he demanded, slightly annoyed.

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to laugh," I giggled, pushing his sweaty fringe out of his face and trying to regain control over myself. "It's just so... I don't know, it's just funny." He knitted his eyebrows together, cross that I was making a joke out of his obvious embarrassment. "You can make it up to me, though," I promised, kissing his face tenderly.

"Oh? How?" he inquired, one eyebrow arched in obvious interest.

Climbing off him, I lay back down on the soft fur of my coat, and pulled him down beside me, tugging at his hand and placing it between my legs, folding my hands over his and pushing gently, rhythmically, to give him the idea. His finger slipped inside easily, catching me unaware, and I inhaled sharply. Letting go of his hand, I reached out and pulled his face nearer, biting at his lips as tiny eddies of sensation swirled around his fingertips. He knew my body too well, knew every trick, listening and feeling for my heartbeat and stoking me in perfect time at the precise angle and pressure. My mind went blank of every thought except pleasure, squinting at the sun, panting slightly, catching my breath, a breeze across my body lifting the sweat off my skin, stroke, stroke... I opened my eyes, seeing Alex's face so near mine, his eyes huge and brown and filled with love, the afternoon sun setting off the golden flecks around his pinprick pupils, kissed him, turned away, closed my eyes, opened my eyes, stroke, stroke... the sun on my skin, the growing flood of sensation building up behind the dam of his palm, the sound of blood rushing in my ears, a tickle, a quiver, a roar, a cataclysm, and then peace.

Throwing my arms around his neck, I clung there for a few moments until the aftershocks of orgasm ceased to tingle through my legs, and then relaxed, letting my entire body go limp. I lay there, listening to the sound of him breathing for a few minuets, then realised with a chill that the sun had gone behind a cloud and it was getting colder. Stirring slightly, I sat up.

"What?" asked Alex quietly, pushing his hair out of his face.

"It's getting chilly. I have to get dressed."

"Do you have to?" he teased, sitting up and studying me. "You look like a wood nymph or a pixie, crouched there naked in the pine needles." I turned and fixed him with a warning smirk, standing up and brushing wayward pine needles from my skin before pulling on my bra and panties. "Oof!" remarked Alex, pulling a playboy leer. "Just stay like that for a moment... Oh, yes!"

I rolled my eyes and bent over to pick up my dress, making sure to give him a good display of the cleavage that impending motherhood had augmented nicely, flattered at the way his eyes nearly popped out of his head. "Come on, get off my coat."

Alex stood up and pulled it off the ground, brushing the needles from the lining. " Damn, it's got a bit dirty. I'm sorry."

"It's alright," I shrugged as he draped it around my shoulders. "It was a bit too new looking for my tastes, anyway. Mmm, it smells like a pine forest now, though. That's nice, actually." Closing my eyes, I held the fake fur up against my face and inhaled deeply. The smell of redwood would forever remind me of Alex, now.

"And I'm really sorry about your stockings," he apologised, picking them off the ground and handing them to me.

I stared at them in dismay, seeing the size of the hole he'd ripped in them, then shrugged and stuffed them into my pocket, grinning at him impishly. "Come on - I'm starving hungry. Shall we get back to Sausalito, find a hotel, and then go out to dinner?"

Alex nodded, then fumbled in his jacket pocket for a cigarette. Of course - he barely seemed complete without one. To tell the truth, I almost missed the faint whiff of smoke on my clothes - or perhaps I was addicted to the nicotine of second hand smoke. No, that was not good, I reflected, patting my stomach and moving away from him, starting off back towards the trail.

Chapter Text

-------------------- 1997 --------------------

We ate supper at a tiny restaurant right on the beach, the only patrons brave enough to brave the autumn chill to sit out on the balcony overlooking the rapidly darkening waters of the bay. The faint throb of a jazz three-piece echoed from inside, occasionally drowned out by the lapping of the bay water against the wooden pier. Across the bay, vague lights started to flicker on, but Alex and I sat content in the light of the single candle on our table. Between the two of us, we'd polished off an entire brick oven pizza, and Alex was making fast progress on a bottle of red wine. Conversation was sparse, but the silences between seemed comfortable, rather than awkward, as if we'd passed beyond the need to talk. I could see his eyes flickering with warmth across the table, highlighted by the reflection of his glowing cigarette.

Sated and content, we returned to our hotel after a brief walk up and down the main street, trading snide comments on the ugliness of the art in windows of the galleries that seemed to be the main source of commerce for the town.

Without taking off my coat, I strolled through our room to the balcony and stepped out into the moonlight, then gave a little cry of surprise. "Alex, there's a hammock out here!"

There was the sound of a popping cork from inside, then Alex joined me on the balcony, carrying a bottle of wine from the wet bar in one hand and a glass in the other. Although I tried to hide the disapproving glance, Alex caught it and shrugged guiltily. Although I knew that he could put away a great deal more than a bottle and a half of wine without noticeable damage, I was still disappointed. But with what? I had no right to complain about any latent alcoholism, given my record. Or was I simply jealous?

Laughing softly, Alex deposited the bottle on the floor, then attempted to sit in the middle of the hammock, balancing his wineglass between thumb and forefinger. "I suppose there simply is no dignified way to sit in one of these things."

"If you can do that without spilling that wine, I will be very impressed." 

Alex merely raised an impeccable eyebrow and rose to the challenge, slowly leaning back, then folding his legs up and swinging them over in one fluid movement. The hammock swayed alarmingly, and the wine swayed slightly in the glass, but did not spill. For a moment, he lay completely still until it had stopped sloshing, then toasted me silently, taking a long sip with an incredibly smug and self satisfied expression on his face.

"Very clever," I conceded, then lowered myself into the hammock and rolled in next to him. Alex let out a yelp, and held his glass up over his head, but amazingly still managed to preserve his drink intact. "Very clever indeed."

"We all have our little known talents, don't we," boasted Alex, transferring the drink to his other hand, and wrapping his free arm around my shoulders. With another sip, he finished the glass, and transferred it to the railing of the balcony, then leaned forward to plant a slightly sloppy kiss on my forehead before lapsing into silence.

Tired and full, I let myself be lulled by the gentle rocking motion of the hammock, contentedly dozing off with my head resting against Alex's chest, the slight motion of his breathing a soothing rhythm. I awoke with a start, and opened my eyes a slit, to catch him gazing at me, a slight smile dusted across his lips. I raised an eyebrow enquiringly, but he merely responded by beaming more broadly. His pupils were huge in the dim light, the golden brown of his irises a mere frame for the vast expanse of liquid blackness. Normally it bothered me to look into someone's eyes this closely for this long, but Alex's eyes seemed utterly fascinating. I could almost see his thoughts flickering across them, contentment in the moment, slight uneasiness at thoughts of the future, then the quick reflexive denial and refusal to think about that, undeniable warmth as his gaze drifted back towards me, then suddenly questioning... 

"What?" he asked, somewhat worriedly.

"I didn't say anything."

"Yes, but you looked like you were asking me a question." He paused, feeling foolishly for the words. "I don't know how to explain it, that uncanny knack that you have, but sometimes, when you just look at me, and I know exactly what you're thinking."

I laughed, a mysterious little giggle escaping my lips.

"What?" he demanded.

"I was just thinking that myself," I sighed, reaching up and pushing a tendril of hair out of his eyes. His hand twitched, and his eyebrows knotted; he must have been about to reach up and flick it himself.

"Stop it!" he hissed playfully, reaching over and tickling me forcefully in the ribs. "Did you see that coming? Huh? Huh?"

I shrieked, twisted away and tried to retaliate, but the hammock creaked ominously and rocked violently in warning against any sudden moves. "Cut it out, or we'll both be on the floor any moment now!"

"Come on, let's go in, then. You're dozing off as it is."

"No," I protested weakly, but he had already rolled off the hammock and was now lifting me gently. I didn't want to sleep, I didn't want to lapse into unconsciousness. These few, peaceful times that we had together had become so rare that I wanted to prolong them as long as possible. Sweeping me up in his arms, Alex carried me inside and laid me down on the bed, then sat down beside me. He smiled tenderly, and bent over to kiss me, then gently pulled my shoes off my feet one by one and tossed them across the room. I felt strangely childlike, innocent and trusting, lying back passively and letting him pull off my coat, and then leaning forward and raising my arms slightly so he could pull off my dress.

But then he paused, sitting cross legged on the bed and just staring at me, observing me as if memorising every detail. Part of me was flattered by the attention, but the other half of me had simply wanted him to go on, taking care of me like a child, wanted him to undress me, spread a blanket over me and tuck me into bed. How many times during our long and torturous friendship had he done just that? So many times, that simple gesture had calmed and soothed me.

He sighed deeply, then ran his finger teasingly down the outside of my calf. "Sometimes I wonder if you really have the slightest idea how fucking lovely you truly are."

I blushed and looked away awkwardly. Compliments were something I had never handled particularly well.

"And then other times, I think you're the most deliberately provocative minx that ever walked the earth," he continued, undaunted.

"And what do you think right now?"

Stretching out beside me, he wrapped his arms around my neck and pressed his face close to mine, opening his eyes incredibly wide for effect. "You're the mind reader. You tell me."

I chortled softly. "I'm not a mind reader; I just know you too well. And you're thinking you've had too much wine and you want to go to bed."

"Amazing. How does she do it?" whistled Alex, kicking off his shoes, then standing up to pull off his trousers. I grinned to myself, watching his sinewy muscles flex as he pulled his shirt over his head. The unruly tuft of dark hair on his stomach was standing straight up with static electricity. As he pulled the blanket back, taking care to lift up my legs from underneath, I stared up at him with obvious adoration, biting my lower lip in anticipation as he climbed in next to me. He snapped the blanket sharply, causing it to billow up into the air, then float gently down to settle on top of us. "Come 'ere," he growled softly, reaching out and encircling me with his long arms, pulling me insistently toward him.

 

I awoke to the sensation of warmth and safety, the sensation of Alex's arms wrapped tightly about my waist, and his breath soft on the back of my neck. Afraid to even move for fear of waking him, I lay staring up at the reflection of water across the ceiling. The huge grin of the previous evening seemed to have become permanently embedded in my face, and my heart felt so light, I felt like breaking into song, spinning monosyllabic paeans of infant joy into the morning sunlight.

Then suddenly a cold shiver ran down my skin. This momentary respite of peace and contentment could not last. In another few hours, I had to drive Alex back to face the consequences of his little bid for freedom. Although I completely sympathised with him, I had to admit that what he had done was reckless and irresponsible. 

Sighing deeply, I twisted around gently in his grasp, gazing contemplatively at his sleeping face, tempted to run my fingers down the tip of his nose and across his lips. When it was just the two of us together, alone and on the run, secluded from the rest of the world, everything was just so perfect. Why couldn't it always be like this, just the two of us, no bands, no conflicts of interest, no ex-lovers? Trapped in the poisonous atmosphere of the music industry, surrounded by petty feuds and a million conflicting interests, everything seemed to crumble beneath our feet, and our precious love dissolved in the bitter acid of jealousy.

Alex stirred slightly, his eyelids flickering, then, slowly, cautiously he opened one eye and looked about. When he saw me awake and watching him, the other eye snapped open and he smiled warmly. Without a word, he leaned forward and kissed me, then pulled me closer into his embrace, clasping me so tight against his chest I could barely breath for a moment.

"So what time is your soundcheck anyway?" I finally ventured, almost afraid to shatter the crystalline contentment of the early morning sun.

Alex groaned loudly, burying his face in my shoulder then rolling himself up in a little ball like an infant afraid of the big, scary outside world. "I don't want to go. Let's just never go back. Can we run away, for good this time?" he begged in an adorably little boy voice.

For a moment, I paused, considering his words. Just the two of us, running away, turning our backs on our entire worlds and running away... it seemed so tempting. But no. "Alex, we tried that. It didn't work. We weren't happy. We couldn't be happy that way. We'd get bored and frustrated and angry and blame each other for our unhappiness."

Alex stared away with a glower so deep that I knew I'd hit a nerve. There was no shock, no denial in the pout - he knew that I spoke the truth. "Do you..?" he accused quietly. "Blame me for your unhappiness?"

"Alex, no... " I protested, bending over to stroke the soft skin at the nape of his neck, but the moment had passed, the crystalline mood of the previous day shattered.

Pulling away from me, Alex climbed out of bed and stood for a moment, staring out the window, his tawny olive skin bathed in the golden light of the slanting afternoon sun. He stretched lazily, like a cat, every muscle in his back tensing and relaxing, his familiar moles shifting slightly before settling back into their customary positions, then he sighed deeply, a long whistling hiss of a breath, like an extinguished candle flickering and dying in a gust of wind. When he finally turned around, there was a dejected and resigned slump to his shoulders, and he seemed unwilling to meet my eyes.

We laughed and joked over lunch, but I could tell his heart was not in it. His eyes were distant and hooded, his clasp light when he held my hand. Our precious minutes together were slipping away; soon we would be back in the maelstrom of his band, his tour, a million conflicting interests colliding at once and begging his attention away from me.

"We should go," he finally conceded as he stuffed the last morsel of croissant into his mouth and licked his fingers fastidiously.

I nodded slowly, crumpling up my napkin and depositing it on the table. The world felt like it was slipping irreconcilably out of my grasp, but I refused to let it go. "Alex!" I suddenly exclaimed.

He turned towards me, sliding back his gaze to meet mine, his eyebrows raised in questioning.

"Alex, I love you." The words slid out of my mouth almost apologetically, like a bloody mess of emotional viscera slick and raw and incongruous in the genteel setting of the restaurant.

Alex's face flickered indecipherably. We did not discuss these things in public; he looked flustered, almost embarrassed. Bending over, he kissed me quickly but chastely on the top of my head, but did not reply.

We drove in silence to the venue, the huge joyous throb of the Ronettes absurdly in contrast to our deflated moods. I parked the car without incident, already accustomed to handling the behemoth, took a moment to close up the roof, then followed Alex meekly towards the theatre. Breaking into a trot, I caught up with him, taking his hand with a reproachful pout. He turned around and actually smiled at me, squeezing my hand reassuringly. With that tiny motion, my heart leapt with hopefulness. No matter how difficult things got, we could pull through, if all he had to do was smile and everything resolved itself.

