*checks watch* Weekly updates, followed by four months of radio silence, exactly as I had it on the schedule!

My Festivus miracle is this snippet of writing for you! I am very much aiming for certain other story updates (first and foremost, the *Christmas* story, IAA) and will get those to you as possible. For the Airing of Grievances, please comment!


Chapter 15

"Hey fellas, do you know the one about the man who flew on the trapeze?"

As the musicians struck up another tune, Shapeley darted furtive glances around at his fellow passengers. Nobody else seemed to be reading a paper. Or if they were, they'd glossed over the cover story, and had no idea the proximity at which a small fortune currently rested. No one else was staring at Miss O'Hara—for now that he'd seen her picture, he was just about positive it was her, yes sir. He peered at her from between the seats. She was in profile now, having turned to talk to her unhusband. She leaned forward and whispered something conspiratorially, and the man—also in profile, having turned to talk to her—smiled in response. She smiled back, a soft blush dusting her cheeks. There was that dimple. Just like in the picture he held in his lap. And the reward would be his alone. Or it would at least be his to share with that partner of hers, if Shapeley could talk him into turning her in. He had found that his devastating charm was put to its very best use with women, but surely he could find a way to convince that man. Ten thousand dollars! Oh, what he could do with that money…

Miss O'Hara turned to face front again, and he slunk down even further. Best not to alert her that anyone was onto her, of course. And comparing her again to the picture, he was now certain. He would soon be coming into some small fortune. He wondered again at the relationship between her and the man… what had she called him? Rex? Rhys? Reg? Shapeley had been none too keen to encounter him again after the last time, but if he wasn't her husband… Well, all that possessive jealousy had just been an act. He'd probably be all reasonable-like when Shapeley approached him again with the offer. Her husband, psh! He'd known all along, no sir, hadn't believed their act for a second.

And if he could steal her away by himself? Ten thousand dollars! All the better. The bus was full of music and laughter, and he sat back in his seat. He felt pretty darn gleeful himself, and joined in the song. Yes sir, someone was smiling down on ol' Shapeley.

~nb~

Another man in a suit stood, and asked, "Do you mind if I take the third one?" and the crowd cheerfully assented.

This easy camaraderie of the bus passengers filled Scarlett with contentment. How nice this all was!

People could be so friendly. Too afraid of her father, or awed by Scarlett herself, people in her life had always been rather closed off from her. She'd always accepted it as how people were, but on this trip she had experienced a very pleasant openness. She wasn't at all accustomed to it, but she decided she wanted to be. She didn't know if the old Scarlett would have joined in, or found such common entertainment beneath her, but the new Scarlett certainly would not. No, she was going to enjoy herself. She wasn't going to be lonely anymore. This thought struck her as very strange. Her, lonely? But how could that be, when she had been surrounded by people who loved her all her life?

Such a line of thinking was entirely foreign to her, and not to her liking, either. It was distracting her from everyone's fun. She could think about this later.

Her determination was just then assisted by the bus driver and the rainy road. The vehicle lurched, and deposited Scarlett neatly wedged on the floor between her seat and the row in front.

"Thank the man for me, Rhett. This is the first comfortable position I've had all night," she laughed.

Rhett smiled and reached out to help her up, continuing the song as he did.

'She flies through the air, with the greatest of ease—' his singing voice was a pleasant, rich baritone.

As his fingers slid under hers, it happened again—something like light, very bright, but not uncomfortable, jumped from his skin to hers, sending a frisson of sensation down her spine. His eyes had twinkled with good humor as he sang, but as he pulled her up, she had the curious feeling that he had sensed it, too. That light had changed, deepened into something… something— oh! she couldn't put her finger on it, wasn't even sure if there was a name to it. If there was, it was probably a 37-letter German word, and Ashley probably knew what it was.

Oh, good heavens, Ashley! Her cheeks tingled with embarrassment, certain that Ellen would not approve, although she couldn't think exactly why, even as her heart thumped regretfully as she uncurled her hand from Rhett's.

"Tha—" she began. Fate saved her further discomfiture when a sharp cry several rows ahead interrupted her. It was fortunate, indeed, for Scarlett, anyway, that this happened, saving her as it did from speaking coldly in exactly the manner most likely to annoy and offend her partner. It was, of course, less fortunate to the issuant of the sharp cry, but I'm getting there.

"Ma! Ma!" a little boy was calling, pushing at the shoulder of a small, very pale woman. Other passengers had crowded around, but Rhett, with his broad shoulders, parted the cluster, Moses-like. Scarlett followed easily in his wake.

The boy's clothes were rumpled, his blond curls flattened from where his cap, now twisting in his hands, had sat. "Ma! What's the matter with you? Ma!" he called, tears streaking down his cheeks.

Around them, Scarlett heard the passengers who had been nearest whisper to each other. "She's fainted." and "See, look how pale she is!"

Rhett, assessing the situation, took charge. "Somebody, get her some water," he said, before turning to the boy, and talking soothingly. "Better let me get in there, son."

The boy sniffed and reluctantly let go of his mother's hand, but edged out of the seat so Rhett could move in. He lifted her up and sat her across the two seats, with her back facing the window. Her head lolled against his shoulder as he did so, and he shifted her away to lean against the seats so she would not fall.

Scarlett felt a nudge in her ribs, and found a hand holding a cup of water when she looked down. "Oh yes, thank you," she smiled, and handed it over to Rhett. The woman's eyes opened slowly, and she looked around, bewildered.

"That's better," Rhett said, his tone surprisingly gentle. "You're all right now—just took a little nose-dive, is all," and offered her the water.

He helped her to sit up, before the boy, who had been gripping Scarlett's hand, she now realized, burst forward again, and threw his arms around his mother. Scarlett noticed how the woman seemed exhausted simply by her son's relief, and looked at Rhett. Fortunately, he'd seen it, too, and drew the boy away. Scarlett sat down next to the woman, and kept half an eye on Rhett and the boy, as they moved up the aisle.