Avoiding the crowd of kids milling around the front of the theatre, Alex and I headed for the backstage door. We thought we would simply slip in unnoticed, but one of the roadies looked up as we padded by. "Siobhan, he's here... "

Alex squeezed my hand and grimaced, but I smiled back as warmly as I could, steeling myself for the forthcoming lecture. What Alex had done was irresponsible, but they couldn't do much more than admonish him, could they?

Siobhan's pixie-like head appeared from behind a stack of speakers. "Alex Jones, do you have the slightest idea how much trouble... " Suddenly she caught sight of me and her eyes widened with alarm. "Kate, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

I stiffened defensively, my grip on Alex's hand tightening. "I'm staying with Alex," I insisted defiantly.

"Kate, your presence on this tour is no longer welcome. We simply cannot afford to have these interruptions. We have done everything in our power to try to accommodate you and your relationship with Alex... "

"What do you mean, accommodate?" I stuttered, too shocked to be properly angry.

"Ever since you have joined this tour, we have had nothing but incident after incident. We have had to beef up security because of a near riot, we have had to switch opening bands because of you... " 

"Because of me?" I protested. It had been nothing to do with me - it had been Alex's insane jealousy of Peter that had caused that change of plans.

She continued, refusing to allow my interruptions to distract her train of thought. "Kate, you have to understand that this is a tour, and not a little pleasure jaunt for your benefit. You cannot simply go running off with Alex whenever you feel like it. Alex is here because he has a job to do, and that job includes turning up at all scheduled performances, interviews and photo shoots."

"What?" I exploded, practically livid with anger at her condescension as much as her implications. Dropping Alex's hand, I whirled to face him, but he avoided my eyes. This whole thing had been his idea - how dare everyone blame me for it? "But... "

"I am going to ask you again to leave, Kate. We simply cannot tolerate these interruptions any more," she repeated, her voice steely and threatening. "Your presence is no longer welcome on this tour. You can either leave quietly, or we can obtain a restraining order through legal channels." From out of nowhere, Fozzy appeared, wandering over and standing behind Siobhan, his arms folded across his massive chest. To me, the ex-bodybuilder had always seemed a jovial teddy bear of a man, but at the drop of a hat, he had become as menacing and threatening as his job description demanded.

"Alex!" I pleaded, turning to him for help, expecting support, but for the first time in his life, he actually looked frightened and powerless. Suddenly I saw it, the steel trap into which I'd walked - the steel trap I myself had set and baited when I first took responsibility for Alex's first disappearance.

"But, but... " stuttered Alex half-heartedly. "I want... " His voice was choked with confused emotion.

"Alex, you are in no position to bargain. We have spoken to your record company, and the band has made the decision that if you no longer wish to fulfil your duties as bass player, you will be replaced by a session musician."

"You mean Damon has made the decision," I started to spit, but Alex stopped me.

"Kate... " he shook his head, his eyes speaking volumes. Just leave it alone; this is not your fight any more.

Biting my tongue and holding back tears, I stared up into his face. How could he be so acquiescent, so resigned to this? How can you just sit back, say nothing and let them do this to me? 

His arms were around me, pulling me close, but I was so angry I just wanted to push him off me and run away, my eyes stinging with tears, but with what was left of my pride intact. "Kate, the tour will be over soon," he whispered into my ear. "Just go back to England and wait for me. You can stay in my flat... Let yourself in - I always leave the keys at the Groucho... "

"Alex!" Siobhan's voice snapped sharply, pulling us apart. "Let's go. Now! Kate, you have 30 seconds to leave the vicinity, or I am calling the police."

30 seconds and it was all over, my entire life slipping out of my grasp as Alex resignedly followed Siobhan and Fozzy away from me, back into the bowels of the theatre. Wrapping my dignity around me like a tattered and ragged cloak, I turned away and stalked purposely and steadfastly from the venue, my head held high despite the curious stares of the roadies. It wasn't until I was back in the relative safety of my car that I allowed myself to break down, leaning forward and resting my head against the steering wheel as I burst into bitter, uncontrollable tears.

 

----------

 

"Kate... Oh, you are back," Maddie's voice called out softly from across my room. 

"Yeah..." I mumbled, opening my eyes and trying to sit up before I realised that I was still tangled up in my clothes. When I crawled home during the wee hours of the morning, I had been so dazed and disoriented that I had barely bothered to kick my shoes off before crawling into bed.

"I didn't think you were going to be back till tomorrow," she chirped, padding into my room and settling down on the edge of my bed. "What happened?"

I shook my head slowly. "I don't really want to talk about it."

She sighed deeply and nodded. "I figured something had happened out there from the flurry of phone messages. Amy called about 20 times. Someone named... Shannon? Shirley?"

"Siobhan?" I suggested.

Maddie nodded. "Yeah, that was it. She called about half a dozen times, saying she got your phone number from Amy..."

I was going to kill Amy the next time I saw her. "Oh?"

"And Damon Adams," Maddie added in reverential tones. "Oh my god, I actually talked to Damon Adams on the phone. But, of course, he wasn't the slightest bit interested in me, he just demanded that I give him your cell phone number, then hung up when I told him you didn't have one."

"That fucking bastard!" I exploded, ignoring the lurching sensation in my stomach as I crawled out of bed. My head was a mess, my thoughts racing, betrayal, anger and helplessness all vying for the upper hand. Pacing up and down, I vacillated between wild, grandiose plans and abject panic. I couldn't just stay here and be hounded to death by the Slur organisation, but at the same time, I was so angry at Alex that I didn't want to just go and wait for him like a dismissed child. As if in confirmation of my thoughts, the phone started to ring. "Don't answer it!" I snapped.

"I have to!" sighed Maddie, moving towards it.

"If anyone asks for me, I'm not home," I insisted, moving towards my door, then changing my mind and heading over to the closet.

"Hullo?" ventured Maddie into the receiver. "Oh, hi, Amy..." She looked towards me questioningly, her eyebrows raised, but I shook my head wildly. "No, she's not here, she hasn't got back yet," she lied. "I will call you the moment I see her... Yes... Yes. OK, bye, Amy." Putting the phone down, she closed her eyes for a moment, then sighed deeply as if gathering strength. "I can't keep doing this, Kate."

No, it wasn't fair dragging Maddie into this, I reflected, then suddenly the wild paranoia took over. What if that had been Amy's intention all along, in encouraging Maddie to stay with me? Everyone had an agenda, everyone wanted to check up on me, control me, bind me to someone or something. Panicking, I pulled one of the suitcases down off the top shelf and dragged it to the bed, throwing clothes into it at random.

"Kate, what are you doing?" demanded Maddie. "You only just got here!" I ignored her, continuing to pack. "Where are you going to go? You can't go off with Alex - they made it pretty clear to me that you are not welcome there. You'll just cause trouble if you go."

"What, have they told everyone?" I snarled, whirling to face her for a moment before resuming my mad sweep of the room, depositing everything that wasn't nailed down into one of the bags.

"Where are you going to go?' repeated Maddie, seizing me by the arm and trying to pull me around to face her.

"I'm not telling you. You'll just go back and tell Damon Adams," I threw back at her defiantly.

"You don't even know, do you?" she sighed, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "Kate, you can't keep running away like this. One of these days, you're going to run out of places to run to, and then you're going to have to turn around and fight. And the longer you leave it, the worse it will get because the more you avoid them, the more things will be chasing you."

In my mad panic, I didn't even want to listen to her logic, sensible though it would seem in retrospect. I just wanted to run and keep running, believing that I could eventually somehow escape everything and everyone. My entire life had been one long dream of escape. The band had been an escape from the mundanity and slow soul death of the 9 to 5 work world, Alex had been an escape from the brutal machinery of the music industry and press maelstrom that the band had thrown me into, and now I even needed an escape from Alex. Brushing aside Maddie's protests, I threw most of my belongings into a suitcase and fled down the steep flights of stairs, summoning a passing taxi and hurling myself into it.

"Where to?" asked the driver.

Damn; I hadn't thought about that part. "Just drive!" I spat, my mind struggling to keep up with my emotions.

"Lady, I got a job to do, I can't just drive around aimlessly..."

"Am I paying you to talk or drive?" I snapped, which shut him up fairly effectively long enough for me to formulate a vague plan. "JFK airport," I finally decided as we pulled off down 5th Avenue.

I didn't even know for certain where I was going until I found myself at the British Airways ticket desk, ordering a prohibitively expensive one-way ticket to London. So despite everything, perhaps I was just going back to Alex's apartment to wait for him like a good little girl, ordered out of his business and back to his bedroom without a fight. Slumped in my first class seat, I eyed the drink cart lovingly, wishing I could simply slip away into chemical oblivion, then slowly started to massage my swelling belly.

"It's just me and you, kiddo," I sighed softly under my breath, actually taking comfort in my pregnancy, rather than cursing it. No matter who else pushed me aside or abandoned me, for nine months this growing, swelling thing had been and would be my constant companion. In one sense, I hated to be tied down to anyone or anything. I had spent my entire life cutting bonds and escaping the ties that would bind me or confine me, but now I suddenly felt myself missing that sense of security, of actually belonging anywhere, of belonging to anyone. Jeremy, Tristram, and now, it seemed, even Alex, had drifted into and then out of my life without leaving an impression. Nothing ever lasted. No one ever stuck.

Except this tiny living thing that had taken root and started to grow in my belly. I hadn't wanted it, hadn't chosen it, but for whatever reason, it had chosen me, and now I was tied to it. But, frightening as it was, the thought was also comforting in a bizarre way. Mentally, I tried to picture the child, wondering if it was a boy or a girl, but all I could see were Tristram's androgynously pretty features, his huge blue eyes and a mop of pale yellow hair. I tried to project myself a dozen or more years into the future, but all I could imagine was a rebellious teenager, those huge blue eyes turned on me, lower lip quivering and reproachful the way Tristram used to look at me, though somehow the idea made me laugh more than it made me angry.

After the hectic pace of touring, it seemed almost a relief to fly into an airport and not have anywhere to go or anyone ordering me around, but in a way I missed the sense of having someone expecting me at the other end. Although I collected my bags and found my way to the train without a problem, the nagging doubt that I had nowhere to go, and no one to miss me if I failed to turn up dogged my thoughts. A hundred terrible scenarios flickered through my head as I sat moodily staring at my reflection in the window as the Piccadilly line whisked through the endless suburbs toward London. What if the Groucho wasn't open? What if no-one recognised me, and they wouldn't give me the key to Alex's flat? What if they'd lost it? Bloody hell, stop being a baby, Kate. If you can fly half the way around the world at the drop of a hat, you can find yourself a hotel, I told myself resolutely as I dragged my suitcase off the train at Leicester Square.

Stumbling up Dean Street, I must have looked quite a sight, dragging my suitcase after me, so that I looked even more like an off-balance Weeble. Well, weebles wobble but they don't fall down, I told myself resolutely, taking the children's jingle as an inspiration. Taking a deep breath, I plucked up what was left of my courage and pushed open the door to the Groucho, then suddenly lost my nerve, staring at the officious young man at the desk blocking my progress, his impeccably groomed eyebrows shooting up his forehead with disdain at the idea that this ragged, bedraggled creature with the mismatched suitcases could possibly be a member of his hallowed institution.

"Yeeessss..." he challenged in a condescending hiss.

Swallowing nervously, I blinked a few times, then launched into a halting explanation. Show no fear, Kate, they can smell it on you. "I believe my boyfriend left a set of keys for me here..." It seemed so strange to call Alex my boyfriend - as if all the conflicted and tangled intense emotions could be distilled so easily into two simple and innocent syllables.

Without even bothering to move, the young man looked me up and down as if wondering whether to call the police or the men in white suits. "And you would be?"

"Kate Gordon." If I hadn't been so intimidated, I would have found it amusing; I rarely had to introduce myself any more.

"Are you a member here, Miss Gordon?"

"No, but my boyfriend, Alex Jones, is" I insisted, suddenly more annoyed than intimidated.

There was a flicker of recognition under the supercilious air, quickly replaced by disbelief. So at least he knew who Alex was. But unexpectedly we were interrupted by a burst of chatter as the door to the bar swung open and a gaggle of rather rowdy revellers spilled out. Most of them moved toward the door and filtered out onto the street, but one of them, a short, stocky man with a shoulder-length cloud of curly black hair and an aggressive bulldog nose, detached himself from the group and stumbled towards me.

"Kate! Good lord, if it isn't Kate Gordon. Or is it Mrs. Jones yet?" exploded a thunderous voice, as the man rapidly wrapped me in an energetic bear hug.

"Damien Hearse!" I had never been so relieved to see one of Alex's drinking buddies in my entire life.

"What the blazes are you doing here? Good lord, look at you!" Leering at my stomach, he patted me familiarly. "That bastard has knocked you up, hasn't he? Congratulations!" Leaning in so close that I could smell the brandy on his breath, he added, "You are going to make me the godfather, right? I'll never forgive you if you don't. And I don't have to tell you that Damien is a damn fine name for a boy."

Feeling a little bit overwhelmed but nonetheless grateful, I did not have the heart to contradict him. Let Alex have a fit; I didn't care if his friends thought he was the father. "I'll think about it."

"So you never told me what the bloody hell you are doing here! I thought you were on tour of the states with that good for nothing feckless husband of yours."

"We're not married yet," I protested rather half-heartedly.

"You're not?" exclaimed Damien, sounding a bit too pleased at the news. "Well, then, I've found myself a date for the evening. Wrapping his arm around my shoulder, he smiled cockily. "No, seriously. I'm late for an awards dinner. I'm being given some prestigious prize or other by some museum Board of Windbags and I think it would stir things up a bit to arrive with a gorgeous nymphet on my arm. How's about it, Katie?"

I laughed at the image Damien suggested, but shook my head. "I'd love to, but I've only just stepped off a plane an hour ago, and I can't seem to get Alex's spare set of keys off this cretin," I protested, shooting a glare at the young man at the desk.

"Really?" thundered Damien, turning to glare at the receptionist, now flustered and obviously intimidated by my intimacy with one of the club's most cherished regulars. "Could you possibly find Alex Jones' spare set of keys for the young lady here?"

"Yes, sir. Right away, Mr. Hearse," gushed the man, digging in the safe, and then producing a key ring, though I noticed that he handed it to Damien and not to me.

"Come on, I'll carry your suitcase for you," offered Damien, dropping the keys into my hand with a debonair grin. "It's only a few blocks. I'll get us a cab."

Safe in the custody of Damien, sliding through the narrow Soho streets in the luxurious comfort of a taxi, I felt secure and happy for what felt like the first time in days. London always seemed loaded with expectation and promise, like I was a little child, looking up at the huge, wide world with trusting and confident eyes. Sitting up in the seat I stared out the window, oblivious to Damien's leering gaze.

My heart leapt as we turned up Endell street, and I jumped out onto the pavement as soon as the cab stopped, leaving Damien to pay the fare as I stared up at the old stone-faced building, trying to remember which window was Alex's front room. Despite all the countless times I'd been there, usually more than slightly drunk, despite the many intimate tete a tetes in which we'd indulged until the small hours of the morning, I had never actually entered the flat triumphantly, as Alex's acknowledged and rightful domestic partner. How funny it seemed now, treading up those carpeted stairs, dragging my suitcase behind me. Now, knowing his true feelings toward me, what had Alex truly been thinking, that first innocent afternoon that I followed him up from a crowded bar, nervous and giggling and more than slightly starstruck? 

As I opened the door, I was overcome with memories, not to mention slightly overwhelmed by the musty odour of stale smoke and dirty dishes. How demurely I'd perched by that bookshelf, going through his collection of exotic books. How innocently I'd fallen asleep on that sofa, tucked in by a man who, unbeknownst to me, had already begun to fall in love. And how jealously I'd glared at Mimi from beside that stereo! I felt like skipping around the room in the excited dance of a little girl who has won a particularly coveted prize, careening around the sitting room in a mad jig. There was no more Mimi Mei! There was only me! Me! ME!

I stopped in mid skip as Damien puffed up the stairs with my suitcase, my face as red as if I'd been caught doing something terribly embarrassing. "You look like the cat that ate the proverbial canary," he observed, wandering back to the kitchen and helping himself to a Scotch on the rocks before collapsing into the most comfortable chair.

"There are just a lot of happy memories here," I chirped, lugging my suitcase back towards the bedroom. Ah, the fabled bedroom... I'd never actually spent the night in it. How ironic that the first time I would actually sleep here, Alex was thousands of miles away, in the country that was supposed to be my home. Abandoning my suitcase on the floor, I flopped back on the bed, inhaling deeply. Yes, his scent still lingered on the pillows despite the fact that it had been weeks since he last slept here.

No, actually months, I realised, thinking back over the recent events. The last time he would have been here was over the summer, while we were on that hellish tour of Europe. Just before he followed me to Iona... A very odd feeling crept down my spine as I realised that the cupboard doors were open, and clothes were hastily strewn about as if someone had packed and left in a terrible hurry. Burning with curiosity, I sat up and turned my gaze to the pad of paper that Alex habitually kept by the telephone at the side of the bed. It was scrawled with hurried notes and phone numbers, many crossed out, and one starred. 

Kate? 
Kate. 
*KATE! St. Columba Bar and Hotel, Iona 

Picking up the pad, I stared at it, feeling a sensation of warmth and comfort spreading up my spine as I tried to imagine Alex sitting on the side of the bed, chewing at the end of his pencil as he dialled hotel after hotel. In fact, there was a pencil by the phone, the rubber completely chewed off. For a few moments, I hesitated, then inquisitiveness got the better of me, and I started to flip through the pages, scanning for other mentions of myself, back in those days of our clandestine crushes.

Friday - Keith and Hearsey, lunch and footie, 3pm
Saturday - Charms record release party!!! Garage? 
Electric Ballroom
11am Tuesday - publicist. SET ALARM!!!
One Dozen Lilies - Em Evesham - £7.99

My heart skipped a beat as I stared down at the paper. Em Evesham? There was an address beside the name - a run-down down student neighbourhood near the University of London. What had Alex been doing sending flowers to his ex girlfriend? Flipping wildly through the preceding pages, I searched for a date, and found a hastily scrawled receipt. Was that a 6 or an 8? June? Perhaps August? I couldn't tell, the handwriting was so faded. At least it had been Mimi's concern and not mine. But still, the thought haunted me. Flowers? I knew something had seemed incongruous with his reaction to her name when it had come up in Courtney's conversation. You do not grow pale and stutter over a ghost of a long-forgotten unhappy relationship. You grow pale and stutter over someone to whom you were sending expensive flowers a few weeks previously. Glaring at the pad as if it were the object of my jealousy, I yanked the pages back, no longer afraid of tearing them out. There, among the scrawled phone numbers on the last page... 

Em - 0171 798 5754

Practically ripping the phone from its cradle, I punched the numbers ferociously. The electronic throb of a ringer bleated in my ear, and then an ansaphone picked up, a familiar smooth American voice declaring. "Em Evesham is unable to take your call right now, as I am on tour of America with Mirage!" She sounded so excited that I wanted to smash her camera into her lying face. "I am checking my ansaphone every few days, so please leave your name and..."

"Slut!" I hurled spitefully at the receiver, then quickly slammed it into its cradle, terrified that my outburst might have been caught on tape.

She'd lied to me. She'd sat, with her arm reassuringly draped around my shoulder, looked me in the eye and spun an elaborately outrageous but deliberate lie. Things were not completely over, peachy keen, let's all kiss and be girl pals now between her and Alex if he'd still been sending her flowers as recently as a few months ago.

"Liar!" I added to the slew of insults, though whether they directed more at her or at Alex, I did not know. "Fucking asshole bald-faced back-biting LIAR!"

"Kate..." called Damien from the other room. I had honestly forgotten he was even there. Stiffening instinctively, I tried to draw my wits about me and compose myself. "Are you in there?"

"Yes," I squeaked in an uncontrollably tremulous voice.

"Oh." His round, jovial face appeared at the door to the bedroom. "I was beginning to think you'd decided to take a nap until I heard you in here swearing at the wallpaper."

"The wallpaper?" I glanced around, dazed, taking in the late 70's mustard yellow floral nightmare.

"It's hideous, isn't it? I've been telling Alex to change it for years, but, me being a Turner prize-winning artist and all, what do I know about home decoration? And speaking of prizes, we've still got a dinner to go to, you know."

I tried to grin, choking back the tears of anger and jealousy threatening to overspill my eyes. Damien was trying to be charming and cheer me up in his quaint, English, avoid displays of excessive emotion at all risks sort of way. "I can't go... I haven't got a stitch to wear," I protested lamely, looking for an excuse to stay home with my suspicions and sulk.

"Nonsense," assured Damien with a smirk, pulling his long hair back and tucking it behind his ears so the curls stuck out all around his head like a Renaissance angel. "Look how I'm dressed, and I assure you I don't plan on popping home to change. Come on, we're artists, we're supposed to turn up at black tie events wearing paint speckled jeans. It's almost expected." Squatting down on his knees, he peered up into my red-rimmed eyes, resting his huge paws on my shoulders. "Come on, give us a smile. I think I see one in there... come on, there it is..."

I couldn't help but smile shyly at his insistent prompting. "I'm not an artist, though," I protested wanly.

"Ah, but you're a pop star. Even better."

"I'm not a pop star any more," I sighed bitterly, Peter's recriminations echoing in my ears.

"Bullshit!" exploded Damien, then smirked in faux apology. "Pardon my French..."

"It's true," I sighed. "I've completely surrendered whoever or whatever I was before to this four-headed, eight-legged publicity machine called Slur and this role of evil-hearted band-wrecker they've cast me in... Everyone's trying to push me into a million different little boxes. Slur want me to be Yoko Ono, the press want me to be Grieving Rock Widow, Alex wants me to be demure little thing waiting for him at home..."

Damien raised an unruly tuft of an eyebrow in disbelief. "Surely, not our Alex."

"Oh come on, surely you know Alex well enough to know that under all that decadent, roistering louche lizard reputation, he's as solid and conventional and traditional as an Edwardian."

"I think part of you likes that," observed Damien astutely. "Despite all your wild child affectations, I think you'd actually like someone to take care of you, if only you could let someone else get close enough to try." I pouted at him defiantly as he swung himself over to sit down on the bed beside me, tucking his unruly hair behind his ears. "Let me guess your star sign..." he insisted, making himself comfortable on Alex's pillow, the dinner forgotten. He thought for a moment, squinting as if trying to discern my aura. I stared at him curiously, somewhat taken aback. This was the last thing I would have expected, even from the mercurial Mr. Hearse. "Leo, right?" he finally pronounced.

"Wrong! Aries!" I corrected, relieved to finally have something concrete to contradict him on.

"Oh, even worse," guffawed Damien, obviously immensely pleased with himself. "And do you know what the problem with Aries is?"

"Star signs are bollocks," I snorted derisively. "The only reason they even appear to work is because of the psychological effects of seasonal affective disorder on infants."

Damien stared at me in outright disbelief, as if I'd just told him that there was no Father Christmas. "What?"

I pounded the mattress between us to punctuate my points. "The first few months of a child's life are probably the most important in terms of future developmental psychology. The only reason that an 'Aries' is different from a 'Sagittarius' or whathaveyou is that the first impressions of an infant who was born into a bright spring April day are going to be considerably different from those of an infant brought into a dark, December snowstorm."

Damien promptly burst out laughing, shaking the entire bed with his mirth before waggling an finger at me in admonition. "You're good. I do have to give you that. But such a typical Aries," he maintained, as if the previous minute and a half of conversation had never occurred. "What's the exact date and time?"

"April 10th, just before noon," I divulged, deciding to simply indulge him.

This information was greeted with a few moments of silence, as Damien stroked his incipient goatee, apparently in deep thought. I could never quite figure out if he was actually growing a beard, or if he simply couldn't be bothered to shave for a week at a time. Momentarily, he burst into another fit of profound hilarity. "Well, that's it, isn't it?"

"What?" I was beginning to grow tired of the game, sick of the way he constantly treated me like an idiot child, when he was the one answering my logic with complete lunacy.

"You have Cancer rising," he informed me with a meaningful nod, to which I returned a blank expression. "Oh come on, even you have to know what that means. A fire sign with a rising water sign."

"So, what? Do you have the entire star charts memorised?" was the most flippant response that leapt to mind.

"Not quite. In fact, your feckless boyfriend has spent quite some time trying to persuade me that astrological charts are quite faulty, and based on the erroneous assumption that the sun revolved around the earth instead of vice versa. Even went so far as to draw me a very nice map of the solar system to prove his point. I've still got it, you know. But, of course, he's part Sagittarius, so he has to prove everything with rational logic before he can bring himself to believe it..." He wandered off in mid-sentence, cocking his head and leering at me with a cheeky grin. "Alex is a Sagittarius/Scorpio cusp, you know. Another volatile fire/water combination. You two must have mind-blowing sex. But frequent earth-shattering arguments, as well."

I opened and closed my mouth several times in quick succession, not sure whether to be affronted by the casual informality with which he addressed Alex's and my most intimate concerns or amazed by the accuracy of his guess. Although I refused to dignify that assessment with either a confirmation or denial, I sighed deeply, and turned back to Damien with one eyebrow raised, an indication that I was willing to at least listen to more..

"I'm right, aren't I?" he chuckled triumphantly, then patted me familiarly on the knee. "Come on, Katie, we're late for the dinner. Wash your face, and let's go. Here, put this on," he directed, digging in my suitcase and pulling out a tiny little black dress that had once passed for incredibly sexy in the days before my stomach had swollen to accommodate my passenger.

"I doubt it will fit any more," I sighed, taking it from him, unsure of why I'd even brought it. Then again, I hadn't exactly been thinking rationally when I packed.

"All the more reason to wear it. A pregnant nymphet is twice as scandalous."

Retreating to the bathroom, I scrubbed the travel and the crying fits from my eyes, and tried to make my swollen, dazed-looking face presentable with a stub of an eyeliner pencil. I shouldn't let myself be dragged into these conversations, I reflected. I spent far too much time talking about Alex with other people, and far too little time talking to him. That was the problem, not some secret astrological mal-conjunction written in the stars. But a million voices crowded my head, playing games with my already rampant insecurities. What had I always heard about Scorpios? Sexually ruthless opportunists physically incapable of being faithful. But then again, what experience had that been based on? Gary Goode? Peter Hagstrom? But Damien had said something about a cusp... What the hell was a cusp?

No, it was all ridiculous; Damien had only been trying to console me... or disorient me for some unknown nefarious purpose. As soon as you crossed over that invisible line from private person to public figure, paranoia seemed to come with the territory. Who is this person, why are they speaking to me, what do they want from me, is it me they're trying to get close to, or merely Kate Charms?

Taking a deep breath, I stopped myself. No, Damien was Alex's best friend; if I wasn't safe with him, who could I be safe with?

The scene that greeted me as I emerged from the bathroom more than reassured me. Completely oblivious to my presence, Damien lay sprawled across Alex's bed, his nose buried in an old issue of Young British Artist. "10 Most Promising Up-and-Coming Artists and Photographers in London, a nonsense!" he exclaimed with all proper and due indignation. "There's not one of them in here that could hold a candle to me."

"Of course not, Hearsey Darling, you are a true original," I assured him, threading my arm through his as he clambered off the bed and shuffled down the hallway to the front door. But as he threw down the magazine on a pile of clutter, I caught sight of the cover, an arty looking collage of photos, from which gazed the aristocratic grey eyes of... Em Evesham.

Chapter Text

Caught up in the whirl of Damien's personality, I barely had time to seethe over my supposed rival. He laughed and burbled and chattered gaily in the cab ride over, cajoling me into conversations that anyone else would have floundered in, and even I had to admit that I found it occasionally hard to keep up. Damien had a way of smiling sweetly while he completely twisted your words around inside your mouth until you found yourself verbally wrestling with a multi-headed chimera comprised of distorted fragments of your own beliefs. There was only one other person in the world that I'd ever found who could ride the crest of a conversation with such art and finesse, but it took Damien to articulate my ache.

Halfway across London, he stopped in mid-sentence and stared morosely across the river as we drove over Tower Bridge. "I miss Alex, you know."

My heart bobbed up towards my throat with a familiar pang. Words could not properly express the longing, not just for Alex's physical presence, but for a restoration of the easy, comfortable familiarity between us, free from all of the conflicted demands of our relationship.

Damien plunged headlong into the silence. "You're so much like him, you know. The think the same. You even talk the same - the same convoluted but grammatically correct phrasing. It's eerie, sometimes."

I smiled, I couldn't help myself. With one unintentional sentence, Damien had swept away all my feelings of insecurity and doubt. So it was true; Alex and I truly belonged together, the same mind trapped in two separate bodies.

"Come on; we're here," announced Damien sharply, as the cab pulled up outside a dubious warehouse on the banks of the River Thames.

"Where's here?" I asked nervously, glancing around at the insalubrious buildings around here.

"The Design Museum, of course," he answered offhandedly, paying the cab driver. "Come on, we're round the back right now, but as soon as take you to the front you'll recognise where you are. See... there's the Thames, and down the river, there's St. Katherine's Docks. I had my first show there, you know." I shivered slightly in the breeze coming off the river, but I had to admit that at night it was spectacular, seeing the ancient heart of London spread out before us. "Now come on, time to put on your most provocative face, it's time to scandalise the establishment."

Lights, camera, action. As soon as we were inside the doors of the museum, it was if Damien had flicked a switch and exchanged his charming, amusing natural self for the enfant terrible of the Art World that the audience were clearly expecting. I had been to many boho art openings during my residency in Williamsburg, but nothing had quite prepared me for the amount of pretension rising in waves off the crowd gathered in insular groups around starched white tableclothed tables. Damien hadn't lied about the dress code - every member of the audience was in black tie, the endless rows of tuxedos broken only by the peacock coloured gowns of the females. I might not know much about designers, but these clothes looked ultra fashionable and they looked expensive. With his long, scruffy hair and his paint-spattered jeans, Damien looked as if he had just landed from Mars.

Damien absorbed the shock, the hatred and the envy, feeding off the emotion seething off the crowd. Squeezing my hand, he winked, then leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Just play along. Whatever I do, don't hate me tomorrow, OK?"

As the nature of the game he was playing slowly crept across my mind, I started to smirk uncontrollably. Time to scandalise the establishment indeed. Clinging closely to his arm, I tottered perilously, slanting my hips forward to more prominently display my pregnant belly.

"Ah, erm..." stuttered the disoriented Master of Ceremonies from the stage at one end of the small banquet hall. He had obviously long since given up on the guest of honour ever appearing and was now clearly furious at the disruption of his schedule, but obviously terrified of offending his famous and infamous guest. "Ah, Mr. Hearse. What a pleasure for you to grace us with your presence. We had assumed that you were unable to join us..."

I assumed that by this point they had already given the award to a hastily assembled stand-in, but Damien strode towards the podium. "Oh, nonsense. Where's my prize? I'm here, we can have the ceremony now," he dismissed brusquely with a wave of an imperious hand.

Bus boys and attendants ran this way and that, trying to clear a place for us, while the flustered Master of Ceremonies covered the microphone with one hand and hissed "where the devil has that award got to? Someone get the photographer up here, we've paid enough for this dinner, we might as well get some press out it!"

Damien grinned like a Cheshire Cat as the two of us ascended the podium, obviously enjoying the immense amount of bother that he was putting these people through. Although they treated Damien with at least the superficial appearances of respect, I could feel the waves of hostility directed towards me, so I decided to play my role to the hilt, stumbling slightly and shuffling slowly, doing my best impression of someone completely out of their mind on some unknown chemical. A pregnant junkie - I could practically feel Damien's sick delight at the idea. Apparently no one had recognised me, which only seemed to add incentive to carry the joke to its most outrageous proportions. 

Stumbling up to the microphone, I peered out into the darkness of the room, grinning maniacally as I scanned the outraged faces. "Hi..." I drawled slowly, stressing the most nasal tones of an American accent. "Wow, there suuure are a lawt of y'all out there..."

Gently but firmly, the MC tapped me on the shoulder and moved me away from the mic, clearing the space for Damien. "In recognition for his outstanding contribution to the field of modern design, I am honoured to present this award to Mr. Damien Hearse," he extemporised, trying to get the embarrassment over with as quickly as possible.

Damien sidled up to the mic, holding the award aloft at the end of one outstretched arm as if it was a football trophy, while wrapping the other arm tightly around me. A flashbulb went off in our faces, illuminating several dozen aghast spectators in the first few rows of tables. If only the photographer had seen fit to preserve those expressions for the museum's archives, instead of Damien and I; it was truly a work of art in and of itself.

Surveying the audience smugly, Damien let go of me, then placed his hands squarely on the podium and leaned over, way too close to the mic, as if preparing to launch into a speech. "Ha-hem!" he bellowed at deafening volume into the mic as if checking it, producing a plume of feedback which left the first few rows wincing. "Oh, sorry." An aide rushed forward and moved him back into the proper position. Damien nodded his thanks, then sighed deeply and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket, casually dropping ash all over the floor as he lit it.

The MC rushed over to Damien, his eyebrows no longer merely raised, but flying up his forehead. "Uh, Mr. Hearse," he ventured politely but forcefully. "I am terribly sorry to bother you, but may I please remind you that this is a non-smoking facility.."

"Oh, terribly sorry," apologised Damien with an evil glint in his eye, immediately dropping the cigarette to the carpeted floor and grinding it out with his heel. The MC practically choked on his indignation. "Katie, darling, shall we go out and grab a smoke?" I nodded slowly in affirmation, trying very hard to look as if I was about to fall over at any moment. "Cheers!"

Brandishing the award aloft one last time, Damien threaded his arm through mine, and escorted me, wavering perilously, down the steps from the stage, and then made our exit by the same route we'd come in. Hand in hand, we skipped down the steps of the museum, breaking into a run as soon as we hit the road to make sure that we were not followed. Running through the crisp night air, I tried to control my incipient giggles, before finally giving up and laughing madly when I looked over and saw Damien cracking up. I felt freer than I'd felt in ages. These snatched and stolen moments were the most precious of all, those fleeting and few times of total abandon, made more sweet by the harried, controlled and regulated time around them.

Neither of us stopped running until we reached the approach to Tower Bridge, where we collapsed against a bench, still laughing uncontrollably. "Oh my god," I confessed. "I haven't laughed this hard in years!"

"Really? I make it an absolute point of habit to laugh this hard at least once a day. It's the secret to a long life," proclaimed Damien with a wink.

"I will never forget their faces..."

"Nor they yours! Sheer comic genius, my dear. There sure are a lot of y'all out there. Sheer comic genius!"

"I thought that MC was going to just get right up in your face and scream at you, but he was too intimidated by you," I chuckled, catching my breath and standing up, watching the reflections of the lights in the river.

"You know," he confided. "There are days when I wake up and I'm honestly so sick of the whole fame thing, but then there are moments like tonight, that just make it all worthwhile. Standing up there on that podium, in front of all those stuffed shirts, dropping cigarette ash on their carpet, and stepping on the toes of those pompous, self important parasites who call themselves art critics, I fucking loved being Damien Bloody Hearse!!!" I burst out giggling again at how familiar the words sounded, and Damien turned to me with a grin. "I sound just like Alex, don't I? Scary thought, eh? Do you think we're starting to look like each other, the way old married couples do?" He turned in profile, flipping his hair over to one side in imitation of a fringe, then smiling such a startlingly accurate impression of Alex's cheesy grin that I broke into full laughter.

"I always wondered if Alex just sort of attracted a certain type of person to him, or if he really does have some perfidious effect on the people around him, that they find themselves slowly merging with him."

"Excuse me?" blustered Damien, puffing out his chest in mock indignation. "Why, Alex is the one who has been following me around like a puppy dog since he was a first year French student at fucking Goldsmiths. If there's anyone turning into anyone, he's turning into me!" As we walked along the bridge, Damien suddenly stopped, staring out at the black water below us. For a moment, he held the award up in the air, curving his arm and taking aim like a baseball pitcher, as if he was going to hurl it off into the inky blackness, but then he changed his mind and turned away, fondling the little statuette.

"What changed your mind?" I probed. "That seems very much something Damien Bloody Hearse would have done..."

"Exactly," he imparted with a wink. "Besides," he added a bit less convincingly. "No one was watching."

"Well, do you live your live the way you live it for the benefit of your audience, or the benefit of yourself?"

Damien turned towards me, a flippant comment loaded on the tip of his tongue, then changed his mind and stood in thoughtful silence for a few minutes. "Very good question, Katie. You are always the one to ask the hard questions, aren't you? I like people who always ask you the hard question. They're good to have around, because you know that you can trust them."

"You can compliment me all you like, but you still haven't answered the question," I pointed out.

"Damn, it always works with interviews," he sighed, then walked along in silence for a few moments. "You know, I feel like I have this evil twin brother, Damien Bloody Hearse, that I keep in a box upstairs, and I put him on whenever I have to go out in public."

"I get that feeling sometimes, myself," I laughed in commiseration. "Time for an appearance, must get Kate Gordon out of her cage and put her on display for the nice people."

"And the other times?"

"What do you mean?"

"You said sometimes. What do you feel the other times?"

I paused, thinking it over. "Sometimes I feel like that is the only real me, the screaming, out of control, crazy, hedonistic, confused, mixed-up person that stopped living and became a zombie."

"And your problem is you can't figure out which one of those two is the real Kate Gordon."

"Now, don't you start telling me what my problems are, Hearsey Dear, I just couldn't stand it!" I protested.

"No, I'm serious!" insisted Damien. "That's what I meant about your conflicted fire/water nature."

"Oh, again with the astrology," I sighed, rolling my eyes.

"Fine, I won't even bring astrology into this," he snapped, beginning to grow angry that I wasn't listening to him. "Half of you wants to control the phenomenon, play the character of yourself on the stage and go home at night, and the other half of you still wants to live it. You can't do both, Kate!"

"Do you follow your own advice, Mr. Hearse?" I shot back snidely.

He smiled wryly. "No, of course not. I'm a Gemini."

"Then please don't lecture me. You don't have to tell me what happens to people when they start believing their own press kits. I lived with Jeremy Kane, who quite literally believed that he could be - in fact had to be - the earthly embodiment walking satyricon of non-stop twenty four hour sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. You can't live like that. No one can."

"But some people need to. I don't know why, but it's almost like a Dionysian sacrifice. Jeremy Kane is a now a huge phenomenon, larger in death than he ever could have been in death. You forget - I met the boy. He was a tolerably nice kid with fabulous cheekbones and a modicum of talent, but not enough intellect to balance a chequebook. Yet, in death, in a stupid pointless suicide, he's become some vast romantic symbol of thwarted young love; Romeo and Juliet and Sid and Nancy all rolled into one."

"You don't have to tell me that!" I sobbed, fighting back tears. "I lived it and could have bloody well died in it!" Where the hell was this coming from? I had done my grieving for Jeremy months ago. Running down the approach on the other side, I flagged down a solitary passing taxi and bundled myself into it, spitting out Alex's address to the driver.

Damien just made it, bursting impishly into the cab just as the driver was about to pull away. "Kate..."

We sat in silence for quite some time, as I sulked and licked my wounds, until I finally caught Damien staring at me with a smug face and started up again. "You don't understand, I'm the one living inside that myth, and I'm still alive. I'm the one who gets mobbed every time I set foot outside my apartment," I exaggerated. "I didn't cast myself in this role, he did."

"So don't be it, play it!" thundered Damien. I stared at him in utter lack of comprehension. 'There's this fascinating myth in the art world, and therefore, by osmosis, the pop world that you have to be genuine in order to be artistically worthwhile."

The last shreds of Indie Cred in my soul, still clinging through all these years of being removed from the dog eat dog world of the East Village music scene revolted violently against this assertion. "Come again?!"

"For fucks sake, this is entertainment, not art!"

"For a start, I don't believe the two are mutually exclusive," I shot back snottily as I climbed out of the taxicab into the deserted Soho street,. "For a second, don't ever go pulling your snooty "I'm a proper artist and you're not, and therefore what I do is more aesthetically valuable than what you do... crap with me," I completed, slamming the door, leaving Damien, as usual, to pick up the tab for the taxi.

Without waiting to be invited, Damien followed me upstairs, poured himself another glass of Alex's scotch, then settled back down into his nest in the sofa. "I never said that. I never would say that. Bloody hell, I've done paintings, I've done sculpture, I've done movies, I've done pop music videos, and if I had the slightest flicker of musical talent, I'd write pop songs, except as your dear boyfriend is fond of telling me, I can't carry a tune in a bucket! I have never held any one medium as more inherently worthwhile than any other. Don't ever accuse me of that, because it is the utter antithesis of everything I have ever believed in or stood for!"

I had to admit that I was impressed by his argument. "But why make a differentiation between art and entertainment at all, then?" I shrugged.

"There are two kinds of artist, you know," he finally ventured after thinking for a long time, opening a box on the coffee table and pulling out a cigar.

"You know, there are two kinds of people," I shot back, padding to the kitchen to find myself a drink. "Those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't." Damn. The milk had obviously turned months ago, and the orange juice smelled acrid, so I poured them both down the sink, and returned to the living room with a glass of water. "You promised me dinner, you know, and you never provided it."

"Oh, right! I knew we'd forgotten something." Without leaving his seat, he leaned over and scooped the phone off the table, pressing one of the numbers on the AutoDial. "Yes, please send over a large Sag Poneer, extra spicy, and two orders of naan. It's for Jones..." He paused while the man on the other end yammered on. "Yes, that's the address. First floor - make sure you don't go bothering the people in the bar downstairs." Apparently this was a fairly regular occurrence in the comfortable bachelor life of Alex and Damien.

"Good thing I packed the antacid," I observed wryly.

"Now, what was I talking about? Can you get me another glass of scotch, darling?" Climbing off my chair once again, I fetched the bottle of Laphroigh and left it on the coffee table within easy reach. "Ah yes, the two kinds of artist. The explosion and the camera." I stared at him expectantly while he fiddled with the tip of his cigar. "The explosions are the people whose lives are their work of art. The people who consistently live in a state of chaos, dragging themselves to hell and back to experience every emotion, to document every possible state of being, even if at the risk of their own annihilation. Your Jim Morrisons. Your Artur Rimbauds. You know the old poem, My Candle Burns At Both Ends..?"

"My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night. But oh my foes, and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light," I quoted. I'd always loved the poem. "Edna St.Vincent Millay."

"And then there are the cameras," Damien continued, as if he hadn't heard me. "Your Andy Warhols. Your Ray Davies. Perhaps even your Damon Adams. The people who record the events around them - the emotions, the actions, the lives, the times - without ever actually becoming involved in them personally."

"Well, what's the point in that?" I exclaimed.

"The point is, you stay alive for long enough to enjoy the profits your labour!" thundered Damien, raising his glass of scotch in toast to me, then sucking pointedly at Alex's Mancanudo.

I turned away from him, trying to gather my thoughts. "I think you're wrong," I sighed quietly, merciful of the sudden interruption of the doorbell.

"Ah, our food!" cried Damien, finally leaping off the couch, spurred to motion by the thought of eating. He was such a ball of unpredictable contradictions, one minute the suave sophisticate, discussing art and aesthetics over £40 scotch, the next, the next leaping over the coffee table on his way to pick up some disgusting greasy takeaway. A few minutes later, he returned, only to disappear into the kitchen for a few moments before returning with two huge plates piled high with curry. "So, I'm wrong," he resumed, casually tossing me a slice of naan. "Well, I've heard that before, but you're going to have to do better than that. You're going to have to tell me why I'm wrong."

I remained silent, shovelling the curry into my mouth with renewed urgency. Had I had really not eaten since I'd picked a few scraps of bread and cheese from an aeroplane meal at lunchtime? No wonder the baby was crying out for me to stuff my face with rice and strangely pickled Indian vegetables, though I felt quite sure my stomach would be paying the price for this later.

"Come on, Katie!" urged Damien, pushing the mango chutney towards me. "You can't contradict me, because despite everything you learnt to believe in Camden, or the Lower East Side or wherever else you cut your teeth on the counter-culture, it's all wrong! There's this myth perpetuated in art schools and dingy student pubs all across the world that in order to be meaningful as an artist, you have to be genuine. Look around you! Nobody wants bloody genuine! People want to escape their lives, not be reminded of how dreary they are!"

"No, I agree with you, but that's not the same thing at all. I can write the most beautiful, completely genuine love song in the world, full of passion and burning and foreverhappythoughts and people will listen to it and love it and want to relate to it, but it's escapism for them, because nobody gets to live their life on that sort of high all the time. It's a total fallacy because most people's lives aren't filled with that sort of passion and romantic love is a complete myth!" I spat, still smarting from Alex's perceived infidelity.

"What did you say?' Damien cupped a turmeric-stained hand to his ear.

"No one gets to live like that all the time - not even the most fairytale of couples."

Damien nodded furiously, washing his meal down with another shot of scotch. At this rate, the bottle would be gone by the end of the evening. "No one gets to live like that all the time. Not even you, as the artist who wrote the song and now has to perform it night after night in theatres across England. You can't tell me you have a bloody orgasm every fucking time!"

"But I was feeling it as wrote the bollocking song!" I protested, growing very flushed.

"Were you?" challenged Damien. "Did you write the song at that precise moment that Alex had his fingers up your cunt and his tongue in your ear, his skin naked and sweaty against yours, telling you that he wanted to shag your little brains out, wanted to flip you over and slip his swollen prick between your slick little thighs? No, I didn't think so. You wrote the song sitting in some lonely hotel room or studio somewhere, wishing that your beloved Alex was porking you like a ripe sausage."

I was blushing furiously, so angry that I could barely speak, yet at the same time so inexplicably turned on that I was actually breathing heavily, all the hairs along the back of my neck raised in excitement. I couldn't help myself; although part of me resented this chubby-faced, lewd, obscene little man, he was nonetheless sucking me in, pulling me into his magnetic personality, alternately slapping and caressing me with his massive intellect, wooing and seducing with his words.

Abruptly standing up, I shook off his penetrating stare and retreated back to the relative safety of the kitchen to collect my thoughts. But as soon as I turned around, I saw Damien had followed me, leaning casually against the doorway, eyeing me with that knowing leer.

"I just came in here to get another glass of water," I stuttered, turning back to the sink and dabbling my fingers in the cool water. Damien remained silent. "And stop looking at me like that," I tried to toss back lightheartedly. "Every time you look at me like that, I get the feeling that you're mentally dissecting me."

"Now there's an idea," pondered Damien. "Slip the old jig saw right up your gash, slice you open and slop you and your embryo in a giant bell jar. I'll call it Mother and Child United."

I whirled around to find that he had moved towards me, standing only a few feet away, uncomfortably close in Alex's tiny kitchen, an evil glint in his pale, watery eyes. But in an instant, his expression had changed back to the familiar baby-faced grin. "I'm sorry, did I scare you? Damien Bloody Hearse must have got out of his box. I'll put him away again if he frightens you, Katie."

Standing backed up against the sink, feeling him so close that I could smell the whisky on his breath, I panicked, unable to catch my breath or still my thoughts. Fight or flight? My first impulse was fight; fight back with all the feminine wiles at my disposal. Concentrating all my anger and frustration at Alex and my frustration at the entire situation on the man in front of me, I stared deep into Damien's leering, challenging eyes and... leaned forward and kissed him, grinding my lips against his in an open declaration of war, snaking my arms around his neck and tangling my fingers in the curly hair at the back of his head.

He didn't move a muscle, neither responding actively or attempting in any way to hinder me, his eyes closed, but his jaws slack. After a moment or two, I opened my eyes, almost affronted by the absolute lack of expression on his face. Finally I stopped, and eventually pulled away, pouting at him resentfully.

"Do you feel better now you've got that out of the way?" he queried matter of factly, opening his eyes and peering at me, completely without emotion.

"I.. erm... I... No!" I stuttered, completely taken aback.

"Well, then, why did you stop?"

"I... I..." I didn't know why I'd stopped any more than I knew why I'd started.

"Because that's exactly what Kate Gordon would have done," he pointed out. "You're mad at your faithless boyfriend, so you go out and sleep with his best friend. Fair's fair, after all. That'll serve Alex right. After all, I clearly came on to you, didn't I?"

"Did you?" I was so confused by the events of the past few minutes that I was no longer quite sure what had happened. Had I just made a pass at Damien? Was he turning me down?

Damien shrugged brusquely. "Let me get one thing clear. I don't give a shit if you fuck me or not. If I wanted sex, I could just walk down the block and get a blow job for £50 with far less entanglement than having it off with my best mate's girl. If you need a shag, we can go in the bedroom and get it over with right now. But as far as I'm concerned, I could not care less whether you fuck me or not. Have we got that straight?"

For a minute, I stood staring at him, completely shocked, then pulled what was left of my pride about me. No one turned me down. At least, not for long. Even Alex had given in to me in the end. And here was this ugly little man with the impertinent grin, refusing to shag me, except as some kind of mercy fuck? "Get out of this house!" I finally hissed, utterly indignant.

"It's not your house, it's Alex's," pointed out Damien. "Considering I've known him far longer than you have, I actually have far more of a right to be here than you do."

I stared at him in shocked silence, my lower lip trembling with annoyance and frustration. Whirling away from him, I stormed out of the kitchen down the hall to the bedroom and threw myself on the bed in an exhausted, ragged heap. It was all too much, the emotional roller coaster ride of the past few days, running away from everything and everyone I thought could hurt me, only to be thrown back into a sticky spiderweb of Alex's past, my present and the nebulous, uncertain future.

The soft patter of feet padded down the hall, stopped for a minute outside the door, then proceeded into the room. There was the subtle shift of someone sitting down on the side of Alex's springy mattress, then I felt a hand on my shoulder. Shrugging him off, I rolled away from him, hiding my face and trying very hard to pull myself together. The last thing I wanted was to give him more fuel for his emotional invasive surgery by letting him see me cry. Clenching my knuckles against my eyes to stop the tears, I rolled myself into a ball. If this was supposed to be the happily ever after, if I supposedly had everything I'd ever really wanted at this moment, why did I seem to be spending my entire life crying into pillows in strange bedrooms lately?

There was a deep, exasperated sigh from Damien, as he started to clap, very slowly and sarcastically. "OK, very convincing, Katie. Bravo! Five star performance! I'm sure you've had a lot of rehearsal for this scene."

"Scene?!" I practically shrieked, ripping my face from the pillow and glaring at him, my tears dried by the hot blast of anger. "Do you think your entire life is a private movie for your benefit, and those around you?"

"Actually, yes." Damien leaned back against the headboard of the bed, kicking his boots off and sucking disinterestedly at his cigarette. "Though actually, I'm lucky enough that at this point, my life has become a rather public movie. A blockbuster smash, in fact. And it bloody well ought to be, as I've worked sodding hard for it." He paused for effect. "As have you! Though you just want to be a little girl about it and lie down and cry because you actually got your wish. There are only two tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting it."

"Yes, Oscar," I shot back with a snide smile. If he hadn't been so damn right, I probably would have slapped him, but it would only have proved his point further. "One must allow other people to be right... it consoles them for not being anything else."

Damien beamed at the reference. "Alex would like that analogy, since it seems to make him Andre Gide."

"And what does that make me? Bosie?" my tired brain retorted without stopping to think to hard about the reference.

Both of Damien's eyebrows shot up his forehead in an expression of pure glee. "Well, what a delightful Freudian slip, Miss Gordon, since that would make you my lover! It's about time I got some compliments out of you. I'm not used to working too hard for them, you know."

Realising my error, I blushed profusely, turning bright red all the way to my ears, giggling slightly. No matter how angry Damien made me, within two minutes he had me laughing again. "I don't think you act like such a rude boor because people expect it of you, I think you do it because you actually enjoy it," I finally retorted, deciding that two could play his game of emotional bait and switch.

He shrugged and spread his hands, palms open to the air, accepting the insult as gracefully as he had accepted the compliment. "Perhaps," he conceded. "The point is that we all, as public figures, play roles which may or may not be loosely based, more or less, on exaggerated aspects of our own personalities. There's nothing wrong with that, Katie. In fact, I think there's a point where you have to do it, or else be sucked into the trap of starting to believe your own press kit, and we both know there's nothing worse than that. You have to look the beast in the eye, and either be swallowed by the beast, or swallow the beast yourself. The important part is that you remember to take the mask off again when you go home!"

I stared at him for some time before I spoke, rather astounded by how easily he voiced what seemed perfectly obvious now that he had stated it, but that I had never quite been able to articulate about my own life. "What do you mean by that?" I demanded, desperate for him to explain, to give me all the answers for which I longed so desperately.

Damien said nothing, merely smiling enigmatically, drawing occasionally on his cigarette as he studied me with his curiously unblinking blue eyes. It was utterly frustrating, his habit of dropping a veritable bon mot of wisdom, then stubbornly refusing to elucidate. Although Alex had often raved to me about his friend, insisting that he was the most intelligent person that he knew, Damien certainly didn't plan on making it any easy for anyone to plumb those depths.

"So who are you behind your mask, then?" I probed, changing the line of questioning and going back on the offensive.

"I'm just a crude little boy who likes swearing and playing with dead, dirty things I find at the side of the road and wants nothing better than for my mummy to find me and give me a good spanking," he retorted impishly, his eyes sparkling with mischief. There was that puckish prankster again, interrupting my attempts to be annoyed at him with his effervescent humour.

"Shut up," I giggled back, throwing a pillow at him.

 

I awoke to the sound of someone talking on the phone, or rather, attempting to quietly bellow a breakfast order down the line. "Cup of tea, black, and sardines on toast. And erm... bloody hell? What do Americans eat in the morning? Coffee and a bagel with cream cheese. Does that sound about right?" 

"I'm not an American," I insisted testily, through the daze of sleep and jet lag.

Opening my eyes, I looked around disoriented. What the bloody hell was I doing in bed with Damien Hearse? Even fully clothed, as I discovered I was by a perfunctory check, it still didn't seem like a good idea. Through the fog of jet lag, the events of the previous night came drifting back. There had been a half-hearted squabble about the bed versus the couch, with Damien insisting that the bed was rightfully his, why even Alex slept on the couch when such an important guest was in attendance, and then I vaguely recalled stubbornly refusing to budge and falling asleep right where I was.

"Oh, you're awake," observed Damien matter of factly as he looked over. "How do you take your coffee, then?"

"White, two sugars, and make sure it's filter, and not that ghastly instant crap," I grumbled.

"Did you get that?" Damien asked, then ploughed on. "And send a Sun up with that...I don't care if it sold out in the morning! Find me one! I need a good dose of a surreality check. The only thing better than the Sun for tabloid tittle tattle is the Mirror, but I'm buggered if I can find that around here."

"What time is it?" I asked groggily.

"Late afternoon," estimated Damien, squinting at the angle of the sun slanting in the back window. "Fourish? Fiveish? No wonder the bloke at the cafe was being so cheeky."

"Did you actually order out for tea and coffee?"

Damien shrugged as if this was the most natural thing in the world. "Why do anything that you can pay someone else to do for you?" I had a scathing insult primed and ready to go, but my train of thought was interrupted by the telephone. "Hullo!" announced Damien cheerfully. "Alex, my dear boy, how are you? Why, yes, of course, she's right here in bed next to me..."

With an uncontrollable leap of my heart, I reached out and grabbed the phone away from him. "Alex! Where are you?" I bleated, momentarily forgetting that I was supposed to be angry at him over his little liaisons with Em Evesham. No reply greeted me except the blare of a dial tone. "Shit," I sighed. "There must have been a bad transatlantic connection."

"He'll call back," assured Damien. "He sounded like he had a bee in his bonnet about something or other."

I sat waiting, staring resolutely at the phone, wondering why he hadn't rung back and trying to ignore the nagging little worry in the pit of my stomach. What could Alex possibly be upset about now? I was the partner in the relationship with cause for dispute right now, not him. Sighing deeply, I flopped back on the bed and tried to push it out of my mind. Perhaps it was nothing to do with me at all - the way the tour had been going when I left it, it was most likely Damon who was the cause of the proverbial bee.

The doorbell rang, presumably our breakfast, and Damien padded downstairs to answer it. Even from the back bedroom, I could hear him laughing, guffawing to himself as he climbed the stairs and retraced his steps along the hallway. "Bloody hell, looks like the Design Museum got all the press they bargained for and more with our little performance last night!" he bellowed, doubled over in mirth as he threw his tabloid down on to the bed. "I knew that wasn't the regulation society photographer when I saw him! I hope he made a packet off this!"

"DAMIEN BEHAVING BADLY!"

declared the bold headline, emblazoned in letters two inches high above a lurid photo of Damien brandishing a cigarette in one hand and his prize in the other hand, while clinging to his arm, a sullen, dishevelled, dazed-looking, clearly pregnant slut squinted at the audience.

My first instinct, Damien's lectures on public image and the fine art of playing one's image for all it was worth still echoing in my head, was to laugh. It was so utterly and sublimely ridiculous!

"Go on, read me the article," urged Damien, digging in the bag for his vile smelling fish sandwich. "This I've got to hear..."

"The notorious bad boy of the London Art Scene..." I commenced.

"If I had a dime for every time I they called me bad boy of the Art World, I could buy that piddling newspaper!" interrupted Damien between mouthfuls of kipper, clearly more amused than angry.

"Hush, let me read!" I protested. "...turned heads and raised eyebrows with his appearance at the annual London Design Museum awards ceremony last night. Hearse arrived over an hour and a half late, obviously already intoxicated, tripping over stairs and dropping cigarette ash on the Design Museum's expensive carpets. (These carpets were recently installed at a cost of nearly £20,000.)"

"Ooh, I feel bad about that," admitted Damien contritely. "I'll have to give them a painting or something. One of my medicine chests - they'll like that. They can work it into their exhibit on plastic bottles somehow." Raising my eyes, I glared at him patiently until he shut up. "Oh, sorry. Carry on..."

Suddenly my blood ran cold in my veins. "But the biggest surprise to Sun readers was Hearse's date for the evening. In tow was Charms bassist Kate Gordon, the widow of American pop star Jeremy Kane, who died by his own hand earlier this year after a much-publicised battle with addiction and heartbreak." I paused, staring at the print on the page. "Bloody hell! I was never married to Jeremy! We weren't even engaged! He made that story up and told the fucking press in an attempt to win me back after I dumped him!" I paused and took a deep breath, but it only got worse. "Gordon herself is hardly a stranger to the tabloid gossip columns herself, due to her stormy relationship with Slur's own Alex Jones. According to eyewitness reports, Gordon, four or five months pregnant by a father she staunchly refuses to name, staggered onto the stage, clearly under the influence of some chemical, dazed and reportedly not really sure where she was. Hearse and Gordon hogged the podium for several minutes, babbling incoherently and snogging publicly before being escorted from the museum by security."

The words choked in my throat, unable to continue any further, but Damien was still sniggering wildly. "Publicly snogging? I should be so lucky! We should have thought of... what? What's the matter?"

The bottom felt like it had dropped out of my stomach; or perhaps that was the coffee and cream cheese mixing unhappily in an empty stomach. "There's no way he could have read this... oh god no, wait. Damon sometimes has British papers delivered to his hotel room in the morning if he's in a big city like LA..." No wonder Alex sounded so angry on the phone. Leaning over, I lowered my face into my hands and tried to think. "Did he say where he was?"

"Oh come, Kate!" protested Damien good-naturedly. "Surely Alex wouldn't believe a thing that the Sun printed. He knows it's nonsense. We laugh about how much shit the Murdochs just make up. He knows me - he knows I'm his best mate, that I have honour, and I wouldn't..." He stopped and his face fell, actually growing worried for the first time that I'd ever seen. "Oh fuck." It was what he'd said yesterday. Get drunk and have it off with his best friend because you're angry at him. That's exactly what 'Kate Gordon' would have done.

I phoned around frantically, trying to locate Alex and get a message through to him, but the Slur management team had closed ranks to purposely exclude me. I repeatedly left messages with the receptionist at the London and New York offices, but was politely told every time that there was no one in the office to take my call, if I'd like to leave a message, they'd see to it that Alex received it when he returned from the US tour.

"I'll already be seeing him at that point!" I raged. "I'm at his apartment right now! I don't want to talk to him when he gets home, I want to talk to him now! Don't you know who I am?" I finally exploded.

"I am aware of who you are, Miss Gordon," replied the secretary, growing more than slightly flustered. "And I am not prepared to risk losing my job over you."

"What?" I barked. Now that was cold.

"I'm sorry, it's nothing personal, Kate," she whispered, as if afraid of being overheard. "I'm just doing what I was told by the big boss. Siobhan herself has also told me that anyone who gives any information about the new tour itinerary to you will be fired."

I lapsed into a few seconds of shocked silence. "I'm sorry," I finally sighed. "I didn't mean to put your job in jeopardy. This isn't your fault. I'm sorry I snapped."

Damien stared at me guiltily, chewing his lower lip as he thought of something to say. "Wait a minute, I have their personal assistant's mobile number somewhere," he remembered, then leaped off the bed to dig through the pockets of the jacket he'd been wearing the previous evening. After pulling out all manner of slips of paper, receipts, accumulated bits of junk, pocket change and a beat-up phone, he finally located a slim leather pocket address book overflowing with scraps of paper. As he paged through it, I could not believe some of the names I caught casually flipping by. Bowie? He does not have David Bowie's home phone number, does he? Blair, Tony. No, there had to be more than one in Westminster. There was no way I was going to believe that Damien had the new Prime Minister's number.

Pulling my eyes away, I dialled the international calling codes and then the number, holding my breath as the phone started to ring. There was a muffled click and a voice that could have been Siobhan standing at the bottom of a very deep well answered. "Yes..?"

I paused. What the bloody hell was I going to say to a woman who had threatened to call the police the last time I saw her? "This is Kate. I need to speak to Alex," I finally choked out.

"Alex does not wish to speak to you, and quite frankly I do not have a hell of lot to say to you, either," she snorted contemptuously.

"Siobhan, please," I begged. "I know you don't like me very much, but..."

"It has nothing to do with liking you or not! I have a job to do, and you keep making it harder and harder for me to perform that job! You're not even here, and you are still causing trouble! How am I supposed to co-ordinate a tour when I now have a bassist who's so bloody upset that he refuses to go onstage? Don't bother me again, or I'll have this number blocked! Goodbye, Kate."

"Siobhan, wait!" I wailed desperately. "It's a misunderstanding, I swear to god! Tell Alex just one thing, please..." She hadn't hung up yet, so perhaps she was still listening. " It was a press stunt that backfired! Tell him to consider the source! Tell him that no matter what he thinks of me, Damien wouldn't do that to him."

Siobhan paused as if considering it, then repeated, "I'm hanging up now, Kate. Do not call again. Good bye."

Looking genuinely upset, Damien reached over and patted my hand reassuringly. "God, I'm sorry, Kate. I really didn't think it was going to come to..."

I shook off his sympathy. "It's not your fault," I snapped, then recanted. "I'm sorry, I just really need to be alone right now. Would you be really offended if I asked you to leave?"

Damien shrugged and shook his head, cramming the last bite of toast into his mouth before licking his fingers. "No, not at all, darling." Wiping his fingers on his jeans, he pulled his shoes and then his jacket on. But as he was about to go, he suddenly changed his mind and turned back to me, digging in his pockets. Picking the pencil off the nightstand, he scrawled something on his business card and handed it to me. "That's the number to my personal mobile. Less than a dozen people in the country have that - not even my mum. So don't go giving it to anyone, you hear? Especially not your feckless boyfriend. He can go through the service like everyone else." Standing on his tip-toes, he imparted a quick kiss to the top of my head, then shuffled along the hall, and with the slam of a door, was gone.

Chapter Text

The following week was filled with a bizarre, eye of the hurricane sort of calm. As the days slid by in a vacuum, the phone not ringing, the doorbell silent, it felt like time taken out of time. I had thought I would be a nervous wreck of anticipation, crying into pillows and staring moodily into space, lamenting my existence, but in reality, quite the opposite was true. I felt nothing but a steely, determined, almost tranquillised calm, holed up in Alex's apartment, neither reading the papers nor watching TV, leaving the house only once or twice for midnight trips to Tesco Metro to replenish supplies. It was almost as if I knew, without consciously realising it, that a decision had already been made, deep somewhere in my heart and in my head.

It was a Tuesday afternoon when the bell jar broke, the vacuum was dispersed, and the universe came crashing in. I was sitting reading my way through Alex's collection of novels when the phone rang, something out of the ordinary to start with. For some reason, the simple electronic bleating sounded uncannily like a cross between an alarm and a death knell, and my heart was heavy as I picked it up. "Hullo?"

"Kate?" It was Damien's voice, compressed and distant as if coming from a cell phone with a dying battery, and there was something that sounded like a football riot going on in the background.

"Damien? I can barely hear you! Where are you?"

"Bloody hell, all hell's breaking loose around here. Hang on, I'll try to go in another room..." The noise abated slightly, fading to a dull roar. "Is Alex there?"

"No, he's not home from the tour, yet," I replied, perplexed. Surely Damien knew that.

"Have you not heard the news? I'm sorry, I'm really fucking sorry, Kate!"

"What news?" I asked cautiously, sitting down on the edge of the sofa, folding my free hand into a perfect fist, feeling the fingernails dig into the fleshy part of my palm. There had been a horrible accident, Alex's plane had crashed, they were all dead... No, that was absurd. Damien wouldn't be asking for Alex if he knew he was dead.

"Do you not read the papers, Katie?"

Katie? That was a bad habit I was going to have to train him out of. "No... Damien, what's going on? What's all that noise in the background?"

"William from Mirage was just here... They're still trying to calm Jim down."

My stomach tightened at the mention of Alex's rival's name. "But...aren't they supposed to be on tour of the States or something?" Em had been crowing about it all over her ansaphone - my heart actually leapt at the idea that some misfortune had befallen her crowning achievement.

"No, Mirage broke up," Damien informed me carefully.

"So... what? Why? What are the condolences for, then?"

"You haven't read the papers in the past two days, have you?"

"No, I haven't left the house since yesterday evening."

"I'm coming right over," Damien told me briskly. "You need to see this in the flesh, so to speak, and you need to hear about this from someone who gives a shit about you, and not some stranger in the press. I'll be over in ten minutes..."

Pacing up and down the length of the corridor, I wracked my brains, trying to think of some connection between Mirage, Alex and myself that Damien could possibly think could hurt me so badly as to warrant personal attention. Had Jim Gallivant done something worse than merely wishing AIDS upon Alex? No, the very thought was absurd, but that was the only connection I could imagine at a moment's notice.

Racking my brain for an answer, I practically flew down the stairs when the doorbell rang, flinging open the door to reveal Damien standing with a somewhat concerned face, and a copy of the Sun tucked under one arm. Searching Damien's face for some grain of truth under the two days worth of stubble, I demanded "What the hell is going on? What are you being so bloody secretive about?"

He shook his head quietly, trooping up the stairs to the flat with me at his heels. "Sit down," he ordered. Impatient, but too curious to protest, I complied. "Take a deep breath."

"Damien," I growled in warning, but as he spread the morning's tabloid in front of me, I was glad of his advice. 

 

MIRAGE GIRL'S SECRET POP PASSION

 

declared the headline, rather nonsensically until I saw the photos beneath. "Oh my god." My breath choked in my throat, my heart froze and my face flushed bright red from ear to ear.

The main photo was Alex, my Alex, my sculpturally beautiful, chisel featured Alex, all pale olive skin and sinewy muscles, gazing doe-eyed into the camera with that curious mixture of love, lust and admiration I'd grown to know and love so well, wearing nothing but his mysterious smile and a black bar with which the editors had seen to fit to hide the marble slabs of his buttocks from the prying eyes of school age youngsters and other persons of delicate constitution. Conflicting emotions swelled within my chest, unfurling and replacing themselves in a matter of seconds; red-faced embarrassment at the public unveiling of Alex's shame, mixed with a hint of stubborn pride at the thought that the content of this photo, that housewives across the UK were undoubtedly clucking their tongues over while simultaneously thrilling to, was a sight I'd experienced and enjoyed many times.

But then a second, smaller inset photo caught my eye. Although her haughty grey eyes and distinctive mole were shielded by a pair of sunglasses, I would recognise that wild mane of auburn brown hair and those wide, sensuous, lying lips anywhere.

"That fucking bitch!" I shrieked. "I'm going to kill her...No, I'm going to kill him! That lying, hypocritical, selfish son of a bitch! How dare he! How fucking dare..."

"Kate, calm down," protested Damien, moving towards me, then backing away again uncomfortably as I shot him the most evil of warning glances. "You don't need to read the article, Kate..."

"I do need to read it," I insisted doggedly, fighting the rising tears threatening to block my vision as I ripped through the pages, barely caring if I ripped the pages of the tabloid from their cheap staples. Why did I always cry when I was angry? It seemed so unfair, when I was an uncontrollable ball of rage inside, that all I could do was weep uncontrollably, as if I was a weak, compliant victim of a girl, when I wanted to rage and scream and tear his lying tongue out of his mouth. "I need to know exactly how far this goes!"

I turned the page, to be greeted by another shot, even worse than the first. Lying in a nest of rumpled satin sheets, Alex reclined on his back like a young Greek god, limbs splayed in glorious abandon, his lips parted, eyes smouldering with that come hither light of unquenchable libidinous desire. The ubiquitous black bar covered enough of his body to preserve some modicum of his decency, if not his dignity, but revealed enough of his hips and thighs as to leave the well oiled imagination in no doubt as to the completeness of his state of undress.

Dragging my eyes away from the tiny unruly tuft of hair that crawled up his belly like an intrepid explorer, I tried to focus on the text, but my attention was continually dragged back to the dark moles dusted across his chest. If it hadn't been for those tiny details, my forgiving nature could have dismissed the photo as a forgery, Alex's head crudely photoshopped onto some porn star's amply endowed physique, but no; I knew every inch of Alex's skin, had explored it with eyes and fingers and tongue, and that body splayed out naked and prurient on the page was every inch my straying lover.

True to Sun style, the accompanying text was long on wild accusations and hyperbole and short on actual facts or verifiable, liable information. As far as I could gather, Mirage had disintegrated in the middle of their American tour, amid bitter fights between the brothers. Somehow Em, linked romantically and otherwise with first one of the Gallivant brothers and then the other, had managed to obtain photographic evidence that implicated one, if not both of the brothers in acts of aggression against one another. The tabloids were fighting tooth and nail against one another in a bidding war for those photographs, with offers reaching half a million pounds, but Em staunchly refused to sell. Oh, how convenient, I thought to myself. She has no problem with using people sexually to get the scoops, but she has compunctions about who she will sell them to?

"She's probably just holding out to see if she can get more money from Mirage not to sell the negatives," observed Damien from over my shoulder, echoing my thoughts exactly.

"But what the hell does Alex have to do with all this?" I whined, desperately clinging to any hope that these incriminating photographs could mean anything other than what they so blatantly declared. "Where do these photos come from? They can't be hers! She can't have got that much money for them, compared to what she could have made from the Mirage photos..."

"Word on the street is..." ventured Damien, in a tone of voice that made it perfectly obvious he'd got it from some hideously in media magnate at the Groucho. "...that the Murdoch tabloids offered so much money for the damn Mirage negatives that certain parties - and no one seems willing to take the responsibility, so they may have been independents, if you know what I mean - actually broke into Ms. Evesham's apartment and ransacked the place, looking for them. Word is that they couldn't find hide nor hair of the fabled Mirage negatives - and people are hotly debating now if they ever even existed in the first place now - so they grabbed the first thing in her desk drawers... or without drawers, as it might be," he added with schoolboy glee at his bad pun.

"They're really hers." I stared down at the obvious look of lust and admiration in his eyes as he gazed at the unseen camerawoman. "That fucking bastard! That fucking lying, hypocritical, deceitful bastard! All this time he's been flipping out with jealousy over Peter and over you, he's been schtupping this Evesham bitch on the side!"

Damien stared at me quietly, his eyes guarded and cautious. Perched on the arm of the sofa, he snaked his arm along my shoulders, stroking my arm reassuringly. In any other situation, I would have been furious at the casual familiarity, but I simply had too much else on my mind to protest, and in fact, I found the solidarity almost comforting. "Kate, I don't know how to tell you this. I thought I could protect you from it"

"I'm not a little girl. I don't need to be protected from anything." Damien remained silent, refusing to meet my eyes. "Damien, do you know something? Tell me!"

"I didn't want to be the one to have to tell you this," he finally sighed. "Kate... Alex has been in London since the day before yesterday, at least."

"What?!" So that was why he'd initially asked for Alex and not me on the phone. At least that mystery was finally cleared. "Where has he been then?"

Taking a deep breath, Damien ploughed on with his disclaimers. "I don't know for sure. I mean, I don't want you to leap to any conclusions, but..."

"But what?" I snapped, annoyed at his dilly-dallying.

"He came into the Groucho last night, but didn't come up to the billiard room, like he usually does. Someone told me he was down in the bar, so I went down to see him, but..." He took a deep draw from his cigarette and looked longingly towards the liquor cabinet, but I did not move. "He was standing at the bar talking to Em Evesham."

I let out my breath in a long, low hiss, but he squeezed me reassuringly. "He wouldn't even greet me. He totally snubbed me. As soon as he saw me, he turned around and asked Em if she wanted to go somewhere else. They got up and left together."

"So why didn't you call me then?" I accused.

"I didn't think anything of it until I saw the papers this morning! I thought that Alex had gone out for one drink and come home..."

"He obviously didn't come home last night," I snarled from between clenched teeth. "Oh god, oh god, Damien...You saw her? You're sure it was her?" Damien nodded slowly, refusing to meet my eyes.

"It was her. He even called her Emmie."

Emmie. The diminutive pet name irked me, adding insult to injury. "I have to leave him." The words sounded as dead and lifeless as my heart felt. The anger had raged through and abated, and I was sure it would return in time as soon as the shock and the numbness wore off, but at that point, it all felt like emotional tunnel vision. Damien said nothing, continuing to trace his circular spiral patterns on my upper arm with his fingertips. "I can't stay with him. Not after this. I mean, I'll put up with a lot of things. I'll put up with the fights, and the petty jealousy. I'll even put up with his constant flirtation with other women. It's part of our job as entertainers, and I understand and can even sympathise with it. But this?" I turned to Damien, my eyes pleading. "You're a man - do you think this is innocent?"

Damien shook his head slowly, refusing to meet my gaze. "No, I'm sorry Katie. I think it's exactly what it looks like. I painted and even photographed a fair number of nudes at art school, some of which might even border on the pornographic, but I'm sorry. Alex is just not that good of an actor."

Raising my hands to my face, I wiped my eyes and steeled myself inside. "I'm not going to cry."

"I think it would be perfectly understandable under the circumstances," began Damien.

"No!" I insisted. "I'm not crying now, because to cry would imply regret, and I don't feel anything like that right now. I have to get out. I have to leave now, and not look back, and not cry until I'm gone." Standing up, I shook off his arm, marching back towards the bedroom, where most of my clothes lay discarded in and around my suitcase. "I want to be out of here before he even gets back!" I snarled.

"I would at least recommend staying long enough to tell him precisely why you're leaving," suggested Damien, but stopped when he saw the look in my eye.

"No, because I don't want to even give him the chance to talk me out of it!"

Damien was about to say something, but was interrupted by the electronic bleat of his cell phone. Swearing profusely, he dug in the pockets of his coat for it. "Hullo? Dale, this is not a good time...Oh, fuck!" Pulling back the cuff of his jacket, he swore at his watch. "Well, tell them I'm just going to be late," he barked and stabbed at the off button.

"If you have to go, go," I assured him, bundling up my clothes and stuffing them into the suitcase without even stopping to fold them.

"I..." The phone rang again. "Yes?" A pause while the person on the other end of the phone rattled on in his ear. "I don't give a fuck if Hockney gets the fucking commission over me..."

"Damien, go!" I urged him. "If you've got business, go. I'll be OK."

"Alright, alright, tell Mandy 20 bloody minutes and I'll be there."

He grinned up at me apologetically. "Shite-ing bollocking Millennium Dome. I didn't vote for the thing, I wanted nothing to do with it, I think it's a tremendous waste of money, but someone on the fucking commission thinks I should be involved. Apart from the fact it's shed-loads of money for doing utter fuck-all, I've been trying to find a reason to get the hell out of it," he shrugged lackadaisically, then peered at me. "Are you sure you're going to be alright?" 

I nodded half-heartedly and ventured a weak smile.

"Don't do that, it's fucking terrifying," he teased, then grew serious again. "You going back to New York?"

I blanched. I hadn't thought about that part actually, but I supposed that I was, and nodded with passable conviction. "I suppose I have to go back and face the music at some point... I have nothing else to lose at this point."

"The man with nothing to lose has everything to win," imparted Damien with a meaningful wink. "Promise me that you'll call me, the moment you get in to New York? Any time, day or night. I'm sure I'll be up."

I nodded again, but did not attempt another smile, watching his retreating back sadly as he disappeared down the stairs. Against my better judgement, I was actually starting to grow incredibly fond of the odd little man with the beautifully childlike grin.

 

Although I packed as fast as I could, every time I thought I was done, I would find another article of mine that had so bonded with Alex's apartment that I had missed it during the first few careful once-overs. Telling myself that I was preventing myself from leaving anything behind that might later tempt either Alex or I to try to make contact with each other, I think I was actually just prolonging my time in the apartment in the vague hope that Alex would indeed come home and attempt to stop me from leaving.

When I heard the key in the lock downstairs, and then the distinctive loping tread of Alex up the stairs, I froze in my steps. For a moment, I panicked, then I thought of Damien and his long talk of masks and roles, and slowly, I felt that same strange emotionless calm that had guided me through the past week descending like a blanket of snow across the peaks and valleys of my anger. The door at the top of the stairs opened and slammed, and I knew Alex was in the apartment.

"Kate..." he called out softly, as if afraid of the answer.

I turned around to see Alex standing at the door, suitcase in one hand, and the flight case containing his precious bass in the other.

"Thank god - you're here. That makes tracking you down easier..." 

I merely stared at him, fighting the bile of anger rising in my throat. No, I am calm, I told myself, thinking of Damien's masks. But Damien was wrong - this strange, calm, rational creature that had taken control of my brain and my body was the mask, not the other way around. Sensing my tension, or perhaps disturbed by the fact that I had yet to verbally even acknowledge his presence, let alone greet him, he looked about the room wildly, his eyes finally coming to rest on the suitcase, packed up and standing on its wheels, my fake fur coat and my little paisley handbag draped across them in readiness. 

Suddenly, panic started to creep into his voice. "God, Kate, no, please, you don't have to leave. We have to talk..."

My vocal chords were frozen, my mouth dry. I physically could not bring myself to speak even had I felt the urge.

He shook his head, twining his fingers in his hair, his voice ragged, abject, pleading. Come on, Alex, I thought to myself. Light the damn thinking cigarette already. "I've been thinking, I've been doing a lot of thinking. About what you said about Damien - you're right. It's the same thing as with Peter. I'm sorry. I have to learn how to trust you, because my suspicion is only ever going to drive you away from me."

I was holding myself under such tight control mentally that I was physically shaking.

"Kate, what's wrong? Say something, please. You're scaring me."

"It's too late. Read this." I handed him the tabloid with the dirty pictures, letting the anger and betrayal in my eyes speak far louder than any words. The voice bubbling up from the depths of vitriol in the pit of my stomach didn't even sound human, let alone anything like my own. If I had screamed, or cried, or thrown things, I think he could have dismissed or got a hold on and wrestled down my rage, but the chill in my voice caught his attention far more effectively.

"Oh god, Kate, no, it's not what it looks like!" he protested. "These are old photographs. God fucking dammit, the press stole them from her apartment! These are over two years old. They made up some story to go with the photos to cover the fact that there is no story. Everyone knows that we used to be lovers once - that wouldn't sell any fucking papers."

"Yeah - everyone except me," I added under my breath. 

"Kate, you've got to believe me. It is not what it looks like. This is the last thing we wanted to happen!" protested Alex. 

"We?" said the calm, dead voice, quite slowly and rationally. Extending my arms slowly, as if they were alien devices attached to my body, I deposited the slip of paper with Em's phone number on it, a recent phone bill with calls charged to her number on it, and finally the receipt for the flowers on top of the newspaper. I had looked for the 10 Most Promising Artists in London, but I suspected Damien had walked off with it.

Alex paged through the notes quickly, his face perplexed. "No, no, you've got it all wrong! This is all circumstantial evidence!" 

"Alex, where were you last night?"

"You don't understand. I ran into her at the Groucho, and she was upset over the whole Mirage business! I didn't even know you were still in London!"

"If you'd talked to fucking Damien, instead of snubbing him like that, you would have known that I was!"

That stopped Alex in his tracks. "Damien stuck his head in to the bar, saw me, and ran the opposite direction, I assumed in guilt or fear."

"He was around along to see you leaving with Em Evesham," I threw back at him, unsure of who I was defending - Damien or myself.

"We went out for a drink, I walked her home because she was terrified that she was being followed by the paparazzi, and when we got back to her house, it was ransacked! I've spent the past two days trying to get her settled in her new place! It was totally innocent! All we did was talk!" he protested, the words spilling out of his mouth far too quickly to be convincing, as if they'd been rehearsed. "And for your information, mainly, we talked about you!"

"So you talked about me, did you, Alex?" I snarled back, my own voice gaining the upper hand for a moment. I was shaking now, so angry that I was fighting the urge to pick up the contents of the coffee table and hurl them at his head, one after another. "Did you sit around, singing your heart out about what a bitch I am, and how difficult I am, and how our entire relationship has been a mistake? Did you, Alex? Because I've heard that one before, Alex, from your own lips."

He hid his face, biting his lip, shaking his head slowly back and forth, still attempting to lie with his words, though his body told the truth. "It wasn't like that, Kate. She was upset; she needed to be comforted."

"And just how did you comfort her, Alex? For two fucking days? Did you not even stop to think that perhaps, you needed to go home and work things out with me - your fucking girlfriend, remember? Did you even think about me once this entire time?" The rage was getting harder and harder to control, the vitriol filling up behind the icy mask.

"Yes, I did," he replied in a very small voice. "And Em told me to go home, but I..." his voice trembled as he searched for the truth behind the layers of lies and defences. "She needed me, Kate!" he repeated.

"Yeah, she fucking needed you!" There was a paperback book on the coffee table. Before I knew what was happening, it was in my hand, and then it was flying through the air towards Alex's head, spinning like some antiquated World War One shell. "No, Alex, get it the right way around. You needed her. How much simpler was it for you to go off and play the big, bold hero riding to rescue the demure, frightened little maiden? You needed to feel big and manly and in charge and make everything better for Em fucking Evesham because you can't control your own life and you can't control your band, and you can't control me!" His face crumbled like a sandcastle hit by the surf, as I realised that I had scored a very palpable and devastating hit. "Well, that's the truth, isn't it? Little vulnerable, demure Em Evesham makes you feel powerful and in control again."

"I don't control Em. But people do need one another, Kate. She was upset and in trouble, and I could fucking help her."

"So why did you never help me? I demanded.

"What?" Alex shook his head slowly in disbelief, so exasperated he could barely speak. "Help you? As if you'd possibly allow anyone to help you!" he finally managed to snort. "Never once in the entire time I've known you have you ever once asked me for help! No, that would be fucking beneath you, wouldn't it? You can handle anything. You don't need anyone, do you? As you've been so fond of telling me for the past fucking year and a half. You have never asked for my help. Never!"

"I shouldn't have to ask, Alex!"

"How the hell am I supposed to know what you are thinking? You don't tell me what's going on in that head of yours. Except for one fucking weekend in San Francisco, when was the last time you told me how you felt about me? When was the last time that you told me that you loved me? I don't think those words have escaped your pursed lips more than three times during the entire course of our relationship, and even then, it's as if it's some punishment you're forced to endure but don't really believe. How am I supposed to know how you feel about me if you don't tell me? All you ever do is scream at me for things I don't even know I've done wrong. So how am I supposed to know what the hell it is that you want from me? No, you're always leaving me guessing - I don't have fucking ESP, you know!" His voice was raw and ragged.

"ESP? If you'd listened to me, even once! I'm fucking pregnant, Alex! I've been harassed by the press, dragged through the mud by tabloids, fucking attacked by psycho fans of Jeremy's... and what have you ever done for me? Nothing! Except sling jealous accusations at the people who have tried to help me." Alex stood silent, guiltily sucking at his cigarette. "Ooh, poor little Em Evesham getting a little rattled by the fucking tabloids. Where were you when some little psycho teenager had a stranglehold on my neck? Huh?" Alex turned away, his mouth twisted into a grimace of regret and longing. "No! You were bitching about an ex boyfriend that actually was helping me."

"That's not fair, Kate," sobbed Alex, curling up into a little ball, collapsing in on himself. "How was I supposed to know about that? It was an accident!"

"Why did you never stand up for me with your fucking band? Why did you never tell Slur that you were as much to blame as I for the whole fucking mess?" Everything that I had been stuffing down inside me for months now was just flowing out uncontrollably.

"Kate, that's really not fair," he whined. "I mean, we agreed..."

"We agreed that I would take the blame for you running off to Iona. But your little outing to San Francisco..."

"Alright, so it was my idea, but you hardly said no!"

"Me? Say no? It was your responsibility, Alex! But no, it's easier for you to just say nothing and shrug the blame off on me, leaving me to clean up your little problems. And I wouldn't even mind so much if, once, just once, you had actually helped me with something..."

"Well, apparently, according to you, I am the bulk of your problems," snorted Alex.

"No, the fact that you won't talk to me is the fucking problem. The fact that you won't talk about our problems, and try to resolve them because goddammit, you might actually have to sacrifice a little of your pride in front of your band in admitting that you were as much to blame as me. But no, you can't deal with that because it makes you feel too ineffectual! So instead you go running off to play the hero and fuck Em Evesham because it's easier than dealing with me."

"I didn't have sex with her! You have to believe me!" he repeated, as if that simple fact he hadn't put his penis in her made up for all the other trials and tribulations we had been through in the past few months.

"Yeah, well, what did you do? Did you hold her tight when she cried? Did you tuck her into bed and tell her how you were going to make everything OK again? Did you stroke her pretty hair and tell her how much better and how much easier things were with her than with me?" I snarled as another paperback went hurtling across the room. We had had one of our first conversations over these books; we had bonded over these books. And now they were just another weapon in the combat. 

"All right. We fucking kissed, OK?" he admitted guiltily. "It was nothing, it meant nothing. It was a mistake, because I felt so... I don't know. It was like nostalgia or something, for a time when everything was so much easier. I don't even know how I feel any more. But I did not have sex with her."

"It doesn't matter! Sex is not all there is to infidelity. You're a fucking cheater, Alex! And you're the worst kind of cheater, because you're not even the kind that does it for the sex. You do it so you can feel in control of the situation again, so you can have some sympathetic ear to fucking trash me to. You don't understand, Alex. I know you, I know how you work. I watched you do it to Mimi Mei with me - I remember how you used to talk me about her, and god knows, at the time, I sympathised. But now you're doing it to me with Em Evesham. And I would put money on the fact that in another few years, you're going to be doing it to Em Evesham with some other fucking slag."

"What about you, Kate?" he threw back, trying to make up the ground he had lost, refusing to acknowledge that this was just the last losing battle in a long and exhausting war that was dragging to a close, the troops bedraggled and demoralised, no longer caring which side won so long as they got to go home to safety again. "You're hardly the poster child for fidelity!"

I no longer cared what I let slip, dragging up every unsavoury event from my history to fling at him in a Pyrrhic victory. "So how does it feel, Alex? Do two wrongs make a right? You know what? I bloody well could have fucked Damien. And I nearly did!" He winced, his knuckles tightening, his face pale as I hit at his worst insecurity. Fucking hypocrite. "Yeah, it started as a stupid joke. But I was so angry and so hurt and so confused that I would have slept with Damien. No, make that fucked him, because I did sleep next to him."

"You what?" Alex was so livid his ears were starting to turn red at the edges.

"And where did you sleep last night, Alex?" I shot back in a nasty, taunting voice.

"On her couch!" he protested. "She was upset. I was comforting her. I did not sleep with her! Why can't you get that through your head?" 

"Bullshit!" I roared. "And how did you think I would feel about that, Alex? How do you think it feels? I think you're getting a taste of it right now, Alex. How does it feel? I could have fucked Damien. And I didn't! Do you know why?"

Alex couldn't even speak, his face twisted into a bitter mask of anger and jealousy and guilt and hurt, but still, below everything else deep, deep unspeakable love. He only ever wanted me when he felt me slipping out of his grasp. At this moment, it seemed like he loved and desired and needed me more than he ever had in his life, simply because I was fighting tooth and nail to get away from him.

"Because he said no!" 

Alex crumpled as if the breath he drew had been mustard gas. The trenches were flooded, artillery flying, gas everywhere, but goddammit, I was getting over the top and lunging that bayonet down his throat even if I was going to be killed in the process.

"Yeah, Damien said no, Alex. Your best fucking friend - because he said valued his friendship with you more than some fuck. And that's a concept you just seem unable to get your head around. There was a time when I would have said we were friends. But no, you just fucking threw it away so that you could go and play knight in shining armour for poor little defenceless Em Evesham. Well, if you want some weak, defenceless thing that you can rescue at every turn, who will sit and put up with all your fucking crap and kow-tow to Damon fucking Adams and kow-tow to Slur, well, you go get her, Alex, because I am leaving you."

"No..." he sobbed. "You can't leave me. Not now, not like this. Please... let me explain."

"No!" I snapped, cutting him off coldly. "There is no explanation for this. All the things you've accused me of over the past few months... they're all products of your own guilty conscience! As they say in France, a man never looks under his wife's bed, unless he, himself, has hidden there."

"Kate, no!" His voice slid out of pleading towards anger as he realised that I had wrapped my coat about my shoulders and was starting to walk towards the door. "Kate, please, we have to talk... No matter what else you want to think about me, you have to believe me. I did not sleep with Em Evesham! This talk is not over until you believe me."

"No, Alex. We had to talk months ago, weeks ago, two days ago. And at every fucking turn, you've put off talking things out with me for Damon Adams, for Slur, and now for Em Evesham. Well, you know what, Alex? It's too little, too late. I hope you are happy with them, because you have made your decision, and you don't get me, Alex. You don't get me."

"Kate, don't you dare walk out that door."

"A little ironic, don't you think?" the icy voice retorted, though all I could see was myself a few months ago, lying in a crumpled heap at the top of the stairs, begging Alex to come back, the first time he ran out on me, after he found out that I was pregnant. "Except I, unlike you, am not coming back."

"Please!" he bargained, his voice ragged with frustration and unexpressed emotion. "What do you want me to do? Apologise? I've apologised. Do you want me to get down on my knees and beg? Is that what it's come to? I'll do that, if that's what you want. I have no pride left. Do you want me on my knees? Is that what you want?"

I shook my head slowly, amazed that the tears were remaining so obediently in my eyes. "You are not the Alex I knew; who I fell in love with. The Alex I loved had pride, the Alex I knew had honour, and the Alex I knew had integrity."

I had always thought that Alex was stronger than I was, but in the end, he utterly broke down, sinking down and weeping on the stairs of his apartment. "No. You don't mean this," he sobbed, utterly unable to reconcile himself to the fact of my leaving. "We fight, but you are going to come back, like you always do. This isn't the end, Kate. This just isn't. It can't be."

Fighting every urge in my body and my heart to go back and wrap my arms around his neck and comfort him, kiss his tears away and tell him that I loved him and that everything was going to be alright again, I turned around, hardened my heart, and walked away, wrapping my sense of betrayal around myself like a suit of armour.

 

A zombie with my name and my passport flew back across the ocean, staring resolutely at the movie screen in front of her, utterly entranced with the action adventure flick, completely absorbed by the BBC world service news shorts, mesmerised by the process of customs and immigration, attempting to totally lose herself in any mundane detail that could distract her from the whirling void inside her head. 

Staring at the subway map as if it was a secret archive that could point the way to some hidden and unfamiliar solution in my soul, I dug for new meanings and answers in a diagram I'd read a thousand times until I'd memorised every winding coloured line twisting its way underneath the landscape of the city. No; no matter how many times I stared at the thin blue line of the A train, it would never divert from its course up the West Side and deposit me safely at my home. No; no matter how many times I tried to lose myself in a relationship, it would never take me home to my self...

Stop it! I told myself, doggedly dragging my suitcases across the platform at 53rd Street. You're being maudlin and self indulgent. As I dragged my suitcases up an endless escalator underneath Lexington Ave., I cursed myself for not splurging on a taxi, but I managed to convince myself the subway ride was good for me, grounding me back in the ordinary world, reminding myself of who I was and where I came from, and how far I'd come since those not too distant days before I'd been caught up in this whirl. It was little over a year since a frustrated office girl with blue toenails under her pantyhose had dragged herself up this same, endless escalator to work, exhausted from playing until well after midnight in smoky bars and dingy clubs.

Even after I climbed up to the surface, the crisp, fresh winter air a relief after the confining atmosphere of the subway, I stared down the long blocks towards my home, cursing the suitcases that seemed to grow heavier by the minute. I felt like a fool, a top-heavy, teetering buffoon, my pregnant stomach jutting out to the front while I dragged the suitcases behind me, but I bore my trial bravely, viewing it as penance for my heedless impulsiveness in running away in the first place. One block at a time, sometimes even only a hundred yards at a time, I crawled towards the warm, beckoning lights of my house. I could see it from 3rd Avenue, the top floor of the brownstone ablaze with warm yellow light. So Maddie was home. Half of me dreaded the coming lecture, but the other half craved the comfort of familiarity.

Fighting the strange lump in my throat as I unlatched the door and let myself in to the building, I stared at the long flights of stairs, then back down at the nemeses of my luggage, then shrugged resignedly and left them at the foot of the stairs. Let the landlord complain, I had got them this far and they were going no further tonight. As I padded up the stairs, exhausted, but glad to be free of the suitcases, the sound of music came spilling down the hall, sweet harmonies floating above a chugging insistent beat. I dug in my bag for my keys and let myself in, slipping into the apartment like a warm bath, following the sound of the music, which I now recognised as one of the tracks Maddie and I had been working on a few weeks ago. Pushing the door to the spare room open, I saw Maddie and Beth sitting with their backs towards the door, heads furiously nodding as they fiddled with the mixing board, while Emma rooted around the back of a huge stack of Marshall amps. That was when it hit me - I was home.

"Come on, turn the bass up!" directed Emma. The mechanical throb of the synthesised back beat swelled in response. "No, not that bass, silly. The real bass. I need to hear what Kate is doing so I can find the harmonics."

"Shit, I've lost it. Where is it? Track three?" muttered Beth, twiddling knobs at random.

"Track four," I directed quietly.

The three of them whirled around, staring as if confronting Lazarus freshly raised from the dead. "Kate, where the bloody hell have you been!" exploded Emma gruffly. "These two can't seem to mix a bassline to save their lines..."

"Never mind the bassline, Amy has been going mad looking for you," chided Maddie. "Could you at least have told her where you were going?"

"Never mind Amy - we've been fucking mad with worry," added Beth.

I raised my hands quietly, my lower lip trembling. "Please, just... you can lecture me all you like later, but just not... right... now..." My voice was ragged, fraying at the edges.

Beth looked alarmed. "Kate, are you alright? What happened, sweetie?"

"I... I..." The words which had been so simple and so forthcoming earlier failed me. I could feel a huge wave building inside me, threatening to choke me, threatening to drown me, and I could no longer keep the mask on my face or the tears in my eyes. "I broke up with Alex. It's over. For good. I don't really want to talk about it," I finally managed to choke out in a single, unbroken stream before succumbing to the rising despondency and bursting into uncontrollable racking sobs.

"Oh my god, Kate, no!" exclaimed Beth, leaping up off her chair and rushing over to me, pulling me into her arms. "What happened?"

"I don't want to talk about it," I insisted, standing stiffly in her embrace.

"It's OK, it's OK," soothed Beth, smoothing my hair with the same habitual gesture that she used to comfort children and animals in pain. "Come on, sit down. Let's go in the living room... Emma, go make a pot of camomile tea!" she directed, taking me by the hand and leading me out to the sofa.

"Kate, Kate..." Maddie plonked herself down on the other side of me, wrapping her arm gently around my shoulder until I was surrounded on both sides, wrapped in a warm blanket of sympathy. "It's OK, cry it out."

Realising that I no longer had to pretend to be strong and hard; that I was finally safe, at home, encompassed in the secure arms of my best friends, I rested my head against Beth's shoulder, closed my eyes and allowed myself to bawl.

"It's OK," assured Emma, kneeling down at my feet and handing me a cup of tea. "We've been through worse than this together. It takes a hell of a lot more than that bastard to make a Charm cry." I ventured a weak smile, rubbing my eyes and sniffing. "I know people. If you want, I can call a hit man, and we can get the bastard whacked, if you want," she offered, with a fiendish gleam in her eye.

Despite the overwhelming emotion, the very thought made me grin. "Somehow, Emma, I don't doubt it. But I don't think that will be necessary."

"Made you smile, though."

"I don't want to smile right now. I want to be miserable. Dammit, I've earned it!" I huffed.

"Go ahead, then. Be miserable," assured Maddie, rubbing my shoulders, but for some reason I no longer felt quite the same urge to cry. "You will survive."

I actually ventured a smile, not a pitiful, sad and self-pitying grimace, but a genuine, deep smile of gratefulness and friendship, wrapped in the warm embraces of my three best friends. "I will survive. No, we will survive."